- Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination by Gregory Leadbetter
Gregory Leadbetter’s first monograph sets up a sophisticated reading of Coleridge’s writing which addresses the poet’s ambivalence towards his chosen career. Leadbetter discovers a ‘formative drama’ at the heart of Coleridge’s writing: ‘namely, the simultaneous experience of exaltation and transgression, and its signature embodiment in the daemonic figure’. The doubling experience of ‘exaltation and transgression’ – or what Coleridge described as ‘shame and power’ – is expressed through Leadbetter’s examinations of Coleridge’s responses to religious and erotic impulses; the ways that these impulses are figured through Coleridge’s descriptions of the natural world stimulates the ‘transnatural imagination’ explored throughout the book. Although the study focuses on the poetry written in the 1790s, Leadbetter’s arguments [End Page 206] are well-supported by textual evidence which spans Coleridge’s career, so that the later writing is seen to build upon the poetics developed in this more obviously prolific period. In this way, Leadbetter’s suggestion that ‘the Coleridgean Daemon evokes fundamental dilemmas in the drama of human becoming’ is witnessed through his study; the poetry of the 1790s emerges as the place in which the ‘Coleridgean Daemon’ was established, and the later writing works to cement this othered being’s place in the Romantic canon.
Leadbetter’s thematic focus arises out of the notebook entry quoted above, in which Coleridge explores the relationship between poetic creativity, divinity and transgression. Leadbetter resists the critical norm in his treatment of this note; as he observes, what scant analysis this note has received has tended to view it as a confession of evil. He asserts instead that this is an exploration of ‘the drama of becoming at the heart of Coleridge’s writing’. As the final three chapters emphasise in their excellent close readings of Coleridge’s most iconic poems – ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’, and ‘Christabel’ – the figures found in Coleridge’s most successful verses must achieve a gnosis which allows them to cross into a daemonic state. In other words, Coleridge’s poetic creations undergo a ‘drama of becoming’, which echoes that which the poet must experience in order to write. The ‘will’ is crucial to this drama; the daemonic poet is no benign sufferer, but plays an active role in ensuring that his drama reaches its climax:
The daemonic will is not […] a triumphalist projection of ego, which reduces all things to itself. Rather, it depends upon a sense of entering the unknown: the will becomes the means of experiencing and directing forces beyond the deliberative, conscious self, enabling rather than determining the vision.
Having established in the first chapter that Coleridge colludes with his daemonic will, the force which allows him to see the ‘vision[s]’ which make up his mythopoetic oeuvre, Leadbetter proceeds in the chapters which follow to outline the ways in which Coleridge’s daemonic will interacts with his metaphysical poetics and the religious and sexual politics with which his writing engaged.
The second chapter focuses upon Coleridge’s relation to Dissenting Christianities. Coleridge’s rejection of mainstream religion emerges as a mirror for his turning away from canonical poetic norms. Leadbetter suggests that: ‘Coleridge’s engagement with the culture of dissent fostered his readiness to locate spiritual truths outside established, institutionally sanctioned forms’. The connection between spirituality and poetic creativity is firmly drawn here, but nevertheless the poet’s reasons for rejecting mainstream Christianity are convincingly outlined: the poet cannot create unless he overthrows the bonds of the Church and State. Daemonic creative gnosis comes at the price of a rejection of establishments which would dictate the creative process. Coleridge’s rejection of Church of England Protestantism allowed him to establish his own relationship to the divine, which in turn gave him license to create his own spiritual poetic language (as becomes clear in Leadbetter’s penultimate chapter on ‘Kubla Khan’).
Coleridge’s religious dissent foreshadows his complicated relationship with Wordsworth’s poetics, as discussed in the next two chapters; the title of chapter 3 – ‘“Not a Man...