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Coleridge and Wordsworth‟s prose attempts at outlining their standards for good literature often reveal just as much about their standards for good government. Reading Wordsworth‟s and Coleridge‟s seminal works of literary criticism, the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads and Biographia Literaria respectively, as discourses on the politics of the time has helped fashion an image of Coleridge as a conservative thinker, as he uses several of the latter chapters of the Biographia to distance himself from Wordsworth‟s stated purpose of using “humble and rustic life” as a subject to speak a “plainer and more emphatic language” (Lyrical Ballads, 48). This apparent backpedaling from Coleridge‟s earlier support for Wordsworth‟s project of extending literature to lower classes has allowed critics like Michael Tomko to question the Biographia’s literary philosophy as a reactionary attempt to relieve Coleridge‟s “anxiety over his own past and politics” (Politics, Performance, and Coleridge's "Suspension of Disbelief," 1). However, this approach ignores Coleridge‟s concern in Biographia Literaria about Wordsworth‟s estimation of “the language of real life,” which points out the divisive wedge that Wordsworth drives between the feelings of the rural class specifically and “the feelings of human nature in general” (Biographia Literaria 338). Building on Coleridge‟s history of using literature to promote unity among social classes, I intend to support a more egalitarian reading of Coleridge‟s approach to literature. Specifically, I will argue that Coleridge‟s split with Wordsworth represents his radical view of the inherent worth of every social class in finding the basis of truth in literature and philosophy. In order to understand Coleridge‟s split from Wordsworth, we must understand the ways in which the preface to Lyrical Ballads presents a political ideology through its discussion of Wordsworth‟s purpose in the collection of poetry. Indeed, Wordsworth makes this connection
Seth Reid 2 between the goals of literature and the goals of politics early in the preface. Wordsworth explains that his preface is not a “systematic defense” of his literary theory because such a task would require “pointing out, in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each other” and “retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone, but likewise of society itself” (47). Such a task, he claims, would take a length of paper unsuited to a preface, but even in this dismissal of justifying his purpose, the proximity of literary taste to revolution reveals Wordsworth‟s belief that “language and the human mind” are inextricably linked to the formation of “society itself.” And this is not, according to Wordsworth, a simple relationship between literature and society: because they “act and react on each other,” the form of each is always dependent on the other. Here Wordsworth gives consequence to his literary theory, which he goes on to explicate, by saying that it is necessarily the same as his theory of the way society ought to look. By looking at the preface as Wordsworth‟s political tract, we gain a new understanding of his assessment of the role of lower, rural classes in poetry and of the grounds on which Coleridge might oppose this assessment. Considering that Wordsworth views the structure of literature as vitally affecting the structure of society, his literary proposal is telling of his political ideals. Wordsworth explains that “the principal object” of his collection is to use “language really used by men” and that he favors “low and rustic life” as a subject because “in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity… and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated…” (48). Not only does Wordsworth bring the lower classes to the foreground of his literary experiment, he also implies that due to their station in society, they are a superior literary subject to any other classification of person. Additionally, by referring to their language as the kind “really used by
Seth Reid 3 men,” Wordsworth includes this class as an exemplary part of society as a whole. In doing this, Wordsworth extends political importance to the lower classes by extending them literary importance. This attempt at a more democratic society through poetry focused on a disenfranchised class exemplifies Wordsworth‟s earlier connection between politics and literature, and it reveals his radical stance towards the rigidly class-based politics of his time. Because this passage so neatly confesses Wordsworth‟s radical views, Coleridge‟s opposition to the same passage in chapter XVII of Biographia Literaria tends to paint him in a conservative light. In fact his disapproval of the wide diffusion of literary criticism seems to be an exact opposite to Wordsworth‟s inclusive approach to poetry. Coleridge explains that when Wordsworth‟s theory is adopted by the public, “it is possible, that with [Wordsworth‟s] principles others may have been blended, which are not equally evident; and others which are unsteady or subvertible from the narrowness or imperfection of their basis” (334). In this criticism, Coleridge does not attack Wordsworth‟s theory itself, but his focus is on the negative effect on literary theory as a whole that he believes results from including the public in the academic reading of literature. If we take Coleridge‟s literary concerns to be reflective of political concerns, as they are in Wordsworth, then this objection can be read as a conservative Coleridge warning against the masses and their ability to dilute a school of thought that is better inhabited by a more exclusive class of thinker. Indeed, Michael Tomko takes on this conservative reading of Coleridge and uses it to suggest that any practical application of Coleridge‟s literary theory in Biographia Literaria is stunted by this clear political agenda. By way of example, Tomko points to the play “Bertram,” which Coleridge reviewed upon its release and comments on in chapter XXIII. Tomko argues that Coleridge‟s comments, despite attempting to establish an objective literary approach to
Seth Reid 4 theatre, are thinly veiled political attacks on a Jacobin-minded play. Tomko adds that as a result of this breakdown of objective criticism, “the Biographia [is] a fissured work, split… between the radical Coleridge of 1798 and the fretful conservative of 1816” (9). Tomko‟s outline of the political commentary that seeps into the Biographia places Coleridge somewhere between two radically divided political ideologies. This structure creates a frame through which we can see Coleridge‟s desire to distance himself from Wordsworth: Coleridge, according to Tomko‟s view, is maintaining a strict division between those who should be included in literary thought and those who should not because this division is the same one that separates those who should and should not be involved in politics. However, this estimation of Coleridge as defending the conservative side of an argument against the inclusion of the masses in politics or literature starts to dissolve if we look at Coleridge‟s discussion of what he sees as a surplus of literary critics. It is difficult to read Coleridge‟s lament over the “multitude of books” and the “general diffusion of literature” as anything but an attempt to maintain the literary scene for the upper classes (176). But as he further identifies these enemies of literature, the class distinction becomes less salient. Coleridge says of the growing number of literary voices that “all men being supposed able to read, and all readers able to judge, the multitudinous public… sits nominal despot on the throne of criticism” (188). Ostensibly this is a comment that more readers and writers means poorer literature, and the unflattering description of the tyrannical “public” implies a preference for an elite class that would more properly inhabit the role of critic. However, the heart of the criticism in this passage is not in the social class of the multitudes; instead, Coleridge primarily concerns himself with the way in which these critics read and judge literature. Certainly Coleridge‟s assessment of the
Seth Reid 5 literary stage is exclusive to those that fit a certain description, but that description isn‟t necessarily one of wealth, education or even political party. As the chapter continues, Coleridge becomes less and less interested in the social standing of these literary critics, and he turns instead to the way they criticize literature as the source of their damage to the school of thought. In fact, issues of class no longer resonate at all in Coleridge‟s assessment of the inconstant standard by which critics of his time ruin the study of poetry. He laments the fact that “if in a volume of poetry the critic should find poem or passage that he deems more especially worthless, he is sure to select and reprint it in the review” and that “the copies of a fashionable review are more numerous than those of the original book” (189). This criticism of reviews is still a concern with literary theory in the hands of the public, but it is the reviewer‟s tendency to focus on the negative aspects of a work and the ease of publication that troubles Coleridge. This is the structure of widespread criticism that, according to Coleridge, harms literature as an art: when reviewers have more power than poets in affecting the perception of poetry, massive participation will always tend to be more destructive than helpful. Additionally, the solution Coleridge offers for this oversaturated critical landscape has no mention of excluding anyone that wishes to partake in criticism; instead he offers that widespread criticism can exist when “the reviewers support their decisions by reference to fixed canons of criticism, previously established and deduced from the nature of man” (190). Here Coleridge creates a lens for viewing the problem of literary criticism in which the critics are subject to a universal standard of literature itself. It is through this lens of concern, not with which classes inhabit the role of critic, but with adherence to a purpose larger than any individual critic or work that we can understand Coleridge‟s view of the public‟s role in literature and politics.
Seth Reid 6 Because Coleridge‟s disagreement with extending literary power to the rural classes is not a purely classist argument, it is not so easy to dismiss Coleridge as a purely conservative thinker. One alternative, which Noel B. Jackson adopts in his essay “Coleridge, „Common Sense‟, and the Literature of Self-experiment,” is to classify Coleridge among the poets and philosophers of the early nineteenth century who championed self-reflection as both the best source and best effect of literature. Jackson attempts to reconcile Coleridge‟s apparent exclusion of the public from literature with his aversion to literary snobbery by comparing him to Wordsworth: “…both Wordsworth and Coleridge locate the source for the truest commonality not in the multitude but in the individual's capacity for self-reflection…” (1). Interestingly, Jackson ties together Coleridge and Wordsworth as having literary theories that do not trust the “multitudes” to direct the course of literature. This idea changes our perception of both writers by showing elitism in both of their literary theories; however, this elitism is based on a new factor outside of class, the capacity of the individual. Making the distinction based on individual capacity for self-reflection insists that some individuals have a higher capacity than others. While Jackson‟s approach explains what otherwise appears to be classism in Coleridge‟s views, it ignores, what I believe to be, Coleridge‟s motives in his exhaustive attempt to distance himself from Wordsworth. Although Coleridge spends much of Biographia Literari concurring with the idea from Wordsworth‟s preface that good poetry is only produced by those who possess “more than usual organic sensibility,” Coleridge deviates from Wordsworth when Wordsworth insists that his use of “humble and rustic life” as a subject leads to a closer representation of the “very language of men” (53). In making this claim, Wordsworth steps beyond the praise of an individual with a higher capacity for self-reflection. Here Wordsworth suggests that the language inherent in the subject of his poems represents more faithfully the true
Seth Reid 7 nature of poetry. This is where Coleridge finds a vital point on which to disagree with Wordsworth. In his chapters examining the poems within the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge avers, “The thoughts, feelings, language, and manners of the shepherds-farmers in the vales of Cumberland and Westmoreland… may be accounted for the causes, which will and do produce the same results in every state of life, whether in town or country” (335). Rather than appreciating the subject that Wordsworth has chosen, Coleridge insists that the merit in Wordsworth‟s poems is in a human truth that transcends the class status of their subjects. Here we begin to see Coleridge‟s concern with the way Wordsworth takes one class of people and raises it above all others in literary importance. The more we see Wordsworth‟s treatment of his subject in the preface as the most powerful influence on his poetry, the more we can understand Coleridge‟s disagreement with Wordsworth‟s literary theory, which also encompasses Wordsworth‟s political views. In one of the preface‟s passages that receives a great deal of criticism by Coleridge, Wordsworth further outlines the effect that his choice of subject has on his poetic experiment: He claims the purpose of the use of low, rustic classes is “to throw over [the poems] a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and …to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them… the primary laws of our nature” (48). In the structure of Wordsworth‟s literary formula, the subject of the poems gives “coloring” to the poems themselves. This relationship again suggests that Wordsworth views the role of his subject, in this case the low-class people that Wordsworth sees as the most fit subject, as the primary tool for creating a literary effect. The goal of this use of subject becomes larger, however, as it leads to the discovery of the very “laws of our nature.” Since Wordsworth has already granted that his literary and political theories are linked, it is not difficult to see a
Seth Reid 8 political purpose behind this structure: the low class, whom Wordsworth gives political power through literary attention, determines our ability to reach a universal, eternal understanding of human society. In the literary theory Coleridge presents in Biographia Literaria, we see an almost exact inversion of Wordsworth‟s model of the overall structure being dependent on the subject in a literary work. In chapter XV of the Biographia, Coleridge offers an analysis of Shakespeare‟s “Venus and Adonis” in which Coleridge implies divergence with Wordsworth: Coleridge praises Shakespeare‟s “power of reducing multitude into unity of effect.” Additionally, Shakespeare spurs Coleridge to take up the issue of subjects in literature when Coleridge adds, “I have found, that where the subject is taken immediately from the author‟s personal sensations… the excellence of a particular poem is but an equivocal mark, and often a fallacious pledge, of genuine poetic power” (321). In both of these principles, the component parts that make up the literary work are contingent on the effect of that work. In other words, the subject, images and any other literary device must work together to produce the overall effect, which is the driving force behind the entire piece. Particularly, the latter principle seems to contradict Wordsworth, as the subject of literature, according to Coleridge, can actually diminish a literary work‟s value if it is given too much power over the work. It is in this aspect of Coleridge‟s literary theory, that the component parts of a thing must be subject to its overall purpose, that we begin to see the foundation of his political theory. Even in works outside of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge proposes a theory of societal unity that mirrors his theory of literary unity and explains the necessity of his ideological split from Wordsworth. As Daniel Fried points out when analyzing Coleridge‟s sermons on the value of a state-run church, “Coleridge saw religion as the great mediator, not only of letter and spirit but
Seth Reid 9 also of social classes. In the „Constitution of Church and State,‟ Coleridge lists the national church's two prime functions as offering the hope of social advancement to lower classes and integrating those classes into the life of the nation through its civilizing mission” (The Politics of the Coleridgean Symbol, 11). Coleridge‟s emphasis on the unity of the component parts contributing to the whole is as clear here as it is in his analysis of Shakespeare: far from viewing the lower classes as a destructive force in society, Coleridge sees the necessity for protecting them and “integrating” them into the overall function of civilization. Coleridge‟s interest here for fitting the lower classes into a certain role within society reveals his belief that each social class has a particular and equally vital part to play within a nation. Given this understanding of Coleridge as valuing the social classes equally, we gain a fuller understanding of why he takes such pains to break from Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria. Where Wordsworth places the lower classes at the very top of literary importance by insisting that they provide “a better soil” for the “essential passions of the heart” to be “more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated” than in any other class, Coleridge claims that in poetry, “apparent individualities of rank, character, or occupation must be representative of a class; and that the persons of poetry must be clothed with generic attributes, with the common attributes of the class; not with such as one gifted individual might possibly possess, but such as from his situation it is most probable beforehand, that he would possess” (337). Just like in his sermon, Coleridge does not believe in the merits of one class as being superior to another; instead, he insists that any character of one class in a poem must be “representative” of the entire class. By straying away from praising any one class over another, Coleridge implicitly points out an inequality in Wordsworth‟s theory. Even if Wordsworth‟s goal in the Lyrical Ballads appears beneficial because it extends political power to a disenfranchised
Seth Reid 10 class, Coleridge, through his emphasis on finding a role for each class in the workings of society, suggests that Wordsworth‟s focus on a single component of a complex society rather than the function of the whole is disruptive. We begin to see how heavily this concept of focusing on the whole is built into the Biographia as echoes of this argument appear in Coleridge‟s discourse on philosophy. In tracking Coleridge‟s place in the larger context of philosophical thought in the nineteenth century, Ayon Roy explains Coleridge‟s fascination with the need for a strong foundation to any philosophy. Thus, Roy rationalizes Coleridge‟s dislike of materialism: “What Coleridge attacks…is materialism's reliance on a ground (namely, matter) that is merely „given‟ rather than rigorously „understood‟” (The Specter of Hegel in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, 16). We can see here, in Coleridge‟s dislike of philosophy that does not adhere to a strictly understood foundation, the same kind of disagreement that he has with Wordsworth, and this allows us to understand that disagreement on a deeper level. Much like Coleridge‟s dislike with poetry that is manipulated by changes in secondary aspects like subject and imagery, Coleridge seems to divorce himself from philosophy that does not submit itself to a universal standard for understanding. Coleridge airs a similar condemnation of Hartley‟s philosophy of association that helps to build a consistency between Coleridge‟s position on philosophy and his arguments on literature. Coleridge‟s polemic against Hartley spans several chapters, but the argument comes to a head when Coleridge states that Hartley‟s belief in associations between small concepts coming together to make up all knowledge in the universe excludes the existence of God. Coleridge writes that because, in Hartley‟s system, reality is based on the senses “and the sensations again [derive] all their reality from the impressions ab extra [from the outside]; a God not visible,
Seth Reid 11 audible or tangible, can exist only in the sound and letters that form his name and attributes” (Biographia Literaria, 220). The structure of Coleridge‟s argument here mirrors the arguments that he makes for his literary and political theory: he sees the universal standard, in this case God, as the only solution to bringing unity to the function of art and society. Coleridge‟s disagreement with Hartley then can stand as an explanation of Coleridge‟s political stance: Coleridge denounces the disorder that must result from allowing the transitory, uncontrollable fragments of an overall effect, such as the senses are to an overall experience, to control the direction of that overall effect. Coleridge‟s philosophy builds Coleridge‟s literary argument by adding context to the problems he addresses with Wordsworth. We can now look at Coleridge‟s concern with the general diffusion of Wordsworth‟s theory with a more holistic view of Coleridge‟s reservations. Again, Coleridge asserts of Wordsworth that “it is possible, that with [Wordsworth‟s] principles others may have been blended, which are not equally evident; and others which are unsteady or subvertible from the narrowness or imperfection of their basis” (334). This concern with many different versions of Wordsworth‟s theory combining to make a wholly new and imperfect theory is certainly similar to Coleridge‟s polemic against Hartley. In fact, the blending of “subvertible” and “imperfect” theories seems to present the same problem as the senses serving as the primary receptors through which all knowledge is obtained, namely that when a theory or experience is built solely on inconstant, incongruous bits of information, the end result cannot become as universally applicable as a theory of literature, politics or philosophy must be. Additionally, we can see Coleridge‟s split from Wordsworth as not a purely political reaction, for even in this disagreement with Wordsworth, Coleridge does not descry the idea of using a lower class as a literary subject. Instead, Coleridge‟s disagreement is consistent with an all-
Seth Reid 12 encompassing belief, established throughout the Biographia Literaria in establishing a “thoroughly understood” and objective foundation as the chief goal of any literary, philosophical or political project. For the purpose of this paper, it will be enough to have offered that Coleridge cannot be dismissed as a stereotypically conservative, classist thinker. Indeed, such a view of Coleridge would undermine the validity of Biograohia Literaria, as Michael Tomko has suggested. However, the reason that a conservative understainding of Coleridge would undermine his literary theory in the Biographia is not simply because it would color his literary tracts with unnecessary political commentary. Instead, it is necessary to dispel such an understanding of Coleridge because the idea of value one class, despite whether it is low or high on the social spectrum, over another is inconsistent with every avenue of thought that Coleridge builds in the biography of his literary life. Indeed, his theory of philosophy, literature, politics, and even education are dependent on this concept that all the parts of a thing must be subject to the whole. Furthermore, the very structure of his argument defies the idea that he would believe in one component part of a civilization being inherently more useful or important than another; throughout the meandering chapters of poetry, letters and philosophy, Coleridge uses each of his argument as equal components in making this overall statement of the need for an objective foundation to understanding any theory.
Works Cited Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, and H. J. Jackson. "Biographia Literaria." Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 155-482. Print.
Seth Reid 13 Fried, Daniel. "The Politics of the Coleridgean Symbol." Studies in English Literature 46.4 (2006): 763-80. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. Jackson, Noel B. "Critical Conditions: Coleridge, "common Sense," and the Literature of Selfexperiment." ELH. Baltimore 70.1 (2003): 117-50. Literature Online. Web. 22 Nov. 2012. Roy, Ayon. "The Specter of Hegel in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria." Journal of the History of Ideas 68.2 (2007): 279-305. Literature Online. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. Tomko, Michael. "Politics, Performance, and Coleridge's "Suspension of Disbelief"" Victorian Studies 49.2 (2007): 241-50. Literature Online. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. "University of Pennsylvania | Department of English." Preface. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. University of Pennsylvania | Department of English. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/lbprose.html#preface>.
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