Literary Criticism of S.T. Coleridge

The genius of Samuel Taylor Coleridge extended over many domains. In poetry he is best known for compositions such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Frost at MidnightChristabel, and Kubla Khan, as well as Lyrical Ballads (1798), which he co-authored with Wordsworth. He also wrote on educational, social, political, and religious matters in his Lectures on Politics and Religion (1795), Lay Sermons (1816), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1829). Much of his thinking on philosophical issues is contained in his Logic. His literary criticism includes detailed studies of Shakespeare and Milton, and a highly influential text, Biographia Literaria (1817). The Biographia is an eclectic work, combining intellectual autobiography, philosophy, and literary theory; some critics have praised the insight and originality of this work, viewing Coleridge as the first English critic to build literary criticism on a philosophical foundation, which he derived from German idealist thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, and German Romantics such as Schiller, the Schlegels, and Schelling. Other critics have viewed Coleridge’s efforts as a philosopher as haphazard and irrelevant to his essential literary-critical insights.

Indeed, Coleridge’s genius was somewhat thwarted by his eccentric character and his tendency to undertake ambitious projects that proved abortive. In 1794 he left Cambridge University without completing his degree. In the same year he devised a plan with the poet Robert Southey to establish a society of equals ruled by all, a “pantisocracy,” in Pennsylvania, a plan that rapidly dissolved. Coleridge’s marriage to Sara Fricker in 1815 eventually went awry, and he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson. He became dependent on laudanum, a form of opium. Nonetheless, his achievement was vast: not only did he lecture on a broad range of topics, but also, in addition to his other writings, published two journals, first the Watchman in 1796, and then the Friend from 1809 to 1810. Two experiences were central to his future development as a poet and thinker: the first was his meeting with the poet Wordsworth in 1795, resulting in a friendship that lasted until 1810. Coleridge and his wife Sara lived close to Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy from 1796; in 1800 they all moved to the Lake District, which proved to be a rich source of poetic inspiration. The other experience was travel (with the Wordsworths) to Germany in 1798 where Coleridge studied the work of Kant and the German Romantic thinkers.

Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria is his most significant literary-critical work, and will be the focus of the following discussion. The insights achieved in that text, however, need to be contextualized within some broader developments in Coleridge’s life and work. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge was at first of radical mind, inspired by the promise of the French Revolution. In an early poem, Ode on the Destruction of the Bastille in1789, he had written:

I see, I see! glad Liberty succeed
With every patriot virtue in her train!
And mark yon peasant’s raptured eyes;
Secure he views his harvests rise;
No fetter vile the mind shall know,
And Eloquence shall fearless glow.
Yes! Liberty the soul of Life shall reign,
Shall throb in every pulse, shall flow thro’ every vein!

In the same poem Coleridge expressed the hope that the influence of France might spread “Till every land from pole to pole / Shall boast one independent soul.”

By 1792, while at Cambridge, Coleridge had befriended the radical leader William Frend, an active sympathizer of the Revolution. Frend’s political opinions brought him into conflict with the university authorities after the beginning of war between France and England in 1793. A few years earlier, Frend’s religious views had also roused antagonism: he had been dismissed from his post as tutor in the university on account of his Unitarian beliefs. It was under the influence of Frend that Coleridge himself became a Unitarian by 1794 and, in 1796, decided to become a Unitarian minister (a decision, for various reasons, not realized). Other radical acquaintances of Coleridge’s at this time included John Thelwall, often in trouble for his Jacobin sympathies. Coleridge himself gave numerous radical lectures at Bristol and a number of cities in the midlands, with the Unitarians. Thelwall described Coleridge’s talks as replete with “levelling sedition and constructive treason.”

However, like Wordsworth – near whom he was living at the time – Coleridge became disillusioned with the revolutionary movement. France’s invasion of Switzerland in 1798 provoked him to write and publish a poem which he first entitled “Recantation,” and then simply France: An Ode. Here, Coleridge neatly recounts the history of his own attitudes toward the Revolution. The poem is interestingly structured: it begins by addressing the clouds, the ocean waves, and the woods, elements of nature which pay homage only to “eternal laws” and which have inspired the poet to adore the “spirit of divinest Liberty” (CPW, 244). The second stanza describes how Coleridge “hoped and feared” with the Revolution’s promise of freedom; and, like Wordsworth, he describes himself as torn between love of liberty and loyalty to his native country when Britain warred against France. At this stage, however, liberty won the day: Coleridge recalls how he “blessed the paeans of delivered France, / And hung my head and wept at Britain’s name” (CPW, 245).

The poet’s doubts begin to creep to the surface of the third stanza: though shocked by the “blasphemies” and horrors of the Reign of Terror, he took these as an understandable reaction to the despotism of former times; and he still embraced the hope that “conquering by her happiness alone, / Shall France compel the nations to be free.” By the beginning of the fourth stanza, however, the poet has nothing but remorse for his early revolutionary fervor. He hears freedom’s “loud lament,” and addresses France now in less flattering terms: “O France, that mockest Heaven, adulterous, blind, / And patriot only in pernicious toils! . . . To insult the shrine of Liberty with spoils / From freemen torn” (CPW, 246). In Biographia Coleridge described himself, after the invasion of Switzerland, as “a more vehement anti-gallican, and still more intensely an anti-jacobin.”4 The final stanza is a direct address to Liberty, which the poet dissociates from any possibility of realization in human government; rather, he finds the spirit of liberty in the mind’s contemplation of its own individuality and the surrounding sublime objects of nature, as pervaded by the love of God.

O Liberty! . . .
The guide of homeless winds, and playmate of the waves!
And there I felt thee! – on that sea-cliff ’s verge,
. . . Possessing all things with intensest love,
O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.
(CPW, 247)

This reads very much like Wordsworth’s retraction of the ideal of liberty from political affairs into the connection between humanity and nature; whatever the direction of influence (several commentators have suggested that it was Coleridge who impressed these ideas on Wordsworth), it is clear that for both men the notion of liberty is transmuted from its status as a political ideal commensurate with certain forms of government and economic structures to an eternal ideal, raised above the sphere of political economy and subsisting, in somewhat Kantian fashion, within the selfconsciousness of the individual. For Coleridge, such an ideal of liberty implied an essentially religious vision of the world, one that went hand in hand with political conservatism. Shortly after his explicit disillusionment with French revolutionary principles and practice, he also questioned his own unorthodox Unitarian views, and by 1805 he had made positive overtures toward trinitarianism. On several occasions in both his prose and poetry Coleridge expressed admiration for Edmund Burke (BL, I, 191). Likewise, though Coleridge was accused of being a renegade, he claimed that he had adhered to principles rather than loyalty to nation or political party. Coleridge eventually took his place in the tradition of English conservatism, on which he exerted considerable influence.

At the heart of Coleridge’s conservatism was his insistence, similar to Burke’s, that truth cannot be reached by focusing on the present alone. Rather, both men appealed to what they called universal principles that would comprehend past, present, and future. Both men reacted against the prevailing philosophies of the Enlightenment, and especially against what they saw as the principle of “abstract reason” governing French and other revolutionary attempts to reform society according to “abstract” principles rather than on the basis of actual history and culture. Many of Coleridge’s views on these issues are contained in The Statesman’s Manual (1816), the first essay in what was planned as a series of three “lay sermons” intended to address the ills of contemporary society. In these sermons, Coleridge bemoaned the modern spirit of commerce and speculation that had thwarted the diverse potential of human beings;5 like Wordsworth, he lamented the contemporary “frivolous craving for novelty,” and what he called the “general contagion” of the “mechanical” philosophies of the Enlightenment derived from thinkers such as Locke, Hume, and David Hartley (LS, 25, 28). He saw this commercial spirit as underlying the principles of the French Revolution, principles which erected “immediate utility” and the gratification of the senses into the ultimate criteria of value, and which reduced all relations into essentially economic relations (LS, 74–76). He saw the Revolution as deifying human reason and as arrogantly misapplying this reason in the presumption that “states and governments might be and ought to be constructed as machines,” rather than evolving naturally on universal principles (LS, 34, 62–63).

Coleridge sought the antidote to these evils in “the collation of the present with the past, in the habit of thoughtfully assimilating the events of our own age to those of the time before us” (LS, 9). He saw the universal principles of truth and morality as contained in the Bible, which he advocated as the “end and center of our reading” (LS, 17, 70). He insisted that the Bible was the true moral and intellectual foundation of Europe, and that it expressed “a Science of Realities . . . freed from the phenomena of time and space” (LS, 31, 49–50).

In a formulation which proved to have great impact on later writers such as Poe and Baudelaire, Coleridge returned to the medieval idea of the Book of Nature, whereby the world of nature itself contained the “correspondences and symbols of the spiritual world” (LS, 70). He made a distinction between symbol and allegory, defining the latter as merely a “translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses.” A symbol, on the other hand, “is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.” The poverty of the modern age, argued Coleridge, rests partly on its inability to recognize any “medium between Literal and Metaphorical”: modern thinking either buries faith in the “dead letter” or replaces it with products of a mechanical understanding. Coleridge was to be followed by many others, both radical and conservative, in his reaction against the reduction of thought and language to a literal, aggregative character. What is perhaps most interesting about Coleridge’s perspective is the way he presents “eternal” and vital scripture as opposed to modern “mechanical” or “dead” philosophies in terms of the faculties of the human mind. His elaboration of this is integral to his aesthetics.

In the first place, Coleridge attempted to redeem the notion of reason from its reductive and abstract status as bequeathed by the Enlightenment. He accused modern thinkers of seducing understanding from its “natural allegiance,” whereby it stood in the courts of faith and reason, allowing it to operate instead in a misguided independence Coleridge effectively charged modern bourgeois thought with reducing reason to understanding. His thinking here appears to have been influenced by Kant: he sees reason as a higher and more comprehensive faculty than understanding. The understanding, according to Coleridge, “concerns itself exclusively with the quantities, qualities, and relations of particulars in time and space” (LS, 59). The understanding, then, gives us a piecemeal knowledge of what Kant called the “phenomenal” world, the world of our sense-experience in space and time. Mere understanding, as elaborated by empiricist philosophers such as David Hume, is fragmentary; moreover, it cannot comprehend the realm of morality (LS, 20–22). Reason, says Coleridge, “is the knowledge of the laws of the Whole considered as One.” It is “the science of the universal ” (LS, 59). So, as with Kant, reason is a faculty which stands above the understanding, organizing the knowledge derived from the latter into a more comprehensive unity. If the understanding is employed in isolation from reason, says Coleridge, it can be directed only to the material world and our worldly interests; he insists that the understanding is merely “the means not the end of knowledge” (LS, 68–69).

This contrast and connection between reason and understanding furnishes the broader context for Coleridge’s view of the imagination. Like Kant, he sees understanding as a limited power, which, used in independence, “entangles itself in contradictions.” Unlike Kant, he sees the corrective and contextualizing relation of reason to understanding as mediated by the imagination: “The completing power which unites clearness with depth, the plenitude of the sense with the comprehensibility of the understanding, is the IMAGINATION, impregnated with which the understanding itself becomes intuitive, and a living power” (LS, 69). So Coleridge seems to follow Kant (and much eighteenth-century thought) in viewing the imagination as a faculty which unites what we receive through our senses with the concepts of our understanding; but he goes further than Kant in viewing imagination as a power which “completes” and enlivens the understanding so that the understanding itself becomes a more comprehensive and intuitive (rather than merely discursive) faculty. The Romantics, including Coleridge, are often characterized as extolling imagination as the supreme human faculty. Nonetheless, Coleridge appears to view reason as the supreme faculty, one which contains all the others: “The REASON, (not the abstract reason, not the reason as the mere organ of science . . . ) . . . the REASON without being either the SENSE, the UNDERSTANDING or the IMAGINATION contains all three within itself, even as the mind contains  its thoughts, and is present in and through them all” (LS, 69–70). Hence, just as imagination combines sense with understanding, so reason, placed at a higher vantage point, unites the knowledge derived from all three of these. And while Coleridge insists that each individual must bear witness to the light of reason in his own mind, this reason is not strictly a faculty or personal property of any individual; rather, the individual partakes of the light of a reason which is universal and divine. Coleridge is now very far from Kant, who had indeed viewed reason as a higher, regulative faculty but one which was human, not divine.

What, in fact, Coleridge does in attempting to rescue reason from its modern reduction to mere fragmentary understanding is to redefine it. What the Enlightenment philosophers called “reason” was essentially an individualistic reason based on direct but piecemeal observation and experience. This is not the same conception of reason as was espoused by the classical philosophers, or by Christian theologians, who viewed it as a faculty through which we could acquire a universalizing knowledge that might contextualize in both moral and intellectual terms the information we received through our senses. In a sense, then, Coleridge is returning to an earlier and broader notion of reason, one that he elaborates, however, in post-Kantian terms. What he does, in a bold and drastic gesture, is to equate reason with religion. He suggests that “Reason and Religion differ only as a two-fold application of the same power . . . Reason as the science of All as the Whole, must be interpenetrated by a Power, that represents the concentration of All in Each – a Power that acts by a contraction of universal truths into individual duties, as the only form in which those truths can attain life and reality. Now this is RELIGION, which is the EXECUTIVE of our nature, and on this account the name of highest dignity, and the symbol of sovereignty” (LS, 59, 64). Hence Coleridge sees the precepts and duties inscribed in religion as an expression of reason itself. And this “reason,” for Coleridge, is divine reason: he argues that human understanding merely “snatches at truth”; it is partial, fragmentary, and uncertain; whereas God’s knowledge is absolute and certain (LS, 20). If God alone is the ground and cause of all things, if God alone contains “in himself the ground of his own nature, and therein of all natures,” then “Reason hath faith in itself, in its own revelations” (LS, 32). The primal act of faith, says Coleridge, “is enunciated in the word, GOD: a faith not derived from experience, but its ground and source, and without which the fleeting chaos of facts would no more form experience, than the dust of the grave can of itself make a living man. The imperative and oracular form of the inspired Scripture is the form of reason itself in all things purely rational and moral” (LS, 18). Whereas, for Kant, the ultimate ground and enabling principle of experience was the transcendental ego that stood aloof from and organized particular experiences, Coleridge sees this transcendental ground not in ourselves but in the Word of God; for him, reason itself is equated with divine scripture, and thereby made transcendental; in other words, reason is not, as for the Enlightenment thinkers, a faculty that operates directly on the data derived from experience; rather, it precedes, enables, and defines the very possibility of experience. According to Coleridge, it is the distinguishing principle of Christianity “that in it alone . . . the Understanding in its utmost power and opulence . . . culminates in Faith, as in its crown of Glory” (LS, 46). These assertions bear broad similarities to the arguments of Aquinas on the commensurability and mutual complementarity of faith and reason.

Coleridge sees reason defined in this broader sense as a means of counteracting the tendency of Enlightenment philosophy to reduce reason to a merely human faculty and one which operates independently of faith: “To this tendency . . . RELIGION, as the consideration of the Particular and Individual (in which respect it takes up and identifies with itself the excellence of the Understanding) but of the Individual, as it exists and has its being in the Universal (in which respect it is one with the pure Reason,) – to this tendency, I say, RELIGION assigns the due limits” (LS, 62). As Coleridge later states, the “elements . . . of Religion are Reason and Understanding” (LS, 89). Hence, if modern thought has reduced all knowledge to the piecemeal knowledge of the understanding, religion does not dismiss such knowledge but situates this within a unifying context, one which delves beneath the particularity of things to their true reality as contained in their universal characteristics and the pattern of their connections with other entities. Coleridge states that, because religion comprehends both faculties, of reason and understanding, throughout civilized history, religion has been the fosterer of poetry and the fine arts (LS, 62).

Coleridge’s views of the connection of the various faculties and their intersection with religion have interesting implications for his aesthetics. Reason is the supreme faculty or power which embraces the senses, the understanding, and the imagination. Coleridge equates this supreme faculty with religious revelation, i.e., revelation that precedes and enables human experience, furnishing it with a transcendent foundation and meaning. He aligns scripture with a mode of writing that he calls symbolic, and for Coleridge, the symbolic is the realm of the imagination. In The Statesman’s Manual he calls imagination a “reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense, and organizing (as it were) the flux of the Senses by the permanence and self-circling energies of the Reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors” (LS, 62). Hence Coleridge sees the notion of a symbol as intrinsically religious; or, to put it conversely, he sees religious writing as intrinsically symbolic, whereby events on the worldly temporal level are understood as meaningful ultimately in their symbolic capacity, their capacity to refer to a higher, spiritual system of significance.

Coleridge’s views of imagination, and specifically of poetic imagination, are elaborated in his Biographia Literaria (1817), published shortly after his Lay Sermons. The Biographia is a highly eclectic mixture of literary autobiography, literary theory, philosophical speculation, and polemic. It is here that Coleridge offers his best-known definitions of imagination, definitions which, however, need to be understood in the context outlined above. In the fourth chapter of the Biographia, Coleridge makes his famous suggestion that fancy and imagination, contrary to widespread belief, are “two distinct and widely different faculties”: they are not “two names with one meaning, or . . . the lower and higher degree of one and the same power.” Coleridge sees his distinction between these faculties, inspired in part by Wordsworth’s writings, as part of a broader historical tendency, concomitant with cultural and linguistic refinement, to “desynonymize” words that originally shared the same meaning (BL, I, 82–83). It is not, however, until the thirteenth chapter, “On the Imagination,” that Coleridge explains his distinction. And even here, his elaboration is drastically compacted: Coleridge interrupts his own meditations by quoting a letter (allegedly from a friend, but actually written by Coleridge himself ) urging him to reserve the treatment of imagination for a later work where it can be more fully contextualized. The “later” work was never written and Coleridge’s analysis of imagination and fancy is restricted to the following definitions, which are worth quoting in full:

The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. 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 secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the laws of association. (BL, I, 304–305)

What Coleridge designates as the primary imagination is roughly equivalent to what Kant views as the reproductive imagination: it operates in our normal perception, combining the various data received through the senses into a unifying image, which can then be conceptualized by the understanding. In this role, imagination is an intermediary faculty, uniting the data of the senses with the concepts of the understanding. Even in this primary role, however, imagination as formulated by Coleridge evokes a wider, cosmic context: the very act of perception “repeats” on a finite level the divine act of creation. In other words, human perception actively recreates or copies elements in the world of nature, reproducing these into images that can be processed further by the understanding. The imagination in this primary capacity helps us to form an intelligible perspective of the world; this understanding, however, is fragmentary: we do indeed perceive God’s creation but in a piecemeal, cumulative fashion. Moreover, there is no originality in the primary imagination: like Kant’s reproductive imagination, it is bound by what we actually experience through the senses as well as the laws for associating these data.

It is the secondary imagination which is poetic: like Kant’s productive or spontaneous imagination, this is creative and forms new syntheses, new and more complex unities out of the raw furnishings of sense-data. As Coleridge indicates in the passage above, it breaks down the customary order and pattern in which our senses present the world to us, recreating these into new combinations that follow its own rules, rather than the usual laws of association. Coleridge also stresses in this passage the voluntary and controlled nature of the secondary or poetic imagination; whereas the primary imagination operates in an involuntary manner in all people, the secondary imagination belongs to the poet and is put into action by the “conscious will.” Nonetheless, this poetic imagination is still dependent for its raw material on the primary imagination: Coleridge is careful to state that the two types of imagination differ not in kind but only in degree. The secondary imagination must exert its creative powers on the very perceptions supplied by the primary imagination; it cannot operate independently of them. Another way of putting this might be to say that even the creative poetic imagination is ultimately rooted in our actual perceptions of the world: it cannot simply create from nothing, or from the insubstantiality of its own dreams. For, ultimately, the secondary imagination is perceiving the world at a higher level of truth, one that sees beneath the surface appearances of things into their deeper reality, their deeper connections, and their significance within a more comprehensive scheme that relates objects and events in their human, finite significance to their symbolic place in the divine, infinite order of things.

We might simply regard Coleridge’s passage as an index of a reaction against the primacy of Enlightenment reason, and its displacement by imagination as the higher and more creative power. Such an explanation, however, tends to be based on the isolated passage above and tends to oversimplify the Romanticism of both Coleridge and many of the thinkers on whom he drew. It needs to be recalled that, even for Coleridge, it is not imagination but reason which is the highest faculty. As seen earlier, reason for Coleridge is a comprehensive faculty, whose unifying disposition far exceeds the fragmentary and cumulative operations of the mere understanding. Coleridge does talk in the Biographia of a “philosophic imagination,” which he also calls “the sacred power of self-intuition” (BL, I, 241). But this use of the term “imagination” seems to be generic: Coleridge uses it synonymously with what he calls “philosophic consciousness” or the use of the higher and intuitive power of reason which alone can view the concepts of the understanding as an essentially symbolic expression of a higher unity (BL, I, 241–242). Hence the secondary, poetic imagination occupies an intermediary role between the primary imagination, which unifies the data of sense so that these can be brought under the concepts of the understanding, and reason, whose ideas unite those concepts into a still higher unity.

Coleridge’s view of imagination may be somewhat indebted to Kant, to Schelling, who identified three levels of imagination (perceptual, philosophical, and artistic), and to the psychologist Johann Nicolaus Tetens. The important point here is that Coleridge’s work was part of a growing tendency to ascribe to the imagination a role beyond the merely perceptual function assigned to it by Hobbes, Berkeley, and Enlightenment empiricists such as Locke and Hume. An important element in this elevation of imagination’s role was the distinction between this higher faculty and mere fancy. In the passage above, Coleridge reproduces with his own modifications a distinction between fancy and imagination made by several German thinkers such as Tetens, Kant, Ernst Platner, and Schelling. A long tradition of classical and medieval thought, prevailing into the eighteenth century, had viewed fancy (the Greek phantasia) as a more creative power than imagination (from the Latin imaginatio): fancy was associated with the free play of thought whereas imagination had been restricted to the role of recalling images. The German thinkers cited above overturned this hierarchy, lifting imagination above its merely perceptual role and viewing it as a creative and unifying force, and assigning to fancy the more mundane role of selecting and connecting images.8 In Coleridge’s formulation, fancy is a more mechanical mode of creativity: it receives its materials “ready made from the law of association,” and Coleridge calls it merely “a mode of Memory.” In other words, it is a mode of recalling and recombining images that have actually been experienced.

It may well be asked: what is the difference between fancy and the primary imagination, which, after all, is also constrained by the experience of our senses? Two factors might distinguish these faculties. Firstly, though fancy is a mode of recalling, it is nonetheless “emancipated from the order of time and space.” Secondly, it is “modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice.” So fancy has a degree of freedom in the way it recalls images; it is not restricted to the original order of images in time and space; and it can exercise some choice in the way it combines images. Unlike the primary imagination, then, fancy is not merely a perceptual agent; rather, it is a creative power but operates at a lower level of creativity than the secondary or poetic imagination, which has the power to dissolve perceptions entirely and create new combinations. Elsewhere, Coleridge calls imagination a “shaping and modifying power,” and fancy “the aggregative and associative power” (BL, I, 293 and n. 4). Indeed, Coleridge refers to imagination as the “esemplastic” power, a term he derives from the Greek eis hen plattein meaning “to shape into one” (BL, I, 168). Collectively, these statements suggest that imagination unifies material in an internal organic matter, changing the very elements themselves that are united, whereas the combinations produced by fancy are aggregative, comprising merely external addition, as in the placing of images side by side.

Coleridge’s passage on imagination and fancy is an index of some broader and more profound changes of world view between eighteenth-century thought, especially Enlightenment thought, and Romanticism. He saw much modern philosophy as beset by a dualism between the self and the world, a dualism introduced into modern philosophy by Descartes in the form of a distinction between mind and body: “To the best of my knowledge Des Cartes was the first philosopher, who introduced the absolute and essential heterogeneity of the soul as intelligence, and the body as matter” (BL, 129). Descartes had characterized the mind (or what Coleridge calls “soul”) as a thinking substance, a substance that he identified as the essential human self, whereas matter for him was of a completely different nature, characterized primarily by extension in space and time. Coleridge sees this distinction as further refined in modern thought by philosophies such as materialism, hylozoism, and empiricism. The empiricists Locke and Hume were unable to reconcile the self and the external world, saying that we could only know our own ideas or impressions of the world rather than the world itself. Coleridge rejects the various theories of associationism expounded by Hume and psychologists such as David Hartley as offering any feasible means of explaining the connection between mind and body or between self and world, though he accepts Aristotle’s explanation of the ways in which ideas are associated (BL, I, 102–103).

Coleridge saw most of these philosophies as reducing nature to a dead and lifeless entity, subject merely to mechanical laws (BL, I, 129 n. 1). He viewed Kant’s metaphysics as having taken an important step in overcoming this fundamental dualism between self and world, or self and nature. He acknowledged that Kant’s writings, “more than any work, at once invigorated and disciplined my understanding” (BL, I, 153). Kant had attempted to display a necessary connection between our mental faculties and the world of phenomena or the world as it appears to us: our minds have an active and necessary role in constructing this world. However, Kant achieved this necessity at the expense of positing a noumenal world (the world of things in themselves) which we could never know through our intellectual apparatus. Like Fichte and Schelling (and Hegel), Coleridge saw Kant’s phenomena–noumena distinction as reintroducing a distinction or dualism between reality as we know it and ultimate reality which is unknowable. And, like these other thinkers, he rejected what he took to be Kant’s explanation of the noumenon (BL, I, 155).

The German philosophers Fichte and Schelling had attempted to overcome Kant’s distinction. Fichte placed emphasis on the ego, which he identified as the primary reality: the ego posits itself in a primal act of affirmation, and subsequently posits nature or the non-ego as a limitation of itself. But Coleridge saw this stress on the ego as inordinate, and sees Fichte’s theory as degenerating into a crude egoism, opposed to nature which is “lifeless, godless, and altogether unholy” (BL, I, 158–159). It is primarily to Schelling that Coleridge turns for the resolution of the dualism between self and nature. However, Coleridge qualifies his debt to Schelling, tracing the similarities between their ideas to their common reading of Jakob Bohme (BL, I, 160–161). Though Coleridge claims to have arrived at his fundamental ideas independently, he calls Schelling the “founder” of the “dynamic” philosophy of nature (as opposed to the empiricist and materialist traditions which rendered nature lifeless) (BL, I, 162–163).

As Coleridge sees it, “philosophy is neither a science of the reason or understanding only, nor merely a science of morals, but the science of BEING altogether”: it must combine the realms of the speculative and the practical (or moral). Moreover, all knowledge “rests on the coincidence of an object with a subject” (BL, I, 252). For knowledge to arise, then, the dualism of subjective and objective, inherent in modern philosophy since Descartes, must be overcome. Coleridge thinks that we can arrive at this reconciliation whether we start from the subjective or objective pole. If we begin with the objective, or nature, our initial perspective is that of the natural philosopher: the more we examine the world of nature, the more we realize that its essence subsists not in material objects but in the laws that govern those objects and their connections, the very laws that subsist in man as intelligence and self-consciousness. We realize, in other words, the essential identity of nature as object and ourselves as subjects (BL, I, 255–256). If, on the other hand, we start out from the subjective side, our initial position will be that of a transcendental philosopher: like Kant, Coleridge sees transcendental philosophy as assuming that there is a reality beyond our senses, but it is nonetheless ultimately grounded in our senses: it cannot simply construct schemes of its own that bear no relation to our actual experience (the latter kind of philosophy would be “transcendent”) (BL, I, 237). Transcendental philosophy, then, would start out from the fundamental fact of subjectivity, the “I AM” or immediate selfconsciousness, which Coleridge sees as “the ground of all other certainty.” In proceeding to examine nature, we would find that this is identical with our self-consciousness (BL, I, 260). In other words, all the “external” objects that we view are in fact modifications of this self-consciousness or “I AM” which is the fundamental principle of all philosophy: “Only in the self-consciousness of a spirit is there the required identity of object and representation . . . the spirit in all the objects which it views, views only itself ” (BL, I, 272, 278). Hence, though Coleridge begins with the ostensibly Cartesian principle of self-consciousness, he adopts this principle toward a very different conclusion: instead of arriving at the dualism of Descartes or other modern philosophers, he is concerned to abrogate that antithesis, by means of viewing the external world as a development of self-consciousness. But Coleridge of course situates this identity of subject and object within an “absolute identity of subject and object” that expresses the eternal and divine “I AM” (BL, I, 285). Hence all nature is an expression of the selfconscious will or intelligence of God: “We begin with the I KNOW MYSELF, in order to end with the absolute I AM. We proceed from the SELF, in order to lose and find all self in GOD.” What Coleridge desires is a “total and undivided philosophy” where “philosophy would pass into religion, and religion become inclusive of philosophy” (BL, I, 282–283).

Though many of these ideas may have come directly from Schelling, it is worth noting that they bear similarities with those of Hegel, whose system also attempts to overcome the fundamental dualisms and contradictions of bourgeois thought. What is interesting here is Coleridge’s historical position as an English Romantic who introduced or imported into his native tradition some of the principal tenets of German speculative philosophy, tenets that have become identified with the broad spectrum of Romantic movements. These tenets, aimed in part against the mechanistic, fragmentary, and secular spirit of much Enlightenment thought, include the primacy of subjectivity and self-consciousness, the elevation of nature beyond mere lifeless mechanism to a spiritual status, and the perception of a fundamental unity between the human self and the world of nature.

Coleridge’s views on the nature of poetry and poetic language are intrinsically tied to his broader vision as outlined above and, in particular, to his views of poetic imagination. While he shares some components of this broader vision with Wordsworth, he takes some pains, in Biographia, to distinguish his positions precisely from those of his friend. The most basic point on which he differs from Wordsworth is in his insistence that the language of poetry is essentially different from that of prose (BL, II, 73). Whereas Wordsworth saw the poet as a “man speaking to men,” using the language of “real” life (albeit in a more refined form), Coleridge, like the New Critics of the early twentieth century, saw poetry as essentially untranslatable into prose. Indeed, Coleridge criticized the poetic practice of neoclassical writers such as Pope for precisely this, that their poetry took the form of logical argument and that it seemed to be “characterized not so much by poetic thoughts, as by thoughts translated into the language of poetry” (BL, I, 18–19).

Coleridge acknowledges that poetry is formed from the same elements as prose; the difference lies in the different combination of these elements and the difference of purpose (BL, II, 11). Whereas science, history, and other disciplines have the communication of truth as their immediate purpose, this conveyance of truth is for poetry an ultimate purpose. Poetry is distinguished from these other realms “by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; it is also distinguished by its insistence on organic unity, such that the pleasure yielded by any component part of the poem is consonant with the pleasure afforded by any other part and by the poem as a whole” (BL, II, 12– 13). Coleridge later gives something like a definition of organic unity: “all the parts of an organized whole must be assimilated to the more important and essential parts” (BL, II, 72). Hence, unlike Pope, who viewed language as the external “dress” of thought, Coleridge sees the unity of a poem as shaped from within, through internal connections of its elements. Wordsworth, too, had seen the immediate purpose of poetry as producing pleasure. Coleridge’s explanation of this, however, is different: the ultimate aim of poetry is indeed the expression of truth, but pleasure is derived not merely from our view of this final goal but “by the attractions of the journey itself ” (BL, II, 14). This view anticipates many modern conceptions of poetry and poetic autonomy: the primary purpose of poetry is not referential, but rather to draw attention to itself as a linguistic and material construct, to the journey or means whereby truth is achieved. Coleridge’s renowned definition of “poetic faith” as a “willing suspension of disbelief ” helps explain this poetic autonomy: the images in poetry have a force and logic of their own that urge the reader to enter the world of poetic illusion and to suspend judgment as to whether the images of that poetic world have a real existence. In other words, the question of poetry’s reference to reality is suspended, and the reader’s gaze is focused on the “autonomous” poetic world which is temporarily isolated from all contexts.

Coleridge’s most comprehensive definition of the activity of the poet adumbrates the essential features of the foregoing discussion:

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone, and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul . . . reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry. (BL, II, 16–17)

Once again, the composing of poetry is seen as distinct, relying primarily on the unifying power of imagination, which is put into effect in a voluntary and controlled manner. What the mere understanding can perceive only in terms of opposites – general, concrete, individual, representative, etc. – imagination has the power to reconcile in a higher vision of unity. This use of the imaginative power lies at the core of poetry’s distinction from prose or from any discursive activity that brings us conventional perceptions of the world: the poet, through imagination, can not only reassemble whatever elements the world presents to our senses but also see the profounder connection of those elements. Nonetheless, while the poet for Coleridge is a kind of genius, set apart from other men, he insists that the reader’s engagement should be with the poetry itself, not with the poet. Such an insistence contributes to a conception of poetry as autonomous, and will be repeated by the twentieth-century formalists and New Critics.

Given Coleridge’s views of the unique status of the poet, it is hardly surprising that he takes issue with Wordsworth’s views of poetic language. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had urged the poet to abandon the artificial language of poetic tradition and instead to adopt what he called the “real” language of men. He claimed that language in its purest and most philosophical form was exhibited in rustic life, which had been uncontaminated by the vulgar idioms and emotions of the city. Coleridge’s many objections to these statements can be distilled into two central arguments: firstly, the term “real” is equivocal. Every man’s language, says Coleridge, has its individualities, as well as properties common to his social class and certain words or phrases that are universally used. Moreover, language varies in every country and every village; given such variety, what would “real” language mean? Hence, for “real,” thinks Coleridge, we should substitute the term “ordinary” or lingua communis (BL, II, 55– 56). And this, he says, is no more to be found in the language of rustics than in that of any other class.

The second, more fundamental, objection to Wordsworth is that, far from being the most philosophical language, the rustic’s discourse is marked by scanty vocabulary and the communication of isolated facts, rather than the connections or general laws which constitute the “true being” of things (BL, II, 55–56). The best part of language, according to Coleridge, “is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself. It is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of which have no place in the consciousness of uneducated man” (BL, II, 54). Hence, it is imagination which underlies not only the poet’s distinctive role, as set above the sphere of conventional perception, but also his refined use of language: it is this power through which the poet has the ability to see the connections and underlying patterns behind the facts that are received discretely or in a fragmentary and isolated way by the ordinary consciousness.

Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, though Coleridge and Wordsworth differ on the issue of how poetic language relates to ordinary language, they both claim to abide by Aristotle’s view that poetry expresses truths which are general and universal rather than individual. Coleridge states: “I adopt with full faith the principle of Aristotle, that poetry is essentially ideal, that it avoids and excludes all accident; that its apparent individualities of rank, character, or occupation must be representative of a class; and that the persons of poetry must be clothed with generic attributes, with the common attributes of the class; not with such as one gifted individual might possibly possess, but such as from his situation . . . that he would possess” (BL, II, 45–46). Hence for Coleridge too, poetry focuses on the essential and universal features of a particular situation, and though it might employ individualization to create an emotional impact, such use always carries a broader, generalizing significance (BL, II, 72).

Hence, as with Wordsworth, Coleridge uses classical Aristotelian precepts – in this case, the poetic expression of universal truths, and poetry as an imitation of nature or human nature – toward Romantic ends. What allows the poet to communicate general and essential truths is the unifying power of imagination, which sees the connections between particular and general, concrete and abstract, individual and representative. It is through this very power that the poet’s “imitation” is itself creative, reaffirming and replicating on a lower level the original creative act of the divine “I AM.”

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16 replies

  1. Good analysis. Very useful

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