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Happy 221st Birthday Hartley Coleridge. A life burdened by too much expectation?

September 19, 2016
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Some people peak too soon.   It was David Hartley Coleridge’s fate when just a babe in arms, to inspire this poem…
FROST AT MIDNIGHT.

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
                      But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
         Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s body of readable poetic work is remarkably slim.  You can read all the S.T. Coleridge poems that are worth reading in an afternoon (the prose is quite another matter, oh dear me yes).  “Frost at Midnight” is as good as a Coleridge poem gets.  Perhaps it’s as good as any poem gets.

Coleridge always felt a sense of constructive “Nature” envy compared to his pal Wordsworth.  While William had roamed the Lake District as a kid, little Sam had suffered the perceptual privations of an urban upbringing.   But ah, little Hartley will have every Romantic advantage.  Little Hartley will have the most sublime natural impressions with which to associate from his earliest years.  The dazzling vistas of parental expectation are exciting and terrifying in equal measure.

David Hartley Coleridge was named after Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s favourite eighteenth-century associationist philosopher.  The original Dave Hartley was a Lockean who thought of idea formation in terms of vibrations – it was a subtle and fibrous philosophy which treated ways and means whereby everything is connected to every other thing.

Ah, too much pressure.  Little Hartley Coleridge grew up to be a rather nicer and less demanding person than his dad, a boozer rather than a druggie.  And he wrote some rather nice sonnets – something Sam Coleridge never did – sonnets which owe something to Wordsworth and remind me a bit of Keats on a bad day.  In terms of congested curricula, there’s no very overwhelming case for suggesting to students that they read the sonnets of Hartley Coleridge rather than those of Wordsworth or Keats.

But here is my favourite Hartley Coleridge sonnet, I think…

What was’t awakened first the untried ear
Of that sole man who was all human kind?
Was it the gladsome welcome of the wind,
Stirring the leaves that never yet were sere?
The four mellifluous streams which flowed so near,
Their lulling murmurs all in one combined?
The note of bird unnamed? The startled hind
Bursting the brake, in wonder, not in fear,
Of her new lord? Or did the holy ground
Send forth mysterious melody to greet
The gracious pressure of immaculate feet?
Did viewless seraphs rustle all around
Making sweet music out of air as sweet?
Or his own voice awake him with its sound?

This sonnet is almost perfect in terms of its mixture of concrete imagery and abstracted invocation.  The alliterative self congratulation of “welcome of the wind” cloys a bit and the “mysterious melody” feels a bit shopworn, but it’s an effective Edenic race memory.

The sonnet is about dawn of life, and it recollects “Frost of Midnight” which is also about dawn of life.  This sonnet is, perhaps,  about its author’s own immortality as a poem rather than a poet.  It was of course Keats who suggested that unheard melodies are sweeter than those heard, and perhaps lives unlived are more inspiring than those lived.  No real life could ever match the extrapolation of life that was imagined for Hartley by his own dad.  And rather than regret the comparative “disappointment” of Hartley Coleridge, we need to return to “Frost and Midnight” and luxuriate in the original extrapolation.

Some people will go to their graves, preserved for ever as wide eyed children in the crude iconography of public fame (Macaulay Culkin; Mark Lester), and their obituaries will be illustrated accordingly.  Hartley Coleridge, 221 years old today is preserved as a baby not a child, a baby, shaped, formed, and  inspired by the morphology of filmy distortions in a fireplace.

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