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Seamus Perry, Coleridge and the Uses of Division. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-19-818397-6. Price: £45 (US$72).

  • John Beer

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  • John Beer
    Peterhouse, Cambridge

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Recently, Coleridge has been well served by his interpreters. Richard Holmes has provided a good solution to the problem of writing the second portion of his life: where previous biographers had found themselves somehow shoe-horned into chronicling a steady series of illnesses and disasters until they themselves lost patience with a man who seemed unable to organize his life better, Holmes saw that it was much more rewarding to view Coleridge as a figure of amazing resilience, able to rise as from the dead over and over again. The question why we should regard him as important in the first place tended to be left on one side, as something we should take for granted.

Seamus Perry, on the other hand, makes the second issue his point of departure. He also has it in mind that attempts to demonstrate Coleridge's consistency often founder on his frequent apparent desire to have things both ways. Taking his cue from John Bayley's The Uses of Division, Perry turns this apparent weakness around, proceeding to argue that attention to it can, on the contrary, furnish a central key to Coleridge's importance. Among other things, Perry dwells on the element of 'muddle' and the degree to which muddle can be a fruitful condition. The 'muddle' of a supposedly muddle-headed person may in fact lie not in his head but in the confused agglomeration of the world he is trying to understand. (He quotes E. M. Forster: 'This approaching triumph of India was a muddle (as we call it)'; there are many more reflections on the word—in counterpoint but not ultimately in contradiction to his view—across the rest of Forster's work.) Despite the existence of superficial justifications for dismissal of his work Perry still wonders, with George Watson, at the long-standing tendency to 'patronize' Coleridge and builds on Rosemary Ashton's perception that before accepting adverse criticisms too readily one might notice how often he is beforehand with his critics—even wording their criticisms more eloquently before they can get to them. Instead of the clear-cut set of positions that critics vainly look for he finds lived-through contradictions, each term being of value—and sometimes giving place to a (more tentative) third position. As a young man Coleridge was fond of the speculative expression 'And what if. . . '; Perry finds an even more telling turn in his frequent 'And yet. . .'s, where, having acknowledged the strength of a counter-argument, he still finds that unsatisfactory, also.

If attitudes to Coleridge have softened in recent times this may be associated with publication at full length of the Notebooks. The Letters too were valuable—but an ambiguous gift. Expressing as they do Coleridge's tendency to project himself sympathetically yet also ingratiatingly, they can be a source of embarrassment to later readers when they show how their author, little dreaming that all of them would be preserved, can indulge in useful evasions or happy confabulations which will eventually be exposed to a Last Judgment from the later reader. Norman Fruman, pouncing on some of them, was able to produce an indictment of his misdemeanours that would hold back the development of more positive views of his reputation for a generation.

The Notebooks are a different matter. There Coleridge is more consistently honest—regarding them indeed as confidants with whom he can afford to be frank: 'to whom but thee, white-faced Friend & comforting Pandect. . . have I the power of disburthening my soul?'. (It is true that Fruman at one point suggested that he might have been faking even his dream-records, but I do not think anyone has ever taken that charge seriously.) Keats, in a well-known criticism, asserted, 'Coleridge. . . would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge' but he would surely have modified this judgment had he known how Coleridge had in fact already caught a thousand such verisimilitudes in his pocket books. Perry reaps a particularly rich harvest from them, even suggesting that they are a fine fragmented substitute for the epic Coleridge never wrote.

Fragmentation is the ultimate version of that division which Perry sees as the key. Division is everywhere, once one begins to look, ranging from his distinction between the literary types exemplified in Milton and Shakespeare ('seated on the two glory-smitten summits of the poetic mountain') to the elaboration of sweeping distinctions between types of people—including the (not altogether original) division 'Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist'. (I would rather resist his love of desynonymization being brought into the discussion at this point, however, since there I suspect Coleridge's imagery was on a larger, more organic scale, seeing the process of language as like a plant developing new shoots, ever dividing into subtler distinctions but all related ultimately to a great original stem.)

Perry's great gift is for spotting connections across very diverse texts and commenting perceptively on the resemblances and apparent contradictions they indicate. Meanwhile he maintains an easy, deft commentary, enlivened by touches of his own wit. He often takes his cue from Christopher Ricks, and—behind Ricks—from Empson, counterpointing points of intellectual stringency with relaxation into easy colloquial discourse—though not usually following Empson all the way into Edwardian slang. Perry loves teasing out puzzles ('It is a charming conundrum, to be "an Advocate for the Automatism of Man", like joining a society for the enactment of Providence . . .') At the same time he can write patiently, acutely and scrupulously about such matters as Kant's influence: 'We might do better . . . to consider Kant less as effecting a conversion in Coleridge's thought and more as a region or an idiom of speculation where already existing dilemmas find new ways of getting themselves expressed.' But he can also amuse the reader by trying out a simple, placing formula: 'Kubla Kant?'.

One result of the inquiry has been to bring out with considerable force the degree to which Coleridge the critic found himself, in one respect at least, at odds with Coleridge the religious philosopher. The latter figure was torn between delight in the amazing diversity of life in the world and a fear that this might lead to pantheism—a danger to be resisted by resorting to renewed reverence for the over-arching power of the moral and unifying God of orthodoxy (an intellectual tussle already there in 'The Eolian Harp'). When he turned to literature on the other hand, he found a similar division set up for him by the contrasts between Milton and Shakespeare—and there it was far more difficult to resist the attractions offered by the Protean life of the Elizabethan. In religion one might argue the superiority of the presiding God by allowing him the limited diversity of a Trinitarian existence, but Milton was too solitary even for that: he could only be made superior by supporting the view that the greatest poetry was egotistic—and although this would allow for the superiority of a Wordsworth also the later Coleridge was too bruised by the effects of that relationship to give it unqualified support.

It is not easy to demonstrate the full range of the achievement in this book, where the quality is consistently so high, notable things being said on virtually every page. A brief review cannot do justice to excellencies which are close-packed and self-manifesting. One can only say that Coleridge's achievement, which still suffers from the diffusiveness of its survival in letters, notebooks and marginal comments in books, is brought a whole stage further by this study, particularly for readers who have not the time to tease out the scattered insights for themselves. It is a book to buy and to keep, providing a perfect complement to Holmes's biography by displaying to the full the quality of Coleridge's mind and achievements, together with the validity of the intellectual concerns he constantly lived with. It even suggests a profound comment on the multitude of physical ills that Holmes and others have been forced to record by implying throughout at a psycho-physical level the force of the question Coleridge himself once asked: 'Who that thus lives with a continually divided Being can remain healthy?'