A FOOTNOTE TO COLERIDGE
Coleridge is one of our great men who require many footnotes, for there are characteristics of his which need all the extenuation they can get. How comes it, for instance, that he could write, and not only write but publish, in the same decade, and sometimes in the same year, poetry which is of our very best, and some which for frozen inanity it would be hard to equal anywhere? How could a thinker of his power of brain cover leagues of letter-paper with windy nonsense and mawkish insincerity? And finally, of what quality was the talk of one whose social life was entirely monologue? To the first of these questions Wordsworth perhaps helps with an analogy, but not very far; for it is certain that Wordsworth’s opinion of the importance of his own verses was inflexible, whereas Coleridge, having another medium of expression, was by no means so insistent upon publishing. Upon the second, it may be observed that when a philosopher is at the same time a poet, and therefore his own rhapsodist, it is probable that he will charm the understanding of many, but certain that he will bewitch his own. The certainty is clinched when the rhapsodist is without the humorous sense. It was the possession of that which enabled Charles Lamb, who loved him, to see him “Archangel, a little damaged,” and even in one dreadful moment of his life to reprove him for a too oleaginous sympathy. Lamb, in fact, was always able to view his friend with clear eyes. In a letter to Manning, enclosing “all Coleridge’s letters” to himself, he says that in them Manning will find “a good deal of amusement, to see genuine talent struggling against a pompous display of it.” No criticism could be sounder. But Coleridge never wavered from the belief that he was in no phase of his being an ordinary man. If his thoughts were not ordinary thoughts, his imaginings not ordinary imaginings, then his stomach-aches were not ordinary stomach-aches, but strokes of calamity so grievous as to demand from him copious commentary and appeals for more sympathy than is ordinarily given to ordinary men. And, strange to say, he received it. There was that in the “noticeable man with large grey eyes” which drew the love of his friends and the regard of acquaintance. His talk had the quality of his Ancient Mariner’s; one could not choose but hear. The accounts which we have of that, however, are mainly sympathetic; it is not so certain how it affected hearers who were not predisposed.
Lately a book has been published, or rather republished, which illustrates Coleridge’s relations with a world outside his own. A House of Letters (Jarrolds—N.D.), containing a selection of the memoirs and correspondence of Miss Mary Matilda Betham, includes a good many letters from Coleridge, and some few from Charles Lamb which have not so far been recorded elsewhere. Miss Betham, who was born in 1776, was a miniature painter by profession,