Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge; drawing by David Levine

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.

As for “Kubla Khan,” it is so nearly a success that the reader who dissents from what is rapidly becoming the standard opinion of it must feel uncommonly exposed. The theme is nothing less than the working of the creative imagination, and Coleridge, we may well feel, was superbly equipped to write just this kind of poem. But compare “Kubla Khan” with other poems on the creative powers of the mind—with “The Garden,” the Introduction to Songs of Innocence, “Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” or even, in spite of its over-explicitness, the opening of Book XIII of The Prelude in the 1805 version: all of these, in their different ways, carry the stamp of authenticity as “Kubla Khan” does not. None of these claims for the poet “flashing eyes” or “floating hair” (both a bit stagey, even if, as George Watson has pointed out, they do derive from Plato); none needs to use the kind of incantatory declamation that we find at the end of Coleridge’s poem. Even “The Idea of Order,” which has its share of rhetoric, is in its superb close firmly related by idiom, tone, and allusion to our common life; it extends our powers of perception, but only by starting from where we are. “Kubla Khan” certainly doesn’t start from there, and it demands a very special kind of reading voice if the magic is to work.

It is, of course, a major document for the understanding of the poet. Mr. Bate is the first critic to show the presence in all of Coleridge’s work of certain defensive mechanisms—the self-deprecating tone, the unwillingness to give the appearance of claiming too much, the over-readiness to act, or to seem to act, as usher for the thoughts of another. In “Kubla Khan” the “credo” at the end—the assertion in the first person of all the imagination can do—is brought in vicariously through the figure of the Abyssinian maid “singing of Mount Abora.”

And why an “Abyssinian maid”? Because, as the first version of the poem said, she was really singing of Mount Amara, which is actually in Abyssinia, that alternative seat of Paradise cited by Milton in Book IV of Paradise Lost…. Coleridge’s own religious censor had naturally demanded that the song of paradise that he heard—the song the poet is inspired to emulate—should not be a song of the true Eden,…But “Mount Amara,” while resolving this difficulty, introduced another. To the devout it suggested a “false paradise,” and however modestly he was hedging his credo, he was not saying that he wanted to draw his inspiration from an admittedly “false” paradise. Worse still, “Mount Amara” could suggest that the author was thinking of an “alternative” paradise, almost as good, perhaps better, at least for the purposes of art. The change to “Mount Abora” disposed of the problem.

It did indeed; but the fact is that “Mount Abora” remains a blur: it removes the poem to a region where no clear focus is possible or required.

The discussion of Coleridge as a critic keeps to a rather high level of generalization and systemization. But it too meets our need to put Coleridge to present use. (I may say in passing that Mr. Bate’s handling of “the problem of the plagiarisms” is charitable, intelligent, and informed: that question seems to be settled once and for all.)

The diverse and often conflicting qualities of intellect and temperament that sometimes made Coleridge the man an enigma to himself gave the critic an unusual openness to diverse modes and approaches.

No one who has written on literature…has more directly and emotionally felt, and philosophically understood, the claims of the subjective…and at the same time retained so firm a grip on the philosophically objective, the specific, or the claims of the technical. The classical and the romantic, the ideal and the concrete process, reason and feeling, symbol and direct statement, form and mimesis…are equally meaningful. And always, within the theatre of his mind, the drama of speculation is one that seeks to combine them—to conceive them as they exist in active interplay and assimilation.

This does not mean only that his literary sympathies were varied and flexible. Coleridge wouldn’t have been a critic at all if he hadn’t possessed “the close practical grasp…the direct perception of the thing as it appears in the concrete”: but he wouldn’t have been the critic he was if his skill in “practical criticism” (a term he seems to have invented) hadn’t been matched by philosophic profundity and an intellectual curiosity that took him far outside the range of purely literary studies. Mr. Bate aptly quotes Bacon: no discovery “can be made on a flat or level; neither is it possible to discover the more remote and deeper parts of any science, if you stand but upon the level of the same science.”

Moreover his conception of the aim and function of art is part of a wider conception of what it means to be fully human, to be intellectually and imaginatively alive: “the essence of his critical thought” lies in his conception of art “as a potential bond of union—a uniter, a reconciler or ‘friend.’ ” And the “reconciliation” effected by art, whether between the discordant qualities of the individual mind or between such philosophic opposites as the universal and the particular, is essentially an act or living process. Form is important because it is so much more than a vessel or mold: simultaneously shaped and shaping, it is the bearer of an inexhaustible creative vitality. Conceived in this way, as Mr. Bate points out, art is “analogous to the fulfillment of religion itself.” Art too sets free a life that is unavoidably and intimately personal—my life, and no one else’s—which is yet the more abundant as the sense of the merely personal recedes. “The man of genius,” said Coleridge—and we are not falsifying his thought if we see the genius as our own model and representative—“the man of genius lives most in the ideal world…his feelings have been habitually associated with thoughts and images, to the number, clearness and vivacity of which the sensation of self is always in inverse proportion.”

As for those more comprehensive aspects of Coleridge’s thought which one has to resist the temptation to call a philosophy, little can be said in a few paragraphs. The main features are indicated by a few related clusters of ideas: the conception of not only life but knowledge as process and energy; the idea of organic unity and the reconciliation of discordant qualities; the idea of the necessary interdependence of all our functions—the recognition, for example, of the part played by deep feeling in some of our best thinking; the insight into the inadequacy of our common and necessary terms of distinction when they are taken to imply an absolute disjunction—terms such as subject and object,* real and ideal, individual and society, law and freedom, faith and reason, immanence and transcendence. These principles or guiding lines of thought occur every-where in Coleridge’s work—in the essays directed toward the understanding of society as much as in the purely literary criticism and the religious writing. But they don’t add up to a systematic philosophy. The question why this is so is of great interest; for what seems to call for a negative account, as almost complete failure of the conscious intention, turns out to be something of such value that it demands neither pity nor condescension but simply the grateful recognition due to great achievement.

What is in question here is, for good or ill, intimately related to Coleridge’s psychology. Mr. Bate doesn’t attempt a vulgar—and impossible—psychoanalysis of his subject. What he does—to me at least in an entirely convincing way—is to elicit a pattern of intellectual habits that seem to have their roots in Coleridge’s personal life: the need for approval from parent-surrogates transformed into excessive demands on the self, “the constant pressure to live up to what is expected,” and the consequent fatigue, self-reproach, and sense of guilt. The recurring swing away from basic trust in his own creative powers is not to be explained as the normal anxiety of creativeness (vide Rollo May); it is much more like a paralyzing fear of something near the center of the self, as though the state of “positive negation” evoked in “Limbo” were somehow an objective hell from which he could only be rescued, not by humility (a steady listening for things as they are), but by self-abasement. Mr. Bate gives many examples of Coleridge’s withdrawal from full commitment to ideas that he obviously valued. All have to do with the claims of the imagination as an organ of creative knowledge or with the high value set on man by the “dynamic” philosophy that so strongly appealed to him in his German contemporaries. When in the “Eolian Harp” Coleridge imagines a “mild reproof” from his wife and dismisses some basis intuitions as “shapings of the unregenerate mind,” we have an early instance of an enduring habit.

What we are confronting here, as Coleridge almost grotesquely hobbles his thought in this innocent poem is in its mild way a direct anticipation of the self-division with which he was to live for at least the next twenty years—a self-division in which some of his central philosophical interests are feared to be outside the pale of a respectability that he felt compelled to solicit, not because he himself respected it in turn, but because he so deeply craved the security of its approval, associated as it was with memories of the Ottery vicarage, the general thought of home, simple benevolence and piety.

When in later years he tried to evolve a more comprehensive theory of life it was not only the difficulty of reconciling such diverse strains as rationalism, empiricism, and the Kantian philosophy that blocked him; it was the apparent irreconcilability of the dynamic philosophy of nature (“reality as process”) and “the Christian dualism of God and the created universe.” The magnum opus was never written.

Yet failure, I have implied, is a word that no one has the right to use in connection with Coleridge’s lifelong effort toward a unified system of thought. For the success that is commonly attributed to him lies in something greater than the sum of innumerable particular insights, in such different fields as literary criticism, education, psychology, social criticism, and so on. Certainly they are what one first thinks of, so that, as Mr. Bate says, we are “tempted to use his works as a treasure house from which to appropriate whatever mirrors or supports our own interests”: it is “easy to overlook the centrality of his thought because of our delight in its suburbs.” For Mr. Bate’s “centrality,” however, I should wish to substitute the phrase, “unity and unifying power.” Not only are most of the particular insights related to the permanent and developing center of his own life and hence to one another: It is because they are informed by principles and ideas that consort with and illuminate one another (principles and ideas are powers of growth) that they can help each enquirer to develop a philosophy—it may be only a sense of direction—he can live by. It is because they do not impose themselves as a completed system that they can foster the only unity that is worth having: the unity of the individual person who, accepting his own uniqueness, accepts also his dependence on, and partial responsibility for, the larger world—the “one life”—of which he forms a part. The point is made by Gordon McKenzie in a monograph on Organic Unity in Coleridge (he is speaking of the term “individuation” in the Theory of Life):

To the common-sense view, individuality frequently means that which is unique or peculiar to one person: its essence lies in some thing strong in itself and sharply detached from life around it. Individualism or individuality is often directly opposed to universality or catholicity. This is not true of Coleridge, who looks upon individuality as something strong in itself, to be sure, but more particularly as a force which reaches out and makes new connections and relations. The greatest individuality is that which has the greatest degree of organization, the largest number of relations.

If one had to select one idea to represent Coleridge’s thought it would, I think, be the idea of life through relationship. The phrase itself of course is easily said, and may mean much or little; it is part of the strength of Mr. Bate’s book that it establishes the rich development of the idea in Coleridge’s thought and prompts us to apply it.

This Issue

December 19, 1968