Res theatralis histrionica: acting coleridge in the lecture theater.
The Managers of the Royal Institution are very anxious to engage him; and I think he might be of material service to the public, and of benefit to his own mind, to say nothing of the benefit his purse might receive. In the present condition of society, his opinions in matters of taste, literature, and metaphysics must have a healthy influence; and unless he soon becomes an actual member of the living world, he must expect to be brought to judgment for 'hiding his light.' (1)
Ironically, it would be his withdrawal from "the living world" that Coleridge would go on to make his critical distinction--or, more accurately, his critical persona--when he chose to accept Davy's offer and step onto the public stage for the second time in his career. No longer the political firebrand he had been in Bristol in 1795, Coleridge the literary lecturer in fashionable London figured himself as an ideal reader--responsive, imaginative, philosophical--and proceeded to refashion after his own values the Shakespearean drama that was his almost exclusive subject. Most notoriously, Coleridge's Hamlet became renowned amongst his friends as a thinly disguised projection of his own aspirations and anxieties. But this was true, I would suggest, in more ways than have yet been realized, for Coleridge's critical performance (and criticism as dramatic performance) goes to the heart of his own reading of Hamlet, as it does of Shakespeare's play, making the lecture theater of the early-nineteenth century the ideal venue for Coleridge on Shakespeare.
Ideas, information, and opinions were the social currency of the expanding public sphere of the eighteenth century, and by the early-nineteenth century the production and consumption of scientific and cultural knowledge in Britain's thriving lecture culture testified to an unprecedented emotional and economic investment. Its combination of display, performance, education, and social occasion made the public lecture in science and the arts an alternative form of entertainment, even while the combined activities of many and various lecturers covering every topic from insects to angels amounted to an alternative, "open" university, for many of the middle-class public (and most of its women) the only formal instruction to which they had access. Public lectures flourished and by the early-nineteenth century a number of institutions were springing up to house and foster them, first and foremost the institution where Davy had made his reputation and to which he beckoned Coleridge in his letter to Poole.
The Royal Institution was a brainchild of the Royal Society habitue and eccentric Count Rumford (Benjamin Thompson, an American citizen who had the distinction of having been knighted by the King of England and created Count by the Elector of Bavaria). Along with a group of Fellows of the Royal Society, including Sir Joseph Banks, as well as other citizens of distinction, like the philanthropist Sir Thomas Bernhard, Rumford founded the Royal Institution in 1799 as a center for displaying the latest mechanical inventions, containing a meeting house and a library and offering lectures and workshops for the poor. Its aims were reflected by the title of Rumford's Proposal for forming by subscription a public Institution for diffusing the knowledge and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical inventions and improvements (1799). (2)
By 1800, thanks to Banks and Henry Cavendish, the Royal Institution had a new building in Albemarle Street with a new lecture theater and laboratory installed, featuring throughout the most up-to-date design and appointments. The emphasis of contemporary reports (utilizing the Royal Institution's own promotional material) was on production and performance:
The new lecture room ... is acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful and most convenient scientific theatres in Europe. It is so favourable to the propagation of sound, that though it is sufficiently capacious to contain 900 persons, a whisper may be distinctly heard from one extremity of it to the other, and no echo is ever perceived in it on any occasion. It is so contrived, that day-light may be entirely excluded in a moment.... [T]here is a covered circular passage, eight feet wide, all around the room ... next the wall, and four convenient openings or vomitoria, with light doors with two wings, which shut of themselves without noise, forming so many passages of communication between the lower part of the theatre or pit, and the arched gallery or passage without.
The article goes on to describe an elaborate central heating system and the resources of the theater's "apparatus room":
Adjoining to this new theatre is the apparatus room which communicates with it by a door which is on one side of the large open chimney fire place within the theatre, and just behind the lecturer's table, which chimney fireplace serves for placing the furnaces that are occasionally used in the chymical experiments.
Then come the ultra-modern, well-equipped chemical laboratory, the workshops, the kitchen, the dining room, and a "conversation-room," replicating the eighteenth-century coffee house with a generous array of newspapers and, tellingly, it seems to me, maps. After the conversation room comes the "first reading-room," which, we are told, "has lately been appropriated exclusively to the reading of foreign newspapers": "on the table are found seven foreign gazettes, from different parts of the continent, in the French and German languages." On the tables of the "second, or principal reading-room" are to be found "no less than 54 foreign and domestic, scientific and literary periodical publications, which are regularly taken in." The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure then goes on to report a membership, on 26 April 1802, of 341 proprietors, 284 life subscribers, and 649 annual subscribers, bringing the total to 1274. Not surprisingly, "[t]he income and pecuniary resources of the Institution" kept pace "with the increase of its proprietors and subscribers." (3)
Already by 1802, however, the philanthropic motive was weakening as the Royal Institution became both a center of excellence in science in its own right and a venue in which an as yet undivided scientific and literary culture met the world of fashion. The erosion of the Royal Institution's original ideals of extending public enlightenment to the laboring classes meant that, amongst liberals like Henry Brougham, it acquired a reputation as politically conservative. Humphry Davy's "political sentiments," wrote Brougham in the Edinburgh Review, "are as free and as manly as if he had never inhaled the atmosphere of the Royal Institution." (4)
Not all the institutions of the early-nineteenth century had the Royal Institution's aristocratic backing and aristocratic image. (5) The Surrey Institution (1808-23), for example, where Coleridge delivered a series of lectures on literature in 1812-13, had been the expression of a need on behalf of the commercial elements of the City of London for a comparable institution whose policies and fortunes would be directed by the merchants, bankers, and manufacturers who comprised their own mercantile order, one that was willing to contribute the necessary capital as shareholding subscribers (see fig. 1). Its geographical position south of the river made the Surrey Institution unthinkable to some of the more fashionable members of London Society. But the Surrey--to which we may add the Russell Institution (1808), the City Philosophical Society (1809), the Philosophical Society of London (1811), and the London Institution (f. 1805, but not offering lectures until 1819)--was still a long way from the workers' education that would develop in the 1820s. The movement for working men's education would have to wait for the Mechanics' Institutes (1824) and for Brougham's own Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1826). Writing to his brother Alexander in 1837, Thomas Carlyle described the Royal Institution with layered irony as "a kind of sublimfe Mechanics' Institute for the upper Classes." (6) The obvious beneficiaries of the public lecture system in its first phase were not the working people of the Royal Institution's original proposal but well-to-do women. As Frederick Kurzer remarks of this print image of the Surrey Institution's Rotunda, it "attests to the popularity of these evening discourses, not least among the creditably strong female moiety of the audience." (7)
The exclusively male membership of institutions like the Royal and the Surrey had recourse to their clubbish libraries and conversation rooms, but the public face of these institutions was their well-publicized literary and scientific lectures, often in parallel series (see fig. 2). (8) This advertisement in The Times for the 1813-14 winter lecture season at the Surrey Institution gives a good indication of the range and talent on offer. John Mason Good has been described by a recent historian of science as "one of the most profound and brilliant lecturers at the Institution," offering an "ambitious survey forging bridges between physics, biology, philosophy, and mental phenomena in man." (9) Thomas Thomson's lectures on chemistry at the Surrey, succeeding those of the popular Frederick Accuni, rivaled Davy's at the Royal. Thomson had lectured at the University of Edinburgh from 1800-11 before joining the Surrey in 1813 and would go on to become Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow (1818-52) and write a famous History of Chemistry (1830), one of the first comprehensive textbooks by a British scientist. The Dickensian-sounding music lecturer, W. [William] Crotch, as his biography makes clear to readers of The Times, was on holiday from Oxford, where he had been appointed professor of Music at the age of 22 in 1797. His precocious talent had been subject of a Royal Society paper by musicologist Charles Burney in 1799 and he would go on to become Principal of the Royal Academy of Music (1822), all the while continuing his lectures at the Surrey and at the London Institution.
What these institutions offered was a space, a regular audience, and an infrastructure that facilitated the organization and expansion of a cultural practice already well under way by the end of the eighteenth century. (10) Throughout the century, independent lecturers had been conducting courses in venues as humble as private houses and private laboratories, as unlikely as pubs (like the Crown and Anchor Tavern in Arundel Street), and as grand as the Theater of Science at 97 Pall Mall and the Theater Royal at Haymarket. The content and quality of these lectures betrayed a predictable range, with an overall tendency, not surprisingly, "towards an exposition of the popular and curious rather than the theoretically rigorous" (11)--a tendency, that is, towards the theatrical. In an age "preoccupied to the point of obsession with the theatre as an institution," to quote Gillian Russell, "and with the theatricality of social, political, and personal behaviour," it is hardly surprising to find in public lecturing the same cult of personality and celebrity that made actors like Kean and poets like Byron such a constant source of fascination and gossip. (12) "In an era of virtuoso performance," writes Frederick Burwick, "audiences went to the theatre not to see Macbeth, but to see John Philip Kemble play Macbeth and Sarah Siddons play Lady Macbeth." (13)
Certainly the brilliance and experimental novelty of Humphry Davy's lectures on chemistry and the wit and sympathy of Sydney Smith's lectures on moral philosophy, both at the Royal Institution, drew crowds rivaling and often exceeding those of the theater and other fashionable entertainments, with both men gaining what could only be described as a cult following or fandom. "Davy bounced onto the dais," writes Richard Holmes:
small, youthful, glowing and enthusiastic. He spoke directly to his audience without notes. He made a thrilling narrative out of each experiment, performing a series of spectacular galvanic demonstrations--sparks, fulminations, explosions--with all the skill of a conjuror. Yet his scientific explanations were simple, logical and lucid. He also had the highly unusual gift of putting the science in its historical and social context: he spoke of 'the history of galvanism, detailed the successive discoveries', and its possible future. (14)
Coleridge, one such fan, had attended Davy's lectures in January 1802, submitting to electric shocks for experimental purposes, (15) and by 1803, according to Holmes, "Albemarle Street had been designated the first one-way in London, to avoid the traffic jam of carriages on Davy's lecture days." (16) There is some uncertainty as to whether Davy or Smith was responsible for this revolution in urban design, but either way (and it was probably both) London was in the grip of an intellectual craze. (17) Sydney Smith "at one moment inspired his hearers with such awe and reverence by the solemn piety of his manners that his discourse seemed converted into a sermon, at others, by the brilliancy of his wit, made us die of laughing," recalled Jane Marcet, fan of both Smith and Davy, and author of the immensely popular Conversations on Chemistry which further disseminated Davy's work. (18)
Learned societies had been around and lecturing to themselves at least since the sixteenth century and teachers lecturing to select members of civic society for as long as anything remotely resembling a civic society had existed. But academic training, when not openly elitist, had always been selective and specialized. What lay behind the institution of the public lecture, as "the independent and popular equivalent of the academic lecture," was its determination to bring the revised understanding of what constituted knowledge to a progressively wider audience. (19) Its rationale was invariably public enlightenment. The public lecture shared many of its rhetorical strategies and effects with the sermon, as Jane Marcet suggests, as well as with the oration, forensic pleading, and with public or parliamentary speaking, but was different in its determination to organize and impart new knowledge and new interpretation. In this, it presumed superior knowledge and superior interpretative powers on the part of the lecturer, as does the dissertation or scholarly article (and at its worst the public lecture is one of these read out loud). However, though the transfer of knowledge was its primary justification, the public lecture was (and remains) so much more, and like the sermon or the speech also presumed superior powers of communication and performance. "The lecture was an intellectual event," writes Donald M. Scott, "but it was also a performance before a specific and live audience of 'miscellaneous' composition. Its character as performance was not only implicit in the form: it was clearly recognized as one of the lecture system's most important features." (20)
In this, "science as public culture" had distinct advantages over the humanities. (21) In theaters like those created by the Royal and the Surrey, able lecturers like Davy were able to adapt the latest experimental researches to the expectations of an audience hungry for surprise and spectacle. "London scientific life was dominated above all by the lecture," writes J. N. Hays. (22) With a bank of the latest voltaic batteries stored in the cellar of the Royal Institution and powering his visual appliances, Davy projected his theme in son et lumiere: "The pile could produce shocks, sparks ('of a dazzling brightness'), and loud noises. The sparks would be different colors (white, purple, yellow, red, or blue), according to which metal composed the electrodes. And party tricks could be shown" (see fig. 3). (23) The histories of modern science and theatrical special effects were entwined from the beginning. From 1781, when Phillippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg left Drury Lane to set up his Eidophusikon, on into the nineteenth century, as theaters became more spectacular and "multimedia," they relied more and more on developments in technology. (24) "By 1840," writes Christopher Baugh, "every possible aspect of architecture, scenography and its associated technologies was being used in order to transport the spectator's imagination into the 'other worlds' which the theatre sought to (re)create." (25) Not surprisingly, then, in London generally, as at the Surrey, "the balance between lectures on science and the humanities was biased in favour of the former." (26) Given the reluctance of the English universities to take up and develop opportunities offered by the experimental sciences throughout the eighteenth century, when the center of gravity in the British scientific world shifted from Cambridge and London to Scotland and the English provinces, the organization of "scientific lecturing" fell to these new London institutions, which in their turn "contributed to the support and hence the professionalization of men of science," to quote Hays, and "brought London lecturing more clearly within the influence of the other important components of London science, namely, medicine and industrial technology." (27)
But if science and technology had a monopoly on extra-mural institutional learning up until the end of the eighteenth century, they did not hold it for long. As the success of Sydney Smith (and James Macintosh, and John Thelwall, and Coleridge, and Hazlitt, and many others) confirms, the older special effects of language and rhetoric, wit and image, passion and persona could be just as dazzling and just as convincing. Coleridge and Hazlitt were by no means the first or the only lecturers on literature bidding for public fame and princely remuneration. At the Royal Institution alone, during its first decade one could have heard (besides Coleridge) William Crowe lecturing "on dramatic poetry" and, later, "on History and Poetry"; John Hewlett on "belles lettres"; and Thomas Dibdin on "the history of English literature." Crowe is now best known as the author of the popular loco-descriptive poem, "Lewesdon Hill" (1788), and was Public Orator in the University of Oxford. His series on dramatic poetry would be immediately recognizable to the twentieth-century university student, beginning with background lectures on classical drama and Aristotle and on the medieval mystery and morality plays, before launching into the Elizabethan and Restoration periods. (28) Equally recognizable to the modern student would be the history of early English literature offered by "Rev. Thomas Dibdin"--Thomas Frognall Dibdin, the bibliographer--in which "observations were made on the rise and progress of our language, and on its fluctuation with the French," and a whole lecture devoted to the importance of Froissart's Chronicles. (29)
The phenomenon of the lecture as "a form of intellectual theatricality" was not without its critics, (30) the butt of that criticism, in the first instance (for the conservative satirists, at least), being the voracious appetite for fashionable enlightenment betrayed by women, who by all descriptive and pictorial accounts comprised a large part of the audience--"there are a great many women," noted Gilbert Elliot, Earl of Minto, "principally matrons with young daughters who take notes" (31)--so large a part, indeed, that the role of public lectures in the intellectual and social emancipation of women needs to be better investigated and understood. For other objectors, the celebrity culture that grew up around the fashionable lecturer was incompatible with serious intellectual endeavor. "It is no small proof of Mr Davy's natural talents and strength of mind," wrote Henry Brougham on another occasion in the Edinburgh Review, "that they have escaped unimpaired from the enervating influence of the Royal Institution; and indeed grown prodigiously in that thick medium of fashionable philosophy." (32) With this came the conviction that it was impossible to reconcile the lecture's educational mission with its entertainment motive: "If the lecture phenomenon represents a secular ministry ... and the hunger of a new urban audience for enlightenment," writes Peter J. Manning, "the educational quest could too easily turn into a fashionable diversion." (33) Manning talks about "the antithesis of spectacle and education," but it is hard not to conclude that Davy, for one, was able to achieve both, and that both were the more effective for the presence of the other. Manning may find "Hazlitt's lectures enact the paradox of all popularization, the seesaw between stimulating introduction and debasing reduction," but it is a paradox that can be found in education at every level and the test of every educator is how well she or he manages to balance that seesaw. (34)
One final objection, before we turn to Coleridge's literary lectures, concerned literary lectures themselves, implicitly distinguishing the public discussion of creative literature from the opportunities offered by public lectures to gain an education in the sciences. How can the essentially private activity of reading be enhanced by "a disquisition or an oration, or, it may be, a batch of paradoxes piping from the oven of a heated fancy," asked Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. If the views of the audience are "imperfect, and their feelings erroneous or confused,"
will they be made just and true by the subjection of the mind, for a time, to the influence of eloquent declamation? By having been held in the midst of the contagious emotions of a thronged assembly, listening with excited feeling to a mixture of reasoning and passion? Surely a just taste would have been more advanced by contemplating in its single self, and in undisturbed solitude, the work which was the subject of the lecture, than in such a situation fragments of that work, intermingled with what can only be itself considered a work of art, and that of a very inferior kind--a piece of criticism.
At the historical moment that saw the institutionalization of the study of the national literature--saw the birth of the discipline of "English," in other words (35)--Blackwood's was asking whether it was desirable to turn the "genial love of literature into a curious, intricate, and doubtful study." No lecturer was commensurate with the experience of the literary text, was their short answer, "unless it happen--as it has happened--that he be himself a true poet, like Coleridge or Campbell." (36)
Davy had first suggested to Coleridge that he offer a set of literary lectures at the Royal Institution not long after Coleridge returned from Malta and Italy in May 1806, (37) but it was not until late 1807, when Davy wrote to Tom Poole, that Coleridge felt ready. A long list of enduring friends and supporters testified to the success of Coleridge's political lecturing and preaching for the Unitarians in the mid-1790s; his notebooks and letters since that time testified to his developing interest in literary criticism and what we would call "theory." What was being asked of him, after all, was only a more formal version of the often captivating talking that he had in fact been doing all his life. Responding promptly to Davy's letter to Poole, Coleridge proposed a series of lectures on "the Principles of Poetry," drawing on canonical and characteristic writers starting from Chaucer.
Like all the other commentary by Coleridge not published in his own lifetime--his letters and notebooks, most obviously, but also the extensive marginalia and the recorded table talk--Coleridge's Shakespeare criticism has required scrupulous editorial assembly and reconstruction, the most recent and authoritative text being that for the Collected Works by R. A. Foakes. The status of the text we have been able to salvage--and the reader of Foakes's edition will see that for the bulk of the lectures no text at all exists--must remain doubtful. (38) Not only are there very few lectures for which we have a complete set of lecture notes (including Coleridge's marginalia to various editions of Shakespeare, used especially later in his career as lecture notes), but even these can hardly be said to account for all that transpired at the time--or, indeed, for anything that transpired. Every lecturer knows the experience of omitting passages that suddenly seem inappropriate or irrelevant, as well as of veering (more or less happily) into unscripted digression or expansion.
But it was much more than this in the case of Coleridge, who, like many lecturers, discovered the performative value of extemporizing. "The difference was not great between his conversation which was a sort of lecturing & soliloquizing," as Henry Crabb Robinson noted, "and his lectures which were colloquial--And in which as he was himself aware it was impossible for him to be methodical[.] And those hearers who enjoyed him most, probably enjoyed most his digressions." (39) Coleridge's London friends, Davy especially, eagerly anticipated his mesmerizing the nation's most distinguished audience in the lavish 900-seat lecture theater of the Royal Institution, but the lectures, when he was well enough to deliver them, began badly and did not pick up until Coleridge abandoned his written script for notes, which even then he would set aside to indulge his digressive impulses. The result, admittedly, was uneven. "He spoke without any Assistance from a manuscript," recalled Edward Jerningham, "and Therefore said several Things suddenly, struck off from the Anvil, some of which were entitled to high Applause and others Incurred mental disapprobation." (40) But it is clear from the often positive responses his lectures received during this first series that Coleridge rediscovered his own elocutionary and theatrical powers. The closer he was able to bring the lecture form to his extempore talk, the more likely he was to engage the audience, many of whom were already disposed to indulge his idiosyncrasies. (41) Coleridge's "mode of lecturing," insisted his friend and early biographer, James Gillman, "was his own":
Coleridge's eloquence, when he gave utterance to his rich thoughts, flowing like some great river, which winds its way majestically at its own "sweet will," though occasionally slightly impeded by a dam formed from its crumbling banks, but over which the accumulated waters pass onward with increased force, so arrested his listeners, as at times to make them feel almost breathless. Such seemed the movement of Coleridge's words in lecture or in earnest discourse, and his countenance retained the same charms of benignity, gentleness, and intelligence, though his expression varied with the thoughts he uttered. His quotations from the poets, of high character, were most feelingly and most luminously given, as by one inspired with the subject. (42)
For what Coleridge actually said in his lectures on Shakespeare, we are reliant on accounts given in the letters of friends, like those of Henry Crabb Robinson to Catherine Clarkson; on occasional newspaper reports of the lectures--some of which, it has to be said, were remarkably generous in their coverage, as was newspaper and periodical coverage of all the public lectures of the period, depending on what else was making news at the time; and on the transcripts of recorders, including a relatively complete shorthand account of the lectures of 1811-12 from the pens of J. Tomalin and John Payne Collier, specifically engaged by Coleridge's friends for that purpose. "[E]ven the most enthusiastic of Coleridge's admirers could in all probability make only a partial record of his lectures," as Foakes concludes (43)--and the celebrated shorthand recorder, Joseph Gurney, left a famous account of the transmission difficulties created by the utter unpredictability of Coleridge's sentences;
A very experienced short-hand writer was employed to take down Mr. Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare, but the manuscript was almost entirely unintelligible. Yet the lecturer was, as he always is, slow and measured. The writer--we have some notion it was no worse an artist than Mr. Gurney himself--gave this account of the difficulty: that with regard to every other speaker whom he had ever heard, however rapid or involved, he could almost always, by long experience in his art, guess the form of the latter part, or apodosis, of the sentence by the form of the beginning; but that the conclusion of every one of Coleridge's sentences was a surprise upon him. He was obliged to listen to the last word. (44)
Some things are simply not recoverable.
However, to the extent that we are interested primarily in the lectures as performance--as enactment--the fragmented and imperfectly mediated nature of what Coleridge had to say about Shakespeare, while it obviously concerns, should not detain us. For the performance we can rely on the ample testimony of commentators from amongst Coleridge's audience. Let me begin'a brief survey of this testimony with a diary note, dated 16 May 1808, in which Joseph Farington relayed Prince Hoare's experience of Coleridge in the lecture theater, lecturing not on Shakespeare, as it happens, but on Milton:
When Coleridge came into the Box there were several Books laying. He opened two or three of them silently and shut them again after a short inspection. He then paused, & leaned His head on His hand, and at last said, He had been thinking for a word to express the distinct character of Milton as a Poet, but not finding one that wd. express it, He should make one 'Ideality'. He spoke extempore.--(45)
The "several Books," his stage props, are at once symbolic of, and coextensive with, the mental world this bookish lecturer inhabits--has inhabited from a prodigiously young age, Coleridge occasionally reminded his contemporaries--as he takes up "two or three of them silently," enacting before his audience the autodidactic process by which he achieved the authority he has assumed in lecturing to them on his specialized topic. He then proceeds to enact the second phase of the critical process: no longer silently reading, now, but thinking out loud, making a crucial choice (critoi = to choose). "He illuminated a text," writes Foakes, "through his own direct involvement with it before his audience." (46) This is theater as Coleridge himself defined it in his notes for his lectures at the Royal Institution in 1808:
The Stage (Res Theatralis Histnonica) ... A Theatre in its widest sense is the general Term for all places of amusement thro' Eye or Ear, when people assemble in order to be entertained by others, all at the same time, & in common.... Of this Genus the most important and dignified species is the Stage (Res Theatralis Histrionica) which in addition [to] the <generic> definition abovementioned may be characterized, as a combination of several, or of all the, Fine Arts, to an harmonious Whole, having an End of its own, to which the peculiar ends of its components (taken separately) are subordinated and made subservient: namely, that of imitating reality under a semblance of reality. (47)
"Res Theatralis Histrionica": that which relates to the theater and the art of acting. Drama and the dramatic element in all literature have always lent themselves to the theater of the lecture, in which the reality of our constant critical mediation of the text is imitated under a semblance of that reality. As well as being theater in Coleridge's own definition, his literary lectures are theater in all three of the senses used by Julie A. Carlson for her study of Romantic drama: "theatre as a cultural institution, as a type of literary production, and as a stage or structure of mind, both private and public." (48)
There is a good deal more going on in the opening scene of this lecture than just performing criticism, as it happens: there is also performing Milton. Indeed, to render any text or writer critically is arguably a kind of imitation or performative adaptation in itself, an act of sympathetic imagination that can be likened to creation in Coleridge's luminous terms:
Poetry a rationalized Dream dealing [?out] to manifold Forms our own Feelings, that never perhaps were attached by us consciously to our own personal Selves.--What is the Lear, the Othello, but a divine Dream / all Shakespere, & nothing Shakespere.--O there are Truths below the Surface in the subject of Sympathy, & how we become that which we understandly behold & hear, having, how much God perhaps only knows, created part even of the Form. (49)
How far Coleridge the critic can be said to have become Milton, and how far Milton is fashioned after Coleridge himself, is a moot point. Either way, to perform Milton was to perform Coleridge. As an honorific Coleridgean coinage, "Ideality" and its conceptual and behavioral analogues--"metaphysical," "imaginative," "meditative," "indefinite," "abstracted"--were precisely those that would be applied to both Coleridge and his criticism, not least by Coleridge himself. " [M]etaphysics and psychology have long been my hobby-horse," he would announce in the Biographia Literaria. (50) If one were to "think for a word" to express the distinct character of Coleridge as a literary lecturer, in other words, "ideality" is the one he shares with his subject.
This, certainly, is how James Amphlett read him: "There is only one thing in him that is certain, and that is, though his subject should be physics, a metaphysical conclusion. It is his governing tendency, and beats him out of that which is simple into that which is complex; from individualities to generalities, in defiance of himself." (51) The more ambivalent Edward Jerningham offers a similar portrait: "My opinion as to the Lecturer is that he possesses a great reach of mind; That He is a wild Enthusiast respecting the objects of his Elogium; That He is sometimes very eloquent, sometimes paradoxical, sometimes absurd. His voice has something in it particularly plaintive and interesting." (52) Time and again, one is struck in the accounts of Coleridge's effects on his audience by a sense of his autopoetic abstraction, projecting him as a willing prisoner of the world within himself, a willing prisoner of what John Thelwall called "the splendid but disjointed materials of his own mind":
Alas! poor Coleridge!--a seraph! and a worm! At least, a seraph he would have been, had there but been so much nerve of any one concentrating principle whatever, in his composition, as might have given consistency to the splendid but disjointed materials of his mind. This, only this, was wanting to his fame!--and it is in vain that the visions of mysticism and the unintelligibilities of metaphysics and Psychology are applied to, to supply its place. Every production of his genius, every effort of his mind, whether oral or written, bears some stamp and evidence,--some obscuring blot from this primitive deficiency. Let us not, however, be mistaken as though we wished to depreciate these lectures;--the very atoms and fragments of such a mind, have a value beyond the perfect coinages of the ordinary class of lecturers. That affluence of fine ideas--that power of expressive language, in which he frequently abounds--that store of miscellaneous knowledge, he has so elaborately attained, and which, occasionally, he so happily imparts, entitle him to more than all the patronage that can crown his efforts; and we cannot conclude these remarks without recommending both the proposed courses to the attention of our readers. (53)
Whether, like Thelwall, we see the archangel Coleridge as fallen, or merely (with Charles Lamb) "a little damaged," (54) the essential unworldliness of the characterization was universally acknowledged--and it was a characterization that was encouraged by Coleridge himself. In the lecture theater, as in his "sketches of [his] literary life and opinions" in the Bwgraphia, Coleridge offered an elaborate, rhetorical self-dramatization in which he projected himself as a literary Don Quixote, a relic from a nobler, more ideal world--a golden world before the advent of Edmund Burke's "sophisters, aeconomists, and calculators." (55) "To lecture on the genius of Shakespeare," as Peter Manning observes, "was an occasion for the performance of contemporary genius." (56) In establishing the genius of Milton and Shakespeare, in other words, Coleridge used his eloquence and insight simultaneously to establish his own claims to genius--and, with that, the priority and authority of genius more generally. (57)
If Coleridge's investment in the ideality of Milton escaped comment, his investment in the ideality of Hamlet was immediately recognized by his friends. Of all his readings, it is that of Hamlet--Hamlet the character, that is, rather than Hamlet the play--which has proved most influential, both in criticism and in the theater. Here are Collier's notes for the lecture Coleridge delivered on 2 January 1812:
He meant to pourtray a person in whose view the <external> world and all its incidents <and objects> were comparatively dim, and of no interest of themselves, and which began to interest only when they were reflected in the mirror of his mind. Hamlet beheld external objects in the same way that a man <of vivid imagination> who shuts his eyes, sees what has previously made an impression upon his organs. Shakespeare places him in the most stimulating circumstances that a human being can be placed in: he is the heir apparent of the throne: his father dies suspiciously: his mother excludes him from the throne by marrying his uncle. This was not enough but the Ghost of the murdered father is introduced to assure the son that he was put to death by his own brother. What is the result? Endless reasoning and urging--perpetual solicitation of the mind to act, but as constant an escape from action--ceaseless reproaches of himself <for his sloth>, while the whole energy of his resolution passes away in those reproaches. This, too, not from cowardice, for he is made one of the bravest of his time--not from want of forethought or quickness of apprehension, for he sees through the <very> souls of all who surround him, but merely from <that> aversion to action which prevails among such as have a world within themselves. (58)
Hamlet is a victim of his own restless intellect and self-reflective introspection, paralyzed not in spite of, but precisely because of "that greatness of genius, which led Hamlet to the perfect knowledge of his own character," being "deeply acquainted with his own feelings," and "painting them with such wonderful power & accuracy": (59)
the aversion to externals, the betrayed Habit of brooding over the world within him, and the prodigality of beautiful words, which are as it were the half-embodyings of Thought, that make them more than Thought, give them an outness, a reality sui generis and yet retain their correspondence and shadowy approach to Images and Movements within-- (60)
Hamlet is a victim of his own noble imagination, overcome by "a sense of imperfectness" in a world incommensurate with his high ideals. (61) It is this, the natural if not necessary by-product of his "greatness of genius," that more than anything else makes Coleridge's Hamlet so characteristically Romantic.
Coleridge, it is true, begins and ends with a moral reading of the play as an affirmation of Aristotelian action, "the great end of existence." With every new provocation to action Hamlet "still yields to the same retiring from all reality" and "seizes hold of a pretext for not acting": "he is all meditation, all resolution <as far as words are concerned>, but all hesitation & irresolution when called upon to act; so that resolving to do everything he <in fact> does nothing." (62) It was at this point that Coleridge's friends in the audience began making faces and winking at each other. "Last night," Crabb Robinson wrote to Catherine Clarkson, Coleridge "concluded his fine development of the Prince of Denmark by an eloquent statement of the moral of the play":
'Action,' he said, 'is the great end of all; no intellect, however grand, is valuable, if it draw us from action and lead us to think and think till the time of action is passed by, and we can do nothing.' Somebody said to me, 'This is a satire on himself.'--'No,' said I, 'it is an elegy.' A great many of his remarks on Hamlet were capable of a like application. (63)
Picking up on one of the central organizing puns of the play, a Coleridge incapable of action, but capable of acting, identifies a similar paralysis in the histrionic prince.
In castigating Hamlet for his inaction, then, Coleridge castigated himself. As so often, however, self-confession here only thinly veils self-congratulation. All the emotional and spiritual weight of Coleridge's extended analysis is, after all, on Hamlet's (and his own) side. The Prince of Denmark surely remains more heroic for having retired from reality into "the world within him" than he ever could have been indulging in the vulgar activism of a Fortinbras. It all hinges on the distinction between commanding and absolute genius that structures Coleridge's definition and promotion of genius from the 1790s onwards. Like Kubla Khan and Robespierre and Napoleon Buonaparte and Macbeth, Fortinbras is a commanding genius, the human spirit in a state of only partial evolution that renders him (he is invariably masculine) a serious danger to the world:
Hope the Master Element of a Commanding Genius, meeting with an active & combining Intellect, and an Imagination of just that degree of vividness which disquiets & impels the Soul to try to realize its Images--greatly increase this creative Power, & the Images become a satisfying world of themselves--i.e. we have the Poet, or original Philosopher. (64)
The more highly evolved Hamlet is said to have retired into the world of his own mind, just as Coleridge had retired into his, transmuting a political into an ideal world. Just how close Coleridge's Hamlet was to Coleridge's sense of himself, and Hamlet's mind to Coleridge's own, is captured by comparing a remark in Coleridge's 1813 lectures with a famous passage of self-speculation from the notebooks:
The sense of sublimity arises, not from the sight of an outward object, but from the reflection upon it: not from the impression, but from the idea. Few have seen a celebrated waterfall without feeling something of disappointment: it is only subsequently, by reflection, that the idea of the waterfall comes full into the mind, and brings with it a train of sublime associations. Hamlet felt this: in him we see a mind that keeps itself in a state of abstraction, and beholds external objects as hieroglyphics. His soliloquy, "Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt," arises from a craving after the indefinite: a disposition or temper which most easily besets men of genius; a morbid craving for that which is not. (65)
Compare this with Coleridge in his isolation in Malta:
Saturday Night, April 14, 1805--In looking at Objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro' the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing any thing new. Even when the latter is the case, yet still I have always an Obscure feeling as if that new phasnomenon were the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature / It is still interesting as a Word, a Symbol! It is Xoyos [logos], the Creator! and the Evolver! (66)
Coleridge finds in nature "a symbolical language" for the ideal within him, Hamlet "hieroglyphics" for the "sense of sublimity" within.
Whether Coleridge's characterization of Hamlet as a Romantic genius was self-satire or self-elegy, as Crabb Robinson suggested, or whether it was self-justification--and there is an element of all three involved--it required a careful editing of the play Hamlet in the interests of a Coleridgean apologetics. If Hamlet's imagination heroically isolates him from the action, Coleridge exaggerates that isolation, no less than he ignores much of the selfishness and schadenfreude that offended August Wilhelm Schlegel. (67) Be that as it may, the public lecture theater of the early-nineteenth century gave Coleridge the opportunity to act out his own genial inactivity.
University of Sydney, Australia
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--. Collected Works. Vol. 6: Lay Sermons. Edited by R. J. White. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.
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Lamb, Charles and Mary. The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb. Edited by Edwin W. Marrs, Jr. 3 vols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975-78.
Manning, Peter J. "Manufacturing the Romantic Image: Hazlitt and Coleridge Lecturing." In Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780-1840, edited by James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin, 227-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
McCalman, Iain. "Magic, Spectacle and the Art of Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon." In Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's "Cottage Door," edited by Ann Bermingham, 181-89. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
McDayter, Ghislaine. Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. New York: SUNY Press, 2009.
"On Public Lectures of Works of Imagination at Literary Institutions." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 6, no. 32 (November 1819): 162-69.
Osier, Alan. The Rise of Public Lecturing in England. Victoria: Trafford, 2007.
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Sandford, Mrs Henry [Margaret E.]. Thomas Poole and His Friends. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1888.
Scott, Donald M. "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." The Journal of American History 66, no. 4 (1980): 791-809.
Southey, Robert [writing as Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella]. Letters from England. 3 vols. London: Longman, Rees, and Orme, 1807.
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"Varieties, Literary and Philosophical." Universal Magazine 8 (July 1807): 42-48.
(1.) As quoted in Mrs Henry [Margaret E.] Sandford, Thomas Poole and His Friends (London: Macmillan, 1888), 2:193.
(2.) See H[enry] Bence Jones, The Royal Institution: Its Founder and Its First Professors (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1871). Most subsequent discussion of the Royal Institution concerns its role in the advancement of modern science--see, for example, Morris Berman, Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution 1799-1844 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978)--though its literary lectures are briefly discussed in David Hadley, "Public Lectures and Private Societies: Expounding Literature and the Arts in Romantic London," in English Romanticism: Preludes and Postludes, ed. Donald Schoonmaker and John A. Alford (East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1993).
(3.) "Account of the Royal Institution of Great Britain," Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure in (July 1802): 19-22.
(4.) Edinburgh Review 12 (July 1808): 399.
(5.) "Nearly 50% of the forty-seven persons who met in March 1799 to inaugurate the Royal Institution were aristocratic or wealthy landowners, representing the traditional agriculture cultural interest," Frederick Kurzer, "A History of the Surrey Institution," Annals of Science $7, no. 2 (2000): 114.
(6.) Carlyle to Alexander Carlyle, March 5, 1837, Carlyle Letters Online, accessed June 12, 2010, http://carlyleletters.dukejournals.org/.
(7.) Kurzer, "History of the Surrey Institution," 125.
(8.) The phenomenon of public lecturing would become even more popular in the United States, where, according to Donald M. Scott, "By the early 1840s there probably were between 3,500 and 4,000 communities that contained a society sponsoring public lectures. A lecture society was frequently among the first institutions established in a newly formed town," "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," The Journal of American History 66, no. 4 (March 1980): 791.
(9.) Kurzer, "History of the Surrey Institution," 131.
(10.) For the development of public lecturing from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, see Alan Osier, The Rise of Public Lecturing in England (Victoria: Trafford, 2007).
(11.) Kurzer, "History of the Surrey Institution," in.
(12.) Russell, "Theatre," in An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture, 1776-1832, ed. Iain McCalman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 223. Compare Peter Thomson, "Acting and Actors from Garrick to Kean," in The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre, 1730-1830, eds. Jane Moody and Daniel O'Quinn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3-19, and Ghislaine McDayter, Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture (New York: SUNY Press, 2009).
(13.) Burwick, Romantic Drama: Acting and Reacting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1-2.
(14.) Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper, 2008), 287, 286.
(15.) Kathleen Coburn, ed., The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 1: note 1099.
(16.) Holmes, Age of Wonder, 291.
(17.) Compare Holmes's comment with Sydney Smith's daughter on her father's lectures: "All Albemarle Street, and part of Grafton Street, were rendered impassable by the concourse of carriages assembled there during the time of their delivery," Sarah Austin, ed., Notes from A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by His Daughter Lady Holland, with a Selection of Letters (New York: Harper & Bros, 1855), 1:8in. De Quincey recalls having seen at Coleridge's lectures at the Royal Institution "all Albemarle Street closed by a 'lock' of carriages filled with women of distinction," Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (Harmonds worth: Penguin, 1970), 100--the same 'lock' of carriages that greeted Humphry Davy and Sydney Smith, in other words--but De Quincey is notoriously unreliable and the point he wants to make is about Coleridge's invariably disappointing the expectations of every audience.
(18.) As quoted in Amy Cruse, The Englishman and His Books in the Early Nineteenth Century (London: George G. Harrap, 1930), 196.
(19.) Osier, Rise of Public Lecturing in England, 7.
(20.) Scott, "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," 805.
(21.) The phrase is from the title of Jan Golinski's study of the culture and research of chemistry around the turn of the nineteenth century, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
(22.) Hays, "The London Lecturing Empire, 1800-50," in Metropolis and Province: Science in British Culture, 1780-1850, eds. Ian Inkster and Jack Morrell (London: Hutchinson, 1983), 94
(23.) Golinski, Science as Public Culture, 202.
(24.) Russell, "Theatre," 228. For de Loutherbourg, see Iain McCalman, "Magic, Spectacle and the Art of Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon," in Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's "Cottage Door," ed. Ann Bermingham (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 181-89.
(25.) Baugh, "Scenography and technology," Cambridge Companion to British Theatre, 1730-1830, 43.
(26.) Kurzer, "History of the Surrey Institution," 122.
(27.) Hays, "London Lecturing Empire, 1800-50," 91-92.
(28.) See "Varieties, Literary and Philosophical," Universal Magazine 8 (July 1807): 44.
(29.) See the precis in the Director: A Weekly Literary Journal 1, no. 1 (January 24, 1807): 24-27; (January 31, 1807): 57-60.
(30.) I am indebted for this expression to Scott, "Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public," 806.
(31.) As quoted in George A. Foote, "Sir Humphry Davy and His Audience at the Royal Institution," Isis 43, no. 1 (April 1952): 10. Compare Robert Southey, writing as Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella: "Part of the men were taking snuff to keep their eyes open, others more honestly asleep, while ladies were all upon the watch, and some score of them had their tablets and pencils, busily noting down what they heard, as topics for the next conversation party," in Letters from England (London: Longman, Rees, and Orme, 1807), 3:315-16.
(32.) "Davy's Bakerian Lecture," Edinburgh Review 11 (January 1808): 390.
(33.) Manning, "Manufacturing the Romantic Image: Hazlitt and Coleridge Lecturing," in Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780-1840, eds. James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 229.
(34.) Manning, "Manufacturing the Romantic Image," 230, 233.
(35.) For the development of "English" from rhetoric and belles lettres in the eighteenth century to the appointment of Thomas Dale as the first chair of English Literature at the new University of London in January 1828, see Franklin E. Court, Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750-1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).
(36.) "On Public Lectures of Works of Imagination at Literary Institutions," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 6, no. 32 (November 1819): 164-66, 167.
(37.) E. L. Griggs, ed., Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 2:1187.
(38.) For the most trenchant critique of the textual status and ideological tendency of Foakes's reconstruction of Coleridge on Shakespeare, including reflections on the vital performative element of Coleridge's criticism, see Jon Klancher, "Transmission Failure," in Theoretical Issues in Literary Study, ed. David Perkins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 16:173-95.
(39.) Crabb Robinson, letter to Mrs. Clarkson, reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. R. A. Foakes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 1:410-11.
(40.) Edward Jerningham to Lady Bedingfield, reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:143.
(41.) At the Surrey Institution in 1812, Coleridge claimed "I never once thought of the Lecture, till I had entered the Lecture Box," Collected Letters of Coleridge, 3:430.
(42.) James Gillman, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1838), 336.
(43.) Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, I:lxxxiii. See the section on "Texts, Notes, and Reports" in Foakes's introduction, lxxx-lxxxvi.
(44.) Henry Nelson Coleridge, as quoted in Seamus Perry, ed., S. T. Coleridge: Interviews and Recollections (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), 149.
(45.) Reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:145.
(46.) Foakes introduction, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:liii.
(47.) BM Add MSS 34225, ff. 54-56, as reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:129-30.
(48.) Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 18.
(49.) In a note of May n, 1804, Coleridge's Notebooks, ed. Seamus Perry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 66 [note 338].
(50.) Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, vol. 7 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, eds. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 1:85.
(51.) Amphlett in the Rifleman, January 19, 1812, reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:321.
(52.) Jerningham to Lady Bedingfield, reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:143.
(53.) A. S. [John Thelwall], The Champion, December 21, 1818, as quoted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 2:276-77.
(54.) In a letter to Wordsworth, April 26, 1816, The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, ed. Edwin W. Marrs, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 3:215.
(55.) Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France: A Critical Edition, ed. J. C. D. Clark (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 238.
(56.) Manning, "Manufacturing the Romantic Image," 236.
(57.) Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1:232-33.
(58.) Coleridge, Lecture 12, 1811-12, Lectures 1808-1819 Oil Literature, 1:386.
(59.) Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:388.
(60.) Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:540.
(61.) Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:388.
(62.) Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:388, 399, 390.
(63.) Crabb Robinson to Mrs. Clarkson, Hatton Garden, 3 January 1812, in Diary, Reminiscences and Letters of Henry Crabb Robinson, ed. Thomas Sadler (London: Macmillan, 1869), 1:366-67.
(64.) BM MS Egerton 2800, f. 37, as reprinted in Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:137. Compare Biographia Literaria, 1:32-33, and Statesman's Manual, in Lay Sermons, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 6, ed. R. J. White (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 65-66 and n. 1.
(65.) Lecture 3 (1813), reported in the Bristol Gazette, 11 November 1813, Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, 1:544
(66.) Coleridge's Notebooks, 87-88 (note 405).
(67.) The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bate (London: Penguin, 1992), 309.
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|Title Annotation:||Samuel Taylor Coleridge|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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