The Italian Coleridge: Coleridge In
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 9, Spring 1997, pp 67-73)
Tracing the German influence in Coleridge’s thought has been one of the great scholarly enterprises of the Coleridge industry, from the scurrilous De Quincey and the exemplary Sara fille, to the scrupulous annotations of the Bollingen edition. ‘[S]cholars consider English and German as the essential components of Coleridge’s culture’, as Edoardo Zuccato remarks in the opening pages of this full, exhaustive book; and this view, he continues, ‘ goes along with the view of the 1800s as an unproductive period of his life’. I don’t quite follow him there; but the point that the first decade of the century is usually considered rather a fallow patch is well taken, and Zuccato has an attractive, non-German candidate to fill the apparent gap: ‘The 1800s were Coleridge’s Italian phase’. Between 1804 and 1806, Coleridge reads Italian poetry intensively while on Malta, and travels in Italy itself, so discovering, in Zuccato’s account, ‘new areas of knowledge—in particular the fine arts and Renaissance love-poetry—which helped him develop the critical thought we consider today as peculiarly his’.
Actually, the interest pre-dates the travels: it certainly
is odd that, back in
it was for most Brits; but readers
wanting a full account of what Coleridge did in
Coleridge read Petrarch with attention, and translated some; and Petrarch’s poems about the pain of absence may indeed have set a precedent for Coleridge’s own ‘Soother of Absence’. Zuccato also argues that there are analogies between Petrarch’s vision of love and Coleridge’s, but they are hardly obvious: Zuccato admits there is no sharing of ‘imagery and structures’; and putting the similarity is down to ‘their common Christian and Platonic background’ makes the claim suitably general. Coleridge’s remarks about Italian prosody are faithfully dealt with, though they don’t seem terribly informed, and I’m not sure that his praising the ‘flowing’ quality of Italian verse is really the significant contribution to a view of poetry which Zuccato claims here; still, it certainly testifies to an interest in Italian poetry, as does his reading in Chiabrera ( a hero of Wordsworth’s Essays on Epitaphs as well as earning an enthusiastic word in The Friend), Guarini, and Marino. This last one is surprising, since Marino exemplifies the hedonism and sensuality that normally provoked Coleridge’s loftiest piety. He later crops up in passing in Biographia (as ‘Marini’), accompanied by Cowley and Darwin, as representatives of the sort of exquisite poetic artificiality to which the Lyrical Ballads experiment was opposed, ‘fancy’ as we might say. I think Zuccato is slightly missing the point when he says Coleridge objected to Marino’s ‘descriptiveness’, but this is a recurring
interpretation of Coleridge’s predilections as we shall see.
The really large claims in this first chapter are made for Giovan Battista Strozzi il Vecchio, an 1805 reading of which, Zuccato maintains, ‘introduced a new perspective in Coleridge’s view of poetry’: namely, the generalised descriptions of Renaissance ‘polish’, ‘ an anti-expressionist aesthetic in which single words do not stand out, but contribute to a whole’, which reveals in turn the ‘momentous discovery’ that ‘simplicity is the result of artifice’. Well, Coleridge is already experiencing the paradoxes of artifice and simplicity long before going to Italy: he had admitted to Wordsworth his inability to ‘attain this innocent nakedness, except by assumption’ (23 January, 1798), and written the sonnets signed Nehemiah Higginbottom ‘in ridicule’ of what he called ‘that affectation of unaffectedness’ (to Cottle, c.20 November, 1797); so the point wasn’t exactly introduced to his thought by Strozzi. ‘Lingua communis’ , which Coleridge introduces to Biographia as what Wordsworth had really meant by his clumsy phrase ‘the real language of men’, may very well claim credentials from Strozzi or Dante, as Zuccato suggests; but I remain to be convinced that the Italian poets aren’t simply providing further exemplification of Coleridge’s pre-existing aesthetic orientations which, as with most aspects of Coleridge’s thinking, are often at odds one with another. This doesn’t mean the Italian poets aren’t very important to Coleridge, of course; just that they aren’t quite the utter revelation of a ‘momentous discovery’.
The chapter on the fine arts is on solider ground, because it seems almost entirely thanks to Coleridge’s Italian sojourn that he developed his interest in painting at all. The role of Washington Allston in this looks crucial, and is possibly a little under-played here: after all, it is to puff an exhibition of Allston’s paintings that Coleridge writes the Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism (1814) for Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, his only really extensive piece of art
criticism. Zuccato traces neatly the way the painting of Michelangelo and Raphael exemplified for Coleridge a ‘generalizing idealism’, as opposed to the ‘individualizing mimesis’ of the Dutch painters, which makes them teach the same sort of lesson that reading Strozzi is meant to have taught, bolstering Coleridge’s hostility to modern art’s ‘ANXIETY to be always striking’ in details. This hostility, in turn, is related to Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Italian ‘classicism [...] understood in a general, atemporal sense as signifying art as technique and material work’: the cast of mind is displayed in volume two of Biographia , ostensibly an Aristotelian counter to the Platonic first volume, but one actually checked by Coleridge’s instinctive ‘Platonic temper’; and the mark of this is Coleridge’s invocation there of Italian Mannerism, for Mannerism is ‘ a metaphysics of technique’. Well, these are deep waters, and I’m not sure I agree that volume two of Biographia really is about technique; but the basic point at issue—the qualifying of spontaneous poetic process by poetic craftsmanship—is indeed obviously important to Coleridge. However, to say so is not necessarily to agree that Coleridge’s experience of Italian art creates that structure of argument. Furthermore, Coleridge’s aesthetics seem to me much less simply committed to ‘generalising’ or ‘idealising’ than seems here implied (in saying, for instance, that Coleridge was ‘closer to Reynolds’ ideas than to Blake’s’). The early stirrings of this Coleridgean ambivalence about mimesis might indeed be related to his experience of painting and painterly matters; not Italian renaissance art, I think, but the picturesque traditions in which he came of age, that in their modest way promise to particularise and to idealise at once, something which Coleridge’s mature aesthetics will conjure into high mystery.
The chapter on Coleridge’s literary criticism of the Italians is necessarily limited by the small amount of material which survives, but Coleridge’s role as ‘a mediator of Dante’, partly as a champion of Cary, is lucidly told; and there is a very
good account of the 1818 lecture on Dante, and the theory of literary history which it sketches. Once again, the aesthetic principle which Zuccato sees Coleridge embracing, and the example of Dante bolstering, is ‘his usual anti-ekphrastic stance, which is evident in his response to painting’; but I mustn’t plug away at that any more. Coleridge’s remarks about romance, including Boccaccio (whom he liked) and Tasso (whom he didn’t), are surveyed with aplomb; and his preference for Ariosto over both, which is apparently an eighteenth-century commonplace, is noted, a little bizarrely but you see what he means, as ‘surprising for all those who know Coleridge as a “Goth”’. (Incidentally, the Stothard drawing of ‘The Garden of Boccaccio’, which inspired the 1828 poem, is very usefully reproduced, though with a terrible blot.) Coleridge’s distaste for Pulci, a model for Coleridge’s friend Frere, and through Frere for the later Byron, is less surprising I suppose, though really Coleridge wasn’t averse to ‘buffoonery’. Zuccato has a good page or two on allegory, and an entirely reasonable summary of Coleridge’s somewhat tenuous claims as a systematic comparative critic; here, even card-carrying Coleridgeans must agree that all the medals go to the Schlegels.
Finally, Zuccato turns to the contribution of Italian Renaissance thought to Coleridge’s philosophical development: a stirring subject, which is handled with great command, though I was a little puzzled by the equation apparently made at one point between ‘mesmerism’ and ‘pantheism’. Coleridge’s reading in Ficino’s ‘hyperplatonic jargon’ does seem genuinely important, though the conflation of Platonic and neo-Platonic thought he is said here especially to encourage was alive and well in the 1790s, indeed (according to David Newsome’s excellent Two Classes of Men, 1974) was rather a pervasive feature of the eighteenth century in general. The importance of Bruno is unquestioned, and is well described here, ‘a modern, minor version of Plato’; so I was rather surprised when the judgment came:
‘the affinity between Coleridge and Bruno is limited, and goes little beyond the fact that they were both philosophers’. This simply must be an understatement: it would apply as well to A.J. Ayer. Also important, for the later Coleridge anyway, was Vico, a subject which has been studied in some depth already, but the account here is very clear. Incidentally, like all good books this one sparks off unintended ideas: any reader of Joyce wondering who might be a precedent for his strange mixture of Bruno and Vico has a likely candidate here, and we know Joyce read Coleridge on Bruno at least, because he quotes a passage (to disagree with it) from the darkest recesses of The Friend.
The conclusion is that Coleridge is not the German we (allegedly) thought, but someone who wished to combine ‘German’ and ‘Italian’ cultural values: as long as we don’t push too hard on the labels, this is one way of putting the balancing and reconciling of opposite and discordant qualities, and will do very well. My own problem in responding to the thesis, I suppose, is that I start in the wrong place and tend to think of Coleridge, not as a German, but as an English figure; but I am happy to accept I am out of step here. Certainly, Zuccato’s summarising position, that ‘Italian culture did contribute something substantial to Coleridge’s intellectual life’, is beyond doubt, and he has described it excellently, though without, I think, entirely establishing the more ambitious thesis that it is the Italian experience which fills the hole in our understanding of Coleridge’s developing thought. The volume is enormously useful and a treasure-house of fresh research: the endnotes alone (seventy small-type pages) are a splendid bibliographical resource. Comprehensiveness is the book’s distinction, which means that sections can occasionally end with a slightly forlorn sense of judiciously summing up slim pickings—as in ‘Coleridge’s observations [on Metastasio] are not profound, but the other leading Romantics had nothing more substantial to say on melodrama, which was perhaps the most popular Italian form of art in