Lyrical Ballads was deliberately experimental, as the authors insisted from the start. The “Ancient Mariner” pointed the way. The fact that it was a collaboration meant that both authors took responsibility for the design of the experiment. This was more than a volume of poems from various hands. The largely negative reviews which it excited on publication concentrated on the “Ancient Mariner,” in part because it was the most substantial poem in the collection, but also because of its self-consciously archaic diction and incredible plot. Southey described it in a dismissive (and anonymous) review as “a Dutch attempt at German sublimity.” Elsewhere it was reckoned “the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper.” The character of the Mariner also caused confusion.
Despite the problems, the poem flourished on the basis of strong local effects—of its pictures of the “land of ice and snow” and of the ghastly ship in the doldrums, in association with a drumming ballad meter. Wordsworth frankly disliked it after the reviews came in, but Lamb led the way in appreciating its odd mix of romance and realism. It is perhaps as a poem of pure imagination, in the words of Robert Penn Warren’s landmark reading, that the “Ancient Mariner” has appealed. In this respect among others it bears comparison with “Kubla Khan”; they are usually classified, withChristabel, as poems of the supernatural. All answer to the formula proposed for Coleridge’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads: supernatural, or at least preternatural, phenomena dignified by association with a human voice. For most readers this is the line of Coleridge’s verse that has mattered. Whatever their liabilities of dramatic construction, the highly charged imagery of these poems has made a strong impression. Its influence rings clear in Shelley and Keats in the next generation, and inTennyson, Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne among their Victorian inheritors. In the title of W. H. Auden’s Look, Stranger! (1936) the echo of the Mariner’s exhortation, “Listen, Stranger!,” from the text of 1798, shows how far Coleridge’s oracular voice would carry.
Coleridge’s contributions to the Lyrical Ballads volume included a short piece fromOsorio called “The Foster-Mother’s Tale,” and a meditative poem in blank verse, “The Nightingale,” as well as “The Ancient Mariner.” The collaboration with Wordsworth is perhaps most striking in their development of the conversational idiom for which the subtitle of “The Nightingale, A Conversation Poem, Written in April, 1798” provided a name. It was not the first of the conversation poems; these are considered to begin from “The Eolian Harp” and to include “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement’’ and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” among his earlier meditative verses. Coleridge himself never distinguished them in this way, nor has Wordsworth’s poetry of the kind ever been described as conversational. Yet the term has come to stand for Coleridge’s decisive innovation as a poet and for his contribution to the formation of Wordsworth’s voice.
It was at this moment of intense exchange that Coleridge wrote his most imposing conversational verse, and that Wordsworth wrote “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” his startling initiation in the conversational idiom. Wordsworth’s poem stands at the end of Lyrical Ballads rather as the “Ancient Mariner” stands at the beginning. It stands out, a monument to the realized achievement of the experiment. From the title, with its particularity about time and place, and the graceful discursive manner, through the association of ideas and the praise of Nature to the address in the concluding stanza to his sister, this poem is virtually a homage to Coleridge’s conversational manner. What Wordsworth would make of the conversation poem is the story of the most distinguished poetic career of the period.
Their achievement in the developing conversational line has seemed more momentous in retrospect than it did at the time. “Tintern Abbey” was noticed only fitfully in early reviews. Yet the example of the conversation poems took where it mattered most, among the poets of the next generation and every generation since. Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo” (1818) represents an early effort to expand on the possibilities of conversational verse. Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot in England and Robert Frost in America elaborated variously on the conversational convention. The testimony ofCharles Tomlinson shows how the influence of Coleridge’s innovation has been transmitted by modern writers: “The distinguishable American presences in my own work, so far as I can tell, were, up to then, Pound, Stevens, and Marianne Moore, and yet, if through them the tonality sounded American, the tradition of the work went back to Coleridge’s conversation poems.” The meditative verse of Geoffrey Hill in the same postwar generation rings changes on the Coleridgean originals of this line of modern verse.
Wordsworth made the conversation poem the vehicle of his celebration of enlightenment values: of nature as spiritual home, of man as the measure of things. Coleridge’s conversational verse points in the same direction under the influence of his great friend, yet it is deeply conflicted under the surface. The conviction of a benevolent nature is compromised by mounting fears. In the earlier poems of the kind these are indicated only indirectly. In “Frost at Midnight,” composed from the front room of the Lime Street cottage in the winter of 1798, the poet’s isolation drives him to test the resources of nature conceived as a mediating agent. The poem dramatizes Coleridge’s sense of vulnerability in the face of a threatening outside world. Part of this feeling must have come from the growing hostility of the community in which he was living. Fear of a French invasion was widespread, and the outsiders were suspected of democratic sympathies, even of collusion with the national enemy. Walking home from Bristol, Coleridge heard himself described as a “vile Jacobin villain.” The spy sent by the government found nothing much to report against him, but there was open mistrust of his motives and way of life. Such testimony provides incidental evidence of social pressures which Coleridge expressed in “Frost at Midnight”in an intensely personal way.
“Frost at Midnight” is the most psychodramatic of Coleridge’s conversation poems even if the conclusion is not really consistent with the imaginative process which gives rise to it. For it exposes the deep fears behind the passion for Nature conceived in this way, as an intentional agent and life companion. “Religious meanings in the forms of nature” practically defines the idea as Coleridge understood it. In “Fears in Solitude,” written soon after, and the source of this fine characterization, the sense of danger and vulnerability is directly related to political apprehensions. “Fears in Solitude” shows Coleridge trying to associate the scenery around Nether Stowey with feelings for his country without giving way to the government which he despised. It is an uncertain performance, rambling and disjointed, yet interesting as a portrait of political conviction under pressure.
Despite the difficulties, this was a time of rare promise for the young writer. Wordsworth’s presence was catalytic. It was through the Lyrical Ballads volume that Coleridge’s voices, conversational and “romantic,” were developed and rationalized. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal of 1798 shows how collaborative were all of their undertakings of this formative moment. Yet their auspicious beginning was to prove the beginning of the end of Coleridge’s poetic powers. While Wordsworth would carry on with the experiment for some ten years after that spring in the Quantocks, his companion in the art was all but finished with it. Reasons for the divergence are bound to be conjectures after the fact, but two at least remain worth considering. The collaboration turned out to be a struggle for poetic primacy, and Wordsworth’s personal domination eventually meant loss of conviction—and loss of face—for his troubled colleague. There was room for only one strong voice of this kind. Coleridge was drawn to other roles in any case, and to other causes. Poetry was his means, not his vocation.
What was his vocation then? He is usually described as a man of letters—as the prototype of the modern writer who lives from his earnings as journalist, book reviewer, and jack of all literary trades. Coleridge was provided, quite unexpectedly, a life annuity of 150 pounds sterling by Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood, heirs to the pottery and friends of reliable standing. There were no strings attached. The point was to free him of the routine material difficulties which were already closing in on him from all sides. This was a godsend, but it also put Coleridge on his mettle. For he was now faced with the imperative to choose and define a vocation for himself. Freedom imposes its own obligations, and patronage remains patronage even without the strings. The imminent departure of the Wordsworths, whose one-year lease at Alfoxden was not renewed in June 1798 due to local doubts about their character, precipitated a personal crisis of sorts. The upshot was an extended residence in Germany, separation from family and friends in Nether Stowey, and a change of direction.
Coleridge was drawn to Germany for its literary ferment and new learning. His residence of some months at the university in Göttingen exposed him to the earlier Germanic languages and literatures and also to the new scriptural criticism which would change the face of modern theology. He read Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing rather than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; enlightenment thinking—not Sturm und Drang—was the object lesson. Germany opened doors whose existence he had hardly imagined. It was here that he learned the language sufficiently to approach the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which consumed his thinking from about 1800. Göttingen supplied a working idea of language which he would turn to his own uses on his return. And it involved him in historical inquiries—on the origin of the free farming class, for example—which he communicated to his correspondents at home. The impression left by his notebooks and letters of this period of residence abroad is of unusual intellectual attentiveness.
The intellectual turn is what distinguishes Coleridge from others, including his friends William Hazlitt and Lamb, whose activity as writers in the period was more clearly in the native grain. His example was followed by De Quincey and Carlyle with differing emphases; “men of letters” would appear less apt to their cases than “literary intellectuals,” with the stress on fresh thinking. Literature, or “polite literature” as Coleridge sometimes called it, included the prose essay for all of them. Verse and prose did not live separate lives; they were distinctive in means but not different in ends as Coleridge explained them. Both gave scope to the same human understanding.
Coleridge rejoined his family in Nether Stowey in midsummer 1799, some time after having returned from Germany. It was an uncomfortable homecoming on several counts. Wordsworth was soon on his way to Dove Cottage at Grasmere in the remote north country, and Coleridge was not far behind. There was trouble with Southey and a difficult leave taking from Thomas Poole. On his way north he tarried in London as political correspondent for the Morning Post, writing a brilliant piece on Pitt, the prime minister, showing what his own convictions counted for. For readers interested only in the poetry, such topical work is bound to seem tedious; yet it represents the heart of Coleridge’s commitment in the period when he was writing his best verse. HisEssays on His Own Times (1850), collected long after in three volumes, show how serious and capable a critic of society he was. The promotion of his most personal and individualistic work by later readers has obscured his constant attention to social arrangements and social ideals.
His move to Keswick in summer 1800 (not long before the birth of his third son, Derwent, on 14 September) represented a kind of retreat from the discouraging world of city politics and city life. The Wedgwood annuity made it feasible, Wordsworth’s presence nearby practically inevitable. Lyrical Ballads was to be republished in a new edition; Christabel was still unfinished, and here he added the second part, with its altered landscape reflecting the scenery of Langdale Pike and “Borodale.” It was a critical time in his professional transition. Wordsworth’s rejection of the still unfinished poem contributed to Coleridge’s sense of personal incapacity. He came to feel that he was not a poet; not a great poet, at least not like Wordsworth. Yet his valedictory ode, “Dejection,” first composed as a letter in 1802, shows him at the peak of his powers. Writing in the shadow of Wordsworth’s “Intimations” ode, Coleridge here cultivated a more colloquial delivery while remaining true to his own muse. This is his magisterial conversation poem, the most compelling (though not the most celebrated) achievement of his foreshortened poetic career.
Coleridge was now on his own as never before, unsettled, constantly ill, searching for a way through his difficulties. He decided at this time on a career as a critic, at first proposing “an Essay on the Elements of Poetry / it would in reality be a disguisedSystem of Morals & Politics—.” The real orientation of his poetics is indicated here. It was refined but not fundamentally altered by subsequent reflection and formulation. By 1804 he was calling the same project “On the Sources of Poetic Pleasure—in which without using the words bad or good, I simply endeavor to detect the causes & sources of the Pleasures, which different styles &c have given in different ages, & then determining their comparative Worth, Permanency, & Compatibility with the noble parts of our nature to establish in the utmost depths, to which I can delve, the characteristics of Good & Bad Poetry—& the intimate connection of Taste & Morals.—” The lectures delivered at the Royal Institution in 1808 on “The Principles of Poetry” apparently fleshed out this program, beginning from Shakespeare and concluding “On Modern Poetry.” They were the first of several lecture series conducted by Coleridge in the years 1808-1814. Their contents are known mainly from unreliable reports when they are known at all.
The lectures of 1811-1812 on Shakespeare were influential in the general revival of interest in the Elizabethan drama. Dr. Johnson’s 1765 preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s works had defended him as the poet of nature who held up a mirror to life and manners. Against this mimetic emphasis Coleridge lay stress on Shakespeare’s expressive language and the psychological acumen associated with it: “In the plays of Shakespeare, every man sees himself, without knowing that he does so.” A more important legacy of the lectures on Shakespeare is the idea of organicism, which has deep roots in his earlier critical reflection. In lecture notes on Shakespeare, Coleridge evokes organic form in terms which mimic the contemporary German critic August Wilhelm Schlegel. The form of Shakespeare’s dramas grew out of his characters and ideas, on Coleridge’s telling; the old dramatic conventions did not impede the conception. The structural variety of his plays—the seeming irregularities of The Tempest, in particular—arose from expressive requirements. Organic form redeemed Shakespeare’s unconventional dramatic constructions.
The importance of the organic metaphor and idea for later thinking about poetry can hardly be exaggerated. The sense of the work of art as an organism, self-germinating and self-enclosed, pervades modern writing and modern criticism. Coleridge’s elaboration on the idea of imagination in this period owes something to the distinction of mechanic and organic form as well. His definitions of primary and secondary imagination and of fancy have become canonical; they served I. A. Richards, notably, as a theoretical basis of the “semasiology” which he proposed in 1935. This putative science of meaning was meant to shore up the foundations of English as an academic discipline and proved influential not only at Cambridge but throughout the English-speaking world, including the United States, where it provided impetus for the development of the New Criticism, as it was called. Treating Coleridge as a provincial outpost of the new German critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, English and American readers have usually abandoned the complex record of his reading and response in favor of one or two manageable ideas. The result has been general misapprehension about his orientation and commitments. Coleridge does not make sense as a model of aesthetic reading despite the efforts of Richards and others to bend him to this purpose.
What sort of reader was he, then? Moral and political, certainly, but something more. On his return from Germany in 1799, Coleridge had undertaken “a metaphysical Investigation” of “the affinities of the Feelings with Words & Ideas,” to be composed “under the title of ‘Concerning Poetry & the nature of the Pleasures derived from it.’” The connection of his philosophical studies with his critical ambition is important for understanding how Coleridge imagined the critical function. He was not interested in judging writing by current standards. Conventional judgments of good or bad relied on unspoken assumptions which he was concerned to test and modify, where appropriate, by the light of reason. Adjudicating taste is the usual purview of the “man of letters.” Coleridge was trying for something more philosophical, of larger scope and bearing: “acting the arbitrator between the old School & the New School to lay down some plain, & perspicuous, tho’ not superficial Canons of Criticism respecting poetry.”
In the wake of the republication of Lyrical Ballads in early 1801 (with ‘1800’ on the title page), Coleridge’s critical project became a protracted effort to come to terms with Wordsworth’s radical claims in the “Preface” for a poetry composed “in the real language of men.” This was the “New School” of “natural thoughts in natural diction”: Coleridge’s own school despite his differences with Wordsworth. His effort to make the case for the new verse in the teeth of pitched hostility on the part of reviewers culminated in his Biographia Literaria (1817), where the “Old School” is treated anecdotally in the opening chapters on the way to the triumph of Wordsworth’s voice. The fifteen years between the “Preface” and Biographia Literaria were consumed with working through the critical agenda which Coleridge set himself at the turn of the century. The process was a fitful, often tortuous one. The metaphysical investigation assumed a life of its own, waylaid by deep plunges into Kant and Schelling, among others. It culminates in the first volume of the Biographia Literaria with an effort to provide rational ground for the critical exercise which follows in the second. His definition of imagination remains an important part of his poetic legacy, nevertheless, since it underwrites the development of a symbolist aesthetic still associated with his name though at odds with his enduring commitments.
The thoughtful approach to Wordsworth in the second volume represents Coleridge’s understanding of poetry at its best. His account of the Lyrical Ballads project challenges some of Wordsworth’s claims in the “Preface” to the second edition in a way which distinguishes the effective from the peculiar in his verse. Readers have often taken Coleridge’s theoretic pronouncements about imagination as constituting his poetics, while the account of Wordsworth’s verse shows him applying more conventional standards in new and thoughtful ways. This discussion of the new school in English poetry includes a detailed treatment of the question of poetic language as raised by Wordsworth, and it is Coleridge’s response to his positions in the Lyrical Ballads “Preface” that makes up the real centerpiece of the argument. The defense of poetic diction in particular is important for understanding his idea of poetry. Its roots lie in a long meditation on language, not in a philosophically derived faculty of imagination.
This meditation on language occupied Coleridge occasionally during the years between his return from Germany in 1799 and the composition of the Biographia Literaria. Among projects which he undertook during these long years of opium addiction, physical disability, and aimless wandering, The Friend (1809) stands out for its originality and influence. After two years away, in Malta, Sicily, and Rome, he returned to Keswick in 1806, separated from his wife (who had given birth to their daughter, Sara, on 23 December 1802), lectured and dilated, and finally settled on publishing “a weekly essay” which ran from 1 June 1809 to 15 March 1810. The publication rose and fell by subscriptions, relying on Coleridge’s name and reputation, and finally collapsed under the weight of his private difficulties. Eclectic in approach, broadly literary in style, its various essays remain worth considering for what they indicate of the evolution of letters in the period. The Friend established a high discursive tone which was influential among Coleridge’s inheritors, including Carlyle and Emerson, for whom it was counted among his most valuable works.
In 1812 the Wedgwood annuity was reduced by half due to financial difficulties related to the war. Coleridge continued to wander, staying with friends all over the kingdom and occasionally with his family in Keswick. In 1816 he published Christabel with “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep” in a single volume; the next year his collected verse, Sibylline Leaves, appeared. He moved into the house of Dr. James Gillman, a physician in Highgate, now a north London village, trying to cure or at least to treat his opium problem. Here he would pass the remainder of his life, writing only occasional verse while preparing philosophical lectures (delivered in 1818), revising the text of The Friend for publication as a book, and collating the moral and theological aphorisms which appeared as Aids to Reflection (1825). These were popular and influential in America as well as in England. Coleridge published a meditation on political inspiration in The Stateman’s Manual (1816) among other tracts on subjects theological and political. On the Constitution of Church and Stateappeared in 1830; Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit posthumously in 1840. He planned a comprehensive philosophical synthesis which he was unable to realize, conjuring with a system which lived only in his constantly working mind. The most finished text from among his philosophical papers was published in 1848 as Hints towards the Formation of a more Comprehensive Theory of Life. The reconstruction of his abortive synthesis is in progress.
Coleridge died in 1834 after years of personal discomfort and disappointment. A legend in his time, he came to be seen by friends and contemporaries as the genius who failed. The failure was largely relative to early expectations, however, and to hopes defeated by disease and drugs. Despite everything, Coleridge can still be regarded as a groundbreaking and, at his best, a powerful poet of lasting influence. His idea of poetry remains the standard by which others in the English sphere are tried. As a political thinker, and as a Christian apologist, Coleridge proved an inspiration to the important generation after his own. Recent publication of his private notebooks has provided further evidence of the constant ferment and vitality of his inquiring spirit.