Coleridge: Critic of Society. John Colmer. Oxford University Press. 30/-.
in many ways this is a useful book, though more so to the “student” perhaps than to “the general reader”, for both of whom it is apparently intended. Much of Coleridge’s work is out of print or otherwise difficult to obtain and until the re-publication of his writings (now under way) is completed, Mr. Colmer’s work will be helpful for the large amount of quotation from published and unpublished Coleridge material it includes and for his extensive passages of précis. He provides information on dates of publication and the circumstances of writing of all the published books and essays on politics by Coleridge, biographical and other material, as well as some less useful comment on the historical “background” and the “climate of opinion of the age”. Nine political essays from the Morning Post not hitherto reprinted appear in an appendix. As a work of reference and a source of material Coleridge: Critic of Society is excellent.
Mr. Colmer’s claims for his book in the Preface are so modest as to disarm criticism to some extent, but even within the bounds set by his modesty and intentions some rather desperate shortcomings are apparent. Some of these spring from his method of presentation, some from a naive and simplicist notion of political theory and action. I suspect that Mr. Colmer is not himself very much interested in politics, though he is clearly taken by Coleridge as man and writer, making claims for him (in the Conclusion and elsewhere) that he does not substantiate at all satisfactorily in the text. Coleridge is much over-praised today, or rather often praised for the wrong reasons, and Mr. Colmer adds modestly to the accumulating veneration.
His exhaustively detailed presentation tends to reduce everything Coleridge has to say to one level of importance. A softening of the extreme positions and contradictions in Coleridge’s thinking is reinforced by Colmer’s tendency to regard everything, from his radicalism to his ultra-toryism, in what he calls “proper perspective”, that is to say, “against the background of his age”, whereby all is seen to be understandable and excusable. (“Today Coleridge’s views on the intervention of the State in the organisation of agriculture and industry must appear cautious in the extreme, but when they are seen against the background of his age, they fall into proper perspective.”) The result is a text lacking in feeling for the actual moral and political conflict in Coleridge’s life and writings and in his own age. In spite of some talk of “demagogues” (Thelwall, Cobbett and the like) this book is politically neutral and academically “detached” to the point where it ceases to have very much to say at all. The level of comment and discussion, in contrast to the excellent use of quotation and the analysis, is unhelpful and superficial in all except the pages on On the Constitution of Church and State (pp. 153–166).
There is room for much comment, for example, on the paradoxical process by which Coleridge consigns all political power in the State to those clashing “Interests” (Burgesses and Barons, land and capital) which he affirms elsewhere to be the cause of existing social misery. Coleridge’s indignation at the state of the poor, the cotton workers, welders and other workers is sincere and clearly deeply felt. His account of the economic mechanism of capitalism is extraordinarily penetrating and often ahead of its time. (Read him on the boomslump cycle in the second Lay Sermon.) His picture of its effects in terms of human lives and suffering and his exposure of the realities behind such words as “free labour”, “operatives” (for factory workers) and “the labouring poor” are magnificent—acute, ironic, morally biting. Yet by a complicated moral and intellectual process (appearing first in The Friend—1809—and completed in On the Constitution of Church and State a few years before his death) the unmasked exploiters and oppressors are confirmed in their charge of and “responsibility” for the exploited and the oppressed. The steps by which a genuinely humane and highly intelligent man can reach the position of metaphysically and morally justifying a system whose effects he abhors are of considerable contemporary and not merely historical or academic interest. Like so many middle-class intellectual radicals, then and now, Coleridge came to hate the possibility of social change even more than he hated capitalism, with all its inhumanity and hypocrisy. Coleridge’s dilemma was the dilemma of the middle-class social conscience faced, as it is also today, with the evils of a system it was not prepared to disturb. Coleridge felt the dilemma very strongly; it is at the root of almost all his political thinking. What does not emerge from Mr. Colmer’s study is the strength of the moral and political conflict in Coleridge, a conflict that had its source in his close observation of and keen response to the major conflicts of his time.
Mr. Colmer’s book brings together admirably a mass of material from many sources, more than he himself has known what to do with perhaps, which will be of use to those interested in or working in 19th century politics and history.
J. P. Mann