Coleridge as Revolutionary, Gothic Threat, and Early Victorian Heirloom: Cultural Transformations of a Poet in his Lifetime
by David S. Hogsette, PhD
A lecture delivered at the Group for Early Modern Studies National Conference
Throughout his lifetime, Samuel Taylor Coleridge entertained an interesting and contradictory professional relationship with his periodical reviewers. Coleridge’s late 18th– and early 19th-century critics fought for cultural supremacy and market control in a rapidly growing literary marketplace that served a diversifying readership. Although Coleridge wrote most of his poetry during the late eighteenth century, his poetic works were revised, republished, and re-read during three key historical periods: war with France (1793-1802 and 1803-1815); the years following the defeat of Napoleon; and the early Victorian period (1830s). By examining the ideologies and political views informing the rhetoric that these critics used to review Coleridge’s poetry, we can see two key points. First, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reviewers were culturally significant agents who appointed themselves as cultural magistrates to preserve their own conception of a pure English literature and culture. Second, in an attempt to control Coleridge’s cultural identity, the critics transformed him into historically specific social commodities. In other words, the critics were not disinterested literary commentators; rather, they were active participants in the politics of shaping English culture.
Coleridge as Revolutionary Figure
The immediacy, proximity, and excessiveness of the French Revolution ultimately intensified the preexisting British political debates and thus further fractured the already destabilized public sphere. This political divisiveness eventually influenced cultural practices of aesthetic judgment that had by this time become a significant component of the public sphere. We clearly see this polarization and disruptive integration of politics with aesthetic judgment throughout the reviews of Coleridge’s Poems (1796), “Ode on a Departing Year” (1796), Fears in Solitude; France, an Ode; and Frost at Midnight (1798) and Lyrical Ballads (1798, written with and primarily by William Wordsworth). In these reviews, Coleridge’s poetic experimentation was characterized either as a rational poetics that strengthened British patriotism or as emotionally zealous versification that threatened to subvert British cultural traditions and official nationalism.
Review of Poems (1796). Critical Review, 2nd series 17 (June 1796): 209-12.
In this single example we see how Coleridge was constructed both positively as a political radical and negatively as a cultural threat.
1. Coleridge as political revolutionary and lover of liberty: “…his poems glow with … that enthusiastic love of liberty, which give[s] energy to poetic composition” (209)
- Political liberalism supporting popular nationalism
2. Coleridge as cultural threat:
The Monody addressed to Chatterton [“Monody on the Death of Chatterton” (1794)] possesses many excellent passages: but the irregular species of versification in which it is written, is not, in our judgment, consistent with the laws of poetry. … We must also observe that we frequently meet, in the poems, with expressions which, however pleasing in Spenser and Shakspeare [sic], accord not with the present state of the English language. The versification is not always sufficiently polished, and by not having the pause and accent in the proper place, grates upon the correct ear. The liberty too taken by Mr. Coleridge of coining words, and the impetuosity of a most powerful imagination, hurry him sometimes to what his readers may think exceptionable language. (211)
- Praises Coleridge’s political liberalism
- Chastises him as would a French Revolutionary for his antiquarianism and not speaking to the modern reader
- Attacks him as would a French loyalists and British anti-Revolutionary for “coining” new words; portrayed as a French Jacobin melting down aristocratic treasures to create a new currency
- Cultural conservatism serving official nationalism
The critics clearly negotiated and strategically invoked pro-revolutionary and anti-Jacobin rhetorics, thus imbuing their own aesthetic discourse with socio-political significance by openly participating in the construction and cultivation of competing popular and official nationalisms.
Coleridge as Gothic Other in Post-Napoleonic Era
Many literary critics of the post-revolutionary public sphere—politically progressive and pro-government critics alike—exhibited a cultural conservatism that resembled much of the earlier anti-revolutionary sentiment. Coleridge’s German mysticism, Gothic supernaturalism, and exotic Orientalism, like that found in “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Pains of Sleep” published together in the 1816 Christabel volume, troubled the culturally conservative literary critics. Suspicious of the various revolutions and transformations occurring in the literary marketplace, critics and reviewers engaged rhetorics of nationalism and colonialism in order to contain the rapid hybridization of their cultural space. In the reviews of Coleridge’s Christabel volume, we see that many post-Napoleonic critics ironically positioned themselves as despotic emperors of the literary marketplace sworn to protect the virtues of an idealized British literature and to colonize the fertile regions of the poet’s imagination.
William Roberts. Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep. British Review 8 (Aug. 1816): 64-81.
The British Review was an evangelical Review that was pro-government and supported the Church of England. In his review William Roberts admits that the creative process is self-contained within the economy of the poet’s mind: “there is a land of dreams with which poets hold an unrestricted commerce, and where they may load their imaginations with whatever strange products they find in the country; and if we are content with the raw material, there is no end to the varieties of chaotic originalities which may be brought away from this fantastic region” (65).
- Language of imperialism and commercial capitalism
- Poet’s imagination potentially colonizable real estate
- Imagination to be exploited by the literary critics who know better than the “natives” how to harness the “land’s” wealth
Poets are not separate and distinct from the demands and interests of the readership, and they must produce from the wilds of their imaginations poetry that is tame and “native”: “But it is the province, not to bring these anomalous existences to our view in the state in which he has picked them up, but so shaped, applied, worked up, and compounded, as almost to look like natives of our own minds, and easily to mix with the train of our own conceptions. …[T]here must be something to connect these visionary forms with the realities of existence, to gain them a momentary credence by the aid of harmonizing occurrences, to mix them up with the interest of some great event, or to borrow for them colour of probability from the surrounding scene” (65).
- Poetry as commingling of minds
- Poet’s ethical and cultural responsibility to readers
- Poets must be regulated by the critic to protect readers from “alien” concepts and visions being made “native” within the imagination
Reviewers of the Christabel volume assumed a juridical function in a British literary culture that was generally fearful of aesthetic difference. These critics established Coleridge and his work as cultural subjects that were considered alien and threatening and had to be contained through the institutional practices of literary reviewing. Such critics imbued aesthetic judgment with a rhetoric of imperialism, thus dialogically relating practices of criticism to structures and ideologies of empire.
Coleridge as Early Victorian Heirloom
In just twelve years after the publication of the Christabel volume which established Coleridge as a disruptive social enigma, the critics reappraising his retrospective serialized editions published in 1828, 1829, and 1834 transformed him into a highly esteemed cultural hero. This drastic critical revaluation is most astonishing because many of these reviewers were quite aware of Coleridge’s dreadful record with the Review community, often chastising the previous reviewers for misunderstanding Coleridge and his work and for enacting discursive violence that they felt was a disservice not only to Coleridge but to the reading community as well. Interestingly, these later reviewers indeed viewed themselves as magistrates of cultural capital and arbiters of literary taste. Their colonial position in the literary marketplace had not changed in the twelve years following the Christabel volume, nor had their self-established relationship to readers and producers of literary material.
However, the role of the literary writer in the reviewers’ larger cultural program had assumed a more instrumental position. Instead of pitting themselves against the writer and struggling for discursive and thus economic supremacy in the marketplace, the reviewers appear to have been renegotiating their relationship with writers, appropriating them more directly for particular cultural agendas. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, English society began experiencing troubling socio-political disruptions that complicated the progressive enthusiasm, which directly followed the defeat of Napoleon and the resurgence of English imperialism. In an attempt to alleviate the various social and political anxieties produced by radical changes in science, technology, economics, and class structure, the reviewers adopted a nostalgic stance toward Coleridge and his work.
Review of The Poetical Works (1828). Literary Gazette 23 August 1828: 535-36.
The writer feels as though he has discovered some of the great collections of a true genius that had been lost to the modern world and that are re-emerging and providing guidance and new hope for a world that has apparently gone astray: “We are rejoiced to see these volumes, the collected fruits of one of the most original minds in our time. Scattered, unappropriated, neglected, and out of print, as many of these poems have been, yet what an influence have they exercised! How many veins of fine gold has Coleridge, with all the profusion of genius, laid open for others to work. In these pages how many lines start up old familiar friends, met with in quotations we know not whence” (535).
- Literary Gazette aimed at middle classes
- A cultural find or literary artifact that introduces new readers to artistic treasures long since forgotten or misplaced
- “veins of fine gold” that can be mined for the edification of the middle classes
- These poetic treasures secure the middle-class reader’s cultural connection to a heretofore unnamed artistic heritage
- Connects middle-class readers imaginatively to the upper classes through shared literary experience
Due largely to his own political conservatism and his desire to achieve cultural unity and systematized socio-political cultivation, Coleridge was an ideal public figure to be resurrected by early Victorian reviewers and cultural commentators as a poetic and intellectual saint around which a stable cultural history could be established. Coleridge was transformed by processes of literary canonization deployed in the service of a larger cultural project designed to combat a pervasive feeling of aristocratic and middle-class alienation brought on by industrialism and practices of empire.
Coleridge as Cultural Text
The literary reviewer clearly helped determine the cultural value of the Romantic writer and his work. The reviewer was a professional reader who was also a professional writer and, as such, competed with the literary writers for cultural supremacy. These professional reader-writers often viewed themselves as vanguards of English culture and attempted to establish themselves as magistrates of the poets’ creative imagination. These professional readers were culturally significant individuals who often treated the poet’s imagination as a rich, fertile ground ripe for artistic and economic colonization, so much so that some critics even appropriated a language of empire when reviewing Coleridge and his work. Studying the reviews of his work provides a very specific example of how authors are variable fictitious personas created by their critic-readers and are thus multi-dimensional cultural works or texts in their own right.