- Critical Essays on Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Coleridge, as you doubtless hear, is gone,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, August 12, 1834, to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “How great a Possibility, how small a realized Result.” There is now a huge Coleridge industry in the academy, engaged in producing editions of his writings and examinations of his literary career. Yet Carlyle’s judgment continues to carry weight with many nonspecialist readers, who know Coleridge only as Wordsworth’s estimable friend and as the author of a handful of superb lyrics and radiant critical speculations in the Biographia Literaria (1817). These texts are indeed rich and suggestive: readers wish that there were more like them and that Coleridge’s achievement had somehow been greater, more monumental, like Wordsworth’s. Coleridge’s “misfortune,” concluded Carlyle’s friend, John Sterling, in January 1842, “was to appear at a time when there was a man’s work to do—and he did it not.”
But the wish that Coleridge had been more than he was is misplaced, in large measure for the reason that it neglects the vast amount of significant work that he did accomplish—not only in poetry and criticism, but in philosophy, political journalism, social theory, and other disciplines and areas of thought. Experts in Romanticism know this work (or, at least, know of it), yet it has not [End Page 151] been excerpted in anthologies, contextualized and explained for students, or brought forward for analysis, beyond the circle of avid Coleridgeans, to extend and complicate the commonplaces about this writer that still enjoy wide circulation.
In this respect, Leonard Orr, editor of Critical Essays on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, perhaps has missed an opportunity. His collection is valuable as far as it goes; it reprints eight excellent essays along with two new ones, and Orr’s own concise, informed Introduction, with footnotes packed with bibliography, provides a lucid overview of Coleridge studies. But the focus is strangely limited, the conception of the writer’s career is dated and conventional, and the selection of essays is too restricted.
One is grateful for this collection’s strengths even as one regrets its gaps and omissions. John Beer gives a good account of the Coleridge/Wordsworth relationship; Stuart Peterfreund nicely shows how “Coleridge’s failed political vision of European history” is redeemed “as part of his critical vision of the imagination”; James C. McKusick, Paul Magnuson, Andrew M. Cooper, James Engell, and Anne K. Mellor explore Coleridge’s poetry—though oddly there is no essay devoted primarily to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; and Kathleen M. Wheeler, Lawrence Buell, and Jerome Christensen form a helpful unit of pieces on the Biographia Literaria. But readers will not find here anything more than brief mentions of, for example, Coleridge’s writings for The Watchman and The Friend, his striking interpretations of Shakespeare, Aids to Reflection, letters, notebooks, two Lay Sermons, and On the Constitution of the Church and State.
This failure to supply broader, more innovative coverage is puzzling, given that the general aim of the series in which Orr’s book appears (Critical Essays on British Literature, gen. ed. Zack Bowen) is “to develop a new overall perspective on its particular subject.” Even more, Orr himself says in his Introduction that scholarship of the past two decades has prompted us to be “less likely to ignore the prose works beyond the Biographia” and has drawn attention to Coleridge’s marginalia and notebooks. Orr displays a sharp sense of the new Coleridge, yet has designed his book in a way that reflects the old one and that will tend for many readers simply to reinforce Carlyle’s adverse judgment.