The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge by John Worthen, Reviewed by Nicholas Reid

The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge
By John Worthen
(Cambridge, 2010)
Reviewed by Nicholas Reid on 2011-08-12.

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This is a curious book. It bills itself as an introduction to Coleridge, and in one sense does the job splendidly, for it is concise and written with verve. And it provides a lively introduction to the sheer breadth of Coleridge's prose--to the wit and energy, and the gnomic particularities which will fascinate the reader. The problem is: I am not quite sure who that reader is. Though brilliantly descriptive, it explains relatively little, and also fails to indicate many of the contexts in which Coleridge's work might be read. The reader who needs an introduction to Coleridge may find it of little help.

Worthen sets up his approach in the preface, where he largely dismisses the nineteenth century interest in Coleridge as metaphysician, philosopher and religious thinker. Today, he says:

we are more interested in him as a poet, as an opium experimenter, as someone caught up in revolutionary politics, and in particular as a writer who described what he called "the Flux and Reflux of my Mind within itself" (qtd. ix).

Psychology is what interests Worthen in Coleridge. In the biographical sketch that introduces the book he notes that "what drove a child like [Coleridge] to religion and philosophy ... was a sense of 'darkness felt in the day-light'" (qtd. 2; Shorter Works and Fragments I.695). Similarly, he says that Coleridge's early Unitarianism is psychologically motivated. It is the proper religion for a man "whose Reason would make him an Atheist but whose Heart and Common sense will not permit him to be so" (Notebooks II.2448, qtd. 3). And Coleridge's beliefs are driven by a deep need for the love and admiration of those he cared about:

Because of his eloquence and gift of language, he could be taken for someone deeply convinced of certain principles, when he was more deeply motivated by his attraction to--or rejection of--an individual or a group (5).

We are thus invited to think of Coleridge as a man whose thought need not deeply engage us, a man who (as Byron said) "might have been anything" but who lacked the groundedness to do so. Coleridge is thus variously a pantisocrat and democrat, journalist, friend, psychologist, metaphysician and Kantian, opium user and yearning lover (4-16). But as a writer, we are told, Coleridge

liked nothing better than sitting in his study reading and making notes for the great work of religious philosophy he believed he had it in him to produce.... And he went on producing very little, in spite of constant good intentions (16-17).

Of course, I shouldn't overstate this, for Worthen is also aware that Coleridge's collected writings come to fifty volumes. I am speaking of a tendency in Worthen's account, a tendency which perhaps springs in part from a desire to tell a good and lively story.

Chapter 2 of the book deals briskly with Coleridge's poetry, partly by admitting that much of the early political poetry is turgid (it is). Similarly, Worthen dismisses broadly political readings of the poems, for while he sensibly acknowledges that the Mariner's is a slave ship, he is not persuaded by Tim Fulford's claim that Coleridge's politics account for his breakthrough in writing the demonic poems ("Slavery and Superstituion in the Supernatural Poems," Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, ed. Lucy Newlyn [Cambridge, 2002] 49, qtd. 19). Fulford is given a spanking for suggesting that the Mariner "owes his being to Coleridge's political disenchantment" or "powerlessness," and that Christabel is really no more than "a radical critique of the chivalric code" (qtd. 19). "Such statements," Worthen charges, "contain so much exaggeration, and so little reading of the poem, that they are valueless" (19). This is not a judgement I would endorse, though I am guilty of hoping that our undergraduates are not fed the political line to the exclusion of other-- to my mind more interesting--strands of meaning in the poems.

For Worthen, Coleridge is at his best when writing as the poet of extreme states (20), in the daemonic poems. Worthen brings out well the horror of the Mariner's experience, haunted by events which are arbitrary and apparently meaningless. For while the Mariner provides a moral to his tale, "it is hard to square such a moral with what the poem has shown and made unforgettable," from the slimy creatures to the Mariner's own, on-going compulsion (25). But Worthen's account offers little to the student hoping for an introduction. Rather than opening the poem to interpretation, he seeks to close it down: "Why should the Mariner be so afflicted? The only answer can be that he simply is." More precisely, in a psychologised version of genre criticism: "This is how things happen in ballads and nightmares."

Students might have been grateful for a list of the various ways in which the poem has been read in the last hundred years, from source hunting (Lowes) to the great imagination theme (Penn Warren, Beer), or from psychoanalytic to existential readings (Buchan, Bostetter and Whalley). The book could have pointed to readings which are spiritual and religious (Engell, Reid), and to readings which are broadly structural (Shaffer), or which focus on the reader (Wheeler, Lipking). Or it could have explored, however briefly, ideas of Marxism and new historicism (McGann). Students seeking an introduction to the poem do not necessarily want a detailed discussion of each of these theories, but they may want some clues as to how to begin thinking about the poem. Similar things could be said about the discussion of "Kubla Khan."

Worthen is less interested in the conversation poems, which he contraposes to the "'great poems' of power, terror and extreme states" (32). Indeed, he fails to explain that conversation poems are poems addressed in tones of intimate conversation to a nearby listener. Instead, he draws on the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century senses of conversing: "living or having one's being in a particular place" and "consorting or having dealings with others" (31). These senses are illuminating, but they don't capture what was radically new in the "Eolian Harp." This was the discovery of a new form, with something of the qualities of the ode, but with a shift from the public to the private sphere. As my former colleague John Dolan brilliantly showed, it was Wordsworth who fully developed this discovery of a whole new field of "occasion" for poetic utterance--but it was Coleridge who first made the shift from Gray's (and Bowles's) still relatively public orientation to something more personal, intimate and immediate. The "Eolian Harp" is a landmark poem. Mirroring the imagined and changing presence of Sara, it is more subtle in its sexual politics (I am tempted to say) than it is often taken to be.

"Dejection" receives more discussion, but again in a way that is faintly reductive. While we are told that it was prompted by the "Immortality Ode," we are told nothing about Wordsworth's poem. We are told roughly what "Dejection" says about imagination, but not why imagination is a significant issue. Instead, the howling wind that reminds Coleridge of a child screaming for its mother is read --once again--in psychological terms:

The adult is lost in the same way as the child about whom Coleridge would write, years later: "the witness of its own being had been suspended in the loss of the mother's presence" (Opus Maximum 134, qtd. 34).

The conversation poems, then, get short shrift--along with nearly all the other poems. Fundamentally, where Coleridge hoped that "some half-dozen of my poems" might survive him (qtd. 40), Worthen finds only four poems great (22), a figure which later in the book drops to three (38) and which might as well be two.

Worthen is on surer ground when he comes to the notebooks, rightly quoting Seamus Perry's view of them as "the unacknowledged prose masterpiece of the age" (qtd. 41). For the notebooks capture Worthen's imagination, and his survey of them could scarcely be bettered. In condensed but sensitive prose, he brings out their range, wit, and linguistic verve. Again, however, Worthen's interest is psychological. The notebooks are valuable because they "reveal" Coleridge (55), and he writes them because they suit an author who is habitually indolent (42). Coleridge's notebooks are important, writes Worthen, because "in them he makes entries 'not as asserted truths but as processes of a mind working toward truth'" (V.6450, qtd. 42).

According to Chapter 4, Coleridge does not do very much in the years from 1803 to 1814. Though he produces 140,000 words for the Friend, the result is "a compilation of philosophical insight, historical knowledge and reference, and lengthy discussions of abstruse subjects" (65). Indeed, as Worthen wittily puts it, it was "a political paper without politics, a newspaper without news, and neither written nor edited but conducted." And for Worthen it is "hard work.... Long stretches ... are among the most unfriendly of Coleridge's major works" (65). These, I think, are the judgements of someone who is not very interested in Coleridge's philosophical thought, and therefore not very interested in the earliest development of his later system--in Coleridge's early thoughts about reason and the understanding, idea, imagination, symbol and the active reader.

Surveying Coleridge's pronouncements on language in chapter 5, Worthen ably presents his inventiveness and the range of words he introduced to the language, though without noting that Coleridge's theory of language has been debated--variously construed as realist and nominalist. Chapter 6 dismisses the lectures on Shakespeare (we have only Collier's transcription, and the result is "dull" [93]), but deals at some length with the Biographia and its treatment of Wordsworth. It "must have been terribly distressing, to Wordsworth," Worthen notes, "to have Coleridge ... come out with savage criticisms of his writing" (100). If this overstates the case a little, Worthen is nonetheless good on the mixed psychology of Coleridge motives; Raimonda Modiano once noted that to write of the formative influence of Bowles was to avoid writing on the formative influence of Wordsworth ("Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Ethics of Gift Exchange and Literary Ownership," The Wordsworth Circle 20 [1989]).

Worthen is also right to say that in the Biographia Coleridge "had found a public voice" (102). As he says, "dictating to Morgan had liberated him into a new kind of lucid, scholarly writing." He is again right to say of the Biographia that "As ever, it was one of Coleridge's ideals to make his own intellectual activity and struggle the main subject of his discourse" (106), though he doesn't really explain how this emphasis on subjectivity reflected a deeper epistemology, an epistemology in which knowing depends on subjective activity (in contrast with the passivity of empiricism).

Worthen is less good on the philosophical chapters of the Biographia. He calls the secondary imagination "largely unconscious" though Coleridge himself described it as "co-existing with the conscious will" (104). And of the distinction between fancy and the imagination he says, astonishingly, "It hardly matters whether Coleridge has said anything of lasting value." On the philosophy, Worthen follows Paul Hamilton in asserting that Coleridge is "un-philosophical" in his attempts to turn Schelling in the direction of the Trinity--and McFarland is dismissed summarily (110). But Worthen memorably describes the Biographia as

a kind of beached whale; a book to wander around in and enjoy, to stop and marvel at, to peer into and refer to and learn from, but not to treat as if it were a self-consistent work of criticism, or of philosophy, or indeed of anything else recognised as a coherent discipline (112).

Coleridge, then, is a writer of fragments, and the Biographia exemplifies the way in which Coleridge "regarded his own published writing as unstable ... almost to the same degree as his unfinished work" (22). For as Worthen concludes,

Fragmentary works often have a greater appeal to us than finished ones; a fully worked-out system of philosophy from the 1820s will not interest many people, but Coleridge's fragmentary attempts to create one are fascinating for readers who are happy to believe "that he did not regard his philosophy as a closed system, or an ultimate one" (130).

Such views are modish, but they should be set alongside McFarland's insistence that

In his emphasis on system Coleridge not only honoured his own primary intellectual attitudes ... but he also showed himself an authentic participant in the thought of his time; system was in the ascendant in the minds of the deepest thinkers in that German culture he so admired (Opus Maximum lxxvii).

Given Worthen's quite different views, it is hardly surprising that he thinks of the Opus Maximum as unfinished, and unfinishable. Just as unsurprisingly, he fails to note how it delivers the argument that had failed in the Biographia (see Perkins, and Reid).

So what should we conclude about Worthen's book? I can imagine suggesting that a graduate student start with the Cambridge Introduction, because it gives a short, lively and opinionated survey of Coleridge's writing. But (I would also have to say) it is written by someone with little interest in Coleridge's later, philosophical writing, and it says little about such central Coleridgean issues as imagination and symbol. Furthermore, its suggestions for further reading name few of the critics I have mentioned above--nor, for that matter, Muirhead or Barth, to name two more major omissions. I can't imagine recommending it to a bewildered undergraduate, since it provides little context, explains little, and provides few hints for the student who wants to know where to start or what questions to ask.

Nicholas Reid is a former Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and occasional visiting fellow in the School of Arts at the Australian National University. He is the author of Coleridge, Form and Symbol or the Ascertaining Vision (Ashgate, 2006).

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