Cultural Colonization

Cultural Colonization in the 19th-Century Reviews of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel

by David S. Hogsette, PhD

A solicited lecture for the Faculty Lecture Series at the New York Institute of Technology


I.  General Introduction

My talk today comes from a book I am currently working on titled Magistrates of Xanadu:  Cultural Administration in the Reviews of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Poetry.  In a very general sense this book is an interpretation of 19th-century interpretations of Coleridge’s poetry.  Instead of reading and analyzing his work, I read the 19th-century reviews of his work and analyze the political and social significance of these reviews.  So my main interest in this study is what I call the Review industry, an institution of specialized readers whose reading and writing practices played very specific cultural roles.  I argue that the reviewers carved out discursive regions and maintained control over them by using a critical rhetoric borrowed from dominant political debates of the times.  Far from being politically disinterested, criticism participated directly in the social and political conversations initiated by such events as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, anti-German sentiment, imperialism, and early Victorian middle-class anxiety.  In this study I also demonstrate that Coleridge was himself a cultural product whose character and value was determined by the reviewers and that Coleridge wrestled with these critics through his lectures, prose, and criticism to regain authority over his work and identity in the literary market place.  What I share with you today is an excerpt from the chapter that discusses the reviews of Coleridge’s Christabel volume, a collection of three poems originally written between 1797 and 1798 but not published until 1816:  “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel,” and “The Pains of Sleep.”  I will be talking specifically about the reviews of “Christabel.”

II.  Brief Summary of “Christabel”

I’m not sure how many of you have read “Christabel,” so it may be helpful to give you a little background and a brief summary.  Coleridge started writing this poem in 1797, around the same time he wrote the first version of his famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and about a year before starting “Kubla Khan.”  This poem closely resembles “The Ancient Mariner” in its fabulous Gothic mechanisms and supernatural qualities, and it was supposed to be published along with “The Ancient Mariner” in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads of 1800, a collection of poems written collaboratively with William Wordsworth.  However, Coleridge could not finish the poem—and never did—and Wordsworth thought it was too strange and yanked it from the collection at the last minute.  It wasn’t until 1816, when Lord Byron encouraged Coleridge to publish it in fragment form, did he publish it with “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep.”

Coleridge was fascinated by the Gothic tradition popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and this poem exhibits wonderful Gothic characteristics.  You have the basic chivalric romance plot, damsels in distress, dark and windy woods with hooting owls, large stone castles with spiral stairs and secret passages, the spirit of a dead mother, a seductive vampire/witch/lesbian character, and prophetic visions in a dream.  This poem exhibits excesses in style and melodrama, and presents transgressive taboos—your basic earmarks of the Gothic.  Here’s the basic plot:  Christabel is the central heroine who sneaks out of her father’s castle at midnight to rendezvous with her knight.  As she is waiting and praying for his return, she hears a moan on the other side of a tree and finds a distraught Geraldine who was apparently abducted by some rogue knights and abandoned in the woods.  Christabel becomes a type of chivalrous knight and rescues Geraldine, taking her back to the castle and sneaking her past her father’s room into her own room.  Once inside the castle, Geraldine first seduces Christabel and chases away the protective spirit of Christabel’s mother, then she starts to seduce and win the affections of the father, effectively destroying this previously secure home.  Unfortunately, the poem is a fragment and pretty much ends there, leaving you hanging.  If you haven’t read this poem, I encourage you to do so, as it is a Gothic hoot.  It’s readily available on the Internet.

III.  Analysis of the Reviews of “Christabel”

By the time Coleridge published the Christabel volume in 1816, the early nineteenth-century public sphere was experiencing various social and political transformations.  Twenty two years of war (1793-1815) with a revolutionary and, later, imperial France initiated a liberal excitement that quickly gave way to disillusionment and reactionary conservatism.  During this time, England’s economy shifted from an agricultural to an industrial base producing a growing middle class, a migratory and impoverished working class, and a dwindling landed gentry.  And participating in these political and economic changes were various religious groups, the Dissenters being the most vocal, calling for constitutional change and religious reform.  Such societal disruption fractured the unified public sphere as it was constructed by eighteenth-century Enlightenment idealism.  Critics, readers, and writers no longer constituted an assumed homogeneous group.  Many literary critics of the post-revolutionary public sphere—regardless of their actual political affiliations—mirrored the conservatism of the earlier reactionary hysteria.  Suspicious of the various revolutions and transformations occurring in the literary market place, these critics and reviewers engaged rhetorics of nationalism and colonialism in order to contain the rapid diversification of their cultural space.  Ironically, the nineteenth century critics positioned themselves as despotic emperors of the literary market place sworn to protect the virtues of an idealized English literature and to colonize the fertile regions of the poet’s imagination.  Reviewers of the Christabel volume adopted a magisterial function in an English literary culture that was generally fearful of aesthetic difference.  They established Coleridge and his work as alien or different and thus colonizable, and they imbued aesthetic judgment with an early rhetoric of imperialism, thus relating practices of criticism to structures and ideologies of empire.**[1]

Post-revolutionary reviewers constructed an exclusive definition of literary tradition in order to establish and justify their cultural function.  As Francis Mulhern notes, “Tradition, usually said to be received, is in reality made, in an unceasing activity of selection, revision, and outright invention, whose function is to defend identity against the threat of heterogeneity, discontinuity, and contradiction.  Its purpose it to bind (and necessarily, therefore, to exclude)” (Mulhern’s italics, 253).  Nineteenth-century critics fostered an English official nationalism by binding readers to the fiction of a stable and pure literary tradition and hardening them against aesthetic difference which was labeled as deviant.  This invented tradition included that which met the critics’ Latinate and rationalistic expectations, and it excluded the Germanic, Oriental, mystical, and Gothic.  Understandably, then, most reviewers portrayed the Christabel volume as an aesthetic other that threatened the moral, religious, educational, and artistic purity of an idealized English culture.**[2]  By rejecting Coleridge’s poetry as aesthetically displeasing and culturally problematic, these critics act as magistrates of the literary market place and participate in rhetorics of empire.  According to Terry Eagleton [a rather cocky leftist cultural critic and Marxist from England, but observant nonetheless], “Once the critic begins to fear that his interlocutors, left to their own devices, might wander off into gross ideological error, he must jettison any trust that the free market of discourse, left to its own workings, will deliver the appropriate moral and intellectual goods” (53).  In order to protect English literary purity and the moral sensibilities of English readers, nineteenth-century critics declared their cultural sovereignty and classified the poets as literary subjects and producers of a national product.  For example, William Roberts, editor of and main contributor to the British Review in the mid 19th century, advocated the views of the evangelical party and declared himself guardian of religious and social integrity (Morris 68-71 and Hayden 51-52).  He asserted the “democratic” hierarchy of the literary market place, reminding Coleridge and all poets of their subservience to (not independence from) readers and critics.  In his review of the Christabel volume, Roberts admits that the creative process is self-contained within the economy of the poet’s mind [see handout]:

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)

Even though he recognizes the “unrestricted commerce” held and controlled by the poet, his imperial language suggests that he views this “land of dreams” as a potentially colonizable district, a vast and seemingly uncharted region, complete with prime real estate and fertile land to be bought and subdivided into commercial plots.  For Roberts, the poet’s imagination was a land with wild and abundant resources to be exploited by agents of a capitalist literary market who supposedly knew better than the “natives” [that is, the poets] how to harness this wealth in order to produce proper goods with which consumers can be sufficiently satisfied.  [This is a very imperial attitude.]

Furthermore, Roberts held that poetry produced for a literary market place was not an unregulated commodity:  the poet could not be granted “unrestricted commerce,” and the “raw materials” had to be monitored so as to control the degree to which the publishing houses cranked out “chaotic originalities.”  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” [see handout]:  “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” (Roberts 65).  According to Roberts, the poet is a producer of cultural capital who fashions the raw materials of the wild and “native” imagination into products acceptable to the literary consumers.  Roberts suggests that “there 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).  In other words, the poet has a professional responsibility to choose themes and materials carefully and to make the images and visionary forms connect to some semblance of reality or pretense of rationality.  Because the reading of poetry involves a commingling of the poet’s thoughts and visions with those of the reader, the poet must be careful what “alien” forms he chooses to naturalize and place in the minds of the readers as “native.”

By overlapping culture and capitalism in his review of the Christabel volume, Roberts practices an emergent rhetoric of empire.  Edward Said, a rather famous cultural critic who studies Orientalism and imperialism in the Western literary tradition, notes that in discourses of empire, “culture is used to designate not merely something to which one belongs but something that one possesses and, along with that proprietary process, culture also designates a boundary by which the concepts of what is extrinsic or intrinsic to the culture come into forceful play” (World 8-9).  There is clearly a proprietary urgency to Roberts’s critique of the Christabel volume, and this proprietary attitude allowed for a rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion, a discourse of boundaries that encouraged imperial nationalism in the guise of critical judgment.

Coinciding with this regulation of Coleridge’s literary capital was a tendency to culturally colonize the Christabel volume through a subtle process of ideological refashioning.  For example, George Felton Mathew, writing for the European Magazine, cloaks Geraldine specifically and the “Christabel” poem more generally in a narrative of English nostalgia and moral sensibility.  This national transfiguring makes perfect sense, given the tenor of the European Magazine and the character of its readership.  The European Magazine fostered a nostalgia by invoking the past grandeur of England, recreated the present upon the values of a (perceived) stable past, and veiled the various political changes occurring during the early to mid nineteenth century (Helene Roberts 106-07).  The cultural dangers that so many reviewers saw in “Christabel”’s German Gothicism and supernatural imagery are simply reinscribed and transformed by Mathew’s nostalgic sense of English domesticity.  For Mathew, “Christabel” incites deep feelings that lead to moral awakening:  he notes that “Christabel” should be judged “by those effects which it produces upon the hearts and imaginations of its readers” (435); and the poem’s apparent unintelligibility contributes directly to these affective responses [see handout]:  “Its greatest peculiarity exists in the contrariety of its combinations,—its descriptions,—its incidents, are almost all of them made more imposing by the power of contrasted circumstances” (435).  According to Mathew, these contradictions and imaginative confusions are to be embraced, for they evoke in the reader strong emotions and strengthen moral sensibility.

This morality, for Mathew, is based in the vivid domestic themes pervading the poem that describe the trials and triumphs of relations between mothers and daughters and that between women “friends.”  Mathew decides that

This poem, however romantic, is entirely domestic, and we cannot but esteem the poet who delights to remember, and to dwell upon such delicate and interesting incidents as these:—

                                    “Oh softly tread!  said Christabel,

                                    My father seldom sleepeth well.

                                    Sweet Christabel her feet she bares,

                                    And they are creeping up the stairs;

                                    Now in glimmer, and now in gloom,

                                    And now they pass the Baron’s room

                                    As still as death, with stifled breath!” (435-36).

This scene depicts the moment at which Christabel betrays her father and sneaks past him “as still as death”—and indeed, they are like death passing swiftly in the night because Christabel is introducing a disruptive agent—Geraldine—into this domestic realm who eventually isolates Christabel from her mother’s spirit and from her own father.  Yet Mathew views it as delicate and sweet, a hallmark of English domesticity, and he considers Christabel to be the ideal English maiden who is “charitable, religious, beautiful, and tender” and who “Mr. Coleridge has, with the taste and delicacy of an able artist, portrayed . . . in the sweetest and most interesting colours” (Mathew 434).  The aesthetic otherness and imaginative extravagance of “Christabel” is negated and absorbed by the prevailing ideology of English domestic virtue.  Mathew’s colonizing act normalizes the poem’s native difference, transforming that which was commonly viewed as foreign into an artistic product that is consistent with his world view and that of his readers.  He effectively preserves his cultural integrity by erasing the aesthetic difference.

This imperial strategy of ideological refashioning extended beyond the work to contain the poet as well.  Not only did the critics attempt to regulate the aesthetic commodities on the literary market place and to establish the standards for literary production, but they also dictated the character of the producing agent.  Some nineteenth-century critics feminized Coleridge by associating him with licentious femininity and debased aesthetics.  They characterized Coleridge as an affective woman, who transgressed middle-class decorum and who reintroduced the threat of feminine supernaturalism and fantasy into the sanctity of masculine reason and utilitarianism.  To these critics, Coleridge was an Oriental Scheherazade spinning wild tales that hypnotized the emperors of the market place and manipulated their sensibility and authority.

A vivid example comes, ironically, from the British Lady’s Magazine, a periodical designed by John Souter to present a non-partisan view of daily life (a position very different from the majority of early nineteenth-century periodicals) and to instruct women readers on a wide variety of intellectual topics and political points of view (Schofield 63).  While Souter’s project was indeed important and noble, his methods of including women in the traditionally male-dominated public sphere split the female subject into socially established gender categories that positioned masculine as normal and feminine as deviant.  Early in the “Christabel” review, the anonymous critic states that the poem is “an old woman’s story of fairyism, witchcraft, or demonism . . . that leads us on, we hardly know how, through a most revolting, because affected, style of narrative” (249).  Coleridge represents a feminine threat to utilitarian rationalism because his aesthetics evoke strong emotional responses that this reviewer—unlike Mathew—considers to be offensive to the faculty of reason.  It is interesting that this reviewer should choose the term “revolting”; for not only is Coleridge’s poetical exhibition of feminine sensibilities disgusting for this reviewer, but his aesthetic experimentation is viewed as revolutionary and thus disruptive of the perceived harmony of the commercialized public sphere.  Coleridge’s feminine and revolutionary threat becomes more apparent as the critic continues to associate Coleridge with old nurse maids and witchcraft (see handout):

Such is “Christabel;” and, without denying the existence of some skill and pathos in the poet, it is quite evident that its interest depends entirely on the superstitious tendency of our nature towards the marvelous, and that the same story in prose would excite exactly the same sensations.  The time has been when old nurses had many such; reason has banished them from the nursery, but they have fallen to rise in the pages of our bards, who sometimes anger us, as Glendower did Hotspur,

            —with skimble-skamble stuff,

That puts us from our faith.  (251)

The critic recalls Reason’s triumph over the Imagination when witches and fairies were exiled to make room for civilization and Enlightenment progress.  The Christabel volume, with its Gothic affectation, revolts against this Enlightenment order, re-introducing superstition, sensationalism, affectation, and the marvelous.  Furthermore, invoking Shakespeare’s Glendower and Hotspur imbues Coleridge’s aesthetic transgression with national significance.  For most critics, including Coleridge, Shakespeare was an icon of English literary greatness.  This critic’s reference to Shakespeare opposes Coleridge’s supernatural excess and Germanic harshness to the great bard’s literary devotion to English history and his indelible Latinate purity.  Furthermore, Glendower was a Welsh rebel leader who joined with Hotspur and Mortimer to divide the kingdom.  However, Glendower was the weak link:  he was considered an agent of witchcraft, a wild Welsh mystic who failed to appear at the battle of Shrewsbury thus causing Hotspur’s defeat.  Coleridge, then, represents a foreign literary rebel with mystical and incomprehensible powers that may someday contribute to the dissolution of the literary market and the disintegration of English cultural values.  Like the nurse maid who represented a sexual and imaginative threat to the idealized English domestic sphere, Coleridge is transformed into a feminine foreigner who disregards English custom and who introduces destructive agents of the imagination into the rational public sphere.

Coleridge is further transformed into an aesthetic, cultural, and historic other in the review written by Josiah Condor who characterizes Coleridge simultaneously as Sleeping Beauty and Samson.  Condor opens his review by presenting Coleridge as a slumbering Sleeping Beauty whose poetic virginity has remained intact [see handout]:

His poetic powers have, it seems, been, “till very lately, in a state of suspended animation.”  We should rejoice indeed to find, that the spell which has so long locked up Mr. Coleridge’s powers, not only is dissolved, but has left them unimpaired, in all the freshness of youth, as, according to romantic fable, the enchanted virgin wakes from her age-long slumber, untouched by time.  (566)

Unfortunately, Condor decides, readers will not find themselves in the role of the dashing Prince Charming who discovers an enchantingly stunning and sublimely virginal Sleeping Beauty and, upon planting a delicate kiss on her sweet cheek, lives happily ever after in marital bliss.  Rather, they are cast in the role of a disappointed archeologist who uncovers a dilapidated relic:  “we cannot conceal that the effect of the present publication upon readers in general will be that of disappointment.  It may be compared to a mutilated statue, the beauty of which can only be appreciated by those who have knowledge or imagination sufficient to complete the idea of the whole composition” (566).  No longer is Coleridge the lovely princess embodying poetic virtue.  Rather, he is stripped of his poetic novelty and presented as a dismembered and ruined Venus de Milo whose fragmented form does not represent sublime beauty and perfection but, instead, instills disgust and shame.

Condor also represents Coleridge as a morally corrupt poet who, like Samson, gave in to Oriental lavishness and thus lost favor with God and his people [see handout]:

In what a humbling attitude does such a man as Coleridge present himself to the public, in laying before them these specimens of the rich promise of excellence, with which sixteen years ago he raised the expectations of his friends,—pledges of future greatness which after sixteen years he has failed to redeem!  He is now once more loudly called upon to break off his desultory and luxurious habits, and to brace his mind to intellectual exertion.  Samson could never have despaired of recovering his strength, till the baldness of age should fall upon him.  We cherish a hope that the principle of strength, though dormant, is still unimpaired in our poet’s mind, and that he will yet awake in his strength.  (571-72)

Samson is an important religious figure and plays an interesting role in this critic’s literary imperialism and nationalism.  In the Bible, Samson was a powerful leader and savior of the Hebrews who was betrayed to the pagan Philistines by Delilah’s beauty and sexual cunning.  Oriental extravagance caused Samson to weaken morally and to be taken captive by a foreign enemy of the Hebrew nation.  Similarly, Coleridge’s experimentation with German mysticism and fragmentation—his engagement in “desultory and luxurious habits”—rendered him poetically weak and in danger of betraying English aesthetic purity to the barbarism of Germanic harshness.  By recasting Coleridge’s aesthetic practice within such dominant cultural and religious narratives, these critics colonized his writerly identity in an attempt to domesticate him, to neutralize his corruptive threat to the literary establishment, and, thus, to combat his perceived disruptive assault on national integrity.

In positioning themselves as cultural custom officers these critics mirrored an anti-Jacobin or anti-revolutionary discourse that fueled the reigning conservatism of the mid-nineteenth century.  The fear of political and social insurrection initiated by the French Revolution was replaced by a suspicion of cultural and artistic revolution, and underlying this transformed anxiety is in fact the original anti-Jacobin fear itself.  That is, these post-revolutionary critics and guardians of English culture were suspicious of artistic revolution, because the experiences of the French Revolution factored significantly in the cultural consciousness of England (and, indeed, all of Europe) such that they recognized the connection between artistic revolution and socio-political insurrection.  Coleridge’s blatant divergence from the English literary tradition, as established by these critics, mimicked the French Enlightenment desire to break from its aristocratic tradition and to begin anew.  Such an aesthetic posture became viewed in terms of revolutionary zeal:  to change the conventions of aesthetic discourse was to change the ways in which material reality and its various accompanying ideologies were culturally represented.  Therefore, radical aesthetics allowed for radical (re)conceptualizations of material reality and, potentially, for the creation of new desires for socio-political revolution.  Coleridge’s poetic experimentation could potentially ruin English civilization, and it was the critic’s duty to reinforce tradition and to deny any immigration of alien aesthetics that may threaten English custom.

Ultimately, Coleridge represented a powerfully frightening figure of cultural revolution, and critics initiated an imperial charge to colonize and regulate the poet’s mind so as to safeguard English culture from radical insurrection or dangerous aesthetic (illegal) aliens who sneak across the border in the verse of such threatening works as those in the Christabel volume.  Ironically, the critics’ zeal to preserve English literary nationalism reflected the country’s larger colonial and imperial contradictions:  as the critics fought to preserve the literary national boundaries against various external cultural threats, England gradually went on to expand its national boundaries through developments in its colonial machinery.  Fearful of cultural revolution on a Napoleonic scale, the critics transformed themselves into cultural despots and literary emperors—Napoleons of a commercial cultural sphere—and in the process they opened a dialogue between culture and empire that contributed to the psychological preparation of later imperialism.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K., ed.  Nation and Narration.  London: Routledge, 1990.

Condor, Josiah.  Rev. of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of SleepEclectic Review 5 (June 1816): 565-72.  Reiman 373-76.

Eagleton, Terry.  The Function of Criticism:  From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism.  London: Verso, 1984.

Hayden, John.  The Romantic Reviewers, 1802-1824.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.

Mathew, George Felton. Rev. of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of SleepEuropean Magazine 70 (Nov. 1816): 434-37.  Reiman 505-08.

Morris, Douglas K.. “British Review and London Critical Journal, The.”  Sullivan, Romantic Age 68-76.

Mulhern, Francis.  “English Reading.”  Bhabha 250-64.

Reiman, Donald H., ed.  The Romantics Reviewed:  Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers.  2 vols.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1972.

Rev. of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of SleepBritish Lady’s Magazine 4 (Oct. 1816): 248-51.  Reiman 213-216.

Roberts, Helene E.  “European Magazine, The.”  Sullivan, Augustan Age 106-12.

Roberts, William.  Rev. of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of SleepBritish Review 8 (Aug. 1816):  64-81.  Reiman 238-47.

Said, Edward W.  The World, the Text, and the Critic.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

Schofield, Mary Anne.  “British Lady’s Magazine, The.” Sullivan, Romantic Age 62-66.

Sullivan, Alvin, ed.  British Literary Magazines:  The Romantic Age, 1789-1836.  Westport, Conn.: Greenwood P, 1983.

[1] **I will examine a few key examples of how aesthetic judgment initiated and participated in a dialogue between culture and empire.

[2] **There are many examples of the critics establishing Coleridge and his work as a Germanic, Oriental, extravagant, and affected other which I don’t have time to illustrate here.