Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Edinburgh University Press, 2014
608 pp., 243.77
Coleridge and the Maker
Coleridge's self-judgment and the judgment of posterity have often been one. In 1814, when he was forty-two and in the midst of a long nightmare of bodily pain, the side-effects of laudanum addiction, and repeated mental affliction, he wrote to his friend Joseph Cottle: "The object of my present reply, is, to state the case just as it is—first, that for ten years the anguish of my spirit has been indescribable, the sense of my danger staring, but the consciousness of my guilt worse—far worse than all! I have prayed, with drops of agony on my brow; trembling, not only before the justice of my Maker, but even before the mercy of my Redeemer. 'I gave thee so many talents, what hast thou done with them?' " Of all the darts that stabbed Coleridge's heart, the greatest was that conviction of great gifts neglected, enormous talents betrayed. And this verdict has been shared by many since: so many talents, and what to show for them? A handful of great poems; a number of intermittently brilliant lectures on poetry and philosophy and theology; a great many books started and left unfinished.
Cottle's answer to Coleridge's cry of misery, though clearly well-intentioned, offered little more than a generous heaping of salt into his friend's many wounds. "Did you ever hear of Jesus Christ? That he came into the world to save sinners? … Pray! Pray earnestly, and you will be heard by your Father, which is in Heaven." Coleridge, making every effort to be forbearing and grateful—he never lost the earnest and deep desire to please his friends, to please everyone—could only reply,
You bid me pray. O, I do pray inwardly to be able to pray; but indeed to pray, to pray with a faith to which a blessing is promised, this is the reward of faith, this is the gift of God to the elect. Oh! if to feel how infinitely worthless I am, how poor a wretch, with just free-will enough to be deserving of wrath, and of my own contempt, and of none to merit a moment's peace, can make a part of a Christian's creed; so far I am a Christian.
"Just free-will enough to be deserving of wrath"—a chilling word. The matter of freedom and bondage was much on Coleridge's mind at this time. A few weeks after his exchange with Cottle he wrote to another friend, John Morgan, to confess his many lies and deceptions: "And yet," he continued, "all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them." The laudanum, which he had once chosen to take, "annihilated" the freedom of his will. The paradoxes here were so deep, and the suffering (moral and physical) so intense, it is little wonder that Coleridge sought at this time to commit himself to an insane asylum.
Instead, he went to live with John Morgan in the countryside near Bristol. And there he began the hard and dark task of trying to put himself back together.
For Coleridge, "putting himself back together" meant, among other things, reclaiming the public's attention through publication. It seemed to him that a likely option might be to publish a collection of his poems. Though poetry had never been the chief focus of his attention—once, commenting on his limitations as a poet, he wryly noted that "Like the ostrich, I cannot fly, though I have wings that give me the feeling of flight"—poetry continued to be what he was best known for, thanks to his association with Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. But he had fallen so far out of touch with the poetic world that he had no idea how even to choose a likely publisher: he wrote for help to Lord Byron, fifteen years his junior but dramatically more famous and influential, in a letter so fawning that it can scarcely be read without blushes. Byron responded graciously but not in a way that made it obvious what Coleridge should do next.
Moreover, that very association with Wordsworth that constituted the chief source of his reputation worried at him, for he and Wordsworth had fallen out; and, for Coleridge equally seriously, he had come to realize how thoroughly he now dissented from the theory of poetry that Wordsworth had laid out in the famous "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads. So it occurred to Coleridge that, were he to publish a collection of his poems, it might properly be accompanied by a preface in the form of an intellectual autobiography—an account especially of how his literary views had been formed, and then, over the years, changed.
Eventually, this account—expanded, ramified, subjected to multiple digressions, footnoted, and filled out by extended passages simply plagiarized from the German philosopher Schelling—became a book known as the Biographia Literaria. For some readers and critics the Biographia is a farrago, a collection of (at best) imperfectly connected thoughts—even Coleridge himself, with typical self-deprecation, calls it "an immethodical miscellany." But for others it is something far more. The English critic Arthur Symons thought it "the greatest book of criticism in English." And Adam Roberts, who has edited and annotated the version of the Biographia I have before me, is blunt as can be: "Nobody interested in literature can afford to be ignorant of this book."
Some of those who have dismissed Coleridge's book as a hodgepodge have been led to think of it in this way because of the way it was composed—or the way they think it was composed. What Roberts calls the "consensus narrative" of that composition states that Coleridge dictated the text to his friend and host John Morgan between April and September of 1815. Since the completed text is about 140,000 words, that would constitute some high-speed dictation, and structural incoherence would be inevitable. But Roberts does not endorse this consensus narrative, and in his introduction to his edition argues convincingly that Coleridge worked on the book between April of 1815 and May of 1817—a time-frame allowing for more reflection, more intention, more design. It is on the basis of his well-documented and thorough reconstruction of events that Roberts bases his view that the Biographia is considerably more orderly—though in subtle ways—than its detractors have ever given it credit for being. The assumption of coherence governs his whole treatment of the book.
And that treatment is both compelling and exhaustive. Roberts' account of the book's composition occupies a full 15 pages of his introduction, which is a lot, but only ten percent of the whole: Yes, Roberts has written a monograph-length account of and guide to the Biographia. Some might attribute this expansiveness to Roberts' writerly character: in addition to being a first-rate scholar of 19th-century literature, he is also a historian and critic of science fiction and fantasy, and one of the most gifted writers of science fiction to come onto the scene in recent decades, with about a novel per year for the past 15 years, plus short stories and parodies. "Prolific" is hardly the word for it. And yet none of his books is over-long; he is rarely garrulous. In this edition he takes angles on the critic's task that few others would take: I suspect that no one else in attempting to explain the "associationist" psychology of David Hartley and its influence on Coleridge would do so by way of an extended quotation from Kim Stanley Robinson's SF masterpiece Green Mars. But the analogy is quite apt, and a very useful by-product of Roberts' exceptionally wide reading.
But the chief reason for the length of this introduction is simply that Roberts cannot make his case for the coherence of the Biographia except by patiently and thoroughly walking the reader through it. Having explained that the text as a whole takes the reader back and forth, sometimes rather bewilderingly, among select events in Coleridge's life, criticism of particular works of literature, Kantian philosophy, and theology, Roberts wants to demonstrate that these parts are not as miscellaneous and "immethodical" as they might appear and in fact are woven into something like a single argument. That argument, Roberts explains in a particularly useful paragraph, goes something like this:
But we need to keep in view the larger project of the 'philosophical' chapters of the Biographia. They are not (whatever critics sometimes imply) an omnium gatherum of all matters metaphysical … . His philosophical ambition in the Biographia is considerably more modest, and (again, despite what later critics have tended to say) it is directly related to his autobiographical and literary-critical ambitions. That aim is to establish (a) that human consciousness or subjectivity is an immortal, individual spirit that partakes of the divine; and (b) that only this can account for the greatness of the greatest art … . He is saying, more particularly, that what elevates great (imaginative) art from mediocre or merely competent (fanciful) art is a shaping originality that cannot be explained by merely scientific, mechanistic accounts of consciousness. The relevance of this claim to Coleridge's literary autobiography is, partly, that stepping through these philosophical positions enables us to trace his own intellectual development. More than this, the argument grounds the fundamental appeal of biography in the first place—that life is not merely a series of external events that happen to one person, but is rather the unfolding of a transcendent individual reality.
For Coleridge, an account of events leads to an account of thoughts, which in turn leads to an account of consciousness, which (finally) leads to a theological anthropology. Roberts: "the Biographia believes 'the vision and the faculty divine' to be at the heart of the best art. This is why the book is divided between close attention to poetry and densely argued theological philosophy. Coleridge wants to do more than just show you the difference between good and bad poetry. He wants to do something more ambitious: he wants to make you believe in God."
As a young man, Coleridge was greatly taken with the work of David Hartley (1705-1757), the English philosopher who developed what came to be known as the "associationist" school of psychology. As Coleridge notes in the fifth chapter of the Biographia, philosophers had long recognized that some ideas in our minds tend to be linked to other ideas, but it was only in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and especially David Hume that there arose a serious effort to discover what principles governed the mind's associations. So Hume, for instance, posited that the three major principles are similarity, contiguity in place or time, and cause/effect. Hartley, writing just after Hume, was distinctive in his insistence that all mental activity proceeds by association, and that all associations can be traced to vibrations in the nervous system. From the vantage point of contemporary debates about neural activity and cognition, Hartley can perhaps be seen as the first thinker to suggest that there may be no distinction between "mind" and "brain"—that physical activity in the brain may constitute everything that we call "thinking" and even "experience."
The young Coleridge found these ideas sufficiently powerful that he named his first son Hartley; but his enthusiasm waned over the years as his religious interests grew, and by the time he started dictating the Biographia to Morgan, he had come to see his adherence to Hartley's associationism as his greatest intellectual error and the one most in need of correction. So unpacking Hartley's errors proves essential to the story he has to tell, even though he knows that some readers will surely find his exposition tedious: "With my best efforts to be as perspicuous as the nature of language will permit on such a subject, I earnestly solicit the good wishes and friendly patience of my readers, while I thus go 'sounding on my dim and perilous way.' "
Coleridge then seeks to demonstrate that Hartley's associationism is wrong because it makes mental activity into something both passive and mechanical: humans become little more than recording machines for impressions, ceaselessly classifying them according to a few simple associative rules. But while this may capture some of what our brains do, it is scarcely adequate to account for the whole:
Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind's self-experience in the act of thinking. There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive.
Coleridge follows this marvelous simile with a parenthesis: "In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the imagination. But in common language, and especially on the subject of poetry, we appropriate the name to a superior degree of the faculty, joined to a superior voluntary control over it."
As the culmination of the long repudiation of Hartley's thought, Coleridge famously opposes this Imagination (later divided into Primary and Secondary) to the "Fancy," which "has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites." The Fancy indeed merely plays with the "counters" that have been given it by the memory; "it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association." If we were reliant only on the Fancy, we would indeed be Hartleian beings, shuffling our fixed and defined impressions like cardboard coins; but as beings made in the image of God, Coleridge says, we can do more: "The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite i am."
The importance of this distinction is evident from Coleridge's redeployment of it in other terms elsewhere in the Biographia: "Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις [morphosis], not ποíησις [poiesis]"—shaping, not making. Roberts, whose background in classics serves him very well as an annotator of Coleridge, points out that "when Coleridge uses [morphosis] in the Biographia he has in mind the New Testament use of the word as 'semblance' or 'outward appearance', which the King James version translates as 'form' "—mere form, as it were, mere appearance. And it may be also that Coleridge is thinking of the New Testament uses of poiesis and its near relations as well: for instance, when Paul writes of human beings (Eph. 2:10) as poiesis theou—"God's workmanship"; God's poem.
The reference to the Imagination as "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite i am" comes at the very end of the first volume of the Biographia, and a corresponding echo comes at the very end of the second volume. The book's last paragraph intones a noble peroration:
This has been my Object, and this alone can be my Defence—and O! that with this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE might conclude! the unquenched desire I mean, not without the consciousness of having earnestly endeavoured to kindle young minds, and to guard them against the temptations of Scorners, by shewing that the Scheme of Christianity, as taught in the Liturgy and Homilies of our Church, though not discoverable by human Reason, is yet in accordance with it.
Reason must reach "its own Horizon," must end as the day ends, and be succeeded by the "sacred Night" of faith: "and the outward Beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the aweful depth, though Suns of other Worlds, only to preserve the Soul steady and collected in its pure Act of inward Adoration to the great i am, and to the filial word that re-affirmeth it from Eternity to Eternity, whose choral Echo is the Universe."
Noble, though perhaps not overly lucid; but it's important that here what matters is "Adoration" of "the great i am," not the human creative participation in that eternal Being. It is possible that Coleridge came to question the propriety of his strong linking of human with divine creativity: his daughter Sara reported, years after the poet's death, that in his own copy of the Biographia he had crossed out the passage making that link.
I enter the realm of pure speculation here, but I sometimes wonder whether Coleridge crossed that phrase out because of the line of thought it inspired, a tradition of celebrating poets as figures so God-like that God himself can come to seem surplus to requirements. Four years after the publication of the Biographia Literaria Percy Shelley would write, "Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Reading those words, Coleridge might well have wondered what he had wrought.
In 1817, a celebration of the poetic imagination could well be seen, especially to one with Coleridge's intellectual history, as a warm embrace of an all-creative and all-loving Deity; by the middle of the 20th century it looked rather different. W. H. Auden would then write, " 'The unacknowledged legislators of the world' describes the secret police, not the poets"; and for him, affirming the Christian faith—something he, like Coleridge, did as a mature adult—meant drawing careful distinctions between the poet's making and God's:
The poet's activity in creating a poem is analogous to God's activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for were it so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create. It is analogous in that the poet creates not necessarily according to a law of nature but voluntarily according to provocation.
T. S. Eliot likewise would present, late in his poetic career, a theologically-inspired deflation of any great claims for vatic power:
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Adam Roberts, in this exemplary edition of Coleridge's great book, convincingly demonstrates that Coleridge "wants to make you believe in God"; but what Coleridge may have achieved instead was making you believe in poets. For at least some later Christian artists of the next century, that was a belief in need of abandonment, a spell in need of reversal.
Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.