Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834)
[The prose writings of Coleridge may be reckoned to begin with the Bristol lectures, printed in 1795; viz. the Moral and Political Lecture, the Conciones ad Populum, and the Plot Discovered. The Watchman came out in the following year. During the period of his greatest poetical energy, Coleridge was also active as a journalist, especially between the years 1798 and 1800. After the decline of his spirits and of his poetical faculty, he still retained his early metaphysical and didactic enthusiasm, and wrote a great number of discourses, which are collected under various titles in his prose works. The Friend appeared as a literary, moral, and political weekly paper in 1809 and 1810, as a book in 1812, and in a revised and altered form in 1818. The Statesmans Manual, and a second Lay Sermon, were published in 1816 and 1817; the Biographia Literaria also belongs to 1817, which deserves to be taken as the most notable date in the history of Coleridges prose works. Aids to Reflection appeared in 1825; the essay on The Constitution of the Church and State in 1830. Of the works published after his death the principal are Table Talk (1835), Literary Remains (1836, 1838), Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit (1840), Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare (1849), Essays upon his own Times (1850), collected from his early work as a journalist.]
COLERIDGE has explained his views about his own prose style, in the third Essay of the Friend, and this passage is confirmed by many others, in other parts of his writings:
A man long accustomed to silent and solitary meditation, in proportion as he increases the power of thinking in long and connected trains, is apt to lose or lessen the talent of communicating his thoughts with grace and perspicuity. Doubtless, too, I have in some measure injured my style, in respect to its facility and popularity, from having almost confined my reading, of late years, to the works of the ancients and those of the elder writers in the modern languages. We insensibly imitate what we habitually admire; and an aversion to the epigrammatic, unconnected periods of the fashionable Anglo-Gallican taste has too often made me willing to forget, that the stately march and difficult evolutions which characterise the eloquence of Hooker, Bacon, Milton, and Jeremy Taylor are, notwithstanding their intrinsic excellence, still less suited to a periodical essay. This fault I am now endeavouring to correct; though I can never so far sacrifice my judgment to the desire of being immediately popular, as to cast my sentences in the French moulds, or affect a style which an ancient critic would have deemed purposely invented for persons troubled with the asthma to read, and for those to comprehend who labour under the more pitiable asthma of a short-witted intellect.
One of the most constant opinions in Coleridges mind, one that is little short of the chief place among his critical judgments, is that which distinguishes between the continuous energy of genius and the cautious progress of less noble faculties, bit by bit, in small successive efforts. His own discourse, whatever its faults, has always something of the character that he himself admired in others. When the argument is least assured, and when the progress of the speculation is most impeded, there is still always in Coleridges style the life and the living movement of one accustomed to long trains of thought; there is never any of the hard brilliance of the styles that are made out of separate finished pieces of thought and expression. The criterion of genius, given in the Table Talk of 6th August 1832, is one to which Coleridge himself might have submitted the style of his own prose:
You will find this a good gauge or criterion of geniuswhether it progresses and evolves, or only spins upon itself.
This (which leads to a striking comparison of Dryden and Pope, Charles Lamb and Hazlitt) is the repetition of an idea that governs very much of Coleridges criticism of literature. If it cannot be said of all his arguments in the Friend, or in Aids to Reflection, that they evolve, it is still almost always to be found that the movement of the discourse is in the form of large and continuous reasoning; and it is this apparent spontaneity that gives distinction to his writing, even when it is least effectual. No English prose is nearer to that of Goethe in its power of carrying the reader along, with or without his consent, till he is left wondering what it is that has got hold of him. The spell that drew so many people, of all orders of intellectual constitution, to listen to Coleridge talking, may still be found in his philosophical and critical writings; and, in spite of the scorner, it is still possible to sit under the eloquence of his sermons, merely because it is true eloquence, and not a battery of separate notes and epigrams.
The commonly accepted descriptions of Coleridges manner in conversation are not altogether borne out by his recorded Table Talk. There is too much wit and too much sound sense, as well as too much interest in sublunar things, to agree well with the common account of Coleridges transcendental monologues. That Coleridge in any way lost himself in metaphysics, will be almost incredible to any one who follows the journal of his daily conversation, on things in general and things in particular.
The monotony of some portions of his speculative books is in strong contrast to the quickness of most of his talk, as that is reported. There are, however, some of his prose writings, and especially the greater part of Biographia Literaria, in which there is a balance or a compromise between the metaphysical and the imaginative sides in his composition, and in which his metaphysics are condensed out of their nebulous state, into some of the most effective criticism of poetry to be found anywhere in English. Coleridges philosophy has been shown, by philosophical scholars, to be futile in its adaptation of German systems for the benefit of English novices. It is not thorough or systematic enough for idealist philosophers; and for all other schools it is simply a weariness. But if his more ambitious attempts have failed, there can be no question, on the other hand, either of the wide influence of his philosophic spirit, as an encouragement to hopefulness and intellectual daring, or of the success of his work, when it was applied to subjects more palpable than those of metaphysical enquiry. His long-continued exposition of Reason and Understanding may have been unsatisfactory as philosophical literature, or profitable merely as an example of philosophical aspirations, by which many younger men were stirred to speculations of their own. But when the antithesis of Reason and Understanding appears in the pages of Biographia Literaria as the opposition of Imagination and Fancy, there is no need to look far for any justification or excuse. It may be necessary to remember Coleridges immediate influence upon the minds of his contemporaries, in order to appreciate the Aids to Reflection; but the strength and beauty of his critical essays on poetry are enough to put out of account all external and accidental considerations. They stand on their own merits. There had been nothing like them in English, except Wordsworths essays appended to the Lyrical Ballads of 1800 and 1815; and Coleridge had the advantage of Wordsworth both in greater freedom of view, and in greater accuracy of discrimination. In the play of his mind in Biographia Literaria, between the general philosophy of the poetic art, and the critical judgment of particulars in his answer to Wordsworths theory of diction, there is no fluctuation of strength or skill; the philosophy of Imagination and Fancy is just as lively as the refutation of his friends paradoxical rhetoric. In dealing with poetry, the energy of his speculation is not wasted, nor is its effect the merely formal, though glorious influence exerted on younger and better-disciplined minds, by the solemnity of his tone, apart from the weight of his doctrine. In his criticism of poetry, the matter and form of his writings are equivalent. Here, in place of the reiterated assaults on the citadel of metaphysics, the weary relapses, and perpetual new beginnings, there is a victorious and conquering progress, with prizes gained at every step in the march.
There is another field to which Coleridge escaped at times from the bewilderment of metaphysics, and in his own words was enabled to pluck the flower, and reap the harvest from the cultivated surface, instead of delving in the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysic depths. His lay sermons and other essays on politics and political science, are, like his æsthetic criticism, under the control of his common philosophical ideas; and here, also, the principles of Reason against Understanding, are found to be anything but sterile.
Coleridge in his political philosophy appears as the successor of Burke, and the forerunner of Carlyle. To the difficulties of his own time he applied the instruments that Burke had left behind him; Burkes hatred of abstract dogmas and formulas, Burkes sense of the complexity of life, and of the need for insight into the particular circumstances of each individual problem. The second Lay Sermon (Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters!), anticipates more of Past and Present than ever seems to have been fully acknowledged by the author of the latter book. There is no weakness or faltering, no inconsequence or irrelevance, in this political essay, one of the best designed and most complete of all the works of Coleridge in prose. In scorn of the demagogue and his machinery, Coleridge resembles Burke and Carlyle; and hardly in these will there be found anything more fervent than Coleridges recitation and appropriation of the words of the prophet: the vile person shall no more be called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful. He is with Carlyle, or before him, in his comprehension of the existing distresses and discontents, and his appeal to the higher and middle classes in 1817 is to the same effect, and helped by much the same arguments, as the appeal of Past and Present, or of the essay on Chartism.
In Coleridges prose there are many interludes of different kinds, and of all degrees of value. Of these the account of his interview with Klopstock, in Satyranes Letters (Biographia Literaria), is one of the most singular, through the contrast of its short phrases and its ironical reserve, with the voluble expression of the authors more habitual didactic moods.
It is seldom that the prose of Coleridge is decorated in any adventitious way. There are many illustrations, but rarely any that look as if they had been stuck on for effect. The argument in its course discovers its own illustrations: the wheels take fire from the rapidity of their motion, to borrow a phrase that Coleridge himself had applied to his own youthful oratory (Letter to Sir George and Lady Beaumont, 1st October 1803), before he used it in his splendid acknowledgment of the genius of Dryden. There is evidence, however, that when he chose he could play lightly with the weapons of prose argument. The marginal gloss to the Ancient Mariner (1828) is one of his finest compositions, in an unfamiliar mood; a translation or transposition of his poem, for a purely artistic end, such as had never come within the view of the Watchman, or any other of the serious monitors of Church and State. The exercise was wholly different from that to which he was accustomed. It was not the evolution of an argument; it was minute work, piecemeal, following the lines of a composition already finished, giving no room for anything like his usual copious paragraphs of edification, compelling him to write for the mere beauty of writing.
In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and everywhere the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected, and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.
Nowhere else in the works of Coleridge is the element of prose thus disengaged from matter. It is significant of Coleridges spirit, that in his moral treatises he never relied on anything like the charm of this prose, to gain applause or acceptance for his doctrines. Whether he fought well or slackly, he was always a combatant in his prose essays, and never a vendor of merely ornamental rhetoric. He never allowed himself to be tempted by any attraction inconsistent with his purpose; his digressions were always prompted by something in the matter, never by the vanities of language; he used no rhetorical display except what was immediately intended to support his ethical strategy. It is this consistency that distinguishes his style, even in its most intricate and florid passages, from all the varieties of ostentatious literature.