CONSTRUCTING COLERIDGE: THE POSTHUMOUS LIFE OF THE AUTHOR by Alan D. Vardy, Reviewed by Anthony John Harding
 

CONSTRUCTING COLERIDGE: THE POSTHUMOUS LIFE OF THE AUTHOR
By Alan D. Vardy
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) viii + 196 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony John Harding on 2012-04-28.

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The Coleridge canon has always been somewhat amorphous, and Coleridge's authorial identity is likewise elusive and multi-faceted. In examining the successive Coleridges offered to the reading public by Coleridge himself during his lifetime and then by the family editors, Alan Vardy explains in detail the political and social pressures that helped to shape these shifting authorial identities. In doing so, Vardy aims to bridge the gap between literary biography and reception history. The book thus has a wider relevance than its title may suggest. It is indeed an important contribution to nineteenth-century studies, and can profitably be read by Victorianists as well as Romanticists, even by those with no particular interest in Coleridge.

The "historical processes" to which Vardy refers are not the highly-theorized ones invoked by some neo-Marxists. Explicitly differentiating his approach from Althusser's demolition of the individual subject, Vardy affirms that Coleridge's "efforts to re-fashion himself sprang from his understanding of his capacity for, and growing faith in, self-reflection" (1). Rather than linking his subject to any supposed system or philosophic achievement, then, this claim neatly places a Coleridgean trait, or habit of mind, at the center of Vardy's argument. It also allows Vardy to concede a good deal of ground to those who have charged Coleridge with failings such as political apostasy, systematic misrepresentation of his own past selves, and literary dishonesty (plagiarism). He not only seeks to avoid "moralizing" about plagiarism (65) but also generally maintains a balanced, judicial approach throughout the book.

He becomes more accusatory only when showing how the first posthumous "Coleridge" to be presented to the public was shaped by Henry Nelson Coleridge, the poet's nephew and one of his literary executors. According to Vardy, Henry set out to construct an STC not just more settled into political and religious conformism, but far more High Tory and anti-reform than he really was. Henry's insularity and ultra-conservatism, Vardy argues, contaminated not only the Table Talk -- which he concludes should be excised from the Coleridge canon altogether -- but other posthumously-published texts, at least until Henry's death in 1843. At this point Coleridge's legacy passed into the hands of Henry's widow Sara, the poet's daughter, who had already contributed in crucial but unacknowledged ways to the 1839 and 1842 editions of Aids to Reflection. By presenting a Coleridge for the educated class or "clerisy" (96), Sara set the pattern for twentieth-century editorial practice.

Vardy argues that this Coleridge-for-the-clerisy, which he finds reflected in the Bollingen edition, has now displaced the romantic, radical Coleridge. Some readers may feel that the latter remains very much alive in the 2004 Norton Critical edition, in several popular biographies, and in university classes on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Vardy's opening chapter does reveal in stark terms how -- in the early 1800s -- Coleridge began to "dissemble and disassociate himself from radical politics" (15).

The story is familiar to most romanticists, but Vardy carefully separates what is mere defensive maneuvering, in the scrappy political cockpit of the times, from the clear evidence of a new political position. For example, in 1802, denying the insinuation that he had been and remained a Jacobin, Coleridge listed eight Jacobinical tenets, including the principle that every citizen must have sufficient property to live on but that excess wealth must not bestow more political power. Since he had in fact believed this as a "Pantisocrat," stating the principle here, along with others he was now claiming never to have believed, was a convenient form of forgetting. It was not until the 1809 Friend, however, that he explicitly adopted the notion of a correlation between ownership of property and access to political power (14).

Having shown how Coleridge reinvented himself in his political journalism, Biographia, and The Friend, Vardy proceeds in chapters 2-7 to examine the further reinventions of STC that resulted from the strengths, weaknesses, and prejudices of the family editors and their helpers. The dominant figures here are Henry Nelson Coleridge and his wife Sara, with Hartley, Sara's older brother, in an important supporting role. It is well-known that the Coleridge family was immediately thrown on the defensive by De Quincey's opportunistic series of articles, published in Tait's Magazine soon after Coleridge's death, which first raised in print the matter of Coleridge's plagiarisms. In revisiting the story, however, Vardy draws on previously unpublished family letters in the Harry S. Ransom Center, Texas, to shed new light on Sara's response to the articles. Though she quickly realized that De Quincey's allegations might have some substance, filial loyalty and her marital subservience to Henry led her to adopt a similar and ultimately damaging defensive posture. Both Henry and the publishing firm of William Pickering had a vested interest in making Coleridge suit the tastes and needs of mid-nineteenth-century England. Coleridge's executors also had to consider the sensitivities and reputation of the Wordsworth and Southey families.

Consequently, Henry's "Coleridge" had to be undeviatingly Tory, staunchly Anglican, and morally upright. Hartley remembered his late father rather differently, as an independent thinker who recognized the need for gradual parliamentary reform even while fiercely criticizing the botched Reform Bill of 1832. But in the eyes of the rest of the family, Hartley's Whiggish tendencies and "German liberalism" (qtd., 51), not to mention his addiction problems, disqualified him from helping to shape his father's reputation. The 1835 Table Talk, then, was not so much a selection of Coleridge's conversation as a monument to Henry's Tory views.

To rebut the charge of plagiarism, the family recruited Julius Charles Hare, who was a competent Germanist, but who had his own vulnerable position as a leading Broad Church cleric to consider. Since post-Kantian thought was widely considered as dangerously speculative and theologically heterodox, Hare needed to minimize both his own debt to it and that of Coleridge, his mentor. Hare unfortunately chose first to vilify De Quincey, then to minimize and misrepresent the extent of Coleridge's borrowings. Worse, he also tried to excuse them by suggesting that Coleridge wrote the passages in a notebook and then forgot they were Schelling's work. Vardy rightly stresses the weakness of this defense. Though Coleridge could have forgotten the source of excerpts he copied into notebooks, it is next to impossible that he could have failed to recognize the Schellingism of these substantial passages, no matter how he redeployed them for his own different purposes.

The weakness of Hare's defense left the way open for further investigation. In 1840, a more knowledgeable philosopher -- James Frederick Ferrier -- documented Coleridge's borrowings in far greater detail than Hare had. As Vardy shows in a characteristically detailed analysis of Ferrier's position in Scottish philosophical debates, Ferrier wanted to solidify Schelling's reputation in the British Isles because Schelling held the key to the most challenging problem for post-Kantian thinkers: that of proving the unity of apperception, or in other words how it was possible for the mind to "[conceive] itself conceiving" (74). Though Ferrier was wrong to imply that Coleridge had simply lifted an "incomplete deduction" from Schelling's 1800 System (Coleridge actually drew on several works), Ferrier's attack called for an informed, thoroughly-documented reply.

This was eventually provided by Sara -- after four years' intensive study of German idealism -- in her 1847 edition of Biographia. Her dedication to this task established her authority as editor of the "first major scholarly edition" of Coleridge's work (121), besides confirming her status as a distinguished intellectual in her own right. Vardy rightly notes Sara's ability to empathize with the "psychological malaise" (107) that resulted from her father's physical infirmities, though he might additionally have noted that the term she uses, "body and bodily mind" (qtd., 107), takes up one of Coleridge's most frequent New Testament references -- to the Pauline phrase "mind of the flesh," phronema sarkos (Romans 8:6).

A final chapter, "Collecting Coleridge," traces the evolution of the mid-nineteenth-century British edition, taken over by Moxon in 1850. Sara was by now in undisputed control. When William Pickering agreed to publish a two-volume edition of Aids specifically in order to include Sara's essay "On Rationalism" as well as James Marsh's Introduction in the second volume, the real value of Sara's work was finally recognized.

Nevertheless, I cannot fully accept Vardy's argument that the Coleridge constructed in the 1840s, chiefly by Henry and then by Sara, strongly influenced subsequent editorial decision-making, particularly the design and content of the Bollingen Collected Coleridge (1961-2002). The decision to publish Essays on His Own Times (1850) -- a more generous selection of the political journalism than had been included in Literary Remains -- did set the precedent eventually followed in the Collected Coleridge; and Henry's inclusion of some marginalia in the Remains does make that, in some sense, the ancestor of George Whalley's and Heather Jackson's six-volume Marginalia. The editing of Opus Maximum was left to J. H. Green, a task to which his skills proved inadequate, but the omission of this work from the nineteenth-century edition has been repaired by the McFarland-Halmi (2002) edition. What Vardy does not explain, however (perhaps because he takes it to be common knowledge), is that the impulse to re-edit Coleridge in the mid-twentieth century grew largely out of Kathleen Coburn's work on the notebooks.

The point has some bearing on Vardy's argument. Soon after immersing herself in the manuscripts, Coburn realized that to understand and assess what Coleridge had to offer to our own age entailed not only publishing all the surviving notebooks, but also re-editing his other writings, whether previously printed or not. This story is told in Coburn's In Pursuit of Coleridge (1977), but not every reader of Vardy's book would think of turning to Coburn's account, much less considering what it would mean to approach Coleridge as first and foremost author of the notebooks, rather than (let us say) of Biographia Literaria.

Moreover, while others may occasionally have adopted a defensive posture, Coburn herself -- contrary to what Vardy suggests (35) -- was never defensive, firmly believing that once everything was available to scholars, Coleridge's "inquiring, inspiring spirit" (Pursuit, 182) would shine through his frailties and misjudgments. Though Vardy tends to treat the notebooks as largely irrelevant to "collecting Coleridge" in the twentieth, as in the nineteenth century, they are indispensable records of his thought. On the question of Coleridge's later political and religious views, for instance, several entries demonstrate why Coleridge considered the Reform Bill flawed (Notebooks 5 [2002] entries 6603, 6612, 6651), why he rejected the Athanasian Creed (5490, 6287), and so on. Vardy does mention that the family, who sought Hare's advice on the matter, considered the content of the Notebooks too controversial to be published, except for a few passages chosen to "promote truth & righteousness" (qtd., 159). But Vardy's focus on how the Bollingen editors treated the published prose inevitably privileges a "Victorian" Coleridge.

There are also a few disconcerting errors. The reference to Coburn's "four-volume set" of the Notebooks (159) may not mislead too many readers, since "Works Cited" correctly lists the set as five volumes; but readers should note that Coleridge's essay "Theory of Life," here called "Idea of Life" (155), is not printed in Lectures 1818-1819 (as indicated in the endnote on page 183) but in Shorter Works and Fragments (1995). Lectures 1818-1819, edited by J. R. de J. Jackson, appeared in 2000, not 1969.

These matters apart, Constructing Coleridge performs an important service. It shows in detail, and with close attention to the family letters as well as the print archive, what were the personal relationships and political or religious adherences that shaped the way Coleridge was presented to nineteenth-century readers. Reading Vardy's thoroughly-researched account, one realizes how valuable similar investigations might be for other Romantic-period figures, which is itself a testimony to the originality and lasting worth of Vardy's project.

Anthony John Harding is Emeritus Professor of English, University of Saskatchewan. He co-edited volume 5 of Coleridge's Notebooks (Princeton, 2002), and his recent publications include Coleridge's Responses, vol. 2: Coleridge on the Bible (Continuum, 2007).


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