Coleridge and the Poetics of Obscurity

Coleridge and the Poetics of Obscurity
Coleridge and the Poetics of Obscurity
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Coleridge’s Poetic Obscurity

To objections from conscience I can of course answer in no other way, than by requesting the youthful objector (as I have already done on a former occasion) to ascertain with strict self-examination, whether other influences may not be at work; whether spirits, “not of health,” and with whispers “not from heaven,” may not be walking in the twilight of his consciousness.

Coleridge, BL, 1.229-30.

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell…

Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.4.40-1.

In a chapter on ‘The Poetics of Obscurity’ in Soliciting Darkness, John Hamilton considers the construction of a positive concept of poetic obscurity in the modern critical reception of Pindar. He remarks that a positive obscurity ‘bestowed upon the poet’s work the coveted aura of genius’, but came along with the threat that ‘obscurity can all too easily be deployed as a mask for mediocrity’, and that ‘[t]he solution… consisted in a more overt reformulation of obscurity – one that elevated darkness from a merely negative function of the understanding to a wholly positive function of the passions and the soul and life’.1 This leads him to the conclusion, announced on the book’s jacket, that ‘[t]he poetics of obscurity that emerges here suggests that taking Pindar to be an incomprehensible poet may not simply be the result of an insufficient or false reading, but rather may serve as a wholly adequate judgment’. This kind of argument is certainly a sympathetic one, and places the responsibility for the construction of a positive poetics of obscurity not in the primary work of the poet, but rather in the supplementary work of the critic - as perhaps it must be in Hamilton’s study of Pindar, who does not himself provide a source of supplementary self-criticism or a philosophy of poetry. Furthermore, though he does rather ironically call attention to the professional or economic aspect of literary obscurity by quoting Paul Celan’s quotation of Pascal – ‘[d]o not blame us for a lack of clarity, since we make a profession out of it’2 – Hamilton’s analysis deliberately eschews the wider importance of obscurity by limiting his observations to aesthetic discussion, rather than, as it were, discussion of the aesthetic.

As I have shown in my earlier discussion of the expansions of the new rhetoric, the inclusion of poetry in the realm of rhetoric in eighteenth-century Britain brought it into a wider discourse of social and political influence circumscribed by theories of philosophico-political enlightenment. It is tempting to the sympathetic Romanticist to offer a similarly aesthetic reading of Romantic obscurity as an aesthetic response, for example, to the classical or the neoclassical. But although Hamilton’s is an informative and valuable addition to the study of obscurity in literature and criticism, it is more an example of a Romantic theory of obscurity than an appropriate model for a theory of Romantic obscurity. As Timothy Clark has observed, ‘[o]ne of the striking features of eighteenth-century theories of poetry is their proximity to contemporary thinking in rhetoric’,3 and Howell and Mehtonen have offered discussions of the interaction of the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity in relation to poetry which involve the importance of poetry as an instrument for the information of the public. A discussion of obscurity in Coleridge’s poetry informed by these rhetorical interests productively eschews an aesthetics of internalization which discusses the effect of poetry in the internal psychology of the individual,4 and instead allows for the inclusion of other, broader discourses and anxieties relating to the impact of poetry on the people. The rhetorical poetics of obscurity is always public, always external, even when it is representing itself under a rhetoric of internalisation.

Considering the wealth of theoretical speculation on poetry in the Romantic period, in which supplementary reflection on poetry is a crucial element of its Romantic identity, it is also tempting to engage in a philosophical discussion of a coherent philosophical poetics of Romantic obscurity. Philosophical and poetic reflexivity is indeed such a penetrating and common element of Romantic discourse that Paul Hamilton has recently introduced the term ‘metaromanticism’ to describe the importance of philosophy for ‘romantic period writing [which] is often simultaneously a position paper on its own kind of significance’.5 And as the mountains of criticism on Coleridge’s philosophy demonstrate, it is especially tempting to give a ‘straight’ philosophical account of obscurity in the case of Coleridge, who left so much critical prose on poetry behind him, and who indeed reflexively inscribed philosophical reflection into his own character through the project of The Friend. But the importance of philosophy in Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity and indeed in his work more generally is complicated precisely by the reflexivity which underwrites its Romantic character, and a straightforward philosophical cut-and-paste model of a Coleridgean poetics of obscurity would amount to a rather uncritical perpetuation of Coleridgean self-construction. Thus in his extended discussion of the Biographia in Coleridge’s Poetics, Hamilton has subjected the tendency of ‘the romantic theorists [to write] about philosophy by writing about poetry’ to a critique of Coleridge’s self-construction as a philosopher-poet, and has argued that Coleridge’s ‘lines of thought… subverted his stated intentions’.6

Like Jerome Christensen’s analysis of Coleridge’s method in the book-Friend, this reading of Coleridge’s philosophy calls his own pronouncements into question and, indeed, makes the nature and motive of Coleridge’s philosophy into the primary subject of his philosophy. As Christensen has said recently of the figure of the friend, which he represents through the formula of the chiasmus of the philosopher-poet, and the poet-philosopher,

to project that figure here [in the Biographia] has the effect of prematurely closing off the question of motive by detaching it from the historical actors and relocating it in Coleridge’s style, as a type of a relatively unchanging psychological disposition and set of social habits. That is, Coleridge’s tropology becomes a kind of psychology – and willy-nilly invokes a novelistic mode of explanation that wards off historicity, the uncertain novice of change.7

In order to develop an understanding of its importance and its relation to public and political interests, a discussion of obscurity in Coleridge’s poetry must therefore consider the philosophical poetics of obscurity with such criticisms in mind. To offer a coherentist account of Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity as a timeless, unified, conscious theory or endeavour which is informed by his reflexive philosophical poetics and which applies uniformly across his poetical corpus would amount, in other words, to a reproduction of the Coleridgean idiom. As Perry has claimed, ‘[a]nyone writing about Coleridge must make a decision about coherence’,8 and in the terms of my discussion Coleridge’s obscurity is not only shifting and incoherent, but also historical and political, and the philosophical aesthetics of his poetics functions rather as a retrospective, ‘novelistic’ narrative constructed for the simultaneous containment of his work and his life.

As Christensen has put it, ‘[t]hat the personal is the political for Coleridge goes without saying’: as a figure of poetico-philosophical and philosophico-poetic obscurity, Coleridge was simultaneously a figure of political obscurity.9 Obscurity therefore operates in his poetry on various simultaneous and not necessarily reconcilable levels, and is constantly related to self-reformation and a defence against the charge of obscurity, rather than a spontaneous philosophical or otherwise pre-existing aesthetic program. In the case of Coleridge, it is not exactly true that the Romantic aesthetic ‘reveals the arts by which power and vested interests had used it to disguise their purposes’.10 Rather than revealing these arts, Coleridge metarhetorically reproduces them in an often paradoxical defence of his own obscurity. Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity was reactionary.

But as Paul Magnuson has remarked in relation to a criticism of obscurity in Coleridge’s poetry, ‘[t]hat which was rhapsody, or obscure, or unintelligible, or extravagant in the 1790s is highly suspicious and dangerous to the civil peace’, and though Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity was certainly ‘reactionary’ it was not straightforwardly so in any simple counterrevolutionary or ‘conservative’ sense.11 Likewise, Thomas Weiskel has remarked that in this period ‘[i]n poetry and in theory the sublime becomes associated not with the clear and the distinct but with the vague and the obscure; hence it wears the aspect of a radical alternative to the visual emphasis of Lockean psychology and to the decorous precision of neoclassical diction’.12 In this chapter I will discuss various interrelated aspects of obscurity in the development of Coleridge’s poetic career in relation to a rhetorical or metarhetorical context of reciprocal figuration and a critical reaction to the charge of obscurity. Because the discourses of Romantic obscurity are historically interpenetrating, however, it is impossible to determine a strict genealogy of chronologically distinct modes in which Coleridge engaged with them in his poems. My aim in this chapter, therefore, is to isolate the various discourses of obscurity in Coleridge’s poetic context, and the different strategies of obscurity in his reflexive, retrospective poetic methodology.

In the first section, I will discuss various aspects of a ‘poetics of clarity’ in Coleridge’s early poems, where his youthful political optimism and participation in radical debate is reflected in his figuration of political and intellectual figures and ideals of the 1790s. I will then discuss a counter-movement in Coleridge’s poetry of the same period, in which obscurity is inversively transvalued into a positive philosophical and political figure which registers Coleridge’s changing political commitments, and which functions as a publicised figuration of refuge for the sake of private and political security. In the following section I discuss Coleridge’s reaction in prose to the charge of obscurity in poetry through an overview of his letters, the preface to the 1797 Poems on Various Subjects, and finally the Biographia. Having established the reactionary nature of Coleridge’s positive poetics of obscurity, in the final section I will trace the interpenetrating types of obscurity in the ‘mystery’ poems, with a particular focus on the obscurity of the foreign in relation to the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the indeterminately divine and demonic origins of the prophetic voice in ‘Kubla Khan’, and the feminised figures of obscurity in ‘Christabel’ and other works.

  1. John Hamilton, 214.
  2. Ibid. 212.
  3. Clark, 71-2.
  4. A recent example of this type of reading is Joshua Wilner’s Feeding on Infinity: Readings in the Romantic Rhetoric of Internalization (Baltimore and London, 2000]: in which he announces that ‘[t]he wager in all these essays is that such formulations [like Wordsworth’s ‘feeds on infinity’] and the reflections they condense involve deeply embedded if obscure registrations of early and ongoing transactions between an imperfectly constituted self and its objects; that these dealings inform the critical and creative power of poetic language generally; and collaterally, that Romanticism’s increasing explicitation of these interactions participates in the long and continuing story of patriarchy’s decline in the West’ (1). The Wordsworth quotation is from 1805 Prelude 13.70.
  5. Paul Hamilton, Metaromanticism (Chicago and London, 2003), 1.
  6. Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics (Oxford, 1983), 32, 1.
  7. Jerome Christensen, Romanticism at the End of History (Baltimore and London, 2000), 142.
  8. Seamus Perry, Coleridge and the Uses of Division, 2. For a typical example of a sympathetic decision concerning Coleridge’s coherence, see Paul Scott Wilson, ‘Coherence in Biographia Literaria: God, Self, and Coleridge’s “Seminal Principle”’, Philological Quarterly 72.4 (Fall 1993), 451-469.
  9. Christensen, Romanticism at the End of History, 147.
  10. Paul Hamilton, Metaromanticism, 5.
  11. Magnuson, 103.
  12. Weiskel, 16. Lucy Newlyn notes that there is also a certain radical energy residing in the possibility of an ultimately Romantic form of internalisation: ‘[s]ublimity, then, is particularly associated with Satanic passages in Paradise Lost, and with the opening up of subjective or mental space, through the use of a language of obscurity’ (Newlyn, Paradise Lostand the Romantic Reader, 51).

Poems of Clarity

In a number of his early political poems Coleridge participates in a pattern of transvaluative figuration typical of the radical rhetoric of clarity, using obscurity as a figure for tyranny and oppression. As Paul Magnuson has argued, ‘[t]he complex situation of literature in the 1790s is that the discourse of esthetics is often figurative of the discourse of politics, and that the tropes of the literary are often the public rhetoric of law courts and public addresses’.1 It is from this tradition that Coleridge first appropriated the figures of clarity and obscurity and used them as a poetic means for challenging the hegemony of oppressive hierarchies. Light, for contemporary radicals, represented a commitment to the emancipatory promise of reason and science, and insofar as it was appropriated from a traditional religious rhetoric for which light represented not the truth of material nature but rather the truth of God, it functioned as an ironic subversion of various mainstream Christian values. Thus Coleridge’s early use of figures of clarity participates in a radical discourse in which these figures had already ceased to function merely as aesthetic or poetic figures and devices, and had become synonymous with particular political commitments, collapsing a poetic into a political language.

In the ‘Sonnet on Pantisocracy’ (written along with his Pantisocratic colleague Samuel Favell in 1794) light and darkness are figured in accordance with this radical language to represent positive political possibility and negative stagnation. A future time is conflated with another place, where the poet will experience a dawning like those pursued by ‘Fiends’ and ‘see the rising Sun and feel it dart / New rays of Pleasance trembling to the Heart’ (12, 13-14).2 The creation of a new political landscape is associated with poetic productivity in the 1794 version of the ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’, where the young ‘MINSTREL’ ‘Pours forth the bright blaze of Freedom’s noon-tide ray: / And now, indignant, “grasps the patriot steel,” / And her own iron rod he makes Oppression feel’ (34, 46-8). Such figurations of Chatterton invoke a classical and problematic assertion of the identity of good poetry with a good man: ‘[a]ccording to one argument popular with Chatterton’s supporters, Chatterton could not have produced so expert an oeuvre as the Rowley poems and at the same time have been so debased as to deceive his readers. We observe here a familiar assumption: good poetry can only be written by good men’.3 Good poetic creation resembles the utopian creation of bright new men with a clear new politics in a ‘new’ world, a revolutionary fiat lux which resembles a mortifying and purifying creation by the labour of the furor poeticus, and indeed recalls the imagery of spreading and consuming fire so dear to revolutionary rhetoric. Contra Campbell and Lowth and the tradition of prophetical obscurity, there is a triumphant clarity in these early prophetic, hopeful pronouncements.4

This use of clarity as a figure for promise and hope and obscurity as a figure for tyranny and oppression is developed further and in the more definite national political and intellectual arena of reciprocal figuration in Coleridge’s sonnets on ‘eminent Contemporaries’, which were published from December 1794 to January 1795 in the Morning Chronicle.5 The first sonnet, to Thomas Erskine, the Whig lawyer and defender of pro-revolutionary radicals in 1790s treason trials, is perhaps the most complex in its subversive use of religious imagery. ‘British Freedom’, here represented as a bird in punning flight, is stopped by Erskine’s voice and inspired with a ‘Sublime’ hope (1, 4) for justice. Erskine is heretically represented with a ‘censer glowing with the hallow’d flame’, and as ‘An hireless Priest before th’ insulted shrine’ (5, 6). As a result of his ‘unmatch’d eloquence’ - here an implicit criticism of the apostate Burke - Erskine’s ‘light shall shine’ (12) even after his death. The sonnet to Burke represents his treacherous repudiation of the figure of freedom as the result of ‘error’s mist’ (13) which had corrupted his eye - a typical representation of the disruption of vision as the disruption of the communication of reason which appears throughout Coleridge’s poetry. Burke’s support for the power in the rhetoric of sublimity and obscurity is parodied in the representation of the poet waking from ‘slumber’s shadowy vale’ to hear the truth about Burke, who had blasted ‘with wizard spell [Freedom’s] laurell’d fame’ (1, 8). This pattern of light as a sign of the good and rational, and darkness or obscurity as a sign of the bad and corrupted/corrupting, continues throughout the sonnets, with Priestley dwelling in ‘halls of Brightness’ (5) and witnessing the lifting of Nature’s veil as she ‘smile[s] with fondness on her gazing son’ (14), and with the almost godlike Godwin ‘form’d t’illume a sunless world forlorn’, and disrupting ‘terror-pale’ Oppression with the power of his gaze (1, 5).

Later, in June 1796, Coleridge continued his pattern of radical rhetorical figuration in a sonnet to John Thelwall and a poem about Horne Tooke in celebration of Tooke’s glorious failure in the parliamentary elections of June 1796. As J. C. C. Mays notes, the sonnet to Thelwall functions as a complex reformulation of Coleridge’s attitude towards Godwin, and sides with Thelwall on the subject of his disagreement with Godwin about the safety of ‘political appeals to the masses’; the poem ‘is implicitly a recension of [Coleridge’s Morning Chronicle] sonnet to Godwin… and describes how Thelwall moves an admirer not just to zeal but to action’.6 As such, it registers Coleridge’s contradictory and problematic commitment to persuasive public speaking and to the need to reserve radical speech for those types of recipients prepared to act in a manner which was not dangerous. Invoking the highest type of recipient discussed in the Moral and Political Lecture and Conciones ad populum, Coleridge begins with an implicit criticism of Godwin’s (and indeed Burke’s) closeted, obscure reserve:

Some, Thelwall! to the Patriot meed aspire

Who in safe rage without or rent or scar

Round pictur’d strong-holds sketching mimic war

Closet their valour. Thou mid thickest fire

Leap’st on the Wall (1-5).

In an early act of self-figuration, Coleridge then compares his own youthful hopes at Cambridge to Thelwall’s fully-grown, masculine simplicity. Coleridge, Coleridge claims, desired

First by thy fair example to glow

With patriot zeal: with Passion’s feverish dream

Starting I tore disdainful from my brows

The Myrtle crown inwove with cypress boughs –

Blest if to me in Manhood’s years belong

Thy stern simplicity & vigorous song (11-16).

Here, in a curiously personal example of reciprocal figuration, Coleridge compares his own early dangerous and unreserved enthusiasm to the figure of Thelwall’s sobriety. Such pronouncements are meant to reflexively structure a discourse as clear and contained which may in fact – as it was in Thelwall’s case – nonetheless be impassioned and guilty of the crimes of those it metarhetorically claims to resist. To claim that Thelwall was plain and simple was to signify his participation in the radical rhetoric of clarity, but it was no guarantee of the sobriety of his discourse. Likewise, in his ‘Poetical Address for Horne Tooke’, Coleridge figures a political morning which has followed a dim and indeterminate dawn of faint promise, when ‘E’en Expectation gaz’d with doubtful Eye’ (4). Again invoking his highest form of recipient-communicator, and the title of Tooke’s radical grammar on ‘winged words’, Coleridge figures Tooke as a radical sun:

Patriot & Sage! whose breeze-like Spirit first

The lazy mists of Pedantry dispers’d,

(Mists, in which Superstition’s pigmy band

Seem’d Giant Forms, the Genii of the Land!) (13-16).

Through his radical grammatical attack on a conservative linguistic tradition, Tooke inverts an obfuscating inversion of the proper rank or size of pedants and their doctrines. Tooke heralds a ‘gradual Dawn’ which will ‘bid Errors phantoms flit, / Or wither with the lightning flash of Wit’ (23-4), and even his potential for rhetorical, figurative excess and dangerous misinformation will be rescued by the forces of clarity already promised in the dawn of science:

And if amid the strong impassion’d Tale

Thy Tongue should falter & thy Lips turn pale;

If transient Darkness film thy aweful Eye,

And thy tir’d Bosom struggle with a sigh;

Science & Freedom shall demand to hear

Who practis’d on a Life so doubly dear (33-8).

Through a consistent repetition of such normative figures in association with radical public figures like Erskine, Godwin, and Thelwall, Coleridge’s representations of his political contemporaries are poetically coded in the radical rhetoric of clarity, and his subversive appropriation of religious language signifies the depth of his commitment to radical ideals which perpetuated the rhetoric of clarity. But his worry about Tooke’s potential for surrendering to strong passion in his ‘Tale’ and the nature of his problematic representation of Thelwall as a sober reflector register a deeper problem with the radical poetics of clarity. Participation in metarhetorical reciprocal figuration, that is, always already invokes the rhetoric of clarity’s suspicion of poetry as the prime source of misleading and misinforming figuration. All poetry, and indeed all rhetorical figuration, involves a poetics of obscurity.

Coleridge’s early optimistic prophecies of hope invert traditional associations of prophecy with obscurity. Coleridge was familiar with this prophetic tradition, having borrowed Lowth’s Lectures from the Bristol Library from September 16-22, 1796, the same week that he wrote three sonnets concerning the destiny of his son Hartley, who was born on September 19.7 I would like to use this coincidence as a basis for reading Coleridge’s poetic prophecies as an informed response to Lowth’s and the wider new rhetorical discussion of obscurity and poetry which I have discussed in my first chapter. In the first sonnet, ‘Written on Receiving Letters Informing Me of the Birth of a Son, I Being at Birmingham’, Coleridge reveals his failure to receive a ‘cheering ray’ from God, because of his own confusion: ‘Ah me! before the eternal Sire I brought / Th’unquiet Silence of confused Thought / And shapeless feelings’ (5, 6-8). For Coleridge, a clear mind is necessary for communication with God, ‘overshadowing Spirit’ though He may be (13). Just as the obscurity of the object of sacred poetry, for Lowth, generally requires order and perspicuity of language in order to communicate a sense of the sublime, so does the confused father feel that his ‘shapeless’ feelings divest him of an opportunity to commune with God. Obscurity is here a barrier to prophecy, rather than its condition, and instead of being granted a prophecy of his son’s future, Coleridge can only beg through a veil of tears for a future of which he does not even have a dim vision:

And now once more, O Lord! to thee I bend,

Lover of Souls! and groan for future grace,

That, ere my Babe youth’s perilous maze have trod,

Thy overshadowing Spirit may descend

And he be born again, a Child of God! (10-14).

Representing God as ‘overshadowing’ invokes the Miltonic figure of God as dark with excessive light, which here may be read as performing an emancipatory rather than a Burkean function, creating a future revolution in his child. In his discussion of this figure, Paul Magnuson argues for the radical resonance of this obscurity-from-clarity as a register of its power: ‘[d]arkness with excessive light is the possession of Milton, Coleridge, and Lamb, and it boldly shines in opposition to aristocracy and established religion’.8 But, as Lucy Newlyn has observed, obscurity is ‘ideologically appropriated by Milton, as a means of mystification’.9 As I have argued, figures of obscurity like that of the darkness that comes with an excess of light were constantly inverted and transvalued throughout the poetics of obscurity, and they can shine both in opposition to and in support of overwhelming, antidemocratic power. In this early invocation of an ‘overshadowing’ God, God’s darkness humiliates Coleridge and facilitates supplication rather than prophetic vision: in Coleridge’s radical poetics of obscurity, to be dark with excess of light is to be dark nonetheless.

In the second sonnet, ‘Composed on a Journey Homeward, the Author Having Received Intelligence of the Birth of a Son’, Coleridge figures his reception of transformative information. Leaping in a rather morbid manner from the occasion of the birth to the occasion of death, Coleridge contemplates the possibility of his son’s early death in language appropriate to a frenzied prophetic state:

Oft o’er my brain does that strange fancy roll

Which makes the present (while the flash doth last)

Seem a mere semblance of some unknown past,

Mix’d with such feelings, as perplex the soul

Self-question’d in her sleep (1-5).

This conflation of the past and ‘flash’ of the present neatly invokes the collapse of temporal distinctions inherent in biblical prophecy, notably the concept of the figura, according to which the significant events of the Old Testament are contained in the New Testament, and indeed in a note Coleridge mentions his invocation of Plato’s doctrine in the Phaedrus of the pre-existence of the soul.10 Tragically, Coleridge’s fear that his son should die before he can return home actually came true in the case of his second son, Berkeley, but it is important to note here that this sad fear is produced ‘thro’ excess of hope’ (9), which invokes the interchangeability of the origin of the prophetic voice, the proximity of the divine to the demonic. The sense of disconnection from an elevating ‘heavenly visitation’ (4) and the merely overshadowing presence of an inscrutable God in the first sonnet, and the sad premonition of death in the second, are transformed in the final sonnet into a positive, clear vision of the future which dispels the obscurity of the first two. In ‘To a Friend, Who Asked How I Felt, When the Nurse First Presented My Infant to Me’, Coleridge describes to Lamb the passing of obscurity when he finally sees the shape of his son before him:

Charles! my slow heart was only sad, when first

I scann’d that face of feeble infancy:

For dimly on my thoughtful spirit burst

All I had been, and all my babe might be!

But when I saw it on its Mother’s arm,

And hanging at her bosom…

Then I was thrill’d and melted…

… and all beguil’d

Of dark remembrance, and presageful fear

I seem’d to see an Angel’s form appear –

‘Twas even thine, beloved Woman mild! (1-6, 8, 9-12).

In this fascinating movement, the clear vision of the beautiful bosom of the feminine angel, his wife, clears Coleridge of his ‘dark’ fears and even emancipates him from the dreadful presence of his overshadowing God. As Mehtonen has discussed in relation to the older Christian tradition of poetic obscurity, ‘[t]he imagery of both dialectical progress and spiritual striving evinces the hope of enlightenment – reminiscent of the confidence of disambiguation in the context of rhetoric and the faith in the temporary nature of obscurity’.11 In Coleridge’s positive prophecy, prophetic discourse is secularised as what seems to be an angel is instead a woman who provides him with a clear vision of hope and ultimate enlightenment.

  1. Magnuson, 96-7.
  2. All quotations from Coleridge’s poetry are from the reading texts of CPW except where otherwise identified.
  3. Marjorie Levinson, The Romantic Fragment Poem (Chapel Hill and London, 1986), 40.
  4. ‘I know no style to which darkness of a certain sort is more suited than to the prophetical’ (George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 2.150).
  5. The phrase ‘eminent Contemporaries’ is drawn from the letter which introduced the first sonnet on December 1, 1794. See CPW 1.1.155.
  6. CPW,** 1.1.264.
  7. George Whalley, ‘The Bristol Library Borrowings of Southey and Coleridge, 1793-8’, The Library, 5th series, 4 (1949), 123.
  8. Magnuson, 65. Magnuson offers in this section a fascinating account of the radical function of this Miltonic image in Coleridge’s poetics, pointing out that ‘[t]he point of tracing the allusion… is not merely to align Coleridge with Milton’s devout prayer for inspiration… but rather to trace Coleridge’s use of “Dark with excessive bright” in its public context, to read it as allusion mediated by public issues’ (64).
  9. Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader, 51.
  10. The pre-existence of his son’s spirit has an interesting hermeneutical significance, insofar as a clear understanding of his previous existence must inform a proper understanding of his current form, as the final lines of the poem show in their speculation upon the baby’s life on ‘this nether sphere’ (11]: as a punishment for a crime committed elsewhere. This invokes what John Hamilton refers to as ‘the so-called “dark-filter” notion of obscurity, an idealist mode whereby behind some screen there is said to lie a “pre-existent, luminous meaning”’ (John Hamilton, Soliciting Darkness, 3, quoting from Allon White, 18).
  11. Mehtonen, 135.

Poems of Obscurity

While several of Coleridge’s poems in the mid-1790s participate in a pattern of figuration consistent with the rhetoric of clarity, the majority represent a poetics of positive obscurity involved primarily in the figuration of a reserve of obscurity, or an obscure refuge of security. Many critics have accepted Marilyn Butler’s assessment of this poetics of obscurity as a turn from ‘Enlightenment universalism to a concern with the private and domestic’, arguing that poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge came to believe that ‘[p]oetry in a popular style might be dangerous if it became an ideological weapon in the popular cause’.1 The decline of radical optimism is reflected in a rise of reclusive defeatist loyalism, and hence the ‘shift from a public to a private focus is in response to political events and has an acknowledged political significance - loyalism - a fact which is well demonstrated in Coleridge’s most ideologically explicit “private” poem of this sequence [‘Fears in Solitude’]’.2 Obscurity in this Romantic narrative becomes the language of psylosophical internalisation, in which the danger of poetic power and passion is contained programmatically not only within the mind, but within an explicitly depoliticised aesthetics of poetic internalisation. To internalise obscurity is to restrict the dangers of reception: thus Butler argues that ‘[t]he notion of a poetry (or prose, or grammar) for the people was profoundly in conflict with that other theme emerging in ex-radical literary London, that Literature would be guaranteed immunity from prosecution because, by definition, it did not threaten the state’.3 To focus on an internalised discourse of the sublime is to perpetuate the Romantic reflexivity of retreat, and ultimately to prefigure the Romantic ‘dogma of the mysterious, subconscious origin of art’ which Butler argues later emerged as a consequence of Romantic retreat in the 1830s.4

Such accounts of the reserve of an inspired Romantic poetics of obscurity ultimately result in a discourse of poetic passivity and exclusive reflexivity, so that ‘[t]he artist, seen now as also the first recipient or audience of these forces, comes to seem a curiously passive figure, mediating energies from seemingly hidden depths’.5 But Butler’s use of quotation marks around ‘private’ calls attention to the fact that there was nothing private about the public figuration of the obscure retreat, or the retreat into obscurity. In a discussion of ‘Frost at Midnight’, Magnuson argues convincingly that ‘[s]ince it was placed, in 1798, in the public discourse, it cannot represent rural retirement as an evasion of political issues’.6 It is precisely as a public representation of rural retirement that this element of Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity participates in political issues. Hence Coleridge’s occasional Greek signature to his poems has not in fact ‘obscured his personal authorship’ and did not in fact succeed in ‘restricting his audience’, but the metarhetorical performance of this restriction was calculated to avoid ‘the government’s fear of disseminating seditious thought’.7 Just as the warnings and restrictions invoked in the Coleridge’s early prose work and in the texts of the project of The Friend could not be relied on to guarantee an exclusive readership – anyone could still pick them up and read them – they function as a metarhetorical act, a statement of intention which reflexively constructs the anxious character of the author and announces his loyalist anxieties about the dangerous reception of his information. The poetics of obscurity, in other words, is not a retreat, but the performance of a retreat.**** Acknowledging this allows us to see that the positive obscurity developed by Coleridge also functions as a refuge for radical speculation. Obscurity is a figure of genius, but it is also a figure of doubt, and (as I mentioned in my third chapter) a device employed by the radical defendant who exploits the ambiguity of his publication before the reactionary judge. To borrow a phrase from Norman Fruman, ‘[i]n reading Coleridge’s poetry it is tempting and surely often correct to suspect that mysterious details, or passages which elude plausible interpretation, or inexplicable gaps, derive from the wish to conceal something, or from unconscious pressure to express something forbidden’.8 The following readings of various poems central to Coleridge’s development of a poetics of obscurity in the 1790s are informed by this understanding of a problematic ambiguity in the simultaneous development of the reactionary reserve and the radical positivity of obscurity.

Many of Coleridge’s early poetic figurations of hope involve a dubious obscurity which expresses an ambiguous optimism for political reform qualified by a fear that the light of revolution can be inverted into a destructive darkness. This ambiguity is a consequence of the fact that Coleridge’s first foray into public activity came in a period of war and Terror rather than in the period of relatively unrestrained radical optimism in which Wordsworth’s early political experiences were formed. The optimism associated with unqualified clarity could not withstand the developments of history, and Coleridge’s sympathetic poetic appropriation of the rhetoric of clarity is simultaneously inverted by the function of obscurity in his poetry. Indeed his first significant poetic publication (written in collaboration with Robert Southey in 1794), ‘The Fall of Robespierre’, includes in its dedication a typically Coleridgean metarhetorical warning about the relation between the excesses of (foreign) rhetoric and revolution:

[i]n the execution of the work, as intricacy of plot could not have been attempted without a gross violation of recent facts, it has been my sole aim to imitate the empassioned and highly figurative language of the French Orators, and to develope the characters of the chief actors on a vast stage of horrors.9

A Burkean rhetoric of obscurity would certainly perpetuate the forces which radicals blamed in part for this eruption of violence, as indeed would a poetics of obscurity which invoked and evoked unrestrained passion in a riot of figures. But in Coleridge’s early poetry the obscure is figured as something softer than an overwhelming darkness, a figuration of doubt, caution, and uncertainty, in which the dusk’s interchangeability with the dawn makes dimness a potential sign of either the divine or the demonic.

In ‘Domestic Peace’, a poem which was originally printed as part of ‘The Fall of Robespierre’, Coleridge already represents the location of safety in the terra cognita of a rural refuge which is already known; the figuration of retreat is a return, a temporal inversion of the prophetic hopes for the unknown lands to be found and created in the future on the basis of progressivist optimism or a radical historical and political determinism. Thus ‘DOMESTIC PEACE’, the poet announces in 1794, is to be found far from both ‘the pomp of scepter’d State’ and ‘the Rebel’s noisy hate’, dwelling in ‘a cottag’d vale’, where Love and Sorrow, ‘conscious of the past employ / MEMORY, bosom-spring of joy’ (2, 5, 6, 7, 13-14). Secure from the interchangeable dangers of the rebel and the state, as Coleridge figures it in the ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’, the cottage provides a refuge for indulgence in an otherwise dangerous obscurity:

Sublime of Hope I seek the cottag’d dell

Where VIRTUE calm with careless step may stray;

And, dancing to the moon-light roundelay,

The wizard PASSIONS weave an holy spell! (122-125).

The ‘wizard PASSIONS’, dangerous in association with public rhetoric like Burke’s, thus find a place for peacefully playing out their otherwise dangerous obscurity in an obscure haunt outside of time and, therefore, of consequences.

But in a further development of the confused temporality of the figure of retreat, this return to the past, or to the timeless, is overpowered in other figurations of a refuge as something lost in the past. In his 1794 sonnet ‘On Hope’, written with Charles Lamb, the poet’s prophecy takes place amongst the ‘lunar beam’ of ‘parting day’, when he thinks ‘in sickly mood’

Of Joys, that glimmer’d in Hope’s twilight ray,

Then left me darkling in a vale of tears.

O pleasant days of Hope – for ever flown!

Could I recall you! – But that thought is vain (4, 5, 7-10).

The ‘twilight’ of a potential dawn turned out to be the dusk of disappointment, the end of joy – and the poet’s inability to recall them signals not only his despair to achieve a distinct memory of joy, but also to bring back early visionary hopes of radical reform. This inability is linked, significantly, to a failure to achieve focused and constrained influence over the reception of his work by the people. The ‘thought is vain’ precisely because

Availeth not Persuasion’s sweetest tone

To lure the fleet-wing’d Travellers back again:

Yet fair, tho’ faint, their images shall gleam

Like the bright Rainbow on an evening stream (11-14).

In the troubled figurations of retreat in these early poems, past hopes for a bright future ultimately signify the failure of persuasion, and remain merely figured as harmless and ineffective, obscure reflections in a dim and timeless refuge.

The optimistic affirmation of poetic progression in human history typical of the rhetoric of clarity is challenged by Coleridge’s problematic figuration of refuge in his 1794 poem ‘To a Young Lady, with a Poem on the French Revolution’. In his youth, the poet dwells in ‘cloisters pale’ (3) and in ‘pensive twilight gloom’ (9), safely viewing guilt from an almost unfallen perspective, in which experience has yet to qualify the opposition of light and dark. The ensuing imaginative representation of the French Revolution, here construed as the poet’s fall, is figured by the appearance a dangerous light: ‘Fierce on her front the blasting Dog-star glow’d; / Her Banners, like a midnight Meteor, flow’d’ (19-20). In the imagery of 1790s radicalism, this representation of an ‘EXULTATION’ that ‘wak’d the patriot fire’ (23) would usually lead to the poet’s embrace of the new possibilities, and a reversal of the value traditionally placed on the fall: the poet’s flight from the dark cloisters of religion would represent instead a form of redemption. In Coleridge’s poem, however, the disillusioned poet retreats to his bower. Invoking the myrtle that he was later to figuratively tear from his brows in the sonnet to Thelwall, he writes: ‘With wearied thought once more I seek the shade, / Where peaceful Virtue weaves the MYRTLE braid’ (29-30). The safety of poetic activity lies not in the hopeless activity of the patriot, but in the reflection of a poetic retreat secure from the dangers traditionally associated in rhetoric with poetry. This return to the garden/cloisters involves the poet’s return from the imaginative sublimity of the ‘midnight Meteor’ to the more pleasant poetic activity of describing ‘The blameless features of a lovely mind’ (38). The Edenic imagery is most strongly invoked in the closing lines of the poem, when the poet offers flowers (here read as a symbol of his poetic activity) to Sara: ‘Nor, SARA! thou these early flowers refuse - / Ne’er lurk’d the snake beneath their simple hues’ (41-42). The dangerous light of the revolutionary spirit is here figured as a sexual threat which has no place in the safety of the post-Edenic ‘shade’ to which the poet has returned.

Though they arose out of an ambiguous commitment to a patriotic poetics of clarity, it was in the expression of his practical doubts concerning political persuasion that Coleridge began to develop his poetics of positive obscurity. Given the diversity and interrelation of his political with his philosophical and religious speculations, Coleridge sought a form of poetry in which he could simultaneously express and develop doubts and dangerous speculations. Between the light of Reason and God, and the darkness of Unreason and Evil, he found in the spaces of half-light and mist a refuge for his potentially subversive insights. In developing this obscure terra incognita, Coleridge participated in what Mehtonen has identified as ‘a heritage of poetic obscurity of a different stamp. This is the tradition in which poets were permitted liberties for which any speaker in prose would be condemned’.10

A complex example of the positive potential of obscurity for potentially subversive speculation is evident throughout the figurations of ‘Religious Musings’. In this poem, Coleridge’s philosophical break from materialist Enlightenment ideals is represented by a complex inversion and transvaluation of the figures of the rhetoric of clarity. Obscurity, already associated by the rhetoric of clarity with the abdication of authorial responsibility and the disruption of critical expectation, with oppressive tyranny and manipulation, with the nature of mystical religious speculation, with the complexity of communication, and with evasive readerly resistance, here becomes associated with a positive space for heretical speculation and ideological positioning. Indeed, this resistance to materialism invokes an association between false religion, misleading science, and the politicised French rhetorical excess represented in ‘The Fall of Robespierre’. As Ronald Paulson points out, himself invoking a rather Romantic concept of the poetic, ‘of their very nature poetic language and images are complex, indefinite, and alogical, in contrast to the scientific language of the modern historian, which tries to be simple, definite, and logical and thereby becomes as “poetic” as the language of the contemporary historians of the Revolution’.11 Paulson’s is not merely an unproblematic perpetuation of a Romantic ideology, for as Mehtonen indicates, the concept of a poetics of obscurity as a subversive or inversive counterforce to legitimate rational speculation did indeed have a long history, as one can see in Thomas Nash’s pronouncement that ‘Poetrie [is] of a more hidden & divine kinde of Philosophy, enwrapped in blinde Fables and darke stories, wherein the principles of more excellent Arts and morall precepts of manners […] are contained’.12 In the tradition of a positive poetics of obscurity, ‘obscurity is the point of departure, not an obstacle to interpretation’.13

When Coleridge begins ‘Religious Musings’ in the 1796 Poems on Various Subjects with the line ‘This is the time, when, most divine to hear’ (1), he is referring not only to the religious significance of Christmas eve, but also to the poem’s figured composition in the evening and an early certainty in the divine origin of his twilight reflections. This twilight space invokes a discourse of doubt and speculation which reflexively signals guarded reflection upon subjects incomprehensible and potentially pantheistic. This makes sense of his initial inclusion of an adapted passage from lines 1.49-59 of Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination:

Yet serious Truth her empire o’er my song

Hath now asserted: Falsehood’s evil brood

Vice and deceitful Pleasure, she at once

Excluded, and my Fancy’s careless toil

Drew to the better cause!

In the context of the evening’s obscurity, the limitations of the imagination are already acknowledged, and by virtue of this qualification a questionable speculation on God is rendered secure. Here, the light of God, ‘the GREAT INVISIBLE (by symbols only seen) / With a peculiar and surpassing light / Shines from the visage of th’ oppress’d good Man’ (9-12). The peculiarity and the transcendence of the questionable aura emanating from Christ are thus represented as signs of our human imperfection, and the carefully articulated stage for Coleridge’s idealist speculations is set.

The assertion about symbols requires development in the Berkeleyan climax which Coleridge introduces only after further qualifications. The light of God is represented as corrupted by ‘floating mists of dark Idolatry’ (32) which generate from their corrupted contemplation a primitive polytheism. Thus consigned to a heretical darkness, the light is only sensed in ‘Dim recollections’ (36) of a prior unity not only of a single God, but of a pantheistic ‘God all in all! / We and our Father ONE!’ (44-45). Coleridge then proposes the existence of an ‘elect’ who can ascend in contemplation to this unity, ‘Treading beneath their feet all visible things’ (51). The ‘dark Passions’ of quotidian humanity are transmuted and ‘by supernal grace / Enrob’d with Light, and naturaliz’d in Heaven’ (89, 92-93). This mystical naturalization conflates the space of heaven and the space of earth, and from the vantage of this union the elect, who feed on ‘Truth of subliming import’ (107), can ‘[Stand] in the sun, and with no partial gaze / [View] all creation’ (111-112). Marshall Suther has observed of this aspect of ‘Religious Musings’ that ‘[i]n fact, what [Coleridge] is asking for here corresponds to a state beyond that of the mystical union with God, that obscure knowledge through experienced contact which the mystics tell of and which is, after all, experienced in the bodily state, and in this life’.14 In this climactic passage of the poem, the mystical elect have managed not only to be elevated above the limitations of earthbound perception, and to view the earth from a heavenly perspective, but also, and more radically, they have managed to participate in the creation of the world, for it is light, as the activity of a Godlike gaze, which confers form upon the darkness of chaos. Paul Hamilton has discussed a Romantic echo of this ‘Godlike seeing’ in Keats’s ‘To Haydon’, where ‘Apollo subliminally figures the poet’s assumption… that were he to succeed he would communicate a kind of “godlike” seeing whose success was guaranteed because, like an observing sun, it produces the light it needs to see by’.15 As Mary Anne Perkins has shown, ‘the symbol of Light as representative of the Logos was a constant theme in Coleridge’s writings…. The Logos is the enlightenment of reason, and the light of life (power, agency, and energy); Light is the source and the instrument of the creation’.16 Participation in the divine Logos, a concept that finds its origins in ancient philosophy and its radical eighteenth-century manifestation in the Protestant ‘Inner Light’, is necessary for the light of natural world to be properly interpreted:

[W]hatever actually is, even for ourselves, is thus wholly & solely by the presence of the Deity to the mind & that sense itself as if it were an opake reason is possible only, by a communion with that life which is the light of man, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, & without which the solar light would be a contradiction in thought, a powerless power, a light that is darkness.17

Significantly, the radical element of Coleridge’s figuration of mystical poetic elevation in ‘Religious Musings’ here involves not merely a poetic participation in or penetration by the divine light, but rather a radical assumption in which the poet becomes an incarnation of the divine. At this early, optimistic point in Coleridge’s poetry, the poetic is the ultimate elevating power: ‘[w]hether pantheistic or not, [such passages] clearly [indicate] that the poetic experience and the mystical experience are in the same line’.18

This stage of ‘Religious Musings’ involves one of Coleridge’s most committed poetic rejections of positivist, scientific Enlightenment ideals. The ‘light’ of this Berkeleyan ‘enlightenment’ constitutes a subversive inversion or transvaluation of the empirical assumptions upon which the rhetoric of clarity was based. The poet’s vision is not of the world, but of the truth that lies hidden behind it. Coleridge goes on to admonish presumptuous materialist speculators: ‘I will raise up a mourning, O ye Fiends! / And curse your spells, that film the eye of Faith, / Hiding the present God’ (142-144). To represent God or indeed the Logos as immediately perceivable is to confuse the darkness for the light, and the light for the darkness. There must be a developmental delay intervening between human and divine vision. In Coleridge’s confused conflation of the poetics of clarity and obscurity, that is, the language of nature is not ultimately distinct from the language of God, and, paradoxically, as James McKusick has put it, ‘Coleridge thus predisposes himself to accept a philosophical doctrine that relies almost exclusively on the data of sense-perception as a means to religious truth’.19 This reveals the meaning of the earlier reference to the fact that, in our pre-elect state, God is ‘only’ seen through symbols: after the transmutation of the passions and the Berkeleyan ascension to the sun, God is revealed as immanent in nature, as these symbols, and all of nature becomes a divine language, and, pantheistically, the divine itself.

Given the diversity of his commitments to notions of sublimity, light, and obscurity in this poem, its dense conclusion represents a somewhat paradoxical interpenetration of Coleridge’s diverse and unreconciled religious, philosophical, and poetic influences. In the closing lines of the poem, we are presented with an explicitly Berkelyan climax:

Believe thou, O my Soul,

Life is a vision shadowy of Truth;

And vice, and anguish, and the wormy grave,

Shapes of a dream! The veiling clouds retire,

And lo! the Throne of the redeeming God

Forth flashing unimaginable day

Wraps in one blaze earth, heaven, and deepest hell (396-401).

The note which Coleridge attached to this stanza claims that it ‘is intelligible to those, who, like the Author, believe and feel the sublime system of Berkley [sic]; and the doctrine of the final Happiness of all men’.20 In order to make sense of this gloss, ‘Life’ must be taken to represent only the fallen life of those who have yet to believe in (and understand) the system of Berkeley, which, radically and crucially, allows for a living elect. Human perfection can take place in the world, in time. The invocation of a ‘vision of shadowy Truth’ represents our contemplation of the language of nature prior to Berkeleyan revelation, and therefore on the basis of an earthbound obscurity. When the ‘clouds’ which generate this obscurity ‘retire’ (the implication being, apparently, that they are removed not by virtue of our own efforts, but by virtue of some other influence), the nature of God’s immanence and our participation in an idealist universe is revealed to us.

But, rather paradoxically in this context, there is a remnant of a Burkean sense of limitation, for the ‘day’ which flashes forth is ‘unimaginable’ - certainly to the non-elect, but there is a latent implication that this applies to the elect as well. This limitation on the act of imagining the sublime object may also refer to the poet, who in spite of his eve-inspired vision is still confined by a ‘young and noviciate thought’ (412). Bound by as yet untransmuted passions, the poet will use his only means of communication with and of the divine, a poetry grounded in the obscurity of the passions, ‘In ministries of heart-stirring song’ (413), mimicking with his fallen imagination ‘the great Sun’ (418) – or the great Son. The obscurity of the evening with which the poem began is replicated at the end with the qualified dawn projected by an imagination limited in its communion with the Deity. That is, the poet’s poetic, evening dream of a dawn figures the possibility of the corruption of its vision of an impossible perfection, and the origins of the poetic are figured as indeterminately divine or demonic. As a result, the whole poem brings itself into question, and the theologically subversive and anti-Enlightenment idealist visions in which it indulges are safely bound within the limitations of a safely obscuring poetic light which sustains, however problematically, a vestigial pattern of references in accordance with the rhetoric of clarity. In ‘Religious Musings’, the interchangeability of dusk and dawn is exploited as a figurative refuge for obscure reflections.

In ‘The Eolian Harp’, originally composed after ‘Religious Musings’ in August to October 1795, Coleridge’s representation of the possibility of pantheism is presented in terms of a qualified vision which is ultimately overridden, paradoxically, by the clear light in which the incomprehensibility of God is ultimately asserted. At the beginning of the poem, Sara, the recurrent wifely and motherly figure of censure and common sense in Coleridge’s early poetics, is sleeping, and her consequent intellectual absence provides the basis for the poet’s dreamy speculations. The poet is left to ‘watch the clouds, that late were rich with light, / Slow saddening round’ (6-7). It is in his reflections on this cloudy half-light that the harp is first mentioned, evoking by virtue of the evening’s air ‘a soft floating witchery of sound / As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve / Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land’ (20-22). In the freedom of this magical and not properly Christian religious space, interpenetrated as it is by figures of superstition, Coleridge invokes his famous notion of the ‘one Life’: ‘O the one life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul, / A light in sound, a sound-like power in light’ (26-28). Light, here, is properly the twilight that provides the setting for visions not of God, but of other spirits, and their ‘Melodies’ (23) are hardly those of materialist scientism. But this twilight is imaginatively juxtaposed with a half-lit space within a half-lit space, as it were, when the poet compares this evening experience to one in midday:

And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope

Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,

Whilst through my half-closed eye-lids I behold

The sunbeams dance (34-37).

In the full light of noon, the obscurity of the poet’s vision becomes suggestively self-induced, a product of the obscuring use he makes of his faculty of vision (‘half-closed eye-lids’), not the nature of his environment.

The ‘many idle flitting phantasies’ (40) of this obscurity are, however, related not to the twilight world of fairy spirits, but of sunlit holy spirits. Before such speculations are indulged in, however, a further qualification of the poet’s vision is introduced: his sleepiness and its consequent obscurity are the product of his ‘indolent and passive brain’ (41). Here, the poet’s vision is imperfect not merely as a result of his will, but of the inescapable limitations of his visual faculty, and his receptivity to inspiration is figured as one that is dangerously unguarded. Thus even in this space of a highly qualified obscurity - a vision-within-a-vision, a consequence of both the twilit environment and his noontime weakness - the climactic suggestion of pantheism is posed as a question:

And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the Soul of each, and God of All? (44-48)

The fact that, in spite of his careful rendering of the speculative environment in which he merely seeks to ask a question, his speculation is immediately dismissed as fanciful and heretical serves only to magnify the extent of Coleridge’s self-defensive posturing. The sleeping Sara awakes and reproves him with a ‘serious eye’:

… nor such thoughts

Dim and unhallowed dost thou not reject,

And biddest me walk humbly with my God…

For never guiltless may I speak of him,

The Incomprehensible! (50-52, 58-59)

That the poet’s speaking is ‘never guiltless’ is related to the fallen nature of language, which cannot achieve an accurate communication of the nature of God, but it should be noted that the poet does not imply that never guiltless may he think of God, and the possibility remains that God’s incomprehensibility is a product of public language rather than private thought. Within the poem’s narrative, even the relative safety of the poet’s obscurity does not save him from the need to retract his question, and assert his subordination to God. But the poem itself is most certainly not a warning against serious consideration of the possibilities Coleridge is suggesting. Rather, Coleridge’s presentation of obscurity as a space constituted by the reader’s faculties allows for him a faultless freedom, for in the act of reading one is merely investigating the limits of one’s own intellectual faculties, and is always left not with the option, but with the safe necessity, of an admission of one’s own limitations. Finally, it should be noted that Sara’s ‘reproof’ itself figures as a guarantee of the poet’s guarded speculation: as a reader or recipient of poetry, she is a figure of containment, not questioning Coleridge’s poetics but, rather, judging them with the ‘serious’ and penetrating, public, institutionalised eye, like a guard in a Panopticon.

In 1798 Coleridge published together three poems which figure a threatened refuge: Fears in Solitude, written in 1798, during the alarm of an invasion. To which are added, France, an Ode, and Frost at Midnight. Like so many other poems in this period, they are framed by the figures of obscurity which serve various functions related to the articulation of a poetic refugefor, not from radical political and philosophical speculation. Fears in Solitude, a directly political poem which criticises both a war-mongering England and those radical societies which would destroy its sustaining traditions, begins significantly with a critique of the obscure reflections of ‘Religious Musings’. In the face of the realities of war, such youthful indolences lead to optimistic indulgences: the young man who ‘found / Religious meanings in the forms of nature’ had, in fact, ‘his senses gradually wrapt / In a half sleep’ (23-24, 25-26), and his ‘dreams of better worlds’ (26) pale in comparison to the realities of war which the poet proceeds to present in a torrent of radical fact. And just as the poem begins with the image of a ‘dell, / Bath’d by the mist’ (7-8), it ends when ‘The light has left the summit of the hill’ and the poet glimpses ‘the shadowy Main, / Dim tinted’ (206, 216-17). Here, the positive and negative elements of both clarity and obscurity are figured in a fine Romantic balance of hope and despair.

The narrative of an ambiguous revolutionary obscurity which darkened into night is passionately invoked in ‘France, an Ode’, originally called ‘THE RECANTATION’ and published in the Morning Post on 16 April 1798. In this poem, Coleridge continues his poetic self-figuration by locating his early dreams in what appears, in hindsight, to be a suspicious obscurity, but which appeared at the time to be an auspicious one. The poem begins with an appeal to the common figures of shapelessness and indeterminacy, ‘Ye clouds! that far above me float or pause, / Veering your pathless march without controul!’ (1-2). The formlessness of ‘each rude shape’ (14) inspires the poet who pursues ‘fancies holy’ through ‘glooms’ on a ‘moonlight path’ (11, 10, 12). Despite the attempt to represent such spaces as ‘holy’, they partake more of the ambiguities and dangers of superstition and fairy bowers than a pure and divine light, and like false guides they lead the poet into false dreams of the ‘spirit of divinest Liberty’ (21). Emerging from this hopeful space the poet misfigures the sun as ‘rising’ though the storms ‘hid his light’ (48), ‘and all seemed calm and bright’ – but behind it all is the menacing figure of ‘FRANCE’ who has concealed ‘her front deep-scarr’d and gory’ (48, 50, 51, 52). In the final stanza of the poem Coleridge articulates a figurative recantation which signals the abandonment of his early radical rhetoric of clarity, as he adopts the figures of a Burkean rhetoric of obscurity. Thus ‘The sensual and the dark rebel in vain’, and Liberty flees from ‘priestcraft’s harpy minions’, residing only on the spiritual horizon of ‘earth, sea, and air’ (85, 95, 103). Earlier, the poet asks ‘Freedom’ to forgive his youthful optimistic dreams (64), and yet the poet figuratively insists on dreaming to the end, hoping that the coy and deceptive, fleeing Liberty still exists out there, somewhere, attainable in theory if not in practice

It is fitting that a series of poems which figures the emergence of the poet from a false dawn should conclude with a poem set in the freezing night. In the poem, the poet figures his own thinking in association with the ‘secret ministry’ of the cold frost, and with the ‘Abstruser musings’ of his solitude (1, 6). The only secure speculative refuge for the poet is one for which ‘all seasons shall be sweet’ (65), which can sustain itself in light and darkness, ‘Whether the summer clothe the general earth’ (55) or, as the poem ends, whether ‘the eve-drops fall’ (70)

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon (72-4).

A sufficiently developed politics, and a sufficiently developed poetics, must, on this reading of these three poems, take into account the possibility that secret ministries and the darkness of tyranny are as much a part of an oscillating history as other ‘seasons’ (65), like the summer dawn of revolutionary hope. While in one sense the poems of Fears in Solitude figure an inversive political enlightenment from Coleridge’s early dreams and a questionable hope, they involve him in a deeper association with the figures and politics of the rhetoric of obscurity. Poems that inversively figure as the twilight of the dusk what he earlier took to be the twilight of dawn, in the end, demonstrate a darker commitment to Romantic obscurity. And as the poet’s affinity with the secret ministry of frost suggests, to be an unacknowledged legislator is to be something like a secret influence.21

  1. Butler, Romantics, 37.
  2. Ibid. 85.
  3. Butler, Burke, 14.
  4. Butler, Romantics, 8.
  5. Clark, 80.
  6. Magnuson, 85.
  7. Ibid. 59. Magnuson nicely invokes the refuge of obscurity invoked in ESTEESI as a ‘location’: ‘[w]hether read as “he hath stood” or “he hath placed,” the word indicates not a personality, but a position, a location which, as he explained to Sotheby, defines him as a friend of freedom authorized by a religion rejected by other English Jacobins and equally distinct from the French, whom Coleridge saw as having forsaken both liberty and religion’ (60).
  8. Norman Fruman, ‘Creative process and concealment in Coleridge’s poetry’, in Romantic Revisions,** eds. Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley (Cambridge, 1992), 161.
  9. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, The fall of Robespierre, 1794 (Oxford and New York, 1991), 3.
  10. Mehtonen, 103.
  11. Paulson, 5.
  12. Thomas Nash, The anatomie of absurdite (1589), quoted in Mehtonen, 122.
  13. Mehtonen, 118.
  14. Marshall Suther, The Dark Night of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York, 1960), 27.****
  15. Paul Hamilton, ‘Shadow of a Magnitude’, 27.
  16. Mary Anne Perkins, Coleridge’s Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle, (Oxford, 1994), 128.
  17. Coleridge, ‘On the Divine Ideas’, fo. 63, quoted in Perkins, Coleridge’s Philosophy, 119. Perkins’s book, like Douglas Hedley’s, is a good source for a discussion of the concept of the Logos as it is deployed in Coleridge’s work as a whole. As she states in her article ‘Religious thinker’, ‘Coleridge’s own attempt to develop a “dynamic system” was aimed at a similar integration of ideas, feelings, experience, conscience and actions [as in German philosophies of nature and Idealism]…. Imagination is that power which perceives and realises unity in multiplicity; which recognises symbols as not just representing, but participating in, universal, infinite and eternal realities…. He found a correspondence between these ideas and ancient Greek concepts of Logos as the principle of reason, and of difference, distinction and opposition (all essential to intelligibility), propounded by Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Plato and the neo-Platonists’ (Perkins, ‘Religious Thinker’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, 191-2). Interestingly, Coleridge’s deployment of the Logos as a unifying metaphysical or theological figure is here, in high Coleridgean fashion, adopted as a figure for the unification of Coleridge’s work into a coherent system or philosophy, and the metarhetorical function of the figure is elevated by the critic into a guiding concept which guarantees his work’s coherence.
  18. Suther, 143.
  19. McKusick, 26.
  20. CPW, 1.1.190 n.
  21. In his ‘Defence of Poetry’, Shelley invokes a form of Romantic obscurity in his famous declaration: ‘[p]oets are the hierophants of the unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in Peacock’s Four Ages of Poetry, Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, Browning’s Essay on Shelley, ed. H.F.B. Brett-Smith [Oxford, 1923], 59). Insofar as they generally endorse a poetics of clarity rather than a sort of mystical hierophantism, Peacock’s and Browning’s essays offer significant alternatives to Shelley’s invocation of Romantic obscurity.

The Reactionary Poetics of Obscurity

Who but a deceiver himself would have sunk low enough not merely to hate what he could not understand, but incriminate it, if he could?

Boccaccio, Genealogiae, quoted in Mehtonen, 121.

That other reader, the enthusiast of metaphysical poetry (including, occasionally, Coleridge himself) enjoys the obscurity of imperfect understanding.

  1. C. Goodson, ‘Coleridge on Language: A Poetic Paradigm’, Philological Quarterly 62.1 (Winter 1983), 64.

Coleridge’s prose treatment of obscurity in his poetry emerges as a pattern of reactions to the charge of poetic obscurity. Just as he develops his paradoxical Romantic obscurity in relation to prose in response to the charges of obscurity in letters and reviews throughout the project of The Friend, so does his formulation of positive forms of poetic obscurity develop in acts of attack and defence in private letters and in other public works. The earliest reviews of Coleridge’s poetry display a preoccupation with his obscurity which was certainly inspired in part by the figures of obscurity in his indeterminate poetic landscapes and political reflections. A review of Coleridge’s 1796 Poems on Various Subjects by John Aikin, the Warrington Academy-educated dissenting writer and physician, in the June 1796 Monthly Review offers a qualified criticism and endorsement of obscurity and its poetic effects, associating both with the dangers of politicised enthusiasm: ‘[o]ften obscure, uncouth, and verging to extravagance, but generally striking and impressive to a supreme degree, it exhibits the ungoverned career of fancy and feeling which equally belongs to the poet and the enthusiast’.1 In the following year, the Whig orientalist Alexander Hamilton invoked a classical criticism of the rhetorical excesses of poetic figures in a review of the ‘Ode to the Departing Year’, accusing Coleridge of attempting to trick or cheat his readers: ‘all the mechanical tricks of abrupt transition, audacious metaphor, unusual phraseology, &c. produce nothing better than turgid obscurity and formal irregularity’.2 An unsigned review in the Critical Review of the same year associates Coleridge’s obscurity with ‘pomposity’ as opposed to the more acceptable ‘simplicity’ and claims that he ‘too frequently mistakes bombast and obscurity, for sublimity’.3

The criticism stuck. Southey’s famous attack on the ‘Rime’ as ‘a Dutch attempt at German sublimity’4 is a good example of how close the charge of obscurity was to the charge of not being English, and points to the manner in which obscurity came to encompass not only Coleridge’s prose and poetry, but also the questionable origins of his ideas in a suspicious terra incognita. In a review of Wallenstein in the Critical Review in October 1800, Coleridge is similarly admonished for abdicating the responsibilities of a published author, and implicitly for an attempt to manipulate his readers:

it were well if Mr. Coleridge would teach his pupils, both by precept and example, the art of blotting - would instruct them that hasty effusions require the file, that carelessness is not ease, and that obscurity in no instance constitutes the true sublime.5

Here, obscurity is simply a lazy incompleteness. ‘Remorse’, too, was generally charged with an obscurity, echoes of which we can see in an 1813 review in the Theatrical Inquisitor which I cited in my last chapter and which calls Coleridge’s ‘diction uncouth, pedantic, and obscure’, rails against ‘the general confusion or obscurity of composition’, and even claims that Ordonio’s passion is ‘obscurely and imperfectly developed’.6 John Taylor Coleridge, the poet’s unColeridgean nephew, pointed out the mortifying assumption of superiority which poetic obscurity invokes in the sensitive recipient, arguing that ‘the poetry [of ‘Remorse’], beautiful as it is, and strongly as it appeals in many parts to the heart, is yet too frequently of a lofty and imaginative character, far removed from the ready apprehension of common minds’.7 There is something like a pattern of reciprocal figuration at work here, as the reviewers rhetorically adopt the figures and concepts of Coleridge’s poetic obscurity in a pattern of inversion and transvaluation. Thus an account of the charge of obscurity in reviews of Coleridge itself reads like ‘A dark tale darkly finish’d’ (‘Remorse’ 4.1.145). ‘Remorse’ may have been staged around a ‘“a kind of rage”’ for Coleridge’,8 as Byron put it, but the intensity of attacks on his obscurity also registers a rage contra Coleridge.

One unique response to Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity was Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s ‘To Mr C[olerid]ge’, published by Barbauld’s brother John Aikin in the Monthly Magazine in April 1799 but written by September 1797, around the time when Coleridge’s 1797 Poems was published.9 Educated in the circle of the Warrington Academy, Barbauld was a prolific writer and educator with strong dissenting roots in the rhetoric of clarity. She participated in the campaign to abolish the slave trade and wrote An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts in 1790 as a response to Burke’s reactionary parliamentary harangues, appealing to ‘certain, sure operations of increasing light and knowledge’.10 As Ronald Paulson claims of her optimistic rhetoric, ‘Barbauld combines the light of knowledge with the irresistible forces of nature, using light to express the irreversible moment of change’.11 Like the other rhetoricians of clarity I have discussed in my second chapter, Barbauld’s commitment to clarity, and indeed a poetics of clarity, was political. As Lucy Newlyn claims, ‘Barbauld’s preference for a poetic of clarity and distinctness - her deep suspicion towards mystification - declare the strongly Warringtonian complexion of her allegiances’.12

In her article on Barbauld’s poem, Lisa Vargo has detailed the story of Barbauld’s relationship with Coleridge and Coleridge’s later infamous criticisms of her, including his and Southey’s ‘childish punning on her name’.13 For my purposes it is sufficient to indicate that Coleridge and Barbauld had personally met (to Coleridge’s delight) in August 1797, and that both this meeting (and perhaps Coleridge’s talking) and the publication of ‘Religious Musings’ were the occasion for her poem and its criticism of Coleridge’s obscurity. Barbauld’s response to Coleridge’s obscurity reinforces my claims about the troubled, early Romantic conflation of the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity in ‘Religious Musings’, insofar as the poem at once ‘served Coleridge as an entrée into Unitarian circles’ and occasioned a poem charging him with obscurity.14 This also reinforces my point about the misleading elements of a Coleridgean coherentism which would reconstruct some sort of syncretic system out of Coleridge’s unsystematic pattern of references that primarily served to figuratively associate him with the principles and politics of the rhetoric of clarity, not with a coherent philosophy. Coleridge’s early participation in this problematic poetics of clarity invokes the rhetoric of clarity as a sign of his basic allegiances, in spite of his lack of a coherent philosophy and his various disagreements with particular thinkers.

Barbauld’s poem reads as an admonishment of Coleridge not for a political, but for an intellectual apostasy. It is therefore something more than (a nonetheless significant) ‘act of questioning of [Romantic] aesthetic definitions by Barbauld herself’.15 Its punishing appropriation of the figures of obscurity prevalent in Coleridge’s poetry resembles an act of reciprocal figuration and inverts Coleridge’s ambivalently positive representation of the possibilities inherent in aesthetic or philosophical indeterminacy. The poem begins with a relatively sympathetic representation of Coleridge’s seduction by abstruse research: in the grove which represents Coleridge’s precarious intellectual position, ‘in tangled mazes wrought’, ‘dubious shapes / Flit thro’ dim glades, and lure the eager foot / Of youthful ardour to eternal chase’ (3, 4-6).16 The misty bower into which the eager Coleridge is tempted becomes a space of misleading indeterminacy which separates him from the proper light of reality:

Athwart the mists,

Far into vacant space, huge shadows stretch

And seem realities; while things of life,

Obvious to sight and touch, all glowing round

Fade to the hue of shadows (9-13).

Invoking a kind of mid-way space which relates analogously to Coleridge’s obscure environment of mists and the indeterminate temporality of his interchangeable dusk-dawns, Barbauld represents Coleridge as situated ‘Midway the hill of Science’ (1). But as Vargo notes in relation to the prescient figure of the ‘maze of metaphysic lore’ (34), to build a ‘place of resting’ (35) mid-way on a hill – or indeed on a staircase, one might add – Barbauld is here echoing representations of obscurity as the product of laziness, and the relation of obscurity to labour and mortification:

[t]he “maze of metaphysic lore” seems to represent [Barbuald’s] comment on Religious Musings and its more audacious flights of fancy. The locale resembles the spot halfway up a hill where Coleridge repeatedly situates his poems, including ‘The Eolian Harp’, and ‘France: An Ode’. And, as McCarthy and Kraft note, the Hill of Science refers to the hill difficulty in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian finds an arbour and falls asleep and loses his scroll.17

In addition, to be mid-way implies that Coleridge is occupying a suspicious place between alternative ideological positions that could figure as an apostatical rejection of either one or the other, or both, and the association of intellectual weakness with sitting on the fence, as it were. Thus Barbauld highlights the impoverishing temptations of the grove:

Nor seldom Indolence these lawns among

Fixes her turf-built seat, and wears the garb

Of deep philosophy, and museful sits,

In dreamy twilight of the vacant mind (19-22).

As in other admonitions for his lack of sustained application, Coleridge’s indolence is represented as a feminine force which lacks manly dedication, and carries connotations of fineness and delicacy (26).18 This indolence is contrasted with the more masculine ‘Active scenes’ which ‘Shall soon with healthful spirit brace thy mind’ (38, 39), should Coleridge find the strength to chase away ‘each spleen-fed fog / That blots the wide creation’ (41-42). In her inversive, poetic appropriation of the figures of poetic obscurity, Barbauld provides a challenge to Coleridge’s emerging poetics of obscurity which offers a more sympathetic contrast to the prose attacks of the reviews, and which gives something in addition to a critique of the Romantic aesthetics of obscurity. Barbauld was, in effect, not merely claiming that there should be such a thing as a poetic rhetoric of clarity: she was herself providing a metarhetorical one.

As he did in the project of the The Friend, Coleridge responded to these public charges of obscurity by developing a concept of a positive, poetic Romantic obscurity in his private correspondence. Though he had earlier castigated his brother George for his obscure handwriting and made minor a complaint about the obscurity of a phrase in Southey’s ode ‘To Lycon’,19 Coleridge’s first serious epistolary treatment of poetic obscurity occurs in a letter to Thelwall written in December 1796, in which Coleridge defends the obscurity of his ‘Sonnet, Composed on a journey homeward’ against Thelwall’s charge. ‘And now, my dear fellow! for a little sparring about Poetry’, he writes in friendly defence:

[m]y first Sonnet is** obscure; but you ought to distinguish between obscurity residing in the uncommonness of the thought, and that which proceeds from thoughts unconnected & language not adapted to the expression of them. When you do find out the meaning of my poetry, can you (in general, I mean) alter the language so as to make it more perspicuous – the thought remaining the same? …Now this thought is obscure; because few people have experienced the same feeling’.20

The obscurity of a poetic text is here complicated in a four significant ways. First, it may be the result of the reader’s obstinacy, or his indolent resistance to the labour of intellectual mortification. Second, a sense of obscurity in the reader may result from the fact that the thought is unfamiliar or, to use a word with a more significant class connotation, ‘uncommon’. The consequent implication, that the fault may be in the use made of language by the author, is one which I have already shown to be essential to the negative valuation of obscurity by the rhetoric of clarity.21 The suggestion that the fault may be in the choice of a particular language also invokes new rhetorical doubts concerning communication across barriers of inter- and intra-cultural difference: creating a readership involved the simultaneous creation of a new language. As James McKusick notes in relation to the argument of this letter, ‘Coleridge is proclaiming the need for a philosophical terminology distinct from ordinary language…. Although the poet has no need for a specialized vocabulary, he does need a philosopher’s ear for precision of usage…. While condemning willful obscurity of expression, Coleridge allows some deviation from standard usage’.22 The claim for coherence, as Coleridge suggests, also involved the acceptance of a poetics of coherence, according to which each part played an essential role in the identity of the whole. It should be noted here that this strong claim carries with it the consequence that the revision of a poem entailed the loss of its original identity.23 Finally, the reader’s confusion may be a reflection of the fact that the obscurity expresses feelings which are foreign or unfamiliar, and hence either a sign of the reader’s limitation or the author’s originality. Coleridge’s further implication is that it may take some effort to read his texts properly, and that the charge of obscurity is itself a sign or an admission of weakness.

‘Bless me!’ wrote Coleridge later in the letter, ‘a commentary of 35 lines in defence of a Sonnet!’24 It is a sign of his optimism at this early stage in his career, in which he would spill so much ink in his reactionary development of Romantic obscurity, that a mere 35 lines in defence could seem noteworthy. Couched as it is in a moment of self-defence, Coleridge’s letter sets the pattern for his future placement of the responsibility for obscurity squarely on the reader, and renders the charge of poetic obscurity as suspect – and as potentially positive – as the obscure poem. As the charge is stripped of its immediate, negative force, obscurity can be figured a means of opening new perspectives, paradoxically prescribing the mortifying exercise necessary for the development and the sustenance of a healthy reason, or for the recognition of humility in the face of one’s own limited capacities.25 At this point, however, Coleridge was still ready to admit his own fault and to clarify himself in the future, just as he did when corresponding complaints of the periodical-Friend began to trouble him: ‘[i]n some (indeed in many of my poems,) there is a garishness & swell of diction, which I hope, that my poems in future, if I write any, will be clear of’.26

After this letter, Coleridge’s mentions and defences of his obscurity begin to multiply. In a letter to his publisher Joseph Cottle in February 1797 (presumably in reply to Alexander Hamilton’s remark on the ‘Ode to the Departing Year’) he wrote: ‘[s]o much for an “Ode,” [Departing Year] which some people think superior to the “Bard” of Gray, and which others think a rant of turgid obscurity; and the latter are the more numerous class. It is not obscure. My “Religious Musings” I know are, but not this “Ode”’.27 As Richard Allen Cave notes in The Romantic Theatre, in December 1797 Coleridge related (to Poole) the reason ‘Sheridan rejects the Tragedy [Osorio] – his sole objection is – the obscurity of the three last acts’.28 The economic aspect of obscurity hit home: it had now in a very real way begun to affect Coleridge’s prospects, and his pocketbook. But an awareness of the need for the serious treatment of obscurity had still not occurred to Coleridge four years later in February 1801, when he wrote to Josiah Wedgwood that

Mr Locke has given 25 folio pages to the explanation of Clear, Distinct, obscure, confused, real, fantastical, adequate, inadequate, true & false Ideas; and if I mistake not has exhibited throughout the whole a curious specimen of dim writing. Good heavens! twenty five folio pages to define half a dozen plain words; and yet I hazard the assertion, that the greater number of these words are explained falsely.29

Locke was not the only figure Coleridge would charge with a negative obscurity in these pre-Friend years. Coleridge’s next mention of obscurity in relation to poetry comes in a letter to Southey that was written in reaction to Wordsworth’s statement of his own poetic creed in the preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads:

[i]n the new Edition of the L. Ballads there is a valuable appendix, which I am sure you must like / & in the Preface itself considerable additions… but it is, in parts, (and this is the fault, me judice, of all the latter half of that Preface) obscure beyond any necessity – & the extreme elaboration & almost constrainedness of the Diction contrasted (to my feelings) somewhat harshly with the general style of the Poems, to which the Preface is an Introduction.30

Ironically, this dark passage reads much like a criticism of the Biographia Literaria that one can imagine having been written by Wordsworth.

Coleridge’s first public response in prose to the charge of obscurity came in what David Jasper has called ‘his first formal response to public criticism’, the preface to his 1797 Poems. In accordance with his anxieties relating to the emergent, indeterminate ‘people’ in the later eighteenth century, Coleridge begins the preface by claiming that there is indeed no coherent public to address: ‘[w]e are forever attributing personal Unities to imaginary Aggregates.- What is the PUBLIC, but a term for a number of scattered Individuals?’31 But if the identity of public readers failed to materialise, the public identity of the reviewers was coherent enough, and Coleridge admits to ‘a general turgidness’, acknowledging their criticisms with a backhanded revisionary response:

I RETURN my acknowledgments to the different Reviewers for the assistance, which they have afforded me, in detecting my poetic deficiencies. I have endeavoured to avail myself of their remarks: one third of the former Volume I have omitted, and the imperfections of the republished part must be considered as errors of taste, not faults of carelessness.32

But while Coleridge is willing to revise himself for the sake of diminishing double epithets (though unwilling to snap the flower of ‘Religious Musings’ in response to Hamilton’s charge of turgidity), he is so far from willing to admit that the reader’s charge of obscurity is negative that he invokes the armoury of arguments he had lately been developing in his letters and notebooks. The relevant passage, with its echoes of these early and his later arguments, is the first extended public announcement of the advent of a positive Romantic obscurity, and bears quoting in full:

[a] third and heavier accusation has been brought against me, that of obscurity; but not, I think, with equal justice. An Author is obscure, when his conceptions are dim and imperfect, and his language incorrect, or unappropriate, or involved. A poem that abounds in allusions, like the Bard of Gray, or one that impersonates high and abstract truths, like Collins’s Ode on the poetical character; claims not to be popular – but should be acquitted of obscurity. The deficiency is in the Reader. But this is a charge which every poet, whose imagination is warm and rapid, must expect from his contemporaries. Milton did not escape it; and it was adduced with virulence against Gray and Collins. We now hear no more of it; not that their poems are better understood at present, than they were at their first publication; but their fame is established; and a critic would accuse himself of frigidity or inattention, who should profess not to understand them. But a living writer is yet sub judice; and if we cannot follow his conceptions or enter into his feelings, it is more consoling to our pride to consider him as lost beneath, than soaring above, us. If any man expect from my poems the same easiness of style which he admires in a drinking-song, for him I have not written.33

Interestingly, there were few attacks on Coleridge’s obscurity in reviews of his 1797 Poems.

As I have already noted, Coleridge resurrected part of this statement in a defence against the same charge of obscurity in the beginning of the Biographia twenty years later. Throughout that infamous text, Coleridge figures his poetics of obscurity as reactionary, as a thematised and metarhetorically philosophised defence that comes after the writing of the poems. Paul Hamilton has discussed a version of this latecoming in his book on Coleridge’s Poetics, arguing that Coleridge’s ‘philosophy’ involves a method of ‘providing an intuitive response with a discursive explanation’ which drove ‘the Romantic theorists’ to write ‘about philosophy by writing about poetry’, and led Coleridge to deduce the imagination from the critical practice of a radical desynonymy, rather than the other way around.34 That fact that poetry thus leads to philosophy in Coleridge’s ‘theory’ in spite of his assertions to the contrary35 demonstrates my claim about the proximity of metarhetoric and metaromanticism: the reflexivity of Romantic poetics is grounded in the reflexivity of rhetorical self-figuration.

The Biographia was from the beginning figured as a response to ‘falsehoods and calumnies attached to [Coleridge’s] name’, especially in relation to the charge of indolence and, of course, obscurity.36 His obscurity, and the obscurity of the Biographia, was to be represented in a manner of attack and defence which inverted the claim that obscurity was a consequence of the writer’s weakness, and which simultaneously transferred the charge of negative obscurity to the reader’s inattention.37 In his provocatively contradictory way, Coleridge claims in his second chapter that ‘[i]indignation at literary wrongs, I leave to men born under happier stars. I cannot afford it’, and then proceeds (punningly) to ‘authorise acts of self-defence’ 38 related to his literary work. Aside from the philosophical chapters which have garnered so much sympathetic exegesis and unsympathetic calumny, the Biographia is in fact a patchwork quilt which, if it coheres at all, does so by virtue of a pattern of responses to criticisms and complaints of obscurity.39

Thus the first chapter is announced in the table of contents as involving first ‘The motives of the present work’ and second the ‘Reception of the Author’s first publication’, while the third chapter ironically addresses ‘The author’s obligations to critics’, and the twenty-first chapter involves a series of ‘Remarks on the present mode of conducting critical journals’.40 His claim that his works have been used ‘to plume the shafts in the quiver of [his] enemies’41 is typical of these obsessive reactions. He constantly invokes the mortification of obscurity, and his mortifying endurance of his critics’ calumnies, as yet another manner of demonstrating the expense of his investment in the works of The Friend. For example, he argues at the end of a protracted defence of his obscurity and its paradoxical demands on the reader:

[t]hose at least, let me be permitted to add, who have taken so much pains to render me ridiculous for a perversion of taste, and have supported the charge by attributing strange notions to me on no other authority than their own conjectures, owe it to themselves as well as to me not to refuse their attention to my own statement of the theory which I do acknowledge; or shrink from the trouble of examining the grounds on which I rest it, or the arguments which I offer in its justification.42

One further example of this inversive metarhetorical reaction stands out in particular, in part because it explains Coleridge’s earlier reference to not being able to ‘afford’ indignation. Referring to the periodical- and bound-Friends as works which have been forgotten (and which he therefore repeatedly mentions), he states that

I have even at this time bitter cause for remembering that, which a number of my subscribers have but a trifling motive for forgetting. This effusion might have been spared; but I would fain flatter myself, that the reader will be less austere than an oriental professor of the bastinado, who during an attempt to extort per argumentum baculinum** a full confession from a culprit, interrupted his outcry of pain by reminding him, that it was “a mere digression!” “All this noise, Sir! is nothing to the point, and no sort of answer to my QUESTIONS!” “Ah! but (replied the sufferer) it is the most pertinent reply in nature to your blows”.43

In this prime example of the reactionary rhetoric of Romantic obscurity, the figured digression is exposed as the real end of the author’s work, and the reader’s consent to torment in reading the works of The Friend has always already been paid in kind not merely by the author’s sweat, but also by his blood and tears.

Three particular defences of his own poetic obscurity stand out. In the first, Coleridge appeals to a supplementary authority in order to justify obscurity. In the statement following his articulation of the paradoxical project of the immethodical miscellany, he writes of Hooker’s need in the Ecclesiastical Polity to guard against ‘complaints of obscurity’, and notes Hooker’s claim that original thoughts appear dark to minds unaccustomed to them.44 Hooker’s defence becomes Coleridge’s defence, and Hooker’s apology for the toil he would demand in his work becomes Coleridge’s: ‘I would gladly therefore spare both myself and others this labour, if I knew how without it to present an intelligible statement of my poetic creed’.45 Finally, through the figure of ‘the judicious author’ Hooker, Coleridge invokes a similar principle to that which Jerome Christensen must refer when he announces the ethical option to stop reading: ‘[i]f I may dare once more adopt the words of Hooker’, writes Coleridge, ‘“they, unto whom we shall seem tedious, are in no wise injured by us, because it is in their own hands to spare that labour, which they are not willing to endure”’.46 Ironically, given his programmatic need to figuratively demonstrate his own investment of labour in his work in order to justify his demands on his readers, in this passage Coleridge lets someone else do the work for him, and he thereby gains extra credit by demonstrating his participation in a venerable and judicious tradition.

Coleridge’s description of how Kant’s obscurity is a construction of ‘Reviewers and Frenchmen’ functions reflexively as an account of how Coleridge himself became a figure of and for obscurity. This time, however, he is invoking not merely a questionable philosopher but a foreign, German philosopher, and the fruits of this supplementary figure’s obscurity must be picked rather differently. His claim that understanding Kant involves the investment of ‘due efforts of thought’ also serves as a model for the clarification of his own obscure work, and, incidentally, the ‘originality, the depth, and the compression’ of his thoughts.47 But Kant’s (and thereby Coleridge’s) obscurity is also figured as a radical refuge from oppression:

[h]e had been in imminent danger of persecution during the reign of the late king of

Prussia, that strange compound of lawless debauchery, and priest-ridden superstition: and it is probable that he had little inclination, in his old age, to act over again the fortunes, and hair-breadth escapes of [Christian] Wolf. The expulsion of the first among Kant’s disciples, who attempted to complete his system, from the University of Jena, with the confiscation and prohibition of the obnoxious work by the joint efforts of the courts of Saxony and Hanover, supplied experimental proof, that the venerable old man’s caution was not groundless.48

At least for Coleridge, there was more at work in his appropriation of German obscurity than a ‘purloined, sham authority’.49 In the figure of Kant, Coleridge found ample opportunities for a sympathetic reciprocal figuration of (radical) obscurity.

Unlike the first two examples I have discussed, the third significant passage which justifies his obscurity is all Coleridge. In the tenth chapter, ostensibly ‘[a] chapter of digression’, he in fact gets right to the point when he invokes the fact that his ‘character’ has ‘been repeatedly attacked’, and he sets out to defend himself by defending the paradoxical mortification of his obscurity.50 He argues that he has been charged with indolence because of the public obscurity of his writings, in the double sense relating to format in addition to form. His critics point to his lack of labour, that is, by pointing to his lack of books, those permanent repositories of lasting reflections. When he refers to the obscurity of his ‘prose writings’, he therefore refers for the most part to his Friends, in addition to the two Lay Sermons:

[m]y prose writings have been charged with a disproportionate demand on the attention… in short with obscurity and the love of paradox. But my severest critics have not pretended to have found in my compositions triviality, or traces of a mind that shrunk from the toil of thinking…. Seldom have I written that in a day, the acquisition or investigation of which had not cost me the previous labor of a month.51

Just as the past reviews of critics provide the consistent motivation for his development of a positive obscurity throughout the Biographia, so does the figuration of his authorial activity as being always in the past serve as insurance against his readers’ charges of obscurity.

Finally, the development of reactionary poetic obscurity in the Biographia also comes in the form of responses to the work of Wordsworth, and in the infamous theoretical ‘evasion’ of a full statement concerning the imagination in the thirteenth chapter.52 In the fourth chapter, in the passage where he describes his first acquaintance with Wordsworth, Coleridge proceeds immediately to a qualified defence of his obscurity in Coleridgean terms. Describing Wordsworth’s Descriptive Sketches as a work announcing ‘the emergence of an original poetic genius’, he claims that

the language was not only peculiar and strong, but at times knotty and contorted, as by its own impatient strength; while the novelty and struggling crowd of images acting in conjunction with the difficulties of the style, demanded always a greater closeness of attention, than poetry (at all events, than descriptive poetry) has a right to claim. It not seldom therefore justified the complaint of obscurity.53

As we have seen, this apparent concession to popular taste, that Wordsworth’s demand on the attention justifies the complaint of obscurity, is a backhanded concession to the reader: elsewhere the demand on attention is an essential element of a text’s informing, improving value. The conceit that poetry, or, in a significant qualification, descriptive poetry is not suited to such subjects, and the transfer of that burden to prose, is here merely a theoretical cover for Coleridge’s historico-cultural observations about the weakness of his fellow countrymen. And yet, in the next passage on Wordsworth, where Coleridge describes how they became personally acquainted, Coleridge turns once again to the discussion of Wordsworth’s ‘occasional obscurities’ and claims that they had ‘almost wholly disappeared’, presumably because of Wordsworth’s ‘manly reflection’.54 Such claims, in the context of Coleridge’s deliberate and lengthy justifications of obscurity in poetry and in prose, can only be reconciled to a consistent argument – though that is hardly necessary – if they are considered as calculated positivities intended to balance Coleridge’s complex critique of his friend’s poetry throughout the Biographia. Indeed, in a footnote to a later paragraph of Wordsworth, Coleridge explicitly prefaces a criticism of a banal Wordsworthian obscurity (concerning the use of the word ‘scene’) with a description of Wordsworth’s ‘judicious’ use of words. He would not ‘hazard’ the ‘remark’, he writes, ‘in the works of a poet less austerely accurate in the use of words’.55

Such compliments are positioned in Coleridge’s reactionary poetics of obscurity in order to balance what he knew could be a rather insulting association of Wordsworth with obscurity, however much he tried to transform it into a positive concept. As he knew, associating oneself with the figures of obscurity gave critics a good opportunity to engage in parodic forms of reciprocal figuration. Coleridge’s figurations of the poet as a positive figure of obscurity – and here Wordsworth plays the supplemental role projected onto Hooker as a figure of obscure theological reflection, and Kant of philosophical speculation – demonstrate this anxious desire for a balance of light and darkness. In the twenty-second chapter, devoted to a discussion of Wordsworth’s ‘defects’, Coleridge places Wordsworth in high biblical company, and invokes the hierarchy of hermeneutical obscurity with which we are by now familiar:

[i]f Mr. Wordsworth is not equally with [Samuel] Daniel alike intelligible to all readers of average understanding in all passages of his works, the comparative difficulty does not arise from the greater impurity of the ore, but from the nature and uses of the metal. A poem is not necessarily obscure, because it does not aim to be popular. It is enough, if a work be perspicuous to those for whom it is written, and “Fit audience find, though few”.56

But even this typical Friendly endorsement of obscurity is qualified by the articulation of a paradoxical perspicuity. Samuel Daniel, who Wordsworth ‘strikingly resembles’, himself invokes an obscurity of paradoxical perspicuity: ‘[f]or though [his sentiments] are brought into the full day-light of every reader’s comprehension; yet are they drawn up from depths which few in any age are privileged to visit, into which few in any age have courage or inclination to descend’.57 In other words, Wordsworth’s obscurity, which here functions as always as a projection of Coleridge’s own, resembles something like witchery by daylight.

The infamous evasion and indefinite delay of Coleridge’s absent statement of his poetic creed is circumscribed by his Romantic obscurity. The fictional correspondence introduced in the thirteenth chapter, which in fine Porlockian fashion figures a staged interruption which justifies Coleridge’s incompletion, invokes the figures and inversions of obscurity which Coleridge had been developing in response to criticisms of obscurity since his first appearance on the public scene. In a remarkable moment, Coleridge adopts the figures he introduced earlier in the very same text, and the fictional correspondent claims that his perusal of the chapter on imagination has left him feeling like Coleridge’s hater of physicians who is mired in a state of illusory inversion. The correspondent then adopts – and inverts – the figures of obscurity associated with negative religion in the superstition allegory, and claims that entering Coleridge’s work is like entering, alone, into the ‘palpable darkness’ of ‘one of our largest Gothic cathedrals in a gusty moonlight night of autumn’.58 Fantastic shapes and shadows surround him, and he discovers that figures of respect have been inverted into ‘grotesque dwarfs; while the grotesques, in my hitherto belief, stood guarding the high altar with all the characters of apotheosis’. And finally, in the climactic moment of this penultimate climax of Coleridge’s development of a thematised, Romantic obscurity, he invokes the central passage for Romantic obscurity in Milton:

[i]n short, what I had supposed substances were thinned away into shadows, while every where shadows were deepened into substances:

If substance might be call’d what shadow seem’d,

For each seem’d either!59

And then comes the ultimate figuration of Coleridge’s projected friend and his own projection of obscurity:

[y]et after all, I could not but repeat the lines which you had quoted from a MS. Poem of your own in the FRIEND, and applied to a work of Mr. Wordsworth’s though with a few of the words altered:

An orphic tale indeed,

A tale obscure of high and passionate thoughts

To a strange music chanted!

Be assured, however, that I look forward anxiously to your great book on the CONSTRUCTIVE PHILOSOPHY, which you have promised and announced: and that I will do my best to understand it. Only I will not promise to descend into the dark cave of Trophonius with you, there to rub my own eyes, in order to make the sparks and figured flashes, which I am required to see.60

As I have shown, the concept of poetic obscurity is not merely at the heart of the protracted and indefinite delay of the full articulation of the imagination: it is also the thematised figure for that delay, for its promise of a mortifying penetration of mysterious and unknown lands, and for the promise of an apotheosis otherwise represented as apostasy.

  1. John Aikin, Review of Poems on Various Subjects 1796, Monthly Review (Jun 1796), quoted in Jackson, 38.
  2. Alexander Hamilton, Review of ‘Ode on the Departing Year’, Monthly Review (Mar 1797), quoted in Jackson, 39.
  3. Anonymous review of Poems 1797, Critical Review (Jul 1797), in Jackson, 41. In his parodic Nehemiah Higginbottom sonnets, published in the Monthly Magazine in 1797, Coleridge attacked the affectations of simplicity, and, punningly, of plainness, in a sonnet ‘To Simplicity’: ‘Now of my false friend plaining plaintively, / Now raving at mankind in general; / But whether sad or fierce, ‘tis simple all, / All very simple, meek SIMPLICITY!’ (11-14)
  4. Robert Southey, Review of Lyrical Ballads 1798, Critical Review (Oct 1798), quoted in Jackson, 53.
  5. Anonymous review of Wallenstein, Critical Review (Oct 1800), quoted in Jackson, 65.
  6. Anonymous review of ‘Remorse’, Theatrical Inquisitor (Feb 1813), quoted in Jackson, 131.
  7. John Taylor Coleridge, Review of Remorse, Quarterly Review (Apr 1814), quoted in Jackson, 138.
  8. Byron, quoted in CPW, 3.2.1049.
  9. The Poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, eds. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, (Athens, Georgia and London, 1994). Lisa Vargo offers a concise account of the publication details in her article ‘The Case of Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “To Mr C[olerid]ge,”’ Charles Lamb Bulletin 102 (April 1998), 61.
  10. Barbauld, quoted in Paulson, 44.
  11. Paulson, 44.
  12. Newlyn, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism, 155. David Simpson has shown that Barbauld’s commitment to poetic clarity did not involve the reduction of poetry to a mere didactic device for education, and that in poetry there were for her possibilities for information to which clarity was not the only answer: ‘[i]n her prefatory essay to a reprint of Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination’, writes Simpson, ‘Anna Laetitia Barbauld declared that poetry should never “descend to teach the elements of any art or science” or “confine itself” to “regular arrangement and clear brevity.” It is a bad poem that makes us “follow a system step by step”’ (Simpson, 150).
  13. They called her ‘Mrs Bare-bald’. Vargo, 56.
  14. Vargo, 58, 59.
  15. Ibid. 58.
  16. All references to Barbauld’s poetry are from The Poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, eds. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Athens, Georgia, and London, 1994).
  17. Vargo, 60. See The Poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, McKarthy and Kraft 297n.
  18. Vargo adds to Simpson’s consideration of this gendered discourse of labour in relation to Barbauld’s defence of William Collins in her edition of his work in 1797: ‘[i]f Simpson is right in arguing that the passage, which seeks to defend Collins against the charge of indolence, created anxiety in male writers because of its feminized character, it nevertheless accounts for why Barbauld entertains such sympathy for Coleridge’s writing’ (Vargo, 60).
  19. CL, 1.11, 133.
  20. CL, 1.277
  21. In a notebook entry in 1796, Coleridge, in a discussion of the judicious labour demanded by the difficulty of Milton, distinguishes between that obscurity that is ‘complaisant to the Reader: not that vicious obscurity, which proceeds from a muddled head’ (CN, 1.276).
  22. McKusick, 15. Pursuing his vision of a coherent Coleridgean philosophy of language, McKusick later claims that for Coleridge ‘[t]he language of poetry, in other words, resists representational transparency to the extent that it succeeds in foregrounding its own verbal texture’ (99).
  23. Hence Coleridge’s resurrected claim twenty years later, in reference to his attempted revisions to ‘Religious Musings’, that ‘I was often obliged to omit disentangling the weed, from the fear of snapping the flower’ (BL, 1.7). The phrase was lifted from the preface to Coleridge’s 1797 Poems, xvii.
  24. CL, 1.278.
  25. Coleridge later became aware of the potentially problematic association of the author with the physician, as he shows in an argument about the inversions involved in teaching a person to think in accordance with principle rather than habit: ‘[t]he man feels, as if he were standing on his head, though he cannot but see, that he is truly standing on his feet. This, as a painful sensation, will of course have a tendency to associate itself with him who occasions it; even as persons, who have been by painful means restored from derangement, are known to feel an involuntary dislike towards their physician’ (BL, 1.73).
  26. CL, 1.278.
  27. Ibid. 1.309.
  28. Ibid. 1.358. See Richard Allen Cave, The Romantic Theatre (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, 1986), 14.
  29. CL, 2.689. Coleridge sarcastically notices a cheating rhetorical function of obscurity in the same letter, when he says of Locke’s account of time that ‘Mr Locke in order to rescue himself from absurdity must necessarily bewilder his Reader in obscure Notions of Relative Time as contradistinguished from Absolute’ (694). In a notebook entry of the same year, Coleridge considers ‘[w]hether or no the too great definition of Terms in any language may not consume too much of the vital & idea-creating force in distinct, clear, full made images & so prevent originality’ (CN, 1.1016).
  30. CL, 2.830.
  31. Coleridge, Poems 1797, xiv.
  32. Ibid. xvii.
  33. Ibid. xvii-xix. In a rather facile comment which dismisses the importance of Coleridge’s careful establishment of the Romantic charge of obscurity, Norman Fruman remarks that ‘Coleridge’s few early reviews and prefaces to the published editions of his poems are, at best, facile, and, at worst, surprisingly sterile performances. In 1797 he… gave it as his opinion that the charge of obscurity in poetry is a “heavier accusation” than that of turgidity’ (Fruman, The Damaged Archangel, 287).
  34. Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics, 11, 32, 80. Hamilton nicely demonstrates the function of obscurity in relation to his argument about Coleridge’s poetics: ‘Coleridge used transcendentalist terminology to obfuscate a critical theory whose radicalism it in fact supported’ (69); thus ‘[t]he idealist vocabulary… obscures its emancipatory impulse entirely’ (180). Thus Hamilton argues that Coleridge ‘presents difficulty in the Biographia Literaria as a means of enhancing his own philosophical authority, not as an incentive for the reader to take over and start producing his own text’ (21]: – in spite of the fact that the latter was the very function of obscurity to which Coleridge was explicitly and paradoxically committed throughout the project of The Friend.
  35. See ibid. 27.
  36. TF, 2.36.
  37. The importance of the concept of ‘attention’ in Coleridge’s paradoxical project of The Friend is announced early on in the book-Friend: ‘THE FRIEND will not attempt to disguise from his Readers that both Attention and Thought are Efforts, and the latter a most difficult and laborious Effort; nor from himself, that to require it often or for any continuance of time is incompatible with the nature of the present Publication, even were it less incongruous than it unfortunately is with the present habits and pursuits of Englishmen’ (TF 1.16-17). The claim is repeated in a slightly altered form in the Biographia where Coleridge claims ‘I am aware, that I shall be obliged to draw more largely on the reader’s attention, than so immethodical a miscellany can authorize’ (BL, 1.88).
  38. Ibid. 1.45.
  39. Paul Hamilton notes the attempts by ‘sympathizers’ to try to reveal a connecting method running through the Biographia which shows its argument to be complete (Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics, 12-13).
  40. BL, 1.ix, xi.
  41. Ibid. 1.46.
  42. Ibid. 1.88.
  43. Ibid. 1.175.
  44. Ibid. 1.88.
  45. Ibid. 1.88.
  46. Ibid. 1.88 and Jerome Christensen, Romanticism at the End of History, 74.
  47. BL, 1.153.
  48. Ibid. 1.154-5.
  49. Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics, 81.
  50. BL, 1.x, 219.
  51. Ibid. 1.120.
  52. Writing of the influence of Coleridge’s staged evasion on the intuitive theoretical reading practice of the new criticism, Hamilton observes that ‘[t]he consequences of his evasion are still with us’ (Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics, 11).
  53. BL, 1.77.
  54. Ibid. 1.79.
  55. Ibid. 2.103 n.
  56. Ibid. 2.147. The quotation is from PL, 7.31.
  57. BL, 2.146-7.
  58. Ibid. 1.301.
  59. Ibid. 1.301 and PL, 1.669-70.
  60. BL, 1.301. The lines of poetry are from ‘To William Wordsworth’ 45-7 (var).

Obscurity and the Mystery Poems

The poems in Coleridge’s corpus which are most heavily circumscribed by the concept of positive Romantic of obscurity are undoubtedly those which have been positively dubbed by various critics his ‘mystery’ poems: ‘Kubla Khan, or A Vision in a Dream’ (1797-99), ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1797-8), and ‘Christabel’ (1798, 1800). In these poems, Coleridge deploys various forms of the positively valued poetic, Romantic obscurity which I have discussed throughout my previous chapters. Indeed, the critical history of these poems is itself Romantically obscure in its uncomprehendable unboundedness: so much has been written about these poems that the anxiety of overdetermination by critical accumulation threatens to overwhelm anything approaching a comprehensive study or even an acknowledgment of their various interpretations. But the framework of Romantic obscurity which I have developed throughout this thesis, I hope, will at least offer a relatively unique account of their participation in a Romantic discourse that has yet to be discussed at any length in the history of Romanticist criticism. In these poems we can see Coleridge’s fullest development of a poetics of obscurity which radically figures the emanation of opaque rays as a productive source of knowledge, at the same time as it reinscribes the subordination of the reader to a notion of truth which is not fully clarifiable.

As many critics have suggested, the representation of ‘Kubla Khan’ as a fragment, as it is figured metarhetorically in the note which prefaced it when it was finally published in 1816, thematically delays the possibility of its comprehensive interpretation. In the sufficient insufficiency which is generated by this thematised containment it is therefore a primary example of what Marjorie Levinson has termed the ‘Romantic Fragment Poem’:

[t]he indeterminacy of the fragment poem, conceived within this context [‘enlarged freedom of literary expression and response’], figures a display of authorial autonomy and an invitation to participatory reading. Quite decidedly, it seems, ‘the law of sufficient information is broken and darkness which has become expressive gains a poetic function’.1

Like most modern considerations of obscurity, however, in a fascinating historical inversion of traditional rhetorical expectations, such statements eschew the suspicious questionability of obscurity. In the modern appropriation of the thematised poetics of Romantic obscurity, that is, obscurity is unquestionably associated with virtue. Even accounts of Coleridge’s glosses to ‘Kubla Khan’ and the ‘Rime’ that argue they provide ‘a “negative interpretative model,” which the alert reader recognizes as inadequate to the vision contained within the poem’, nonetheless reinscribe the sufficiency of the gloss in its deliberate evocation of insufficiency.2 In the gloss Coleridge poetically figures this delayed transformation from the indeterminate to the determinate by quoting his 1802 poem ‘The Picture’, in which a broken vision involves the spread of ripples that ‘each mis-shape the other’ (94). If the reader will ‘Stay awhile’, however, ‘the fragments dim of lovely forms’ will ‘Come trembling back’ and ‘unite’ (94, 98, 99). The poetic defence of the obscurity of ‘Kubla Khan’ thus involves the promise of delayed completion, but it is an endless delay, and thus leads Romantically to endless theories and endless readings: one does not know what shape the fragments will take when they unite, and the promise of a lovely unification is merely a promise, not a principle, or proof.

The poet, indeed, calls attention to the questionably indeterminate origins of his own inspiration, in the form of a warning that invokes the double twilight of healthy and unhealthy spirits.3 Like the crowd in the ‘Fable of the Madning Rain’, all who encounter this poetic circle of creation and self-creation

should cry, ‘Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread:

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise (49-54).

Like the Hebrew God, the poet is not bound by determinate form, but that which is divinely dark with excessive light is still indistinguishable from a satanic darkness that goes all the way down.4 As Mays remarks in his commentary on the poem, ‘[i]t carries emotion, but you cannot say what sort. The completeness of C’s statement is even less certain than in unfinished narratives like The Ballad of the Dark Ladiè or Love, because of this suspension of moral determinacy’.5 The poet who has drunk the milk is a figurative inversion of the Monitor who refuses to drink the water: but it is still uncertain which has been divinely and which demonically inspired. Citing the reception of the Pindaric image of a flow that exceeds its bounds, John Hamilton (in a discussion of Goethe) notes the eighteenth-century radical associations with this dark potential: ‘this image served as an important justification of lyric obscurity… for the latter part of the eighteenth century, the dark waters that overflow all conventional limits came to represent the highest mode of creativity, with its impetuous and transgressive force’.6

Herbert Read has remarked that ‘[a] poem like “The Ancient Mariner” is full of obscurities. Indeed, we might say of Coleridge’s poetry in general, that its poetic worth is in inverse ratio to its logical sense, reaching its greatest intensity in the incoherent imagery of “Kubla Khan”’.7 This kind of observation, at various levels of theoretical abstraction, has become a commonplace in Romanticist criticism, and one could fill more than one bibliographical volume with references to readings of the ‘Rime’ in relation to obscurity. If ‘poetic worth’ is measured in terms of endless Romanticist critical attention to a poem, then one can certainly concur with Read’s reading, and acknowledge the truth of Coleridge’s jokey translation of an epigram from Lessing, addressed ‘To an Author’:

Your Poem must eternal be,

Dear Sir! – It cannot fail:

For tis incomprehensible

And without head or tail (1-4).

Reading the ‘Rime’ in relation to an unthematised obscurity thus participates in its own blessed machine of Romantic poetic self-propagation. Thus Raimonda Modiano argues in her article on the various proliferating interpretations of the poem that ‘in the poem the identity of either the world or of the bird is largely undetermined, and yields conflicting perspectives’, and to look for Coleridge’s Submerged Politics is to adopt a Coleridgean rhetoric of Romantic obscurity and repeat the medieval hermeneutical trope of unveiling mysteries.8 The penetration of penetralium is a figuration of the obscurity of the terra incognita, and a voyage of exploration metaromantically presents itself in the ‘Rime’ as a figure of its own reading. The difference between the Romantic and the medieval model is that the poetics of Romantic obscurity promises irresolution as a guarantee of its value, and its eternal fame.

This figuration of the foreign text as a foreign land (and vice versa) is sublimated into a theoretical claim in comments like Marshall Suther’s, that ‘it seems often to be true that the sympathetic application of foreign criteria to a body of thought throws into understandable relief certain obscurities which the light of analysis in its own indigenous terms has failed to reach – and this even when a very minimum of affinity exists’.9 In the poetics of the foreign, this ‘reach’ is both spatial and temporal: figuratively speaking, there is no distance between time and space. To uncover a foreign land is like uncovering the past, and in its antiquated spelling the original version of the ‘Rime’ invokes a familiar unfamiliarity. In its figured penetration of the past and of neglected texts and perspectives, the discourse of New Historicism itself reproduces this function of the terra incognita, and thus it is in this sense quite fitting that Modiano should claim that ‘while the motive for the killing of the Albatross can never be fully determined, the literature of discovery in which explorers so often articulate fears about survival and uncertainty about the disposition of indigenous beings, human or animal, provides a better ground of interpretation than original sin’.10 The discourse of original sin is not so easy to evade, however, for it too is often figured in relation to a journey to and from a foreign land, as Perkins suggests:

central to [the ‘Rime’] is the theme of the self-imposed separation of the human individual from the rest of creation which is itself then plunged into chaos and fragmentation as a result of this act of alienation. Through spiritual redemption, the whole creation is then restored to a unified, harmonious community in which the individual (the Mariner) finds his own spiritual home.11

The journey of spiritual redemption here resembles the journey of internalisation and ascent figured in the staircases of Coleridge’s Friendly obscurity, and their own invocation of the discourse of mortifying spiritual ascent. Romantically speaking, in other words, the mariner’s search for the terra incognita is the search for himself. But considering the poetics of Romantic obscurity from another critical perspective, like De Quincey’s sad description of Coleridge’s sad description of Piranesi’s sad paintings, the mariner is his own prison.

The ‘Rime’ is packed with figures of obscurity, and here I will merely pick up on a few of the more striking incidents. I have chosen to discuss the original version because its antiquated spelling invokes not only an appeal to a venerable tradition, but also because it invokes a new rhetorical primitivism: as Olivia Smith notes, ‘[b]y choosing to write in a “primitive” language, Coleridge implies that it is fully capable of expressing poetic feeling and that no essential difference exists between the sensibility of the poet and that of the savage’.12 The antiquated spelling is in this sense an invocation of the obfuscating dangers of poetic passion. The figure of the albatross, of course, as I have already mentioned, is not only a figureof obscurity for critics like Modiano but also, as Holmes would have it, a figurefor Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity. Not surprisingly, the albatross appears through a ‘Fog’ (64), and the purpose of its killing is made clear by the mariner: ‘I had kill’d the Bird / That brought the fog and mist’ (99-100).13 In this reading, the mariner’s punishment is figured as a reaction to his attempt to dispel obscurity, to achieve a pure and unsullied, permanent, radical enlightenment. What he achieves is merely the inversion of the proper light that exists in a fine balance with a palpable darkness, and the mariner is stranded under a fixed, ‘bloody sun’ (112) that, like the stagnant air and the stagnant water, figures the stagnation of fully achieved, final interpretation. The life of the albatross, and the life of the world of the poem, is contingent upon motion, just as the life and eternity of the poem is contingent on the corresponding breeze of original interpretation. But progression too comes with its price, and the mariner’s motion is motivated as much by an obscurity associated with ‘fear and dread’ (447) as it is by hope. The compulsion of the storyteller and the compulsion of the (hermeneutical) explorer are both grounded in a vision of obscurity, and their journey to and from the terra incognita is a curse which burdens them with the darkness they have discovered. As the mariner puts it in a moment of reflexive figuration:

I pass, like night, from land to land;

I have strange power of speech;

The moment that his face I see

I know the man that must hear me;

To him my tale I teach (586-90).

In his work on Coleridge’s divisions and dramatic irresolutions, Seamus Perry has discussed the darker implications of this dark ‘end’ of Romantic obscurity. Countering a tradition which represents the Rime’s poetics of obscurity as a success in itself or as the presentation of a positive potential for productive readerly response, Perry writes in Coleridge and the Uses of Division that ‘[u]nity and diversity would then feature in the poem not in the form of a unifying vision that redeems an experience of disorder, but as a futile, superstitious dream of salvation perpetually thwarted by an unyielding meaninglessness’.14 The insufficiency of the autonomous Romantic poem, like the sense of geographical and historical insufficiency which impels one to explore unknown lands, causes it to ‘spill into footnotes, headnotes, marginal commentaries, admissions of incompleteness, prose paraphrases’.15 Self-consciously personifying the ‘Rime’ as the mariner himself, and the struggling poet, Perry concludes ominously that ‘the poem (as it were) looks to the would-be paraphrase of the gloss to draw from its private agonies the coherence of a publicly available moral; but the marginal commentary is often obtusely at odds with the poem it is meant to be expounding, as though a dark parody of successful connection, and only compounds the darkness’.16

The figure of a ‘dangerously uncontrolled sexuality’ in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period often manifest itself as a feminised obscurity that lurks throughout Coleridge’s writings and finds its ultimate figuration in the menacing obscurity of Geraldine in Christabel.17 Inspired by Milton’s figure of menacing indeterminacy, the fearsomely feminised Death who sits at the gates of Hell, Coleridge’s dark ladies appear in various pregnant forms: the ‘She’ (329) of ‘Religious Musings’ ‘On whose black front was written MYSTERY’ (330), and who recalls the dark sensuality of the negative feminine figures of the superstition allegory; Tongarsuck, ‘the other great malignant spirit [that] is a nameless female’ in ‘Joan of Arc’ (2.112.1-2 n); the ‘unutterable shape’ of ‘Jabme Akko, or the mother of death’ in ‘The Destiny of Nations’ (95 and 95n); the figure of France who conceals her scarred breast in ‘France: An Ode’ (51); the ‘Harlot’ with her ‘distended breast’ in ‘Lines Composed in a Concert-room’ (3); the devil’s ‘Grannam’ in ‘The Two Round Spaces’ (35); the feminised ship and the shape ‘far liker Death’ of the 1798 ‘Rime’ that is transformed into the dicey ‘spectre-woman’ of Death in the 1834 version (1798 185-194.1, 1834 185-194); and of course the Dark Ladiè, in addition to various ‘biform’ hell-hags and fiend-hags (‘Destiny’ 312, 293; ‘Departing Year’, 156). An extended study of such figures, and their relation to the watchful ‘beauties’ (like the recurring figure of the pure Sara in Coleridge’s early poems) who appear elsewhere in Coleridge’s corpus, is not possible within the already overflowing bounds of this thesis, but in my concluding passage I will offer a brief discussion of ‘Christabel’ as a synecdoche for this critical figuration of dangerous feminine obscurity** in Coleridge’s poetics of obscurity.

Throughout this thesis I have generally avoided ‘psylosophical’ accounts of Romantic obscurity, but the mater tenebrarum is such a striking and recurrent figure in Coleridge’s poetics that at this point it seems healthy, for a moment, to indulge in some psychoanalytic callisthenics. Harold Bloom has commented in The Anxiety of Influence that

[a] man’s unconscious fear of castration manifests itself as an apparently physical trouble in his eyes; a poet’s fear of ceasing to be a poet frequently manifests itself also as a trouble of his vision. Either he sees too clearly, with a tyranny of sharp fixation, as though his eyes asserted themselves against the rest of him as well as against the world, or else his vision becomes veiled, and he sees all things through an estranging mist. One seeing breaks and deforms the seen; the other, at most, beholds a bright cloud.18

Though it is easy to apply such vague metaphors to almost any complex poetic corpus, Bloom’s division does map nicely onto the functions of Christabel and Geraldine. Like so many of Coleridge’s poems, ‘Christabel’ begins in a state of obscurity, in a chill night. Geraldine appears to Christabel in the wood ‘as a Damsel bright / Drest in silken Robe of white’ (58-9), the ultimate figure of artificial and destructive clarity, of brightness as a disguise, and a warning to those who would conflate plainness with honesty or virtue. Christabel here seems to figure for the poet’s fear of seeing too clearly. But when these veils are removed, the darkness that was covered with excessive bright is revealed – or, indeed, not revealed, in another famous Coleridgean evasion:

Her silken Robe and inner Vest

Dropt to her feet, and fell in View,

Behold! her Bosom and half her Side –

A Sight to dream of, not to tell!

Oh shield her! shield sweet Christabel! (250-4)

Like the imagination that is coyly promised but never revealed, so is the sight of Geraldine’s breast hidden from the reader’s view. It is precisely this seductive, threatening veil, this Romantic obscurity, that gives the hidden breast and the hidden Coleridgean concept of the imagination, like so many of his other figuratively unfulfilled concepts, their primarily poetic rather than philosophical power:

In the Touch of this Bosom there worketh a Spell,

Whish is Lord of thy Utterance, Christabel! (267-8)

The pattern of metarhetorical inversion discussed in my first two chapters here finds its ultimate Romantic apotheosis in the transvaluation of a vision that is too clear into one that is too obscure. This unresolved ambivalence, this interchangeability of divine and demonic origins, is nicely summed up by Harding in his discussion of the poem: ‘[i]f Christabel knew Geraldine to be wholly evil, there would be no “perplexity.” Christabel’s position is analogous to that of the poet-hermeneut, unsure whether to ascribe his own high-sounding utterance to pseudo-poetic madness or the furor divinus’.19 That Coleridge never finished ‘Christabel’, that he never finished with her and that he left her meaning hidden, is merely another staging of Romantic obscurity, of the figurative refusal to penetrate to the source of meaning – and, indeed, the refusal to finish anything.20 For in Coleridge’s Romantic poetics of obscurity, any announcement of the complete penetration of a mystery comes along with the fear of attack and the fear of insufficiency, the anxiety that in the act of reception the source of the communicator’s power will be cut off:

Infelix, ah plusquam infelicissimus Ille,

Semivir in thalamum qui dixit Sesqui-puellam;

Mutumque os sitiens, tantique voraginem hiatûs

Vis rigidi tubuli lacrymoso róre lacessit!21


  1. Levinson, 17. The quotation is from Hans Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”, NLH 1 (Autumn 1970), 13-14. Such positive endorsements and appropriations of the Romantic fragment poem’s metarhetorical announcements of its own incompleteness have led nonetheless to various heroic attempts to complete them, as one can see in Lowes’ attempt to uncover the veil of hidden reference in The Road to Xanadu, or Elinor Shaffer’s attempt to discover a cohering syncretism in ‘Kubla Khan’ and The Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School In Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature 1770-1880 (Cambridge, 1975).
  2. Harding, Coleridge and the Inspired Word, 15. He is discussing Kathleen Wheeler, The Creative Mind in Coleridge’s Poetry (London, 1981).
  3. Edwin Webb notes another obscure origin in the poem in his discussion of Coleridge’s language of consciousness: ‘[t]he origins of consciousness are obscure as the river arises from the depths of the earth, runs its course’ (Edwin Webb, ‘“Reality’s Dark Dream”: Coleridge’s language of consciousness’, Critical Quarterly 25.1 [Spring 1983], 27).
  4. Harding notes in Inspired Word that Coleridge associated the Hebrew resistance to divine visibility as the reason the Old Testament ‘excelled all other literatures in “Imagination, or the modifying, andco-adunating Faculty” (Harding, 69, citing CL, 2:866).
  5. CPW, 1.1.510.
  6. John Hamilton, 99.
  7. Read, 154-55.
  8. Raimonda Modiano, ‘Historicist Readings of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life, ed. Nicholas Roe (Oxford, 2001), 287; and Patrick J. Keane, Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe (Columbia, London, 1994).
  9. Suther, 150.
  10. Modiano, ‘Historicist Readings’, 294.
  11. Perkins, ‘Religious thinker’, 188.
  12. Smith, 209.
  13. Except where otherwise noted, all references are to the 1798 version of the ‘Rime’.
  14. Perry, Coleridge and the Uses of Division, 284.
  15. Seamus Perry, ‘Coleridge and the End of Autonomy’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life (Oxford, 2001), 263.
  16. Ibid. 263.
  17. Vivien Jones, ‘Women Writing Revolution: Narratives of History and Sexuality in Wollstonecraft and Williams’, in Beyond Romanticism, eds. Stephen Copley and John Whale (London and New York, 1992), 180. For an informed account of such figures in the wider literature of the period see Jane Kromm, ‘Representations of Revolutionary Women in Political Caricature’, in The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, ed. Lisa Plummer Crafton (London, 1997), 123-135. Harriet Guest suggests a positive element lurking in the acknowledgment of revolutionary power this otherwise negative figuration of the feminine: ‘[f]or the construction of femininity in terms of its extrapolitical formlessness, rather than containment within and from masculine realities, may indirectly constitute a feminine utopian fantasy capable of political articulation’ (Harriet Guest, ‘The Wanton Muse: Politics and Gender in Gothic Theory after 1760’, in Beyond Romanticism, eds. Stephen Copley and John Whale [London and New York, 1992], 138).
  18. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York, 1973), 78.
  19. Harding, Coleridge and the Inspired Word, 17.
  20. ‘So long as they labour under the illusion that it is possible once and for all to write down, to describe, to give any finality to the process which they are trying to catch, which they are trying to nail down, unreality and fantasy will result - an attempt, always, to cage the uncageable, to pursue truth where there is no truth, to stop the unceasing flow, to catch movement by means of rest, to catch time by means of space, to catch light by means of darkness. That is the romantic sermon’ (Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (London, 1999), 121.
  21. Mays translates the lines thus: ‘[h]apless and suffering the worst kind of haplessness is he who, half a man, has taken to his bed a woman half as much again, and with the tearful dew from his small rigid tube scarcely strikes the silent thirsty orifice and the gulf of that great aperture’ (CPW, 1.2.894)