An Experiment in Honesty: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's the Friend

By Cain, Jeffrey | Modern Age, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

An Experiment in Honesty: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's the Friend


Cain, Jeffrey, Modern Age


CONSERVATIVES TODAY OWE A debt of gratitude to Russell Kirk for rightly seeing in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's mature thought a great deal more than the epithet "romantic poet" might suggest. Still, some may wonder how exactly Coleridge--notorious for his opium addiction, youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution, intellectual fixation with German Romanticism, estranged family life, amorous obsessions, bohemian lifestyle, plagiarisms, and long-held interest in establishing a utopian community--found a place among Kirk's pantheon of conservative minds. To imagine the one-time wayfarer of the Lake District and author of the laudanum-inspired "Kubla Kahn" in Kirk's "august line of English Christian" thinkers--Richard Hooker, John Milton, the Cambridge Platonists, Edmund Burke, and John Henry Newman--seems, at first thought, rather unlikely.

One of the virtues of Kirk's account of Coleridge's conservatism is that he never becomes sidetracked by his subject's infamous biography. In an age of Benthamite industrialists and entrepreneurs, men of matter, Coleridge argued in The Constitution of the Church and State for the necessity of ideas in directing men's lives and in guiding the nation. For Kirk, Coleridge demonstrated that "religion and politics are inseparable, that the decay of one must produce the decay of the other." (1) Kirk praised Coleridge's spirited Platonic defense of church and state, a defense that separated the idea of both institutions from their worldly deficiencies. He also lauded Coleridge's notion of a national clerisy--a third estate that maintains and advances the cultivation of the people--as a means of safeguarding the masses from becoming alienated from the church. Like Burke's "ever-originating" social contract, Kirk's Coleridge understood the ideal of church and state as an ongoing agreement "between God and man and among several elements of society, a spiritual reality that can be discerned only by spiritual perception." (2) For Kirk, Coleridge is therefore the "real" philosopher of conservatism among the Romantic generation, the heir of Burke's politics of prescription who foreshadowed the careers of John Keble and John Henry Newman, and who later became a source of "inspiration for Disraeli and conservative reformers a century afterward." (3)

The strength of Kirk's assessment of Coleridge as a philosophical conservative, however, also portends its weakness. Kirk's "dreamer of Highgate" published The Constitution of the Church and State in 1829, four years before his death in 1834. Coleridge's Lay Sermons, which Kirk puts forward as Coleridge's first systematic expression of conservatism, was not published until 1818, nearly twenty years after Wordsworth and Coleridge had published their revolutionary Lyrical Ballads. By drawing solely from these two relatively late works, Kirk's portrait gives us a bifurcated and rather conventional picture of a graying Coleridge, one that suggests the august poet had merely grown conservative with age. In The Conservative Mind, we observe Coleridge's conservatism in retirement, but we never plumb the turbulent depths whence it sprang.

Missing from Kirk's portrait is the elan and genius of Coleridge's remarkable and often rebellious youth: his wide-eyed flirtations with Jacobinism, the Oriel College troublemaker, freethinking journalist, hapless opium addict, earnest revolutionary, avant-garde poet, and London gadfly. These are more than quirky biographical footnotes, for Coleridge possessed in abundance that admirable but vexing characteristic of living Socrates' ideal of a self-reflective life. Even from an early age he lived deliberately: thinking, talking, and writing obsessively about his motivations, his presuppositions, and his assumptions about his presuppositions. While his later religious and political thought may follow the line of Kirk's English Christian apologists, Coleridge's mind and pen vaulted effortlessly among the peaks of nearly every important subject of his day--literature, aesthetics, philosophy, church history, psychology, painting, landscape, architecture, and linguistics. …

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