De Quincey on Coleridge



by Thomas
De Quincey


[De Quincey was well acquainted, early in
life, with Coleridge and other poets of the time, and for the Eighth Edition
of Britannica (1852-60) he wrote a number of insightful biographies. The
roots of his estrangement later in life from many of his early companions
may be in part inferred from his sustained attention in this piece to the
question of Coleridge’s possible plagiarism.]

COLERIDGE, Samuel Taylor, „the most imaginative of
modern poets,“ was born in the year 1772, at Ottery St Mary, Devonshire.
He was the son of the Rev. John Coleridge, vicar of Ottery. His father
was a man of learning, and of singularly amiable qualities, but tinctured
with some of that eccentricity of habit and manner which characterised
his youngest son. Coleridge wore in childhood many of those features of
mind, which, in his after life, ripened into good or evil.

He was dreamy, solitary, and disinclined to the usual
amusements of children. Losing his father in very early life, he obtained,
by the kindness of a friend, a presentation to Christ Church Hospital.
He made extraordinary advances in scholarship; and amassed a vast variety
of miscellaneous knowledge, but in the random desultory manner which displayed
already the instability of purpose, that caused the future failure of his
genius in the accomplishment of the great objects which its capacities
fitted it for achieving. During this period, imprudent bathing, an exercise
of which he was immoderately fond, sowed the seeds of those bodily maladies
which not only impaired the efficiency of his genius, but which unconsciously
allured him into the unhappy and insidious
that completed the destruction of his constitution, and unhinged
the structure of his mind.

 One conspicuous feature of his intellect at Christ
Church was its strong tendency to metaphysical speculation. The young enthusiast
feared not to gauge the profoundest questions, till his school-boy pride
rejoiced in the dignity of infidelity. These notions were most judiciously,
as he himself confesses, whipped out of him by his able but stern instructor,
the Rev. James Bowyer, a gentleman, for whose services in his intellectual
education Coleridge frequently records his affectionate gratitude.

His reputation at Christ Church promised a brilliant career
at Cambridge. This university he entered in 1790, in his nineteenth year.
But the same desultory, unordered habit of mind he had displayed in early
life, followed him to Jesus College. His incapability of economy involved
him in debt; the immaturity of his speculations urged him into Unitarian
opinions in religion. In the midst of his university career, afflicted
with that bias towards melancholy, with which the poetical temperament,
especially when coupled with an irritable bodily habit, is so often cursed,
and dejected with the spectacle of unrealised hopes of college honours,
he suddenly left Cambridge.

 After wandering for a day or two in London, having
bestowed his last pence on a beggar, he recklessly enlisted, under an assumed
name, in a regiment of horse. Discovered at length, and rescued from this
degradation by his friends, he resumed his position at College. In 1794
he became acquainted at Oxford with his future relative Southey, and a
warm friendship soon ripened between the young poets. Their position was
in one respect similar, as Southey was forfeiting the honours of Oxford
from his adoption, like Coleridge, of a Unitarian creed. Both had embraced,
with enthusiasm, during the preceding two or three years, the ideas of
„liberty“ promulgated by the French revolution; and at Bristol, where Coleridge
had joined Southey, they formed the resolution, along with a third poet,
Lovel, of founding what they termed a Pantisocracy, or Republic of pure
freedom, on the banks of the Susquehanna.

 The three poets married in 1795 three sisters, the
Misses Fricker of Bristol; but the marriages upset the pantisocratic scheme,
for which they had been intended as part preparation. The good sense of
Southey, not to mention want of funds, exploded the idea; and Coleridge,
who had settled at Clevedon, near Bristol, was thrown on his literary resources.
After some attempts at publication, and the projection of extensive plans
of occupation and industry, tired of his village retirement, he removed
to Bristol, and appeared as the editor, or rather writer, of the „Watchman,“
a weekly political journal; but his indolent irregularity caused the extinction
of his work at the tenth number.

 Failing in expectation of employment in the London
press, he retired in the latter months of 1796, to a cottage at Nether
Stowey, in Somerset, at the foot of Quantock Hills, on the grounds of Mr
Poole, a gentleman whose friendship he has affectionately commemorated.
Through this friend’s means he became acquainted with Wordsworth and the
two Wedgewoods. His name was soon associated with that of Wordsworth in
the publication of the „Lyrical Ballads;“ and a mutual resolution of the
poets to write a play produced Coleridge’s tragedy „Remorse.“ This was
the most happy period of his life. His poetical faculty, which had budded
in his sixteenth year, was ripened under the genial impulses of nature,
friendship, and domestic affection.

The first part of Christabel belongs to this year. He
pursued his favourite metaphysical studies, oscillating between system
and system, and his speculations were soon to receive new and important
impressions from travel in Germany with Mr Wordsworth. Coleridge had accepted
in 1798 the office of Unitarian preacher to a congregation in Shrewsbury,
and had actually preached his first sermon–of which Hazlitt has recorded
a glowing account–when the „generous and munificent“ offer of a life annuity
from the two Wedgewoods extricated him from his Unitarian engagements,
and enabled him to set out with Wordsworth for Germany.

 He was industrious in the study of the literature
and philosophy of that country, and may be regarded as the introducer of
German philosophy to the notice of British scholars. Shortly after his
return, Coleridge and his family settled for some years with Southey, at
Keswick, in the neighbourhood of Wordsworth. Meantime his opium-eating
habit, into which he had been originally seduced from its apparent medicinal
effects, had undermined his health, and in search of convalescence he went
to Malta in 1804. He was appointed temporary secretary to Sir Alexander
Ball, governor of that island. He returned by Italy to England in 1806.

From this period till nearly 1816 he lived a wandering
life–now with his family, now with one friend, again with another; sometimes
lecturing, occasionally publishing. Letters and anecdotes injudiciously,
if not cruelly, in reference to the poet’s surviving relations, exposed
to the world in Cottle’s „Reminiscences,“ give a melancholy insight into
Coleridge’s condition during these years from the tyranny of opium. The
capital defect in his character was want of will: the habit, which he could
see, as it were a visible enemy, destroying his own happiness and that
of those dearest to him, entangling him in meanness, deceit, and dishonesty,
he could not summon resolution to resist. His letters and memoranda exhibit
his sense of his slavery in words that might draw tears. In 1816, he placed
himself under the care of Mr Gilman, surgeon, Highgate. With this generous
family the poet resided till his death in 1834. He was cherished with affectionate
solicitude, surrounded by friends who hung with rapture on his miraculous

It is deeply to be regretted that his noble genius was
to a great extent frittered in
, which he could pour forth unpremeditatedly for hours
in unintermitted streams of vivid, dazzling, original thinking. „Did you
ever hear me preach?“ said Coleridge to Lamb. „I never heard you do anything
else,“ was his friend’s reply. Certainly through this medium he watered
with his instruction a large circle of discipleship; but what treasures
of thought has the world lost by Coleridge’s unwillingness to make his
pen the mouth-piece of his mind! Some of his most important prose works,
however, appeared during this period.

 Before his death, Gilman relates, he had succeeded
in emancipating himself from his opium chain (see his „Prayer,“ Cottle,
p. 483); but 1816 closes the portion of Coleridge’s biography which is
the property of the public; neither Gilman nor Cottle pass this boundary.

Coleridge’s prose works embrace many of the subjects most
interesting to mankind–theology, history, politics, the principles of
society; another sphere of his labours, partly oral and partly written,
was literature and its criticism: a third comprehended logic and the transcendental
metaphysics. These subjects occur in singular juxtaposition in more than
one of his books. Independently of his Lectures and his contributions to
periodicals, Coleridge’s opinions were conveyed chiefly in „The Friend,“
his „Lay Sermons,“ his „Biographia Literaria,“ „Aids to Reflection,“ „Constitution
of the Church and State,“ &c. Most of these works are fragmentary,
or, at least collectively, they exhibit only part of his system of opinions,
for Coleridge lived upon the future. His poetical works, consisting of
„Juvenile Poems,“ „Sybilline Leaves,“ Odes, Ballads, Dramas, Translations,
&c., exhibit the same feature of splendid incompleteness.

 After his death, collections were made of his „Table-talk,“
and other „Literary Remains,“ that rescued from oblivion much of his mind
that is valuable.

The intellect of Coleridge is to be estimated rather by
that of which it was capable, which it contemplated, and which it suggested,
than by that which it achieved. Thrown upon life, poor and unsupported
except by the benevolence of private friends, the inspired „charity boy,“
in his mission as the Apostle of Ideas, had a severe contest to fight.
The friend of no party, he was obnoxious to all. Coleridge’s bark sailed
between the Scylla and Charybdis of the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews.
It is to his credit, and to that of Southey and Wordsworth, that, in the
face of a hostile age, they vindicated the freedom of poetical, political,
and philosophical conscience; that, like the Scottish baron of old, they
did „bide their time;“ for all of them have left on the age that is succeeding
an impress that will not soon be effaced. The literary fortitude of Coleridge
under the continually-expressed conviction of the unpopularity of his writings
is admirable.

What would he not have achieved if this impassible fortitude
had been animated by the aggressive vigour of industry and action so necessary
in all who promulgate systems! The whole labours of Coleridge present the
appearance of an unfinished city: the outline of the streets exhibits only
how splendid they might have been; the basement of a pillar shows how gorgeous
might have been its capital. A small, compact, complete beauty of poesy
or of thought, pains us with the reflection that it stands surrounded by
mere fragments of a similar promise. His works resemble a Californian valley,
out of which may be dug in hundreds solid lumps of priceless gold from
among materials useless or inappreciable. Besides the absence of a resolute
will, another defect in the structure of Coleridge’s mind was want of exactness.
He had no capacity, he confesses himself, in the retention of facts: his
mind was at home in the outline of generic ideas. Hence, while it could
frequently chalk that outline with astonishing sagacity and philosophical
accuracy, when it descended into the natural history of fact it frequently
is found in „wandering mazes lost.“ This feature of the poet’s intellect,
in relation to theology, is illustrated with great clearness by the Rev.
N. Porter in the American „Bibliotheca Sacra“ (Vol. iv. No. 13).

At an early period of his university career he lamented
his distaste for the study of mathematics. Demonstrative and exact science
lay beyond the dominion of his will; his was the logic of passion and imagination,
as well as of the schools. His discussions often indicate this complexion
of his reason. His own statement of his feelings in groping for religious
truth through thorny regions of thought is, that „his head was with Spinosa
and Leibnitz, while his heart was with Paul and John.“ The transcendental
philosophy of Germany, acting on a mind of this semi-romantic temperament
in inquiry, produced results resembling those of, as it were, metaphysical
opium-eating. His metaphysical writings, encumbered with terminology, and
algebraic symbols, stretching out into vast impalpable shadows, are frequently
ungraspable as Ixion’s cloud. And the haughty or embarrassed [footnote]
pretence (at the conclusion of vol. i. Biog. Lit., edit. 1817) that the
age was unripe for the appreciation of his philosophical teachings, and
his proud „Intelligibilia non intellectum adfero,“ are unworthy of a literary
patriot, who should, for the objects of his mission, „make himself all
things unto all men,“ and whose bread, if he had it to give, „cast upon
the waters, would be found after many days.“ The bread he has left has
been found, and to good purpose. His reputation has risen throughout Great
Britain; and America, which is the empiric of all principles evolved by
European physics or philosophy, has had her poetry, her philosophy, and
even her theology, deeply tinctured by Coleridge.

 With his ardent benevolence and desire for the moral
and intellectual elevation of humanity, was mingled much of a species of
academic contempt for the myriads of God’s immortal and intelligent creatures,
commonly characterized as „the masses.“ With the fear of the French revolution
before him, he seems to have viewed them as „dogs of war,“ with innate
tendencies to turn upon and rend society, especially when society deigned
to cast before them her pearls of instruction and philosophy. He seems
to have deemed that they should be nourished with food convenient not so
much for themselves as for the peace and prosperity of the „clerisy“ and
„special state“ whom he appoints their overseers; that an episcopal crook
and an act of Parliament are the keys to the whole duty of man as a unit
in the „masses;“ that scholarship and philosophy walk in silver slippers
in a higher sphere, and that learning is degraded when it is popularized.
„From a philosophical populace, good Lord deliver us,“ is, if we remember
rightly, one of his expressions of this contempt. If he wrote only for
philosophers, who can wonder that he should complain of a somewhat unappreciating

 The increasing celebrity of Coleridge caused the
agitation of a somewhat painful question–his alleged literary plagiarism.
This was first hinted by Mr De Quincey in Tait’s Magazine, September 1834.

 The accusation was corroborated and extended by
Professor Ferrier in Blackwood, April 1840; and it is still farther confirmed
and extended by Sir W. Hamilton (in his notes to the Works of Dr Reid,
p. 890), whose indignation is great against the „literary reaver of the
‚Hercynian brakes,‘ “ and who mercilessly convicts Coleridge of ruthless
and universal plagiarism, except where his ignorance prevented him from
entering, and of blundering on subjects with which the poet professed to
be most familiar. The defence by his friends is timid, and scarcely enters
within the sphere of legal evidence, while even his accusers absolve him
in general from deliberate and premeditated dishonesty; yet, withal, with
the air of mere tribute to his known talents and celebrity. The specific
accusations are the following: that literal or ornamental translations
from German poets, and these too in celebrated passages of Coleridge, are
found unacknowledged for years after they were published among his poetical
works; the whole pages of literal or interpolated translation occur, chiefly
in the „Biographia Literaria,“ from the works of his German contemporary
Schelling; that besides this he assumes as his own the theories of that
philosopher and of others, and that Coleridge left a branch of his work
unfinished exactly at the point where Schelling leaves him unaided; nay,
it is hinted, in the face of his own loud reclamation, that his principles
of the criticism of Shakspeare are possibly to be put to the credit of

 His friends (especially his nephew and son-in-law,
the late Rev. Henry Nelson Coleridge, in a prefatory discourse to the recent
edition of the „Biog. Lit.“) extricate him from a moral delinquency, by
urging the known carelessness of his habits, the extent of his studies,
and the defect of order in their arrangement; his custom of note-taking,
which threw among his papers the thoughts of others, which his negligence
or his recollection afterwards failed to recognise as not his own; again,
there is urged the folly of which he would be convicted in wilfully concealing
his obligations to writers the knowledge of whom he was pressing on the
attention of his countrymen.

 Coleridge more than once disclaims the imputation
of vanity, but he also hints the idea that he has cause to be vain. If
vanity is to be reckoned among the features of his mind, and much of his
writing indicates this, while it is not inconsistent with the child-like
simplicity ascribed to him, he may have been tempted, on the one hand,
to the over-statement of his claims to certain thought-property belonging
to others; and, on the other, to the under-statement of his actual verbal
obligations to them. That Coleridge expected accusations of plagiarism
is evident from his earnest reclamations against the suspicion of that
crime. The vast extent of his line of thinking, often imperfectly defined
as it was, would frequently come in contact with parallel lines of thought
which he met with in his studies, matured and stereotyped by publication.
He would feel impatient at seeing complete what had dawned as an outline
in his own mind: he would entertain something like the feeling of having
been defrauded of his property, and the present vivid impression, derived
from his author, would be stamped on his own imperfect outline as the result
of realized thought. In short, a process would take place in his intellect
resembling that of Byron’s baron in Mazeppa, who had pondered over the
glories of his ancestors,




„Until, by some confusion led,

He thought their merits were his own.“

The miscalculation of vanity, excusable, except in respect
to the manner in which he has talked (see Hamilton’s Reid, p. 890), and
is alleged to have talked of others (for his former best friends accuse
him of traduction; see Southey’s letter in Cottle’s Reminiscences, p. 407),
and carelessness, superinduced by his acknowledged habits of mind, seem
to constitute the amount of Coleridge’s plagiaristic guilt. He was at least
generous of his own stores; his nephew, indeed, inserts this circumstance
as part of his apology; if he took from others, he was lavish to others
far beyond the mark of his own appropriations; if he was „appetens alieni,“
he was also „profusus sui.“ This, though no more abstractly justifiable
in Coleridge than in Catiline, is so far blameless in the case of the former,
that his „appetentia“ was undeliberate and unintentional.

 Coleridge’s whole mind was imbued with the love
of truth and of beauty; for truth he wandered through the mazes of all
philosophy, and wherever he found her, he grappled her to his soul with
hooks of steel. When an extended horizon of Christianity enabled him to
see the real position of his Socinian opinions, he embraced unchangeably
with his whole heart „the truth as it is in Jesus.“ The very obscurities
of Coleridge are „dark with excessive bright;“ from his intense feeling
of the beautiful, they are „golden mists“ that rise from the morning of
a pure heart; or they are lucid seas whose very depth prevents the eye
from penetrating its extent. His prose style is disfigured by turgidity,
and the affected use of words. His written humour is ponderous and unwieldy.

 He was capable of immense services to poetry; but
in this, as in other spheres of labour, he lived on the future; and Coleridge’s
future was a bad bank on which to draw; its bills were perpetually dishonoured.
The conspicuous features of his poetry are its exquisite and original melody
of versification, whose very sound chains the ear and soul; the harmonious
grouping and skilful colouring of his pictures; statuesqueness and purity
of taste in his living figures, and truth, in luxuriance or in simplicity,
in majesty or in smallness, in his descriptions of nature. In sentiment,
he opens with charming artlessness his own bosom in sorrow and in joy;
this, it may be remarked, is a feature characteristic of the poetry of
our own age above all that have preceded. There exists in general a decided
contrast between the simplicity and lucidness of Coleridge’s poetical style
of expression, and the involved cloud-like fashion of his prose. Apart
from his German translations and his dramas, there are few compositions
of any extent complete in the works of Coleridge. „Christabel“ is a fragment–a
beauteous strain creeping in the ear, mysterious yet enrapturing as a celestial
melody; but the import of whose language we scarcely comprehend, while
we feel its sweetness. Capriciously it ceases in a moment, and leaves us
in the position of Ariel’s admirer in the tune played by the picture of
nobody. The „Ancient Mariner“ is, apart from certain defects in machinery,
a composition the stature of whose idea „reaches the sky,“ and stretches
its arms into other worlds; but it vanishes from the reader’s grasp in
a huddled conclusion–a moral utterly partial, like that of „Christabel,“
when viewed in reference to the piece as a whole. „Cain,“ the promise of
a Titanic birth, and „Kubla Khan,“ a literal dream of oriental glory, withered
in the blight of an unexecuting will. But how exquisite in their completeness
are the „Hymn to Mont Blanc“ (though, by the bye, this is one of the accused
pieces), „Love,“ the „Odes,“ and many lesser jewels! He often expends his
genius on trifles; and, even in his greater efforts, it is to be regretted
that his idealism has placed much of his poetry beyond popular relish or
sympathy. His dramatic pieces, like most modern efforts of this class,
exhibit rather scenery, poetry, and sentiment, than character; but the
surviving fragments of this dramatic criticism show that they need only
completeness to be sufficient alone for his immortality. The best tribute
to Coleridge’s genius consists in its admiration–nay, imitation–by the
highest minds among his contemporaries, Byron and Scott, while all must
perceive that his melody and his phraseology still murmur in the finest
strains that emanate from the present age.

Footnote: See Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1840.

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