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“Since the early 1980s, major developments have occurred in the way British Romanticism is approached and understood” (1). This is the first sentence of Lucy Newlyn’s introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, and it firmly establishes the purpose of the companion, which seeks to introduce its readers to the new social, political and economic contexts in which contemporary critics approach Coleridge. And let me say at the outset that the Companion is a handsome volume. It is written with admirable clarity, and the contributors have pitched their chapters well at the sort of level required by the advanced undergraduate or the beginning graduate student. I imagine that teachers will find it an invaluable place for their students to begin their background reading. And if I have some reservations about the approach personally, that is because I am incurably old fashioned.
I suffered a guilty start at Newlyn’s claim, in the second paragraph, that “it would be unthinkable nowadays to design a course on British Romanticism based around the works of six male poets” (1). It would indeed be unthinkable; and I for many years introduced Finch, Smith, and others, as examples of eighteenth-century sensibility, and Barbauld as the writer of late-eighteenth-century philosophical poetry, so as to sharpen the students’ sense of what was new in mainstream romanticism. I know that that was naughty of me, because I know that we are supposed to think (after the century of Wittgenstein and of critical theory) that there are no essences, and no essence of romanticism, and that the term “Romanticism” should be expanded to include the “minor” writers of the period. The trouble is that, much as I love the quiet sensibility of the mid-eighteenth century, my students weren’t ready for it. They were nineteen, had never read a poem before in their life, and were delighted by the pyrotechnics of the big six. Music in poetry (quantity, rhythm and pitch) were things they were only just discovering, and the quiet music of the eighteenth century was beyond them. I also tried, occasionally, to teach some of Coleridge’s earlier, more overtly political poetry, but since I could never muster the expected outrage over his apostasy, it was hard to find reasons for reading the early poetry if it meant missing out of the symphonic tonalities of Adonais. The still, small voice kept insisting that some poetry is just bad.
All of this was reprehensible. I also know, after twenty years in the business, that aestheticism is deeply suspect. But something else in Lucy Newlyn’s introduction caught my attention. For Newlyn brings the political context of the mid 1790s to bear on “Frost at Midnight,” with its apparently less than innocent mention of a “secret ministry,” a suggestion which is reinforced by mention of the “eave-drops,” or the eavesdropping of the “Spy Nozy” incident (3,4). This is an offspring of the kind of reading which Kelvin Everest originally taught us, and which Paul Magnuson’s chapter in the Companion sets up with great economy. But at first, something irremediable in me rebelled at Newlyn’s reading. Gradually I was brought to admit that Coleridge was a punster, that the poem was first published in a volume with the unavoidably political title, Fears in Solitude, and that it is quite possible that Coleridge was aware of the political implications of his poem. But a reservation remains. Is this the kind of understanding that one wants as the focus of the student’s experience of the poem? And do the students understand that this relatively arcane kind of reading is a corrective to the kind of older, aestheticist reading that thought of the poem as a serenely autonomous object, the well-wrought urn. Newlyn’s point is a useful corrective to critics (like me) who are less interested in politics than we should be, it is a useful corrective for students who have come through courses like the one I taught for many years, but is it where one wants to start?
Part of the broader issue I am raising here is that old chestnut, unity, and the question of whether it makes sense to think that some concerns in Coleridge’s conversation poems (for example, the religious vision of nature) are more central than others (late eighteenth-century radicalism). And any attentive student will gather from parts of this volume that one is supposed to be against unity: to notice the fragmentary nature of much of Coleridge’s utterance, from the incomplete “Kubla Khan” to the notebooks to the Biographia with its central lacuna. For Josie Dixon, quoting Jerry Christensen, Coleridge “is eccentric, even peripheral, his texts a circle whose centre is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere” (75). And in the notebooks, the “slash or solidus [...] is not merely used to separate ideas, but to prevent some of them from further elucidation.” The notebooks become “a supplement to the halfness of the self—sought in the lifetime companion he never quiet found” (87). Similarly, for Magnuson tensions in the conversation poems derive from “an attempt to combine antithetical materialist and idealist intellectual traditions,” as evidenced in the way in which the frozen and quiet icicles in “Frost at Midnight” speak of an active force in the world (35).
But it is not clear to me that materialism is really an issue in “Frost at Midnight,” and if there is an antithesis in the image of the frozen icicles, it is not clear to me that it is fundamental. For while postmodernism, recapitulating the long tradition from Kant’s antinomies to the various post-Kantian attempts to deal with opposition, regards antithesis and tension as intrinsic to all discourse, there are older traditions in which paradox and the via-negativa were seen as ways to generate insight into the divine. Coleridge knew what he thought on the issue: he was a Trinitarian, who believed that the One is just as fundamental as the Many, and that their apparent contradiction only holds true within the world of the limited understanding.
James Engell usefully finds the median in insisting that Coleridge’s talk of organic form should not be seen as an absolute demand for unity (73). This is important, for Coleridge’s triune logic says that unity can only be found in plurality, and the same should be a feature of organic unity. And as Engell points out, Coleridge’s demand for unity is “ideal.” In reality, there is all the room for the free play of ideas and suggestions (certainly for Tim Fulford’s slave-traders—drawing on Debbie Lee’s work—and even for secret ministries and eavesdropping icicles) that we find in Coleridge’s practice. But if an insistence on fragmentation and manyness is a necessary corrective to older views of Coleridge, things have now swung so far in the opposite direction that one welcomes Seamus Perry’s insistence that Coleridge is hardly so committed a pluralist as is sometimes suggested: “on the contrary, he espouses vehemently the opposing virtues of unity, wholeness and system [...] and he exhibits, at times, an almost disturbing antipathy to the simply plural, ‘the universe itself [...] an immense heap of little things’” (117).
Paul Hamilton’s chapter, on Coleridge “The Philosopher,” is firmly in the camp of “fragmentation,” taking his cue from Leslie Stephen’s remark that “Coleridge suffers when any attempt is made to extract a philosophical system from his works” (175). For Hamilton, what is really going on behind Coleridge’s various attempts to find a philosophical resolution is the barely-recognised discovery that “language embodies that prior identity of differences [...] which his transcendental philosophy needs” (181). Hamilton’s reading is, as one would expect, erudite, and he thus places Coleridge within a post-Kantian genealogy which deals with the question of difference and which extends down to this day—Coleridge, apparently, is a bit player, who “enters the dispute on Schelling’s side” (182). But for me, when I hear the “it’s all language” gambit, I feel like one who finds himself being born down upon by an ancient mariner, peddling his own dubious articles of faith.
And Hamilton’s argument is open to numerous objections. Leslie Stephen had not read the Opus Maximum (has Hamilton?). And in order to mount his argument, Hamilton has to sideline Muirhead, at the time Britain’s foremost authority on nineteenth-century idealism (177), in favour of Wellek, a man who hadn’t understood the basis of Coleridge’s logic. Nor indeed does Hamilton, for he thinks of any recourse to talk of the Trinity is ipso-facto a sign of dogmatics rather than philosophy (177). But the whole point of Coleridge’s logic is his demonstration that the simultaneity of One and Many can only be understood through an analysis of the concept of personhood, for it turns out (on Coleridge’s argument) that the idea of personhood (the One) only makes sense in terms of the simultaneous existence of another person (the Many).
Now one might not agree with Coleridge about this, but simply ignoring it is no basis on which to evaluate Coleridge’s aspirations to system-hood. For this, the Logos principle, is the reason why Mary Ann Perkins (in an argument dismissed by Hamilton) thinks of Coleridge’s philosophy as “potentially as generative of critical thought in the areas of psychology, philosophy and religion as, for example, the systems of F.W.J. Schelling and G.W.F. Hegel” (176). Perkins is right, for Coleridge’s arguments are a profound response to the dilemma of the antinomies, the central problem which Kant bequeathed to his successors (Reid, “Coleridge” 455). Perkins, in her own judicious and economical chapter on the Logos and Coleridge as “Religious Thinker,” usefully quotes Coleridge on the role of the Trinity: the Trinity is the symbol which allows us “to effect what in no other way can be effected, the union of Personality with Infinity in the Godhead” (189; Coleridge 5262).
I began this review by saying that this is a handsome volume. The chapters are all written with attractive economy, offering the kind of survey which a student beginning more advanced work on Coleridge would need. Among the distinguished contributions I haven’t discussed are fine pieces by Jim Mays (the later poetry), Deirdre Coleman (the journalist), Angela Esterhammer (the critic), Peter Kitson (the political thinker), and John Beer (Coleridge’s afterlife). There is room, finally, only to mention Julie Carlson’s deliciously ambiguous comment on Coleridge and gender (“Coleridge was not a feminist, though he included women amongst his best friends” (203)); and Jim McKusick’s very welcome stress on the experiential dimension of the Coleridgean symbol. The latter argument draws on Susanne Langer, and shows the limits to any attempt to assimilate the Coleridgean symbol to a purely linguistic understanding (227-28; Reid “Form”).
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn and Merton Christensen. Vol. 4. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990.
- Reid, Nicholas. “Coleridge and Schelling: The Missing Transcendental Deduction,” Studies in Romanticism, 33.3 (Fall 1994): 451-479; reprinted in Nicholas Reid, Coleridge, Form and Symbol. Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming.
- Reid, Nicholas. “Form in Coleridge; and in Perception and Art more generally,” Romanticism on the Net 26 (May 2002) <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2002/v/n26/005699ar.html> .