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Coleridge, the Return to Nature, and the New Anti-Romanticism: An Essay in Polemic

  • Seamus Perry

…plus d’informations

  • Seamus Perry
    Lincoln College, Oxford

I rejoice to think that those who have most profited by what he has taught them, do not and cannot form a school.

F. D. Maurice

Definitions of English 'romanticism' are doomed because there is always an appeal to exception; and no exception may be ruled self-evidently irrelevant without presuming a definition before you begin. The significance of this impasse shouldn't be exaggerated: for most critics most of the time, it is quite unimportant; you simply don't need a definition of romanticism to write about Wordsworth or Coleridge (or Austen or Byron). On the other hand, you clearly depend upon one if you wish to establish anti-romantic credentials: you are honour-bound to define what you define yourself (or your chosen author) against. Polemical modernists like Hulme or Eliot might come to mind here; but anti-romantic definitions of the 'romantic' form a genre which long outlives modernism: critics like Leavis, and contemporary figures like McGann and his New Historicist followers, contribute to it too. These various authors write in very different contexts, to be sure; but the demerits of the romanticism they identify to deplore are fundamentally similar, as are the attributes of the anti-romanticism they each claim as their own to praise. Common too is an adversarial quality to their prose, which stems from a conviction that the issue is one of the most vital currency: not just a matter of historical interest, romanticism has continued to the present day, nurturing unscrutinised assumptions from which we must break free, finally post-romantic, into health.

In this essay, I aim to sketch what seem to me the salient characteristics of anti-romantic writing, tracing the genre back to Coleridge and forward to recent 'historicist' criticism. This new school makes one interesting variation on the terms it inherits from the Coleridgean tradition, which is to apply them to the concept of 'History'; and with some remarks on this dubious innovation, I shall conclude. I should say at once that turning in this way to the tradition of anti-romanticism is not going to take us any nearer what romanticism 'actually is'; but it may spur us to think about what kind of activity defining it usually is. For the anti-romantics, the business of definition is not a question of disinterested historical enquiry so much as the staking of one's own imaginative position, a self-assertion furthered by a definitive 'romantic' to anathematise. In some classic examples of the genre, Shelley occupies this exemplary role; but his place has been assumed in more recent criticism by Coleridge and those 'idealist' aspects of Wordsworth's poetry which might be thought especially Coleridgean. (Shelley's politics seem to have rescued him.) Coleridge is at once theorist and summation of romantic failings; and, at the same time, he is well known as founding father of modern 'formalism', thus establishing the double-focus - upon both literary history and contemporary mores - which characterises anti-romantic writing.  [1] There is a twist, however: for not only the 'romantic' but also the 'anti-romantic' position can, in fact, be traced back to Coleridge. Of course, the implication of earlier anti-romantics within the romanticism they hope to spurn has often been remarked: Hartman, for example, says that '[t]he reaction [...] of T. E. Hulme, Eliot and the New Humanists, appears to us more and more as one within Romanticism';  [2] and this argument makes 'anti-romanticism' one of the threads of a continuing 'romantic' tradition, which seems set to become a terrible paradox. But the mystery is mostly verbal: instead of 'continuing romanticism' we might refer (as I have already) to a 'Coleridgean tradition', something less univocal than someone after a definition of 'romantic' might hope for, and rather more diversely inclusive - something one might be 'within'. Maurice was righter even than he knew in seeing Coleridge's followers as a various gathering if among their unwitting number we can count professed anti-romantics and anti-Coleridgeans.

I. The Rhetoric of Anti-Romanticism: The Example of Leavis

Nineteenth-century poetry, we realize, was characteristically preoccupied with the creation of a dream world.


Leavis exemplifies the way that anti-romantic criticism is based on a small number of tropes: the twin metaphors of 'placing' and 'displacing'; and, associated with them, a rhetoric of substance, the concrete and the natural versus one of immateriality, self-involuted dreaminess, and the idealist. The 'placing' part of the critic's job is an exercise in a kind of cultural history, the upshot of which is to undermine a writer's otherwise assumed authority or good faith. Within Leavis's scheme, we can confidently understand as deluded a voice we might otherwise have taken on its own terms: the effect is to introduce an historical dimension to our reading, but only in the form of something like irony, rather as Leavis saw wrong-headed or fallible characters in Conrad or James 'placed' by an implicit but emphatic irony within the masterful 'controlling conception' of the novelist's 'severe' art. This 'placing' is the work of the critic in the novelist: for instance, the character of Maggie Tulliver is weak because it is offered 'with a remarkable absence of criticism', Eliot momentarily failing in that 'sceptical intelligence' which Leavis attributes to Martin Decoud from Nostromo , a man perfectly able to 'place Charles Gould' - just as Lawrence is able to apply a '"placing" sardonic touch' to the characters of St. Mawr.  [3]

'Placing' is a matter of reading with less deluded eyes than one's sentimentalist peers and predecessors; 'displacing' is about the education of one's successors. One 'displaces' in order to establish that Great Tradition in which the young may grow healthily; or as we might now put it, one establishes new canons: 'Milton's dislodgement ... was effected with remarkably little fuss', as Leavis announced (prematurely).  [4] Naturally, critics with whom one disagrees are likely to be under the sway of unscrutinised traditionalism, which simply inculcates all the bad literary habits which a critical 'placing' had brought into unforgiving light. When used with any terminological emphasis (when not just a loose period label), 'romantic' tends to be the pejorative label for precisely those elements and authors which must be 'displaced', the tenacious influence of which had led to that deplorable state of affairs sharply described in the first chapters of Leavis's New Bearings in English Poetry . Leavis's concern to 'place', and thence to 'displace', based itself on a distrust of the 'romanticism' exemplified with especial glamour by Shelley - an instructive choice, since Shelley was a poet known to all Arnoldians as lacking that grasp of the 'concrete' and the 'palpable' which distinguished the truly vital genius: in place of a 'vivid concreteness of realization', wrote Leavis, Shelley tends to produce 'nothing but wordy emotional generality' which 'does not grasp and present anything' (Revaluation , 227). Shelley's romanticism represents a real-life equivalent to Othello's self-enchanting music: a 'hypnotic rote of favourite images, associations and words' occurring in 'the void' (a clear echo of Arnold there), which lurches down at its worst to 'a mere tumbled out spate ... of poeticalities'. All this the scrutinising critic can see through, and then turn instead to the truly 'Shakespearean' attributes of the best Keats: 'a native English strength ... sensuous firmness ... a general concrete vigour', in short, 'that strong grasp upon actualities - upon things outside himself, that firm sense of the solid world, which makes Keats so different from Shelley' (Revaluation , 214; 215; 263; 261-2). No wonder that Hopkins, whom Leavis saw as enjoying such Keatsian strengths, might be called a 'nature poet' (by T. S. Eliot) 'with some justice'.  [5]

The under-argument to this anti-romanticism is a distrust of the 'literary', of 'poeticalities' altogether, which are conceived as the fruit of an unhealthy introverted self-consciousness, and a faith instead in a literature that somehow embodies the discretely sensuous in an art of natural self-evidence - what Leavis celebrated as the 'there' ('Ursula is astonishingly there'; 'Great art, something created and there, is what Lawrence gives us' [Lawrence, 157; 284]). A desire for palpable truth over merely 'poetic' beauty might be thought of as having a precedent in Wordsworth's 'Preface' to Lyrical Ballads , or, more equivocally, in Keats: 'What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth';  [6] Shelley, who had a 'weak grasp upon the actual' (Revaluation , 206), is 'the ideal of what a poet should be' - Trelawny's praise for him - only for the dreaming nineteenth century. Pleasingly, then, the prime candidate for 'displacement' from the Tradition is a literary intelligence which is itself, so to say, 'displaced' - that is, removed from the concrete, ungrounded, ideal, 'romantic'. Shelley's symbolic role in the severe structure of Revaluation is as a warning example of poetic idealism before the introduction of Keats's happily concrete materiality, subject of Leavis's culminating chapter.

II. Coleridge Displaced

There was in Coleridge a sort of dreaminess

which would not let him see things as they were.


It is not a great step to replace Shelley with Coleridge in this critical mythology: that Coleridge had an inaptitude for the actual seems universally acknowledged. After all, it is Coleridge who is the first on record to complain about 'a something corporeal, a matter-of-factness, a clinging to the palpable' to be found in the (presumably un-Coleridgean) parts of Wordsworth's poetry, thereby listing as demerits precisely the highest virtues of successfully anti-romantic art.  [7] That his philosophical commitment was to idealism is apparently unquestionable too: he was, I. A. Richards influentially announced, 'an extreme Idealist'.  [8]

Coleridge's reputation as an instinctive idealist, devoted to the internal spaces of dreamy consciousness rather than engaged with the external world, is already well established within his own lifetime. Wordsworth's portrayal of his friend, for example, frequently stresses Coleridge's removal from the saving solidities of the concrete: anticipating an Arnoldian argument (and thence Leavis), Wordsworth diagnoses in this removal a kind of spiritual disaster - a surprisingly severe view since it appears in what everyone who knew it thought of as the 'Poem to Coleridge':

The self-created sustenance of a mind
De-barr'd from Nature's living images,
Compell'd to be a life unto itself.  [9]

The rhetoric of triumphantly self-sustaining consciousness, the living unto oneself, is an important value in The Prelude ; but here, such self-sustaining sounds imposed, and even diseased, as if consumptive. Wordsworth's excuse for including so negative a portrait is that this is meant to be true only of his friend at Cambridge: one of the poem's necessary fictions is that Coleridge has reached the same position as the author, albeit by a less instinctive route; but the suspicion must be that even in The Prelude Wordsworth tended to think of Coleridge as somehow damagingly immersed in internalities. Coleridge was, as he told someone later in life, unable to feel 'the influence of external objects':  [10] clearly a failing.

Wordsworth came to represent for Coleridge all the solidity of character which he felt himself to lack. His own self-absorbed weakness is a running theme: writing Godwin a wriggling letter, for instance, he explains that his unreliability stems from a 'diminished Impressibility from Things', the consequence of which was that his 'ideas, wishes, & feelings are to a diseased degree disconnected from motion and action':  [11] as he later famously table-talked, 'I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so'.  [12] This removal from the sensuous and concrete is a familiar part of Coleridge's rueful self-portraiture; but it can also be more self-aggrandising: 'I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief,' he writes proudly to Poole of his childhood (Letters, 1: 354), so casting himself, as John Cornwell puts it, 'as a kind of precocious Berkeleian idealist'.  [13] Freedom from influence of the external need not be simply culpable: it can be a path to visionary power. Kubla Khan , as Coleridge's 'Preface' tells us, records the experience of 'about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses';  [14] and Wordsworth's attraction to this kind of creativity must have been one of the main reasons for the sudden intimacy of their friendship in the first place. And not just in the first place: for the triumph of the 'ideal' - freed of the smell of opium, naturally - continues to be an important ingredient in Wordsworth's descriptions of imaginative power. One thinks of the Fenwick note to the Intimations Ode , dictated in his old age; or the passage in Book VI of The Prelude , only two hundred or so lines after the description of Coleridge's sickly solipsism, in which Wordsworth contrasts the anti-climax of crossing the objective Alps with the compensatory subjective rush produced by his own powerfully hallucinogenic 'vapour', Imagination. One thinks too of the de Manian-Hartmanian school who single out such passages as especially crucial to the interpretation of Wordsworth, and draw theoretical strength from the hope expressed in them that 'consciousness [...] exist entirely by and for itself, independently of all relationship with the outside world, without being moved by an intent aimed at a part of this world'.  [15] This conception of the good imaginative life is the target of McGann and his followers; and Coleridge certainly attributes something very like this state of affairs to 'the self-sufficing power of absolute Genius ', an evidently impressive and admirable power, whose exponents (he tells us) rest content in 'an intermundium of which their own living spirit supplies the substance, and their imagination the ever-varying form'.  [16]

For Coleridge to compare his own self-involution to the tragic nobility of Hamlet's is winning; but at the same time, Hamlet's aversion to externals was, as Coleridge told his lecture audience in 1813, 'morbid'.  [17] The down-side of living your life as an 'instinctive' Berkeleian, as the Infant Prodigy from The Prelude shows, is that one may discover what Thomas Reid found in Berkeley, 'that forlorn state of egoism':  [18] 'Vanity, / That is his soul: there he lives, and there he moves - / It is the soul of every thing he seeks' (1805 V.354-356). Wordsworth recalled late in life that Coleridge suffered from 'a sort of dreaminess which would not let him see things as they were':  [19] for Wordsworth, portraying 'things as they are' is the first requirement of a morally healthy artistic relationship with reality, one which had received its finest explication as a literary principle in the 'Preface' to Lyrical Ballads , and in the third of the Essays on Epitaphs . 'I vindicate the rights and dignity of Nature,' Wordsworth there declares, an adherence which, reasonably though paradoxically (for an artist), leads him positively to distrust 'the adversary of nature, (call that adversary Art or by what name you will)'.  [20]

This strongly realist prescription goes on to form an important strain in later nineteenth-century criticism; and not only Coleridge, but also the more 'Coleridgean' aspects of Wordsworth, were found wanting when judged by Wordsworth's own realist criterion: indeed, it was, possibly, an important reason for Victorian neglect of The Prelude . Clough, for example, wrote of it that,

instead of looking directly at an object, and considering it as a thing in itself, and allowing it to operate upon him as a fact in itself, [Wordsworth] takes the sentiment produced by it in his own mind, as the thing, as the important and really real fact. The real thing ceases to be real; the world no longer exists; all that exists is the feeling, somehow, generated in the poet's sensibility.  [21]

(Hamlet's flaw, thought Coleridge, was to be 'for ever occupied with the world within him, and abstracted from external things' [Lectures , 1: 544].) Clough's language is a compelling mixture of epistemology ('object', 'thing in itself') and sensibility ('sentiment', 'feeling'); and it is no wonder that his friend Arnold, for whom the task of the critical intelligence was precisely to see the object 'as in itself it really is', should have taken so poor a view of The Prelude when set alongside Wordsworth's more really 'really real' poems: at their best, famously, a Wordsworth poem was so extraordinarily real that nature herself took Wordsworth's pen and 'wrote his poem for him'. A distrust of the literary naturally reserves its highest praise for this counter-Coleridgean poetry: it is not literary or even poetry at all - it is a poetry of 'no style'.  [22]

Paul Hamilton observes that, '[f]rom Thomas Love Peacock to McGann', anti-romantics give as the 'stock reason' for their distrust 'the fact that [romanticism] internalizes', a charge which he goes on at once to accept and to reject.  [23] Following rather a different tack, we might suggest that this 'stock reason' is already there within much of the 'romanticism' under attack. Wordsworth's manifestly split feelings about his friend's 'idealist' tendencies parallel an equivocation within his own poetry between, say, the mind as 'lord and master' and endeavouring at all times to look steadily upon one's object. The division is one between a devotion to consciousness in its own right and consciousness as intentionally directed toward, even absorbed by, something other than itself; and Wordsworth's growing moral disapproval of Coleridge's supposed involution in immaterial irreality seems the result of his using the figure of Coleridge as a way of trying to work into order elements of his own creative dilemmas. As Robert Young has commented, both transcendent and 'simple' Wordsworths exist, and both in The Prelude ;  [24] but we should add that accounts of both kinds of imagination are in Coleridge too: which is doubtless how they come to feature in so prominently irreconciled a way in the great 'Poem to Coleridge'. We might expect an emotive equivocation over the sufficiency or authority of the 'internal' to go along with a reluctance whole-heartedly to embrace a philosophy of idealism: of course, one is a question of psychology and the other of proper epistemology, but a parallel seems at least probable. Sure enough - pace the categorical judgements of such influential commentators as Richards and Shawcross, not to mention many since - we find no straightforward alignment with philosophical idealism in Coleridge either. Iris Murdoch once said that a good question to ask of any thinker is 'What is he afraid of?';  [25] and we could reply for Coleridge that one prominent object of fear is nothing other than the epistemologist's obligation to decide between the rival claims of idealism and realism at all. Not only was their reconciliation the declared project of the philosophical chapters of Biographia (Biographia , 1: 260-61), but also his culminating requirement of Wordsworth's Recluse (Letters , 4: 575). In this continuing desire to have things both ways (traced, in different ways, by Thomas McFarland, Raimonda Modiano, and some others), we can perhaps see Coleridge's theoretical orientation as rather more complicated than the traditional anti-romantic case generally has it. We might even look to this divided character for anticipations of the anti-romantic method itself.

III. Coleridge and the Concrete

That we may learn with young unwounded ken

The substance from its shadow ...


In the first chapter of Biographia, Coleridge recalls a crisis in his apprehension of objective fact; he is redeemed from this perilous state by poetry, though not by poetry as poetry ('which is essentially ideal': Biographia , 2: 45) so much as by poetry as a representative of nature. In this passage, he recalls how,

At a very premature age, even before my fifteenth year, I had bewildered myself in metaphysicks, and in theological controversy. Nothing else pleased me. History, and particular facts, lost all interest in my mind.

In this state, '[i]n my friendless wanderings on our leave-days, (for I was an orphan, and had scarce any connections in London)', the boy sought out clergymen with whom to discuss theology; but despite this elevated company, he looks back at this interest as 'beyond doubt, injurious, both to my natural powers, and to the progress of my education'. Fortunately, he was saved:

It would perhaps have been destructive, had it been continued; but from this I was auspiciously withdrawn, partly indeed by an accidental introduction to an amiable family, chiefly however, by the genial influence of a style of poetry, so tender, and yet so manly, so natural and real, and yet so dignified, and harmonious, as the sonnets, &c. of Mr Bowles! Well were it for me perhaps, had I never relapsed into the same mental disease; if I had continued to pluck the flower and reap the harvest from the cultivated surface, instead of delving in the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysical depths. But if in after time I have sought a refuge from bodily pain and mismanaged sensibility in abstruse researches, which exercised the strength and subtlety of the understanding without awakening the feelings of the heart; still, there was a long and blessed interval, during which my natural faculties were allowed to expand, and my original tendencies to develope themselves: my fancy, and the love of nature, and the sense of beauty in forms and sounds.

Biographia , 1: 15-17

John Beer has written finely of the way a Coleridgean 'argument which seems to be pointing firmly in one direction turns out to contain within itself a statement which acts as a counter-current, suggesting somewhere an alternative motion of the mind';  [26] and we can see such equivocating drama played out here between the rival attractions of the metaphysically 'abstruse' and the physically immediate. Like Wordsworth's Ode , which it echoes ('there was a time'), it is entirely lucid in expressing something unrealised: a refusal simply to mourn the past as holding all natural good, but also a hesitancy in embracing the progressive disease of adult life as adequate compensation. The retreat into the senseless world of metaphysics is disastrous and even diabolic (Milton is quoted, describing the fallen angels in wandering mazes lost); but how much of this is merely because of the boy's prematurity? In the elaborate metaphor, the infernal mercury mines of abstruse research are clearly unhealthy when compared to the pleasant meadows of the surface; but at the same time they have in their favour the implications of 'depth' (as opposed to superficiality), and, since Coleridge persists in mining them, he is even allowed a kind of heroism.

Nevertheless, despite the lingering appeal of metaphysical enquiry, the Biographia passage predominantly celebrates restoration to the natural and substantial, a 'Wordsworthian' moral. Later in Biographia , philosophical introspection similarly sets him 'all afloat', drifting in the undirected streaminess of consciousness, until he reaches the firm ground of 'an Ararat' (Biographia , 1: 200), a lifelong craving for solidity: 'My poor crazy ark has been tossed to and fro on an ocean of business, and I long for the Mount Ararat on which it is to rest' (Letters , 1: 176). The experience of Bowles's poetry and the new acquaintance with a family - the Evanses, we happen to know - work in happy parallel because they both effect kinds of rehabilitation, drawing Coleridge, a displaced and self-absorbed orphan, back into a state in which the self may find its true identity in relationship and connection. This need of external support is a recurrent theme in the personal writings: 'My nature requires another Nature for its support,' he confides to his notebook;  [27] and elsewhere stresses 'man's dependence on some thing out of him' (Notebooks , 2: 2672); and again, terribly, cries to his only confidant: 'Have Mercy on me, O something out of me!' (Notebooks , 2: 2453). 'Take away from sounds &c the sense of outness,' as he records elsewhere '- what a horrid disease every moment would become', worrying at that key-term of Berkeley's idealism to which he repeatedly returns (Notebooks , 1: 1307). Clearly, there is no untroubled celebration of self-sufficing consciousness or the glories of a life led unto itself in Coleridge's writing: 'I own myself no self-subsisting mind,' he told Beaumount (Letters, 2: 1054); and the dependency upon relationship which this lack of autonomy creates need not be merely a kind of weakness.

Restoration in the Biographia passage is explicitly associated with the re-awakening of an outward-directed sensibility, experiencing beauty in 'forms and sounds' - a case of entering into a responsive relationship with the 'actualities [...] of the solid world' so valued by Leavis. By a kind of anti-artistic naturalness Bowles restores young Coleridge to health; by withdrawing him from the enervating internalities of metaphysics, this 'style of poetry' makes him one again with the 'natural' and 'real', just as Bowles's poetry is itself 'natural' - Bowles is, as he writes in an early letter, an 'always-natural poet' (Letters , 1: 278). As it happens, one old, and now mostly abandoned, sense of the 'romantic' was precisely the 'return to nature'; and if we think of this less as a reaction against the artifice of neo-classicism and more as a repeated moment in the life of the spirit, then it has some justice. The realist counter-currents in Coleridge, which would initiate such returns, are strong and, when given their fullest expression, give rise to narratives, usually nostalgic, in which, like Wordsworth in Book XI of The Prelude , the return to nature effects an imaginative restoration, as we have seen in Biographia . Such moments do not obviously tally with preconceptions of Coleridge the idealist; indeed, if any philosophical precursor need be found, the structure of the Biographia episode is less like the neo-Kantianism of the pages that come after it than it is like the emotive resort to nature (of a rather different variety, it is true) made by the empiricist Hume when his nerves are troubled by dark metaphysics, an anecdote memorably recounted in the Treatise of Human Nature.

Nature occupies an equivocal place in Coleridge's philosophical speculations: his celebrated commitment to the ideal and supernatural spaces of 'the Vast' is qualified, as Humphry House put it, by 'one of his greatest qualities ... "delight in little things"';  [28] and nature's role is similarly undecided in his conceptions of poetic genius. The Miltonic sublime is a sovereign self-sufficiency, negligent of the external and incapable of escaping the ego to conceive true drama: all the characters are in truth revelations of John Milton (Table Talk , 2: 253). This sublimity, 'the pre-eminent characteristic of the Paradise Lost', exemplifies with especial distinction that 'fleeting away of external things, the mind or subject greater than the object' (Lectures , 2: 427) which Coleridge thought typical of modern poetry; and which I suppose modern commentators to consider definitively 'romantic'. But there is an alternative Coleridgean sublime: the triumphant, self-oblivious impersonation of the Shakespearean imagination, 'that sublime faculty, by which a great mind becomes that which it meditates on' (Notebooks , 3: 3290). With such a genius, for example, Shakespeare 'became Othello and spoke as Othello would have spoken' (Lectures , 1: 359). Such a poet is naturally 'universal', and, like Arnold's Wordsworth, has 'no manner' (Table Talk , 2: 202); so, 'instead of making artificial puppets he brings the real being before you' (Lectures , 1: 359). Shakespeare, of course, has always been celebrated for being the poet of nature, for the startling kinship of his art to nature itself (Dryden's praise - 'when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too'); and, despite his idealist inclinations, Coleridge is no exception to this tradition of realist praise. Indeed his claims for Shakespeare's recreative mimetic powers are more extravagant even than most - despite this involving him in all kinds of theoretical gymnastics when he tries to reconcile it with the ideal bias of his 'Miltonic' enthusiasm: 'Shakespeare [is] in all things the divine Opposition or antithetic correspondent of the divine Milton' (Notebooks , 4: 4714).

These paired, opposed versions of the poetic genius lead a various life in Coleridge's writings, and moral approval shifts about the terms accordingly, from idealist self-creation to realist sympathy, from Miltonic autonomy to Shakespearean sensibility, from male egotism to feminine selflessness, and back again, and again, from page to page of his works.  [29] But the pattern of possibilities on offer remains strikingly consistent - and, what is more, proves extremely tenacious in the work of later critics: it was, for example, precisely sensory blindness to the external universe, construed as a failing, that moved T. S. Eliot to attack Milton.  [30] On this point Leavis concurred, criticising Milton for the romantic failing of 'focussing rather upon words than upon perceptions, sensations or things' (Revaluation , 49), and celebrating instead the palpably self-evident realities of Shakespeare. 'True & easy Test of Poetry,' proposed Coleridge to his notebooks, 'If it relate to sight, might a well educated man born blind have written it' (Notebooks , 1: 1692): if he could , then presumably the poetry was written insufficiently from 'actual individual Experience ,' as he says elsewhere, and to much 'from Book-knowledge' (Notebooks , 2: 2526). By the time we reach Eliot, Coleridge's fluid and shifting valuations of the different positions have hardened into a simple dislike of Milton's ideal, 'literary' or 'poetical' sovereignty; but the positions themselves remain thoroughly Coleridgean. And it is here, I think, in this provision of opposites, that we should locate the continuity of a Coleridgean tradition.

IV. The New Anti-Romanticism

perhaps [some works] are all the better for not being imaginative, for not being literature - they are not literature, they are reality, and in a time like this what we need is reality in large doses.


If we can trace the rhetoric of Leavis's anti-romanticism back to the metaphors and associated preoccupations of Wordsworth and Coleridge, then we can also trace them forward into the work of the modern anti-romanticists, who similarly base their writings on the notion of a restorative return to the concrete. To take some swift examples: Marjorie Levinson hopes to 'bring "Tintern Abbey" back to earth';  [31] while Alan Liu tells us that the imagination must be returned to 'the grounded or demystified Nile that is history' (a river is hardly the happiest instance of groundedness, I suppose, but the rhetorical move is familiar).  [32] And a third case: an essay by other hands finds that Coleridge's lines on the Bastille 'preclude any attention to concrete historical processes', while his career as a whole emerges as 'the triumph of metaphysics and reverie over an attempt at direct engagement with politics and society'  [33] - which (leaving aside his manifest, though admittedly not left-wing, concern with politics and society) can be seen precisely to redeploy Coleridge's own terms of dreamy reverie and concrete solidity.

These assessments of failure imply that the historicist's perfectly anti-romantic poem would be the text which somehow embodied the very texture of its moment's history: hiding nothing, it would come before its reader with complete ingenuousness, 'the literature of the Whole Truth', as opposed to the 'Partial Truth'.  [34] The phrases are Huxley's, whose hero is Homer, reminding us that the artist of the Whole Truth would have less to produce poetry than reproduce nature ('Nature and Homer were, he found, the same'). Such art would be the work of a magically responsive realism, a triumph of always-natural art - precisely analogous, in fact, to the art Coleridge imagines for Bowles or Shakespeare: an art which becomes the thing contemplated and so brings before you the very thing - there - while its own literariness happily dissolves into immediacy.

Where, on earth, might we look for such a poem? McGann once singled out for praise Crabbe's 'human, non-transcendent approach', and made his poetry sound altogether what every anti-romantic materialist would want - 'time- and place- specific', full of 'illustrative' stories, illuminating 'social, psychological, and historical' 'problems' and so forth - but no surge of interest in Crabbe followed, not even, as far as one can see, in McGann himself.  [35] The point is significant of more than the charms of Crabbe. It is not just that the whole method happens to be better in attack; it is rather that it has no positive voice, and can have none: for as soon as one thinks one has found a text which comes 'closer' to material history than (say) Coleridge's poems do, one sees, irritatingly, that it is still a text , still written . Nature, in the guise of 'History', has still not taken the poet's pen. This seems a simple-minded way of putting it, but, despite its often sophisticated general accounts of hermeneutic intricacy, 'History' is customarily introduced by historicist anti-romanticism in a much more bluntly positivist spirit. The desire to gain what Lentricchia calls 'direct access to history's gritty ground-level texture' (Veeser, 234) tips Leavis's poised distrust of the merely 'poetic' into a of creativity and its politics per se. (This seems an after-effect of one kind of Marxism; though not, one might add, a necessary effect).  [36] If one has a constitutional suspicion of the literary, then it is difficult to conceive the kind of literature which could possibly satisfy one's taste, 'really real' art being an obvious pipe dream. My point here is that this dream, like its 'romantic' opponent, recognisably exists within a Coleridgean inheritance, formed about a division between idealist and realist aesthetic orientations: against the ideality of Coleridge's Miltonic aesthetic, the New Historicists are effectively invoking the super-realist, concrete representation of Coleridge's Shakespeare, who 'brings the real being before you'. If any praise is to be offered of the ideal counter-aesthetic, it inevitably sounds dutiful, as if making polite noises about the craftiness of an opponent: what, to the historicist, could be less 'brilliant' than 'the distancing of culture from politics that Romantic writers often brilliantly proposed' (Klancher; in Veeser, 77)? The brilliance can only be in the form of dazzling sophistication, like Satan's in Paradise Lost.

But if one cannot reasonably hope to encounter the perfectly realist text, then one might at least look forward to the historicist perfection of the texts we have. This perfection would explain what appears to be the text's self-sustaining, ideal Coleridgean existence as in fact the product of its determining historical occasion, revealing poetic inevitability to be actually the mystified form of contingency; the spuriously autonomous text would be forced, under historicist pressure, to come clean about its secret relationships with the external world. The critic has now assumed the adversarial task of, as Levinson puts it, 'locat[ing] the body': the agenda is explicitly political - a way of 'find[ing] a use' for 'Romantic transcendence', and the 'use' depends on detecting the 'History' it is attempting to evade (Levinson, 55; 57). For 'History' features in romantic poetry only by its pretended absence, by tell-tale bumps of the body in the would-be 'literary', 'idealist' text: thus, 'Levinson restores social history as a wilfully repressed content', Jon Klancher writes, bringing to light 'what the poem should have shown' (Veeser, 81; my italics). Liu's Wordsworth: The Sense of History repeats this turn over and over again: 'the georgic meditation of nature projected in Book 6 of The Prelude can only bury history out of sight provisionally before turning it up once more' - at which moment spurious, literary (= 'georgic') nature is supplanted by the real nature of things (Liu, 20). The rhetoric of a restoration to the concrete is recognisably a version of Coleridge's return to the authentically substantial and natural: what should have occupied the mind.

The very mode of existence of a literary work has by now become a species of false consciousness, for it comes into being in the first place only as a kind of misperception of its historical occasion, seeking to be, like Coleridge's Quixote, 'an unlimited monarch over the creations of [its] fancy' (Lectures , 2: 161). But once the actual historical implication of the work is revealed, the work, as a work of art ('poetry as poetry'), disappears into the seamless continuity of the History which in fact provoked it: 'The inventor of the watch did not in reality invent it; he only look'd on, while the blind causes, the only true artists, were unfolding themselves,' as Coleridge satirically put the position (Biographia , 1: 119-20). By retrospective critical intervention, 'History' reclaims the pen and writes (or implies) the poem that would have been written had the odd superfluity of consciousness not interfered. Perfected, the work then leaves the mystified category of the 'literary' behind, just as the idealist consciousness finds itself returned to the material actuality of impersonal forces; and, like the poems of Coleridge's Bowles or Shakespeare, returns to the proper plenitude of the externally real. The poem is thus restored to its vital identity with what is really important, the non-literary; and, relieved, the critic may say to the redeemed poem, as Bob Dylan once put it, 'You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal'.  [37] The study of literature at all then comes precariously close to being a specialism in the varieties of ideological obfuscation; and the very possibility of poetry's integrity - in both senses - is utterly forfeited.

And where does this leave us? To establish a parallel between the historicists' return from shadowy illusion to natural substance, and Coleridge's, may be surprising; but it is not valid to go on then to say that the historicists are therefore really 'romantic' all along, as if blowing their alibi: the entire structure of the argument between 'romantic' and 'anti-romantic' exists within a Coleridgean tradition in the first place. The important point lies elsewhere: for in one respect, of course, there is a remarkable difference between Leavis and the modern anti-romanticist: the 'material' reality from which Coleridge and his fellow romantic ideologues are said to turn away is not the felt materiality of stocks and stones, but the so-called concreteness of 'History', which replaces 'nature' in the unsteady, informal dialectic between object and poet-subject. For the historicists, as Liu proclaims, '[t]here is no nature' (Liu, 38); but, although the historicists are keen to stress the de-naturalising intent of their work, their 'History' actually keeps the important attributes of the 'nature' it replaces. Like Nature, 'History' brings relief: as Coleridge felt Nature save him from the self-absorption of metaphysics, so its latter-day replacement, 'History', has not infrequently been invoked as a solution to the spurious and harmful autonomy of the formalist 'Text', and the attendant, quasi-epistemological imponderables of 'Theory' ('the object as in itself it really is' or 'one's impression as it really is' or 'the object as in itself it really isn't'). Like Hume's resort to nature, this is actually a determination not to worry about the problems, rather than their solution, a frame of mind which Brook Thomas has satirically diagnosed as 'How I learned to stop worrying about theory by forgetting about it' (Veeser, 187). The felt need for such redemptive solidity tends to cast History in anti-romantic writing as, in Robert Young's words, 'an outside, a concrete, that somehow remains exterior to "theory", unaffected by it, capable of enclosing it and even swallowing it up'  [38] - like the patient appearances of Nature before the troubled metaphysician.

But this is not the only reason why an historicist version of anti-romanticism has become so popular: another is the (illusory) sense it offers of hardening up the notion of 'context' and thus solving an old problem. 'If a social-historical situation can be said to exist in a determinate way, then why not a text?' asks Kelvin Everest;  [39] but can it be so said? Without a Marxist confidence to know what is and is not self-evidently significant as 'history', the problem of relevance will properly remain insoluble because context is, logically, endless (really, universally, relations stop nowhere); and the 'readings' it allows may be quite as indeterminately various as those of the most unrooted of formalists.  [40] In one sense, as a pragmatist like Stanley Fish would doubtless respond, this means there is simply no problem: all context must be ad hoc, and an older generation of literary historians accepted as much without making that the basis of a style or an anti-metaphysical metaphysic.  [41] On the other hand, to reconceive the relationship between poet and world in terms of an immaterial subject or text and a 'material' object (Wordsworth's Imagination or The Prelude and Napoleon, for example) appears to reduce the matter happily into the manageably schematic shape of an epistemological paradigm. It insists on 'a material reality in relation to which texts are secondary' (as Stanley Fish finds in Jon Klancher: Veeser, 304); but the 'materiality' of this 'history', its 'concreteness', the 'groundedness' it offers, its ability to 'place' the text, are all wholly rhetorical. This latest anti-romantic exploitation of the Coleridgean idiom, one sometimes suspects, allows all the firm-mindedness of Marx's 'materialism' without any of the nuisance of having to believe in what Marx actually said.

Coleridge has a comprehensive intellectual virtue, and says many things about Shakespeare, by no means all of them develop or depend upon the enabling critical mythology of his super-realism: indeed, Coleridge's personal experience that attaining an artless nakedness in art was actually a matter of assumption (Letters , 1: 379) anticipates his later discovery that elevating the principle of 'nature' into the sole criterion of excellence leaves you with nothing praiseworthy worth saying. One can only say 'It's like Nature' so many times, as Ruskin found too; and the praise is self-defeating anyway, since, if an art-work is good because it is rather like Nature, it can never be as exactly like it as Nature is. The new anti-romantics are typically much more single-minded than Coleridge, and find things to say by describing the ways in which poems fall short of such natural excellence; but, if the merit of any critical method is to be assessed by the intricacy of the readings it encourages, this one runs a big risk: for, as part of its single-mindedness, it practises a kind of necessary violence on the diversity and complexity of the 'History' it ostensibly champions. ('History' = 'Napoleon', say; or 'History' = 'the rural poor'.) Ironically, then, the greatest victim of the historicists' committed use of the anti-romantic paradigm may be the very history they are so publicly enthusiastic to save.

The new anti-romanticism tends to delineate the margin between immaterial 'text' and concrete reality by an uncrossable line, defining literariness by opposition; and yet also to deplore the bad ideology that pretends the line is there at all, making it inevitably complicit with the textual metaphysics it exists to deplore. Liu's work, for example, as David Perkins has argued, depends on assuming a positively 'oppositional relation of text to context' (Perkins, 146): accordingly, his extremely sophisticated book shows an almost bizarrely naive faith in the objective immediacy of his source material, a faith which naturally partners his practically programmatic distrust of Wordsworth's poetry. But to pretend, even if initially for one's own rhetorical self-confidence, that history is somehow as substantial as the stone Dr Johnson kicked can only be misleading: one does not need to believe that all history is just more text to disbelieve that history is, somehow, object to the text's subject. The 'History' which is referred to, appealed to, and returned to, is held to be simply 'self-evident, and need[ing] no elaboration' (Young, 22). Why Napoleon? Well, the only defence can be his self-evidence: it is natural to choose Napoleon, because he was the really real object of the poem in the first place.  [42] Every poem is a poem which takes the place of a mountain - and we want the mountain, for it is Ararat. I appreciate - and indeed share - the sense of spiritual need secretly motivating such 'materialism'; but surely this is not a very subtle way of thinking about history and historical sources: one cannot imagine historians getting very far with it, for example. It contains an argument without appeal which justifies itself only by its rhetoric's implicit appeal to naturalness.

But, finally, why should there be any general law governing the relationship between 'romantic' poetry and history anyway? Critics are only seduced into positing one, I think, because their language has reified 'History' into something as substantial as a stone and the 'text' into its idealist rival: with epistemology as your role-model, the lure of a general theory appears too tempting to resist; and one is drawn into describing relationships which, if translated back into the older and less glamorous language of psychological likelihood, would often seem ludicrous. It seems at least tolerably likely that literary works exist within historical time in rather more complex ways than the antagonistic stand-off suggested by the anti-romantic paradigm can allow, and very possibly in entirely various and quite distinct ways which are the results of authors having different kinds of mind. There seems no reason why we should expect a general rule; and realising this involves the critic once again in the more-or-less empirical, more-or-less guessing and uncertain evaluation of a writer's psychology or personality, far away from the (by definition) universal claims of an epistemology. This need not involve us treating art as simply 'self-expression', whatever that is, for it is not to deny art a kind of autonomy: indeed, normal critical procedure takes that entirely for granted, in an unemphatic and practical sort of way. It merely suggests that art's relations with the world without art are mediated through the contingencies of imaginative individuality (which may be deplorable, I do not deny), rather than through the universal rules of a general case. This makes criticism a good deal more interesting to do, in my view, placing on the critic the duty of the balancing act described by T. S. Eliot (a good Coleridgean) who sought

to maintain the autonomy and disinterestedness of literature, and at the same time to exhibit the relations of literature—not to 'life', as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.  [43]

Of course, that is easier said than done; but at least it says it: and success is not to be brought nearer by the new historicist form of the anti-romantic idiom.

Parties annexes