Romantic Literary Criticism

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William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8494

SOURCE: Wimsatt, William K. Jr. and Cleanth Brooks. “Poetic Diction: Wordsworth and Coleridge.” In Literary Criticism: A Short History, pp. 339-62. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

[In the following excerpt, Wimsatt and Brooks provide an historical account of Wordsworth and Coleridge's critique of the poetic diction of earlier writers.]

At a later point in this narrative (chapter 29) we shall have occasion to consider the question how far a close verbal analysis of poetry may fall short of doing justice to the more massive structural features of such works as novels, epics, dramas. Literary criticism of the mid-20th century in America has been raising that question with an insistence which might even be taken at this point as a discouragement to our dignifying the episode of 18th-century “poetic diction” and the Wordsworthian condemnation of it with very much notice. Both “poetic diction” and the reaction against it, however, stand out conspicuously in critical history, and we choose to dwell upon them with some deliberation. The concept of “poetic diction” is at least a handy one both for the theorist and for the literary historian. It has at least the advantage that it reduces to a nearly definable and testable form a good many other problems of literary criticism. “Poetic diction” is a good small-scale model of the larger problems.


The issue of poetic diction had been growing upon the English literary consciousness steadily since about the time of Chaucer, that is, since the beginning of Renaissance English literature, and with special intensity since the time of Spenser. A new linguistic consciousness, the new linguistic expansiveness of the Renaissance nation, promoted the learned enrichment of vernacular expression and produced a plethora of words.1 A somewhat different, but closely related, spirit of self-conscious artistry promoted a specifically poetic diction. Such a diction grew rapidly with the tradition of an important poetry in an important language and the development and refinement of this poetry through several generations of poets and critics.

Precisely what kinds of poetic diction were invented and handed on by the succession of English poets and translators—by Spenser, Fairfax, Sylvester, Sandys, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Collins, Gray? This is a complicated question. One may distinguish minor and major strains. Some kinds of poetic diction (like the Petrarchan flowers that flourished in the lesser Elizabethan sonneteers and were twined with graceful levity by Spenser and Sidney, or the rustic dialect words of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender) did not continue into the neo-classic era. Others grew stronger and were consolidated in the English tradition continuously up to Wordsworth's time. Without making a long excursion into what is a matter rather of directly poetic than of critical history, the historian of poetic theory may well note some of the main kinds of poetic diction which became fixed in the 18th-century complex. Slightly to one side perhaps belongs the archaic, melancholy, and variously romantic strain invented by Spenser for the Faerie Queene2 and lavishly repeated in the 18th-century Spenserian imitations. A more distinctly classical diction can be described under three main grammatical headings: (1) With regard to etymology, the most pronounced trend was the continuation of Renaissance Latinism, especially as this was helped by the rise of scientific or “philosophic” ideas and vocabulary and by Ovidian and Virgilian meanings in the translations of Dryden and his predecessors. (2) With regard to parts of speech, the most pronounced trend was the increase of adjectives, both Latin derivatives and a large crowd of scientific and poetic coinages bearing the English termination -y.3 The growth of empirical observation during all this period had an understandably inflationary effect upon descriptive language. (3) With regard to syntax and logical relation, the most pronounced trend was the coupling of the adjective with the noun in a kind of glossy stock phrase, or periphrase, which was sometimes epithetical and redundant, in the Homeric style, sometimes more abstractly definitional (by genera and properties) in a way that is nowadays said to have reflected a philosophy and science of orderly classes in a stable cosmos.4

The definitional type of periphrase stood in a fairly close relation to the standard of universality and abstraction which we have discussed in our last chapter. And the taste for the universal entailed, as we have suggested, a certain mistrust of particularity, the imputation to this of lowness, meanness, or vulgarity. The classical high, middle, and low styles which we have seen transferred by late classical theory from oratory to poetry (becoming the epic, georgic, and eclogue styles)5 appear by the mid-18th century to have been simplified into the polar concepts of the lofty and the low. Thus Addison could be guilty of saying:

Since it often happens that the most obvious Phrases, and those which are used in ordinary Conversation, become too familiar to the Ear, and contract a kind of Meanness by passing through the Mouths of the Vulgar, a Poet should take particular Care to guard himself against Idiomatick Ways of Speaking.

Spectator No. 285

And Pope:

It must also be allowed that there is a majesty and harmony in the Greek language, which greatly contribute to elevate and support the narration. But I must also observe, that this is an advantage grown upon the language since Homer's time: for things are removed from vulgarity by being out of use; and if the words we could find in any present language were equally sonorous or musical in themselves, they would still appear less poetical and uncommon than those of a dead one, from this only circumstance, of being in every man's mouth.6

And Samuel Johnson, in a Rambler passage on Shakespeare, erected one of the most notorious monuments to the lofty taste.

Words become low by the occasions to which they are applied, or the general character of them who use them. …

                                                            Come, thick night!
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes;
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, Hold, hold!

… the efficacy of this invocation is destroyed by the insertion of an epithet now seldom heard but in the stable, and dun night may come or go without any other notice than contempt … [the] sentiment is weakened by the name of an instrument used by butchers and cooks in the meanest employments. … Who, without some relaxation of his gravity, can hear of the avengers of guilt peeping through a blanket?

Rambler No. 168

The following positive defense of a special poetic diction is provided by Gray.

The language of the age is never the language of poetry; except among the French, whose verse, where the thought and image does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself, to which almost everyone that has written has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivations: nay, sometimes words of their own composition or invention. Shakespeare and Milton have been great creators this way; and no one more licentious than Pope or Dryden, who perpetually borrow expressions from the former.7

The precise terms “diction” and “poetic diction” seem to have arisen somewhat earlier, in the high Augustan era. Dryden uses “diction” with an apology for Latinism, in the preface to Sylvae, 1685. The first person to use the term “poetic diction” is apparently Dennis, in his Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (ch. V), 1701. In his Preface to the Iliad, 1715, Pope wrote: “We acknowledge him [Homer] the father of poetical diction.”8 As with so many other classic themes, Samuel Johnson wrote a retrospective last word.

There was … before the time of Dryden no poetical diction. … Those happy combinations of words which distinguished poetry from prose had been rarely attempted; we had few elegancies or flowers of speech.9


Two kinds of protest against poetic diction have occurred: that of the classicist, hostile to pedantry and affectation, appealing to polite idiom, the educated spoken word; and that of the romantic, hostile to the same things, but appealing to the primitive, the naive, the directly passionate, the natural spoken word. The first of these protests occurs intermittently throughout the classical and Renaissance eras. It is the voice of Horace (usus quem penes arbitrium est et jus et norma loquendi), of Ben Jonson (“Pure and neat Language I love, yet plaine and customary”),10 of Dryden in his preface to Annus Mirabilis (“'Tis not the jerk or sting of an epigram … nor the jingle of a more poor paronomasia”), of Pope in his Essay:

False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colours spreads on ev'ry place;
The face of Nature we no more survey,
All glares alike, without distinction gay.

II, 311-14

It is the latter-day voice of Goldsmith, in his Life of Parnell,11 complaining about the “pristine barbarity” of contemporary Spenserians and Miltonists.

The classical protest is more or less unremitting, but it is at the same time moderate, good-tempered, hardly revolutionary. The same Goldsmith who accuses the archaizers of “vainly imagining that the more their writings are unlike prose the more they resemble poetry” will write an essay entitled “Poetry Distinguished from Other Writing.” “Certain words” are “particularly adapted to the poetical expression.” Jonathan Swift was a consistent classical champion of good prose sense and the idiomatic norm, but the following passage from his satiric Apollo's Edict, 1721, illustrates the ambiguity of the classic stand:

Your tragick Heroes shall not rant,
Nor Shepherds use poetick Cant:
Simplicity alone can grace,
The Manners of the rural Race.

Perhaps Swift avails himself of an ironic intimation in that closing periphrase. The “shepherds” become the “rural race” in the course of sixteen syllables saying that they have no right to such a title. Or does Swift accept a certain amount of poetic diction without noticing it? The question evaporates out of the poem itself into the obscure region of Swift's conscious or unconscious intentions.

The final and successful revolt against classical “poetic diction” was more violent—a protest of the second type, primitive, naive, “vegetally” radical,12 the first of its kind, at least in English literature, and a thing distinctive of a new social and philosophic era. It is worth while remembering that in the statements which we are about to quote, Wordsworth was reacting immediately not so much against Spenser, Milton, and Pope,13 the poets who had created English poetic diction, as against his own now anonymous contemporaries who wrote the mélange of dictions which was then poetic staple. The following from the Monthly Magazine, for February, 1797, specializes in periphrastic elegance.

For thee the fields their flowery carpet spread,
And smiling Ocean smooths his wavy bed;
A purer glow the kindling poles display,
Robed in bright effluence of ethereal day,
When through her portals bursts the gaudy spring,
And genial Zephyr waves his balmy wing.
First the gay songsters of the feather'd train
Feel thy keen arrows thrill in every vein.

From the same issue of the Monthly comes this example of the ameliorated pensiveness which had descended in the tradition of Milton's minor poems:

Oh, far removed from my retreat
Be Av'rice and Ambition's feet!
Give me, unconscious of their power,
To taste the peaceful, social hour.
Give me, beneath the branching vine,
The woodbine sweet, or eglantine,
When evening sheds its balmy dews,
To court the chaste, inspiring muse.(14)

Beside these let us set down some short examples of the verse which Wordsworth ventured to print in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and which he defended in his Advertisement and in his Preface to later editions.15

“How many are you then,” said I,
“If they two are in Heaven?”
The little Maiden did reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
Few months of life has he in store
As he to you will tell,
For still, the more he works, the more
His poor old ancles swell.
My gentle reader, I perceive
How patiently you've waited,
And I'm afraid that you expect
Some tale will be related.
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
And Susan's growing worse and worse,
And Betty's in a sad quandary
And then there's nobody to say
If she must go, or she must stay:
—She's in a sad quandary

In his Advertisement of 1798 Wordsworth called these poems experimental, and he said they were “written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” He feared his readers would think he had been “too low” and “too familiar,” but he contrasted with his own style “the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers.”16 In his Preface some of the statements are even more downright. He is proud of having uttered “little of what is usually called poetic diction.” His purpose has been “to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of men.”17 He asserts “that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”18 His objection to poetic diction is that it is not true to nature—either to external nature or to human nature in its responses to the external. “I have at all times endeavored to look steadily at my subject; consequently, I hope that there is in these poems little falsehood of description, and that my ideas are expressed in language fitted to their respective importance.” He seems to believe too that even honest expressions can become bad poetry just by being repeated. “I have … abstained from the use of many expressions, in themselves proper and beautiful, but which have been foolishly repeated by bad poets, 'till such feelings of disgust are connected with them, as it is scarcely possible by any art of association to overpower.” On the genetic side the Preface contains a strong statement of the reasons why the language of “low19 and rustic” persons is likely to be poetic:

… because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets.

Yet this Preface contains a few statements which look like attempts to qualify Wordsworth's main view concerning the “very language of men,” the language of “low and rustic” persons. For he speaks also about “a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,” about “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way.20 He wishes to make ordinary situations “interesting” by tracing in them the laws of human nature “as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.” “All good poetry,” as every reader of the Preface will remember, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.21


The simplism and primitivism of Wordsworth's poems, and even more of his theoretical views, provoked a considerable volume of immediate protest from his reading public. But the critic who spoke with the shrewdest authority was Coleridge, after a lapse of seventeen years, in his reminiscential Biographia Literaria. Coleridge's argument about poetic diction may be summarized under three main heads.

(1) He said that if Wordsworth, in arguing that the language of “metrical composition” is essentially the same as that of prose, meant only that poetry and prose have the same vocabulary, or dictionary, on which to draw, he was uttering a truism. Coleridge concluded that Wordsworth really meant that the poetic manner of combining words was no different from that of prose. And this, he retorted, was patently false.22 (It is perhaps worth observing that Wordsworth may not in fact have made it quite clear whether he excluded either of the meanings defined by Coleridge—and that it is not necessary, either for justice to Wordsworth, or for the purposes of literary history, to suppose that he had brought himself to the point of facing a sharp distinction.)

(2) Coleridge argued that if a given image or figure (for instance, the “image” of Phoebus as the sun) is used badly by a given poet (for instance, Gray in a sonnet criticized by Wordsworth), the reason for the badness is not that the figure is a repetition of what other poets have done, but that it is in some way a violation of “grammar, logic, psychology,” “good sense,” or “taste”—the “rules of the IMAGINATION.”23

… it is a bad line, not because the language is distinct from that of prose; but because it conveys incongruous images, because it confounds the cause and effect, the real thing with the personified representative of the thing; in short, because it differs with the language of GOOD SENSE! That the “Phoebus” is hackneyed and a school-boy image, is an accidental fault, dependent on the age in which the author wrote.

—II, 58

Another poet might be found, for instance Spenser, who had used the Phoebus image well.24

(3) Coleridge argued that education, and not the lack of it, tends to make a poet. Uneducated men are disorderly in their writing; they lack “surview.” If the peasantry of Wordsworth's Westmoreland and Cumberland spoke a pure and vigorous language, this came not from uninstructed communion with nature, but from a spirit of independence and from a solid religious education and acquaintance with the Bible and hymnbook.

One kind of speech (socially defined) could not be more real than another.25 But in a given instance it might be either more or less poetic. In his appreciation of Wordsworth's own poetic performance, Coleridge noted that Wordsworth suffered the difficulties of a ventriloquist in his undue liking for the dramatic form. Either a rustic speaker was invested with a Wordsworthian authority of utterance, or an opposite fault appeared, matter-of-factness, circumstantiality, and a downright prosaism.26 “I've measured it from side to side; 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.” It is not possible for a poet, urged Coleridge, especially not for a lyric poet, “to imitate truly a dull and garrulous discourser, without repeating the effects of dullness and garrulity.”27


The episode of the Lyrical Ballads was of course far from settling the business of poetic diction in English. Before many years had passed, a reviewer of Wordsworth's poems would raise his voice to accuse even Wordsworth of having fostered his own kind of poetic diction, more dangerous than the old, because more “covert and surreptitious,” more “insidious.” A new set of “stock words” seemed to this reviewer to be sprinkled through the “fugitive” poetry of the day “with a sort of feeling senselessness”—words, for instance, like wild, bright, dark, lonely, light, dream. The principle of their use was sentimental association lending color to a “pretext of conveying sense”—“in a manner which Mr. Wordsworth's prefaces will be found to explain.”28

A recent historian of English poetic language has noted the progressive “deliquescence” of diction in English poetry (the development of a certain moonlight norm) during the Tennysonian and Pre-Raphaelite era.29 In our own century we have experienced several waves of reaction to that era, the imagism of Pound, the realism of Masefield, the metaphysical inclusiveness of Eliot. Nothing is likely to seem more axiomatic to the student of poetry today than statements to the effect that “The poetry of a people takes its life from the people's speech and in turn gives life to it,”30 that “the language which is good enough for labor and love and marriage, for birth and death, and the friendly breaking of bread, is good enough … for the making of poetry.”31

Nevertheless, the debate between Wordsworth and Coleridge was a significant event in English literary history. It is part of the first romantic revolt against poetic diction in English and it is a more or less adequate monument to two questions: one genetic—Among what kinds of people does poetic language originate? The other critical—How is “poetic diction” in the sense of something undesirably artificial to be distinguished from the valid language—the idiom—of poetry?


The primitivism of Wordsworth was something which had numerous relations with his immediate background, though some of these are only vaguely implicit. Vico was a fountainhead of which he was certainly unaware. It is not necessary to inquire how directly he was in touch with Herder and other continental writers on the theme of Volkspoesie, or with theories of the bardic composition of Homer's epics in English writers like Blackwell, Kames, and Blair.32 More concrete phenomena are the archaic forgeries of the 18th century (the Ossianic epics of Macpherson, the Rowleyan balladry of Chatterton), the cult of the “noble savage,” the “child of nature,” and the pathetically exploited worker poets—Stephen Duck the thresher, Henry Jones the Irish bricklayer patronized by Lord Chesterfield, James Woodhouse the shoemaker, Anne Yearsley the milkmaid (Lactilla) who developed airs and fell out with Hannah More.33 The vogue was recorded in the ridicule of Byron.

When some brisk youth, the tenant of a stall,
Employs his pen less pointed than his awl,
Leaves his snug shop, forsakes his store of shoes,
St. Crispin quits, and cobbles for the muse,
Heavens! how the vulgar stare! how crowds applaud!
How ladies read, and literati laud!
Let poesy go forth, pervade the whole,
Alike the rustic, and mechanic soul!
Ye tuneful cobblers! still your notes prolong,
Compose at once a slipper and a song.(34)

Wordsworth's primitivism was part of a general reaction, setting in well before his own day, against the aristocratic side of neo-classicism. We have seen that Dryden believed the right language of poetry—the very model of correct poetry—to be the language of the king and court. Pope believed the same, at least of the Elizabethan age.35 About George II he had much difficulty.36 Swift37 and Johnson were severe upon the imbecilities of society talk. Johnson spoke of “female phrases,” “fashionable barbarisms.”38 It was possible, perhaps usual, during all this time, for the anti-aristocratic tendency to rest short of sheer primitivism in what Marxist criticism would later call the bourgeois standard. Thus Goethe, giving explicit utterance to an idea that was no doubt often implicitly entertained: “A middle rank is much more favorable to talent [than a noble rank], so we find all great artists and poets in the middle classes.”39

The period from Wordsworth to the present day has been notable for the variety and complexity of its archaizing and primitivistic trends. Some of these, like the peasant standard arrived at by Tolstoy, have had no direct relation to the language. Others, like the theoretical Saxonizing of English essayists and scholars (Macaulay, for instance, and Furnivall), or the practical Saxonizing of the Homeric translator Francis Newman,40 are quite obviously in the area of “poetic diction.” We encounter now, in contrast to the 18th-century beginnings, a primitivism rather formidably equipped with archeological and philological apparatus. A later special development has been a certain esoteric removal of the primitive locus. This means admitting the existence of fake primitives or bourgeois poseurs (like Robert Burns or Longfellow) but at the same time asserting the existence of a genuine peasant wisdom, an oral tradition from the foundations of the world. This was once in rapport with aristocratic and learned wisdom (the hut with the castle and the cloister) but has now been split off by the wedge of bourgeois culture and is withering away. Theorizing of this kind has had a Celtic and visionary orientation.41

So far as any view of poetic origins prevails very explicitly today, it is still likely to be the primitivistic. Our large literature in the departments of dialect, folk speech, argot and slang, is one testimony to a settled primitivistic interest among scholars. And this interest sometimes raises curious problems concerning not only compilation but evaluation. To select one instance from the many: a writer in the magazine American Speech argues that during World War II there were two kinds of soldier slang—a small number of terms really invented by soldiers and truly expressive (shack up, sweat out, latrine rumour, chew ass), and a much larger number of fake terms invented by newspaper writers, USO workers, and entertainers (armoured cow, for canned milk, scandal sheet, for payroll, misery pipe, for bugle, homing device, for furlough, handgrenades, for hamburgers, tire patches, for pancakes). In the same way there are two kinds of jazz slang—the genuine expressions of jazz musicians and fans (Tailgate, solid, jam, riff, gutbucket, barrelhouse), and the spurious inventions of publicity agents, masters of ceremonies, and popular music magazines (God box, for organ, skin-beater, for drummer, syringe, for trombone, silver sucker, for clarinetist, doghouse, for bass fiddle, gitter or git box, for guitar).

In each case the terms especially invented by persons not familiar through experience with the daily life of soldiers or musicians bear the mark of their artificial origins. They seldom serve a denotive purpose, are laborious, and lack the expressive quality of the terms that have been born of the life experience of the participants themselves.

At the same time, however, this writer notes that jazz musicians and fans tend to discard their own vocabulary when it is taken over by commercial users.42 In this kind of inquiry, which is inferred from which? The quality of the term from its origin, or the origin from the quality?


The question about the origins of poetic language seems to allude to a language upon which some sort of special poetic virtue has been conferred before it reaches the poet himself. We are forced to conceive poetic language as a kind of pre-poetically potent vocabulary or vigorous mode of expression. At the same time the history of poetic diction strongly suggests that the main inventors of poetic diction have been professional poets themselves—Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope. Who does make up the good new words and phrases—those that add something to our expressive stock and are fitted to survive? Do these occur first in works of creative literature, or in miscellaneous non-literary places?43 Did the primitive bard write the best poetic language? And if he did, was he an unusually primitive, or an unusually advanced, member of his tribe? Is a modern poet an unusually advanced, or an unusually primitive, member of modern society?

If a dramatic clause be invoked—that is, if we observe that the language of any social class is proper when a writer is representing that class—the inquiry may appear to be translated into something quite different. And indeed it is true that the supposed speaker of any poem is always dramatic, and is always to be conceived as some kind of person, and often as a person not learned or poetically skillful. Nevertheless—as we have heard Coleridge remark about the experiments of Wordsworth—a direct imitation of the uncouth speaker does run a special risk of lapsing into realistic disorder and insignificance. This may be much like what a modern critic has called the “fallacy of imitative form,” or like what Dryden called “mechanic humour” in the correctly low-life imitations of Ben Jonson. It is possible also to have correctly tedious imitations of high life. Johnson and Swift were right about this. Anybody who has ever tried to collect brilliant or pungent expressions either at cocktail parties or at diners along truck routes must have been struck by the prevalence of the brassier kind of clichés and the reiterated simplisms of blasphemy.


In the end the only question of critical significance is the second of the two which we have framed above: How is poetic diction in the sense of something false and undesirable to be distinguished from the valid language of poetry? Yet it may not be easy to isolate this critical question. In addition to the concept of origins as we have just attempted to describe it, there is yet another, an intermediate kind of concept, that of chronological staleness, the hackneyed, which is usually associated with that of poetic diction and tends greatly to obscure the critical discussion of the latter. The theoretical issue of poetic diction seemed to Wordsworth an issue between artifice and nature.44 To Coleridge it seemed more like an issue between propriety and impropriety, congruity and incongruity. In effect he applied the classic norm of decorum. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge assigned a relatively slight role to the chronological concept of the “hackneyed.” Yet the notion of the hackneyed, the stereotype, the cliché, today enjoys a strongly established place in habits of critical thinking. It is likely to be among the first appeals of a theorist called upon to explain why poetic diction is undesirable.

The most obvious sense in which the poet is bound to bear the burden of originality is that which relates originality to the social and commercial conditions of success in literature. There is no practical point in repeating the classics, or in repeating their style. Even if some classic had failed to get written on schedule (in its own era) and even if it could be written instead today, the expectancies and demands of publishers and readers preclude the success of the performance. The undergraduate joker who types out a selection of the less well-known sonnets of Shakespeare and submits them over his own name to a New York press does so in full expectation of being rejected.45 This massive and immovable fact about markets and readers is one of the grounds which supports a kind of statement that often proceeds with great authority from the successful literary person. Thus T. S. Eliot:

It is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already, as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel's discoveries. The French poets in question have made “discoveries” in verse of which we cannot afford to be ignorant, discoveries which are not merely a concern for French syntax. To remain with Wordsworth is equivalent to ignoring the whole of science subsequent to Erasmus Darwin.46

And Gertrude Stein:

The whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness. Each generation has to live in that … what I am trying to make you understand is that every contemporary writer has to find out what is the inner time-sense of his contemporaries. The writer, or painter, or what-not, feels this thing more vibrantly, and he has a passionate need of putting it down; and that is what creativeness does.47

But the critical problem of poetic diction and the cliché requires a somewhat more precise handling than that. One of the minor comic figures of our time is the “Cliché Expert,” who in an early appearance was made to “take the stand” and testified along these lines.

Q—Mr. Arbuthnot, you are an expert in the use of the cliché, are you not?

A—Yes sir, I am a certified public cliché expert.

Q—Would you answer a few questions on the use of the cliché in ordinary speech and writing?

A—I should be only too glad to.

Q—Thank you. Now just for the record—you live in New York?

A—I like to visit New York but I wouldn't live there if you gave me the place.

Q—Then where do you live?

A—Any old place where I hang my hat is home sweet home to me.

Q—What is your age?

A—I am fat, fair, and forty.

Q—And your occupation?

A—Well, after burning the midnight oil at an institution of higher learning, I was for a time a tiller of the soil. Then I went down to the sea in ships. I have been a guardian of the law, a poet at heart, a prominent clubman and a man about town, an eminent—48

Here is an ironic frame of reference which makes a series of sorry expressions amusing. But what makes each of the expressions in itself so sorry? Not merely the fact that it is a cold potato, a stereotype (any word in the dictionary enjoys the same status), but the further fact that the expression has a certain special character, even if tame and drab. It attempts to stand up and make a little joke, and the joke is out of place. When the cliché expert took the stand, the context was all against him. There could hardly be any chance for his embroideries, even for the plainest of them. “Fat, fair, and forty” is not an answer for the witness stand.

“In the true notion of the cliché,” says a French critic, “incoherence has its place by the side of triteness.”49 The logic of the situation would suggest that even ingenuity and originality are no sure proofs against the cliché. The highly ingenious periphrases often employed at certain levels of journalism have a cold ring, like echoes, even though we cannot say of what. A popular biography of a famous actor, for instance, yields a reviewer the following grounds of patronizing complaint.

For Mr. Fowler, Broadway is inevitably “this street of fickle luster,” a distiller a “maker of spirituous delicacies,” and Shakespeare “Stratford's first gentleman;” cigarette-smoking is “bronchial debauchery,” hair on the chest “torsorial upholstery,” and the men's washroom “ammoniac grottos” equipped with “cracked and homely porcelains.” When he wants to convey the idea that some white mice were multiplying rapidly, he says that the “snowy rodents were fruitful;” and when Barrymore sets out to play Hamlet, or take on “the Danish assignment,” Mr. Fowler says that he “announced … his decision to draw on the black tights of the classic Scandinavian.”50

Some of the expressions quoted here are no doubt clichés in the ordinary chronological sense. Others, however, seem unusual. The real character of their offensiveness (or presumable offensiveness) does not lie in their newness or oldness, but in the difficulty one has in conceiving an excuse for them. There is enough information in the expressions themselves and in their translations by the reviewer to suggest a certain inevitable silliness. They may be saved only on the principle of dramatization—and perhaps even then only at some expense to their author. “The fuzzy raffish style of this book,” says the reviewer, “has its special appropriateness to the subject: it is a literary equivalent for the atmosphere in which the events take place. What we get here is the folklore of the Barrymores.”

Bad poetic diction includes a wide range of non-meanings—from the fuzziness or lack of focus that may characterize the whole work of a minor and derivative poet to such grossly misapplied cliché quotations as those noticed by H. W. Fowler in his Modern English Usage.51 A person who actually remembers what goes on in the first act of Hamlet will not be guilty of a jocular statement that the Ten Commandments are rules which by and large have been “more honored in the breach than in the observance.”


One might experiment with the conception that all language is an arsenal of clichés, some expressions, like man and tree, being only more ordinary and more solidly established than some others,52 like umbrageous, prelusive, fleecy kind, and finny tribe. The usual rule of thumb is that a poet should avoid clichés. But a higher rule is that he should be a master of clichés—at all levels. The mastery of the cliché may be illustrated sharply, if simply, in a kind of twisted echo phrase which has been called the “cliché extended.”

At the drop of a brass hat.
To gild the lily with radiator paint.(53)
A penny saved is a penny to squander.
A man is known by the company that he organizes.

Or the autological expression, which itself sums up the principle:

Old saws fitted with new teeth.(54)

Such echoes themselves, of course, are not proof against the cliché use. The final worth always depends on a larger context. “Put a beetle in alcohol, and you have a scarab; put a Mississippian in alcohol, and you have a gentleman.” This piece of local-color wit has a kind of shoddy value which is greatly enhanced in Faulkner's Sanctuary through the fact that it echoes the utterance of Gowan Stevens, the collegiate slicker and lady-killer.55

Nowadays one may identify a genre of lightly sophisticated magazine poems whose main logic is the slight tilt which they give to a pattern of cliché vocabulary, or the dainty jangle of cross-purposes which they create between intersecting patterns.

Every soldier is his own architect, a specialist
In the small home constructed reasonably
Along pretty traditional lines, complete with
Smiling wife at ease on screened verandah.(56)

And on the other hand:

For nineteen years I lived a carefree life
And pain and toil and grief I never knew.
Although the world rushed madly on to strife,
My thoughts of national welfare were but few.(57)

It is not necessary to quote more of either poem to establish the contrast: the simple, unaltered reproduction of clichés by the schoolboy veteran about to tell his experiences on being inducted into the army; and the adroitly proffered series of not-quite clichés from the areas of business and advertising in a competent report from the front on the soldier's day dreams. The first poem is an exercise in a limited kind of whimsy—but within its limits, and in contrast to the second, it shows the difference between dead and live language.

Language gains depth and resonance only by being used, and hence some of the most complete and poetically significant uses of words are just those that occur within a poetic tradition. Beside Milton's

No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe

we put Pope's

Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil, the deep intent.

Gray was glad to call attention to the origin of

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day

in Dante's

… squilla di lontano,
Che paia 'l giorno pianger, che si muore.

A recent examination of mid-18th-century English poetry has defined the “major vocabulary” of that poetry as a complex of quite simple words relating to the age's dominant interest in landscape symbols of optimistic divinity. This vocabulary yields the following synthetically typical line:

Rise, fair day, before the eyes and soul of man.(58)

The poetry of Wordsworth, coming as an artistic climax and renewal, rather than rejection, of this tradition, is in a sense a poetry that turns very simply to nature and the human soul—yet, inescapably, it does this through words, and not entirely through the simple range of words represented in the line just quoted. Wordsworth's poetry is a sound realization and a deepening of certain nature symbols already available to his age in more or less cliché simplifications. It is a dramatization of those symbols by bringing them into contact with select terms from both higher and lower ranges,59 from the metaphysical and Johnsonian Latinate range and from the range of low, country words.

                                                            Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees.
                                                            And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.

A more directly literary—a more artificial—form of such dramatization was no less a part of the romantic movement in English literature. Thus William Blake, in his juvenile Poetical Sketches.

My silks and fine array,
          My smiles and languish'd air,
By love are driv'n away. …
I'll pore upon the stream,
Where sighing lovers dream,
And fish for fancies as they pass
Within the watery glass.
Whether on chrystal rocks ye rove,
          Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wandring in many a coral grove,
          Fair Nine, forsaking poetry!

In these wryly graceful adaptations of an earlier idiom that had come down through the 18th century in Percy's Reliques and other collections, Blake gives an advanced demonstration of what it means to be a cliché expert.


  1. Cf. F. W. Bateson, English Poetry and the English Language (Oxford, 1934).

  2. Cf. Ernest De Selincourt, ed. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser (Oxford, 1932), Introduction, pp. lxi-lxii; F. M. Padelford, “Aspects of Spenser's Vocabulary,” PQ, XX (July, 1941), 279-83; E. E. Stoll, Poets and Playwrights (Minneapolis, 1930), p. 193.

  3. George Gordon, Shakespeare's English, S. P. E. Tract No. 39 (Oxford, 1928), p. 274; John Arthos, The Language of Natural Description in Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Ann Arbor, 1949), Appendix C.

  4. Cf. Geoffrey Tillotson, Essays in Criticism and Research (Cambridge, 1942), p. 84, on “Physico-theological nomenclature”; John Arthos, The Language of Natural Description, Chapters IV and V. Other correlatives of 18th-century poetic diction may perhaps be named. The closure and symmetry of couplet verse, for instance, may often have demanded the trochaic or dactyllic adjective. Cf. Thomas Quayle, Poetic Diction (London, 1924), Chapter II, p. 29, quoting Shenstone's Essays. Personification, as found in the poetry of Johnson, Collins, or Gray, is a kind of abstracting which may be viewed as a special type of poetic diction. Cf. Bertrand H. Bronson, “Personification Reconsidered,” ELH, XIV (September, 1947), 163-177; Earl R. Wasserman, “The Inherent Values of Eighteenth-Century Personification,” PMLA, LXV (June, 1950), 435-63.

  5. See ante Chapter 6, p. 103; Chapter 8, p. 146.

  6. Postscript to Pope's translation of the Odyssey. Cf. James Sutherland, A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (Oxford, 1948), p. 85.

  7. To Richard West, April 4, 1742, Letters, ed. Leonard Whibley, I, 98. Cf. Lord Chesterfield's recommendation of “poetic diction” to his son seven years old (Letters, October 26, 1739).

  8. Thomas Quayle, Poetic Diction, p. 7; F. W. Bateson, English Poetry and the English Language, p. 71.

  9. Life of Dryden, Lives (ed. G. B. Hill), I, 420.

  10. Timber No. 118.

  11. The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith (London: Globe Edition, 1919), p. 483. “These misguided innovators have not been content with restoring antiquated words and phrases, but have indulged themselves in the most licentious transpositions and the harshest constructions, vainly imagining that the more their writings are unlike prose, the more they resemble poetry.”

    And see Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part II, Canto I, ll. 591-632.

  12. Kenneth Burke, “The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke,” Sewanee Review, LVIII (Winter, 1950), 76, argues that all movements toward a new style are movements toward the “infantile,” a way of re-expressing the basic things.

  13. “To this day I believe I could repeat, with a little previous rummaging of my memory, several thousand lines of Pope” (Letters of the Wordsworth Family, ed. W. Knight, Boston, 1907, III, 122). The statement is part of a comment made by Wordsworth, in 1836 or later, on Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age and recorded in the manuscript Memoirs of Barron Field.

  14. Both examples are quoted in Marjorie L. Barstow, Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction (New Haven, 1917), pp. 62-3.

  15. The texts of 1800, 1802, 1805 may be conveniently consulted in Wordsworth, Representative Poems, ed. Arthur Beatty (New York, 1937), pp. 676-704.

  16. Coleridge, Biographia, Chapter I, speaks of the “glare and glitter of a perpetual yet broken and heterogeneous imagery … an amphibious something.”

  17. Cf. his later note to Simon Lee the Old Huntsman: “The expression when the hounds were out, ‘I dearly love their voice,’ was word for word from his own lips.”

  18. The phrasing is that of 1802, a slight alteration from that of 1800.

  19. “Low” becomes “humble” in 1832.

  20. 1802.

  21. The italics in these quotations are ours. In the same year, 1800, Wordsworth's letter to the critic John Wilson develops his theory as follows: “Please whom? or what? I answer, human nature as it has been and ever will be. But, where are we to find the best measure of this? I answer, from within; by stripping our own hearts naked, and by looking out of ourselves towards men who lead the simplest lives, and most according to nature; men who have never known false refinements.” But he says also: “It is not enough for me as a Poet, to delineate merely such feelings as all men do sympathize with; but it is also highly desirable to add to these others, such as all men may sympathize with, and such as there is reason to believe they would be better and more moral beings if they did sympathize with.” Wordsworth's argument is aimed against the distaste felt by Wilson and his friends for The Idiot Boy.

  22. Cf. Thomas M. Raysor, “Coleridge's Criticism of Wordsworth,” PMLA, LIV (June, 1939), 496-510.

  23. Chapter XVIII, (Biographia, ed. J. Shawcross, II, 64-5).

  24. Coleridge's master at Christ's Hospital, the Reverend James Bowyer, had been in the habit of saying that “in the truly great poets … there was a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word” (Chapter I; I, 4).

  25. Chapter XVII (II, 39).

  26. Chapter XXII (II, 101, 109).

  27. Chapter XVII (II, 36). Cf. Letter to Southey, July 29, 1802 (Letters, ed. E. H. Coleridge, I, 386): “Here and there a daring humbleness of language and versification, and a strict adherence to matter of fact, even to prolixity. …”

  28. [Sir Henry Taylor], “Wordsworth's Poetical Works,Quarterly Review, LII (1834) 318-19. Cf. Theodore Spencer, “Antaeus, or Poetic Language and the Actual World,” ELH, X (September, 1943), 182-3. Taylor means that Wordsworth's defense of his own diction offers the rationale of a new poetic diction. A close parallel appears between Taylor's argument and Wordsworth's own indictment of earlier poetic diction. See especially the Appendix to the Lyrical Ballads. 1802.

  29. F. W. Bateson, English Poetry and the English Language (Oxford, 1934) pp. 108-15.

  30. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: 1933), p. 5.

  31. Harriet Monroe, quoted in Marguerite Wilkinson, New Voices (New York, 1931), p. 113.

  32. Cf. Wellek, Rise, p. 87; and Wellek's review of Vico's Autobiography, PQ, XXIV (1945), 166-8. Wordsworth's acquaintance with the Abbé Delille and other French georgic poets of the 18th century, shown in his early poems An Evening's Walk and Descriptive Sketches, is discussed by Arthur Beatty in his Wordsworth, Representative Poems (New York, 1937), pp. 31-3, 673.

  33. C. B. Tinker, Nature's Simple Plan (Princeton, 1922), pp. 92-103. One difference between Wordsworth and his forerunners of the 18th century was that with the latter the preference for nature did not reach the crisis of diction. That was what Wordsworth had against them. The supposedly primitive or natural poets of the 18th century were not distinguished for a Wordsworthian simplicity of language. They used all the ornaments. The point was precisely that they were able to do this. That apparently was thought to reveal something about origins, about natural inspiration.

  34. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, ll. 765 ff.

  35. See his Preface to Shakespeare.

  36. See his Epistle to Augustus.

  37. See his Tatler No. 230.

  38. Idler No. 77.

  39. Conversations, February 24, 1825. Cf. Wordsworth's phrase “language of conversation in the middle or lower classes of society.”

  40. Cf. post Chapter 20, p. 443.

  41. See W. B. Yeats, “What is Popular Poetry?” in Ideas of Good and Evil (London, 1903), pp. 1-15. The classic philological discussion is that concerning the origin of the medieval vernacular lyric, Troubadour and Minnesang poetry. Did its origins lie in courtly scholarship or in folk minstrelsy? See Leo Spitzer, “The Mozarabic Lyric and Theodor Frings' Theories,” Comparative Literature, IV (Winter, 1952), 1-4, 17-22. “Where within primitive lyricism should we then place the narrative-lyrical love songs of women inferred from the jarchas (= refrains)? Obviously in that pre-Christian framework of collective, improvised dancing songs of women in springtime which G. Paris, followed therein by Frings, recognized to be at the base of all lyrics in the Romance and Germanic vernaculars.” “We are brought ultimately to visualize a primitive world of women dancing and chanting stanzas of love provided for them by the poets (a Glückslaut or Klage “im Munde des Mädchens, aber von einem Mann, dem Dichter, hineingelegt”), who thus achieve a vicarious pleasure. … Such a collaboration of the two sexes is no creatio ex nihilo. …”

  42. Morroe Berger, “Some Excesses of Slang Compilers,” American Speech, XXI (October, 1946), 196-8.

  43. Cf. Max J. Herzberg, “Who Makes Up the New Words?” Word Study, XXIV (October, 1948), 1-9. The modern professionals quoted by Mr. Herzberg make very modest claims as linguistic innovators. As any new expression which becomes a part of the language has to appear in print in order to be recorded, it seems at least likely that a professional phase occurs early in the life of each neologism. But do professional journalists make up their own new words or overhear them in oral discourse?

  44. Cf. Meyer Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York, 1953), p. 120.

  45. Cf. David Daiches, A Study of Literature (Ithaca, 1948), pp. 127-8.

  46. 1918. Quoted by N. H. Pearson and W. R. Benét, The Oxford Anthology of American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1939), p. 1636.

  47. Gertrude Stein, “How Writing is Written,” a talk before the students at Choate School in 1935 (cf. The Choate Literary Magazine, XXI, ii, 5-14), in N. H. Pearson and W. R. Benét, The Oxford Anthology of American Literature, pp. 1446-51.

  48. Frank Sullivan, “The Cliché Expert Takes the Stand,” The New Yorker, August 31, 1935, pp. 15-16.

  49. Remy de Gourmont, “Of Style or Writing” (from his Decadence, trans. W. A. Bradley, New York, 1921), in Essays in Modern Literary Criticism, ed. Ray B. West, Jr. (New York, 1952), p. 62. Cf. Gourmont, Esthétique de la langue française (Paris, 1905), pp. 301-38, “Le Cliché.

  50. Edmund Wilson, review of Gene Fowler, Good Night, Sweet Prince, in The New Yorker, XIX (January 22, 1944), 58; also in Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950).

  51. S.v. “quotation.” Cf. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Clichés (New York, 1940), Introduction.

  52. There is such a thing as failure to achieve the established clichés of a language. One may have a sense of something like this in reading one of the classics turned into “Basic.”

  53. George Arms, “Clichés, Extended and Otherwise,” SRL, XXIX (November 30, 1946), 9.

  54. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, s.v. “saw,” in Collected Works (New York, 1911), VII, 310-11.

  55. Sanctuary (New York, 1931), p. 29.

  56. W. W. Gibson, “The Architects,” The New Yorker, XX (October 1, 1944), 28. Permission the author; © 1944 The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

  57. Freshman poem.

  58. Josephine Miles, The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1740's and 1840's (Berkeley, 1950), pp. 174, 222.

  59. In his Prelude; or Growth of a Poet's Mind (VI, 109-12) Wordsworth, speaking, not with complete fairness, of his own early compositions, alludes to a weakness of trading in “classic niceties,”

    The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase
    From languages that want the living voice
    To carry meaning to the natural heart.


ajp The American Journal of Philology

elh ELH: A Journal of English Literary History

jegp The Journal of English and Germanic Philology

jhi Journal of the History of Ideas

mln Modern Language Notes

mlq Modern Language Quarterly

mlr The Modern Language Review

mp Modern Philology

pq Philological Quarterly

sp Studies in Philology

pmla Publications of the Modern Language Association of America

res The Review of English Studies

tls The Times Literary Supplement

J. R. de J. Jackson (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11112

SOURCE: Jackson, J. R. de J. “Principles in Literary Criticism.” In Method and Imagination in Coleridge's Criticism, pp. 48-74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson discusses Coleridge's reaction to what he personally considered to be the poor quality of contemporary literary reviews, and his attempt to establish a set of standards by which literature could more properly be judged.]

Coleridge's efforts to reform literary criticism follow much the same patterns. The prevalence of biting, opinionated reviews seemed to him to be another instance of the intellectual weakness of his age. His opposition to reviewing is part and parcel of his more general attempt to improve the way in which his contemporaries thought. Again we find him attacking reliance on mere opinions, advocating dependence on principles, recommending the advantages of hard thinking, and finally describing a specific Method and attempting to implement it. It is generally accepted that he did recommend criticism based on principles; some have gone so far as to hail this recommendation and his subsequent attempt to fulfil it as being his special contribution to criticism; but the exact nature of the critical Method which he was proposing and the implications of it in his critical practice have not been treated publicly at any length.

By the turn of the century Coleridge had already shown his scepticism of reviewers. Like most young authors he was interested in what they had to say about his own work, but he was scornful of their claims to be taken seriously. Youthful gratification and irony combine in a letter written to his friend J. P. Estlin in 1796 announcing the public reception of his Poems: ‘The Reviews have been wonderful—The Monthly has cataracted panegyric on my poems; the Critical has cascaded it; and the Analytical has dribbled it with very tolerable civility.’1 And he adds to a similar account in a letter to Thomas Poole, that ‘as to the British Critic, they durst not condemn and they would not praise—so contented themselves with “commending me, as a Poet[”]—and allowed me “tenderness of sentiment & elegance of diction”.—’2 At the same time Coleridge was himself earning some money as a reviewer, and such examples of his work as are reliably identified as his seem to have been written seriously enough.3 His early comments on reviewing reveal a mild concern for reviews of his own poetry, the conviction that reviews in general should be written with a sense of responsibility, and the belief that readers ought not to rely on reviewers as infallible guides. His verses of 1801 on the ‘candid critic’ single out hostile unfairness as the main offence:

Most candid critic, what if I,
By way of joke, pull out your eye,
And holding up the fragment, cry,
‘Ha! ha! that men such fools should be!
Behold this shapeless Dab!—and he
Who own'd it, fancied it could see!’
The joke were mighty analytic,
But should you like it, candid critic?(4)

In the early years of the nineteenth century, a new force appeared in periodical literature. A handful of publications emanating from Edinburgh began to alter the tone of public literary discussion to such effect as to damage Coleridge's reputation both as a writer and as a man, and to induce him to crystallize his attitude to reviewing into one of outright antagonism. In 1802 the Edinburgh Review appeared; it was soon followed by the Quarterly Review, and eventually, in 1817, by Blackwood's Magazine. Coleridge was at first unconcerned. He writes reassuringly to Southey, whose Thalaba had attracted the attention of the fledgling Edinburgh Review: ‘—I heard of the Edinburgh review, & heard the name of your Reviewer—but forgot it—. Reviews may sell 50 or 100 copies in the first three months—& there their Influence ends.’5 Southey was less sanguine, and a few months later we find Coleridge applauding his doubts:

Your prophecy concerning the Edingburgh Review did credit to your penetration. The second number is altogether despicable—the hum-drum of pert attorneys' Clerks, very pert & yet prolix & dull as a superannuated Judge … the first article on Kant you may believe on my authority to be impudent & senseless Babble.6

By midsummer of 1803, Coleridge felt able to express a considered opinion of the new periodical and the city of its birth:

—I have not seen the Edingburgh Review—the truth is, that Edingburgh is a place of literary Gossip—& even I have had my portion of Puff there—& of course, my portion of Hatred & Envy.—One man puffs me up—he has seen & talked with me—another hears him, goes & reads my poems, written when almost a boy—& candidly & logically hates me, because he does not admire my poems in the proportion in which one of his acquaintances had admired me.7

But he is still uncertain of the influence enjoyed by the magazine, for he concludes lamely that ‘—It is difficult to say whether these Reviewers do you harm or good.—’8

The early years of the Edinburgh Review were sufficiently spectacular to jolt Coleridge out of his Olympian indifference; it rapidly became popular, and its standards were, to his way of thinking, debased and vicious. One cannot tell precisely when Coleridge realized its power for doing mischief—his return from Malta after two years absence may have alerted him in 1806, and sympathy for the Wordsworths' concern over Jeffrey's hostility in 1808 may have confirmed his suspicions.9 Whenever, and for whatever reason, Coleridge changed his mind, his comments about reviewing begin to assume the tone of a passionate crusade after 1808.

In 1808 he wrote conciliatingly to Francis Jeffrey to persuade that worthy—Coleridge had recently rebuked Southey gently for calling him ‘Judge Jeffrey’—10 to honour Thomas Clarkson's book on the slave trade with a fair hearing. The cause and the man were dear to him:

… I write to you now merely to intreat—for the sake of mankind—an honorable review of Mr Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. … It would be presumptuous in me to offer to write the Review of his Work—yet I should be glad were I permitted to submit to you the many thoughts, which occurred to me during it's perusal.11

Jeffrey allowed Coleridge to write the review, but altered it slightly before publishing it. His alterations seem to have been accepted meekly enough at the time. Writing to Jeffrey himself, Coleridge is mild indeed; and he is only moderately critical when mentioning the changes in a letter to T. G. Street.12 Yet within four months he writes in the following terms to Humphry Davy whose Bakerian Lecture had been savaged:

The Passage in question was the grossest and most disgusting Keck-up of Envy, that has deformed even the E. R. Had the Author had the Truth before his Eyes, and purposely written in diametrical opposition, he could not have succeeded better—. It is high Time, that the spear of Ithuriel should touch this Toad at the ear of the Public.13

A little more than a year later, Coleridge maintained that the alterations in his review of Clarkson had merely confirmed his disapproval. ‘… Reviewing,’ he writes, ‘which is more profitable & abundantly more easy, I cannot engage in, as I hold it utterly immoral—and was confirmed in it by the changes, Jeffray made, in my Review of Clarkson's Hist. of Ab. in the Ed. Rev., the only case in which I thought myself warranted to make an exception.’14 Personal grievance may have played some part in his reaction, but it does not seem to have been the decisive element.

In the years that followed, Coleridge began to argue his opposition. He objected to the assertiveness and personal rancour which he detected in contemporary reviews, and he contended that this castigation of sinners rather than sins was the more unpardonable for being anonymous. In a letter to Lady Beaumont of 1810, Coleridge had explained why he could not write reviews: ‘… I deem anonymous Criticism altogether immoral, and our Reviews without any exception among the most pernicious publications of the age, and as aggravating the Disease, of which they are the symptoms.’15 It was a matter of ethics.

In 1811 he opened his course on Shakespeare and Milton with an introductory lecture on false criticism and its causes. He divided the causes into those of an accidental and those of a permanent nature. The accidental he defines as those which arise out of differences between the circumstances in which we live and those of past writers.16 This appeal for historical perspective, though admirable and uncommon for the time, does not concern us immediately. Among the particular circumstances he names, however, he includes ‘The prevalence of reviews, magazines, newspapers, novels, & c.’17 Reviews, he declares, are ‘pernicious’, for three reasons: ‘because the writers determine without reference to fixed principles—because reviews are usually filled with personalities; and, above all, because they teach people rather to judge than to consider, to decide than to reflect. …’18 Pursuing the indulgence in personality, an ‘accidental’ cause, he continues:

The crying sin of modern criticism is that it is overloaded with personality. If an author commit an error, there is no wish to set him right for the sake of truth, but for the sake of triumph—that the reviewer may show how much wiser, or how much abler he is than the writer. … This is an age of personality and political gossip. … This style of criticism is at the present moment one of the chief pillars of the Scotch professorial court. …19

The bulk of his attack is directed at the spiteful motives and manners of the critics, their impudent assumption of superiority, and their irresponsible exploitation of the advantage of being nameless. He himself, he assures his listeners, will forgo such tactics; ‘above all, whether I speak of those whom I know, or of those whom I do not know, of friends or of enemies, of the dead or of the living, my great aim will be to be strictly impartial.’20

In 1815, Coleridge writes to Lady Beaumont promising to wreak vengeance upon the reviewer of Wordsworth's Excursion in the Edinburgh Review. Lapsing into an incoherence unusual for him, he declares passionately: ‘If ever Guilt lay on a Writer's head, and if malignity, slander, hypocrisy and self-contradicting Baseness can constitute Guilt, I dare openly, and openly (please God!) I will, impeach the Writer of that Article. …’21 His first and only book of criticism was at that time in the process of being written; it gave him the opportunity of airing the question of reviewing at some length. In Biographia Literaria, Chapter Three and the concluding part of Chapter Ten, Chapter Twenty-one, and the Conclusion, are all devoted to this theme. Combined with Coleridge's recommendations of ideal alternatives, the remarks on contemporary reviewing comprise more than a fifth of the book.22

He was soon to accept a makeshift truce with his enemies,23 but before he did so, Coleridge had publicly developed his observation of contemporary critical evils into clear diagnosis and prescriptive antidote. Like his more general suggestions for the reform of contemporary thought as a means of effecting social improvement, his analysis of critical shortcomings concentrates on the dangerous habit of offering opinions and making assertive judgements, and on the widespread indifference to the need for some canon of principles. Referring again to the decline of mental activity and the prevalence of intellectual apathy, Coleridge pleads the case for hard thought on the part of readers of criticism. Finally, putting to use the theory of Method which he was currently developing, he proposes a Method of philosophical criticism and attempts to offer an example in illustration of what he is advocating. He was openly sceptical of his attempt when he made it, and he invited improvements and argument.


Coleridge associated the bare assertion of opinions with the spirit of critical arrogance he deplored. Speaking in The Friend of ‘The true marks, by which Presumption or Arrogance may be detected’, he links the expression of opinion and abuse of one's opponents:

… as I confine my present observations to literature, I deem such criteria neither difficult to determine or to apply. The first mark, as it appears to me, is a frequent bare assertion of opinions not generally received, without condescending to prefix or annex the facts and reasons on which such opinions were formed; especially if this absence of logical courtesy is supplied by contemptuous or abusive treatment of such as happen to doubt of, or oppose, the decisive ipse dixi.24

Although he does not say so in so many words, such abuse of opinion presumably lies behind Coleridge's decision to expound ‘THE PRINCIPLES OF POETRY, and their Application as Grounds of Criticism’ in his 1811-12 series of literary lectures.25 His criticism is aimed not at the opinions themselves, but at the custom of presenting them unsupported. As he points out in the same lecture series, ‘These reviewers might be compared with the Roman praegustatores whose business it was to tell you what was fit to be eaten, and like the praegustatores the reviewers gave their opinions, but carefully concealed all the reasons for such judgements.’26 In a manuscript fragment Coleridge asks,

To what purpose should we reason with a Critic, who without affording a single proof of his competence or perhaps in spite of the most glaring proofs to the contrary, (nay, in spite of his own consciousness that he has never made himself master even of the means of studying the question;) will yet assure the Public, that a writer's arguments are nonsense, and his inductions falsehoods?27

Argument, then, is one of the signs that a reviewer deserves our attention. When a reviewer merely sets his opinion against the opinion of the author he is reviewing, the author, whose claim is self-evident, is more deserving of a respectful hearing. ‘I know no claim,’ Coleridge writes, ‘that the mere opinion of any individual can have to weigh down the opinion of the author himself; against the probability of whose parental partiality we ought to set that of his having thought longer and more deeply on the subject.’28

In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge tries to give evidence of his own competence and to show himself ‘master of the means of studying the question’. The autobiographical materials introduced into the work are calculated to explain to us the bias of his taste and to reveal the steps of thought by which he arrived at the ideas which he wishes to expound.29 A propagandist for a critical theory might have been better advised to conceal such a past, but Coleridge appears to be making a genuine effort to promote truth without at the same time believing that he enjoys a monopoly of it himself. Much of what he says about his schooldays shows us his later predilections in embryo, and no doubt he selected his material accordingly. In 1801 he had planned ‘a work on the originality & merits of Locke, Hobbes, & Hume’, as ‘a Pioneer to my greater work, and as exhibiting a proof that I have not formed opinions without an attentive Perusal of the works of my Predecessors from Aristotle to Kant’.30 We have noticed later manifestations of this early conviction that a philosopher ought to present evidence of his intellectual pedigree; in Biographia Literaria Coleridge is able to act upon it.

More important than the lack of such pedigree or guarantees of competence in the reviews, however, was the absence of accepted canons of criticism implied by popular reliance on tendentious opinions. Coleridge asserts that

… it is a truth of no difficult demonstration, that neither our literary or political Libellers could possess the influence, which it is too notorious that they now exert, but from the absence of all principles, and therefore of all safe and certain rules, of Method in the formation of the Reflection, the Taste, and the moral Tact as far as the great majority of English Readers are in question. …31

In Biographia Literaria he refers contemptuously to

… the substitution of assertion for argument; to the frequency of arbitrary and sometimes petulant verdicts, not seldom unsupported even by a single quotation from the work condemned, which might at least have explained the critic's meaning, if it did not prove the justice of his sentence.32

‘Even where this is not the case,’ he says, ‘the extracts are too often made without reference to any general grounds or rules from which the faultiness or inadmissibility of the qualities attributed may be deduced; and without any attempt to show, that the qualities are attributable to the passage extracted.’ What sort of ‘general grounds or rules’ he has in mind by this time appears from his statement, also in Biographia Literaria, that

… till reviews are conducted on far other principles, and with far other motives; till in the place of arbitrary dictation and petulant sneers, the reviewers support their decisions by reference to fixed canons of criticism, previously established and deduced from the nature of man; reflecting minds will pronounce it arrogance in them thus to announce themselves to men of letters, as the guides of their taste and judgment.33

Having diagnosed reliance on opinion as one of the chief failings of contemporary criticism, and having explained that its weaknesses are attributable to the lack of any testimony of competence and the absence of principles, ultimately of philosophical principles, Coleridge, like a true reformer, sets about offering examples of his alternative. As early as 1796, long before he was concerned with combating the malign influence of the reviews, he had announced that the reviews in The Watchman would be conducted according to fixed principles—this was in accordance with his lifelong preference for this mode of discourse.34 In his literary lectures, some fifteen years later, he is reported as promising something closer to the canons of criticism he hoped for: ‘the whole of the fabric he should raise in a manner rested upon laying the foundation firmly and distinctly. …’35 But his first extensive public attempt to provide an example is the series of essays which appeared originally in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal in 1814 under the title ‘On the Principles of Genial Criticism Concerning the Fine Arts’. He had already expressed himself privately in the ‘Fragment of an Essay on Taste’ written in 1810, and had posed the question ‘whether taste in any one of the fine arts has any fixed principle or ideal. …’36 Looking back over his own intellectual development, Coleridge describes how he came to seek solutions to such problems: ‘actuated … by my former passion for metaphysical investigations; I labored at a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the component faculties of the human mind itself. …’37Biographia Literaria was to be the most elaborate presentation of these labours which he was ever to lay before the public.

In 1815 he wrote to Byron about the ‘Biographical Sketches’ he was engaged upon, and stated that his object was ‘to reduce criticism to a system, by the deduction of the Causes from Principles involved in our faculties’.38 He wrote in similar terms to Daniel Stuart of ‘… Biographical Sketches of my literary life, & opini[ons] (with the principles, on which they are grounded, & the arguments by which they were deduced) on Politics, Religion, Philosophy, and Poetry. …’39 In the Biographia, Coleridge apologized for the inclusion of so much philosophical argument. He assures his readers:

I would gladly … spare both myself and others this labor, if I knew how without it to present an intelligible statement of my poetic creed, not as my opinions, which weigh for nothing, but as deductions from established premises conveyed in such a form, as is calculated either to effect a fundamental conviction, or to receive a fundamental confutation.40

He introduces his critique of Wordsworth's poetry in similar terms: ‘… I have advanced no opinion either for praise or censure, other than as texts introductory to the reasons which compel me to form it.’41 His intention of rectifying critical malpractice is apparent. In an extended statement he outlines what he takes to be the correct way of criticizing:

… I should call that investigation fair and philosophical, in which the critic announces and endeavors to establish the principles, which he holds for the foundation of poetry in general, with the specification of these in their application to the different classes of poetry. Having thus prepared his canons of criticism for praise and condemnation, he would proceed to particularize the most striking passages to which he deems them applicable. … Then if his premises be rational, his deductions legitimate, and his conclusions justly applied, the reader, and possibly the poet himself, may adopt his judgement in the light of judgement and in the independence of free-agency. If he has erred, he presents his errors in a definite place and tangible form, and holds the torch and guides the way to their detection.42

Coleridge felt himself bound to attempt criticism of such a ‘fair and philosophical’ nature with the aim of clearing up some of the misunderstandings and disagreements which were produced by opinionated criticism. He repeats his suggestion, that the grounds are more important than the opinion which is derived from them. Speaking of his disagreements with his contemporaries, he says:

… where I had reason to suppose my convictions fundamentally different, it has been my habit, and I may add, the impulse of my nature, to assign the grounds of my belief, rather than the belief itself; and not to express dissent, till I could establish some points of complete sympathy, some grounds common to both sides, from which to commence its explanation.43

The same spirit is exhibited at the conclusion of his criticism of Wordsworth.44

This was to be the corrective to the bad habits of contemporary reviewing, replacing special pleading with impartiality, achieving consistency by relying on fixed principles, and advancing our knowledge of literature and skill at criticizing it in a co-operative attempt to find grounds for general agreement. Coleridge's effort to reform criticism should, as I have endeavoured to make plain, be considered as part of his wider campaign for national reform, and not as an isolated literary attitude. It springs from basic assumptions about intellectual activity and is not simply an unbiased diagnosis of critical failings. The new reviews provided him with an occasion to express these assumptions, just as unsatisfactory political developments had, and, by bringing abstract theories to grips with concrete situations, to dramatize and illustrate what he believed.


When he turns to consider the ‘permanent causes’ of false criticism in his 1811-12 lecture series, Coleridge identifies three, the first two of which constitute his third reason for describing reviews as ‘pernicious’. These are: ‘the great pleasure we feel in being told of the knowledge we possess, rather than of the ignorance we suffer’, and ‘the custom which some people have established of judging of books by books’.45 These ‘causes’ recall Coleridge's views on education and the transmission of knowledge: namely that learning and knowing depend on effort, that there is no easy way to attain either, and that one of the failings of his time is the preoccupation with talismans which promise to make effort unnecessary. Coleridge had warned of this dangerous characteristic of reviews seven years earlier in a letter to Southey in which he refers to ‘the necessary Evil involved in their Essence, of breeding a crumbliness of mind in the Readers. …’46 In the lecture series, when he criticizes the Reviews ‘above all, because they teach people rather to judge than to consider, to decide than to reflect …,’47 he refers to the consequences of this shortcoming in similar terms: ‘they encourage superficiality, and induce the thoughtless and the idle to adopt sentiments conveyed under the authoritative We, and not, by the working and subsequent clearing of their own minds, to form just original opinions.’48 This comment is part of the broader assault which we have already seen him bent upon in the original issues of The Friend. Again he uses his image of the chamois-hunter:

… who but a fool, if unpractised, would attempt to follow him? it is not intrepidity alone that is necessary, but he who would imitate the hunter must have gone through the same process for the acquisition of strength, skill, and knowledge: he must exert, and be capable of exerting, the same muscular energies, and display the same perseverance and courage, or all his efforts will be worse than fruitless: they will lead not only to disappointment, but to destruction.49

Coleridge makes the connection with criticism explicit, and he seems to be suggesting that the reviewer cannot be a surrogate thinker for the reader. He asks:

Why has nature given limbs, if they are not to be applied to motion and action; why abilities, if they are to lie asleep, while we avail ourselves of the eyes, ears, and understandings of others? As men often employ servants, to spare them the nuisance of rising from their seats and walking across a room, so men employ reviews in order to save themselves the trouble of exercising their own powers of judging: it is only mental slothfulness and sluggishness that induce so many to adopt, and take for granted the opinions of others.50

Here Coleridge has taken a major step forward by proposing not only that the methods of criticism must be changed, but that they be directed towards other purposes. To suggest that reviews should devote themselves to teaching readers to read critically, instead of relieving them of the necessity of doing so by telling them what to read and what to ignore, was reform indeed! It would not be enough to outline principles of criticism and persuade others to accept them—Coleridge is no naïve exponent of systematic panaceas. The readers' minds must be accustomed to philosophic thinking; readers must be taught not to accept canons of criticism, but to construct them for themselves. This is the implication of Coleridge's disparagement of the over-optimistic school-books of his day:

Attempts have been made to compose and adapt systems of education; but it appears to me something like putting Greek and Latin grammars into the hands of boys, before they understand a word of Greek or Latin. These grammars contain instructions on all the minutiæ and refinements of language, but of what use are they to persons who do not comprehend the first rudiments? Why are you to furnish the means of judging, before you give the capacity to judge?51

Grammar and criticism are not, of course, entirely analogous, because while grammatical principles have been worked out and broadly agreed upon, critical principles are still in dispute. In criticism, if anywhere, the teacher is a student among students, offering not truth, but, for what they may be worth, his own efforts to discover truth. Coleridge is fully aware of the tentative nature of the discipline he is embarking upon, and he is willing to forgo the niceties of polished presentation in order to rough out his preliminary efforts. As he puts it later in the same series of lectures,

It is true that my matter may not be so accurately arranged: it may not dovetail and fit at all times as nicely as could be wished; but you shall have my thoughts warm from my heart, and fresh from my understanding: you shall have the whole skeleton, although the bones may not be put together with the utmost anatomical skill.52

It is his critical version of the ‘drama of Reason’, the presentation of ‘the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus’, which we saw him recommend in the preceding chapter. It is a modest invitation to the co-operation of his readers.

Given Coleridge's conviction that one must labour to learn, and his desire to teach in a fundamental way rather than simply to inform, it is not surprising that Biographia Literaria should be a forbidding book. Coleridge knew that his argument would not be understood by many, and he gives specific instructions to his reader in Chapter 11 when he asks that ‘he will either pass over the following chapter altogether, or read the whole connectedly’.53 He admits that not everyone can, or even need, be a philosopher,54 and launches off on his well-known comparison of the philosophical and non-philosophical ways of knowing:

The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of human life, is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale, is but imperfectly known. … But in all ages there have been a few, who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learnt, that the sources must be far higher and far inward. …55

Coleridge is for the moment more interested in the ‘few’, but he is anxious lest the obstacles he is placing in their way may be too much for even these stalwarts. He voices his anxiety when introducing the ten theses ‘for those of my readers, who are willing to accompany me through the following Chapter. …’56 And in his much-maligned letter to himself he is able to joke about the bewilderment which many are likely to feel.

This letter deserves more respectful attention than it usually gets. It is true that Coleridge, by using it as an escape device, admits that he cannot yet entirely explain the philosophy he is expounding, and that he encourages the suspicion that he has not yet thought the whole of it out to his own satisfaction; but to suggest, as Hazlitt and Christopher North were the first to do, that Coleridge was perpetrating a wordy fraud on his readers, will not do. As I shall try to show later in this essay, the failure to include the promised chapter does not seriously damage what is left, and his suggestion that it be reserved for his ‘announced treatises on the Logos or communicative intellect in Man and Deity’ is far from being the bombastic insincerity it is sometimes taken for.57 In fact, Coleridge foresees the very criticisms which have been levelled at him ever since, and puts them so wrily that one feels that only the extreme hostility of his age to the kind of thought he was advocating could have denied him the sympathetic and charitable hearing he had asked for others.58

Coleridge's mysterious ‘friend’ mentions the unfamiliar ring of his views and exposition:

your opinions and method of argument were not only so new to me, but so directly the reverse of all I had ever been accustomed to consider as truth, that even if I had comprehended your premises sufficiently to have admitted them, and had seen the necessity of your conclusions, … I should have felt as if I had been standing on my head.59

Stepping briefly out of character, the ‘friend’ comments more knowingly: ‘You have been obliged to omit so many links, from the necessity of compression, that what remains, looks … like the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower’.60 As the letter implies, and as readers have continued to point out ever since, Coleridge's educational experiment was a failure. It was not that he had neglected to make allowances for the frailties of students—the interspersed autobiographical materials were ingeniously contrived to make his position clear on various matters on which he felt he had been misunderstood, and they serve much the same function as the ‘Landing-places’ so tolerantly scattered through The Friend, but that he failed to bridge the gap between his own thought, habituated to Transcendentalist notions and terms, and the thought of his contemporaries.61 It was a question of underestimating the requirements of his audience, not of being indifferent to them. What matters here is that we be aware of his wish to instruct fundamentally, and of his belief that such instruction was the true role of criticism.


The final step in Coleridge's attempt to reform criticism is his proposal of specific philosophical principles on which it should be based. We considered in the preceding chapter Coleridge's recommendations of the way in which thought should be conducted, his outline of the process of Method. Biographia Literaria is Coleridge's attempt to carry his Method into practice in the particular sphere of criticism. We have learned that ‘progressive transition’ is the essential characteristic, and that it should be unified by being based upon a preconception derived from the ‘interior of the human intellect’. It remains for us to show that Biographia Literaria was intended to exemplify this theory of Method, and to indicate how apt an example it is.

Coleridge says at one point in the Biographia that ‘The ultimate end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated.’62 He had noticed long before the damaging effect which the vague use of terms would have on any such enterprise,63 and he now makes a related assertion: ‘The first lesson of philosophic discipline is to wean the student's attention from the degrees of things, which alone form the vocabulary of common life, and to direct it to the kind abstracted from degree.’64 His attempt to clarify his differences with Wordsworth over the distinction between Imagination and Fancy is relevant to all three concerns—the establishment of principles of writing, the discrimination of critical terms, and the drawing of attention from degrees of things to kinds of things. And it is in his attempt to distinguish between Imagination and Fancy that Coleridge tries to put his Method into effect. In doing so he provides an example of what he meant by Method.

The first step in carrying out such a plan is, as we have learned, to settle upon a preconception, initiative or Idea. Coleridge devotes considerable space to establishing it. His opening argument in Chapter 12 is reminiscent of the terms used in his description of Method itself. ‘A system,’ he says, ‘which aims to deduce the memory with all the other functions of intelligence, must of course place its first position from beyond the memory, and anterior to it, otherwise the principle of solution would be itself a part of the problem to be solved.65 He calls again on the analogy of geometry: ‘In geometry the primary construction is not demonstrated, but postulated.’66 ‘Geometry therefore,’ he continues, ‘supplies philosophy with the example of a primary intuition, from which every science that lays claim to evidence must take its commencement. The mathematician does not begin with a demonstrable proposition, but with an intuition, a practical idea.’67 He recognizes the limits of his analogy by pointing out that the greater complexity of philosophy denies it the convenience of diagrammatic illustration: ‘Philosophy is employed on objects of the inner sense, and cannot, like geometry appropriate to every construction a correspondent outward intuition.’68

The problem is one which we have already encountered in our consideration of Coleridge's treatment of Method. He persists in spite of the inherent difficulties: ‘Nevertheless philosophy, if it is to arrive at evidence, must proceed from the most original construction, and the question then is, what is the most original construction or first productive act for the inner sense.’69 In trying to answer this question Coleridge goes farther than he does in his Method essays, by discriminating between the degrees of ‘inner sense’ possessed by different people. Just as some are philosophers and some are not, some are capable of attaining ‘to a notion of [their] notions’ and some are not.70 The absence of simplifying visual representations of ‘notions’ makes transmission of them to those whose ‘inner sense’ is undeveloped or lacking difficult or impossible. Coleridge writes that,

To an Esquimaux or New Zealander our most popular philosophy would be wholly unintelligible. The sense, the inward organ for it, is not yet born in him. So is there many a one among us, yes, and some who think themselves philosophers too, to whom the philosophic organ is entirely wanting. To such a man, philosophy is a mere play of words and notions, like a theory of music to the deaf. …71

As a prelude to a philosophical statement, such reasoning is likely to seem tendentious or unfair, disqualifying those who disagree as being philosophically deficient—indeed the tone of it may have exasperated some of Coleridge's own reviewers—but it is of a piece with his later remark in his Philosophical Lectures: ‘There is a point which is above all intellect, and there are truths derived from that point which must be presumed, … and when such principles are denied you may at least candidly say, “We differ on principles”, and charitably think that that man must be made a better before he can be made a wiser man.’72 It certainly is not a matter for argument, and Coleridge, whatever he may think about its consequences, makes no attempt to pass off his statement as more than the assumption that it is.

Rather abruptly, he now declares that the postulate of philosophy is the injunction ‘know thyself’.73 We shall consider his attempt to delve into the way in which one can know anything in the next chapter; for the time being it suffices to notice the course of Coleridge's argument. He is introducing the problem of the relationship between the perceiver and the things perceived—or to use his synonyms, between Subject and Object, Self and Nature. He is content to paraphrase Schelling when discussing the question of the precedence of Subject and Object, and by falling back on the German philosopher as a sort of shorthand he is perhaps overdoing the presentation of the ‘drama of Reason’. While one can make something of this discussion in the light of his general philosophical aims and efforts, a reader denied access to such aids is likely to feel baffled by the sudden administration of a Transcendental bolus.74 Having forearmed ourselves by our examination of the essays on Method, however, the problem and the terms used should seem less strange.

Coleridge begins by describing two ways of thinking about how we know things. He remarks that ‘During the act of knowledge itself, the objective and subjective are so instantly united, that we cannot determine to which of the two the priority belongs’.75 Having admitted so much, he goes on to suppose them separable for the purpose of examining the nature of their union, and discusses the implications first of holding that the objective precedes the subjective, and then of holding that this succession is reversed.

In reading his account, we should bear in mind the relations of Law and Theory. If the objective is taken to be the first, we have what Coleridge calls ‘the problem of natural philosophy’.76 This is what in the essays on Method he has called the relation of Theory. Having assumed that nature precedes the observing self, Coleridge maintains, the natural philosopher moves from nature to the self, or intelligence: ‘The necessary tendence … of all natural philosophy is from nature to intelligence; and this, and no other[,] is the true ground and occasion of the instinctive striving to introduce theory into our views of natural phænomena.’77 Moving from observation of material things, the scientist tries to achieve universal principles of laws: ‘The highest perfection of natural philosophy would consist in the perfect spiritualization of all the laws of nature into laws of intuition and intellect.’78 In Biographia Literaria Coleridge withholds the expression of scepticism about the likelihood of achieving satisfactory results which he was later to permit himself.79 In the 1818 Friend he describes the sequence of scientific thinking uncompromisingly as ‘representative not constitutive, and … indeed little more than an abbreviature of the preceding observation, and the deductions therefrom’.80 In the Biographia he refrains from condemnation and describes the ideal end of science:

The Phænomena … must wholly disappear, and the laws alone … must remain. Thence it comes, that in nature itself the more the principle of law breaks forth, the more does the husk drop off, the phænomena themselves become more spiritual and at length cease altogether in our consciousness. … The theory of natural philosophy would … be completed, when all nature was demonstrated to be identical in essence with that, which in its highest known power exists in man as intelligence and self-consciousness. …81

The essays on Method have provided us with the technical meaning of the phrase ‘the principle of law’ for Coleridge.

‘Natural Philosophy’ represents the extreme of materialistic investigation for Coleridge, and he wishes to show that even in it the investigator is led unconsciously to the subjective:

… even natural science, which commences with the material phænomenon as the reality and substance of things existing, does yet by the necessity of theorising unconsciously, and as it were instinctively, end in nature as an intelligence; and by this tendency the science of nature becomes finally natural philosophy, the one of the two poles of fundamental science.82

Ideal though this process may be for science, philosophy, according to Coleridge, demands a different one.

He now examines the consequences of supposing the opposite—that the subjective precedes the objective. As one might have anticipated, it turns out to be the supposition of ‘the transcendental or intelligential philosopher’, and it is analogous to the relation of Law. When thinking in this manner, one is careful ‘to preclude all interpolation of the objective into the subjective principles of [one's] science …’.83 This result is achieved by means of ‘an absolute and scientific scepticism to which the mind voluntar[il]y determines itself for the specific purpose of future certainty’.84 It is a constitutive philosophy which tries to deal with two widely held assumptions or positions, one of which Coleridge wishes to criticize, and the other of which, while he holds it up for view as an assumption, he feels cannot be dismissed. Coleridge tells us that the philosopher's scepticism is aimed not at ‘the prejudices of education and circumstance, but those original and innate prejudices which nature herself has planted in all men, and which to all but the philosopher are the first principles of knowledge, and the final test of truth’.85 He reduces these to ‘the one fundamental presumption, that there exist things without us’.86 A presumption, be it noticed, on which the scientific relation of Theory he has just described is predicated. Coleridge does not attempt to prove that the ‘prejudice’ is not correct, but he suggests the impossibility of demonstrating that it is:

… inasmuch as [the presumption] refers to something essentially different from ourselves, nay even in opposition to ourselves, [it] leaves it inconceivable how it could possibly become a part of our immediate consciousness; (in other words how that, which ex hypothesi is and continues to be extrinsic and alien to our being, should become a modification of our being). …87

The fact that the presumption is indemonstrable rules it out as a foundation stone for philosophy as far as Coleridge is concerned.

The other fundamental presumption, the sense of self-consciousness (or as Coleridge cryptically calls it, ‘I Am’) is also indemonstrable; however, he finds it impossible to abandon. ‘It is,’ he admits, ‘groundless indeed; but then in the very idea it precludes all ground, and separated from the immediate consciousness loses its whole sense and import. It is groundless; but only because it is itself the ground of all other certainty.’88 As he points out, there is a difference between the ‘certainty’ of this position and the position that there exist things without us, but he is heedful of the widespread acceptance of the latter and he seeks to reconcile the disparity, which ‘the transcendental philosopher can solve only by the supposition, that the former is unconsciously involved in the latter; that it is not only coherent but identical, and one and the same thing with our own immediate self consciousness’.89 He concludes that ‘the office and object’ of the transcendental philosophy is ‘To demonstrate this identity. …’90 Unfortunately Coleridge does not unravel the problem here; instead he refers us to his promised but uncompleted Logosophia. In its place he offers the ten ‘theses’ with the excuse that ‘The science of arithmetic furnishes instances, that a rule may be useful in practical application, and for the particular purpose may be sufficiently authenticated by the result, before it has itself been fully demonstrated.’91 We have, it seems, come to a link in Coleridge's chain of reasoning which he has not yet worked out to his satisfaction. In a sense too we have come to the end of a false start; the explication was too detailed to be kept up.

Coleridge does not abandon the chase, he simply embarks upon it anew with a statement of the results which he had hoped to arrive at, and tells us that they ‘will be applied to the deduction of the imagination, and with it the principles of production and of genial criticism in the fine arts’.92 While the theses may not be as full a discussion as we might wish, or as full as Coleridge evidently felt was desirable, they are in themselves sufficient to provide us with a general picture of the lines on which he has been thinking. This time he restricts his attention to the relation of Law.

He begins by asserting the correlation of Knowledge and Reality,93 a necessary preliminary if one is proposing to apply metaphysical conclusions to something as relatively concrete as ‘imagination’. He goes on to distinguish between ‘mediate’ and ‘immediate’ or ‘original’ truths, pointing out that in order to have ‘mediate’ truths one must first have ‘immediate’ ones. The immediate truths must therefore be sought first. In the third thesis, Coleridge states that ‘We are to seek … for some absolute truth capable of communicating to other positions a certainty, which it has not itself borrowed; a truth self-grounded, unconditional and known by its own light. In short, we have to find a somewhat which is, simply because it is.94 Such a truth must be its own predicate, and there must be no possibility of ‘requiring a cause or anticedent [sic] without an absurdity’.95 The fourth thesis states that there can be only one such principle,96 and the fifth, that it can be found ‘neither in object or subject taken separately’, and must, therefore, be found in that ‘which is the identity of both’.97

Coleridge has now brought us to the point which he had previously tried to reach by a different route, this time omitting the relation of Theory. He next expands a little upon the absolute Truth which he is looking for. In Thesis VI he describes it:

This principle … manifests itself in the Sum or I am, which I shall hereafter indiscriminately express by the words spirit, self, and self-consciousness. In this, and in this alone, object and subject, being and knowing, are identical, each involving and supposing the other. In other words, it is a subject which becomes a subject by the act of constructing itself objectively to itself; but which never is an object except for itself, and only so far as by the very same act it becomes a subject.98

This ‘spirit, self, and self-consciousness’, according to Thesis VII must be an act—and here Coleridge appears to be tipping the balance of the ‘coinstantaneous’ union of subject and object in favour of the subject—; ‘the spirit (originally the identity of object and subject) must in some sense dissolve this identity, in order to be conscious of it: fit alter et idem. But this implies an act. …’99 Coleridge maintains that an act necessarily presupposes a will: ‘it follows therefore that intelligence or self-consciousness is impossible, except by and in a will’.100 And here he casts off another shackle of the mechanistic philosophy which he has earlier ridiculed, by affirming that the will is free: ‘The self-conscious spirit therefore is a will; and freedom must be assumed as a ground of philosophy, and can never be deduced from it.101 This ‘self-consciousness’, being a union of subject and object, ‘can be conceived neither as infinite or finite exclusively, but as the most original union of both’.102

In his ninth thesis, Coleridge reminds us that he is not now referring to the science which moves from object to subject, but exclusively to the kind which moves from subject to object: ‘This principium commune essendi et cognoscendi, as subsisting in a will, or primary act of self-duplication, is the mediate or indirect principle of every science; but it is the immediate and direct principle of the ultimate science alone, i.e. of transcendental philosophy alone.’103 He is not offering an exposition of being, but only of knowing, for beyond knowledge it is impossible to inquire: ‘The principle of our knowing is sought within the sphere of our knowing. … It is asserted only, that the act of self-consciousness is for us the source and principle of all our possible knowledge.’104

Coleridge has now completed his attempt to establish an initial Idea, the initiative of the critical system he wishes to expound. I do not think that one can praise his organization of material, and yet, for all his irresolution, for all his circling and weaving around the point he is trying to make, his meaning is fairly clear. He is belittling thought based on the observation of phenomena (the relation of Theory, the method of natural science) and advocating thought based on scrutiny of the mind itself (the relation of Law). If we are to attain the sort of absolute knowledge which Coleridge believes is essential, we must begin with the Self and not with Nature. Coleridge declares his ultimate ambition to be ‘to construct by a series of intuitions the progressive schemes … till I arrive at the fulness of the human intelligence’.105 For the present, however, he is only concerned with arriving at an explanation of the poetic faculty of imagination; he assumes the fuller exposition of the position ‘I Am’ into ‘the fulness of the human intelligence’ as his principle, ‘in order to deduce from it a faculty, the generation, agency, and application of which form the contents of the ensuing chapter.’106 He is again admitting a gap in the chain, but a gap in detail; we are being asked to accept the results and implications of an argument which he promises to expound later. He is not giving up the attempt to arrive at a description of the creative act of poetry derived from first principles. Boldly he informs his readers: ‘I shall now proceed to the nature and genesis of the imagination. …’107

It is at this point that commentators tend to lose patience with Coleridge.108 Having been twice balked by lacunæ which demand considerable charity on the part of the reader, they jib at the third one which Coleridge lightheartedly ushers in with the fanfare of an expostulatory letter from his judicious ‘friend’. After an opening bow in Chapter Thirteen to his eminent predecessors Descartes and Kant, Coleridge abruptly gives up. This time he offers ‘results’ with a vengeance: ‘… I shall content myself for the present with stating the main result of the Chapter, which I have reserved for that future publication, a detailed prospectus of which the reader will find at the close of the second volume.’109 It was only adding insult to injury to omit even the prospectus. The ‘main result’ is, of course, the familiar description of ‘Primary Imagination’, ‘Secondary Imagination’, and ‘Fancy’.

I shall recur to these definitions in the fifth chapter, and shall try to show the relevance which the philosophical discussion we have just traced has to them; for the moment, however, we are only concerned with the extent to which the ‘deduction’ of Imagination from first principles may be said to exemplify the theory of Method which Coleridge has advocated. It must be admitted, for a start, that it is likely to win few converts. The difficulty with Coleridge's procedure is that the reader is not permitted to know where he is being taken or why he is being taken there; by obscuring the end in view, the intricacies of the way are allowed to become confusing and even irritating. Indeed, unless one is thinking within a framework of ideas which is at least roughly similar to Coleridge's before beginning to read him, the whole enterprise is likely to seem unforgivably capricious. By way of palliating this indictment, it may be noted that Coleridge's discussion in earlier chapters of his track through the works of various philosophers, if followed carefully, goes a long way towards providing the necessary framework. What Coleridge has failed to do is to make the link clear.

Inadequate though it may be, there can be little doubt that Coleridge intended Biographia Literaria as an example of the Method we have watched him expound. It will be enough to recall its characteristics. First of all, an initiative upon which ‘progressive transition’ may be built. ‘It is manifest, that the wider the sphere of transition is, the more comprehensive and commanding must be the initiative. …’110 The sphere of transition could scarcely be wider than that attempted in the Biographia—to deduce the faculty of Imagination from first principles. The nature of the initiative depends on the nature of the relations between the objects observed. As I have suggested, the relation of Law prevails; for it an absolute and unconditional ground is necessary, ‘a truth in the Mind itself, pregnant with the consequence of other truths in an indefinite progression’.111 In just such terms, Coleridge has offered the position ‘I Am’—the one original and immediate truth. Next comes the progressive transition itself, pursued ‘through all its ramifications’.112 Here, as we have seen, Coleridge has offered only a token—it is in the matter of ‘progressive transition’ that he falls down—but his failure is one of execution not of intent. The attempt to carry out this aspect of Method is evident enough. As we have noticed, Coleridge thought it unlikely that Method based on the relation of Law could be completely within the capacity of man; nevertheless he shared the ideal he attributes to Plato—‘… to find a ground that is unconditional and absolute, and thereby to reduce the aggregate of human knowledge to a system’.113 Like Kant, he hoped that some part of the ideal might be achieved. The definition of Imagination was the fruit of his efforts.

Hegel once remarked of Schelling that he conducted his education in public, and much the same might be said of Coleridge. It is not that his ideas are presented inconsistently, or that he keeps changing his views, but that he offers his thinking to the public before he has come to the end of it. In Biographia Literaria we have neither the relentless Kantian progress which he admired, nor even the indefatigable exhaustiveness of Hartley, but rather a trial run of ideas which he has conceived in their general outlines and not yet articulated in particular details. As a whole it resembles personal notes for a philosophy. Coleridge knew that he had not given a very convincing demonstration of his Method of criticism, and his reference to it as ‘so immethodical a miscellany’ is apter than one might have guessed at first reading.114 Years later he was to regret the inadequacy of the philosophical passages in the Biographia.115

Why then should he have placed them before the public at all? What did he think he might achieve by doing so? The answer lies, I think, in the two motives for publication discussed in our first chapter—financial necessity and reforming zeal. The first forced him to publish something, and a book of criticism seemed possible to him; the second encouraged him to try to right contemporary wrongs and may have overridden the dissatisfaction he felt at having to offer ideas so incomplete. His references at each gap to works which he will publish in due course are, one feels, genuine enough as evidence of what he meant to do and they must have acted as a salve to his conscience. Even if we regard his publication of his critical Method before its time as ill-advised, we should pause before rejecting it as still-born.

Coleridge's contemporaries, and particularly the haughty reviewers of Edinburgh, were predisposed to condemn any philosophical work which smacked of German metaphysics. In the twentieth century, although Transcendentalism is in eclipse, there is no longer so general an impulse to be intolerant of it. It has been pointed out that one of the most interesting aspects of Coleridge's criticism is the critical method it implies. Gordon McKenzie, for example, states that ‘The most important value of Coleridge for modern literary criticism lies in his attempts to formulate a method and a technique by which literature may be approached.’116 More recently Sir Herbert Read has maintained that ‘The distinction of Coleridge, which puts him head and shoulders above every other English critic, is due to his introduction of a philosophical method of criticism.’117 It is not that the example is successful, but that it suggests how one might go about attempting a philosophic method for oneself.

It is appropriate to conclude by recalling what Coleridge had to say in the course of his Philosophical Lectures on the construction of philosophies:

Every truly great mind is to be considered in two points of view, the first is that in which he may be said to exist universally, to act upon all men in all ages; and that is the grand idea which he first originates, the grand form and scheme of generalization. And the next is, when quitting the part of the architect, he himself becomes one of the labourers and one of the masons. There you will find in him the imperfections, of course, of every human individual; and while you give him every praise where he succeeds you will never permit it to detract from his merits where he fails.118

Coleridge the critic was architect of the work on which he became so indifferent a labourer; the essays on Method provide us with an essential part of the blue-print of his intentions.


  1. CL, I, 224.

  2. CL, I, 227.

  3. CL, I, 263, 270, 273, and 318. For a discussion of Coleridge's early reviews, see above, Chapter 1, n. 66.

  4. PW, II, 962.

  5. CL, II, 912.

  6. CL, II, 936.

  7. CL, II, 953.

  8. CL, II, 953.

  9. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years, ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford, 1937), I, 165 and 168.

  10. CL, III, 58-9 and n.

  11. CL, III, 117.

  12. CL, III, 148-9; 124-5.

  13. CL, III, 135-6.

  14. CL, III, 272. For a later but more detailed account of his feelings towards Jeffrey's revisions, see UL, II, 407-8.

  15. CL, III, 275. Cf. 316-17; and SC, II, 75.

  16. SC, II, 33.

  17. SC, II, 33. Cf. British Museum MS, Egerton 2800, fol. 89r: ‘It is too certain, that the grievances here enumerated have been rendered both more diffusive and more intense by the nature, number, and prodigious circulation of Reviews and Magazines, which with Newspapers, and a Shelf or two of Beauties, Extracts, and Anas, form nine tenths of the Reading of nine tenths of the reading Public. …’

  18. SC, II, 33.

  19. SC, II, 34.

  20. SC, II, 38. Cf. CL, III, 107; and F, I, 318n.

  21. CL, IV, 564. By this time he had begun to feel the critical lash himself. See CL, III, 433 and 532. In a letter to Stuart, Coleridge mentions a cabal of notables which he and Bowles had talked over as being capable of running a review in opposition (CL, III, 539).

  22. Reckoning without the interpolations. See Everyman, p. xviii.

  23. See A. L. Strout, ‘Knights of the Burning Epistle’, Studia Neophilologica, XXVI (1953-4), 79-80. In a letter written to John Murray in 1816, Coleridge mentions the characteristics he considered appropriate for a review (CL, IV, 648). Cf. the conditions he tried to impose on Blackwood's Magazine in 1819 (CL, IV, 976). See also British Museum MS, Egerton 2800, fol. 84r. The financial return must have been the principle motive. (Cf., for example, CL, IV, 665). The restraint shown in Biographia Literaria concerning the Edinburgh Review (BL, II, 117-18; Everyman, pp. 237-8) is the more remarkable when Coleridge's real feelings are known.

  24. F, I, 41.

  25. SC, II, 23.

  26. SC, II, 74-5.

  27. TM, Appendix, p. 86.

  28. BL, II, 116; (Everyman, p. 237).

  29. ‘It will be found, that the least of what I have written concerns myself personally. I have used the narration chiefly for the purpose of giving a continuity to the work, in part for the sake of the miscellaneous reflections suggested to me by particular events, but still more as introductory to the statement of my principles. …’ (BL, I, 4; Everyman, p. 1).

  30. CL, II, 707.

  31. TM, Appendix, p. 88.

  32. BL, II, 123; (Everyman, p. 241).

  33. BL, I, 63; (Everyman, p. 36).

  34. W, pp. 5-6.

  35. SC, II, 48. Cf. CL, III, 29; and SC, II, 38 and 62.

  36. Shawcross, II, 248-9.

  37. BL, I, 22; (Everyman, p. 11).

  38. CL, IV, 598.

  39. CL, IV, 591.

  40. BL, I, 92; (Everyman, p. 53).

  41. BL, II, 181; (Everyman, p. 277). Cf. George Watson's recent statement: ‘Coleridge … is essentially a critic who practises descriptive criticism only as an illustration’ (The Literary Critics: A Study of English Descriptive Criticism [Harmondsworth, 1962], p. 113).

  42. BL, II, 116-17; (Everyman, p. 237).

  43. BL, I, 53-4; (Everyman, p. 30).

  44. BL, II, 181; (Everyman, p. 277).

  45. SC, II, 35-6.

  46. CL, II, 1039.

  47. SC, II, 33.

  48. SC, II, 33.

  49. SC, II, 35.

  50. SC, II, 36.

  51. SC, II, 35.

  52. SC, II, 82.

  53. BL, I, 237; (Everyman, p. 135).

  54. BL, I, 240; (Everyman, pp. 136-7).

  55. BL, I, 241-3; (Everyman, pp. 137-8).

  56. BL, I, 264; (Everyman, p. 149).

  57. BL, I, 293; (Everyman, p. 166). As Alice Snyder points out: ‘With regard to actual performance, the case for Coleridge is stronger than it appears when one thinks, for instance, of the twelfth chapter of the Biographia. Unpublished manuscript material gives striking evidence of the patience with which Coleridge tried to practice what he preached, in the way of leading the student on, simply and naturally’ (Coleridge on Logic and Learning, p. 47).

  58. For an account of contemporary hostility, see René Wellek, Kant in England, pp. 25ff.

  59. BL, I, 291; (Everyman, pp. 164-5).

  60. BL, I, 293; (Everyman, p. 166).

  61. On ‘landing-places’ as a means of ‘bribing’ the reader's attention, see F, I, 324-5. George Whalley has drawn attention to the similarity of technique in Biographia Literaria: ‘The Integrity of Biographia Literaria’, Essays and Studies, n.s. VI (1953), 99.

  62. BL, II, 85; (Everyman, p. 217).

  63. SC, II, 37.

  64. BL, I, 158-9; (Everyman, p. 92).

  65. BL, I, 250; (Everyman, p. 142).

  66. BL, I, 250; (Everyman, p. 142).

  67. BL, I, 251; (Everyman, pp. 142-3).

  68. BL, I, 251; (Everyman, p. 143).

  69. BL, I, 251; (Everyman, p. 143).

  70. BL, I, 252; (Everyman, p. 143).

  71. BL, I, 253; (Everyman, p. 144). I have removed the comma which stands after ‘inward organ’ and replaced it after ‘for it’ as the sense demands.

  72. PL, p. 153.

  73. BL, I, 254; (Everyman, p. 144).

  74. Watson rightly excuses the perplexity of the Victorians: ‘[They] could not be expected to understand what he was talking about: some of his texts had not been printed, most had not been edited, and his criticism was nearly all of an order that would respond only to close and concentrated exegesis’ (The Literary Critics, p. 113).

  75. BL, I, 255; (Everyman, p. 145).

  76. BL, I, 256; (Everyman, p. 145).

  77. BL, I, 257; (Everyman, p. 146).

  78. BL, I, 257; (Everyman, p. 146).

  79. e.g. PL, pp. 360 and 361.

  80. F, III, 183.

  81. BL, I, 257-8; (Everyman, p. 146).

  82. BL, I, 258; (Everyman, p. 146).

  83. BL, I, 259; (Everyman, p. 147).

  84. BL, I, 259; (Everyman, p. 147).

  85. BL, I, 260; (Everyman, p. 147).

  86. BL, I, 260; (Everyman, p. 147).

  87. BL, I, 260; (Everyman, pp. 147-8).

  88. BL, I, 261; (Everyman, p. 148).

  89. BL, I, 261; (Everyman, p. 148).

  90. BL, I, 261; (Everyman, p. 148).

  91. BL, I, 263; (Everyman, p. 149).

  92. BL, I, 264; (Everyman, p. 149).

  93. BL, I, 264; (Everyman, pp. 149-50).

  94. BL, I, 265; (Everyman, p. 150).

  95. BL, I, 266; (Everyman, p. 150).

  96. BL, I, 266; (Everyman, pp. 150-1). Cf. British Museum MS, Egerton 2826, fols. 77-8.

  97. BL, I, 267; (Everyman, p. 151).

  98. BL, I, 267-8; (Everyman, pp. 151-2).

  99. BL, I, 270; (Everyman, p. 153).

  100. BL, I, 270; (Everyman, p. 153).

  101. BL, I, 270; (Everyman, p. 153).

  102. BL, I, 271; (Everyman, p. 153).

  103. BL, I, 271; (Everyman, p. 153).

  104. BL, I, 272-3; (Everyman, p. 154).

  105. BL, I, 275; (Everyman, p. 156).

  106. BL, I, 275; (Everyman, p. 156).

  107. BL, I, 282; (Everyman, p. 159).

  108. Christopher North seems to have been the first to express his impatience publicly. See, ‘Some Observations on the “Biographia Literaria” of S. T. Coleridge, Esq.—1817’, Blackwood's Magazine, II (1817), 16-17.

  109. BL, I, 295; (Everyman, p. 167).

  110. TM, p. 2.

  111. TM, p. 4.

  112. TM, p. 7.

  113. F, III, 158.

  114. BL, I, 92; (Everyman, pp. 52-3).

  115. TT, II, 335.

  116. Organic Unity in Coleridge, p. 1. Cf. Frederick Denison Maurice, The Kingdom of Christ (London, 1842), 2nd ed., I, xi, where Coleridge's writing is given credit in that ‘… it shews us what we have to seek for, and that it puts us into a way of seeking’.

  117. Coleridge as Critic, p. 18. Cf. Coburn: ‘… the principles of Method are the principles of literary criticism’ (‘Coleridge Redivivus’, p. 120).

  118. PL, pp. 191-2. Kathleen Coburn's speculation (PL, p. 192n) that ‘generalization’ is perhaps an erroneous substitution for ‘organization’ seems to me too to be consistent with Coleridge's usage. Cf. also PL, pp. 148-9; F, II, 88-9; and III, 314.

Key to Abbreviations

A to R S. T. Coleridge. Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion: Illustrated by Select Passages from Our Elder Divines, especially from Archbishop Leighton. London, 1825.

BL———. Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. London, 1817. 2 Vols.

CL———. Collected Letters, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. Oxford, 1956- 4 Vols.

C of Pure R Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith. London, 1956.

EOHOT S. T. Coleridge. Essays on His Own Times forming a Second Series of the Friend, ed. Sara Coleridge. London, 1850. 3 Vols.

Everyman———. Biographia Literaria, ed. George Watson. London, 1956.

F———. The Friend: A Series of Essays, in Three Volumes, to Aid in the Formation of Fixed Principles in Politics, Morals, and Religion, with Literary Amusements Interspersed. London, 1818. 3 Vols.

F (1809)———. The Friend; a Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper, excluding Personal and Party Politics, and the Events of the Day. Penrith, 1809-10.

LR———. The Literary Remains, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge. London, 1836-39. 4 Vols.

MC———. Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor. London, 1936.

N———. The Notebooks, ed. Kathleen Coburn. New York, 1957- 2 Vols. (double).

NOED———. Notes on English Divines, ed. Derwent Coleridge. London, 1853. 2 Vols.

PL———. The Philosophical Lectures, ed. Kathleen Coburn. London, 1949.

PW S. T. Coleridge. The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. Oxford, 1912. 2 Vols.

SC———. Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor. London, 1960. 2 Vols.

Shawcross———. Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross. London, 1907. 2 Vols.

SM———. The Statesman's Manual; or The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society, With an Appendix Containing Comments and Essays Connected with the Study of the Inspired Writings. London, 1816.

TM———. Treatise on Method as Published in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana, ed. Alice D. Snyder. London, 1934.

TT———. Specimens of the Table Talk, ed. H. N. Coleridge. London, 1835. 2 Vols.

UL———. Unpublished Letters, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. London, 1932. 2 Vols.

W———. The Watchman. Bristol, 1796.

Vorlesungen Friedrich Wilhelm Johann Schelling. Vorlesungen über die Methode des academischen Studiums. Tübingen, 1803.

Timothy Corrigan (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10571

SOURCE: Corrigan, Timothy. “Accommodating Aeschylus: Coleridge, Theology, and Literary Criticism.” In Coleridge, Language, and Criticism, pp. 157-91. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Corrigan discusses Coleridge's use of theological discourse in the interpretation of literature.]

This I believe by my own dear experience,—that the more tranquilly an inquirer takes up the Bible as he would any other body of writings, the livelier and steadier will be his impressions of its superiority to all other books, till at length all other books and all other knowledge will be valuable in his eyes in proportion as they help him to better understand his Bible.

coleridge, Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit

Delivered in May 1825 to the Royal Society of Literature, Coleridge's lecture “On the Prometheus of Aeschylus” must certainly have puzzled its first audience as much as it has confused its few readers since then.1 Indeed Coleridge seemed to recognize this fact when he wrote John Taylor Coleridge the next day that he “inflicted the whole Essay (an hour and 25 M) on the ears of the R.L.S., with most remorseful sympathy with the audience, who could not possibly understand the 10th part.”2 Here, as usual, part of Coleridge's problem was that he had simply packed too much dense material into too small a space. But, more important for my argument, this puzzlement and difficulty follow from what Carlyle disdainfully called the “swimbladders and vehiculatory gears” that overwhelm a lecture purportedly on Aeschylus's Prometheus.

There is, in short, only a polite nod to Aeschylus's play in this lecture, while the vast majority of it grinds out a discussion of theology and theological history, using Prometheus merely as a vehicle for Coleridge's involved theological models. Particularly in this essay Coleridge's commentary explodes around the primary text, often leaving that text unrecognizable or buried in the critical commentary that covers it. It takes to an extreme a method of reading and criticizing that I have been tracing throughout Coleridge's career, a method whereby a specific extraliterary code—here theological—interacts with a primary text not simply to rephrase its meaning but in fact to produce a meaning. In the earlier years this method is less obvious for many reasons. In the last years, it is unmistakably evident, making Aeschylus's play into a rather bare grid upon which Coleridge charts his own ideas about theology and theological history. To be sure, at no period in Coleridge's life does his literary criticism purport only to be at the service of a literary work that arrived first: almost always a particular discourse—political, scientific, or psychological, for example—controls Coleridge's criticism and contributes significantly to the meaning of a primary text. In these final years, however, the conspiracy of the commentary against the text is overwhelming. What is most peculiar about his work during this period is the unusual extent to which he disregards the primary text and how completely his complex theological models and language usurp that text. In the Prometheus lecture particularly Coleridge tacitly claims that another text, a theological one, has precedence over all other literature; this theological text is always primary; and it thus determines not only the meaning of a literary work but even the literature that is worth reading. Annotating Milton's minor poems in the 1820s, Coleridge explains this new hierarchy of texts clearly: “Of criticism we may perhaps say, that those divine poets, Homer, Eschylus, and the two compeers, Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, who deserve to have Critics, … are placed above criticism in the vulgar sense, and move in the sphere of religion, while those who are not such scarcely deserve criticism in any sense.”3 Never descending to vulgar criticism, Coleridge's literary criticism in the 1820s invariably moves in this sphere of religion. And to understand it, the otherwise baffled reader needs to know far less about the meaning of a specific poem or play than about the meaning of a theological language that massively invades and controls the literary commentary.

This victory of theological discourse over literature proper in Coleridge's last years is not really surprising, since from 1818 to 1834 theology dominates Coleridge's work more and more until it becomes the almost exclusive passion of his life. As J. Robert Barth observes, after the completion of the Biographia Literaria “Coleridge continued through the next several years to speak and write occasionally about literary subjects, … but there was a noticeable change of his emphasis in his work, until by 1819 we find that he had turned his attention rather completely to other things. … This change in the bent of his work … was strongly in the direction of religious preoccupations.”4 Theology is of course central to Coleridge's life from his earliest days through his old age, but the changing meaning of theology and religion at different periods of his life is crucial to a proper understanding of his work. In the 1790s, for instance, theology and religious thought are usually the handmaiden of a rather topical, practical morality, and the disciple of William Frend and editor of The Watchman is certainly a religious thinker of a different sort than the Coleridge of the 1820s, whose interest in politics is always subordinate to theological models and laws. Hence, though they ostensibly deal with a similar topic—the relation between politics and theology—On the Constitution of the Church and State is fundamentally different from the Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion. Both the language and overriding vision have changed, so that whereas in the earlier work Christ appears as a political revolutionary of sorts, in the later work the political state must serve God's plan. Indeed these last fifteen years of Coleridge's life mark his most whole-hearted and nearly exclusive commitment to theology, and his writings during this period testify to his increasingly abstract thinking in this area, thinking demanded both by Coleridge's private needs and by his awareness of a historical crisis in which the spirit of practiced religion was being demeaned by a new breed of rationalists. Aids to Reflection and Church and State, the most famous products of this period in Coleridge's life, put the case most strongly. But his poetry too is clearly more a vehicle for expounding speculative, mostly orthodox theology than for dramatizing the concrete questions or problems that concerned him as a young man; after 1820, the reproof of Sara in “The Aeolian Harp” is no longer necessary.5

As Coleridge immerses himself in theology during these years, one of the salient issues becomes scriptural hermeneutics, an issue that bears very significantly on his interpretations of literature. Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, a third prose work written during these years, deals with this issue most directly, and the incisiveness with which Coleridge discusses hermeneutics and the provocativeness of these remarks make it a central document in an understanding of his later literary criticism. The occasion for this short, posthumously published work is the debates and controversies about how the Bible should be read. One camp in this controversy, the “biblical rationalists,” with whom Herder is often identified, stresses the human and historical dimension of the Scriptures, and, frequently taking the argument to an extreme, tends to deny the divine origin and authority of the Bible; opposing the rationalists are the strict orthodox thinkers who adhere to some version of divine ventriloquism, maintaining that every word of the Bible is the infallible word of God, and sometimes subsequently finding their interpretations challenged by scientific or historical facts.

As usual, Coleridge is not willing to throw his unqualified support to either side. Instead he proposes a kind of biblical exegesis which stands midway between the two extremes: for Coleridge there is never any doubt about the divine origin of the Bible, and to denigrate it as fiction or to deny its authority is blasphemy; yet the infinite qualitative difference between God and man, along with the inherent limitations of language, makes it silly to believe in the literal infallibility of the Bible's written message.6 “How can infallible truth be conveyed in defective material?” Coleridge asks. God is doubtless the infallible intelligence behind the Scriptures, but the vehicles for this message are fallible man and a language that is defective by its nature. Summing up his position in the argument, Coleridge writes:

There is a Light higher than all … the Light, of which light itself is but the schechinah and cloudy tabernacle;—the Word that is light for every man, and light for as many as give heed to it. If between this Word and the written Letter I shall anywhere seem to myself to find a discrepance, I shall not conclude that such there actually is; nor on the other hand will I fall under the condemnation of them that would lie for God, but seek as I may, be thankful for what I have and wait.7

Moreover, not only is there a gap between the divine meaning and the words which are its vehicles, but the interpreters of those words are no less subject to error. “Every sentence found in a canonical Book, rightly interpreted,” Coleridge writes, “contains the dictum of an infallible Mind; but what the right interpretation is,—or whether the very words now extant are corrupt or genuine—must be determined by the industry and understanding of the fallible and alas! more or less prejudiced theologians” (Confessions, pp. 53-54). The Scriptures, in other words, convey a profound spiritual meaning which is not always in accord with the strict literal meaning of the language used to convey that message. To read it correctly, then, the interpreter must read with spiritual eyes that discover the moral sense, not with physical eyes that are invariably distracted by literal sense. False interpretation derives either from a failure to understand how meaning is conveyed in the Bible or from a failure to apprehend that meaning in an unprejudiced spiritual manner. In Coleridge's words, “If the power of the Spirit from without furnished the text, the grace of the same Spirit from within must supply the comment” (p. 77).

Opposed to strict literal interpretation and recognizing the flexibility of scriptural meaning, Coleridge's hermeneutics as described here have much in common with medieval theological methods whereby passages in the Bible are understood to have a spiritual meaning which can operate on many different levels.8 For this medieval school of thought—which remained influential into the nineteenth century—the literal sense of a scriptural passage is only one of its possible meanings. There is in addition a typical sense, a sensus plenior (“fuller sense” or “sense of the Spirit”), and a so-called accommodated sense.9 For Coleridge all these levels communicate vital truths: the literal sense of a passage is a necessary safeguard against arbitrary interpretation; the typical sense (in which, for instance, Jonah prefigures Christ) reveals God's providential plan throughout history; the sensus plenior is the profound spiritual meaning that is the underpinning of the whole Bible and that has priority over any literal discrepancies; and the accommodated sense is just that—an accommodation of the moral significance of the Scriptures to another purpose, an application of the biblical text to another meaning which the scriptural passage only suggests. Each of these meanings is important to Coleridge's argument in Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, but for my purposes the last level of interpretation is the most significant, since it implies a hermeneutical process in which one text can be translated or literally replaced by another text. Coleridge's considerable sympathy for this accommodated sense, moreover, is evident in an 1833 notebook entry in which he speaks of “a justifiable accommodation of the Texts of Scripture … as expressing the thoughts which the words were fitted to suggest … but which, if truths & truths of vital interest and import, it may be no presumption to believe, under this condition, to have been comprized in the intention of that Holy Spirit, present no less tho' with less manifestation of Power” than the literal sense.10 Without losing the spirit of a sacred text, in other words, the understanding of it can be to a certain extent relative and depend on who accommodates its meaning and how he accommodates it. Divine reason, the “infallible Intelligence,” can manifest itself in several different languages (Confessions, p. 14). An uneducated man, for example, can understand or accommodate it his own way, translating it into his own terms, without sacrificing the spiritual truth that is the core of its meaning. Anyone “may study the master-works of our elder divines with safety and advantage, if they will accustom themselves to translate the theological terms into moral equivalents; saying to themselves—This may not be all that is meant, but this is meant, and it is that portion of the meaning, which belongs to me in the present stage of my progress.”11

In a similar fashion this process can be applied to the interpretation of literature. True, even great works of literature are not the Bible. Yet the truth they can communicate is of the same kind, and the reader can thus benefit from similar methods of exegesis. Works like Aeschylus's Prometheus, after all, are holy texts of one sort, and, as one passage already quoted indicates, at least Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer offer spiritual visions that are comparable with those of the Bible. Further, Coleridge himself suggests that the hermeneutical practices that he urges for scriptural reading can be used in other more profane readings when, equating the two, he demands “for the Bible only the justice which you grant to other proved and acknowledged benefactors of mankind” (Confessions, p. 55). Likewise, as part of his argument against literal interpretation of the scriptures, Coleridge notes that the doctrine of infallible communication would naturally be “senseless and self-confuting” to those common-sensical readers who knew enough to “take up the Bible as they do other books, and apply to it the same rules of interpretation” used in reading literature (p. 24). John Tulloch is thus right in emphasizing in 1885 that to Coleridge “belongs the honour of having first plainly and boldly announced that the Scriptures were to be read and studied, like any other literature.”12 But the corollary is equally important or perhaps even more important if we are to appreciate Coleridge's late literary criticism: that is, since the Scriptures and great literature are similar enough to be read the same way, the interpretation of literature should also be allowed the scope of accommodating meaning in terms of other meanings, other languages, and other texts, just like biblical exegesis. Indeed, later in the century, the use of a biblical methodology for literary criticism would be more common, yet an overlooked area of Coleridge's continuing influence on modern literary criticism is his very early application of this methodology to literature. Used in Coleridge's last years, in his Prometheus lecture and in much of his marginalia, this process certainly results in some peculiar literary criticism. But this criticism is the product of a sound hermeneutical procedure, directly related to scriptural accommodation, and differing only in that the accommodation is now reversed. Whereas in theological reading accommodation usually refers to the understanding of a biblical passage in terms of some action or situation from daily life, after 1820 Coleridge reversed the practice and accommodated literary texts to a theological text. This of course should not be at all surprising, since accommodation is a method for making a text meaningful. Coleridge worked obsessively in these final years to make most everything, especially literature, meaningful in theological terms. To reiterate, “The more tranquilly an inquirer takes up the Bible as he would any other body of writings, the livelier and steadier will be his impressions of its superiority to all other books, till at length all other books and all other knowledge will be valuable in his eyes in proportion as they help him to better understand his Bible” (Confessions, p. 84).

Coleridge's essay “On the Prometheus of Aeschylus,” along with the other literature he read during this period of his life, is therefore the natural product of a hermeneutical method in which a theological discourse completely usurps the work itself in an effort to bring that work's theological significance fully to light. The criticism accommodates the literature to a different language, a new text. Though it is not actually biblical discourse, it is most definitely a theological discourse, with the theological connotations found most prominently in Church and State and Aids to Reflection. In these two works, two major topics appear, the relationship between Christianity and the acting political government, and the history of Christianity in relation to all history (particularly Hebrew and Greek). The language, terms, and models13 that Coleridge uses to discuss these topics become the primary codes with which he accommodates the literary texts he interprets during these last years. Faith, Coleridge writes, “must be a light, a form of knowing, a beholding of truth,”14 and the language of faith in these two prose works becomes a way of knowing Aeschylus's Prometheus and many other novels, poems, and plays.

Although Aeschylus's Prometheus, as a kind of holy text in its own right, is particularly amenable to this type of accommodation, it is only the most complete and transparent example of Coleridge's critical method in these final years. Much of his other literary criticism and annotations at this time follow the same pattern of accommodation and in a more muted fashion employ terms with special theological connotations as interpretive keys for literature, thus demonstrating Coleridge's complete commitment to this hermeneutical method. To be sure, the other works Coleridge reads and comments on during this period are also extremely responsive to his critical method, since like Prometheus they often have rather explicit religious subjects (Pilgrim's Progress or Robinson Crusoe, for example). But then the choice and selection of material is a frequently ignored critical maneuver in itself; it is the topical significance that he gives these works that makes his literary criticism something other than mere explication. The Arabian Nights, for instance, naturally provides good material for Coleridge's discussion of theology and the mythic representation of God's plan. But it is his theological vocabulary, with its special meanings, that distinguishes his comments on that work. Whereas in his early years the supernatural in literature has important political implications, and after 1800 the supernatural in literature is meaningful mostly in terms of a psychology of reader response, during the last years Coleridge is mainly interested in the archetypal meaning of supernatural beings, namely, their meaning in terms of the theological model which he describes in many of his religious prose works of this period and in which power, will, and reason are continually in dynamic tension. Hence many of the supernatural creatures in Asiatic tales and the Arabian Nights exemplify, like Jove in Prometheus, “the idea of power in the will” (Criticism, p. 193). And next to a passage in Robinson Crusoe about “the stir people make in the world about ghosts and apparitions,” Coleridge turns his thoughts from the supernatural to the religious spirit in all human beings, their divine reason: “I cannot conceive a better definition of Body than Spirit appearing, or of a flesh and blood man than a rational spirit apparent” (Criticism, p. 298).

One of the more prominent theological issues that entered his reading of Prometheus and other literary works at this time is the function of the will in both its divine and human forms. Certainly one of the most important powers in Coleridge's theology, the will means something quite different in the 1820s from its meaning in his earlier years. The moral significance of the word is doubtless always present, but in the middle years the psychological implications of the will almost invariably dwarf its power as an instrument of religion. In Coleridge's Aids to Reflection, however, the will is almost exclusively an archetypal moral power, acting in conjunction with the conscience and reason to direct men and women to actions that are harmonious with the will of God. Sacrificing some of the psychological niceties, Coleridge thus asserts more strongly than ever the central position of the will in his theology and morality. Moreover, his literary criticism continues to enforce these theological meanings of the word, often aggressively battling the primary text in order to make his own meaning clear. Thus, a single passage in Pilgrim's Progress—“I left off to watch and be sober; I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts”—generates a short disquisition on Coleridge's conception of the will which could have appeared in Aids to Reflection or “Essay on Faith.” “This single paragraph proves … that in Bunyan's judgment there must be at least a negative co-operation of the will of man with the divine grace, an energy of non-resistance to the workings of the Holy Spirit. But the error of the Calvinists is, that they divide the regenerate will in man from the will of God, instead of including it.”15 Some years earlier, writing on Milton's poems, Coleridge anticipates this remark, and indicates how his notion of the will is crucial to an understanding of man's original sin, a sin always originating in the human will's decision to stray from God's will. The Calvinists are again his foil: “The Calvinists took away all human will. Milton asserted the will, but declared for the enslavement of the will out of an act of will itself” (Criticism, p. 163). Although we have fallen, we can still redeem ourselves by responding to our conscience, which is the appendage of our reason and the chief aid of will. If we fail to heed the system of checks and balances, though, the consequences are great; think of Robinson Crusoe, where Seignor Atkins, “rebelling against his conscience … becomes a slave of his own furious will” (p. 299).

Like this loaded term will, there are additional theological terms that appear regularly in Coleridge's literary criticism during these years, although many are inconspicuous because their force and importance lies primarily in Coleridge's theological writings. A rather lengthy attack on Defoe's reference to the devil in Robinson Crusoe, for instance, can only seem whimsical and odd unless one knows that Coleridge held the individual will responsible for evil and that the devil is a mere fiction (Criticism, pp. 297-98). Similarly, when Coleridge focuses on Robinson Crusoe's awareness of God's miraculous providence, his sensitivity and response to the passage is mostly a product of his theological work and hence tightly bound up with his ideas about history, revealed religion, and his theological model. His marginalia reads: “To make men feel the truth of this once characteristic object of the miracles worked by Moses—the providence miraculous, the miracles providential” (p. 294). But only in Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit can the reader discover the full context and theological argument for these miracles providential: “As all Power manifests itself in the harmony of correspondent Opposites, each supposing and supporting the other,” Coleridge says here, “so has Religion its objective, or historic and ecclesiastical pole, and its subjective, or spiritual and individual pole. In the miracles and miraculous parts of religion—both in the first communication of divine truths, and in the promulgation of the truths thus communicated—we have the union of the two, that is, the subjective and supernatural displayed objectively—outwardly and phenomenally—as subjective and supernatural” (Confessions, pp. 91-92).16 Finally, there is the marginal note on a line in Scott's Old Mortality where, after Scott notes the resistance of the Covenanters “in the cause of civil and religious liberty,” Coleridge expands freely on this single line in order to propound his own ideas on intolerance: “Alas! A liberty which in the first moment in which it asserted itself became intolerance, and an exclusion of all liberty in others! But the Scottish Covenanters are not chargeable with this inconsistence. It was not liberty they desired; but truth, which they believe themselves to assert. Now truth can be but one. It is in its very essence exclusive. It is man's blindness to his own fallibility and the lust of sway which pervert this exclusiveness into intolerance and persecution” (Criticism, p. 325). The prolixity of this comment however is far less puzzling if the reader realizes it was written under the pressure of the Catholic Emancipation Bill and while Coleridge himself was trying to define tolerance and intolerance. For Coleridge the conflict between the ideal of liberty and the security of truth was an extremely topical matter, and scattered throughout his Aids to Reflection and Church and State are many finely discriminating definitions of tolerance and intolerance. If the commentary overshadows the text in this case, it is because the text only barely touches on an issue whose public and private importance motivated Coleridge to write at least one book on it.

Perhaps the most resonant literary sounding board for Coleridge's theological discussions (other than Prometheus) is Pilgrim's Progress, a work that has so much in common with Coleridge's own views that it translates neatly and easily into Coleridge's theology. Indeed, in 1830 Coleridge goes so far as to compare Bunyan's allegory with the Bible. “I know of no book, the Bible excepted,” he says, “as above all comparison, which I, according to my judgment and experience, could so safely recommend as teaching and enforcing the whole saving truth according to the mind that was in Christ Jesus, as Pilgrim's Progress. It is, in my conviction, incomparably the best Summa Theologiae Evangelicae ever produced by a writer not miraculously inspired.”17Pilgrim's Progress becomes in fact a kind of Bible for Coleridge, not a work of literature, and he subsequently applied the same language and nearly the same methods to Bunyan's book that he suggests for the Scriptures. When Bunyan in one line conjoins “Moses' rod with the hammer of the treacherous assassin Jael,” Coleridge complains appropriately because the passage offends against the rules for biblical exegesis laid down in Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit: it represents “the erroneous preconception that whatever is uttered by a Scripture personage is, in fact, uttered by the infallible Spirit of God.”18

Yet, using the same code, Coleridge can exonerate Bunyan, since, like the early writers of the sacred Scriptures who made historical errors, Bunyan only errs in the facts, while his spirit and faith are inviolable. “What ought we to infer from this and similar [mistakes in Pilgrim's Progress]?” Coleridge asks. He promptly replies “Surely, that the faith in the heart overpowers and renders innocent the errors of the understanding and the delusion of the imagination, and that sincerely pious men purchase, by inconsistency, exemption from the practical consequences of particular errors.”19 In a similar fashion, when Bunyan's persona says that he “walked through the wilderness of this world,” Coleridge responds with a long passage that has very little to do with the strictly literary sense of the line, its imagery, or metaphoric strength. Instead, he returns to the model of providential history found in Aids to Reflection and (as we shall see) in the Prometheus lecture, identifying the Jewish nation's position as a subjective culture as opposed to the objective Greeks, which explains prevalence of the spiritual, subjective sense in their writings. In both the Hebrews' and Bunyan's writings this subjective, symbolic sense determines the meaning: “That in the Apocalypse the wilderness is the symbol of the world, or rather of the wordly life, Bunyan discovered by the instinct of a similar genius. The whole Jewish history, indeed in all its details is so admirably adapted to, and suggestive of, symbolic use, as to justify the belief that the spiritual application, the interior and permanent sense, was in the original intention of the inspiring Spirit, though it might not have been present, as an object of distinct consciousness, to the inspired writers.”20

Along with Bunyan, Sir Walter Scott also consistently attracts Coleridge's attention in the 1820s. As I have suggested, Coleridge's two major concerns at this period in his life are the correct interpretation of God's providential plan in the Bible and history, and the relation of Church and State as part of that plan. In Bunyan Coleridge discovers primarily a text that he can accommodate to his ideas about interpretation and spiritual meaning; in Scott he finds texts that he can accommodate to his discourse on Church and State. Obviously the two are closely related, just as the model Coleridge uses for his analysis of the Greek and Hebrew cultures serves him in his analysis of the component powers of a Christian nation. But it is in Scott's novels that Coleridge most readily finds congenial remarks and situations that relate to his discussions of Church and State. For, with his profound historical knowledge of the dramatic conflicts over religion and politics, Scott continually provides scenes and incidents that become meaningful for Coleridge almost exclusively in terms of Coleridge's analyses of the Church-and-State issues of his own day.

Central to these analyses is Coleridge's belief that what makes a healthy nation is the balance and interaction of the separate powers within a nation, specifically the powers of permanence and progression (which are the forces interacting with and within the national church). In Coleridge's words, “The two antagonistic powers or opposite interests of the state, under which all other state interests are comprised, are those of permanence and of progression.” And the “harmonious balance of the two great correspondent … interests of the state, its permanence, and its progression”21 is neatly linked to the same evolutionary plan that he discerns in the Bible, in modern England, and, finally, in Scott's novels. Unlike the scientific connotations of the polar opposites discussed in Biographia Literaria, in Scott's novels the polar opposites therefore refer explicitly to a system of politics and history whose foundation is unquestionably theology. Thus the key to the “wisdom and happiness” found in Scott's entire opus

consists in this,—that the contest between the loyalists and their opponents can never be obsolete, for it is the contest between the two great moving principles of social humanity; religious adherence to the past and the ancient, the desire and admiration of permanence, on the one hand; and the passion for increase of knowledge, for truth, as the offspring of reason—in short, the mighty instincts of progression and free agency, on the other. In all subjects of deep and lasting interest, you will detect a struggle between two opposites, two polar forces, both of which are alike necessary to our well-being, and necessary each to the continued existence of the other.

(Criticism, pp. 341-2)

Perhaps the two most indisputable examples of this invasion of Church and State into Coleridge's literary criticism, though, are found in some marginal remarks on The Heart of Midlothian and A Legend of Montrose. On the eve of Catholic emancipation, the Roman Catholic faith, its unique doctrines, and its political threat are of course prominent issues that obtrude rather sharply into his literary criticism. The Heart of Midlothian concludes with Lady Staunton's conversion to Catholicism and subsequent retreat to a Catholic convent in order to do penance. But for Coleridge, this dénouement is significant for reasons other than its relation to the main themes of the novel. He writes about this ending: “Perhaps the error of the Romish Church for which the heart pleads most strongly and which mere understanding finds most equitable, is of all others the error that has produced the most evil—fruits most poisonous—the doctrine of purgatory, I mean—as if providence warned us by a proof which all men can understand, how dangerous every addition to revealed truth, however plausible it may appear to our narrow intellect. The heart of man, conscious of its imperfections, is naturally too narrow to contain a full faith in the absoluteness of God's love to us in Christ!” (Criticism, p. 327). Similarly, commenting on the first chapter of A Legend of Montrose, Coleridge draws a parallel between Scott's depiction of Cromwell's struggles with the Scottish Presbyterians and England's present-day problems with the Irish Catholics. In both cases, the difficulties are a result of a failure to appreciate the delicate balance between the national church and other Christian sects: “Cromwell restrained and curbed, but did not overset, the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Had the coalition of the two forms, each modifying the other, been practicable, it would have been a most desirable event, an irresistable arm of strength to both countries and the solid foundation of their future union as one state. That which in an intenser form has rendered the union with Ireland a calamitous mockery, delayed the blessings of union more than a century for Scotland” (p. 328).

The texts of Scott and Bunyan, however, are casual exercises of a method that only appears with its full force in Coleridge's Prometheus lecture, where from the outset Coleridge establishes a rather unusual context for his discussion of the play, making it fully obvious that his approach will be unorthodox. “The French savans who went to Egypt in the train of Bounaparte [sic], Denon, Fourrier, and Dupuis, (it has been asserted), triumphantly vindicated the chronology of Herodotus, on the authority of documents that cannot lie.”22 Thus reads the first sentence. And he continues in this vein for some time without the slightest hint of how it applies to Prometheus. His discussion in these opening pages focuses on the religion of the Egyptians and its relation to the history of the Jews. He rarely argues, though, preferring simply to assert findings more carefully proved in other works and finally to conclude that “the religion of Egypt, at the time of the Exodus of the Hebrews, was a pantheism, on the point of passing into that polytheism, of which it afterwards afforded a specimen, gross and distasteful to the polytheists themselves of other nations” (“Prometheus,” 2:330).

Talking about polytheism and pantheism, Coleridge seems to be drawing nearer to Aeschylus's play, since he is at least in the area of Greek religion at this point. Accordingly he suddenly breaks off and announces his goals for now and later, goals that bring Prometheus into view:

The objects which, on my appointment as Royal Associate of the Royal Society of Literature, I proposed for myself were, 1st. The elucidation of the purpose of the Greek drama, and the relations in which it stood to the mysteries on the one hand, and to the state or sacerdotal religion on the other:—2nd. The connection of the Greek tragic poets with philosophy as the peculiar offspring of Greek genius;—3rd. The connection of the Homeric and cyclical poets with the popular religion of the Greeks: and, lastly from all these,—namely, the mysteries, the sacerdotal religion, their philosophy before and after Socrates, the stage, the Homeric poetry and the legendary belief of the people, and from the sources and productive causes in the derivation and confluence of the tribes that finally shaped themselves into a nation of Greeks—to give a juster and more distinct view of this singular people, and the place which they occupied in the history of the world, and the great scheme of divine providence.


This abrupt promulgation, with its typically Coleridgean cosmic scope, clearly does not make the essay easier to follow. Yet it does indicate its direction, and begins to suggest why Coleridge introduces so much prefatory material. For Coleridge the early Greek religions also practice a kind of pantheism that is misinterpreted as polytheism. Greek pantheism is not opposed to the Hebrew religion (as Coleridge perceives it) but, like the Egyptian religion, it is in harmony with, though contradistinguished from, the Jewish faith, since both are part of “the great scheme of divine providence” and a monotheistic belief. More importantly, only by understanding how God's plan (Coleridge's version of it, anyway) manifests itself in this period and how it struggles against popular heretical beliefs can one properly appreciate the art of Greeks. Reining in his mammoth proposal, Coleridge therefore proceeds:

The present Essay, however, I devote to the purpose of removing, or at least invalidating, one objection that I may reasonably anticipate, and which may be conveyed in the following question:—What proof have you of the fact of any connection between the Greek drama, and either the mysteries, or the philosophy, of Greece? What proof that it was the office of the tragic poet, under a disguise of the sacerdotal religion, mixed with the legendary or popular belief, to reveal as much of the mysteries interpreted by philosophy, as would counteract the demoralizing effects of the state religion, without compromising the tranquillity of the state itself, or weakening the paramount reverence without which a republic, (such I mean, as the republics of ancient Greece were) could not exist?

I know no better way in which to reply to this objection, than by giving, as my proof and instance, the Prometheus of Aeschylus, accompanied with an exposition of what I believe to be the intention of the poet, and the mythic import of the work.


Coleridge claims, in short, that there is a particular model which describes how God has revealed himself through history and in different societies, that this model can be described at many points in history, and that we see this truth most accurately produced in great works of art, or more specifically, in Aeschylus's Prometheus. For Coleridge, this monotheistic providence informs all that is worthwhile in history from its beginning in the Hebrew culture through the Egyptian and Greek societies and its culmination in Christianity. He says

that in whatever has permanent operation on the destinies and intellectual condition of mankind at large,—that in all which has been manifestly employed as a coagent in the mightiest revolution of the moral world, the propagation of the Gospel, and in the intellectual progress of mankind in the restoration of philosophy, science, and the ingenious arts—it were irreligious not to acknowledge the hand of divine providence. The periods, too, join on to each other. The earliest Greeks took up the religious and lyrical poetry of the Hebrews; and the schools of the prophets were, however partially and imperfectly, represented by the mysteries derived through the corrupt channel of the Phoenicians.


Prometheus becomes, then, a dramatic illustration and flowering of the providential scheme that is the foundation of Coleridge's version of history: in Prometheus the artistic mythus becomes the divine plan appearing in a concrete historical form. To be sure, Greek art embodies this law differently from Hebrew or Christian art: “This the most venerable, and perhaps the most ancient, of Grecian mythi, is a philosopheme, the very same in subject matter with the earliest record of the Hebrews, but most characteristically different in tone and conception;—for the patriarchal religion, as the antithesis of pantheism, was necessarily personal; and the doctrines of a faith, the first ground of which and the primary enunciation, is the eternal i am, must be in part historic and must assume the historic form” (2:335). And this difference results from their different positions in a linear history. In the Hebrew religion there is “a synthesis of poesy and philosophy, characteristic of the childhood of nations” (2:336). “In the Greek we see already the dawn of approaching manhood. The substance, the stuff is philosophy; the form only is poetry. The Prometheus is a philosophema …—the tree of knowledge of good and evil,—an allegory, … though the noblest and most pregnant of its kind” (2:336). Significantly, when Coleridge speaks of Prometheus as an allegory here, there is none of the condescension with which he compares allegory to symbol in Biographia Literaria. In these final years the divine law of theology is far more important than the more subtle generic distinctions of earlier years.

This divine law or plan that links the Hebrew, Greek, and Christian cultures and provides the structural foundation for Prometheus appears in many of Coleridge's works during the 1820s. In its most abstract form it could be described this way:

Thesis Mesothesis Antithesis

More frequently, however, it appears in its Christian formulation, which is clearly where its greatest significance lies for Coleridge. In Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, Coleridge calls this model the pentad of operative Christianity and attaches a brief explanation:

Christ, the Word
Thesis Mesothesis Antithesis
The Scriptures The Holy Spirit The Church
The Preacher

The Scriptures, the Spirit, and the Church, are co-ordinate; the indispensable conditions and the working causes of the perpetuity, and continued renascence and spiritual life of Christ still militant.

(Confessions, p. x)

For Coleridge, “this is God's Hand in the World,” and in this final Christian form, it is the pinnacle of the divine providential scheme.

Applied to Aeschylus's Prometheus this model becomes an interpretive code in the strictest sense of the word; it truly creates a meaning that derives from the more abstract formulation but which receives its ultimate significance from the Christian formulation Coleridge always has in mind. The easiest part of this formula is certainly Coleridge's explanation of the two main characters in the play, Prometheus and Jove. Jove becomes rather mechanically equated or aligned with the thesis of Coleridge's model, and Prometheus takes the antithetical position. These two poles are also described as law and idea: “Now according to the Greek philosopheme or mythus,” Coleridge says, “there arose a war, schism, or division, that is, a polarization into thesis and antithesis. In consequence of this schism … the thesis becomes nomos, or law, and the antithesis becomes idea” (“Prometheus,” 2:343). Ideally functioning in union, idea and law are correlatives, and “the ground work of the Aeschylean mythus is laid in the definition of idea and law, as correlative that mutually interpret each other; an idea, with the adequate power of realizing itself being a law, and a law considered abstractedly from, or in the absence of, the power of manifesting itself in its appropriate product being an idea” (2:348). The relation between the Church as antithesis and the Scriptures as thesis certainly fits this description (especially in light of Coleridge's statements about how the Platonic idea of the Church can be corrupted by power). But, more importantly, the dramatic characters in Aeschylus's play become representatives of these two poles, tragically separated after a prelapsarian union: in Prometheus “Jove is the impersonated representation or symbol of the nomos—Jupiter est quodcunque vides. He is the mens agitans molem, but at the same time, the molem corpoream et constituens. … Prometheus, in like manner, is the impersonated representative of Idea, or the same power as Jove, but contemplated as independent and not immersed in the product,—a law minus the productive energy” (2:350).

Following the hermeneutical method he uses for the Bible, Coleridge then lists four ways of interpreting Jove and ten ways of interpreting Prometheus. These, Coleridge asserts in an uncompromising tone, “are the meaning of the fable” and play (2:350), and their sometimes obvious connections with the Christian faith are major determinants in what the play means to Coleridge. Jove, for example, can represent a type of Old Testament “father … as sovereign” but also “law in the Pauline sense” (2:348). Conversely, half of Prometheus's possible meanings indicate that he is a kind of Christ, an inference which Coleridge reinforces by describing him in Miltonic or biblical language: Prometheus is “the divine humanity, the human God” who “gave that which, according to the whole analogy of things, should have existed either as pure divinity … or was conceded to inferior beings as a substans in substantatio.” He is the giver becoming the gift, “the gift ‘whence the soul receives reason; and reason is her being’ (in Milton's words)”; he is knowledge and prophecy, “‘the Word of the Lord in the mouth of the Prophet’”; he is noetic man, knowing nature because he is above nature; and finally Prometheus as Christ is the progenitor of an “Alcides Liberator” (2:352-58).

The meaning of the two characters therefore is at least rhetorically dependent on their being representatives of the thesis and antithesis in Coleridge's model-positions, which in turn receive most of their connotative force from the Christian faith. If the manifestations in the play of the other powers in Coleridge's theological model are less clear, the reason is that Aeschylus's play itself is so barely populated with characters. This does not however prevent Coleridge from implying their presence in the drama, and in fact producing their presence by keeping close to his theological model and terminology. Of these other powers the prothesis would naturally be the power most difficult, if not impossible, to locate in the play. Yet, as I have been indicating, Coleridge is less interested in rephrasing meaning than in making a meaning that “should” be there—even if it is not textually evident. He is less interested in what is written in the first text than what he can write in the second text.

Thus, midway through the essay, he introduces into his discussion of the Prometheus myth “the unevolved, unproduced, prothesis,” of which Prometheus and Jove “are the thesis and antithesis” (2:342). Coleridge goes to great lengths to explain this power, and once again his explanation gains most of its force and much of its significance from a comparison of Aeschylus's myth with the prothesis of the Judeo-Christian and Phoenician religions. “The Hebrew wisdom,” Coleridge argues, “imperatively asserts an unbeginning creative One, who neither became the world; nor is the world eternally; nor made the world out of himself by emanation, or evolution;—but who willed it and it was! … and this chaos, the eternal will … enabled to become a world” (2:340). The Phoenicians, on the other hand, confuse the natural product with its supernatural beginning: “With the Phoenician sages the cosmogony was their theogony and vice versa. Hence, too flowed their theurgic rites, their magic, their worship” (2:339-40). The prothesis “preserved for us in the Aeschylean Prometheus,” however, “stands midway betwixt both, yet is distinct in kind from either” the Hebrew or Phoenician myth. “With the Hebrew or purer Semitic, it assumes … an indeterminate Elohim, antecedent to the matter of the world. … In this point, likewise, the Greek accorded with the Semitic, and differed from the Phoenician—that it held the antecedent … to be supersensuous and divine. But on the other hand it coincides with the Phoenician in considering this antecedent ground of corporeal matter … not so properly the cause of the latter, as the occasion and still continuing substance. … The corporeal was supposed coessential with the antecedent of its corporeity” (2:340-41).

Not concretely present in the play, Coleridge's long delineation here of Aeschylus's prothesis in terms of the Judeo-Christian belief is “the key to the whole cypher of the Aeschylean mythology” (2:342). Strict literary criticism this analysis certainly is not: “All this will seem strange and obscure at first reading,—perhaps fantastic,” Coleridge admits, “but it will only seem so” to the unpenetrating eye, since this highly abstract investigation is crucial to a proper understanding of the play. Accordingly Coleridge sums up the Greek prothesis with an explication that depends even more explicitly on Judeo-Christian references. He writes: “First, what Moses appropriated to the chaos itself, … the containing [proposition] of the thesis and antithesis;—this the Greek placed anterior to the chaos; … Secondly, what Moses establishes, not merely as transcendent Monas, but as an individual [oneness] likewise; this the Greek took as a harmony” (2:342). Further, it is from the struggle inherent within the Greek prothesis that the schism between thesis and antithesis, idea and law, arises. As opposed to the Hebrew mythus in which the schism is a product of the prothesis's will, this break or division is an inevitable part of the beginning. Since this break and the repercussions from it are the central topics of Prometheus, moreover, the distinctions that Coleridge makes here are of paramount importance in his understanding of what that play means.

In a similar manner, Coleridge's points about the mesothesis in Aeschylus's play receive most of their significance from the implied contrast he sets up between the Christian mesothesis and the language he uses to discuss that Christian power. In its Christian form the mesothesis is the Holy Spirit, who acts as a liaison between the law and the idea, thus representing the conjunction which religion must always strive for. In terms of the individual, the grace of the Holy Spirit represents faith or the union of will and reason. In Aeschylus's Prometheus, however, will remains separate from reason, just as law opposes idea; the powerful will, the person of Jove, is in fact at war with powerless reason—Prometheus—in this play. Yet there is a possible reconciler of the two gods in Prometheus: Hermes, who acts as a bridge or link to bring the two together, and who, as Coleridge describes him in his lecture, becomes a tragic parody of the Christian Holy Spirit. Coleridge observes of Prometheus that many “kindred deities come to him, some to soothe, to condole; others to give weak, yet friendly counsels of submission; others to tempt, or insult. The most prominent of the latter, and the most odious to the imprisoned and insulated Nous, is Hermes, the impersonation of interest, … as interest or motives intervening between the reason and its immediate self-determinations. … But, primarily, the Hermes is the symbol of interest. He is the messenger, the inter-nuncio, in the low but expressive phrase, the go-between, to beguile or insult” (2: 355-56). Hermes attempts to seduce Prometheus into surrendering his rational powers to the sensual world. He is consequently a kind of carnal Holy Spirit, a Satanic spirit, who attempts to pervert the divine idea by appealing to self-interest. Coleridge therefore describes him with the same language he uses to depict the Catholic church in his other writings; like the Catholic church, which has been seduced away from the divine idea of the Church, Hermes represents “the eloquence of cupidity, the cajolement of power regnant; and in a larger sense, custom, the irrational in language, the fluent” (2: 356). In brief, as Hermes is a venal and thus fallen Holy Spirit, the Catholic church is a venal and fallen Prometheus.

In addition to this schematic interpretation of Hermes, the Christian mesothesis or Holy Spirit bears on Prometheus and other Greek literature in yet another way, which is also clearly related to the disjunction dramatized in Aeschylus's play. As the potentially perfect conjunction of will and reason, the Christian Holy Spirit, Coleridge claims, attains its most perfect form in Christ, the original prothesis. Christ, then, represents the highest manifestation of individuality as the union of individual reason with the divine will. In his Aids to Reflection, Coleridge explains this most perfect kind of individuality, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, as a state in which the individual's will and reason become one with the divine will and law, in which “the will constitutes the law,” thus removing “the commanding, binding, and menacing character which belongs to a law, acting as a master or sovereign” like Jove.23 As a rational though fallen being, the Christian can reach this state of harmony through the grace of the Holy Spirit. For the fallen, unchristian Prometheus, however, the conflict remains unresolved: individuality has not been perfected because the evolution of the individual has not been completed. Again, God's providential historical plan, according to which the Hebrew and Greek cultures are partial and incomplete stages in the historical development of the perfect individual, Christ and the Christian, explains this conflict: whereas the Hebrew culture embodies a predominance of will, the Greek embodies a predominance of reason. Only in the personal and historical confluence of the two does true individuality blossom. Discussing how the Greek and Hebrew cultures prepared for Christ's coming, Coleridge notes that “at length the two great component parts of our nature, in the unity of which all its excellency and all its hopes depend, namely that of will in the one, as the higher and more especially godlike, and the reason in the other, as the compeer but yet second to that will, were to unite and to prepare for the reception of its Redeemer.”24 Or, in Owen Barfield's words, “It was in the polarity between the two cultures that progress—that is, the evolution of the individual—above all resided; in the polarity and in the varying predominances by which polarity is characterized. Thus, in point of the man bb God relation, experience of the will aspect of reason was predominant in the Hebrew mind; experience of the reason aspect [of reason] in the Greek.”25 In “all that makes Greece Greece to us,” Coleridge says, “that power was predetermined by Almighty Providence to gradually evolve all that could be evolved out of corrupt nature by its own reason; while on the opposite ground there was a nation bred up by inspiration in a childlike form, in obedience and in the exercise of the will.”26 Thus, just as his separation from will and law is what makes the Greek Prometheus subjectively weak, saps him of the strength of individuality, and binds him to the rock, this same imperfect individuality and lack of subjectivity suffuses all Greek literature. The consequent imbalance explains why “Prometheus, in the old mythus, and for the most part in Aeschylus, is the Redeemer and the Devil jumbled together.”27 And in 1832 Coleridge uses the same historical-theological model to make one of the most interesting stylistic comments on Greek literature: “The want of adverbs in the Iliad is very characteristic. With more adverbs there would have been some subjectivity, or subjectivity would have made them. The Greeks were just then on the verge of the bursting forth of individuality.”28

As a rather malleable grid upon which Coleridge plots his theological model, Aeschylus's Prometheus derives its significance, as we have seen, primarily from the model and not the play: Coleridge's theological discourse, that is, makes the meaning of the play by controlling the elements of the play in a certain way and at least implying (often directly stating) a comparison or contrast with the Judeo-Christian manifestations of the same powers as he describes them in Aids to Reflection and other theological documents. (The fifth power on the grid, the synthesis, would be the play itself.)

But Prometheus also draws on the other part of the theological discourse that figures so importantly in Coleridge's life at this time. Very closely related to his model of the history of Christianity, this other side of his theology is presented most cogently in Church and State, in which he deals with the role of the Christian church within a political system. Granted the concerns and language of this discourse are not so central to his analysis of Prometheus, yet nonetheless they appear, sometimes obtrusively, to direct the meaning of the play. Hermes, as we have seen, represents a self-interest and sensuality that Coleridge regularly associates with the Catholic church. The identification of the two is quite logical and meaningful when one realizes that the occasion of Church and State is the heated debates over the Catholic Emancipation Acts, acts that Coleridge was hardly enthusiastic about. More significantly, the tension and interaction which Coleridge claims is the ideal relation of Church and State becomes for him the key to the genesis of Aeschylus's entire play. Writing to James Gillman he explains the relationship of Church and State with the same pentadic model that serves him throughout these years, thus illustrating how the theology overshadows the politics:

Thesis Mesothesis Antithesis
State The Press The Church
The Crown29

Following this model, Coleridge argues for the interdependence and separation of the powers of Church and State, so that they may productively and correctively interact in order to create a more cultivated, religious, and secure nation. Being loyal to a foreign head of state, the Catholic church would naturally be disqualified as an active member of this organization. Moreover, a church whose priorities were first with the state would relinquish its freedom and so destroy the healthy dialectic within the nation.

This last problem is what plagued the Greek nation during Aeschylus's life, and according to Coleridge it helps explain the creative impetus behind the whole play. Early in his lectures Coleridge lists as one of his projects “the elucidation of the purpose of the Greek drama, and the relations in which it stood to the mysteries on the one hand, and to the state or sacerdotal religion on the other” (“Prometheus,” 2:330). Later he focuses this problem when he predicates that Prometheus is Aeschylus's disguised attempt to reestablish the proper religion and its proper relation to the state—reestablish, in other words, Coleridge's holy model: Prometheus “under the disguise of the sacerdotal religion, mixed with the legendary or popular belief” reveals “as much of the mysteries as interpreted by philosophy, as would counteract the demoralizing effects of the state religion, without compromising the tranquillity of the state itself, or weakening that paramount reverence, without which a republic, (such I mean, as the republics of ancient Greece were) could not exist” (2:331). Becoming more conservative in his views, Coleridge makes a special point of distinguishing the conservative republic of Greece from the revolutionary republics springing up in his own day. He insists on his language and his meanings here, just as he insists on his models and evaluations throughout Prometheus. In this case it is specifically his concept of the Christian state that produces the meaning. But throughout the essay his theological discourse nearly transforms the play as his model translates it: Prometheus exemplifies his theological model of the fall of man; it manifests God's providential use of that model through history; and it is created out of Aeschylus's need to reestablish that model in the larger political network of religion.

Indeed, Coleridge's commentaries on Aeschylus's Prometheus and the other works he read at this period of his life stretch literary criticism to its limits. To argue that it is truly literary criticism in fact would raise a great many eyebrows, unless the argument begins by noting that all criticism is a kind of accommodation to some extent and that in these years Coleridge's is simply accommodation in its freest form. Indeed, when Coleridge remains near the primary text in the 1820s his remarks resemble much conventional criticism. His accommodations seem then to be the finer discriminations or subtle translations of a single concept that are admired in his acute textual analyses of Wordsworth's poems in Biographia Literaria.30 More frequently, however, when Coleridge's critical accommodations of drama or poetry leave the primary text far behind, the literary criticism becomes quite difficult to recognize and far more difficult to defend. In the last examples I have given, the primary text becomes a palimpsest whose original message seems important only as the barest foundation for the later commentary. The margins are never quite large enough for Coleridge in these years; their boundaries are continually pushed back until the material between them seems mostly insignificant. In each of my examples the pressure that once came from disciplines like politics or science and that informed Coleridge's literary language and judgments at other times now comes from theology with such a powerful authority that the interaction and meeting of two texts, which describes all criticism, becomes instead a complete conquest by the theological text. The spiritual meaning of theology, in short, takes precedence over the lesser spiritual meaning of literature. Moreover, readers that claim this is not literary criticism are using a definition of literary that is not necessarily accurate. For, above all else, literary criticism is a process, a confrontation of two minds through the meeting of two texts. In this meeting one usually expects more courtesy toward the primary text than Coleridge usually shows in these last years. But Coleridge's lack of deference is something other than crudity or rudeness; if he manhandles his material at times he clearly does not lack respect for Prometheus or the works of Scott, but rather feels a passion for the theological truths and meanings that in his final days are overwhelmingly more important than psychological niceties, political ethics, or problems of organic form. Earlier in his career Coleridge may have felt it crucial to create meaning for literature in the language of mankind and its business; in his last years Coleridge understandably felt that literature should bring mankind back to the language of God.


  1. Two contemporary readings of this lecture are George Whalley's “Coleridge on the Prometheus of Aeschylus” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3d ser., 54 (1960): 13-24; and chap. 7 of [J. R. de J.] Jackson's Method and Imagination. [in Coleridge's Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969).]

  2. [S. T.] Coleridge, Letters, [Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1956-71).] 5:461.

  3. [S. T.] Coleridge, [Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (London: Dent and Sons, 1960)] Criticism, p. 170. In this chapter, further references are in the text.

  4. J. Robert Barth, S. J., Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. viii.

  5. “Limbo,” “Ne Plus Ultra,” and several other poems written when Coleridge entered this last period of his life are indeed often as agonized as his earlier poems. Yet, even in these instances, the questions and conflicts appear in a chiefly theological form, and the arguments, however unorthodox from one point of view, remain frequently in the framework of traditional religious experience.

  6. Barth points out that the principles of Coleridge's approach to the Scriptures were three: “(1) the distinction between inspiration and revelation; (2) the unique instrumentality of the inspired author of Scripture; and (3) the special nature of scriptural inerrancy” (Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, pp. 59-60). Elinor S. Shaffer has also discussed this question at various points in “Kubla Khan” and the Fall of Jerusalem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

  7. Coleridge, Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1840), p. 9-10. In this chapter, further references are in the text.

  8. Dante and Saint Thomas Aquinas are perhaps the most famous proponents of this kind of interpretive process.

  9. See Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, pp. 71-73.

  10. Notebook 54, f. [19v]. Quoted in Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, pp. 73-74.

  11. [S. T.] Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, [ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (New York: William Gowans, 1863).] p. 43.

  12. John Tulloch, “Coleridge and His School,” in Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the Nineteenth Century, St. Giles Lectures (London: no imprint, 1885), p. 25.

  13. In Church and State, [On the Constitution of the Church and State, ed. John Colmer (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976)] Coleridge himself calls his description and arguments “models.”

  14. “Essay on Faith,” in The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1839), 4:438.

  15. Ibid., 3:403-4.

  16. See also Coleridge's Confessions, pp. 73-78; and idem, “Definition of a Miracle,” in Literary Remains, 1:370-72.

  17. Coleridge, Literary Remains, 3:391-92.

  18. Ibid., p. 392.

  19. Ibid., p. 407.

  20. Ibid., pp. 399-400.

  21. Coleridge, Church and State, pp. 24, 29.

  22. Coleridge, “On the Prometheus of Aeschylus,” in Literary Remains, 2:323. In this chapter, further references are found in the text.

  23. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, pp. 232-33.

  24. Coleridge, Philosophical Lectures, ed. Kathleen Coburn (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949).] p. 112.

  25. [Owen] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, [Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971).] p. 165.

  26. Coleridge, Philosophical Lectures, pp. 111-12. See also idem, Friend, 1:505-6.

  27. Coleridge, Table Talk, 8 May 1824.

  28. Coleridge, Table Talk, 9 July 1832.

  29. Coleridge, Church and State, p. 233. Coleridge does not print it exactly in this form.

  30. For example, when Coleridge objects to a phrase in Scott's Old Mortality, which claims feeling rather than reason as a basis for Christian faith, his objection follows from an important distinction between the theological significance of the two words. He says it is “not the feelings of natural humanity” which lead to faith, “but the principles of immutable reason” (Criticism, p. 326).

Kathleen M. Wheeler (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8896

SOURCE: Wheeler, Kathleen M. “Coleridge and Modern Critical Theory.” In Coleridge's Theory of Imagination Today, edited by Christine Gallant, pp. 83-102. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wheeler examines Coleridge's narrative strategies, which undermine authority in his works and anticipate concerns associated with twentieth-century critical theories, such as those of Jacques Derrida.]


While Coleridge may not perhaps have offered as radical or as apocalyptic an account of perception, literature, and criticism as Shelley and Blake, his notable influence on Shelley should alert readers to the innovative elements of his thought, which anticipates much that appears distinctive in recent theorizing about criticism. The tendency to associate Coleridge with conservative and traditional notions about criticism stems partly from a literal and unimaginative interpretation of his concept of organicism, though there are other sources for such a moribund reading of Coleridge as well. For example, the account of his dispute with Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria II is easily twisted to meet the needs of literal-minded readers, while his preoccupation later in life with theological issues gives the impression of a regression from former lights that a thorough knowledge of the later period makes questionable.

Coleridge, like his German Romantic counterparts, F. Schlegel, Tieck, Jean Paul, Novalis, and others, can in several interesting ways be seen as a precursor of modern critical theorists. Throughout the enormous corpus of Coleridge's writing the reader is constantly surprised by remarks either suggestive of or directly anticipating many aspects of deconstructive thinking, both in relation to philosophy and to literary criticism. Moreover, the general tendency of many of Coleridge's major texts, such as the Biographia Literaria and The Friend, as well as numerous poetic techniques in his most well-known poems, such as “The Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel,” and several conversation poems, work towards a poetics of deconstruction. This essay will attempt to present Coleridge (and romantic theory in general, to some extent) as engaged in a modified deconstructive poetics of the kind that, say, Derrida attempts, without, however, arguing that there are not also differences of importance and of achievement to be kept in mind. For Coleridge can hardly be said to have gone as far as, for example, Derrida in developing a style that fundamentally challenges logocentric writing. Yet style, narrative techniques, and literary devices, reflections on language, interpretation, criticism, the role of the reader, the situation of the artist, and comments on dualism, Being, other philosophers, and many additional topics, all point to a certain sympathy between Coleridge's thought and that of Derrida and deconstruction in general.

A brief account of some of the central preoccupations of deconstructive criticism will provide the basis for a discussion of Coleridge's “deconstructive” projects in “The Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” and other poems. These literary devices, once identified, provide a suggestive way of looking at more complex narrative processes and strategies in the Biographia. A brief examination of some of Coleridge's ideas about such philosophic problems as dualism will lead into an account of Coleridge's concept of organicism as deconstructive rather than structuralist. Coleridge's adoption of this German Romantic concept provides further means of indicating the close affinities between English and German romantic theory and modern deconstructive ideas. The unifying strand that runs throughout the present discussion is what Coleridge's theory of imagination as both primary and secondary implies for the reader—to put it briefly, the theory announces that perception is not the passive beholding of already constituted entities, or even a modified, partially active construction of entities out of a ‘manifold,’ a matter, or some other super-empirical essence providing the primary substance for perception. Rather, perception is fundamentally and profoundly imaginative; moreover it is imaginative in the most primary sense of the world. It is as imaginative, if not more so, than the (merely!?) secondary activity of poetic and artistic creativity. For Coleridge, as for Shelley and Blake, the latter is not some special form of human mental activity, but the paradigmatic form of all human mental activity, from perception outwards. Consequently, the reader is forced into an active role; perception in the form of reading is not passive, but imaginative. Reading in a passive way is a degenerate form, a “dead metaphor,” of imaginative reading. Coleridge devised endless techniques for enticing the reader out of his complacency and passivity, in order to arouse him to an imaginative awareness that his own mode of perception and reading is the “other” subject matter of his reading. Perception, reading, artistic creativity are not essentially passive; they become passive only when they degenerate from vital activity into dead forms, through time, custom, and familiarity (see further discussion below, especially section V).


One of the central preoccupations of modern critical theory is to raise questions about fundamental activities involved in criticism that were taken too much for granted in traditional critical outlooks. Modern theory proposes to draw our attention to the central activity of criticism, namely interpretation and meaning-analysis, in order to reveal it as problematic in the extreme. That is, we think we are doing certain things when we interpret, when, it turns out, we are doing other things quite different from what we imagined. We think, for example, that we are reading and interpreting texts, and that we are able to construe textual meanings. Modern theory tells us that we are not interpreting texts, but only other (sometimes prior) interpretations of yet other interpretations. We never get to an original, primary or pure “text” independent of our and others' interpretations of it. (Substitute “world” for “text,” and the application of critical theory's questionings is broadened to a philosophical position.) Yet there is little new in this point about interpretation. John Dewey emphasized it tirelessly in the early twentieth century. It was the centerpiece of his pragmatist endeavor. Closer to Coleridge, our present concern, Samuel Johnson was reiterating the idea, as John Wright has pointed out in his discussion of Johnson as part of the methodological tradition stemming from Plato, through Bacon, Descartes, and Kant.1 The tradition of concern with principles of procedural demonstration rather than with illusions of truth or certainty about some notional real world, or some objective, non-empirical foundational “thing,” is embraced by Romantic theory in large part. For, contrary to much opinion, Romantic writers did not always postulate some eternal being at the root of their immortal longings. Many, such as Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Friedrich Schlegel, and others were demonstrably more interested in speculations about language, poetry, and the nature of reading, interpretation, and critical activities. Such writers as Plato, Bacon, Johnson and others before them, as well as Dewey and others (such as Derrida) after them, treated objects—whether texts or external objects—as already-interpreted entities in need of further interpretation, and not as independent objects already existing prior to some interpretive act, and therefore already fixed and determined. In such a deconstructionist gesture, received opinion about literature and texts becomes the object of critical analysis, in preference to the traditional notion that literary criticism should endeavor to extract or explicate meaning and value in literary texts themselves. Modern critical theory, like the methodological tradition, treats the notion of objects—or texts—in themselves as nonsensical. Readers and texts, like subject and object, are a function of each other in a common experience. Neither exists prior to or independently of the other; indeed, each is involved in the other for its most central meaning.

Derrida points out, however, that not only criticism, or distinctly interpretive activity, is problematic. He goes on to show that even the simplest reading is problematic—that is, the reader imagines he is reading a text independent of his reading—a text produced by an author and expressing the latter's intentions, views, and purposes. Derrida shows us that there is no such text. The text we read is, in principle, the text we have written for ourselves, and bears little if any resemblance to the author's text, which itself bears little resemblance to the text the author reads as reader of his own texts. In other words, reading, like criticism, is a process involving interpretation. There is no level of pure, non-interpretive reading, reading receptive to the text-in-itself, any more than there is any level of pure, non-interpretive description of a text-in-itself at the basis of critical or second-level interpretive work. Critical and reading activities are not, in fact, “work” towards some truth, certainty, or meaning about a text; they are “play” activities that never get anywhere towards truth or certainty in any of the usual senses of the words. Literary texts (or rather interpretations) lead to further, playful interpretive activity, playful rather than serious, because truth and meaning, both serious matters, are not the goal. The goal is simply further play, further activity, more writing, and more interpretation. Criticism is, then, play; moreover, the reader is not a merely passive receiver of someone else's creativity, but an author, too, involved in the creative production of readings and rewritings of writers' writings.

Related to this review of criticism, reading, and text is Derrida's emphasis upon language and the linguistic nature of all experience. Like Saussure before him, Derrida insists that language is mistakenly conceived to be a function of the speaking subject, whereas the speaking subject is, also, a function of language. That is, there is no subject, presence, self-presence, or self-consciousness prior to language, speech, or its signs, because such a notion is unintelligible. Subjects are functions of objects, and vice-versa, each for Derrida merely the “difference” of the other, and not substantial in themselves (no contraries, only opposites, as Blake would insist). According to Derrida (and Dewey, and others) consciousness arises out of language use; the resulting subject is a function of language, not a being prior to it. Hence, there is no ground of non-signification that can be conceived of as the foundation for signs and language. Language is not a tool for the communication of already existing, determinate objects or meanings. Meaning is not a matter of reference to some transcendental reality exterior to language and meaning. Nor does meaning reside outside language and ideas, thoughts, or objects, whose pre-formed meanings are later expressed by language. The meaningfulness of language does not reside in the attempt at representation of something “other.” Rather, language is the context for our consciousness and existence, not simply a product of it. Or, as Dewey would say, mind emerges through language, and language emerges through mind. Derrida develops a concept of “difference,” in order to promote the functional account of language and consciousness, of words and things, subjects and objects, readers and texts—a concept relying on Saussure's language theory with its insistence upon the arbitrariness of signs and their differential character. A sign is said to be constituted only by its difference from another sign, not by reference to any substantiality; signs have meaning through a network of oppositions relating them one to another. There is, consequently, no substance in language, or to which language refers for meaning. Signs are meaningful as oppositions or relations to each other, not as having some content or substance in themselves, nor because they refer to something that does. Relationships and differentiality are the only “substances.” Meaning, for Derrida, is contextual; it is never independent of its historical, human, linguistic context. Language and meaning are “always already” embedded in human activities.

Consequently, Derrida is interested in debunking such metaphysical preconceptions that infest our language and thought as that words refer to things, and language to a non-linguistic reality, for their meaningfulness. He also rejects the related notion that perception involves a passive beholding or representation of some external reality. Derrida, like Wittgenstein, brands the Kantean search for truth about the relations between word and world as unintelligible, since word and world are interdependent functions and relations, both meaningful only within the context of language, not one within and one without. Or, as Coleridge and Shelley would say, things and thoughts are of one kind—to think is to “thingify”.2 Finally, for Derrida, philosophy is just another version of a literary text (as is history—one, in kind, with fiction) subject to interpretation, and not a version of truth. Truths are, in any case, merely metaphors, or “solidified figures of speech.” For Derrida, all language is essentially figurative—figures of speech are not ornamentative on a basic, literal, objective substratum of language. Literal language itself is a figure of speech, a “dead metaphor,” as Shelley would say. Like philosophy, history and science are genres of literature, types of fiction; and, similarly, literary criticism is fictional, a type of literature, a type of story-telling, or patterns of figures of speech. Derrida distinguishes the Book from the text, and insists that the Book—that object of conventional literary criticism with a predetermined meaning to be searched out by critical acumen—is a metaphysical fiction. This thing-in-itself, this fixed totality, is contrasted with the text. The text has no core content, no single or best meaning, no truth, no determining author's intention, and it has no single, or even several, fixed, organic structures. Rather, the text, like any sign, is meaningful only in relation to other texts—it does not refer for meaning or truth to something outside itself, such as the author's experience, feelings, intentions, or to nature, etc. Moreover, while criticism is a type of literature, no text is pure art or pure literature. Literary texts are saturated with criticism too, as a look at Coleridge's poems and prose works will show. When Derrida says there is nothing outside the text, he is denying the intelligibility of the notion of the Book, that is, that texts are meaningful insofar as they accurately reflect something outside themselves. Criticism is involved, then, not in the disclosure of truth or meaning, but with incessant deciphering of a cipher without truth, a cipher relating only to other ciphers—not to a master language of truth.


With these points3 in mind, a brief examination of Coleridge's poetry will suggest some ways in which he enacts deconstructive gestures for the reader. In “The Ancient Mariner,” with its wedding-guest framework, its extraordinary glossing technique, and its various versions of prefaces, in the “Christabel,” with its sophisticated narrative devices and structural problematics, and in “Kubla Khan,” with its preface and self-referential third stanza, one finds Coleridge engaged in the process of building devices into his texts that arouse the reader to a critical level of consciousness about the very issues with which deconstruction confronts us today. Other poems, such as “Frost at Midnight,” “Dejection: An Ode,” “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” and “The Aeolian Harp” can also be seen as poems meditating on the processes of perception, interpretation, and figuration, such as metaphor and symbol making, and finally on degenerate forms of thought that are dead metaphors, tyrannizing over innovative efforts to perceive in new ways.

The gloss,4 certainly one of the most interesting of the structural features in “The Ancient Mariner,” is a literary device common to much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writing, as, for example, in the popular and much loved travel literature of the period, such as Purchas His Pilgrimes, the text that seems to have inspired “Kubla Khan.” Yet Coleridge, in taking over the device, has turned it from a commonplace feature into a literary technique full of ironies and subtleties for the alert reader. The gloss, apparently added to the poem in 1816, nearly twenty years after its first publication, involved other changes in the poem, such as its archaic diction, and deletion of the “Argument” or preface. Most simply put, the gloss confronts the reader with the process of “making sense” of the verse part of the poem. It is a continuous interpretive gesture running side by side with the versification, constantly intruding upon the reader's attention to the stanzaic text. Many readers fail to notice that the gloss is doing anything. They read the poem, glance at the gloss, and thereby weave the gloss unconsciously into the fabric of the verse, becoming unintentional accomplices in the glossing procedure, and unintentional servants of the point of view of the gloss narrative persona.

One could argue, however, that in adding the gloss, Coleridge has provided the reader with a potential mirror in which to become self-conscious of one's own activities of reading and interpretation. Indeed, one might suggest that the gloss persona is a model of how not to read, though it is also exemplary of what we usually do to texts as we read. That is, the gloss persona is constantly reducing the richness of the literary verse language to factual, geographical, time-space, external-reality terminology, while the verse language seems to be luring the reader into a world freed from such “discursive” devices of ordering, categorizing, and labelling. The verse language entices the reader into an imaginative realm, into a region of inner, mental space, into a supernatural world, into a realm of figuration involving ambiguities, uncertainties, inexplicable events, “strange occurrences,” a realm avoiding that “irritable reaching after fact and reason” which Keats described as negative capability.

On the other hand, the gloss is never exactly wrong in what it says; it is merely reductive. It reduces from “negative capability” to analytic acts of the understanding, the latter being the opposite to what Coleridge and later Shelley described as imaginative, synthetic activity. Even when the gloss is at its most poetical, as in the commentary to lines 263-270 of the verse, the effect of the gloss is quite other than the text. In the gloss, cultural and social presuppositions, usually based on Christianity and its morality, are contrasted with the naked power of the pantheistic, elemental forces that the verse exemplifies. Coleridge himself later criticized the poem as obtruding moral sentiment too much upon the reader in a “work of such pure imagination” (Table Talk 31 May 1830), and in 1802 he had complained about the type of poetry that involves a “perpetual trick of moralizing every thing—which is very well, occasionally—but never to see or describe any interesting appearance in nature, without connecting it by dim analogy with the moral world, proves faintness of impression.”5 The gloss seems to be precisely such a moralizing agency, set up to alert the reader to his own habitual mode of reading. Today, our most common problem may be less moralizing than reducing the indeterminacy of a rich, figurative language to a discursive discourse that renders meanings more clear, precise, and unambiguous.6

The Wedding-Guest framework, on the other hand, may be contrasted with the glossing persona as a more positive reading model. Within the verse text of the poem (unlike the “extra-literary” quality of the gloss, so to speak), this frame brings to the fore the communicative act or the telling of a story, and strongly contrasts with the “core content” of the poem, namely the mariner's trip and the strange events that befell him. A mirroring of the reading situation is once again set up. Yet a still more complex narrative structure is revealed if we note that, in addition to the gloss and the wedding-guest framework, reference to yet another version of the tale occurs in the narration of the tale to the hermit. In this reference we are not given a version of the tale so much as an account of the effect of the mariner's appearance on the hermit, the pilot, and the boy rowing the boat. The tale is quite other than the poem “The Ancient Mariner,” of course. For it neither includes the wedding-guest framework, nor, more importantly the mariner's eventual realization that his experience has left him in a state where he searches “from land to land” to find the right person to whom he can tell his tale, in order to be freed of the agony that drives him onward. Will the next version include the wedding-guest? Or any reference to the hermit? The poem veers closely towards what Barbara Johnson, in The Critical Difference, describes as a story about story-telling, when she discusses “Billy Budd,” and a story about various types of readers characterized in the tale.

In the ‘Christabel,’ one can see how Coleridge has devised yet other techniques for undermining the narrative authority of his texts, so that the reader becomes more conscious of his own role as a creative participant in the events of the tale. For in “The Ancient Mariner,” the fact of many versions of the tale undermines the one given as authoritative, while the inclusion of a gloss, a framework, and a narrator separate from the ancient mariner, keeps the reader immersed in level upon level of interpretive gestures to such an extent that a core-content becomes a fiction—the telling of the tale is not supplementary to the events that precipitated it; rather the tale-telling becomes central to the tale, displacing any origin external to the immediacy of the narration or reading of it. Put another way, the tale is about what is happening right now—the reading and interpreting of the telling—it is not merely about prior events, for they too involve precisely the interpretation or “reading” of “nature” (culture). “Christabel” achieves a similar effect of focusing upon the reading and interpreting of the poem, upon perception, upon tale-telling and narration, and upon types of readers, yet it does so without recourse either to gloss or frameworks (or prefaces, as in “Kubla Khan”). In “Christabel,” Coleridge “deconstructs” any authoritative meaning in the poem and confronts the reader with his own reductive, moralizing habits by saturating the narrative voice with Henry Jamesian-type ambiguities, avowals, disavowals, questionings, uncertainties, in such a way that upon the naive voice of the “first-level” narrator is superimposed a second-level narrative voice representing a critical, sophisticated consciousness constantly aware of the limitations of the first narrator's consciousness and point of view.7

However, Coleridge adopts other strategies in addition to this “double-reflection” in the narrative perspective (akin for example, to James' narrative technique in Daisy Miller, which sets up Winterbourne as the authoritative narrator until at some point the reader becomes aware in the texture of the writing of a criticism of Winterbourne's account—thus throwing into radical indeterminacy the meaning of the entire enterprise). He sets up still another problematic “core-content” situation—namely the occurrence between Geraldine and Christabel the first night after they arrive in Christabel's bedroom—by failing to tell the reader what happened. Indeed, he leaves open the possibility that nothing comprehensible happened; or that Christabel saw the grotesqueness of Geraldine's “side”; or at the other extreme, that something happened such as, perhaps, sexual intercourse. This is a wide range of possibilities, and the equivocableness of this central, “core” event leads by design to serious difficulties in establishing meaning in the poem. Added to the undermining of narrative authority and the ambiguity of the core-content is the structural problem that the poem is unfinished. For some readers, the fact that the poem is unfinished is not merely an unfortunate consequence of Coleridge's failing imaginative powers. Rather, the structure of the poem can be seen as disallowing any possible, literarily acceptable ending. That is, Coleridge's imagination has set up an impasse for which any resolution would lack artistic integrity. Hence, the poem's unfinished state becomes integral artistically to its structure, as discussion below will elaborate.

For Coleridge adopts yet another major literary device in his deconstructive project in “Christabel”: he allows the surface narrator to imply an apparent opposition between good and evil, with Christabel as good, as innocence, and Geraldine as evil, or as experience, and then places Sir Leoline in the position of audience trying to interpret the two characters. He also creates another audience internal to the narration, namely, Bracy the bard. To complicate matters still further, he sets up a story within a story, when he has Bracy the bard relate a dream he has had about a snake and dove, a dream desperately ambiguous and variously interpretable. The dream also seems to be a kind of symbolic representation of the relationship between Geraldine and Christabel described in the poem. Bracy, indeed, interprets the dove as representative of Christabel, and concludes that she is in danger. The reader is forced implicitly to assume Geraldine to be the snake. Yet Sir Leoline interprets the dove as Geraldine, and assumes that some threat to her is hovering! Now the reader has to wonder if Christabel is the snake; later, her hissings and glinting eyes reinforce this improbable association. The Bard Bracy's dream and the two rival interpretations of it reflect the paradox of the poem as a whole, for both interpretations enact the tendency of the mind to allegorize too readily, oversimplifying conflicts and tensions. Moreover, neither interpreter has noticed that the struggle in the dream is not necessarily a scene of violent conflict so much as a sexual embrace of passionate intensity, an expression of desire.

Throughout the poem the equation of Geraldine with evil and Christabel with good is openly belied by the narrative, and by the bard Bracy's dream interpretations, as well as, perhaps, by the poem's broken-off structure. Such allegorizing and reductive categorizing of complex elements (in this case, characters) in the poem work like the gloss to extract discursive meaning from imaginative efforts at figuration and the metaphorizing of experience. Coleridge's narrative strategies work against such extraction and confront the reader not with a struggle between good and evil, but with the struggle with desire, both desire for meaning and articulating (which is, in a sense, analogous to repression) and with the desire for play, for sexuality, and for a non-meaning-oriented reading.8 The latter type of reading is oriented rather towards an interest in processes of reading, perception, interpretation, figuration, creativity, language and so on. The problematics of narration or story-telling become the issue, along with the possibilities for becoming aware of the dualistic and metaphysical preconceptions that inhibit response to the text's central questionings and speculations.

Like “Christabel” and “The Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan” has its deconstructive elements, most notably in the “Preface,” but evident also in the structure of the poem. In brief, Coleridge's preface narrator undermines the value of “Kubla Khan” as a work of literature and says it is of mere psychological interest; he describes the poem as a mere fragment, when it is one of the most finely organized and “complete” poems in the English language; he ascribes its origins to abnormal mental states; and, finally, regretfully describes the nature of the interruption that led to loss of the poetic vision. All of this is done in the most extraordinary, literary language, with prolific use of rhetorical devices and of imagery, analogy, and simile. The preface is almost a rival of the poem for the reader's attention, with its persona and poetic style. Moreover, no reader can seriously ignore the highly ironic, fictionalized nature of this little historical account of the origins of “Kubla Khan,” nor the illusion of authenticity achieved with the third-person narrative, nor the absurdity of the notion of “Kubla Khan” as a fragment. The preface to the poem acts, like the gloss and other devices discussed above, to raise the reader to a level of critical awareness about his own activity, responses, and point of view, freeing him from a slavish and unconscious acceptance of his conventional role as a passive onlooker of someone else's creations and experiences.

In a still more important way than the preface, perhaps, the structure of the poem itself is a gesture at a deconstruction of conventional reading habits and the presuppositions which underpin them. For the last seventeen lines act as the epode in the traditional classical ode form of “answering” the strophe-antistrophe dichotomy set up, in this case, in terms of an apparent dichotomy between nature and culture. Indeed, already in stanza one, culture is saturated with nature, but in stanza three, nature made a product of culture (so that the dichotomy is superseded by an awareness of the two as functions of each other). The creative act of figuration itself, whether at the level of perception or creation (as Coleridge's primary/secondary imagination suggests) becomes the subject matter. That is, perception is the art of “thingifying,” just as poetic creation is. Reading involves “thingifying” too, and it is far from clear in the epilogue whether the “I” who speaks is not also an imaginative reader as well as poet, while the “all should cry” is, in one possible view, the voice of convention, repression, and passivity.

Many of Coleridge's other poems, such as “Frost at Midnight,” “Eolian Harp,” “Dejection,” and “This Lime-Tree Bower,” show, upon examination, similar concerns with deconstructing the reader's habits of responding to poems as if they were repositories of meaning and truth instead of complex linguistic structures of figuration, concerned as much (if not more) with their own use of rhetorical and figurative language (and the processes of perception, reading and creating) as with their apparent subject matter. However, a brief look at some of the narrative strategies and stylistic techniques in Coleridge's prose work may illustrate the deconstructive gestures employed in such texts as the Biographia Literaria, a text read for decades as in a relatively conventional and conservative mode of discourse. What the Biographia reveals is a level of self-consciousness about its own devices, its readership's habits, its effect upon its readership, and the narrative undermining of authority—all of which we have, sketchily at least, seen operating in the poetry.


Coleridge devised a number of techniques (not altogether unlike those he used in his poetry) in The Friend and other prose works such as the Biographia. Several types of devices emerge from a careful examination of the text. The first we may term, for convenience, “metaphoric situations”—devices involving the use of an extended metaphor as illustration for some (often philosophic or critical) point under discussion. These “situations” are characterized by a highly poetic style and imagery, and contain that quality of double reflection discussed earlier—namely, the reader and the act of reading are implicated in the subject matter. The second kind of device we might describe as direct rhetorical appeal to the reader to become conscious of the tendencies in reading to reduce, allegorize and repress imaginative response. Other devices are still more in the vein of a Tristram Shandy-type effect, such as the alleged elimination of a crucial chapter on imagination, Chapter XIII, the substitution of a phony letter by a (fictitious) friend, and the abrupt, two-paragraph definition of the imagination at the end of Chapter XIII, when the entire two volumes have been about imagination. Finally, we have Coleridge using more direct, less ironic means to challenge pervasive notions of what reading and criticism involve, when, for example, he engaged in criticism of his own poetry (in Volume I) and of Wordsworth's (in Volume II).

Another matter to take account of is the innovative genre of the Biographia. It is surely no exaggeration to say that nothing like it existed before, and that it fulfills almost all of Friedrich Schlegel's criteria for what the “modern,” “Romantic” text should do. According to Schlegel, the truly “modern” text should include philosophical, critical, moral, and social ideas poetized. Its unity should arise not from a surface continuity, but from the “prevailing point of view” of the author. Schlegel saw the autobiographical form as the most thoroughly concrete genre, uniting the apparently miscellaneous content of this new, hybrid genre, the “modern novel”; he further noted that poetry and prose must be fused and mixed—that is, that the philosophical and general ideas should be synthesized with a poetic quality.9 Schlegel's anticipations of modern theory (and those of other German Romanticists) will be discussed further below, but it may be noted here that Schlegel's insistence on the above points links him with many ideas prevalent in modern theory, such as the rejection of the division of criticism from literature, of philosophy from poetry, and of other “natural” boundaries. Traditional concepts of unity are challenged, decorum in style is questioned, and a new type of style and content is indicated, as perceptual, reading, interpreting and critical processes and acts become the subject matter of the text.

Coleridge's Biographia has often been criticized for precisely the traits that Schlegel would praise as truly characteristic of the “modern” and “romantic” texts. Its hybrid, mixed genre, its autobiographical basis, its style, its mixing of philosophy, criticism, and “literature” (fiction, narrative), its unmethodical and miscellaneous content—all have been seen as flaws. A more enlightened view would be to see these “flaws” as innovations of the kind Schlegel recommended. One of the main characteristics of Coleridge's technique in the Biographia is his effort to make the style reflect the subject matter. That is, he seeks not merely to present thoughts and conclusions discursively, but to demonstrate them in such a way that the reader is stimulated to an imaginative grasping of insight, an aim that involves creating an aesthetic situation in which the reader acts. The pervasive subject matter—the unity or unifying principle—of the Biographia is imaginativeness, in its forms both as perception, or primary, and secondary (artistic) imagination. Reading and critical response are shown to be, like perception, essentially imaginative and, in kind, no different from the artist's work of creation. The Biographia is, in all its apparent miscellany, a unified effort to demonstrate the nature and genesis of imagination as it occurs in perception, reading, interpretation or artistic production. Moreover, Coleridge's stylistic manoeuvres reflect this subject matter, in his extensive use of metaphor, irony, and rhetorical advices to the reader. All these stylistic products of imaginativeness, namely metaphor, irony, and a Coleridgean rhetoric, combine with the metaphoric situations and reading analogies mentioned above to produce effects that resemble remarkably those looked upon as central aspects of modern critical theory. Put another way, Coleridge adopts a strategy that is almost the definition of modernism, and yet one that is characteristic of all art. Namely, he seeks to draw the reader's attention away from the apparent subject matter, towards viewing that subject matter as a vehicle or occasion for attending to processes of perception and construction (whether interpretive and critical or artistically creative). As one theorist puts it:

The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. In art it is our experience of the process of construction that counts, not the finished product.10

The Biographia, The Friend, Aids to Reflection, The Statesman's Manual, and other of Coleridge's prose texts exhibit not only this modernist concern to reconsider the nature of subject matter as process rather than product, as itself a type of form, and the concern to attend to the medium (in this case, language). These texts also exhibit a concern with reexamining our basic notions about what constitutes reading, perception, interpretation, unity, and so on. Coleridge's frequent allusions to the reader, the reading process, and his tireless emphasis upon the distinction in The Friend between attention and thought, are examples of this reexamination that is the hallmark of modern criticism.

In his critical discussion of Wordsworth's poetry, we can also see Coleridge involved in a modern method of poetics that completely rejects the traditional tendency to look for meanings in texts or to offer readings and interpretations that inevitably leave the text untouched. No doubt we can quibble with some of the details of his analysis of Wordsworth's poetry, and insist that Coleridge was blind to the deconstructive nature of some of the elements he conceived of as flaws. Most of his suggestions and criticisms are extremely insightful, if we consider the context within which he was working—pointing out, for example, where Wordsworth's “innonsensical” theory of language and poetry had led him to bathetic, infelicitous, or banal wordings and conceptions. Taken out of context, of course, his remarks are easily deconstructed. The appropriate context is Coleridge's deconstruction of Wordsworth's theories by means of Wordsworth's own poetic practices. Yet his handling of Wordsworth's poetry is, in the main, exemplary of his own professed critical method as expounded in the Biographia and elsewhere. That is, he makes no efforts to offer meanings or readings, or to moralize about Wordsworth's poetry, but looks rather to Wordsworth's constructive processes, to his poetic techniques and effects, to his style and narrative structure, seeking to ascertain whether they are consistent with Wordsworth's own professed principles. He finds that often they are not, and locates the problem sometimes in the poetry, but often in the principles. He then goes on to show that Wordsworth's poetry itself gives the lie to central tenets of his professed theory of language, both in its successes and in its so-called “failures.”

Coleridge's general approach in the Shakespearean Criticism is exactly the same. He resists, and criticizes, the moralizing tendencies of eighteenth-century critics such as Dr. Johnson, while also refusing to engage in meaning-interpretation criticism. He attends to Shakespeare's constructive processes, materials, and effects in the course of examining the received opinion about Shakespeare's poetry and drama. Coleridge exposes the prejudices and unfounded assumptions upon which prior notions about Shakespeare rested. He “interprets interpretations,” so to speak, and shows that criticism involves not the search for truth or meaning or the best accounts of texts, but rather an analysis of received opinion about the texts under examination, and attention to the processes of construction and figuration.


Throughout Coleridge's published work, as well as his notebooks, letters, and marginalia, can be found comments which, however scattered, are characteristic of his thinking about issues that form central concerns in modern critical theory. His attack upon dualism and his attempt, in the concept of the “reconciliation of opposites” or “polarity,” to offer a non-dualistic account of experience, are particularly relevant to modern thought. Like Derrida, Hegel, and others, Coleridge saw dualism as a totally misconceived account of experience, dividing the world up into absolutely distinct entities and aspects, such as subject-object, mind-body, mind-nature, nature-culture, individual-society, male-female, and so on. The literary critical aspect of such dualism involves the absolute division between text and reader or text and author, so that the relationship between them becomes incomprehensible, indeed, impossible. Preconceived theories are evolved that situate the reader in the traditionally, essentially passive, receptive mode, while the text is viewed as already fully formed and independent of response. None of the Romantics accepted this passive theory of mind, with its concommitant theory of objects, just as their German Romantic counterparts rejected this theory for a theory of mind as synthetic and active. While Kant had emphasized the synthetic, creative, active nature of mind, his account was one that evolved a dualism leaving the mind essentially passive in its reception of a “manifold.” Both German and English Romantic poets rejected Kant's limited synthetic-mind account, along with his dualism, as Hegel was later to do, espousing a more thoroughgoing creative-mind theory that has often been misconstrued as idealist, in the line of Schelling, Fichte, and others. Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Friedrich Schlegel, Jean Paul, and others saw the inadequacy of idealism, which simply transferred reality from one pole or opposite to the other. Blake's “marriage of heaven and hell,” Coleridge's “polarity,” Shelley's “myth of metaphor” and the aesthetics of Schlegel, Novalis, Jean Paul, and others sought to avoid idealism's own inherent dualism. In the case of Coleridge's polarity concept, or reconciliation of opposites, a solution was sought by seeing each binary pole as a function of the other, that is, as integrally related and interdependent. Neither pole should have priority either in value-terms or in terms of time. For Coleridge, polarity involved the recognition of a larger context (for example, empirical experience itself) within which dualities, such as that of mind and body, evolved, due to processes of imaginative perception and relational apprehension. Duality, for Coleridge (as for Blake, Shelley, and others), could never be the character of experience, but only a result of reflection upon experience. For, once divided absolutely, dualities could never reunite or act upon each other, as they clearly do in actual experience. Coleridge insisted that dualities should only be distinguished, never divided; that is, only treated as functions of each other, never as entities absolutely distinct from each other and independent of each other for existence.

Coleridge's concept of polarity, of opposition, is in many ways anticipatory of Derrida's concept of difference, but for too long it has been seen as inviting a metaphysical notion of reconciliation. For Coleridge, as for Derrida, relations and oppositions form the substances of experience. Reference to “reconciliation” is better understood as an attempt by Coleridge to emphasize the interdependent, functional nature of the elements in opposition. To idealize reconciliation is not Coleridge's aim, but he has been thus read by his readers, who themselves wish to idealize the concept. Such idealization is in complete contradiction to the theory of imagination as primary and secondary, as well as to Coleridge's endlessly reiterated insistence upon process, act, and free productivity as the “solution” to dualism (whether in its various forms of idealism, rationalism, or empiricism). Like Blake and Shelley, Coleridge aimed at an apocalyptic vision, rejecting transcendentalism in all its disguises, contrary to the usual conception of him. Moreover, occasional references by Coleridge to a tertium aliquid have been mistakenly assumed to refer to a transcendent reality or ground for polar opposition. An interpretation more in keeping with Coleridge's pronouncements, throughout his writings, would be that such a tertium aliquid is to be understood as a context within which dualities occur. By context is meant, for example, experience, conceived of neither metaphysically or subjectively, but as that within which subjective and objective discriminations occur when mind chooses to reflect upon it.

Moreover, as with Blake and Shelley, Coleridge rejected the notion of a universe fully formed, final, total, and independent of mind, a universe that mind passively beholds and then seeks to “represent” truthfully and accurately, so that representation becomes the ultimately real aim of mental activity. According to a theory of imagination such as Coleridge's (or Blake's), or Shelley's theory of metaphor, the universe (and mind) are seen apocalyptically, as engaged in a process of becoming, each interacting on the other, so that mind emerges along with the emergence of nature. Mind no more exists prior to and independent of nature (as idealism implies) than does nature prior to mind. For Coleridge, mind, nature, and imagination are the “very powers of growth and production.” Nature and mind, for Coleridge, are in a state of growth and production, such that perception itself is an imaginative experience involving construction through relational apprehensions, just as much as so-called “higher” levels of thought and artistic creativity. In the theory of imagination as primary and secondary, Coleridge develops the concept that perception is no mere passive receptivity of an already constituted world. As for Derrida, for Coleridge no such perception exists, so defined.11 Perception Coleridge conceives of as essentially and primarily creative and relational, hence imaginative. It is, in kind, one with secondary imagination, though the latter differs in the degree or mode of involvement of the conscious will. There is no manifold, then, which reason synthesizes into the known, experienced world. For Coleridge, as for Shelley, such a manifold is nonsense—an unintelligible concept, as Derrida would say. There is no super-empirical matter upon which the senses act to create the experienced world. Experience is itself the material for further experience and reflection, constantly evolving and changing as imaginative activity perceives new ways of relating, connecting, and patterning prior and present experience.

Coleridge's apocalyptic view of experience influenced Shelley's speculations and led to his theory of metaphor and of language as vitally, not ornamentally, metaphorical. For Shelley, literal language is merely a “dead metaphor.” While Shelley's elaboration of his myth of metaphor in the “Defence of Poetry” and his poetic enactment of it in such poems as “Epipsychidion,” “Adonais,” and “The Sensitive Plant” goes beyond anything systematically elaborated by Coleridge,12 nevertheless the latter's emphasis upon metaphor and, especially, the symbol reveals a thorough grasp of the nature of language as figurative. Both Coleridge and Shelley rejected the accounts of eighteenth-century language theorists, such as Watts, Locke, and Spratt, who saw figures of speech (and metaphor, as the essential nature of all figures of speech) as mere ornamentation on a prior, literal language of science and truth. Related to this was of course a passive theory of mind and an opposition between imagination (as passion or feeling) and intellect or reason (as the instrument of truth). For Coleridge, as for Shelley, imagination was the instrument of truth, while the division between passion and thought, emotion and reflection, poetry and science, imagination and reason, and senses and intellect was a typical dualistic misconstrual of the nature of experience as binary. Imagination, not reason, was the only faculty by means of which such binary oppositions could be overcome in a view of experience as integrated, relational, oppositional, and differential. For imagination is the faculty of “relational apprehension,” that is, the faculty which synthesizes disparate elements (themselves prior relations, not substances). Reason can only enumerate, divide, and analyze. It is confined to the realm of what is already known, or perceived, or experienced, while imagination is the agent of innovation, novelty, originality, and genius, in its capacity to unite into new wholes previously unrelated elements. Imagination and intelligence are, then, processes of self-development, not qualities supervening to a mental substrate.

Coleridge's concept of organicism, suggested to him by German aesthetic thought, such as A. W. Schlegel's and others', is consistent with his theory of imagination as primary and secondary, his concept of polarity (or “difference”), and his theory of mind as creative. The concept of organicism has repeatedly been interpreted as expressing a closed structure or a concept of unity that is reactionary, traditional and at odds with the open-ended, uncentred, unstructured non-unity of deconstructive theory. However, a careful examination of this concept will show that nothing is more foreign to it than such a “structuralist” interpretation. This misapprehension has arisen from Coleridge's emphasis upon “unity,” but the concept of unity expressed by the organic metaphor (for art) is not static, fixed, or predetermined. Coleridge is not claiming, through the idea of works of art as organic, that they have a single, definable unity discoverable through interpretive acts. Rather, he is saying that works of art are in a constant process of growth and evolution, of “self-development,” like nature or the mind of man. Their meanings cannot be fixed by the author's intentions and purposes, for they have a “life of their own” that develops and realizes itself in the context of aesthetic response. They are fundamentally vital, just as mechanical productions are seen as “dead metaphors.” Indeed, the organic/mechanical distinction is a close analogue of the metaphoric/literal distinction. (Yet in making the distinction Coleridge does not make a division, but only a distinction—for him, the two concepts are inextricably involved with one another, as in “difference”). By genuine, organic unity, then, Coleridge implies not a static structure, nor a closed structure, but vitality, growth, production, development and change. Works of art are unified precisely insofar as they are in a state of becoming, of evolution—not, however, toward some ordained “end” in a teleological sense, but rather in a state of being perceived anew and even yet anew. The insistence that both mind and works of art as organic develop according to laws ab intra is a way of saying, with Shelley, that relations that are integral for the mind are integral because the mind decides that they should be, not because they correspond to some external realm of ideas or laws ab extra.

If we understand the organic metaphor metaphorically, and not mechanically or literally, we see that no claim for closed structures or fixed unities is being made. Rather, a claim is being made, first, that relations of things (relations of part to parts and to wholes, etc.) derive their integrity from within, and, secondly, that for Coleridge unity means vitality, growth, change, and “self-development.” Hence any perceived unity in a work of art is provisional, any enumeration of parts is provisional, any discrimination of a whole is provisional—that is, subject to change, growth, and reinterpretation. For works of art, like mind and nature, are vital and self-developing. In Coleridge's concept of organicism there is no fixed structure and no teleology, except what his readers have put there. Nature is “absolutely free productivity” (British Library MS 36,2). Works of art, then, are seen, like the world, apocalyptically, that is, not as finished products, or entities fully-formed and with an already determined, fixed unity or structure, but as in a state of becoming that involves an active mind, not a passively perceiving mind that reflects, mirrors, or represents finished products.


The Germanic origins of the concept of organicism are well known, but what is less well known is the numerous direct anticipations of Derridean deconstruction in German Romantic Ironists' theories about criticism, language, and art. Coleridge was familiar with much of this material through his personal contacts and readings of such Germans as Ludwig Tieck, Karl Solger, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Jean Paul, and others. These ironists developed concepts of criticism as play, “destructive” creativity (= deconstruction), language as essentially about itself, an aesthetics of incomprehensibility, the reader as creative author, ideas about the unity of poetry and philosophy, literature and criticism, and criticism as art. They were fond of using the “fragment” form as a means of counteracting traditional, static, structural notions of unity of the kind that Coleridge rejected. Friedrich Schlegel's article “On Incomprehensibility,” his “Critical” and “Athenaeum Fragments,” Novalis's essay on language called “Monologue,” Tieck's Gestiefelter Kater, Karl Solger's meditation on the symbol, humor, wit, and irony, in Erwin, or Four Dialogues on Beauty and Art, and Jean Paul's School for Aesthetics are only a few of the texts that suggestively expound ideas and develop styles of writing anticipatory of Derrida's techniques. The Romantic concept of irony is the cornerstone of this Romantic sympathy with deconstructivist gestures. Indeed irony, as conceived of by Schlegel and others, and as used by Coleridge in the literary techniques described above, is almost another name for deconstruction—almost. For there has as until now been nothing quite like the style and writing of Derrida, however similar the attacks on metaphysics, traditional criticism, and logocentric language.

Irony is essentially a weapon for attacking dualism in philosophy, art, or experience as a whole. In art, irony involves the breakdown between the (dualistic) boundaries of art and reality. The reader or spectator is drawn either literally (as in Tieck) or metaphorically into the bounds of the work of art, and the processes of reading, perception, criticism and language-use are made the subject matter of the text. Irony as a method of writing and communication is specifically designed to create a narrative perspective that throws into radical ambiguity the apparent content or dogma of a text, in order to encourage the reader to a level of imaginative, active thinking and self-conscious awareness of his own activity of making meaning as the subject matter of the text. Adequate enquiry itself becomes the end, rather than some supposed meaning, dogma, or truth. Or, as Coleridge put it:

The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressing movement collects the force which again carries him onwards.13


  1. John W. Wright, “Samuel Johnson and Traditional Methodology”, PMLA 86 (1971) 40-50.

  2. The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1956-71), IV 885.

  3. See, for example, Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play”, in his Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978), for elaboration of these views.

  4. See The Complete Poetical Works of S. T. Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912) for complete versions of the glossed “Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan” with its preface, and other poems, including all the “extra-literary” devices referred to here. “Extra-literary” is meant ironically.

  5. The Collected Letters of S. T. Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1956-71), II. 864.

  6. For a more extensive discussion of the gloss and other devices, and of “Kubla Khan” discussed briefly below, see K. M. Wheeler, The Creative Mind in Coleridge's Poetry (London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981).

  7. See lines 13, 14, 26, 57, 66, 129, 134, 149, 158-59, 207-09, 257, 292, 294, 295, 296, 300, and many others, not to mention the general tone and interpretive processes of the narrative persona.

  8. See, for example, lines 40, 70, 226-34, 300 and others, where Geraldine is figured as quite other than something evil.

  9. Friedrich Schlegel, Prosaische Jugendschriften, ed. J. Minor (Vienna: 1882), II 220.

  10. Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”, Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1965), 12.

  11. J. Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play.”

  12. See John W. Wright, Shelley's Myth of Metaphor (Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1970), for a lucid and penetrating elaboration.

  13. Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford: 1907), II, 11.

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