by Walter Jackson Bate
Macmillan, 244 pp., $5.95
Of all works of literary scholarship a short critical biography must be one of the most difficult to write. “A shilling life”—even if we add a bit for inflation—won’t really “give you all the facts,” for the obvious reason that in dealing with a man worth this kind of attention the facts that matter are facts of mind demanding rather extensive discussion. Even facts in the common sense—friends, marriage, personal habits, and so on—are nothing except as they relate to the particular intellectual adventure that demands our attention. When interpretation tries to grapple with the work of a man so prolific, so many-sided, and often so exasperating as Coleridge, only the firmest grasp and finest tact can get the proportions right. Let me say at once that Mr. Bate has not only the range of knowledge necessary to see Coleridge in his historical perspective, but, what is more important, the critical acumen and good sense to bring out without fuss or dogmatism just what it is that makes Coleridge a major figure in our intellectual landscape. His book is valuable both to the beginning student and to the mature reader.
One main difficulty that Mr. Bate had to face is suggested by the simple question, What are we to call Coleridge? By virtue of a generous handful of poems he belongs with the major English poets. He is also, as Mr. Bate says, “one of the half dozen greatest critical interpreters in the history of literature.” But as this book shows, poetry was not his vocation (“always an educator at heart,” “his real effort lay elsewhere”), and even his criticism gains part of its suggestive power from the fact that it so often points toward matters that cannot be discussed in literary terms alone: “his religious and philosophical pilgrimage must serve as one of the principal themes, perhaps the central theme, in any true account of his life.” Yet—and here is the difficulty—it is impossible to discuss the poetry, the criticism, and the various branches of his philosophy as though these were separate activities. With Coleridge, more than with most men of comparable intellectual power, the furthest reaches of speculation are connected by innumerable filaments to the most direct, sensitive, and inward aspects of personal experience. Nothing seemed to him to be true that did not “come home” to him, to use one of his characteristic phrases; and we value the best part of his thought because of the presence in it, everywhere, of the living person. (That is why Herbert Read some time ago called him an early “existentialist” thinker.)
Mr. Bate is attuned to this core of Coleridge’s thought, the perplexities of “the heart” that directly nourish the formulations of “the head,” the intimate pressures—often unconscious and only able to struggle toward expression in poetry and symbols—that make Coleridge, for all his superficial self-delusion, one of the most honest of thinkers. With this personal effort to keep open …