You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

From the Stacks: “Why Coleridge?”

September 13, 1939

Image via Shutterstock

In honor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who died 174 years ago today, we present to you Kenneth Burke’s 1939 essay lauding Coleridge as a great champion of idealism.

Each time I note the signs of the elite boom for Kierkegaard and Kafka, I am disgruntled. It should be Coleridge. Most assuredly, it should be Coleridge. And it is largely, I suspect, because we were all compelled to read his poems in high school, that those lesser figures are focusing attention at his expense. Coleridge would not so obviously be a “discovery.” Also, the tangle of these other men was much less complex; they did not even remotely have the scope of Coleridge’s mentality. They did well by the stage of masturbatory adolescence—and so their scrupulous quarrels with the father may be interesting and relevant to watch. But their Hamletic labyrinth is a trivial one, in comparison with the twists and turns of Coleridge. They had many fewer cylinders to hit on—they were like a first engine, Coleridge like the engine after long development.

In his life there was a great transitional year, the annus mirabilis of 1797-98, wherein his gift for miraculous poetry quickly flowered and went to seed. A few anticipations (most notably, “The Eolian Harp”)—and a few after-echoes (most notably “Dejection” and the second part of “Christabel”)—but it is in the annus mirabilis that the bulk of his significant poetic output is concentrated, with the other few bits as foothills leading up to and away from this peak year.

It was a “watershed” year—a strategic shift from one slope to another. Before it, we had Coleridge the libertarian, the prophet of “Pantisocracy” (the project for a communist colony to be founded on the Susquehanna), Unitarian, the propounder of optimistic determinism. After it, we find him on the other slope, on his way to becoming Coleridge the Tory (I wince at seeming to put him in the same bin with Chamberlain), the apologist of the National Church, the Trinitarian, the exponent of original sin and free will. (It is typical of him that he proclaimed himself a “necessitarian” in the period before his enslavement to opium had become established, whereas he insisted strenuously upon the freedom of the will at a later time, when in his letters he had bemoaned the effects of “this free-agency annihilating Poison,” and complained that “by the long long Habit of the accursed Poison my Volition . . . was completely deranged.”)

In the “watershed” year there was a “watershed” poem: “The Ancient Mariner,” with its guilt-laden pilgrimage, no mere allegory of sin and redemption, but an organic sequence of internal, personal developments objectified in the imagery of external, natural marvels. The very ship on which the wanderer is driven is an aspect of the wanderer himself; it thirsts and sweats, is fixed or moves, as does the man’s own body. It is a “drunken boat”—and when it sinks, something of the Mariner sinks with it.

Under the accusing magnetic eye of the Sun at high noon it was—as Coleridge says of his poison—”accursed.” But when “the moving Moon went up the sky,” it gels release, though a dangerous release, maybe even a lunatic release, which would explain why the poor Pilot’s boy “now doth crazy go,” as the dangerous factors in the cure, effected under the aegis of moonlight, were drained off, with this nameless fellow as the recipient of the ominous charge.

But let us complete the pattern: In this “watershed” poem there was a “watershed” moment—quite where it should be, in the middle, in Part IV of a seven-part lyrical drama. It is here that a radical bit of alchemy takes place—as loathsome creatures, crawling in primeval slime, abruptly change their nature from things ugly and accursed to things blessed and beautiful. It is a kind of second creation, as though the poet had said: “Let dark be light”:

O happy living things; no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware.

And immediately following upon this change of identity, the Mariner, who had passed through the terrors of ice, drought and rot (in another connection, Coleridge speaks of “the Terrors that precede God’s Love”)—the Mariner could of a sudden pray, whereat the burdensome Albatross fell from his neck, and “sank like lead into the sea” (later, the ship “went down like lead”).

A watershed moment, in a watershed poem, in a watershed year. Enough like the House That Jack Built to engage anyone in search of “critical points.” Add, now, the fact that the writer of this expiatory ritual was thoroughly equipped to articulate in conceptual terms the complexity behind it. Add that, owing to the conversational, epistolary and diarist propensities of both himself and his associates, we have an almost embarrassing wealth of documents through which we can observe the personal and social situations digested in his work—and you begin to see: Why Coleridge.

Other sales points could be added. Out of idealism, both Marxism and Nazism are descended—and Coleridge is as thorough an exponent of idealism as Hegel or Schelling, plus the fact that he could write great idealistic verse, as the German metaphysicians could not (unless you take, their cumbersome nomenclature to be itself a form of poetry).

Nor would we have any difficulty in tracing a strict line of literary tradition from Coleridge, to Byron, Shelley, Keats and Scott, to Poe, to Rimbaud and the French Symbolists, and so to Surrealism (with “Kubla Khan” more fully meeting the requirements of the Surrealist esthetic than anything our contemporaries have done, to my knowledge, since it is the perfect instance of “automatic writing,” originating in the “subconscious”—hardly other than dictated, with Coleridge as amanuensis, yet it is “beautiful,” i.e., publicly negotiable).

I said that Coleridge’s poetry went to seed. It did—and the seed germinated, in a mutation, as would be fitting for one who had been through a transformational year. Most notably in “The Friend,” in “Biographia Literaria” and in his scattered jottings. Even the religious tracts of his later years repay close reading, if one is interested in the mental deployments of a man with a grievous burden, struggling constantly to keep himself from falling through the bottom, and building up a vast architecture of stabilizing ideas for this incantatory, or self-admonitory end.

And the over-all situation in which he wrote is quite “contemporary”—since England then was responding to the French revolution and reaction quite as we today are responding to the Rusaan revolution and the Fascist reaction (an event beyond the borders that agitated even the less mobile groups within the borders, and thus had an especially strong effect upon the class of greatest mobility, the literary Romantics and political Utopians, all of whom were, to borrow the title of Wordsworth’s play, “Borderers”).

I could add more sales points—but these should be enough for the moment. Particularly since all this is but designed for leading up to the subject of two new biographies by E. K. Chambers and Lawrence Hanson.

The Chambers one has the merit of covering the entire course of Coleridge’s life. But it gives too much the impression of a syllabus filled out with grammaticalisms. It is punctilious in verifying the exact time of day when Coleridge was where with whom and what they talked about—and thus is highly serviceable as a reference book for academic workers who may have need for this minute kind of checking.

The Hanson volume, while equally factual in its method, concentrates upon an ampler kind of fact. Its main shortcoming is that it but brings us up to the year 1800, thus leaving us with thirty-four to go, and yearning for the sequel. But it is a good job, quite able to stand by itself—and is done without the impressionistic, monographic emphasis of such works as Charpentier’s “Coleridge; The Sublime Somnambulist,” Fausset’s “Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” or Potter’s “Coleridge and S.T.C.”

A standard biography should probably seek to describe motivations and relationships in the most orthodox of terms: terms like “kind-hearted,” “indolent,” “conceited,” “pretentious,” “charitable,” “well read,” “discerning,” “imaginative.” This sort of description should be perfected, and amply, as the groundwork prerequisite to any experimental vocabulary of motivation. And it is the kind of description that Hanson has assembled with careful documentation.

Thus, when discussing a letter in which Coleridge asseverates an intention of returning to Stowey:

This statement of his intentions . . . sounded, at first hearing, definite enough. Yet [it] only too probably masked, and was intended partly to bolster up, a sagging purpose. That Coleridge was genuine in his wish, so often expressed, to be at Stowey, need not be doubted. But he had other wishes, at least of equal strength; and these it was he set himself, half-heartedly, to fight; employing a favorite weapon of the weak, the announcement of intentions—but promptly nullifying its effect in the next breath, by attaching to h qualifications providing easy and endless avenues of escape from the implications of his own words.

All told you get, with much relevant quotation, the portrait of the man who characterized himself perfectly when he wrote: “On dipping my foot and leg into very hot water, the first sensation was identical with that of having dipped it into very cold”—the man whose favorite maxim was “Extremes meet,” and who knew how to pursue its intricacies to the ends of the universe—the man who justified a journalistic interlude by observing that the subjects of his articles were (a) “important in themselves” and (b) “excellent vehicles for general truths.” It is this constant eagerness to consider local situations with reference to universal situations that gives even his most transient concerns their lastingness. And though you may very often disagree with his vote on a given issue, you must repeatedly salute his precision in singling out the issues to vote on.

Lede image via Shutterstock.