Taming the Albatross

Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature: The Development of a Concept of Poetry 1791-1819

by J.A. Appleyard S.J.
Harvard, 266 pp., $6.50

The Annotated Ancient Mariner

illustrated by Gustave Doré, with an Introduction and Notes by Martin Gardner
Clarkson N. Potter, 200 pp., $7.50

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

with ten engravings on copper and a Foreword by David Jones
Chilmark, 37 pp., $35.00

The greatness of Coleridge is indisputable, the problem for his admirers is to define what he actually achieved. I don’t mean only that his poetry shows enormous variations in kind and quality, or that his criticism and general thought is sometimes repetitious, sometimes confused, with heavy borrowings from “continental thinkers” whose ideas may or may not be transformed in the process of assimilation. I mean that when we confront the essential Coleridge—the unforgettable poems, the criticism that we know has made a radical difference in our thinking—there is no clear and simple answer to the question: what do you value him for? The books before us inescapably raise this question with regard to the literary criticism and one of the greatest of the poems.

I have been working hard to find why Fr. Appleyard’s book leaves me dissatisfied. It is a thoroughly honest attempt to find coherence not only in the Biographia Literaria but in the whole range of Coleridge’s criticism. Solidly grounded in wide and detailed knowledge, it should—and probably will—appeal to many students of Coleridge. The reason for my dissatisfaction may lie in the fact that Fr. Appleyard is trained in philosophic thinking and I am not. But with that admitted I want to suggest that the book is radically misconceived; that its effect is to convert Coleridge into the kind of thinker he was not, and so to obscure those marvelous insights from which all of us, whether philosophers or not, can profit.

COLERIDGE, IN SPITE of the Philosophical Lectures, was not a philosopher. He was a brilliant intuitive thinker whose mind moved round certain central ideas that he expressed now in one way, now in another, now in one context (say, literature), now in another (say, politics or education); and of course as the context changed the ideas themselves took on a different color: that is why it is so hard to put salt on their tails. But there is a center, if we know how to look for it. His writings are like his conversation as De Quincey described it:

Coleridge, to many people…seemed to wander; and he seemed then to wander the most when in fact, his resistance to the wandering instinct was greatest—viz, when the compass and huge circuit by which his illustrations moved travelled farthes into remote regions before they began to revolve. Long before this coming round commenced most people had lost him, and naturally enough supposed that he had lost himself. They continued to admire the separate beauty of the thoughts, but did not see their relations to the dominant theme…However [DeQuincey adds], I can assert, upon my long and intimate knowledge of Coleridge’s mind, that logic the most severe was as inalienable from his modes of thinking as grammar from his language.

It is of course impossible to separate Coleridge the theorist and analyst of “facts of mind” from Coleridge the poet and omniverous reader of poetry. Fr. Appleyard insists on this. Yet somehow in his…

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