Encounter 35 (Nov. 1970): 74-83
There was a period following Coleridge’s death in 1834 and lasting for about as long as theology continued to be a matter of general interest, during which both here and in America more attention was paid to his prose than to his poetry. Not that the interest was limited to theology. The group, for instance known to their contemporaries as “The Germano-Coleridgeans,” of whom Robert Preyer gave an interesting account in Bentham, Coleridge, and the Science of History (1958), were more interested in history and politics, and it was in 1840 that John Stuart Mill prophesied in his essay on Coleridge and Bentham:
The name of Coleridge is one of the few English names of our time which are likely to be oftener pronounced and to become symbolic of more important things in proportion as the inward workings of the age manifest themselves more and more in outward fact. Bentham excepted, no Englishman of recent date has left his impress so deeply on the opinions and mental tendencies of those among us who attempt to enlighten their practice by philosophical meditation. If it be true, as Lord Bacon affirms, that a knowledge of the speculative opinions in the men between twenty and thirty years of age is the great source of political prophecy, the existence of Coleridge will show itself by no slight or ambiguous traces in the coming history of our country.
All the same that period was followed by a much longer one, during which the prose works were treated, if at all, as a kind of sprawling corollary to Coleridge’s theory of imagination as propounded in a couple of paragraphs in Chapter XIII of the Biographia Literaria; and it is only in our own time that this second period has been drawing to its close. Perhaps its twilight began when, in the same year (1930) that T. M. Raysor produced his definitive two-volume edition of the Shakespeare Lectures, J. M. Muirhead included his own Coleridge as Philosopher in Allen & Unwin’s Library of Philosophy, of which he was the general editor. Nineteen years later came Kathleen Coburn’s erudite edition of the hitherto unpublished Philosophical Lectures, with its 70-odd pages of notes including lengthy and valuable quotations from hitherto unpublished marginalia; and the last three decades have seen a steady stream of books, and still more articles in learned and other journals, all dealing or attempting to deal with the philosophical as well as the literary and critical thought.
The 1930s were the Freudian decade, and there is no doubt that sympathetic response to Coleridge’s pre-eminently psychological philosophy with its emphasis on the mind’s unconscious activity, and in a lesser degree to his pre-eminently “metaphysical” psychology, was made easier for a public that had come to take almost for granted the existence at least of such a thing as unconscious mental activity. A growing realisation (see for instance Lancelot Whyte’s The Unconscious before Freud) that the unconscious is not so new and that there may be a good deal more to it than Freud supposed has accompanied the growing interest in Coleridge which I have mentioned – less, I suspect, by way of cause and effect than as concomitant effects of the same causes. M. H. Abram’s The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) contains one of the most satisfactory treatments we possess of his so-called “organicism” in its relation to unconscious mental activity and, though it is not primarily about Coleridge but about Romantic aesthetics in general, it is perhaps the simplest introduction there is to Coleridge’s philosophy.
Much of what has been written about the mind of Coleridge in the last forty years is of a very high quality. One recalls, for example, Humphrey House’s Clark Lectures (1953). But there is one feature that is common to nearly all of it; and that is its excessive absorption in the two related “problems” of chronology and plagiarism. Did Coleridge change his opinions much in the course of his life – or not? Did he only borrow from everything he read, or did he sometimes think for himself? It began with De Quincey and it was still going on last year in Thomas McFarland’s packed and learned Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition. The “when” and the “why” seem to take precedence of the “what” so powerfully that one sometimes feels rather uneasy – like a man listening in to a sophisticated argument about different wines and rival vintage years and suddenly afflicted by a qualm of doubt as to whether the disputants had ever actually tasted any of them. Or one has been sauntering, guide-book in hand, through a city with interesting architectural pretensions… “leaving the old Plotinus quarter, we pass on our right a solid block of Patristic tomes and see the BRUNO TOWER rising in front of us. The quaint Jacob Böhme chapel is not likely to detain us long from the imposing ashlar of the KANT BUILDING, with its interesting intrusion of the local Jacobi style, and (notice the Blumenbach frieze) the almost undamaged SCHELLING FACADE…”
The tragedy here is that this – “view-hunting”, as Carlyle once called it – is precisely not the way in which Coleridge wished his books to be read; and one of the reasons why they are sometimes found difficult is that it was not the way they were written to be read. It was never (and this is highly relevant on the issue of plagiarism) the way he read himself. As Professor J. A. Appleyard well remarked in the introduction to his Coleridge’s Philosophy of Literature (1966):
Rarely was he much concerned with the precise and actual meaning an idea had for another writer; almost always it was its interaction with his own thinking that mattered most to him.
And that was how he hoped to be read himself. “What are my metaphysics?” he asked in the Friend – “merely the referring the mind to its own consciousness for truths, indispensable to its own happiness.” He desired, as he says Plato desired, “to excite the germinal power that craves no knowledge but what it can take up into itself.” The result is that an exclusively view-hunting approach is automatically self-defeating. Substitute “Coleridgean” for “Pythagorean”, and we must say of him what he himself said in the fourth of his Philosophical Lectures:
We must have discovered the truth ourselves by other means, before, out of the mass of traditions, assertions, and fables, we can discriminate what really was Coleridgean and that it was Coleridgean.
Hence the titles of his two most considerable prose works after the Biographia Literaria: Aids to Reflection, and the Friend. Hence also their unpopularity. He complained (in a note on Chapter XX of Southey’s Life of Wesley):
Thousands will read this chapter, or the substance of it, in the writings of Wesley himself, and never complain of obscurity, or that it is, as Home called my Aids to Reflection, a proper brain-cracker. And why is this? In the words I use, or their collocation? Not so: for no one has pointed out any passage of importance, which he having at length understood, he could propose other and more intelligible words that would have conveyed precisely the same meaning. No! Wesley first relates his theory as a history: the ideas were for him, and through him for his readers, so many proper names, the substratum of meaning being supplied by the general image and abstraction, of the human form with the swarm of associations that cluster in it. Wesley takes for granted that his readers will all understand it, all at once, and without effort. … Now compare this with the manner and even obtruded purpose of the Friend, or the Aids to Reflection, in which the aim of every sentence is to solicit, nay, tease the reader to ask himself, whether he actually does, or does not, understand distinctly…
If the vogue of a psychology of the unconscious has facilitated the comprehension of Coleridge’s psychology, it has operated to increase rather than diminish that penchant for “the human form with the swarm of associations that cluster in it.” Coleridge’s own psyche – and the Road to Xanadu has a good deal to answer for here – is so much more “fascinating” than his psychology. Indeed we have come so far that a casual reference to “Coleridge’s psychology” would itself probably suggest only the former to most people. A good plunge into the recent literature even leaves one with the impression that it is no longer merely a matter of disinclination. There is a kind of atrophy – a positive inability to distinguish between talking about the man and listening to what he said. Exegesis now means showing the reader how Coleridge was “satisfying” his emotional, or his religio-philosophical, “needs”; and it is almost terrifying how rapidly the educated public – the “clerisy” as he himself called them – are becoming positively incapable of distinguishing between the reason of a thought and its cause.
But it is not only that Coleridge himself was exempt from it. This intellectual subjectivism was the very dragon he spent himself in struggling to slay. It was the essential trahison des clercs in an “epoch of the understanding and the senses” – by which he meant a time when the cruder conclusions of the scientific revolution and the enlightenment have descended into a stratum of the common consciousness at which they are taken for granted; where they have become inherent in the lexical definition of everyday words, so that the less overtly they are maintained, the more covertly they prevail. Psyche is in the last resort a product of soma, and therefore thought itself psychosomatically and environmentally determined. Who effectually doubts it? What he had to contend with was not simply opinions different from his own but viable to argument; it was more like the shapeless mass of fallen rock that confronts a miners’ rescue team wondering where and how to begin drilling to reach the men trapped behind it. It was, as he put it in the Statesman’s Manual:
The obstinacy of opinions that have always been taken for granted, opinions unassailable by the remembrance of doubt, the silent accrescence of belief, from the unwatched deposition of a general, never-contradicted hearsay; the concurring suffrage of modern books, all pre-supposing or re-asserting the same principles with the same confidence, and with the same contempt for all prior systems; and among these, works of the highest authority, appealed to in our Legislature, and lectured on at our Universities; the very books, perhaps, that called forth our own first efforts in thinking…
Mighty antagonists so strong in themselves, and with such mighty adjuncts” he called them, and it was no exaggeration. For what he was up against, almost single-handed and alone, was the real Establishment, the visceral one – a settled and suffocating deadweight of entrenched custom, compared with which the political and social establishments condemned by Marx and the kids are, in Clio’s reckoning, bubble-gum.
As if with the express object of bearing him out, the Statesman’s Manual itself was promptly greeted with a salvo of incomprehension and abuse. True, it was of its sequel, the so-called “Second Lay Sermon”, that the Monthly Magazine remarked: “to reason with a person of this cast would be as hopeless an undertaking as to reason with the inmates of Bedlam.” But Hazlitt himself wrote no less than three reviews of the Manual, one of which actually appeared before it was published and was apparently based on the Prospectus:
All his notions are floated 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 contradiction: 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. …
It was unfortunate for Coleridge that his bitterest enemy had that Shavian knack of asserting matters of opinion as matters of fact with an ebullient gaiety, clothed in competent, picturesque and vigorous language, that carries its own deceptive conviction. We feel it must all be so, just as he says – until we start looking into the matter for ourselves. That there were at least a few of his contemporaries who did look for themselves, we are reminded by a useful 650-page collection, which has recently appeared (and from which I have quoted above), of reviews and articles published during Coleridge’s lifetime. Coleridge and the Critical Heritage, by J. R. De Jackson – author only last year of a careful study of Coleridge’s own critical theory – covers the poems and plays as well as the prose. As to the last, he could have no cause to complain of John Foster’s sympathetic article on the Friend, and still less of J. A. Heraud’s (in Fraser’s Magazine) on the Aids to Reflections; since the latter includes a paragraph of common-sensible penetration into a fundamental simplicity of Coleridge’s objective idealism, which it would be hard to match from 20th-century Coleridgiana. If I was challenged to do so, I should select Nicholas Brooke on Coleridge’s “True and Original Realism” in the Durham University Journal (1961).
One practical effect of the radical subversiveness of Coleridge’s position has also been a contributory cause of our continued failure to realise it even after all these years have elapsed. The four major works in which he gave expression to it, or tried to do so – the Friend, The Statesman’s Manual, Aids to Reflection, and the Constitution of the Church and State – have remained out to print for just how many years I should not like to say. As far as I know, there has never been any edition of any of them that included an index. The only way to them has lain through libraries and second-hand bookshops and it is perhaps doubly unfortunate that this should still have been the situation at the time of the graduate explosion in the last few decades, with its accompanying demand for dissertation-fodder rather than mental interaction. View-hunting, with the net flung as widely as possible, is (quite reasonably) a cardinal virtue in a doctoral thesis; but it is also habit-forming.
That situation is now coming to an end. It was something of an historical event when there appeared last autumn, as the first fruits of the Collected Coleridge, long in preparation under the general editorship of Kathleen Coburn, an edition of the Friend in two volumes.1 It is perhaps the most generally important of the four works I have referred to and, had the new edition contained no more than the text and a fairly good index, its appearance would still be an historical event. In fact it contains a quite first-class index, besides much more, which I shall come to in a moment. The Friend was originally published as a periodical, to which it was necessary to attract subscribers by various devices, and it is far indeed from being a systematic exposition of Coleridge’s philosophy. His own sub-title for the revised edition was “A Series of Essays in Three Volumes, to Aid in the Formation of Fixed Principles in Politics, Morals, and Religion, with Literary Amusements Interspersed.” Nevertheless the actual unity of his thought which, as so many have now insisted, underlies its fragmentary exposition throughout his life, shines unmistakably through. Perusal of the Friend calls of course for the sort of “interaction” of which Appleyard spoke; and that means first of all undressing from the indolent assumption that whatever has gone out of fashion is on that account discredited. Otherwise it is likely to be found – as the reviewer of this edition in the Spectator has found it – “a long, dull book.” Yet it includes the eight Essays on the Principles of Method (Section II. Essays iv-xi) which are perhaps, together with Essay v of “The First Landing-place,” the most easily readable introduction to Coleridge’s ubiquitous and paramount distinction between the Understanding (which homo sapiens shares with the higher animals) and his superindividual Reason – the latter not, as with Kant, a merely regulative principle but constitutive in its speculative as well as in its practical aspect.
In the Friend we have also Coleridge’s central intuition of polarity – the Idea Idearum, as he once called it – as the principle underlying both phenomenal and noumenal reality, far more fully developed than in the Biographia Literaria; though there too a discerning reader cannot easily sidestep it. At least one would have supposed not; but one of the most remarkable features of Coleridge literature in general is the way in which, with the exception of R. H. Fogle’s little book, The Idea of Coleridge’s Criticism (1962) and the Introduction to Donald Stauffer’s Selected Poetry and Prose (1951), it has in fact been avoided. There was, it is true, Professor Alice Snyder’s painstaking essay on The Central Principle of the Reconciliation of Opposites as Employed by Coleridge (1918), in which she concluded that his interest in it was largely “a constitutional malady.” If the Friend had been as readily available as the Biographia, it may be that the “New Criticism” would never have sought to father on Coleridge of all people its exclusively literary maxim of an abstract “reconciliation of opposites” in an ironical detachment from both. For here the concreteness and the activity of what he meant by the reconciliation of opposites in polarity is brought out by the instances he draws from natural science. It may be added that his precise relation to the cosmology of science, and particularly to modern physics, is a matter that still awaits adequate treatment. I have seen little of value on the subject beyond Professor Craig Miller’s article on “Coleridge’s Concept of Nature” which appeared in the Spring 1964 Journal of the History of Ideas. Here I fancy the hitherto unpublished notes and marginalia, especially some from near the end of his life, will turn out important. Meanwhile we have, besides the Essays on Method in the Friend, one or two long letters in Vol. IV of the Collected Letters; and Stauffer performed a useful service when he reprinted (in the book above referred to) the Hints Towards a More Comprehensive Theory of Life, on which Miller’s article was largely published:
Man possesses the most perfect osseous structure, the least and most significant covering. The whole force of organic power has attained an inward and centripetal direction. He has the whole world in counterpoint to him, but he contains an entire world within himself. … Naked and helpless cometh man into the world. Such has been the complaint from eldest time; but we complain of our chief privilege, our ornament, and the connate mark of our sovereignty. Porphyrogeniti sumus! In Man the centripetal and individualising tendency of all Nature is itself concentred and individualised – he is the revelation of Nature.
It was in elaborating its relation to biology and evolution, as Coleridge saw it, that he most successfully concretised that subject-object relation, which, taken abstractedly, has so often been found “a proper brain-cracker.” Yet it is quite fundamental. Even in the Biographica Literaria it is the “philosophic” imagination, not the poetic, that he actually demonstrates. (The latter was to have formed the subject of the largely unwritten Chapter XIII.) In the Friend the philosophic imagination is treated more discursively under the rubric of “method.” Not that philosophic imagination is irrelevant to philosophy and science. And primary imagination is the name by which, in those now hackneyed concluding paragraphs of Chapter XIII, he chose to designate that irreducible polarity between self and nature, which was his golden key. Indeed it could be argued without much difficulty that the radical subversiveness of his whole position arose mainly from an early and clear perception that poetic imagination can never thrive, nor even long survive, in a climate of intellectual subjectivism.
There is some evidence that he was not mistaken. How threadbare nearly all the contemporary chatter about art and artists, and happenings, and “literary merit” and what have you, turns out to be beside, say, the little essay On Poesy or Art (which Shawcross printed with his edition of the Biographia)! Intellectual subjectivism gradually abandons the discovery and communication of truth as a possible end. Never mind, there is still expression; and there is still non-representational “creativity”; there is still art and self-realisation in art. Yes, but what self? Only moribund aristocracies defend their privilege of insolent behaviour as pompously as if it were the very substance, and not just an accident of their nobility. One could wish to see a small proportion – say a quarter – of the ink and energy expended in vindicating the artist’s legal right to be obscene, transferred to the business of establishing his logical right to be at all.
I have emphasised the philosophical stiffening in the Friend because that seems to me to be the most enduring part of it. But it is at least as much a political and social work. As Barbara Rooke puts it in her thoughtful Introduction:
In the intellectual history of the period, The Friend is an illuminating example of the power of the creative imagination, experiencing social and personal tensions, not only to endure chaos, but to make something new out of it.
Without labouring, or even expressly drawing attention to it, she neatly brings out its possible bearing on our present discontents by continuing:
The 1809-10 Friend, like the Watchman, was written during a time of war. In their different ways, each work is a civil libertarian tract for the times. To recall men to principles, to ask what human society is for, what the human individual is and what the organised community is: this was the steadying task of the creative imagination as Coleridge saw it – especially at a time when men were threatened by violence. The 1818 Friend was undertaken in a period of the aftermath of war, when the freedom of the individual and the ends of social organisation seemed undermined less by direct military authority over the individual than by authoritarian fears of the lack of control anywhere, of chaos, and man’s inhumanity to man in a society floundering in riots and the repression of riots.
The 1809-10 Friend is the original periodical, which is reproduced verbatim in the 2nd volume of the present edition. A few years later Coleridge revised it with great care and in 1818, with a number of omissions and some important additional material, it was reprinted in book form. Later editions, such as there were (the last is Bohn’s in 1865), followed the 1818 edition, which constitutes the bulk of volume 1. Volume 2 contains also a full account of the MSS of the various editions and a number of extant annotated copies, as well as a list of subscribers to the original periodical. There are three Collation Tables, to facilitate cross-reference – a task in which the careful footnotes render invaluable assistance – and I must not omit to mention the useful Chronological Table in volume 1.
For Coleridge’s political theory we must await the Stateman’s Manual and the Lay Sermon and, still more, the Constitution of the Church and State. Meanwhile the Collected Coleridge edition of the Watchman2 has already appeared, published earlier this year. The little weekly periodical, 32 pages long, which Coleridge kept going single-handed for ten weeks in the spring of 1796, has never previously been printed in book form. Without it any Collected Coleridge would be woefully incomplete and the care with which it has been produced, together with its index, notes and incidental matter, make it a worthy companion volume to possess. But it is of course a very different proposition from the Friend. In particular it came as a surprise to me to find that a comparatively small proportion of it was actually written by Coleridge himself, and that it is not always possible, even in the case of poems, to say of any particular contribution whether it was so or not. Very many of them are parliamentary and other reports taken from contemporary newspapers, being sometimes merely transcribed, sometimes abridged, and sometimes transcribed with the addition of a little leftish pep by the hard-worked editor. Many will find it less interesting for any light it sheds on Coleridge than as an intimate peep from an unusual angle into the political and social, and indeed legal, climate of England in the early years of the Napoleonic wars.
The Watchman and the twin volumes of the Friend are numbers 2 and 4 respectively of the Collected Coleridge in 16 volumes. When complete, the edition will comprise not only the books and essays long out of print and marginalia at present accessible only in back numbers of out of the way periodicals such as the Revue de Littérature Comparée, but also the unpublished MSS – all, presumably, that are traceable. I wish I knew how soon we may expect the remainder and whether I shall be here to see them all. In particular No. 7 (the Biographia Literaria edited by M. H. Abrams) must be worth waiting for – or would it perhaps have been better not to allocate his outstanding ability to the only prose work of which we already have a scholarly edition, in 2 volumes, by Shawcross?
I suppose that, without the initiative of the General Editor, Kathleen Coburn, and her total dedication to Coleridge, nothing of the sort could have occurred. And it is a mystery to me how she has managed to combine this labour not only with the editing of the Philosophical Lectures, but also with the editing and production of the Notebooks in five double volumes (text and notes), of which the first two have already appeared and the third is, I understand, trembling on the brink. These last, together with E. L. Grigg’s Collected Letters, of which four volumes have so far been published, will really give us pretty well all the Coleridge there is.
Meanwhile in the Collected Coleridge, we have these two volumes of which I have been writing: the Friend – “that quintessentially mid-Coleridgean omnium gatherum”, as Livingston Lowes called it – and the Watchman – that little cameo of the S.T.C. of pre-Malta and pre-Wordsworth days – to be duly thankful for. As to the latter, my observations were addressed to the average reader. Coleridgeans – a small but distinctive genus containing several species – will value it highly, as they are helpless to avoid valuing anything that puts them further in touch with Coleridge himself. If the problem of chronology, if the problem of borrowing (or “plagiarism”) in his writing and if his emotional and volitional response to the personal problems that beset him are none of them the main point, that does not imply that they are not interesting. Very far from it. Whatever the actual nature of the relation that is assumed, it is a literal education to trace the contacts of his mind with the greater and the lesser works of his contemporaries and of his predecessors going back to the pre-Socratics. I have often thought that a systematic study of them might make an ideal introduction to the history of philosophy. And as to “Xanadu,” there is a turning towards it from every other road, as the footnotes in the new edition of the Friend make plain enough.
Maybe it is possible to become absorbed in personality and plagiarism without ever actually coming to grips with the philosophy. But if so, the converse is by no means true. It follows from Coleridge’s whole way of presenting his case that, like the cheerfulness of Dr. Johnson’s would-be-philosophical friend, the man Coleridge “will keep breaking in.” And God bless him, how welcome he is to some of us, both as a centric aid to reflection and as an eccentric friend. I am rather sorry if a note of asperity (or was it just peevishness?) has crept at any point into this article. This present moment, with the Collected Coleridge at last appearing over the horizon in these two really splendid productions, and with all the Notebooks and all the Letters somewhere in the offing, is no occasion for dissension of any sort. Now is the time, if ever there was or will be one, for all Coleridgeans to rejoice together in amity over the plenty that is coming to them – plenty for interactionists, who prefer to take the thought of Coleridge neat, even if it makes us blink, but plenty also for our personalist brethren, who must have a good stiff seasoning of opium and Sara Hutchinson before they will touch it.