Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Sara Coleridge's "Critique of Dante and Milton"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Sara Coleridge's "Critique of Dante and Milton"

Article excerpt

Editorial Note: The "Critique of Dante and Milton" is one of Sara Coleridge's most searching, far-reaching, and longest literary critical essay. in it she writes about the English poets who mattered most to her, Milton and Wordsworth, as well as Dante, the great European precursor about whom she was ambivalent. "Critique of Dante and Milton" shows her characteristic erudition and her radical and incisive directness. Her critical comparisons rest on such axioms about the value of poetry as "the fittest poetry is that which appeals to the whole of our nature," "this arises from the nature of things," and "poetry is itself very human thing." The grounds of her judgments are responsibly asserted. Since, for lack of space, was unable to include the essay in The Regions of Sara Coleridge's Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), I am very pleased instead to present here the entire essay of around 9,000 words, with grateful acknowledgments to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, where the manuscript is housed.

Untitled, the manuscript was called "Critique of Dante and Milton" by the Ransom Center. Though incomplete and not a final copy, the essay seems to be an advanced version, especially the first two think. The latter pages are relatively inchoate, one sign being the increased number of Sara's footnotes as she finds the plan of her discussion failing to accommodate all she wants to say (to avoid confusion I refer to Sara Coleridge as "Sara" and her father as "STC"). The manuscript is undated, hut internal evidence suggests that it was conceived in relation to the 1847 second edition of Biographia Literaria, on which Sara worked intensely in 1845 and 1846. Late 1846 is a likely date, probably October or November. Some of the essay was condensed into a long footnote in the second volume of the Biographia (ii. 24-9), and some of the arguments can also he found in Sara's letters to Aubrey de Vere between October and December, 1846; we do not have the originals of these letters, but only the extracts published by Edith. Coleridge. For Sara's further and related comparisons of Dante, Milton and Wordsworth, see Memoir and Letters of Sara Coleridge, edited by Edith Coleridge (1874) 323-5 and 456-9, and The Regions of Sara Coleridge's Thought, edited by Peter Swaab (2012), 93-5 and 122-6.

The main context for the essay is STC's extended discussion of Wordsworth's "excellences" and "defects" in chapters 17-22 of Biographia Literaria, and I suspect Sara conceived it as a note or supplement for inclusion in the new edition. She alludes on the first page without further comment or reference to "my Father"s remarks" on Wordsworth, as if it would be self-evident which remarks these were; and she generally refers to STC as "my Father" or "my father" in the 1847 Biographia. By contrast, she gives page references when citing STC's other works. Sara's notes to these chapters abstained from assessing the validity of STC's strictures, focussing instead on an original and telling comparison between Wordsworth's earlier and revised texts. It may be that she planned to reserve her own assessment of STC's critique to the pages of this essay. She manages in it to combine the highest tribute to Wordsworth with a principled concession that the excellences of even the greatest poets entail corresponding limitations. In doing so, she would have had in mind to reconcile Wordsworth and Coleridge by affirming the greatness. of the living poet alongside the salience of her father's arguments.

However, Wordsworth would not have welcomed the essay. Sara always preferred his early poems and editions, and she here argues (thirty-three years before Matthew Arnold's brilliantly introduced mid selected edition) that the essential Wordsworth had been published by 1815. She would probably have toned down this claim if the essay had. been published in Wordsworth's lifetime. But even without such judgments, the Wordsworth's were uncomfortable about the prospect of a second edition of Biographia. …

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