Review of Humphry House, Coleridge: The Clark Lectures.

["Interpreting Coleridge." Review of Humphry House, Coleridge: The Clark Lectures. New Statesman 1157 (9 May 1953): 554.]


“Never saw I his likeness,” said Lamb after Coleridge’s death, “nor probably the world can see again.”  What was Coleridge like?  Why is his work so elusive?  Why has there been no book to bring us into his presence and show how his work may fruitfully be read?  Evidently the task is a formidable one.  Except for James Dykes Campbell’s Narrative (1894) and Miss Kathleen Coburn’s Inquiring Spirit (1951), there has been little enough to bring to life the man who was capable of doing, saying, and writing what Coleridge did.  The informed view of him has been bedevilled by partial interpretations, grudging admiration, and smouldering anger: not because he is a secondary figure but because he is a giant.  Admittedly many of the materials needed to study him are hard to come by.  But the central difficulty is of quite another kind: it is a question of critical integrity.  His intellectual scope is that of the Renaissance polymath, his emotional life is complex, his most valuable experience solitary; and the singleness of his work resists all attempts to master or expound it piecemeal.

Mr. House has undertaken to provide in small compass a guide through these difficulties.  The “portentous task” of “putting Humpty-Dumpty together again” presents three facets: the need for an initial adjustment of sympathy, a fuller criticism of the prose, and the continuing work of editing and reinterpreting Coleridge’s scattered works.  The first of these requirements is crucial: without it the others cannot proceed.  If Coleridge is to be taken “whole” he stretches affection and understanding to their outermost limits.  He has given us some profound and perfect poems, and others not of the first order; he commands a fertile critical insight, and a philosophical mind of no contemptible range.  But there is the opium too, the self-pity, the indolence, the broken promises, the humiliations; and also the self-knowledge, the restless vision, the unflinching introspection.  And we need to embrace them all; for the erudition and philosophising can no more be detached from his physical and emotional fortunes than his poems can.  Without affection, the understanding becomes wrong-headed: without deep understanding, the affection runs off into acid impatience or sentimental condescension.

Mr. House’s approach is very Coleridgean – a job of elucidation and jungle clearance.  From the prefatory note to The Wanderings of Cain and some vivid Notebook entries he draws out a principle which is to guide the whole inquiry.  Coleridge’s perceptual experience was peculiarly delicate and strong, and this “quivering alertness to every stimulus or sense was the ground of his strengths and of his weaknesses.”  His sensory vitality terminates, not so much in accurate description, as in unified diversity: strength of impression, not “Beauty,” is his starting-point.  From Frost at Midnight and the Notebooks emerges a characteristic way he had of symbolising his feeling: his mind projects outward upon the physical detail, then contracts on itself “so that the context is back-coloured by the prevailing emotion.”  To grasp his work – even the prose – requires then the innocent eye, and an attentive ear to catch the rhythm of vitality, the groundswell of a profound theme, the stride and surge that come into poetry when deep feeling is accurately rendered.  This seems to accord with Coleridge the man.  A West Country man, child prodigy and scholarship man, with great physical energy (until illness broke him), and an incorruptible Devon speech, he was more like an Elizabethan than a nineteenth-century aesthete or a twentieth-century intellectual.  At his poetic best he was a rhapsodic bard, an ardent and sensitive craftsman; his worst enemies were the cleverness that could make him a virtuoso at will, and the ebullient overcrowding of his thought and imagination.

Through Coleridge’s poetry Mr. House traces two strains not clearly discriminated before: a Miltonic political manner, and an intimate manner that owes its supple informality to Cowper but far surpasses him in sustained intensity. These two converge – the second predominant – upon the unaccountable achievement of four great poems.  The Ancient Mariner reveals a double theme – the sin of ignorance and the positive operation of order and joy; this is steadily unfolded by the resonance between physical detail and spiritual states.  Mr. House however defers from Mr. Warren’s notion that the poem also symbolises the “ways of the imagination” and (without acrimony) is sceptical of attempts to establish a system of symbol-equations.  Kubla Khan he takes to be a unified poem imaging the triumphant ecstasy (not failure) of imagination; Christabel was intended to express a theme of martyrdom, its intricate versification serving as “Rime’s vexation” to constrain Coleridge from poetising; Dejection is “not primarily about modes of perception, but about unhappiness and about love and about joy.”  (Mr. House prints the first version of Dejection in an appendix, but unfortunately from the De Selincourt transcript which departs from the MS in many physical details.)  Finally Mr. House shows how Coleridge, moving away from Hartley’s notion of the passive mind, firmly rooted his critical theory in his own experience as a poet and a man.

Mr. House’s book is a small one; at any point it could have taken wings and sustained its flight for much longer.  He handles the complex materials with urbane assurance; his comments upon other scholars, while at times agreeably astringent, are always fair.  A most valuable feature of the book is that it prints some remarkable unpublished selections from the Notebooks.  Mr. House says he approaches the interpretation of Coleridge “very tentatively.”  In a task of such magnitude and delicacy, it is virtually impossible to strike a just balance between detailed exposition and general formulation; yet this book is altogether firm and clear.  There can be little doubt that he has plotted out a route that will in future have to be retraced with care.