Review of Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century. Ed. R.F. Brinkley.

[“Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century.” Review article on Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century. Ed. R.F. Brinkley, 1955. University of Toronto Quarterly 25.2 (Jan 1956): 1259-62.]


“We insensibly imitate what we habitually admire,” Coleridge wrote in The Friend, half-heartedly determining to purge his prose style of its entortillage while at the same time defending his preference for “the stately march and difficult evolutions, which characterise the eloquence of Hooker, Bacon, Milton, and Jeremy Taylor.”  Coleridge abominated “the epigrammatic unconnected periods of the fashionable Anglo-Gallican taste” and found in the seventeenth-century writers a style consonant with his own way of mind.  But his devotion to the seventeenth century did not begin and end with stylistic mannerisms.  The discoveries, turmoils, and problems of his own day could not satisfy a mind so capacious and restlessly inquiring.  He must search for principles, beginnings, seeds, fountain-heads; and set forth, guided by a fine sensibility, a large capacity for astonishment, and a rare talent for emphatic reading.  To what country of the mind, being what he was, could Coleridge have turned with more joyous sense of recognition than to the writings of the period from Elizabeth’s reign to the Restoration?  Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Richard Baxter, Henry More, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Milton, and Thomas Fuller – that “dear, fine, silly old angel” as Lamb called him: great wealth of resonant prose, intricate verse, round rhetoric; much inquiry, much moving polemical sermoning, much resolute political thinking.  In this ebullient confusion of ingenuity and dogged reflection, the age had its own gullibilities, superstitions, and ignorances – the wrong-headedness often not the least fascinating.  Here too the seeds of the Critical Philosophy were laid and the strain of pragmatic assertiveness that was to dominate the next century took root.  Coleridge approached with affection and with vigorous abandon, as though in a home-coming, delighting most in those “masculine intellects, formed under the robust discipline of an age memorable for keenness of research, and iron industry.”  In the Protectorate alone he saw “a momentous period, during which all the possible forms of truth and error . . . bubbled up on the surface of the public mind. . . . It would be difficult [he said] to conceive of a nѳtion, or a fancy, in politics, ethics, theology, or even in physics and physiology, which had not been anticipated by the men of that age.”  He threw himself into the controversies – political and biblical – as though they were still living issues (which in a sense they were); quarrelled with the errors, revelled in the quaintnesses, gloried in the toughness of mind.

For the editor who seeks to detach for separate scrutiny some aspect of Coleridge’s myriad-mindedness – some section comprehensive enough to indicate the scope yet limited enough to stand forth discretely from the cumulus of his published and manuscript writings – Coleridge is not convenient.  At times the Great Age shrinks, for him, to the Protectorate; at other times it expands to embrace as a single epoch the span from Elizabeth’s accession to the Restoration.  He does not lack historical perspective; but he is less interested in historical movements than in movements of mind.  “What is a thought?” he asks, “but I-thinking.”  He thinks most of individual writers, individual processes of thinking.  He reads his books one by one, seeking direct communion with the author (in a clearly realized context), searching below the verbal surfaces for the writer’s vital intention.  In his writing we do find, rising from his grasp of relations, the incisive historical generalization, the crisp summary of a movement or trend.  But at his best, his intimate communings with the minds of an earlier age disclose the vivid touch of a fine critical sense: he moves, dream-haunted, among the dead as though they were living and places them among the company of the living.  And if we wish to delineate a period for his mind – to take, for example, the Seventeenth Century – it is difficult to imagine him ever thinking of drama without thinking of Shakespeare.

Miss Brinkley explains in her Preface that the present work “attempts to bring together with reasonable completeness the many illuminating comments which Coleridge made concerning the seventeenth century, its movements and its writers; to give them as much unity as possible by assembling them around their logical topics; and to establish a reliable text for these materials.” (Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century, edited by Roberta Florence Brinkley; Introduction by Louis I. Bredvold. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 1955. Pp. xxxviii, 704. $12.50.)  Both the Preface and the Introduction, however, indicate that the book is intended primarily for the seventeenth-century scholar rather than the Coleridge scholar; that its purpose is less to establish or restore some part of the Coleridge canon than to present and rescue from neglect Coleridge’s comments upon the great figures and issues of the period, the contribution of a “creative critic” to the general study of the Great Age.  Whichever the primary purpose, the task is a formidable one; for the materials are scattered through the published writings of more than thirty years of Coleridge’s life as well as throughout the harvest of personal and informal notes that he described in 1821 as “still on the ground, ripe indeed, and only waiting, a few for the sickle, but a large part only for the sheaving and carting and housing.”  The work has occupied the editor for several years and brings together nearly 700 pages of closely packed text.  It is inconceivable that such a book would not provide, as the editor hoped, a convenient reference work for Coleridgeans.

The bulk of the collection is made up of marginalia.  Some of this material is new; but the most valuable feature of the book is the thorough re-editing from the originals of extensive sets of marginalia previously published in Literary Remains and elsewhere.  The marginalia presented here, on Hooker, Donne, Hacket, Jeremy Taylor, Richard Baxter, Sir Thomas Browne, and Milton, provide a text so different from Henry Nelson Coleridge’s as almost to constitute a new text.  The work of transcription has been done with admirable thoroughness in these cases, and the comparison with the text of Literary Remains is very useful.

In addition to marginalia, extracts from Notebooks and other unpublished manuscripts have been brought together, and related with passages taken from letters and the published works.  Following the principle Coleridge used in making up the Aids to Reflection, Miss Brinkley has arranged the materials so as to give “a connection or at least a propriety of sequency, that was before of necessity wanting.”  The whole work opens with an introduction by Professor Louis I. Bredvold – a sensitive, authoritative, and eloquent appreciation of Coleridge in the perspective of his seventeenth-century enthusiasms and speculations.  The brilliance and force of the Introduction somewhat overshadow the editor’s more modest introductory notes to different sections: of these, the note on The Old Divines is the most extensive, and the notes on Forerunners of Kant and the Milton lectures are particularly suggestive.

The Coleridge text begins with a series of general observations upon the seventeenth century.  Thereafter the extracts are arranged under the subjects of Philosophy, The Old Divines, Science, Literary Prose, Poetry, and Drama; a number of Coleridge’s remarks upon Reason and Understanding are collected in an Appendix.  Despite the omission of “a mass of material which is important primarily to specialists in seventeenth-century theology,” the section of The Old Divines makes up rather more than a third of the book, with Jeremy Taylor, Baxter, and Donne as the dominant figures.  Next in extent is the section on Poetry: a good deal of space is devoted to Daniel, Donne, and Henry More; but more than half of the section is given over to Milton – a self-contained Coleridge compendium on a scale never before (to my knowledge) attempted.  The section on Philosophy devotes much more than half its space to Locke – the printing of a large part of the 1801 philosophical letters is the most important item here – and closes with an interesting section showing that Coleridge discovered in Bacon and Baxter important anticipations of the Critical Philosophy.  The sections on Science and Drama are short and disappointing.

In this whole matter the “carting and housing” are trouble enough; the real problem is the “sheaving.”  Much as they wished to present the unpublished materials in coherent, readable form, the early editors did not solve their problem satisfactorily.  Perhaps the problem is insoluble; for Coleridge himself said that if he did not gather and arrange the materials “they will all be lost.”  Successive editors – even Professor Raysor – have followed the same method of presentation as H.N.C. used in Literary Remains.  It is disappointing to find that Miss Brinkley has in effect followed that same method, even to the typographical indistinctness that leaves major divisions in the material at all times obscure, and sometimes almost impossible to discern.  And nowhere in this book are the principles of arrangement or selection discussed.

Perhaps this would have been a better book if it had been constructed primarily for Coleridgeans rather than for scholars of the seventeenth century.  As a contribution to Coleridge studies, the re-edited marginalia, thoroughly indexed and fully annotated, would have been of more permanent value.  A clearer indication of chronological relation would also have been of great value, particularly since the extracts are arranged according to the direct association of material or opinion without regard to their relative dates.  One would like to be able to answer such questions as: When did Coleridge first encounter Jeremy Taylor’s or Burton’s work?  What was he looking for when he found certain works?  Why did he persist in his reading of some authors for a great many years?  Again, there are some curious inaccuracies: the Jeremy Taylor section opens with an extract from a letter that actually refers to Thomas Taylor.  One wonders why materials published four years ago in Miss Coburn’s book Inquiring Spirit are here described as “Printed for the first time.”  And it is a pity that the editor did not record the fact that the annotated books and manuscripts formerly in the possession of Mr. A. H. B. Coleridge are now preserved in the Victoria College Library.

Nevertheless, this is – from a reader’s point of view – a fine jungly book.  To open it at random is to engage an active mind moving vividly – sometimes on soaring wings, sometimes with low heavy movement of the bustard, sometimes on “animalcular feet” – a mind sensitive, probing, discriminating, self-communing and most infectiously delighting in what it finds – delighting too in the discoveries of others.  For the time being, until some resolute and volatile imagination can find a way of fitting luminously together the corpus of Coleridge’s fragmentary obiter dicta and fulguratiunculae, this collection will be an indispensable work of reference.  To have a good text of scattered marginalia and some manuscripts is good; to have these collated with early published versions is good too; to have extracts from the unindexed published works arranged in some sequential order is convenient.  The book will have delineated more clearly than has been shown before, Coleridge’s preoccupation with a century of writing more various and immediate than we commonly suppose.  It may also be the first step towards recognizing with systematic clarity something that has been noticed before but not clearly brought into the light: for Professor Bredvold observes in his Introduction “However deeply the philosophy of his German contemporaries may have influenced him, at the most it provided him with a modern approach to some ancient ways of thinking.”