Catherine II of Russia, a glamorous, enlightened Romanticist figure in her own right, enraged both Coleridge and Byron. Coleridge, who reported her bloody campaigns in The Watchman, cursed her cruelty at the battle of Ismail in “Ode on the Departing Year” just as she was dying. Twenty-seven years after her death, Byron, in Don Juan cantos 6 to 10, which cover the Russian wars and the St. Petersburg court, attacked her even more vituperatively. Thus, Coleridge’s decision not to be a “Historiographer of Hell” is taken up by Byron in his decision to be that historiographer. The two poets’ responses to Catherine’s brutality and sexuality are intertwined. At the basis of their anger is Catherine’s use of human persons as things. Both show their disgust by reducing the Tzarina to her sexual body, vindictively turning her into a “thing” through rhetorical plays on her body parts.
Although much has been written about Coleridge’s ideas concerning language, less has been said about the role that communication plays in his work, particularly his use of language as a medium for bridging the distance between himself and others. Coleridge felt that great poetry could successfully overcome this gap, and in his poetry there are moments when he felt that he was fully tuned-in to an intelligible universe created by an all-loving and all-communicating God. Such moments, when the “One Life” was revealed to him were based upon a theory of communication in which the universe was the medium of divine communication. More frequently, however, Coleridge was troubled by bad reception, by what he understood to be a failure of communication, times when he was denied complete participation in a fully intelligible world and when the gap separating himself from others and from nature appeared as a chasm. “Sometimes when I earnestly look at a beautiful Object or Landscape,” he writes in a notebook, “it seems as if I were on the brink of a Fruition still denied--as if Vision were an appetite: even as a man would feel, who having put forth all his muscular strength in an act of prosilience, at that very moment held back -- he leaps & yet moves not from his place” (Notebooks III, no 3767). At such times, Coleridge felt “held back,” wanting desperately to move forward from his sense of isolation but unable to do so. This state of tension, in the desire for complete communication in a context of communication breakdowns, characterizes Coleridge’s best writing. For Coleridge, poetry was the highest form of human communication, and the task of a poet was to use language to move his readers beyond the need for words. When communication failed, he felt that he was a failed poet. This essay will examine Coleridge’s commitment to the idea of perfect communication at the same time as it suggests that one aspect of Coleridge’s strength as a writer lies in those moments when he grappled with the fallibility of human communication and sought to build community in a world in which our relationship to others also includes isolation, misdirection, darkness, strangeness, and ghosts.
This article seeks to revise our understanding of the development of The Prelude by showing how it emerged from a literary exchange that depended on absence. It was not so much a poem prompted by the closeness of Wordsworth and Coleridge as one born of their distance—one that forged a relationship between selves across a temporal and spatial divide by a series of textual devices. These devices, I show, originated in prose and verse sent by mail—in letters that inscribed and sought to overcome distance by using particular forms of address and marks of emphasis: a shared code elaborated on paper rather than in speech. Among these forms of address, the invocation of the “Friend!” (complete with exclamation point) was of particular importance: taken over from the letters, it became a vital part of the poem’s formal, thematic and textual development. It is thus especially unfortunate that the editors of the most popular standard edition of the poem in the twentieth century chose to remove the exclamation point from this and other phrases throughout the 1805 poem, obscuring a crucial aspect of the origination in writing—as a textual address—of what was called the “poem to Coleridge.”
This essay explores the relationships between Coleridge’s notebook entries and letters to Sara Hutchinson during his tour of the Cumbrian mountains in August 1802, focusing on his nearly disastrous descent from the summit of Scafell. It also revisits his controversial claim that he took those experiences and “transferred” himself “in Spirit” to the Alps in the process of composing “Hymn Before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouny.” The question of how such experiences are “transferrable” has exercised critics from the beginning of Coleridge studies, and the essay offers a new approach by concentrating on the experiential content of the tour as the material of poetic composition.
Taking as its point of departure the little-known fact that Coleridge was jailed as a Jacobin pro-French spy during his Scottish tour of 1803, this article explores the issue of the relationship of the fragmentary poems he published in 1816 to the political and personal contexts in which they had been composed years earlier. It speculates that what makes a Coleridgean fragment a fragment is what is left out—contextual material that the author could or would not admit into the published text because it configured divided loyalties, about which he was ashamed and guilty. Contributing to a debate about the ideological function of significant absences in Romantic poetry that Marjorie Levinson provoked by her discussion of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” the article argues that Coleridge came to practise textual severance—publishing poems and their contexts separately, as if unrelated to each other, so that their origin in writing about which he was guilty and anxious—on political grounds and personal—was not apparent. How conscious this severance was is, at this distance, undecidable: what is clear is that some of the context returned in disguised form, as if publication served unwittingly as a refraction of material that Coleridge had repressed; as a result, the published text contained more than Coleridge explicitly declared and, perhaps, knew.
This essay begins by establishing the vexed status of authorship in the early nineteenth century, a period during which the professional author and the writer-as-artist remained conflicted and nascent ideas but in which the authority mustered by judicious quarterly critics was both potent and profitable. It considers the challenges and possibilities of this situation by closely examining an 1808 correspondence between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review. These letters, addressing Coleridge’s reputation and the propriety of reviewing the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson, are deeply revealing both as to Coleridge’s ambivalent feelings about the effectiveness of his own self-presentations and regarding the strongly socialised positions that successful authors tended to occupy. I pay particular attention to the distinctions Coleridge draws between Wordsworth, inured to passing periodical criticism and destined for an eventual triumph, and Clarkson, who Coleridge “cannot regard as a mere author” and whose work he “cannot read or criticise [...] as a mere literary production” (CL 3: 119). While Coleridge privileges Clarkson’s socially-created self, he also claims a space for a more devoted kind of authorship, attempting to persuade a sceptical Jeffrey that he can redefine himself and potentially effect great changes through writing. Coleridge’s obvious concern with the ways that Jeffrey sees him and the pragmatic requests he makes reveal him to be cannily engaged in the business of manipulating social reputations; while the letters are early symptoms of an eventual shift in how authorship was conceived, they also reveal Coleridge’s investment in older, less textually-focused forms of influence.
This essay reads Southey’s repeated writings between 1806 and 1812 on the "monitorial method" of education, and the religious-political controversy over its invention and application. I suggest that this repetitive writing provides insights into Southey's career, as well as wider issues of Romantic historicism, originality, authorial integrity, and system. The first section considers Southey’s associative style, and his connection between the use of humiliating punishments in Joseph Lancaster’s monitorial schools and the threat of domestic revolution. The second section reads Southey’s support for Lancaster's rival Andrew Bell as part of his search for a systematic basis for the pro-war and anti-Catholic terms of his conservatism, in the context of the periodical culture-wars between the Quarterly and the Edinburgh Review. Section three then explores Southey’s changing position in the Bell-Lancaster controversy in the light of his “art of historical book-keeping,” and suggests a contorted literary consistency behind the alleged political “apostasy.” The coda reflects on the contrast of system and style between Southey and Coleridge, and their diverging visions of education and the "national church.”
Of English writers of the early nineteenth century, none has so sustained and well-documented an engagement with Spinozan metaphysics as Coleridge. Encountering Spinoza's monism both indirectly, through works contributing to the pantheism controversy of the 1790s, and directly, in intensive study of a collected edition of Spinoza's works in 1812-13, Coleridge repeatedly identified the Dutch philosopher with Christianity, particularly in his personal conduct, while deploring the moral implications of his supposed denial of free will. This ambivalent response to Spinoza is reflective of a fundamental and persistent tension in Coleridge's own thought between his attraction to a metaphysical monism, as the basis for postulating the unity of subject and object, and his desire to affirm Trinitarian Christianity.