Anthony John Harding


Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life. Oxford,

edited by Nicholas Roe

Oxford University Press, 2001. xvi + 364 pp. ISBN 0 19 818723 8. £55.00


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 21, Spring 2003, pp.92-98)



THE TITLE of this varied collection may demonstrate that people who spend their time studying Coleridge see the world in a somewhat different way from their colleagues. Casual browsers in Waterstone’s or at an MLA book display, noting the phrase “sciences of life” and the dust-jacket illustration from Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, would probably expect the focus to be on natural history and the “life sciences.” Even Coleridge specialists might be forgiven for assuming that a volume so titled would contain substantial discussion of Coleridge’s engagement with natural science. In fact the sciences of life represented here are predominantly sciences humaines: political and social science, anthropology and race theory, linguistics and philosophy of language, history and historicism, and biography. Only three essays have much to say about science as the general reader would understand the term.

       Roe’s introduction does a good deal to set the unwary reader straight, arguing that what Coleridge referred to as “universal science” (in his letter to Cottle, April 1797) “breaks down the rigid divisions between science and other areas of knowledge and endeavour” (14). He is also surely right to claim that the Coleridge of the 1790s conveys “a sense of the universal optimism generated by the collaboration of science, poetry, and political revolution” to a greater extent than any contemporary writer, with the possible exception of Priestley (2).

       This sense of new energies, the belief among radicals that not only history but nature itself was on their side, is most successfully captured in Kenneth Johnston’s vigorously combative essay on Pantisocracy. Too often dismissed with indulgent chuckles as an impractical daydream, Pantisocracy was in fact a carefully-developed plan that comes off well when compared with other emigration schemes. It had, Johnston argues, “a very good pedigree in terms of precedents and sources of information” (54). It drew on the ideas and knowledge of Brissot, the Girondin leader, and the circle of British and American expats associated with the Girondin group in Paris. Johnston challenges many wrongheaded assumptions sadly still current among Romanticists, reminding us that Pantisocrats, who embraced republicanism and communal property, risked the charge of treason, and that the government of the time had good reason for associating country cottages not with harmless weekend retreats but with radical plotting (61).




       Two further essays are included in the first section, headed “Vital Constitutions.” Elinor Shaffer’s, on ideas of Commonwealth and Constitution in Lyrical Ballads 1798, points to the English radical tradition deriving from the time of Cromwell. With a nod to Christopher Hill, J. G. A. Pocock, E. P. Thompson, and other historians active in the 1970s, Shaffer argues that while Wordsworth presents the Commonwealth ideals “not as a programme for political action by articulate spokesmen but as a deeply ingrained folk memory,” Coleridge more boldly and forcibly “articulates the political context” (32). This is a puzzling and surely false contrast that betrays a lack of focus in the essay itself. If the focus is meant to be Lyrical Ballads (“My subject,” Shaffer writes, “is ‘community’ in the Lyrical Ballads” [30]), then the point about Wordsworth is, at best, misleading; and it is hard to see what the Coleridge part of the formulation could mean, since the Coleridge part of the essay does not deal with his poems but first with Harringtonian ideas in the 1795 Lectures , and then with Coleridge’s view of Burke, particularly the mixture of approval and disapproval registered in his contributions to The Courier and The Morning Post. Shaffer’s agenda seems to be to claim Coleridge as the serious political thinker, lecturing and writing political articles, while Wordsworth aimed to “reveal the subtle fabric of relations on which the Constitution rests” (45). Astonishingly, she claims that “it was, as always, Coleridge, not Wordsworth who continued to develop and give intellectual articulation to the idea of community” (45, emphasis added). This is to dismiss as irrelevant not only The Excursion but much of Wordsworth’s most important prose. Shaffer also ignores David Aram Kaiser’s important 1993 Studies in Romanticism article on “Coleridge and the Ancient Constitution,” as well as his 1999 book Romanticism, Aestheticism, and Nationalism, which contains a chapter on Coleridge and constitutionalism.

       Although she does not cite Kaiser either, Susan Manly’s essay on Harringtonianism in Coleridge and Edgeworth is both better-focussed and more critical of Coleridge. Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) attracted Coleridge because the model republican constitution it promulgated drew on biblical precedent. Manly traces continuities between the radicalism of Coleridge the Unitarian and what she calls the “more orthodox preachings” of Coleridge’s later years (70). Even in the 1790s, Coleridge hesitated to embrace Harringtonian democracy in its purest form, feeling that a “principled Minority” was needed to lead the rest (84). In this 1790s refusal to trust the multitude lie the roots of Coleridge’s arguments against toleration, and in favour of a “National Church.” One thing Manly does not point out (admittedly, it is not her core concern in this essay) is that while in the 1790s Coleridge shared the prevailing Enlightenment opinion of the ancient Hebrews as irrational and thoughtless, needing the stern code of Mosaic law to keep them in check, by the 1820s he had embraced a more positive view of Jewish tradition, a view quite close to that adumbrated by Edgeworth in her 1817 novel Harrington, to which Manly devotes an informative section of her essay.

       Though placed in a later section of the volume, Beth Lau’s fine essay on




The Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein seems to belong with the earlier grouping, since its argument for reconsideration of Mary Shelley’s indebtedness to Coleridge relies not on shared images drawn from the natural sciences – electrical impulses, storms, icebergs, “animal magnetism” – but rather on the way each work deals with human relationships. Both works share a concern with “loving, harmonious co-existence with people and other living things,” and both show the devastating consequences of violating this principle (210). The theory of vitalism is mentioned in passing, but the strength of the essay is its challenge to a falsely feminist misreading whereby Frankenstein has been seen as a manifesto against male romanticism, and its use and development of ideas of relationship ignored. Of particular interest is the suggestion that Shelley’s criticisms of “masculinist” autonomy, and her interest in complementarity as a vital part of both love and friendship, may owe something to Coleridge’s 1811-1812 lectures on Shakespeare and Milton (212-13).

       For a majority of readers the most disturbing and provocative contributions are likely to be the two essays on race theory, by (respectively) Peter Kitson and Tim Fulford. There is necessarily some overlap between them; Fulford indeed acknowledges a debt to Kitson’s research. But the relationship is one of complementarity, not redundancy. Kitson adopts the role of the judicious investigator, demonstrating how complex and fluid were Romantic concepts of “race” and always careful not to claim more than the evidence will support. Influential scholars like Martin Bernal and Robert Young, he suggests, have been too quick to judge Romanticism as an inherently racist cultural movement. Young, for instance, represents the Enlightenment as holding a universalist view of humankind, whereas Romanticism promoted Eurocentric notions of race. Kitson’s strategy is to contrast Coleridge’s “attempts to account for human differences” (92) with the clearly racist views of the Victorian writer Robert Knox (who was strongly influenced by French materialist thinkers). To Kitson, there is no continuity between Coleridge’s speculations, which were developed out of Blumenbach’s scheme and were monogenist, based on the biblical notion of a single origin for all of humankind and refusing the idea of races as fixed categories, and the rigid views of Knox, who did believe that racial types were "immutable and permanent" (95). Fulford’s voice, by contrast, is that of the incisive, provocative lecturer, even at times the prosecuting counsel. He argues that, even if Coleridge always insisted on a common human origin and admitted that racial categories were not immutable and permanent, his investment in the notion of the “historic race” (a version of Blumenbach’s “central race”) – that race being of course Caucasian – implicates him in the kind of thinking that, later in the century, drove the most despicable acts of imperialist aggression. Quoting the remarks Coleridge prepared for Green’s use in lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons, Fulford comments “Here Coleridge sets out the sinister ideology (and anticipated the very language) used by those who did conquer black people’s land to justify their white supremacist policies” (118).




Some caveats are added in a footnote – Coleridge did not actually publish these remarks, and so on – but enough has been said to make the most damaging point clear. Such thinking, as Fulford shows in sometimes grisly detail, was based on questionable science, which took for its data the harvest of human skulls collected by Blumenbach, Hunter and other comparative anatomists. These collections relied on the efforts of explorers such as Sir Joseph Banks (119). Race theory, voyages of “discovery,” and colonization thus fed on each other in a repellent pattern of interdependence. The best that can be said, perhaps, is that by weaving his own race theory into his political and anthropological speculations, Coleridge makes it possible for us now to examine how far the more publicly acceptable face of his political and philosophical thought is compromised by its cohabitation with a fully articulated theory of European superiority.

       Readers looking for discussion of Coleridge’s engagement with what we now call “the sciences” will have to be content with just two of the essays, Jane Stabler’s timely and well-crafted essay on Coleridge, Priestley, Barbauld, and experimental science, and James McCusick’s rather uneven essay on “Kubla Khan” and geology. To these we might add Neil Vickers’ superb essay on psychology of perception, paired with Stabler’s in a section headed “The Self Anatomized.”

       Stabler wants us to re-revaluate Coleridge’s debt to Priestley – not his theology, nor even his scientific ideas as such, but his commitment to experimental method as the necessary partner of and corrective to philosophical speculation. Scholars have too quickly assumed that in rejecting Unitarian theology, and rather uncivilly distancing himself from Barbauld’s as well as Priestley’s politically-engaged Unitarianism, Coleridge outgrew these mentors and simply took nothing with him. On the contrary, Stabler argues: Coleridge continued to value the pairing of scientific observation with speculation that Priestley in particular represented (177). Stabler’s reading is the right one, I think. The quality of Coleridge’s mind was such that nothing went to waste, and (though Stabler does not pursue the argument this far) Coleridge’s attempt to build a christianized Naturphilosophie , which continued into the 1820s and beyond, can surely be seen as evidence of a continuing desire to combine an all-encompassing explanation of “life” with the latest experimental findings in zoology, chemistry, medicine, and other disciplines, a point made by John Beer later in this volume..

       James McCusick’s essay reminds us that geology (one of the “sciences of life” in a Coleridgean sense?) made unprecedented advances in Coleridge’s lifetime and that Coleridge must have been aware of the debate raging in the 1790s between the Neptunians and the Plutonists, who favoured, respectively, water and fire as agents of geological change. The review of geological theories is certainly useful, and deepens our sense of the weight of meaning that might lie behind some of Coleridge’s poetic images. However, the attempt to read “Kubla Khan” as a compendium of geological speculation is,




well, speculative. It is certainly true that Coleridge hoped to write “an epic poem that would integrate the lore of ‘universal science’ into a coherent narrative form,” but to conclude that in “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge was starting that poem – “a scientific epic in the genre of Darwin’s Botanic Garden” (143) – is to go beyond what the evidence will support. To take images and terms that were also used by geologists – river, sea, cavern, hill, chasm, and so on – as proof that this is a “scientific epic” is persuasive only so long as we ignore evidence that Coleridge was drawing upon a huge range of other sources: the Bible, travel literature, archaeology, mythography, ancient history, ethnography, and so on. The case would have been more convincing if it had been restricted to the argument that contemporary geology has been neglected as part of the context. As it is, McCusick seems determined to hunt for any connection, no matter how flimsy, that might link the poem with geology: so, he makes much of the term “fragment” (used in the 1816 running title), observing pedantically that this term “had a distinct geological sense” (144), and he connects "chasm" with the story of the Fall via John Whitehurst, a geologist cited in the notes to The Botanic Garden, since Whitehurst “asserted that the . . . Edenic state of human society was replaced by a fallen state” resulting from a flood (146). But catastrophic floods linked to a fallen state are everywhere in recorded myths, from Babylonian myths to the beliefs of the Greenlanders recorded by the Moravian missionary David Cranz. Coleridge did not need Whitehurst to teach him this.

       Neil Vickers’ essay on “Coleridge’s ‘Abstruse Researches’” asks the deceptively simple question, what exactly were these researches? He finds a conjectural answer in an interest that Coleridge shared with Tom Wedgwood, the psychology of perception; specifically, in the problem of how we “achieve a coherent experience of the world” by combining visual ideas with tactual ones (161). Wedgwood developed the Berkeleian notion that sight alone could not give us a three-dimensional world. Sight must somehow work with another sense to create the ideas of distance and relation in space. Berkeley had suggested that the collaborating sense was that of touch. Wedgwood attempted to update Berkeley by arguing that memory, through a kind of association of ideas, created three-dimensionality; Coleridge, more inclined to stress the inherent "productivity" of the mind, criticized this theory, and later through researches on his own acts of perception risked his own health trying to crack the secret of the meeting-point of world and mind. In 1801, Vickers argues, Coleridge turned to Darwin’s Zoönomia, which enabled him to escape Berkeleian idealism and, in giving primacy to touch, not sight, “put him on firmly materialist ground” (173). But one result of these researches, Vickers suggests at the conclusion of this important essay, was that Coleridge came to connect his own “afflictions” with the sad fact that, both as a child and as a young man, he had lacked the experience of physical closeness, the loving touch of another human being, that would have provided a sense of self-worth.

       In “Coleridge’s ‘Hymn before Sun-rise’ and the Voice Not Heard,” Angela




Esterhammer makes a very persuasive case that critical neglect of Friederike Brun, author of “Chamounix beym Sonnenaufgange” has prevented us from understanding the full significance of both Coleridge’s departures from Brun in the earliest versions of his poem, and his later revisions. Esterhammer illuminatingly locates both poems in the context of contemporary debates on philosophy of language (another "science of life"). Brun’s poem places the poet in dialogue with the mountain; but Coleridge’s, too often misread as bombastic affirmation of the power of poetic voice, reveals as it goes through several revisions his "reflection on the limitations of poetic voice" (237). While Brun’s poem describes Mont Blanc emerging in the dawn light, Coleridge’s is set before sunrise, so that the mountain’s form is indistinct and (most significantly) the power of poetic invocation is increasingly called into question. Further, there is the still more disturbing implication that the divine Word “might be a projection, in the mode of desire, of the fallible human word” (241). In her allusion to the “mode of desire,” Esterhammer perhaps hint at a latent Schopenhauerism in Coleridge, which it would be interesting to investigate further.

       Seamus Perry shares Esterhammer’s interest in the nexus between philosophy and language, but focuses on the verb “to be” and its derivatives. Perry follows the philosophical-theological explorations of these forms, including of course “I Am” and “thou art” as well as “It is,” through the rich material now available in the Notebooks, Marginalia, and Shorter Works and Fragments. Perry knows this still under-used material well, and seems positively to enjoy bringing to light the hidden treasures that lurk there. (Readers should note that the otherwise quite thorough index has no entry for Marginalia among Coleridge’s other “Works”: one has to look later in the index for “marginalia,” between “Marat” and “Marie-Antoinette.” The Collected Letters are not indexed at all.) For Perry, however – as for Coleridge – everything can sooner or later be turned into a question of poetics, and the central part of the essay cleverly and fruitfully moves into questions of the autonomous being of the poem. If creative genius in its purest form is spiritually self-dependent, then the work of art can claim a similar autonomy, as can “the aesthetic in general” (257). a proposition that nevertheless has to be set against the equally strong Coleridgean idea that no being, possibly not even Deity itself, can exist in total isolation. Perry thus claims Coleridge as “godfather” both to formalism and to those critical approaches which would resist formalism by putting literature back in relation to its contemporary context, “returning the poem to the world without” (268).

       The concluding essays in the volume examine how Coleridge has been represented and received in the late twentieth century. Raimonda Modiano trenchantly critiques new historicist readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” arguing that, in their determination to reconnect the poem with 1790s culture and politics, historicists have overlooked how the poem at the deepest level examines the ancient and fraught connections between violence




and the sacred. Cultural materialism, misled by a one-dimensional concept of religious meaning, cannot fully account for the way a poem modelled on the Cain-Abel story – which starts with a “failed sacrifice” (288) – can expose the agonizing sense of “violated brotherhood” and futile sacrifice felt by opponents of the slave trade, as well as by those who observed the internecine violence of the French Revolution and its aftermath (289).

       Kelvin Everest begins his essay by looking back at the genesis of his 1979 book Coleridge’s Secret Ministry and noting how his anxieties about the relationship between the cultural-materialist approach and unspoken assumptions about the aesthetic value of Coleridge’s poetry have only intensified over the past twenty years. We need to re-examine “the status and mode of existence of literary texts understood strictly as texts” (303). The question comes to bear most crucially on the editing of literary texts, especially, perhaps, poetry, and especially in the age of electronic texts and the World-Wide Web. If the initial aesthetic experience of reading and responding to a poem is to be available to the next generation of readers at all, there has to be a “coherent form” through which “literary culture renews its understanding of the past” (313). Even if modern editions have to meet the expectation that information about the production of the work and its variant forms will be provided, the editorial project “cannot abnegate the responsibility to shape an image of a body of texts,” Everest argues (313).

       The last word in this volume is given to John Beer, who reflects on the daunting task of writing a 15,000-word life of Coleridge for the New Dictionary of National Biography. The essay is in part a concise review of changing biographical interpretations of Coleridge, from that of Gillman, who never managed a Volume 2, to that of Richard Holmes, whose Volume 2 Beer recognizes as a remarkable achievement. More than that, however, Beer’s essay is a reflection on the huge intellectual challenge faced by any biographer trying to do justice to one who, more than any other of his time, tried to reconcile the still-compelling faith he absorbed from the older world with the dramatic scientific discoveries that were to transform that world in his lifetime and over the next two centuries. A reminder of the truly global scope of Coleridge’s thought as well as the afflictions of his life, "How shall we write the Life of Coleridge?" is an appropriate conclusion to a volume that itself testifies to the range of Coleridge studies at the beginning of the twenty-first century.