Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature: The Development of a Concept of Poetry 1791-1819
The Annotated Ancient Mariner
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
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 account the relations between the two are distorted and the theory in consequence denatured. It is useful to have an account of the ways in which Coleridge’s thought developed from its eighteenth-century beginnings, and to be reminded that behind the literary criticism lurk epistemological and other problems of a fundamental kind (as in the discussion of “organic form” and the relation of this conception to the kind of knowing that is intrinsic to a work of art—pp. 112-117). The trouble lies in the way in which an abstract and schematizing approach seems to claim for itself an exclusive validity. Fr. Appleyard emphasizes “the primacy of [Coleridge’s] own inner experience as a source and criterion of his ideas” (p. 3); he is aware that in seeking “a consistent development of ideas” it is useless to assume a “progress from tentative to more elaborate positions…by logical steps and clearly stated transitions” (pp. 93-94). But his tenacious attempt to elicit an underlying order depends entirely on the assumption that “the roots of Coleridge’s literary theory are to be found in his general philosophy” (p. 61), and that what is significant in the literary criticism can best be discussed in the light of the philosophy. Thus the philosophical structure developed after the refutation of Locke and Hartley “was a necessary preliminary to any extensive literary analysis” (p. 149); the lectures of 1808-14 “show the early application of his philosophy to literary topics” (p. 124); the lectures “apply the philosophy and especially the literary philosophy that Coleridge had been working on since 1800″ (p. 150, my italics).
THERE IS OF COURSE no law against subjecting the work of a literary critic, especially a metaphysically-minded critic like Coleridge, to rigorous philosophic analysis. But if you do that you have to be careful that what you are supposed to be dealing with does not evaporate in the process. The results of consistently putting the philosophical cart before the literary horse are clear in Fr. Appleyard’s chapter-and-a-half on the Biographia. The two parts into which it falls—the first ending with Chapter XIII, the second mainly concerned with the critique of Wordsworth—are seen as successive shots at the same problem: Both fail because Coleridge found himself compelled to make claims for the imagination that could not be substantiated.
…It seems that, when he was engaged in writing the Biographia, Coleridge conceived the answer to his epistemological problem to lie in a choice between the extremes of association and Schellingian idealism. He rejected the first, of course, and for very sound reasons; but then he discovered that in the second he had more than he wanted, not only a faculty to explain the affective and noetic unity of the work of art in itself and in relation to the world of experience, but also a faculty which was the source and guarantee of universal and absolute truth. Coleridge could not really give that importance to imagination, and finding no medium between the two views he ended in confusion [p. 188].
The next step was away from literature altogether. After 1819 we are faced with “another Coleridge”: “The literary problem, long ago metamorphosed into a philosophical problem, now leads finally to a religious problem” (p. 235); only the faith whose nature and implications Coleridge explored in his later writings could provide a solution to the problem of knowledge, of the relation of self and world and of self and God.
Even with the help of the admirably lucid summary of his argument that Fr. Appleyard provides in his last chapter I am unable to understand the reasons given for the “failure” of the Biographia. I grant of course the “philosophical bogs.” But there is something odd in an argument which, concentrating heavily on the history of associationism and the passages of more abstract argument, draws not at all on those specifically literary insights that make this “unmethodical miscellany” one of the seminal books for any student of literature. Coleridige’s “philosophy of literature”—if we call it that—takes its start not only from the delighted recognition of creative newness in Wordworth’s early poetry, but—and this above all—from the intensely personal experience recorded in the best of Coleridge’s own poems. In one of the wisest of all essays on Coleridge Professor Dorothy Emmet, herself a philosopher, points to the greater poems as “above all symbols of dereliction and joy,” and says:
I believe that Coleridge was concerned to explore not only a source of the creative power of imagination shown in genius but also more generally the liberation of the mind from deadness and dereliction, a liberation on which its growth depends…[His] “empirico-religious” philosophy was concerned with exploring the conditions which make possible, and the conditions which frustrate, this joy which underlies the creative growth of the mind.
WITH THIS IN MIND, turn to Chapter XV of the Biographia—a chapter that Fr. Appleyard does not even mention—where the relation between “principles” and the direct experience of poetry is insisted on in the title and the opening sentence. In the paragraph beginning, “A second promise of genius…” we find not only a remarkable account of what modern criticism calls “realization,” but the introduction—in terms of particular things done by a particular poem—of that conception of imaginative energy that is central to all Coleridge’s thinking: “the perpetual activity of attention required on the part of the reader”; “the poet’s ever active mind”; “The reader is forced into too much action to sympathize with the merely passive of our nature. As little can a mind thus roused and awakened be brooded on by mean and indistinct emotion…” These phrases indicate the central movement of Coleridge’s thought. They reach back to the brilliant footnote on cheap novel reading (Chap. II) and forward to the claim (itself springing directly from a direct account of Wordsworth’s excellences) for “the advantages which language alone…Presents to the instructor of impressing modes of intellectual energy” (Chap. XXII); forward too to the account of French tragedy in Satyrane’s Letters—“consistent works of art, and the offspring of great intellectual power…they excite the minds of the spectators to active thought.” In this context, rather than in the context of philosophical discussion alone, we should be able to focus more clearly on what Coleridge tells us about the imagination at the end of Chapter XIV. Professor Wellek has said some hard things about this often quoted passage. But even its “random eclecticism” cannot obscure the fundamental insights that it contains. The imagination is a form of energy, but it is no random élan vital; it “struggles to unify” not only thoughts and feelings that often war unnecessarily with each other, but the different modes of being through which the self, including the subliminal self, exercises its powers. It is a function of the whole person, a dynamic integrating force through which we not only come to know ourselves and the world but experience that sense of creative freedom which in “Dejection” is called joy. I do not know of any more profound account, any account more suggestive and fertilizing, of why poetry matters, or of why “the cultivation of the judgment is a positive command of the moral law” (Biographia, II, p. 117). This, surely, is the heart of Coleridge’s literary theorizing—a theorizing that, at its best, springs directly from an unusually full experience of literature—and I do not see how it can be excluded from any attempt to define his “concept of poetry.”
And Coleridge’s insights as poet and critic were not simply discarded or outgrown when he turned his attention more exclusively to religion. I agree that it was in Christianity that he found the solution for his philosophical problems. But Fr. Appleyard speaks of Coleridge’s “eventual abandonment of a philosophy of literature” (p. 249); whereas, so far as I can see, his religious insights were very largely a development of what he learned from writing poetry and writing about it. F. J. A. (later Bishop) Hort, in the Cambridge Essay of 1856 (which deserves to be reprinted), endorses the view of the close alliance, in Coleridge’s thinking, of imagination, reason, and faith: imagination, which “brings the whole soul of man into activity”; reason, “the integral spirit of the regenerated man” (Statesman’s Manual); and faith, “a collective energy, a total act of the whole moral being” (Biographia, Chap. VII). No doubt there are philosophical problems here of a particularly knotty kind. All I want to suggest is that whenever Coleridge thinks about matters of fundamental concern he thinks in terms of activity, growth, freedom, and creativeness. His persistent preoccupation, in short, was with the question: What are the conditions of being human? You cannot, without loss, separate the religious philosophy from the literary criticism, or the criticism from the poetry.
PROBLEMS NOT ALTOGETHER UNLIKE those just considered confront the reader of “The Ancient Mariner,” of which two illustrated editions have recently appeared. It is unquestionably a great, if imperfect, poem. But what precisely is the nature of its appeal? It doesn’t help to speak, as Livingstone Lowes does, of “magic,” of “the sublimation of brute fact” into “the unfathomable something we name beauty.” The Road to Xanadu,1 classic and indispensable as a study of potentially expressive elements that Coleridge’s imagination seized on and transmuted, tells us virtually nothing of what is, finally, expressed in “the controlling imaginative design.” Clearly, as D. W. Harding, for instance, brings out in a sensitive study (in his book Experience into Words2 ), the poem has an intimate relation to unconscious conflicts of a kind not peculiar to Coleridge, and it moves towards a resolution of those conflicts. But it doesn’t only dramatize with uncanny force some permanent possibilities of human experience—a state of desolation, self-enclosure, and the clogging of vital function—
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down…
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion…
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip…
and a state of refreshment and renewed unforced movement on the sea of life—
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath;
it also moves the mind towards understanding. At all events, if we take seriously the expression of these different states, we are bound to seek some light from the poem on the nature of the Mariner’s guilt, his punishment, and his release. Robert Penn Warren says that the shooting of the albatross is both a crime against the “One Life” in which man and bird both share, and a crime against the imagination. This seems to me right, so long as one remembers that the imagination is not only active in poetry; it is the creative power of every human mind. In shooting the bird the Mariner is brutally rejecting a spontaneous and beneficent visitation coming from a source beyond the conscious understanding. And the punishment—the sapped and arid consciousness—is one with the crime. (In The Divided Self3 R. D. Laing speaks of “the deliberate cultivation of a state of death-in-life as a defense against the pains of life.”) The turning point of the poem is of course the blessing of the water snakes. In a literal sense these are inhabitants of the ocean; in a symbolic sense they are inhabitants of “the mind, that ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find.” The mariner in short blesses not only representatives of all living things but aspects of the self previously looked at with repulsion and disgust. (The identification was made virtually explicit in “a thousand thousand slimy things/Lived on; and so did I.”) It is only with the blessing of the snakes in both their aspects that the ship can move on, the mind recover its buoyancy; the task that the will alone could not perform is taken over by a force deeper than the will:—
Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The spirit slid: and it was he
That made the ship to go.
And we are told of the Polar Spirit not only that he acts “in obedience to the angelic troop,” but that “He loved the bird that loved the man/Who shot him with his bow”: in plain prose, there is a relation between “the unconscious” and our intellectual and spiritual intimations—a relation that we attempt to sever at our peril. “The Ancient Mariner” is certainly about the need to love “All things both great and small”; it is also a poem about the deeps of the mind.
We have to recognize, I think, that the Mariner’s cure is only partial: Coleridge, like most of us, had to live with some unresolved tensions, fresh twinges from the old wound. But the coherence of the poem’s main design and the vitality of its parts make it impossible to regard “The Ancient Mariner” solely as an expression, rather than a genuine exploration, of a crucial area of experience. It may be suggested that in a creative mind, a mind directed towards wholeness, even the expression of neurotic guiilt can contain within itself a saving insight; at all events, it is for insight, not “magic,” that we value the poem. Different readers will of course respond to different aspects of this multi-layered structure of meanings. But the poem demands neither vague reverie, nor a too elaborate exegesis, but a disciplined concentration on symbolic forms that mediate what Coleridge elsewhere calls “living and life-producing ideas.” Naturally these only dawn when we enjoy the poem.
FOR THESE REASONS I am suspicious of illustrations which—like offers of one correct reading—tend to tie down the mind. Both David Jones and Martin Gardner are aware of possible dangers. Mr. Jones speaks of the poem’s “layer upon layer of meaning” and of the “metamorphic quality” of the imagery; and Mr. Gardner questions “the degree to which unconscious symbolic meanings can be made specific” in a poem “so rich in symbolic possibilities.” But the first regards the poem as “eminently illustratable” and the second clearly thinks that Doré’s illustrations in some way help the reader. In the beautifully produced edition (clearly a collector’s piece) by the author of In Parenthesis I do not myself much care for the rather mannered engravings; but they are at all events an artist’s recreation of the poem’s essentially religious motif, whereas Doré simply imposes a dull, would-be “romantic” stereotype on the text. Mr. Gardner remarks that “fantasy such as ‘The Ancient Mariner’ demands above all, realism.” The assertion is questionable and it certainly isn’t realism that we find in the Doré illustrations, where the over-abundant detail and the contrived postures suggest nothing so much as bad nineteenth-century theater. The Annotated Ancient Mariner is obviously a labor of love; it is useful to have the definitive text and the original 1798 version in one volume; the final section has some sensible comments on different interpretations and a useful reading list. But the excess of information in notes that attract as much attention as the pictures suggests that the volume is intended for rather unsophisticated readers—the very ones who should be left alone with a straight text.
It is an odd hazard of reviewing that one should be required to contemplate Doré’s theatrical obviousness immediately after wrestling with Fr. Appleyard’s formidable and elusive abstractions; but it isn’t altogether odd to find that each provokes a similar line of thought. What coleridge’s criticism offers is a number of insights, loosely connected to each other, and more firmly connected to a few great central themes. To attempt to systematize them too rigorously is to run the risk of sluicing off the life which is within them, and which can invigorate thought that does not necessarily start from Coleridge’s philosophical premises or reach precisely his conclusions. So too “The Ancient Mariner” invites from each reader a deeply personal collaboration. Doré’s illustrations obscure with a visual stereotype the working vigor of the poetry; they offer a substitute for that understanding which can only come into being as a new growth from the mind’s own “germinal powers.”