As I Was Saying/Essay XIV
|Essay XIII|| As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XIV: About S.T.C.
AT this time many are writing about Coleridge; and there is no writer about whom it is so difficult to write. Coleridge was a remarkable man in many departments, about which writing would not be so difficult; the difficulty is in dealing with the department in which he did certain things, a very few things, that make it essential to write about him at all. He was and he achieved many things that could be criticized with some fruitfulness and profit. He was a transcendental theorist who came to be of some importance as a theologian; and he is the fountain of some very fine thinking among the liberal theologians of the old school, like Maurice and Robertson. He was a figure of some political and historical interest, since he began with an enthusiasm for the French Revolution and ended with an enthusiasm for the German metaphysics; and, of the two great catastrophes, I personally prefer the first. He was a great Character; one of those men of whom numberless anecdotes are told, chiefly to the effect that his conversation was fascinating and continuous; some found it too fascinating; some even found it too continuous. There is the famous story of the man whom Coleridge buttonholed in the street and proceeded to talk to about Plato at some length; whereupon the man, having an appointment, delicately and tactfully cut off the button and went about his business. Returning later by the same street, he saw Coleridge still holding the button and still talking about Plato. He wrote a number of minor works, generally dismissed in the discussion of his genius, which are decidedly clever and ought not to be dismissed so easily. For instance, in the days of his French Revolutionary enthusiasm, he wrote a satiric poem against Pitt, which I still think very fine; but partly perhaps because I am all in favour of people writing satiric poems against Pitt. This poem, as everybody knows, is a masque of Fire, Famine and Slaughter; in which these plagues of mankind attribute their power to Pitt, but two of them eventually turn upon him. Fire, however, amiably observes:
I alone am faithful; I Cling to him everlastingly.
There is no liberal theology about that.
I repeat, therefore, that there are many things about him that could be profitably criticized. Unfortunately, there are one or two things that cannot be criticized. They can only be quoted. Nor have I any intention of filling up the blanks of this essay by quoting them. But the point about Coleridge is that the peaks of his imagination, though few and rare, are absolutely above criticism. They live by that mysterious life of the imagination, which is something much more terrible than an anarchy. For it has laws of its own which man has never been able to turn into a code. But anybody who understands poetry knows when poetry has fulfilled those laws; as certainly as a mathematician knows when a mathematical calculation is correct. Only, the mathematician can explain, more or less, why the answer is exactly right; and the lover of poetry can never explain why the word or the image is exactly right. It is obvious, on the face of it, that "Kubla Khan" is a piece of pure nonsense. There is no earthly connexion--we might perhaps accentuate the phrase no _earthly_ connexion--between the architectural tastes of Kubla and the misfortunes of a lady who was wailing for her demon lover; and still less connexion between this tragedy and the rejoicings round a gentleman who on honey-dew had fed and drunk the milk of paradise. Yet any mind moving by the laws of the imagination knows that all these three things are one thing, and the poem is one poem. The poet is riding the air on the imagination alone; and his Pegasus has wings and no feet. But almost all that has been attempted, in the way of analysing those imaginative laws, has been done by some metaphysician, who has feet and no wings.
It seems to me that the central genius of a man like Coleridge is not a thing to be dealt with by critics at all. If they really had anything worth saying about such a poet, they would write it in poetry. It is the curse upon all critics that they must write in prose. It is the specially blighting and blasting curse upon some of them, that they have to write in philosophical or psychological or generally analytical prose. I have never read a page of such criticism, however clear and clever, which brought me the most remote echo of the actual sound of the poetry or the power of poetical images, which are like magic talismans. Therefore, in writing about a man like Coleridge, we are driven back upon secondary things; upon his second best work, or upon the second- or third-rate controversies aroused by that work. In that sense, of course, there are any number of second-rate things to be said of Coleridge. It is suggested, for instance, that the abnormal or enormous enlargement of his imagination was due to a dirty habit he had of taking opium. I will confess that I am sceptical about the divinity of the drug; or the power of any drug to act like a god, and make a man other than he really is. I will merely suggest that if exactly the same quantity of opium had been given to a number of Coleridge's contemporaries-- let us say to George the Third, to Mr. Bentham, to the Duke of Wellington, to Mr. Gifford, to Beau Brummel or to William Pitt himself, not to mention Mr. Perceval--I gravely doubt whether any or all of these persons together would have produced a line of "Kubla Khan." It was a pity that Coleridge took opium; because it dissolved his great intellect in dreams, when he was perhaps more fitted than most men of his time to have made some structural logical system, that should have reconciled Revolution and Religion. But "Christabel" and "The Ancient Mariner" were written by Mr. Coleridge and not by Mr. Opium. The drug may have accelerated or made easy a work which some weaknesses in his moral character might have made him avoid or delay, because they were laborious; but there is nothing creative about a narcotic. The point is perhaps worthy of remark; for nobody who knows the nineteenth-century literature can fail to notice that there was a curious effort, under the surface, to make such Asiatic drugs as normal as European drinks. It is a sort of subterranean conspiracy that ranges from the _Confessions_ of De Quincey to the _Moonstone_ of Wilkie Collins. Fortunately, tradition was too strong for it; and Christian men continued to prefer the grape of life to the poppy of death.
Then it would be easy to add, upon this secondary plane, that Coleridge did really suffer from other misleading influences besides opium. "The Ancient Mariner" is probably one of the most original poems that were ever written; and, like many original things, it is almost antiquarian. Like most Romantics reviving the Gothic without understanding the mediaeval, he carried archaism to lengths that were almost comic. I am not sure that he did not call the Mariner a Marinere. All that affects us as too reminiscent of the Olde English Tea-Shoppe. A more serious difficulty was that he turned too sharply from France to Germany. It was very natural that a Romantic should take refuge in the German forests, and still more in the German fairy-tales. It was a more unfortunate adventure that he took refuge with the German philosophers. They encouraged him, as did the drug, in a sort of misty infinity, which confused his real genius for definition and deduction. It was in every way excellent, of course, that the great German literature of the great German age, the age of Goethe and of Lessing, should be opened up to English readers; and perhaps it could have been done by Coleridge more calmly and luminously than it was afterwards done by Carlyle. But if Goethe was the great and good influence of Germany, Kant was on the whole the great and bad influence. These two great Germans offer any number of aspects to be admired or criticized; but, on the whole, Goethe made Germany a part of Europe, while Kant cut it off from Europe, following a wild light of its own, heaven knows where. Coleridge the philosopher can be criticized on various grounds; including the ground that he did not know the great philosopher of Christendom that was behind him. But Coleridge the poet cannot be criticized at all.