Putting Him in His Place: Coleridge in the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Alan Gregory


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 137-140)


A LIBRARIAN FRIEND of mine tells me that members of her profession indulge in a long-running parlour game that involves tracing well-rooted popular errors and misconceptions back to their first growth. The fons et origo of a surprising amount of historically treasured rubbish is, apparently, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The reason is simply that, over the years, many lesser known reference works have used the Britannica as a source for their information. In this manner, dubious wisdom makes its mazy way into textbooks, magazines, introductory lectures, student essays, and, of course, onto the Internet. Intrigued by all this I looked to see how Coleridge had fared in the Encyclopaedia, at least during the 19th century. I wasn’t expecting to find factual errors particularly but I did wonder how the Britannica had contributed to the currency of some long-established takes on Coleridge’s life and work. For the most part, the interpretations offered by the series of nineteenth century articles will not surprise you. What is remarkable, though, is the easy way in which one entry rejects pretty well everything found in its predecessor without so much as a nod in the direction of argument. Each essay presents us with Coleridge, minted anew. And, as one might expect given the influence of encyclopaedia articles, these varied re-mintings have survived to become fairly common coin.

       The compilers of the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was published between 1771 and 1784, decided on expanding the work’s original field to include history and biography. That decision sealed one aspect of Coleridge’s biographical fate. Sooner or later, he would appear. He did so in the 8th edition, published in 1853, with an article by Thomas De Quincey. When the Encyclopaedia was given a thorough going over in the 1870s, De Quincey’s piece was replaced with one by the Reverend G. D. Boyle. The 9th edition, is now positively awash with Coleridges and provides articles on Hartley, Sarah, and Coleridge’s nephew Sir John Taylor Coleridge. This particular biographical genre is, however, brutally mortal so, for the revised edition of 1910, half Boyle’s article was thoroughly reworked by the general editor, Hugh Chisholm, and the other half replaced by a contribution from British MP and Shakespeare scholar, James Mackinnon Robertson. All three versions of the Coleridge article are attempts to put him in his place. The Britannica aims at definitiveness: sober statements of the best information in the best conceptual arrangement. Thus, the editorial description for the 11th edition bristles with the word ‘authoritative.’ What is rather odd, though, as far as Coleridge is concerned, is the diversity of execution given this singularity of




purpose. The place into which the articles roundly seek to shove him – square peg though he was – is decidedly different in each case. As we’ll see, De Quincey gives us an admonitory moral tale, while Boyle polishes a national monument, and Robertson plugs a hole in an historical thesis.

       De Quincey, of course, had already written a good deal about Coleridge, most notably a series of essays for Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine published shortly after the poet’s death in 1834. A furious Sara Coleridge described them as ‘infamous.’ When all’s said and done, though, those breathless, digressive pieces in which Coleridge occasionally disappears behind gossip and political reflection, are, because they are less focused also less harsh than the later, Britannica article. There, De Quincey, with a vengeance, indeed, diagnoses Coleridge as an unkept promise. Quickly, and with a very journalistic niftiness, he establishes a Coleridgean drama. Here it is in miniature:


After wandering a day or two in London, having bestowed his last pence on a beggar, he recklessly enlisted in a regiment of horse. Discovered at length, and rescued from this degradation by his friends, he resumed his position at College.


       The biographical section of De Quincey’s article rings variations on this essential narrative: broken purpose, idealistic folly, deceit, degradation, and rescue by friends. Posthumously, I suppose, friendly rescue is found in the beneficent services of the biographer who picks up Coleridge’s memory, dusts it down, puts it in its place, and comments that sensible people lead a different kind of life. ‘Instability of purpose,’ ‘desultory manner,’ ‘unordered habit,’ ‘indolent irregularity,’ De Quincey runs through a thesaurus of turpitude.

       When he turns to Coleridge’s intellectual achievements, the dramatic structure turns into a rhythm of compliment and qualification. ‘His whole mind was imbued with the love of truth and beauty’ but hope in his ability was ‘perpetually dishonored.’ The qualifications force the compliments to serve the condemnation. Even the famous Coleridgean conversation, however ‘miraculous’ and however enraptured the audience, is still to be regretted as yet another mode in which the feckless author exhibited his talent for shirking. ‘What treasures of thought,’ De Quincey laments, ‘has the world lost by Coleridge’s unwillingness to make his pen the mouthpiece of his mind.’ In the end, the hermeneutical key in which to read Coleridge is, it appears, one of wistfulness: ‘the whole labours of Coleridge present the appearance of an unfinished city: the outline of the streets exhibits only how splendid they might have been.’

       According to De Quincey, Coleridge’s place is under the damning shadow of a comparison with unrealized possibilities. In contrast, for George Boyle, the author of the essay that, in 1875, replaced De Quincey’s article, Coleridge has become a national, even ecclesiastical, treasure: his place is in the ‘gallery’ of English worthies. If De Quincey suggests the intrusive familiarity of a bad therapist, Boyle seems to be visiting a museum in carpet slippers. This author,




who was vicar of Kidderminster, and soon to become Dean of Salisbury, adopts a cautious, reverent, courteously distant tone. Whereas De Quincey took pains to ensure that Coleridge’s failings seeped throughout his text, Boyle wishes to contain them. Coleridge’s opium use, for instance, is dealt with economically, the problem of a particular period from 1801 to 1816, after which ‘the hour of mastery at last arrived.’ Furthermore, the issue here is not one of flawed character but of a sinful act, a ‘transgression’ for which Coleridge was duly punished with physical decline. Treating the problem in terms of act rather than character limits its tainting effects upon Coleridge’s memory. As to the famous plagiarisms, for which De Quincey gives little quarter, Boyle appeals to Sara Coleridge’s ‘able defence’ since which, he says, rather naïvely, the controversy has ‘been forgotten.’ Boyle applauds Coleridge as poet, philosopher, and Christian apologist. This is the Coleridge beloved of the ‘broad Church.’ There are no images of unfinished cities, Boyle’s metaphor is of a ship, sorely battered but finally making harbour. Coleridge’s career thereby finds its summary in a familiar description of Christian wayfaring. He is, in the end, one of the saints. One might add, just one of the saints: metaphors like this have a levelling effect. De Quincey provides us with Coleridge as a freak of fecklessness but at least one wouldn’t miss him in a crowd.

       Hugh Chisholm, editor of the 11th Britannica, revised Boyle’s article fairly thoroughly. Biographical details are added and bouquets are re-distributed. De Quincey, for instance, had commended the influence of Robert Southey’s ‘good sense’ upon the young Coleridge, Boyle had made still more of Southey, both as friend to Coleridge and provider for Coleridge’s family. In Chisholm’s version of Boyle’s text, however, all the positive references to Southey are carefully removed. In his place, new Coleridgean benefactors, including De Quincey, come in for praise. Aids to Reflection, in Boyle’s view Coleridge’s supreme achievement, now becomes his most ‘popular’ work with the best in show award here going to the Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit. If that judgement strikes you as odd, it has in view the wholly new second half to the entry, written by James Mackinnon Robertson.

       Robertson was an unusually well published Member of Parliament. He produced treatises on international relations, economics, and labour law; critiques of German racial theories; Shakespeare criticism; histories of free thought, and polemics against Christianity. His Short History of Christianity, celebrates the 19th century as a period in which anyone who was anyone abandoned orthodox Christian belief, giving grounds for hope in the ultimate victory of rationalism. In Robertson’s account of the upward march of mind, reason, having pushed aside the last shreds of religious belief, was finally succeeding in arming itself with a social science able, as he puts it, ‘to save democracy and elevate the mass.’ Here’s the rub, at least, if you cherish this progressive vision and then get asked to write an authoritative essay on Coleridge. Coleridge poses a problem for Robertson’s view of modernity. Here




is a man of philosophical repute who appears to spend his life shifting into reverse gear: beginning with the rationalized faith of Unitarianism, then moving, by way of Augustinian anthropology, to a full-blown, scary Trinitarianism. Given these awkward intellectual antics, Coleridge needs putting in his place and, in order to do this, Robertson devotes his entire article to Coleridge’s religious views, a move that, by ignoring everything else, compromises the  theology as well.

       In order to fix Coleridge as, despite appearances, a witness to his own theses, Robertson tackles Coleridge’s intellectual development by arguing, with barely a single example, that he didn’t have one. Rather, his speculative views chopped and changed and Coleridge’s later public orthodoxy was always belied by his private views. Evangelical when feeling guilty, Coleridge, Robertson insists, remained on his good days comfortably pantheist. He does not, therefore, constitute a threatening exception to Robertson’s construal of modern intellectual progress. As to any contemporary significance, Robertson concludes that Coleridge was a ‘great stimulator.’ Presumably, having been stimulated, the march of reason can continue without further consideration for a man afraid to throw off his creedal bathing trunks except in the shielding murk of a speculative sea.

       Encyclopaedia entries, dictionary articles, the historical survey: these must be the most widely read, perhaps even influential, biographical genre. They assign men and women a place in the public sphere of common knowledge. All the essays I’ve mentioned impose a firm order: they allow small space between their author’s decided judgement and their biographical subject. Of course, one may put this down to the constraints of a word count and the demands of a enterprise seeking authoritative statement of current knowledge. These articles, though, also intimate the difficulties of telling and interpreting any human life, let alone one as complex and ambiguous as that of Coleridge. The problems of De Quincy and Co. arise from their certainties, their eagerness to put Coleridge in his place. A painting by Cézanne registers the troubling, uncertain process of seeing and representing. Perhaps only a biographical style that is similarly disturbed by its own task approaches justly a difficult life – and, finally, of course, a difficult life is what we all have.

       Coleridge himself suggests another way of putting this. In a famous letter to William Sotheby, he links the imagination, as distinct, of course, from the ‘fancy,’ with ‘tact.’ This is surely a key biographical virtue. ‘Tact’ is that tension of nearness and distance in which the biographical subject may interrogate the biographer: resisting and disturbing the biographer’s point of view. What Coleridge says of the poet, in metaphors evoking an absorbing and taxing attentiveness, should surely apply – for the sake of humanity – to the biographer: ‘for all sounds and forms of human nature he must have the Ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent Desert; the Eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an Enemy upon the Leaves that strew the Forest, the Touch of a Blind Man feeling the face of a darling Child.’