Monday, 10 December 2018

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


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.


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.


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 prosopopÅ“ia 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.