Coleridge’s Conversational Tapestry: Revaluing the Physical Structure of Biographia Literaria
by David S. Hogsette, PhD
A lecture delivered at the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1816) represents a conceptually and structurally troublesome text. His ideology, critical theory, discursive practice, and writing process resisted and confronted the creative limitations institutionalized by the literary marketplace. Readers and critics have been perplexed by this text since its initial publication. Early reviewers like William Hazlitt, Francis Jeffrey, and John Wilson dismissed the project as a complete literary and critical failure, a book that presented little more than a rambling and uninteresting apology for Coleridge’s writerly inadequacies. This text has equally frustrated twentieth-century critics and scholars, many of whom find it difficult to determine its literary, scholarly, critical, or autobiographical value. Indeed, most wonder if it is even a “book” at all. In this paper I argue that the physical structure of this complex work is not so troubling as most readers contend; rather, it demonstrates Coleridge’s reactionary style. This style can be characterized as conversational pastiche, and it is a reaction against traditional book manuscript conventions and strict marketplace expectations for literary production.
From our historical perspective, we can easily acknowledge the vastness of Coleridge’s “writing”; the sheer number of pages of his writing is astounding. Yet during his lifetime, Coleridge really did not publish a whole lot, and therefore was not a widely respected scholar, critic, or poet. He knew that his contemporaries questioned his writing skills, and in the Biographia Coleridge begrudges those who criticized him for not having produced enough printed material: “But are books the only channel through which the stream of intellectual usefulness can flow? Is the diffusion of truth to be estimated by publication; or publications by the truth, which they diffuse or at least contain?” (BL I 220). Throughout his career, Coleridge was obsessed with providing objective Truth for his audiences, and he struggled with discovering the very best way to share his knowledge. The Biographia is indeed a major product of this intellectual and spiritual struggle. It is a “book of truth” that demonstrates he can produce lengthy scholarship and that catalogues various truths as he knew them or that he discovered through his own intellectual and scholarly activities. The Biographia is a defense of his writing career and a record of his literary life that links him to the great thinkers and writers of antiquity, Germany, and England. By publishing this book, Coleridge attempted to establish himself as a key figure in a rich English literary and critical heritage and to proclaim what it should mean to be a man of letters in nineteenth-century England.
Even though the Biographia as a book is indeed an acknowledged failure, it is not a discursive mess that deconstructs itself. Rather, it provides its own context in which to view it as a successful critique of that medium which rejects it. In other words, its failure as a model book is in fact its critical victory. What Coleridge attempts to demonstrate in the Biographia is that structure, form, and unity of a book are not nearly so significant as the structure, form, and unity of thought and truth: “Would that the criterion of a scholar’s utility were the number and value of the truths, which he has been the means of throwing into the general circulation; or the number and value of minds, whom by his conversation or letters, he has excited into activity, and supplied with the germs of their after-growth!” (BL I 220). Ultimately, Coleridge produces a scholarly text that is not the type of commodity the commercial marketplace expected. In publishing the Biographia he attempts simultaneously to prove that he can publish and to introduce an alternative discourse through which to critique the very public sphere that rejected him.
This alternative discourse is best described in terms of politicized bricolage and pastiche. It is important to note here that Coleridge’s political bricolage was not unique; for, in fact, he borrowed from a rich biblical and radical literary tradition that informed much political discourse of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Coleridge positions himself as a cultural sage and prophet, and he follows the biblical prophetic mode of combining several rhetorical and narrative genres into a singular prophetic fusion. Leslie Tannenbaum, in his book Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies, explains that William Blake’s “great code of art” borrows heavily from various prophetic genres which fuse nonchronological and episodic structures with digressive narrative methods into an internally and thematically “unified” prophetic form that was itself a critical discourse: “Blake would find a principle of form existing in the Bible that was based not on external rules, but on a principle of inner coherence that served the poet-prophet’s need to protest against the moral, religious, and political abuses of the time. All genres would provide ammunition for this end, allowing the poet to move freely from one to another according to his particular rhetorical purpose” (35). Similarly, Coleridge combines multiple genres—including periodical essays, published “books,” poetry, letters, notebooks, and marginalia—into a single work, and he shifts among various discursive modes—like writing, conversation, oration, lectures, dictation—to satisfy his rhetorical needs and to achieve his critical aims. Furthermore, Coleridge would have understood biblical prophetic form to be a nonlinear, nonchronological, and heterogeneous literary form, as this interpretive perspective was discussed by Thomas Howes, the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century biblical exegete. Tannenbaum notes that such views concerning prophetic form “were available in contemporary works on rhetoric and literary criticism, commentaries on Old Testament prophets, and, most importantly, commentaries on the Book of Revelation, which was universally acknowledged to be the summation and the most perfect embodiment of all biblical prophecy” (36). As a reader of the Bible, a theologian, and a commentator on the relationship between the Church and State, Coleridge was familiar with biblical narrative structure, and it is clear that like Blake and other late 18th-century religious and political radicals, Coleridge’s non-traditional literary style was influenced by biblical prophetic forms.
Coleridge’s discursive bricolage also draws from the rhetorical style used by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century radical writers. In the book Dangerous Enthusiasms John Mee notes that radicals from 1795 to 1840 produced texts that eclectically combined a number of different genres and styles into a transgressive political discourse (4). Although Coleridge was not a radical in the strictest sense by the time he wrote and published the Biographia, he was clearly demonstrating a similar critical practice and produced a politicized bricolage steeped in theological idealism as well as transcendental metaphysics. Mee further notes that many radicals in the 1790s, particularly the lower-class radicals, “took up the role of the bricoleur; they relished breaking down those discourses which had cultural authority and creating from them new languages of liberation” (9). Clearly, Coleridge was not a lower-class radical, but as Nicholas Roe points out in his book Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years, he very much engaged the practices, thoughts, ideas, and discourses of the 1790s radical and dissenting movements. I am arguing that from this theological and radical discursive tradition, Coleridge models his critical practice and attempts to resist the demands of the publishing industry.
The Biographia is the best example of Coleridge’s critical bricolage. Many critics have struggled to comprehend the discursive complexity of this text—which is primarily a pastiche of literary, philosophical, and moral fragments taken from notebook entries, prior publications, letters, lectures, and conversations—but these discussions have centered mainly on the topic of his plagiarism. Charges of plagiarism in the Biographia date back to Thomas De Quincey’s 1834 article in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine occasioned by Coleridge’s death. This tradition of outlining and discussing Coleridge’s plagiarism continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, in his book Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition Thomas McFarland adds an interesting component to this debate by suggesting that scholars should consider this plagiarism issue in relation to discursive practices: “For the very multiplicity of instances [of Coleridge’s ‘borrowings’]—far more than at first charged, and by no means as yet all identified—suggests the explanation, bizarre though it may seem, that we are faced not with plagiarism, but with nothing less than a mode of composition—composition by mosaic organization rather than by painting on an empty canvas” (Pantheist Tradition 27). I too find that we must think more about Coleridge’s plagiarism in the context of his discursive activity and critical practice. But I don’t want to dismiss plagiarism totally. McFarland’s main reason for losing the term plagiarism (and replacing it with “borrowings”) has more to do with his critique of the moral and ethical issues that have dominated the controversy. According to McFarland, in order to understand the function and operation of Coleridge’s borrowings in terms of composition practices, we must get beyond charging Coleridge with plagiarism. I would agree in part, as “charges of plagiarism” privileges universalistic concepts of genius and originality and ignores the realities of knowledge construction as dialogue or conversation. However, instead of denying plagiarism (or categorizing it as a symptom of psychological depravity) and privileging metaphors of painting to describe Coleridge’s discursive practice, I suggest we consider his work in terms of pastiche or bricolage which can acknowledge and recontextualize notions of plagiarism. While we may continue to consider plagiarism “wrong” or academically “unethical,” we cannot deny its place and at times key role in the process of creative acts that piece together various items into a pastiche, a synthesis of disparate parts that simultaneously achieves unity as it foregrounds multiplicity.
Our understanding of Coleridge’s fragmentary language, his plagiarism, and his unity in multiplicity is greatly enhanced by Jerome Christensen’s analysis of the Biographia in his book Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language. Christensen describes Coleridge’s writing as marginal exegesis: “Although Coleridge has appropriated passages from other writers, every word in the Biographia has become his. A book is not a mosaic. Words are not brightly colored stones, which the artist finds and then arranges on a background; even the crude facsimile of the most clumsy plagiarist alters its source by mediation and displacement. …What Coleridge practices is not mosaic composition but marginal exegesis, not philosophy but commentary” (104-05). Christensen notes that McFarland’s mosaic model reduces Coleridge to a skillful crafter who has little originating power and who simply arranges colored stones, denying the mediating aspects of his composition; and Christensen demonstrates that Coleridge’s writing makes the writing of others his own and directly applicable to his contemporary conversation. According to Christensen, Coleridge strips his language of a single and stable center, destabilizing its internal referential structure and extending the circumference of significance beyond the originating texts.
Yet this notion of marginal exegesis itself limits Coleridge’s complex discursive methods and reformulations, suggesting that he mainly wrote on and around the primary works of other scholars—a commentator, not a philosopher. Furthermore, marginal exegesis privileges written discourse, especially books, for the term calls to mind heavy glossing and marginal scribbling—to be a marginal exegete requires that one scribble in the margins of printed texts and to limit one’s generative work to note taking and commentary. Coleridge’s practice was more than this. Marginal exegesis does not account for Coleridge’s lecturing and conversation. Further, many of his published works were in fact dictated, written transcriptions of Coleridge’s verbal attempts to synthesize his notes, letters, marginalia, lectures, previous publications, and other scholars’ works. Coleridge was a weaver of discursive tapestry who fused multiple and disparate ideas from a variety of media into written works that struggled against the conventions of the publishing industry.
We see this conversational tapestry illustrated clearly in Coleridge’s lectures on literature, in which he drew from a variety of sources, often not citing them unless they would be readily familiar to his audiences. In his lectures on Shakespeare, he borrowed primarily from eighteenth-century English and German critics and philosophers, often using German methods and principles to revise the judgments made by English critics. Plagiarism, again, characterizes Coleridge’s critical practice; in this case, he borrowed heavily from Schlegel’s lectures on Shakespeare to make many of his points against past assessments of the great English bard. The lectures are pieced together from fragmentary notes written on loose pages, in his notebooks, on the backs of lecture tickets, in the margins of books, in his letters, and in revised published works. Just like the Biographia, which is a dictated tapestry of multiple texts, his lectures were idiosyncratic yet scholarly programmatic combinations of fragmentary ideas and observations that, when finally collated, often worked to move from the general to the particular, to unify disparate pieces into a critical whole representing fundamental aspects of Coleridge’s principles for and practices of critical judgment. The significant point here is that pastiche and orality informed the bulk of his “writing” in the Biographia and lectures and formed the basis of his critical discourse.
The relationship of oral tapestry in the lectures to the orality or conversational manner of the Biographia is readily apparent once we consider its dominant mode of production: dictation. Instead of imposing upon this book the expectations of a rigid structure or a focused argument, we can view it as a transcript of a rather long conversation Coleridge had with John Morgan. Indeed, parts of the book are focused and contain a tight structure, but the characterizing style is that of conversation and lecture. Christensen notes that many “local promiscuities” have annoyed readers since its publication: untraceable references, “capricious coinages,” confusing leaps in logic, and unnecessarily digressive footnotes, concluding that “[t]here seems to be no suitable explanation for such errancies ” (120). Interestingly, these very same attributes that irritate readers of the Biographia constitute the essence of what made him such a popular and idolized orator. Coleridge was notorious for speaking for hours on many different topics on a variety of intellectual levels, though often soaring over the heads of most attendees of his lectures, conversations, or table talk. He did frequently coin new words and terms. His conversation often took jarring jumps in logic or spun off into non sequiturs, explaining the etymology of terms or exploring the philosophical context or religious debates surrounding a minute issue at hand. The most obvious explanation for the Biographia‘s apparent, and, for so many, annoying “errancies” is that he modeled his written discourse after his conversational mode. The Biographia is an oral text, a conversational book that challenges the patience of its readers and the conventions of book publishing. As Christensen suggests, “The theme of the Biographia is its test as book” (121).
In addition to mixing writing and lecturing, Coleridge’s critical tapestry is also characterized by epistolary and conversational forms. Coleridge was very much aware of his epistolary style and even referred to himself as a writer of pastiche. In a drafted yet (characteristically) unpublished advertisement or preface to his essay On the Constitution of Church and State (1829) Coleridge writes, “The Volume might have been entitled Epistolary Disquisitions, or Extracts from a series of Letters on the word, <Idea; and on the> Constitution, the State, the Church, and according to the Idea. … To say, it is patchy … is but another less courteous way of conveying the same description. For the Work purports to be a Pasticcio” (CS lv-lvi). Pasticcio is an Italian term that in music refers to a dramatic assemblage of various songs, dances, and other musical and theatrical elements; and it is, once again, in the Biographia that Coleridge is at his pasticcio best, particularly in the case of the attached letters. Most critics and scholars dismiss the Satyrane’s Letters as nonsensical filler used as a last desperate effort to fulfill the publisher’s demands for a double volume work in which both volumes were of relatively equal length. But Coleridge could have selected any other textual filler, such as poems, articles, and lectures. Instead, he chose to juxtapose these private conversations with his more scholarly and critical musings, thus transforming the nature and content of public discourse. His critique of critical and scholarly practice relies upon the belief that the measure of a true scholar or critic depends not merely upon the number of publications but also on the content of the truth and knowledge shared with others. Coleridge raises the common letter—private conversation—to the status of scholarship and public discourse, offering the letter as an appropriate medium for the creation and distribution of knowledge.
These letters were intended to be “journalistic” notes to his wife and Thomas Poole; however, by publishing them in the Biographia he transforms them into epistolary conversations with his readers. The topics of these conversations often center on issues of community formation and literary debate, and their structure follows his conversational style. In many of these letters, Coleridge slips into extended digressions that move us away from journalism toward a type of ethnographic study of his surroundings and the people he encounters. In the second letter from Ratzeburg, for example, he describes the manner of style, dress, and custom of the Hamburg men traveling on a riverboat from Hamburg to Harburg. He breaks from his description and immediately admonishes himself: “But I forget my promise of journalizing as much as possible” (BL II 176). Shortly after he returns to “journalizing,” he is off again on a tangential discussion of gentlemanly behavior: “In short, the gentlemanly character arises out of feeling of Equality acting, as a Habit, yet flexibly to the varieties of Rank, and modified without being disturbed or superseded by them” (BL II 176). In the larger thematic context of the Biographia, these passages concerning the descriptions of various types or ranks of people and the dissertations on gentlemanly behavior are directly related to his concern with critical practice in the literary public sphere. We witness Coleridge’s concerted effort to identify and fashion specific audiences and to engage this audience through a conversational discourse. In this way, these letters and their narratives become metaphors for his larger project.
This desire to create an intimate and conversational public sphere is reinforced by another anecdote describing an elderly French emigrant Coleridge and Wordsworth befriended on their trip to Germany and who becomes in this letter the exemplary gentleman and critic:
I owe this digression, as an act of justice, to this amiable Frenchman, and of humiliation to myself. For in a little controversy between us on the subject of French poetry, he made me feel my own ill behavior by the silent reproof of contrast, and when I afterwards apologized to him for the warmth of my language, he answered me with a cheerful expression of surprise, and an immediate compliment, which a gentleman might both make with dignity and receive with pleasure. (BL II 176)
In this seemingly unimportant or insignificant little, elderly French emigrant, Coleridge is faced with his own critical impropriety, his own aggressive critical practice. He receives in return a “silent reproof of contrast,” a reflection of what he was not and of what he desires to become: a genial critic. By themselves, these letters seem superfluous; but if read in light of Coleridge’s intentions for writing the Biographia, we can understand them to be stylistically and thematically integral to his critical program. Ultimately, Coleridge seeks to cultivate a specialized Clerisy, an exclusive gentlemanly club of readers and intellectuals who could understand and participate in epistolary and conversational pastiche and who would then share the cultural insights with the masses on their own discursive levels.
In the Biographia Coleridge does not present us with a unified system of thought or discourse; rather, he offers a body of work that reveals a mind in process and a mouth in constant motion. Coleridge waged a battle of language. He fought against the despotism of a commercial market that, in his mind, denied him the cultural position he desired, and he resisted the tyranny of the book that could not accept the fragmentariness and ambivalence of his composition process. While his ultimate cultural project was politically and socially conservative, his linguistic strategies were rhetorically antithetical to the literary establishment. It could be that his conversational tapestry was merely a desperate act of a pathetic man who indulged self-pity and perverse egocentricity. But we must not forget that he was a man with a cultural mission: to refashion criticism in his own image and to create a critically informed audience. Arguably, the conversational structure of his oral tapestry was the underpinning of what he hoped would be the new critical discourse.
 Some very insightful and truly interesting discussions of these and other critical issues surrounding the Biographia are advanced by J.A. Appleyard, Walter Bate, Jerome Christensen, Susan Eilenberg, James Engell and Walter Bate (BL I), Norman Fruman, Paul Hamilton, J.R. de J. Jackson Method and Imagination, Thomas McFarland’s Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition, David Riede, and Kathleen Wheeler’s Sources, Processes and Methods in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.
 Coleridge was very much aware of his lack of publication, and he knowingly privileged conversation and lecturing as the most significant way to share knowledge with others. In a note to his 1808 lectures on the principles of poetry, Coleridge distances himself from the vanity and arrogance of published essayists, and he roots himself in conversation which, according to Coleridge, gives him a better sense of the dynamic between speaker and listener and, thus, enables him better to express “Truth”: “From constitutional Indolence perhaps rather than a conviction of the little worth of mere reputation or notoriety amg contemporaries I have never had any strong ambition of publishing, as or being known as an author … I have passed the far greater part of my life, and employed almost all the powers which Providence has entrusted me, in … reading & in conversation … so I may without presumption suppose that I have obtained some insight into the causes which prevent, or facilitate, the introduction of truth into the minds of men” (Lectures I 124-25). Obviously some of this is typical Coleridge bravado and equivocation, as he indeed longed to be known as a great author, or at least as the great sage or poet-prophet, and he struggled economically and psychologically against the pressures of the commercial literary market. However, his consistent and almost obsessive emphasis of alternative modes of transmitting or revealing Truth to his audience suggest that he was also disenchanted with the practical limitations of published material and looked to conversation and lecturing—oral modes of knowledge creation—as ways to overcome the vanity and self-destructive aspects of the literary public sphere.
 Sadly, the literary academic world of the twentieth century—which, ironically, Coleridge helped produce—is still grappling with this debate over ways to determine a scholar’s cultural utility. The criteria for professing literature in most universities still depends largely on scholarly publication, with teaching effectiveness (or the number of minds “excited into activity”) relegated as a secondary concern. In many ways we are faced today with an increasingly commercialized literary and educational public sphere, much like what Coleridge faced in the nineteenth century, one that could not incorporate or value culturally unpublished contributions because it could not measure the bulk of his work with tangible, quantifiable market figures. The scholarly public sphere of the twentieth century is equally commercialized—if not more so—and academic scholarship and intellectual exchange is being adversely affected, because a bulk of really good work is not being recognized or acknowledged.
 My understanding of bricolage comes primarily from Claude Levi-Strauss’s distinction between the bricoleur and the engineer (16-20) and from Jacques Derrida’s discussion of Levi-Strauss’s analytic categories (278-93). The engineer is Levi-Strauss’s term for the modern, scientific cultural perspective; the engineer is one who is procreative in the sense that he/she assesses each situation as unique and attempts to create new tools, knowledge, and language to meet the challenges of each new situation. The engineer, in some respects, can be seen as an originator of language, genuine knowledge, linguistic codes, and cultural structures. The bricoleur, on the other hand, represents the “primitive” mind and is someone who is “crafty,” not only in the sense that he/she works with their hands but also that he/she is somehow deceitful or tricky. The bricoleur draws from the various materials at hand and is therefore restrained by a “heterogeneous repertoire”; as such, the bricoleur may not be “original” or procreative in the strictest sense, but he/she does combine tools and strategies in creative and potentially transgressive ways, altering and undermining cultural categories and distinctions in the process. It is this playful or transgressive quality of bricolage that best describes Coleridge’s discursive practices; for as I will shortly point out, Coleridge drew from a variety of genres and discursive modes and thus developed a discursive bricolage that was itself a critical and transgressive discourse. As Derrida suggests (285), bricolage is itself a critical language because it blurs linguistic categories, allows for unconventional juxtaposition, and directly calls into question the socially determined linguistic absolute (the social norm) against which bricolage is defined. In many ways, Coleridge’s discourse performs these very linguistic acts.
 See also Iain McCalman.
 For an excellent over view of this tradition, see Thomas McFarland’s Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition.
 To some extent, Jerome Christensen is reifying Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur/engineer dichotomy by opposing craft to genius. While I agree with Christensen’s primary critique of McFarland’s mosaic model, I want to emphasize Derrida’s deconstruction of this craft/genius binary and keep in mind that notions of genius are themselves products of linguistic and ideological craft. Of course, Coleridge’s Romantic idealism and theory of genius and the imagination would not allow him to agree with this notion of genius as craft. Nevertheless, his rhetorical practice demonstrates that he was an aesthetic and political crafter who formulated his own critical discourse.
 Pasticcio is also associated with more popular musical entertainment and is related to the vaudeville. It is ironic that Coleridge’s elitist programmatic is so clearly linked to popular genres.
 Another example of the Satyrane’s Letters serving as an epistolary critical discourse can be found in the first letter (BL II 161-62). On the ship to Germany, Coleridge is presented with an international gathering of learned philosophers, or self-fashioned philosophes—a term and “occupation” that he despised. Coleridge describes the formation of a unique public sphere, a community of scholars, diverse yet egalitarian. This can be read as an intertextual allegorization of Coleridge’s ideal public sphere, the privileged Clerisy whose ideal critical practices and methods of judgment Coleridge describes throughout the preceding chapters of the Biographia. However, this reading can be problematized by Coleridge’s conscious caricature of these people—particularly the Dane, his accent, mannerisms, and grammatical struggles—almost to the point of racial slander. But my point here is that there is a larger significance to these letters, beyond their being appropriate filler to meet publication demands. These letters demonstrate the epistolary and conversational components of Coleridge’s discursive pastiche that became his dominant critical mode.
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