Poet or That Which Once Seemd He

In a note written on the fly-leaf of one of his own copies of The Statesman's Manual, Coleridge complained about his critical reception: his work was "a motley Patch-work, or Farrago of heterogeneous Effusions"; he was "the wild eccentric Genius that has published nothing but fragments & splendid Tirades."84 The criticisms are, I suppose, understandable: Coleridge's prose can meander alarmingly from subject to subject, and he is constantly hinting at hidden depths, to be revealed in works "in the press" that never appeared. One suspects that the Opus Maximum, which had been promising to make sense of all his work throughout his adult life, would still be unfinished however long he had lived; one feels a pang of sympathy for those disciples who lost patience with him.

His influence, however, is undeniable - so much so that it is becoming fashionable to make the comparison with Hegel. F. D. Maurice was happy to acknowledge him; John Henry Newman was not, but borrowed and learned from Coleridge nonetheless. John Stuart Mill and William Gladstone ensured that his ideas did, eventually, affect the political and economic life of the nation, and F. J. A. Hort's attempt to find a way of coping with biblical criticism within a recognizably orthodox Christianity sits very comfortably alongside his respect for Coleridge. In America, the Transcendentalists and particularly Horace Bushnell owed much to his work. Further away from the mainstream, the supernaturalism of Edward Irving's "Catholic Apostolic Church" doubtless owed something to Coleridge, as did Harriet Martineau's political philosophy. The list could go on.

Coleridge cannot, however, properly be compared to Hegel: "Hegelians" and "Hegelianism" were common in the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth; "Coleridgeanism" has never, to my knowledge, been coined (for which all who care about the beauty of language may be grateful!), and J. H. Green, the first Professor of Surgery at King's College London, may have the distinction of being the world's one and only "Coleridgean." The intellectual might of a Kierkegaard could not break the influence of Hegel; the cheap and shabby jibes of a Hazlitt were more than enough to turn a nation against Coleridge. Coleridge left many ideas, many distinctions, many hints that were valued; Hegel, by contrast, left an entire way of thinking.

Despite his protestations, then, were Coleridge's critics right to dismiss his corpus as "a motley Patch-work"? I have tried to show that they were not, that all the various strands of Coleridge's thought were driven by a Christian Platonic system that bears comparison with the thought of Origen. However, the theology that is at the center of it all was never published. The Opus Maximum would have done what was promised, had it ever appeared, but in its absence the connectedness of all Coleridge's fine ideas and sharp distinctions is at least obscure. He simply never explained, in print at least, how all the fragments fitted together - never showed us that the patchwork was in fact a mosaic, if only we looked hard enough.85

I have tried to reconstruct the picture, and to show how at least some of the fragments fit. I have indicated what I perceive to be the flaws of Coleridge's Christian Platonism on the way; history, materiality, the Gospel narrative -these things are not taken seriously enough. There is much to celebrate here, however: Coleridge sought to show that God's eternal beholding of himself in his only begotten Son should make a difference - to the way we read the Scriptures, to the burning political issues of that day and this, and, first and finally, to the possibility of writing poetry.


1 Not least because of the influence of an ongoing critical edition of his works: Kathleen Coburn, ed., The Collected Worl<s of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen Series 75, jointly published by Routledge & Kegan Paul (London) and Princeton University Press (Princeton, N.J.); all sixteen volumes have now appeared, including various part volumes. Where possible, I will reference this edition using CCW as an abbreviation.

Other primary works referenced are E. L. Griggs, ed., The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 195 7-19 71) (here CL); and Kathleen Coburn, ed., Notebooks (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957-) (here CN). The four volumes of extracts and introduction in John Beer, ed., Coleridge's Writings (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), are a helpful introduction to the confused mass of the corpus.

2 Significant studies include John H. Muirhead, Coleridge as Philosopher (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1930); James D. Boulger, Coleridge as Religious Thinker (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961); Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969); J. Robert Barth, S.J., Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987); Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1972); David Pym, The Religious Thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979); Mary Anne Perkins, Coleridge's Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994); and Douglas Hedley, Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion: Aids to Reflection and the Mirror of the Spirit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Lucy Newlin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), maintains the generally exceptionally high standard of that series. Claude Welch's chapter on Coleridge in vol. 2 of Ninian Smart et al., eds., Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1-28, is a remarkably capable summary of Coleridge's theological thought in a brief compass. Finally, Richard Holmes's two-volume biography of Coleridge is indispensable reading: Coleridge: Early Visions and Darker Reflections (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989; Harper Collins, 1998).

3 Poetical Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) (hereafter PW), 10-11 for "The Destruction" and 243-247 for "France." The lines quoted from the latter are ll.70-71.

4 See, for instance, comments in "The Science and System of Logic" of 1822 (CCW 11.II, 1019-1027; see especially 1019).

5 It is now generally agreed that Coleridge's assertions that he formulated his ideas from English sources independently of Kant are to be accepted. This vision of the work of the reason may certainly be found in the Cambridge Platonists; see Claud Howard, Coleridge's Idealism: A Study of Its Relationship to Kant and to the Cambridge Platonists (Boston: Gorham. 1924); and more recently Hedley, Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion. His articulation of these ideas, however, is clearly and decisively influenced by his readings of the German transcendental tradition, and so this linkage is not unfair.

6 From the letter of 24/11/1819 to Joseph Hughes, CL VI 1048-1050; it is also reproduced in CCW4.II, 503-504.

7 CCW 9, 232. See this whole section of the Aids to Reflection on the distinction between reason and understanding; and see also Essay V of "The Landing Place" in The Friend (CCW 4.I, 154-161) and Appendix C of The Statesman's Manual (CCW 6, 59-93).

11 So, for instance, the examples in the essay in The Friend.

See Perkins, Coleridge's Philosophy; and John Beer's "Editor's Excursus Note 4," in CCW 9, 553-554.

See Perkins, Coleridge's Philosophy, 72, 79, 145, for examples.

In a lecture of 1819, Coleridge explicitly linked "the intelligential powers" called the nous by "the Pythagoreans and Anaxagoras" with "the Logos of Philo and St John" - and indeed, the "unwritten dogmata of Plato" hinted at in a fragment of Speusippus preserved by Stobaeus. See Kathleen Coburn, ed., The Philosophical Lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London: Pilot Press, 1949), 175. See, for example, the comments on Philo in Appendix D of The Statesman's Manual (CCW 6, 95).

So, for instance, when discussing the "Divine ideas" toward the end of his life, he will say that any attempt to "particularize on such a subject involves its own confutation: for it is the application of the understanding ... to truths of which the reason exclusively is both the substance beheld & the eye beholding" (Opus Maximum manuscript chapters, "On the Divine Ideas").

See, famously, Coleridge's own humorous account of the period in the Biographia (CCW 7.I, 193-194).

Letter of April 1818; see Letters IV849-852.

In considering this theme, I am following Anthony Harding's discussion of Coleridge's early poetry in Coleridge and the Inspired Word (Kingston: McGill-Oueens, 1985), 40-45, fairly closely, although I diverge from his conclusions to some extent. My disagreements are indicated in footnotes.

PW 131-148, ll.18-23. Harding's comment on this passage is not quite right: it is not so much that "Nature herself can teach us to raise our eyes to 'bright Reality' " (41) as that Nature, rightly interpreted, is a communication from Reality. CCW 6, 29. See also the note there, where the works of the imagination are described as poieseis, a Greek word carrying the dual sense of "a forming or making" and "a poem."

The definition of imagination in chapter 13 of the Biographia Literaria (CCW 7.I, 304) asserts much the same thing. It is interesting to trace how the "ten theses" of the previous chapter, too often written of as no more than plagiarism from Schelling, are in fact a fairly careful re-working (particularly through the footnotes) of the stolen material to provide an introduction to this definition. Even when most guilty of plagiarism, Coleridge was still genuinely original!

To complete Coleridge's epistemological analysis, we must add "fancy" to reason, imagination, understanding, and sense. The fancy associates phenomenal perceptions - sense-data - in patterned ways; not analyzing, as even the understanding does, but merely observing associations. See CCW 7.I, 305. Harding, Coleridge, 43. PW 240-242, ll.54-62.

I again owe this penetrating analysis of the issue to Harding, Coleridge, 30-31. So Harding Coleridge, 43, presumably referring to ll, 113-126. Once again, in this paragraph and the previous one I am doing little more than summarizing Harding's discussion of the daemonic poems, which has colored my readings of Coleridge's poetry to a very great extent; here, see ibid., 44-57. I am not sure, however, that "post-mythological" is the right description of this state: Coleridge has lost his confidence in his ability to prophesy; I am not aware of any evidence that he has lost his belief that prophecy is a possible activity. The standard comparison with Blake may perhaps make the point: Blake's response to his loss of innocence is to create a fictitious mythology that claims to speak truth through inventions; Coleridge's response will finally be to embrace traditional religion.

33 A glance at a list of Coleridge's poetry in date order will confirm this point. The daemonic poems were written 1797-1798; in 1799 Coleridge wrote numerous pieces exemplifying different meters, and translated some European poetry, but there are only a handful of original compositions. There are a few more in 1800, no more than eighty lines in 1801, Dejection and a few other pieces in 1802, and then only one poem each in 1803 and 1804.

34 See The One, The Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity: The 1992 Bampton Lectures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

35 CCW 4.I, 461; italics in original.

36 See particularly the Opus Maximum manuscript on this, where, for example, Coleridge will assert, "The Will, the absolute Will, is that which is essentially causative of reality, essentially, and absolutely.. This is our first principle" (CCW 15, 220). Hardy has suggested that this is a later position, and that earlier Coleridge took "the identity of being and act" as fundamental, rather than will (see Daniel W. Hardy, "Coleridge on the Trinity," Anglican Theological Review 69, no. 2 [1987]: 145-155). This appears difficult: the stress on will is found as early as in The Friend of 1818 - as Hardy recognizes (see p. 152 of his article, referencing CCW 4.I, 523) -and is even hinted at in the Confessio Fidei of 1810 (CN III.4005). Conversely, the position Hardy claims as earlier is present in the Logic (CCW, 13 17, 82, 93), which dates from 1823 or after. The best explanation might be to follow a hint in the seventh thesis of chapter 12 of the Biographia Literaria (CCW 7.I, 2 76-280). There, Coleridge seems to identify being-and-act with will in the human person. It is not inconceivable that the two formulae were identical with reference to God as well, both pointing to God's fundamental aseity and activity

37 For Coleridge's own exposition of this, see a significant piece of "Marginalia" to Schelling reproduced in Perkins, Coleridge's Philosophy, 164.

38 This is an extension of the dialectical scheme used by Hegel, which Coleridge claims to have learned from the Pythagoreans. In addition to the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of the dialectic, Coleridge adds the prothesis (primordial unity prior to thesis and antithesis) and, from time to time, the mesothesis (a middle term between the thesis and antithesis); Coleridge calls the full scheme, including the mesothesis, his "noetic pentad." Examples of its use can be found in CCW 9, 180-182; and CCW 11.II, 1347.

39 See, for example, Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 93-94; and Hardy's analysis of this problem in Barth: Hardy, "Coleridge on the Trinity" 153.

40 The Will "abideth in the Father, the Word and the Spirit, totally and absolutely in each, one and the same in all," and is actualized in "the divine Nature and attributes" - God's triune life (CCW 15, 222).

41 On this, see G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952), 242-264, especially 263-264, where a passage of Ps.-Cyril which John of Damascus incorporated into The Orthodox Faith is referred to: "There is ... one ousia, one goodness, one power, one will, one energy, one authority; one and identical; not three similar to each other, but a single identical motion of the three hypostaseis." Prestige argues that this is a summary of the position held by the Greek Fathers from Origen, citing Athanasius and the Cappadocians in particular. See, for example, the Confessio Fidei (CN III, 4005) or the Aids to Reflection (CCW 9, 177).

See again the discussion of Greek ideas of the Logos in Coburn, The Philosophical Lectures, where Coleridge uses a fragment of Speusippus to suggest that the Logos is "indivisibly united with, but yet not the same[,] as the absolute principle of causation, the Paternal One . nor yet, though indivisibly One with, is it the same as the energy of Love, the sanctifying Spirit" (175). See also CCW 15, 252,l where Coleridge hints at the same point, relying on the same words of Speusippus. On this point, see Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

The most sustained expositions of these philosophical arguments are from the various fragments of the unpublished Opus Maximum (CCW 15); as the editor, Thomas McFarland, points out, the intent of the genre of the magnum opus was precisely to deploy philosophy in rational defense of the Christian faith (clix-clxiv). Church Dogmatics II.2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. Bromiley et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957). Again, see Jenson, Systematic Theology Vol. 1.

It is true that Coleridge's plans for the Logosophia or Opus Maximum often included a commentary on St. John's Gospel as a final item (see CCW 15, xcv-xcvii, cv-cxi, for some evidence of this assertion), but it remains the case that amongst all the writings he left there is no sustained treatment of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the particularity that it demands. Coleridge affirmed often enough that he believed these things, but they seem anomalous when put alongside his more systematic writings. This work was not completed in Coleridge's lifetime; the fragments are collated and edited in CCW 15. There are two substantial chapters under the title "On The Divine Ideas" (available at the Huntingdon Library, San Marino, CA; MS HM8195; also Fragment 3 (214-290) in CCW 15) which form as complete an account of Coleridge's doctrine of God as is to be found anywhere in his corpus. In outlining the argument contained therein, I will indicate via footnotes other places where Coleridge makes many of the same points, albeit in a much more fragmentary way. CCW 15, 218.

CCW 15, 223; see also 231-233. Coleridge uses this phrase in this context in more than one place. See, for example, CN IV, 5294.

CCW, 233, relying on the Biblical testimony "You are gods" (Psalms 82:6).

See CCW 15, 223-225.

See, for example, the extended discussion in Aids to Reflection (CCW 9, 265-291). See particularly the first part of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. CCW, 238.

See CCW 15, 239-240. This argument, that evil must have had a beginning, is also made in Aids to Reflection. See CCW 9, 256.

61 Coleridge appears to include this sort of account of a "heavenly fall" in his summary of Reformed Christianity in the "Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit" (1824; CCW 11.II, 1111-1171), where he includes as the second point "The Eternal Possibilities; the Actuality of which hath not its origin in God. - Apostasis Chaos Spirituale."

62 CCW 15, 248-268. Coleridge was aware of this divergence from Plotinus, and attached importance to it, at least as early as 1816. See "The Trinity" in CCW 11.I, 413-416, and especially on 415: "the diversity (of endless importance) between the Trinity of Plotinus and the Athanasian Tri-unity."

63 Again, this is a semi-regular theme throughout Coleridge's mature writings. Even in the Biographia Literaria (largely written in 1815, although not published until 1817), Coleridge will refer to Plato as the pattern of Trinitarianism. See CCW 7.I, 180.

64 For a similar argument concerning true individuality, see Aids to Reflection

65 CCW 6, 55 (emphases in original).

69 Confessions (CCW 11.II, 1155-1156).

70 CCW 9, 205 (emphases in original).

72 CCW 9, 310 in Coleridge's note there.

74 CCW 10 (my emphasis). I have written more fully on this text in my Listening to the Past (Carlisle, Pa.: Paternoster, 2003), 137-152.

76 Coleridge never refers to the pentad in Church and State, but his constructions invite its application at almost every turn.

77 See CCW 10, 77, for an indication in this direction; also comments from his Table Talk (CCW 14, 219 [dated 1831], 570 [1832], and 380 [1833]). Also see a letter of June 1831 to William Sotheby (letter 1711 in CL VI, 861-867), where Coleridge speaks of the king as "ordained by God - i.e., as no Reflection, or Derivative from the (pretended) Sovereignty of the People, but as the lawful Representative, the consecrated Symbol of the Unity and Majesty of the Nation" (863).

79 CCW 10, 14-16 for the discussion, and 16 for the quotation.

82 CCW 11.II, 1111-1171.

85 Jackson's collections of estimations of Coleridge demonstrate this interestingly; particularly immediately after his death, there is near-unanimity that Coleridge was a great thinker, but total divergence over whether he left a system, or a series of brilliant but contradictory fragments. See J. R. De J. Jackson, Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970; Routledge, 1991).


Barth, J. Robert. Coleridge and Christian Doctrine. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987.

Hedley, Douglas. Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion: Aids to Reflection and the Mirror of the

Spirit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989. Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections. London: HarperCollins, 1998. Newlin, Lucy (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2002. Perkins, Mary Anne. Coleridge's Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Pym, David. The Religious Thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

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