Hartley Coleridge Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hartley Coleridge 1796-1849

English poet, essayist, and critic.

Hartley Coleridge's literary reputation rests principally on one volume of poems and a set of author biographies titled Biographia Borealis; or, Lives of Distinguished Northerns (1833). The volume of poetry, titled Poems: 1833, is lauded mostly for Coleridge's sonnets, a form at which the author excelled. The brevity of the sonnet form made it a particularly attractive genre for Coleridge, and contemporaries of the poet reported that they had witnessed him write one in a matter of minutes. Expected to be a genius from an early age, Hartley Coleridge, the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was extremely aware that he had fallen short of the literary greatness expected of him, and this deprecatory self-awareness became a common theme in his poetry. The younger Coleridge recognized the failings as his own, though, and openly acknowledged the debt he owed to his father as well as to his father's associates—William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. Hartley Coleridge once remarked in a letter that “If aught of mine be preserved from oblivion, it will be owing to my bearing the name of Coleridge, and having enjoyed … the acquaintance of Southey and Wordsworth.” Although he never achieved the literary greatness of his mentors, Hartley Coleridge's writing style and his focus on the themes of life and love place him squarely within the tradition of later Romantic poets.

Biographical Information

Hartley Coleridge was born in Bristol, England, on September 19, 1796 to Samuel Taylor and Sara Coleridge, and was surrounded by the literary greats of the Romantic era from early in his childhood. His mother's sister was married to the poet Robert Southey who, along with William Wordsworth, served as the Coleridge family guardians for many years. In fact, it was Wordsworth who taught the young Hartley the techniques of poetry, and it is to Wordsworth's work that Hartley's poetry is most often compared. The child Hartley was featured in many of his father's poems, most notably “Frost at Midnight,” in which the elder Coleridge declared that he would protect his son from the debilitating influences of city life and let him “wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores. …” The young Coleridge also appeared in numerous Wordsworthian poems, including “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Both poets perceived Hartley as a boy genius who would grow up, unspoiled by city life, to be a successful poet and academic.

A child with a vivid imagination, the young Coleridge seemed to be well on his way to fulfilling the prophecies of his father and mentor when, upon learning of the history of the royal families of England, he created for himself the mythical world of Ejuxria. His parents and all those around him perceived his imagination and strong intellect as evidence of his genius. In accordance with his father's beliefs, Hartley's early education was irregular, and he was left to wander and dream and ponder over the books in his father's study. When he was about eight, Hartley began attending a local school (Ambleside) with his younger brother Derwent. There Hartley remained, frequently seen roaming the countryside in what his brother termed “uncontrolled fits of poetic fancy,” until 1815 when, with the assistance of Wordsworth and Southey, he gained admission to Merton College at Oxford. It is obvious from his letters and other papers that the young Coleridge was apprehensive about his reception at college. Having been nurtured all his life with notions of poetic greatness, it is possible that he was unsure of his ability to fulfill this promise. It was as an undergraduate at Oxford that Hartley first showed signs of the alcoholism that would plague him the rest of his life. A frequent and popular attendee of Oxford “wine parties,” he would discourse on a wide variety of subjects at these gatherings.

Hartley Coleridge began writing poetry while at Oxford, thrice competing for the coveted Newdigate, the undergraduate prize for English verse. Included in this set is “The Horses of Lysippus,” and while these early poems were considered fine examples of technique, detail, and observation, Coleridge's failure to win the Newdigate was a huge disappointment to him. He completed his studies at Merton in 1819, taking a second class degree from Oxford. He was then elected to the coveted position of probationary fellow at Oriel College, and a life of academic study and literary activity seemed assured. It soon became clear, though, that this was not to be—Coleridge continued to spend an enormous amount of time in the company of undergraduate students instead of his fellow scholars and often appeared in the Common room at Oriel inebriated. Because of this and other incidents, Coleridge was expelled from Oriel in 1820. His expulsion had a profound affect on him, and he would later blame many of his other failures on this incident. Following his expulsion from Oriel, Coleridge spent a few years in London, trying to support himself by placing poems and essays in magazines. The work was not enough to support him completely, but a letter written to his brother Derwent during this period reveals that it was around this time that Hartley began thinking seriously about poetry. He declared that “I certainly succeed better in intricate and difficult than in the plainer and simpler textures. The sonnet is my favorite.” Although he continued to publish some short poems, some of which appeared in London Magazine during the 1820s, it would not be until 1833 that Coleridge would publish an actual volume of poetry.

Since his literary pursuits in London did not provide an adequate means of financial support, in 1823 his father arranged a teaching position for Hartley at Ambleside. Critics contend that it was during his years as a schoolmaster that the younger Coleridge finally developed into a competent, though minor poet of his generation. An example of his work during this time is “The Anemone,” a poem that displays his poetic style as well as the themes that would run through all his work. The poem describes the anemone flower, exploring its frailty and smallness. This linking of weakness and size with fear and shame are characteristic themes of Coleridge's work. In 1827 the school at Ambleside closed, leaving Coleridge free to concentrate on his writing again. Publishing success, however, did not happen again until 1832 when the publisher F. E. Bingley of Leeds, with whom Coleridge had been negotiating the publication of his book of poems, asked him to prepare a series of biographies of the “northern worthies.” The offer was lucrative because it provided Coleridge with a means to support himself financially; he subsequently moved to Leeds in 1832 to begin work on what would become the Biographia Borealis. The series would include biographies on such authors as Andrew Marvell, Richard Bentley, William Congreve, and Roger Ascham, among others. The three-part work was first published in 1832 and later collected into one volume in 1833, the same year that Coleridge also issued his Poems.

Although second volumes of both poetry and biographies were planned, Bingley's firm went bankrupt. Coleridge had found the writing dry and distasteful anyway, and the collapse of the firm coupled with his father's declining health led the younger Coleridge back to the Lake District. Except for a brief stint as a schoolmaster during the late 1830s, Coleridge would remain at the Lake District until his own death in 1849, spending his days writing, reading, and wandering the hills. His last published work was an edition of The Dramatic Works of Massinger and Ford (1840), and although he attempted to convince the publisher of this work to issue another volume of poems, he did not meet with success.

Major Works

Hartley Coleridge wrote numerous poems, essays, and letters during his lifetime, most of which appeared in periodicals and magazines of the time. The only collected works he published during his lifetime are his volume of poetry, titled Poems: 1833 and his series of biographies, titled Biographia Borealis.

The first part of Poems consists primarily of a series of thirty-four sonnets. The second part of the book is titled “Thoughts and Fancies” and reveals a change in mood and form, comprised mainly of lyric poetry, addresses to infants, greetings, and translations of other works. Critics have noted a recurring theme of irrecoverable worth, of spent genius, and of unfulfilled heritage in this and other works by Coleridge. According to critic Earl Leslie Griggs, many of the poems in this collection contain an overriding sense of the poet's own weaknesses and lack of consistency. There are also many verses in the collection that reflect the life around him—poems, says Griggs, that are “bubbling over with enthusiasm, and usually composed to celebrate some event important in the lives of country-folk. …” Coleridge himself was his own best critic and recognized his limitations—admitting in “Poites apoites”: “Not mine the skill in memorable phrase, / The hidden truths of passion to reveal, / To bring to light the intermingling ways, / By which unconscious motives darkling steal.”

Coleridge's last collected work was Essays and Marginalia, edited by his brother Derwent Coleridge and published, after Hartley's death, in 1851. The collection covers a wide variety of subjects and includes essays, memoirs, and commentaries, many of them originally written for Blackwood's Magazine. It is now believed that many of the works in this collection were primarily written to please himself and were not intended for publication. In reviewing this work Eleanor A. Towle remarks that the volume is almost like “Hartley has been thinking aloud and he has put down his thoughts upon paper.”

Critical Reception

Coleridge mostly wrote short poems and essays. His verses, though full of beauty, are often termed “detached jewels” due to their brevity and stylistic expertise. His most favored arrangement was the sonnet, and he mastered the technical difficulties of this form. Critics have also noted Hartley Coleridge's indebtedness to his literary masters and teachers Wordsworth and the elder Coleridge. Like their compositions, the younger Coleridge's poetry also explores nature and childhood. However, his focus is more simplistic and his writing is marked with a keen sense of his own failures. Despite this awareness his poetry does not convey any sense of bitterness toward his teachers, and in fact, the 1833 Poems contains many pieces addressed to his father and other poetic masters; in comparison to these giants, the younger Coleridge often found himself lacking in talent.

Like the Romantics, Coleridge was charmed by the novelty of everyday things, and Nature served as a symbol of the moral and spiritual world. Although his poems contain simple language and descriptions of ordinary events, like those of his mentor Wordsworth, Coleridge perceived these events as opportunities for the poet to meditate and interpret. The biggest difference between Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge is the latter's focus on the self. Coleridge also exhibited independence in his use of language and style, and critics have noted that his verse is marked by plays of fancy and humor that are not to be found in Wordsworth's poetry. An example of this type of wordplay is contained in “Address to Certain Gold Fishes,” a poem that is lauded as both humorous and reflective. Critics commend this and other poems by Coleridge for their spontaneity, noting the contrast in such lines as “Harmless warriors, clad in mail / Of silver breastplate, golden scale;—” and then “And yet, since on this hapless earth / There’s small sincerity of mirth, / And laughter oft is but the art / To drown the outcry of the heart.”

As a poet, Hartley Coleridge is most often remembered for his sonnets. Such was his mastery of this difficult form that Samuel Waddington, a contemporary critic, termed him “after Shakespeare our sweetest English sonneteer.” Coleridge wrote mostly in the Petrarchan form, a less stylized version than the Shakespearean sonnet that harmonized more fittingly with the simpler spirit of Romantic poetry. Coleridge took liberties even with this form, and Griggs notes that although Coleridge fulfilled the technical requirements for the most part, very often the primary idea in his sonnets runs beyond the required eighth line. A vast majority of Coleridge's other verse is considered standard Romantic fare by many critics. Characterizing his poems as “meditative records of very ordinary incidents,” Towle says that like his mentors, Hartley focused on pastoral and individual themes, with Nature as his consoler, bringing peace and healing. Critics, however, have remarked on the spontaneity of Hartley Coleridge's verse in contrast to Wordsworth's poetry, and the former's almost unconscious mastery of the technical forms he used. While many of his poems were left incomplete, the ones that were finished, Griggs calls “nearly faultless. Like delicately cut diamonds, they glisten in the sunshine, paradisiacal emblems of the poet's divine soul.” Also in contrast to the work of the other Romantics, Hartley Coleridge's poetry was personal. According to Sister Mary Joseph Pomeroy, his work was almost lyrical, “dealing with the joys, sorrows, hopes, and disappointments of the life he knew; all have a subjective note, and many of them are definite portraits of self.”

Coleridge's most noted prose work is the Biographia Borealis. The nature of this type of writing was unfamiliar to Coleridge, who mostly wrote poetry in sudden fits of imagination. The structure and restraint imposed by the essay differed from poetry, but Towle notes that Coleridge mostly succeeded in his venture in the interest of “just judgments and historical accuracy.” He wanted to present true and realistic pictures of his subjects, hoping to serve both as biographer and historian, and while he often deviated into a discourse on the art of poetry or some other literary definition, Towle calls this collection “the strongest example of a periodic fit of industry.” While both Towle and Griggs characterize Biographia Borealis as something that does not “greatly contribute to Hartley's literary reputation” (in Towle's words), both agree that Coleridge created complete and interesting accounts of his subjects.

Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wordsworth expected Hartley Coleridge to be a superlative poet. Born at the peak of the Romantic movement and nurtured and taught by its masters, the younger Coleridge, however, did not begin writing until the Victorian era was at hand. By the time he began writing, “political upheaval … and changing economic standards had deafened the national ear to strains of the muse,” says Herbert Hartman. Sentimentalism was the theme of the oncoming Industrial age, with Sir Walter Scott's novels surpassing Lord Byron's epics. Hartley Coleridge himself recognized this change in the national rhythms, admitting himself to be “a petty man of rhyme, / Nursed in the softness of a female time.”