The Rhetoric of Unification: Romanticism and Rhetorical Theory in Coleridge’s

Lay Sermon and Statesman’s Manual ”[1]


Megan O’Neill


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.33-39)



RHETORIC and Romanticism have traditionally been perceived as mutually exclusive; rhetoric, the outward form of communication, has never been a comfortable bed mate with the inner-directed soliloquizing of Romanticism, or so the scholarship until very recently would have us believe.  Graduate students in rhetoric, for instance, come under the influence of one of the most popular and influential rhetoric anthologies The Rhetorical Tradition, which would teach us that “The key terms [of Romanticism] . . . solitude, spontaneity, expression of feeling, and imagination [are] all quite opposed to the rhetorician’s concern for society, planned discourse, [and] communication.”[2] I am first a rhetorician, and second a Romanticist, and thus I approach Coleridge not from a literary standpoint, although poetry formed my first acquaintance with him, but from that of  interest in how Coleridge negotiates the complexities of his own ideas –and what he called the “parenthetical tangle” of his prose--with the complexities of the audiences to whom he speaks and writes. 

       Given the wide range of conceptions of rhetoric, we have available a wide range of approaches to Coleridge.  Among them are the linguistic approach so ably handled by Jim McKusick and Jerome Christensen in the mid-1980s, the oratorical and sermonic approach that Rex Veeder has just begun in the rhetoric journals, the examination of the elements of style and ornament we see in collections like Bialostosky and Needham’s 1995 Rhetorical Traditions and British Romantic Literature, and the less classical, more modern approaches of psychology, sociology, epistemology, and philosophy. 

       It’s important to note that although the general perception of rhetoric is of classical, persuasive discourse, modern rhetoric, which began developing in the 19th century, seeks less to instruct than to construct.  Modern rhetoric deals with the issues of language as it creates community, identity, and understanding, which implies that the traditional divide between rhetorical theory and British Romanticism is merely an illusion.  The audience emphasis inherent in post-classical rhetoric, specifically Coleridge’s approach to the formation of community, is my focus: the rhetorical abilities, tendencies, and techniques employed by Coleridge in two primary works of civic discourse written at the cusp of the Romantic and Victorian periods, the Statesman’s Manual and Lay Sermon.  I’ve chosen here to consider only Coleridge’s




employment of audience analysis and his literal creation of a unified audience through a turn of linguistic philosophy. 

       Although both pre- and post publication the Sermons earned sneers from William Hazlitt,[3] they have since been recognized by R. J. White and others as “models of rigorous thinking and penetrating analysis”[4] of the modern political state.  In these Sermons, Coleridge notes an imbalance in the elements of his society, an overemphasis on economic prosperity at the expense of the balancing cultural factors of spiritual and intellectual health.  Religion specifically had been turned from the spiritual dimension to “a series of prudential maxims to insure commercial reliability.”[5] What Coleridge called “these Devil’s Times”[6] extended to the attitude toward education as well, with the powerful concerned that everybody “learn their letters” but ignorant of how genuine education affects the tapestry of history, philosophy, and culture.  Thus, what Coleridge promotes in Lay Sermon and Statesman’s Manual is not a quick fix for the current ills and distresses, but rather a philosophy of statehood and of culture, a new way to perceive the entire tapestry—a rhetoric of unification. 

       The Statesman’s Manual and the Lay Sermon appeared in print shortly before the Biographia [7] and “sought to express in terms of Christian philosophy those intuitive truths [Coleridge] had arrived at by his experience as a poet…truths revealed by ‘deep Thinking…attainable only by a man of deep Feeling’.”[8] The 1816 Statesman’s Manual is addressed to those who by birth and education could be considered leaders and policy-makers, men from “the higher and learned classes of society.” Coleridge in his letters notes that he intended it to be addressed to “Metaphysicians and Theologians by profession—and especially to the Ministers of the established Church.” [9]

       The 1817 Lay Sermon, in contrast, is addressed to the mercantile “higher and middle classes” and was “meant to be popular.” The Lay Sermon speaks in more mundane terms of “the existing distresses and discontents” of the modern political economy, including the issues of taxation, production, and distribution.  The Lay Sermon exemplifies Coleridge’s belief that the masses can only understand philosophy in terms of religion.  There was to have been a third Sermon, addressed to the Poor, but Coleridge apparently thought better




of it in light of his strong belief that one should preach FOR the poor, not TO them.  No doubt the somewhat chilly reception of the first two Sermons played a part in this decision as well. 

       In these Sermons, he seeks to unify his multiple, disparate audiences under a common goal, to create and foster a belief that individuals are best served when the community works together for the community’s interests.  This would set in motion, give organic life to, a perichoretic cycle, where mental and emotional reflection each stimulate mental and emotional reflection, giving rise to self-sustaining growth.   Given the imbalances in economic situation that pervade his audiences, the task is difficult; even more so when the shaping minds, those who have been born and educated to be leaders, apparently misunderstand (to put it charitably) the complex system of checks and balances necessary in a healthy society.  Their emphasis on economic well-being unfortunately endangers, or so Coleridge saw it, the lower classes, who are simply struggling to get by.  The conflict, and the rhetorical challenge, is thus manifold: the middle and labouring classes are too invested in sheer survival to have time to think too much, and the upper classes are too invested in economic success and political power to have the inclination to think too much.  Yet the Lay Sermon and the Statesman’s Manual each encourage this introspection in the service of ultimately bettering the society, and Coleridge must bring unity to these divided audiences if his philosophy of statehood is to be enacted. 

       Coleridge was trained in classics, of course.  His reading list included Aristotle’s Poetica, which edition I believe included the Rhetorica, as well as Aristotle’s De Anima, and Ethica Nichomachea, Plato of course, and many other of the major figures claimed by rhetorical history, including Bacon, Locke, Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric & Belles-Lettres (1783) and a later work of rhetorician George Campbell, Lectures on Ecclesiastical History (1800).[10] We can hear echoes of Coleridge’s study of classical rhetoric in his statement that “In the disclosal of Opinion, it is our duty to consider the character of those, to whom we address ourselves, their situations, and probable degree of knowledge.  We should be bold in the avowal of political Truth among those only whose minds are susceptible of reasoning”;[11] this is clearly drawn from Aristotle’s Rhetoric in which the Greek, recommending the adoption of the audience’s linguistic character, states that “a rustic and an educated man will not say the same things nor speak in the same way.”[12] To best affect his divided




audiences, Coleridge employs his study of classical and enlightenment rhetorical strategies, and his inclination and training toward preaching to affect his audiences.  Not that this would be enough in any case; he also brings heavily to bear the sympathetic and creative imagination with which he was so generously endowed, using classical and modern rhetorical principles to unify his readers. 

       Because my primary interest in a Coleridgean rhetoric is his handling of audience issues, I’d like to look first at his use of authorial allusion, which faithfully implements Aristotle’s recommendation in Book One of the Rhetoric on the extrinsic means of persuasion:


Witnesses may be either ancient or recent: “By ‘ancient’ witnesses I mean the poets and all other notable persons whose judgements [sic] are known to all . . .  ‘Recent’ witnesses are well-known people who have expressed their opinions about some disputed matter… most trustworthy of [these two] are the ‘ancient’ witnesses, since they cannot be corrupted.[13]


Ancient and recent witnesses translate for Coleridge’s audiences into classical and popular allusions.  For instance, virtually every paragraph of the Lay Sermon offers at least one reference back to the Biblical verses, Jeremiah, Kings, Exodus, Genesis, and Ecclesiastes, or to the more popular poets “Dante, Petrarch, Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, . . . [and] Milton.” [14] This echoes Coleridge’s understanding of this audience as “my friends!” and his presentation of himself as a member of this audience, a fellow man.  Coleridge presents in Statesman’s Manual a list of somewhat different witnesses, in accordance with his understanding of this audience as “men, from whose station and opportunities I may dare anticipate a respectable portion of that ‘sound book learnedness’ in which our own public schools still…initiate their pupils.”[15] Thus, his references range from Thuanus (i.e. Jacques Auguste de Thou[16]), Lord Clarendon, Sir Thomas More, and Sir Walter Ralegh[17] to Heraclitus and Socrates “the prince of philosophers”; from Bishop Berkley (“the happiest synthesis of the Divine, the Scholar, and the Gentleman”[18]), through Francis Lord Bacon and Augustus, to historical examples




Caesar and Cromwell.[19] His choices here are tightly bound up with his presentation of himself to each audience, to the Statesman’s Manual audience as a fellow leader and to the Lay Sermon audience as a fellow member of this somewhat beleaguered class. 

       Given his conception of the healthy interdependence of these groups, Coleridge needs also to address the relationships these two audiences have with each other. [20] From an outside perspective, it’s fascinating to watch the interplay of rhetorical choices.  In the Lay Sermon Coleridge points out that the poor are poor, and are kept that way, by demagogues; in Statesman’s Manual Coleridge denounces some of  his readers for being demagogues.  In a similar move, Coleridge in the Lay Sermon speaks to the self-interest of the audience, while in Statesman’s Manual he exploits the inbred and reinforced sense of moral and civic duty to those “less fortunate” classes.

       The very introductory text he uses to begin Statesman’s Manual, Psalm 78, immediately establishes a paternal relationship which, to my eyes, clearly reminds the Statesman’s Manual audience of its hereditary role of protector:


“5. For he established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel; which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children. 6. That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children.”(Psalm 78, 5-7)[21]


Coleridge continues this paternal approach, writing that “To find no contradiction in the union of the old and new will raise you above the mass of mankind, and therefore will best entitle and qualify you to guide and controul them!” (Statesman’s Manual 25).

       However, to his Lay Sermon audience, who make up this “mass of mankind,” he offers a caution about the tactics used by demagogues: “Let but mysterious expressions be aided by significant looks and tones, and you may cajole an [sic] hot and ignorant audience to believe any thing by saying nothing, and finally to act on the lie which they themselves have been drawn in to make.”[22] He’s goading them into taking responsibility for their own intelligence and place in society; the Lay Sermon begins with a direct challenge to the newly idle:


“The comforts, perchance the splendors that surround you, designate your rank, but cannot constitute your moral and personal fitness for it.  Be it enough for others to know, that you are its legal—but by what mark shall you stand accredited to your own consciences, as its worthy—possessors?”[23]




       Playing on the inherent class conflicts between his audiences, and to some extent inciting the members of each to look suspiciously on the other, could be seen as dividing and conquering but also as a tactic of breaking down divisive barriers in anticipation of forming new inclusive communities.  In fact he imaginatively acts, or seeks to act, upon his audiences just as the sentient knowing mind acts to know its object, thereby creating the subject-object fusion we know so well from the Biographia.  This is a complex theoretical mechanism, and I’d like to address it briefly, as it drives the whole of his impressive rhetorical theory.

       It begins simply with the verb substantive, and he gives a somewhat lengthy disquisition about this verb and its function in the MS of Logic.  Speaking of the relations of grammar to reality, Coleridge writes


Neither the subject nor its predicate … contain the principle, or…, the mental affirmation, of their reality or objective being.  This is accomplished when the mind bears witness to its own unity in the subject represented to it, and this act with this consciousness of the same is conveyed or expressed in the connective ‘is.’ …this reflection could not have taken place…if these constituents had not been previously united by the mind….  (Logic 79, emphasis added)


He derives from this philosophical position the following logical sequence:


The mind affirms firstly its own reality.  Secondly, that this reality is a unity.  Thirdly, that it has the power of communicating this unity, and lastly, that all reality for the mind is derived from its own reality, and in proportion to the unity which is its form and communication …The whole collectively is comprised in the Latin sentence ‘mens est forma formans’, the mind is, and it is a form, and it is formative.  (Logic 80)


       In short, the verb substantive, “is,” is the sum of all that is mind/subject, all that there is of possible and achievable reality, and from that initial unity of mind and object develops true understanding.  This conceptual verb lives simultaneously in the scholia of logic, dialectic, philosophy, and religion, and as such, to continue the suggestion that Coleridge’s theory of rhetoric is at the cusp of classical and modern rhetoric, it is the linchpin for all his propositions, notably the rhetorical sum or “I am” he describes in Biographia: the “act of synthesis depends upon the grammatical transformation of third person into first person, of the expression ‘it is’ into ‘I am.’” [24]  "Every object [or every ‘it’]" Coleridge insists in Biographia, "is, as an object, dead, fixed,




incapable in itself of any action, and necessarily finite."[25] The object does not take on any ability to mean, to be a subject,  until the active and "sentient knowing Mind", what he knew as the direct representation of God in human, acts to know the object.  In this way he creates a unified audience from divisive groups; the objects become the subjects when they take on the ability for self-reflection.

       I’ll conclude by identifying a key passage in Statesman’s Manual.  He writes:


WE LIVE BY FAITH.  Whatever we do or know, that in kind is different from the brute creation, has its origin in a determination of the reason to have faith and trust in itself.  This, its first act of faith, is scarcely less than identical with its own being.  Implicite, it is the COPULA—it contains the possibility—of every position, to which there exists any correspondence in reality.  It is itself, therefore, the realizing principle, the spiritual substratum of the whole complex body of truths.  (Statesman’s Manual 18)[26]

       I think this passage may be one of the most important statements of Coleridge’s rhetorical theory.  Its philosophy is critical to a deep understanding of his rhetoric as it underlies and informs his linguistics, and it is certainly the key to transcending that traditional scholarly divide between rhetoric & Romanticism.  It paints a picture of a rhetorical practice that partakes in the internal soliloquy yet turns its power outward to benefit a larger audience than the solipsistic I, accomplishing this turn by means of the copula.  In my eyes, it claims Coleridge for the rhetorical canon, on the pivot point between classical and modern rhetoric.


[1]   My thanks to Anthony Harding, Jim McKusick, Anya Taylor, and David Vallins for their assistance and direction in the presentation of this paper.

[2]   The Rhetorical Tradition, ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1990. 665.

[3]   “We see no sort of difference between his published and his unpublished compositions…we can give just as good a guess at the design of this Lay-Sermon , which is not published, as of the Friend [which is].” “This work is so obscure, that it has been supposed to be written in cypher and that it is necessary to read it upwards and downwards, or backwards and forwards…The effect is monstrously like the qualms produced by the heaving of a ship becalmed at sea; the motion is so tedious, improgressive, and sickening.” William Hazlitt, in The Examiner. 8 September 1816, 571-3. Coleridge: The Critical Heritage. J. R. de J. Jackson, ed. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.

[4]   R. J. White, editor. Lay Sermons. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Bollingen Series, Princeton UP: 1972. Xxx. See also David Calleo, Coleridge and the Idea of the Modern State  (1966); John Colmer, Coleridge; Critic of Society (1959); and, to some extent, James Cutsinger,  The Form of Transformed Vision (1985).

[5]   Calleo 18.

[6]   Collected Letters IV. 1048; 22 March 1817.

[7]   Statesman’s Manual Dec 1816; Lay Sermon Mar 1817; Biographia July 1817.

[8]   Letter to Thomas Poole March 23 1801; CL II.709. Quoted in White,  Lay Sermon intro, xliii.

[9]   Collected Letters V.1342.

[10] See Ralph Coffman, Coleridge’s library: A Bibliography of Books Owned or Read by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Boston: G.K Hall, 1987.

[11] Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann. London & Princeton NJ, 1971. Collected Works I. 51 See also Coleridge’s explanation of his perception of his own writing as it speaks to each audience: in an 1817 letter, he writes “To affirm that the second Sermon was in the same style and manner as the first is not correct in any sense of the word…the first [Statesman’s Manual] I never dreamt would be understood (except in fragments) by the general Reader; but of the second [Lay Sermon] I can scarcely discover any part or passage which would compel any man of common education and information to read it a second Time in order to understand it. The very style is as different as the same man’s writings can be where both works are serious.” Letter to T. G. Street, March 1817. Collected Letters IV 713.

[12] Aristotle, Rhetoric Book III Chapter 7; 1407.  The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle. Modern Library College  Edition. McGraw-Hill: New York, 1854, 1984.

[13] Aristotle, Rhetoric Book 1  Ch 15. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed, Richard McKeon. Random House: NY, 1941. 1375-76.

[14] Lay Sermon 173. The inclusion of Dante here is a particularly significant one for rhetoric scholars to take note of, given Coleridge’s belief that a middle class audience will generally not be able to understand philosophy unless it is presented in terms of religion; in his Miscellaneous Criticism, Coleridge notes that Dante serves as “the living link between religion and philosophy; he philosophized the religion and christianized the philosophy of Italy.” Coleridge’s Miscellaneous Criticism ed T. M. Raysor. Cambridge, MA 1936.

[15] Statesman’s Manual 39.

[16] Jacques Auguste de Thou, 1553-1617. Councillor of state of Henry III and IV of France.

[17] Statesman’s Manual 26.

[18] Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century. Ed R. F. Brinkley (Durham NC, 1995).

[19] Statesman’s Manual  11.

[20] Calleo offers a succinct and persuasive recounting of the times in his Coleridge and the Idea of the Modern State.

[21] Psalm 78. 5-7. Qtd in Coleridge, Statesman’s Manual 5.

[22] Lay Sermon 154-55.

[23] Lay Sermon 121. Coleridge further points out the use of a common logical fallacy used to distort reality for the middle classes, who because of a slightly different depth of education are perhaps not as aware of the ins and outs of such fallacies: “that the [economic] depression began with the Peace would have been of itself a sufficient proof with the Many, that it arose from the peace” (162).

[24] McKusick, “Systematic Theory,” 485.

[25] Biographia Literaria I: 279.

[26] “Coleridge was committed to ‘a HUNGERING AND THIRSTING AFTER TRUTH,’ and truth ‘must be found within us [within all of us] before it can be intelligibly reflected back on the mind from without’.” The Friend I 495. Qtd in Anya Taylor, “Coleridge and ‘Erssential Oneness’”. Wordsworth Circle 16:1 (Winter 1985): 29-32. See also EOT: “The great majority of men live like bats, but in twilight, and know and feel the philosophy of their age only by its reflections and refractions” (Essays on His Own Times. Rpt in Inquiring Spirit: A Coleridge Reader. Ed., Kathleen Coburn. 367), and Aids to Reflection: “Locke erred only in taking half the truth for a whole Truth. …What we cannot imagine, we cannot, in the proper sense of the word, conceive.” (AR Rpt in Inquiring Spirit; A Coleridge Reader. Ed., Kathleen Coburn.)