Alan Jacobs

Coleridge and the Maker

Revisiting the "Biographia Literaria."

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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.
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