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  • "A laughable non-performance":Reviewing the Biographia in 1817
  • Charles Mahoney

[The critic] naturally grows arbitrary with the exercise of power. … Besides, something of this overbearing manner goes a great way with the public. They cannot exactly tell whether you are right or wrong. … A sweeping, unqualified assertion ends all controversy, and sets opinions at rest.

–William Hazlitt, "On Criticism" (1821)1

Unintelligible. Utterly unreadable. Incompetent. Intricate and inaccessible. Execrable. Incomprehensible. Utterly ridiculous. Perfectly ludicrous. Outrageous. Inconceivable trash. A mass of absurdity … a rhapsody of incomprehensible stuff … a medley of incoherent jargon … an exhibition of the decrepitude of genius … a melancholy illustration of the tenuous partition separating genius and madness. This is the language with which Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria was greeted in the periodical press in the months following its publication in July 1817. Unremittingly hostile, the reviewers seemed utterly at a loss as to how to account for what the reviewer in the New Annual Register described as the "strange medley" of "mysticism, German metaphysics, or metaphysics, if possible, still more obscure and unintelligible; criticism some parts acute, in good taste, and sound; other parts as unintelligible as the metaphysics; and a very small portion of literary biography."2 Even the stray reviewer who was able to admit that the Biographia might have some merits was only able to go so far as to say that he had never before seen "so extraordinary a mixture of talent and infirmity," expressing his "astonishment that the extremes of what is agreeable and disgusting can be so intimately blended by the same mind."3 The New Monthly Magazine vanquished the Biographia in one blunt paragraph, which concluded: [End Page 124]

We are whirled about in such rapid confusion from Aristotle to Hobbes, from Thomas Aquinas to Hume, then by abrupt transitions to Southey and Cowley, to Wordsworth and Milton, that in the endless maze we forget our company, the subjects on which we have been engaged, and are as glad to escape from the literary life and opinions of Mr. Coleridge, as we would to the light of day from the darkened cell of a religious enthusiast whose visions and prophecies have rendered confinement necessary for himself and society.4

Repeatedly denounced and disparaged as the vain, disgusting, arrogant, presumptuous ravings of a bewildered egotist, apostate, hypocrite, and madman, the Biographia was universally disparaged in 1817. Odium and infamy were integral to its reception. It was not merely denounced but condemned so relentlessly, and Coleridge attacked so remorselessly in such personal terms, that any representative selection from these reviews would constitute a scathing "acanthology" of the most hostile criticism imaginable.

Why were Coleridge and the Biographia tormented—indeed, eviscerated—to this degree? Beginning in May 1816, with the publication of the Christabel volume, and continuing through the appearance of Zapolya in November 1817, Coleridge was suddenly subjected to the scrutiny of the press, as well as the public, as never before. But for the appearance of Remorse in 1813, he had not published anything in book form since his translation of Wallenstein in 1800.5 Coleridge published The Statesman's Manual in December 1816, the second Lay Sermon in April 1817, both the Biographia and Sibylline Leaves in July, and finally Zapolya in November. Perhaps taking its cues from Hazlitt's unremittingly ferocious assaults on Christabel, The Statesman's Manual, and the Biographia,6 or perhaps responding to Coleridge's numerous, intemperate [End Page 125] remarks in the Biographia regarding the evils of anonymous reviewing and anonymous reviewers, the coverage of Coleridge in the periodical press was condescending, contemptuous, even venomous: in J. R. de J. Jackson's judgment, "the treatment of Coleridge's writing during this period is one of the sorriest performances in the history of reviewing."7

The Biographia generated the most vitriol. After the New Monthly dismissed it on August 1, 1817, it received a full review in the Literary Gazette on August 9, after which it was considered in much greater detail (by Hazlitt) in the Edinburgh of August 1817. Noticed in the Monthly Magazine (September), it was then savagely eviscerated by John Wilson in the lead article of the first number of...


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