Coleridge, Hartley 1796-1849, the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge [qv.], was born at Clevedon, Somersetshire, 19 Sept. 1796. From a very early age he gave evidence of uncommon endowments, and a temperament still more unusual, first, by a fondness for abstractions and a power of metaphysical analysis startling at such tender years; subsequently, by a faculty for weaving endless imaginative romances, which he appeared unable to distinguish from fact. He is the subject of two most beautiful passages in his father's poems, The Nightingale and Frost at Midnight; and of an exquisite but painfully prophetic address from Wordsworth, who read his character and divined the misfortunes of his after life. After the separation of his parents he was brought up in Southey's family at Greta Hall, and was greatly influenced, not altogether for his benefit, by the indulgence of Mr. Robert Jackson and his housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, who occupied part of the house. He was educated principally at Ambleside school, where, says his brother, he never played, but passed the time he could spare from school tasks reading, walking, dreaming to himself, or talking his dreams to others. Intensely sensitive, impatient of control, shy and awkward to excess, insignificant in personal appearance, and infirm of will, it would be difficult to conceive one less calculated to battle with the world. His intellectual promise, however, was such as to justify a university career, and he proceeded to Oxford with means contributed by his well-to-do relatives at the urgent solicitation of Southey. Alexander Dyce remembered him at Oxford as a young man of great simplicity of character and considerable oddity of manner, but in conversation, or rather declamation, second to his father alone. It is hinted that the freedom of his opinions on politics and church endowments offended the authorities, and disposed them to take a harsher view than needful of his subsequent transgressions. However this may have been, his excitable temper, injuriously acted upon by disappointment at his failures to win the Newdigate prize, yielded to the seductions of Oxford wine-parties, and after having creditably gained an Oriel fellowship, he was at the end of a year's probation (1820) removed on the ground of intemperance. The sentence, says his brother, might be considered severe, it could not be said to be unjust. It may have been partly prompted by his incapacity to manage pupils, or in any way perform the ordinary duties of a fellow; but in this case arrangements should have been made to allow him to resign. He received a gift of 300l. from the college, but the blow to one so sensitive destroyed any chance that might have existed of his taking a place in the world corresponding to his intellectual ability. For the rest of his life despondence, self-reproach, procrastination, and irregularity were his constant companions, and allowed him nothing but an occasional flash of mental energy, generally in the shape of a letter or a short poem.
After two years in London, spent in ineffectual aspirations rather than efforts to earn his bread by his pen, Hartley returned to Ambleside with the intention of taking pupils. He was subsequently associated with a schoolmaster named Suard, the successor of his old instructor, but failed from inability to control his boys. After abandoning the attempt (1830), he resided for some time in the family of Mr. F. E. Bingley, a publisher at Leeds, to whom he bound himself by contract to produce a biographical work on the worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Three numbers, containing thirteen biographies, were actually printed, when the undertaking was interrupted by the bankruptcy of the publisher. The lives, republished under the title first of Biographia Borealis (1833), and of Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire (1836), are, as Derwent Coleridge remarks, more than they profess to be. The book was carefully read by the elder Coleridge, whose annotations were added to a subsequent edition. A small volume of poems containing some of his most beautiful sonnets, and Leonard and Susan, reprinted from Blackwood's Magazine, was also printed by Bingley in 1833. Returning to the Lake district, Hartley took up his residence at Grasmere, with a kind and hospitable lady, Mrs. Fleming, with whom and her successors in the house the remainder of his life was spent, so far as permitted by his roaming propensities, which, however, never carried him beyond the region of the Lakes. For two short intervals, in 1837 and 1838, he assisted in the management of Sedbergh grammar school, and, having to deal with a superior class of boys, acquitted himself surprisingly well. In general, however, his time was spent in study, reverie, and aimless wanderings about the country, with occasional lapses into dissipation. His kind host frequently had to go in search of him and bring him back from some remote vale. Wordsworth's celebrated description of the elder Coleridge seems to have been yet more applicable to the younger. Mingling on terms of perfect intimacy with the peasantry, noticeable for his diminutive stature, his prematurely white hair, and the singular gentleness of his manner, he became one of the characteristic figures of the Lake district, and his name is deeply associated with its characteristic scenery. Poet Hartley, says one who knew him there, is much better known to the people than poet Wordsworth. There is a vivid description of his conversation in Caroline Fox's Journals, 1 Oct. 1844. His only literary effort of any consequence was an edition of Massinger and Ford, published in 1840, accompanied by valuable biographies of the dramatists, but the projected criticisms were never written. He died of bronchitis, 6 Jan. 1849, after a short illness, during which he was affectionately attended by his brother Derwent. Wordsworth selected the place for his grave, indicating at the same time the spot immediately adjoining where he was himself laid little more than a twelvemonth afterwards. Two volumes of Hartley's poetical and two of his prose remains were edited by Derwent Coleridge in 1851.
Hartley possessed a mind of extreme refinement, in which beautiful thoughts seemed to spring up without an effort, and all his literary work was in the highest degree elegant and symmetrical. What he wanted was power. He was not merely deficient in strength of will and steadiness of purpose, but he had not the energy to impress his ideas upon his readers with full effect. His poems are full of graceful beauty, but almost all fall below the level of high poetry. They are not sufficiently powerful for vivid remembrance, and are much too good for oblivion. His striking fragment of Prometheus almost seems an exception; but although his brother attributes it to an earlier period, it is plainly composed under the influence of Shelley. The one species of composition in which he is a master is the sonnet, which precisely suited both his strength and his limitations. His sonnets are among the most perfect in the language. As a critic (Shakspeare as a Tory and a Gentleman, On the Character of Hamlet) he is delicate and suggestive; as an essayist (Brief Observations on Brevity, Ignoramus on the Fine Arts, On Black Cats) he is quaintly humorous, with a strong resemblance to Charles Lamb. His pure style is admirable for its elegance and perfect adaptation to the matter in hand. His marginalia are as discursive as his father's, and sometimes almost as acute, but have little of the latter's weight and pregnancy.
Memoir by Derwent Coleridge, prefixed to Hartley Coleridge's Poems, 1851
Letters, &c., of S. T. Coleridge, edited by T. Allsop, where Hartley is denoted by the initial J.
Journals and Letters of Caroline Fox
Fraser's Magazine, vol. xliii.
Macmillan's Magazine, vol. xiii.
Contributor: R. G. [Richard Garnett]