Coleridge and the Conservative Imagination
by Alan P. R. Gregory.
Mercer University Press, 2003.
Hardcover, 300 pages, $35.50.
“From a popular philosophy and a philosophic populace, Good Sense deliver us!” So Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes in his Lay Sermons, which Russell Kirk quotes to begin his section on Coleridge in The Conservative Mind. It’s an appropriate sentiment with which to introduce a poet who, though he longed for artistic recognition and wrote a hit play, never put all that much stock in the popularization of his admittedly abstruse ideas. Kirk tells us that Coleridge never aspired to be a “leader of the people,” and that his philosophy, “expressed spasmodically, desultorily, and in terms of an eloquence more redolent of seventeenth-century divines than nineteenth-century reformers” will never be in danger of being embraced by any populace, whether a philosophic one or not.
Perhaps that’s why Coleridge is so often overlooked in American political thought. In a country whose civic religion vacillates wildly between advocating for the lowest common denominator of the mythical everyman and the narrow expertise of an overly analytical meritocracy, how much acceptance can there be for a British poet prone to arcane philosophical flights? Coleridge explaining his distinction between “fancy” and “imagination” would, after all, most definitely not make for a popular TED talk. But as Alan P. R. Gregory shows us with Coleridge and the Conservative Imagination, not only are the ideas of Coleridge accessible to the curious and well-read, but they also offer such a compelling antidote to the reductionist materialism of our society that we’re almost obligated to make the effort to understand them.
Even in trying to define what Coleridge is, we’re given a glimpse into the nuanced cohesion of his thoughts. He was a poet, of course. And he was a complex theorist who borrowed heavily (and sometimes a little too freely) from German Romanticism. But he was also a lecturer, a hit playwright, a journalist, a lay sermonizer, and (for a short time on Malta) a government functionary. Gregory, a professor of church history at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, draws from many of these varied sources to give us a complex portrait of the cohesive unity with which Coleridge interpreted the world. Unable to see the world merely as a poet, journalist, or philosopher, Coleridge instead aimed beyond the variegated targets of the senses in order to illuminate the metaphysical-and ultimately theological—grounding which makes all understanding and reason possible. That might sound like a complicated task Gregory sets out on. And it is. But despite the occasional nosedive into dense jargon and a sort of creeping kudzu of footnotes, he pulls it off with aplomb.
What Gregory describes can’t be called Coleridge’s “ideology.” True conservatism is, after all, a sort of anti-ideology. Gregory instead gives us what could be called Coleridge’s “dynamic philosophy of mind,” an understanding of consciousness that forms the basis of all of Coleridge’s thought and art. Coleridge himself claimed in Table Talk that his philosophy “is the only attempt that I know of ever made to reduce all knowledges into harmony; it opposes no other system, but shows what was true in each, and how that which was true in the particular in each of them became error because it was only half the truth.”
It’s a bold declaration that echoes his more succinctly expressed goal of “multeity in unity.” That unity is realized through the titular conservative imagination, not—it can’t be stressed strongly enough—simply by “reason” alone. If the progeny of bare sense is the isolated fact, then the product of a mind that incorporates reason and imagination together is the symbol—a fact that carries within it a unity of higher meaning and bare ontological fact. There’s more than a little Burke at work in this formulation, but it’s a Burke infused with the heavy metaphysical energy of the German Romantics. And it’s the perfect cudgel to be used against Coleridge’s political enemies, radicals who by his lights have abandoned the most profound sources of human consciousness in favor of an over-reliance on analytical bric a brac. As Gregory writes, “The analytic, abstracting activity of the understanding, the activity that gives us the world of distinct entities set over against a distinct subjectivity, if taken as a goal and not means, prevents knowledge of the world as a living divinely given unity. It finds and leaves the world as ‘a heap of little things.’”
What makes Coleridge’s imagination a conservative one is his insistence on the simultaneous unity and complexity of reality. For such an ambitious theory, it’s also synonymous with a touching intellectual humility. Or, more precisely, his dynamic allows for the possibility of a humility alien to the radical and reactionary alike. It’s a humility that comes from an insistence on complexity, but it also comes from deep theological considerations. Coleridge argues that it’s religion which ultimately unifies scattered mental powers to a singular purpose, or “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Gregory says that “[r]eligion has this function because it neglects neither the totalizing drive of the reason nor the particularizing forms of understanding … In religion, therefore, takes place the reconciliation and proper subordination of reason and imagination, understanding and fancy.” Which is also the reason, Coleridge argues, that throughout the history of most civilizations religion has been the “parent and fosterer” of the arts. In Gregory’s terms, both “seek to disclose reality in its consubstantiality, as symbolic.”
Coleridge’s conservatism was searching and restless. You could even call it a Romantic conservatism in that it derived its vitality from a fixed sense of the unattainable ideal. But his restlessness was ambitious in that it moved, in its search for ultimate unity, in all directions at once. It moved vertically, incorporating bare facts into ultimate meaning, and it moved horizontally both forward and backward through time. Whereas the radical searches only forward, careening toward a future which never arrives, Coleridge’s principles of unity applied to the historical past as well. Applying the theory of symbolic unity to understanding the past, Gregory writes that “[a] history faithful to its subject matter is the product of that unifying and idealizing power that, infusing the understanding with reason, reveals and represents the empirical as the symbolic.” Arguing that the pinnacle of an overly simple, mechanistic rendering of history was reached with the French Revolution, Coleridge writes in his Statesman’s Manual that it “recognized no duties which it could not reduce into debtor and creditor accounts on the ledgers of self-love.” It’s a simple quid pro quo turn of mind that remains an important part of progressive politics even today.
There are of course weaknesses in Gregory’s book just as there are weaknesses in Coleridge himself. Coleridge was a knee-jerk anti-Catholic, which Gregory allows him to uninterruptedly be, and he also had an “anti-Gallic spleen” which Gregory leaves mostly unexamined. But I’m nit picking now. Explorations of those themes would surely have taken another and entirely different book. The book that Gregory did write, however, is an illuminating synthesis of multiple sources of Coleridge’s thought and work and serves as a puissant resource for American conservatives concerned with the atomization of thought in our contemporary world.
The younger poet Keats only met Coleridge once, by chance running into him on Millfield Lane in 1823. Keats was dazzled by Coleridge’s verbosity, writing that in the space of two miles Coleridge covered a thousand topics, “… Nightingales-poetry-on poetic sensation-Metaphysics-Different genera and species of Dreams-Nightmare-a dream accompanied by a sense of touch-single and double touch-a dream related-first and second consciousness-The difference between Will and Volition-so m[any] metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness-monsters-The Kraken-Mermaids-Southey believes in them-Southey’s belief too much diluted-a Ghost story-Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I heard it all the interval—if it may be called so.” Keats would go on to form his famous definition of “Negative Capability” of genius, the ability to rest comfortably “with half-knowledge,” against the tendencies of Coleridge to pursue truth “through volumes.” As Gregory proves, this drive so synthesize the world into unified symbolic meaning hardly signifies a lack of genius. One could even classify it as its own type of genius in opposition to Keats, perhaps calling it “Positive Potential.” Or, maybe more succinctly, simply conservatism.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer and infantry veteran whose previous work has appeared in the Paris Review, The American Conservative, and Bookforum, among other places. He lives in Maine.