Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Edward Dowden
Hartley Coleridge (17961849)
[Hartley Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was born 19th September, 1796; died, 6th January, 1849. Besides some prose writings, we have Poems by Hartley Coleridge, vol. i. (all published) Leeds, 1833; Poems by Hartley Coleridge, with a Memoir of his Life by his Brother, 2 vols., 1851.]
HARTLEY COLERIDGE always classed himself among the small poets, and it is true he was not born for great and splendid achievements; but there are some writers for whom our affection would be less if they were stronger, more daring, more successful; and Hartley Coleridge is one of these. We think of him as the visionary boy, whom his father likened to the moon among thin clouds, moving in a circle of his own light,as the fairy voyager of Wordsworths prophetic poem, whose boat seemed rather
To brood on air than on an earthly stream.
We think of him as the elvish figure one might meet forty years later by Grasmere side, too soon an old man and white-haired, with now and then an expression of pain, a half-tone in his voice that betrayed some sense of incompleteness or failure, but with the full eye still bright and soft; the speech still rippling out fancy and play and wisdom; the heart, in spite of sorrow and the injuries of time, still as Wordsworth knew it,
A young lambs heart among the full-grown flocks.
A great poet is a toiler, even when his toil is rapturous. Hartley Coleridge did not and perhaps could not toil. Good thoughts came to him as of free grace; gentle pleasures possessed his senses; loving-kindnesses flowed from his heart, and took as they flowed shadows and colours from his imagination; and all these mingled and grew mellow. And so a poets moods expressed themselves in his verse; but he built no lofty rhyme. The sonnet, in which a thought and a feeling are wedded helpmates suited his genius; and of his many delightful sonnets some of the best are immediate transcripts of the passing mood of joy or pain. To see him brandishing his pen, a friend has written, and now and then beating time with his foot, and breaking out into a shout at any felicitous idea, was a thing never to be forgotten . His sonnets were all written instantaneously, and never, to my knowledge, occupied more than ten minutes. Perhaps because of this happy facility they often fall short of complete attainment; sometimes the vigour of conception suddenly declines, sometimes the touch loses its precision; nor is the poetic mood from which they originate always delivered by the imagination from its surrounding circumstance of prose, or its alloy of humbler feeling.
But all that Hartley Coleridge has written is genuine, full of nature, sweet, fresh, breathing charity and reconciliation. His poems of self-portrayal are many, and of these not a few are pathetic with sense of change and sorrowing self-condemnation; yet his penitence had a silver side of hope, and one whose piety was so unaffected, whose faith though thinner far than vapour had yet outlived all frowardness, could not desperately upbraid even his weaker self. For all that is sweet and venerablefor the charm of old age, for the comeliness of ancient use and wont, for the words of sacred poet or prophet, for the traditions of civility, for the heritage of English law and English freedom, for the simple humanities of earth, for fatherhood and motherhood, Hartley Coleridge had a heartfelt and tender reverence. And with a more exquisite devotion he cherished all frail, innocent, and dependent creatures; small they should be or they could not look to their quaint little poet as a protector. To think of the humming-birds or the crickets glee made him happy; he bowed over the forget-me-not blossom as if it were a sapphire amulet against all mortal taint, and over the eye-bright gold-eyed weedie, which owns such holy, medicinal virtue. He loved with the naïveté of innocent-hearted old bachelorhood the paradise of maidenhood; with all its sweet she-slips, in Shakespeares play and Stothards page, and, better still, on English lawn or by English fireside. And who has been laureate to as many baby boys and wee ladies sweet as Hartley Coleridge? Rounding the lives of all little children and all helpless things he felt a nearness of some strong protecting Love which called forth his deepest instincts of piety.
In Grasmere churchyard, close to the body of Wordsworth, rests that of Hartley Coleridge; so a Presence of strength and plain heroic magnitude of mind environs him. And hard by a stream goes murmuring to the lake. As a mountain rivulet to a mountain lake, so is Hartley Coleridges poetry to that of Wordsworth; and the stream has a melodious life and a freshness of its own.