Nicholas Reid’s Coleridge, Form and Symbol offers a systematic, critical reading of Coleridge’s philosophy of form and meaning. Among the major philosophical issues in Coleridge studies during the past forty years is the interpretation of his notion of the symbol. Symbols serve as a fulcrum for multiple issues within Coleridge’s thought, including notions of language, imagination, nature, and interpretation. The German idealist philosopher F. W. J. Schelling typically lurks behind the scenes in these discussions, since Coleridge infamously drew upon Schelling’s philosophy in the formation of his epistemology in Biographia Literaria. Nicholas Reid’s carefully-constructed study contends that a concrete relationship exists between forms (such as nature or art) and ideas. Drawing from a wide range of major early poems and insightful readings of late prose writings such as the Opus Maximum, Reid maintains that Coleridge’s philosophy of mind is predicated on a unity that extends from the being of the Triune God to the consubstantiality of symbols and ideas within creation. While clearly indebted to Schelling’s system, Coleridge’s late writings (from 1818 onwards) move beyond Schelling’s dialectic through an appeal to polar logic that avoids Schelling’s incipient pantheism and purportedly inadequate logic. Since Reid contends that Coleridge offers a coherent rather than fragmentary system, he is able to move comfortably between the late prose and early poetry in order to convey fresh insights into the inner logic of Coleridge’s metaphysics. Reid’s study thereby elucidates, in other words, what Coleridge so famously pondered in poems such as “Frost at Midnight,” with its “lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language, which thy God / Utters” (Collected Coleridge 16.1:456).
Reid divides the book into three parts: “Image and Form,” “Coleridge’s Poetry,” and “Coleridgean Metaphysics.” In “Image and Form,” Reid explains the foundational problem: how can nature or art forms embody meaning? Theories of representative perception are a key aspect of the contemporary debate. Flowing out of Locke’s belief that the individual perceives (via optic nerves, etc.) and re-presents the physical world in the mind, representationalist theories assert the immediacy of the world. Reid denies the passivity of human perception that he finds in representationalist theories by appealing to the epistemology of the early twentieth-century philosopher L. A. Reid. Reid argued that the mind does not passively receive immediate sensory impressions of the world, but rather “images” the world in acts of knowing: “Reid saw the active nature of perception as paradigmatic of the active and constructive nature of mind more generally. Images are not merely passively ‘received’ from the outside world: they are active mental constructs, and hence precisely the kind of thing which can embody meaning” (16). Although Reid does not offer an exhaustive review of the contemporary debate, his explication effectively demonstrates something of the inherent philosophical issue with which Coleridge grappled (for example, the perceiving subject remains a relevant topic in contemporary epistemology), and he sets the stage for an explication of the way that Coleridge distanced himself from notions of the passive mind that he briefly experimented with in his early years (especially Hartleyan associationalism in the 1790s).
All this begs the question: what is form? Form is a broad term for Reid, since form encapsulates the transformative process whereby data is converted and preserved in a new medium. Form is not limited to shape or structure alone: the form of the Grecian urn, for example, is not limited to its shape in silhouette alone, but also includes other “sensuous” aspects such as texture, color, and sheen. Aesthetic works can be defined, then, according to the transformative and preservative structure of the act. The work of art is not, in this model, the shape or structure of the poem or painting, but the totality of the thing, including its shape and “sensuous” qualities. These varied qualities become bearers of meaning located in the transformative act of imaging the concrete presentation by the perceiving subject. For Reid, such a view of form and meaning draws close to Coleridge’s mature conception of the workings of imagination.
Part II, “Coleridge’s Poetry,” turns back to several early poems in order to show how these major works actually prefigured Coleridge’s later philosophy of form and meaning. When Reid explicates “The Ancient Mariner,” for example, he attends to the myth-making capacity of the Mariner and the mode of his redemption. Reid maintains that Coleridge’s utilization of overtly fictive characteristics and openly religious images calls the attention of the reader to the question of method. The poem elevates an underlying hermeneutical or interpretive concern through attentiveness to the symbol-making capacity of the Mariner. The Mariner does not simply experience an isolated act of imagination (namely, the re-visioning of the water snakes), but rather experiences an ongoing process of transformation. Similarly, Reid sees in “Frost at Midnight,” “Dejection,” and “Kubla Khan,” a “lament for the absence of an experience, combined with the construction of a fiction about how another character will react to its presence” (62; emphasis mine). In “Frost at Midnight,” the “slow and controlled pace” of the poem joins with the infant’s breathing to create an experience of “consciousness of nothing but consciousness” (65). For Reid, the poem is not an exposition of Nature overwhelming the poetic, but a “conservative corrective” of the Wordsworthian vision through attentiveness to the dialectic between text and reader: “The divine ministry takes place through the immanence within the imagination; through not a realism but an idealism in the reading of natural symbols. This reveals the limits and scope of the imagination’s autonomy as it works with the material which lies at the core of its being, the internalisation and reconstruction of symbols—its supremely committed fictions” (66). The visionary experience in consciousness is a form of presence driven and produced by the experience of absence. Coleridge reverses the process in “Kubla Khan,” however, where vision is found at the beginning of the poem only to be followed by a lament for its loss. Vision creates alienation in the one who has experienced the divine. Reid’s point is really about relationality, since images of presence and absence function symbiotically. For Coleridge (against his rationalist predecessors, such as the Deists), nature and art (that is, forms) have the capacity to convey meaning as symbols; for this reason, the Mariner wanders the land telling a story filled with images of joy and despair, as well as life and death. The forms are not static structures, but dynamic vehicles in the creation of meaning.
Reid offers a number of excellent insights into these poems, but I found myself wishing for a stronger connection with the overarching theme of form. Why, for example, are the symbols of these poems—such as the symbols of nature—symbols rather than metaphors? How do the ostensibly “dynamic” symbols of the “Rime” continue to convey meaning in each retelling as the Mariner’s context changes? A clearer presentation of the underlying metaphysic even in this early stage of Coleridge’s work would clarify such lingering questions. Reid’s later section on metaphysics takes readers closer to possible answers, but I wish he had made some of these connections clearer while still addressing the poetry.
Reid labels the third and final section of the book “Coleridgean Metaphysics.” This is the longest and most demanding section of the book, but it is surely also Reid’s most important contribution—one that students and specialists alike will find extraordinarily beneficial. Reid begins by taking readers through a careful analysis of Schelling that leads to a lucid description of Coleridge on imagination, language, and the role of symbols. The groundwork for this section is an analysis of Coleridge’s Opus Maximum and Biographia Literaria in light of a deliberate reading of Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism. Reid qualifies his reading of Schelling carefully, noting in particular that he creates a schema of what in Schelling’s work remains largely an implicit structure. Reid notes, too, that Schelling’s dialectical logic needs to be carefully distinguished from Coleridge’s “polar” logic, just as Schelling’s pantheistic tendencies ought to be carefully distinguished from Coleridge’s overt efforts to avoid pantheism.
Reid proceeds, with these caveats in mind, through an explication of Schelling’s deduction: through the three “epochs” of the deduction from the Real to the emergence of self-consciousness. Schelling ultimately collapses his own system, however, by asserting polarity in the Real—a move that Schelling’s dialectic will not allow. The Real is nothing more than an abstract presupposed as the prior, primary act of the subject and object. Coleridge, by contrast, believes that the logically prior Real must be a true unity. Here, Coleridge appeals on philosophical grounds to the Christian Trinity, which is “ultimate, self-instantiating, consciousness” and allows for meaningful recognition of a logically prior unity in the ground of being. Coleridge’s concept of the Absolute Will, then, is unabashedly personal and avoids voluntarism, since will can only exist in the expression that is the Trinity: “Coleridge conceives of the Father as an infinite fullness, and of the Son as an infinite capacity. An impersonal ‘other’ could not perform this function, nor would it explain why the will, as a source of causativeness which is personal in nature, should issue forth in the causation of an impersonal product” (120). Here, Reid is especially to be commended for incorporating Coleridge’s explanation of the divine in “Fragment 4” of the Opus Maximum (a manuscript that is extraordinarily difficult to place in the larger project and which some conjecture as a largely preparatory effort towards his opus [see various comments on “Fragment 4” in Barbeau (ed.), Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion, Peeters Press, 2006, esp. 56-57]). There, as in other parts of the Opus Maximum and the late notebooks, Coleridge explains the connection between divine being and human subjectivity. Yet Reid’s focus on Schelling, though valuable, risks underestimating another important source that may lie behind Coleridge’s Trinitarian formulation: Augustine, whose influence on the Christian Neoplatonic tradition surely informed Coleridge’s views. Reid mentions Augustine’s communitarian model of love and the role of will, but future explication of Coleridge’s views will undoubtedly require greater attention to Augustine’s De trinitate, which is arguably the single-most important treatise on the divine in Western Christianity.
The reader who presses on through Reid’s explication of Schelling and Coleridge receives a handsome reward: Biographia Literaria, according to Reid, is an “abortive” argument in Coleridge’s intellectual development, though the work certainly established his thinking on form and meaning in pivotal ways (105). Reid contends that Coleridge’s definition of the imagination depends on Trinitarian logic and his understanding of the limitations of the fallen self (cf. “the satanic imagination”): “when we look more closely at the details of the unconscious perceptual process, and at the ultimate status of the finite self, the story becomes problematic, for the finite self has no actuality other than that granted by the grace of the divine will, and its origins in privation leave it (and all its products) in perpetual need of that grace” (147). In essence, the late Coleridge came to reject the definition of the imagination found in Biographia because, in Reid’s words, it is “insufficiently qualified (is simply too grand) in its implicit claims for the human imagination, for it fails to acknowledge the ways in which our fallenness prevents any genuine repetition of the divine act in our own creativity” (147). Imagination exists, then, but only through a gift of divine grace.
The imagination—reconstructed through the philosophical background of Schelling’s system and Coleridge’s subsequent corrective—can now be related to Reid’s overarching theme: form and content. Imagination, in Coleridge’s idealist system, is not the perception of objects external to the self, but the knowledge of subjects “rendered objective when perceived by a finite self” (154). Imaging is an active process of symbol-making; the mind “outers” itself and translates disembodied ideas into symbols (images, linguistic entities, and so forth) (156). Language is a potential vehicle or instrument (or form), but, contrary to the correspondence view, language is not the instrument for the expression of abstract ideas. The question—and this is a question I had before reading Reid’s work—is whether all conventional symbols are arbitrary for Coleridge. Reid’s emphasis on form and language connects symbol-making to the work of the mind. But it remains unclear if, for Coleridge, the Trinity alone is non-arbitrary. Do some symbols stand apart, such as the cross of Christ or the bread and wine of the Eucharist? Reid’s analysis implies that these sacred symbols do not differ in kind, even if they may differ in degree (he doesn’t say one way or the other). Yet, while Reid seems somewhat uncomfortable with the tautegorical interpretation of the Coleridgean symbol (cf. Nicholas Halmi), neither does he raise symbols quite to the level of consubstantial, sacramental signs (cf. J. Robert Barth). I, for one, would be interested in hearing more direct commentary from Reid about the nature of distinctly religious symbols, given Coleridge’s attention to the theological character of the symbol and the predominance of the religious context in his late writings.
Reid’s Coleridge, Form and Symbol belongs to a growing body of literature that devotes significant attention to the late Coleridge (a period roughly between 1818 and his death in 1834). The book requires a Coleridgean penchant for interdisciplinary thinking, since Reid asks his readers to wrestle with complex notions of image and meaning, poetry and art, as well as philosophy and religion. While fully aware of the contemporary implications of any recovery of Coleridge’s philosophy and by no means uncritical in his reception (Reid, for example, does not share Coleridge’s theistic commitments), he encourages his readers to beware of facile theoretical interpretations that ignore subtle literary and philosophical nuances in Coleridge’s writings. Most importantly, Reid presents a challenging case that logic “lies at the heart of Coleridge’s thinking” and, thus, any attempt to address Coleridge’s coherence or fragmentariness that fails to consider the logic at the heart of his work is shortsighted at best (108).
Reid’s work can be demanding. But the demands are worthwhile, I think, because he sets the course for the future of Coleridge studies. The late notebooks are a treasure-trove of insights and, with all of Coleridge’s vast literary corpus now available in a critical edition, the notion of myopic research in the early writings is increasingly problematic. If Coleridge offers a broadly coherent philosophical vision—albeit a gradually unfolding one, as a growing list of commentators including myself maintain—then Reid’s agile movement between the early, middle, and late writings is a model of critical scholarship in this new era of Coleridge studies. Reid recognizes the fundamental differences in Coleridge’s work over the course of his life, while avoiding an artificial compartmentalization of the periods as if they cannot provide mutually-informing insights. As I have noted, there are certainly aspects of his interpretation that I would like to see developed, but Reid’s book encouraged me to think about Coleridge’s prose and poetry in fresh and stimulating ways.
Jeffrey W. Barbeau is Associate Professor of Theology in the Graduate School of Wheaton College (Ill.). Recent publications include Coleridge, the Bible, and Religion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and, as editor, Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum (Louvain: Peeters, 2006). Current research projects include books and articles on Romanticism and religion, the theological writings of Sara Coleridge, and global Methodism.