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  • On the Constitution of the Church and State
  • Andrew Elfenbein (bio)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge , On the Constitution of the Church and State (1829)

As someone who works on Romantic and Victorian writers, I was a safe bet to choose a keynote text from the earlier side of the Victorian period. I compromised by choosing one from late in the Romantic period, if it even is in the Romantic period at all. Published at the end of 1829, Coleridge's On the Constitution of the Church and State might better be said to belong to the fuzzy zone between Romantic and Victorian periods. Victorianists have not been entirely ignorant of Coleridge's tract, but it is generally relegated to the tomb of intellectual history, a victim of concise paraphrase.1 Paraphrases do not get Coleridge wrong, but they kill off his intellectual seriousness, ambition, and emotional longing. They do not convey why so many Victorians cared as much as they did about what Coleridge wrote.

While I want to renew attention to Coleridge, his book is not easy to defend. Written in a characteristically foggy style, it was an impassioned contribution [End Page 19] to the Catholic Emancipation debate that arrived too late: the Catholic Relief Act passed months before the book appeared. It is hard to get excited about a book that was obsolete even before it was published. It also has nothing at all to do with literature and touches overtly on none of Victorian studies' recent hot topics.

Yet Coleridge's book should be better known to scholars of the Victorian period. It participated in the intense pre-Reform Bill political debate about Catholic Emancipation, suffrage, the long-term significance of the Reformation, and the role of public opinion. In ways that are not well recognized, this debate functioned for the Victorians in the way that debates of the 1790s functioned for the Romantics: the rhetorical stances, imagery, and argumentative associations that it generated long outlasted their immediate occasion. For writers growing up or coming of age during this period, including Carlyle, Bulwer-Lytton, Macaulay, Tennyson, Browning, Disraeli, Trollope, Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Gaskell, the symbolic apparatus of these debates was a key reference point throughout their works, so that even seemingly minor cues could summon up a surprisingly thick cultural context.

Coleridge deserves particular attention because the current interest in Victorian liberalism has had the unintentional effect of making it seem the most appropriate intellectual context for understanding many aspects of Victorian culture. I routinely hear scholars referring to "the liberal subject" as if it were obviously the right starting place for analyzing the Victorians. Foregrounding liberalism has erased the deep, abiding, and invigorating engagement with Romantic conservativism (represented in part by Coleridge's Church and State) throughout Victorian literature. Although scholars who focus on Victorian liberalism do so in part to understand the enduring legacy of nineteenth-century British culture, the disappearance of the Coleridgean legacy has allowed Victorianists to bypass one of the Victorians' most salient legacies: the place of the schoolteacher.

Given the intensity and passion of debates that now swirl around the figure of the teacher, especially the teacher of pre-adolescent children, it is worth remembering that teachers were not always taken so seriously. To find a consistent butt of eighteenth-century satire, look no further than the country schoolmaster. He (and sometimes she) was represented as at best a harmless drudge, at worst a sadistic tyrant. Since such schoolmasters had connections to the church, either as actual clergymen or as church assistants, the opportunities to poke fun at teachers merged into more or less gentle criticisms of Anglican foibles. Such satires had a defensive edge because eighteenth-century authors and schoolmasters occupied adjacent sites in the distribution of literacy and professional prestige; many prominent authors, like Samuel Johnson, had done time as schoolmasters, and schoolmasters were one source for the floods of amateur writing that filled eighteenth-century periodicals. Literary writers could use the schoolmaster as a convenient scapegoat; whatever their literary [End Page 20] success or failure might be, at least they were one step up the professional ladder from the schoolmaster.

Coleridge's Church and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 19-23
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-06
Open Access
No
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