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The Painful WonderRosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. ISBN: 0 631 18746 4 (hardback) Price: £25

  • Michael John Kooy

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  • Michael John Kooy
    Keble College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

This is a clear, splendid biography, whose 407 pages of detailed labour Coleridge has long deserved—perhaps even a little more. But if this biography sometimes minimises the complexities of the Coleridgean philosophy only now emerging in all its untidy splendour, it does manage to do what no other has yet achieved: to paint the picture, warts and all, without either apologies or accusations. Ashton has written an admirable, unsqueemish biography that everyone will be glad to read; Coleridgeans will be relieved to read it.

The task could hardly have been easy. The irresolution, dishonesty and over-dependence that mark all aspects of Coleridge's life might be managed on their own; but united with the generosity and perspicuity for which he is fabled, those ignoble traits demand an elaborate psychological explanation that cannot but be moral, too. Why should a man with such an ebullient intellect, always churning even in the most dire circumstances, a man of such acute self-consciousness and possessed of such insight into human nature, have lived so unwisely, so unhappily? The question baffled Coleridge's upright nephew, John Taylor, who observed with palpable chagrin: "Nothing can be finer than the principles he lays down in morals and religion; the wonder, the painful wonder is that a man who can think and feel as he does ... should have acted and still act as he has done and does" (quoted on p. 349). But it was the opium addiction and unusual domestic arrangements that troubled John Taylor and a whole generation of Victorian readers—moral deficiencies which biographers could not but condemn in language equal to the offence, among them J. D. Campbell (1894) and later E. K. Chambers (1938). There was of course an alternative, less hostile approach that emphasised the achievement regardless of the circumstances—exemplified by F. J. A. Hort in one of the finest single essays on Coleridge ever published (in Cambridge Essays, 1856)—though few followed it. Today's generation of readers, unruffled by such an untidy life, nevertheless still take offence—not at the drugs and separation, but at the procrastination of so many projected works, the incompleteness of major projects, the white lies in the Biographia, the "strain of dishonesty" as Ashton gently calls it (p. 307). This, though, is a lover's complaint, not a public prosecutor's.

Painting the good and the bad (and the ugly) in such an even-handed, confident manner, Ashton writes a very satisfying, clearly post-Fruman biography. For philosophical perspicuity it does not always match W. J. Bate's much shorter intellectual life (1968), but then even Bate's magisterial treatment of Coleridge's mind occasionally slips into a reverence that would better be avoided or qualified, especially considering Fruman's hostile, but unavoidable, biography of sins (1972). Many of the charges against Coleridge (plagiarism, incoherence) have been settled by the new edition of the works as well as in arguments offered by critics like John Beer and Thomas McFarland, largely in the context of intellectual history. Here we have the response in the context of biography. The wonder is, Ashton excuses nothing and still Coleridge comes off well. Nowhere is this more evident than in the admirable portrait of the young radical Coleridge courting persecution recklessly (though briefly) and the respectful depiction of the older sage of Highgate grown conservative and Anglican (almost). This is clearly the work of an historian who prefers facts to polemics. The same drive delivered, in addition to biographies of George Eliot (1983) and G. H. Lewes (1991), several indispensable works on the German presence in British culture including Little Germany (1986), The German Idea (1980) and a valuable Cambridge thesis (1975), well worth the trouble to obtain.

Readers will be satisfied, too, with the generous and insightful commentaries on each of the major poems and all the published prose (with the unexpected exception of the 1814 Bristol essay, On the Principles of Genial Criticism). There are excellent discussions of "Dejection" and "Kubla Khan" and a convincing redemption of that very fine later poem, "Work without Hope". Some old stories are told with fresh insight: in the Lyrical Ballads episode Ashton highlights the very different poetic sensibilities of Wordsworth and Coleridge and ably emphasises their very delicate relationship, and the Biographia's discussion of the imagination gets an admirably short and shrewd retelling. Indeed, there is something compellingly solid in the way Ashton summarises Coleridge's various philosophical positions, often with a precision Coleridge himself failed to attain. Thus, for example, the philosophical lectures of 1818-19,

in which he wished to overcome the dualism which had dominated philosophy through the ages ... The problem was to avoid succumbing to the counter-attractions of monism, which seemed to lead inevitably, as with Spinoza and Schelling, to pantheism ... The answer was to describe a mutual relationship of opposites and their reconciliation, by Reason in the speculative sphere, by Imagination in the aesthetic, and by religious faith in the spiritual.

p. 328

There is something tidy in this scheme which honours Coleridge's intentions, though hardly his practice. Soon after the Biographia, reason, imagination and spirituelle Anschauung appear in such close company any one might be taken for the other. In some of the Tennemann marginalia, they seem deliberately confused.

True, having assembled all the facts, this biographer, too, occasionally grows impatient with the indolence that could not but tarnish so many aspects of Coleridge's life and production, on one or two occasions even pitying him in words Lamb once disapproved of ("Poor Coleridge"). No reader of Coleridge can resist either complaint indefinitely. But for the most part—and this is the glory of the work—the errors, poor judgement and frustrations of Coleridge's life stand unexaggerated and unexcused beside the wealth of his poetry, critical insight and provocative philosophy, not to mention his generosity and vociferous endurance, for which is deservedly remembered. He was persistently careless with his poetry, publishing badly ordered collections with lame or inappropriate prefaces, yet endured the calumny of critics with a measure of dignity that sometimes approached noble suffering. Between Malta and Highgate he drove himself to despair with worry, unrequited love and opium, yet wrote the first English exploration of idealist ethics in The Friend, and offered the finest Shakespeare criticism since Johnson in his London lectures. He foolishly expected far more from Wordsworth than any person could give (as Poole suspected when Coleridge left Nether Stowey for the Lakes) and was inevitable devastated by the rupture of 1810, yet afterwards he was courteous when Wordsworth remained aloof and still treated the latter's poetry to astute and fair analysis in the Biographia. He could not find time or determination to help plan the university education of his own sons, but he energetically spent himself on behalf of James and Henry Gillman. The picture that emerges is one of Coleridge laboriously overcoming adverse, sometimes nearly devastating circumstances of his own creation.

There is a strong sense in this biography that Ashton is aware of the paradox. And to her credit it does not go unanswered. Of course, fixing blame to any of Coleridge's unwise decisions is not part of the solution: as we are aptly reminded in the words of Virginia Woolf (another whose relentless self-consciousness drove to distraction), Coleridge pre-empts the disapproval of the critic since he already "despises his own hypocrisy ... is humiliated by his own humiliation" (p. 65). The solution involves rather a less partisan account of how Coleridge could act so often against his own interest and yet bequeath a body of texts which every generation since has turned to for instruction and inspiration, perhaps never more so than today. Ashton gives no direct answer (who could?); those looking for a psychological key will put this book down with disappointment. But they will find plenty of clues. Thus, for example, the Wedgwood annuity of 1798 which Coleridge took "to mean no less than that he should enlighten mankind on every subject of inquiry." No wonder, says Ashton, that he "so embroiled himself as to render himself incapable of repaying the Wedgwoods' generosity on a smaller, more reasonable scale by work with which they and everyone else would have been perfectly satisfied. But we have the easy wisdom of hindsight" (p. 120). The paralysing catholicity of Coleridge's vision has often been noticed, but rarely with as much sensitivity, even sympathy, as here. He wished not only to include everything in his philosophy, intellectually, but to do everything he ought to, morally. And just as the universality of his philosophical program decreed that he would never finish it, so the stinging sense of duty decreed that he would never adequately fulfil his moral obligations. Indeed, the only time Coleridge ever did do his duty was in marrying Sara Fricker—which won him a distempered wife, a peaceless home and three loveable and always somehow distant children: that parish duty which Lamb said he ought to have done without. Duty more often stunned than roused him. For a mind so self-reflexive as his, it is hardly surprising that an observation upon his own paralysis should become one of the greatest tenets of his thought, woven into the Ancient Mariner and repeated at every important juncture since: that there is no causal relationship between the intellect and the will.

When Basil Willey came to this subject in his biography (1972), he began by quoting Carlyle: "A man's religion is the chief fact with regard to him." It was unquestionably true of Coleridge, though even that thoughtful book presents mostly the publicly religious Coleridge, the Christian apologist who moved a later, less reckless generation than his own to piety and orthodoxy. That very Anglican figure is here, too, in greater and more perceptive detail than ever before. Some of the most valuable pages of Ashton's book are in the last quarter, and include a unexpected endorsement of Aids to Reflection ("... it has a surprising freshness and clarity much of the time," p. 362) and a summary of Church and State that manages to do justice to Coleridge's tangled political agenda ("At one point ... Coleridge sounds almost radical ...", p. 388). Rightly, the liberal side of Coleridge's later thought is emphasised. Nevertheless, in all this the privately religious man remains a shadow, the vicissitudes of his own spirituality obscure amid the various public religious endorsements made throughout his long career.

This is too bad, since the only way to make some sense of the paradox at the heart of Coleridge's life is by reference to the spiritual experience he sought to achieve and explain. For only in religion did Coleridge find a satisfactory account for the abyss between the intellect and the will, and the means of redeeming both. He clung to a notion of redemption throughout his life not, as did so many Christians of his day, out of an emotional or social need alone, but because it was a solution demanded by both morality and philosophy.

On the one or two occasions when this biography minimises Coleridge's achievement, it is in relation to this difficult question of his sometimes enigmatic religious commitment. The Unitarianism of his youth is slightly underplayed, with only a little commentary on the 1795 lectures on revealed religion. The unsteady Trinitarianism which Coleridge found himself espousing with increasing frequency (especially to brother George) is termed "orthodox" and "Anglican" perhaps a little sooner than it deserves. And there is only passing reference to one of Coleridge's greatest contributions to textual interpretation: his long engagement with the higher criticism of Eichhorn and his largely successful bid to fashion a modern hermeneutic for an increasingly scientific audience (still use today). Confessions of An Inquiring Spirit (written 1824 and published posthumously in 1840), in which Coleridge crystallises his long ruminations on the subject, is a more important text than this biography suggests: like Aids to Reflection (written the following year), it aimed to satisfy the objections of that growing group of doubting believers.

Behind this public, often desperate outcry against atheism lay the privately-pursued goal of a kind of a summa theological for the modern world, the magnum opus, which would establish an epistemological account for knowledge of God. Coleridge needed this as much to reassure himself of his own spiritual experience (often more sought after than achieved) as to recall a generation of wavering Christians from the death trap of scientific materialism. Like Carlyle, he saw with a kind of oppressive clarity the dire social and ideological consequences of a purely materialist philosophy and sought to address the epistemological arguments than made it so appealing. But at its heart the plea was not simply for a return to established religion. Coleridge knew one could act morally without relying upon orthodox forms of belief: he agreed that much with Kantian ethics. And yet the sense that every human achievement which did not partake of God partook of death weighed on him throughout his life. It drove him to the most audacious plan of all: to reconcile all he had gleaned from contemporary science and German metaphysics with the notion of a transcendent God.

Ashton may have reason to downplay both the effort and the achievement in this regard. How much, in fact, did Coleridge produce on the intended reconciliation apart from thirty years of scattered notes and that fragment of fragments, the long unknown and still unpublished Opus Maximum? Perhaps a critic's judgement is best suspended for the moment (though there is more promising material in the marginalia than anyone seems to let on).

Francois Maurois said the biographer can implicitly pass some kind of moral judgement upon his or her subject, but ought never express it. Ashton agrees, and her even-handed treatment of Coleridge is what ultimately makes this biography a worthy and in many respects unprecedented telling of a most tangled life. And if the historian's mask hides any judgement, it is a kind of surprised wonder at the breadth of Coleridge's achievement in spite himself: that a man who so often and so unwillingly acted against his own and others' interests, yet managed to exert such a powerful and positive influence upon his own and later generations. This is what makes credible the poignant, sympathetic words of Wordsworth with which this biography concludes: "... S.T.C. is the only wonderful man I ever knew."