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 …
- 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.