Coleridge the Magus

Coleridge the Magus.
A talk given by Nick Pruce at the Coleridge Anniversary Lunch of 2010

I have entitled this talk “Coleridge the Magus” because I want to consider how Coleridge spread his spell, what that spell was (and is), how it affected his contemporaries and successors, and how it still affects us today. It was Carlyle, of course, who called him “ a kind of magus, girt in mystery and enigma” and I will discuss later whether this description was intended as a compliment. The other day, though, I came across an essay about “The Magus”, a novel by another son of Wessex, John Fowles, which is not about Coleridge at all. The writer of the essay said that he had found it difficult to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief while reading the novel: the same “willing suspension of disbelief” which Coleridge said, in Biographia Literaria, constituted “poetic faith”. That a writer’s coinage has entered the language is not so unusual, but the fact that the connections have been made seems to suggest “a thousand circlets” spreading out from a flower-head falling in a pool, an image that Coleridge would have recognised!
How, then, did Coleridge spread his spell? First of all, despite his illnesses, his nerves, his procrastinations and his perfectionism – Keats said that he was “…incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge” and his daughter Sara said that “He could not bear to complete incompletely, which everybody else does” – he wrote. For publication he wrote poetry, plays, journalism, political pamphlets, literary criticism, biography and autobiography; he wrote a prodigious number of letters; and for himself he wrote his notebooks; he wrote about theology, social theory, economics, education, civil liberties and constitutional law. I have kept these lists shorter than they might be because lists are not intrinsically interesting. They could be much longer. However, I will add one more edited list. I have taken it from the acknowledgements at the beginning of Volume IV of Coleridge’s Notebooks. It includes thanks to experts on hydroponics, musical boxes, mesmerism, the migration of nightingales and Ramsgate street cries, all of whose help was sought in the decipherment and understanding of the Notebooks. My original list contained seventeen items, and I had only written down the most unusual ones. He wrote a lot and he wrote and thought about a wide range of subjects. He was not alone in that. That is what writers do. So where was the magic?
The contemporary reception of his writing was not always ecstatic. Southey, not admittedly a sympathetic critic by 1798, wrote of “The Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere” that “Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit”. Hazlitt’s judgement on “The Friend” – two year’s worth of painfully produced hard work on Coleridge’s part – was that “prolixity and obscurity are the most frequent characteristics.” When Coleridge wrote to Lord Liverpool, who was Prime Minister at the time, about false philosophy, Lord Liverpool reflected, “Mister Coleridge’s object is to rescue speculative philosophy and make it best suited to the interests of the State; at least, I believe this to be Mister Coleridge’s meaning, but I cannot well understand him.” I wonder if any modern thinkers write private letters to David Cameron about false philosophy, comprehensibly or not? Southey, Hazlitt, Lord Liverpool – and they were not the only critical voices. Even Byron, who thought “Christabel”: “…the wildest and finest that I ever heard in that kind of composition,” wrote of Coleridge “…explaining Metaphysics to the Nation/I wish he would explain his explanation.”
So far, so not very magical. But remember that the last volume of Coleridge’s Notebooks and the “Opus Maximum” were not published until 2002, so it is only in the last eight years that it has been possible for readers to have a full overview of Coleridge’s writings. In 1840, six years after Coleridge’s death, John Stuart Mill wrote that Coleridge was: “…one of the two great seminal minds of England in their age.” (the other was Jeremy Bentham); and: “No Englishman has left his impress so deeply…” But he also wrote: “The time is yet far distant when in the estimation of Coleridge and of his influence upon the intellect of our time, anything like unanimity can be looked for.” The time when everybody agrees will probably never arrive. Norman Fruman’s “The Damaged Archangel”, about Coleridge’s plagiarism, is still causing scholarly arguments forty years after its appearance. Books about all aspects of Coleridge’s life and work continue to be published every year. For example, this year saw the publication of a book about the real ancient mariner, Simon Hatley (who shot a black albatross; he also sailed with Alexander Selkirk – Robinson Crusoe – and William Dampier – on whose writings Swift drew for “Gulliver’s Travels.”) Here again is an example of the “thousand circlets”, of Coleridge’s light being cast into his future and our present, and back into our shared past.
Coleridge’s public utterances were not confined to print. In his younger days he preached in Unitarian chapels and gave lectures in which he argued against the war and against the Slave trade, but his radicalism always had a theological bent. In his middle years he lectured on philosophy and literature, though being Coleridge he did not always allow himself to be confined by his published topic. When Hazlitt first heard Coleridge preach he was impressed. He quotes Milton when he writes that Coleridge’s voice “rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes.” Then Coleridge launches into his subject “like an eagle dallying with the wind.” Hazlitt was writing this in 1823, years after he had become disenchanted with Coleridge and having shown himself capable of the most wounding criticism. Yet he continues, “…I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres…truth and genius had embraced under the eye…This was even beyond my hopes.” Hazlitt was impressed! The lectures were always a struggle. Ill health, nerves and lack of preparation meant that Coleridge was not always at his best and sometimes he failed to turn up at all. Whenever his lectures were advertised, they were well attended. Everyone knew Coleridge could talk, this was why they were sometimes disappointed by his lectures.
How he could talk! It was in his talk, his conversation, his ‘oneversazione’ that he most enchanted people. Washington Alston, who painted his portrait, wrote: “I am almost tempted to dream that I have once listened to Plato in the groves of the Academy.” Charles Lamb was even more ecstatic: “He would talk from morn to dewy eve, nor cease till far midnight… he had the tact of making the unintelligible seem plain.” Of course Lamb was an old friend from school, so to show that he was not completely dazzled, how about this exchange: “Lamb, you have heard me preach, I think?” “Coleridge, I have never heard you do anything else.” Wordsworth described Coleridge’s talk as a “majestic river,” Leigh Hunt writes of “his voice undulating in a stream of music,” and Thomas Gratton said, “I thought it would be pleasant to fall asleep to the gushing melody of his discourse.” There is a theme creeping in here, I think. Coleridge could talk for England and not everyone was a fan. Henry Hillman said of his talk: ”One third was admirable, another third was sheer absolute nonsense, and of the remaining third, I know not whether it was sense or nonsense.” Not only did he talk a lot, but he talked about a great range of subjects. Gioacchino de’Prati, an Italian exile, wrote: “Whether he was speaking on metaphysics, theology, poetry, history, or the most trifling subjects, his genius threw a new light upon the object of his discourse.” Coleridge was perhaps aware of his limitations. When Sir William Hamilton, the mathematician and astronomer, voiced his reservations of Coleridge’s metaphysically idealistic applications of biology and physics: “I am not sure I understand them all,” Coleridge replied, “The question is, sir, whether I understand them all myself.” Coleridge’s talk did not just attract intellectual admiration. Coleridge’s nephew Henry, admittedly not an impartial observer, wrote in the preface to Table Talk: “(He) charmed by innocence as well as by eloquence. Women of taste…tended to proclaim him abundantly lovable.” Another person for whom Coleridge was not just a great intellect was Anne Gillman, wife of his host, doctor and friend: “He possessed a more heavenly nature than was ever before given to Man.” She may well have had a say in the wording of his memorial tablet in Highgate Church: “His disposition was unalterably sweet and angelic.” One woman was not charmed by Coleridge the Talker. Madame de Stael found him a “master of monologue mais qu’il ne savait pas le dialogue.” Possibly a mote and beam situation there!
Coleridge wrote and preached and lectured and talked. That was how he wove his spell and as we have seen, not all his contemporaries were bewitched. Some were, however, and his successors even more so. Of his contemporaries, perhaps it is the poets who owe him the most. Not those of his own age, but the next generation. He gave his friends Southey and Wordsworth a lot, but once they had tired of his behaviour they were reluctant to acknowledge the artistic debt they owed. Who knows, if they had stuck with him and his ideas they might have written better, avoided the contempt of the Young Turks and not ended up as Poets Laureate! Byron’s: “Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,/And representative of all the race.” must have hurt; and Shelley’s “To Wordsworth” – “Thou wert as a lone star…/Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.” could have been a mortal blow, at least to his self-esteem. What did the next generation owe to Coleridge? We do not always need to work it out for ourselves. Scott recognised the influence of “Christabel” (which he had heard recited before it was published) on “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and Byron wrote to Scott that he was “partly in the same scrape myself.” ““Siege of Corinth” leant on “Christabel” – “was it the wind through some hollow stone,/sent that soft and tender moan?” – a close, though unintentional resemblance.” It is a question of atmosphere –witchery by daylight – as much as anything, and we can follow this feeling into Keat’s “Eve of St Agnes” in which a room is “Pale, lattic’d, chill and silent as a tomb.” as well. The exotic world that Coleridge conjures up in “Kubla Khan” is often echoed in Byron; and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” also recalls its sense of power and loss: “…that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,”
Future generations of poets sought to emulate those aspects of Coleridge’s work which had been most sternly criticised at the time. A world in which “moonbeams are playing on a charnel house” is the stuff of Poe’s “The Raven” – “…this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore.”; of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” – “The mirror crack’d from side to side”; and of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, son of Coleridge’s nitrous oxide – sniffing friend, who not only wrote about that Gothic world, but lived it: “It’s only two devils that blow/Through a murderer’s bones to and fro.” He poisoned himself at the age of forty -six and his last work, “Death’s Jest Book”, was published posthumously. Swinburne called Coleridge “the greatest poet born into this world” and lines like: “Cold eye-lids that hide like a jewel/Hard eyes…” show where his influences lay. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ideas about sprung rhythm owe a debt to Coleridge’s thoughts on accent and quantity, and his drawing together of God and Nature would have pleased Coleridge: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” Oscar Wilde could not have contemplated writing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” without the example of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “I never saw a man who looked/With such a wistful eye…” – though he does not use the ballad form as flexibly as Coleridge.
Nearer our own time we can sense Coleridge’s magic in the “moon-lit dome” of Yeats’ “Byzantium”; the fractured structure of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” echoes that of “Kubla Khan”; and isn’t Coleridge, who incorporated into his poetry his intense reaction to his own physical world, identical to Hardy’s “… man who used to notice such things” and the inspiration for Seamus Heaney’s “Seeing Things” in which “The stone’s alive with what’s invisible:”? On a lighter note, “Kubla Khan” and its creation have provided inspiration to Stevie Smith, whose “Thoughts on the Person from Porlock” include the idea that Coleridge was already stuck, that the person was called Porson, that his grandmother was one of the Rutlandshire warlocks (and not from Porlock), and that he had a cat called Flo. In Douglas Adams’ “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” a ghost has made Coleridge finish “Kubla Khan” and alter parts of “The Ancient Mariner” for its own nefarious purposes. Appositely, the plot features a Coleridge Dinner! Dirk Gently has to go back in time to stop Coleridge finishing “Kubla Khan” and thus save the world. And Fred Porlock (not his real name) interrupts Sherlock Holmes in “The Valley of Fear.”
“Hear the rime of the Ancient Mariner/See his eyes as he stops one of three” sounds familiar but different. It is the opening of Iron Maiden’s take on the story. The best bits of the song are where they just copy Coleridge’s words. They have the good grace to use quotation marks. They are not the only Heavy Metal band which has used STC for inspiration. How about this? “To seek the sacred river Alph/To walk the caves of ice/To break my fast on honeydew/And drink the milk of paradise” is from Rush’s “Xanadu”.
I think we can all agree that Coleridge has left his mark on poetry, whatever Hazlitt might have thought about his “nonsense verses”.
Where else did he leave his mark? He wrote “…if only ten minds have been awakened by my writings, the intensity and the benefit may well compensate for the narrowness of the extension.” He was aware of how complex his ideas were, and how difficult they were to communicate, yet he did not compromise on his ambition. The scale of this ambition is reflected in these words to John Thelwall: “My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible.” His daughter wrote: “He was almost always on the star-paved road, taking in the whole heavens in his circuit.” He wanted to achieve unity between the individual and society, between Man and Nature, and between Man and God. He talked of, “The only attempt that I know of ever made to reduce all knowledges into harmony…to unite the insulated fragments of truth.” Yes, he was ambitious.
His ambitions for the individual still seem desirable, and who can say they have yet been achieved? In his “Second Lay Sermon” he advocates: “making the means of subsistence more easy to each individual; securing to each individual the hope of bettering his own condition or that of his children; developing those faculties which are essential to a man’s humanity, that is, to his rational and moral being”. It seems like a good manifesto to me. He saw that “our manufacturers must consent to regulations” and followed this with a pamphlet campaign supporting a Bill to prohibit children under nine years old from working in cotton mills and to limit older children’s working hours to twelve and a half hours per day. It was defeated. Coleridge’s words about Lord Lauderdale, one of the Bill’s opponents, sound almost Swiftian in their irony: “Whether some half-score of rich capitalists are to be prevented from suborning suicide and perpetuating infanticide and soul-murder is, forsooth, the most perplexing question which has ever called forth his determining faculties, accustomed as they are well-known to have been, to grappling with difficulties.” He hated utilitarianism. “Persons are not things. Go…question the doctor whether the workman’s health and temperance…have found their level again?” At the other end of the political scale, foreign policy, he seems equally hard to disagree with: “I never think that statesman a great man who will assert that state policy cannot and ought not to be always regulated by morality.” John Stuart Mill wrote of “On the Constitution of the Church and State”: “Has the age produced any other theory of government which can stand comparison with it as to its first principles?”
Another aspect of Coleridge’s writing about man in society (though he would never have limited himself in that way), was his literary criticism. I was going to erase that sentence, because it is nonsense, except that the fact that I did write it says something about Coleridge. I wrote it because literary criticism is not about Man and Nature, and not about Man and God, which are the other two topics in this section of my talk. But of course for Coleridge these categories were meaningless. For him, poetry is about Man and Society and Nature and God. So I will include it here for convenience. When I looked at my notes I found that the first entry in the section on “Biographia Literaria” was from a letter from Coleridge to Humphrey Davy: “…the relation of thoughts to things. I have been dubitans, affirmans, negans,…imaginans et sentiens.” I.A. Richards chose it as an illustration in the first chapter of his book “Coleridge on Imagination”. I had forgotten that there was such an obvious link between Coleridge’s thinking on poetry and on science. I will limit myself to two quotations about Coleridge’s literary criticism. Richards writes: “Coleridge’s criticism requires us to reconsider our most fundamental preconceptions, our conceptions of man’s being – the nature of his mind and its knowledge.” Kathleen Coburn, the great Coleridge scholar who edited most of the Notebooks wrote: “Coleridge’s search for a criterion of poetry involved him in the wider search for a criterion of life.”
Coleridge was intensely interested in science. He was even more interested in making a bridge between science and poetry. The term “scientist” was only coined just before he died, and he would have described Davy and Beddoes and his other scientific friends as “natural philosophers”. He discussed with them burning topics like animal magnetism and the vital principle. He suggested to Davy that: “…all composition consists in the balance of opposing energies.” By emphasising their variety he linked Shakespeare (lunatic, lover and poet) with Davy (water, flame, diamond, charcoal) – now that is magic! He wrote that chemistry is the “poetry of the natural world.” When he looked at Nature it made him think. Darwin cannot have seen this, because it did not appear in print until 2002, but Coleridge wrote in his Notebook: “…the capability, to become, may be given.” He suggested that: “The dodo formed the transition from the water fowl to the Gallinaceous or Ostrich tribe.” Darwin would have been interested! Yet if he had lived to read it, Coleridge would have been as disturbed by the implications of “The Origin of Species” as Darwin knew his contemporaries would be. In the same Notebook Coleridge wrote: “The attempt to solve the problem of Existence, Order and Harmony, otherwise than by an Eternal Mind…is too revolting to common sense.”
Coleridge preached as a young man and never ceased to place religion and the Church at the centre of his thought. And his thought was surprisingly modern. John Stuart Mill wrote of “… the enlarged and liberal appreciation he extended to most thinkers from whom he differed.” I am writing this on the day that Pope Benedict arrives in Britain. Here is Coleridge: “I should not so far despair of a union between the Protestant and the now papal but still Catholic Church.” His religion and his humanity were inextricably linked. In “Aids to Reflection” he wrote: “The outward object of virtue is the greatest producible sum of happiness of all men.” His writing excited and inspired his successors. For Thomas Arnold, his ideas “…became a programme of action.” John Henry Newman, who became a cardinal, said that Coleridge contributed to the “…spiritual awakening of spiritual wants,” while a man of a very different religious stamp, F.D. Maurice the Christian Socialist, said that: “Mister Coleridge’s help has been invaluable to us.” Gladstone, commenting on the State in its relation with the Church, found Coleridge’s work “…alike both beautiful and profound.” In the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot drew on Coleridge’s ideas about the Church and State for his “The Idea of a Christian Society”, published in 1940; and on the 18th of March 2008, Rowan Williams gave a Holy Week lecture in which he quoted Coleridge’s description of the Church as a “ ‘critical friend’, in the political sphere.”
I took my title from Carlyle, and said that I would return to him. He certainly damned Coleridge with faint praise. He called him: “A man of great and useless genius.” Yet there was also affection: “I never heard him discourse without feeling ready to worship him and toss him in a blanket.” Coleridge was far from perfect, but did you know that Goebbels read Carlyle’s “Frederick the Great of Prussia” to Hitler? Or that Samuel Butler said that: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”? Other contemporaries were more generous to Coleridge. This is de Quincey: “The largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and most comprehensive…that has yet existed among men.” Hazlitt, despite his hostile reviews, thought Coleridge: “The only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius.” And Thomas Arnold enthused: “Old Sam was more of a great man than anyone who has lived within the four seas in my memory.” Leslie Stephen, in the Dictionary of National Biography, wrote that: “Coleridge alone among English writers is in the front rank at once as poet, as critic, and as philosopher.” And this is D.H. Lawrence: “I’d like to know Coleridge, when Charon has rowed me over.” And today? Well, you are all here to honour him. And I found this on a website called 3 It is dated 12th April 2010 and is discussing Coleridge’s thoughts on perception. “He was a meta-cognitive theorist far ahead of his time…a startlingly contemporary figure.” He was indeed a magus.