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Dryden and Alexander Pope, Goldsmith, Gray, Crabbe, and Thomson are little more than names to the most of the generation that has just entered upon its inheritance. Perhaps, if the truth be told, the present-day reading public cannot keep pace with[Pg 8] its ever-growing task, and satisfies its conscience by paying to the worthy dead the sacrifice of a small expenditure. In the old time it was hard to gather a modest library, to-day the difficulty lies in selection. The best efforts of a thousand years clamour for a place on our shelves, the material for reading has been multiplied, the capacity for reading remains where it was, if indeed the wonderful growth of claims upon our attention, the quickening of the pace of life, has not reduced our leisure time at the expense of books. Little wonder, then, that in the struggle for a sustained reputation many sound writers fail to hold their own. It is only when we choose one of the poets just named for a course of steady reading and turn to his pages with some knowledge of the life and times which gave them birth, that the dead man becomes a living force, and we find how far his claim to recognition lies outside the scope of a mere convention. Even then the inequalities of thought and style will be painfully apparent. We shall read much that would not have been preserved had the poet written in an age when self-criticism was as strong a force as it is to-day, but there will be no waste of labour if the full extent of his gifts as well as his limitations can be grasped. It is not safe to accept the “selected works” of any man of mark; a selection can never be quite fair to an author.
Of all the men whose work was completed between the middle of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there are few, if any, whose life is of more interest to the psychologist, the student of transcendentalism,[Pg 9] and the lover of fine thought, than that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the subject of this brief study. He was compact of remarkable strength and fatal weakness, of rare attainments and incomplete achievement, of courage and cowardice, of energy and laziness, of reason and unreason, of airy wit and solid wisdom. Look upon one side of his life and accomplishment and you are lost in wonder and admiration, look upon the other and there is food for little but pity and regret. Modern teaching has revealed the narrowness of the boundary between genius and insanity, and, in the light of this knowledge, we see that Coleridge was neither wholly a genius nor wholly sane, though he approached either condition very nearly at different periods of his troubled life. We would hesitate to-day to condemn him with the severity and fluency shown by his contemporaries—by Thomas de Quincey and William Hazlitt, for example. Perhaps the first thought to which a study of his life and work gives birth is the nearest to the truth, the thought that he was singularly unfitted to cope with life as he found it, that he was essentially a man of thought rather than of action. He was never strong enough to bear the thousand ills that writing man is heir to. He lacked courage, method, order; one might add that he lacked diligence, but for the knowledge that no man can move in advance of his inspiration if he would be just to himself. Even though his pen was idle his brain was ever active; his failure lay in lack of will-power to do full justice to its activity.
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