Coleridge's Writings Volume Two: On Humanity ed. Anya Taylor

(Macmillan ISBN 0-333-54851-5)

 Reviewed by

Graham Davidson

(The Coleridge Bulletin  New Series No 6 (Autumn 1995), pp 49-53)


Coleridge's Writings, under the general editorship of John Beer, is a project designed to gather together in few volumes Coleridge's most significant thoughts on his major interests and concerns. In this respect it is a project that can be welcomed by specialist and non—specialist alike, as it will serve both as an introduction and as a resource. And it is clear from the title of this volume and those in preparation that it has been conceived not in accordance with the fault—lines of conventional disciplines, but largely in accordance with Coleridge's own intellectual habits and methods. In the effort to let Coleridge speak for himself, this is very welcome, but it will probably make the search for particular statements more difficult: it is notable, in this volume for


 instance, how many pages have been dedicated to Coleridge's vigorous attack on the slave—trade — quite rightly, as he believed that trade profoundly dehumanizing —but the passages chosen could equally well have taken their place in the first volume, On Politics and Society, edited by John Morrow.

 Anya Taylor has divided her presentation into five sections: 1: Enquiries into the Nature of Man — principally Coleridge reacting against the materialist and eighteenth century views of man as a bit of paper whirled by a cold wind, and attempting to discern a spiritual life coexistent with the life of the body, describing which also forms a significant part of her general introduction; 2: Questions of Species and Gender— man's distinction from and relation to the natural world, including women; 3: The Difficulty of Sustaining Humanity — the various and disabling forms of dependency, and the mistaking of persons for things; 4: Transmitting Humanity — marriage, being a parent and education; and 5: The Humanity of Human Beings — containing the archetypal Coleridgean definitions and distinctions, Reason and Understanding, Imagination and Fancy, Conscience and the Will, the distinctive activities of language making and poiesis, concluding with an account of what the editor lucidly presents as the interwoven emotions of love, guilt and yearning for immortality.

 Each section and subsection is introduced with a summary of Coleridge's main lines of thinking on the subject, and almost every entry has a one line heading to point the reader in the right direction; these are certainly useful for the inexperienced reader, and quite often help the more experienced to qualify their reaction to an entry. Occasionally, however, an entry seems too curtailed to explain itself sufficiently: on p.233-4 we have the resounding 'Language is the sacred Fire in the Temple of Humanity', which four lines later concludes:'With the


 commencement of a Public commences the degradation of the Good and the Beautiful — both fade or retire before the accidentally Agreeable —.' this animadversion to an idea so favoured by our current language and politics needs either a comment from the editor or a fuller context to realize its force. And one particularly complex note on touch and double touch (p.28) is printed with reference numbers to which I couldn't find the corresponding and probably very useful notes.

 Perhaps as a consequence of my own preference for fixities and definites, it seems that the first two sections lack the clarity and distinction of the last three. Many of the entries in these first two parts record Coleridge's tentative explorations of his own consciousness and so contribute to an air of uncertainty. Although it may have been part of the editor's aim to show how Coleridge arrived at his definitive propositions, I can imagine that a reader not well acquainted with his various modes of writing might wonder whether it is worth going on after the first dozen or so pages. Given how central his Reason/Understanding distinction is to our recognition of the distinctly human in us, and how it can be seen to underpin all those distinctions which if not made undermine our humanity (idea/conception, person/thing, conscience/consciousness, love/lust, religion/superstition), and given how well Anya Taylor introduces this section, it seems to me a pity that it does not stand at the head of the book.

 Reason is also the key term for Coleridge's rejection of those philosophies of human nature which, as Anya Taylor has made very clear both in her own book, Coleridge's Defense of the Human, and in her introduction here, he believed undermine the proposition that man's spiritual life is continuous with his day-to-day consciousness. In his introduction, John Beer states that Coleridge believed love 'to provide the key to an understanding of the humanity of human beings', and it certainly supplies Coleridge with some of his


 most coherent insights into the relations between immediate and spiritual consciousness, yet the subsection which contains Coleridge's specific thoughts on love comes last of all. It also seems unfortunate that these particular notes are so widely separated from the very short section (with a long and excellent introduction) on Persons, a key term in Coleridge, very much under scrutiny when he was thinking about love as a consequence of his relationship with Sara Hutchinson. And complex though some of these passages are, they have an intensity which carries the reader forward, which is not always true of the more general and tentative notions set down in the first pages of this selection. I would therefore advise any reader not very familiar Coleridge's work to read the last section first and then go back to the beginning. They are more likely then to be in a position to grasp the significance of various key terms found there, such as 'Reason' and 'Will', which if not understood in a Coleridgean manner will add to the reader's confusion, not their insight.

 Presented with a book of this kind, perhaps every reader of Coleridge, and inevitably every reviewer, will search for what they consider one or two key—note entries, and be satisfied if they find them, disturbed if they do not. Let me therefore say at once that I think the essential Coleridge is present in this selection, and that the appearance of a few other possible entries would make very little difference to the overall insight to be gained from this volume. However, I would like to have seen in the section on Imagination that very interesting entry beginning 'But only as a man is capable of ideas....' (CN IV 4692) — which has been discussed by several commentators, including Antony Harding who made significant use of it in a notable paper on the idea of evil in Coleridge, given to the Summer Conference 1994. And one other notion, important I think, is absent from this selection: that of conscience preceding consciousness (which is why Coleridge always linked goodness and creativity, and why he described an undevout poet as mad) and which is presented forcefully in N26 ff 39-40. 


 All selections rightly bear the mark of their editor, and this volume might have been justly entitled, 'Coleridge the Humanist'. Although it does not fudge Coleridge's absolute commitment to truth as transcendental, neither does it point it up quite in the manner that his position justified. I can imagine that there might have been sections on Faith, on Ideas, and on Religion, all of which were essential to Coleridge's idea of our humanity, and which for him all cocentered on the person of Christ. Perhaps the one significant omission from this book is Coleridge's search in himself for that figure, his despair and his faith fighting it out in his last years, still one of the least documented dramas of his life.