Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Coleridge's "Multeity in Unity" and the Statuesque and Picturesque Impulses

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Coleridge's "Multeity in Unity" and the Statuesque and Picturesque Impulses

Article excerpt

WITHOUT CONTRADICTION, COLERIDGE IS REGARDED CRITICALLY AS A fine poet whose genius might have unlocked the language of the birds had he chanced upon a hint of dragon's blood, and locally as a philosopher manque who menaced the town's children with impromptu discourses on metaphysics. His most confusing regard in scholarship is often as a philosopher of aesthetics. He is either a brilliant aesthetician whose Biographia Literaria (1817) set into theory the revolutions in poetry and criticism in Romantic Britain, or an abstruse plagiarist of German philosophy. Coleridge never did produce a systematic philosophy of the arts, let alone the compendium of all knowledge toward which all of his life and work were bent, but his critical oeuvre presents fascinating and at times novel aesthetic theories.

Alongside his theories of imagination and symbol, Coleridge's most important contribution to aesthetics is his formula "multeity in unity." (1) This article sets forth an analysis of "multeity in unity," that vague but essential definition of beauty in Coleridge's aesthetics. Along with his essay "On Poesy or Art" (1818), I will discuss Coleridge's Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism in the Fine Arts (1814), for while they have been overlooked the Essays provide the clearest sustained attempt in Coleridge's critical oeuvre at attempting a philosophy of the fine arts and are the source of the phrase "multeity in unity." The distinction of aesthetic terms is crucial to understanding Coleridge's definition of beauty, but the Essays alone do not suffice. The somewhat fragmentary attempts at defining aesthetic terms, published before but in the same year as the Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism, I regard as preparatory essays and critical supplements to the main text. These preparatory essays provide the groundwork for the fuller but assumed conceptualization of beauty as "multeity in unity" in the later Essays, as they present the constituent elements contained in that principle in the form of various categories or, as I later term them, impulses. The preparatory essays are titled as follows: "On Aesthetic Problems," "Definitions of Aesthetic Terms," and "On the Distinction Between the Picturesque and the Sublime." The aesthetic categories on which I will be focusing are the Shapely, the Beautiful, the Picturesque, and the Statuesque. All of these shorter essays, published around the same time, constellate Coleridge's project to define aesthetic terms.

In reaction to then popular theories of association, Coleridge attempts to furnish for both the artist and the philosophical critic an objective and universal principle that serves originality, imagination, beauty, and any other vicissitude of the creation, experience, and judgment of art. While the resulting term "multeity in unity" is assumed in Romantic scholarship as intelligible per se, it is my purpose to examine its constituent parts and thus significance as a term in Coleridge's criticism. I ultimately will argue that the aesthetic categories the Picturesque and the Statuesque represent analytically distinguished impulses, respectively, of the centrifugal and centripetal forces on which the simultaneously variegating and unifying function of "multeity in unity" is premised. The Statuesque impulse reappears in Coleridge's later and better-recognized statements on plastic imagination.

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The Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism in the Fine Arts afford a baroque but sweeping view of Coleridge's dedication to philosophical criticism and the fine arts. Walter Jackson Bate, in assessing the Essays as Coleridge's "most important single contribution to the general criticism of art," is in fact echoing Coleridge's own statement that the Essays represent his "best compositions," and are a "natural predecessor of the Biographia." (2) Such high regard is met with a fascinating history of Coleridge's experiences with the fine arts and his search for basic principles of criticism that might account for the many paintings and statues Coleridge examined at home and on his travels. …

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