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.
Corps de l’article
In the mid 1780s, the Reverend David Williams – philosopher, educationalist and later the founder of the Literary Fund – arranged audiences with Adam Smith, William Pitt, Joseph Banks, Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, planning to discuss with them his scheme to set up an organisation “to hold out to genius; to every man having the faculty of rendering public service, the kind and general promise, that his studies, his time, his efforts, his privations, should not leave him in misery” (“Institution”). Unfortunately for Williams, none of these luminaries would consent to patronise a fund to aid authors. Pitt, Banks and Smith expressed some interest, but would not commit their time or resources. Fox received Williams in a state of disarray and referred him swiftly on to Burke. The meeting with Burke was particularly unsuccessful – Burke “looked fiercely in [Williams’] face and said: ‘Authors, writers, scribblers are the pests of the country, and I will not be troubled with them’” (Incidents 45). Williams, “infected” with Burke’s fury, responded, “Who and what are you to use such language? If you had not been a man of letters, you would have been a bogtrotter” (Incidents 46). The meeting did not recover.
In this exchange, Burke argued that authors as a class were beneath his notice; Williams contended that on the contrary it was the existence of the category of author that had allowed Burke to reach his current position. Both these assertions are telling. Williams is correct that Burke brought himself to notice by writing. However, Burke’s political career and authority were predicated on his achieving prominence as an individual rather than his being identified generically as a professional author. To succeed in a society where literary writing was predominantly the preserve of a small and tightly-interconnected elite meant becoming known in influential circles as a specific self rather than being identified as a leading representative of what remained a questionable trade. Advancing the status of authors as a group therefore proved enduringly difficult. While Williams succeeded in establishing the Literary Fund in 1790, it only began attracting a significant subscriber list once it began holding Anniversary Dinners, focusing contributors’ attentions more on lavish social occasions than the parlous circumstances of men of genius. While Williams was keen to argue that authors furnished “the common stock of the knowledge of the country, on which every capitalist and every adventurer may draw at his pleasure” (Claims 47), this was not an argument that was easily proved or widely accepted.
In the early nineteenth century, the idea of authorship as a valuable profession remained the subject of considerable suspicion. The term ‘author-by-profession’ carried through from the eighteenth century negative connotations of hackery and of being prepared to sell one’s talents to promote factions; in his 1812 Calamities of Authors Isaac D’Israeli described such men as “polluters of the press, who have turned a vestal into a prostitute; a grotesque race of famished buffoons or laughing assassins” (1: 3). Identifying oneself wholly as an author was also depicted as enduringly déclassé. In Beppo, for example, Byron wrote:
4: 152-53; ll. 593-600
One hates an author that’s all author, fellows
In foolscap uniforms turned up with ink,
So very anxious, clever, fine, and jealous,
One don’t know what to say to them, or think,
Unless to puff them with a pair of bellows;
Of coxcombry’s worst coxcombs e’en the pink
Are preferable to these shreds of paper,
These unquenched snuffings of the midnight taper.
For Byron, the best writing came from “Men of the world, who know the world like men” (4: 153; l. 602). He named Walter Scott, Samuel Rogers and Thomas Moore as examples, all three arch-socialisers, skilled at networking and self-promotion. By contrast, he described the all-author authors he derided as “would-be wits and can’t-be gentlemen” (4: 153; l. 606). It is easy to take umbrage at Byron’s dismissal of hard-working would-be professionals, particularly considering his own privileged social standing and the ways that his assertions chimed with his own self-marketing. However, the prejudices he expressed were not atypical and reflected the reality that most of the high-profile writers of the early nineteenth century did not rely on their literary earnings. To attempt to live as an author was to risk barring oneself from polite society, which comprised much of the audience for new literary productions and whose members controlled many of the indirect incomes by which comfortable authors were often supported. The fundamentals of the publishing market made attempting to live solely by the pen an extremely risky financial proposition. While at the end of the eighteenth century a far larger potential readership for literary work existed than a hundred years before, books by contemporary writers, as William St Clair’s groundbreaking work has shown, were still beyond the means of most working men and women. Until the 1820s technological limitations and publishers’ conservatism kept prices high and print runs small. As a result, payments for literary work remained sporadic and modest. Those authors who were driven by desire or circumstances to live by writing were generally poor. It was far better, if one had the means, to present oneself as a gentleman who wrote, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge asserted when he advised in Biographia Literaria that aspirant authors should “Let literature be an honourable augmentation to your arms; but not constitute the coat, or fill the escutcheon!” (1: 229; ch. 11).
The status of authorship was rendered additionally problematic by the commencement of the Edinburgh Review in 1802, a publication which, in the words of Henry Cockburn, represented “an entire and instant change of every thing that the public had been accustomed to in that sort of composition” (Cockburn 1: 131). Where previous journals had catalogued, nurtured and responded to literary culture, the Edinburgh sought to shape and dominate it, leveraging its critical authority for political gain. The Edinburgh’s conductors were pioneers in the literary field in asserting the “control of intangible expertise” that Penelope Corfield has pegged as being crucial to the formation of effective professional identities (18).
Walter Scott, in a letter to William Gifford sent on the 25th of October 1808 when the two of them were seeking to oppose the Edinburgh by launching the rival Quarterly Review, highlighted “two circumstances” to which the Edinburgh owed its “extensive reputation and circulation”:
First [...] it is entirely uninfluenced by the Booksellers who have contrived to make most of the other reviews mere vehicles for advertising & puffing off their own publications or running down those of their rivals. Secondly the very handsome recompence which the Editor not only holds forth to his regular assistants but actually forces on those whose rank & fortune make it a matter of indifference to them.Scott 2: 102-103
The Edinburgh was thus successful in presenting a façade of probity and prosperity; as William Hazlitt put it his essay on the Edinburgh’s editor, Francis Jeffrey, in The Spirit of the Age, “the pre-eminence it claims is from an acknowledged superiority of talent and information, and literary attainment” (Works 11: 128). It established and propagated its authority largely at the expense of less well-connected and closely-affiliated writers. John Ring, in The Beauties of the “Edinburgh Review”, alias the Stinkpot of Literature, wrote of the Edinburgh that it “makes war on the whole host of authors; and mangles them without mercy, for the sake of amusing the public” (2). Jeffrey to some extent concurred, writing in an 1806 letter to Charles Koenig that
To be learned and right is no doubt the first requisite – but to be ingenious and original and discursive is perhaps something more than the second in a publication which can only do good by remaining popular – and cannot be popular without other attractions than those of mere truth and correctness.qtd. in Clive 54
The Edinburgh thus made considerable efforts to appeal to an extensive public and its conductors enjoyed the influence that this allowed them to wield. As Jeffrey wrote to Thomas Moore, “We print now nearly 13,000 copies and may reckon I suppose modestly on three or four readers of the popular articles in each copy – no prose preachers I believe have so large an audience” (Jeffrey to Moore, September 14 1814). Since for most books a far greater number of people read their Edinburgh reviews than read the books themselves, its reviewers enjoyed considerable leeway in shaping the reputations of works, individual authors, groups and authorship itself.
The Edinburgh’s antipathy to the Lake Poets is well documented. Its conductors may have published their journal liveried in the buff and blue of Charles James Fox, but they were not and could not afford to be perceived as being on the side of revolution. Attacking the Lakers was a convenient way of signifying their sympathies. As Robert Miles has it, “Though a liberal, Jeffrey, as a Whig, detested the levelling impulse of the Jacobins; and he detected Jacobinism in poems such as ‘The Thorn’ because they implicitly endorsed a ‘democratic subject’” (82). In his review of Southey’s Thalaba in the Edinburgh’s first issue, Jeffrey refuted Wordsworth’s troubling claims for ordinary language by arguing that social classes fundamentally differ in the ways that they feel: “The love, or grief, or indignation of an enlightened and refined character, is not only expressed in a different language, but is itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger of a clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are radically and obviously distinct” ([Jeffrey] 66). Wordsworth’s practice is thus in Jeffrey’s formulation both an imposition on the lower classes and a pointless constraint. For Jeffrey, poetry is essentially the preserve of the cultured men to whom he principally addresses himself. If others wish to write it, they must acquire for themselves the kind of discerning language Jeffrey himself sells: “In serious poetry, a man of the middling or lower orders must necessarily lay aside a great deal of his ordinary language; he must avoid errors in grammar and orthography ; and steer clear of the cant of particular professions, and of every impropriety that is ludicrous or disgusting : nay, he must speak in good verse, and observe all the graces in prosody and collocation” (67). Jeffrey’s man must do this so as not to threaten the existing class order, but also in order to be subject to the type of criticism that Jeffrey hopes to found his career on. The Edinburgh sought to build its hegemony by monopolising and limiting the language of cultural discourse. Wordsworth and Southey represented direct threats to this scheme and therefore had to be rhetorically shut out. To accomplish this, Jeffrey leagued the Lakers with radical demagogues while positioning the Edinburgh carefully on the middle ground, remarking that “Wealth is just as valid an excuse for one class of vices, as indigence is for the other” (72). He thus courted well-to-do book buyers, assuring them of the Edinburgh’s propensity to correct vice and asserting his own ability to make such judgements. By rejecting those unable to afford expensive quarterlies and those depicted as perversely championing their language and rights, the Edinburgh defined the boundaries of the cultural realm over which it staked its claim.
However, the antagonistic relationship between the Edinburgh and the Lake School occluded a more complex series of personal and critical interactions between the Edinburgh’s conductors and those they attacked. As John Clive has argued, Jeffrey privately enjoyed reading Wordsworth, but nevertheless he found that attacking him in print was expedient both politically and for entertaining his readers into accepting the Edinburgh’s authority (156-9). Similarly, Jeffrey’s private attitude towards Coleridge was rather more nuanced than the Edinburgh’s articles might imply. The letters the two of them exchanged in 1808 reveal a great deal about their attitudes to writing, authorship and mass audiences and about the complex range of registers available to those working in the field of literary culture. The operations of authors and critics in the early nineteenth century were by no means confined to a defined and rarefied realm of artistic practice, but had wide-ranging political, personal and social implications.
For Coleridge, who depended to a large extent on writing for asserting his social value, the Edinburgh represented a threat both directly through its aggressive and popular criticism and indirectly through its conductors having successfully pushed a paradigm that opposed professionalised critic and suspicious, fallible author. When Coleridge first wrote to Francis Jeffrey on 23 May 1808, he was therefore understandably desirous to defend his reputation:
Without knowing me you have been, perhaps rather unwarrant[ab]y, severe on my morals and Understanding—insomuch as you have, I understand—for I have not seen the Reviews, frequently introduced my name when I had never brought any publication within your courtCL 3: 116
Coleridge here pulls up Jeffrey on a point of propriety – he does not believe that he has sought to publish works that should fall under Jeffrey’s professional aegis, and thus Jeffrey’s having commented on him represents an ungentlemanly imposition. In asking “What harm have I ever done you, dear Sir—by act or word?”, Coleridge seeks to engage with Jeffrey not as author with critic, but as gentleman with gentleman, using older social conventions in an attempt to neutralise Jeffrey’s professional claims, making the conversation between them into one between particularised individuals (117). By arguing that Jeffrey has “mistaken [his] sentiments”, Coleridge asserts that the critic has taken his works and reputation as being too closely synonymous with the totality of his character. He thus sidesteps the need to respond to Jeffrey’s substantive criticisms by asserting himself as a respectable individual whose concerns have shifted, expanding beyond the works on which Jeffrey has presumed to judge him.
Establishing a connection with Jeffrey on a personal level and questioning to what extent it was appropriate to read people through their books were both key to what Coleridge was trying to accomplish in his letter, as he had a favour to ask:
I write to you now merely to intreat—for the sake of man-kind—an honourable review of Mr Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade—I know the man—and if you knew him, you, I am sure, would revere him—and your reverence of him, as an agent, would almost supersede all Judgment of him as a mere literary man.CL 3: 117
Coleridge worries that any stylistic deficiencies in his friend Thomas Clarkson’s book might be read onto his private character. Such readings comprised one of the Edinburgh’s most effective modes of attack. For example, in Jeffrey’s 1802 review of Thalaba he asserted that Southey’s productions “bear very distinctly the impression of an amiable mind, a cultivated fancy, and a perverted taste [...] He is often puerile, diffuse, and artificial, and seems to have but little acquaintance with those chaster and severer graces, by whom the epic muse would be most suitably attired” ([Jeffrey] 83). These criticisms, as was common in Edinburgh reviews, incarnate the book’s ascribed faults in its writer. Coleridge implicitly admits the effectiveness of this technique, but argues that employing it is dishonourable not because a text does not represent its author, but because it does not wholly represent him, particularly when he has not sought distinction principally through authorship. While Coleridge recognises that he can be read solely through the lens of the words he puts on the page, such a reading, in his eyes, is necessarily limited and misleading. For someone less self-consciously authorly, like Clarkson, such readings are depicted as being outright irresponsible.
Coleridge wrote again to Jeffrey on 20 July 1808, having received no reply to his earlier letter and fearing he may have “given [...] offence”, despite this being “most alien from [his] intention” (CL 3: 118). In this second letter, he expands on his terse and formal first letter, reasserting and clarifying the reasons why he saw Clarkson as being above the Edinburgh’s censure:
He, if ever human Being did it, listened exclusively to his Conscience, and obeyed it’s voice at the price of all his Youth & manhood, at the price of his Health, his private Fortune, and the fairest prospects of honourable ambition. Such a man I cannot regard as a mere author. I cannot read or criticize such a work as a mere literary production. The opinions publicly expressed and circulated concerning it must of necessity in the Author’s feelings be entwined with the Cause itself, and with his own character, as a man, to which that of the Historian is only an accidental accession.CL 3: 119
For Coleridge, Clarkson’s book is best seen not as an autonomous literary production but as a small part of a worthy whole. This defence is quite a traditional one in many respects, arguing that as a gentleman who writes, rather than a “mere author”, Clarkson should be judged for the totality of his achievements. His works in themselves are, in Coleridge’s formulation, best understood as subsidiary to his established and valued public character. Reading the History as wholly representative would traduce both Clarkson and his cause. Coleridge thus seeks to protect Clarkson by personalising him and by playing down the ability of his works to represent more than secondary accomplishments. This protection extended to public advocacy; despite not having received a reply from Jeffrey, Coleridge had made so bold as to send “by the Post of yesterevening” his own review of Clarkson’s book for Jeffrey’s consideration (119). While his claim that “There is not a sentence, not a word in it, which I should not have written, had I never seen the Author” seems to pretend towards a kind of journalistic impartiality, Coleridge’s letter belies this by repeatedly portraying Clarkson and by asserting that a negative review would “deeply wound his feelings” (119).
Coleridge, however, recognises – and indeed contends – that Clarkson’s case is fundamentally different from his own and from Wordsworth’s. While he might be able to subordinate Clarkson’s words to his public achievements, such an argument will not serve so well for those who have sought to claim prominence by asserting themselves through writing. On his own behalf, therefore, he takes a different tack, writing that
severe & long continued bodily disease exacerbated by disappointment in the great Hope of my Life had rendered me insensible to blame and praise even to a faulty degree, unless they proceeded from the one or two who love me. The entrance-passage to my Heart is choked up with heavy lumber—& I am thus barricaded against attacks, which, doubtless, I should otherwise have felt as keenly as most men [...] The ass’s Skin is almost scourge-proof—while the Elephant’s thrills under the movements of every fly, that runs over it.CL 3: 118
Reviews such as Jeffrey’s, then, cannot really hurt Coleridge, or so he pretends. In doing so, through, he seeks to fascinate and impress the reviewer through the aptness of his language, the mystery of his great disappointment, the unspecified nature of his unfortunate illness and his asserting his ability to resist social pressures. Here nascent Romantic subjectivity blends with a recognition that its time has not yet come. Coleridge recognises that he represents both a deviation from the common view of authors and a stronger articulation of writerly independence than society is currently prepared to accept. Through asserting his own particularity, he denies the power of popular censure so long as he commands the respect of specific privileged individuals whose opinions he holds in high regard. In addressing such views to Jeffrey, he both disavows any concern with the Edinburgh’s vast audience and attempts to flatter Jeffrey himself through the care he takes in representing his self to him. It is Jeffrey’s personal approbation, rather than the Edinburgh’s, that he places himself as courting.
Coleridge’s sense that the opinions of a discerning few matter more than the opinions temporarily in mass circulation is stressed even more strongly in what he has to say about Wordsworth:
I have known many, very many instances of contempt changed into admiration of his Genius; but I neither know nor have heard of a single person, who having been, or having become his admirer had ceased to be so. For it is honorable to us all, that our kind affections, the attractions and elective affinities of our nature, are of more permanent agency than those passions which repel and dissever. From this cause we may explain the final growth of honest fame, and it’s tenacity of Life. Whenever the Struggle of controversy ceases, we think no more of works which give us no pleasure and apply our satire & scorn to some new Object—and thus the field is left entire to Friends & Partizans.CL 3: 118-19
Coleridge here advocates a small-network theory of critical discernment rather than one based on public opinion, a forerunner of the clerisy he discussed in his later works. His argument is a good example of the ways which writers tried to justify small audiences through the prospect of vindication by posterity, a prospect which many poets employed in attempting to escape the hierarchies of taste propagated by the periodical oligopolies, as Andrew Bennett has discussed. However, Wordsworth’s value in this formulation is not predicated solely on future judgements but rather on his appealing to a select group of contemporaries who will then serve as his advocates, the “young men of strong sensibility and meditative minds” Coleridge describes in the Biographia (2: 9; ch. 14). In this argument, the nascent mass audience and the opinions currently expressed to them matter less than those circulated through personal networks. While Reviews must move on to new controversies, valuations grounded in private appreciation will remain steady. Ultimately, then, Coleridge sees literary authority as being grounded in personal interactions with influential individuals. Public perceptions are both fleeting and of secondary importance.
Coleridge’s concern about Jeffrey having taken offence at his first letter was in fact groundless, as Jeffrey had replied on 27 May, slightly tardily due to his mislaying Coleridge’s address. However, he had sent his reply to the residence on the Strand from which Coleridge had addressed his first letter, an address Coleridge had shortly afterwards vacated in order to travel to Keswick. In his response, Jeffrey is happy to accept Coleridge’s claim to gentlemanly status and his right to object to Jeffrey’s reviews, calling Coleridge’s letter “very manly – and less severe than I had reason to expect” (Coleman 41). He denies, however, having been particularly severe on Coleridge’s morals, arguing instead that he has only discussed Coleridge as part of a widely-known grouping: “I do not recollect I have ever introduced your name except as one of a certain school or sect of poets, with whom I have scarcely any quarrel but on the score of taste” (41). He elaborates:
When I class Mr Coleridge with Mr Wordsworth and Mr Southey I must be understood to speak of the Mr Coleridge who wrote visions for the Maid of Arc and sonnets to its author – These performances are all that that public knew of him – they live still – and vex and delight the judicious – while they mislead the band of imitators – If Mr Coleridge is vexed too at some of their peculiarities and has really changed his poetical system it is unfortunate for the public as well as for him that he has not favoured it with any of the fruits of his conversion.41-2
While in his letters Coleridge is keen to depict himself as a complex autonomous individual who transcends his old works, Jeffrey argues that in the eyes of the audiences to whom the Edinburgh addresses itself Coleridge is incarnated principally through his revolutionary writings. While Jeffrey’s remark that he will never “admit it to be unfair to name and to remark upon any author whose productions still produce an effect on the public” compliments Coleridge by asserting his continuing influence, it also denies Coleridge the ability to privately disclaim what he has publically asserted (42). For Jeffrey, Coleridge remains constituted both by his previous textual self-assertions and by the associations advertised in those texts. He contends that his continued criticism of Coleridge as part of the Lake School is fair since if Coleridge has “since abandoned the concern” he has “not advertised out of it” (41). Jeffrey is a little disingenuous in this letter, as he was well aware of the public’s interest in controversies and as the Lake School grouping was publicised in large part by his offices. However, he is also correct in highlighting that by publishing their opinions writers fixed themselves in the minds of wider publics and made their identities into shorthand for certain positions. Since Coleridge had not publicly forsworn his views, it was justifiable and expedient for him to “be named and censured along with his disciples” in the Edinburgh (42). While in private Jeffrey deals politely with Coleridge the man, with whom he hopes to strike up “a more permanent acquaintance”, in public discourse, Coleridge the author remains anathema to him (42).
On the matter of Clarkson, Jeffrey was inclined to agree with Coleridge: “I am most willing to believe everything of him that is amiable and respectable – and do everything in my power both to bring his merits into notice – and to strengthen and secure the impression which he and his associates have by long labour made on the interesting subject to which you allude” (Coleman 42). Clarkson’s known qualities, unlike Coleridge’s, aligned closely with the priorities of the Edinburgh’s conductors, so Jeffrey was happy to accept Coleridge’s recommendations and, indeed, his particular forms of advocacy. He writes blithely in a letter of 22 July that the review Coleridge had sent “is now in the hands of the printer” (Coleman 42). Coleridge, though, was not to be allowed into the Edinburgh completely uncensored. Jeffrey, finding his style “something too rapturous for our level [...] took the liberty to bring it down a little” and finding Coleridge’s “unqualified praise of Mr Pitt’s zeal” a little against his conscience “ventured to state some facts that may bring this zeal into question” (42, 43). Scott called such interventions “finessing” and argued that by making such changes Jeffrey “convert[ed] without loss of time or hindrance of business an unmarketable commodity into one which from its general effect & spirit is not likely to disgrace those among which it is placed” (Scott 2: 104). Just as Jeffrey argued that Coleridge’s expressed opinions served to define him as part of an uncomfortably distinctive grouping, so too he recognised that the Edinburgh was most effective when it could hide its disparate makers and its partisan slant behind a judicious mask of universal authority. Indeed, it was the slipping of this mask in the “prodigious clamour” caused by Jeffrey’s openly partisan “review of Cevallos” that provided the impetus for Scott to break with the Edinburgh and led “the old antijacobin junta [...] to renew its labours” and oppose the Edinburgh by founding the Quarterly (Coleman 44).
While control of the kind of corporate voice available to Jeffrey was not something available to or wished for by Coleridge, the letters he sent to Jeffrey later in 1808 expressed his annoyance at his inability to claim and control his printed achievements. He writes in a letter written around 7 November that “Hitherto, I have layed my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness and Ostrich Oblivion—the greater part indeed have been crush[ed under] foot; but some have crawled into light to furnish Feath[ers] for other mens’ Caps, and not a few to plume the shaf[ts] in the Quivers of my Calumniators” (CL 3: 126). This passage is an early variant of one in the second chapter of the Biographia, so it seems that this metaphor and the particular sense of being ill-used that it articulates dwelt with Coleridge for some time. It complicates the picture of slow recognition that Coleridge gives in his discussion of Wordsworth by depicting such recognition as being dependent on one’s works expressing a relatively consistent identity. Coleridge expresses the belief that Wordsworth had achieved a critical mass of personal friends and partisans who admired his “Genius”, but without his own carefully-laid narrative, he worries that his social and textual productions do not constitute a viable character, fragmented as they are by oblivion, calumny and appropriation. Coleridge is aware that he can talk a good self and can express himself eloquently to private associates, but the lack of a stable written core for his social identity disturbs him. In his letter to Jeffrey he proposes remedying this lack through the launch of a new journal into which, he writes, “I shall myself play off my whole Head & Heart, such as they are […] as from the main pipe of the Fountain” (CL 3: 126). By making himself into a periodical, Coleridge hopes to use authorship to lay out the full range of his complex self. By reaching out to old and new readers as their Friend, he will establish his identity in a form both intimate enough to engender the close connections he desires and commodious enough to constitute a more concrete body of work than his previous endeavours. Unlike Jeffrey’s corporate periodical identity, he would seek to circulate a personal one.
Jeffrey was very happy to assist Coleridge in this endeavour, proving his offer of friendship genuine by securing a considerable number of Edinburgh subscribers for The Friend (Coleman 45). However, he worried that Coleridge’s periodical would be “too moral and enthusiastic for the worldlings by whom you must flourish” (44). This worry was probably compounded by Coleridge’s final letter, sent on 14 December. This letter thanked Jeffrey, with caveats, for printing the review of Clarkson and for his “kindness on the arrival of the Prospectuses” (CL 3: 149). However, it also included a long justificatory postscript in which Coleridge claimed that he had “received reproof for a supposed affectation of Humility in the Style of the Prospectus” and asserted that “surely to advance as a Teacher, and in the very act to declare yourself inferior to those whom you propose to teach, is incongruous; and must disgust a pure mind by it’s evident hypocrisy” (CL 3: 150). Perhaps responding to this hubristic assertion, in his last 1808 letter to Coleridge, written on 28 December, Jeffrey attempted to dissuade him from attempting to do too much through The Friend:
I am really interested in your success – and think you may do good to others as well as yourself by it – But you should not seem so awfully impressed with the importance of your task – nor so perfectly assured that you are always in the right – If we amuse people – and give exercise to their understandings and some play to their affections we do quite enough – and more than most writers do – as to reforming the wicked or teaching taste and right opinions to noodles and blockheads – it is a pretty vision but no project of a waking manColeman 44
Jeffrey here makes it clear that he still saw Coleridge as something of an enthusiast. He also reveals his own underlying doubts about the value and impact of literary work. He expresses what seems to post-Romantic readers like a rather restrained view of the potential benefits of criticism and a rather low-key approach to the assertion of one’s individual self. This attitude is revealing both in helping to account for Jeffrey’s own substantial success in the early nineteenth century and for recapturing a sense of the strangeness and atypicality of the position that became normalised as the default Romantic one from the 1820s.
Deidre Coleman writes that Jeffrey’s “business-like” letters to Coleridge “proceed very much in the vein of one journalist talking to another” (Coleman 35). Jeffrey’s letters certainly display a greater level of pragmatism than Coleridge’s, but I would contend that in many ways he is keen to keep his letters personal rather than make them fully professional. For Jeffrey, the idea of his being seen wholly as a journalist or a critic was an uncomfortable one. In a letter to his fellow Edinburgh founder Francis Horner composed on 8 September 1803, he wrote “I hope that you do not imagine that I have made a trade of this editorship” (Cockburn 2: 83). He went on to assert that his clique produced the Edinburgh for cultural and gentlemanly ends: “The main object of every one of us, I understand to be, our own amusement and improvement—joined with the gratification of some personal, and some national, vanity. The pecuniary issue, I take to be a very subordinate consideration for us all” (2: 83). While the Dundas Ascendancy had stymied Jeffrey’s immediate chances of preferment in Scotland’s legal system, he still saw the law as his profession and affected to see his role with the Edinburgh as a gentlemanly accomplishment which ought to be conducted with gentlemanly discretion. However, his approach to criticism was strongly informed by emergent modes of professional activity. In his communications with Coleridge he asserts his right to divide his personal opinions from his duties as critic. For him, criticism is, like the law, best accomplished through making cases which are built up through the accumulation of rhetoric and evidence. In Jeffrey’s criticism the subject to be judged is characterised but the critic himself only personalised insofar as the articles muster rhetorical authority and assert professional expertise. In this respect, the Edinburgh was closer to eighteenth-century Reviews than to the playful and vicious personalities indulged in by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in articles such as Z.’s “Cockney School” attacks and the “Noctes Ambrosianae”, or the journalism authored by writers like William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Pierce Egan from the 1810s.
By contrast with the Edinburgh’s professional masks, Coleridge’ views on the importance of propagating personality to authenticate one’s texts were in some respects attuned to older mechanisms of succeeding in society through gentlemanly networking. However, in publications like The Friend he also displayed an awareness of some of the new possibilities made available to authors by the proliferation of print and periodical media as the nineteenth century progressed. While Coleridge failed fully to actualise these possibilities for himself, he was, I would contend, correct in his assessment that a strongly-asserted self would eventually become self-perpetuating, if not unproblematically so. To give just one example: Coleridge holds a prime position at the close of Hazlitt’s 1818 lecture “On the Living Poets”. Hazlitt first talks briefly about Coleridge’s work, about which he is mostly critical – he describes Coleridge’s tragedies as “drawling sentiment, and metaphysical jargon” and dismisses much of his prose as “dreary trash” (Lectures 327-8, 329). Having given the measure of the work, though, his tone changes markedly when he moves on to discuss the man:
But I may say of him here, that he is the only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius. He is the only person from whom I ever learnt any thing. There is only one thing he could learn from me in return, but that he has not. He was the first poet I ever knew. His genius at that time had angelic wings, and fed on manna. He talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever. His thoughts did not seem to come with labour and effort; but as if borne on the gusts of genius, and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him from off his feet. His voice rolled on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone was the music of thought. His mind was clothed with wings; and raised on them, he lifted philosophy to heaven. In his descriptions, you then saw the progress of human happiness and liberty in bright and never-ending succession, like the steps of Jacob's ladder, with airy shapes ascending and descending, and with the voice of God at the top of the ladder. And shall I, who heard him then, listen to him now? Not I! ... That spell is broke; that time is gone for ever; that voice is heard no more: but still the recollection comes rushing by with thoughts of long-past years, and rings in my ears with never-dying sound.Lectures 329-30
What is striking about this passage is the extent to which Coleridge lives for Hazlitt in memory not for his texts but for his thoughts, conversation and way of being. Hazlitt’s portrayal teases both Coleridge and his audiences, both deliberately withholding details – the “one thing” he could have taught Coleridge – and evoking this marvellous Coleridge only to declare him irrevocably lost. He grants Coleridge a kind of authority based securely in the past, making him a poet through his having existed so strongly as a poet should. While Coleridge might not have found this description wholly flattering, it authenticates his views on the importance of personal connections and passionate advocacy. Hazlitt’s personal approbation of Coleridge is transmitted to a wider audience through the lecture, creating a model of genius that cannot easily be challenged by textual analysis. Denying it mandates an alternative biographical argument that intensifies the focus on the particularities of the poet. Privileging such biographical approaches made works only one aspect of a poet’s extended self, which also comprised social encounters, the memories of friends, letters, pictures, relations, places, scandals, rhetoric and apocrypha – most of these conveniently marketable to the growing audiences of the Edinburgh’s proliferating competition in the later 1810s and the 1820s. Marilyn Butler has written that “Coleridge is universally felt to be a great writer, but it is hard to define his greatness precisely in terms of what he wrote” (69). I would contend that one aspect of Coleridge’s long-term success was his recognition that authorship constituted a process of self-fashioning that should encompass print, networks and sociability. His continued influence thus remains contingent not only on what he wrote, but also on the records of how others wrote and thought in response to the provocations that he provided.
In 2012, Matthew Sangster completed a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, submitting a thesis entitled “Living as an Author in the Romantic Period: Remuneration, Recognition and Self-Fashioning”. As part of this project he catalogued the archive of the Royal Literary Fund at the British Library, where he also co-curated the 2011 exhibition “The Worlds of Mervyn Peake”.
For accounts of Byron’s canny manipulation of his aristocratic credentials and his collusions with the expectations of his publishers and audiences, see Christensen and see Mole.
Griggs’ edition, while scrupulous on word readings, tidies Coleridge’s letters into authoritative versions, standardising aspects of his punctuation, converting underlinings into italics and omitting deletions. In this passage, the original manuscript reads “I am thus barricadoed myself against attacks” (New York Public Library, Berg Collection, 211210 B A332). Coleridge’s adding and then deleting this extra personal pronoun could be read as implying both the extent of his investment in the self-presentation in this passage and the care he took over framing himself for Jeffrey’s consideration.
See BL 1: 45-46; ch. 2. The editors, Engell and Bate, note that this comparison originated in an 1802 notebook and was also used in an 1803 letter to Thomas Poole and an 1808 letter to Sir George Beaumont, indicating its long gestation and its repeated usefulness for Coleridge in representing his self to key confidants.
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