Read PART I - CHAPTER VIII.  COLERIDGE. of The Life of John Sterling, free online book, by Thomas Carlyle, on

Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle; attracting towards him the thoughts of innumerable brave souls still engaged there.  His express contributions to poetry, philosophy, or any specific province of human literature or enlightenment, had been small and sadly intermittent; but he had, especially among young inquiring men, a higher than literary, a kind of prophetic or magician character.  He was thought to hold, he alone in England, the key of German and other Transcendentalisms; knew the sublime secret of believing by “the reason” what “the understanding” had been obliged to fling out as incredible; and could still, after Hume and Voltaire had done their best and worst with him, profess himself an orthodox Christian, and say and print to the Church of England, with its singular old rubrics and surplices at Allhallowtide, Esto perpetua.  A sublime man; who, alone in those dark days, had saved his crown of spiritual manhood; escaping from the black materialisms, and revolutionary deluges, with “God, Freedom, Immortality” still his:  a king of men.  The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer:  but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gilman’s house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon.

The Gilmans did not encourage much company, or excitation of any sort, round their sage; nevertheless access to him, if a youth did reverently wish it, was not difficult.  He would stroll about the pleasant garden with you, sit in the pleasant rooms of the place, ­perhaps take you to his own peculiar room, high up, with a rearward view, which was the chief view of all.  A really charming outlook, in fine weather.  Close at hand, wide sweep of flowery leafy gardens, their few houses mostly hidden, the very chimney-pots veiled under blossomy umbrage, flowed gloriously down hill; gloriously issuing in wide-tufted undulating plain-country, rich in all charms of field and town.  Waving blooming country of the brightest green; dotted all over with handsome villas, handsome groves; crossed by roads and human traffic, here inaudible or heard only as a musical hum:  and behind all swam, under olive-tinted haze, the illimitable limitary ocean of London, with its domes and steeples definite in the sun, big Paul’s and the many memories attached to it hanging high over all.  Nowhere, of its kind, could you see a grander prospect on a bright summer day, with the set of the air going southward, ­southward, and so draping with the city-smoke not you but the city.  Here for hours would Coleridge talk, concerning all conceivable or inconceivable things; and liked nothing better than to have an intelligent, or failing that, even a silent and patient human listener.  He distinguished himself to all that ever heard him as at least the most surprising talker extant in this world, ­and to some small minority, by no means to all, as the most excellent.

The good man, he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps; and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment.  Brow and head were round, and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute.  The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment.  The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute; expressive of weakness under possibility of strength.  He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees bent, and stooping attitude; in walking, he rather shuffled than decisively steps; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which side of the garden walk would suit him best, but continually shifted, in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both.  A heavy-laden, high-aspiring and surely much-suffering man.  His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and singsong; he spoke as if preaching, ­you would have said, preaching earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things.  I still recollect his “object” and “subject,” terms of continual recurrence in the Kantean province; and how he sang and snuffled them into “om-m-mject” and “sum-m-mject,” with a kind of solemn shake or quaver, as he rolled along.  No talk, in his century or in any other, could be more surprising.

Sterling, who assiduously attended him, with profound reverence, and was often with him by himself, for a good many months, gives a record of their first colloquy. Their colloquies were numerous, and he had taken note of many; but they are all gone to the fire, except this first, which Mr. Hare has printed, ­unluckily without date.  It contains a number of ingenious, true and half-true observations, and is of course a faithful epitome of the things said; but it gives small idea of Coleridge’s way of talking; ­this one feature is perhaps the most recognizable, “Our interview lasted for three hours, during which he talked two hours and three quarters.”  Nothing could be more copious than his talk; and furthermore it was always, virtually or literally, of the nature of a monologue; suffering no interruption, however reverent; hastily putting aside all foreign additions, annotations, or most ingenuous desires for elucidation, as well-meant superfluities which would never do.  Besides, it was talk not flowing any-whither like a river, but spreading every-whither in inextricable currents and régurgitations like a lake or sea; terribly deficient in definite goal or aim, nay often in logical intelligibility; what you were to believe or do, on any earthly or heavenly thing, obstinately refusing to appear from it.  So that, most times, you felt logically lost; swamped near to drowning in this tide of ingenious vocables, spreading out boundless as if to submerge the world.

To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, whether you consent or not, can in the long-run be exhilarating to no creature; how eloquent soever the flood of utterance that is descending.  But if it be withal a confused unintelligible flood of utterance, threatening to submerge all known landmarks of thought, and drown the world and you! ­I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers, ­certain of whom, I for one, still kept eagerly listening in hope; the most had long before given up, and formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of their own.  He began anywhere:  you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation:  instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps did at last get under way, ­but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by the glance of some radiant new game on this hand or that, into new courses; and ever into new; and before long into all the Universe, where it was uncertain what game you would catch, or whether any.

His talk, alas, was distinguished, like himself, by irresolution:  it disliked to be troubled with conditions, abstinences, definite fulfilments; ­loved to wander at its own sweet will, and make its auditor and his claims and humble wishes a mere passive bucket for itself!  He had knowledge about many things and topics, much curious reading; but generally all topics led him, after a pass or two, into the high seas of theosophic philosophy, the hazy infinitude of Kantean transcendentalism, with its “sum-m-mjects” and “om-m-mjects.”  Sad enough; for with such indolent impatience of the claims and ignorances of others, he had not the least talent for explaining this or anything unknown to them; and you swam and fluttered in the mistiest wide unintelligible deluge of things, for most part in a rather profitless uncomfortable manner.

Glorious islets, too, I have seen rise out of the haze; but they were few, and soon swallowed in the general element again.  Balmy sunny islets, islets of the blest and the intelligible: ­on which occasions those secondary humming groups would all cease humming, and hang breathless upon the eloquent words; till once your islet got wrapt in the mist again, and they could recommence humming.  Eloquent artistically expressive words you always had; piercing radiances of a most subtle insight came at intervals; tones of noble pious sympathy, recognizable as pious though strangely colored, were never wanting long:  but in general you could not call this aimless, cloud-capt, cloud-based, lawlessly meandering human discourse of reason by the name of “excellent talk,” but only of “surprising;” and were reminded bitterly of Hazlitt’s account of it:  “Excellent talker, very, ­if you let him start from no premises and come to no conclusion.”  Coleridge was not without what talkers call wit, and there were touches of prickly sarcasm in him, contemptuous enough of the world and its idols and popular dignitaries; he had traits even of poetic humor:  but in general he seemed deficient in laughter; or indeed in sympathy for concrete human things either on the sunny or on the stormy side.  One right peal of concrete laughter at some convicted flesh-and-blood absurdity, one burst of noble indignation at some injustice or depravity, rubbing elbows with us on this solid Earth, how strange would it have been in that Kantean haze-world, and how infinitely cheering amid its vacant air-castles and dim-melting ghosts and shadows!  None such ever came.  His life had been an abstract thinking and dreaming, idealistic, passed amid the ghosts of defunct bodies and of unborn ones.  The moaning singsong of that theosophico-metaphysical monotony left on you, at last, a very dreary feeling.

In close colloquy, flowing within narrower banks, I suppose he was more definite and apprehensible; Sterling in after-times did not complain of his unintelligibility, or imputed it only to the abtruse high nature of the topics handled.  Let us hope so, let us try to believe so!  There is no doubt but Coleridge could speak plain words on things plain:  his observations and responses on the trivial matters that occurred were as simple as the commonest man’s, or were even distinguished by superior simplicity as well as pertinency.  “Ah, your tea is too cold, Mr. Coleridge!” mourned the good Mrs. Gilman once, in her kind, reverential and yet protective manner, handing him a very tolerable though belated cup. ­“It’s better than I deserve!” snuffled he, in a low hoarse murmur, partly courteous, chiefly pious, the tone of which still abides with me:  “It’s better than I deserve!”

But indeed, to the young ardent mind, instinct with pious nobleness, yet driven to the grim deserts of Radicalism for a faith, his speculations had a charm much more than literary, a charm almost religious and prophetic.  The constant gist of his discourse was lamentation over the sunk condition of the world; which he recognized to be given up to Atheism and Materialism, full of mere sordid misbeliefs, mispursuits and misresults.  All Science had become mechanical; the science not of men, but of a kind of human beavers.  Churches themselves had died away into a godless mechanical condition; and stood there as mere Cases of Articles, mere Forms of Churches; like the dried carcasses of once swift camels, which you find left withering in the thirst of the universal desert, ­ghastly portents for the present, beneficent ships of the desert no more.  Men’s souls were blinded, hebetated; and sunk under the influence of Atheism and Materialism, and Hume and Voltaire:  the world for the present was as an extinct world, deserted of God, and incapable of well-doing till it changed its heart and spirit.  This, expressed I think with less of indignation and with more of long-drawn querulousness, was always recognizable as the ground-tone: ­in which truly a pious young heart, driven into Radicalism and the opposition party, could not but recognize a too sorrowful truth; and ask of the Oracle, with all earnestness, What remedy, then?

The remedy, though Coleridge himself professed to see it as in sunbeams, could not, except by processes unspeakably difficult, be described to you at all.  On the whole, those dead Churches, this dead English Church especially, must be brought to life again.  Why not?  It was not dead; the soul of it, in this parched-up body, was tragically asleep only.  Atheistic Philosophy was true on its side, and Hume and Voltaire could on their own ground speak irrefragably for themselves against any Church:  but lift the Church and them into a higher sphere.  Of argument, they died into inanition, the Church revivified itself into pristine florid vigor, ­became once more a living ship of the desert, and invincibly bore you over stock and stone.  But how, but how!  By attending to the “reason” of man, said Coleridge, and duly chaining up the “understanding” of man:  the Vernunft (Reason) and Verstand (Understanding) of the Germans, it all turned upon these, if you could well understand them, ­which you couldn’t.  For the rest, Mr. Coleridge had on the anvil various Books, especially was about to write one grand Book On the Logos, which would help to bridge the chasm for us.  So much appeared, however:  Churches, though proved false (as you had imagined), were still true (as you were to imagine):  here was an Artist who could burn you up an old Church, root and branch; and then as the Alchemists professed to do with organic substances in general, distil you an “Astral Spirit” from the ashes, which was the very image of the old burnt article, its air-drawn counterpart, ­this you still had, or might get, and draw uses from, if you could.  Wait till the Book on the Logos were done; ­alas, till your own terrene eyes, blind with conceit and the dust of logic, were purged, subtilized and spiritualized into the sharpness of vision requisite for discerning such an “om-m-mject.” ­The ingenuous young English head, of those days, stood strangely puzzled by such revelations; uncertain whether it were getting inspired, or getting infatuated into flat imbecility; and strange effulgence, of new day or else of deeper meteoric night, colored the horizon of the future for it.

Let me not be unjust to this memorable man.  Surely there was here, in his pious, ever-laboring, subtle mind, a precious truth, or prefigurement of truth; and yet a fatal delusion withal.  Prefigurement that, in spite of beaver sciences and temporary spiritual hebetude and cecity, man and his Universe were eternally divine; and that no past nobleness, or revelation of the divine, could or would ever be lost to him.  Most true, surely, and worthy of all acceptance.  Good also to do what you can with old Churches and practical Symbols of the Noble:  nay quit not the burnt ruins of them while you find there is still gold to be dug there.  But, on the whole, do not think you can, by logical alchemy, distil astral spirits from them; or if you could, that said astral spirits, or defunct logical phantasms, could serve you in anything.  What the light of your mind, which is the direct inspiration of the Almighty, pronounces incredible, ­that, in God’s name, leave uncredited; at your peril do not try believing that.  No subtlest hocus-pocus of “reason” versus “understanding” will avail for that feat; ­and it is terribly perilous to try it in these provinces!

The truth is, I now see, Coleridge’s talk and speculation was the emblem of himself:  in it as in him, a ray of heavenly inspiration struggled, in a tragically ineffectual degree, with the weakness of flesh and blood.  He says once, he “had skirted the howling deserts of Infidelity;” this was evident enough:  but he had not had the courage, in defiance of pain and terror, to press resolutely across said deserts to the new firm lands of Faith beyond; he preferred to create logical fata-morganas for himself on this hither side, and laboriously solace himself with these.

To the man himself Nature had given, in high measure, the seeds of a noble endowment; and to unfold it had been forbidden him.  A subtle lynx-eyed intellect, tremulous pious sensibility to all good and all beautiful; truly a ray of empyrean light; ­but embedded in such weak laxity of character, in such indolences and esuriences as had made strange work with it.  Once more, the tragic story of a high endowment with an insufficient will.  An eye to discern the divineness of the Heaven’s spendors and lightnings, the insatiable wish to revel in their godlike radiances and brilliances; but no heart to front the scathing terrors of them, which is the first condition of your conquering an abiding place there.  The courage necessary for him, above all things, had been denied this man.  His life, with such ray of the empyrean in it, was great and terrible to him; and he had not valiantly grappled with it, he had fled from it; sought refuge in vague daydreams, hollow compromises, in opium, in theosophic metaphysics.  Harsh pain, danger, necessity, slavish harnessed toil, were of all things abhorrent to him.  And so the empyrean element, lying smothered under the terrene, and yet inextinguishable there, made sad writhings.  For pain, danger, difficulty, steady slaving toil, and other highly disagreeable behests of destiny, shall in nowise be shirked by any brightest mortal that will approve himself loyal to his mission in this world; nay precisely the higher he is, the deeper will be the disagreeableness, and the detestability to flesh and blood, of the tasks laid on him; and the heavier too, and more tragic, his penalties if he neglect them.

For the old Eternal Powers do live forever; nor do their laws know any change, however we in our poor wigs and church-tippets may attempt to read their laws.  To steal into Heaven, ­by the modern method, of sticking ostrich-like your head into fallacies on Earth, equally as by the ancient and by all conceivable methods, ­is forever forbidden.  High-treason is the name of that attempt; and it continues to be punished as such.  Strange enough:  here once more was a kind of Heaven-scaling Ixion; and to him, as to the old one, the just gods were very stern!  The ever-revolving, never-advancing Wheel (of a kind) was his, through life; and from his Cloud-Juno did not he too procreate strange Centaurs, spectral Puseyisms, monstrous illusory Hybrids, and ecclesiastical Chimeras, ­which now roam the earth in a very lamentable manner!