Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση
[ocr errors]

You remember I have said that Robert Burns began to write between two great revolutions, the revolution of the people in America and that in France. In both these revolutions there was everything to stir up men's thoughts; and in the stirring up of thoughts there must always follow a stimulus to poetry, because poetry is only the highest thought of the most imaginative minds, inspired by the most stirring events. The thought underlying the American and French revolutions was that all men, even the poorest and lowest, have supreme rights, rights to life, freedom, and to the largest amount of happiness possible. They were the same thoughts that the best minds in America put into our Declaration of Independence, the same that Burns put into his A Man's a Man for a' That. It is plain - is it not? — that these thoughts, which in their birth shook governments, religion, and society as if they had been reeds in a tempest, must enter into and move the poet more than any other man of his time.

While these doctrines of liberty, equality, and brotherhood among men were being spread far and wide by the French Revolution, there were two young men in England in whose minds they took root. The first of these young men was WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, a student in Cambridge, who early in youth had felt himself consecrated as a poet; the other was SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, who was in London at Christ's Hospital 1772-1834 school, and who was also fired with a poetical ardor as intense as that of Wordsworth.


Of these two young men Wordsworth was the elder by two years. They had not met each other when the revolutionary fire broke out in them, although they afterwards became warm friends; but both had written verses on the French Revolution, and both were smitten with the same ardor for equal rights and human brotherhood.

Wordsworth left college in 1791 and went to France, then in the midst of her Revolution. I may as well tell you here that the horrors of bloodshed which followed the Revolution shook Wordsworth's faith in the ideas at work there,

and led to a change in opinions which turned him from a violent democrat to a stanch English monarchist.

In the mean time Coleridge went to Cambridge, whence he ran away and came to London, with some vague idea of living by his pen. He soon grew so poor that, as a resource against starving, he enlisted as a private in the cavalry. He knew nothing of soldiering, and could not even sit a horse properly. When suddenly asked his name, he says, not wishing to give his real one," I answered, Cumberback; and verily my habits were so little equestrian that my horse, I doubt not, was of that opinion."

[ocr errors]

His friends found him out, and he was released from the service. Not long after, he met Robert Southey, a young man of nearly his own age, and of opinions after his own heart. Southey also was a radical, and a budding poet who had written in college a poem, Wat Tyler, which had been pronounced seditious and revolutionary. The two began a friendship natural to their age and their congenial opinions, a friendship afterwards made stronger by their marriage with two sisters. They made a plan to emigrate to America and form a colony which should be established on the ideas of religion and government which they held sacred; but this plan failed, and while Southey went to cool his youthful opinions in a tour in Europe, Coleridge went down to a little town in the south of England, where he met Wordsworth for the first time. They were both filled with the same ideas, and both had published a little volume of poetry; it was natural that they should become warm friends, and that they should exert a great influence each on the other.

Their interchange of thought, their long rambles together in the lanes and woods of England, led to the publication of a little volume of poems, with a preface setting forth their theories about poetry, which finally gave them and those who agreed with them the name of the Lake School. They were given this name from the beautiful lake region of England in Cumberland and Westmoreland, where Wordsworth and Southey afterwards went

to live. Coleridge never took up his residence there, although he was constantly going and coming, till, as Southey said, "his movements could no more be calculated than those of a comet."

The Lyrical Ballads- the first publication of the Lake School—was written on the theory that poetry might be the simple, natural language of men under the influence of strong feeling; that it should be free to treat the humblest incident of daily life; that the joys and sorrows of common men were the noblest motive for verse; and that a poet was no superhuman being, but "only a man speaking to other men." This statement of the poet's purpose was the keynote of the revolution in poetry; and you will see that it was a note in harmony with a spirit very different from, and more modern than, that of Pope, or any poet before his time.

To us there seems nothing very alarming or strange in this statement, and we have learned to love and reverence the poetry which it introduced. But the storm of criticism, of laughter, of contempt that was raised against these poets was tremendous. For nearly twenty years public opinion was dead set against them; and soon after the first little edition of five hundred copies was printed, the discouraged publisher gave Mr. Wordsworth his rights in the book as a worthless gift. But neither the men nor their poetry was to be crushed, and from year to year it grew more and more into favor, till at Wordsworth's death (he lived to be eighty) he knew himself judged by most as the great poet of his generation, and by many critics ranked as the sixth great poet in the line from Chaucer.1

Having thus given you, in as few words as I could, the story of the Lake School, let me say something of the poetry of the men who founded it.

1 Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth.



F Samuel Taylor Coleridge it is always to be said with.

OF regret that he did not accomplish as much or as


good work as the world had a right to expect from such a man. He has left behind him comparatively little to prove that he might have been a great poet. I think this lack of accomplishment is due more to physical causes than mental His father, a delicate, scholarly man, was over fifty when Coleridge was born, and from him came the inheritance of a weak body and nerves sensitive to pain. In very early childhood too much reading of fanciful stories filled Coleridge's brain with visions of spectres, and gave him a tendency to mope and dream. He was sent early to school, and was only ten when he went to Christ's Hospital, the famous Bluecoat School, where he gives, in one of his letters, this touching picture of his privations: —

"Our diet was very scanty, — every morning a bit of dry bread and some bad small-beer; every evening a larger piece of bread, and cheese or butter, whichever we liked. For dinner on Sunday, boiled beef and broth; Monday, bread and butter, and milk and water; Tuesday, roast mutton; Wednesday, bread and butter, and rice and milk; Thursday, boiled beef and broth; Friday, boiled mutton and broth; Saturday, bread and butter, and peas porridge. Our food was portioned, and, excepting on Wednesday, I never had enough. Our appetites were damped, never satisfied; and we had no vegetables."

In another letter he says,

"Conceive what I must have been at fourteen. I was in a continual low fever; my whole being was, with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner, and read, read, read, — fancy myself, on Robinson Crusoe's island, finding a mountain of plum-cake, and eating a room for myself, and then eating it into the shape of chairs and tables, hunger and fancy."

The penalty he had to pay for such an unwholesome and half-starved childhood appears early in Coleridge's life. He was hardly twenty-three when fits of torturing neuralgia seized him, for which he began to take opium, beginning with light doses, and increasing them till they grew into a habit of opium-eating which held him for years in its bonds, and was no doubt the cause that so many of his poetic designs were not carried out. We feel that if he had had the painstaking industry of Wordsworth, he too might have realized some of those glorious plans for poetry with which he fired the minds of his friend when they were wandering together over the fields and along the brooks of Somerset. As it is, Wordsworth took the place at the head of the school which Coleridge more than any other inspired. In literature we see Coleridge as one of the powers standing behind those who climb to the throne.

The Lyrical Ballads had been planned by the two poets to consist of two kinds of poetry: in one, the incidents were to be of a supernatural, imaginative kind; the other was to be on subjects drawn from ordinary life, such incidents and characters as are to be found in any village. It was arranged that Coleridge should take the supernatural, and Wordsworth the simple subjects. They wandered about the fields and lanes of Somersetshire, following the course of woodland brooks, laying their poetical plans. Already their radical opinions, their former sympathy with the French Revolution, had come to the ears of friends of the government, and a spy was sent down to watch these young men, who, strolling about, note-book and pencil in hand, were suspected of mapping out the land to give it to foreign enemies. But although the spy listened closely, he could hear nothing but a great deal of talk about a certain Spynosy, which the detective, who was blessed with an ample organ of smell, supposed was a name given to him. This was all the treason he could report on his return to London. The two friends had already lost their ardor for republicanism and the French Revolution, and were busy discussing German philosophy; and it was the great

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »