Coleridge, Samuel Taylor
Coleridge is essentially a European figure in his range of interests and activities, finding intellectual inspiration in the poetry, drama, and philosophy of Germany. He admired, among many others, G. E. Lessing, A. W. Schlegel, Friedrich Schiller, and Immanuel Kant, being the chief source of German idealism as it was transmitted both to Britain and to the U.S. in the New England transcendentalist movement. He served in the wartime Mediterranean (1804–6) as acting public secretary to the civilian governor of Malta, moved at ease in intellectual circles both in Germany, where he lived for ten months (1798–99), and in Italy (1806), later making more widely known, during his 1818 lectures on European literature, the significance of writers such as Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante for the English poets, Geoffrey CHAUCER, Edmund SPENSER, and John MILTON.
Coleridge, the youngest of ten children, was sent, after his father’s death in 1781, to Christ’s Hospital School in London. Here, he showed precocious talent as a scholar and progressed to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he moved in radical circles, got into debt, temporarily enlisted in the army (under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache), and after university married Sara Fricker, the sister-in-law of Robert SOUTHEY, with a view to emigrating, with Southey and his wife and others, to the U.S. and there setting up a utopian community (Pantisocracy) in an attempt to realize the vision of William GODWIN’s Political Justice. This scheme never materialized and Coleridge, settling at Nether Stowey in the West of England with his new wife, began a life of the intellect, writing poetry, editing a radical Christian journal, the Watchman (1796), giving religious and political lectures, and preaching to dissenting congregations. His proposed career as a Unitarian minister was forestalled by the gift of an annuity from Tom and Josiah Wedgwood of the pottery firm, enabling him to devote his life to literature. Coleridge’s activities in the West Country brought him into contact with William and Dorothy WORDSWORTH and through them he later met Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary. Already discovering incompatibility in what had been essentially a marriage of convenience, Coleridge fell in love with Sara (the “Asra” of the poems), but this love was never really reciprocated and became a source of great anguish, not only to Coleridge but also to his wife, who bore him four children, and to the Wordsworths themselves, culminating in a rift between Coleridge and Wordsworth that was eventually patched up.
Central to Coleridge’s formative years was the dominant figure of William Wordsworth to whose genius he always deferred. Since Milton, no man, he said, manifested himself equal to Wordsworth. In imaginative power, he stood nearest of all modern writers to William SHAKESPEARE and Milton. But Wordsworth, in turn, would himself acknowledge the “marvellous source” of Coleridge’s own creative powers and said that his mind was distinguished by its ability to throw out grand central truths from which could be evolved the most comprehensive systems. Although their two names will always be linked through Lyrical Ballads, their joint production of 1798, Coleridge was in many ways distinct both as writer and personality. Where he described Wordsworth in their early acquaintance as “at least a semi-atheist,” he himself was a religious poet in the tradition of the metaphysicals, and made his intellectual quest throughout his life one of revealing man’s spiritual and social being to be founded on religious truth. Late-18th-c. scholars of the revolutionary period in France were moving into the business of comparative religion, dispassionately studying the origins of myth and the emergence of pagan deities alongside the monotheistic God of the Old Testament. Coleridge, as a Unitarian, opposed the atheistical tendencies of the Revolution with a millennial blend of Christian radicalism, democratic sentiment, and patriotic fervor that can be traced most obviously in his poems “Religious Musings” (wr. 1794–96), “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement” (wr. 1795), “The Destiny of Nations” (wr. 1796–97), “Fears in Solitude” (wr. 1798), and “France: an Ode” (wr. 1798). The Enlightenment had looked for evidences of religion and the 19th c. was, by turns, either divergently evangelistic or reactionary, associating moral propriety with the possession of property. Coleridge consistently and instinctively turned from “understanding,” the first principle of a mechanized view of creation that led in his opinion to atheism, to “feeling,” locating the truth of Christianity in faith, something not discoverable by reason but at the same time not opposed to it.
Coleridge arrived at his convictions gradually, moving from the materialist and necessitarian philosophy of British empiricists such as John LOCKE, David Hartley, and Godwin, via the Unitarianism of Joseph Priestley, to the new dynamic German philosophy of Schelling and Kant. His work, in common with that of Wordsworth, becomes focused on the inner life translating action in the world of revolutionary politics to that of the imagination as the faculty most capable of producing liberal ideas and moral values in society. This tendency becomes evident in the “Conversation Poems” of the 1790s, a form of blank verse monody that Coleridge, inspired by the poetry of William COWPER, Mark AKENSIDE, and William Lisle BOWLES, made characteristically his own. Chief among these are “The Aeolian Harp” (wr. 1795), “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” (wr. 1797), and “Frost at Midnight” (wr. 1798), poems that take their departure from some immediate location, pastoral or domestic, proceed through a passage of intense and meditative reflection, and then return, usually in the form of a prayer that a sense of inclusive imaginative wholeness might be shared by the poet, his friends, and the entire creation in a peaceable kingdom of almost Blakean innocence. This marriage of the inner emotions with social, democratic principles found a reciprocal intelligence in Wordsworth at the time, culminating in Lyrical Ballads for which Coleridge provided four poems, including “The Ancient Mariner,” the longest of the collection. Here, the “Nightmare Life-in Death” of a world deprived of imaginative commerce with creation is replaced by the Mariner’s participation in a societal union of “Old men, and babes, and loving friends, And youths and maidens gay”—a conclusion reminiscent of the “Conversation Poems” themselves.
Coleridge, unlike the self-contained Wordsworth, author of “The Recluse,” was by inclination sociable. Friendship was central to his principles, finding early an idealistic outlet in the youthful Pantisocracy scheme (1794). However, growing French imperialism under Napoleon Bonaparte convinced him that political notions of social liberty must be converted into concepts of the individual mind in its enfranchising relationship with the natural world. True liberty is available to every man who possesses nature by an imaginative encounter with it, and it is to Coleridge more than anyone that the concept of the Romantic imagination owes its prominence to this day.
The fullest attempt Coleridge makes to define it is in chapter 13 of the biographical history of his literary life and opinions, a prose version of Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” and published along with his collected poems, Sibylline Leaves, as Biographia Literaria (2 vols.) in 1817. Here, he distinguishes between two kinds of imagination, primary and secondary. Primary imagination, possessed by all, makes the mind active in perception and not simply passively receptive to sense impressions as it had been in the philosophy of the mechanic dogmatists, Locke and Hartley. Secondary imagination, possessed only by the artist, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates” the world of the primary in order to create anew, to make out of this cold world of simple perception something rich and strange. Coleridge is nearest to Shakespeare in his version of the divinity of the poet’s creative faculty. Theseus’s “poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling”—the phrase used by Dorothy Wordsworth to describe Coleridge’s aspect on first meeting him—implies the omniscience and celerity of the poet’s divine glance (”from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven”) as well as his God-like ability to create something out of nothing (”and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name,” A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Coleridge further distinguishes imagination from fancy. Whereas imagination is shaping (”esemplastic”), modifying, and coadunating (bringing discordant elements to a state of oneness), fancy is “aggregative,” assembling all its decorative images by selecting them through a mechanical process of association. In simple terms, the poetical faculty that had previously been regarded as pleasing but, in Audrey’s words, from As You Like It, not a “true thing,” the “imaginary” or fanciful as distinct from the “imaginative,” now became essentially the poet’s possession as the measure of truth.
In chapter 14 of the Biographia, Coleridge goes on to describe the division of labor in the creation of Lyrical Ballads, describing the role of imagination there as giving new life to the ordinary world of appearance and (again reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) using moonlight as an analogy to its function as something that idealizes without substantially changing objects. Although he would move increasingly into prose as a communicative vehicle, some of his major poems compound his thinking on the place and function of the Romantic imagination. Of these might be mentioned one of his most famous works, “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream” (wr. 1797; pub. 1816), examining the sources of creativity and demonstrating the processes of the coadunating imagination at work, reconciling opposites, sun and ice for example, in the perfect symbolic architectural construct of the “dome.” In “Dejection: An Ode” (wr. 1802; pub. 1817), written originally as an anguished verse-epistle to Sara Hutchinson, Coleridge describes in biblical terminology the apocalyptic “new heaven” and “new earth” achievable through an imaginative “wedding nature to us.” The religious dimension is central here because the distinction between imagination and fancy in Coleridge’s literary theory carries over to his ethical thought in the distinction he draws between understanding and higher reason. As faculties that relate to the senses and the supersensuous respectively, there is a direct line of thought in Coleridge here from Shakespeare’s distinction between “comprehension” and “apprehension” and Milton’s “discursive” and “intuitive” reason. In all cases, “reason” is our means of access to truth, divine or poetical. Belief cannot be based on the senses. In any act of imaginative “knowing,” be it aesthetic or religious, what Coleridge requires is that “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.” For Coleridge, poetry is something that calls the whole soul of man into activity. Instead of the product per se, he is interested in the recondite mental processes of production itself. His habitual tendency to embark on projects that remained incomplete, to ascribe to the famous “person from Porlock,” for example, in his prose preface to “Kubla Khan” the reason for the poem’s fragmentary form, may suggest some psychological censoring factor at work where the rational world restrains transgressive elements. One precedent would be Milton in William BLAKE’s assessment of him as subconsciously preferring the “hellish” energy of Satan to the pallid orthodoxy of Christ, and Blake’s “damn braces, bless relaxes” might find something comparable at work in Coleridge’s bard, Bracy, who serves as a conscious restraint on the taboo subjects of the unfinished Christabel (wr. 1801; pub. 1816). The brief conclusion to part 2 that contains the line, “To dally with wrong that does no harm” implies a tension between waking constraints and dreamlike release, reflecting the nature of Christabel taken as a whole.
From the early years of the 19th c. until his death, Coleridge’s health was undermined by opium addiction. But the intense and pathological self-scrutiny to which he subjected his life in his notebooks and letters is equally balanced by his active participation in the world of journalism and politics. He wrote regularly for the Morning Post and the Courier, and edited the Friend (1809–10), a subscription journal on politics, morals, and religion and a subsequent influence on later prominent Victorians such as John Stuart MILL, John Sterling, John RUSKIN, and F. D. Maurice. Coleridge also lectured widely, particularly significant in this medium, and especially in the area of character criticism, being his contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. The plays must be understood as organic entities, he argued, enabling a satisfactory psychological investigation of their characters to take place. He famously identified with Hamlet, for example, the type of Romantic artist, and a figure like himself torn between obligations to the world outside and a dark inward sense of his own inadequacy to his tasks.
Throughout his career as lecturer and polemicist, however, Coleridge consistently laid himself open to accusations of plagiarism, notably in the use he made of Schlegel in his Shakespeare lectures and of Kant in the Biographia. And to some extent this has proved damaging to his reputation. In his later years, he published prose works that addressed moderate liberal opinion and that exposed him also to charges of being reactionary. Nevertheless, the need he envisaged for social change and social policies is consistent with his earliest concerns that the role of the artist is to be didactic and socially committed. In The Statesman’s Manual (1816), he advocated a public policy on national education and the need for a concept of the spiritual in an age of science. On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830) argues for a national church or “Clerisy” made up of artists, writers, scientists, clergy, and teachers, who would provide a body for reconciliation synthesizing the forces of permanence (the landed interest) and progress (the manufacturing and professional classes).
In the late 20th and early 21st cs., Coleridge’s reputation as both poet and critic of society has grown. As the unhappily married, drug-dependent, rejected lover, struggling with himself to realize his talents and to find his individual place and his happiness in the world, Coleridge strikes a curiously modern resonance. And his “Ancient Mariner,” by which he has always been popularly known, has come to speak beyond the traditional notions of Christian loss and redemption, fueling contemporary fears that if we continue to be hostile to nature, nature may, in the end, become hostile to us.
Bibliography Beer, J. B., C. the Visionary (1959); Beer, J. B., C.’s Poetic Intelligence (1977); Everest, K., C.’s Secret Ministry (1979); Fruman, N., C., the Damaged Archangel (1971); Holmes, R., C.: Early Visions (1989); Holmes, R., C.: Darker Reflections (1998); Lowes, J. L., The Road to Xanadu (1927); Roe, N., Wordsworth and C.: The Radical Years (1988)
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