Wednesday, March 19, 2008

a fool even to madness

Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the Rev. George Coleridge

Thursday, November 6, 1794.
My Dear Brother,

our letter of this morning gave me inexpressible consolation. I thought that I perceived in your last the cold and freezing features of alienated affection. Surely, said I, I have trifled with the spirit of love, and it has passed away from me! There is a vice of such powerful venom, that one grain of it will poison the overflowing goblet of a thousand virtues. This vice constitution seems to have implanted in me, and habit has made it almost Omnipotent. It is indolence!* Hence, whatever web of friendship my presence may have woven, my absence has seldom failed to unravel. Anxieties that stimulate others infuse an additional narcotic into my mind. The appeal of duty to my judgment, and the pleadings of affection at my heart, have been heard indeed, and heard with deep regard. Ah! that they had been as constantly obeyed. But so it has been. Like some poor labourer, whose night's sleep has but imperfectly refreshed his over wearied frame, I have sate in drowsy uneasiness, and doing nothing have thought what a deal I had to do. But I trust that the kingdom of reason is at hand, and even now cometh!

How often and how unkindly are the ebullitions of youthful disputations mistaken for the result of fixed principles. People have resolved that I am a democrat, and accordingly look at everything I do through the spectacles of prejudication. In the feverish distemperature of a bigoted aristocrat's brain, some phantom of Democracy threatens him in every corner of my writings. And Hubert's atheist crew, whose maddening hand hurl'd down the altars of the living God with all the infidel intolerance. "Are these lines in character" observed a sensible friend of mine, "in a speech on the death of the man whom it just became the fashion to style ' The ambitious Theocrat '?" "I fear not" was my answer, "I gave way to my feelings." The first speech of Adelaide, whose Automaton is this character? Who spoke through Le Gendre's mouth, when he says, "Oh, what a precious name is Liberty to scare or cheat the simple into slaves "? But in several parts I have, it seems, in the strongest language boasted the impossibility of subduing France. Is not this sentiment highly characteristic? Is it forced into the mouths of the speakers? Could I have even omitted it without evident absurdity? But, granted that it is my own opinion, is it an anti-pacific one? I should have classed it among the anti-polemics. Again, are all who entertain and express this opinion democrats? God forbid! They would be a formidable party indeed! I know many violent anti-reformists, who are as violent against the war on the ground that it may introduce that reform, which they (perhaps not unwisely) imagine would chant the dirge of our constitution. Solemnly, my brother, I tell you, I am not a democrat. I see, evidently, that the present is not the highest state of society of which we are capable. And after a diligent, I may say an intense, study of Locke, Hartley, and others who have written most wisely on the nature of man, I appear to myself to see the point of possible perfection, at which the world may perhaps be destined to arrive. But how to lead mankind from one point to the other is a process of such infinite complexity, that in deep-felt humility I resign it to that Being "Who shaketh the Earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble," "Who purifieth with Whirlwinds, and maketh the Pestilence his Besom," Who hath said, "that violence shall no more be heard of; the people shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; " "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together." I have been asked what is the best conceivable mode of meliorating society. My answer has been this: "Slavery is an abomination to my feeling of the head and the heart. Did Jesus teach the abolition of it? No! He taught those principles of which the necessary effect was to abolish all slavery. He prepared the mind for the reception before he poured the blessing." You ask me what the friend of universal equality should do. I answer: "Talk not politics. Preach the Gospel " Yea, my brother! I have at all times in all places exerted my power in the defence of the Holy One of Nazareth against the learning of the historian, the libertinism of the wit, and (his worst enemy) the mystery of the bigot! But I am an infidel, because I cannot thrust my head into a mud gutter, and say, "How deep I am!" And I am a democrat, because I will not join in the maledictions of the despotist because I will bless all men and curse no one! I have been a fool even to madness; and I am, therefore, an excellent hit for calumny to aim her poisoned probabilities at! As the poor flutterer, who by hard struggling has escaped from the bird-limed thorn bush, still bears the clammy incumbrance on his feet and wings, so I am doomed to carry about with me the sad mementos of past imprudence and anguish from which I have been imperfectly released.

Mr. Potter of Emanuel drives me up to town in his phaeton, on Saturday morning. Of course I shall see you on Sunday. Poor Smerdon! the reports concerning his literary plagiarism (as far as concerns my assistance) are falsehoods. I have felt much for him, and on the morning I received your letter I poured forth these incondite rhymes. Of course they are meant for a brother's eye. Smerdon! thy grave with aching eye I scan, etc.

God love you, dear brother, and your affectionate and grateful
S. T. Coleridge

*Compare with Coleridge's poem " Lines on a Friend Who Died of a Frenzy Fever Induced by Calumnious Reports," which accompanied this letter.

-from Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge in Two Volumes (London: William Heinemann, 1895) vol. 1.

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