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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VI. Coleridge

§ 12. Coleridge’s Theory of Criticism

In treating of Coleridge as literary critic, there is no alternative but to speak either very briefly or at considerable length. The latter is here impossible. All that can be done, therefore, is to indicate the main avenues which his criticism opened out.

The only written monument of his critical work is that contained in Biographia Literaria (1815–17), and in a short series of articles contributed to Farley’s Bristol Journal a year or two earlier (1814). All else has to be gleaned from the very imperfect reports of his lectures, recorded by Collier, Crabb Robinson and others. These lectures, of which there were, in all, some dozen courses, were delivered, partly in London partly at Bristol, between the years 1808 and 1819. Their avowed subjects, apart from a course on the history of philosophy (1818–19), were, mainly, the drama in general, or Shakespeare and Milton. But Coleridge was never the man to be bound down by a syllabus; and his audience had, on occasion, to bear, as best they could, a defence of school-flogging, an attack on “the Lancastrian system of education” and other such irrelevancies, when they had come to hear a discourse on Romeo and Juliet. Yet, in spite of these glaring faults, the lectures were not seldom worthy both of their subject and of their author. And, with the written pieces, they form a body of work such as makes an epoch in the history of English—it would hardly be too much to say, of European—criticism.

Coleridge concerns himself not only with the practice of criticism, but, also—perhaps, by preference—with its theory. On both sides, he offers the sharpest contrast with the critics of the century, and, not least, of the generation, preceding. The Wartons and Hurd, no doubt, stand apart from the men of their day. In sentiment, they rebel against the canons of the Augustans; and, so far, they are at one with Coleridge. But they were content to defend their instinctive judgments on purely literary grounds, and made no attempt to justify them on more general principles. Indeed, they seem never to have suspected that their revolt against the established taste in poetry carried with it a revolt against the established system in philosophy. Coleridge, on the other hand, was philosopher just as much as poet. He lived in the full tide of a philosophical, no less than a poetic, revival. He was himself among the leading figures in both. He had, therefore, on both sides, a far richer store of material to draw from than had been open to the earlier rebels. And it was the first instinct of his nature to weave, or force, every side of his experience into a consistent whole.

At the first step, he rules out the assumption, which, from Horace onwards, had wrought such havoc in criticism, that the object of poetry is to instruct; or, as a less extreme form of the heresy had asserted, to make men morally better. That this may be an effect of poetry—of much that is noblest in poetry—he is not in the least concerned to deny. That however, is no more than an incidental result. And the true end, or function, of poetry is to give immediate pleasure: pleasure, he explains in a somewhat disconcerting addition, “through the medium of beauty.”

This may not carry us very far. But, at least, it serves to warn us off from the wrong road, and to set our feet at the beginning of the right one. More than this: by further additions and modifications, Coleridge so expands his original doctrine as to bring us considerably further on the path. In the first place, the assertion that the pleasure which imaginative art aims at giving is wrought “through the medium of beauty,” however much it may check the logical flow of the argument, at least serves to enforce the truth, already laid down by Aristotle, that imaginative pleasure differs in kind from all other forms of pleasure: nay, that one form of imaginative pleasure differs in kind from all other forms of imaginative pleasure: that given by poetry, for instance, from that given by sculpture or painting; that given by the drama from that given by lyric or by epic. In the second place, his own analysis of that which constitutes “beauty” is so illuminating, his own exposition of the conditions necessary to poetic pleasure is so subtle, as to bring us a great deal further on the road than, at the first moment, we may have been aware. The former throws a flood of light upon the points in which the various arts differ from each other, as well as upon those they have in common. The latter—enforced, as it is, by a criticism of Shakespeare’s early poetic work, and reinforced by an equally delicate criticism of the charm attaching to the consummate presentment of “common form” in poetry, particularly by the Italian poets of the later renascence—is one of the most satisfying things ever written in this kind. In applying the principles which he had already laid down in theory, the author succeeds both in defining them more closely and in extending them more widely; in the very statement of his theory, he contrives to offer a model of the method which critics should aim at following in practice.

Of the rest of his work in practical criticism, no account can be offered. It must suffice to mention his criticism of Wordsworth in Biographia, and that of Shakespeare, as dramatist, in various courses of his lectures. The former, in itself, is a fine and discriminating piece of work. But it is more than doubtful whether Coleridge was the man to have undertaken it. He was aware that the slightly astringent touch, which he felt justice demanded, would give offence to his brother poet. And, considering the relation between the two men—a relation once of the warmest friendship, now of strained forbearance—it would have been more gracious to keep silence. Indeed, so far as the criticism deals with Wordsworth’s theory of “poetic diction,” it cannot but strike the reader as carping; not to mention the appearance of treachery involved in attacking a theory for which he himself was commonly held, and, probably, with some justice, to be, in part, responsible. As critic of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, his part is less ambiguous, though even this is complicated by questions of unacknowledged debts to Schlegel. He was the first English writer to insist that every work of art—in this instance, every play—is, by its very nature, an organic whole; and that, if this is harder to discern in the complicated structure of Shakespearean and much other modern drama, it is because, at least in the nobler examples, such plays are not less, but more, vitally articulated; not less, but more, spontaneous and organic. Structure, scenic effect, poetry, character—all are shown to spring from the same common root in the spirit of the poet; each to enhance the imaginative effect which, instinctively, he had in view. And he enforces this, not as a mere abstract doctrine—though it lies at the core of his theory of beauty—but by an exposition of individual masterpieces which, for subtlety and suggestiveness, had certainly, if we except Goethe’s masterly criticism of Hamlet, never been approached. It remains true that, having done so much, he might justly have been expected to do even more; and that nothing but his own nervelessness, at once the cause and effect of the opium habit, could have prevented him from doing it.

If, in literary criticism, there has sometimes been a disposition to exaggerate the value of the work actually accomplished by Coleridge, in philosophy, the tendency has almost always been to give him less than his due; certainly, as to what he achieved in the way of writing; too often, even as to his intrinsic capacity. Yet, his importance in the history of English philosophy is not to be denied. It is neither more nor less than to have stood against the current which, for the last century, had swept everything before it; to have assailed the mechanical philosophy which, from the time of Locke, had firmly entrenched itself in this country and in France; and, however much he may have been overborne by the prejudices of the moment, at least to have paved the way for their ultimate exposure and defeat. Even at the moment, in the high tide of Bentham’s influence, his labours were by no means in vain. As writer—still more, in his talk and in his personal influence—he served for a rallying point to all who felt, if they could not explain to themselves, the inadequacy of the prevailing system: the one man who was capable of laying bare its fallacies, the one man who was able to give a reasoned account of the larger faith after which they were blindly groping. The evidence of this is to be found in the lives of such men as Arnold and Maurice; or, more compactly, in the generous essay of Mill and the brilliant, but not too generous, chapter devoted to the subject in Carlyle’s Life of Sterling.