Coleridge and the Project of The Friend

Coleridge and the Project of The Friend
Coleridge and the Project of The Friend
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The Paradoxical Project of The Friend

Doubt succeeds to doubt, cloud rolls over cloud, one paradox is driven out by another still greater, in endless succession.

Hazlitt, Examiner (8 Sep 1816), quoted in Jackson, 250-251.

Would to Heaven that the verdict to be passed on my labours depended on those who least needed them! The water lilly in the midst of waters lifts up its broad leaves, and expands its petals at the first pattering of the shower, and rejoices in the rain with a quicker sympathy, than the parched shrub in the sandy desart.

Coleridge, TF, 1.111.

‘Tis true, indeed, the Republick of dark Authors, after they once found out this excellent Expedient of Dying, have been particularly happy in the Variety, as well as Extent of their Reputation. For, Night being the universal Mother of Things, wise Philosophers hold all Writings to be fruitful in the Proportion they are dark; And therefore, the true Illuminated (that is to say, the Darkest of all) have met with numberless Commentators, whose Scholiastick Midwifry hath deliver’d them of Meanings, that the Authors themselves, perhaps, never conceived, and yet may very justly be allowed the Lawful Parents of them: The Words of such Writers being like Seed, which, however scattered at random, when they light upon a fruitful Ground, will multiply far beyond either the Hopes or Imagination of the Sower.

Swift, A Tale of a Tub, 118.

Biographical and critical representations of Coleridge’s career generally divide his corpus into three parts. The first part, which includes his early public prose and poetry, is usually figured as a bright dawn, while the third part, figured as a dark night, comprises the later theological ruminations of the ‘Sage of Highgate’. The middle part is figured as a period of obscurity, and bridges the abyss separating the young radical poet-lecturer and the old conservative mystic-oracle, incorporating Coleridge’s early nineteenth-century literary lectures and criticism and his rather Orphic ‘descent’ into opium and Kantium from around the time of his departure for Malta in 1804 (where Richard Holmes splits his biography between Early Visions and Darker Reflections) to the publication of the 1818 Friend.1 The middle years, in other words, are the muddle years, and most of the criticism on Coleridge’s work in this period focuses on explaining away the obscurity of ‘Coleridge’s philosophy’ by explaining away one particular text which in its darkness binds them, the Biographia Literaria.2 Because it is centralized in readings of Coleridge’s muddle years, the Biographia is seen as the source of his figuration as a quasi-metaphysical foreignish philosopher, a plagiarist, a duplicitous apostatical self-reviser, and the perennial scourge of undergraduates. But the story of Coleridge’s emergence in this period as a figure of philosophical obscurity is more complex, and neither begins nor ends with the Biographia as a centre to which all other texts are peripheral;3 as Peter Kitson has remarked, ‘[i]t is not easy to date the beginning of Coleridge’s passage from idiosyncratic dissenter to idiosyncratic conservative’.4 Part of the reason for this difficulty is that during the muddling years of the Poet-Critic-Mystic trinity so beloved by Coleridgean biographers, Coleridge both engages in and is subject to a sustained project of self-production and self-transformation that is not exhausted by a criticism which centralizes the Biographia Literaria.

Rather, it is in the larger context of the reflexive public projection of his character in these years, in what I call ‘the project of The Friend’, that we can best see the constitution of Coleridge as a figure of Romantic obscurity. The project of The Friend corresponds roughly to the years encompassed by the three incarnations of The Friend in 1809-10, 1812, and 1818. By focusing on The Friend as a process rather than a single work, I mean to invoke a sense of incoherence and progressive, reflexive, reactionary revision in a single project which took place over a significant period of time. Like the single life that is divided into a Trinitarian ‘Coleridge’, the single work of The Friend is divided into the periodical-Friend, the bound-Friend and the book-Friend, and all are reflexively united in the single identity of the public character of The Friend which also speaks in the Biographia and the two Lay Sermons. Because the project of The Friend takes place over a period of time and across different works, like The Friends themselves it can embody a series of revisionary and metaphorical responses to the charge of obscurity. When we discuss Coleridge’s obscurity without an understanding of the uses and abuses of ‘obscurity’ in relation to this project, we merely reproduce the revisionary discourse of attack and defence in which Coleridge and his enemies engaged – leaving the ‘centre’, the nature of obscurity itself, undefined, indefinite, indeterminate. In other words, explaining away the obscurities of the Biographia does not contribute meaningfully to a discussion of Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity, but explaining Coleridge’s projected engagement with the concept of obscurity does.

It is in the project circumscribed by the threeFriends that Coleridge most explicitly and directly encounters, articulates, and tries to resolve the problems and paradoxes of a positive, Romantic obscurity. The movement from ambivalence to a private and finally to a public commitment to a positive obscurity in the periodical-Friend (and a further articulation of this resolution in the bound-Friend) resulted only in further charges of obscurity from Coleridge’s friends and reviewers. Ultimately Coleridge developed his commitment to obscurity in a series of defences from and attacks on his public and private correspondents as the project wore on. In the book-Friend, this pattern emerged in a structure of unresolved ‘staircases’ which involve a consideration of obscurity in relation to labour, a critique of clarity, an analysis of the dangers of obscurity, and finally the relationship of obscurity to the function of Coleridge’s metaphysics. Coleridge became a philosopher of obscurity, thematising the obscurity which he meant his readers to overcome, and he was forced, in the face of real or anticipated readerly resistance, to convince the revolting reader in turn that his was the obscurity of the dawn, not the dusk.

But this reactionary appropriation of the charge of obscurity was always in a sense preliminary, and the ‘staircases’ of obscurity are unresolved because of their relationship to the Romantic obscurity of the delay of full interpretation, or the fulfilment of a prophecy of philosophical completion and coherence. Paradoxically, before Coleridge could convince his readers to begin their ascent through transformative obscurity, he had to provoke them into a charitable investment in a reading (rather than out of a reading) of The Friend which assented to a form of delayed repayment. In his own provocative words, he had to convince his readers that ‘[i]gnorance seldom vaults into knowledge, but passes through it into an intermediate state of obscurity, even as night into day through twilight’.5 Consequently the works that make up the project of The Friend are invested with an expanding proliferation of introductory material, even in relation to Coleridge’s early Watchman days, which correlates to an increased anxiety of public reception. Theorizing philosophical obscurity turns into philosophical theorizing about obscurity which turns into theorizing about philosophizing obscurity, et cetera, carrying Coleridge down a metarhetorical slippery slope to a vanishing point. Thus the works of The Friend take on the form John Livingston Lowes applied specifically to The Friend ¸ that ‘quintessentially mid-Coleridgean omnium gatherum’6. And as Paul Hamilton points out (adapting Jerome Christensen), this tendency to ‘reduce a text to the reading of a text – to reduce its meaning to its reading – only “figures” a philosophy: it does not yet state it’.7 Christensen claims rather charitably of The Friend that during this activity ‘it is not as though nothing is getting done’,8 and while this is true, in another sense it is precisely nothing that is getting done: as the philosophy disappears behind its endless self-contemplation, so does The Friend in its endless self-defence. But as Christensen also claims, what remains is precisely ‘a defense of [Coleridge’s] tortuously obscure style’.9

The final project of The Friend is Coleridge himself. The infamous method of self-projection associated with the Biographia began in the first number of the periodical-Friend, where Coleridge stated ‘I shall deem it my Duty to state [my arguments] with what skill I can, at a fitting opportunity, though rather as the Biographer of my own sentiments than a Legislator of the opinions of other men’.10 I would like to pursue a reading for obscurity in which Coleridge’s real project is ‘Coleridge’, the public representation of his identity which will be determined by his critics and readers (and friends), and which will also determine their determination. If he is to inspire public confidence in his work, he must make Coleridge into a friend, The Friend. The goal is to control the reception of his literary projects by the people by controlling in turn the reception of his own character as a guide. To control ‘obscurity’ was to achieve the goal Coleridge had dreamed of since his Moral and Political Lecture: authorial and authoritative control of the reception of his work, and thus control of the transformation of society.

  1. For an extensive account of Coleridge’s experience in Italy, see Eduardo Zuccato, Coleridge in Italy (Cork, Ireland, 1996).
  2. For example, Paul Hamilton states that ‘[o]n the way to the dramatic philosophical irresolution of Biographia, Coleridge produces another journal, the Friend of 1809-10, whose title, as Elinor Shaffer claims, signals the move from the paradigm of an eighteenth-century periodical to a “romantic and hermeneutic model”’ (Paul Hamilton, ‘The philosopher’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, ed. Lucy Newlyn [Cambridge, 2002], 172, my emphasis, quoting Elinor Shaffer, ‘The Hermeneutic Community: Coleridge and Schleirmacher’, in The Coleridge Connection: Essays for Thomas McFarland, eds. Richard Gravil and Molly Lefebure [London, 1990], 213). On the same page, Hamilton also refers to the 1818 Friend as a ‘re-hash’ of the periodical.
  3. In the development of the Coleridgean trinity, the diversity of his work in the years intervening betweenThe Watchman and the periodical-Friend is often shrouded in order to secure the narrative of his descent into darkness. In a typical example, John Cornwell quotes a letter from Dorothy Wordsworth in which she claims that Coleridge returned from Malta a “shadow” of his former self (Coleridge: Poet and Revolutionary 1772-1804 [London, 1973], 397-8). Richard Holmes considers the importance of this biographical trope in Early Visions when he speculates that, if Coleridge had died on his way to Malta, ‘[h]is literary achievement would have a sharp, bright clarity. It is difficult to think that the shadows of failure, plagiarism, apostacy, or even opium addiction, would mark his reputation in any significant way’ (Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions [London, 1989], 362). Many scholars have, however, filled this convenient gap by paying particular attention to Coleridge’s changing political views around the turn of the century through a focus on his journalism. In addition to his introduction to the Collected Coleridge edition of Essays on His Times, see David V. Erdman, ‘Coleridge as Editorial Writer’, in Power & Consciousness, eds. Conor Cruise O’Brien and William Dean Vanech (London, 1969), 183-201; ‘Coleridge and the “Review Business”: An Account of His Adventures with the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, and Maga’, WWC, 6:1 (Winter 1975), 3-50; and David V. Erdman and Paul M. Zall, ‘Coleridge and Jeffrey in Controversy’, SiR, 14:1 (Winter 1975), 75-83.
  4. Peter J. Kitson, ‘Political thinker’, 164.
  5. TF, 1.115.
  6. John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (London, 1927), 338.
  7. Paul Hamilton, ‘The philosopher’, 173.
  8. Jerome Christensen, ‘The Method of The Friend’, in Rhetorical Traditions, 11.
  9. Ibid. 11.
  10. TF, 2.9.

The Periodical-Friend

Certainly a good Augustinian would realize that obscurity is an important safeguard against human pride. How could self-formation take place without obstacles? How can character be built without a productive struggle?

John Hamilton, Soliciting Darkness, 140.

The story of the form and development, and ultimately the abortive demise, of the 1809-10 periodical-Friend has been extensively discussed by Barbara Rooke in the introduction to her two-volume edition of The Friend and in Deirdre Coleman’s doctoral thesis as well as her subsequent study, Coleridge and The Friend(1809-1810). The periodical-Friend was produced by Coleridge with the assistance (after the fourth number) of his amanuensis, Sara Hutchinson, after he went through a period of illness and indulgence in opium and alcohol.1 Though it only ran to 27 numbers from June 1809 to March 1810 and ended in the middle of an essay,2 the fact that it was produced at all was received as something like a miracle by members of Coleridge’s circle. It was printed on stamped paper in order to diminish the costs of distribution, and though it was modelled on Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, while ‘Cobbett charged tenpence a copy… Coleridge would charge a shilling’.3 The price of a publication was a means of limiting its reception to those with the money to purchase it, and Coleridge’s readership was further limited by his system of soliciting subscriptions from a significant proportion of Quaker readers. It was also, as Deirdre Coleman points out, ‘part of a Tory reaction against those who questioned the need to continue the war’.4 Consequently, pro-war patriotism was represented with figures of anti-‘blackening’ light (and anti-war resistance with figures of darkness) in a manner invoking the battle over these figures initiated by the confrontation between Price and Burke twenty years earlier.5 ‘There are times’, wrote Coleridge, ‘when it would be wise to regard Patriotism as a light that is in danger of being blown out, rather than as a fire which needs to be fanned, by the winds of party spirit’.6 In other words, the periodical-Friend was intended to generate unity among those whom Coleridge felt could be persuaded to speak in favour of the war – or, at least, to buy The Friend.

Quite literally in spite of its form, the periodical-Friend was also intended to appeal to a readership limited in other ways. ‘[I]t is not to be a Newspaper’, wrote Coleridge to his editor and friend Daniel Stuart, ‘– it is not even meant as a work meant to attract and amuse the ordinary crowd of Readers’.7 Besides price and solicited distribution, the rhetorical methods by which Coleridge would restrict his readership would be introductory warnings and the thematised obscurity of The Friend’s content. Metarhetorically determining the reception of his work, Coleridge ‘freely admitted’ the ‘awkwardness of matching popular form and philosophical content’ in the first number.8 But any apparent similarity to The Watchman does not extend much further. Thus Coleman notes accurately that ‘[i]n style and content, The Friend appears to mark a break with The Watchman, for whereas the earlier periodical was predominantly a work of political journalism, The Friend advertised itself as an apolitical and ambitious work of moral philosophy’.9 Comparing his format to that of other publications, which either took the form of lasting books on lasting issues or the perishable form of weekly papers on weekly issues, he claimed that ‘[f]rom all other works the FRIEND is sufficiently distinguished either by the very form and intervals of its Publication, or by its avowed exclusion of the Events of the Day, and of all personal Politics’.10 That he still felt this type of centaurish project, of combining the head of philosophical content with the body of steady weekly publication and reading, was still possible after all of the years since The Watchman, was as much a consequence of Coleridge’s residual optimism as it was an attempt to reflexively determine the periodical-Friend’s reception.

In the first two numbers of the periodical-Friend, and especially the sections that were later deleted in the subsequent editions, Coleridge displays an explicit understanding of the obscurity he meant to communicate to his readers, its relation to his form, and his belief that a reflexive articulation of his purposes and strategies was necessary. In the very first sentence of his very first paragraph, ominously, he expresses the necessity of a long introduction with almost Shandean self-consciousness:

[i]f it be usual with writers in general to find the first paragraph of their works that which has given them the most trouble with the least satisfaction, THE FRIEND may be allowed to feel the difficulties and anxiety of a first introduction in a more than ordinary degree. He is embarrassed [sic] by the very circumstances, that discriminate the plan and purposes of the weekly paper from those of its periodical brethren, as well as from its more dignified literary relations, which come forth at once and in full growth from their parents.11

From the very beginning, that is, The Friend was about itself, or, given Coleridge’s immediate assumption of the persona of ‘THE FRIEND’, himself. The invocation of the ‘full growth’ of its ‘literary relations’ refers to both the relatively greater degree of disconnection between the parts of a so-called ‘weekly-paper’ and a coherent book, and to the positive consequence of the periodical form that ‘[u]nlike a one-off production, such as a poem or essay, a journal is necessarily open to reader influence’.12

In order to convince his readers to wait for a delayed comprehension of his communications, Coleridge first had to gain their confidence that the investment of labour in reading would be equivalent to that he had spent in writing. Thus he quickly interrupts himself after a staged digression and states: ‘[i]t will be long, ere I shall dare flatter myself, that I have won the confidence of my Reader sufficiently to require of him that effort of attention, which the regular Establishment of this Truth would require’.13 But the digression into non-introductory material has already, and carefully, introduced the subject of dangerously ‘obscure’ notions which are accompanied by ‘vivid’ ‘convictions’ – notions grounded in ‘uncorrupted feeling’ and ‘[r]egarded with awe, as guiding principles by the founders of law and religion’.14 Setting up the abstruse discussion of ‘this Truth’ as a digression, The Friend has his cake, eats it too, and even gets to bake it: he awes his readers with a difficult disquisition that thematises its own aweful difficulty, and then apologizes for their anticipated incomprehension and asks them to bear with his apologetic preparatory introduction.

The paradoxical nature of this project left The Friend unable to proceed beyond this type of backhanded apology. He continues later in the number (in a passage heavily revised in later editions): ‘I must rely on my Readers’ Indulgence for the pardon of this long and, I more than fear, prolix introductory explanation. I knew not by what means to avoid it without becoming unintelligible in my succeeding Papers, dull where animation might justly be demanded, and worse than all, dull to no purpose’.15 This delay was occasioned by the structure of his paradoxical project, which required him to habituate the reader to obscurity in order to prepare the reader for the reception of obscurity. Thus ‘the Architect conceals the Foundation of his Building beneath the Superstructure. But an Author’s Harp must be tuned in the hearing of those, who are to understand it’s after harmonies’.16 At this point Coleridge was still (ostensibly) rather optimistic, however, about the intelligibility of his ‘after harmonies’, claiming that his ensuing ‘arguments are neither abstruse, nor dependent on a long chain of Deductions, nor such as suppose previous habits of metaphysical disquisition’.17 After the disappointing reaction to the periodical-Friend and the increasing charges of obscurity, Coleridge would later claim that he had not to tune his harp to the hearing of his readers, but rather to change their hearing to accept his tune.18 ‘[A]s The Friend began to fail’, that is, Coleridge ‘bitterly inveighed against the intellectual laziness of his subscribers’,19 who merely wished he would explain his explanation.

Deirdre Coleman’s reading of this first number explains its obscurity with reference to an immediate interest, Coleridge’s cultivation of a Quaker readership. She describes this number as ‘a piece of writing so obscure as to be almost wholly unintelligible without some knowledge of the circumstances surrounding its production’.20 ‘The opening number’, she notes,

…written at the home of the Quaker Thomas Wilkinson, must be one of the most riddling and obscure essays ever written by Coleridge, and… here. [sic] as elsewhere in The Friend, the difficulty of accommodating two audiences – Quakers and non-Quakers – was partly responsible for the woeful indirectness and equivocation of his writing.21

Coleman’s reading of the source of Coleridge’s obscurity in her doctoral thesis and her subsequent book on the periodical-Friend exposes Coleridge’s anxious engagement with the diversity of his audience as he wrote his first number. But in focusing solely on this particular aspect of his writing, it largely takes ‘obscurity’ for granted as a dishonest equivocation through which Coleridge hid or compromised his real views for the sake of the periodical-Friend’s success. Coleman’s repeated invocations of obscurity are systematically related to her analysis of Coleridge’s rejection of, and rejection by, his Quaker subscribers. Her general claims concerning the fact that the ‘interconnection of public and private life informed Coleridge’s first conception of The Friend22 investigate this private-public debate, consequently, through a focused consideration of the initial numbers of the periodical-Friend, after which Coleridge’s problems with his private views and his public persona became clearer and were exacerbated by his literally moving away from Quaker influence.23 This analysis of the Quaker dimension of the project of The Friend makes Coleridge’s thematisation of obscurity a dismissable consequence of failure and the text’s obscurity a manifestation of confused principles and contradictory entrepreneurial goals on the part of the author. The philosophical and political content of obscurity is therefore in turn rejected, and Coleman does not explicitly invoke the obvious inversion of the Inner Light which Coleridge’s obscurity represents. Consequently, in Coleman’s reading an understanding of Coleridge’s relation to his Quaker readership becomes a sort of master-key of interpretation, explaining away rather than explaining his obscurity. But the dangerous obscurity thematised by Coleridge is a deliberate inversion of what was for him a naive belief in the innate perfection of the inspiration or enthusiasm of the protestant concept of the Inner Light, gazed upon by the pervasive figure of the inner eye, which leads one to follow one’s spontaneous feelings without having first made them trustworthy by habitual modification and observation of them. For The Friend, the obscure sources and guides of inspiration always had to be questioned before they could be trusted, and as Coleman notes, ‘[t]here is little doubt that Coleridge viewed English Dissent as the subversive home counterpart of French revolutionary doctrine’.24 Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity was a palpable, visible historical force, not merely an ahistorical ‘style’ or a simultaneous cause and effect of a failure to be (ahistorically and apolitically) ‘clear’ in form and content with his Quaker readership, or anyone else.

The sections of the second number that Coleridge later deleted contain two introductory statements that are particularly important for an understanding of obscurity in the periodical-Friend. The first involves the metarhetorical invocation of the power of rhetoric and the inversion of clarity in a time of war and ideological battle – that is, it involves the invocation of Edmund Burke. Coleridge opens the number with a long extract from a speech of Burke’s that is intended to appeal equally to ‘both of the opposite parties’ (that is, those for and against the continuation of the war). Coleridge manages this feat by choosing a speech with all of the eloquence characteristic of the 1790s reactionary Burke, but taken from 1780, ‘from that BURKE whose latter exertions have rendered his works venerable… from a Speech delivered by him while he was the most beloved… name with the more anxious Friends of Liberty’.25 The speech contains an analysis of the manner in which positive figures are fought over in battles of inversion by enemies who wish to claim this positivity for themselves. Thus, says the oracular Burke, ‘in hot reformations, in what men more zealous than considerate, call making clear work, the whole is… generally crude, so harsh, so indigested; mixed with… imprudence and… injustice’, that in such times the ‘very Idea of purity and disinterestedness in Politics falls into disrepute, and is considered as a vision of hot and inexperienced men’.26 The implication is that in times of political strife, the very terms of the debate are no longer above suspicion, and even basic figures – like clarity – can be inverted over and over again. The battle is therefore staged between opposing authors (and rhetoricians) over the appropriation of these terms in the service of a particular position. Not surprisingly, this is the first moment in the project of The Friend that Coleridge offers a critique of ‘clarity’. The ‘hazardous subject’27 of Burke’s speech and Coleridge’s response is therefore not so much the war, to which he makes only an oblique reference, but the power of rhetoric in relation to the internal strife at home.

Second, this number contains various passages concerning Coleridge himself, in which he dismisses the importance of his early work.28 ‘[T]hough the title of my address is general’, he writes,

yet, I own, I direct myself more particularly to those among my readers, who from various printed and unprinted calumnies have judged most unfavourably of my political tenets; and to those, whose favour I have chanced to win in consequence of a similar, though not equal, mistake.** To both I affirm, that the opinions and arguments, I am about to detail, have been the settled convictions of my mind for the last ten or twelve years, with some brief intervals of fluctuation, and those only in lesser points, and known only to the Companions of my Fire-side.29

By adopting the position of one defending himself against unmerited attacks, Coleridge could communicate to his readers a sympathetic projection of his new identity. The transformed Coleridge was meant to inspire confidence in his sincerity as a true ‘Friend of Liberty’ in 1809 and afterwards – that is, one who promoted war in accordance with the conservative establishment and from within an ‘Island’ nation subject to a ‘wide diffusion of moral information’ in circumstances ‘where the instruction has been acquired without the stupifying [sic] influences of terror or actual calamity’.30 Barbara Rooke states of such passages that ‘[m]uch of the first two numbers was discarded because, as [Coleridge] realized soon after their publication, they were prolegomena to rather than an enunciation of the principles he had promised’.31 But the sections were in fact replaced at the opening of the 1818 book-Friend with even more reflexive introductory material in which Coleridge could ‘state [his] own convictions at full on the nature of obscurity’32 - on the nature of the obscurity, that is, of the project of The Friend. In order to revise his readers, The Friend had to revise himself, and this recursive, circular defence of his defences was developed in response to the mortifying charges of obscurity that originated in personal and public circles of reception. In the end The Friend became, in a sense, nothing more and nothing less than an endless introduction to the indefinite delay of its own Romantic obscurity, the endless explanation of an explanation.

Coleridge’s response to the charge of obscurity in his private correspondence throughout the production of the periodical-Friend demonstrates how his rhetoric of obscurity changed from a humiliating form of confession into the ‘methodical’ defence of a positive, thematised Romantic obscurity. The most relevant and focused period of this transition took place from early June 1809 and the publication of the first numbers of the periodical-Friend and ends, significantly, in a letter written in late January 1810, just before the departure of Sara, his amanuensis. In this series of letters Coleridge initially apologises for his obscurity as a fault, but as the series of charges from friends and the pressures from readers multiply, he begins to apologize for his obscurity as a virtue. It was through a reaction to private in addition to public pressures that Coleridge developed the strategies he would deploy in the rest of the project of The Friend as he explicitly pursued the improvement of his readers through the communication of the strength that comes from wrestling with darkness. Or, as his many detractors would inversively argue, as he wasted their strength by training them to box with shadows.

In mid-June, Coleridge wrote an encouraging letter to Stuart associating his newfound vigour with the projected clarity of his introductory numbers.33 The following numbers had to be written clearly, Coleridge claimed, for the sake of their successful reception and as evidence of his labour: ‘I had altered my plan for the introductory Essays after my arrival at Penrith, which cost me exceeding trouble – but the Numbers to come are in a very superior style of Polish & easy Intelligibility’.34 For Coleridge, that is, clarity is unnatural, a highly artificial style, a laborious exercise. The political significance of his preoccupation with clarity is articulated in the same letter, where, perhaps once again engaging in a form of projection, he mentions his worry that Wordsworth’s pamphlet on the Cintra Convention ‘does not possess the more profitable excellence of translating this down into that style which might easily convey it to the understandings of common readers’ and that ‘the long Porch may prevent Readers from entering the Temple’.35 Clarity was, indeed, so important even in the introduction of individual numbers that Coleridge later suggested to his printer John Brown that he was willing to leave out a note on the distinctions between sense, reason, and understanding, usuallyannounced as an essential principle of his ‘philosophy’, for the sake of introducing a new number clearly.36

The deliberate optimism of these claims, which represent as much a statement of conciliation to the commercially-minded Stuart as they do Coleridge’s real beliefs about the clarity of the first numbers, was later retracted as charges concerning the obscurity of the introductory numbers came pouring in. ‘I am fully aware’, he wrote to Stuart in early September, ‘that the Numbers hitherto are in too hard and laborious a style; but I trust, you will find Nos. 7. 8. 9. & 10. greatly improved - & that every No. after these will become more & more entertaining’.37 Disturbingly, the heavy introductory foundation of the periodical-Friend had expanded to include the first six numbers, and the seventh itself included a brief defence of this introductory proliferation. It was shortly thereafter that Coleridge showed the first serious signs of pride in, rather than remorse for, his obscurity. He contradicted his earlier letter to Stuart and claimed ‘[i]t was in the necessity of the Plan, and I stated it as such in the first No. p.7, that my foundations could not be as attractive as I hoped to make the super-structure’.38 On 9 October Coleridge claimed to be quite in the dark concerning the charge of obscurity made by his friends, with the exception of those made by his annuity-benefactor Josiah Wedgwood and Stuart himself: ‘[f]rom the commencement of the Friend to the present hour I have never heard one word concerning it, either by letter or by word of mouth, except some raptures from Lady Beaumont, and a passage in Mr Wedgewood’s letter corresponding with your’s concerning it’s occasional Obscurity, & the error of running one number into another’.39

But Coleridge had heard similar complaints from others, and had evidently chosen this day to answer the charge (in a typical burst of activity) to multiple correspondents. Writing to Poole, Coleridge articulated as a weakness what he later defended as a strength in the Friends: ‘[t]here is too often an entortillage in the sentences & even the thoughts, which nothing can justify; and, always almost, a stately piling up of Story on Story in one architectural period…. But be assured, that the Nos. will improve’.40 Again on the same busy day, Coleridge wrote to his imposing brother George:

I am, & was at the very first number of The Friend, sensible of my defect in facility of Style, and more desirous to avoid obscurity than successful in the attempt. Habits of abstruse and continuous thought, and the almost exclusive perusal of the Greek Historians & Philosophers, of the German Metaphysicians & Moralists, and of our English Writers from Edward VIth to James IInd, have combined to render my sentences more piled up and architectural, than is endurable in so illogical an age as the present, in which all the cements of Style are dismissed.41

The reference to his personal weakness was a typical trope in his self-deprecating letters to his stern brother, but they do reflect the vestiges of Coleridge’s strategy of mounting an apology for obscurity grounded on personal failure. Coleridge, however, doubles the responsibility for his obscurity by placing it not merely on his particular readers, but also on the people of an entire age, perhaps not heeding Stuart’s implicit claim that readers in the age were logical enough to accept the ‘cements of Style’, but not in a newspaper.42 Later in the letter, Coleridge again mentions entortillage, evidently the word of the day, but once again contradicts himself by transforming his obscurity into an architectural necessity: ‘it is essential to my plan, that I should first lay the foundations well, but the merit of a foundation is it’s depth and solidity’.43 The next day, in letters to Richard Sharp and Samuel Purkis, Coleridge continued his defensive attack, invoking an important set of figures interchangeable with obscurity and clarity: heaviness and lightness, the former necessarily existing in the foundation and the latter in the upper reaches of his super-structure.44 Obscurity is associated with figures of a labour heavy, deep, and hard. Ultimately, the figures in these private, friendly exchanges were imparted to The Friend in its revised form in 1818.

The revision of his role from patient to healer, another programmatic projection of his personal efforts and activities, begins with his next letter to Purkis. It was at this point that the vehemence and superlative language with which he began to apologize for his obscurity took on real political, moral, and even religious significance: ‘but still I feel the sadning conviction, that no real information can be given, no important errors overthrown in Politics, Morals, or Literature without requiring some effort of Thought - & that the aversion from this is the mother Evil of all the other Evils, that I have to attack’.45 The feminised, gendered aversion he mentions is to personal political, moral and aesthetic development (a significant combination) and is identical with the aversion to intellectual exercise, to the mental labour required by obscurity. The cure Dr. Coleridge proposes for this endemic weakness is exposure to the source of the disease, and what follows in the letter is Coleridge’s first strong articulation of the paradox of obscurity after which this chapter has been named: ‘consequently, I am like a Physician who prescribes exercise with the dumb bells to a Patient paralytic in both arms’.46 It was a figure that would become central to the project of The Friend, and was not accidentally coincident with Coleridge’s transferral of the burden of labour to the reader’s own weakness in the dark face of the mother Evil, obscurity.

Coleridge’s confident, comprehensive, and reactionary defence of the periodical-Friend entailed the rather absurd contradiction that he intended it to fail. He therefore represents himself as a self-lacerating martyr to inspired benevolence, like the misunderstood outcast in Coleridge’s old favourite, the ‘Fable of the Madning Rain’.47 In a significant letter to Southey also written in mid-October 1810, Coleridge complained that ‘[w]hat really makes me despond is the daily confirmation I receive of my original apprehension, that the plan and execution of The Friend is so utterly unsuitable to the public taste as to preclude all rational hopes of its success’ and that he would be less dejected ‘if I could attribute [the evident failure of The Friend] wholly to any removable error of my own’. Well aware that his work was so far dark, rayless, cold and uninviting, he claimed that all which is attractive in rhetoric required a sustained delay in the periodical-Friend for the sake of the reader’s intellectual and moral exercise with obscurity.

After asserting that no effort of his can cure his patients, Coleridge proceeds to despair of his readers’ will or ability to return his effort and reward him with effectiveness, repeating his claim about the mother evil and the dumbbells.48

Coleridge’s corresponding development of these progressively honed figures of obscurity, which were later deployed in his public work, has at this point reached a climax. Unlike the radical rhetorics of clarity and fact, which endorsed a spontaneous, effortless spread of social information like fire, the Romantic information represented here involves not only the sluggish delay of a mortifying labour, but also an avowal of its own impossibility. In the next sentence, Coleridge expresses the function of obscurity in his writing and in his character as a writer, marking the major turning point from his early, radical optimism concerning the ideal progressive potential for personal and social development: ‘[w]hatever I publish, and in whatever form, this obstacle’ – obscurity – ‘will be felt’.49 Obscurity was not just a problem for the periodical-Friend: it was now thematised as the central aspect of all Coleridge’s future public writing, and the defining characteristic of The Friend in his war on ‘the mother evil’, the feminised aversion to mental labour, and its negative moral, political, and aesthetic offspring.

Coleridge chose to resolve the mounting charges of obscurity by commissioning a letter from Southey for publication and to which Coleridge would respond in the same number. Southey complied with a letter which detailed the nature of The Friend’s obscurity, its inherent dangers, and various strategies for achieving clarity. But becauseSouthey’s response was delayed by a Porlockian porter who ‘kept [Coleridge’s] letter, manuring it in his Pocket,50 Coleridge did not publish it. Rather, he chose to publish only his own ‘letter’, framing it as a response to a probably fictional and ultimately unidentifiable correspondent, R.L.51 This was a device which Coleridge would later employ in a slightly altered manner in the famous faked letter in the thirteenth chapter of the Biographia Literaria (a paramount example of the obscurity of delay). This letter on obscurity was later repositioned as one of the initial passages of the book-Friend and figured as a foundation to its structure. As a reformulation (represented nonetheless as the articulation of an original plan and purpose) of the reflexive significance of the periodical-Friend, the letter is Coleridge’s first lengthy and self-conscious public thematisation of obscurity. And as a section in the beginning of the book-Friend, it constitutes not a revision but indeed the founding formulation of a new work, a fiat obscurum.

Typically, Coleridge begins the letter by claiming his ‘plan’ would present itself with serious obstacles.52 Thus he formulates one of the fundamental paradoxes of his new/preconceived project: that ‘in order to the regular attainment of [his] object’,

all the driest and least attractive Essays must appear in the first fifteen or twenty Numbers, and thus subject me to the necessity of demanding effort or soliciting patience in that part of the Work, where it was most my interest to secure the confidence of my Readers by winning their favour.53

This claim is underwritten by the landscape-journey metaphor of ‘laborious ascent’, as The Friend laments his need to ‘start at the foot of a high and steep hill’.54 In its stated attempt to remedy the intimately related evils of weak thinking and reading, it is important to note that the project of The Friend thus figures the philosophical information of its readers in a manner that invokes the function of Christian meditative spiritual reading exercise. Discussing Aids to Reflection, Douglas Hedley locates this activity in a particularly Platonic-Christian tradition, and, representing the process of reading the Aids as an ‘ascent’, he remarks that Coleridge ‘believes fervently in the identity of knowledge and virtue, and it is quite appropriate that in his greatest work we should find “exercises” rather than a store house or, worse, museum full of elaborate and unverifiable doctrines about the supersensible empyrean’.55 John Hamilton, in an extended discussion of the importance of obscurity in the Christian tradition, nicely articulates the figurative economics of labour and delay in this Augustinian doctrine. Commenting on the emergence of Christian obscurity from the pagan and quoting from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, Hamilton remarks that ‘[r]itual darkness is thereby installed as an idea of the highest value, being interpreted as the prerequisite for the movement toward true apocalypse… [and for Augustine in On Christian Doctrine] “those things which are easily discovered seem frequently to become worthless”’.56 Likewise, Mehtonen writes in his own study of Augustinian obscurity that Petrarch and Boccaccio agree with Augustine that ‘the more difficult the search, the greater the pleasure of ultimate discovery’.57 This transformation of labour through obscurity into a metaphor of pleasurable spiritual and intellectual ascent is later incorporated into the explicit structure of the book-Friend through the device of ‘landing-places’ devoted to intellectual rest, ‘INTERPOSED FOR AMUSEMENT / RETROSPECT AND PREPARATION’.58 In the letter to R. L. Coleridge insists that he means The Friend to do more than merely convey philosophical content of an obscure nature to his readers: he means for it simultaneously to transform his readers into philosophers of a positive obscurity.

In the mock-privacy of an epistolary response, Coleridge proceeds to introduce the pro-obscurity figures that had been slowly accumulating in the previous numbers of The Friend. He launches his defensive attack by claiming that

I could not therefore be surprized, however much I may have been depressed, by the frequency with which you hear The Friend complained of for its’ abstruseness and obscurity; nor did the highly flattering expressions, with which you accompanied your communication, prevent me from feeling its’ truth to the whole extent.59

Having read his acknowledgment of the charge of obscurity, the readers of The Friend are prompted to imagine that the following pages would take the form of a remorseful apology in which obscurity was held up as The Friend’s failure. What they get instead is an apology in defence of obscurity, and an attack on both clarity and, crucially, the desire for it. The first figure Coleridge uses is that of the ‘Author’s pen’ which like ‘Children’s legs, improves by exercise’60 – a tacit admission that his obscurity is the consequence of his need to develop more experience with periodical writing in the project of The Friend. But this initial act of self-blame is quickly turned into a sort of virtue, as the author claims he acquired his valuable obscurity through internal hard work. Obscurity is a sign and an effect of the depth and significance of the author’s investment of labour. Coleridge therefore asks for a delay in the reader’s judgment until The Friend will have ‘had a fair opportunity of displaying the quality of his goods or the foundations of his credit’.61

The Friend quickly introduces the second major theme of obscurity in the letter: the division by ability, inclination, nature, class or cultivation, of readers into various groups. It is an old Coleridgean tactic, certainly, but one which, in the course of the project of The Friend, became increasingly hierarchical and exclusive. He transfers the obscurity of his work to the projection of his readers, who are unaccustomed to his older, more English style, and are instead accustomed to a foreign, French, unconnected style.62 As Richard Holmes has argued, ‘[t]he question of a difficult style was crucial to [Coleridge], for he believed that the brief, punchy, short-sentenced and epigrammatic style of journalism was itself a form of superficiality’.63 When Coleridge calls his attachment to the older, heavier style a ‘fault’, he is speaking less than half the truth, as he goes on to state: ‘I can never so far sacrifice my judgment to the desire of being immediately popular, as to cast my sentences in the French moulds’.64 Like the stereotypical French, his weaker readers have injured their minds through ‘the habit of receiving pleasure without any exertion of thought, by the mere excitement of curiosity and sensibility’.65 At this point in his fictional letter The Friend becomes decidedly unfriendly. Those readers who accuse him of obscurity are ‘asthmatic’ (another example of the medical figures of obscurity), they ‘dwarf their own faculties’, and ‘reduce their Understandings to a deplorable imbecility’, or, like a feminised ‘Mistress’, they are exhausted from the meaningless flow of ‘idle morning Visitors’ who come and go talking of nothing in particular.66

But the reader’s labour is required to cure him of his asthma, his effeminate exhaustion, and his dwarfed intellect, and the author cannot do this work for him. ‘All the principles of my future Work, all the fundamental doctrines, in the establishment of which I must of necessity require the attention of my Reader to become my fellow-labourer’, he writes, will require that his readers learn to love exercise by engaging in the very exercise they hate, learning obscurity through obscurity, and learning ‘to retire into themselves and make their own minds the objects of their stedfast attention’.67 The affected indirection of The Friend’s prescriptions to his readers here loses any claim to subtlety, as he invokes another privately developed series of phrases and arguments in his mock letter, again referring referring to the mother evil (here a ‘Queen Bee’) and the paradox of the dumb bells.68 The Friend’s promises of future clarity and entertainment, of ‘lighter graces’ and a ‘clear view’69 result, in the following numbers of the periodical, only in further obscurity and, indeed, incoherence, as the steep hill was transformed, instead, into a downward track leading to the failure of the periodical-Friend and Coleridge’s personal collapse. The course of this decline involved the meaningful intermixture of private and public discourse and labour invoked in the ‘fictive’ letter that was, as I have shown, after all composed in part by elements from his personal correspondence.

Jerome Christensen has observed in his book on the book-Friend that Coleridge (in the persona of The Friend) uses the ‘fictive’ letter ‘to introduce the discussion of his style’ and ‘gradually [turn] the handicap of obscurity into a virtue’.70 It is as he introduces the letter that Christensen begins to approach the climax of his own work and defines the central function of obscurity in Coleridge’s blessed machine of language, discussing the themes of labour and deferral or delay. Christensen’s focus on the book-Friend allows him conveniently to consider the work as a whole produced, as it were, at once, and the letter as an initial introduction of an obscure plan. For Deirdre Coleman, who discusses the periodical, the letter represents instead a response to increasing complaints of obscurity. Thus she argues that it marks ‘the end of Coleridge’s political theory and the beginning of a quite different, more miscellaneous journal’,71 instead of the beginning of a coherent book. But as I have shown, the altered placement of the ‘letter’ in both works demonstrates the importance of considering The Friend as a project that represents a process, rather than three distinct works. This indirect and typically Coleridgean fictional intervention at once informs his projected readers of his purposes and projects an image of his ideal (and unideal) readers. It is therefore both an ending and a beginning, and a central articulation of Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity. As Coleridge said of human experience, so it is that the periodical-Friend, in its endlessly preliminary reactions and retrospections, ‘like the stern lights of a ship at sea, illumines only the path which we have passed over’.72

  1. Ibid. 1.lv.
  2. Ibid. 2.369.
  3. Ibid. 1.xlii, xliii.
  4. Deirdre Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend, 12.
  5. In an unpublished paper, Michael John Kooy has considered the charge that Coleridge, in his ultimate endorsement of the war with France, engaged in an aestheticisation of that conflict. ‘The most striking feature of this aspect of Romantic politics’, writes Kooy, ‘is the imaginative projection of a cohesive national community that needs defending from an obscure foe by mass-organised force’ (Michael John Kooy, ‘Imagining Conflict: Coleridge’s Wartime Journalism’ [unpublished], 3).
  6. TF, 2.328.
  7. CL, 3.168.
  8. Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend, 42.
  9. TF, 1.11, my emphasis.
  10. Ibid. 2.13.
  11. Ibid. 2.5.
  12. Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend, 10.
  13. TF, 2.8.
  14. Ibid. 2.7.
  15. Ibid. 2.10.
  16. Ibid. 2.10.
  17. Ibid. 2.8-9.
  18. Coleman nicely registers the attack implicit in this defence: ‘[t]o complain of obscurity and imprecision, to resist believing before understanding, is to reveal oneself deaf to the highest of harmonies’** (Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend, 62).
  19. Ibid. 10.
  20. Ibid. 4.
  21. Ibid. 80-81.
  22. Ibid. 7.
  23. For an account of Coleridge’s residence with Thomas Wilkinson and others at this time, see Deirdre Coleman, The personal and intellectual background of Coleridge’s periodical *The Friend** *(1809-1810), with particular reference to its moral and political preoccupations, DPhil Thesis (University of Oxford, 1985), 153-154.
  24. Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend, 125.
  25. TF, 2.22.
  26. Ibid. 2.21.
  27. Ibid. 2.22.
  28. Ibid. 2.22-26 n.
  29. Ibid. 2.22-26.
  30. Ibid. 2.30.
  31. TF, 1.xcvi.
  32. CL, 3.254.
  33. Peter J. Kitson, ‘Political thinker’, 164.
  34. CL,** 3.213.
  35. Ibid. 3.214.
  36. Ibid. 3.223. Coleridge stated in BL that ‘[t]o establish this distinction was one main object of THE FRIEND’ (BL, 1.175).
  37. CL, 3.226-227.
  38. Ibid. 3.227.
  39. Ibid. 3.231. Stuart, ever the acute businessman, had identified this obscurity as a problem relating particularly to the format of The Friend, prophetically suggesting that Coleridge had a ‘Book’ as his ‘ultimate object’. For the passage from a letter to Coleridge by Stuart, see CL, 3.231 n1.
  40. Ibid. 3.234.
  41. Ibid. 3.237.
  42. Coleridge was particularly disturbed by Stuart’s straightforward criticism and advice. It was in his letter to George on October 10 (the same day he wrote to Stuart of Lady Beaumont’s ‘raptures’) that Coleridge gave a very inflated view of his influence on the Morning Post, a claim he would later rescind in the face of recrimination (ibid. 3.238).
  43. Ibid. 3.237.
  44. Ibid. 3.242, 245.
  45. Ibid. 3.253.
  46. Ibid. 3.253. Purkis evidently accepted Coleridge’s judgment of his readers, writing to Poole that the Friend ‘is too good for the Public. It is caviare to the Multitude’. Reprinted in TF, 1.lxi-lxii.
  47. For the Friendly version of the fable, originally recounted in Coleridge’s Lectures on Revealed Religion,** see TF, 2.507-510, 1.7-10 and 2.11.
  48. Ibid. 3.253-4.
  49. Ibid. 3.254.
  50. TF, 2.495. Rooke notes the sequence of the exchange of Coleridge and Southey’s letters in TF, 2.497-8 n.
  51. Strangely confusing the public with the private, Griggs includes the ‘letter’ to R.L., which was first published in the eleventh number of The Friend (dated October 26, 1809]: in CL, 3.254-59.
  52. TF, 2.149.
  53. Ibid. 2.149.
  54. Ibid. 2.150.
  55. Douglas Hedley, Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion (Cambridge, 2000), 17. Hedley also relates this element of the Aids to ‘a tradition which pursues the Platonic vision up the divided line and out of the cave into the divine light’ (Hedley, 8).
  56. John Hamilton, 132-3.
  57. Mehtonen, 89.
  58. TF, 1.127. The final two landing-places appear at pages 1.339 and 1.525 in the Collected Coleridge edition, and in the first edition of the book-Friend the three landing-places appear on pages 1.213, 2.265 and 3.267. See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend, 3 Vols. (London, 1818). Interestingly, one strategy Coleridge does not employ in the original edition of the book-Friend is that famous Ramist innovation, the table of contents. The only method the reader has for navigating the book is reading it.
  59. TF, 2.150.
  60. Ibid. 2.150.
  61. Ibid. 2.152.
  62. For Coleridge the false brevity and faux clarity of the French language was determined by the form of French philosophical concepts of truth, as James McKusick points out: ‘Coleridge often cites the French as an example of a language hopelessly corrupted by false philosophical doctrines’.[72] But as Marilyn Butler has observed, this philosophical claim was at once a political position. At this time, ‘[t]he dominant prose style in England remained what Coleridge called, disparagingly, Anglo-Gallican. Any departure form that style (like Coleridge’s own) was likely to draw down on the author’s head the charge of obscurity or pretentiousness or plain incompetence’(Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries, 162). Michael John Kooy offers a comprehensive account of Coleridge’s politicised criticism of the French in general in ‘Coleridge’s Francophobia’, where he observes that Coleridge’s ‘“Gall contra Gallos”… was really a deep-seated repugnance for an entire people, culpable not only for Jacobinism and aggression but also for bad manners and bad taste’, the latter two faults being, of course, highly political and historically determined (Kooy, ‘Coleridge’s Francophobia’, 924).
  63. Holmes, Darker Reflections, 172.
  64. TF, 2.150.
  65. Ibid. 2.150.
  66. Ibid 2.150, 151.
  67. Ibid. 2.151.
  68. Ibid. 2.152
  69. Ibid. 2.152, 153.
  70. Jerome Christensen, Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language (Ithaca and London, 1981), 208.
  71. Deirdre Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend,** 6.
  72. TF, 1.179-80.

The Bound-Friend

This word “obscurity” would settle on Coleridge like an albatross.

Richard Holmes, Darker Reflections, 172.

‘We live by continued acts of defence, that involve a sort of offensive warfare’

Coleridge, TF, 1.97.

Coleridge’s commitment to The Friend did not end with the publication of the final number of the periodical-Friend. He ended the last number with an at once pathetic and prophetic, parenthetical invocation of delay: ‘(To be concluded in the next Number)’.1 He continued to contemplate changes and improvements to the project, and in 1812 the project of The Friend would finally begin to form itself into a book, as Stuart and Southey had suggested all along it should, freed from the demands of weak, weekly labour and freed from the demands of a weak, weekly public. Barbara Rooke gives an excellent account of the context and effort involved in the volume’s formation,2 while Griggs offers the following succinct account of its materials, referring to Coleridge’s continual problems with procuring paper: ‘[u]nstamped paper was not obtained until Nov. 1809. As a result, the 100 or so more “sets” of The Friend available on unstamped sheets on 15. Mar. [1810] consisted of revised reprints of the first 12 numbers and original copies of the last 16’.3 His alterations to the first sixteen numbers were not substantive – one particular manuscript ‘reveals many revisions in style and emphasis but few of content’, and Rooke notes that some representative ‘alterations indicate Coleridge’s constant concern for clarity and emphasis’.4

Rooke seems determined to defend Coleridge’s attempt to clarify himself with alterations to the bound-Friend, and makes his concern for clarity her main argument in the explosion of the ‘myth that the revisions [to the 1812 Friend] are insignificant’.5 Unfortunately she does not place this defence in the context of Coleridge’s complex and problematic development of a reflexive metarhetoric of Romantic obscurity, and her evident desire to be an advocate for him leads her to relegate most charges of obscurity to a footnote and to include in the main text statements that essentially adopt The Friend’s figures of obscurity (such as Purkis’ statement about ‘caviare’).6 Thus, for example, Coleridge’s alteration to an important passage relating to the nature of the human intellect is represented as ‘his attempt to clarify his concepts of reason and the understanding’.7 Rooke even claims that Coleridge ‘revised the first seven numbers in greater detail than he did the following five, perhaps because, as he had expected, his pen, like children’s legs, had improved by exercise’.8 For Rooke, the negative charge of obscurity was essentially either a consequence of his readers’ impatience and uncharitability, or of the normal mistakes that benefit from a bit of editorial polishing.

Rooke does, however, note that some of the additions to the bound-Friend involve more serious changes. One such addition concerns those facts that ‘subsist in perpetual flux’.9 After claiming that such facts lead one inevitably into ‘unanswerable difficulties’, an important element of his argument in the book-Friend that human intelligence is ultimately limited and inherently incapable of clear and complete resolution, Coleridge adds the following statement:

[s]uch are all those facts, the knowledge of which is not received from the senses, but must be acquired by reflection; and the existence of which we can prove to others, only as far as we can prevail on them to go into themselves and make their own minds the Object of their stedfast** [sic] attention.10

If the most essential truths for a right understanding of epistemology are of the class of facts which are internal and essentially in flux, then the possibility of clear and permanent knowledge is seriously called into question. So too is the possibility that readers can be convinced to draw away from the ease of accepting the axioms of common sense (which are grounded merely in facts communicated through the transparent medium of the senses, resulting in ‘uncorrupted feeling’11) and drawn towards the effort of achieving an explicit and conscious understanding of principles or demonstrated conclusions through the concentrated labour of inward-looking, transcendental self-analysis. Coleridge, perhaps perceiving that the particularly perilous epistemological position this implied should not appear so early in The Friend, removed the insertion from the book-Friend.

Another significant addition is central to Coleridge’s attempt to distinguish between those negative obscurities which can be clarified by positive intellectual exercise or engagement, and those which are positively obscure all the way down, as it were. This distinction is meant to demonstrate that one can identify the difference between those demonic, dangerous forms of passionate obscurity associated with falsehood and violent revolution, and those divine, benevolent forms of passionate obscurity which are a consequence of our benighted condition and the sublime authority of God. There are in fact two insertions, an extended clause and a footnote. In the former, Coleridge expresses his wish ‘to reserve the deep feelings which belong, as by a natural right** to those obscure Ideas that are necessary to the moral perfection of the human being, notwithstanding, yea, even in consequence, of their obscurity’. The footnote begins after ‘belong’:

I have not expressed myself as clearly as I could wish. But the truth of the assertion, that deep feeling has a tendency to combine with obscure ideas in preference to distinct and clear notions, is proved in every Methodist meeting, and by the history of religious sects in general. The odium theologicum, or hatred excited by difference of faith, is even proverbial: and it is the common complaint of philosophers and philosophic Historians, that the passions of the Disputants are commonly violent in proportion to the subtlety and obscurity of the Questions in Dispute. Nor is this fact confined to professional Theologians: for whole nations have displayed the same agitations, and have sacrificed national policy to the more powerful Interest of a controverted Obscurity.12

Though the problem of inspiration and enthusiasm was particularly important in the political rhetoric of the 1790s in Britain, telling the difference between divine and demonic inspiration was an ancient problem, and instead of being resolved by the end of the project of The Friend, it was ultimately expanded to include a much wider range of people: in the book-Friend Coleridge removed the reference to the Methodists and replaced it with the more general claim that his point about obscurity ‘may be proved by the history of Fanatics and Fanaticism in all ages and countries’.13

This continued commitment to obscurity in the bound-Friend secured the foundation of Coleridge’s reputation for obscurity. Though it began with the reception of some of his earliest poetry, the public formation of Coleridge as a figure of obscurity reached its climax in the publications and reviews bookended by the periodical-Friend in 1809 and the book-Friend in 1818. Thus Richard Holmes writes in Darker Reflections that Coleridge’s reputation for obscurity settled on him ‘like an albatross’ after the publication of the periodical-Friend. 14 The charge of obscurity was very public and personal, private and political, its charge shifting interchangeably back and forth between the author and the text and the reader. As Holmes also suggests, ‘Coleridge’s coat-trailing into controversy (which Southey interpreted as coat-turning) was partly a response to widespread criticism of the undoubted obscurity of many of the early numbers, as Coleridge responded to reviewers and reviewers responded to him in turn.15 What the reviewers recognised was that Coleridge’s response in these years to the charge of obscurity was not so much an attempt to shoot the albatross as to capture, tame and train it, and the transferability of obscurity between writer, work, and reader meant Coleridge was personally and publicly figured in terms of obscurity.

The only review that appeared of the periodical-Friend was published (unsigned) in the Eclectic Review in October 1811 by John Foster, a republican Baptist minister who, according to the DNB, never administered baptism. Written after the periodical had been completed, it treated The Friend as a complete and coherent work (it would have been strange in any case to have written a ‘review’ of a particular number of a periodical). Foster first announces his pleasure that Coleridge ‘was in good faith employing himself… in the intellectual public service’,16 perhaps a subtle reference to the supposed waste of Coleridge’s less illustrious form of public service in Malta. Describing the material circumstances under which the paper was printed and distributed (‘printed on stamped paper, these essays were conveyed by the post, free of expence, to any part of the country’17), Foster compares ‘the exterior character’ of The Friend’s paper not to Coleridge’s foil Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register,** but rather to the Tatler and the Rambler. He notes, however, that The Friend ‘should attempt to instruct after a very different method’ and ‘might require a somewhat resolute exercise of intellect’.18 Foster also claims that the haste with which it was written precluded just and necessary revision19 and left ‘no possibility of disposing the subject in the simplest clearest order, and giving the desirable compression, and lucidness, and general finishing to the composition’.20 In Foster’s account, Coleridge’s distinctions become ‘tenebrious’ and are presented in a language with an ‘obscurity of a somewhat different kind from that which may seem inevitably incident, in some degree, to the expression of thoughts of extreme abstraction’. 21 The tortured obscurity of The Friend even causes the reader to ‘excruciate’,22 and Foster’s references to the persona of the ‘Friend’ are placed in quotation marks as though to call attention to his dubious benevolence. For Foster, the trust we can place in The Friend is limited not only by the labour and pain his obscurity foists upon the reader, but also by the inherently questionable character of his obscure voice. In his highly figurative descriptions of this ‘Friendly’ obscurity Foster almost approaches the Hazlittian:

[the ‘Friend’] always carries on his investigation at a depth, and sometimes a most profound depth, below the uppermost and most accessible stratum; and is philosophically mining among its most recondite principles of the subject… this Spirit of the Deep.

[i]f he endeavours to make his voice heard from this region beneath, it is apt to be listened to as a sound of dubious import, like that which fails to bring articulate words from the remote recess of a cavern, or the bottom of the deep shaft of a mine.

He turns all things into their ghosts, and summons us to walk with him in this region of shades – this strange world of disembodied truths and entities.23

When the reader is made to ‘feel as if he were deficient by nearly one whole faculty’,24 he feels that it is rather the result of a trick or a cheat than a result of his own weakness. Having called attention to this negative possibility, Foster’s own overtly supportive claims appear deliberately ironic, like subtle warnings: ‘[t]hey [the readers] feel, decisively, that they are under the tuition of a most uncommonly powerful and far-seeing spirit, that penetrates into the essences of things, and can also strongly define their forms and even their shadows’.25 Interestingly invoking what Seamus Perry has shown to be a systematic and potentially positive element of Coleridge’s supposedly disruptive, divisive digressiveness, Foster calls even the dubious authority he has given the ‘Friend’ into question: ‘And yet there is some kind of haze in the medium through which this spirit transmits its light, or there is some vexatious dimness in the mental faculty of seeing’.26

When the bound-Friend was issued in June 1812 it merely contributed to the growing darkness, and reviews of Coleridge’s play Remorse (which opened at Drury Lane in January 1813) reflect its obscure rays. An unsigned review in the ToryTimes, for example, conflates the indeterminacy of the author’s mind with the indeterminacy of his language: ‘[t]he author has not brought to his task, the one greater quality which is above all and atones for all - a vigorous and combining mind, that muscular grasp of understanding, capable by its force of compressing the weak and scattered, into a firm and vigorous solidity’.27 Likewise, another anonymous reviewer wrote in the Theatrical Inquisitor that Coleridge’s ‘diction’ was ‘uncouth, pedantic, and obscure’, and remarked on ‘the general confusion or obscurity of composition’ in the play.28 In 1814 this reputation for obscurity was firmly established when Thomas Barnes, a former student of Christ’s Hospital and an active reviewer who was working with Leigh Hunt on the The Examiner at the time (and who in 1817 became the enormously influential editor of the Times), wrote in The Champion that

[Coleridge] looked about for fresh objects for the exercise of his intellect, and most unluckily was, all at once, spell-bound, by the incomprehensible grandeur of the philosophy of Kant.** From that time he has never been disenchanted: he has ever since affected to refine wisdom into obscurity, and to struggle with subjects which he scarcely has skill enough to touch.29

The personal attack was particularly apposite considering Coleridge’s renewed interest and activity in public lecturing. Interestingly, Barnes recognizes that Coleridge appropriates obscurity as apositive charge: ‘[h]ence proceeds the great confusion in his ideas, and consequently in his language; nor is he unaware of this defect; but he ascribes it to any cause rather than the right one. He insinuates that the expressions of deep feeling must ever be obscure to general readers’.30 The ghost of the periodical-Friend, and of Coleridge’s defensive appropriation of obscurity looms large behind Barnes’ Baconian defence of clarity as a sort of refined common sense coextensive with the realm of truth.

If the year from 1797-1798 was Coleridge’s poetic annus mirabilis, the year from 1816-1817 was certainly his annus obscuritas, when he published the works that would make the claim that his prose was ‘often either obscure or diffuse’ a commonplace.31 From May 1816 to July 1817 he published ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, the Statesman’s Manual, the second Lay Sermon, and the Biographia. I will deal with the poems and the Biographia in my fifth and final chapter, but their contributions to Coleridge’s reputation for obscurity are critical commonplaces, made apparent in the highly politicised (though they are not always acknowledged to be so) monikers attached to them, such as ‘the mystery poems’, or, as one reviewer said in relation to ‘Christabel’ in the Critical Review, ‘those dreamlike productions whose charm partly consisted in the undefined obscurity of the conclusion’.32 In June 1816, Josiah Conder, the proprietor of the dissenting Eclectic Review, linked fear in ‘Christabel’ to ‘mysteriously transcending the notice of the senses’,33 but the writer, editor, and barrister William Roberts wrote less sympathetically in his Tory British Review in August that ‘[i]t is not every strange phantasy, or rambling incoherency of the brain, produced perhaps amidst the vapours of indigestion, that is susceptible of poetic effect… there must be something to connect these visionary forms with the realities of existence’.34 G. F. Mathew, in the European Magazine, succinctly** pronounced the poem ‘incoherently unintelligible’.35 Finally, as David Erdman and Paul Zall note, John Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s nephew, published an anonymous review of Remorse in 1814 for the Quarterly Review, in which ‘he plays the old refrain about his uncle’s misplaced genius and eccentric obscurity: “He has been long before the public, and has acquired a reputation for ability proportioned rather to what he is supposed capable of performing, than to any thing which he has accomplished”’.36

If the reaction to The Friend, Remorse and the mystery poems marks the dawn of Coleridge’s obscurity, the reaction to the Lay Sermons and the Biographia is a sort of inverted high noon. In the first number of the revamped, vamping Tory Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in October 1817, John Wilson (the infamous Christopher North), an erstwhile friend of Coleridge’s who had contributed to an exchange with Wordsworth in the periodical-Friend under the name of ‘Mathetes’,37 wrote of the Biographia:

while [Coleridge] darkens what was dark before into tenfold obscurity, he so treats the most ordinary common-places as to give them the air of mysteries.38

The profusion of obscurity charges laid in this article is devastating, and typical indeed of responses to the much-discussed Biographia. We even read that

[t]his Philosopher, and Theologian, and Patriot, [has] now retired to a village in Somersetshire, and, after having sought to enlighten the whole world, discovered that he himself was in utter darkness.39

But Wilson is far from finished with poor STC:

he never knows when to have done, explains what requires no explanation, often leaves untouched the very difficulty he starts, and when he has poured before us a glimpse of light upon the shadeless form of some dark conception, he seems to take a wilful pleasure in its immediate extinction, and leads “us floundering on, and quite astray”, through the deepening shadows of interminable night.40

Fittingly, an unsigned article in the Monthly Magazine in January 1817 made it clear that while obscurity might be a concept usually deployed in favour of hierarchy, at the same time the charge of obscurity functions as a sort of radical levelling: ‘Mr. Coleridge ought, by this time, to know that the high, as well as the low, mob comprehend only what is exceedingly clear’.41 It should be noted that two years later John Gibson Lockhart wrote a review in Blackwood’s of the mystery poems which appropriated the figures of Romantic, Coleridgean obscurity in a somewhat positive though still rather ironic fashion. While he claims that the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is ‘not capable of being described, analyzed, or criticised’, he nicely invokes the ambiguity and interchangeability of positive and negative obscurity in the following comment: ‘[d]im and shadowy, and incoherent, however, though it be, how blind, how wilfully, or how foolishly blind must they have been who refused to see any meaning or purpose in the Tale of the Mariner!’42

There was, to be sure, some pun intended in Wilson’s fortuitous conflation of the man and the figure in his claim in the same article: ‘[t]he truth is, that Mr. Coleridge is but an obscure name in English literature’.43 Inspired by Coleridge’s latest work and of course his positive valuation of obscurity, in 1817 Thomas Love Peacock introduced the world to his Coleridge-caricature Mr. Mystic, ‘the poeticopolitical, rhapsodicoprosaical, deisdæmoniacoparadoxographical, pseudolatriological, transcendental meteorosophist’ who tries to ‘enlighten’ his audience ‘through the medium of “darkness visible”’.44 And 1818, of course, saw the rise of the tenebricose Mr. Flosky in Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, who

plunged into the central opacity of Kantian metaphysics, and lay perdu several years in transcendental darkness, till the common daylight of common sense became intolerable to his eyes. He called the sun an ignis fatuus; and exhorted all who would listen to his friendly voice, which were about as many as called ‘God save King Richard,’ to shelter themselves from its delusive radiance in the obscure haunt of Old Philosophy.45

At this point it should be no surprise that we can hear a curious echo of Wilson in Byron’s hawkish caricature of Coleridge in the 1819 dedication to ‘Don Juan’:

And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,

But like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,

Explaining Metaphysics to the nation—

I wish he would explain his explanation (13-16).46

Two years later, in his ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’, Shelley wrote of Coleridge:

You will see Coleridge - he who sits obscure

In the exceeding lustre and the pure

Intense irradiation of a mind,

Which, with its own internal lightnings blind,

Flags wearily through darkness and despair-

A cloud-encircled meteor of the air,

A hooded eagle among blinking owls (202-208).47

By this point, the albatross of obscurity was, indeed, weighing heavily about Coleridge’s shoulders, and was to become as infamous and ubiquitous an element of discussions of his identity as is the figure of the Mariner himself.

It is a connection perhaps deliberately invoked by the ‘head Coleridge-baiter’,48 William Hazlitt, in his brilliant analysis of the periodical-Friend through a naval analogy:

[t]his work is so obscure, that it has been supposed to be written in cypher and that it is necessary to read it upwards and downwards, or backwards and forwards, as it happens, to make head or tail of it.** The effect is monstrously like the qualms produced by the heaving of a ship becalmed at sea; the motion is so tedious, improgressive, and sickening.49

Hazlitt’s preoccupation with Coleridge’s obscurity is driven by his devotion to a dissenting rhetoric of clarity and radical information, and it helps him figure in this period as a day star in contrast to Coleridge’s dark star.50 In 1816 Hazlitt wrote what was ostensibly a review of the forthcoming Statesman’s Manual but was, in effect, a devastating review of the periodical-Friend and the character of The Friend. Hazlitt strikes at the heart of the revisionary, metarhetorical reflexivity which characterises the development of the periodical-Friend:

[w]hat is his Friend itself but an enormous Title-page; the longest and most tiresome Prospectus that was ever written; an endless Preface to an imaginary work; a Table of Contents that fills the whole volume; a huge bill of fare of all possible subjects, with not an idea to be had for love or money?51

Coleridge later complained that ‘that wretch Hazlitt, no man but a monster’ was hired ‘to review me. Me, I say: for the work was a mere pretext and opportunity’.52 Obscurity, indeed, was a central theme of Hazlitt’s constant attacks on Coleridge’s political shift, and his shiftless attempt to obscure it. Coleridge had little (on this score at least) to justly complain of. The identities of The Friend of Coleridge had been systematically and thematically transpositioned since Coleridge’s staged re-emergence in the public sphere in 1809. Thus there is a multi-layered significance in Hazlitt’s claim that ‘if… the author is caught in the fact of a single intelligible passage, we will be answerable for Mr. Coleridge’s loss of character’.53

After the Statesman’s Manual actually came out, Coleridge’s determined adherence to obscurity made it easy for Hazlitt to sustain in his ruse, or appear prescient upon its exposure. As Anthony Harding has pointed out, ‘[a]fter the Edinburgh Review had dismissed his Statesman’s Manual as incomprehensible, and rebuked him for having “lost himself in the depths of philosophy”, the sobriquet of “German metaphysician” followed Coleridge to Highgate and hampered his every attempt at publication’.54 Hazlitt writes throughout of Coleridge, the figure of obscurity, and only indirectly of the texts themselves, locating the origin of this figuration in its own explicit origin: ‘[w]e do not pretend to understand the philosophical principles of that anomalous production, The Friend’.55 Thus:

[c]louds do not shift their places more rapidly, dreams do not drive one another out more unaccountably, than Mr. Coleridge’s reasonings.

In this state of voluntary self-delusion, into which he has thrown himself, he mistakes hallucinations for truths, though he still has his misgivings, and dares not communicate them to others, except in distant hints, lest the spell should be broken, and the vision disappear. Plain sense and plain speaking would put an end to those “thick-coming fancies”, that lull him to repose.

He has a thousand shadowy thoughts that rise before him, and hold each a glass, in which they point to others yet more dim and distant.

In the world of shadows, in the succession of bubbles, there is no preference but of the most shadowy, no attachment but to the shortest-lived.

[t]he whole of this Sermon is written to sanction the principle of Catholic dictation, and to reprobate that diffusion of free inquiry – that difference of private, and ascendancy of public opinion, which has been the necessary consequence, and the great benefit of the Reformation.56

Hazlitt systematically exposes Coleridge’s various metarhetorical defences as attacks on the reading public, and speculates that ‘the mob-hating Mr. Coleridge’ must intend to lead culture back into the (surprise, surprise) ‘dark ages’.57 Hazlitt was following Coleridge’s lead by invoking obscurity as the concept of central importance to the project of The Friend, but he deliberately inverted and re-appropriated the authority and superiority the obscure Coleridge had adopted in relation to his reader by the time of the emergence of the Statesman’s Manual.

Though Coleridge does not explicitly invoke the stairway figure as a structure for the Biographia, in his reviews of that work Hazlitt once again displays his prescience – or perhaps provides Coleridge with the opportunity for a deliberate riposte in the book-Friend – by stating that, as Coleridge moves towards his infamous philosophical chapters he ‘begins the formidable ascent of that mountainous and barren ridge of clouds piled on precipices and precipices on clouds’.58 At the same time Hazlitt offers a rarity in the criticism of Coleridge’s negative obscurity: a focused and self-conscious (though far from comprehensive) defence of his own beloved and traditionally dissenting virtue of plain speaking.59 The politics of plainness or clarity, for Hazlitt, as they were for Paine and other late eighteenth-century British radicals, are implicated in a discussion that goes well beyond ‘style’ to include the epistemological and ideological implications not only in one’s language, but also in one’s explicit or implicit support for a social and natural philosophy which either limits the mind to a narrow sphere in subordination to God, or to a rising series of expanding human spheres of knowledge. Thus he claims that

[t]here is, no doubt, a simple and familiar language, common to almost all ranks, and intelligible through many ages, which is the best fitted for the direct expression of strong sense and deep passion, and which, consequently, is the language of the best poetry as well as of the best prose.60

Hazlitt goes on to expand this argument to include the expression of the intellect through ‘the middle or natural style, which is a mere transparent medium of the thoughts’.61 In an informative discussion of Hazlitt’s commitment to plainness and radical information, Tom Paulin has argued that in Hazlitt the ‘adjective “transparent” carries not simply the sense of being perspicuous, but the idea of a warmly illuminated transparency, so that the term communicates a powerful visual presence’.62 Transparency is not an absence, but a presence, and the title of The Plain Speaker, for Hazlitt as for all in the tradition of the rhetoric of clarity, ‘implies honesty’.63 However, it must be noted that Hazlitt’s concept of transparency as a presence and the connection of it with plainness and virtue invokes not only classical and radical commonplaces, but also their contradictions and paradoxes. If clarity is artificial, if it is a presence, a style, it can be imitated – and so, therefore, can virtue.

Given his interest in the sincere communication of passions, Hazlitt does offer one backhanded endorsement of the intentions behind Coleridge’s style in the Biographia in particular, and of his works in the project of The Friend in general: ‘[i]t is his impatience to transfer his conceptions entire, living, in all their rapidity, strength, and glancing variety – to the minds of others, that constantly pushes him to the verge of extravagance, and yet supports him there in dignified security’.64 Coleridge’s desire, like the ancient orators, to communicate directly, without even the aid of a transparent medium, is in its own way honest, but for Hazlitt even this blessing is transformed in the practice of obscurity into a ‘dignified security’ through the abuse of a constant delay which renders what would otherwise be a failure into a successful imposition. For Hazlitt, Paulin observes, ‘Coleridge travels in a light poetic “bark” whose arrival in its destined harbour we await in vain’.65

  1. Ibid. 2.369.
  2. Ibid. 1.lxxii-lxxvi and lxxxviii-xcii.
  3. CL,** 3.271 n1.
  4. TF, 1.lxxxvii.
  5. Ibid. 1.xxxviii.
  6. Ibid. 1.lxi-lxii.
  7. Ibid. 1.xci.
  8. Ibid. 1.xcii.
  9. Ibid. 2.6.
  10. Ibid. 1.xci and 2.7 n.
  11. Ibid. 1.xci and 2.6.
  12. Ibid. 2.72 n, 1.106 n.
  13. Ibid. 1.106.
  14. Richard Holmes, Darker Reflections, 172.
  15. Southey’s letter to Charles Danvers on 15 June 1809 is a particularly good example of this view: ‘Coleridge has vexed me by his Friend - the affectation of humility even to downright canting, and the folly of talking as he does about his former principles is still worse. It is worse than folly, for if he was not a Jacobine, in the common acceptation of the name, I wonder who the Devil was’ (Robert Southey, New Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Kenneth Curry [London 1965], 1.511).
  16. John Foster, Unsigned review of The Friend, Eclectic Review, 7 (Oct 1811), 912.
  17. Ibid. 913.
  18. Ibid. 913.
  19. This claim is repeated at length later in the review, where Foster states that ‘[t]here can be no doubt that, by such patient labour as the adopted mode of publication entirely forbade, the writer could have… left nothing obscure but what was invincibly and necessarily so, from the profound abstraction and exquisite refinement of thought’ (ibid. 918).
  20. Ibid. 914.
  21. Ibid. 917.
  22. Ibid. 917.
  23. Ibid. 920, 920-921, 921.
  24. Ibid. 921.
  25. Ibid. 924.
  26. Ibid. 924, my emphasis. Perry argues that ‘Coleridge’s “and yet” organises antitheses into an inconsequential simultaneity, rather than a dialectical succession’ (Seamus Perry, Coleridge and the Uses of Division, 25, and 234).
  27. Anonymous review of ‘Remorse’, Times, 25 Jan 1813.
  28. Anonymous review of ‘Remorse’, Theatrical Inquisitor, Feb 1813, quoted in Jackson, 131.
  29. Thomas Barnes, ‘Mr. Coleridge’, The Champion, 26 Mar 1814, quoted in Jackson, 191.
  30. Ibid. 191.
  31. George Maclean Harper, ‘Gems of Purest Ray’, in Coleridge: Studies by several hands on the hundredth anniversary of his death (London, 1934), 144.
  32. Anonymous review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, Critical Review, May 1816, quoted in Jackson, 200.
  33. Josiah Conder, Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, Eclectic Review, Jun 1816, quoted in Jackson, 210.
  34. William Roberts, Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, British Review, Aug 1816, quoted in Jackson, 222.
  35. G. F. Mathew, Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, European Magazine, Nov 1816, quoted in Jackson, 237.
  36. David V. Erdman and Paul M. Zall, ‘Coleridge and Jeffrey in Controversy’, 81.
  37. In this poignant exchange Wordsworth responds to Wilson’s request with an argument for the positive meaning and function of an intellectual and spiritual guide (TF, 1.377-405).
  38. John Wilson, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Oct 1817, quoted in Jackson, 328.
  39. Ibid. 342.
  40. Ibid. 348.
  41. Anonymous review of A Lay Sermon, Monthly Magazine, Jan 1817, quoted in Jackson, 278.
  42. John Gibson Lockhart, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, October 1819, quoted in Jackson, 439.
  43. Wilson, 329.
  44. Thomas Love Peacock, Melincourt, in The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, vol. 2, eds. H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones (London and New York, 1924), 328, 330. Peacock’s send-up of Coleridge’s Trinitarian turn nicely invokes the association of Moley (or Mole-eye) Mystic with mystery, as indeed it does the questioning of shadowy shapes: ‘“Ha! in that cylindrical mirror I see three shadowy forms: - dimly I see them through the smoked glass of my spectacles. Who art thou? - MYSTERY! – I hail thee! Who art thou? - JARGON! – I love thee! Who art thou? - SUPERSTITION! – I worship thee! Hail, transcendental TRIAD!”’ (Peacock, Melincourt, 339). Interestingly, Lucy Newlyn notes in Reading, Writing, and Romanticism that Peacock (in his ‘Essay on Fashionable Literature’) defended Coleridge against the whiggish Edinburgh Review’s 1818 attack on the obscurity of ‘Christabel’: ‘[t]he review is exposed as “a tissue of ignorance, folly, and fraud”, in which Coleridge has been misquoted, subjected to predictable badinage, and accused of obscurity where his meaning is perfectly plain’ (Newlyn, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism, 195).
  45. Thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey, in The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, eds. H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones, vol. 3 (London and New York, 1924), 10-11.
  46. Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann, Vol. 5 (Oxford, 1986).
  47. Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, eds. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, Vol. 4 (London and New York, 1928).
  48. Erdman and Zall, 82.
  49. Hazlitt, Review of The Statesman’s Manual, Examiner, 8 Sep 1816, quoted in Jackson, 249 n.
  50. The figuration of Hazlitt as a day-star is as rhetorically instrumental as the figuration of Coleridge as a dark star. As Seamus Perry notes, ‘being a Plain Man can be but another brand of egotism.** Even if not that, Plainness is itself a kind of style, which (in Hazlitt, for instance) works very adroitly to achieve an entirely literary effect’ (Seamus Perry, ‘The talker’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge [Cambridge, 2002], 113). Interestingly, in a note in a presentation copy of the Lay Sermon to Lockhart, Coleridge associates Hazlitt’s review of that work with ‘stars of like Lustre (Paracelsus’s Stellae tenebricosae that ray forth sheaths of Cold and Darkness to meet and enclose whatever counter-rays of Light and Heat might come in their way,)’ and relegates it ‘to the Constellation where to they it belongs’ (LS, 244).
  51. Hazlitt, Review of The Statesman’s Manual, Examiner, 8 Sep 1816, quoted in Jackson, 249.
  52. LS, 243, 244.
  53. Hazlitt, Review of The Statesman’s Manual, Examiner, 8 Sep 1816, quoted in Jackson, 249.
  54. Anthony Harding, Coleridge and the Idea of Love (London, 1974), 129.
  55. Hazlitt, Review of The Statesman’s Manual, Edinburgh Review, Dec 1816, quoted in Jackson, 265.
  56. Ibid. 263, 264, 265, 265, 268.
  57. Ibid. 273, 269.
  58. Hazlitt, Review of Biographia Literaria, Edinburgh Review, Aug 1817, quoted in Jackson, 301.
  59. Hazlitt’s The Plain Speaker (1826), which incorporates much of his work on or related to this subject after the period under discussion here, is a useful resource for his later discussions of this fundamental value. In this remarkable work, Hazlitt makes a constant if not altogether coherent case for his commitment to clarity, often in phrases that could be plucked directly from the rhetoric of clarity in the 1790s Reflections debate in Britain, and which echo the heights of earlier mid-Eighteenth century Enlightenment optimism which provided the foundations for this rhetoric. Thus Hazlitt writes, for example, in ‘On the Difference Between Writing and Speaking’ (1820]: that ‘[t]he eloquence that is effectual and irresistible must stir the inert mass of prejudice, and pierce the opaquest shadows of ignorance’. But, as ever with Hazlitt, his politics are hardly reducible to a stable and consistent system or commitment on such an unproblematic level. In ‘Madame Pasta and Mademoiselle Mars’ (1825), for example, he invokes an entirely different type of Romantic obscurity, this time positively and nationalistically: ‘[t]he French have a great dislike to anything obscure. They cannot bear to suppose for a moment there should be anything they do not understand: they are shockingly afraid of being mystified’ (William Hazlitt, The Plain Speaker, ed. Duncan Wu [Oxford, 1998], 146, 187).
  60. Hazlitt, Review of Biographia Literaria, Edinburgh Review, Aug 1817, quoted in Jackson, 318.
  61. Ibid 319.
  62. Paulin, 230.
  63. Ibid. 271.
  64. Quoted in Jackson, 314.
  65. Paulin, 201.

The Book-Friend

He took refuge in his eloquence; he over-powered her with a torrent of Philosophical paradoxes, to which, not understanding them, it was impossible for her to reply.

Matthew Lewis, The Monk (London, 1973), 257.

The rise of the negative charge of obscurity in these years was definitive and irreversible. But it was also deliberately perpetuated - and perpetrated - by Coleridge’s firm adherence to The Friend’s Romantic obscurity throughout the book-Friend, as he appropriated the figure of obscurity through a pattern of inversion and transvaluation. In the work of the book-Friend, Coleridge deliberately developed and sustained a metaphysical rhetoric of obscurity that involved a systematic reflexive reference to the function its own obscurantist metaphysics. It is the ultimate work on obscurity in the project of The Friend, in spite of the fact that it is so often overshadowed by the obscurity of the Biographia.

When Coleridge published the book-Friend in 1818, he had so fully revised the content and structure of his earlier work that he claimed the ‘present volumes are rather a rifacciamento than a new edition’.1 In his contradictory fashion Coleridge had always hoped his work, like The Watchman (which he also intended to have bound into a single, coherent work, as though, like the 1812 Friend, binding alone could confer internal coherence on separate issues),2 would eventually be received as a permanent work of something approaching philosophy. This change also represents a shift in Coleridge’s opinion of newspaper circulation and readership in the course of the project of The Friend: ‘[b]y this time Coleridge’s excitement at the speed of newspaper circulation had evaporated into alarm at the size and rapidly changing composition of the reading public’.3 By resurrecting the periodical-Friend in a new form, Coleridge metarhetorically subsumed his earlier periodical work, with its radical connotations, along with his earlier self.

Most of Coleridge’s structural changes are related to changes in content, and they are organized around the central paradox of Romantic obscurity: forming the reader for obscurity while he is being informed by obscurity. This new spiralling structure, modelled on the ascent of a staircase with occasional landing-places represented as a rest from the labour of obscurity, is constructed as the statements of its own reflexive self-construction. The book-Friend is made up not of one but of many ‘staircases’ which ascend and descend, twist and turn, stop and start without any principled pattern in spite of repeated statements announcing a solid structure. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater Thomas De Quincey offers what I would like to take as an apposite analogy for this structure in his well-known account of Coleridge’s description of the eighteenth-century painter Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Le Carceri series, stating that ‘with the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in my dreams.4 David Jasper has nicely summed up the Coleridgean element of these ‘Imaginary Prisons’:

[t]he great pieces of machinery express power exercised against power in a series of counterbalances, tensioned like the poles of a vast magnet. [Piranesi] himself, an insignificant and indistinct figure, is seen toiling up a staircase which ascends mysteriously and infinitely into the vaulted recesses. Aspiration matches the endlessness of a prison which both traps the artist in his finitude and suggests a possible escape into infinity for the man who would persevere against terrible odds. The toils of mortality are dreadful engines of torture and chains which hang heavily, yet aspiration is infinite and hope endless. The prison itself, and its staircases, is unfinished, an emblem of endless growth and possibilities; the artist is repeatedly rediscovered, his figure reflected time and again until lost in the indistinctness of the upper vault.5

No wonder Coleridge identified himself with Piranesi. In a similar fashion, the first numbers of the book-Friend are made up of proliferating introductions which never deliver the systematic work promised, since the reader of The Friend is never fully prepared, but always being indefinitely prepared for obscurity by obscurity. In the project of The Friend, Romantic obscurity is endless.

The staircase structure functions as a curious Romantic metarhetorical invocation of the unity of form and content rather than a metaphysical or Romantic mimesis – or if it is anything like the latter, it is represented and defended as a rhetorically as well as a philosophically necessary mimesis.6 It recalls the relation of ascent to hermeneutical labour in the Christian tradition of Augustine to which I referred earlier: thus Kevin Dungey claims of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon scholar Aldhelm that ‘[t]he higher one went in spiritual matters, the more one needed mortification of the mind, the necessary discipline and fixity that would allow, even if briefly, a vision of Divinity’, and ‘[a] complex and hidden topic requires a complex and hidden style to do it justice. Thus does his style mirror the cosmos and its eternal enigmas’.7 This structure is invoked in a slightly different manner in Boccaccio’s Decamorone, which Coleridge would echo repeatedly in The Friend: ‘Boccaccio apprises the reader in his introduction that the sombre opening of the book must not cause in him or her any more displeasure than a traveller experiences at the foot of a steep mountain, beyond which he or she knows delightful plains await him, plains the more alluring after the travails of the ascent’.8 Finally, the ascent from obscurity to clarity which is at work in the figure of the staircase invokes an influential poetic paradigm, what Tilottama Rajan has called ‘the Dantesque pattern of a steady ascent from darkness to light’.9

Dungey claims that ‘[o]ddly, Aldhelm’s obscurity is liberating’ in a theological sense, but Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity is also rhetorical and practical, and this reveals its darker side. As David Simpson has noted in a discussion of Burkean rhetorical obscurity, ‘Burke’s own psychic incoherence… accommodated a darker purpose; he reproduced in his own style enough of the confusion that he claimed to see around him to play upon the reader’s passions, but never put at risk the still point of patriarchal control’.10 Though Frederick Burwick has argued that ‘the Neoplatonists (and with them, Coleridge too) recognized the exaltation of artistic mimesis as replicating the very process of divine creation’,11 for my purposes here it is the rhetorical function and not the metaphysical meaning of Coleridge’s obscure Romantic mimesis which is of interest. Metarhetorically speaking, that is, the claim of mimesis is an instrument for controlling reception. It is, in other words, doing something, not simply stating something. Thus the sympathetically metaphysical Dungey notes that ‘we tend to believe that obscurity expresses a personal elitism. For Aldhelm, however, stylistic obscurity expressed a cultural esotericism, in fact embodied the objective reality of the universe and denoted a writer of profound spiritual accomplishment and vision’.12 Commenting on Boccaccio’s figure of ascent, Mehtonen insightfully remarks that ‘[t]hough this may be interpreted as a typical manifestation of the eschatological optimism of suffering – toil on earth brings its Heavenly reward – here significance also attaches to the way that the notion echoes Boccaccio’s theoretical defences of obscurity’.13 To consider mimesis and metaphysics from the standpoint of Romantic metarhetoric is to, as it were, raise ourselves above the cave of philosophical exegesis and consider them from the standpoint of what their invocations are meant to achieve. In the following section I will take a closer look at the way various elements of obscurity are mixed and blended into the book-Friend, achieving something more like the collection of staircases depicted by Piranesi (or indeed the staircases of Escher) than the single staircase The Friend claims to have built. The types of Romantic obscurity all offer steps to climb, but their direction and their destination is always already indeterminate or achieves at best a negative identity, and their interaction is more fractured than organic.

The book-Friend begins with the articulation of its central principle as a paradox. As Denise Degrois has emphasised,

[t]he beginning of the 1818 edition of The Friend is certainly one of the best examples of how a sense of urgency clashes with an awareness of the practical obstacles to immediate understanding between essayist and reading public…. His tireless introspective observations of the intricacies of the speaking and writing subject are inseparable from the way he deals with the theoretical dilemma and practical difficulty of addressing or “educating” an audience.14

This aspect of the book-Friend is captured in a motto that is not translated until some pages later, fittingly deploying the concept of obscure delay,15 after Coleridge has retold his ominous tale of deliberate self-martyrdom, the fable of the maddening rain. The motto, Coleridge announces, ‘comprizes’ the ‘plan of THE FRIEND’ and describes a paradoxical activity like communicating ‘Light to the Blind’.16 The rest of the introduction proceeds as an extended apology for obscurity. It is a deliberate, provocative response to the profusion of negative public charges relating to this governing figure of the public Coleridge and the persona of The Friend, and comes in the form of a question asked by a fictional interlocutor who articulates Coleridge’s paradoxes for him: ‘[e]ither says the Sceptic, you are the Blind offering to lead the Blind, or you are talking the language of Sight to those who do not possess the sense of seeing. If you mean to be read, try to entertain and do not pretend to instruct’.17

The Friend’s solution to this paradox is not to decrease miscellaneous bits of indulgent fun, but to announce their incorporation into a managed ‘staircase’ system of obscure labour and light leisure. Leisure is necessary to facilitate labour, once learning is understood as a process unfolding in time and one abandons the hope for immediate, comprehensive inspiration.18 The responsibility for this process lies initially with the author, but primarily with the reader: ‘[b]ut it is with dullness as with obscurity. It may be positive, and the author’s fault; but it may likewise be relative, and if the author has presented his bill of fare at the portal, the reader has only himself to blame. The main question is, of what class are the persons to be entertained?’19 Light entertainment is an important element of this deliberately weighty book (another consequence of its binding, I might add), but the governing metaphor of entertainment and instruction throughout this as throughout all of the Friends is medical: thus in this protracted introductory section Coleridge admits ironically that his work may be called by poor readers, like Paradise Lost might be, ‘a most inapt medicine for an occasional propensity to yawn’.20 The primary targets here are those readers who are convinced that difficulty, the most glaring type of obscurity, is the opposite of truth, because in their own (probably unconscious) metaphysics clarity is associated at once with pleasure and ease, immediacy and truth. This relates to what Nancy Struever has identified as the Humean association of virtue with pleasure and truth: ‘[f]or Hume, virtue is “whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation”. Pleasure, in sum, is not simply a mode of edification; pleasure is a sign of the truth’.21 Clearly, in the argument of the book-Friend, Coleridge would disagree, and the function of the ‘staircase’ of labour and leisure is determined by his overall commitment to the labour of obscurity.

One of the ‘staircases’ in the book-Friend is Coleridge’s incoherent critique of clarity, which appears in random places and at random times. The ‘letter’ to RL, transposed to the initial sections of the book from the middle of the periodical, supplies the initial introduction to this critique through its attack on readers’ unrealistic expectations. The relation of this critique of clarity to Hazlitt’s dissenting ‘plain speaking’ is introduced in Coleridge’s new conclusion to the letter, the original ending of which he has replaced with a reflexive comment on his three new ‘introductory Numbers’ which are devoted explicitly to ‘giving an honest bill of fare, both as to the objects and the style of the Work’.22 Translating a passage he has introduced from the ‘Candido Lectori’ of Simon Grynaeus,23 Coleridge claims that the political consequences of placing an exclusive, positive value on light reading is ‘barbarism’ – shorthand in this context, of course, for the untamed forces of revolution. But barbarism itself is not the worst evil:

but with all its [barbarism’s] blind obstinacy it has less power of doing harm than this self-sufficient, self-satisfied plain good common-sense sort of writing, this prudent saleable popular style of composition, if it be deserted by Reason and scientific Insight; pitiably decoying the minds of men by an imposing shew of amiableness, and practical Wisdom, so that the delighted Reader knowing nothing knows all about almost everything.24

Plain speaking, for Coleridge, is falsely represented as the language of a virtuous common sense which metarhetorically figures itself as a direct communication with truth, itself a substitute for the ancient belief in direct access to the divine, which has its own modern manifestation in the ‘left-wing’, Protestant Inner Light.25

Another aspect of the rhetoric of clarity which Coleridge critiques is its apparent confidence in human perfection, and the lure of its positivity, which Coleridge counters with his ‘deep conviction of our general fallibility’.26 It is perhaps a perverse aspect of this fallen fallibility that we are all ‘necessarily subjected to the risk of mistaking positive opinions for certainty and clear insight… it is the price and consequence of our progressiveness’.27 Though the perfection of knowledge and communication, and therefore the human universal nature, is impossible, our tendency to believe in this possibility is equally natural and inevitable. The effort to withstand the seduction of clarity is therefore as imperative in philosophy as it is in politics, for they both struggle in the world against the eternal and simultaneous, impossible desire for the Millennium or revolution which will bring about that perfection. Jerome Christensen nicely articulates the paradoxical nature of this situation when he writes that for Coleridge truth ‘is morally meaningless unless communicated but is morally compromised by any vehicle of communication’.28 The critique of clarity grounds its pessimism concerning human nature in the nature of truth, and leads at its topmost step to an abyss, figured as the fall from Eden and promising the comfort of mystery.

This critique of the dangers of clarity is complicated by the simultaneous presence in The Friend of a ‘staircase’ concerning the dangers of obscurity. With the inscription of obscurity in all language comes the need to prepare readers to confront these dangers. If all language is in some sense obscure, its dangers are universal. Obscurity is pervasive, and destructive, and the primary judicious deployment of it is, paradoxically, that which is meant to guard against it. In this sense the whole book, and the whole project of The Friend, is a sustained warning against its own form and content.

The power of obscurity to heighten feeling without any necessary correspondence to truth or peaceful and viable political action is one of its primary dangers. In one important example of this power, Coleridge claims to have exclaimed when he saw the Queen of Prussia in 1799: ‘[s]pread but the mist of obscure feeling over any form, and even a woman incapable of blessing or of injury to thee shall be welcomed with an intensity of emotion adequate to the reception of the Redeemer of the world!’29 Shortly afterwards Coleridge associates this dark power with the internal corruption of feelings:

[i]t is by the agency of indistinct conceptions, as the counterfeits of the Ideal and Transcendent, that evil and vanity exercise their tyranny on the feelings of man. The Powers of Darkness are politic if not wise; but surely nothing can be more irrational in the pretended children of Light, than to enlist** themselves under the banners of Truth, and yet rest their hopes on an alliance with Delusion.30

This kind of attack on the abuse of obscurity by false governments and authorities invokes the latent radical content in Coleridge’s rhetoric of Romantic obscurity, which reflexively and as it were ironically always acts as a warning against itself.31 For example, in a discussion of the legal constraints on the communication of truth, he claims that if a law of libel is not well-defined, juries ‘will consequently consider the written law as a blank power provided for the punishment of the offender, not as a light by which they are to determine and discriminate the offence’.32 In cases of libel, which are based on linguistic acts and so doubly damned to indeterminacy, the ‘eye of the understanding, indeed, sees the determinate difference in each individual case, but language is most often inadequate to express what the eye perceives, much less can a general statute anticipate and pre-define it’.33 The project of enlightening the people through the paradoxical instrument of Romantic obscurity is the only guarantee of stability in a world where idealistic positivity is an essential element of a universal human nature:

there is no slight danger from general ignorance: and the only choice, which providence has graciously left to a vicious Government, is either to fall by the people, if they are suffered to become enlightened, or with them, if they are kept enslaved and ignorant.34

The combination of distinct and public laws with the freedom of the press, Coleridge argues, is the only guarantee that the various negative forces of legal and imperial, false sublimity will not abuse and perpetuate the ignorance of the populace.

The foremost danger of obscurity lies with the indeterminate ‘people’, the weak or ‘uninstructed and unprotected man’ who is subject to the manipulations of false religion, politics and philosophy.35 Coleridge articulates the political force of this danger with familiar figures of revolution: ‘[t]o have written innocently, and for wise purposes, is all that can be required of us: the event lies with the Reader…. There is no wind but feeds a volcano, no work but feeds and fans a combustible mind’.36 One can read an at once sad and defiant capitulation in Coleridge’s ultimate rejection of the value of popular politics through his condemnation of popular literature of all kinds, even if he does acknowledge, at least implicitly, the possibility of proper communication if one keeps the right kind of reader in mind. Thus he condemns misdirected communication in an implicit reinforcement of his decision to bind The Friend:

[a] passage, which in a grave and regular disquisition would be blameless, might become highly libellous and justly punishable if it were applied to present measures or persons for immediate purposes, in a cheap and popular tract.** I have seldom felt greater indignation than at finding in a large manufactory a sixpenny pamphlet, containing a selection of inflammatory paragraphs from the prose-writings of Milton, without a hint given of the time, occasion, state of government, &c. under which they were written – not a hint, that the Freedom, which we now enjoy, exceeds all that Milton dared hope for[.]37

The influence of such writing is the opposite of ‘light’ inflammatory writing. Serious writing should not be distributed cheaply, for its lack of economic value will lead to an unequal exchange between the value, or difficulty, of the writing and the understanding of the reader.

Fatally, however, the grandeur and authoritative obscurity of the writing will either mislead by engendering a disgust in the reader, or a mindless, uncomprehending, passionate acquiescence. The inevitable consequence of this mock-authority, deliberate or not, is a distrust of all obscurity, and all effort. ‘So grievously, indeed,’ writes the indignant Friend in defence of his own integrity,

have men been deceived by the showy mock theories of unlearned mock thinkers, that there seems a tendency in the public mind to shun all thought, and to expect help from any quarter rather than from seriousness and reflection: as if some invisible power would think for us, when we gave up the pretence of thinking for ourselves.38

The result of such reactionary indolence is weakness, but this does not resolve the recurring problem of identifying a truly benevolent obscurity. The connection of this false authority to destructive manipulation of the weakened people is once again described in the context of French excess, as Coleridge himself falls into the excesses of rhetoric even as he condemns rhetorical excess:

and by these high-sounding phrases led on the vain, ignorant, and intoxicated populace to wild excesses and wilder expectations, which entailing on them the bitterness of disappointment cleared the way for military despotism, and the satanic Government of Horror under the Jacobins, and of Terror under the Corsican.39

Like those I discussed in my section on the decline of the rhetoric of clarity, such rants and rhetorical excesses contradict metarhetorical comments like the one that precedes it by just a few pages: ‘where there is the most… unalloyed truth, there will be the greatest and most permanent power of persuasion’.40

This contradiction leads the ‘staircase’ of dangers to another abysmal end. Just as difficulty is inscribed in the reception of clear speech by Coleridge’s critique of its potential (or inevitable) falsehood, so is an extra difficulty heaped on the magisterial excess of obscurantist rhetoric. An author’s reflexive identification of the origin of any communication in either the divine or the demonic is no guarantee of its effect on the reader. It is, as Jerome Christensen puts it in his article on the method of The Friend, ‘the problem of how to discriminate the counterfeiter’s artifice from the genius’s method’41 which I introduced in my first two chapters. This is perhaps the darkest conclusion of the project of The Friend, and perhaps the reason too that the persona of The Friend is given to contradictions which reflect the implicit impossibility of his paradoxical task of steering a course between the Scylla of readerly rejection and the Charybdis of readerly misapprehension.

The final ‘staircase’ of obscurity in the book-Friend concerns Coleridge’s construction of the function of metaphysics. Rather than providing a metaphysical system, Coleridge provides a an apology for the obscurity of metaphysical speculation, beginning as usual with a reactionary, defensive attack: ‘I am fully aware,’ he argues, ‘that what I am writing and have written… will expose me to the censure of some, as bewildering myself and readers with Metaphysics… and to the objection of most as obscure’.42 And in a convincing but, to the uncharitable reader, rather ironic, style, he continues shortly thereafter:

[b]ut what are my metaphysics?… To what purposes do I, or am I about to employ them? To perplex our clearest notions and living moral instincts?… No! to expose the folly and the legerdemain of those who have thus abused the blessed machine of language… to make reason spread light over our feelings.43

Just how Coleridge meant to overcome our bewitchment by means of language, by bewitching us in turn with an obscure metaphysics that would not perplex our clearest notions, is another crucial aspect of the paradox of Romantic obscurity, an attempt to undertake a sort of witchery by daylight.

The obscurity of metaphysical speculation is important partly because of the precise form of labour it imposes on the reader. ‘The investigation of these subtleties,’ writes the ever self-conscious Friend about the distinction between sense, understanding, and reason, and the difference between distinction and division, ‘though it is of no use to the construction of machines to grind corn with, yet clears the mind from the rust of ignorance, and sharpens it for other things’.44 But the goal of perfected metaphysical contemplation is one which is at once unattainable and undesirable because while ‘REASON… swells in every man potentially… in perfect purity [it] is found in no man and no body of men’.45 Reason, as with all mental faculties, is manifest only in activity, and in its activity it is constantly assailed by various temptations and corruptions. Thus metaphysics must represented as an essential part of the book-Friend because it is our duty to ‘habitu[ate]… the intellect to clear, distinct, and adequate conceptions concerning all things that are the possible objects of our clear conception, yea, even in consequence of their obscurity’.46 Pure rational labour is something towards which we ought to strive daily, in order to remain grounded in those truths which are the foundation of our moral and intellectual being – even if we can never attain a complete and systematic understanding of that foundation. For Coleridge, in the persona of The Friend, the only means by which we can guard ourselves against the dangers of intellectual and emotional manipulation through obscurity, the only way in which we can gain access to those truths which it is The Friend’s duty to communicate, is by constantly exercising our minds and training our thoughts upon that which is inherently obscure, and therefore inherently difficult – like the works of The Friend himself.

This imputed function of metaphysics is perhaps best articulated in Coleridge’s claim ‘that men may be made better, not only in consequence, but by and in the process, of instruction’.47 He does not ‘require the attention of [his] reader to become [his] fellow-labourer’48 merely in order to bring the reader to some comfortable, complete end of contemplation. The value of The Friend is not in its destination, as it were, but in the joint journey of reading and writing.49 ‘[A]ll confused conceptions render us restless’,50 we are told, and for Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity it is precisely this restlessness which is a necessary condition of our proper engagement with the world. The remedy to this restlessness which ‘dogs’ us is habituation to clarity, but this habituation is always a process, and never fully or finally achieved.51

This restlessness dogs readers of the book-Friend like the ‘frightful fiend’ that dogs the Ancient Mariner. The constant and explicit burden of an interchangeably divine and demonic, indeterminate authorial authority is thus represented by Christensen not as that which undermines authority in The Friend, but that which gives it its power. Given the assumption that The Friend obscures the function of obscurity through reflexive reflections upon it, The Friend’s deferral and endless self-observation (‘the turn inward toward a transcendent entity continuously withheld’52), the authority of The Friend arises as a ‘cheat… dispersed throughout the prose until the dialectic itself seems suspicious, cagily rhetorical. What we read in the Friend is the intrinsically excellent verging on the completely sufficient style’.53 The essence of this ‘cheat’ is Christensen’s revelation that the ‘moral and metaphysical burden borne by the Friend’s obscure prose is that in the sublime style sublimity becomes a style, a tool at hand for anyone deft to put it to use and fabricate a divinity, whether or not there subsists the proper ground to sustain Him’.54

This would undoubtedly be the ‘cheat’ and pivot of the engine if it were true that The Friend unproblematically invoked ‘sublimity’ as a style he meant to achieve. But Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity is always an endless, reactionary questioning of the divine and demonic origins of the authority of obscurity. To consider obscurity merely as an effect or a ‘style’ of the sublime is to make The Friend’s aggressive focus on obscurity appear uniquely Coleridgean when it was in fact a commonplace in the history of the discourse of obscurity. The real ‘cheat’ here is the sustained authority of the discourse of the sublime, which makes the critical representation of obscurity as a mere instrument or style appear to be a radical revelation of a Coleridgean secret. Without an understanding of the history of obscurity, that is, Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity is likely to appear at once more unique and superficial than it in fact is. Thus Christensen claims that his ‘avowal of a deliberately obscure style is striking and apparently peculiar to Coleridge’.55

But Christensen’s representation of The Friend’s metaphysics or presumption of ‘philosophy’ as that which appears only as a reference to its own function, rather than as the sustained and systematic or methodical philosophy it purports to be, is nonetheless accurate. Invoking the favourite Coleridgean figure of the chiasmus, Christensen remarks in his own climax that:

[i]t is in the interest of philosophy to fear the sophist, to raise the specter of “open and unremitting war,” and to mark its own allies with the hypnotic brilliance of a glittering eye, for the light of that eye obscures the powerful mechanics of method and that vision of a bloody defensive struggle justifies centuries of inkshed… philosophy appears as the power to make a figure of the sophists; the power, that is, to identify their inversions, to contain their disruption, and even to confer an instructive value on their subversion by means of the superior virtue of method’s friendly chiasmus.56

The project of The Friend is all about philosophy, but then again it is not quite philosophy, perhaps in a way similar to that in which the terms in the (largely and famously plagiarized) philosophical chapters of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria are not unproblematically Coleridge’s philosophy but instead, potentially at least, a ‘purloined, sham authority’.57 As Paul Hamilton has also argued (and as I pointed out at the beginning of this chapter), there is a similar nothingness in the eternally delayed promise that mirrors the abortive, fictional letter that introduces the mere embryo of a promised philosophy of the imagination in the infamous thirteenth chapter of the Biographia. The metaphysical foundation of obscurity appears instead as something referred to and invoked more in accordance with the ‘stairway’ structure of the book-Friend, as usual leading either to nowhere or to nothing, or, in other words, to no end at all, endlessly turning back on itself in proliferating preparations meant to strengthen the reader – to read The Friend again.

There is therefore something deeply misleading about the claims of Coleridge over-sympathisers like Thomas McFarland, who has claimed that ‘for Coleridge philosophy was not an activity directed towards the clarification of propositions, but towards system’ and that for Coleridge ‘system’ is equivalent to ‘completion’.58 Instead, I would argue, for Coleridge ‘philosophy’ functions as a rhetorical reference to ‘system’ but it is, by virtue of its reflexivity, endlessly and recursively self-referential, deeply circumscribed by the Romantic obscurity of the delay of completion. As Jeffrey Hipolito remarks of the end of the reflexive metaphysics in the ‘Essays on Method’, in which ‘the articulation of absolute principles is important primarily for the act of forming them’:

[t]he response the thoughtful reader undergoes upon arrival at the “Essays” is that the theory of moral and metaphysical interpretation that they sketch applies most immediately to the book the reader has just finished. The Friend is inherently self-reflexive, sending the reader back to its beginning in order to read the first acquired meanings of such terms as “principles,” “law,” and the rest, in light of the latest - and to do so through the use of the theory of method in which they appear.59

The negativity implicit in the spectre of a dogging metaphysics and dogged metaphysical labour is bound up with the value to be gained from confronting its obscurity, or rather, confronting one’s inability, like Coleridge’s failure to articulate a consistent and systematic metaphysics in the project of The Friend, to confront it fully.

As usual, Coleridge chooses nonetheless to represent his metaphysical system either as something supplementally achieved, or something that will or can be achieved after a delay. This necessary function of Romantic obscurity is figuratively realised in the crucial statement about ignorance proceeding through obscurity to knowledge.60 Other statements defer resolution not only to the future, but also to other works, which allows an issue or a problem to be dismissed without even acknowledging the failure to address it. Such, for example, is the function of Coleridge’s claim at the beginning of his fifteenth, and still introductory, essay, where we see his preparations proliferating outside the text of the Friends, but not outside the project of The Friend as a whole:

I am fully aware, that what I am writing and have written (in these latter Essays at least) will expose me to the censure of some, as bewildering myself and readers with Metaphysics; to the ridicule of others as a school-boy declaimer on old and worn-out truisms or exploded fancies; and to the objection of most as obscure. The last real or supposed defect has already received an answer both in the preceding Numbers, and in page 34 of the Appendix to the Author’s First Lay-Sermon, entitled THE STATESMAN’S MANUAL.61

This is perhaps Coleridge’s most defiant act of deferral and irresolution in the project of The Friend, and the direct intertextual reference nicely demonstrates the manner in which the work of 1809-1818 may be considered one project.

In any case, the explicit deflection to the Statesman’s Manual does not mean that Coleridge had not dealt at length or in depth with obscurity throughout the book-Friend itself, of course. The real manifestation of that sustained discussion is not in the reflexive metaphysical exegeses which Coleridge refers to but never completes, but rather in the assumption of a practical, strategic engagement with the problem of obscurity. I have already indicated how this is dealt with in the ‘stairway’ of dangers, and in the constant invocation of the practical political consequences of the rhetorical battle over the figures of clarity and obscurity. The problems of resolving the paradox of obscurity can be seen in Coleridge’s constant invocation of the practical political consequences of hermeneutical obscurity, in its indeterminate and interchangeably divine or demonic origin, and its unpredictable effect in the event of reception by the reader.62 The economics of exchange and the cooperation of labour in Romantic obscurity reflect this important element of an earlier tradition in the middle ages, ‘a hermeneutic of obscurity in which no one agent is solely responsible for the mediation of meaning or failure of this’.63 As Mehtonen notes, this hermeneutical shift was a particularly Romantic one, coming at the end of the middle ages, and is remarked upon insightfully by Winfried Menninghaus in her book In Praise of Nonsense: Kant and Bluebeard: ‘[w]ith the end of the rhetorical paradigm and the emergence of the hermeneutical paradigm, however, one claim above all is made upon literature: to be infinitely meaningful’.64 This argument for the emergence of the hermeneutic as a replacement for rhetoric is central to Mehtonen’s argument in Obscure Language, Unclear Literature, where he claims that the Romantics abandoned any reference ‘to the continuum of age-old theories and practices of obscurity’.65

But arguments like this take Romantic reflexivity at face value, and generally ignore the primary importance that obscurity played in the project of The Friend (indeed, the passage on obscurity cited above from the Statesman’s Manual invokes obscurity in relation to Heracleitus and Plato). In fact, the rhetorical tradition, and especially what I have called the rhetoric of obscurity, remained crucial to Romantic concepts of information which were heavily politicised in relation to Romantic anxieties concerning the dangers of misinformation. Romantic organicism and the reflexive coherence of the work of art do not function as rejections of the rhetoric of obscurity in favour of a Romantic hermeneutic. Rather, they are metarhetorical structures or strategies designed to contain the information of the indeterminate ‘public’, and they are fraught with anxieties about uncontrollable, transvaluable, invertible proliferations of interpretation. Romantic obscurity is informed by the rhetorical tradition obscura, but it is politicised by the Reflections controversy, the metarhetorical conflict between and ultimate conflation of the new rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. The safe engagement with either positive or negative obscurity was a joint effort of shared responsibility, but in the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity this responsibility is interchangeable, shifting back and forth uncertainly between communicator and recipient. Perhaps the most fitting avowal of positive obscurity occurs at the end of the Biographia with a darkness that recalls The Friend’s twilight:

[t]his has been my Object, and this alone can be my Defence – and O! that with this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE might conclude! the unquenched desire I mean, not without the consciousness of having earnestly endeavoured to kindle young minds, and to guard them against the temptations of Scorners, by shewing that the Scheme of Christianity, as taught in the Liturgy and Homilies of our Church, though not discoverable by human Reason, is yet in accordance with it; that link follows link by necessary consequence; that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own Horizon; and that Faith is then but its continuation: even as the Day softens away into the sweet Twilight, and Twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the Darkness. It is Night, sacred Night!66


  1. TF, 1.3.
  2. See Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend, 132.
  3. Coleman, ‘The journalist’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, 139.
  4. Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in DeQ Works, 2.68.
  5. David Jasper, Coleridge as Poet and Religious Thinker (London, 1985), 2.
  6. Note that Christensen refers to the ‘mimesis’ of the obscure style in relation to its subject matter. Commenting on a passage on the sublime in the book-Friend, he writes: ‘[t]his is a passage where the mimesis of style and subject is as neat as one could wish: obscure language perfectly reflecting a justification of obscure language as a reflection of intrinsically obscure ideas’ (Christensen, Blessed Machine, 209). But mimesis is an inadequate concept for the real achievement at which Coleridge claims to be aiming here, which involves a unity of form and content which includes not only text and subject, but also the participation of the recipient and the communicator in an identical feeling. Like the movement of incarnation I mentioned in my first two chapters, the mimesis of Romantic obscurity is related to the classical concept of possession by and elevation to the divine. This concept is invoked in a notebook entry in which Coleridge discusses the furor poeticus and the furor divinus: ‘[t]wo kinds of Madness - the Insania pseudo-poetica, i.e. nonsense conveyed in strange and unusual Language, the malice prepense of vanity, as an inflammation from debility - and this is degenerate / the other the Furor divinus, in which the mind… by infusion of a celestial Health supra hominis naturam erigitur et it Deum transit - and this is Surgeneration, which only the Regenerate can properly appreciate’ (CN 3216). The Latin phrase translates as ‘is elevated above human nature and is transformed into God’. Coleridge’s treatment of this distinction invokes the problem of the ultimate indeterminacy of the divine and the demonic voice which is a crucial element of Romantic obscurity.
  7. Kevin R. Dungey, ‘Faith in the Darkness: Allegorical Theory and Aldhelm’s Obscurity’, in Allegoresis: The Craft of Allegory in Medieval Literature, ed. J. Stephen Russell (New York and London, 1988), 11.
  8. Mehtonen, 119.
  9. Tilottama Rajan, Dark Interpreter, 70.
  10. See Dungey, 21 and Simpson, 130. Dungey’s use of the term ‘oddly’ is meant as an ironic comment on contemporary secular suspicion of religious obscurity. Dungey believes that Aldhelm’s obscurity is liberating because he is sympathetic to Aldhelm’s metaphysics, much as, one might point out, Douglas Hedley appears to be sympathetic to Coleridge’s: ‘[Coleridge] thought that Platonic Idealism is true. And, of course, he could be right’ (Hedley, 300).
  11. Frederick Burwick, ‘The Romantic Concept of Mimesis: Idem et Alter’, in Questioning Romanticism, ed. John Beer (Baltimore and London, 1995), 183.
  12. Dungey, 20.
  13. Mehtonen, 119.
  14. Denise Degrois, ‘Coleridge on Human Communication’, in Coleridge’s Visionary Languages: Essays in Honour of J. B. Beer, eds. Tim Fulford and Morton D. Paley (Cambridge, 1993), 100, 102.
  15. TF, 1.9 n. Interestingly, the motto was immediately translated in the periodical-Friend. It comes from Petrarch’s De vita solitaria 1.3.4 (see TF, 1.7 n).
  16. Ibid. 1.9, 1.9 n.
  17. Ibid. 1.10.
  18. In Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language and ‘The Method of The Friend’, Christensen analyses the importance of obscurity in the book-Friend, including the language of profit and labour in relation to mental activity and the turn inward of self-observation or transcendental contemplation. He also offers a detailed account of Coleridge’s engagement with the possibilities of sufficient interpretation, biblical or otherwise, and the ins and outs of the discourse of sublimity. But while Christensen does briefly acknowledge the ‘political, cultural, and social’ range of Coleridge’s reference in The Friend, these elements are relegated to the periphery of the discussion, and Christensen generally eschews a discussion of the social and political dangers which Coleridge was simultaneously and self-consciously courting and counteracting (Christensen, ‘The Method of The Friend’, 11). Christensen’s is a psylosophised obscurity. Largely this is a consequence of his deliberate focus on the book-Friend, without taking its longer development into account, and in this theoretical sense it is a mirror image of Deirdre Coleman’s exclusive focus on the periodical-Friend. In his discussions of style, sublimity, and the ultimate function of Coleridge’s blessed machine - the smuggling in of a transcendent, essentialist philosophy under the cover of a blinding obscurity - Christensen methodically avoids the political contradictions and complications of Coleridge’s Romantic paradox which I have associated with the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity.
  19. TF, 1.10.
  20. Ibid. 1.13.
  21. Nancy Struever, ‘The Conversable World: Eighteenth-Century Transformations of the Relation of Rhetoric and Truth’, in Rhetorical Traditions, 240, quoting David Hume, Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, 3rd ed., ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1975), 289.
  22. TF, 1.23.
  23. Ibid. 1.23 n.
  24. Ibid. 1.24.
  25. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 51.
  26. TF, 1.96.
  27. Ibid. 1.96
  28. Christensen, Coleridge’s Blessed Machine, 21.
  29. TF, 1.36.
  30. Ibid. 1.37.
  31. This connection between obscurity and politics has often been underplayed in critical treatments of Coleridge’s obscurity. David Simpson has remarked that what I have called the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity ultimately depoliticised itself, shifting attention away from radical content to a condemnation of form and a bigoted resistance to the foreign: ‘[b]y 1825, in Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age, Coleridge’s German predilections were deemed responsible for obscurity rather than for any incendiary sexual or political imaginings. The opposition to things German increasingly took the form of complaints against confusion and difficulty, not against radical content’ (Simpson, 101). Thus in 1816 William Roberts took issue with Coleridge’s embracing ‘the cant and gibberish of the German school… profound nonsense, unintelligible refinement, metaphysical morals, and mental distortion’ (William Roberts, Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, British Review [Aug 1816], quoted in Jackson, 224). References to the obscurity of the foreign, as Michael John Kooy has suggested (in reference to Rosemary Ashton), were tied to ‘an English temperament naturally sceptical of foreign influence and often hostile to idealist philosophy’, but this scepticism towards the German tended ultimately toward the philosophical or apolitical, unlike the highly politicised scepticism of the French (Michael John Kooy, Coleridge, Schiller, and the Aesthetic Education [Hampshire and New York, 2002], 6). This is indirectly related to Paul Hamilton’s observation that ‘[t]he idealist vocabulary… obscures its emancipatory impulse entirely’ (Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics [Oxford, 1983], 186), and accords with Paul Magnuson’s claim that in the 1790s, ‘in the public discourse “abstruse” thinking sounds suspiciously like the abstract metaphysics that Burke saw as Jacobin’ (Magnuson, 92). Thus Simpson has observed that to ‘indulge in German philosophers was still to offend “common sense and common nature,” but the charge was now one of obscurity rather than of political treason’ (Simpson, 101). Neil Vickers has noted that in defence of Coleridge’s claims concerning the effect of his abstruse researches, ‘[m]any have sought to spare Coleridge’s blushes by taking the “researches” to refer to anything that he thought or did during this period [around 1801] which inclined him to abandon materialism and to espouse idealism’ (Neil Vickers, “Abstruse Researches”’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life, ed. Nicholas Roe [Oxford, 2001], 157). To associate idealism with the abstruse or the obscure was at once to philosophise and to depoliticise it. But as I have shown, Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity was inspired by and developed in reaction to a highly politicised debated concerning the rhetorics of obscurity and clarity. Thus Romantic obscurity is always political, even when it obscures its own political origins: the shift to abstruse metaphysics is a political reaction.
  32. TF, 1.92.
  33. Ibid. 1.78.
  34. Ibid. 1.72.
  35. Ibid. 1.46.
  36. Ibid. 1.52. This passage is represented as a translation of Rudolph van Langen, but the original passage is untraced (see ibid. 1.51 n).
  37. Ibid. 1.81.
  38. Ibid. 1.123.
  39. Ibid. 1.194.
  40. Ibid. 1.188.
  41. Jerome Christensen, ‘The Method of The Friend’, 17.
  42. TF, 1.107.
  43. Ibid. 1.108.
  44. Ibid. 1.177 n.
  45. Ibid. 1.193-94.
  46. Ibid. 1.106.
  47. Ibid. 1.103.
  48. Ibid. 1.21.
  49. As Dungey notes of in his study of Aldhelm’s obscurity, ‘[t]he spiritual benefits of attending obscurity applied to the author as well’ (Dungey, 11).
  50. TF, 1.105.
  51. Ibid. 1.106.
  52. Christensen, Blessed Machine, 216.
  53. Ibid. 217.
  54. Ibid. 217.
  55. Ibid. 210. In his perusal of works like George Williamson’s The Senecan Amble and Morris Croll’s ‘Attic’ and Baroque Prose Style, Christensen does not consider the development of the new rhetoric nor the possibility of division within it, and neither does he consider the metarhetorical conflicts of the 1790s that open into the Romantic period. Consequently, Christensen claims that there is no value in calling Coleridge’s style ‘Romantic’ (Christensen, Coleridge’s Blessed Machine, 211 n). See George Williamson, The Senecan Amble (London, 1951), and Morris W. Croll, Attic’ and Baroque Prose Style: The Anti-Ciceronian Movement, eds. J. Max Patrick and Robert O. Evans with John M. Wallace (Princeton, 1969).
  56. Christensen, ‘The Method of The Friend’, 24-25.
  57. Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics, 81.
  58. Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford, 1969), 142, 144.
  59. Jeffrey Hipolito, ‘Coleridge, Hermeneutics, and the Ends of Metaphysic’. European Romantic Review. 15.4 (Dec 2004), 563.
  60. TF, 1.115.
  61. Ibid. 1.107. The relevant section from the Statesman’s Manual, which distinguishes the sophist from the philosopher, is densely packed with reflections on obscurity and the related differentiation of readers into types. It is important to note in this context that Coleridge deferred his discussion of obscurity in the Statesman’s Manual to an appendix, rather than centralising it in ‘introductory’ or ‘preparatory’ matter as he did throughout theFriends (LS, 97-8).
  62. As Dungey notes, ‘[t]he term “hermeneutic” is derived from Alistair Campbell and describes the practice among these [tenth-century] authors of extracting their obscure and rare vocabulary from the hermeneumata, a name designating certain Greek-Latin vocabulary lists’, and in the work of Michael Lapidge ‘hermeneutic’ is synonymous with ‘the obscure… Anglo-Norman styles of the tenth century’ (Dungey, 23 n, and Michael Lapidge, ‘Hermeneutic Style in Tenth-Century Anglo-Latin Literature’, Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 4 [1975], 67-111). The function of the dictionary as an instrument for clarification was something of a commonplace in the middle ages; thus at the end of a Paracelsian alchemical tract we find ‘A CHYMICAL / DICTIONARY: / EXPLAINING / Hard Places and Words / met withall in the Writings of / Paracelsus, and other obscure / AUTHOURS’ (Anonymous, A Chymical Dictionary (Little brittain, 1650), title page.
  63. Mehtonen, 79.
  64. Winfried Menninghaus, In Praise of Nonsense: Kant and Bluebeard, trans. H. Pickford (Stanford, 1999), 6.
  65. Mehtonen, 182.
  66. BL, 2.247.