Jennifer Ford, Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 26. Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii + 256pp. illus. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-58316-0).
College of the Holycross
I believe it was Walter Jackson Bate who commented that one could quote Coleridge to support either side of almost any argument, and, one might add, believe wholeheartedly in its one-sidedness. Because of the subject of this review, let us consider Bate's part in creating the prevailing understanding of the Coleridgean imagination. His influential explication of Coleridge on imagination began with Criticism: The Major Texts (Harcourt, Brace,1952), continued in his lucid and once-standard biography, Coleridge (Macmillan,1968), and rests now at the permanent center of Coleridge studies in the editorial introduction to the Bollingen Bate-Engell edition of Biographia Literaria (Princeton University Press, 1983; pp. lxxxi–civ). This finely-honed and learned exposition of Coleridge's Primary and Secondary Imaginations, which was prepared by James Engell, is illustrated by a conceptual diagram that would please anyone with a rage for order. "God, The 'Great I AM'" sits at the top, "Philosophy scientia scientiarum," at its base, and the term Imagination is positioned right above a midline of demarcation identified as natura naturata and is connected to the meaningfully ordered concepts of Reason, Understanding, Perception, Senses, Art (Subjective & Objective), Organic Form, and Symbols by arrows shooting every which way (cf. p. lxxx). Jennifer Ford, however, suggests a surreal, more fleshly, image to represent another side of Coleridge on imagination in Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination. It is Henry Fuseli's painting of The Nightmare, with its Goblin sitting on the sleeping, restless virgin, and the head of an excited stallion leering out of the gloom at the foot of her bed. As opposed to the received Germanic-philosophical-aesthetic lineage of the Creative Imagination, the "Medical Imagination" has its grounding in contemporary medical debates whose arguments are to be found in tomes such as John Brown's Elementa Medicinæ (1780), Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia (1794–96), John Haygarth's Of the Imagination as a Cause and Cure of Disorders in the Body (1800), and William Falconer's A Dissertation on the Influence of the Passions on Disorders of the Body (3rd ed, 1796). Coleridge's relationship to the contemporary debate, coupled with his private reflections on the mysterious functioning of (his) imagination as a translator of bodily ailments and sensations into the "dramatic dreaming spaces" of his consciousness, is not to be found primarily in the public pronouncements of his lectures, essays, or the Biographia, but rather in letters, marginalia, and especially the Notebooks, more than twenty of which still remain unpublished. Ford shows that "[i]n adopting a fundamentally physiological doctrine of the source and production of dreams, Coleridge was also able to explore the physiological, medical nature of the imagination" (3). In other words, Ford knowingly counters the quite convincing "spiritual, poetic, idealist" understanding of the Coleridgean imagination with a quite convincing description of the Coleridgean imagination as "a physical and medical faculty, . . . distinctly linked to the material, to the corporeal" (185).