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Isn’t It Romantic?

Goethe has still the grand cynicism of the eighteenth century; a few months later Constant notes about August Wilhelm Schlegel:

…strange system of Schlegel who regrets a religion in which he does not believe, and who believes that one can remake a religion once it has fallen.

As for Friedrich Schlegel, he wrote, “To have religion is to live poetically”: the violent dislocation of the concepts of both religion and poetry is evident. Coleridge considered himself deeply religious, and called Wordsworth “at least a semi-atheist,” whatever that may mean; but the dirtiest word in Coleridge’s vocabulary was “priest,” and he included in that category all Protestant (as well as Catholic) ministers who assumed the role of religious authority.

Most of the early Romantics came from conservative, Protestant, Pietistic families, from which they derived much of their language and imagery and their views of the world. Their magnification of the purely inward, personal elements in Pietism was turned not only against the “atheistic” Enlightenment—they were all deeply influenced by Hume and Voltaire—but against their own background as well. Their early reading in seventeenth-century mystics like Jakob Boehme provided them with ammunition in this battle on two fronts. The mystical philosophy of the seventeenth century had often been conceived as an attack on organized religion and even as part of a program of social and economic reform. (For example, Winstanley’s refusal to accept any Christ outside the inward Christ that was in each man’s heart was inextricably bound up with his revolutionary movement to seize the common land of England and turn it over to the poor.) Abrams is right to maintain that the Romantic poets’ need of a theological vocabulary was independent of their religious creed or lack of one, but the meaning of that vocabulary cannot be understood except through its relation to organized religion and society.

Empson, on the other hand, is very much concerned with Coleridge’s social and religious thought, above all with the changes that his religious creed underwent during his lifetime. Empson is a large-spirited critic, and it pains him to see his poet gradually succumb to the horrors of orthodoxy. To restore Coleridge to himself, Empson and his co-editor, David Pirie, have rewritten the Ancient Mariner. Except at one place, they have not actually changed any of Coleridge’s words, but they have produced a text that does not look precisely like any of the different versions that Coleridge published. In a way, this serves Coleridge right: he had himself proposed a selection of the great English poets rewritten by himself as a great improvement over the originals; and when he was asked to translate Goethe’s Faust, he considered whether he should remodel it, adding that it would be even “more easy to compose the whole anew.”

Empson and Pirie have divided the changes that Coleridge made to his poem of 1798 into two parts: those that merely refine and clarify the original conception, and those that seriously alter it, and even conceal it behind a smoke screen of Christian allegory. In other words, for Empson, Coleridge afterward “ratted on the poem” and tried to pretend that it was about something else, just as he spent the later part of his life insisting that he had never been a “Jacobin” revolutionary. There are, indeed, serious cuts in the 1800 version of the poem, and the marginal glosses of 1817 give an interpretation based on sin and redemption through suffering that is gravely at odds with the text of 1798. Empson believes that redemption by torture is wicked, and that for God to redeem the human race by torturing His son is even more shockingly wicked; the Coleridge of 1798 and even later was enthusiastically and courageously of the same opinion and risked his career and his livelihood for this belief.

Empson and Pirie’s treatment of the text may be high-handed, but any edition with variant readings invites every reader to form just such a text for himself. In their great edition of the Prelude, de Selincourt and Darbishire called upon the reader to form his “ideal text” from the material they provided. However, it is not, strictly speaking, the “ideal” text that Empson and Pirie seek, but the one truest to the original idea of the poem.

Their search implies an idealistic (and Romantic) view of literature in which none of the various stages of the text is the poem itself, but only approaches to it. This is indeed the only coherent view that permits genuinely interpretative criticism. (Only a sacred text cannot be otherwise than it is, and when the form has become totally rigid, the meaning becomes unattainable—i.e. untranslatable and unparaphrasable—and the possibility of interpretation is either zero [the text is a magic formula] or multiplies uncontrollably.) The poem is the idea (Coleridge would have put a capital I) which the text seeks to realize, and which the text may therefore betray and falsify as well as reveal.

This idea of the poem is placed by Empson squarely in the poet’s mind, and he equates it with the poet’s intention, which is partially misleading. Coleridge knew better when he put the capital I: the poet’s intention is itself only an approach to the idea.2 Empson has (in an earlier essay3 on the Ancient Mariner) exploded his own position with an irresistible joke about “four times fifty living men…, They dropped down one by one,” when he wrote, “I do not believe that there were two hundred of them; Coleridge or the Mariner invents this number to heighten the drama of their all dying at once.” As usual Empson is right, four times fifty is clearly an exaggeration, and it is impossible and irrelevant to decide whether the author or the poem is inflating the figure.

Empson treats Coleridge’s betrayal of his poetry with generosity and sympathy, and he is wonderfully free of the pious moral airs expressed by recent critics faced with Coleridge’s weaknesses. Opium, cowardice, plagiarism, and procrastination make a formidable array, but they seem to have touched Coleridge’s nobility of spirit very little in the end. For Empson, indeed, the theme of the Ancient Mariner is the very reason that Coleridge betrayed the poem and tried to convince his readers and himself that it was about something else. The theme is a sense of guilt and revulsion from life greater than any possible motivation. The disparity between the shooting of the albatross and the subsequent horrors visited upon the Mariner and the crew is the most terrifying aspect of the poem.

When the Mariner is able for a moment to conquer his disgust for the slimy creatures of the deep and to bless them, it is not true that “at once the terrible spell snaps,” as Abrams writes in the wake of the majority of critics. The relief is only temporary when the albatross hung round his neck slides off into the sea and the Mariner is able to pray. Greater penance is still to be exacted from the Mariner, as Empson points out, and even more terrible horrors are to appear. There is never, in fact, any final release: the Mariner is condemned to tell his story obsessively over and over again without obtaining absolution. The poem affirms ambiguously the love that should unite all creatures of the universe and the irrational terror of being unable to sustain and meet that love. Almost as much as anything else, the Ancient Mariner warns us of the awesome consequences of religious guilt, and it is in this sense a deeply antireligious poem.

The religious imagery and language of the Ancient Mariner are, of course, essential and even obsessive. But Abrams stands things on their heads when he writes:

The Ancient Mariner is neither an allegorical fable nor a symbolist poem. The persistent religious and moral allusions, however, both in the text and in the glosses which Coleridge added to assist the bewildered readers of the first unpublished version, invite us to take the Mariner’s experience as an instance of the Christian plot of moral error, the discipline of suffering, and a consequent change of heart.

The Christian plot is not an inward meaning, it is the outer shell. The poem use religious semi-Christian, semi-pagan narrative patterns openly, and invites us to read into them feelings of a different order. As Coleridge himself wrote about the poem, he treated the supernatural characters “so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.”4 It is to Coleridge’s conception of “our inward nature” that the reader’s attention is drawn, and to this end the religious images are drained of their specifically religious content and filled with something new.


This is the process of secularization with which Abrams’s book deals, and he is deeply aware of its presence without, however, being able to elucidate its action. That is because he appears to claim for his theological forms and images a fundamental and inalterable meaning—a significance which remains constant even when they are reformulated in radically different contexts. What the Romantics discovered, however, was the possibility of stripping forms of their original significance and of giving them a new sense almost diametrically opposed to the original (as Tieck, for example, begins a play with the epilogue).

What they looked for was the tension between the new meaning and the inevitable residue of the old. This was the tension that enabled the Romantics to carry out their program of reconceiving art and literature as a dynamic and endless process that was to reach a static and resolved form only at the point of infinity. For “point of infinity” read “God,” and for “God”—as far as that word was given a specific meaning by the Romantics—read nothing more than the immediate use that each writer might have at the moment for Him: the resolution of the dynamic process of life, the realm of the unconscious and the unknowable, humanity realizing itself as absolute Mind, and so forth. In this way, Hegel can be an atheist who talks freely about God and identifies Christ not with Jesus but with Napoleon-Hegel. This free use of language enables Wordsworth to change his religious beliefs over the years without finding the need to alter their expression except in minor details.

The fundamental importance of Spinoza for this period provides an example of these shifts of meaning. For most of the eighteenth century Spinoza was simply an atheist. If you were accused of atheism yourself (as Pierre Bayle and Voltaire were), you could always set up a splendid smoke screen with a violent attack on Spinoza. The break came in 1785 when the German philosopher Jacobi disclosed the great critic Lessing’s secret Spinozism. By the last decade of the century, Spinoza had completely changed from an atheist to a “God-intoxicated” philosopher, and it is a question who had been converted, Spinoza or God. To some extent, the religious revival was only a further secularization.

  1. 2

    The poet’s understanding of his inspiration is not privileged: this is perhaps the oldest critical tradition we have, going back to Plato. For Plato, the poet was the last man to be able to explain his own work. This paradox was already understood then as a hard nut to crack, but essential to literature. But Empson is right to claim what we can reconstruct of the poet’s intention as evidence for the meaning of his work. For all Empson’s sniping at the Intentional Fallacy (which means largely that the main evidence for the meaning of a poem is the text, whatever the poet may have had in mind), he has a conception of intention grand enough to accommodate any theory of interpretation.

  2. 3

    The Critical Quarterly, 1964.

  3. 4

    Biographica Literaria, Chapter XIV.

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