This long pursuit, p.26
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       This Long Pursuit, p.26

           Richard Holmes

  His March of Glory … has run for the last six weeks – within which time by the aid and application of his own great discovery, of the identity of electricity and chemical attractions, he has placed all the Elements and all their inanimate combinations in the power of man; having decomposed … and discovered as the base of the Alkalies a new metal … Davy supposes there is only ONE POWER in the world of senses; which in particles acts as chemical attractions, in specific masses as electricity, and on matter in general, as planetary Gravitation … when this has been proved, it will then only remain to resolve this into some Law of vital Intellect – and all human Knowledge will be Science, and Metaphysics the only Science.

  The crucial and engendering idea here for Coleridge was that of the unifying ONE POWER. What Davy was doing for the world of Matter, Coleridge aimed to do for the world of the Mind. He would ‘isolate, decompose and name’ the one power of the Imagination in his poetry lectures. He would analyse, demonstrate and define the imaginative force at work, as in a laboratory. Alongside chemical attraction and gravitation, he would place creativity.

  When we look at their circumstances more closely, the apparently unique chaos of Coleridge’s lectures takes on a different dimension. For a start, interruptions at the Royal Institution were not that unusual – we find that Davy himself had also been ill and postponed his own series. (He had caught gaol fever, while investigating the ventilation systems at Newgate prison with characteristic enthusiasm.) It was the early talks that went so wrong, when Coleridge was nervous, and still a novice lecturer, at least as far as London audiences were concerned. Davy’s dismayed note on Coleridge’s ‘Excessive Sensibility’ was written immediately after the sharp disappointment of Coleridge’s second lecture. His remarks do not seem to have applied to the other lectures that eventually followed. Indeed, Davy shortly after composed a fine poem clearly inspired by the vision of a dynamic Nature that they still both shared, and which ended with an obvious tribute to his friend:

  All speaks of change: the renovated forms

  Of long-forgotten things arise again;

  The light of suns, the breath of angry storms,

  The everlasting motions of the main.

  These are but engines of the Eternal will,

  The One intelligence, whose potent sway

  Has ever acted, and is acting still,

  While stars, and worlds, and systems all obey;

  Without whose power, the whole of mortal things

  Were dull, inert, an unharmonious band,

  Silent as are the Harp’s untuned strings

  Without the touches of the Poet’s hand.

  These final lines make clear reference to Coleridge himself, and specifically to his influential poem ‘The Eolian Harp’ (published in the Monthly Magazine in 1796, and then again in his Poems of 1797). They suggest that Davy could still have confidence in Coleridge’s visionary power, and could still share the same continuing belief in the ‘harmonious’ fusion between science and poetry.

  In the same way, Thomas De Quincey’s account of Coleridge’s opium-wrecked presence at the dais turns out to be based on the two early lectures only. In the event the lectures gathered strength and coherence as they went on. Coleridge quickly learned to turn his spontaneous, digressive style to dramatic advantage. His very peculiarities and risky performance manner could rivet his audience, who never knew what to expect next. It was an intellectual tightrope act. This appears in the appreciative response from a quite different kind of witness: an eleven-year-old schoolgirl. Katharine Byerley never forgot the extraordinary impact of the wild and fascinating figure who came distractedly to the dais, and then proceeded to keep his audience completely in his thrall. Years later she put down her impressions:

  He came unprepared to lecture. The subject was a literary one, and the poet had either forgotten to write, or left what he had written at home. But his locks were now trimmed, and a conscious importance gleamed in his eloquent eyes. Every whisper was hushed … and I began to think, as Coleridge went on, that the lecture had been left at home on purpose; he was so eloquent – there was such a combination of wit and poetry in his similes – such fancy, such a finish in his illustrations …

  Edward Jerningham, the journalist who had sceptically mocked the story of the ‘stolen’ notes during the first lectures, now gave a rather more nuanced and appreciative overview of the whole series. Remarking on the peculiarities of Coleridge’s lecture style, he also made an intriguing and unexpected comparison:

  My opinion of the Lecturer is that he possesses a great reach of mind; that he is a wild Enthusiast respecting the objects of his Elogium; that he is sometimes very eloquent, sometimes paradoxical, sometimes absurd. His voice has something in it particularly plaintive and interesting … He spoke without any assistance from a manuscript, and therefore said several things suddenly, struck off from the Anvil, some of which were entitled to high Applause … He too often wove himself into the Texture of his Lecture … He was in some respects, I told him one day, like Peter Abelard.

  This gives pause for reflection. The great French medieval lecturer Peter Abelard was renowned for his personal manner of lecturing, and for attracting a great following among the younger students at the Sorbonne. So it seems possible, from what Jerningham said, that Coleridge was already attracting a similar mixed and youthful audience, to whom a certain dangerous whiff of scandal and notoriety was not exactly a disincentive. De Quincey himself was, after all, only twenty-two.

  It used to be thought that almost nothing of the 1808 lectures had survived. But substantial fragments have now been recovered: from Coleridge’s recently published notebooks, from the Egerton Mss in the British Library, and from a set of drafts unearthed in the New York Public Library. From these we can identify four snapshot moments which show Coleridge working towards his great theory of the Imagination, and steadily using scientific vocabulary and metaphors to explore it. They also show the special gift he had for vivid, homely anecdotes, which we might consider as the equivalent of Davy’s use of desktop demonstrations with gas bladders and bell jars.

  Coleridge proposed that the critical language used to discuss all the arts must be philosophically based, and scientifically sharpened. Take the concept of beauty. When someone could describe the great waterfall of Lodore as ‘sublimely beautiful, & indeed absolutely – pretty’, there was a total confusion of terms. (‘I have never mentioned this without occasioning a laugh.’) The idea of beauty must be part of a philosophic ‘system’, a strict hierarchy of forms and perceptions. The aesthetic behind this was in fact Kantian, but the explanation Coleridge gave was drawn from Davy’s calorific experiments, when he proved that ice could be melted by friction:

  If our language have any defect, it is in want of Terms expressing KIND, as distinguished from degree – thus we have Cold and Heat – but no words that instantly give the idea of Heat independent of comparison – if we say to persons who have never studied even the Elements of Chemistry, there is heat in Ice, we should appear to talk paradoxes.

  He suggested that Imagination was an active process, like an electrical current pulsing between objective and subjective polarities. The mind does not stand passively outside its experience, registering and recording, but enters dynamically into what it sees, reads or hears. To explain this, Coleridge used the example of stage illusion (a favourite of Dr Johnson and other eighteenth-century critics), and illustrated it characteristically with a tender anecdote of his son Hartley looking at a painting of a seascape:

  As Sir George Beaumont was showing me a very fine Engraving from Rubens, representing a storm at sea (without any Vessel or Boat introduced), my little Boy (then about 5 years old) came dancing and singing into the room, and all at once (if I may dare use so low a phrase) tumbled in upon the Print. He instantly started, stood silent and motionless, with the strongest expression of Wonder and then of Grief in his eyes and countenance, and at length said – ‘And where is the Ship? But that is sunk!
and the men all drownded!’ – still keeping his eye fixed on the Print.

  Now what Pictures are to little Children, Stage Illusion is to Men, provided they retain any part of a Child’s sensibility. Except that in the latter instance, this Suspension of the Act of Comparison, which permits this sort of Negative Belief, is somewhat more assisted by the will.

  A proper commentary on this remarkable passage would take us very far into the new Romantic theory of imagination. It proclaims the childlike part of the creative sensibility, ever fresh and spontaneous, which both the scientist and the poet must retain. It enacts the emotional energy – the passion of Hope – which accompanies the imaginative impulse. It employs the metaphor of electrical polarity in the striking idea of ‘Negative Belief’ – an image which recurs in a central passage in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) – ‘that willing suspension of Disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith’. And arguably it prepares the way for Keats’s brilliant definition of ‘Negative Capability’ as the crucial power of the poet to enter into other ‘modes of being’ outside himself.

  Later, Coleridge rose to another brilliant invocation of the poet’s imaginative gift, in terms of a special visual force. This was the capacity to project multiple images on the human mind, and fuse them into a single impulse of feeling and vision. Quoting Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, he observed that great writers have ‘that power and energy of what a living poet has grandly and appropriately described as: “To flash upon that Inward Eye, which is the Bliss of Solitude” and to make everything present by a Series of Images. – This an absolute Essential of Poetry …’ He found its purest expression in the ‘fusing’ power of Shakespeare’s poetry:

  … A sort of fusion to force many into one … Even as Nature, the greatest of Poets, acts upon us when we open our eyes upon an extended prospect. – Thus the flight of [Shakespeare’s] Adonis from the enamoured Goddess in the dusk of the Evening:

  ‘Look! how a bright star shooteth from the Sky

  So glides he in the night from Venus’ Eye’

  How many Images and Feelings are here brought together without effort and without discord: the Beauty of Adonis – the rapidity of his Flight – the yearning yet Hopelessness of the enamoured gazer (Venus) – and a shadowy, Ideal character thrown over the whole.

  Here the creation of poetry seems to share in the dynamic process of the continuous creation of the physical universe itself. The one is in harmony with the other. That is exactly what Coleridge would later argue, with more technical philosophic language, in his theory of Primary and Secondary Imagination in the Biographia Literaria.

  Finally, there is the lecture for which Coleridge was ‘censured’ by the Committee of the Royal Institution. The subject at first appears completely peripheral to the topic of the Imagination. It was Education, and a particular controversy over appropriate educational methods. Two opposing pedagogic systems were espoused by Dr Andrew Bell (an Anglican) and Dr Joseph Lancaster (a Quaker). The central issue in dispute was that of the use of punishments in teaching children. Dr Lancaster – an early Pavlovian – promulgated an astonishing arsenal of correctives: the use of pillories in the classroom, the shackling of legs with wooden logs, trussing dunces up in a sack, making them walk backwards through the school corridors, and suspending them in ‘punishment baskets’ from the ceiling. It was this system that Coleridge attacked with such passionate vehemence.

  Robert Southey, a latecomer to the Royal Institution series, another sceptic who had at first doubted Coleridge’s ability even to appear in public, dramatically recalled the scene:

  When Mr. Coleridge in a Lecture at the Royal Institution, upon the New System of Education, came to this part of the subject [punishments], he read Mr. Lancaster’s account of these precious inventions verbatim from his own book, and throwing the book down with a mixture of contempt and indignation, exclaimed, ‘No boy who has been subject to punishments like these will stand in fear of Newgate, or feel any horror at the thought of a Slave Ship!’

  This was probably one of Coleridge’s finest performances. He drew upon his own childhood experiences, his early Bristol lectures against slavery, the imagery from The Ancient Mariner, and effortlessly turned the subject back to his central theme. He argued that ‘true Education comes from Love and Imagination’.

  Thirty-three-year-old Crabb Robinson, lawyer and journalist, soon to be war correspondent for The Times, enthusiastically reported Coleridge in action against his critics:

  The extraordinary Lecture on Education was most excellent, delivered with great animation and Extorting praise from those whose prejudices he was mercilessly attacking. And he kept his audience on the rack of pleasure and offence two whole hours and 10 minutes, and few went away during the lecture … The cardinal rules of early Education: 1. to work by love and so generate love; 2. to habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth; 3. to excite imaginative power … He concluded: ‘Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.’


  Having wound back and slowed down time, the biographer can now fast-forward it.

  In view of subsequent events, the 1808 series should be considered as a triumph snatched from the jaws of disaster, and one of the eccentric glories of the Royal Institution. Against all the odds, Davy had succeeded in launching Coleridge’s career as public lecturer. It saved Coleridge from intellectual paralysis and despair, it helped to see him through the worst of his opium addiction, it earned him some much-needed income, and most important of all, it eventually set him writing again. Between 1811 and 1813 he gave over 120 lectures in London and Bristol, and his great reputation as the foremost English Romantic critic began. Taken up again in 1818–19, the lectures were eventually collected to produce his two volumes of Shakespeare Criticism, which is still studied in schools and universities, and shapes the thinking behind many modern stage productions. It also formed the basis of his aesthetic theories in the Biographia Literaria, which he published in 1817, the most influential book of Romantic critical philosophy ever published.

  The interplay between science and poetry continued to fill Coleridge’s later notebooks, and to shape his broadest speculations for the rest of his life. It is typical that in one later lecture he compares the poetic cosmology of Milton’s Paradise Lost with Erasmus Darwin’s scientific one, and gives a vividly coherent account of the Big Bang Theory. He then raises an objection which might still give us pause for thought: the Big Bang Theory is not beautiful enough to be entirely explanatory.

  He also grappled with evolution – what he called the Orang-outang Theory – and gave an Idealist interpretation of it in The Theory of Life (1816): ‘I define Life as the Tendency to Individuation; and the degrees or intensities of Life, to consist in a progressive realisation of this tendency.’ Again he raises a philosophical problem which still haunts us: does the mechanism of evolution necessarily exclude the notion of purpose, of teleology? (Charles Darwin thought it did, but Mary Somerville and Alfred Russel Wallace concluded that it did not.) Coleridge remained friendly with a wide circle of scientists, and it is no coincidence that his last amanuensis at Highgate, J.H. Green, later became President of the Royal College of Surgeons.

  It is heartening to remember the great tribute that Coleridge paid to Davy and science much later, in an essay published in his philosophical collection The Friend in 1818:

  This is, in truth, the first charm of Chemistry, and the secret of the almost universal interest excited by its discoveries … the propounding and the solving of an Enigma. It is the sense of a principle of connection given by the Mind, and sanctioned by the correspondency of Nature. Hence the strong hold which, in all ages, Chemistry has had on the Imagination. If in Shakespeare we find Nature idealized into Poetry, through the creative power of a profound yet observant meditation; so through the meditative observation of a Davy, a Wollaston, or a Hatchett … we find Poetry, as it were, substantiated and realised in Nature.

>   6

  So what, in sum, did I try to demonstrate in my lecture? Simply that Coleridge has been misremembered. As so often in biography, the legend or the myth, especially if it has some scandalous charm attached to it, has subtly distorted the historical record. Seen in a revised biographical perspective, Davy’s daring ‘Coleridge Experiment’ at the Royal Institution can be reinterpreted and revalued as an important success. It bore rich intellectual fruit for the poet himself, not the ‘thorns, briars and parasitical plants’ that Davy had feared. It also marked a historic development in the Institution’s own record of lecture programming and research sponsorship, which proceeded to expand throughout the nineteenth century. The Institution could, in a word, be proud of Coleridge. ‘In fact,’ I remarked as I gently closed the great leather folio volume of the 1808 minutes, ‘it might consider another serious piece of biographical time-adjustment. It might invite Coleridge back to give one of its celebrated Christmas Lectures. On television. He would be – unforgettable.’


  William Blake Rediscovered


  There are many William Blakes, but mine arrived with the tigers in the 1960s. The first line I ever read by Blake was not in a book, but laid out (or should I say illuminated) in thick white paint along a brick wall in Silver Street, Cambridge, in 1968. It was not poetry, but prose: ‘The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of Instruction.’ The words sent a strange shiver down my spine, as they did for thousands of other university students in England and America that year.

  It turns out that, according to the New York Times for 28 December 1968, exactly the same line from Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’ appeared on big posters at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association in New York. According to the Times it signified that ‘Radical Agitation Among Scholars Grows’, and it led to several arrests.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment