Review of Geoffrey Yarlot, William Walsh, W.J.B. Owen, Mark Reed, Melvin Rader
["Recent Wordsworth and Coleridge Studies." Review article on Geoffrey Yarlot, Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid, William Walsh, Coleridge: The Work and The Relevance, Lyrical Ballads, Ed. W.J.B. Owen, Alec King, Wordsworth and the Artist's Vision, Mark Reed, Wordsworth: The Chronology of the Early Years 1770-1799, and Melvin Rader, Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach. Queen's Quarterly 76 (1969) 118-30.]
Having for consideration at one time four studies of Wordsworth and two of Coleridge, it is difficult to refrain from casting a backward glance over the criticism of these two poets and to think of the books in relation to the critical currents that emerge from the past 150 years or so. The criticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge is more closely connected than even the closeness of their intermittent personal relations could account for or the unhappy critical tendency to see them either as identical or strongly contrasted figures. If a theoretical basis for the peculiar quality of Wordsworth’s poetic sensibility is to be laid down, it is to be found in Coleridge’s critical writing much more than in Wordsworth’s; and if a promising direct line to the perceptive reading of Wordsworth’s poetry is to be found, it too will be found in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.
The impediments to clear critical activity on the work of either are formidable, and they are quiet different for each of the two poets. The canon of Wordsworth’s poetry is now firmly established in sound editions (though work on manuscripts remains to be done and refinements will continue to be made for a long time); beyond the poetry there is not a great deal of comparable importance, and none of it presents difficult textual problems. For Coleridge the situation is quite different. The canon of his poetry is fairly well established but a great deal of difficult editorial work remains to be done in the light of the Notebooks and Letters and of recently disclosed manuscript sources. But beyond the poetry there is (even beyond the Notebooks and Letters) a great quantity of prose work, most of it not yet available in critical editions, none of which can be safely neglected. The fact that Coleridge was a systematic and highly original thinker in a number of different but related areas of reflection (and Wordsworth was neither) gives additional weight not only to his own poetry and the understanding of it, but also to the poetry of Wordsworth and the understanding of it, and to the poetry of many others, and to many subjects beyond poetry. Yet his central theoretical positions are subtly conceived and elusively stated, often in a language that can be fully grasped only after due preparation. A good deal of valuable critical observation and insight has now accumulated around the work of both Wordsworth and Coleridge; but the direct criticism of Wordsworth’s poetry has been inhibited by the inaccessibility of his work to the critical assumptions and procedures most usually and successfully practised in our time, and Coleridge’s poetry has provided perhaps too often a pretext for exercises in critical procedure and psychological explication.
For the study of both Wordsworth and Coleridge there is another difficulty, and a very real one, in the sheer mass of documentary and biographical evidence. Few writers, even of our own time, can be known in quite such detail day to day, and sometimes hour by hour, in matters literary, intellectual, and personal as Wordsworth and Coleridge can. None of that information can be honestly ignored, not even by a new critic. The precept “read the poem in isolation, read it only for what is contained in it” is a salutary reminder and a most ingenious device – rather like the trick the infinitesimal calculus rests on. But the advice is not as simple to accept or as easy to put into practice as it looks: nobody can predict or define, beforehand or from outside, what is or is not “contained in the poem” – only the poem itself can decide that. The virtue of the elliptical critical dictum can be rephrased: “Start scrupulously with the poem, don’t smuggle in anything that doesn’t belong, and don’t forget to come back to the poem whenever you have been forced or directed outside it.” A deliberate and prescribed ignorance of certain areas of available detail is as debilitating in the criticism of single poems as the determination to use every single piece of literature as confirmatory evidence for a theory about literature; and both are unhappily not uncommon in the broad and sunlit meadows of academic writing. For it is when minute textual and biographical information enfolds a poem that the critic’s sense of relevance needs to be most exact and scrupulous if the perception is not to be clouded by the mists of genetic explanation and sunburst formulations of psychological cause.
The criticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge has its glories and its indirections and bêtises. Certain patterns emerge that can also be traced in general in the growing cumulus of “criticism of literature.” The rarest achievement of all is the first-rate (that is, accurate, profound, and germinal) synthesizing study of a wide range of a writer’s work; the next rarest is the first rate (that is, accurate, profound, and germinal) detailed study of a single poem. Critics of genius are probably a good deal rarer than poets of genius. Nevertheless, more could be effected at the sublunary levels of critical activity if scholars were to clarify their critical intention and “place” their intention clearly at a chosen point in the whole field of scholarly and critical effort. It is important to know clearly, while at work and from time to time in the progress of a piece of critical work, whether one is (to choose a few obvious divisions of labour) editing a text, writing biography (and of what kind), engaged in direct critical exploration of a poem or of poems, looking for literary or philosophical sources and influences, writing a theory of criticism or writing a theory of poetics. Often these various functions cannot be kept perfectly separate from each other; but wherever they intersect the purpose needs to be assessed (or reassessed), bearing in mind that the relation between critic and whatever he is criticising (getting to know) is non-commutative – the poem works on the critic, not the critic on the poem – a principle that applies even in fairly mechanical textural editing. If Coleridge is to be believed, both from his practice and his statements on the subject, a critic will not get far without “principles”, a “poetic”; and Coleridge was one of those who “labored at a solid foundation on which permanently to ground my opinions in the component faculties of the human mind itself.” Not surprisingly the two best of the six books under review are concerned with their subjects as artists, and not surprisingly their attention is directed steadily upon the “sensibility” of those artists. But one of the books on Wordsworth, and one of the books on Coleridge, both attempt direct criticism of poems: the one on the basis of a hunt for philosophical influences, the other on a psychological analysis of Coleridge’s “breakdown”; and both these suffer from indirection of method and the error of “working on the poems”.
The positive criticism of Wordsworth – that is, the notices that are not sly or excoriating dismissals of his work – has suffered greatly from paying too much attention to what Wordsworth had to say about his work, and too little to what Coleridge had to say. There is the honorific kind that offers moralizing interpretations of the sort Wordsworth himself encouraged in later life, with two dominant sub-varieties: one claiming that Wordsworth’s poetry is really good for you (as his himself was inclined to think it should be), the other demonstrating that Wordsworth was a respectable man, orthodox in matters of theology and morals, a straight-thinking man who would never dream of giving currency to such dangerous doctrines as pantheism or the pre-existence of the soul, or to exalt the virtues of revolution. (No wonder there is a whole family of anti-honorific writings that seek to demonstrate exactly the opposite.) Then there is another strain, too shrewd and carefully qualified to be called honorific, who see Wordsworth as an interesting – or even important – philosopher and seek to formulate his “philosophy” for him, or in default of that to establish his philosophical good faith by showing that from time to time he was not unaware of some writings of some philosophers. (Coleridge, it is true, said that Wordsworth was a philosopher; but Coleridge saw philosophy as “the affectionate pursuit of truth” and could probably see Wordsworth in that role.) The first of these traditional kinds of Wordsworth criticism I find tiresome, the second unnecessary; and neither tells us much about the harsh, uncompromising, and entirely self-possessed originality of Wordsworth’s art – and art without parallel in the language.
Behind the early and traditional criticism one has a nagging suspicion that there must be more to Wordsworth’s work than the grand old organ-music of the Miltonic passages and the alleged worship of Mother Nature. In this century the critical line that runs straight back to Wordsworth comes to an end in the work of Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire – and (as far as she ventures into criticism) Mary Moorman. And in the end it is no trifling achievement as we see it in Helen Darbishire’s Clarke Lectures that in 1950 celebrated the centenary of Wordsworth’s death. She was so steeped in the canon that even her generalizations have point and so sensitive to the “moral” values of the poetry that she could persuade us that Wordsworth was not utterly self-deceived, that indeed there is impressive dignity and depth to the “philosophy”, scope and originality in the reflections that are gathered up into the sonorities of the verse, a stern and admirable weight to his unwinking scrutiny of the simple life whose dialect he never dared to utter. She enjoys The Waggoner and shows that Wordsworth enjoyed the bibulous figure too; but she does not belabour him for not being Byron or Donne or W. S. Gilbert – or Coleridge. What needs to be said about the “philosophy” is duly said but is developed no farther than the conspectus of the verse will warrant. Details of poems are deftly noticed, never overworked; and a reader is drawn firmly into the Wordsworthian universe by the grave zeal of her utterance. A most splendid performance, it can probably never be matched in that style again.
In 1950 the purifying waters of the New Criticism were in spring freshet. Richard’s Principles of Literary Criticism, with their emphasis on the quality of individual response and the promise (as yet unfulfilled) of a sort of psychological calculus for criticism, was published in 1924. Ten years later Leavis started to set things to rights in his Revaluation. The style of the revaluators, as a habit of mind, is fairly distinct; the prime requisites were youth, irreverence, and a sharp tongue (though Leavis of course could not be accused of any of these things), and it looks now not so much like a revaluation of the poets themselves as a systematic demolishing of established critical positions and judicious reputations. The New Critics were very busy at first establishing the study of English literature as a basic discipline in place of the classics; and presently as they advanced on the corpus of English poetry, saying “Look at the poem and nothing else” (for revaluators are prone to use the imperative rather than the subjunctive voice), Wordsworth’s poems slipped through the net – or all but a few obvious ones did – because they eluded or baffled what was intended as a comprehensive critical procedure. The poems presented infuriatingly little in the way of description of “nature” and so could not be summarily dismissed; yet there was a strange absence of Donne-ish metaphors, cross-currents of ambiguity, clear visual imagery, Freudian fantasies and Jungian myths – all that, singly or in combination, constituted (and still do) the stock-in-trade of almost all academic critics. The poems were there all right, waiting for somebody to take a narrow look at them as poems-and-nothing-else; but as intransigent as they were in his lifetime, and as when Coleridge read them.
Original poetry of stature has to shape a taste appropriate to it, and it also has to shape an appropriate criticism. For Wordsworth it takes patience and humility beyond sensitiveness, quietness beyond ingenuity, and a most delicate sense of poetic fact and relevance. Wordsworth criticism of a trenchant subtlety appropriate to what we take to be the critical ideals of our time has accumulated, but slowly. John Jones broke important new ground with his notion of solitude-and-relation, with his defence of Wordsworth’s (much maligned) Christian orthodoxy in the middle period, and with his argument for a new apocalyptic kind of poetry near the end. Bateson had important things to say about the literary milieu of the Lyrical Ballads; and the most “modern” comprehensive approach is, I think, to be seen in a introductory study by Carl Woodring intended for modest didactic purposes. Surely there are other valuable contributions, but these are the ones I remember most vividly as finally cutting the umbilical cord that runs back through the traditional critics to Wordsworth himself. There has been much indirection, and much of it unnecessary. If only somebody had taken the trouble to see what Coleridge had to say about Wordsworth, and how, and why.
With criticism as with art, the quality of the activity matters as much as the product, and the muscles will atrophy if we traffic only in conclusions. Solid and accurate information is indispensable to criticism; the absence of accurate fact is a well-known lubricant to plausible generalization and comfortable theory. Hence the importance of scrupulously edited texts, not only of the central canon, but of letters, notebook, journals, manuscripts – and these for peripheral and even penumbral figures (not only the Hazlitts and DeQuinceys, but also the Henry Crabb Robinsons and Leigh Hunts). Since it is not always convenient or possible for every critic or scholar to be his own microbiologist – even in his own chosen field of interest – there is greatly value, when the materials are copious and intricate, in a schematic record of factual detail more fine-grained than biographies can encompass. Mark Reed’s Wordsworth: the Chronology of the Early Years, 1770-1779 has been in circulation for more than a year and has already had wide currency and recognition. This project was begun in the early 1940s by Frederick Pottle. The foundations of the material for the first thirty years were laid by three graduate students, then taken over by Robert Daniel, and finally by Mr. Reed who modestly states that his aim was “to supplement the aims” of his predecessors in the work: “to note the relevant implications of the most modern texts of Wordsworth’s writings, to take into account useful discoveries of recent research, and to include whatever information of possible value I have been able to add through my own studies, especially of manuscript materials.” For any detailed study of the lives, and of the growth of the poems in this period, these 350-or-so pages are indispensable. The Chronology is useful as a chronicle of events certainly, but even more important is the spider’s-web of connections between the events, the poems, the manuscripts, the documents, the other lives. The intricacy of these connections, especially when traced through difficult and problematical manuscripts, demands scholarly ability of a high order. Not least valuable are the seventeen appendixes, on the dating of certain poems, the use of certain notebooks and manuscripts, the references in Wordsworth’s own writing to the events of his early life. The scholarship is at the admirable level of exactitude and comprehensiveness that one has learned to associate with the names of Mr. Reed’s mentors – Herschel Baker and Walter Jackson Bate. The typographical arrangement is workmanlike, clear, and coherent; the levels of reference nicely separated in their visual stylizations. An informed fiend for detail might have a query to raise here and there, and perhaps a small touch to add in a few places, and in doing so would extend to the author one of those tiny gestures of esteem and fellowship that is among the scholar’s few rewards. The book is of course unreadable to anybody except an informed enthusiast; but I can imagine one such reading it in a railway train with a slight smile flickering on his face, like a man who read in silence a Mozart score or a computer programme.
W. J. B. Owen’s edition of Lyrical Ballads 1798 is a mixed performance; and if that is anybody’s fault I should imagine that it is the publisher’s rather than his own. A handy edition of Lyrical Ballads is – in the most general terms – desirable if only because it is impossible to reconstruct its contents, in any of its four editions, from the “definitive” edition of the Poetical Works. But an adequate edition of Lyrical Ballads presents some hair-raising problems of procedure, arising from the addition of a second volume in 1800, extensive revision of the Ancient Mariner in 1800, the addition of the Preface in 1800 and its extensive revision (with a long appendix) in 1802, and the rearrangement of the poems from edition to edition and the revision of the text of some of the poems. Mr. Owen, for whose edition of the Prefaces with extended commentary (Copenhagen, 1957) we are already grateful, knows all this perfectly well; but “this edition . . .replaces that by Harold Littledale, first published in 1911 and now out of print.” But why the 1798 text only of the poems, with the Prefaces (but not the 1802 Appendix) added? As recently as 1963 R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones prepared a text that should meet all requirements for study of the Lyrical Ballads, and Methuen published it in a typographical style that – like Helen Darbishire’s edition of the Poems in Two Volumes 1807 (1914) – has the savour of the original and feels to the eye not unlike reading the original; but the introduction though extensive is perhaps too much in a past tradition that I should prefer to see refreshed, and the notes go little beyond the Isabella Fenwick notes and the terse findings of de Selincourt, Helen Darbishire, and Mary Moorman. Mr. Owen’s introduction is much shorter; good on the origins and publication of Lyrical Ballads, but in the end irritatingly contentious, for it leaves the incomplete impression that the originality of the book is not very surprising and that the traditional elements the book draws upon were in Wordsworth’s day widely known, commonly used, and easy to come by. It is well to know that Lyrical Ballads did not arrive full-blown ex nihilo; but there may be rather more than that to be said about them. It is in the “Commentary” on the text that Mr. Owen lets the cat out of the bag. He includes – as he should – the Isabella Fenwick notes, but moves outside the tight-lipped tradition to gloss curious words and references and to bring the text, in part at least, into touch with the last forty or fifty years of scholarship. The notes on Tintern Abbey are sophisticated and extensive; and the notes on the Ancient Mariner include brief record of the findings of The Road to Xanadu and some later sources. Here suddenly we catch a glimpse of a fresh critical landscape and lament that the spirit of that country did not inform the whole construction of this little book.
In these terms, Melvin Rader’s Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach is an anachronism. The first part of the book seems (stylistically and on other evidence) to have been composed thirty years or more ago, and the second part not sufficiently separated from it. To trace, usually through Coleridge, the detailed influence on Wordsworth of various philosophers – the British Empiricists, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hartley, Rousseau, Spinosa, and even Kant – is no doubt a legitimate enough scholarly activity. Over against these findings; however, stands the harsh and compelling tune of Wordsworth’s poetic art, a cumulative resonant symbolic structure built on elusive images and central abstract terms that elude philosophical definition yet behave with the tactile force and fine shaping control of metaphors; here are figured forth fear, anxiety, and terrible isolation just this side of dismay, as well as touches of brilliant colour, of joy, even of delight – the whole spun around a brooding habit of earnest reflection. Between this world and Mr. Rader’s philosophical findings there seems little connection, and his examination of certain poems and his exploration of “Sense and Imagination”, or “The Inner Voice”, and “The Life of Things” confirms the feeling of discontinuity. This book is not so much a philosophical approach to Wordsworth (which is at least conceivable) as an approach to Wordsworth through the philosophy he is thought to have read and is said to have constructed. When the closing sentence states that “The mightiest life is to be achieved by combining the empirical and transcendental factors into a most potent unity” we seem to have wandered into what Coleridge’s detractors would call – in his own phase – “the holy jungle of transcendental metaphysics.”
But Mr. Rader does ask some questions – fruitful because unanswerable: What is the “inner voice” and “the mind’s abyss” and “the life of things” and the “unknown modes of being”? And why does Wordsworth come round to such phrases? And why does he care? And what does he see? When we stop worrying about Hartley and Rousseau and pantheism and animism, and think seriously about Wordsworth as a poet – as an artist, a maker – and his poems as things made (as we well know in his case) painstakingly and with punishing care (for he was no spontaneous overflower); when we think of Wordsworth as a man who knew what he was about and how he should do it and stuck to that even if for a long time nobody much beside himself liked what he was doing; then quite different and mort cogent concerns swim into the centre of attention. It is along this line that Alec King approaches in his essay Wordsworth and the Artist’s Vision.
“Wordsworth’s greatest and most original poetry . . .” Mr. King says, “is best understood as an artist’s vision, not as the work of a poetic philosopher or an observer of country ways.” And his starting-point is the statement: “Wordsworth’s earliest poetry is preoccupied with seeing.” In view of certain passages in the Prelude where Wordsworth looks askance at the abstractive power of the eye, and in view of the relatively small amount of direct visual observation in his major poems (compared say with Coleridge’s), Mr. King’s proposition seems unduly exclusive and emphatic. But his method of exploration is sufficiently sensitive to avoid over-emphasis. From Wordsworth’s way of seeing he proceeds to the activity of the senses altogether, and (rightly) makes much of the tactile mode in Wordsworth’s work; and pays close attention to the characteristic movement – sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual – “from intensity of sensation and activity to vision”, a movement that as a central and recurring symbol traces out “the artist’s journey”. In “seeing” Mr. King finds an intersection of the arts of poetry and of painting. From Matisse, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Cézanne, Delacroix, Henry Moore, and others he draws evidence to show that the activity that leads to the making of a painting is “a flight from egotism into love, and the consequence is a kind of vision which is both knowledge and power”; yet it is “the making that discovers the vision, and every creative act is a raid on the unknown.” Over and over again he insists, not merely upon the visual origins of painting, but upon the sensuous, physical, tactual foundations of the art; the sensuous body, the sharply observing eye is “itself a way of knowing.” “I have a terrible lucidity at moments.” Cézanne said; “one becomes the painting.” What the artist works towards is the work of art not as a “thing” but as “a living presence.” “The infinity that the mind fees upon is not above but within”; and that infinity grows through the fastidious and enchanted activity of the senses.
Persuasively Mr. King draws into this context questions about Wordsworth’s “morality” nourished by nature and about his “simple” language, and finds that both the morality and the simplicity are positive forces, impulses towards hard-won order, the very opposite of over-simplification of man’s relation to the world or an escape from the complexities of man’s condition. Wordsworth, like Coleridge, wanted words not only to say things but to be “things”; he regarded words as active forces, powers, presences; so that those forces may be concentrated, he cuts language to the bone, dreading it sometimes, sometimes distrusting it, wary in its use. It is well to be reminded of a passage in Wordsworth’s “Essay on Epitaphs”: “Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil, to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts. . . . Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate and to dissolve.” In the end Mr. King’s essay becomes too much a tract for the times, and the poems he discusses do not disclose much of their life in his discussion of them. But his fervour and concern, like the tune of some of Wordsworth’s verse, is compelling; the incidence of the poet’s experience with the painter’s brings to the notion of “the poet as artist” a dimension not usually found in the books on poetry. And Wordsworth himself had said: “The voice that is the voice of my poetry, without imagination, cannot be heard.”
As for Coleridge, the accumulation of detailed critical observation on the poems is much more dense than for Wordsworth, the discussion of his prose works scattered and intermittent, conspective views almost totally lacking. To discuss Wordsworth’s poems as a whole – even when the Prelude stands massive in the centre of them – seems just possible (though neither Herbert Read nor F. W. Bateson found it so). For Coleridge, when so many of his poems have a personal centre, it seems almost impossible – particularly as the publication of his self-revealing correspondence nears completion and the Notebooks to the end of 1808 have been published. The latest mixture of biography and criticism – Geoffrey Yarlott’s Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid – “seeks to show the causes which led to Coleridge’s breakdown in 1802 and to show how his views on poetry changed as a result of it.” He seeks “a more accurate diagnosis of the very real problem of maladjustment which clearly needs to be explained in his case.” This he sees as part of “the business of re-appraisal” – part of “a major revaluation of his work” that is bound to occur as a result of “the present ‘boom’ in Coleridge studies.” With an analyst’s relentless and selective emphasis upon the evidence symptomatic of psychic and psychomatic disorder, Mr. Yarlott carries his ‘diagnosis’ farther than anybody (as far as I know) exception perhaps David Beres. The approach is clinical, not unduly sympathetic, and his conclusions are stated with a forthright bluntness that has not been common in Coleridge biography except in the Victorians and the work of Sir Edmund Chambers. The results will certainly have to be considered carefully by any future biographer of Coleridge, and it is to biography that the book is likely to be found to make an important contribution. As for the picture of the whole man – the “presence”, that is – the insistent concentration on pathological evidence leaves out far too much that in Coleridge bespeaks a buoyant sanity, generosity of spirit, remarkable energy, resilience, and sweep of mind. It is true that a picture of the whole man is not what Mr. Yarlott set out to draw; but the tone of this specialized study is strangely at variance with the unevasive tact and the firm allusiveness with which such matters are handled in the edition of the Notebooks by a person whose technical knowledge of psychology is extensive and whose eye for psychological evidence is always clear and sharp.
The conclusions Mr. Yarlott draws are more emphatic statements of what has long been recognized: that there was some sort of a “breakdown” round about 1802, that Coleridge looked for “sheet-anchor” friendships and languished for lack of them; that in his emotional life he looked for an “Abyssinian mind” (as Shelley looked for an Ariadne) and did not find one. These are sorrowful facts of his life, and now through Mr. Yarlott’s study more clearly isolated and more heavily underlined than ever before. My own feeling is that he has added a tinge of squalor to Coleridge’s terrible perplexities and a colour of meanness to his dismay; and that when his findings are brought to a reading of the poems the result is not illumination or an enlargement of the critical dimension. Mr. Yarlott devotes very detailed treatment to the usual “big three”, to Dejection (clearly a pivotal poem for his argument), and the conversation poems. The psychological conclusions are projected into the poems and found represented there. But the conclusions seem to be largely extra-literary or extra-poetical; the effect of the running critical discourse is to diminish the stature of the poems and to distract attention from the impersonality of their symbolic workings and from the supple and virtuoso craftsmanship that has in the past secured for these poems – and will continue to secure – a continuous life and an inexhaustible interest.
William Walsh’s Coleridge: The Work and the Relevance is a very different performance from any of the other books discussed so far, and nobody interested in Coleridge should let the somewhat ungraceful title and its apparently case-making implications prevent him from reading it as soon as possible. Such is the present state of Coleridge’s canon – and will be until the Collected Coleridge is completed – that only the Biographia Literia, the Poetical Works, and the Lay Sermons can be read comfortably in a modern setting, and each of these is in its own way deficient. There is a 20th century collection of the Shakespearean criticism and a miscellaneous volume called Miscellaneous Criticism; there is a selection of marginalia and notebook and other materials called Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century (absolutely completely devoid of commentary); and there are several anthologies of verse and prose, the Nonesuch and Viking editions being perhaps the most distinctive (in quite different ways). If a student or a general reader asks the simple question “What shall I do to be saved? – how can I get a general introduction to Coleridge’s work?” there are only two answers, neither of them entirely satisfactory because neither was intended to be satisfactory for that purpose. One is Humphrey House’s Clarke Lectures of 1953, limited to the poetry of the best period and the basis of the poetry; the other is Kathleen Coburn’s Inquiring Spirit, “A New presentation of Coleridge from his published and unpublished prose writings” (1951), which is the only comprehensive introduction to the scope and variety of Coleridge’s interests and thought beyond the poems. Mr. Walsh’s book satisfies a long-felt, even clamorous, need for a general study of Coleridge in a modern context, and does it with splendid accuracy, sensitiveness, and firmness. He himself quotes Coleridge’s four classes of readers: Sponges, Sand-glasses, Stain-bags, and Mogel diamonds – the last “equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.” Coleridge was one of those, Mr. Walsh says, noting that it is “a fine summary of the business of the critic.” I should put Mr. Walsh in that class too.
Mr. Walsh has written on Coleridge before, in his The Use of Imagination and The Human Idiom, and he has the benefit of being an outsider – that is, he is not a member of the Coleridge équipe, and his professional interest is education. His writing suggests that he is a man of affairs, that he is not easy to bamboozle with some overnice point in criticism or metaphysics, nor likely to be flattered by any shadow victory of rhetoric or scholarly polemics. He writes confidently because he sees clearly and believes what he sees, and there is none of that querulous and hesitant distaste that haunts like a whiff of garlic the business of revaluators and re-assessors. He has tried Coleridge’s works – not parts or segments of it, but the whole thing – and found it not wanting. This “contemporary reader’s response to Coleridge’s sensibility” – well-ordered, finely documented, thoroughly reasoned, sensitively conceived – makes accessible to us Coleridge “as a living presence.”
“Coleridge Himself” (the Man and the Mind), “Coleridge and Criticism”, “Coleridge and Poetry”, “Coleridge and Theory” (in general, in political theory, in educational theory): these are the four main sections of the book. As for the philosophy, no separate section is devoted to it, but much is necessarily interwoven with all the sections. A final chapter – “Coleridge and Others” – shows how few critics from Coleridge’s own time to ours could go beyond a grudging recognition of occasional brilliance in Coleridge’s work over against its disappointing fragmentariness. The list of names is not unimpressive: the Edinburgh Review wrote what might have been expected; the others are Peacock, Hazlitt, DeQuincey (mostly sympathetic when not waspish), Carlyle, Arnold, Leslie Stephen, Walter Peter, Eliot, Leavis. On the positive side John Stuart Mill is outstanding for his intelligent and perceptive grasp of the power of Coleridge’s thought, and I. A. Richards worked round to being an influential expositor and advocate; and fresh dimensions have been added by Bradley, Edmund Wilson, Herbert Read, Kathleen Coburn. But the account ends with Leavis who had written in Scrutiny in 1940: ‘Coleridge’s prestige is very understandable, but his currency as an academic classic is something of a scandal. . . Nothing of his deserves the classical status of Arnold’s best work.” “It is possible,” Mr. Walsh adds, “even easy, to be drawn uncritically in the wake of Coleridge’e attraction: by the fascination of a mind of such range and depth, of a character of such complicated richness, of a poet of such utter individuality, of a life at once so tattered and so triumphant.” One of Coleridge’s basic principles was: “I place my principle in an act - . . . I begin with the verb – but the act involves its reality.” The power of Mr. Walsh’s book is that he too makes of Coleridge’s thinking “an act” and without making a specific case for its modernity makes us aware how startlingly of our time, and of all time, Coleridge’s way of thinking is. No wonder that despite prolonged official neglect, imprecise representation, and a general attitude more condescending than informed, the effect of Coleridge’s work has had a profound subterranean effect, both by direction but secret transmission and by the inevitable rediscovery, independently in our own time, of much that Coleridge saw as imminent or present, in his own day, and certain to trouble ours. For an accurate, comprehensive, and unsentimental account of Coleridge it is difficult to imagine how it could have been done more deftly and eloquently than Mr. Walsh has done in this book. The impression he leaves of Coleridge’s work is not only of power, subtlety, and scope, but of inexhaustible vitality.