If not the greatest, Coleridge is at least the most representative of all English romantic poets. He represents in his work almost all the triumphs and perils of the romantic spirit. He is the “most complete representative” of the English romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century as he captures, unlike any other romantic poet, almost all the salient traits of romanticism. A teeming imagination, love of the Middle Ages, supernaturalism, humanitarianism, love of nature, metrical artistry, and a peculiar agony and melancholy-all these romantic features find ample expression in his work.
His really good poetry does not extent beyond twenty pages, but in them breathes the romantic spirit in all its fullness. He wrote very little, but whatever he wrote well should be engraved in letters of gold and bound in titles of silver. The least prolific of the English romantic poets, he was the most representative of all. According to Bowra, Coleridge’s poems “of all English Romantic masterpieces are the most unusual and the most Romantic.” Says Vaughan: “Of all that is the purest and most ethereal in the romantic spirit, his poetry is the most finished, the supreme embodiment.” No doubt, there are a few (but very few) elements in the romantic spirit which appear in his work rather faintly yet considered as a whole his works are the most exquisite products and representatives of the spirit of the age. Well does Saintsbury call him “the high priest of Romanticism.”
The Romantic Movement can be correctly interpreted as the revolt of imagination against reason, intellect, and prosaic realism. The romantics believed, as Bowra puts it, that the creative imagination should be closely connected with a peculiar insight into an unseen order behind visible things. Their effort was, in Samuel C. Chew’s words, “to live constantly in the world of the imagination above and beyond the sensuous, phenomenal world.” For them the creations of imagination were “forms more real than living men.” The part that imagination plays in the poetry of Coleridge is too obvious to need any elaboration. The writer of Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner, and Christabel answered well his own description of the ideal poet:
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.
Shelley himself would have been envious of such a romantic poet! Dorothy Wordsworth wrote about Coleridge: “He has more of the poetic eye in fine frenzy rolling than I ever witnessed.” Swinburne compared him to those “footless birds of paradise” which spend all their lives in perpetual flight and subsist only on falling dew.
While in his creative work Coleridge worked with his teeming but delicate imagination tempered by an unerring artistic sense, in his criticism he made a strong plea for the imaginative freedom of the poet. In his Biographia Literaria he gave an authoritative definition of the nature and function of imagination. In putting a special stress on imagination as against dry rationalism, Coleridge emerged as a true representative of the Romantic Movement in England.
Love of the Far:
The poet who lives constantly in a world of pure imagination naturally becomes amorous of the far, both in point of time and space. He seeks an escape from the humdrum realities of familiar experience and from the limitations of “that shadow-show called reality.” Coleridge, too, more than most romantic poets, loves to treat of the unreal or the unusual. The unreal (which is generally the highly imaginative, or the supernatural) is what is never experienced, and the unusual is that which is not often experienced. According to a critic, the most characteristic feature of romantic poetry is, its description or suggestion of the unreal-“the light that never was on sea or land.” It will be admitted that in such descriptions and suggestions Coleridge particularly excels. How extraordinary and extraordinarily well-wrought the picture of Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome” is !
It was a miracle of strange device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
How unusual the scenes at the Pole and the Equator are in The Ancient Mariner! This is the picture of the Pole:
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noise in a swound!
And this of a terrific tempest:
Like waters shot from some high crag
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.
In Kubla Khan Coleridge makes mention of an Abyssinian maid and Mount Abora, etc. Thus Coleridge is a very representative romantic poet in that he loves the remote, the strange, and the mysterious, rather than the immediate, the commonplace, and the probable. A critic observes in this connexion: “His peculiar quality as a poet lay in his power of visualising scenes of which neither he nor another had actual experience”.” As such, Coleridge’s poetry fits well Pater’s interpretation of romanticism as the “addition of strangeness to beauty” and Theodore Watts Dution’s interpretation of the same as the “Renascence of Wonder.”
The love of the unreal and the remote takes Coleridge too often in the faery realm of the supernatural. He too often sings of the
Magic casement opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.
His contribution to the “Renascence of Wonder” is the most substantial of all the English romantic poets. In his company we visit the enchanted palace of Kubla Khan, the vampire-haunted castle of Christabel, and the demon-infested seas of The Ancient Mariner. His supernatural, however, is not the crude “Gothicism” of some of his predecessors, which was nothing more than the product of a ghoulish fancy. His treatment of the supernatural is all his own-delicate, refined, suggestive, and psychologically convincing. Wordsworth sought to save nature from the crudity and insipidity of Crabbe by touching reality with imagination; Coleridge redeemed romance from the crudity of Gothic sensationalists by linking it with reality. Whereas Wordsworth tried to “supernaturalise” naturalism. Coleridge endeavoured quite admirably to “naturalise” supernaturalism. Such lines as the following are unmatched in the whole range of English literature for their richly “romantic” connotations:
A savage place, as holy and enchanted
As ever beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover.
Truly does a critic say about these lines that they are magic pure and simple; the rest is poetry. The romantic poets like Scott and Keats also dealt with the supernatural, but the supernatural is according to a critic, “the main region of his [Coleridge’s] song.” Moreover, his delicate, psychological, and artistic treatment also distinguishes him from other romantic poets. His aim was always to produce “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.” In The Ancient Mariner he achieved this aim quite creditably by focusing the attention of the reader on the shifting states of the mariner’s psyche, rather than any supernatural claptrap of the Gothic kind. The theme in Christabelis of the same nature as in The Ancient Mariner, but it is handled with more artistry. Here the touches of the supernatural are more subtle and less explicit. The indirectness with which these touches are made to work their cumulative effect may be contrasted with the directness of the method employed by Keats in his treatment of a like theme – the transformation of a serpent into a woman (in Lamia).
Coleridge’s love of the remote, the mysterious, the strange, and the supernatural induced in him an interest in the Middle Ages. The romantic poet, as we have already said, is impatient of the real and the earth-bound. He is very often dissatisfied with the present set-up of things. Shellej7, Keats, and Scott are notably so. The romantic poet either sings of the glorious past or projects his imagination into the womb of futurity to raise a shape that answers his own desire. Thus Keats sings of the glory that was Greece, Scott endeavours to recapture the splendour of the Middle Ages, and Shelley sings of the golden age to come. Indeed the romantic poets
look before and after
And pine for what is not.
Thus to some romantics the Middle Ages provide a comfortable spiritual home-remote and vague and mysterious. They glorify their splendour and chivalry but forget their dirt, disease, ignorance, and social repression. They escape not only from the real world but also from the real Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages do not provide a spiritual home for Coleridge as they do for Scott. He values them not because of themselves but because of the excellent setting they provide for his supernatural poems. He keeps the medieval atmosphere quite vague and, unlike Keats, does not come down to the description of details. He recreates not indeed the body but the authentic spirit of the Middle Ages.
Anti-intellectualism and Love of Nature:
Coleridge, like most other romantics, was influenced by the Rousseauistic creed embodied hi the slogan “Return to Nature.” He was also appreciably influenced by Wordsworth, the high priest of nature. Early eighteenth-century poetry had been “drawing-room poetry” having little to do with the sights and sounds of nature. Wordsworth and Coleridge demolished this age-old prejudice and brought nature to the fore. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge had a keen eye and a clear ear for the sights and sounds of nature. He brought to his study of nature that minuteness of analysis which is surpassed in English literature only by Keats. As Vaughan points out, “Coleridge had the faculty of minute and subtle observation, which he may have learned, in the first instance from Wordsworth but which he fostered to a degree of delicacy to which neither Wordsworth himself nor perhaps any other ‘worshipper of Nature’, Keats excepted, ever quite attained. This faculty, however, did not bar the way to an equal mastery of broad, general effects.”
In his early poems, such as Frost at Midnight. Coleridge shared Wordsworth’s attitude to nature. He regarded nature as a sentient spirit and believed in its moral and educative influence on man. But later he modified this attitude and came to believe that we interpret the moods of nature according to our own moods (the “pathetic fallacy” of Ruskin). Nature, he came to hold, has no intrinsic moods or life of her own. She only gives us back what we give her in the first instance.
O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Our is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
Like Wordsworth, again, Coleridge came under the influence of the French Revolution. Like him he went wild over the fall of the Bastille, which signalised for him the ushering in of a new era of emancipation from all political tyranny and the establishment of social justice. However, the Reign of Terror and the emergence of Napoleon after the political phase of the Revolution filled both Wordsworth and Coleridge with despair and disillusionment and brought them reeling into the fold of Toryism. Whereas Wordsworth sought refuge and consolation in nature, Coleridge went to abstruse philosophy. Nevertheless, the note of the love of humanity sounds as clearly in Coleridge’s poetry as it does in Wordsworth’s. In this humanitariamsm and enthusiasm (though temporary) for the spirit of the French Revolution Coleridge is a pretty representative poet of the romantic age.
His Metrical Art:
In his rejection of the heroic couplet also Coleridge represents the body of the romantic poets all of whom reverted to the verse measures before Dryden as also invented some of their own. The Ancient Mariner is couched in ballad stanzas. In Christabelhe felt he had used an entirely “new principle” of prosody. The metre in this poem, according to him, “is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle : namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables.” What is true of Christabel is also true of Kubla Khan. The “principle” was definitely not new. However, Coleridge’s masterful employment of it is very striking.
Mention must also be made of Coleridge’s skill at creating exquisite music. “He”, says a critic, “is a singer always, as Wordsworth is not always, and Byron never almost.” He has been rightly called an “epicure in sound.” Symons says : “Coleridge shows a greater sensitiveness to music than any other English poet except Milton…Shelley, you feel, sings like a bird, Blake, like a child or an angel, but Coleridge certainly writes music.” Romantic poetry has an edge over neoclassical poetry in its creation of variegated musical effects. It did not content itself with the singsong of the heroic couplet. Thus Coleridge is here, too, a representative romantic poet.
The Defects of Romanticism:
Coleridge represents not only all the excellent features of romanticism, but also its perils, which are chiefly three. First, he runs the constant danger of losing contact with life and reality and getting lost in the pretty-pretty world of his own making. Thus his poetry does not always remain a serious “criticism of life.” Secondly, eschewing all tradition, he, like Wordsworth, saw a decline in his poetic faculty after he had written his masterpieces. The romantic poet depends entirely on his own inspiration-which is notoriously untrustworthy. When that goes, he cannot borrow strength from the established tradition which he has disowned. This happened with Coleridge. Thirdly, he often incurs the charge of vagueness. He is too fond of colour and sweet sound and sometimes sacrifices sense to them. Words like dulcimer, honey-dew, and Abyssinian maidhave musical or exotic sounds, but their real meaning is not so pleasant.