I love the Romantic poets. I would like you to as well. Therefore I am writing a short guide to five of them: Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, Coleridge, Shelley. The aim is simply to explain why these poets are so spectacular, and to introduce some of their best poems. The first essay, and an explanation of the “Wordsworth Method,” is here.
With pictures and quotations added, these posts have turned out longer than I expected, so I will break them up into internet-friendly one or two poet-size-chunks. I don’t have that much to say about Shelley, so I will probably do two more: one on Keats and his response to Wordsworth, and then a final one on Shelley and Blake combined.
Coleridge awed everyone he met. Charles Lamb said, “Never I saw his likeness, nor probably the world can see again.” John Stuart Mill, no dullard himself, believed that Coleridge’s intellect so outclassed his time that “The class of thinkers has scarcely arisen by whom he is to be judged.”
The American novelist James Fenimore Cooper met Coleridge in 1828, at a gathering to honour the writer Walter Scott, and was stunned into silence by the “affluence” of Coleridge’s learning, eloquence, and insight: “When I did look around me, I found every eye fastened on him. Scott sat, immovable as a statue…” And one admirer, Charles Clarke, also a teacher and friend of Keats, knew that Coleridge was visiting his town when Clarke’s mother said she had seen, in the local library, an elderly man in black, “talking as she had never heard men talk.”
The young Coleridge had a clear vision of what poetry should be. The trouble was that Wordsworth, with Coleridge’s considerable help, was already writing it. Wordsworth had the enviable capacity, it seemed to Coleridge, to do “one thing at a time”—to sit down and produce.
And Coleridge had problems of his own (I mean here intellectual problems, but of course his opium addiction and poor work habits and unhappy marriage and chronic ill health did not help): WJ Bate’s biography suggests that Coleridge’s desperate need to be approved of made him fear the anti-Christian messages implicit in the “organicist” philosophies (all things are linked, all things are one, divinity is everywhere) that he had learned from German scholars and so much admired, and which Wordsworth was turning into great poetry (Wordsworth was troubled by these implications too, especially as he aged).
Therefore, unable to write the Wordsworthian poems he might ideally have written, Coleridge’s best poetry seems to come out by greater or lesser accident. Either he writes “conversation” poems (like the lovely Frost at Midnight), which frequently use unpoetic diction and a seemingly meandering perspective (their very form a sort of excuse or apology), or eerie fantasies, his creative energies managing to break manically free, like Kubla Khan or the Ancient Mariner. With the exception of the Mariner, Coleridge didn’t know what do with these wild poems—he published the unfinished Christabel only when Byron demanded it, and hid Kubla Khan for almost twenty years, not even referring to it in his private notebooks, ashamed, perhaps, of the bravado he could not intellectually defend.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
We modern writers (by which I mean you, dear reader) presumably find it hard to fathom a problem like Coleridge’s. Couldn’t Coleridge have just got on and done it? Or, given that he did write several wonderful poems, just be proud of what he had made? Who cares, after all, if a poem does or does not affirm a particular philosophical theory, or asserts the poet’s own epic brilliance, or seems to, only by implication and without polemic, challenge certain aspects of the Christian world-view, or sounds a bit like what a close friend is already writing (writing with ideas we have in part provided)?
Then we should reflect, with some shame, on what that question says about us. Perhaps we are more free than Coleridge, but perhaps we are free because we don’t take poetry very seriously. We can’t imagine valuing poetry so much that we could not write it.