October 21, 2017
Coleridge's "Great and Useless Genius"On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one. Over the last years Coleridge continued to write in his Christian-philosophical-sage vein (Aids to Reflection, 1825; Church and State, 1830), but he was decades away from his great poems and literary criticism, and equally estranged from many once close to him, such as his friend and partner Wordsworth. Though living in semi-seclusion in his Highgate rooms, Coleridge's fame and his reputation for brilliant conversation caused many to visit; when a young Thomas Carlyle came calling in 1825, he found Coleridge "a kind good soul, full of religion and affection and poetry and animal magnetism," but "a great and useless genius" who in conversation "wanders like a man sailing on many currents." The critic William Hazlitt wrote that, "If Mr Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer," though he did concede that for all Coleridge had failed at gathering the promised "immortal fruits and amaranthine flowers," he had not gone Establishment-rotten, like Wordsworth and Southey.
The failure of talent or will is put down, in part, to Coleridge's return to opium. This habit was facilitated by a sympathetic Highgate chemist, who would let Coleridge in through a side door to receive "Tinct. of Opium" in fennel water, or in nitric acid, or in something called "syrup of Marshmallow." In an 1825 sonnet entitled "Work Without Hope," Coleridge alludes to the addiction, the Hazlitt criticism, and a deeper mystery:
Have traced the fount whence streams of Nectar flow.
Bloom, o ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may --
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams! away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
Some caravan had left behind,
Who sits beside a ruin'd well
Where the shy sand-asps bask and swell....
A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he--
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C....
But all of them owned -- He'd the gift of the Gab.
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