• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Coleridge Lives!


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 the communications between “thought” and “feeling” went a lifelong struggle for unity, particularly for unity won from the greatest possible diversity or apparent contradiction: there is a direct line from the literary criticism, with its insistence on the imagination as a reconciling power, to such abstruse speculations as the Theory of Life, in which he speaks of “the necessity…of interpenetration…of the existence of all in each as the condition of Nature’s unity and substantiality”; and behind both is the poetry, among whose most important strands, as has long been recognized, is the intuition of “the one Life within us and abroad.” In Mr. Bate’s words:

The overriding philosophic interest of Coleridge…was in unity of interpretation, unity of feeling, unity of relationship of every sort, but with no sacrifice of the claims of diversity. At the same time this lifelong hunger for unity, which so often tempts most of us to put our fingers in our ears to shut out objections or reservations, and seek the security of an imposed and restrictive neatness, is counter-balanced in Coleridge (at every stage of his life) by his openness to the obdurate detail, the unexpected nuance, the resistant qualification, and by his eagerness in every case to rescue it into a richer synthesis. As he moves within this pattern of hope and interest, his procedure is dialectic. He goes from one side of the path to the other (as Hazlitt noticed of him when he was walking): from the empirical and scientific to the spiritual and idealistic; then back again, with further insights, in the hope of finding a more capacious frame of reference.

It is one of the merits of Mr. Bate’s book that statements such as these do not remain mere generalizations: they are given substance by his own feeling for specific connections.

This procedure, necessarily in a book of this kind, is chronological. Mr. Bate tells the troubled story of Coleridge’s life with understanding, sympathy, humor, and, mercifully, without apology. There is a tentativeness and decency in his approach to Coleridge’s more intimate bafflements: “We should remember,” he says, “that we are dealing with a psychological intelligence to which we cannot condescend without absurdity.” Major writings are dealt with at appropriate stages in the story, always with a sense of the links between the different parts of his work as a whole.

Coleridge’s output in verse this seems the right phrase for the poetical works—is extraordinarily varied both in kind and quality; for a large part of it one reading is just about enough. Even if we confine attention to the pieces that give Coleridge his place among the major English poets, we are forced to recognize that they are not the work of a man who regarded himself primarily as a poet. Moreover, although the ability to write them was an indispensable part of the equipment of the critic, they are not the kind of poetry that the critic was most interested in; they are personal and occasional, almost sports.

Mr. Bate writes well of the famous conversation poems (e.g., “Frost at Midnight”), bringing out not only their relation to “the reflective mode of the later eighteenth century—familiar, casual, uninvolved,” but the way in which the mode set free Coleridge’s powers by allowing him to speak in his own person while partly effacing himself: they succeed because they do not claim too much. With their odd reculer pour mieux sauter movement they express moments of steady though relaxed consciousness; and the sensitive description of the outer world serves as a precise notation for the quiet pulse of being, interfused with hope and a sense of potentiality in the present. The conversation poems are, as Mr. Bate points out, in a continuing tradition; in reading them one is sometimes reminded of Edward Thomas. The best of the later personal pieces—“Limbo,” “Ne Plus Ultra”—are like nothing else in English literature. Mr. Bate is right to call attention to their disturbing, condensed, often witty, expression. But they are not achieved poems: not because “the Sublime” is “dashed to pieces by cutting too close with the fiery Four-in-Hand round the corner of Nonsense,” as Coleridge said of some deleted lines, but because they belong to the shadowy region of nightmare; the imagination has not fully done its work on them. But why this is so is best deferred for consideration with other matters.

To the non-specialist reader Coleridge is best known as the author of “Dejection” and the three “visionary” poems, “The Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” and “Kubla Khan.” On all of these Mr. Bate has something fresh and interesting to say, though I think that he tends to underrate “Dejection.” He admits the poem’s greatness of course (it does indeed “enact a drama of intellectual discovery”), but it seems to me a more triumphant poem than he allows; and surely a more self-sustaining whole than either “Christabel” or “Kubla Khan.” We may easily agree that “the remote and symbolic mode,” so different from anything Coleridge had attempted hitherto, gave the poet “a sense of release…. In the process a surprisingly large internal fund was tapped.” But if in the “Mariner” the unconscious mind (“the genius in the man of genius”) is in creative alliance with a shaping power, so that the symbols mediate a very wide range of meanings, in the other two poems the balance, in different ways, is disturbed.

The trouble with taste, of course, is that in the end one has to trust it. It may be only a personal quirk, but I have always felt that both “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”—for all their vigor—were slightly fraudulent; and not even Mr. Bate can convince me that they are actually as good as he says they are. I agree that “Christabel” is about the corruption of “innocence” and “the uneasy and unpredictable contrasts within the human heart” (it wasn’t quite fair of W. W. Robson to call it “the first Pre-Raphaelite poem,” though one sees what he means). But it isn’t only the disintegration of the poem by the end of the second part that is bothersome; it is the fact that the poem hasn’t freed itself from whatever subliminal promptings brought these particular symbols to the surface. Almost inevitably when we give it full attention we find our attention shifting from the poetry to the psychology of the poet.

The interesting thing about “Christabel” is that Coleridge seems unable to conceive any alternative to innocence except a threatening and inexplicable depravity. Whatever Geraldine represents, its presence in Christabel herself can only be admitted as some kind of “possession.” Coleridge, we know, was tormented by guilt, not necessarily for what he had done or failed to do, though doubtless these played their part, but simply for what was potentially in him,

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe….

The feelings so strongly expressed in “The Pains of Sleep” are evidence enough that the impulses behind the “deeds to be hid” were indeed there, within; yet the conscious Coleridge simply could not recognize them as his:

Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,….
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be beloved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.

It is this, I think, that explains the rigid alternatives offered in “Christabel”—either blank innocence or abysmal guilt; and the latter could take possession of the guiltless mind at any moment, so that Christabel. “The maid, devoid of guile and sin,”

   passively did imitate
That look of dull and treacherous hate!…
Still picturing that look askance
With forced unconscious sympathy.

In the “Mariner” Coleridge identifies not only with the Mariner in his guilt and abandonment; not only, as Mr. Bate (following David Perkins) shows, with the albatross, so that the crime, whatever else it was, was at least in part a rejection of something within the self; he also identifies with the—at first—repulsive “creatures of the great deep” that can only be transformed when they are blessed and accepted. In “Christabel,” besides his inability to make the evil of Geraldine in any sense convincing, he can only offer a stark opposition, yet one in which the rigidly incompatible extremes show a mysterious tendency to come together.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print