Conscious of perceptive critical studies that have traced the interstices between “Yeats, Shelley, Blake, Keats and Wordsworth” (1), Matthew Gibson’s Yeats, Coleridge and the Romantic Sage is, sympathetically, attuned to the shortcomings of previous efforts to map this important artistic relationship -- notably, Robert Snukal’s High Talk: The Philosophical Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1973) and Anca Vlasopolos’s The Symbolic Method of Coleridge, Baudelaire and Yeats (1983) -- and purposefully re-describes an important line of influence between the poetry and prose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and W.B. Yeats. Gibson deliberately avoids conceiving of this artistic and philosophic influence in terms of Harold Bloom’s creative oedipal struggle, preferring instead to interpret those distorted figural representations of Coleridge’s character and repeated Coleridgean patterns of imagery and thought in Yeats’s esoteric works as manifestations of “John Hollander’s theory of metalepsis and echo” (6). Although Coleridge was familiar to Yeats in his younger days, Gibson argues, that only in Yeats’s writing, after 1925, did Coleridge as man, poet, and theosophist became a significant lens through which Yeats refracted his understanding of “Anglo-Irish ancestors, Classical and Modern philosophers, as well as […] his own identity” (2). In this later period, Yeats’s endeavour “to reconcile the passion of the artist with the abstraction of the philosopher” (2) centred on a (re-)figuring of Coleridge’s received reputation from the Victorian era. By the end of the nineteenth century two divergent views of Coleridge held sway, for some he was regarded, in Arnoldian vein, as “a fabulous failure in all but a few seminal poems and all but a few prose pieces” and, by others, after Arthur Symons, as an ethereal dreamer and “forerunner of symbolism and the new, fin-de-siècle trends in France” (3).
Typical of Yeats’s moulding of “literary history” (13), his scarce references to Coleridge in those early writings avoid shaping the romantic poet into a “literary hero” and instead illustrate Yeats’s “own ideas” (13). Reviewing the poetry of R.D. Joyce (Irish Fireside, November 1886) and Douglas Hyde’s Beside the Fire (National Observer, February 1891), Yeats appreciates Coleridge as an “aesthetic poet” (14) of self-reflexive consciousness -- dramatised, for example, in “Frost at Midnight” and “The Eolian Harp” -- and as a mystic symbolist steeped in Swedenborg. These youthful depictions of Coleridge’s poetic sensibility and personality extend beyond an impressionistic sense of the “reflective nature of conversation poems” (14), acquired in Yeats’s school days, to a studied engagement with Coleridge’s Table Talk. Such serious study is further evidenced, for Gibson, by the fact that “Yeats may even have read Coleridge’s marginalia to his Swedenborg editions in the British Library” (14). In this formative phase of Yeats’s imaginative development, he found creative interests akin to his quest for “the dissolution of self in symbol” more readily available in works by “Romantic forebears such as Blake and Shelley” (17). In initial reviews and an essay on “William Blake and his Illustrations to the Divine Comedy” (1896), Yeats’s portraiture of Coleridge is ambivalent, at one moment, Coleridge exemplifies an “aesthetic, visionary and ultimately Symbolist bent” and, at another, emerges as a traitor of his own “mystic powers” (Gibson 17-18).
With the advent of the twentieth century, Gibson delineates, Yeats’s decisive swerve away from a pure aesthetic of mystic Symbolism to a revised understanding of aestheticism “which was […] grounded in the common experience of the people” (18) and apparently re-enacted his own previous condemnation of Coleridge’s betrayal of mysticism. Drawing on Romantic precedents, especially those established by Coleridge and Wordsworth, Yeats as organiser of the Irish National Theatre and playwright had ascertained a sense that “imaginative literature could be founded upon the language of real people rather than upon the artifice of cliques” (Gibson 18). Yeats did not relinquish his commitment to the word as transcendental signified, but “modified the symbolist aesthetic to [the] new environment” of social, cultural, and political change (18). In “Literature and the Living Voice” (1906), Yeats praises Coleridge’s creative collaboration with Wordsworth to produce the Lyrical Ballads (1798), for “the discovery of a popular language -- a living voice -- which appeals to an entire people” through an unpretentious simplicity (Gibson 19). Eulogising the literary life and work of J.M Synge (“J.M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time”, 1910) Yeats, vitally, connects such linguistic primitivism to “the passive man who shapes and selects themes from common experience” as opposed to those artists, Goethe and Shelley among them, who are regarded as “active re-creator[s]” (Gibson 20). These essays by Yeats of 1906 and 1910, coloured by Wordsworthian poetic theory and practice, Gibson suggests, redefine Coleridge’s artistic attributes to accommodate Yeats’s altering relationship with Aestheticism and Symbolism, presenting a newly drawn figure of Coleridge, distinct from other past manifestations of Wordsworth’s literary associate in Yeats’s prose, as “a poet of experience, passivity and simplicity” (Gibson 21) .
Yeats’s projection of Coleridge, Gibson believes, into “the role of visionary and Aesthete” (26) is galvanised by the favourable comparisons Yeats draws, in “The Tragic Generation” (1922), between Coleridge and Ernst Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Monroe Beardsley. Following Arthur Symons’s editorial commentary on Coleridge’s poetry as the product of a sleeping state and prescient of Stéphane Mallarmé, Yeats felt compelled to “reconstruct Coleridge’s personality on the lines of Baudelaire, Johnson, and Dowson” (26). According to Gibson, Yeats comprehends Coleridge as a “tragic poet” and “precursor of the Tragic Generation of Aestheticist and Symbolist poets” whose “intellectual schizophrenia” translated into “a division between Christian morality and aesthetic purity” (27). This tragic conceptualisation of Coleridge marks the beginning of a separation, in Yeats’s mind, of the co-authors of Lyrical Ballads. Yeats’s segregation of these prominent first-generation romantic poets coincided with his growing fascination for Coleridge’s sense of religious guilt and “renewed interest in [his] ‘supernatural’ poems, and consequent dissociation of [Coleridge] from Wordsworth” (27). With this division of Coleridge from Wordsworth, Yeats moves away from his youthful conceptions of a unifying cultural and linguistic primitivism that he had extolled in 1910. Despite “some patterns of consistency” between Yeats’s sketches of Coleridge as “tragic Aesthete” (28) and mystic, no coherent pattern or opinion on this subject is evident in Yeats’s writing “up until 1922” (28). Instead the shadow-play of Coleridge’s personality and poetic reputation is endlessly performed and “variously understood in Yeats’s phantasmagoria as Aesthete and Symbolist poet, as a source for mysticism and as adherent to primitive and popular forms of art” (28).
In his diary entries from 1930 onwards, Yeats was increasingly preoccupied with adequately defining the philosophic and poetic sage who, eventually, in more Nietzschean mood, come to encapsulate artistic sentiment with intellectual logic, capable of a tragic, joyous, affirmation of existence and, as such, no longer an enemy to the creative artist by virtue of being “antithetical, ‘demonic’ and passionate in character” -- distinct in kind from “the Sage of A Vision” (41). Having established “the Daimonic nature of the sage”, Gibson explores how, Yeats sought to ascribe this “Romantic figure” (43) a social function and found in Coleridge a model for one “who can make his work accessible to the masses without compromise” (43). Yeats’s derived his template for these socially purposeful sages not from Coleridge the poet, but from Coleridge as man, philosopher, and seer. Yeats regarded, Gibson writes, “Coleridge the philosopher as conforming to the new ideal of sage who struggles tragically with his Daimon to a joyful despair, but also to expand the powers of the archetype still further to include a greater social appeal and clarity” (46). The influence of Symon’s edition of Coleridge’s poetry extended to this later Yeatsian “construction of Coleridge’s personality” (46), as Yeats found many of the editor’s opinions corroborated and expanded in John Charpentier’s study of Coleridge the Sublime Somnambulist (translated and published in 1929). Yeats agreed with Charpentier’s analysis of Coleridge as “a different sort of teacher” (Gibson 49), an accomplished communicator and educator of mankind, he dissented from Charpentier’s acquiescence with Thomas Carlyle’s “less laudatory recollections of the great man” (Gibson 48) and his portrayal of Coleridge as the reclusive seer of Highgate, who had become utterly estranged from ―and a mere observer of ― the battlefield of ordinary life. In rejecting “the view that the end of [Coleridge’s] life was merely a symbol”, Yeats forged the “the man of passion to the man of society” in his re-conceptualisation of the sage as a combatant in the incessant struggle to discover “the Unity of Being […] with social relevance” (all Gibson 49). Diffused through Symon’s editorial apparatus, Charpentier’s critical interpretation, and Yeats’s own “recent reading of ‘Fears in Solitude’ and ‘Hexameters’”, Coleridge’s personality and artistry became the standards of the archetypal philosopher-poet to which Yeats “aspired in rewriting A Vision” (49).
Throughout the 1930’s the image of Coleridge as the epitome of what it is to be a philosophical poet profoundly effected Yeats’s creative and theoretical endeavours “to end abstractions in three major spheres: the transcendental, the political and the life after death” (58). When Yeats wrote an explication of his Principles, in The Completed Symbol (1937), he discovered in Coleridge’s The Friend (1818) a Platonic restatement of Kantian epistemology that asserted “a Platonic ontology for Kant’s pure Theoretic” between Reason, Understanding, and Sense (Gibson 58). Grosvenor E. Powell’s assertion “that Coleridge’s distinction between Reason and Understanding allowed Yeats to see Spirit as transcendental” (Gibson 65) is persuasively contested by Gibson’s argument “that Coleridge allowed Yeats to see the ‘Divine ideas’ as appertaining to the soul of individual man” so enabling him “to link microcosom with macrocosom” (65). Coleridge’s Platonic re-interpretation of Kant permitted Yeats to work through his own difficulties with the transcendental abstractions of Plotinus’s Enneads and revealed to the Irish poet the possibility of discovering “the primal oneness of God within one’s own self” (Gibson 66). During this time Yeats’s reading of Coleridge became an important catalyst for his political reflections on governmental institutions, the nature and dispensation of just rule, the relationship of art and architecture to the socio-political dynamics of a given era, and the wider patterns and implications of historical change. “The Friend acted,” Gibson claims, “as an arbiter between [Yeats’s] own system, the cyclical theories of anthropology which he was reading and the autocratic Tory politics of [Jonathan] Swift and [Edmund]Burke, allowing him to see their systems as cyclical and predestined, when in fact they were not” (76). Outside of the 1930 diary, however, Yeats makes no mention of Coleridge in “a political context” (78) as his political traits are elsewhere in Yeats’s writing (for instance, in his “Introduction to The Words upon the Window-pane”) subsumed into the figure of Swift who, for Yeats, “becomes political prophet or sage” (78).
When meditating on the nature and purpose of mortal existence, Yeats’s sense of the universe as comprised of “embattled contraries” (for example, between Husk and Passionate Body and Spirit and Celestial Body) and his desire to render the spiritual realm physically incarnate also found a vocabulary in “the relation of light to dark in Coleridge’s poems” (83) and their often supernatural aspect. Yeats’s introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) unequivocally associates Coleridge’s poetry with “a sense of enchantment” (Gibson 87). Much of Yeats’s later work unfurls, in Gibson’s reading, as an intense dialogue with the poetic creations of other romantic sages, including the perceived magical wonderment of Coleridge’s “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”, “the nature philosophy of Wordsworth’s ‘Pedlar’” in The Excursion, and the sensory tactility of Shelley’s Ahasuerus in The Revolt of Islam (87). Consciously and unconsciously, Yeats’s poetics from The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933) onwards echo “[t]he phantasmagoric qualities of Coleridge’s poetry” (87), embarking on an artistic and philosophic quest to ensure that “the spiritual become[s] materially immanent rather than transcendent” (87). In particular “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” presented a “concretising of abstractions which Yeats had sought in Coleridge’s prose” and signposted art as the appropriate medium for the manifestation of “this passionate philosophy of the sage” which became the aspiration of Yeats’s poetry “of the early thirties” (113).
The final and third part of Gibson’s Yeats, Coleridge and the Romantic Sage shifts in focus from Yeats’s recreation of Coleridge’s personality as a means of negotiating the complex relationship between the transcendental and the immanent -- the subject of the previous two sections -- to a consideration of Yeats’s adaptation of Coleridge’s metaphors for describing mental and spiritual processes. Reading Coleridge’s refutation of the mental passivity involved in the process of perception, advocated by David Hartley’s Doctrine of Vibrations, Yeats lighted upon Coleridge’s image, in Biographia Literaria (1817), of the mind being “the mere quick-silver plating behind a looking glass” (Coleridge 119), as one that subsequently informed those “metaphors of mind which represent a drive towards organicism and synthesis in Yeats’s […] apprehension of spiritual reality” attendant to a variety of different “kind[s] of unity” (151) and their peculiar incarnations. Yeats understood the Coleridgean metaphor to indict Hartley’s system for its reduction of “the mind to the state described by the image” and adopted “the looking glass” as a motif to represent “the movement way from Unity of Being in its individual manifestations” that encompassed “[John] Locke’s ‘mechanical philosophy’, [G.E.] Moore’s realism, Modernism in literature and the mind of the war poets” -- all of which were perceived by Yeats as “Daimonic influences” that had caused the denigration of “our own time” (all Gibson 148). Yeats’s “creative misconception” (148) of the meaning of Coleridge’s “looking glass” metaphor, as Gibson remarks, is both shrewdly perceptive and erroneously inventive, chiming perfectly with how Yeats misconstrued (often wilfully) at other points along the trajectory of his literary career Coleridge’s personality and theosophy. Yeats’s persistent return in his writing life to the image of the Eolian harp (first encountered through his father’s admiration of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry and then in Coleridge’s 1795 poem of that title) to express the ineffable, internal, invisible, machinations of “the mind as a pure act” (174) underscores the centrality of a self-invented hagiography built around Coleridge to Yeats’s conception of the gyres and definition of sage as tragic philosophical-poet and antitype to the Victim. Spiritually and intellectually, Yeats discovered in Coleridge an ontological basis to render the rarefied concretely palatable and art’s potentiality to make the fine abstractions of “passionate philosophy” (Gibson 113) felt on the pulses.
In Yeats, Coleridge and the Romantic Sage, Gibson’s scope extends beyond an illumination of the creative and philosophic exchange of imagery and ideas with Coleridge in Yeats’s artistic and mystical thought to a recent, broader, and timely area of critical interest -- most notably explored by Richard Cronin’s Romantic Victorians (2003) -- in the Victorian era as an important moment of confluence between what is now regarded as Romanticism and Victorianism. This historical locus affords an invaluable opportunity to reassess Romanticism’s cultural legacy in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Disseminated through the writings of W.B. Yeats and others, Romanticism persisted as the perpetually self-spawned spectre of the Victorian and Modern age.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria: Or Biographical Sketches of My Life and Work. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. 2 parts, vol 7. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Routledge, 1983.
- ---. Selected Poems. Ed. Richard Holmes. London: Harper-Collins: 1996.
- Cronin, Richard. Romantic Victorians. London: Palgrave, 2003.
- Snukal, Robert. High Talk: The Philosophical Poetry of W.B. Yeats. London: Cambridge UP, 1973.
- Vlasopolos, Anca. The Symbolic Method of Coleridge, Baudelaire and Yeats. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1983.