COLERIDGE AND CONTEMPLATION by Peter Cheyne, ed., Reviewed by Stephen Prickett

Ed. Peter Cheyne
(Oxford, 2017) 332 + xx pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Prickett on 2019-04-08.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This is an odd book -- in every sense of that word. While Samuel Taylor Coleridge was such a multi-faceted figure that that there is nothing inherently odd about a collection of essays devoted to his ideas of contemplation -- ranging from clues in his poetry to ideas in his philosophy or his theology -- what is odd is the way in which this theme is handled here.

"Contemplation" is an elastic word, meaning a lot or very little according to context, which might range from thinking about a current problem to the deepest experiences of mystics, sages, and saints. If the context is specifically Coleridgean, then the expectations aroused by the title suggest something closer to the latter -- presumably accompanied, as usual, by self-conscious description and reflections on his reflections. Nevertheless, Coleridge being Coleridge, there may well be surprises along the way. Definition is going to be important. And that is precisely what is lacking here.

Despite a section on the very first page entitled "Defining Contemplation," which cites Plato, Aquinas, Coleridge himself, and the neo-Thomist Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, we are not actually given any such definition. Aquinas, we are told, saw it as "a simple intellectual view of the truth" --muddied only slightly by the admission of Plato's view that ideas ultimately baffle logical understanding. Coleridge, Cheyne then adds, does not think contemplation "in its highest and purest sense is something achieved by all," but admits that an "inchoate" kind of contemplation is available to everyone. To be fair, Cheyne later explains how he thinks Coleridge evolved this two-tier model of contemplation -- somewhat on the lines of the better-known two-tier primary and secondary imaginations of Biographia Literaria -- but nevertheless, what follows is indeed inchoate in rather too many senses. We have to wait until page 129 before anything on the power and value of contemplation is again addressed in any meaningful way -- and then, rather unexpectedly, by Kaz Oishi, in the context of Coleridge's relationship with Robert Owen and his political views.

The key Coleridgean text is or should be, of course, Aids to Reflection (1825), which is not nowadays amongst his best-known texts, and, to be fair, a number of the contributors do cite it. But once again, what emerges is a number of interesting fragments rather than any overall picture. Perhaps a series of essays on the meaning of "reflection" might have been more appropriate.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the book is occupied by a series of essays with little or no relevance to anything that looks like the normal meaning of contemplation -- let alone the two-tier model expounded by Cheyne. We have two essays on Buddhism: zen Buddhism and walking in nature (David Cooper) and "A Buddhist Response to Coleridge" (Michael McGhee). Other essays treat aesthetics (James Kirwan), Utilitarianism (Philip Aherne), Coleridge's relations with Humphry Davy (David Knight) and Robert Owen (Kaz Oishi); possible resemblances between Coleridge's thought and the philosophies of Edmund Burke (Andy Hamilton), John Dewey (Kathleen Wheeler), and Ralph Cudworth (Cristina Flores). Contributors also link Coleridge to a host of other people and themes that have some reference to him, but few of their essays deal with contemplation in any useful sense.

Though the list of contributors from Britain, Japan, and the U.S.A. is distinguished, one suspects that most of these scholars answered the request for a contribution by sorting through their files for an existing piece, adding a few sentences about Coleridge, and submitting it. Even essays that highlight Coleridge--as most of them do-- tend to marginalize contemplation. In one of the best essays, "Imagination and Truth: Reflections after Coleridge," Roger Scruton has much of interest to say about Coleridge and imagination but little on contemplation, and actually uses a turn of phrase suggesting that his paper had a rather different origin. To make matters worse, two of the essays that definitely claim to be about Coleridge's ideas and practice of contemplation (by Suzanne E. Webster and J. Gerald Janzen) are (to this reader, at least) virtually unintelligible. Cheyne's evasive introduction suggests that he himself has desperately tried to discover something common among the disparate contributions he has recruited. That Coleridge too is elusive and fragmentary on contemplation certainly does not help, but Cheyne's account in his essay ("Coleridge's 'Order of the Mental Powers'") nearly mirrors Coleridge in obscurity:

Ideal objects therefore elude all conception, and, short of perfect noetic contemplation, can only be reached or intimated by an imaginative blend of the aesthetic and the intellectual, that is, via the symbol, by which we feelingly intuit meaning and value. (189)

Yes, indeed, this is probably correct, but while this collection, we must suppose, was intended to clarify what Coleridge thought and did, this string of abstractions does little to explain anything for the bemused reader -- especially when, in the next sentence, we are invited to be "considerate of intellectual praeter-conceptuality."

A more disciplined approach might have been to take a number of key Coleridgean texts in turn and look at them with reference to the development of his idea(s) of contemplation. The general thematic grouping of the essays does indeed suggest an approach that started out in this way. The first section is entitled "Poetics and Aesthetics," Part 3 is called "Metaphysics," and Part 4 is "Philosophy of Religion." But Part 2, "Worldviews: Science, Ethics, and Politics," is something of a grab-bag containing the aforementioned essays on Davy, Utilitarianism, Owen, and Burke. Despite marginalizing contemplation, however, these are among the best essays in the collection, and are all in their own ways worth reading.

While the titles of some of the other essays in Part 2 promise more focus on the titular topic of the book, they are -- again I have to stress the word -- simply odd. J.C.C. Mays, for instance, opens Part 1 with "Contemplation in Coleridge's Poetry," and this is the only one of the eighteen essays in this collection that actually tries to examine his poetry. But the business-like implications of the title are rapidly dissipated. Instead of taking a poem like "Frost at Midnight," which surely does have something to say about contemplation, Mays presents as his proof text (if that is the correct term) an almost unknown six-line poem entitled "First Advent of Love," which begins, "O fair is love's first hope to gentle mind..." Though a detailed analysis, over several pages, stresses the importance and historical significance of what might be meant by "gentle mind," its meaning has very little to do with contemplation as the word is normally understood, and as a way of approaching the idea in Coleridge's poetry as a whole, this essay is little short of extraordinary -- as well as almost wilfully misleading. Other essays in Part 2 include Kathleen Wheeler's on links between Coleridge and (of all people) the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. The latter essay argues for a view of romantic perception that most of us have been familiar with for years.

Part 3 ("Metaphysics") contains the essay on Cudworth and Coleridge already mentioned, a distinguished essay on the philosophical origins of Coleridge's imagination by Douglas Hedley, and an interesting essay by James Engell on Imagination as an "act." Before these come--at the head of Part 3 -- Cheyne's second essay, on Coleridge's two-tier theory of contemplation, and a supporting essay by Dillon Struwig tracing a similar structure in Coleridge's Logic, which, despite its published title, is again a fragmentary collection of pieces never published in the author's lifetime. Insofar as Cheyne's essay aims to amass a theory of contemplation from the various scattered hints in Coleridge's writings, it is perhaps the centerpiece of this collection. Though sometimes obscure, as noted above, he writes with intelligence. But even if we accept his version of what contemplation meant for Coleridge, what is its significance? Is it at all surprising, new, or important that some few exceptional figures -- Socrates, Plato, Jesus, and various seers and saints through the ages -- have given us profound insights through contemplation (though not necessarily in the same form), while the rest of us have struggled at a much lower level? While Coleridge's division of the Imagination into Primary and Secondary forms has been discussed and debated over the past two hundred years (I know of at least one critic who has disputed its practical value), I find it hard to see this bi-level concept of contemplation making any ripples at all.

Since contemplation, at least at its highest level, is surely a source of metaphysical insight, Part III ("Metaphysics") promises the most. But it delivers the least. Oddly -- that word again -- it starts with McGhee's Buddhist "response" to Coleridge, though what exactly McGhee is responding to is unclear. While he offers some interesting nuggets on Buddhist thought, his contribution repeatedly uses the question-begging phrase "things as they are," which should have been left behind by any student of Philosophy 101. Noriko Naohara's essay on "Coleridge's Contemplative Theology" fills an obvious lacuna in the collection, since Coleridge was not merely a Christian but one of the most significant theologians of the nineteenth century, though one might not guess it here. The remaining essays, by Suzanne Webster and Gerald Janzen, are in the best tradition of metaphysical obscurity.

This collection of essays contains some valuable insights. What it lacks is consistent adherence to the announced theme of the book, even though at least some of these papers emerge from a conference on contemplation held in Cambridge in 2016, presumably with this book in mind. As F.J.A. Hort observed many years ago, the seeming fragments of Coleridge's thinking sometimes, in the end, become links in the "golden chain" of his own thought. It is a pity there is no such chain here.

Stephen Prickett is Regius Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Glasgow and an Honorary Professor of the University of Kent. His many books include Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Poetry of Growth (1980), European Romanticism: A Reader (2010), reviewed elsewhere on this site, and Victorian Fantasy (1979), recently re-issued for its 3rd edition by Edward Everett Root, Brighton.

Leave a comment on Stephen Prickett's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed