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Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit etc.
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit
Letters on the Inspiration of the Scriptures.
An Essay on Faith
Notes on the Book of Common Prayer
A Nightly Prayer
A Sailor's Fortune
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on the 21st of October, 1772, youngest of many children of the Rev. John Coleridge, Vicar of the Parish and Head Master of the Grammar School of Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. One of the poet's elder brothers was the grandfather of Lord Chief Justice Coleridge. Coleridge's mother was a notable housewife, as was needful in the mother of ten children, who had three more transmitted to her from her husband's former wife. Coleridge's father was a kindly and learned man, little sophisticated, and distinguishing himself now and then by comical acts of what is called absence of mind. Charles Buller, afterwards a judge, was one of his boys, and, when her husband's life seemed to be failing, had promised what help he could give to the anxious wife. When his father died, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was but eight years old, and Charles Buller obtained for him his presentation to Christ's Hospital. Coleridge's mind delighted in far wandering over the fields of thought; from a boy he took intense delight in dreamy speculation on the mysteries that lie around the life of man. From a boy also he proved his subtleties of thought through what Charles Lamb called the "deep and sweet intonations" of such speech as could come only from a poet.
From the Charterhouse, Coleridge went to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he soon won a gold medal for a Greek ode on the Slave Trade, but through indolence he slipped into a hundred pounds of debt. The stir of the French Revolution was then quickening young minds into bold freedom of speculation, resentment against tyranny of custom, and yearning for a higher life in this world. Old opinions that familiarity had made to the multitude conventional were for that reason distrusted and discarded. Coleridge no longer held his religious faith in the form taught by his father. He could not sign the Thirty-nine Articles, and felt his career closed at the University. His debt also pressed upon him heavily. After a long vacation with a burdened mind, in which
one pleasant day of picnic gave occasion to his "Songs of the Pixies," Coleridge went back to Cambridge. But soon afterwards he threw all up in despair. He resolved to become lost to his friends, and find some place where he could earn in obscurity bare daily bread. He came to London, and then enlisted as a private in the 15th Light Dragoons. After four months he was discovered, his discharge was obtained, and he went back to Cambridge.
But he had no career before him there, for his religious opinions then excluded belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Universities were not then open to Dissenters. A visit to Oxford brought him into relation with Robert Southey and fellow-students of Southey's who were also touched with revolutionary ardour. Coleridge joined with them in the resolve to leave the Old World and create a better in the New, as founders of a Pantisocracy--an all-equal government--on the banks of the Susquehannah. They would need wives, and Southey knew of three good liberal-minded sisters at Bristol, one of them designed for himself; her two sisters he recommended for as far as they would go. The chief promoters of the Pantisocracy removed to Bristol, and one of the three sisters, Sarah Fricker, was married by Coleridge; Southey marrying another, Edith; while another young Oxford enthusiast married the remaining Miss Fricker; and so they made three pairs of future patriarchs and matriarchs.
Nothing came of the Pantisocracy, for want of money to pay fares to the New World. Coleridge supported himself by giving lectures, and in 1797 published Poems. They included his "Religious Musings," which contain expression of his fervent revolutionary hopes. Then he planned a weekly paper, the Watchman, that was to carry the lantern of philosophic truth, and call the hour for those who cared about the duties of the day. When only three or four hundred subscribers had been got together in Bristol, Coleridge resolved to travel from town to town in search of subscriptions. Wherever he went his eloquence prevailed; and he came back with a very large subscription list. But the power of close daily work, by which alone Coleridge could carry out such a design, was not in him, and the Watchman only reached to its tenth number.
Then Coleridge settled at Nether Stowey, by the Bristol Channel, partly for convenience of neighbourhood to Thomas Poole, from whom he could borrow at need. He had there also a yearly allowance from the Wedgwoods of Etruria, who had a strong faith in his future. From Nether Stowey, Coleridge walked over to make friends with Wordsworth at Racedown, and the friendship there established caused Wordsworth and his sister to remove to the neighbourhood of Nether Stowey. Out of the relations
with Wordsworth thus established came Coleridge's best achievements as a poet, the "Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel." The "Ancient Mariner" was finished, and was the chief part of Coleridge's contribution to the "Lyrical Ballads," which the two friends published in 1798. "Christabel," being unfinished, was left unpublished until 1816.
With help from the Wedgwoods, Coleridge went abroad with Wordsworth and his sister, left them at Hamburg, and during fourteen months increased his familiarity with German. He came back in the late summer of 1799, full of enthusiasm for Schiller's last great work, his Wallenstein, which Coleridge had seen acted. The Camp had been first acted at Weimar on the 18th of October, 1798; the Piccolomini on the 30th of January, 1799; and Wallenstein's Death on the 10th of the next following April. Coleridge, under the influence of fresh enthusiasm, rapidly completed for Messrs. Longman his translation of Wallenstein's Death into an English poem of the highest mark.
Then followed a weakening of health. Coleridge earned fitfully as journalist; settled at Keswick; found his tendency to rheumatism increased by the damp of the Lake Country; took a remedy containing opium, and began to acquire that taste for the excitement of opium which ruined the next years of his life. He was invited to Malta, for the benefit of the climate, by his friend, John Stoddart, who was there. At Malta he made the acquaintance of the governor, Sir Alexander Ball, whose worth he celebrates in essays of the Friend, which are included under the title of "A Sailor's Fortune" in this little volume. For a short time he acted as secretary to Sir Alexander, then returned to the Lakes and planned his journal, the Friend, published at Penrith, of which the first number appeared on the 1st of August, 1809, the twenty-eighth and last towards the end of March, 1810.
Next followed six years of struggle to live as journalist and lecturer in London and elsewhere, while the habit of taking opium grew year by year, and at last advanced from two quarts of laudanum a week to a pint a day. Coleridge put himself under voluntary restraint for a time with a Mr. Morgan at Calne. Finally he placed himself, in April, 1816--the year of the publication of "Christabel"- -with a surgeon at Highgate, Mr. Gillman, under whose friendly care he was restored to himself, and in whose house he died on the 25th of July, 1834. It was during this calm autumn of his life that Coleridge, turning wholly to the higher speculations on philosophy and religion upon which his mind was chiefly fixed, a revert to the Church, and often actively antagonist to the opinions he had held for a few years, wrote, his "Lay Sermons," and his "Biographia Literaria," and arranged also a volume of Essays of
the Friend. He lectured on Shakespeare, wrote "Aids to Reflection," and showed how his doubts were set at rest in these "Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit," which were first published in 1840, after their writer's death.
CONFESSIONS OF AN INQUIRING SPIRIT.
LETTERS ON THE INSPIRATION OF THE SCRIPTURES.
My dear friend,
I employed the compelled and most unwelcome leisure of severe indisposition in reading The Confessions of a Fair Saint in Mr. Carlyle's recent translation of the Wilhelm Meister, which might, I think, have been better rendered literally The Confessions of a Beautiful Soul. This, acting in conjunction with the concluding sentences of your letter, threw my thoughts inward on my own religious experience, and gave immediate occasion to the following Confessions of one who is neither fair nor saintly, but who, groaning under a deep sense of infirmity and manifold imperfection, feels the want, the necessity, of religious support; who cannot afford to lose any the smallest buttress, but who not only loves Truth even for itself, and when it reveals itself aloof from all interest, but who loves it with an indescribable awe, which too often withdraws the genial sap of his activity from the columnar trunk, the sheltering leaves, the bright and fragrant flower, and the foodful or medicinal fruitage, to the deep root, ramifying in obscurity and labyrinthine way-winning -
In darkness there to house unknown, Far underground, Pierced by no sound Save such as live in Fancy's ear alone, That listens for the uptorn mandrake's parting groan!
I should, perhaps, be a happier--at all events a more useful--man if my mind were otherwise constituted. But so it is, and even with regard to Christianity itself, like certain plants, I creep towards the light, even though it draw me away from the more nourishing warmth. Yea, I should do so, even if the light had made its way through a rent in the wall of the Temple. Glad, indeed, and grateful am I, that not in the Temple itself, but only in one or two of the side chapels, not essential to the edifice, and probably not coeval with it, have I found the light absent, and that the rent in the wall has but admitted the free light of the Temple itself.
I shall best communicate the state of my faith by taking the creed, or system of credenda, common to all the Fathers of the Reformation-- overlooking, as non-essential, the differences between the several Reformed Churches, according to the five main classes or sections into which the aggregate distributes itself to my apprehension. I have then only to state the effect produced on my mind by each of these, or the quantum of recipiency and coincidence in myself relatively thereto, in order to complete my Confession of Faith.
I. The Absolute; the innominable [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] et Causa Sui, in whose transcendent I AM, as the Ground, IS whatever VERILY is:- the Triune God, by whose Word and Spirit, as the transcendent Cause, EXISTS whatever SUBSTANTIALLY exists:- God Almighty--Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, undivided, unconfounded, co- eternal. This class I designate by the word [Greek text which cannot be reproduced].
II. The Eternal Possibilities; the actuality of which hath not its origin in God: Chaos spirituale:- [Greek text which cannot be reproduced].
III. The Creation and Formation of the heaven and earth by the Redemptive Word:- the Apostasy of Man:- the Redemption of Man:- the Incarnation of the Word in the Son of Man:- the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Son of Man:- the Descent of the Comforter:- Repentance ([Greek text which cannot be reproduced]):- Regeneration:- Faith:- Prayer:- Grace--Communion with the Spirit:- Conflict:- Self- abasement:- Assurance through the righteousness of Christ:- Spiritual Growth:- Love:- Discipline:- Perseverance:- Hope in death:- [Greek text which cannot be reproduced]
IV. But these offers, gifts, and graces are not for one, or for a few.
They are offered to all. Even when the Gospel is preached to a single individual it is offered to him as to one of a great household. Not only man, but, says St. Paul, the whole creation is included in the consequences of the Fall--[Greek text which cannot be reproduced]--so also in those of the change at the Redemption--[Greek text which cannot be reproduced]. We too shall be raised IN THE BODY. Christianity is fact no less than truth. It is spiritual, yet so as to be historical; and between these two poles there must likewise be a midpoint, in which the historical and spiritual meet. Christianity must have its history--a history of itself and likewise the history of its introduction, its spread, and its outward- becoming; and, as the midpoint abovementioned, a portion of these facts must be miraculous, that is, phenomena in nature that are beyond nature. Furthermore, the history of all historical nations must in some sense be its history--in other words, all history must be providential, and this a providence, a preparation, and a looking forward to Christ.
Here, then, we have four out of the five classes. And in all these the sky of my belief is serene, unclouded by a doubt. Would to God that my faith, that faith which works on the whole man, confirming and conforming, were but in just proportion to my belief, to the full acquiescence of my intellect, and the deep consent of my conscience! The very difficulties argue the truth of the whole scheme and system for my understanding, since I see plainly that so must the truth appear, if it be the truth.
V. But there is a Book of two parts, each part consisting of several books. The first part (I speak in the character of an uninterested critic or philologist) contains the relics of the literature of the Hebrew people, while the Hebrew was still the living language. The second part comprises the writings, and, with one or two inconsiderable and doubtful exceptions, all the writings of the followers of Christ within the space of ninety years from the date of the Resurrection. I do not myself think that any of these writings were composed as late as A.D. 120; but I wish to preclude all dispute. This Book I resume as read, and yet unread--read and familiar to my mind in all parts, but which is yet to be perused as a whole, or rather a work, cujus particulas et sententiolas omnes et singulas recogniturus sum, but the component integers of which, and their conspiration, I have yet to study. I take up this work with the purpose to read it for the first time as I should read any other work, as far at least as I can or dare. For I neither can, nor dare, throw off a strong and awful prepossession in its favour--certain as I am that a large part of the light and life, in and by which I see, love, and embrace the truths and the strengths
co-organised into a living body of faith and knowledge in the four preceding classes, has been directly or indirectly derived to me from this sacred volume-- and unable to determine what I do not owe to its influences. But even on this account, and because it has these inalienable claims on my reverence and gratitude, I will not leave it in the power of unbelievers to say that the Bible is for me only what the Koran is for the deaf Turk, and the Vedas for the feeble and acquiescent Hindoo. No; I will retire UP INTO THE MOUNTAIN, and hold secret commune with my Bible above the contagious blastments of prejudice, and the fog-blight of selfish superstition. FOR FEAR HATH TORMENT. And what though MY reason be to the power and splendour of the Scriptures but as the reflected and secondary shine of the moon compared with the solar radiance; yet the sun endures the occasional co-presence of the unsteady orb, and leaving it visible seems to sanction the comparison. There is a Light higher than all, even THE WORD THAT WAS IN THE BEGINNING; the Light, of which light itself is but the shechinah and cloudy tabernacle; the Word that is Light for every man, and life for as many as give heed to it. If between this Word and the written letter I shall anywhere seem to myself to find a discrepance, I will not conclude that such there actually is, nor on the other hand will I fall under the condemnation of them that would LIE FOR GOD, but seek as I may, be thankful for what I have--and wait.
With such purposes, with such feelings, have I perused the books of the Old and New Testaments, each book as a whole, and also as an integral part. And need I say that I have met everywhere more or less copious sources of truth, and power, and purifying impulses, that I have found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness? In short, whatever FINDS me, bears witness for itself that it has proceeded from a Holy Spirit, even from the same Spirit, WHICH REMAINING IN ITSELF, YET REGENERATETH ALL OTHER POWERS, AND IN ALL AGES ENTERING INTO HOLY SOULS, MAKETH THEM FRIENDS OF GOD, AND PROPHETS. (Wisd. vii.) And here, perhaps, I might have been content to rest, if I had not learned that, as a Christian, I cannot, must not, stand alone; or if I had not known that more than this was holden and required by the Fathers of the Reformation, and by the Churches collectively, since the Council of Nice at latest, the only exceptions being that doubtful one of the corrupt Romish Church implied, though not avowed, in its equalisation of the Apocryphal Books with those of the Hebrew Canon, and the irrelevant one of the few and obscure sects who acknowledge no historical Christianity. This somewhat more, in which Jerome, Augustine, Luther, and Hooker were of one and the same judgment, and less than which not one of them would have tolerated--would it fall within the scope of
my present doubts and objections? I hope it would not. Let only their general expressions be interpreted by their treatment of the Scriptures in detail, and I dare confidently trust that it would not. For I can no more reconcile the doctrine which startles my belief with the practice and particular declarations of these great men, than with the convictions of my own understanding and conscience. At all events--and I cannot too early or too earnestly guard against any misapprehension of my meaning and purpose--let it be distinctly understood that my arguments and objections apply exclusively to the following doctrine or dogma. To the opinions which individual divines have advanced in lieu of this doctrine, my only objection, as far as I object, is--that I do not understand them. The precise enunciation of this doctrine I defer to the commencement of the next Letter. Farewell.
My dear friend,
In my last Letter I said that in the Bible there is more that FINDS me than I have experienced in all other books put together; that the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being; and that whatever finds me brings with it an irresistible evidence of its having proceeded from the Holy Spirit. But the doctrine in question requires me to believe that not only what finds me, but that all that exists in the sacred volume, and which I am bound to find therein, was--not alone inspired by, that is composed by, men under the actuating influence of the Holy Spirit, but likewise--dictated by an Infallible Intelligence; that the writers, each and all, were divinely informed as well as inspired. Now here all evasion, all excuse, is cut off. An infallible intelligence extends to all things, physical no less than spiritual. It may convey the truth in any one of the three possible languages--that of sense, as objects appear to the beholder on this earth; or that of science, which supposes the beholder placed in the centre; or that of philosophy, which resolves both into a supersensual reality. But whichever be chosen--and it is obvious that the incompatibility exists only between the first and second, both of them being indifferent and of equal value to the third--it must be employed consistently; for an infallible intelligence must intend to be intelligible, and not to deceive. And, moreover, whichever of these three languages be chosen, it must be translatable into truth. For
this is the very essence of the doctrine, that one and the same intelligence is speaking in the unity of a person; which unity is no more broken by the diversity of the pipes through which it makes itself audible, than is a tune by the different instruments on which it is played by a consummate musician, equally perfect in all. One instrument may be more capacious than another, but as far as its compass extends, and in what it sounds forth, it will be true to the conception of the master. I can conceive no softening here which would not nullify the doctrine, and convert it to a cloud for each man's fancy to shift and shape at will. And this doctrine, I confess, plants the vineyard of the Word with thorns for me, and places snares in its pathways. These may be delusions of an evil spirit; but ere I so harshly question the seeming angel of light--my reason, I mean, and moral sense in conjunction with my clearest knowledge--I must inquire on what authority this doctrine rests. And what other authority dares a truly catholic Christian admit as coercive in the final decision, but the declarations of the Book itself--though I should not, without struggles, and a trembling reluctance, gainsay even a universal tradition?
I return to the Book. With a full persuasion of soul respecting all the articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the first four classes, I receive willingly also the truth of the history, namely, that the Word of the Lord did come to Samuel, to Isaiah, to others; and that the words which gave utterance to the same are faithfully recorded. But though the origin of the words, even as of the miraculous acts, be supernatural, yet the former once uttered, the latter once having taken their place among the phenomena of the senses, the faithful recording of the same does not of itself imply, or seem to require, any supernatural working, other than as all truth and goodness are such. In the books of Moses, and once or twice in the prophecy of Jeremiah, I find it indeed asserted that not only the words were given, but the recording of the same enjoined by the special command of God, and doubtless executed under the special guidance of the Divine Spirit. As to all such passages, therefore, there can be no dispute; and all others in which the words are by the sacred historian declared to have been the Word of the Lord supernaturally communicated, I receive as such with a degree of confidence proportioned to the confidence required of me by the writer himself, and to the claims he himself makes on my belief.
Let us, therefore, remove all such passages, and take each book by itself; and I repeat that I believe the writer in whatever he himself relates of his own authority, and of its origin. But I cannot find any such claim, as the doctrine in question supposes, made by these writers,