Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Properer for a Sermon": Particularities of Dissent and Coleridge's Conversational Mode

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Properer for a Sermon": Particularities of Dissent and Coleridge's Conversational Mode

Article excerpt

... Once I saw (Hallowing his Sabbath-day by quietness) A wealthy son of commerce saunter by, Bristowa's citizen: methought, it calmed His thirst of idle gold, and made him muse With wiser feelings.

--"Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement" (9-14)(1)

A WELL-KNOWN TURNING POINT IN COLERIDGE'S EARLY CAREER IS JANUary 1798, when the young poet, lecturer, journalist, and preacher received the offer of a 150 [pounds sterling] annuity from the Wedgwood family. At the time, Coleridge was preparing to accept the position of minister to the Unitarian chapel at Shrewsbury, which came with a salary of 120 [pounds sterling] and a house worth 30 [pounds sterling] rent. Coleridge's acceptance of the ministry there, I suggest, would have placed him physically and symbolically within the network of commercial Dissenters who dominated the economic and intellectual lire of Northern England. This essay fin& a fresh history of early romanticism in Coleridge's vexed relationship to nonconformist religion during the 1790s. Throughout the first hall of the eighteenth century, "old Dissent" comprised three major sects: Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists.(2) By the end of the century, however, Unitarianism and "new Dissent," Methodism, had augmented the ranks of nonconformity. Overlooking the tensions between older and newer forms of Dissent, literary critics interested in Coleridge's Unitarianism have too often treated Dissenters as a uniform body distinct from the established Church of England. Coleridge's early career, however, manifests a dissidence foreign to the interests of old Dissent. His lectures and conversation poems anticipate the early romantic figure of Coleridge we associate with his later self-representations in his letters and the Biographia; in the 1790s, however, the disinterested persona and community imagined by Coleridge in his political, religious, and poetic writings emerge hot from a latent German idealism awaiting the discovery of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling after 1801, but from Coleridge's rejection of that nexus of middle-class interests, values, and believes that constitute the culture of old Dissent.(3)

To this culture, the Wedgwoods' annuity seemed to offer an alternative. On January 16, 1798, Coleridge reported to his friend John Prior Estlin, the Unitarian minister of Lewin's Mead chapel in Bristol: "In a letter full of elevated sentiments Mr Josiah Wedgwood offers me from himself & his brother Thomas Wedgwood `an annuity of 150 [pounds sterling] for life, legally secured to me, no condition whatever being annexed.'"(4) Although based in Bristol, Estlin well understood the nature of Coleridge's situation, for Estlin himself had been a student at the nonconformist Warrington Academy from 1764-70. Coleridge thus turns to Estlin for assistance, writing, it is "clear to me, that as two distinct & incompatible objects are proposed to me, I ought to chuse between them" (CL 1.371). These "incompatible objects" are the Unitarian ministry as a profession and the more independent and disinterested lire of a Unitarian philosopher and poet.

The terms in which Coleridge solicits Estlin's advice capture the definition of "interest" that informs Coleridge's political and poetic thought in the 1790s:

      "Shall I refuse 150 [pounds sterling] a year for lire, as certain, as
   any fortune can be, for (I will call it) another 150 [pounds sterling] a
   year, the attainment of which is not yet certain, and the duration of which
   is precarious?--"

      You answer--"Yes!--the cause of Christianity & practical Religion
   demands your exertions. The powers of intellect, which God has given you,
   are given for this very purpose, that they may be employed in promoting the
   best interests of mankind." (CL 1.371)

For Coleridge's Estlin, religion is a trade to which the practitioner should devote his powers and talents and thereby promote the "best interests" of the whole. …

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