Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Purloined Voices: Edgar Allan Poe Reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Purloined Voices: Edgar Allan Poe Reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Article excerpt

THE PERVASIVE INFLUENCE OF SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE'S WORK ON THE writings of Edgar Allan Poe is well documented. As early as 1930, in his article "Poe's Debt to Coleridge," Floyd Stovall maintained that Coleridge was "the guiding genius of Poe's entire intellectual life." (1) Daniel Hoffman's contention from 1972 that "the philosophical breadth of Coleridge underlies Poe's acute narrowness as the pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States at its summit supports one assured and unblinking eye" is equally far-reaching. (2) Yet, as undeniable as the influential presence of Coleridge's thought in Poe's texts might be, the insinuation of seamless continuity that underpins these and similar assessments needs to be called into question. Poe is in fact far from completing the philosophical structure that Coleridge had attempted to build, and if he inhabits it, he does so not as a headstone in its supporting arch, but rather as a threat to its desired foundations.

Poe felt without a doubt that he had discovered the voice of a kindred spirit in Coleridge's early poetry, a voice that would continue to reverberate in Poe's prose, where elements of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancyent Marinere resurface with the persistence of those subconscious depths of guilt and speechless dread that fascinated both writers equally. It is also an open secret that Poe the reviewer and literary critic freely borrowed from Coleridge's poetological reflections to suit his needs, unabashedly presenting Coleridge's aesthetic principles, specifically those developed in the Biographia Literaria, as his own critical insights. Even Poe's famous "tales of ratiocination," which institute the modern genre of detective fiction, owe, as Christopher Kearns has rightfully pointed out, a debt to Coleridge that is just as heavy as it is unacknowledged. (3) Despite their pervasiveness, such "effects" of literary influence would not have greatly troubled Coleridge, for whom Poe, who ultimately no more than adopts Coleridge's own strategies of textual appropriation, obviously presented no direct literary competition. What would have been of some concern for Coleridge, however--had Poe, like the "Frogpondian" Emerson, been able to make the pilgrimage to Highgate for a hypothetical table talk with the sage of British Romantic letters--is the fact that the philosophical and religious convictions that underpin Coleridge's thought ceased to have any purchase on Poe's thought and prose. If Emerson's Unitarianism no longer seemed a tenable religious position for the ex-Unitarian Coleridge, deeply immersed in Trinitarian belief in the last years of his life, the differences in religious, philosophical, and aesthetic sensibility between Coleridge and Poe ultimately run far deeper than such doctrinal conflicts.

Coleridge's desire for an all-encompassing philosophical system based on, and reconcilable with, Christian religious belief is firmly rooted in the philosophical discussion of the European Romantic period, in which the products and processes of the poetic imagination, a "faculty divine" for Coleridge, could be seen to mediate between the only seemingly irreconcilable realms of the empirical and the transcendent. Only a few decades later this very desire would appear as no less than unpoetic for Poe, who had already embarked on the vessel of an aesthetics that would mark the end of the nineteenth century, and for which the work of art is no longer proof of the connection between the human and the divine, but rather an autonomous aesthetic creation that derives its specific dignity from the moment of poetic eternity it upholds in the face of the inevitability of human death. Poe's appropriation of Coleridge's philosophical voice, which cannot entail the casting of an even wider analytical net, is, as I will attempt to demonstrate on the following pages, rather part of a narrative strategy that represents the systematic urge of the philosopher as the desire of the storyteller to weave together the various strands of his narrative in a satisfactory fashion. …

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