It is difficult to write a short review of Coleridge, The Damaged Archangel that will be fair both to Mr. Fruman and to his subject. The book is formidably long—scholarly and well documented, as the professional journals say (434 pages of text, plus 132 pages of closely printed notes), sometimes repetitious, and not remarkably well organized.
Mr. Fruman moreover occasionally drops a critical clanger that sets up disturbing reverberations in the mind of the conscientious reviewer who is trying to keep his attention fixed on the argument: Coriolanus—that great play—is “generally considered one of the Bard’s lesser triumphs.” Regret is expressed that although Coleridge analyzed many of Wordsworth’s poems, “he does not perform the same task for any of his own.” “A detailed analysis of any of his own important poems, and especially of the great fragments ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel,’ would have been of incalculable value to later readers and critics.” (Tell that, one might say, to the author of The Waste Land!) Most daunting of all is the remark (p. 165) that “the task of establishing sources is one for the entire scholarly community, and it is a pursuit that never ends”—at which point some members of the scholarly community may think of handing in their union cards.
Mr. Fruman, however, is not intent on source-hunting simply as a scholarly pastime. He believes that the current high estimate of Coleridge is wrong, and that the only way to put the record straight is to present a complete dossier of “borrowings”—unacknowledged or only obliquely acknowledged—together with an intimate biography drawing on every scrap of available evidence, from the testimony of friends and acquaintances to the most cryptic jottings in the Notebooks. “The resulting portrait of Coleridge the man, artist, and thinker” is, he claims, “clearer and richer, more internally consistent—and very much darker emotionally and morally—than has hitherto been drawn.”
The claim is exaggerated: we already knew a good deal about the “dark” side of Coleridge’s troubled life. Mr. Fruman does, however, give a convincing description of the complicated frustrations that drove him to invent for himself a kind of false identity. In spite of his generous recognition of greatness in others Coleridge had a compulsive need not only to be loved but to be admired. His self-confidence impaired, first by an unhappy childhood, then by the addiction to opium and a disastrous marriage, he could not be content with his own great gifts. He had to portray himself as even more precocious than he was, to assert spontaneous inspiration even when an “impromptu” effusion had been labored at for months (or was simply lifted), above all to conceal his obligations to other critics and philosophers when acknowledgment would have cast doubt on his own originality.
All this is amply illustrated in Fruman’s book, and I myself learned a very great deal that I had not known before. If the revaluation is finally unconvincing it is not because Mr. Fruman’s “facts” are wrong but because his emphases are. He fails to make distinctions: in the prose writings between those borrowings that, properly belonging to another man’s thought, are not assimilated into a new and individual way of looking at the world, and those that are so assimilated; in the poetry between poems that betray unconscious conflict and those few poems in which conflict itself is absorbed into an expressive form.
The book consists of four sections. The first briefly examines Coleridge’s early life and writings, and on the evidence of undeniable thefts and mis-statements concludes:
The broad outlines of Coleridge’s profoundest intellectual aspirations are clear enough: above all he was driven by a desire to achieve a reputation for dazzling creative gifts and universal knowledge. At the same time, and in some ways far more destructive of his emotional security and peace of mind, he presented to the world, both in his private correspondence and in his public utterances, a personal portrait of childlike innocence and severe moral rigor.
This would pass if it were not for the exaggeration, the substitution of a part for the whole. Coleridge was driven in the ways described, but his “profoundest” intellectual aspiration was to make sense of—to define the value that he felt to be implicit in—the life of every man. The second section deals mainly with Coleridge’s literary criticism, with special reference to “sources,” the third and fourth sections with some of the greater poems, with special reference to the unconscious drives already invoked to explain the plagiarisms. The result is an odd mixture of insight and obstinacy.
As might be expected, Coleridge’s Shakespearean criticism fares very badly indeed. T. M. Raysor, in 1930, gave a full account of Coleridge’s more or less direct borrowings from A. W. Schlegel.1 Fruman adds little to this except reasons for believing that Coleridge knew Schlegel earlier than he admitted, and a harsher judgment. But apart from the famous distinction between mechanical and organic form—which is rightly regarded as a turning point in the history of criticism, though it has been rather uncritically accepted 2—the direct borrowings are trivial.
Coleridge is not an infallible guide to Shakespeare (he believed that the “low porter soliloquy” in Macbeth was “written for the mob by some other hand,” and wanted to emend “the blanket of the dark” to “the blank height of the dark”). But far more than is generally realized he offers firsthand perceptions that, once read, quicken our own understanding. I think of such different things as his insistence on the dramatic necessity of the first five lines of King Lear; his comparison of the opening of Hamlet with that of Macbeth, pointing forward to essential differences in the plays; the psychological penetration in his description of the contrasting reactions of Macbeth and Banquo to the witches’ prophecies; the brief comment on “the laboured rhythm and hypocritical overmuch” of Lady Macbeth’s welcome to Duncan. His mind pounces on the telling detail and generalizes from it.
The power of poetry is, by a single word perhaps, to instil that energy into the mind, which compels the imagination to produce the picture. Prospero tells Miranda,
Fated to the purpose, did Antonio open
The gates of Milan; and i’ the dead of darkness,
The ministers for the purpose hurried thence
Me, and thy crying self.
Here, by introducing a single happy epithet, “crying,” in the last line, a complete picture is presented to the mind, and in the production of such pictures the power of genius consists.
None of these examples is from Schlegel, and Mr. Fruman does not mention them. He does say, “On purely poetic matters—always crucial in any encompassing view of Shakespeare’s art—Coleridge is a great authority where Schlegel is not one at all,” but without fleshing out the remark is hardly more than a routine obeisance. That is what I mean by misleading emphasis.
In dealing with the Biographia Literaria Mr. Fruman gives full attention to the Schellingean borrowings in the first volume, but has little to say of the original insights contained either there or in the second volume, where, “released from the viscous integument of metaphysics,” “something akin to a miraculous recovery takes place.” The miracle isn’t much in evidence in Mr. Fruman’s pages. The famous account of the imagination (revealing itself in “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”) is subjected to a reductive analysis, much on the lines of René Wellek’s. What is ignored is the power of this paragraph to set the reader’s mind profitably at work, and the way in which ideas struggling for expression link with other scattered aperçus to form principles that have little to do with the explicit philosophizing (which is part of another story).
Intent on logic, metaphysics, and German sources (which he knows at firsthand, and I do not), Mr. Fruman simply ignores the fact that what is best in the book springs from Coleridge’s sensitive, firsthand feeling for poetry and his ability to generalize his findings in ways that will not allow the reader to remain at the level of abstraction: the critical principles, formed in the interplay of reading and reflection, fairly cry out to be applied and tested in new readings. It is significant that the first sentence of Chapter 15 of the Biographia (on “the specific symptoms of poetic power” in Shakespeare’s early poems) links “principles” and “practical criticism.” As I. A. Richards showed long ago, to examine closely the opening paragraphs of this chapter is to learn something fundamental about the nature of poetry. But Mr. Fruman does not mention these few pregnant pages. In general, it is Coleridge’s power of stimulating thought on crucial matters—of calling out the energies of mind of generations of readers—that is ignored.
Interest quickens when we come to the second half of the book, dealing with the poems. Two excellent chapters (“The Annus Mirabilis Begins” and “The Background of Lyrical Ballads“) show—I think decisively—that it was Wordsworth’s example and incitement that helped Coleridge to throw off his dead poeticisms and find his true voice in poetry: for good measure there is some just comment on Wordsworth’s own achievement as a critic. But I cannot see that we are much further forward in understanding the comparatively few poems that we continually return to. That Coleridge’s “Mutual Passion (Altered and Modernized from an Old Poet)” is almost entirely lifted from Ben Jonson is an interesting fact about Coleridge’s psychological make-up—but no one wants to read “Mutual Passion” more than once. That a few phrases from Cowper are recalled in “Frost at Midnight” makes no difference at all to our enjoyment of that beautiful, subtle, and—in any sense that matters—entirely original poem.
Mr. Fruman, however, is mainly concerned with “The Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Christabel,” which he persists in referring to as “the great triad.” It is a question-begging phrase. Not everyone would agree that “Kubla Khan” is “greater” than “Dejection: an Ode,” which Mr. Fruman refers to as “a brilliant and moving poem, [which] rings false as a cri de coeur, riddled too often with the intrusions of the self-conscious poet singing with his breast against a thorn, too obviously aware of dramatic posture and poetic balances.” This seems to me nonsense: there are plenty of faults—not of posturing but of indulged self-pity—in the long original draft written to Sara Hutchinson; but the Ode itself is a made poem, whose energy springs from the balance or reconciliation of personal pain and the power to look at the self with an observation as clear and keen as is given to the outside world.
There are, surely, distinctions to be made within “the great triad.” Fruman is right in thinking that the apparent remoteness of the Mariner from Coleridge’s everyday activities and more easily accessible feelings is what enabled him to project “the artist’s inner drama of tensions, desires, cross purposes, and moral censorship.” But there is a difference in this respect between this poem and the other two. Marion Milner, in an essay, “Psychoanalysis and Art,”3 says: “What is most important about this thing we call a work of art, that is admittedly a symbol, is not the original primary unconscious wish or wishes that it symbolizes but the fact that a new thing has been created.” “The Ancient Mariner” is “a new thing,” an achieved work of art, and to “understand” it we need a knowledge neither of Coleridge’s “sources” nor of his dreams, but only the capacity for imaginative response that we bring to any other poem.
We don’t of course shut our eyes to the latent psychic content.4 But the poem symbolizes experiences—of guilt, isolation, death-in-life, and at least partial relief—in such powerful ways that, like all great works of art, it has an autonomous life independent of its creator. We cannot say the same either for “Kubla Khan” or for “Christabel”: the umbilical cord hasn’t been cut. Mr. Fruman’s quasi-psychoanalytic probing of the hidden sources of these poems results in some interesting speculations about Oedipal or fraternal guilts, the withdrawal of love by a cruel mother-figure, and Coleridge’s inability, in Lawrence’s phrase, “to think sex, fully, completely, honestly and cleanly.”
But at the end of it all nothing has been said to vindicate the judgment that these are great poems. Perhaps it is unfair to end of this note. The later chapters do bring out, often in new ways, the intimate torments of Coleridge’s life. But they do not explain the continuing life of a handful of poems, any more than the book as a whole explains why Coleridge’s thought continues—in so many different, inter-related fields—to stimulate our thinking.
May 4, 1972
See Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, edited by T. M. Raysor (Dutton, Everyman Edition, 2 vols., 1960), Introduction, pp. xxvi ff., and Notes passim. Both Raysor and Fruman acknowledge their indebtedness to Mrs. von Helmholtz-Phelan’s monograph The Indebtedness of S. T. Coleridge to August Wilhelm von Schlegel. ↩
As Graham Hough remarks in An Essay on Criticism (Norton, 1967), Chapter XXII, “Organic Form: A Metaphor.” ↩
In Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, edited by J. D. Sutherland (Hogarth Press, 1958). ↩
For an unusual combination of the psychological and the literary approach, see D. W. Harding, “The Theme of The Ancient Mariner” in Experience into Words (Chatto and Windus, 1963). Harding, himself a psychologist, remarks: “The dangers of the psychological approach arise from a failure to give close enough attention to what precisely the poem says. Precision here includes a response to subtlety and emotional shading, and it precludes the drawing out of remote meanings from one fragment of the poem without regard to the control exercised over it by the rest. In brief, any psychologizing we undertake must be controlled by the discipline of close and sensitive reading; it can never compensate for a lapse in literary vigilance.” ↩