Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Politics of Pantheism


By William R. Hooton III


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.60-72)



TO BE or not to be a Spinozist in early nineteenth-century England—this  question plagued many romantic-era writers, including Coleridge and Wordsworth. For example, Nicholas Riasanovsky’s discussion of Wordsworth’s revisions of The Prelude demonstrate a systematic transformation of pantheist ideas into the less radical panentheist and Christian forms found in the 1850 version.[1]  Although Wordsworth never submitted The Prelude for publication, he did make numerous changes in his older poems that were published in revised versions, an authorial choice that suggests the presence of political pressures on publication and poetic expression.  He must have perceived some danger due to his earlier views, especially given the censure of The Excursion by Patty Smith, and so disavowed his early connection to Nature Philosophy.[2]

       Coleridge probably encountered pantheism through his Unitarian associations and in his readings of the German romantic philosophers, such as Herder and Schelling, and embraced such ideas with the zeal befitting a young, radical idealist.  His contemporaries spoke of him as a preacher of reform at the coffee-houses he frequented, suggesting that his radical religious and political ideas were intertwined within a larger systematic world view.  In Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition, for example, Thomas McFarland argues that Coleridge’s philosophy (as far as we have it) shows some organic unity, and he skilfully demonstrates the pantheist locus of ideas with which Coleridge is concerned.[3]  And Anya Taylor’s suggestion that we put too much faith in particular passages of Coleridge’s writings rather than seeing these parts as “one among many possible hypotheses” illustrates a pervasive problem in scholarly works on Coleridge.[4]  The controversy over Coleridge’s style is an important one, and I will examine how such a contradictory style of presentation gives various impressions of his actual position, a position that I, along with McFarland, maintain to be generally pantheist.  Thus, given Coleridge’s wide variety of opinion regarding Spinozism as expressed in his




letters and his published works and the evidence provided by Wordsworth’s early poetry that he strove to revise and Christianize, I argue that a fear of social and legal antagonism led both Wordsworth and Coleridge to disguise their allegiance to Spinoza.

       A great deal of critical attention has been drawn to the suppression of the freedom of speech in romantic England.  The passage of the Two Bills, or Gagging Acts, in December 1795 and the Peterloo massacre of 1819 demonstrate the Government’s attempt to suppress political and religious ideas thought to be seditious.  I mention religion and politics together since they are, in many ways, nearly synonymous in the dominant ideology, represented by legislative and judicial activities of the time.  Naturally, the government and its agents of censorship would sense an added threat due to the French Revolution, Napoleon’s invasion, and the continued threat of revolutionary ideas and demonstrations, with the culmination of such pressure exhibited in the Peterloo massacre.  Shelley’s A Letter to Lord Ellenborough of 1812 denounces the legal persecution of dissenters whose religious opinions were seen as sedition, exemplified by the persecution of Deist Daniel Eaton for his publication of Paine’s Age of Reason.  Shelley’s query of the basis of such persecution extends to an attack on its religio-political foundations, for he denounces “a government which, whilst it infringes the very right of thought and speech, boasts of permitting the liberty of the press.”[5]  The imprisonment of both Leigh Hunt and Joseph Johnson also serve as examples of legal action taken against publishers for their exercise of free speech, demonstrating the existence of a social climate governed by political repression and religious persecution of those whose ideas did not correspond closely enough to a dominant ideological view to fall under the protection of Britain’s so-called “liberty of the press.”

Marilyn Gaull has drawn attention to the political underpinnings of a  “religious revival” which took place during the period, a revival in which groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice helped pressure infidels and reinforce certain orthodox behaviours.  Discussing the socio-economic implications embedded in the development and activities of these pro-social organizations, Gaull writes,


Because the entire philanthropic and educational program was associated with a religious revival, the rewards for the poor, however intangible, were beyond reproach.  An astute government, more concerned with controlling th[a]n relieving the poor, helped to orchestrate the religious revival and the charitable activities carried on in its name: in 1818, at the peak of postwar unrest, the government subsidized the building of new churches, although most of the existing ones had only token congregations, and ignored the maimed




veterans, starving widows, and orphans.  From a social or political point of view, then, the philanthropic activities of the religious sects were misguided.  Politically, however, they upheld the power of the landed aristocracy while creating a class of abject labourers who resigned themselves to hardship and deprivation on the basis that it was spiritually good for such naturally corrupt creatures to do so.[6] 


Gaull’s comments underscore the reproduction of ideology by means of the ostensibly social and spiritual activities of institutional bodies (the various “societies”) she describes.  A political regime bent on retaining its power, such as that of George III and the Prince-Regent, would develop a program of religious propaganda designed to maintain the subjectivity of its subjects—to keep “such naturally corrupt creatures” in their place.

       The Prince-Regent’s political regime reproduced its ideology partly by means of the school system, a system largely run by the Anglican Church, thus serving the interests of Church and State.  The Anglican Church administered, staffed, and provided content to the educational system, and any instructive material deemed sacrilegious or seditious by government-church censors would naturally lead to political action against its exponents.[7]  Since the main educational apparatus derived from Anglican instruction, and thus linked it to the political state (since the King was the nominal and influential head of both the Government and Church), the ideology that established the authority of the monarchical-parliamentary State would reproduce itself through conformist activities designed to ensure the continued subjection of “subjects” to both their spiritual and political kings.  The English school system, then, would ideally produce a docile society that accepted such a ruling structure as ordained by the source used to establish its ideological existence, whether they considered God or King or Parliament as the source of the monarchical right of rulership.  In this case, God (in the Anglican sense) would serve as the ultimate Author of the Book upon which Christian society had built itself and from which it drew continual edification.  Any claim that another book (the Book of Nature) would serve as a better ground for moral and social growth would be perceived as a threat to all state ideological apparatuses.

       If threatened, such a regime naturally responded with propaganda, censorship, and violence, as exemplified by the Two Bills, or Gagging Acts, passed in December 1795 and the Peterloo massacre of August 1819, examples of repressive activities. This governing style falls well within the general criteria of Spinoza’s critique of tyrannical forms of government.  His claim that divine




(natural) law granted equality for all individuals naturally opposed the dominant idea in England that God’s authority and the political power that went with it were concentrated in the Government whose monarch served as symbolic head.[8]  Spinoza’s metaphysical argument that “God, or Nature” is the sole Substance whose modes express it and thus partake in its existence carries with it the political repercussions of democratic revolution.  His definition of Nature provides for a belief that all individuals participate equally in God-Substance and none, therefore, have the “God-given” right to dominate others, leading Coleridge to refer to Spinoza as a prophet of democracy (TT I 287; TT II 165, 214).  Spinozism, then, if expressed in any form, would threaten not only the moral authority of the English Church and the school system through which it reproduced its ideology.  It would also undermine the right of rulership presumed to belong to the Government, thus irritating a political nerve made raw by recent revolutions in America and France.



Wordsworth’s earlier poems reveal an implicit antagonism to the dominant conservative ideology of the late 1790s.  The claim expressed in “Tintern Abbey” in which he finds in Nature his “guide,” or teacher, “guardian,” or king, and “soul / of all my moral being,” serves as a clear yet subtle attack on the foundations of his society.  Wordsworth also clearly argues that the beginning of ideological impregnation lies in the education of children.  Thus the continual references to the innocence and vision of children as well as their conversion from “priests” of nature to socially-trained “actors” in such poems as “We Are Seven” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” serve as more than simple romantic reminiscences over loss.  The innocence of the former poem’s view of death as an imaginary state rather than permanent separation marks a naïve perception of continued presence in God-Substance even after death.  The latter poem, however, contains a very provocative assessment of the education of a youth from a seemingly naïve and innocent participation in and incorporation with the forms of nature into an “actor” who learns his social part, reading and deeply encoding the given text (script) of the part.  For Wordsworth, then, society absorbs children into its ideological program, encouraging them to learn new parts as they shed their earlier unsocialized participation in the universal play—the world of Nature—whose text they apprehend from Nature’s playwright, God.  This suggests a view of God-the-Author in His Text (authorial consubstantiality), and the real history of the world as His-story, the autobiographical drama of Substance.

       A more direct assault on the educational underpinnings of ideology can be




found in the paired poems from Lyrical Ballads entitled “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned.”  In “Expostulation,” the expostulator’s voice chides “William” for his inattention to the textual instruments of education by which ideology reproduces itself (ll. 1-12).  The antagonistic expostulator denounces William’s decision to leave aside his “books” from which ideological knowledge, “that light bequeath’d / To beings else forlorn and blind,” may pour in “the spirit breath’d / From dead men to their kind.”  The “book” as described here implies comparison with the Bible, as metaphors of “light bequeath’d” and “spirit breath’d” from the prophetic, inspired writing and speech of “dead men” indicate.  Wordsworth’s diction suggests not only an attack on classroom education but an implied assault on religious institutions as well.  The expostulator (a representative ideological voice) describes the book-text as bright, alive, a liquid elixir to be drunk.  Wordsworth, however, is careful to undercut such a description with the ironic note that such books are the codified “spirit breath’d” by “dead men” into the minds of living readers.  The reader, accordingly, by being informed by dead breath might partake of some “death,” the image connoting a dark magic being performed by the unliving, an ideology, upon its hosts or living subjects.

       Wordsworth’s response to the expostulator indicates that, for him, the chosen text is the Book of Nature.  This text of God-Substance—“this mighty sum/Of things for ever speaking” with which he sits “conversing as he may”—imparts an eternal message rather than one delivered by mortal (“dead”) authors through ideologically-limited ideas.  Wordsworth describes his conversation with the “speaking sum” as a dream, a state linked during the romantic era with imagination and visionary insight, and in this heightened level of consciousness he communicates with the whole “sum” of Nature’s expressive objects rather than with individual “things.”  Such a claim invokes Spinozian pantheism, since the term sum in Latin signifies “I am,” so that “William” claims to be “conversing” with the Great “I AM” of Nature, God, an infinite presence corresponding with the Spinozian natura naturans. Wordsworth’s extension of the term into a “sum / Of things” includes the physical material form of the Face of Nature, as well, corresponding to the Spinozian natura naturata.  Spinoza, of course, argued that “God, or Nature” comprises both natura naturans and natura naturata simultaneously, being both the creative source of natural modal expression as well as the abstracted and exteriorized form(s), the Face of Nature.  Wordsworth’s subtle use of these ideas suggests a clear and distinct political message which the twin poem, “The Tables Turned,” proposes as a purpose, or mission statement.

       In “The Tables Turned,” “William” embarks on the purposive mission given him by God-Nature, responding to the call of the “mighty sum” in his dreaming “conversation.”  He speaks as if he were a prophet breathed into by a living Author, rather than by dead men’s books.  His exclamatory advice has even greater importance in the examination of ideology, as he tells his “friend” to “quit your books, / Or surely you’ll grow double” (ll. 3-4).  Wordsworth




suggests that the Living Book of “God, or Nature” should be the text of choice, an claim that threatened the episcopacy of the ideological state since churchmen’s jobs were to translate God’s printed Word to “naturally corrupt creatures.”  Opposed to this negative view of humanity by orthodox opinion, Wordsworth’s positive view of human potential (when actively seeking the wise “lore” of Nature) seems all the more stunning in undercutting the ideological apparatuses of education and religion.  In so doing, he replaces them by claiming a direct relationship of individuals to their ontological source via the imagination, which may be used to communicate intimately and directly with “God, or Nature,” circumventing other ideological “voices.”  Wordsworth, while expressing a pantheist program, subtly attacks the school system and its effect of creating a “double”—a social subject interpellated (literally “called forth”) from a concrete (natural) individual.

       The religious and philosophical issues raised in the final stanzas of “The Tables Turned” are clearly political, then, since they undermine the ideological social fabric that gives the government and church its authority and power.  To overtly refer to a “throstle” as “no mean preacher” stands out as a clear admonition to turn from the dogma of the institutional church to the “spontaneous wisdom” (intuition) imparted impartially to all by Nature in its democratic classroom.  This, of course, is a revolutionary “impulse”—to claim that an “impulse from a vernal wood” teaches more of “man;/Of moral evil and of good,/Than all the sages can” marks human epistemological systems as deficient.  Not only that, human knowledge “misshapes” the “beauteous forms of things,” creating falsehood from the “wisdom” of Nature.  Thus education and religion, and the political ideology through which they work and which they serve to support, fall under attack as codifiers of a type of fraud contained in “barren leaves” of books, a fraud which presents that which is misshapen as knowledge, instead of drawing on the knowledge expressed in the living leaves of grass, and of trees, and musical sermons delivered by birds.

       Wordsworth’s argument for a conversation with Nature as Teacher due to education’s participation in ideology allows us to see the political import of the Spinozian metaphysics he strove to revise.  To turn away from the human wisdom imprinted in books to a wisdom impressed directly by God withdraws authority from the social powers and returns it to “God, or Nature,” whom Spinoza credits with granting universal human rights.  A repressive political context would clearly prompt Wordsworth to suppress his former pantheism (whether real or merely poetic) in order to minimize the threat from the State as well as to improve his critical image during a time in which he sought government employment.[9]  The exponents of pantheism and Spinozism stood in a precarious position between 1787 and 1820, since publication of “blasphemous” matter constituted sedition.





       In reading his letters in the context of his published works, we find that Coleridge seems rather crafty with regard to his Spinozism.  The descriptions of Spinozism as an “atheistical or materialist system” in the Biographia Literaria would, if considered as the total of Coleridge’s opinions on this matter, signify his rejection of Spinoza.  But in other letters of virtually the same time, Coleridge’s mention of Spinoza occurs in a favourable context.  In a letter to Daniel Stewart of September 1814 (CL III 533-34),[10] Coleridge outlines an exposition of a textual pantheism, a view related to Herder’s version of Spinozism, for his never-completed Magnum Opus.  In the second treatise, Logos Architectonicus, he proposes to examine the architecture or constructive properties of God’s Word—a constructive verbal praxis.  Coleridge’s decision to combine this with a commentary on the gospel of John, which begins “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” provides a possible biblical corollary for textual pantheism.  In arguing that God and His Word are One, John seems to express the idea of Christ as God’s discursive issue, or a parole issuing from the langue.

       However, my main point lies with Coleridge’s decision to invoke Spinoza at a time when Spinozism would be punished socially, prosecuted politically, and denounced religiously.  A clue to his positive regard for Spinoza is found in the title of the third treatise, “Logos Agonistes,” as listed in the 12 September letter to Stuart.  One implication is, of course, that Spinoza had placed the biblical Logos, or Word, in agony through his exegesis of the Bible as a historical, rather than divinely inspired, text.  But why would Coleridge provide the biography of such an atheist if he were opposed to Spinozism?  Only to give the devil his due?  I think not, given Coleridge’s announcement that the Magnum Opus would not only defend Christianity but exhibit “Originality” on every page.  It is more likely that Coleridge found in Spinoza the means of uniting pantheism and Christianity, thereby making God manifest in Nature.  Coleridge’s use of the term “agonistes” implicates both the trial of Christ as the historical Word, made flesh, and echoes Milton’s Samson Agonistes, suggesting a revolutionary political context due to Milton’s republicanism and status as defender of the Puritan Revolution.

       Letters to Stuart of 7 October 1815 (IV 591-92) and to John May of 27 September 1815 (IV 589-90) clearly indicate that Coleridge still has the same plan for what he now calls “Logosophia, or on the Logos human & Divine.”  His intentions may have been a discussion of the expressive, constructive, and dynamic principles of the human and Divine “Logos” which might correspond to Spinoza’s claim that only Substance and its modifications (expressions) exist.[11]  His use of logos understood as both structure and content intensifies the




appeal of using Spinozian “expressionism” to construct an understanding of God’s expressions as logical and verbal manifestations, or endless Word made Flesh in the perpetual Book of the World.  His fifth treatise would then concentrate “on the Mystics & Pantheists, with the Lives of Giordano Bruno, Jacob Behmen, George Fox, and Benedict Spinoza, with an analysis of their systems &c” (IV 589-90), and his intention to write four such biographies shows the growth of his interest in such “systems.”  So Coleridge appears to have some “originality” in mind that might correlate pantheism and Christianity.

       Coleridge’s letter to Rev. J. P. Estlin of 7 December 1802 (II 892-93) demonstrates that, in his early years, Coleridge denounced any view of God as a “Person” apart from the Creation as “idolatry,” a critique of religious anthropomorphism that, again, finds expression in Spinoza’s works.  In this letter, Coleridge describes the belief in a person-like God, “Jehovah,” (such as he ascribes to certain Unitarians, “who make too much an Idol of their one God”) or the “three Persons in the Deity,” as a creation of mental graven images in humanized form.  He also claims that “the Quakers & Unitarians are the only Christians, altogether pure from Idolatry” while noting the “gross Idolatry of Popery, or the more decorous, but not less genuine, Idolatry of a vast majority of Protestants.”  Even simple monotheism, he says “becomes Idolatry… when instead of the Eternal & Omnipresent, in whom we live, & move, & have our Being, we set up a distinct Jehovah tricked out in the anthropomorphic Attributes of Time & Successive Thoughts—& think of him, as a PERSON, from whom we had our Being.”  Such beliefs, of course, underlie many orthodox religions, such as Anglicanism, Catholicism, and most Protestant sects.

       Coleridge thus sees dualism, which he sees as abstracting God from the material world, as a fallacious form of “idolatry” or atheism.  This critique marks him as a monist (like Spinoza), since, according to both Coleridge and Spinoza, beliefs based upon dualism do not pertain to the “true” God, a God infinite (and thus, by definition, not limited to being “out” of matter) and omnipresent (and therefore present throughout all material Creation).  Furthermore, Coleridge expands his view of dualism as an “exploded” system in the Biographia Literaria (I 129) by arguing that “body and spirit are therefore no longer absolutely heterogeneous but may, without any absurdity, be supposed to be different modes or degrees in perfection of a common substratum” (I 130).  Coleridge clearly owes some debt to Spinoza’s depiction of God as a singular Substance, comprehended by human intellect under the attributes of thought and extension (mind and matter), with this divine Substance being expressed in its modifications, or “modes” of expression.  Of




course, Coleridge is wonderfully (and often frustratingly) contradictory, for he also wrote to Joseph Cottle in June 1807: “Notwithstanding the arguments of Spinoza, and DesCartes, and other advocates of the Material system, or, in more appropriate language, the Atheistical system! It is admitted by all men, not prejudiced, not biased by sceptical prepossessions, that mind is distinct from matter” (III 483).  It seems clear that he is either fluctuating wildly in his religious and metaphysical views, swinging from end to end like a pendulum (which I doubt), or that his writings are generally tempered by the audience and social climate into which his discourse enters.  Thus he may express agreement or disagreement with various individuals and their ideological positions, but over the course of his adult life he continually returns to Spinoza, thus leading me to argue that Spinozism remains central to the metaphysical system he claims to be building in the Magnum Opus.[12]

       A letter to C. A. Tulk of September 1817 (IV 767-76) sets the stage for a Coleridgean view of Creation as an endless series of discursive expressions or filial repetitions of the God/Logos/Substance “I AM.” Using the original language of the Old Testament to build his case (thus demonstrating some attempt to reconcile the Bible and his pantheist system), Coleridge relies on the Hebrew verb for the “timeless Tense” of God’s “perpetualhabit of an act” of expressing the universe into Being. He thus uses a language-based critique (similar to Spinoza) to explicate and analyze Biblical text (quoting the first verse of Genesis in the letter): “In the Beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.”


The meaning of the Text therefore = All that exists has a beginning—and God, whose essence is the ground of all things, is by his Will, thro’ the utterance of his Will (= the Word, Λόγος) the Beginner of their existence; i.e. God createth all things. . . God is not merely the Cause of the Universe, for that would be atheism, in which the Mens or Νους would be a part of the Universe, viz. the first Link of the Chain.  Thus instead of a Cosmo-gony we should have a Theogony… (IV 769-70)


In this same letter to Tulk, Coleridge calls God “the cause sufficiens— = sub faciens. Stat solus sub cunctis moventibus (the sole Substance of the World),” translatable as “God is the sufficient cause under the face of things.  It (or He) stands only under the cover of motion, i.e the sole Substance of the World.”  This clearly outlines a monist position, one which marks God’s immanence “standing under” the face of the Creation (not just humanity) just as a person/being stands under (activates and informs) the outward face, or appearance.  He continues in Latin “Natura seu Potentia divina per actum




Arbitrii divini est quasi strat sub omnibus (the Substrate), translatable as “Nature, its divine potential through a divine interventionist act is as if divinity were informing all things, is the Substrate,” again arguing for divine omnipresence, but in this case “Nature” is the only “Substrate” of the world, realized through divine action.  The use of “Substance” and “Substrate” reveals an interesting differentiation Coleridge makes, for substans (that which stands under) and substratum (the structure/foundation standing under), both refer to different attributes of a singular Being, an attempt to add the dialectic of movement to an organizing principle.  Substans is often considered as an effluence of Substratum; thus Coleridge invokes Nature as a logic of Forms (Platonic) instantiated in movement which may be experienced as God under the surface of the effluent, moving creation (Plotinian) of Natura, the Spinozian “God.”  This reflects Coleridge’s deconstruction of Spinoza’s work, and a confluence of potentially pantheist ideas into a derivative system that definitely invokes the Spinozian definition of God as Substance and sufficient cause, and Fichte’s concept of God as Absolute Will as well.  This suggests that a verbal series “let there be x…”, like an unfolding repetition of a mathematical series, initiates and continues in perpetuity the existence and seamless textual contiguity of the All which is the World-Text.[13] 

       Coleridge’s further comments to Tulk reveal a pervasive pantheism that he expresses in a markedly materialist manner.  Coleridge can hardly be unaware of the Spinozian co-identification of natura naturans and natura naturata, and hence an interfused coexistence of matter and energy, or extension and thought.  None of these dyads reflect “heterogeneity” but rather express the same “divine potency” or act recognized under different attributes within human epistemological structures.  And Coleridge has chosen not to remain exclusively within a Spinozian paradigm—the use of Christian metaphors illustrates his attempt to reconcile Christianity and Spinozism.  But his discussion of negation-as-distinction as an “absurdity” pertains to Spinozian theory, since the Spinozian God’s essence involves no negation, thereby re-asserting that the Coleridgean (and the Spinozian) God has no “personhood” or “self.”  Coleridge’s discussion of negation suggests that it is illusory since the “Identity” of both poles in “re-union” is given as “The Life of Nature.”  Thus this passage establishes that, as late as 1817, Coleridge still retained a vital connection with Spinozism as well as a deeply entrenched materialist and pantheist perspective.  This stands somewhat at odds with his negative description of Spinoza’s system as “materialism” in the Biographia Literaria, a work published just months before this letter to Tulk was written.

       In the Biographia, Coleridge gives the initial appearance of opposition to




Spinozian “atheism.”  For example, he describes his youthful intellectual wanderings as skirting “the sandy deserts of utter unbelief,” which refers to his interest in a pantheist system.  This published opinion seems to differ with his comments to Tulk as well as those made in a letter to R. H. Brabant only two years earlier on 10 March 1815 (IV 547-50), hardly during his youth, in which Coleridge suggests a relation between Spinozism and Calvinism. The description demonstrates his admiration, and his further comments suggest that his own belief system is developed from that of Spinoza.


If Dr W[illiams]’s Opinions be indeed those of the Modern Calvinists collectively, I have taken my last Farewell of Modern Calvinism.  It is in it’s inevitable consequences Spinosism, not that which Spinosism, i.e. the doctrine of the Immanence of the World in God, might be improved into, but Spinosism with all it’s Skeleton unfleshed, bare Bones and Eye-holes, as presented by Spinoza himself.  It has not the noble honesty, that majesty of openness, so delightful in Spinoza, which made him scorn all attempts to varnish over fair consequences, or to deny in words what was affirmed in the reasoning. (IV 548)


The apostrophe that follows, “O I did injustice to thee, Spinoza!—Righteous and gentle Spirit” (IV 548), further illustrates both his sympathy for Spinoza as well as his awareness of a certain ingenuousness in his public attitudes toward Spinozism, a social posturing in which he denied in several printed words “what was affirmed in” his own “reasoning.”  He further expresses a desire to discover “the hundred deep and solemn Truths, which as so many Germs of Resurrection to Life and a glorified Body will make, sooner or later, ‘the dry Bones live’” (IV 548).  A footnote added by Coleridge discusses the problems of Spinoza’s argument (as he sees them), but they seem to refer mainly to how human epistemology should conceive of God, the “natura naturata” (God given His Nature by the human mind), rather than disputing Spinoza’s ontological argument.  A letter to “Mr. Pryce” of April 1818 goes even further in establishing Coleridge’s private assessment that Spinozism informs all true theism, arguing that Spinoza “alone had the philosophic courage to be consequent.  We need only correct the convenient clinamina of the Theistic Philosophers to reduce all their systems into Spinosism” (IV 849).  Taking Coleridge’s argument here at face value, again in the context of a private communication with someone receptive to his ideas, he defends Spinozism as a model to which all “Theistic” systems can be reduced, once corrected.  Thus it may be the public nature of the Biographia that causes Coleridge’s bifurcation between a Spinoza seen as a “Righteous and gentle Spirit” wronged by Coleridge and that of Spinoza as “incompatible with religion.”

       In writing to Taylor and Hessey on 22 April 1819 (IV 938-39), Coleridge acknowledges the climate of social opinion that governs the work of the most brilliant minds.  Speaking of the public “contempt” which had “assailed




weekly, monthly, and quarterly” the afflicted Wordsworth, Coleridge makes a comparison with the righteous Spinoza, referring to Spinoza’s perceived humility as opposite to Wordsworth’s developing sense of “Egotism.”  The reference to “weekly, monthly, and quarterly” attacks suggests attacks in the press.  And Coleridge’s admission that Spinoza had been the object of public scorn and political persecution indicates his awareness that an open attitude of support for Spinozism would garner the same persecution at that time (1819) as it had for the previous “several ages.”

       Even after his death, the debate over Coleridge’s reputation persisted.  Henry Nelson and Sara Coleridge together produced the Biographia Epistolaris, “the work known as the Biographical Supplement of the Biographia Literaria” according to Turnbull,[14] composed mainly of selected letters of Coleridge.  The fact that this work includes only three references to Spinoza seems indicative of a move to limit public knowledge of Coleridge’s engagement with Spinozism, since the Griggs edition contains dozens of references.  The two references found in the second volume are antagonistic toward Spinoza, a position I have already noted as more a social imposture than a strictly genuine position. 

       Despite his initial claim to have survived his youthfull dalliance with “utter unbelief,” Coleridge’s observation in the Biographia Literaria that “pantheism is therefore not necessarily irreligious or heretical, though it may be taught atheistically” (I 247*) suggests that, to him, pantheism was misunderstood in the context of Christian ideology.  And it is worth noting that in concluding the Biographia, Coleridge calls attention to the “heavy”-handedness of his critics.


The ready belief which has been yielded to the slander of my “potential infidelity,” I attribute in part to the openness with which I have avowed my doubts, whether the heavy interdict, under which the name of BENEDICT SPINOZA lies, is merited on the whole or to the whole extent. (II 245)


He then claims to wish to find a passage in current theological treatises as “thoroughly Pauline, as completely accordant with the doctrines of the established Church, as the following sentences in the concluding page of Spinoza’s Ethics,” and provides the extended quotation from Spinoza which he described as “Pauline.”  His discussion and quotation may thus have seemed an approval of Spinoza, creating the need for Coleridge to publicly disavow his connection to Spinozism in the 1818 Friend, published just one year after the Biographia.

       Spinoza’s emphasis on reading the Bible historically, which laid the foundation for the “higher criticism” of the Bible, created a negative reception for his ideas in his time as well as early nineteenth-century England.  For nearly




a century, the Church of England had, of course, exhibited tolerance for many dissenting beliefs, so long as they held some semblance to orthodox Christianity, even permitting the construction of Dissenters’ schools.  However, when faced with ideas that seem to undermine the entire Christian fabric of society, ideologically divergent groups may conspire to suppress the radically subversive threat, such as that perceived in Spinozism.  Evangelical factions, such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, would never passively allow the admission of such “atheistical” materials into public discourse, given their history of legal action against blasphemy.  According to Elie Halévy, this Society “carried on a vigorous warfare against blasphemous or obscene publications” while promoting moral orthodoxy (my italics).[15]

       The vigorous “warfare against blasphemous… publications” might take a more economic tack in influencing a publisher’s decision as to whether to print a book or not.  If, for example, a publisher were to print Spinoza’s Works, he might find himself ostracized by what Halévy calls the “Evangelical propaganda” (453) of the Society and shut down by the ensuing loss of commerce that would result from his indiscretion in publishing a seditious tract.  And he might face political action as well for bringing seditious political philosophy into the country during that period of time when to do so often brought imprisonment, such as it did for Daniel Eaton, Joseph Johnson, and Leigh Hunt.  Given the ideological power of this Society (and probably a host of others), it is not surprising that, according to Coleridge’s letter to Robinson of 26 November 1813 (III 461), an English version of Spinoza’s work was unavailable for sale in the years between the French revolution and 1813.  He mentions Fichte and Schelling later in this letter, suggesting that pantheist systems were on his mind, which is not now surprising, and his stated “reluctance” to part with Spinoza demonstrates more love than hate for Spinozism.  The fact that he “cannot purchase them” in England strongly supports my claim that Spinoza’s works were considered as too risky to be published despite Spinoza’s centrality in the philosophical milieu of the day.  These “two Volumes of Spinoza” which he borrowed from Robinson were “the German complete Edition of Spinoza’s Works with his Life by Colerus, a work absolutely necessary to me in an undertaking, which has occupied my best Thoughts for the last 10 years & more—,” he tells John Murray in a letter dated 27 April 1816 (IV 635, my italics).  This suggests that, if one were to read such subversive materials, one would have to read them in German (or the original Latin if one could come across an original edition).  Such a reader would also need to be part of a group of friends who shared such literature with each other, passing around the pantheist manifesto among those of like mind.


[1]   The Emergence of Romanticism (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) 75-76.

[2]   Wordsworth’s well-known Immortality “Ode” from Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) suggests a pantheist position (as do the early editions of The Prelude and “Tintern Abbey”) although he would later tell Isabella Fenwick that his only connection to pantheism lay in his curiosity as to how far such material might be made to serve his poetic ends.  Owen and Smyser’s edition of The Prose Works of William Wordsworth provides this and other notes disavowing his youthful respect for the “Aristocracy of Nature.”  Wordsworth also denied his pantheist connection upon hearing from Mrs. Clarkson that Smith rejected The Excursion due to her perception of its use of pantheist motifs.  See Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2 vol., 2nd ed. rev. by Mary Moorman and Alan G. Hill, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969) II.188.

[3]   Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (London: Oxford UP-Clarendon, 1969).

[4]   ‘Coleridge and ‘Essential Oneness’’, Wordsworth Circle, 16.1 (Winter 1985): 29-32 (p. 29).

[5]   The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, I, ed. E. B. Murray (Oxford: Oxford UP-Clarendon, 1993) 65-66.

[6]   English Romanticism: The Human Context (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988) 6-7.

[7]   Although schools for dissenters had existed for nearly a century, and enjoyed some freedom in choosing educational content, such materials still had to meet the criteria established by censorship guidelines.  And the label “dissenter” carries with it a marginalizing function that connotes similar marginalization of the subject matter and beliefs of those within its ideological penumbra.  Although marginalized, such dissenting groups were still assimilated under the larger dominant ideological system, and thus acted with said system against the perceived threat of ideas thought too radical or dissenting, such as Spinozism.

[8]   See Spinoza’s Ethics and A Theologico-political Treatise (the Tractatus).  Both have been translated by R.H.M. Elwes, but Edwin Curley has recently published a controversial translation of the Ethics that takes Spinoza further toward overt materialism than Elwes’s more formal translation.  Antonio Negri’s recent work, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991) examines the political ramifications and socio-religious outrage surrounding Spinoza’s ideas that I draw upon in discussing the general orthodox Christian response to Spinozism.

[9]   Sir William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale, appointed Wordsworth Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland and part of Cumberland in March 1813, a post he held until he was made Poet Laureate in 1842.

[10]             Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Oxford UP-Clarendon, 1956-71).  All references to the letters are drawn from this standard edition, unless otherwise noted, and internal parenthetical citations indicate the volume and page locations.

[11]             Griggs notes that “Coleridge first publicly referred to his projected work on the Logos in the third essay ‘On the Principles of Genial Criticism’: ‘I am about to put to the press a large volume on the LOGOS, or the communicative intelligence in nature and in man, together with, and as preliminary to, a Commentary on the Gospel of St. John” (IV.533n).  Thus Coleridge sees the Logos as “communicative,” thus having some dialogic function, and thus perhaps “expressive,” the ontologically primary Divine Logos (“I AM”) informing the reflection of “I AM” as it constitutes and functions in (“produces”) man.  This same structure was found in Wordsworth’s “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned,” demonstrating that Coleridge still retains, as late as 1815, the same dynamic interpretation of Spinozian thought as he and Wordsworth held in the mid- to late 1790s.  For further reading on Spinozian “expressionism,” see Gilles Deleuze’s Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans. Martin Joughlin (New York: Zone, 1990).

[12]             For clarity, I should indicate that my use of the terms “Spinozist” and “Spinozism” are not intended to argue that Coleridge remained dutifully and unquestioningly under the penumbra of Spinoza’s own work, but that he remained indebted in central ways to Spinoza, rather than eschewing him completely.

[13]             This interpretation relies on Coleridge’s knowledge of and admiration for both Spinoza and his major successor, Leibnitz.  Spinoza constructed his Ethics as a geometric proof, suggesting that Creation might be comprehended as a corresponding geometric expression of God-Substance, a perpetual unfolding, refolding, enfolding (terms used by Deleuze).  Leibnitz, of course, developed calculus, and felt that mathematics was the universal language, a language that might be deciphered to construct an exact understanding of the Universe.  According to this reading, such a universal language might be the literal/mathematical “word of God” in an ontologically creative form.

[14]             Biographia Epistolaris, Being the Biographical Supplement of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, ed. A. Turnbull, 2 vol., Bohn’s Standard Library (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1911) I.v.

[15]             England in 1815, trans. E. I. Watkin and D. A. Barker (London: Ernest Benn, 1924; rept. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968) 453.