Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

“[Coleridge’s] face,” Barfield explains, “was turned . . . in the opposite direction to the one which natural science was taking in his time and, in spite of his efforts and those of a few others like him, has continued to take since his death. For it was his firm conviction that, if knowledge was to advance, there must be a science of qualities as well as quantities” (Coleridge in the 20th Century).

The author of a book-length study of his intellectual development, the editor of his “philosophical letters” for the still-in-progress definitive edition of his work, Barfield obviously owed a substantial debt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). It might even be said that Barfield identified with his fellow Romantic polymath for at least three reasons.

Beleaguered since his youth by problems with stammering, Barfield empathized with Coleridge’s own difficulties with speech:

[Coleridge’s extraordinarily unifying mind] was too painfully aware that you cannot really say one thing correctly without saying everything. He was rightly afraid that there would not be time to say everything before going on to say the next thing, or that he would forget to do so afterwards. His incoherence of expression arose from the coherence of what he wanted to express. It was a sort of intellectual stammer.
(Romanticism Comes of Age 204)

Coleridge’s fame and reputation suffered, both in his own time and today, because of his presumed-to-be-unhealthy interest in German philosophy–a price Barfield too has paid in a century in which Germany has inaugurated two world wars.

Speaking, as he had to do, to his already empirically minded English contemporaries, he had, so to speak, to lay down his track as he went along, and caterpillar wheels are slow compared with ordinary wheeled traction. But then they can go into much cruder places. If the German thinkers could count on at least a second-class road of understanding into the minds of their readers, Coleridge tried to penetrate where there was no longer a road at all; to awaken to active thought minds for which “the conceivable” had already been “reduced within the bounds of the picturable” (What Coleridge Thought 43).

Like Coleridge, Barfield has been misunderstood because of the unorthodox, iconoclastic nature of his intellectual project — his “thinking about thinking,” or “Beta-thinking” (as Barfield terms it in Saving the Appearances):

But though it is not mysticism, to reason about thinking does entail our being led inward from the product of thinking to the act itself. And this does require a certain discipline. Here is the root-cause of the charge of “obscurity,” which was leveled during his life, and has so often been leveled since his death, against both Coleridge himself and his philosophy.
(What Coleridge Thought 20)

In Romanticism Comes of Age, Barfield contrasts Coleridge with Goethe, a comparison which leads to an illuminating, almost physiognomic, descriptive analysis of Coleridge’s physical appearance:

Goethe had his feet firmly planted on the earth. As a scientist, as a knower, he largely confined himself to the realm of natural science and his regular industry combined with his great genius had by the end of his life illuminated this realm with a steadily increasing flood of light. Coleridge never succeeded in finding his feet on earth at all. Look at the portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery in London, and you will feel the full force of Wordsworth’s description:

The rapt one of the godlike forehead,
The heaven-eyed creature

Compare the majesty of the forehead and the eyes with the pathetically weak mouth. He himself said that he had “power without strength.” He was continually forming vast schemes of works to be written on every conceivable subject, or on all at once, which he never had the energy to carry out.
(Romanticism Comes of Age 221)

In the final reckoning, perhaps Barfield had more in common with the firmly-grounded Goethe.

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.