Gambar halaman
PDF
ePub

swam the river in his clothes. The clothes were allowed to dry on his back, with the inevitable consequences to his health. Jaundice and rheumatic fever kept him fully half the time from seventeen to eighteen years of

age

in the sick-ward, and it is possible that chronic effects, attended by a far graver tragedy, ensued. One day in the street, wholly self-absorbed, alone among crowds, deaf to the turmoil about him, he fancied himself Leander swimming the Hellespont, and thrust out his arms while buffeting the waves. In doing so, he unwittingly tugged at the coat-tails of a gentleman, who at first supposed that the boy was a clumsy young thief with designs upon his pocket. On learning the truth the gentleman was so well disposed to encourage Coleridge's taste for reading that he paid his subscription to a circulating library in Cheapside. This was a high privilege to the lonely lad. He read voraciously, devouring literature, it is said, at the rate of two volumes a day.

It was natural that poetry should not be his sole intellectual food. He read Voltaire and blossomed into an atheist. When the master of Christ's Hospital refused to countenance the project of apprenticing Coleridge to a shoemaker, he advanced the plan of sending him to the University as the first step towards Holy Orders. But Coleridge declined to become a clergyman, and in answer to an inquiry as to his reasons for objecting, he boldly announced himself as an infidel. The master was the Rev. James Bowyer, a very sensible, but a very severe man, who believed in the efficacy of the birch, and had the courage of his convictions. “So, sirrah, you are an infidel are you?” he said; “then I'll flog your

infidelity out of you!” And without more ado he proceeded to exterminate Voltaire by force of a flogging, which Coleridge feelingly described as sound if not salutary. The study of theology gave way to a rage for metaphysics, occasioned in the first instance by the essays on Liberty and Necessity in Cato's "Letters." “Even before my fifteenth year,” he says, alluding to the period of the shoemaking project, “I had bewildered myself in metaphysics. Nothing else pleased me. History . . . lost all interest in my mind. Poetry itself, yea, novels and romances, became insipid to me.” In his friendless wanderings through London on leave-days he was delighted if any passenger, "especially if he were dressed in black,” would enter into conversation with him. Then he would soon find the means of directing the talk to his favourite subjects. The craze for metaphysics lasted some two or three years, and then left "a blessed interval" of some twelve years. When no longer tortured by abstruse researches, his natural faculty, his imagination, was allowed to expand, and his natural tendency, his love of nature and the sense of beauty, to develop itself without restraint.

The severe teacher who flogged him out of his infidelity ridiculed him out of false taste in poetry. In the English compositions of his pupils, the Rev. Mr. Bowyer showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by sound sense. “Harp? harp? lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, muse? Your nurse's daughter you mean! Pierian springs? Oh aye, the cloister-pump, I suppose !” The sense of obligation to this master seems never to have grown dim in Cole

ridge's mind; but the sense of his severities appears to have been no less vivid. Long afterwards the painful sensations of his rigid rule had left impressions that were deep enough to give his pupil many a distempered sleep furnished by dreams of the stern days of boyhood. It shows the nature of Coleridge's feelings towards the master of Christ's Hospital, that, when Bowyer died, as late as 1814, Charles Lamb wrote: "Old Jimmy Bowyer dead at last. Lay thy animosity against Jimmy in the grave. Do not entail it on posterity.” Among other intellectual obligations which Coleridge lay under to his master must certainly be counted that of preparing him for the appreciation of poetry that was both natural and full of nature. To such poetry his mind had, as we have seen, a congenial tendency. His passion for romance was deep, but his love of simple nature was even deeper. The boy who lay on the leaded roof of the schoolhouse to gaze at the clouds and dream of the beauty of Ottery St. Mary, was hardly likely to be content with that school of French poetry, condensed and invigorated by English understanding,” in which the highest merit was “just and acute observations on men and manners in an artificial state of society . . . conveyed in smooth and strong epigrammatic couplets." Mr. Bowyer favoured the natural tendency toward nature, and then a more potent influence finally determined it. In 1789, when Coleridge was eighteen, a little pamphlet of fourteen sonnets was published by William Lisle Bowles. The booklet was sent to Coleridge by his old schoolfellow, Middleton, then at Cambridge. It came to him as a revelation of real, dignified and harmonious poetry. He

was not then acquainted with what Cowper had done in the same direction, and it is possible that Burns's transcripts from nature were equally unknown to him. Recognizing in Bowles's poetry rebellion against established canons of poetry, he laboured to make proselytes to the improved taste and judgment, of all with whom he conversed. Too poor to purchase copies of the pamphlet, he made within a year no fewer than forty manuscript transcripts, as the best presents he could offer to those who had won his regard. When he came to write his literary life a quarter of a century later, he adopted a somewhat apologetic tone as to this boyish enthusiasm. The reader,” he says, “must make himself acquainted with the general style of composition that was at that time deemed poetry, in order to understand and account for the effect produced upon me by the sonnets, 'The Monody at Matlock 'and the 'Hope' of Mr. Bowles; for it is peculiar to original genius to become less and less striking, in proportion to its success in improving the taste and judgment of its contemporaries.” The apology is unnecessary. Bowles was not a great poet, but he was a true one. The young poet at Christ's Hospital recognized the genuine note when he heard it, though the voice that sounded it was the reverse of strong or of good compass. By and by another voice of higher quality sounded the same harmonious note, and then Coleridge was justified of his enthusiasm.

The "blessed interval” produced fruit after its kind, and Coleridge wrote poetry. Some of it was whimsical, such as the song of “The Nose;" some of it very

sentimental, such as “Genevieve ” and the “First Advent of

Love;" some of it purely scholastic, such as the two translations from Catullus; none of it was of the smallest consequence.

Probably much of his early verse has deservedly perished. Coleridge remained at Christ's Hospital until the autumn of 1790, having lived there a little more than eight years, and being then almost eighteen years of age. His friend Lamb, though three years his junior, was already a year gone from school, and was now a clerk in the South Sea House. Coleridge's personal appearance as a schoolboy has been repeatedly described. In one account he is presented as “tall and striking, and with long black hair ;” in another account we see him as he appeared in play hours walking to and fro with a book in hand, or sitting on a doorstep, his breeches unbuttoned at the knees, and his shoes down at the heels. It is hardly conceivable that he was a comely lad. Flabby cheeks and heavy lips would sufficiently disturb the effect of large and beautiful eyes, and a winning smile. There is a tradition that Bowyer sometimes gave him an extra stripe of the birch "because he was so ugly.” The one vital portrait which we possess is by Lamb, and, familiar as it is, must be quoted here: “Come back into memory, like as thou wert in the dayspring of thy fancies, with hope like a fiery column before thee—the dark pillar not yet turned-Samuel Taylor Coleridge-Logician, Metaphysician, Bard !-How have I seen the casual passer through the cloisters stand still, entranced with admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula) to hear thee unfold in thy deep and sweet intonations, the mysteries of Jamblichus, or Plotinus (for

« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »