“… It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. …”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
An important figure for a number of reasons, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the subject of my next essay, which if you will suspend your disbelief at my use of self-reference in an introduction, we will begin presently.
As always, my aim is not to provide a literary criticism of works or a full history of the person (these are available here and here, I highly recommend the first link for a discussion of the believed impact of his work on literature) but to discuss how they are important to a reactionary reader or writer; what their influence was and who was peddling it.
S.T. Coleridge is credited with being the originator of English Romanticism, and you should note well he is a contemporary, almost perfectly parallel (slightly the younger) to Goethe. They both span the end of the pre-modern ‘classical’ era entering the modern (early modern ‘romantic’) era. How precisely is it that two countries enter the ‘Romantic’ era at approximately the same time? Is it some spirit of the times? Perhaps Coleridge can offer some answers.
Instead of hitting topics chronologically, I want to look at a few notable items about Coleridge, and then trace them backwards. The first is Pantisocracy. The Eternal Anglo is at work:
Coleridge and Southey believed that contemporary society and politics were responsible for cultures of servitude and oppression. Having abandoned these corrupting influences along with personal property for a fresh start in the wilderness, the Pantisocrats hoped that men might be governed by the “dictates of rational benevolence.”
Where had they hoped to start such a commune? America, of course. Unsurprisingly, this commune failed and even when they tried to relocate the plan to Wales, they were unable to agree upon an exact location and had to abandon the plan entirely. Did this idea simply come out of the Aether, from the spirit of the times itself? Quite not: it came from his stay at Jesus College, where, according to varying accounts he was exposed to politically radical (read: and high status) ideas. Wikipedia notes he won a medal for a poem written about the slave trade (against it, no doubt.)
Despite this, it is unclear where Coleridge’s sympathies lie; though seeming to have revolutionary sympathies with the French of his day, he too was disgusted with the excesses they brought about. He even enlisted with the king’s army (of England–) and showed more sympathy in general to the position of Burke than of anyone truly radical. That is to say, Coleridge claimed his allegiance was to an ideal of freedom, and not democratic insurgency; he, like Burke, was a liberal, or as they would say today, a ‘conservative’.
This ambivalence is similar to the reaction of many persons to the National Socialist party in Germany before and after its own excesses; certainly a different set of sympathizers, but in any case, many of its fairweather friends were no doubt liberals.
However, it should be established at this point that Coleridge, if he can be said to have a genius, it is not for politics. That is generally the character of natural liberals, and how easily he bought into an idea of power such as that in Pantistocracy confirms it. He is certainly not in the driver’s seat regarding political opinion, and I may hope that you don’t accept opinions to the contrary.
What then, if Coleridge’s politics are so unexceptional, made him notable? In another way, we’re asking who his patrons were. Interestingly, the Poetry Foundation article opens with the coup de grace:
…attracted the patronage of progressive men of the rising middle class.
That’s Eternal Anglo for ‘Whigs’. The particular moment we’re looking for is this: Joseph Cottle, a local publisher to Bristol, gives him his big break publishing “Poems on Various Subjects.” It is not so much Cottle who is important, of whom we have difficulty finding much about his politics. He does however seem to have acquaintance with Robert Lovell, who does come from wealth. It is notable that Cottle also, “made arrangements for the lectures delivered on behalf of pantisocracy.” Coleridge is not merely a talent fresh sprung but one with political sympathies. Even assuming Cottle is more ‘bourgeois’ in his actual sympathies, pantisocracy offers a classic Mutt & Jeff situation at the very least, and certainly a situation of one liberal supporting another liberal to the left of him. That this process repeats should not surprise us; Keats, whom follows Coleridge writes,
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination. What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.”
Whereas Coleridge held to a more conservative dictum (of Erasmus Darwin [note also: ‘His (Darwin’s) long poem The Botanic Garden (1789).. addresses a range of scientific concerns, including the beginnings of his theory of evolution.’]):
“the excess of fancy is delirium, of imagination mania.”
Coleridge seems inconsistent on many points. Consider part of the following poem:
Which foretells Keats’ opinion almost perfectly, IF we assume he includes imagination in that set of ‘organic harps’? What argument could you have with the sounding of something in the wind, if that wind is divine? The whole poem is, like others that follow later, a contemplation of an object (a harp in this case) and then an elaboration on its properties and the possible relations it has to the world, and then an elucidation (which the second stanza above really begins) on what it symbolizes, or in general its metaphysical properties. He begins with a scene, which strongly maintains the sense that he is a ‘man speaking among men’ (or at least speaking to another person) and not as one overheard, which quickly transfers into the conceit itself. Though his technique seems regarded as somewhat novel, to my mind it is a skillful variant on the conceit (a metaphysical one, which is an English thing.)
The end of the poem will probably make you cringe, but rest assured, you know the end of such matters. Despite this, Coleridge understood, but could not change the time he was in. Wiki states:
“Coleridge was critical of the literary taste of his contemporaries, and a literary conservative insofar as he was afraid that the lack of taste in the ever growing masses of literate people would mean a continued desecration of literature itself.”
Of course, the means by which he ascended to fame was itself that means (or connected) by which an ever-growing mass would be fostered. While as a young man he chased after political radicalism, by the time he was old and could see what might become of it, it would be too late for him to do much about it. Certainly the Unitarianism which he and others like him practiced did not grant him the tools to set to work at the task. The opium addiction didn’t help either; it did however give us one of my favorite poems (attached at the end here.)
There is a lot else that can be said here, since because of Coleridge’s combined influence and patronage, he models many themes which repeat later. His literary philosophy (mainly Biographia Literaria) though considered ‘criticism’ is useful (Eliot considered him the ‘greatest and last’ English critic’) though perhaps, like music theory, more in hindsight than in practice. At the very least, one would have to be practicing the art of writing to be able to apply a philosophy of it; at that point one might be able to say what of it ‘works’. Beside the Biographia, his most well known works are poems the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christobel. Both are, which is typical of his style, longer lyrical works.
Given the process outlined above, you might not be surprised to find that the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, despite the story being disliked and panned by critics, was still appreciated due to its ‘local effects’ (as one article puts it.) As literature moves on it becomes obsessed with such ‘local effects’ (flights of fancy, if you will) over considerations of plot, coherency of character and other formal elements. How often do we have to deal with some flashy bullshit with an incoherent story? (Coleridge seems to have considered the work experimental.)
Also, with the idea of imagination being the ripple from a divine wind, it’s easy to see an emergent holiness spiral, ever ready to burn over a district of English language literature; if two poets disagree, has God contradicted himself? Perhaps the holier poet is righter? The intensification necessary to this process seems certain to burn itself out rather quickly; the result being a disenchantment, the sort which always follows such a fit of airs.
All of this said, Coleridge does seem to be a man whose talents were larger than his frame; capable of much in spite of himself. He may be one of the Poets who are dreamers which Carlyle mentions in his Latter Day Pamphlets (here is Carlyle on Coleridge, [go to page 52] for good measure.)
Ah, and there’s the matter of the poems you’ve been expecting.
We sit in the rising morning
Its rays sunlit and warm
Of a color between gold and sand
And the sky without a cloud;
We consider the cloudless sky
You and I, azure, high and clean
Not a cloud to be seen on high
Chased by the wind amain;
Where do the clouds go, we suppose
Chased so far to the south
Lost amid the great storms below
To return with a belly of rain?
No, you aver, they melted away
In heat of the upper atmosphere
As Icarus’ wings were quickly shorn
When hubris capped his apogee;
We too, need more than dust and ice
To ascend beyond what we were
Saddle the clouds if you will my friend
But they too will disappear;
Alas; but weather permitting perhaps
Let us spring from cloud to cloud
Or when God wills we may
Leap once into deep heaven.
And of course, the inimitable Kubla Khan:
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.
PS- regarding the lead-in quote, Since story-telling and fiction pertain to hypothetical truth, entering the frame, like that of a picture, may require suspension of disbelief. Genre-related signals tell us to do so; “once upon a time”, “there once was a man,” and so on. Star Wars began with “Long, long ago in a Galaxy far, far away” – it situates itself as hypothetical and not ‘pure fiction’ (or phantasy) by placing itself outside our age. Because it is hypothetical, we also in a sense believe it is true, and if that belief is abused by putting us in a story that is some way false, we are naturally angered. The exercise in story-telling is to expand the truth in our mind, not to pervade it with false impressions that must be unlearned.