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This book is surely the best monograph to have appeared to date on the subject of Coleridge's Christianity. I do not say this lightly (though I should, perhaps, signal my own position as an atheist). There are, after all, other excellent books on this subject—J.F. Boulger's Coleridge as Religious Thinker (1961) and J. Robert Barth's Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (1969) to name just two. [1] But Wendling's book (very different from these earlier works) represents a clear advance on them. Boulger and Barth were concerned above all to expound Coleridge's later religious thought. Both proceeded by means of conceptual analysis, asking questions such as "what does Coleridge understand by 'faith'?". Ronald C. Wendling asks: 'what was the function of such questions in the developing totality of Coleridge's thought?' and 'how did the circumstances of Coleridge's life contribute to the answers he settled upon?'.

Coleridgeans will immediately recognise the pertinence of Wendling's questions. For Coleridge was first and foremost, a religious thinker whose endeavours in other spheres were always subordinate to this end. It is all but impossible to develop a rounded picture of Coleridge as poet, critic or metaphysician without referring to his religious beliefs, which formed collectively, as he said, 'the keystone in the arch'. And yet works on Coleridge as a religious thinker rarely convey this centrality very vividly. This should not surprise us: theology is the one area of his thought in which the primacy of religion can be taken for granted.

Yet Coleridge's religious evolution is at work everywhere in his oeuvre. In 1815, he began work on a 'Preface' to his Collected Poems, which grew and grew, eventually reaching two volumes. It was published two years later under the title Biographia Literaria. Biographia is a special kind of autobiography; the subtitle tells us it is the history of Coleridge's 'literary life and opinions' and readers usually expect a mélange of the two. In fact, life and opinions are rigorously segregated: Coleridge rarely tells us what the opinions meant to him; and some of what he does say is questionable. The first volume expounds and evaluates the philosophic arguments that he espoused in youth and early middle age; the second, centering on the works of Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Milton, evinces the literary judgements that this trajectory inspired. He is concerned only with whether they were true or false. The result is magnificent but odd. The pages on Wordsworth are justly regarded as among the best in English literary criticism. But precisely because his response to his friend's work is so detailed and so rich, we begin to wonder why it is necessary to approach his own verse from such a high level of abstraction.

If personal motives were important—due modesty, for example, and an unwillingness to admit that he was an ordinary mortal who changed his mind from time to time—I believe that the primacy of religion was a still more significant factor. For if Coleridge had offered practical criticism of some of the poems for which he was best known, he would have had to direct attention to the fact that many of them aimed to bring about in his readers' minds psychological experiences of a kind described by David Hartley, in which the mind observes its own processes and finds them mirrored in the workings of nature. This, in turn, might have alerted them to a pantheistic claim running through his early poetry (that the mind of man and the 'mind' of nature are one). Coleridge was sufficiently anxious about this possibility that he actually changed some of his poems for later publication. 'Frost at Midnight' is probably the most famous example. As Humphry House pointed out long ago, one of the things that makes the 1798 version of 'Frost at Midnight' a great poem is the understated manner in which it reproduces the movements of the mind in Hartleyan terms. [2] It is easy to see why this preface to his own poems mutated into a literary life: if he had commented at length on 'Frost at Midnight' he would have had to explain not only the content of his poem, but also its method—both Hartleyan to the core. And while his poetic skill might have been displayed to great effect in such an explanation, it would have entailed an acknowledgement of the depth of his erstwhile commitment to religious positions inspired by Hartley (and possibly have encouraged others in the same wayward direction). And that was the very thing Biographia was written to hide. Here, then, was the negative side of the subordination of all his efforts to his religious beliefs.

Wendling's second question takes us onto much thornier ground. He believes it is impossible to do justice to the evolution of Coleridge's religious thought without considering the biographical context in which it arose. Accordingly he adopts what he calls a 'personalist' approach, setting Coleridge's religious beliefs against the background of his emotional needs. Now personalism has for long been viewed with suspicion by scholars. The principal objections to it were set out by Owen Barfield in his great book, What Coleridge Thought (1972). [3] Barfield was addressing a specific personalist claim, that 'Coleridge's philosophy was really determined by his emotional need for the Christian faith'. 'I have never seen it adequately demonstrated', he wrote,

… and I am now convinced, from actual study of Coleridge's philosophy that it is impossible to reach [this conclusion] without the help of a prescinding aversion from Christianity or at least the Christian Church.

Barfield, 12

In Barfield's view, personalism only ever begs questions; it never answers them. We all know that Coleridge's nature fell far short of what he thought Christianity demanded of him. The personalist will say that he found in it the hope of making his nature stronger. But couldn't the mismatch justify the opposite conclusion just as well, viz., that Coleridge's commitment to Christianity actually led him to betray his own nature which, from what we know of it, might have been more at ease with 'a different metaphysic—a "black" one for instance' by which he could have assured himself that 'because life has no meaning, it [called] for no moral exertion' (Barfield, 9)? In Barfield's view, there was no credible way of deciding between these alternatives. But this did not matter much because of another, more substantial objection. The origins of a belief, in Barfield's view, should not trouble scholars; our business is with whether the belief is true or false. Personalism is confused on precisely this point. It overlooks the fact that the content of a belief is all we really have. And because of this, 'Even if it were profound, [personalist exegesis] would always be irrelevant' (ibid).

Wendling's personalism is more sophisticated than this sally might lead us to expect. And his response to Barfield is incisive:

Barfield's Coleridge was someone who could discuss the Trinity in the same detached way as a problem in geometry… But Coleridge regarded the subjectivity of Christian faith as even more important than its elaboration into a philosophically well-grounded theological system. To maintain its vitality theological faith had to keep alive the heart in the head, constantly nourishing itself with a Lutheran awareness of the need for individual conversion and human dependence on supernatural intervention. This subjective sense of faith involves a sense of one's ontological, and not merely psychological, weakness, but in Coleridge's case it was his emotional needs, moral failures and psychological dependencies that provided the constant daily reminders of his impoverished 'being' and consequently deep religious need.


The point is well made. It does not require 'a prescinding aversion from Christianity' to recognise that Coleridge frequently traced the evolution of his religious beliefs to a few key biographical facts (his expulsion from the family home when he was only nine, fuelling a fear that he would never be loved; his ill-starred marriage; and his opium addiction, to take only the best known). Moreover, Coleridge's Notebooks record his struggle to develop his faith by testing it against his experience in precisely the way Wendling describes. If we are to approach Coleridge's common-sense transcendentalism from within its own assumptions (or, indeed, if we are interested in his psychology) we must credit this evidence. Wendling does not deny that there is a distinct area of faith for Coleridge in which the trinity may be discussed with the disinterest appropriate to a problem in geometry.

Wendling is, however, careful to distance himself from the view his subject's religious beliefs were merely a way of making sense of biographical events: 'Biography as biography … can never explain [the religious] impulse; it can only show the empirical context in which it took root and flourished' (12). But he does think it's indispensable. Without it, he says, we tend to 'look through [Coleridge], as it were, to his religious philosophy, as though a systematic transcendentalism could develop and be understood through pure thought isolated from experience' (ibid). And this, in fact, is what most scholars do.

The result is a complex juggling act. With one hand, Wendling paints a psycho-analytically inspired portrait of Coleridge anchored, most of the time, in the latter's feelings about his past, as described in letters or notebooks. In the same spirit as Thomas McFarland's 'Coleridge's Anxiety' (and it should be said, with the same delicacy) Wendling also permits himself a few conjectures about Coleridge's unconscious mind. [4] These can be taken or left, as the reader wishes. I found them profound and insightful. With his other hand, Wendling advances claims which with only religiously-minded readers can be expected to agree. This concerns the specific character of religious experience which, in Wendling's view, lies beyond the reach of psychological analysis. Psychology, he tells us, finds its application only in the domain of the empirical ego; religion, on the other hand, speaks to 'the transcendental ego'. Accordingly, and again following McFarland, he supplements the psycho-analytic account of Coleridge's life with claims deriving from the existentialist theology of Kierkegaard and Tillich. Writers working in this tradition find themselves in the unenviable position of using psychological terms for purposes which they believe can be comprehended only by analogy with psychological experience. It is, however, consistent with Coleridge's own approach. Readers (such as this reviewer) who suspect that the religious impulse can be explained psychologically will see it as having no other significance. Moreover, as Wendling concedes, the psycho-analytic tradition sits particularly ill with this claims of this school (71-75). [5]

Boulger and Barth performed an exemplary service for Romantic scholarship by revealing the coherence of Coleridge's later thought. If they paid little attention to his earlier views, it should be remembered that Lewis Patten's and Peter Mann's superb editions of the 1795 Lectures on Revealed Religion and the 1796 Watchman—which established the richness of Coleridge's encounter with Radical Dissent—appeared only in the 1970s. Those works transformed our perception of Coleridge dramatically and irreversibly. Never again will it be possible to condescend to the Unitarian Coleridge or to read the poems of the annus mirabilis without acknowledging the centrality of Joseph Priestley's 'Christian materialism'. Wendling's is the first book on Coleridge written from a passionately Trinitarian standpoint to take his Unitarianism seriously. It also faces up to the fact that Coleridge's espousal of Trinitarianism was slow, and to a degree some Coleridgeans find embarrassing, aspirational. Many a biography despatches the conversion by quoting the famous Malta Notebook entry of February 1805 ('No Trinity, no God!'). But as Wendling points out, for many years afterwards, Coleridge had no positive Christology whatsoever.

Wendling's book is in eight chapters. The first considers the personal factors that caused him to transfer his primary literary allegiance from poetry to metaphysics. The second and third examine the experiential roots from which those metaphysics emerged. And the remainder describe Coleridge' effort to find an objective ground for a Christianity that was originally based on subjective need.

Chapter One ('The Resource of Metaphysics') points to the often-noted tension between Coleridge's inclination to monism—which Wendling traces to a psychological need to deny differences between persons and so overlook the trauma of loss Coleridge experienced as a child—and his disintegrating personal relationships which forced upon him a sense of alienation from others. Coleridge's poetry is overwhelmingly concerned with the former. The turn to metaphysics, then, was, in Wendling's view, a healthy acknowledgement of the fact that he was using his poetry to try to satisfy fundamentally religious needs.

Chapter Two ('An Excess of Inwardness') describes Coleridge's difficulties sustaining relationships in some detail. Wendling characterises the problem in terms of Coleridge's emotional homelessness. The phrase is apt, echoing Coleridge's ltter to Crabb Robinson of 1811 in which he complained that he had 'never had anyone in whose Heart & House I could be an Inmate, who loved me enough to take pride & joy in the efforts of my power, being at the same time so by me beloved as to have influence over my mind'. [6] Emotional homelessness gave rise to a 'pattern, forecast in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" … of leave-taking, crisis and only incomplete return home' (51). However, in Wendling's view, the 'very insistence on the absolute that so damaged Coleridge's human relationships … was the making of his religious spirit and philosophy'. From a non-Christian standpoint, I agree but see it as a personal tragedy. Wendling does not. For him, Coleridge's spiritual crisis was only 'a dramatic instance of the anxiety of nonbeing that in some ways threatens all our lives' (86-7). In other words, all of us, whether we know it or not, have the same religious needs as Coleridge. Again, while I reject this conclusion, I think it is true to the spirit of Coleridge's thought. The chapter ends with a truly terrific reading of 'Dejection: An Ode' in which the Lady of the poem is interpreted to represent Coleridge's poetic self.

Chapter Three ('Coleridge's Indigence of Being') considers more unconscious factors in Coleridge's psychological make-up: his unacknowledged anger at his early abandonment by his mother and his unconscious fear that it might be repeated; his determination to force strong men into the role of father-figure. Wendling thinks that Coleridge's brothers bore the brunt of his unconscious anger with his father, as did Southey, Wordsworth, Poole later on. Wendling also considers the part played by Coleridge's addiction to opium in alerting him to his dependence on others and on God. Although I think the general point is persuasive and well argued, his account of the course of the addiction is unduly reliant upon Molly Lefebure's 1974 biography. [7] Thus, he suggests (following Lefebure) that Coleridge may have been addicted during his undergraduate career at Cambridge—a claim for which there is scant evidence.

Chapter Four ('A Religion for Democrats, 1792-1801')—to my mind, the least satisfactory in the whole book—considers the religious beliefs Coleridge espoused from the time he went up to Cambridge until the middle of the dejection crisis. As the title suggests, it rests on the dubious claim that Coleridge's primary motivation during this period was to 'construct a religion fit for late eighteenth-century democrats' (101). In support of this argument, Wendling cites the Lectures on Revealed Religion (1795) in which Coleridge

speaks from the standpoint of natural religion ... that tradition of Enlightened Christians who tried to take the same approach to all that looked superstitious in their religion (revelation, miracles, the minutiae of the Mosaic Law) as they did toward chance and evil in the world.

As Nigel Leask and others have shown, Coleridge's democratic politics looked to sources much older than the Enlightenment. [8] His ideal of a democratic state was the rule of Sanhedrin over the Jews under the Mosaic dispensation. This was a revealed source which supporters of natural religion would have scoffed at. Late eighteenth century democrats had no use for revelation. It is important to note too that even at this early stage in his career, he was unsympathetic to the rights-based notions of democracy promoted by Rousseau, Paine and Godwin. Many of the central aims of radical democracy mattered little to Coleridge during this period. One has only to turn to the 1799 Morning Post essays on the Abbé de Sieyès' 'Constitution de l'An VIII' in the Essays on his Own Times to see how ready he was to jettison universal suffrage. [9] Democracy was interesting to Coleridge only insofar as it guided people back to the bible. It was never the other way round.

The book takes off in Chapter Five ('Negative Unitarianism'). In 1802, Coleridge began to entertain quasi-orthodox dispositions. He defended the idea of a national church to his brother George, himself an Anglican clergyman with doubts on the subject. Transubstantiation, he felt sure, would furnish matter for 'a sublime oration' even if it was impossible to defend on strict theological grounds. [10] He abandoned the Socinian conception of Christ he had taken from Priestley in the mid 1790s according to which Jesus was a man and (in Wendling's eloquent phrase) 'above humanity only in the purity of the moral altruism of which he is the perfect example and towards which the necessitarian progress is necessarily leading all of us' (111). More strikingly still, he showed signs of wanting to reconcile himself with the doctrine which, in Unitarian days, was surely the biggest stumbling block on his road back to Trinitarianism. This was the doctrine of the atonement, according to which, Christ's sacrifice on the cross was necessary to propitiate the anger of the first person of the Trinity. Now he was happy to say that the Ideal redeems mankind (CN, I, 1122), and that Christ's redemption of mankind on the cross was a metaphor for this essentially psychological process. (For many years to come Coleridge found the non-metaphorical version of the doctrine monstrous, wholly at odds with the notion of a benign God around which his faith was built.)

Although Coleridge abandoned Socinian Christology, he remained a Unitarian: his 'absolute faith' in the unipersonality of the deity. Wendling traces his attempts to bolster that faith in his readings of Spinoza. Coleridge sought in these writers a non-anthropomorphic conception of God. In 1803, he denounces those most Christians as idolators because they worshipped a 'distinct Jehovah tricked out in the anthropomorphic attributes of Time and successive Thoughts—and think of him as a PERSON' (CL, ii, 893). But, as Wendling shows, Coleridge was himself strongly attracted to this anthropomorphism. Thus the previous month we find a Notebook entry on the personal relationship between individual minds and the mind of God (CN, i, 1554). This was the strand that eventually won out. For, as Coleridge saw later on with complete clarity, a God who is first and foremost a process is no God at all, from any orthodox Christian standpoint. Wendling puts the matter well:

The anthropomorphic conception … preserved God as a divine person distinct from finite forms at the expense of a living relation with those forms. Pantheism preserved that relation but sacrificed the personality—and freedom—of God and also any existence of finite forms as substance in their own right. The only rationally consistent way to preserve both the transcendent personality of God and his contemporaneity with a substantial though derived world of finite forms was through the trinity.


As a first step, Coleridge framed a distinction between God as a living, existing person, and God as ground or substance of every living thing. 'The latter is God as found in philosophy whose internal "Relations or Polarities" we may describe by analogy with what we know of natural or human processes' (ibid). The former, on the other hand, is the God of Christian religious worship whose nature is usually said to lie beyond human comprehension. But since philosophy begins for Coleridge with God as ground in order to end in God as person, he frequently finds himself adumbrating analogical descriptions of God as person as well.

Chapter Six ('The Approach to Trinitarianism, 1806-1818')—the best in the book—deals with Coleridge's use of Kant's philosophy in providing materials for the philosophic justification of religious orthodoxy. In Wendling's account, Coleridge took three basic notions from Kant: 'that valid knowledge proceeds from inside as well as outside the mind'; 'that the mind could do more … than simply generalise sense data' as Hume had claimed; and that the work of the mind was most reliable when it rested on a priori principles (132). This led him to minimise the critical spirit of Kant's enterprise. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant assumes the existence of a transcendental ego, understood as a unitary self retaining its identity through the temporal succession of appearances. But he did not believe that we could have any direct experience of this self. Its existence could only be inferred and as such it could never be proved valid as a system of metaphysics. Coleridge, on the other hand, hoped to build Christian faith on it. He thought that we could not only experience this self directly but that it could be a source of genuine and certain knowledge.

This possibility led to a conception of the world that was all too pantheistic for the post-1818 Coleridge: a world of noumena which were directly present to each other. For Kant, however, 'noumenal realities such as cause, substance, the transcendental self and God' exist beyond the reach of the senses and therefore cannot confront the understanding. Because of this, they cannot enter experience. But experience must presuppose them. 'Coleridge's whole way of conceiving the relationship of the noumenal to the phenomenal is wholly different from Kant's. For Kant one is on solid epistemological ground only in the Understanding's constitution of phenomena' (142). For Coleridge the faculty of Reason gave us direct access to the noumena. Wendling defines Coleridgean Reason as 'a self within the self that indefinitely pursued the absolute glimpsed in moral and intellectual experience' (143-4).

In developing his own conception of Reason from about 1805, Wendling sees Coleridge as 'increasingly drawn to the possibility of symbolic knowledge issuing in artistic creation, moral action and a Christian religion risen from the tomb of Enlightenment glorification of the Understanding' (147). Thus words are symbolic insofar as they contain within themselves the realities they signify. Because of this, literature is able to exemplify the symbolic knowledge in which virtuous action and virtuous religion originate (ibid; see also CN, ii, 2274). Symbolic action links the workings of Reason and Understanding with those of the Imagination. Imagination, in Wendling's account, is situated 'midway between Reason and Understanding, neither of which by itself could know symbolically … in a way that receives the other without devouring it' (150). Imagination is thus 'the continuously recreating and redeeming divine Logos existing within each human soul'.

It is not the least of the virtues of Wendling's account that it shows clearly that the primacy of religion led Coleridge to modify the Kantian philosophy—not ignorance of Kant's system, as René Wellek and others have claimed. [11] For Reason, Understanding and Imagination between them constituted and vindicated the doctrine of the trinity, subjectively, i.e. at the level of the human psychology. All that remained was to show how this process was mirrored objectively in the history of revelation, the history of the church and in the elaboration of particular religious doctrines.

This task is the subject of the two final chapters. The dialectic of subjective and objective Christianity is depicted in Coleridge's oscillation between philosophically informed Christianity and an attempt to describe religion as it had been revealed since the time of Moses (170). As Wendling points out, it was only through the conjunction of the subjective and the objective poles that Coleridge could achieve 'a living instead of a reasoning faith' (CL, iii, 462). By November 1810, 'still a long way from intellectual acceptance of the established church, he had assented to all the major doctrines of Christian orthodoxy'. He did not find original sin compelling from a rational point of view but noted that 'My Conscience, the sole fountain of certainty, commands me to believe it' (CN, iii, 4005). As to the incarnation as the means of redemption from original sin,

My reason convinces me that no other mode of redemption is conceivable, and, as did Socrates, would have yearned after the Redeemer, tho' it would not dare expect so wonderful an Act of Divine Love, except only as an effort of my mind to conceive the utmost of the infinite greatness of that Love.

CN, iii, 4005

And 'the Trinity, finally would only have been a speculative Idea, like those of Circles & other mathematical figures, to which we are not authorized by the practical Reason to attribute Reality. Solely in consequence of our Redemption does the Trinity become a Doctrine, the belief of which as real is commanded by our Conscience'. (171) What all these quotations show is the comparatively greater importance Coleridge gave to subjective Christianity over its objective counterpart. (Coleridge often suggested that the growing prestige of historical Christianity was itself evidence of the decay of faith.)

If faith depended on conscience, it required many sacrifices of natural appetite. 'And the one inclination that came mercilessly to stand for all the rest was to opium. Our natural appetites are not only goods in themselves but guides to their supernatural equivalents.' Wendling notes that

This Coleridgean vision of the human personality as a kind of body politic lies at the root of his later-flowering idea of the body politic itself (or state) as regulated by the national church. The church, Coleridge was to argue in On the Constitution of Church and State, is no enemy of the natural interests and the capacities of the state as such—commerce and culture, for example—but promotes and seeks to align these where they neglect or rival the interests of Reason…


Wendling shows Coleridge's increasingly Catholic temperament. He quarelled with Rome because doctrinal claims he regarded as unscriptural (centralized and infallible interpretive authority, Purgatory and priestly absolution, for example) tended to create "a complete disjunction of Religion from Morality"—a 'swallowing up', as Wendling puts it, 'of the redeemed conscience in unthinking adherence to traditional formulas and outward ceremonies'. But from 1810 Coleridge was convinced that Anglicans were right to acknowledge authority of the first three or four centuries as important auxiliaries to the right interpretation of Scripture.

Although disaffected from the clerical establishment (packed, as he saw it, with secret Socinians), Coleridge 'remained intensely concerned with the philosophical and theological education of its incoming members. He also gloried as early as 1810 in the surrender of individual selfhood to the religious emotions of the community in public church worship, and he regretted what he saw as the over-individualistic and anti-liturgical mentality of the Methodists and other "modern Puritans"' (175).

Wendling's Preface offers Coleridge's thought as an antidote to modern relativism. I think few non-Christians will be won over by this polemical aim. It hardly matters as it forms only a small part of Wendling's argument. Taken as a whole, Coleridge's Progress to Christianity is an immensely absorbing and satisfying book and no college or university library should be without it.