Ideologies in Readings of the Late Coleridge: Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit[Notice]

  • E. S. Shaffer

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  • E. S. Shaffer
    School of Advanced Study, University of London

There is no 'end to ideology'. Specifically, 'after ideology' in the title of this special issue may mean, or may have been intended to suggest, after the ideology of Romantic aesthetics. Or even after the ideology of ideologizing Romantic aesthetics. But I wish to argue that the Romantic period, and figures within it, have been subject to successive ideologies, not to one ideology that has been overcome, whether that one is seen as the ideology of the Romantics themselves, or that of (a particular selection of) their twentieth-century interpreters. I wish further to argue that the Romantics are still subject to ideologies we imagine have been put behind us, sometimes openly, sometimes in a concealed or veiled way. Coleridge is a major case in point. I shall also suggest or introduce into the discussion another mode of ideological reading. There is much unfinished business before we could with any plausibility claim to be 'after ideology'. 'The Late Coleridge' is itself a conception formed and deformed by the remains of political, religious, nationalist and gender ideologies, and their subsets in 'Eng Lit'. We have no accurate or adequate conception of the late Coleridge from 1819 to his death in 1834. Those are the years of prodigious productivity and mature thought which included the Philosophical Lectures, the last series of Shakespeare lectures, the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, Aids to Reflection, the Prometheus Lecture to the Royal Institution, the related MSS that make up the 'Opus Maximum', and On the Constitution of the Church and the State, as well, of course, as the continuing notebooks and extensive marginalia. The later Notebooks, the last volume of Marginalia (which are arranged of course in alphabetical not chronological order), and the large item of the 'Opus Maximum' are still missing from the corpus—none of them published yet. Further delay in the appearance of the 'Opus Maximum' was occasioned by an inadequate transcription of the text, and an overlength prolegomenon. Much of the rest has now been edited or reedited; it is the newly edited text as much as the outright lacunae which so tellingly reveals the play of ideologies. The figure of the late Coleridge has long been subject to belittling comment. On the one hand, he is presented by his rivals as the political turncoat, the butt of Hazlitt's satire (not only as a political opponent, but also as a rival literary critic; as James Chandler has shown, in 1819 Hazlitt was busily vying with Coleridge in the arena of the public lecture); on the other hand, he is the nascent 'sage of Highgate' presaging (if I may so trope) the full-blown Victorian sage (and again Coleridge's qualifications were undermined by the major rival for the honour, Carlyle, in the familiar passage depicting a droning, shuffling old poseur). It is perhaps indicative of the reluctance to take on the late Coleridge that Chandler claims it was the publication (1817-18) of Biographia Literaria, Sibylline Leaves, the Lay Sermons and The Friend that 'established his later reputation as the "Sage of Highgate".' This backdating to the works of Coleridge's middle years is the more remarkable, as the stream of visitors to the 'Sage of Highgate' began with the appearance of Aids to Reflection—published in England in 1825, and in the United States in 1828, with James Marsh's Preface that acknowledged its Kantian basis and made it a central text for New England Transcendentalism. Only after this did Coleridge himself become an object of pilgrimage. This late work continued to be his most influential writing throughout the nineteenth century, …

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