Ewan Jones - Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form. Review by Nicholas Halmi

Monday, April 11, 2016 - 20:10

Ewan Jones, Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 254 pp. (Hbk. £60; ISBN 9781107068445).

Nicholas Halmi

University of Oxford

Critics of Coleridge have long been divided into two basic camps: one that treats him primarily as a poet and literary critic and the other, rather smaller, that treats him primarily as a philosophical and theological thinker. The former typically regards Coleridge’s philosophical writings, which occupied him for most of his last seventeen years, as at best an irrelevance or at worst an unfortunate distraction from his true calling as a poet. The latter, while not denying Coleridge’s poetic achievement, has always had a more challenging task because it has to contend not only with the traditional suspicion, in the anglophone world, of anything smacking of “German metaphysics,” but equally with the self-undermining tendencies manifested in Coleridge’s plagiarisms and unsystematic treatment of philosophical issues. Can Coleridge be claimed as a philosophical writer without special pleading?

            This question can be answered affirmatively if one is prepared to reconsider the association of philosophical thought with systematic argument. Thus Tilottama Rajan (not mentioned by Ewan Jones) interprets the immethodical inclusiveness of Coleridge’s notebooks as characteristic of a distinctly Romantic encyclopedism—a category under which she includes Hegel’s Encyclopedia—which effectively deconstructs the idealist goal of a totalization of knowledge. Jones, however, takes a different approach, suspending the question of Coleridge’s systematicity altogether by transferring the realm of philosophy from discursive prose to poetry. Adopting a basic tenet of the poetry-favouring camp of critics, that Coleridge’s attempt to write “systematic philosophy” was misguided, Jones uses it to vindicate the claim that Coleridge was an original and significant philosophical thinker—albeit “precisely through not [writing] philosophy as we traditionally conceive it, as discursive tract or propositional statement” (4).

            An obvious objection to the book’s thesis that “Coleridge’s verse thought philosophically through its expressive repertoire [i.e., verse techniques], through the sum of its historical conventions [i.e., generic innovations], and through the nature of its sensuous embodiment” (4) is, as the author acknowledges, that Coleridge himself would not have accepted it. Jones answers this objection by proposing, in effect, to rescue Coleridge from himself: “Very often verse’s significant yield emerged in the face of Coleridge’s stated philosophical convictions” (9). The point of departure for this effort is Coleridge’s quotation, in his philosophical lecture of 22 March 1819, from “The Eolian Harp” to illustrate an idealist conception of nature—the self-interrupting resort to a youthful poem implying the insufficiency of the resources of the German idealist philosophies with which the mature lecturer was thoroughly familiar.

            Interruption within the so-called conversation poems is interpreted in Chapter 1 as an opening to the external world, a “feeling materiality” that implies a self-critique of the poet’s professed idealism. Following Rei Terada, Jones rightly emphasizes Coleridge’s minute attentiveness to physical phenomena, an attentiveness that finds expression no less in the conversation poems than in his notebooks. “Frost at Midnight” in particular is cited as enacting Coleridge’s concern (articulated explicitly only later in his career) to recuperate sensation from pure subjectivity by grounding it in “an irreducible, material exteriority” (43).

Chapter 2 is dominated by an acutely attentive close reading of “Christabel”, whose “highly self-conscious metro-rhythmical composition,” Jones argues, “resists the separation into active and passive states” (58). Taking issue with the identification (e.g., by Brendan O’Donnell) of metre with passion, the author examines the poem’s rhythms, as opposed to merely its metrical stresses, and discerns in its rhythmical complexity a “more radical” understanding of organic form than Coleridge was able to articulate in his discursive prose, of which the essay “On the Passions” (1828) is adduced for the purpose of comparison.

            Addressing the same basic question as the preceding chapter, “how can an overtly artificed or stylised form of expression nonetheless operate according to a ‘Law of Passion’?” (116), Chapter 3 considers puns, the equivocal conceit par excellence. Subtly identifying Coleridge’s attraction to puns with his theorization of allegory—which was by no means uniformly hostile—Jones observes that personified abstractions are a remarkably persistent feature in Coleridge’s verse. The tendency of such personifications to become, as it were, autonomous actors in the poems, and hence “puns on their own names” (128), culminates in “Limbo,” the late poem that developed from an 1811 notebook entry. Tracing the poem’s genesis and connecting the poem’s puns to its verse form (couplets), Jones’s interpretation of “Limbo” is to my mind the highlight of his study.

            In the final chapter Jones turns from allegory to the symbol, or more specifically to Coleridge’s contested notion of the tautegorical symbol. (Since Jones cites me in this context, I may be permitted to offer a correction: Coleridge’s neologism first appeared in its Greek form in The Statesman’s Manual in 1816, the English translation following in Aids to Reflection nine years later and again in 1834, when the 1825 lecture “On the Prometheus of Aeschylus” was finally published.) Seeking explicitly to “salvage Coleridge’s philosophically problematic concept of tautegory” (the expression of sameness through difference), Jones identifies it not with desynonymization (as Paul Hamilton does) but with poetic tautology by way of the rhetoric of biblical prophecy. Yet the examples he adduces of “positive symbols” or tautegorical tautologies in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are persuasive only to the extent that one is prepared to accept Jones’s detachment of tautegory from the monist metaphysics in whose service Coleridge originally formulated the concept.

            Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form deserves a wide readership, in particular for its very compelling reading of “To William Wordsworth” (49–54), original insights into the ambiguity of “Christabel” and “Limbo,” and its astute observations of Coleridge’s preoccupation with passion, his attraction to puns and personifications, and his use of tautology. But the claim that Coleridge’s philosophical thought manifests itself most fully and characteristically in his poetry is questionable.

For if the verse (for the most part, as discussed in this book, earlier than his explicitly philosophical writings in prose) constitutes an alternative form of philosophical engagement and in some degree even an incipient critique of idealist positions that Coleridge was later to profess, then why did he, from the 1810s, devote himself increasingly to philosophical prose? Why, as he realized that his hopes for a philosophical poem were not likely to be fulfilled vicariously by Wordsworth, did he begin to develop the plan of a prose Logosophia? He must have considered verse, at least his own verse, inadequate to articulating the fundamental metaphysical and ethical concerns that preoccupied him from the early 1800s onwards. Without ever fully collapsing the distinction between poetry and (propositional, prose) philosophy, Jones effectively desynonymizes philosophy and metaphysics—which Coleridge himself precisely did not do—in order to crown the poet with the laurel of a philosopher. In that respect the book, while profoundly appreciative of Coleridge’s poetic achievement—and teaching us how to be more so—affirms the view that Hazlitt had expressed in his review of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria: “His metaphysics have been a dead weight on the wings of his imagination.”