Review of Ewan James Jones, Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
As a poet and critic taunted (which I mean to suggest both haunted and tantalised) by the ever-evasive unity in plurality, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was less a poet of vision than of visions. Nowhere was Coleridge’s difficulty in realising his manifold inclinations more clearly, burdensomely present than when it came to his “Great Work,” about which he always failed to contain himself. Writing on 20 March 1820 to Thomas Allsop, the poet stated that his Work “must be a revolution of all that has been called Philosophy or Metaphysics in England and France” (Coleridge, 530). For all the plans Coleridge’s letter goes on to expound, this “must” protests too much; the imperative seeks certainty but betrays Coleridge’s anxiety. The project would never coalesce, and the sum total inherited by his executor Joseph Green amounted to an unwieldy mass to say the least: posthumous fragments from an unrealised whole, and one of the most notoriously vexed archives facing scholars of the period. Poor Joseph; talk about albatrosses.
Of course, Coleridge had set himself impossible terms, up to which the projected Great Work could never live. A writer of any standing would struggle to single-handedly produce a master-survey of the scope Coleridge intended, let alone deliver a “revolution” to the system described to boot. Even less capable was a gadfly such as Coleridge: despite his protestations and scholarly pretentions, synthesis was against his nature and lifestyle.
So why pursue this white whale at all? Well, the Opus Maximum (for so Coleridge also called it, as if the grander name would somehow will it into a more concrete existence; one thinks of Homer Simpson changing his name to Max Power) was, despite its largely hypothetical state, the intended culmination of a considered and impassioned perspective on philosophy. As he put it to James Gillman – the guardian angel of his later years – in a letter dated 22 October 1826, “the Philosopher considers the several knowledges and attainments” of a liberal education (Coleridge lists poetry, painting, classics, science, mathematics and philology as examples) “springing from one Root, and rising into one common Trunk, from the summit of which it divides into the different Branches, and ramifies without losing its original unity into the minutest Twigs and Sprays of practical application: and so that it is but the same Principles unfolding into different Rules […]” (Coleridge, 535-6). This idea that different disciplines express an “original unity” reflected a perspective newly predominant in the academy, crystallised in Western philosophy’s oft-discussed “Copernican revolution” at the end of the eighteenth-century, where such an “original unity” was seen to lie in man’s conscious capacity. Such a perspective became fashionable through the philosophy of German idealism – from Kant to Schelling and Hegel – in which Coleridge was well-versed. Practicing (if not practising) philosophy afforded a way for Coleridge to apprehend poetry as an object of study, and to see what kinds of unity could be expressed therein. It is our good fortune that Coleridge stood just behind the cusp of the modern era in Western philosophical aesthetics, because its writings provided a ready resource he was able to draw upon and develop. The dialogues he fostered between poetic and philosophical reflection were instrumental in the modern way of looking at the poem as one expression of a thought coming not just to know itself, but to feel itself and, through thought, to think itself into being. Poetry is thus far from a passive reflection of circumstance: it generates its own circumstance by its very voicing, by bringing itself forth.
If all this sounds rather late-Heideggerian – my consolations. Read Ewan James Jones’s Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form, and you may find Heidegger sounding Coleridgesque instead. Jones’s study revives a sense of the challenge to familiarity posed by Coleridge’s poetry. Coleridge thus rises anew as the producer of a surprisingly modern body of work. So new, in fact, that he often reads like a writer out of time. The most surprising, and illuminating, readings in Jones’s study place Coleridge in the company of writers like Heidegger, Joyce, Wittgenstein and Derrida. As a result, the familiar rhythms of canonical poems such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are productively defamiliarised, and the uncanny strangeness of Coleridge’s poetic landscapes is retrieved. Jones’s Coleridge responds to interests beyond his time, placing the future behind himself. This looking to the future as past certainly complicates the tenses, the directionality, of Coleridge’s poetry and its historical moments. Jones makes us look towards Coleridge as a poet engaging with pasts anticipated, remembered and imagined.
Among the most impressive aspects to Jones’s study come when it patiently traces the ways in which Coleridge’s philosophical interests are subtly evinced by the poetry. Jones accomplishes this detailed work with the benefit of a keen eye for pertinent archival and paratextual material, able to discern the relevant without getting bogged-down by the archive. Because of this attitude, manuscripts materials and the many documentations of Coleridge’s readings are never used to find narrow explanations for poetic meaning. Jones convincingly argues instead for an idea of influence operating at the formal and figural levels, and he is well-aware that the meanings of concern are fundamentally resistant to explanation of an empirical kind. This places Jones in striking sympathy with Coleridge’s own regard for philosophy: for both, the philosophical is most interestingly present where it is indistinguishable from the poetic, and the unity Coleridge failed to bring to bear on his intended Opus, in Jones’s readings, most productively appears through interruptions and fragmentations in the form – the texture – of Coleridge’s poems.
Interruption is established as an important theme from Jones’s first chapter, which focuses on Coleridge’s conversation poems. “The Aeolian Harp,” it is argued, suggests “how philosophy itself might be subject to a rhythm of interruption or continuity, in its attempt to account for sensuous experience” (Jones, 22). Coleridge’s poems operate in a space of sensuous ambiguity – “half-seeing” rather than clearly apprehending, Jones finds Coleridge repeatedly asking us “to look at precisely the moment that the object becomes indistinct” (Jones, 32). But these moments, far from evacuating intertextual influence, present moments where specific ideas about language, perception and poetic expression are evinced. Jones’s study is thus profoundly aware not just of how elusive allusion can be, but of elusion’s allusive nature.
Of particular importance to Jones’s reading is the status of the visual in Coleridge’s poetry. Eyes, both gazing and unseeing, abound in Coleridge’s poetry, to the point that they become an almost obsessive figure. What is interesting is to see how Jones illuminates the figural by drawing from a nascent materialism within dualist approaches to vision and the body, which Coleridge is typically assumed to oppose or pass over in silence, as part of a clear, reasoned argument that takes in Malebranche while making gestures towards phenomenology.
As the study unfolds, and leads into a reading of “Christabel,” gazing and glancing establish a crucial mimetic chain, where meanings are transmitted between characters within the text and beyond to wider comprehensions of negation’s signifying potential. To Christabel’s failed sight (“She nothing sees – no sight but one!” [Coleridge, 85, line 598]), Jones finds a space generative for further meanings: “Christabel’s own unseeing glance establishes vision as a process of singularisation, paradoxical negation, and formal imitation” (Jones, 101).
Of all Coleridge’s poems, however, “Limbo” is the most clear fit for an argument focusing on the symbolic coding offered by the visual, and one of the crucial moments in Jones’s argument belongs to a sustained close reading of the poem. Jones reads the poem at different stages in its composition, and details how the text engages in wordplay that takes it from punning to tautology, while this linguistic playfulness finds its thematic concretisation via a complex network of gazes, exchanging symbolic codes far from obvious, but which seem to express something foundational about the interconnection between poetic and philosophical meanings.
Anxieties about vision, provoked by what the Biographia Litteraria calls the “despotism of the eye” (Coleridge, 213), are central to Coleridge’s influential theory of the imagination and regard for the poetic subject. I.A. Richards famously illuminated Coleridge’s concept of the imagination in relation to wider aesthetic discourses regarding representation and the connection between Subject and Object so important to Coleridge’s philosophical circumstance. The school of writing on Coleridge’s aesthetics following Richards has given great weight to the opinions expressed in Coleridge’s prose, especially the Biographia Literaria, which – as the work containing the most complete expression of his aesthetic theories – is only natural, but has inevitably left crucial aspects to Coleridge’s argumentation through poetry insufficiently considered.
Enter Jones, who deftly considers specific figural motifs and the philosophical discourses they imply. This is especially so when his attention turns the working of the eye as a symbol for the seeming of poetic representation. For example, to the “Eyeless Face all Eye” in “Limbo,” which “seems to Gaze at that which seems to gaze on Him!” (Coleridge, 132, lines 16, 20) the suggestion is that “Eyelessness […] actuates experience through what it is not” (Jones, 142). Despite the matter-of-fact tone, the implications to Jones’s reading here are subtly surprising: the simultaneous expansion and negation of the eye presents a philosophically sophisticated manoeuvre, wherein sense-experience immovably implies self-estrangement, exposing a difference at the heart of representation foregrounded through intricate strategies of repetition. The eye – as Coleridge himself put it – “is a Symbol of Vision” which he defines as “tautegorical” – that is, a tautological “self-symbol” signifying nothing outside itself, but figuring instead the very possibility of its coming into being (see the Aids to Reflection; Coleridge, 672).
Another striking moment arrives with a section detailing Coleridge’s friendship with the Hyman Hurwitz, Professor of Hebrew Studies and, Jones notes, England’s first Jewish professor. Jones convinces in laying out the influence of Hurwitz’s writing on Hebrew over Coleridge’s use of tautology in the “Rime” and beyond. The discoveries contained here are as modestly presented as any original intervention can be. Again, the reading on display reflects impeccable digging; this is an example of historical analysis deepening our experience of reading the poem.
It is indicative that the study is least interesting where it returns Coleridge to familiar territory. The passages on the Wordsworths feel superfluous to the thrust of Jones’s readings. Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal has less to say about Coleridge’s perspective on repetition and tautology than Jones seems to want it to. This is space that could have fleshed out the study’s sections on the Sublime, one of the few areas considered that comes out feeling undercooked.
Nevertheless, Coleridge’s “phantoms of Sublimity” (the phrase which ends his short “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”; Coleridge, 113, line 8) deserve thorough reappraisal in the light of this study, a reappraisal which would have to account for Coleridge’s distinctively modern preoccupations with spaces arising through negation rather than Romanticism’s more readily recognised associations with the transcendent. As the Sublime’s importance for twentieth-century aesthetics from Critical Theory to postmodernism also suggests, Jones’s approach to his subject matter has important lessons to offer scholarship on modern and contemporary literature – especially the way influence can be seen to operate through form rather than in spite of it. Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form modestly and profoundly helps to bring forth the substance of the revolution in philosophy contained by Coleridge’s poetry.
Tim Lawrence recently completed his PhD at the University of York. His doctoral thesis focuses on the relationship between philosophical influence and visual form in Samuel Beckett’s essays, poetry and fiction, while his research more generally explores how anxieties central to Western philosophy after Immanuel Kant have shaped avant-garde literary form.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Major Works. Ed. H.J. Jackson. Oxford and New York: OUP, 2008.
Jones, Ewan James. Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.