Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Dejection: an Ode



Not Coleridge's famous Ode, but an earlier poem with that title by ‘the Reverend J. Black’, published in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1786 (2:793: it's called, simply, ‘Ode’ in the main text, as you can see above: but it's identified as ‘Dejection: an Ode’ on both the contents page of the magazine and in the index for 1786). I'm wondering if Coleridge ever came across it, either in its original magazine form, or in any of its (several) reprintings. There are some rough similarities between his poem and it:
How fiercely drives the rattling hail!
How loudly blows the blustering wind!
Now deep and distant sounds the gale,
And with its murmurs soothes the mind:
Anon, a whistling sound prevails—
By fits, irregular, it roars—
With boisterous force the house assails,
While with harsh, dreary noise, resound the jarring doors.

Yet why, my Maia, why that tear?
Why hangs that gloom upon thy mind?
The storm may rage abroad, but here,
My love, it can no entrance find.
You think, perchance, of those at sea,
Or the poor houseless wretch on shore;
For soft compassion dwells with thee,
And others' griefs oft wound thy tender breast full sore.

Or spring thy sorrows from within,
From sources deeper and more near?
Not from the storm's external din,
But from thine own foreboding fear?
Dreads thou lest we should ever feel
Want's chilling blasts and freezing power?
Say, can mankind their bosoms steel
'Gainst those who shivering stand beneath affliction's shower?

What tho our pittance be but small,
And helpless babe look up for bread,
The Providence, that cares for all,
A table for us still will spread.
Should we become Disease's prey,
And in our veins fierce Fever rage,
On Sickness' pillow Hope will lay
Some cordial drops that may these cruel ills assuage.

In Summer oft the tender flower
Hangs its fair head, surcharg'd with rain;
But soon the sun's enlivening power
Unfolds its beauties all again:
And e'en the showers that weigh it down
Fresh vigour to the stem bestow.——
Thus then, if heaven or smile or frown,
Some good to man may spring, alike from joy or woe.
Not a very good poem, evidently. But, like Coleridge's later and much more powerful work, it is an Ode about mental dejection that opens with a storm (in STC: ‘rain and squally blast’; ‘swelling gust’, ‘and the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!’), that addresses a lady—‘Maia’ rather than Sara—and that ends by commending her to Joy. Coleridge even includes a suffering babe (‘a little child ... now moans low in bitter grief and fear/And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear’) as does Black, whose ‘helpless babe look[s] up for bread’. It's not much, but it may be something.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Damascius in the "Religious Musings" (1796)



These 437 lines of blank verse are young Coleridge rather self-consciously attempting a ‘major’ poem; a lengthy Akensidean meditation on Christian themes written, as its subtitle notes, at Christmas 1794 (though not published until 1796). The poem is, I'd say, interesting rather than successful. William Empson called Religious Musings  ‘hard for us to take seriously today’, which is right I think, although he also noted that ‘Charles Lamb thought the Musings the greatest religious poetry since Milton’. Others amongst Coleridge's friendship group were less impressed. John Thelwall, for instance, thought it ‘the very acme of abstruse, metaphysical, mistical [sic] rant, & all ranting abstractions and metaphysic and mysticism are wider from true poetry than the equator from the poles’ [Warren Gibbs, ‘An Unpublished Letter from John Thelwall to S T Coleridge’, Modern Language Review 25 (1930), 86]. Coleridge replied vigorously enough (‘why so violent against metaphysics in poetry? Is not Akenside's The Pleasures of Imagination [1744] a metaphysical poem?’); and when Robert Poole wrote praising the poem but regretting that it wasn't written ‘more on the level of human understanding’ Coleridge wrote back, slightly haughtily: ‘the Poem was not written for common Readers’ [Collected Letters, 1:207].

Today I'm focusing on one small thing. When Religious Musings was first published, in Poems (1796), Coleridge included various footnotes after the eighteenth-century didactic manner. When he reprinted the poem in 1797 he deleted many of the more politically incendiary of these annotations (his political views were starting to shift, even at this early stage) but he added a new note to ‘line 35’.



The Greek, Το Νοητον διηγηκασιν εις πολλων Θεων ιδιοτητας (printed, as you can see, thus, without accents or breathings—it should be τὸ νοητὸν διηγήκασιν εἰς πολλῶν Θεῶν ἰδιότητας) means: ‘they divided the νοητός into many individuated gods’, where the νοητός [from νοέω, ‘I perceive, I think out’] means ‘that which is conceivable, perceptible, intelligible, comprehensible’. Coleridge's note attributes this (correctly) to the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius, but incorrectly suggests it's from the De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, a book actually by a Neoplatonist from a different, earlier generation, Iamblichus. And in fact Coleridge's error of attribution (it was first noticed by Ian Wylie in his Young Coleridge and the Philosphers of Nature 1990) is kind-of understandable, I think. STC came across the Greek when reading Cudworth's The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), that huge and influential work of Anglican theology, a Coleridgean favourite. Cudworth includes a chapter on the Egyptians in which he argues that Egypt was originally a nation of monotheists, worshiping ‘one supreme and universal Numen’ [1:4], but that later Egyptian and Greek religious practice broke this unity into myriad pagan godlings. Here's the relevant bit, with the Greek from which, you can see, Coleridge culled his line.


To be honest it's not clear to me that Coleridge ever actually did confuse Damascius and Iamblichus, since (as you can see) Cudworth doesn't attribute the passage to a specific title but rather to ‘Damascius's principle MS’. Most of Damascius' work, including his titles, has been lost to us; it's perfectly possible he wrote a book under the title On the Egyptian Mysteries, which is, after all, what he's talking about here. Cudworth's Greek comes from a fragmentary piece of early 6th-C Damascius, quoted at length but without sufficient context by Photius in the 9th-C, and now generally reconstructed by scholars under the hypothetical title The Life of Isidore, or sometimes The Philosophical History. Not that Coleridge was likely to have known that.

‘As quoted’, say Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano, ‘the sentence seems to refer to the proliferation of pagan gods, but the Unitarian Coleridge could have intended it to apply to the Christian trinity.’ I wonder about that; it seems a little super-subtle to me. The emphasis of this passage is more Cudworthian, surely. We know that Coleridge was reading not the 1678 original text of Cudworth, but Thomas Birch's 1743 abridged edition of the work; and the frontispiece of that edition draws out one of Cudworth's main aims (the defense of faith and disproof of atheism):



Apologies for the slightly wonky scan, there. But you can see: the Sun of Reason shining on both the victorious theists and the confused atheists.



This is surely the image behind Coleridge's ‘Holy with power/He on the thought-benighted Sceptic beamed/Manifest Godhead, melting into day/Floating mists of dark idolatry’.

In other words the poem is celebrating the birth of Christ as the moment when the originary monotheism of humanity was restored, rescued from the fogs of pagan polytheism into which it had fallen. That this sunlight, piercing the fog of idolatory, was actually the moment when the Jewish monotheos disclosed itself into the world as a plurality of divine identities (Father and now Son) seems to me a striking and rather pleasing irony. To be clear—I know that the Christian orthodoxy is that the trinity always existed, from the beginning of time, as Father-Son-Spirit and the very first Christmas Day was merely the moment when one aspect of this holy triad manifested in the material world, but still.
             Holy with power
He on the thought-benighted Sceptic beamed
Manifest Godhead, melting into day
What floating mists of dark idolatry
Broke and misshap'd the Omnipresent Sire:
And first by FEAR uncharm'd the drowséd Soul
Till of its nobler nature it 'gan feel
Dim recollections; and thence soar'd to HOPE.
Strong to believe whate'er of mystic good
Th'ETERNAL dooms for His IMMORTAL Sons.
From HOPE and firmer FAITH to perfect LOVE
Attracted and absorb'd: and center'd there
GOD only to behold, and know, and feel,
Till by exclusive Consciousness of GOD
All self-annihilated it shall make
GOD its Identity: God all in all!
We and our Father ONE! [Religious Musings, 33-51]
The passage enacts what it describes: the singular identity of the unitary ‘Godhead’, the ‘Omnipresent Sire’, has been obscured for many generations by the ‘floating mists of dark idolatry’, which ‘broke’ it into seeming ‘misshapen’ fragments—each worshipped as gods by the pagans—that is reconciled to true monotheistic trinitarianism (pace Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano) by Christ's birth, which draws the variegated ‘dim recollections’ through HOPE to FAITH and LOVE, through a kind of contra-centrifugal process, thrice-specified because it is trinitarian, ‘attracted and absorb'd: and center'd’ back to the, again thrice-named capitalised GOD, whose presence enables another triadic process, ‘to behold, and know, and feel’ the ‘all-in-all’ oneness of us and God.

How did this lapse into paganism happen in the first place? According to Coleridge, the problem was ‘FEAR’, a hypothesis he takes from Cudworth's book. The True Intellectual System suggests that polytheism was what happened ‘when the Minds of Men strongly possess'd with Fear, especially in the Dark, raise up the Phantasms of Spectres, Bug-bears, or Affrightful Apparitions to them’, events they think ‘to be Objects really existing without them, and so call them Ghosts and Spirits, whilst they are indeed nothing but their own Phancies’:
So the Phantasm or Phancy of a Deity (which is indeed the Chief of all Spectres) created by Fear, has upon no other Accompt, been taken for a Reality. From the Fear that proceeds from the Ignorance it self, of what it is that hath the Power to do men Good or Harm, men are inclined to suppose and Feign to themselves, several kinds of Powers Invisible, and to stand in awe of their own Imaginations, and in time of Distress to invoke them, as also in the time of an expected good Success, to give them thanks, making the Creatures of their own Fancies, their Gods... This (we say) was the first Original of that Vulgar Belief of Invisible Powers, Ghosts, and Gods. [Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 1.2]
One last note. I think there's another piece of wordplay going on in this passage, one that is mediated via the Damascian Greek quoted in STC's 1797-added footnote: the shift, that is to say, from the mists of Idolatry at the beginning of the passage to the triumphant restoration of God as Identity at its end, via Damascius's ἰδιότητα. Now Coleridge was not a dunce. He understand that the English word idolatry derives not from the Greek ἰδιότητα (which means: ‘property, characteristic, attribute, status’) but from the quite different source, εἴδωλον (eidōlon, “idol”) + λάτρις (latris, “worshipper”). But by the same token he surely knew that Identity comes from exactly that source. That in other words, buttressing his verse-paragraph with this particular Damascian, Cudworth-derived footnote licenses the reader to navigate from the ghost or phantom εἴδωλον of fear-inspired idolatry back to the true divine ἰδιότητα, the identity of A = A that is the perfect union of father, son and holy ghost, in which we, redeemed in Christ, can find our all-in-all. None of this needs to draw on Damascius's Neoplatonism, and none of it is incompatible with trinitarianism (Coleridge's relationship to Unitarianism, evem at this early stage in his intellectual career, was always complicated). It is, more simply, a Coleridgean elision of the obscure many into the sunbright one.

Monday, 10 December 2018

‘George Herbert’ (1799): An Undiscovered Coleridge Essay?



:1:

The essay in question is a thousand-word appraisal of George Herbert’s poetry, published anonymously in Bristol in 1799. It is printed below, after a few paragraphs that attempt to make the case for Coleridgean authorship.

So: the first thing to say is that the evidence linking it Coleridge to it is purely circumstantial. I haven't discovered, as it might be, correspondence between Coleridge and the publisher, Richard Edwards, on this or any other matter; or any references in his larger correspondence to the piece.

Nonetheless, it seems to me there is a reasonable case to argue that this represents a hitherto undiscovered piece of Coleridge’s critical prose. That case, like the Isle of Man's emblem, stands on three legs: (a) that Coleridge was the right person, and in the right place at the right time, to be commissioned to write it; (b) that Coleridge, unusually amongst his contemporaries, was an advocate for Herbert. Indeed, his (later) endorsement of Herbert’s poetry in The Friend and Biographia Literaria is generally taken to have sparked a resurgence of interest in Herbert’s poetry. Accordingly, this essay (if by him) would be the earliest instance of a characteristically Coleridgean advocacy; and (c) the essay possesses a distinctly Coleridgean stylistic flavour. It hardly needs stressing that the first two points here are the weaker. That Coleridge could have written something is a very feeble imputation by way of arguing that he did. That the piece of writing feels like something written by Coleridge, assuming we can agree that it does, is liable to be a more persuasive argument. Of course, you may not think that it does read like Coleridge.

We know that Coleridge published material anonymously in the 1790s: most prominently, of course, the Lyrical Ballads in 1798. It is also the case that we know of some articles he published during this time that have subsequently been lost to us. In the first chapter of the Biographia Literaria he records that ‘during my first Cambridge vacation’ (that is, summer 1793) ‘I assisted a friend in a contribution for a literary society in Devonshire.’ This piece—which made an unflattering assessment of Erasmus Darwin's poetry, and argued for the superiority of Collins to Gray—has never been discovered.

The essay under consideration here appeared as the preface to The Temple. Sacred Poems, and Private Ejaculations, by the Rev. George Herbert, Late Orator of the University of Cambridge. To which is added, a biographical sketch of the author. A New Edition. Bristol: Printed by and for R. Edwards. 1799. This was a reprint not of the 1633 edition of Herbert’s poems, but of Jeffery Wale’s 1703 edition of that first edition, including its rather vague memorial verses (‘A Memorial to the Honourable George Herbert, who died about Anno 1635’—Herbert actually died in 1633).

Not much is known of Richard Edwards except that he was a Bristol printer and publisher whose press was at Broad Street. Most of his works were identified as ‘published by R. Edwards, Bristol’, and his first name is vouchsafed by his edition of Richard Bernard’s 1632 pre-John-Bunyan allegory The Isle of Man, or, The legal proceedings in Manshire against sin, which not only states on the title page ‘Bristol: printed by and for Richard Edwards. 1803’, but includes a preface written by Edwards commending the work to the general reader [He is not the same Richard Edwards, based in Bond Street, London, who published William Blake and some others]. Edwards published a variety of things, including books of practical health, travel, stories for children and a good deal of religious, especially Methodist and other non-Conformist, material. He was evidently sympathetic towards, or at least not actively hostile to, Republican politics, for he published works by the American Revolutionary pastor Timothy Dwight, as well as John Davis’s Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America, during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801 and 1802 (1803), which was dedicated ‘by permission’ to Thomas Jefferson. The fact that, by the late 1790s Bristol thought of Coleridge as a political radical would surely be less offputting to a publisher like Edwards than to some others. This very point of connection might explain why Coleridge, after his return from Germany, and as his political views moved to the right, sought no further professional contact with Edwards—assuming, of course, that he had had any in the first place. In the absence of any concrete evidence linking Coleridge and Edwards, the most we can do is note that Edwards’ list contains a preponderance of exactly the sorts of books liable to interest and excite Coleridge.

Edwards published his edition of The Temple in 1799, which makes it likely he was looking for someone to write the preface in 1798. Edwards could, of course, be the author of the Preface himself, but a comparison with the only piece of prose certainly his (the preface to Bernard’s The Isle of Man, which is signed by Edwards) reveals a very different prose style: much less learned and idiosyncratically expressed. Moreover, there is no evidence that Edwards had a particular interest in poetry. As far as I can see, his reprint of The Temple is the only collection of poetry on his list. It would have made sense for him to approach somebody more knowledgeable to provide an introduction.

If Edwards did hire someone to write the Herbert preface in 1798 then we can at least say that Coleridge would have been a likely candidate. He was often in Bristol and lived in the surrounding area. He had recently started work as a jobbing journalist (his first definitely identified contribution to the Morning Post dates to the 2nd Jan 1798) and was on the look-out for work. He was famous as a local poet and preacher—a poet and critic with a theological bent could hardly be better for a project like this—although by the same token he was not so famous that there would be commercial benefit in attaching his name explicitly to the project. Indeed, given the pious nature of the book, and the likely readership, attaching the name of a known radical might disadvantage the sale.

All this speaks to (a), above; and does nothing more than rule out the impossibility of Coleridge’s authorship. Next we must consider (b), which is a little, if only a little, more germane. It has always been known that Coleridge was an advocate of Herbert—a poet who was, at this time, deeply unfashionable. In 1809 and 1810 Coleridge copied extracts from five Herbert poems into his Notebooks. A footnote in The Friend (10 August 1809) referred to Herbert as ‘that model of a man, a Gentleman and a Clergyman’, adding ‘the quaintness of some of his thoughts (not of his diction than which nothing can be more pure, manly and unaffected,) has blinded modern readers to the great general merit of his Poems, which are for the most part exquisite in their kind.’ The delicacy, polish, purity and ‘manly sentiment’ of Herbert are all remarked upon in the 1799 Preface. In chapter 19 of the Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge praised Herbert, and quoted three of his poems in full.
Another exquisite master of this species of style, where the scholar and the poet supplies the material, but the perfect well-bred gentleman the expressions and the arrangement, is George Herbert. As from the nature of the subject, and the too frequent quaintness of the thoughts, his “Temple; or Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations” are comparatively but little known.
Which edition was Coleridge quoting from in the Biographia? We know he owned—and copiously annotated—a 1633 edition of The Temple although this copy dates from the 1820s and was presumably not the one Coleridge used for the Biographia. It is a fair assumption that he worked from Edwards’s 1799 reprint—not least because there was no other modern edition. To quote George Herbert Palmer’s introduction to his 1907 edition of The English Works of George Herbert: ‘between 1709 and 1799 not a single edition appeared. Herbert was despised [until] … at the opening of the nineteenth century Coleridge called attention to him again’ [xiii].

Finally (c): the Preface reads, to my eye at least, as distinctly Coleridgean. In part this is because it makes the same points as Coleridge’s later writings on Herbert: his low popular profile, his appeal to ‘select readers’ only (this as a characteristic of the true poet is, of course, a recurring theme of Coleridge’s), his refinement, manliness and piety. In part it is because the preface contains a number of characteristically Coleridgean rhetorical devices, from referring to low-case ‘c’ ‘christians’ and ‘christianity’, to building its prose out of a network of half-explained or unexplained quotations, references and allusions. To pick up only the most obvious of these latter: ‘divine Poesy’ is from Francis Bacon’s Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning: Divine and Human; ‘the classic Censor of the age’ is Samuel Johnson (the Preface quotes the ‘that devotional poetry is always unsatisfactory’ passage from Johnson’s biography of Isaac Watts in Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets [1779-81]); ‘poetic afflatus’ is the Latin afflatus numine, that goes back to Roman commentaries on Homer, if not earlier; and ‘dark with excessive brightness’ is Milton.

Furthermore, there are a number of specific stylistic tics and phrases that align the piece to Coleridge’s other writings. The opening sentence talks of Herbert’s ‘intrinsic excellence’—a phrase of which Coleridge was fond (two examples: (1) ‘Hooker, Bacon, Milton, and Jeremy Taylor, are, notwithstanding their intrinsic excellence, still less suited to a periodical essay’ [‘Essay 3’, The Friend (1809); CC4 1:20]; (2) the Advertisement to Aids to Reflection (1825): ‘Leighton's [writing] ... will both from the intrinsic excellence and from the characteristic beauty of the passages suffice to answer two prominent purposes of the original plan’). The fifth paragraph includes the striking and rather poetic simile:
Though it does not barely glimmer with the phosphoric spark of the glow-worm, it would be unjust to hold it up to the applied evidence of the meridian sun.
Glow-worms are common in Coleridge’s poetry from the 1790s. Here, for instance, in ‘Lines written near Bridgewater, September 1795’, also known as ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’, 3-6:
Now with curious sight
I mark the glow-worm, as I pass,
Move with “green radiance” through
An emerald of light.
Coleridge adds his own footnote on “green radiance” acknowledging that he has taken the phrase from Wordsworth, ‘whom I deem unrivalled among the writers of the present day in manly sentiment, novel imagery, and vivid colouring.’ ‘Manly sentiment’ is also a phrase that appears in the ‘Herbert’ essay—‘But the manly sentiment, thrown into maxims, and expressed in an extremely terse and commanding manner, charms while it informs the christian philosopher.’ Two more glow-worms from Coleridge poems composed within a year or two of this Preface: ‘many a glow-worm in the shade/Lights up her love-torch’ [‘The Nightingale: a Conversation Poem’ (1798)]; ‘A glow-worm fallen, and on the marge remounting/Shines and its shadow shines, fit stars for our sweet fountain’ (‘A Day Dream’, perhaps written 1802).

‘Phosphoric’ is another characteristically Coleridgean word, and one he used more than once in conjunction with a metaphorical ‘temple’. The first of his ‘Lectures on Revealed Religion’ (1795) he describes a strange dream of entering a mysterious temple, ‘the Temple of Religion’ in the midst of ‘the Valley of Life’: ‘Around its walls I observed a number of phosphoric Inscriptions — each one of the words separately I seemed to understand but when I read them in sentences they were riddles.’ And Coleridge’s second Lay Sermon (1817) opens with an allegory of something very similar. Coleridge goes inside a strange building, to be told ‘that the place, into which I had entered, was the temple of the only true Religion.’ A priest purifies him and leads him deeper inside: ‘At length we entered a large hall where not even a single lamp glimmered. It was made half visible by the wan phosphoric rays which proceeded from inscriptions on the walls, in letters of the same pale and sepulchral light. I could read them, methought; but though each one of the words taken separately I seemed to understand, yet when I took them in sentences, they were riddles and incomprehensible.’

I'll close with two examples of rather more idiosyncratic language use. One that stands out is ‘fictious’, a word obsolete by the 1790s and 1800s (rare, compared to the more common ‘fictitious’, according to the OED); but a word used by Coleridge. Two examples: ‘respecting the first twelve Chapters of Exodus ... If the incident had been fictious, how could the higher classes have failed to detect it?’ ‘Not only the free will but any Will at all might almost seem to have been invented for the purpose of shewing by fictious example’. The other example is ‘shechinah’. Of The Temple, the 1799 Preface says:
It is the holy Shechinah, that, though it be sometimes veiled in thick darkness, is yet at other times only “dark with excessive brightness;”
‘Shechinah’ is a very rare word at this time. the only other published use of the term I can find in the 1790s is Stephen Sewall’s privately published pamphlet The Scripture Account of the Shechinah (Boston MA 1794), a work of which, surely, nobody in Bristol in the 1790s can have been aware. But it crops up in Coleridge’s notebook entries, and with this distinct spelling, too:—‘a Shechinah of it’s [sic] own Beauty’ [Notebooks 6527f22; see also and 6628f24; Coburn and Harding (eds) The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 5: 1827-1834, 515]. More usually spelled ‘Shekinah’, this is a Hebrew word meaning ‘dwelling’ or ‘resting place’, used to refer to the holy dwelling place of God, especially the Temple at Jerusalem. Its rarity is related to the fact that it is not found in the Bible. ‘Shekinah – a Chaldee word meaning resting-place, not found in Scripture, but used by the later Jews to designate the visible symbol of God's presence in the Tabernacle, and afterwards in Solomon’s temple. When the Lord led Israel out of Egypt he went before them “in a pillar of cloud.” This was the symbol of his presence with his people. God also spoke to Moses through the 'Shekinah' out of a burning bush.’ [Matthew George Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1897)] It is, however, exactly the kind of abstruse religious nomenclature that Coleridge loved.

To repeat myself: none of this proves that Coleridge wrote the 1799 Preface; but it does speak to the possibility that he did. As far as that is concerned, the possibility remains, I think, better than remote. The Preface itself now follows.


:2:

The Temple. Sacred Poems, and Private Ejaculations, by the Rev. George Herbert, Late Orator of the University of Cambridge. To which is added, a biographical sketch of the author. A New Edition. Bristol: Printed by and for R. Edwards. 1799.


PREFACE

The Poems of HERBERT have an intrinsic excellence, which has been duly appreciated by a certain class of readers, from the time they first made their appearance to the public eye. To offer any remarks, therefore, upon them, will be deemed by pious persons who are already acquainted with the subject, equally improper and unnecessary.

Notwithstanding, though the Poetry of HERBERT was much known, and, as it should seem by their frequent recital of some of the stanzas, held in no small estimation by the devotional writers of the beginning of the present century, and though nothing can be said to give it an additional recommendation to those who possess a copy, the piece itself being its sufficient patron —there are, however, many who have admired the detached sentiments they have met in the course of their reading other authors, but have never been able to meet a copy of the whole work. It was their inquiries so often made after the Poems of HERBERT, that led the Editor into the design of publishing the present edition. Connected with this view indeed, was an additional wish, to administer pleasure to all the lovers of divine Poesy. Acknowledging the deference due to the classic Censor of the age, who maintains “that devotional poetry is always unsatisfactory, from the paucity of its topics enforcing perpetual repetition, and the sanctity of the matter rejecting the ornaments of figurative diction,” it does not therefore follow that divine subjects always disdain poetic dress. Allowing they seldom admit of the brilliant ornaments of poetic diction, it surely will not be required to acknowledge their total incapability of it, though we regret their experiencing too seldom the culture of first-rate geniuses in the walks of poetry. That sacred verse can more than satisfy—that it can please, delight, enchant, will be scarcely denied by the candid classical readers of the poetry of Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk.

And, leaving the ancient Poets, who could command by their mighty prosopopœia all the objects of creation to adorn their song—we could mention Vida of later times, and others whose brows acquire no faint lustre from the wreath of Zion, though not generally permitted to share the laurels of Parnassus.

It is not presumed, however, that the poems of HERBERT possess all the excellencies necessary to the perfection of poetry; it is not even pretended they inherit many of the charms indispensably required by the acknowledged laws of criticism. We only wish it to be understood, that we consider them as displaying some genuine effects of the Poetic Afflatus. The little poem “On Virtue” might be instanced.

Mr. HERBERT’s Poetry must be viewed in its own light. Though it does not barely glimmer with the phosphoric spark of the glow-worm, it would be unjust to hold it up to the applied evidence of the meridian sun. The intention of sending it into the world either to challenge the acumen of the critics, or to court the favorable reception of candid admirers, had no impulse in its production. It was the spontaneous fruit of retired genius; a genius that in the lonely vale gave to it no other beauty or amelioration than it naturally derived from the innate virtues of its parent stock. In some places we meet abruptly the "thought that lives." Elegance itself possesses not more delicacy than polishes not unfrequently some of the verses. But the manly sentiment, thrown into maxims, and expressed in an extremely terse and commanding manner, charms while it informs the christian philosopher, and generally succeeds in exemplifying the fundamental excellence of the ethics of our holy religion. There is, finally, a group of singular excellencies, which, as they secure the admiration of the select readers, so they should be always taken into the estimate of HERBERT's poetry; this is the lovely combination of christian graces, which not merely adorn the author's thought, as in that case they might have been only adventitious, plucked with rude hand from the Eden of God, to bestow an ornament on fictious matter — they are nothing less than the instinctive life and soul of the poetry. It is the holy Shechinah, that, though it be sometimes veiled in thick darkness, is yet at other times only “dark with excessive brightness;” and whether He be immediately revealed or not, we feel that the present God always inhabits “The Temple."

After expressing our regret that English lyric poetry bad not in HERBERT's days been beautified by the restraint Waller taught us to put upon the licentiousness of the muse, which knew not how graceful her movements should become in that species of poetry when directed by measured numbers; we must be permitted to add, that neither had lyric poetry then abandoned sterling wit and dignified sentiment, to solicit the caprice of case and harmony. Indeed, a late celebrated writer of sacred poetry, only by rescinding or adding a few words in some stanzas, has demonstrated the metrical eminence of several poems of Herbert, which are not the least meritorious in that writer's excellent collection. In fine. While virtue has power to charm; while christianity is felt in its living evidence; and while sound sense shall have influence on the human mind; THE POEMS OF HERBERT WILL CLAIM A PATRONAGE IN THE BOSOM OF EVERY GOOD MAN.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

"Non Sphinx sed Sphincter"



In April-May 1802 was Coleridge revolving, among other things, a Miltonic something. In late April he jotted in his notebook an idea for a new poem: ‘Milton, a Monody in the metres of Samson's Choruses—only with more rhymes/—poetical influences—political—moral—Dr Johnson/’ [Notebooks 1:1155]. This particular poem never got itself written, but a few days later a grumpy, or perhaps wryly scatological, Coleridge jotted down the following:
Unintelligible? As well as call a Fart unintelligible / it tells you at once what it is—it is nonsense—enigmata quia non Sphinx sed Sphincter anus. [Notebooks 1:1184]
Kathleen Coburn translates the Latin (‘riddles not from the Sphinx but the sphincter’ is her version, omitting the entry's terminal word) but doesn't realise it's a quotation, and so speculates about his point: ‘abuse need not be intelligible in itself; it requires only to be recognized as abuse.’

In fact the Latin is taken from Milton's sixth Prolusion ¶ 3, where an individual is ridiculed for uttering ‘aenigmata quaedam nolens effutiat sua non Sphinx sed sphincter anus, quae medicis interpretanda non Oedipo’, ‘riddles merely farted out, issuing not from the Sphinx but the anal sphincter, more fitting for doctors to interpret than Oedipus’. This wasn't exactly typical Miltonic Latin, although, as Anna Beer points out, neither was it wholly uncharacterstic. Beer notes that in Milton’s day ‘performing in Latin was a cornerstone of the Cambridge experience’ and that whilst most of Milton’s surviving Latin speeches are ‘dull’ (for instance: ‘Prolusion 1’ on the question of whether day or night is better, or ‘Prolusion 2’ on the music of the spheres) Prolusion 6 is considerably saucier.

In May 1628 [Milton] ‘was approached to be “Father” during a “salting”, a traditional feast of misrule, which focused on the initiation of young men into the college.’ Initiates might find themselves having to drink salted ale, but in addition to literal salt, there was metaphorical salt: ‘the occasion was full of sales, salty, sexual wit, redolent of licenced indecorum … Milton’s role in the Cambridge salting was as master of ceremonies. He was “Father” for the day, elevated above his “brothers” in this licensed folly.’ He started things off with a speech full of rudery (in Latin of course). Beer notes how tempting was the ‘opportunity for humour, particularly for a chaste figure like the nineteen-year-old John’. [Anna Beer, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot (London: Bloomsbury 2011), 75]. The Latin was first published in Joannis Miltonii Angli, Epistolarum familiarium liber unus quibus accesserunt, ejusdem, jam olim in collegio adolescentis, prolusiones quaedam Oratoriae (1674).

It's quite cool to be able to track this allusion down, actually, not least because it suggests Coleridge wasn't necessarily jotting something down out of pique because he had been called ‘unintelligible’ (and indeed it's a little hard to make sense of the entry on those terms). Rather he's using the apparent dignity of Miltonic Latin to suggest that everything means, even if it only ‘means’ on the level of performing itself as non-meaning. And given that whatever prompted this notebook entry put STC in mind of this particular Miltonic prolusion, conceivably he was thinking about laughter as such: a sort of utterance that is, on the level of semantic content, merely unintelligble noises, but which nonetheless signifies, richly.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Hartley Coleridge: Clockwork Boy



Coleridge's son Hartley was christened 8th November 1803. The run-up to this event clearly preyed, in some small way, on Coleridge's mind, for on the morning of the 28th October 1803 he recorded the following dream in his notebook.
Frid. Morn. 5 oclock—Dosing, dreamt of Hartley as at his Christening—how as he was asked who redeemed him, & was to say, God the Son/he went on, humming and hawing, in one hum & haw, like a boy who knows a thing & will not make the effort to recollect it—so as to irritate me greatly. Awakening «gradually I found I was able compleatly to detect, that» it was the Ticking of my Watch which lay in the Pen Place in my Desk on the round Table close by my Ear, & which in the nervous diseased State of my Nerves had fretted on my Ears—I caught the fact while it Hartley’s Face & moving Lips were yet before my Eyes, & his Hum & Ha, & the Ticking of the Watch were each the other, as often happens in the passing off of Sleep—that curious modification of Ideas by each other, which is the Element of Bulls.—I arose instantly, & wrote it down—it is now 10 minutes past 5. [Notebooks, 1:1620]
There's something wonderful about this, I think, in part because of its familiarity. It speaks to an experience we have, surely, all had: where sense data from the wideawake world seep into our half- or quarter-conscious dreaming mind. An Irish bull is a ludicrous, incongruent or comically absurd line, designated ‘Irish’ either because of the longstanding and racist belief held by some Englishpeople that the Irish are prone to speaking foolish nonsense, or else because of the Irish MP Sir Boyle Roche, sometimes called ‘the father of the Irish Bull’, who once asked Parliament ‘Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?’ Coleridge was fascinated by ‘bulls’ (there's quite a lot of discussion of them in the Biographia Literaria) And whilst we're on the subject, isn't ‘dosing’ an interesting spelling of the word ‘dozing’ for a man who so notoriously had the habit of dosing himself with a tincture of heroin in alcohol? Not least because, as famously was the case with ‘Kubla Khan’ such dosing often led directly to dozing.

But the heart of this entry is its charmingly steampunk iteration of Hartley as a clockwork boy, his gears whirring hum and ha. Evidently Coleridge's imagination was preoccupied on some level by the difference between a proper human being and a complicated automaton, a Dennettian machine-being of interconnected inputs and reactions, or ‘associations’ and ‘vibrations’, of the sort David Hartley (1705–57) hypothesised was the secret truth of homo sapiens. That same Hartley that Coleridge named his son after. Then again, it's worth stressing that Hartley was no more an ur-Dennettian atheist-materialist than was Coleridge himself. Alhough volume one of Hartley's 1749 Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations elaborated his mechanistic, associationist theory of human existence, volume two was devoted to pious Christian observations, something Hartley considered compatible with the rest of his theory because (in a nutshell) God can do anything. Still, Coleridge did eventually grow out of his Hartleyan affiliation, a spiritual as much as an intellectual evolution he related at some length in the Biographia. What's the problem with this fundamentally mechanistic theory of the human animal? Coleridge thinks something is missing from it, and that the missing thing is precisely: a Christian soul, that very thing that is sacramentally affirmed during baptism.

But hold on a moment. Describing this dream as being about a clockwork boy is me letting my sciencefictional imagination run away with me. If I look at it again I can see it's not at all about that. The boy in the dream is the real, living-breathing Hartley. We can tell that dream-Hartley is not a machine because he manifests precisely those qualities of which a machine is incapable: indolence, or perhaps willed repugnance to command: a boy ‘who knows a thing & will not make the effort to recollect it—so as to irritate me greatly’. Kids, however much we love them, can indeed be irritating; but as Spielberg's Kubrickian project A.I. shows it is in their resistance that they prove themselves actually alive and therefore worthy of love; a perfectly compliant child would be a kind of elaborate toy, and, unlike an actual child, would be liable to being discarded once we'd finished our game—which is what happens to the mecha David in the A.I. movie. Soul means that we can move in ways that an automaton or (Coleridge's own example, from the Biographia, this) a weathercock cannot: by our own volition.

Jonathan Rée notes that ‘Descartes had a special fondness for clockwork’:
He possessed a fine wall-clock of his own. He greatly admired the ornate clock at Strasbourg with its automatic crowing cockerel, and when he explored the hypothesis that ‘the body is nothing but a statue or an earthenware machine’ in his early manuscript On Man, his main conclusion was that human actions are, from a physical point of view, no more mysterious than the workings of an intricate clock. He saw no reason, as he put it in the Discourse on Method in 1637, to think that the human body had any powers beyond those of the marvellous ‘self-moving machines or automata that can be made by human ingenuity’. The late treatise on the Passions rests entirely on the assumption that the body is a ‘machine’. Even the truculent hero of the Meditations will emerge from his week of arduous self-examination as a convert to the idea that a healthy human body functions like a ‘well-made clock’. The main point of all this business about clockwork and physiology was to shake up the practice of medicine by suggesting that there is no disease of the human body that cannot be fixed by timely mechanical repair.
Coleridge was no Descartian, and one, little noticed, sense in which that was true is the way he repeatedly conceptualised his own many illnesses, from rheumatic fevers and neuralgic pains, through frequent bouts of constipation (and occasional diarrheoa) up to and including his lifelong addiction to opium, not as malfunctions in the machinery of his body but as diseases of his will. It occurs up again and again in the notebooks—you can see it in the entry above when ‘nervous’ is struck through as STC is writing and replaced by ‘diseased State of my Nerve’. It always carries the same self-lacerating implication: if only I had stronger willpower I wouldn't be ill.

We tend not to think of illness that way nowadays of course, and indeed the pendulum has swung away from diseases of the will even where matters like drug-addiction and alcoholism are concerned. Willpower may be a fine thing, but it on its own deters neither germs nor viruses. But saying so I'm struck by another aspect to the dream STC reports. He dreams his boy (his boy) humming and haing, refusing irritatingly to do what he is told to do—which is, in a nutshell, to sign up to eternal life. Then he wakes to find the humming and haing was the whirring of his watch. The child has become a timepiece, and the metamorphosis has the rightness of a well-chosen poetic image. Because, of course, that's what kids are. In a very large sense that is the point of kids. We have them to supersede us. No worse fate imaginable than our children predeceasing us. This is also a problem, though, and the problem is the brute fact that our children will be living, laughing and drinking wine in the sunshine when we ourselves are cold and dead in the ground. That's both a consumation devoutly to be wished and a profoundly unheimlich Halloween story. A little child is the very rebus of life, but he or she means, amongst other things, that we who are old are dying. The tick and tock of our children's existence measures out our own pilgrimage towards our inevitable deaths. Hum and haw indeed.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Coleridge and Plato's Luminous Gloom


Coleridge wrote this luminously gloomy line not once but twice in his Notebooks: first in November 1799 [1:528] and then again, almost identically save for the capitalisation of ‘Gloom’ (and an extra comma) in October 1803 [1:1558]. Critics have been, by and large, rather struck by it. Elliott B. Gose, Jr. [‘Coleridge and the Luminous Gloom: An Analysis of the “Symbolical Language” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, PMLA 75:3 (1960), 238-44] thinks the phrase unlocks the mysteries of the Rime. More proportionately, James Vigus, in his powerful study Platonic Coleridge (Leeds: LEGENDA 2009), sees the line as indicative of ‘Coleridge’s characterization of Plato as a mystic’:
The polarity of nonsense and truth, ‘dark with excessive bright’ is reflected in the [luminous gloom] image, which was so adhesive to Coleridge’s mind that he uses identical expressions in Notebook entries separated by years. [Vigus, 21]
Vigus stresses that if STC thought Plato wrote ‘nonsense’ it was at least ‘dear gorgeous nonsense, worth unravelling’; and he points out that the November 1799 notebook entry is followed by the following bit of drafted (unpublished) Coleridgean verse:
Mist as from a volcano—
Waterfall rolled after long looking at like a segment of a Wheel
—the rock gleaming thro’ it—
Amid the roar a noise as of innumerable grasshoppers or of spinning wheels [Notebooks 1:529]
Vigus goes on to pick out several related images from Coleridge's writing: a description of the religious mystic Jacob Boehme as one who ‘contemplated Truth and the forms of Nature thro’ a luminous Mist, the vaporous darkness rising from his Ignorance and accidental peculiarities of fancy and sensation, but the Light streaming into it from his inmost Soul’ and the ‘fair luminous mist’ of Dejection; an Ode. [Vigus, 22], amongst others. We could add many other examples. In 1802, for instance, he records in that Statius's nec caret umbra Deo (Thebiad 4:425) is ‘obscure indeed, but certainly profound’. The Latin means: ‘nor even the shadows lack Divinity’ [Notebooks 1:1179].

It seems nobody has noted that ‘luminous gloom’ is not Coleridge's coinage. He is quoting Dionysius the Areopagite, or as scholars now insist on calling him, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (a much cooler name, I think: as if he wasn't a human being who happened to be called Dionysius like various other famous men, but was some kind of synthetic man or android). Anyway: Dionysius's Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας (‘On Mystical Theology’, which probably dates to the early 6th century, but which Coleridge may have thought was a 1st-century work) ponders how we can view God, since God Himself is ‘viewless’, or invisible. The work argues that we approach God's brilliance and light through a mystic darkness, and that the mystery of the Trinity abides in a ὑπέρ-φωτον γνόφον, a ‘hyper-luminous gloom’. This little phrase is a famous bit of pseudo-Dionysius's work, actually (it occurs at the beginning of the opening prayer of the On Mystical Theology) and fairly widely known.

It's possible that Coleridge wasn't actually reading an edition of Dionysius at this time, but he was certainly reading the ninth-century theological writer John Scotus Erigena (in July 1803 STC wrote to Southey telling him ‘I have received great delight & instruction from Scotus Erigena’, and he often copied out bits of Scotus's Latin into his notebooks at this time) and Scotus very often quotes Dionysius—indeed, Scotus's contemporary fame, in an age when few scholars knew Greek, derived from the fact that he translated Dionysius and wrote a commentary upon him. The key thing is that Scotus used Dionysius to revive a neo-Platonic mode of Christian theology that was to go on to have a vast influence across medieval Europe. An 1803 Coleridgean notebook entry quotes Jonannes Scotus quoting Dionysius:
ipse omnium essentia est qui solus vere est, ut ait Dionysius Ariopagita. Esse, inquit, omnium superesse Divinitatis. ‘[He] who alone is the essence of things, truly is, as Dionysius the Areopagite put it: Being, he says, in all things [comes from] the over-being Divinity’ [Notebooks 1:1369]
Here's my working theory, for which I need a little more (or, you know: any, at all) evidence: over the years 1799-1803 Coleridge was planning a poem, perhaps to be called ‘On Mystical Theology’, in which he versified and explored some of these Dionysian and Scotus-Ergenan neo-Platonic ideas in poetry. The line at the head of this post, provided we take luminous as a disyllable (‘lum’nous’), is a feminine-ending pentameter, after all. So, it might be that the concrete imagery of a poem like 1802's ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’ (partly plagiarised from German poets though that poem was) might have provided the launch-point for some Neo-Platonic philosophical-poetizing. What is Mont Blanc, in that poem, if not luminously gloomy?
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
It's the divine inversion of Milton's ‘Darkness Visible’—‘Visibility Engloomed’ perhaps. Vigus quotes Ernst Cassirer (‘to poeticize philosophy and to philosophize poetry—such was the highest aim of all romantic thinkers’) before qualifying:
Those English and German Romantics who pursued this aim, including Coleridge, often looked naturally to Plato as a precedent or model. Nevertheless, a contrary model loomed larger still: Kant, who in an essay of 1796 attacked contemporary poetic, Platonizing philosophers as merely decking out their presumptuous, ungrounded assertion. ‘Philosophy is fundamentally prosaic,’ insisted Kant, who pointed to Plato as this vain tendency in philosophical writing. [Vigus, 6]
‘This censure,’ Vigus adds, ‘is consistent with the restriction Kant places on speculative Reason. Unlike Coleridge (and much of Plato) Kant denies that human Reason can have access to the noumenal realm.’ Coleridge, in point of fact, was caught between his desire to see poetry's luminous gloom shine darkly through the noumenal truths of God, and his belief that he might, if he tried to capture this, do nothing more than throw chaff in the readers' eyes. Hence, perhaps, his repeated badgering of Wordsworth to write the great philosophical poem of the age: simultaneously an expression of his belief that such a poem could be written, and an admission that he didn't believe he could write such a poem. It's even possible he considered using this the sunny mist, the lum'nous gloom of Plato line as part of ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’, which is certainly a poem as much about the mystic interpenetration of light and shadow, or blindness and vision, of materiality and spirit, as it is about anything. It might explain why that poem breaks off so abruptly.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Coleridge's ‘Imagination’ and Hooker



I write this in a mood somewhere between bogglement and sheepishness. After all: I've been working on Coleridge for many years, have published scholarly work on the man and blogged extensively about him. More I am currently in what I hope are the latter stages of writing a bloody monograph on the geezer. It's late in the day to realise, for the first time, something that strikes me as so central to my author's imaginative and intellectual praxis, something that means one of his most famous and influential ideas suddenly slots into a new focus (as an optician clicks down lens after lens into the ungainly face-worn frame until suddenly, bingo, there's the chart in all its clarity). Long story short: I should have known this long before. It is but small exculpation to note that nobody else seems to have noticed it either. Unless they have and I've missed that? Or unless nobody has because there's nothing there and I've lost my mind? That's possible too, I suppose.

It has to do with Coleridge's concept of the imagination, surely his most famous idea, and something he wrote about in various places, but which he most famously elaborated in the Biographia Literaria (1817). There Coleridge makes the distinction between ‘imagination’, which is genuinely creative, and ‘fancy’ which is merely imitative:—a process of pastiche of more imaginative writers, the shuffling around of pre-existing counters rather than the poetic or artistic bodying-forth of something new and meaningful. Towards the end of chapter 4 of the Biographia, Coleridge says:
Repeated meditations led me first to suspect,—(and a more intimate analysis of the human faculties, their appropriate marks, functions, and effects matured my conjecture into full conviction,)—that Fancy and Imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties, instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, or, at furthest, the lower and higher degree of one and the same power. ... Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind. If therefore I should succeed in establishing the actual existence of two faculties generally different, the nomenclature would be at once determined. To the faculty by which I had characterized Milton, we should confine the term imagination; while the other would be contra-distinguished as fancy. [The] division is no less grounded in nature than that of delirium from mania, or Otway's
Lutes, laurels, seas of milk, and ships of amber,
from Shakespeare's
What! have his daughters brought him to this pass?
Otway thinks, fancifully, the way to capture madness is to have his character babble random things because madness is a kind of randomness, or a sort of babble. Shakespeare knows better, that madness is actually that which bends sanity around the lines of force of its obsession. Fair enough. Then, in what now strikes me as a dead giveaway, and by way of concluding chapter 4, Coleridge goes from this passage to a lengthy quotation from Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity—I mean, it really is right there. The thing is that then, in characteristic Coleridgean style, he gets distracted and instead of developing this idea he embarks on a massive metaphysical and theological detour, one which occupies the whole of chapters 6-13. Finally, right at the end of his long thirteenth chapter, Coleridge returns to imagination and fancy with this often-cited, rarely-understood definition:
The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.
So, [1] God makes the world, including our souls; [2] the true artist makes a little world in his/her art, in a finite imitation of the infinite primary creativity of God, and [3] the crappy artist merely copies-and-pastes (we can compare Tolkien's subcreation, and its relationship to divine creation). With that, Vol 1 of the Biographia ends. Vol 2 starts an entirely new enterprise, largely pursuing practical criticism of Wordsworth's poetry, amongst others. There's one more wrinkle: according to his daughter, Coleridge crossed out ‘as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’ in his own copy of the Biographia.

I knew of course that Coleridge read the celebrated Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker—that's him, at the top of this post, with a seagull on his loaf—in detail and with sympathy. It's something all Coleridgeans know. Volume 2 of the Bollingen Marginalia prints forty, count ’em, pages of close-written marginal annotations Coleridge scribbled on his edition of Hooker's complete works (these actually date from 1824-26, which is too late for my purposes here—though Coleridge was reading Hooker all his life).





Of course, some scholars have engaged with this vector of influence, usually in the service of unpacking Coleridge's religious and political thought: Nicholas Sagovsky (2014) on Coleridge's ideas of Church and State for instance, or Luke Wright's patchy but interesting Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church (Notre Dame, 2010). But nobody, so far as I know, has ever made the point I'm about to make in the remainder of this blogpost, even though it does seem to me, occuring to me late in the day though it do, both a vital gloss on Coleridge's theory of the imagination and also just, well, obvious when it's pointed out.

It comes about because, even though I knew how important Hooker was to Coleridge, I was content to let my knowledge of the eminent theologian rest at second hand. I had the sense of Hooker as a famous prose stylist who argued against the excesses of the Puritans and defended the legitimacy of the Anglican church; which is, kind-of, what he was (although he nowhere uses the phrase Anglican, it turns out). But then I read some Hooker. And then I slapped the palm of my hand to my brow, Wallace-and-Gromit style.

Because it turns out the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is about rather more than just refuting Puritain opposition to the established church. It is a comprehensive attempt to establish the idea of polity, the legal establishment of social and religious law, authority and order, from first principles. Hooker's proximate objective is indeed to make a particular case, contra Puritanism, about the polity of the Church, but his larger aim is to describe the structure of polity as such: what the law is, under what circumstances it might be changed to meet changing circumstances, and why we should all follow it. Hooker chooses the word polity deliberately: he might have written about Ecclesiastical Discipline or Ecclesiastical Government, but the former term had been too effectively colonised by the Puritans, and the latter he thought people would associate with ‘the exercise of superiority peculiar unto Rulers and Guides of others’ [LEP, 3.1.4]. Polity, he thinks, is the best expression of the collective assent to Law as such, grounded (as he sees it) in God. So the first book of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity sets out to define Law as such, and to that end Hooker insists that there are two Laws, which we can call primary and secondary. The primary is the ‘First Eternal Law’ [1.3.1]; ‘that Law which giveth life unto all the rest’ [1.1.3], ‘that order which God before all ages hath set down with Himself to Himself to do all things’ [1.2.6]. Himself to Himself, or I AM THAT I AM—this latter one of Coleridge's favourite Biblical moments, of course. Of this Primary Law, Hooker says:
The Being of God is a kind of Law to His Working: for that Perfection which God is, giveth Perfection to that He doth. [LEP, 1.2.2]
But Hooker also posits a secondary Law, ‘the Second Eternal Law’ which he defines as ‘that order with which Himself God hath set down as expedient to be kept by all His Creatures, according to the several conditions wherewith He hath endued them’ [1.3.1]. This is, if you like, the iteration of the infinite divine Law in the finite realm, and manifests in, for instance, what we would today call the laws of physics, as well as in the law that governs angels and so on. But Hooker's focus, as you'd expect, is on ‘the Law of Men, a Law of continual progress to that Perfection which is in God alone’ [5.1.2.]. The eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity explore many facets of this, from questions of duty and ethics to the ‘Law Politic’, and especially the linked categories ‘Laws made by a Body Politic which is civilly united’ and ‘Laws made by a Body Politic which is spiritually joined, and makes such a Body as we call the Church’ [1.10.11]. And the important thing for my purposes is that Hooker insists that this secondary law manifests in two distinct ways: ‘within each’ of the disciplines of human law ‘there is a distinction between Primary and Secondary Laws; the one grounded upon sincere, the other built upon depraved, Nature’ [1.10.13]

Now, in the Biographia Coleridge devotes a good deal of space not just to explicating Kant's ideas but to stressing the impact reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason had upon his younger self: Kant ‘took possession of me as with a giant's hand’ is how he phrases it. But although the Biographia does quote Hooker, there's no equivalent passage describing Hooker's giant hand on Coleridge's shoulder, perhaps because STC never got around to it, or perhaps because it seemed to him so much more obvious (nobody was reading Kant in Britain in the early 19th-century because he hadn't been translated into English; but everyone knew about Hooker, one of the greats of English prose—so maybe Coleridge figured Kant needed to be explained in a way that he assumed wasn't true of Hooker). Anyway, it came home to me with sudden force that this is what Coleridge was doing in the Biographia, or at least this is what he set out to do before his work diverticulated to such an extent that he ends-up promising he'll explain the real meat of his argument in his forthcoming Logosophia.

What is he doing? I think he's setting his own fundamentally aesthetic-psychological theory of the imagination calculatedly alongside the theories of those two other great thinkers: one, Kant's distinction between Understanding and Reason—which Coleridge interpreted in his own, particular way, identifying a human but also a divine Reason and associating the latter with the Logos—and two, Hooker's distinction between divine Law, human-primary Law and human-secondary Law. In other words: the Biographia Literaria presents a coherent theory of aesthetic creation and appreciation that posits human poetry (in the broadest, ποίησις sense of the word) as something with a pure and an impure form, the former mimicking the primary creative-imaginative ποίησις of God Himself; and Coleridge does so in order to parallel this with the Kantian distinction between Divine Reason, Human Reason and Human Understanding on the one hand, and the Hooker-ian distinction between the First Eternal Law of God, the Second Law of (sincere) Men and the lesser Law of (depraved) men on the other. That, to be plain, Coleridge sees all three of these as versions of the same thing, rooted in the same Divine origin and sanction, and expressing in the three overlapping realms, art, mind and law, the same fundamental logic. It would be a very Coleridgean thing to argue, and it makes such sense of the Coleridgean distinctions of the primary imagination/secondary imagination/fancy thing that I'm sheepishly boggled that, until this weekend, it had honestly never occurred to me.