Look on the Bright Side

Seamus Perry

  • BuyAnna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment by William McCarthy
    Johns Hopkins, 725 pp, £32.00, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 8018 9016 1

Until 15 or 20 years ago most students of English literature would have known one thing about Anna Letitia Barbauld, which was her appearance in a droll anecdote told by Samuel Taylor Coleridge towards the end of his life and recorded in the posthumous volume of his Table Talk. ‘Mrs Barbauld told me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was improbable, and had no moral,’ Coleridge is reported as saying: ‘As for the probability – to be sure that might admit some question – but I told her that in my judgment the chief fault of the poem was that it had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded upon the reader.’ The poem should have been, he went on, as free of any moral coherence as an episode in The Arabian Nights: ‘the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the Genii’s son’.

It’s a good story but you couldn’t say it was a very gracious one, since it turns so unkindly on the joke of Mrs Barbauld’s befuddlement before ‘a work of such pure imagination’ (in Coleridge’s own phrase). Barbauld comes across as flat-footed and fussily moralistic and mumsy, as she often did in the defensive joshing of the Coleridge circle, the butt of repeated gags about the shortcomings of the non-cognoscenti: ‘that Mistress Bare and Bald’, Coleridge enjoyed calling her in private, with more antipathy than inspiration. William McCarthy quotes the Table Talk anecdote early on in his compendious and admiring new biography of Barbauld, as though obliged to get it over with, and makes the suggestion that Barbauld had unwittingly revived Coleridge’s severe hang-ups about his mother. Well, maybe: it is certainly true that the attractive poem Barbauld had addressed to the young Coleridge, years before, offered quasi-parental advice about avoiding ‘the maze of metaphysic lore’ and gathering himself to ‘noble aims’, and the tone might still have rankled. But I suspect the real point behind the famous story – and what makes it so telling, about Barbauld as much as Coleridge – is something else, something wrapped up in a private argument that the ageing Coleridge was pursuing with himself.

That argument was about Unitarianism, the Christian heresy within which Coleridge had come of age but which he spent much of his adult life repudiating. Barbauld represented Unitarian culture at its most public and accomplished. Born in 1743, Anna Letitia Aikin was the product of a distinguished Unitarian background, the daughter of John Aikin, a revered teacher at the Warrington Academy. The academy was effectively the leading university for those dissenters who had enough money to get an education but who were forbidden by law to take degrees at Oxford or Cambridge. Although, like all such academies, it led an occasionally precarious existence and had its full share of institutional problems, Warrington seems to have been a stimulating place, both bookish and politically attuned to the excitements of progress; and young, brilliant Miss Aikin was clearly its darling. Chief among the stars on the faculty was Joseph Priestley, who was already beginning to experiment with electricity and gases and later became a prominent natural philosopher and radical. Anna Aikin regarded the Priestleys as her second parents, and addressed them affectionately in several poems; but Priestley was as much a cosmic hero of enlightened advancement as he was a friend, ‘eccentric, piercing, bold,/ Like his own lightnings, which no chains can hold/Neglecting caution and disdaining art.’

His piercing boldness was at least as much religious as scientific: he was, as Coleridge put it, ‘the author of the modern Unitarianism’, expounding in numerous engaging and blithely rationalist histories its full heterodoxy, which included denying the divinity of Christ as well as the doctrines of original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection of the body, and other normal requirements of the faith. In place of such imponderable mysteries Priestley sought to offer a demystified religion appropriate for a scientific age, in which the principal doctrinal points were the absolute ubiquity of God and (a consequence of that) the intrinsic goodness of the universe which he endlessly animated. You can imagine how attractive Priestley was: his writings are reckless and breezy and theologically scurrilous, ruining the ancient truths as he briskly clears up metaphysical problems. The puzzle of free will? No puzzle there: it is God’s vitality that drives everything, including human action, so there can be no individual free will if you stop to think about it. The problem of evil? What problem? God determines everything, and so everything must be for the best, whatever it looks like: ‘The idea of real absolute evil wholly disappears,’ as Priestley wrote in The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated (1777). Optimism does not come in a more striking form; but nor, it might be said, are the limitations of optimism more strikingly exemplified: ‘I do not like to think or speak of any thing unpleasant,’ Priestley once said, ‘I confide in a good Providence, and generally look on the bright side of every thing.’

That doesn’t sound much like the 39 Articles; but Priestley saw himself most emphatically as a Christian, restoring to its original form a religion that had been occluded by centuries of ideological corruption. McCarthy follows a habit normal among literary historians in placing Unitarianism within a wider tradition of dissenting Christianity; but in truth, as Donald Davie robustly maintained in A Gathered Church (1978), it hardly does justice to the enormous heterodoxy of Unitarianism to think of it as a form of Christianity at all. Certainly Coleridge came to think in that way. According to a story recorded by his first biographer, and probably originating from Coleridge himself, Barbauld once challenged him at a party: ‘So, Mr Coleridge, I understand you do not consider Unitarians Christians.’ Coleridge’s reply was more or less urbane: ‘I hope, Madam, that all persons born in a Christian country are Christians, and trust they are under the condition of being saved; but I do contend that Unitarianism is not Christianity.’ Barbauld’s reported reply is unmoved by such subtleties: ‘I do not understand the distinction.’ Nor would have young Coleridge.

The old man sent up Mrs Barbauld as a way of dismissing an entire culture and disposition, not only everything she represented but everything he had once stood for himself. His admiration for Barbauld had been intense. In 1797, aged 25, on the verge of entering the Unitarian ministry, he walked 40 miles to see her: he thought of her then as ‘that great and excellent woman’, and as one of the great prose stylists in the language. If the original conversation about ‘The Ancient Mariner’ really took place it must have occurred around the turn of the century, when they became well acquainted; and her remarks, were they uttered at all, were perhaps better received at the time. Anyway, in 1800 he was still gushing: ‘The more I see of Mrs Barbauld the more I admire her – that wonderful Propriety of Mind! – She has great acuteness, very great – yet how steadily she keeps it within the bounds of practical Reason’; and she was one of the few luminaries to whom he instructed the publishers to send a copy of Lyrical Ballads.

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