Mary Anne Perkins, Coleridge's Philosophy (OUP 1994)
ISBN 0-19-824075-9 £30
By Graham Davidson
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 5, (Spring 1995) pp 61-64)
The subtitle of Dr Perkins' book is 'The Logos as Unifying Principle': that should give notice to any ironizing, deconstructive post—modernistic fragmentarian wandering along the shore of Coleridge studies, aimlessly stirring the stale rock pools with a fine—mesh net, that this author intends to abandon such secure occupations immediately, and set out to explore an almost unknown, often unadmitted, sea.
Tactfully but confidently setting aside the benefits of these theories, Mary Anne Perkins provides us with a comparative exposition, rather than a critique, of Coleridge's thinking. This itself is refreshing, given how much Coleridge has
been criticized, and how little his intentions and achievements have been understood. Although such a method creates some difficulties, which I will discuss in a moment, I have little doubt that this is the most fruitful way of reading Coleridge: 'Whoever does not read a book in the spirit in which it was written, attempts to read a sundial by moonlight.' That may well beg all the questions posed by the present crop of literary theories, but it is the position to which every responsible reader is likely to return.
Meanwhile, to mix a metaphor, the moonshine that is the cause of so much baying and howling in our universities will go on misconstruing and deconstructing Coleridge until he ceases to have any of the features he claimed for himself: it is one of the tragedies of current scholarship that even a knowledgeable and sympathetic mind, if it cannot hold fast to the essential Coleridgean tenets, such as the belief in an absolute anterior to being, or of the metaphysical as the basis of the physical, ends up adopting positions quite opposite to those of Coleridge himself. What I am tempted to call the grandeur of this book by Dr Perkins is that the ideas by which Coleridge lived are expounded by the author with the intellectual commitment of Coleridge himself. This is a sundial read by sunlight.
And it is a book of great lucidity, rarely suffering from a clumsy phrase or contorted sentence, confidently placing Coleridge's thought in the context of the development of ideas, precisely delineating what he has in common with and how he differs from other philosophers — particularly Plato, Philo and Augustine among the ancients, and Boehme, Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel among the moderns: only the English Platonists seem under-represented, perhaps because they are more theologians than philosophers.
But it is a demanding book because it is highly theoretic: it deals with the hot core of the Coleridgean furnace, not with the outworkings or the various moulds into which this metal was poured: so there are very few examples of how we
might read a given text in the light of the principles elucidated: for instance, The Ancient Mariner is mentioned in passing, but is one of the very few poems that is; and, closer perhaps to the subject matter of the book, it has always seemed to me that the essay on Prometheus is one of Coleridge's most exciting works, but Dr Perkins does not draw upon it to demonstrate how a particular work is informed by his philosophical principles. Given that the book could probably not contain more without being too long, this is rather a comment on the kind of concentration needed to absorb it, than a criticism.
Nonetheless, one of the few difficulties of the book arises from the author's going along with Coleridge's vast claims of presenting a new and inclusive system of philosophy, which could 'reduce all knowledge into a harmony.' 'This claim', she writes,' is the background against which my study is drawn.'(p.5) The real problem of credibility, of which Dr Perkins is quite aware, comes in relation to the second section — The Logos as the Light and Life of Nature; and it is here that I feel a greater willingness to offer a critique rather than an exposition might have actually made it easier to be sympathetic to Coleridge's intentions and achievements. Let me see if I can illustrate this: on p.91 Dr Perkins writes that for Coleridge,
'Nature...was itself a revelatory "language". He became convinced that the study of its laws, products, and processes was a means not only by which this revelation might be received, but by which human nature and human destiny might be understood.'
In respect of what Coleridge thought, there is nothing here but what is true and justly said, and is fully in line with the author's chosen method of enabling Coleridge to speak for himself. But from the perspective of more than 150 years of enquiry into the laws of nature, these views need unpacking in order to preserve their vitality. It is impossible, for instance, that the products, processes and laws of nature
could have all been equally revelatory to Coleridge, or precisely connected in his mind, for the relations between the products or appearances and the laws of nature had not been established in his time— just because almost nothing was truly understood of these laws: the periodic table was unknown, elements had not been distinguished from compounds, the structure of matter mere guesswork, and forces were still confused with substances. What I think Dr Perkins has not adequately distinguished is the ground of Coleridge's approach to scientific enquiry, which still has much to offer us, from his largely fruitless and often bizarre practice, based on imperfect knowledge. I think it would have been proper to give the reader an example of 'Coleridge's blend of theological language with the concepts of physical science'(p.138), and then dissect out the governing principles in order to demonstrate their continuing interest and validity.
By attempting to explain my difficulty with this section I have made too much of it, for in fact it is a very minor defect in the course of a book that offers so much, and which is so profound and so clear as to the precise shape of Coleridge's thinking. It is written as I think all books should be written, by someone with a powerful mind intellectually committed to the ideas propounded, who sees Coleridge the ideal realist as offering us seaway between the existential whirlpool of the will sucking down reason, and the foundering rock of deterministic nihilism. This poet's coherent and cohesive philosophy, resonant with Milton before him and Eliot after him, is one which offers us the possibility of finding a rich and symbolic language to express the union between our real being and the story or history by which we must present it. And Mary Anne Perkins has written a book which distils the essence of this philosophy. It is a book to which we should constantly return, and those who cannot or will not master it, are excluding themselves from a realization of what Coleridge really thought.