Essay / On This Day

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Talker

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose birthday is today (October 21, in 1772), is remembered today as the poet who left us the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the strange fragment Kubla Khan. But in his own time he made waves as an amateur theologian. And as he remarked to a friend, his reputation was different on different continents: “I am a poor poet in England, but I am a great philosopher in America.”

In an age and a nation that had settled down into the kind of Christianity that could be taken for granted and politely ignored, Coleridge brought a manic energy and freedom to thinking about the Christian faith. Having started with the religious opinions of a Unitarian and a socialist, he returned from a year in Germany to become a trinitarian Anglican who took Burke seriously. But even as he moved from the radical left to a position on the right, Coleridge was never anybody’s conservative. You could never tell what he would say or write.

Evidences of Christianity! I am weary of the word. Make a man feel the want of it; rouse him, if you can, to the self-knowledge of his need of it; and you may safely trust it to its own evidence.

And above all, Coleridge could talk. He rarely finished anything he started; he was always sketching out plans for grand designs that he never followed through with. He wrote such brilliant notes in the borders of books, that his Marginalia have been published. And if anyone came to visit him, he preferred telling them all about his plans rather than carrying them out. People did come to visit him, because he was apparently a spellbinding speaker.

Thomas Carlyle, after the spell wore off, said this about Coleridge’s speaking ability:

I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers. He began anywhere, and nothing could be more copious than his talk. He suffered no interruption, however reverent; hastily putting aside all foreign additions, annotations, or most ingenuous desires for elucidation, as well meant superfluities which would never do. He had knowledge about many things and topics, much curious reading; but, generally, all topics led him, after a pass or two, into the high seas of theosophic philosophy, the hazy infinitude of Kantean transcendentalism. Besides, it was talk not flowing anywhither like a river, but spreading everywhither in inextricable currents and regurgitations like a lake or sea; terribly deficient in definite goal or aim, nay, often in logical intelligibility; what you were to believe or do, on any earthly or heavenly thing, obstinately refusing to appear from it. So that, most times, you felt logically lost; swamped near to drowning in this tide of ingenious vocables, spreading out boundless as if to submerge the world.

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