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COLERIDGE'S LOVE OF NATURE.

273

old ocean,

After long absence, to his forlorn cave,
Spoke as in tones of human sympathy,
Poor Robin Crusoe,'

Thoughts like these arose
When first I heard at night the distant sound,

of thy everlasting voice !There are no passages of Coleridge's poetry in which the peculiar traits of his genius are more distinct than those of a descriptive cast. He shared that which belongs to all poetic minds,- genuine and unall'ected love of nature. In the lines of one of his poems, –

“ I know
That nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure.
No plot so narrow, be but nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart

Awake to love and beauty!” But the predominant habit of his genius was self-communion, in-looking rather than out-looking, so wrapt in meditation as perhaps often to preclude that open submissive susceptibility to impressions from the outward world of sense. This, however, led him finely to proclaim that great tenet of the poetic creed, that the influences of inanimate nature are dependent on the shaping faculty of imagination :

" That outward forms the loftiest still receive

Their finer influences from the life within." Unhappily, Coleridge did not steadily possess that genial mood of imagination by which the poet's song

“ Should make all nature lovelier, and itself

Be loved like nature. He tells of this very unhappiness-this morbid torpor of the imagination—in some of the stanzas in his ode on “Dejection :

“ A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassion’d grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief
In word, or sigh, or tear.
O lady, iu this wan and heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo'd,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky
And its peculiar tint of yellow green.
And still I gaze; and with how blank an eye !
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;

T

Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimm'd, but always seen ;
Yon crescent moon, as fix'd as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue ;
I see them all so excellently fair ;
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are.
“ My genial spirits fail ;

And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

It were a vain endeavour,

Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west.
I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within." In another strain of the same ode the important imaginative truth is set forth :

“ From the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

Enveloping the earth.
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice of its own birth,

Of all sweet sounds the life and element."
When Coleridge's poetry gives forth

“ This light, this glory, this fair, luminous mist,

This beautiful and beauty-making power,”the purport of his descriptions is to discover “ religious musings in the forms of nature.” Let me,” he exclaims in an admirable passage of his prose, “ digress for a few moments from the written word to another book, likewise a revelation of God,--the great book of his servant nature. That in its obvious sense and literal interpretation it declares the being and attributes of the Almighty Father none but the fool in heart has ever dared gainsay. But it has been the music of gentle and pious minds in all ages ; it is the poetry of all human nature, to read it likewise in a figurative sense, and to find therein correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual world.” This disposition to consider the perishable material world as the shadow of an eternal spiritual reality is sublimely expressed in one of his poems, with an allusion perhaps to Plato's hypothesis of the cave wherein we are placed with our backs to the light and behold reflections in its arch :

“ What is freedom but the unfetter'd use

Of all the powers which God for use had given ?
But chiefly this, him first, him last to view

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THE ANCIENT MARINER-CHRISTABEL,

275

Through meaner powers and secondary things
Effulgent, as through clouds that veil his blaze.
For all that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
For infant minds; and we in the low world
Placed with our backs to bright reality,
That we may learn with young unwounded ken
The substance from its shadow."

I pass by Coleridge's dramatic poems and his remarkable translations of Schiller's tragedies-remarkable as perhaps the only versions of which it was ever said that the translation was even superior to the original—and proceed to the two poems which are most characteristic of the poet's genius, and on which his poetic fame chiefly rests,—“The Ancient Mariner” and “ Christabel.” These extraordinary poemsneither of them of any great length—are the highest proofs of the originality of Coleridge's imagination. Their origin is traced by him to some conversations with Wordsworth, turning, as he describes them, on the two cardinal points of poetry,—the power of exciting the sympathy of a reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colour of imagination. The sudden charm which accidents of light and shade, which

appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature. The thought suggested itself that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life, in the other, the incidents and agents were to be supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in interesting the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. The supernatural fell to the share of Coleridge ; and his endeavour, he tells us, was to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for the shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith. This has been accomplished with wonderful skill. Both the poems are essentially, absolutely, imaginative. They are pure originals. They are extraordinary manifestations of the magic power of imagination in blending together the natural and supernatural,--spectral creations with emotions of common humanity. They are the work of a wild and wondrous witchery. The veil is rent asunder which separates the mortal bodily life froni the ghostly immaterial life of phantoms,—the world of sense from the world of spirit. The argument of the “ Ancient Mariner” was originally set forth in these few words :-how a ship, having first sailed to the equator, was then driven by storms to the cold country towards the South Pole; how the ancient mariner cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality killed a sea-bird; and how he was followed by many and strange judgments, and in what manner he came back to his own country.

“ It is an ancient mariner ;

And he stoppeth one of three :-
• By thy long gray beard and glittering eye,

Now, wherefore stopp'st thou me?'"
It is a wedding guest that he holds by the fascination of his eye.

The seafaring man's

escape from supernatural dangers has left him the victim of a mysterious and woeful agony, to be calmed only by travelling from land to land and recounting his fearful adventures :

“ Since then, at an uncertain hour

That agony returns,
And till my ghastly tale is told

This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land ;

I have strange power of speech.
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me ;

To him my tale I teach."

This narrative opens with the ship passing out from the placid atmosphere of actual life, losing sight of the church-steeple, of the highlands, and of the light-house. Quickly struck by the storm-blast, it is borne far away to the south and entangled among islands of ice and the accumulated snow of the polar latitudes. In the desperate danger there comes an albatross, that huge bird of the Southern seas : it is hailed as a bird of good omen, and a way is found to steer the ship through the ice. The bird follows, alighting on mast or shroud and fed by the grateful crew, but in a wicked and luckless moment is killed by the ancient mariner. His shipmates become parties to his guilt, for, with a fickle superstition, they ascribe their ill-luck to the bird, and justify the wanton death of one of God's mute creatures. The mysterious vengeance begins with the misery of a dead calm beneath a torrid sky:

• The fair breeze blew; the white foam flew

The furrow follow'd free:
We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.

THE ANCIENT MARINER.

277

“ Down dropp'd the breeze; the sails dropp'd down;

'T was sad as sad could be :
And we did speak only to break

The silence of the sea !
" All in a hot and copper sky

The bloody sun at noon
Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the moon.
“Day after day, day after day,

We stuck: nor breath, nor motion :-
As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.”

The ship lies becalmed a weary time, and the crew have dark assurances in their dreams that invisible fiends are pursuing and plaguing them. At length, afar off, between them and the sun, there is beheld a something in the sky, seen at first, as a little speck, then a mist, and then the strange skeleton-shape of a spectral bark. As it nears them, hideous figures are discerned upon the deck, and frightful voices and noises are sounding across the waters of the sluggish sea.

It vanishes; but death has struck the crew of the becalmed ship, and the ancient mariner alone is left in the central solitude of a motionless ocean, with dismal hauntings of remorse and the memory of supernatural terrors, and with the open-eyed dead lying in groups around his feet :

“ The stars were dim, and thick the night;

The steersman's face by his lamp gleam'd white ;

*

" One after one, by the star-dogg'd moon,

Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turn'd his face with a ghastly pang

And cursed me with his eye!

“ Alone, alone,-all, all alone,

Alone on a wide, wide sea;
And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony !
The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie ;
And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I!

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