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AMERICAN QUARTERLY REVIEW.
ART. I.-Specimens of the Table Talk of the late SAMUEL
TAYLOR COLERIDGE. New York: 1835.
Coleridge is one instance among the many remarkable and melancholy examples of a man of genius throwing away his opportunities. With the finest faculties—we believe them to have been of the first order, though this is denied by those who do not appreciate or respect the kind of mind he possessed, yet certainly with power and capacity to achieve far more than he has done, the question recoils upon us—what has he effected? What record is before the world, commensurate with the acknowledged greatness of his talents, a long life, and favourable circumstances? It is at all times a dangerous question to ask, whether time and talents have been well employed, even as to those with very inferior endowments to Coleridge; for there is but little doubt, most men can perform more than is really done; but, when it is demanded as to those of extraordinary powers, and no reference can be made to memorials of their efforts, but the response is returned only as an echo, there is something painful, something mortifying, something that speaks the nothingness of the human intellect, in the silent rebuke of time thus misspent. And how many are there, with the best abilities, who make life a dream? Who, with no stimulus from necessity, or with an unawakened ambition, or, if roused, making but feeble effort, are subdued by the love of ease, and drop into the idle calm of indolence? But the friends of Coleridge may, and with much truth, declare that his life was not thrown away; that his labours were constant, and not
VOL. XVIII.-NO. 37. 1
inefficient; and that, if he has not attained to all the reputation he should have, the reason may be found rather in the character of the age, and its declining taste for works of such depth. And it is true, whether this be the real cause or not, that his writings are not familiarly known, and do not possess the celebrity which can make them generally useful, and entitle the author to all the respect and admiration he deserves from the world. We fear, that among those called literary, and which now form an immense body, his works are little read. The all-pervading, and all-consuming taste for light reading, has done much towards quenching the spirit of philosophy, and deterring those the most strongly possessing it from venturing an opposition to the prevailing inclination. Though no sticklers for the constant predominance of any particular talent, we still think it unfortunate, that that which is the most likely to be generally useful, should not possess the widest doininion. But, for several years, imagination has usurped an authority, and ruled with so easy a power, as to clearly display it to be the most in harmony with the feelings, and the best liked by the mass of men. By the side of war, anarchy, and revolution, it has secured its place, and kept pace with the march of armies, and downfall of states; sharing the elation of the victor, and triumphing in the desolation and despair of the conquered. As poets are generally claimed as liberals, and from the analogy of the same talent, we presume, too, their prose brethren, imagination, though in itself a despot, must have a strong disposition to produce republicanism. Without intending to be jocular, the serious meaning we wish to impress, is, that no prevailing taste among men should be neglected, scorned, or derided. We may, as opposed to the bias of our own inclination, regret that so much genius has been bestowed-we are tempted to say, wasted—on an inferior order in literature. Lest this remark should produce dispute or reproach, we will shelter ourselves beneath the opinion of Scott himself, who, as the first and greatest agitator in that department, has a right to be considered a judge of its value. It may be asked, would you wish, then, that the mind which creates so much pleasure and amusement--which, in its line, achieves greatness, and is perhaps only capable of great effort in that-should be dormant and idle? And this demand meets the point we were approaching—that all intellectual activity, its bold, free, untrammelled exertion, is a splendid sight, and of noble promise for the future. Whatever may be the character of its attempts, if they do not tend to the moral ruin of men, they are to be cherished and admired--for it is the enlargement of the province of intellect, it offers new realms for thought, and in the general diffusion gives new energy, and a deeper power, to all which can ennoble man. Feeling this to be true, we wish success to genius, whatever direction it may take. And there never was a period, in which the mental excitement of the world was so great, or when authors were so sure of an audience; no age can compare with this, in the quantity of its literature, or in the number of readers. Kindred spirits now meet and commune, and every thought and feeling is sure of a response throughout the space over which civilisation has extended-and how proud must be the writer, who, with this consciousness, settles to his labour, knowing, that, as his mind glows, its warmth is diffused through a thousand others; that in distant countries he has formed friendships liable to none of the change a personal acquaintance with its rivalry, or the base passions that sometimes embitter it, may produce, but which are based on a sympathy with his sentiments, a respect for his opinions, or some cause, free and disinterested, but awakened by the thrilling energy of the intellectual vibration. But, with this increased power of awakening interest, comes too, a fearful responsibility. Equally with the ease with which fame may be gathered, and the soul expand itself, may mischief spread. On the two principles of evil and good, repose the destinies of man; but much more now than heretofore, since the power of exerting both is multiplied.
With this view, it is clear with what anxious consideration a publication should be given to the world; and, however encouraging may be the prospects, however well founded or ardent the hopes of the future fortunes of mankind from the strength with which the best intellects exert themselves, and the ease with which they gain access to the bosoms of all, yet from this very condition come the most fearful doubts. Experience, and it is the only wisdom worth much at any time, shows that neither truth nor virtue is the object of the constant and continued pursuit of men ; that the morbid craving of a bad ambition will often recklessly attempt the complete subversion of every principle of good; that the desire of power, and the pride of its exertion, will make men regardless of ruin; and that in proportion as the well-disposed rouse themselves to the defence of that they honour, the spirit of defiance increases in their antagonists. This open collision is better than secret war; and it is a conflict in which politics and philosophy, literature and religion, should engage; each with the design of never unsettling without replacing, but with the yet safer and more lasting purpose of fixing principles.
This was the great aim of Coleridge's life. Living removed from the sphere of active exertion, and the scenes of real life, altogether undisturbed by the tempestuous excitement of the passions storming near him, with no interests at stake save
those belonging to the general welfare of his country, he devoted himself to that best usefulness of the patriot--the moral instruction and culture of his fellow citizens. He was the Plato of his time; but, with less worldly shrewdness than the old philosophers seemed to have found necessary to smooth the path of their opinions. He could not descend to be a popular writer, nor display common thoughts in the charm and glare of uncommon language; or become superficial, for the purpose of pleasing; or bring from the mines of deep thought, all its ore ready polished for use. The world have, of course, the right to distinguish those who make themselves the most agreeable; who, like courtiers, have an elegant manner and a judicious tact for the wily execution of their designs; but they have, at the same time, no right to condemn, as they often do, those who, with less plausibility, but more uprightness, with less judgment, but more honesty, exert their whole power in the cause of human improvement. Would that this remark was a calumny, and that the boasted attainments, and universally diffused knowledge of men, might break its force. Would that these were real existences, instead of subjects of fond ex. pectation, and interested panegyric. The world has, for a long time, been holding a strong conflict between experience and hope. The wisest men have uttered their predictions and warnings, and found them return, in the hollow mocking of contempt; the best spirits have thrown themselves into the breach, in defence of systems to which they were attached, and found all their efforts withered by some superior power. Events have gone their course, overcoming all restraint, trampling down all impediment. Their rapid and powerful progress has amazed all; those most sanguine for the future have looked on with a feeling of confusion mingled with pleasure; the most desponding have only gathered still more despair, and dread, and doubt; those who were fixed in their admiration and affection for the present state of things, though awed by the quick succession of wonder-teeming events, perplexed by the uncertainty of their direction, and harrowed by the danger that seemed to impend, have, according to their character, either surrendered the struggle, or been confirmed in the ardour of their opposition, and increased their efforts.
Such was the state of the world's moral health-and whoever undertook to make it better, must have felt the obstacles he was to contend with, and the hazard of failure. And it was at a time during the strongest ferment of the most agitated era the world has known, that Coleridge edited the Morning Post. No situation could have heen more badly chosen, no mind worse calculated for its duties, than his. With thoughts little practised in realities, and ever indistinct to others, if not