Wednesday, 23 May 2012


'I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book,’ Coleridge advised Thomas Poole in February 1797.  ‘Let him relate the events of his own life with honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them.’

We are entitled to ask: why didn’t STC follow his own advice?  Or, of we choose (as we may) to read the beautifully disguised fantastica of the Ancient Mariner, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’ as honest autobiography, we must then surely accept that oine of the things that they do is redfine what constitutes ‘honesty’ in this mode of self-disclosure.

.      Prose = words in their best order; —poetry = the best words in the best order.’  Coleridge 12 July 1827; Table Talk (1874), 48

It never fails to amaze me how often this staggeringly wrongheaded statement gets repeated, by critics who really ought to know better.  I’d have more respect for Coleridge (in terms not only of poetry generally, but more specifically his own practice) if he’d said:  ‘Prose = words in their best order; —poetry = stranger words in a more disorienting order.’

3.  The Pilgrim’s Progress is ‘one of the few books which may be read repeatedly at different times, and each time with a new and different pleasure.  I read it once as a theologian … once with devotional feelings—and once as a poet.  I could not have believed beforehand that Calvanism could be painted in such exquisitely delightful colours.’  31 May 1830, Table Talk (1874), 88-89

Several things intrigue me about this passage,  One is the error, either unusually clumsy (for a writer like Coleridge particularly fascinated by the valences of nonconformism) or deliberately barbed, of called Bunyan a Calvanist. (Methodist, though anachronistic, would be closer to the true: in fact Bunyan belonged to a small sect based about a preacher called Gifford; and later established his own, supposedly Pauline, sect).  But I’m also intrigued by Coleridge’s distinction between reading a work ‘as a theologian’ and ‘with devotional feelings’, as if those are two completely different modes of reading.  Is it a question of the theological versus the devotional heart?  Maybe that’s the point about the Calvanist dig: the sense that Pilgrim’s Progress embodies a unique emulsion of the anti-fanciful and the fanciful, the religico-cognitive and the poetical-imaginative.

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