Political Essays (1819)/Mr. Coleridge's Lay Sermon (1816)
A Lay-Sermon on the Distresses of the Country, addressed to the Middle and Higher Orders. By S. T. Coleridge, Esq. Printed for Gale and Fenner, price 1s.
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not."
"Or in Franciscan think to pass disguis'd."
Sept. 8, 1816.
This Lay-Sermon puts us in mind of Mahomet's coffin, which was suspended between heaven and earth, or of the flying island at Laputa, which hovered over the head of Gulliver. The ingenious author, in a preface, which is a master-piece in its kind, having neither beginning, middle, nor end, apologizes for having published a work, not a line of which is written, or ever likely to be written. He has, it seems, resorted to this expedient as the only way of appearing before the public in a manner worthy of himself and his genius, and descants on the several advantages to be derived from this original mode of composition;—That as long as he does not put pen to paper, the first sentence cannot contradict the second; that neither his reasonings nor his conclusions can be liable to objection, in the abstract; that omne ignotum pro magnifico est, is an axiom laid down by some of the best and wisest men of antiquity; that hitherto his performance, in the opinion of his readers, has fallen short of the vastness of his designs, but that no one can find fault with what he does not write; that while he merely haunts the public imagination with obscure noises, or by announcing his spiritual appearance for the next week, and does not venture out in propria persona with his shroud and surplice on, the Cock-lane Ghost of mid-day, he may escape in a whole skin without being handled by the mob, or uncased by the critics; and he considers it the safest way to keep up the importance of his oracular communications, by letting them remain a profound secret both to himself and the world.
In this instance, we think the writer's modesty has led him into a degree of unnecessary precaution. We see no sort of difference between his published and his unpublished compositions. It is just as impossible to get at the meaning of the one as the other. No man ever yet gave Mr. Coleridge "a penny for his thoughts." His are all maiden ideas; immaculate conceptions. He is the "Secret Tattle" of the press. Each several work exists only in the imagination of the author, and is quite inaccessible to the understandings of his readers—"Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove."—We can give just as good a guess at the design of this Lay-Sermon, which is not published, as of the Friend, the Preliminary Articles in the Courier, the Watchman, the Conciones ad Populum, or any of the other courtly or popular publications of the same author. Let the experiment be tried, and if, on committing the manuscript to the press, the author is caught in the fact of a single intelligible passage, we will be answerable for Mr. Coleridge's loss of character. But we know the force of his genius too well. What is his Friend itself but an enormous title-page; the longest and most tiresome prospectus that ever was written; an endless preface to an imaginary work; a table of contents that fills the whole volume; a huge bill of fare of all possible subjects, with not an idea to be had for love or money? One number consists of a grave-faced promise to perform something impossible in the next; and the next is taken up with a long-faced apology for not having done it. Through the whole of this work, Mr. Coleridge appears in the character of the Unborn Doctor; the very Barmecide of knowledge; the Prince of preparatory authors!
"He never is—but always to be wise."
He is the Dog in the Manger of literature, an intellectual Mar-Plot, who will neither let any body else come to a conclusion, nor come to one himself. This gentleman belongs to the class of eclectic philosophers; but whereas they professed to examine different systems, in order to select what was good in each, our perverse critic ransacks all past or present theories, to pick out their absurdities, and to abuse whatever is good in them. He takes his notions of religion from the "sublime piety" of Jordano Bruno, and considers a belief in a God as a very subordinate question to the worship of the Three Persons of the Trinity. The thirty-nine articles and St. Athanasius's creed are, upon the same principle, much more fundamental parts of the Christian religion than the miracles or gospel of Christ. He makes the essence of devotion to consist in Atheism, the perfection of morality in a total disregard of consequences. He refers the great excellence of the British Constitution to the prerogative of the Crown, and conceives that the old French Constitution must have been admirably defended by the States-General, which never met, from the abuses of arbitrary power. He highly approves of ex-officio informations and special juries, as the great bulwarks of the liberty of the press; taxes he holds to be a providential relief to the distresses of the people, and war to be a state of greater security than peace. He defines Jacobinism to be an abstract attachment to liberty, truth, and justice; and finding that this principle has been abused or carried to excess, he argues that Anti-jacobinism, or the abstract principles of despotism, superstition, and oppression, are the safe, sure, and undeniable remedy for the former, and the only means of restoring liberty, truth, and justice in the world. Again, he places the seat of truth in the heart, of virtue in the head; damns a tragedy as shocking that draws tears from the audience, and pronounces a comedy to be inimitable, if nobody laughs at it; labours to unsettle the plainest things by far-fetched sophistry, and makes up for the want of proof in matters of fact by the mechanical operations of the spirit. He judges of men as he does of things. He would persuade you that Sir Isaac Newton was a money-scrivener, Voltaire dull, Bonaparte a poor creature, and the late Mr. Howard a misanthrope; while he pays a willing homage to the Illustrious Obscure, of whom he always carries a list in his pocket. His creed is formed not from a distrust and disavowal of the exploded errors of other systems, but from a determined rejection of their acknowledged excellences. It is a transposition of reason and common sense. He adopts all the vulnerable points of belief as the triumphs of his fastidious philosophy, and holds a general retainer for the defence of all contradictions in terms and impossibilities in practice. He is at cross-purposes with himself as well as others, and discards his own caprices if ever he suspects there is the least ground for them. Doubt succeeds to doubt, cloud rolls over cloud, one paradox is driven out by another still greater, in endless succession. He is equally averse to the prejudices of the vulgar, the paradoxes of the learned, or the habitual convictions of his own mind. He moves in an unaccountable diagonal between truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense, sophistry and common-place, and only assents to any opinion when he knows that all the reasons are against it. A matter of fact is abhorrent to his nature: the very air of truth repels him. He is only saved from the extremities of absurdity by combining them all in his own person. Two things are indispensable to him—to set out from no premises, and to arrive at no conclusion. The consciousness of a single certainty would be an insupportable weight upon his mind. He slides out of a logical deduction by the help of metaphysics: and if the labyrinths of metaphysics did not afford him "ample scope and verge enough," he would resort to necromancy and the cabbala. He only tolerates the science of astronomy for the sake of its connection with the dreams of judicial astrology, and escapes from the Principia of Newton to the jargon of Lily and Ashmole. All his notions are floating and unfixed, like what is feigned of the first forms of things flying about in search of bodies to attach themselves to; but his ideas seek to avoid all contact with solid substances. Innumerable evanescent thoughts dance before him, and dazzle his sight, like insects in the evening sun. Truth is to him a ceaseless round of contradictions: he lives in the belief of a perpetual lie, and in affecting to think what he pretends to say. His mind is in a constant estate of flux and reflux: he is like the Sea-horse in the Ocean; he is the Man in the Moon, the Wandering Jew.—The reason of all this is, that Mr. Coleridge has great powers of thought and fancy, without will or sense. He is without a strong feeling of the existence of any thing out of himself; and he has neither purposes nor passions of his own to make him wish it to be. All that he does or thinks is involuntary; even his perversity and self-will are so. They are nothing but a necessity of yielding to the slightest motive. Everlasting inconsequentiality marks all that he attempts. All his impulses are loose, airy, devious, casual. The strongest of his purposes is lighter than the gossamer, "that wantons in the idle summer-air:" the brightest of his schemes a bubble blown by an infant's breath, that rises, glitters, bursts in the same instant:—
"Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can mark their place:
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white, then gone for ever."
His mind has infinite activity, which only leads him into numberless chimeras; and infinite resources, which not being under the guidance of his will, only distract and perplex him. His genius has angel's wings; but neither hands nor feet. He soars up to heaven, circles the empyrean, or dives to the centre of the earth, but he neither lays his hands upon the treasures of the one, nor can find a resting place for his feet in the other. He is no sooner borne to the utmost point of his ambition, than he is hurried away from it again by the same fantastic impulse, or his own specific levity. He has all the faculties of the human mind but one, and yet without that one, the rest only impede and interfere with each other—"Like to a man on double business bound who both neglects." He would have done better if he had known less. His imagination thus becomes metaphysical, his metaphysics fantastical, his wit heavy, his arguments light, his poetry prose, his prose poetry, his politics turned—but not to account. He belongs to all parties and is of service to none. He gives up his independence of mind, and yet does not acquire independence of fortune. He offends others without satisfying himself, and equally by his servility and singularity, shocks the prejudices of all about him. If he had had but common moral principle, that is, sincerity, he would have been a great man; nor hardly, as it is, appears to us—
We lose our patience when we think of the powers that he has wasted, and compare them and their success with those, for instance, of such a fellow as the ———, all whose ideas, notions, apprehensions, comprehensions, feelings, virtues, genius, skill, are comprised in the two words which Peachum describes as necessary qualifications in his gang, "To stand himself and bid others stand!"
"Less than arch-angel ruined, and the excess
"Of glory obscur'd."
When his six Irish friends, the six Irish gentlemen, Mr. Makins, Mr. Dunkley, Mr. Monaghan, Mr. Gollogher, Mr. Gallaspy, and Mr. O'Keeffe, after an absence of several years, discovered their old acquaintance John Buncle, sitting in a mixed company at Harrowgate Wells, they exclaimed with one accord—"There he is—making love to the finest woman in the universe!" So we may say at a venture of Mr. Coleridge—"There he is, at this instant (no matter where) talking away among his gossips, as if he were at the Court of Semiramis, with the Sophi or Prestor John." The place can never reach the height of his argument. He should live in a world of enchantment, that things might answer to his descriptions. His talk would suit the miracle of the Conversion of Constantine, or Raphael's Assembly of the Just. It is not short of that. His face would cut no figure there, but his tongue would wag to some purpose. He is fit to take up the deep pauses of conversation between Cardinals and Angels—his cue would not be wanting in presence of the beatific vision. Let him talk on for ever in this world and the next; and both worlds will be the better for it. But let him not write, or pretend to write, nonsense. Nobody is the better for it. It was a fine thought in Mr. Wordsworth to represent Cervantes at the day of judgment and conflagration of the world carrying off the romance of Don Quixote under his arm. We hope that Mr. Coleridge, on the same occasion, will leave "the Friend" to take its chance, and his "Lay Sermon" to get up into the Limbo of Vanity, how it can.
- It may be proper to notice, that this article was written before the Discourse which it professes to criticise had appeared in print, or probably existed any where, but in repeated newspaper advertisements.
- This work is so obscure, that it has been supposed to be written in cypher, and that it is necessary to read it upwards and downwards, or backwards and forwards, as it happens, to make head or tail of it. The effect is exceedingly like the qualms produced by the heaving of a ship becalmed at sea; the motion is so tedious, improgressive, and sickening.