Graham Davidson


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.107-118)




IT IS USUALLY DIFFICULT to determine whether a conference, even a single-author conference, is just a miscellany of papers, or whether there is some kind of underlying unity.  The companionship of like, or like-ish, minds over several intense days often spreads a genial warmth over the proceedings, and gives a feeling of consistency and purpose—which afterwards, in the colder light of reason, proves impossible to recover.  But the Coleridge Summer Conference of 1998 was marked by a consciousness among many delegates of a debate that went to the heart of our profession—by what method should we evaluate the texts and authors we study, teach and write about?

       Kelvin Everest gave a clear focus to this debate in his plenary lecture, ‘Historical Reading and Editorial Practice’—which, tellingly, was markedly at variance with the title he gave us for the Conference brochure—‘Time and Reference in the Conversation Poems.’ [1] It seems that a conventional paper was replaced by a critique of the method that might have produced it.  Such reconsiderations are rare, and as Ken Johnston remarked appreciatively, it was a talk in which ‘a major British scholar let it all hang out.’

       What first hung out, and I imagine almost everyone present felt the truth of this in respect of their own life and work, was Kelvin Everest’s recognition that his research, culminating in Coleridge’s Secret Ministry, was ‘…a means to build wider relationships from a narrow and limited personal situation, and to establish a sense of dialogue with a larger world.  The argument… was also a kind of oblique commentary on my own preoccupations, and my own situation at that time.’  Isn’t this, typically and honestly, how we all begin and what we all hope for?  A concern, a preoccupation, deep-seated within us, which we ‘find’ in some form in a writer, and through our studying, hope to validate, embody or resolve, doing which eventually brings us into contact with ‘a larger world’, a community by which we are recognized and received?  It certainly seems to me that one function of the Coleridge Summer Conference is to be, briefly and biennially, a community which can recognize and receive the great variety of scholars working on aspects both of Coleridge’s thought and on Romanticism more widely.  It has proved, happily, a forum in which a common interest creates the bond of community, while the variety of topic and methodology provide the energy for discussion and debate.  This at least is the order that I am conscious of, and hope will be preserved.

       What next hung out was a frank and lucid account of the methodology




underpinning Coleridge’s Secret Ministry and the difficulties it caused the author then, and still causes now.  His argument was that Coleridge’s failure to create a radical community led to his developing a philosophy of unity; that his mature conservatism involved a denial of the materialist pressures which created it.  He added, to make sure we got the point, ‘In short, it was a Marxist thesis.’  And I think we can just about see ‘the oblique commentary’ on the author’s own life.  If the book is successful, from his small domestic world of wife and babe, he will enter into ‘a larger world’—the community of scholars and the likelihood of a career—and thus, his position established, his thesis validated, he would be able to explain, and so perhaps reject, Coleridge’s constant and unpalatable transcendental tendencies.[2]  And in this co-ordination of personal values and public office, quiet Marxism and Romantic scholar, one can see how the agenda was set for the reading of Romanticism throughout the 70’s and 80’s, not seriously troubled by the apparent hiatus between subject and method.[3]

       Marxism in some form has been endemic in British academic life since the 1920’s.  But perhaps the best analysis of its real nature is provided by the comments of a philosopher in the late 1930’s and an archaeologist in the late 1980’s.  Some indications of the contents of Collingwood’s Autobiography leaked out before it was published in 1939, and made their way to All Soul’s high table, where it was announced that ‘Collingwood had become a Marxist.’ (Collingwoood Studies II 1995, p.74)  And the philosopher returning from Java sporting a beard, this was presumed to confirm it.  Of course he hadn’t, but he did have a great admiration for Marx, ‘a fighting philosopher’.[4]  Unexpectedly from an idealist, and rather delightfully, he describes himself as standing up and cheering whenever he began to read Marx. (Auto 152)  Collingwood felt that Marx’s philosophy was unconvincing; but that did not bother him, for ‘to whom was it unconvincing?  Any philosophy, I knew, would not only be unconvincing but nonsensical to a person who misunderstood the problem it was meant to solve.  Marx’s was meant to solve a ‘practical’ problem; its business, as he said himself, was to ‘make the world better.’  This is of course a reformulation of Collingwood’s great analytical principle—‘In order to find out [the] meaning you must also know what the question was… to which the




thing… said or written was meant as an answer.’ (Auto p.31, see also p.39)  The question Marx was asking, and presumed everyone who took up Das Capital was also asking, was How do you make the world better? 

       Rightly or wrongly Collingwood believed that the British system of democratic government was founded on the same principle and serving the same end.  He knew, of course, that Marx had denounced the system as a fraud, the business of which ‘was to throw a semblance of legality over the oppression of the workers by the capitalists.’  Collingwood accepted that such oppression existed, and was to a great extent legalized, but he thought that ‘the business of a democratic government was to eradicate it.’ (Auto 154)  That it failed to do so decade after decade, and was less defined and methodical in its purpose than Marxism, is what presumably made Marxism attractive to many people then as now.  After the First World War, the democratic system was threatened by the two components of its own construction—the principle of private property ignoring the aim of social and economic betterment would lead to Fascism, and the abandonment of private property to Marxian Socialism—which ‘agreed with the democratic tradition in aiming at social and economic betterment for the entire people, but proposed to achieve this aim through the public ownership of “means of production”.’ (Auto 156)  Given that most people have an innate hope of at least getting on with their neighbours, socialism in some form or other proved much the more attractive.

       Collingwood’s purpose is to show that both ‘systems’ are designed to answer the same question—how to promote the material good of the people.  In respect of this question, and this question only, it does not matter that Marx’s metaphysics is unconvincing, or his philosophy as philosophy unsound.  Marx is not, principally, attempting to answer metaphysical or philosophical questions.  Nor is the British system of democratic government.  And of course neither system is even remotely concerned with the questions, How do you write a history of literature, or, How do you establish, analyse or read texts within that history?  The various attempts of British academic Marxists to turn the Marxian spanner into metaphysical software cannot obscure its original design and purpose.  We all have a certain sympathy with Marxism because of its declared purpose; but looking to it to provide us with a methodology particular to the questions asked by literary critics is in reality no less absurd than those same critics looking for such a methodology in the British Constitution—or Adam Smith, or Malthus.

       Nonetheless this is not a reason to exclude Marxian thinking from academic disciplines.  But we must always first ask, What is its relevance to the question being answered?  John Morris, in his Age of Arthur (1973) propounds a view that the collapse of post-Roman Britain wasn’t principally due either to the Romans leaving or to the Saxons coming, but to the failure of what we might now term the corn-barons, who held a very high proportion of the producing land, to put their wealth to the service of the common good, retaining it for their private use—a sickness then endemic in the Roman Empire.  I do not know whether John Morris was a Marxist, though he was




certainly a socialist, and perhaps no real distinction can be drawn between the two.  What is certain is that a Marxist analysis makes sense—provides one possible answer to the question as to why post-Roman Britain collapsed: too much wealth in too few hands undermined the welfare of the nation—in a singular and spectacular way—and Arthur’s heroism was to overcome, briefly, the iniquities and inadequacies of his political situation. 

       In respect of the relevance of Marx to current academic thinking, Leslie Alcock, another Arthurian, says what I think ought to be acceptable to most of us.  He is talking of his excavations at Dinas Powys:


     The site was pre-eminently one which revealed the chieftain, the craftsman and the woman at the quern.  To that extent, my concern for social and economic archaeology has a certain Marxist flavour.  This is scarcely surprising, since in the early 1940s I had studied—and rejected—dialectical materialism as a basis for understanding history; and I had read, with a qualified approval, Christopher Hill’s interpretations of the English Revolution in Marxist terms.  Today, it seems to me that it is not necessary to be a Marxist in order to believe that economic forces, social tensions, and class exploitation play large roles in human history.  On the other hand, some present-day Marxist historians, at least in my own period of interest, have so far diluted the theoretical content of their writings that Marxism implies no more than a firm grasp of the obvious. [5]   Perhaps we are all Marxists now.

Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (1987) p.3


       To recognise that economic forces, social tensions, and class exploitation play large roles in human history—and English literature—certainly should be part of our firm grasp of the obvious.  But to make the ideology behind that observation a methodology is surely a damaging confusion of purposes.  Professor Everest was too conscious of a chiasmus in his argument to pursue that union wholeheartedly.  However, in order to authorize the procedures by which he hoped to create a bridge between the historical context of Coleridge’s poems and what made those poems good, (p.3) he turned to Raymond Williams ‘for a fashionably respectable imprimatur’.  This is an honest admission of an interim measure dictated by the requisites of publication.  But the development of Raymond Williams’ work, the pursuit of a Marxian ideology in the reading of English literature, (which employed the notion of cultural materialism in an attempt to be less reductive—thank you Peter Larkin) and which might have found a sympathetic audience in Everest, he in fact experienced as deeply unsatisfactory, almost tragic: of Marxism and Literature (1977) he says that ‘its grimly determined and almost robotic




commitment to thinking out a workable Marxist literary criticism was extremely depressing, in its sheer rebarbative unreadability.’ 

       The association with historicism of Marxism, socialism or general leftiness is taken for granted.  But trying to think historically while validating our particular ideology by means of that thinking seems a contradiction of purposes: though in saying this I realize I am running counter to the logical primacy of ideology in Coleridge’s thinking; but that I will discuss in a moment.  Our sensitivity to how other people thought, our ability to step into their shoes, depends upon our ability to put off, temporarily, our own presumptions and assumptions. Another passage from Collingwood’s Autobiography seems to put the whole case long before the case was ever put:


‘… the question ‘To what question did So-and-so intend this proposition for an answer?’ is an historical question, and therefore cannot be settled except by historical methods... a writer very seldom explains what the question is that he is trying to answer.  Later on...the question has been forgotten; especially if the answer he gave was generally acknowledged to be the right answer; for in that case people stopped asking the question and began asking the question that next arose.  So the question asked by the original writer can only be reconstructed historically, often not without the exercise of considerable historical skill.

     ‘ ‘Sblood!’ says Hamlet, ‘do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?’  Those eminent philosophers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, think tout bonnement that they can discover what the Parmenides is about by merely reading it; but if you took them to the south gate of Housesteads and said, ‘Please distinguish the various periods of construction here, and explain what purpose the builders of each period had in mind’, they would protest ‘Believe me, I cannot.’  Do they think the Parmenides is easier to understand than a rotten little Roman fort?  ‘Sblood!  (Auto 39-40)


       Many literary critics would perhaps be unwilling to accept that The Prelude or The Ancient Mariner were written as answers to questions—though in my opinion such an objection is to the definiteness of Collingwood’s language, not to the method proposed.  But whatever the outcome of that discussion, it seems to me that Collingwood has here provided a clear manifesto for the historicist project; and it is completely, and properly, free of the observer’s political inclinations: in other words, methodology is not confused with ideology; and whatever is discovered at Housesteads, or in the Parmenides, is discovered through a methodology, and may then be interpreted by means of an ideology.  One does not dig with a Marxist spade, nor read with Marxist spectacles.

       That there is a willingness to accept the deconstruction of the link between historicism and radicalism is perhaps evident in Kelvin Everest’s recognition




that ‘…since the early eighties there has been a growing puzzle over the nature and true extent of the political affiliations of historicism.  Major studies have tended to imply or openly state an agenda for social change… This frequently appears to introduce a sort of moral imperative in the critical account… But there is usually no explicit or persuasively confident Marxist grounding for this position, or if there is, it is more rhetorical than closely reasoned.’ (p.5)  Which is perhaps saying more or less what Alcock says, that the theoretical content has been diluted to the extent that it is not distinguishably Marxist, and therefore cannot be considered as a distinct political ideology.

       But put this clearly, or bluntly, we can begin to recognize the inappropriateness of a ‘moral imperative’—which addresses our political conditions—but is constructed from, or constructing, a critical account of a very different political and literary climate; this, and the feebleness of the ideology presented—‘more rhetorical than closely reasoned’—seems to accept that the development of a critical method based on a political ideology, or at least this political ideology, has yet to produce a work of criticism which justifies their conjunction.  A firm grasp of the obvious tells us that this conjunction is appropriate under certain circumstances, and not others: in Leslie Alcock’s words, ‘economic forces, social tensions, and class exploitation’—consciousness of which now makes us all Marxists, must, for example, come into a reading of ‘The Deserted Village’ and the works of Crabbe, but will probably prove of little help in reading Chatterton.  What is always inappropriate is the development of an analytical method based on a political ideology.

       From the historicist’s point of view what makes the uncoupling of historicism and radicalism particularly difficult is the recognition of Marxism as a unique system of values.  A remarkable sentence in Kelvin Everest’s lecture indicates the depth of the problem: ‘An historicism which is not coherently Marxist has no framework for assigning value, or for justifying moral judgement.’  Indeed, if you are a Marxist: but if you are a Platonist, a Christian, a Buddhist or the holder of any other coherent system of values, clearly not.  The logic of the sentence says only that in order to ‘assign value’ or ‘justify moral judgement’ we must have a system of values.  True enough.  But the primary work of criticism, of whatever kind, historical as much as any other, surely involves neither of these acts.  The primary work of criticism is to find the question to which the text was an answer, to discern the stratas of language and thought which have gone into the composition of the text; and the imposition of the observer’s ideology can only distort their observations.  The initial set of values reside in the text and the period that we are studying, not in ourselves.

       What saved Kelvin Everest from an unrelenting commitment to a Marxist literary critique was not only the ‘rebartative unreadability’ of Raymond Williams’ work, but the recognition that the literary criticism of other Marxists such as Christopher Hill and E.P.Thompson failed to reveal the reasons for




the affective power of the texts they studied.  The tools for this kind of study were held by an older school, formed from ‘the loose coupling of Leavis and I.A. Richards’ and which required intense concentration on and close analysis of the words on the page.  Therefore the ‘substantial verbal and formal identity of literary texts’ became ‘the irreducible core’ of Professor Everest’s subject. (p.4)[6]

       Practical criticism, to give it its old-fashioned name, and historicism uncoupled from ideology, are two methods of scrutinizing texts which should be used in conjunction, and not considered exclusive of each other.  Indeed, each might modify the extreme tendencies of the other.  Historicism will cast proper doubt upon our ability to understand the Parmenides just by reading it, and practical criticism will assert the relative stability and intentionality of the text, which historicism will tend to dissolve or deny.  Practical criticism will probably also assert the centrality of certain texts, and not others.  And it may help keep jaded professional minds on those texts and authors taught once too often, or once too recently.  One of the major problems of historicism that Professor Everest outlines is the process of ‘contextual exposition [which] continues to serve a selection of texts and authors whose presence in the analysis is not itself a function of the argument’—or, we tend to talk about everyone and everything except the text or author we are supposedly studying.  In order to justify this apparent abandonment of what we used to call ‘canonical’ texts and authors, historicism has come up with the vaguely perjorative term ‘privileged texts’.  Because the focus of the radical historicist’s study is not the text itself, but the social, economic and material forces behind a text, and because these forces are presumed to account for the existence of the text, they may be, in minor or less ‘privileged’ texts, much more transparent, accessible and therefore the subject of apparently fruitful academic discourse.[7]

       This process has had the side effect of questioning whether texts have a discernible core identity.  Because they may be seen as a function of social and political conditions, and as these are imperfectly recoverable, so we can never be quite certain of how the text exists or has existed.  And this is compounded




by any known variants of a text.  Speaking of this kind of problem, Kelvin Everest remarks that ‘the strong contemporary appeal of a strictly materialist approach to the question of how texts exist then immediately becomes apparent, because the definition of text otherwise appears to involve a transcendental idealism of some kind, which is not exactly fashionable.’ (p.10)  Let not fashion dictate truth, but the problem faced here arises out of a conflation of the practice of literary criticism with the development of a philosophy of language.  The question as to whether language has material or transcendental origins may concern us all as human beings, but I suggest has no immediate effect upon our practice as literary critics.  We begin, like field archaeologists, with artefacts—with distinct, identifiable and often damaged objects—made from a material that may, or may not, be delivered by the hand of God.  The process by which cultural materialists have examined these objects is a little like taking a shard to the laboratory, and asking the technician to determine its composition; the nature of the material is then discussed as if the object had ceased to exist.  But the mind of the poet or the hand of the potter has shaped the material: out of the clay, a pot; out of the langue, parole.  So I have no argument with those who assert that a text is a material or concrete object.  I would argue with anyone who then suggested that because it is a material object, it therefore bespeaks material values.

       Transcendentalism and idealism make cultural materialists thoroughly uncomfortable, because they are taken as representing an opposing, and unfashionable, ideology.  It is a particular difficulty for cultural materialists studying Romanticism, in that the tendency to transcendentalize in some form or other can be seen as the singular mark of Romanticism.  And a good deal of energy has gone into finding Marxist-based strategies to explain and explore the Romantic achievement.[8]  Professor Everest describes this his only conceivable alternative to cultural materialism as ‘not exactly fashionable’, and so tacitly dismisses it.  Although at the 1998 Coleridge Conference idealism or transcendentalism was taken as the alternative ideology to Marxian radicalism or cultural materialism, it is I think a false opposition in respect of the practice of literary criticism.  We must distinguish what goes into the making of a whole, the sense of order which is anterior—logically prior—to any limited unity, and the strictly transcendental—which asserts that all order in this world is dependent on and derived from, in Coleridge’s words, ‘another world that now is.’  This is a distinction between a local and temporal sense of the whole, and the unity of life.  Literary criticism not only looks at a text, and back to its origins, gradually working down through the strata of its composition, what Marilyn Gaull has called text and context, but forward to its relations with other texts by the same author, and eventually to the place of author and texts in that




larger whole we may nominate by various terms, such as Elizabethan or Jacobean, eighteenth century or Romantic, modern or post-modern, finally finding that these chronological periods have significant relations to each other, a whole which we loosely call English Literature.  This looking forward is not transcendentalism, nor is it necessarily any form of idealism, though I accept that, in this process, there is a greater likelihood of the unity sought being evolved from an idea than when looking at or looking back.   But equally it would be a mistake to suppose that this is just a process of looking forward; Eliot has reminded us that we read the past differently in the light of a new poet or poem; the nature of the whole is therefore always in the process of being reconsidered, and so cannot be either perfectly stable or fully identifiable.

       To put it simply, the work of literary criticicism has three distinct phases: an immediate and unmediated study of the text, a study of the origins of the text, and a study of the posterior relations of the text.  And together these methods work towards a whole which is local and temporal.  So the literary critic, like the historian, can do most of their work without turning to an ideology.  I am conscious that this assertion runs contrary to what Coleridge thought.  Speaking of history, he distinguished three kinds: the chronicle or narrative, the moral, and the philosophical, and only to the last did he attach significance: but he was certain as to the precedence of idea in this kind of history:


‘If you ask me how I can know that this idea—my own invention—is the truth, by which the phenomena of history are to be explained, I answer, in the same way exactly that you know your eyes were made to see with; and that is because you do see with order to make your facts speak truth, you must know what the truth is which ought to be proved—the ideal truth, the truth which was consciously or unconsciously, strongly or weakly, wisely or blindly, intended at all times.  (TT 14 April 1833)


What is particularly out of kilter for us in this passage, is the certainty that we can discover in our own being this ideal truth, the tone of confidence that ‘in our life alone’ does history live.  And elsewhere Coleridge declared that ‘but for Christ, Christianity, Christendom, as centers of convergence, I should utterly want the historic sense.’ (N.51 f.19v.)  It is not a confidence that many of us can claim nowadays—though it is a confidence we must be aware of if we are to read Coleridge aright.  But it is this kind of confidence that Marxists and materialists make, or have made, in presenting and applying their ideology—a taciot assumption that ‘human meanings cannot reasonably be allowed any other explanation.’ (See n.6)  Both now seem extravagant declarations.  Coleridge’s assumption of the Christian nature of history has largely been ignored—probably because it has been considered too ludicrous to take seriously; but is




it in fact any more ludicrous than Marxian history? [9]

       And yet I acknowledge that an ideology is a kind of hope which may infuse our life and work, without which we would only be those kind of scholars—if scholars at all—intent on establishing the factual and literal, and whose limited hopes, quite unlike those held by the authors they study, Yeats quietly derides: ‘What would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?’  If we are to write well upon an author, we cannot be quite unlike them; we cannot confine ourselves to a safe and limited range of human hopes.  Nonetheless the distinction Yeats makes is a distinction we must hold to: most of the substantial work of literary criticism, the work of scholarship, does not require an ideology; but it probably does require a sound basic education, a determination to understand an author and a period, a reasonable acquaintance with English and European literature, and the capacity to make connections; it is this kind of knowledge that goes into annotated and critical editions.  This is not perhaps a very exciting kind of knowledge, though at its best we are all beholden to its capacity to inform our reading, to let us understand the interest and complexity of a text—such as the Aids to Reflection, or the Parmenides.

       But there is another kind of writing which readily captures our attention, and to which I imagine we all aspire—the kind of work produced by Abrams, Bloom and Hartmann, to mention but three of a previous generation.[10] These are works of synthesis, seeking to establish what unifies the diverse achievements of the Romantic poets, and they are all substantiated by an ideology—which can assign value, and justify moral judgement—but an ideology which is also tactful, which is able to treat with, rather than deny, the values of the text or author under discussion.  This enables a debate between the writer and reader in which the text is, by and large, the presiding authority.  This method of utilizing an ideology might be described as ‘from the bottom up’, and its success will depend not upon the degree to which the reader is convinced of the ideology, but almost entirely upon the quality of the argument thus produced.

       One of the least attractive tendencies of materialist or Marxist ideologies, as practised by literary critics, and Coleridge may be criticized on the same grounds, is a ‘top down’ approach.  (Was Keats reacting against Coleridge’s ideological primacy when he complained of the older poet’s irritable searching after fact and reason?)  Their basic tenets are taken as held by all, or as morally required to be held by all, and then applied to the texts in question.  Kelvin Everest believes that ‘major (Marxist) studies have introduce a sort




of moral imperative in the critical account;’ and Nick Roe has spoken of the ‘coercive tenor’ associated with some new historicism.[11]  The top down approach, of whatever origin, tacitly asserts that the ideology takes formal and logical precedence over the texts chosen for study; and so they in effect become mere exempla in the demonstration of ideological truth.  I find this a deeply unattractive process.  Not only does it diminish the status of texts as unique literary artefacts, artefacts that will remain when all theories and theorists have come and gone, but in some applications it dissolves the text into a merely theoretical cultural background.  It can also induce a moral and cultural laziness in the ideologue, which tends to a failure to appreciate the otherness of previous works and authors, and which is something we constantly need to guard against.  Collingwood, talking of dark and formidable powers the Greeks understood, has some hard words for certain


‘English scholars, (who) delicately nurtured in the rose-coloured spectacles of a sentimentalism which was only the scum on a stagnant and decomposed Christianity, had in my own lifetime published the opinion that Euripides, when he faithfully and piously transcribed into his plays the grim experience which all men have, but very few dare face, of such powers in the natural world, meant to attack the religion he was in fact so honourably serving; and all because these English scholars could not imagine Euripides less of a sentimentalist than themselves.’  (The First Mate’s Log, Thoemmes Press 1994, p.79)


       This is a salutary warning, not only to those holding or developing an ideology—and in this instance sentimentalism is an unadmitted ideology—but to all of us to be cautious of understanding the past by means of our own moral, religious and political conceptions.  We must be aware of our tendency to forget the otherness of the past and make it in our own image—a tendency which Anthony Harding notes in the longer version of his paper on Hades: that even the radical free thinkers among the Romantics retained the idea of a ‘future state’, an idea which you would be hard put to find represented in recent critical literature about the period.[12]  What a genuine historicism does is to provide a methodology which enables us to put off our own presumptions, and take on, to a greater or less extent, the assumptions of a person or people past.  I have learnt a good deal from historicist studies, particularly about the relations between Coleridge’s early political thinking and seventeenth century




radicals; but I have always found myself filtering out the ideological super- or sub-text, which often asserts that the radical Coleridge is the ‘real’ Coleridge, and the rest of his career a falling away from an early greatness.  If we are to understand the man in his completeness, and not just gratify our own predilections by means of a partial consciousness of him and his works, we must resist the logical primacy of our own ideology.

       Which brings me, finally, to a short story called ‘Nick Roe and The Friendly Spirit.’  One mild evening during the 1996 Conference, in the garden of that pub, a benchful of delegates, drinks to hand and foremost in thought, were sitting and chatting when Nick asked us to recall the first word of the third line in Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’; being only scholars none of us could, and Nick put us out of our misery with ‘conspiring’.  He pointed out how odd a word it was in the context, and did it hint at some other force working in Keats’ mind?  As is the way of things, that was as far as the conversation went then, and we returned to drinking and chatting; but during the year Nick published a paper called ‘Keats’ Commonwealth’, which described and defined what most of us have perhaps never given much thought to—Keats’ political awareness.  You may see in Nick Roe’s paper that personal ideology is subservient to textual consciousness, but nonetheless provides the energy that in a single word sees the possibility of discovering what might otherwise remain unthought of.

       That way of going about things, which I think in practice many of us follow, or attempt to follow, seems to me to obtain the right kind of balance between the authority of the text and the energy we derive from an ideology.


The Forest of Dean (One impulse…)

[1]   This essay may be found in the forthcoming Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Science of Life, edited by Nick Roe and mentioned in the introduction to this Bulletin.  Because page numbers were not available at the time of going to press, I have used a print-out of just over eleven pages kindly sent to me by Professor Everest.

[2]   And if the thesis and book had failed, it might have entailed a re-examination of the cultural and intellectual premises that went into its making; and the author’s life might have been different, not perhaps finding that wider intellectual community which he sought, and a career.  One cannot help feeling that the urbanity of this remarkable and revisionary talk stems at least in part from the confidence the author has derived from a successful academic career.  By contrast, a biographer of Collingwood puts down his later acerbic and impolite tone to his failure to find his philosophy adopted in Oxford.  Success matters.  (Collingwood Studies II p.86)

[3]   Kelvin Everest, despite the success of his book, did remain troubled by the hiatus at the centre of his argument.  This difficulty was centred on ‘how to make the transition from detailed historical contextualization, to detailed close readings.  I was conscious, even while reaching for a rhetoric which could elide this awkwardness, that I did stll actually believe that the historical context I was spending a long time putting in place, was not in the end much to do with what made the poems good..’ (p.3)  Further on he notes that ‘a wholly materialist and necessitarian outlook has no grounds for transcendent values, and therefore has a problem in the authorizing of its own political agenda.  Shelley, for instance, not to mention Coleridge, never stopped worrying over this problem.’ (p.6)

[4]   But Professor Joseph Needham wrote in the New Statesman at the time that Collingwood’s dialiectical philosophy naturally subserved Marxist political theory. (Collingwood Studies II 1995, p82)

[5]   Cf. Professor Everest’s recognition of ‘the dilution of theoretical content’ in literary criticism: ‘But just to keep recent academic historicism in mind, the studied vagueness about the exact nature of what is implied as a politically engaged criticism cannot disguise that, well, it has to be either Marxism, or something else.’ (p.6)

[6]   Where does this leave Kelvin Everest’s theory that Coleridge’s failure to establish a radical community set the course of his life towards a transcendental philosophy?  Practically, if not ideologically, still intact, I think, and still temptingly attractive.  Think of Coleridge’s circumstances: an eight year old boy who lost his father and was sent away to boarding school the same year; whose relationship with his mother seemed distant, and of whom he hardly ever spoke; the man who never felt himself adequately loved; who proclaimed the family as the fundamental force behind the cohesion of the state, but who was never integrated either with the family he was born into, nor the family of his making; who for thirty-three years never attended the Church he so vigorously defended; who sat out the rest of his life at a remove from the world below him, attended more or less like a child again by devoted parents.  Coleridge was constantly thinking about states of community he never enjoyed.  No wonder this man developed a philosophy nowadays mostly defended by former British public schoolboys. But I ask one question of anyone who suggests that Coleridge’s transcendentalism is some kind of illusion: why was half Europe then thinking in much the same way?

6    But perhaps because some critics have grown tired of the unmoderated union of radicalism and historicism, it is possible to find quite different qualities ascribed to new historicism: in Duncan Wu’s Companion to Romanticism its main features are noted as pleasure, anecdote, suggestion and methodological insouciance. (p.403-5)  Such a description is clearly a long way either from political engagement, or from perceiving the necessity of it.  And if the valdity of such a description is accepted, then it seems to me that ‘new historicism’ has become too broad a term to have a significant meaning.

[8]   Kelvin Everest says that by the late seventies the ‘overwhelming consensus’ was that ‘human meanings could only reasonably be allowed an historical-materialist explanation... and the only matter awaiting resolution  was which particular inflection of marxist literary, or cultural criticism, was going to emerge as dominant.’  He mentions Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey, Geoffrey Matthews, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and E.P.Thompson. (p.4)

[9]   It is interesting to note that in his Essay on Metaphysics Collingwood sees Christianity as the basis of modern science: ‘The pre-suppositions that go to make up the Catholic Faith, that is the faith described in the Athanasian Creed, have as a matter of historical fact been the main or fundamental propositions ofmodern science ever since.’ (OUP 1940, p.227)

[10]             Why are they all Americans?  There is a very interesting debate which may be related to this question recorded in The First Mate’s Log (pp.81-87), in which the disappointment of American Rhodes Scholars with Oxford is closely analysed.  It amounts to the perceived difference of Oxford training scholars, and Americans expecting to develop a breadth of knowledge.  If such a thing as a philosophy of literature exists, it will be fostered by American rather than Oxonian methods.

[11] Literature of the Romantic Period: a Bibliographical Guide, Michael O'Neill (ed.), OUP 1998  p.49.

[12]             ‘Recent scholarship...on British literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly the work of new historicists and cultural materialists, has tended to represent the period as one of radical secularization, and has oftened questioned or rejected traditional elements of religious belief... However, if one now approaches the literature of the period with expectations formed by either of these groups of critics, one is likely to experience some surprises.  In particular, it may come as something of a shock to see how many otherwise unorthodox, freethinking, and politically radical writers of the period, despite their general hostility to religious belief and institutions, still retained a strong sense of an afterlife or... “a future state.” ’  (Studies in Philology XCVI No.2 Spring 1999, p.204)