The Monthly Magazine 48 (1 October 1819): 203-205.
To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine.
I have not till very lately had an opportunity of reading the "Biographia Literaria, or a Biographical Sketch of my Literary Life and Opinions, by S. T. Coleridge, esq." 2 vols. 8vo. 1817; and I am now obliged to confess my surprise and disappointment at the nature of the contents of these volumes. I took them up, in the expectation that they did really contain a sketch of Mr. Coleridge's literary life and opinions; and that, from the year 1794, — at which period the public, as well as myself, became acquainted with that gentleman, — I should be enabled, by this learned Grecian and auto-biographer, to obtain a true and particular account of all his literary projects and proceedings; his first meeting, and subsequent pursuits, in conjunction with Mr. Southey; his residence near Bristol, in the summer of 1795, with Mr. George Burnett; and a variety of et caetera, which no one, if he chose, could tell us better, and few as well, from that period to the year 1817. Instead of which, — except a defense of Mr. Wordsworth's poetry, and of his brother-in-law Mr. Southey, whose praises, by the way, would be more in character if rung by any one else, — I cannot conceive what could prompt Mr. Coleridge to have written such a farrago. If Mr. Coleridge thinks to instruct us by these obscure dissertations, he is strangely mistaken; for he ought to know, as far as concerns the public, that what is not easy to be understood, how valuable soever it may be, they will not give themselves the trouble to understand: and, if he has written to display his own affected profundity, at forty-five years of age or more, I can only say that I most sincerely feel for and pity him.
We all know that a comet has appeared in the northern part of the heavens during the present month, and that everybody, young and old, has been nightly staring at this extraordinary stranger; although it is utterly impossible to obtain a knowledge either of its uses, its qualities, or its ultimate destination, or whether, when once it recedes from our sight, we shall ever behold it again; whilst I will venture to say, that the beautiful planet Venus, or the majestic Jupiter, scarcely attracts a glance; although we have every reason to believe that they are both inhabited worlds, and although we know that they both perform their revolutions round the sun, and on their own axes, with the greatest regularity. Just so with Mr. Coleridge: he appeared in 1794-5 like a comet or meteor in our horizon, and has continued, with occasional obscurations, to attract the notice of the inhabitants of the earth, more or less, ever since, by the flaming nature of his pretensions, his ever-varying light, and his eccentricities of orbit, leaving us still unable to calculate either his annual or diurnal rotation; and, in fact, leaving us in complete ignorance as to what uses his long and flickering flame may, or ever can, be put.
I am one who, in the years 1794 and 1795, knew Mr. Coleridge well; and therefore, as I find him somewhat forgetful relative to his own opinions about that period, I will take leave to set his memory right in one or two particulars, which he has unfortunately omitted. Speaking of those who knew him about the period to which he alludes, viz. about the years 1794, 5, and 6, he says, "they will bear witness for me, how opposite, even then, my principles were to those of jacobinism, or even democracy." I, sir, for one, can bear him no such witness; for, on the contrary, I very well remember what his sentiments were, at the time that he, Southey, Lovell, Burnett, and some others, talked of going to America, and there founding a system of Pantisocracy; and I can very well remember, that they were, both by word and writing, positively and decidedly democratic. I can very well remember, — for I was an auditor at a lecture, the first which he gave in Bristol, in a room over the corn-market, in the beginning of the year 1795, at which Southey and Lovell were also present, — that Mr. C. talked of "preparing the way for a revolution in this country, bloodless as Poland's, but not like her's, to be assassinated by the foul hands of ——." This, sir, Mr. Coleridge said, — this I heard him say. So much for his not being a favourer of a revolution in 1795.
Mr. C. goes on, at page 177 of vol. i. to say, "conscientiously an opponent of the first revolutionary war, yet with my eyes thoroughly opened to the true character and impotence of the favourers of revolutionary principles in England, — principles which I held in abhorrence." Indeed! and so, with such an abhorrence, in the autumn of 1794, he, in conjunction with Mr. Southey, wrote the "Fall of Robespierre," — which was brought down to Bristol from Cambridge almost wet from the press, and which obtained some circulation and credit for him amongst the hot-headed and youthful democrats of Bristol, amongst whom, I am not, like Mr. Coleridge, ashamed to say, that I was one.
In his "Biographia Literaria" he says, page 178, "whatever my opinions might be in themselves, they were almost equidistant from all the three prominent parties, — the Pittites, the Foxites, and the Democrats." That they were not in accordance with Mr. Pitt's party, he has taken care, in his sonnet on that statesman, to tell us in unequivocal terms; that they were not in exact accordance with Mr. Fox's, I have reason to know, from a philippic I once heard Mr. C. utter against that statesman; but that his opinions were not in accordance with the broad principles of democracy, I have yet to learn. If ever a democrat existed, Mr. Coleridge was one at the period of which I am now writing.
Park-street, Grosvenor Square;
July 20, 1819. Q.