Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works

Image result for samuel taylor coleridge the major works

Coleridge saw himself primarily as a metaphysician.  He was known, rather, as a poet. His metaphysics is a reaction to, albeit never overcoming Kant.  His primary target, though, is Locke.

Coleridge’s life was one of struggle.  He struggled against unfulfilled dreams and physical pain (including a heavy use of Laudanum). He never achieved the manly power in writing that one finds in Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke.  

Biographia Litteraria

This was similar to CS Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism long before Lewis wrote.  In many ways it is even more practical.  Coleridge gives his own impression, buttressed by a lifetime of poetry and criticism, on what makes for good (particularly English) poetry.

Volume 1 is difficult to read but there are a few things to keep in mind.  Coleridge is attacking the tradition of Locke, which sees the mind as passive.  He wants to argue for an active role in the mind. He comes close to Kant but I don’t think he ever really makes the jump.

Chapter 1

Keep words from getting too florid.  He writes “The rule for the admission of double epithets seems to be this: either that they should be already denizens of our language, such as blood-stained….” (158).

His early mentor: “I learnt from him that poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science” (159).

While Pope is a genius, much of his power comes from acute observations on men.  And when you read Pope, note the epigrammatic structure: look for the “punchy” conclusion at the end of the second line of the couplet.

Coleridge wanted to justify his own style of lines running into each other and of “natural language, neither bookish, nor vulgar….” (167).  To do so he “labored at a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the component faculties of the human mind itself.”

Conclusion: we must combine natural thoughts with natural diction (169).

Chapter 4

A “bull” as a literary device: “There is a state of mind, which is the direct antithesis of that, which takes place when we make a bull.  The bull consists in bringing together two incompatible thoughts, with the sensation, but without the sense, of their connection” (196).

The Essence of Genius in Writing

was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying, the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.

“TO carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances…it is the merit of genius to ‘represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and freshness of sensation” (202).

Translation: to make our experience of a universal be fresh and new.

Chapters 5ff

The law of association: what is the relationship between our perceptions and the objects themselves? Our answer to this question will assume a certain mode of knowing.  Hobbes is wrong because because there is no reason to think that my seeing an object will produce bodily functions in me which secrete an idea (209).

Coleridge’s position: Ideas by having been together acquire a power of recalling each other; or every partial representation awakes the total representation of which it had been a part” (212).

Coleridge branches into metaphysics in chapter 12.  He wants a metaphysical unity without “branching into Spinozism” (287). For him, subject = mind = sentient being. When we know something, subject and object are united by means of representation.  At this unity we can’t abstract either and say which one came first. His theses on knowledge:

He mentions that he was a Trinitarian in philosophy (after the manner of Plato, but a Unitarian in religion (245).

Coleridge mentions that the held revolutionary principles in abhorrence (249).

  1. Truth is correlative to being.
  2. Truth is either mediate or immediate (the discussion about basic beliefs).
  3. We must seek some absolute truth which grounds all other truths.
  4. It can’t be a mere object.  Even if it were an object, it would still have to have a subject.
  5. It must be an identity of subject and object.
  6. Self-consciousness is my knowing myself through myself. Identity of both subject and object.

Chapter 13:

If corporeal objects contain nothing but matter, then they are reducible to flux and have no substance (like modern art and literature–JBA). Primary imagination: agent of all human perception and repetition “in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (313).

Fancy: a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.

Chapter 18

Essence is the principle of individuation. It is the possibility of a thing as that thing (348). That’s why with God essence and existence are the same thing.

Conditions for good metrical poetry: the elements of every metre must owe to some increased excitement.  This means it must be accompanied by language of excitement. There must be a union of passion and will (350).

Coleridge makes some passing remarks on “Jacobinical drama,” the result of the Revolution.  He notes that it consists in the confusion and subversion in the natural order of things in their causes and effects” (462). In other words, he has just identified and rebuked Cultural Marxism.

Coleridge argues that our words do not simply correspond to things.  Rather, the words correspond to thoughts (537-538). What could this mean?  I think Coleridge accidentally stumbled upon the ancient Patristic idea of symbolic theology.  A symbol isn’t merely an allegory. “A symbol is characterized by a translucence” of the form within the particular (661).  This is almost word-for-word from Ephrem the Syrian.

His Notebooks are almost incoherent.  To be fair, it was probably intended as stream-of-consciousness and most people do the same when they journal.

His Marginalia contain several stunning insights on philosophy.  

Table Talk

“All the external senses have their correspondence in the mind” (591).  I think this is true; eye–faculty of sight; etc. Coleridge suggests a similar correspondence in the soul, which might explain why some Hebrew prophets needed music.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s