*Coleridge, Samuel Taylor


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

British, 1772–1834
Of the 16 volumes comprising Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s collected works, 15 consist of prose discourse. If we add to this corpus eight volumes of letters, four volumes of notes (published thus far), not to mention a considerable amount of manuscript material in collections at the British Museum and at the University of Toronto, we find that Coleridge was a prolific, interdisciplinary prose writer. This brings us to the difficult question: aside from better-known pieces (e.g. “On the Prometheus of Aeschylus,” 1825;
“On the Principles of Genial Criticism,” 1814), what parts of this enormous bulk of material qualify as discrete essays?
The OED defines an essay as “A composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject originally implying want of finish…but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” We need only consult Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) to see that, by the middle of the 18th century, the essay was an endeavor considered lacking in “finish.” The authorities Johnson cites agree that the essay is little more than an early draft: “(Smith). A Loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece. (Bacon). A trial; an experiment.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(Glanville). First taste of anything.” By the turn of the century, however, the essay had become a more serious, formal, and purposeful effort. As Vicesimus Knox wrote in 1819: “Essays…may now convey the idea of regular treatises.” It is important to recognize that the Coleridgean essay is closer to the 20th than to the 18th century, for, in most instances, it exhibits self-conscious craft and persuasive intent.
If an essay is any prose work of limited range having a clearly articulated purpose, as well as formal style and rhetoric, then many more of Coleridge’s writings qualify for inclusion in the genre. Reasoning along these lines, it is possible, therefore, to identify six sets of Coleridgean prose as kinds of “essays”: the topical (periodic, nonperiodic, lectural, homiletic); the aphoristic; the review; the notational (annotative, marginal); the epistolary (confessional, correspondent); and the conversational.
The topical essay, with its four subsets, is the largest category of the Coleridgean essay. Coleridge composed periodical essays intermittently for over 20 years. He contributed an essay to almost every issue of the Watchman (1 March–13 May 1796), most notably “On the Slave Trade,” a reworking of a 1795 Bristol lecture. He was a primary contributor to the Morning Post (1799–1802), submitting over 90 pieces, ranging from paraphrases of parliamentary proceedings to original historical and political analyses. He submitted 140 articles to the Courier (24 February 1804–31 March 1818).
Add to these totals nearly 100 conjectural and collaborative pieces, and we have what for many would be the work of a lifetime. Demonstrating an extraordinary understanding of contemporary issues, especially of the French Wars, Coleridge’s journalism is qualitatively impressive as well. Noteworthy are essays on Pitt, Napoleon, ancient Rome, contemporary France, and Wellington’s Peninsular campaign. A third journalistic venue, consisting of 26 numbers (1 June 1809–15 March 1810), is the Friend. In this privately financed journal, Coleridge outlined his political philosophy, expanding upon ideas broached in the public journalism.
Each of Coleridge’s nonperiodic essays has its own history. Some of his best pieces, such as “Essay on Scrofula,” were undelivered and recently published from manuscript.
His eclectic and interdisciplinary essays—e.g. “On Free Will” (1800), “On
Miracles” (1807), or “On Language and Thought” (1815)—are among the most widely known. The revised “Treatise on Method,” appearing in the 1818 Friend, would introduce the Encyclopedia Metropolitana (1818–45). One of his most intricate, theoretical works on natural philosophy, “Theory of Life,” was published posthumously in 1848.
Coleridge’s lectural essays have great interdisciplinary appeal. His earliest, delivered at Bristol in 1795, were both political and theological in emphasis; “A Moral and Political Lecture,” six “Lectures on Revealed Religion,” and “Lecture on the Two Bills” are the most famous. The sequence of lectures on literature and on philosophy (1808–19) demonstrates Coleridge’s erudition as an historian of ideas. He lectured on many subjects, including poetry, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Dante, Spenser, Ariosto, European drama, and belles-lettres, as well as delivering philosophical lectures. The coverage in these lectures is encyclopedic: in literature, from Achilles to Ywain; in philosophy, from Abelard to Zoroaster.
As “a discourse, usually delivered from a pulpit and based upon a text of Scripture, for the purpose of giving religious instruction or exhortation” (OED), the sermon, like the essay, is a text that is limited in scope, persuasive in intent, and elaborate in style.
Probably the earliest examples of Coleridge’s homiletic essay are “A Sermon Written When the Author Was But 17 Years Old” (1789–90) and the “College Commemorative Sermon” (1799). Better known are the three lay sermons Coleridge planned to publish in a single volume; however, he only wrote two of the three, under the titles The Statesman’s Manual; or, The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight (1816) and A Lay Sermon (1817).
Since an aphorism is an incisive statement conveying a general truth, the notion of an “aphoristic essay” sounds oxymoronic. Occasionally Coleridge begins a piece aphoristically—that is, with a terse, general truth—and then expands upon this idea. He uses this modality in the Omniana (1812), a collection of collaborative essays with Robert Southey; for example, item no. 297 begins aphoristically (“It is the mark of a noble nature to be more shocked with the unjust condemnation of a bad man than of a virtuous one…”) and is developed into a cohesive essay. Aids to Reflection (1825), on the writings of Archbishop Robert Leighton (1611–84), contains “aphorisms” (those of Leighton), upon which Coleridge meditates. In one frequently anthologized example, Aphorism 8, Coleridge ruminates on Leighton’s statement: “Faith elevates the soul not only above Sense and sensible things, but above Reason itself…” Contained in Coleridge’s response is the important section “On the Differences in Kind of the Reason
and the Understanding.”
The review constitutes a third category of the Coleridgean essay. The reviews in the Watchman—e.g. of Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ “Essay on the Public Merit of Mr. Pitt” and “A Letter to…Pitt, on…Scarcity”; of Edmund Burke’s “A Letter …to a Noble Lord”; and of Count Rumford’s “Essays”—vary in critical depth, the Rumford review, for example, consisting mainly of historical paraphrase and of direct quotation. On the other hand, there is the Edinburgh Review essay on Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. An encomium to his friend, this review provides a synopsis, a sketch of the abolition movement, references to parliamentary proceedings, and Coleridge’s original ideas on the issue.
Embedded in over 6000 notes (published and unpublished), in thousands of marginalia, and in innumerable extended footnotes to his own texts, is a surprising resource: clearly discernible essays, some embryonic, some fragmentary, some mature. Amidst the published notes, for instance, is a coherent exposition on the atrocities of the French Revolution (1810; no. 3845); amidst the unpublished manuscripts, an essay on “the true system of philosophy”; and amidst the marginalia, his reaction to Joseph Hughes’ theories on soul and body.
The epistolary essay takes “confessional” and correspondent forms. Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1840) comprises six letters, each one beginning with the formulaic salutation, “My dear Friend.” Frequently, in the over 2000 letters, Coleridge wrote small essays, the corpus of which cannot be adequately described in this context. His letters, touching on innumerable topics, exhibit the workings of an inquisitive and encyclopedic intelligence; particularly erudite examples, worth independent study, are letters to Lord Liverpool and to Hyman Hurwitz, a scholar of Jewish studies.
Coleridge was known to be a great talker who could expostulate intelligently on many subjects. Many of the recorded conversations in the Table Talk (posthumously pub. 1835) are cohesive essays. Those on parliamentary reform and on the threat of civil discord (20 March 1831–9 April 1833) are, in part and parcel, a perfect example of Coleridge’s oral discourse. Consisting of small and medium-sized essays, the series presents the intricacies of this national crisis vividly and comprehensively.
Coleridge’s use of discrete essays to build larger works (e.g. for the 1818 Friend) sheds some light on the genre and unity of such works as Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (1817), the Logic (wr. c. 1823), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). In the Biographia, for example, he states that, under autobiography, he has unified “miscellaneous reflections” on literary criticism, philosophy, and politics, and the narrative provides “continuity to the work.” Scholars have devoted much attention to the unity, structure, and compositional process involved in the Biographia (Max F.Schulz, 1985). Specifically, with regard to the essay genre, the organization of these sketches or essays provides the Biographia with relative coherence. Two interwoven strands of essays unify the work to a degree: the first, concerned with Coleridge’s literary life and opinions (chapters 1–4, 10–11, 14–23); and the second, with his philosophical, psychological, and theological speculations (chapters 5–9, 12–13, 24). Unifying these two themes is an emphasis on “the Scheme of Christianity” and on the idea that the pursuit of knowledge should be directed toward communion with God. The Biographia is also important for how it adumbrates— stylistically, organizationally, and methodologically—the 1818–19 commentaries on
literature and philosophy, as well as the 1818 revision of the Friend, the culmination of his work in the genre.

CHARLES DE PAOLO
Biography
Born 21 October 1772 in Ottery St. Mary, Devon. Studied at Christ’s Hospital, London, 1782–90; Jesus College, Cambridge, 1791–94; University of Göttingen, 1798. Married Sara Fricker, 1794 (separated, 1807): three sons (one died in infancy) and one daughter.
Lived in Bristol, 1794–96, Clevedon, Somerset, 1796, and Nether Stowey, Somerset, near William and Dorothy Wordsworth at Alfoxden, 1797. Editor, the Watchman, 1796, the Friend, 1809–10, and assistant editor, the Courier, 1810–11; contributor to various other journals and newspapers. Given an annuity by the Wedgwood family, 1798; moved to Greta Hall, Keswick, near Robert Southey and the Wordsworths, 1800. Became addicted to opium, by 1800, and lived in Malta in an effort to restore his health, 1804–06, where he was secretary to the governor, Sir Alexander Bell, 1804–05. Lectured extensively in London, 1808–19. Lived in London, Calne, Wiltshire, and Bath, 1811–15, and in Highgate, London, under the care of Dr. James Gillman, 1816–34. Associate, Royal Society of Literature (with pension), 1824. Died in Highgate, London, 25 July 1834.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Watchman (periodical), nos. 1–10, 1 March–13 May 1796
The Friend (periodical), nos. 1–27 (and one supernumerary), 1 June 1809–15 March 1810; in 1 vol., as The Friend: A Series of Essays, 1812; revised edition, 3 vols., 1818
Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, with Robert Southey, 2 vols., 1812; edited by Robert Gittings, 1969
The Statesman’s Manual; or, The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight (sermon), 1816
A Lay Sermon, 1817
Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, 1817;
edited by George Watson, 1956
Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion (aphorisms), 1825
On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each, 1830
Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Henry Helson Coleridge, 2 vols., 1835, and Carl Woodring, 2 vols., 1990
Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, 1840; edited by H. St. J.Hart, 1956
Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists; with Other Literary Remains, edited by Sara Coleridge, 2 vols., 1849
Essays on His Own Times (2nd series of The Friend), edited by Sara Coleridge, 3 vols., 1850; edited by David V.Erdman, with additional material, in Collected Works, 3 vols., 1978
The Philosophical Lectures, edited by Kathleen Coburn, 1949
The Notebooks, edited by Kathleen Coburn, 4 vols., 1957–90
Writings on Shakespeare, edited by Terence Hawkes, 1959; as Coleridge on Shakespeare, 1969
Shakespearean Criticism, edited by T.M.Raysor, 1960
Coleridge on Shakespeare, edited by R.A.Foakes, 1971; as Coleridge’s Criticism of Shakespeare, 1989
Lectures 1808–1819 on Literature, edited by R.A.Foakes, 2 vols., 1987
Other writings: the poems “Kubla Khan” (wr. 1797, pub. 1816), “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), and “Christabel” (1816), as well as many others, four plays, and several volumes of correspondence (collected in The Collected Letters, edited by Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols., 1956–71).
Collected works editions: Complete Works, edited by William Greenough Thayer Shedd, 7 vols., 1853; Collected Works, edited by Kathleen Coburn, 16 vols., 1969– (in progress); Coleridge’s Writings, general editor John Beer, 1991– (in progress).
Bibliographies
Crawford, Walter B., Edward S.Lauterbach, and Ann M.Crawford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Scholarship 2:1900–1939 (with Additional Entries for 1795–1899), Boston: Hall, 1983
Haven, Josephine, Richard Haven, and Maurianne Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Scholarship 1:1793–1899, Boston: Hall, 1976
Wise, Thomas J., A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, London: Bibliographical Society, 2 vols., 1913–19
Further Reading
Chambers, E.K., Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Biographical Study, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938
Coleman, Dierdre, Coleridge and The Friend (1809–1810)., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988
Fogle, Richard H., The Idea of Coleridge’s Criticism, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978 (original edition, 1962)
Goodson, A.C., Verbal Imagination: Coleridge and the Language of Modern Criticism, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988
Holmes, Richard, Coleridge, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982
Holmes, Richard, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Early Visions, London: Hodder and Stoughton, and New York: Viking, 1989
Jackson, James Robert de Jager, Method and Imagination in Coleridge’s Criticism, London: Routledge, 1969
Jenkins, Patricia Mavis, Coleridge’s Literary Theory: The Chronology of Its Development, 1790–1818, Fairfield, Connecticut: Fairfield University Department of English, 1984
Leask, Nigel, The Politics of Imagination in Coleridge’s Critical Thought, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988
Schulz, Max F., “Coleridge: Prose Writings,” in The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Frank Jordan and others, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1985:410–63
Wellek, René, “Coleridge’s Philosophy and Criticism,” in The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research, edited by T.M. Raysor, New York: Modern Language Association of America, revised edition, 1956:110–37

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