The majestic new Bollingen edition of Coleridge’s collected works edges, with the Biographia Literaria edited by James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, a bit past its halfway point. Nine of the projected 16 volumes are now in print. In addition, three of the projected five volumes of the private Notebooks have appeared. (They are a separate Bollingen project, though Kathleen Coburn is in command of both.) Because Coleridge left a most untidy record of published, semi-published and unpublished writings, recovery of his occasional and periodical journalism, plus the enormous mass of his fascinating notebooks, his profuse marginalia, and the recent edition of his collected letters in six volumes, has been a more exciting process than for most writers of his vintage it generally is. When the two great Bollingen enterprises will have been added to Professor Grigg’s monumental edition of the letters, we shall have the makings of an entire, substantially new Coleridge, whose position among the extraordinary minds of an extraordinary age will be more firmly established than ever.
The Biographia Literaria is not, to be sure, in any sense a ‘lost’ piece of Coleridge. Since its original publication in 1817, it has been four times reprinted and annotated, making the present edition the sixth. None of these reprints has special authorial sanction, there are hardly any significant textual variants to be recorded, and no manuscript material survives. The basic text is, and always has been, that of 1817. More significantly, the book has long outlived most of the particular issues and controversies with which it engages, to become an active component in much modern critical thinking. From George Saintsbury through I.A. Richards to Kenneth Burke, it has exercised the active stimulus, not of a privileged book, but of one which in each generation earns afresh its own authority. For all its oddities – and certainly it is the oddest volume ever dictated by the mouth of man – it has never faded from sight or fallen out of use.
What then are the problems with the book? Well, as everyone recognised from the first, it is remarkably disorganised – not simply in dealing with a variety of topics (no account of an active man’s literary life and opinions could do otherwise), but in the disparity, the remoteness from one another, of the topics with which a reader must cope. Perhaps 80 per cent of the book proceeds – querulously, jocularly, conversationally – at a level that offers no problem to an average, well-read, reasonably informed peruser. Some 20 per cent or so deals in very laboured and abstract language with technical philosophical questions, notably theories of perception and mental association. Between pride and self-doubt, the author himself declares that most people will not be able to understand this material, and should not try. Across a striking hiatus in MS, we are then led to a vigorous magnification of the imagination as the supreme element of poetry, and an energetic defence of Wordsworth’s poetry which begins with a recitation of its faults. Interspersed with these arguments are comic accounts of the author’s misadventures as a periodical journalist, declamations on the economics of authorship, and statements of political principle.
Apart from the sense it gives of having been thrown together with a pitchfork (in the phrase of Leslie Stephen), Biographia Literaria conceals idiosyncrasies not so easy to recognise. Coleridge writes in part to answer imputations about his marriage, but silently and completely omits from his life story any mention of it (or of the three children resulting from it). His attitude toward Wordsworth veers from the adulatory to the sharply and sometimes unfairly critical. He complains of ill usage by malignant critics and deceitful friends, whom nobody has ever had the least difficulty in identifying, but whom he never names. Of his long and spiritually debilitating struggle with the opium habit, though it explains much in his life, he (perhaps naturally) says nothing; with even better reason, he drops not a hint of his deep and painful love for Sarah Hutchinson. As a biographical narrative, Coleridge’s book of self-explanation is most notable for the things it omits entirely, or alludes to only remotely and in passing. Finally, there is the scandal of the unacknowledged borrowings or unidentified translations, frequently referred to as ‘plagiarisms’. Biographia Literaria has long been known to contain a number of passages transferred directly, with only minor omissions and changes, from the German philosophers, and not so identified. So far as these matters, especially the last-named, affect the understanding of Coleridge’s book, Professors Engell and Bate have felt obliged to keep the reader informed, with an extensive scholarly introduction and an impressive array of footnotes at the foot of the text.
The footnotes, in fact, are so many, so extended (despite evident efforts at abbreviation), and so interwoven with one another, as to make these two otherwise handsome volumes an exasperating trial for a reader who wants to follow Coleridge’s sufficiently labyrinthine text without the help that encumbers. For not only does the text require annotation by the editors: Coleridge himself annotated it, and his notes require editorial annotation, sometimes quite a lot. This can lead to tangles of which the following are extreme examples. In Volume I, on pages 39-42, one finds three footnotes by Coleridge, three textual footnotes by the editors, seven footnotes by the editors on ideas and allusions in Coleridge’s text, and nine footnotes by the editors on Coleridge’s footnotes. Page 41 alone contains six levels of discourse: Coleridge’s text; a footnote by Coleridge, carried over from page 39; the editors’ footnote on an allusion in that footnote; a footnote by the editors on a passage in the text of page 41; a footnote by Coleridge on another passage of page 41; and a footnote by the editors on a passage in that last footnote. Again, on pages 46 and 47 of Volume I, there are six and a half lines of text by Coleridge from which depend: two footnotes on the text by the editors; a footnote by Coleridge on a passage seven pages earlier; a textual note by the editors; and seven other footnotes by the editors on Coleridge’s footnote. Notably awkward is the arrangement at Volume II, pages 89-90, where Coleridge’s footnote on page 89 seems to conclude (it is grammatically complete) only to resume unexpectedly on page 90, where a single final sentence hangs forlornly between a couple of rules, like a laundered shirt on a line.
I don’t mean to imply that the information presented in these various footnotes is useless or undesirable: only that not all of it has equal claim to space on the page, especially when the result is clutter. Certain classes of footnote – the less urgent, and the most demanding of space, for example – could have been relegated without loss to the back of the book. The textual footnotes are few and almost all unimportant: they need not have cluttered the page. Footnotes which call attention to places where Coleridge (a notably repetitious man with an almost morbidly acute memory) repeated the same or similar words in another context generally help only indirectly with the text before us: they too could be subordinated.
As for the matter of Coleridge’s relation to his Germanic sources, it is significant, and the editors have gone into it with laudable thoroughness. But when long footnotes (as in Volume I, pages 252-254 and 257-261) stretch across several pages, quoting a great deal of Schelling (for example), translating it, and distinguishing the particulars in which Coleridge departed from his original or followed briefly somebody else, even a specialist may feel that this material could have gone, to its advantage, in an appendix. The problem is simply readability. Following three lines of abstract, compressed argumentation, in four languages, on the one page, while leaping from one block of type to another, and trying to relate the footnotes to their appropriate superscripts,is not altogether impossible: but it could have been made easier. One feels sometimes that the editors and designers were out to squeeze an entire six-course meal, from soup to ice-cream, on a single plate.
How much does it matter that Coleridge translated or copied or adapted a good many passages from Schelling, Jacobi, Kant, Lessing and others? Less, I think, than the indignant shouters of ‘plagiarism’ suppose. There are the standard ‘human weakness’ excuses. Coleridge was in deep depression at the time of Biographia Literaria; he was actually thinking of placing himself in a private madhouse. All his life long, an amazing power of recall had enabled him to impress people; he was under heavy compulsion to find copy for a book already in deep production difficulties. The sort of pressure that led him to fill out Biographia Literaria with extensive quotations, ‘Satyrane’s Letters’ and the ‘Critique of Bertram’ also led him to rummage through his old commonplace-books for passages of undigested Schelling.
These, however, are scarcely the procedures by which a critical masterpiece is created; and if one ventured to query the Introduction of the learned editors, it would be on the score that they treat the ‘philosophical chapters’ of the Biographia too much as a homogeneous unit. The argument would be that translations from the German, which comprise so large a part of the early ‘philosophic chapters’, served less as a crutch to Coleridge’s ideas than as a hindrance, a distraction, and ultimately a form of blockage, through which the best and strongest part of Coleridge’s thought had to break free. If one divides these chapters at that ludicrous yet crucial ‘letter from a friend’ which Coleridge himself wrote, and which at a stroke liberated him from his previous argument, Chapters Five to Nine and 12 are seen to be much more heavily laced with German philosophy, much less influential in the subsequent history of Coleridge’s book, and perceptibly different in feeling as well as doctrine, as compared with Chapters 13 and 14, the other side of the watershed. I.A. Richards in his brilliantly divagatory study of Coleridge on Imagination (1934), does not really want to dismiss the Schelling chapters, but he calls them ‘merely a preparatory exercise’, and much more significant as evidence of Coleridge’s psychology than in their own right as metaphysics. Indeed, this answers to the text as written and felt, whether we take ‘Coleridge’s psychology’ to mean either his theory of the mind’s working or his actual mental dynamics in the act of composing the book. The imaginary (or should we say ‘imaginative’, or ‘in behalf of the imagination’) letter is crucial to the book – more crucial, a reader may feel, than the editors are inclined to grant. It was a breakthrough. Coleridge told another friend – a real one, this time – that he wrote it ‘without taking my pen off the paper except to dip it in the inkstand’. And instantly the theme of the discussion shifts, from the narrow operation of perception to the free act of imagination, its power to engage every part of the soul (Kenneth Burke will one day widen the thought to include every part of the body) in symbolic action. Coleridge writes suddenly at liberty, and he writes brilliantly. What he says in the last four paragraphs of Chapter 13 and the last half of Chapter 14 is not without parallels elsewhere, but the relation is not one of imitation, far less copying or plagiarism; there are resonances, but no dependence. Looking into Coleridge on Imagination, one may be startled to see how much of Richards’s discussion derives from these relatively few pages of the Biographia Literaria. They are evidently the trace of radioactive material within a much larger mass of inert stuff, which includes, not all, but a good deal of the splendid Schelling.
Unhappily, scholarly footnotes have no real way to cope with originality: but in a book where so much is pointed out to him as derivative, the alert reader will want to seek out for himself, and perhaps circle in gold, those precious few passages which have given the book its unflagging vitality. Coleridge, though he apparently became a tiresome old man, never failed to distinguish his own good from his bad work. He was ashamed of the last chapters but one (the Schelling chapters) of his first volume, proud of the first chapters of his second. He had – and one cannot pick up even a deeply flawed book like the Biographia without feeling it – the most richly and wonderfully literary mind of any English writer.
After so much carping about the footnotes in this edition, it’s only fair to say that in substance they are, like the apparatus in general, absolutely exemplary of their sort. For the greater part of the book, the notes are informative but not obtrusive, copious yet concise, wide-ranging and undirective; only occasionally does the light they shed come more to resemble a shade. Perhaps a beginner, unless particularly intrepid, will make better headway the first time through with the old (1907) Shawcross edition, but he will be fortunate to have these weightier volumes in reserve for special questions and fuller reconsiderations.
Whether Coleridge’s doctrine of the imagination represents a complete critical credo must be questioned. It is a celebratory concept that does not lend itself naturally to the making of discriminations. Coleridge himself felt impelled to supplement it with a principle which understandably gave I.A. Richards conniption fits: under the name of Good Sense, it reintroduced a full panoply of the decorums from which the liberated imagination was supposed to emancipate us. When intoxicated on Good Sense, Coleridge could hack away at the ‘Intimations Ode’ as heavy-handedly as Jeffrey himself. But many subtle and half-recognised complexities of motivation entered into the last part of Coleridge’s unhappy life. After 1810 he was terribly hurt by the fact (which his inner censor was constantly trying to suppress, but which escaped him with awful directness on one occasion) that Wordsworth ‘has given me up’. Evidently a similar or even deeper order of resentments entered into his relations with Hazlitt.
To unravel these personal matters, with much else that remains ambiguous in the life of this man, we may be in need, now at last, of a full biography. There have been short summaries, some better than others, and a number of excellent specialised studies: but a portrait at full length is yet to be tried. The new mass of materials to be condensed, and the fascinating complexities of understanding and judgment to be explored, should entice some adventurous young person with equal gifts of erudition and psychological insight, plus a full lifetime to devote to the task. It’s really frightening to think how badly the job might be done: but till it is done, and done well, a wretched void will remain at the heart of English literary history in one of its seminal periods.