Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Coleridge's Francophobia

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Coleridge's Francophobia

Article excerpt

It is no secret, nor has it ever been, that Coleridge disliked the French. The 'Gall contra Gallos' (1) that he had once joked about with Poole was really a deep-seated repugnance for an entire people, culpable not only for Jacobinism and aggression but also for bad manners and bad taste. Their moral philosophy was sensualist; their literature sentimental; their speech nasal; their taste merely epigrammatic, indicating a foolish preference for the parts rather than the whole. Only a Frenchman would not understand why Michelangelo's Moses has horns. (2)

Hazlitt once lampooned Coleridge's opinions in The London Magazine and in 1829 his Paris publisher attacked him publicly for them; later in the century, Matthew Arnold boldly censured his prejudice and Charles de Remusat coolly pointed it out in Revue des Deux Mondes, but since then criticism has been oddly silent on the subject. (3) Even the scrupulous editors of the notebooks and collected works tend to play down the francophobia, sometimes excusing the prejudice as 'bias' or 'habitual disapproval', (4) sometimes simply ignoring it altogether. (5) One remarkable instance of the latter occurs in relation to that 'Moses' anecdote told in the Biographia. Coleridge famously describes how he and a Prussian companion were admiring the majestic aspect of Michelangelo's statue, associating the horns with those of the rising sun and ancient eastern potentates, when two French officers came by. They stopped to look at the statue and, true to expectation, could think of nothing but goats and cuckolds. The Biographia's editors direct readers to a manuscript note where Coleridge tells the same events and they even quote the manuscript in a footnote. But for some reason they leave out the last, crucial sentence: the bad taste belonged to 'a Captain Stopforth whom I had the disgrace of being forced to acknowledge to be an Englishman'. (6)

What is surprising about this is not the fact that the anecdote in the Biographia is half fiction (we have become used to Coleridge's fictions), or even that the editors have managed to conceal the deliberate misrepresentation (the bullish defensiveness of the Bollingen Coleridge is, after all, one of its most captivating features), but that at a time when so much has been laid to his account, from addiction and plagiarism to nothing less than the Romantic Ideology itself, Coleridge's francophobia has been entirely overlooked by friend and foe alike. For though his view of Napoleon has been amply surveyed and the opinions of his contemporaries ably analysed, the 'Gall contra Gallos' has no commentators. (7) Are Coleridgeans embarrassed? Or, given his supposed ignorance of the language, is the matter just not worth taking seriously? (8) Or is this silence tacit approval: as David Simpson argued not long ago, Anglo-American criticism is itself sometimes openly, and more often secretly, hostile to French innovation. (9) And it is precisely because francophobia is a form of prejudice that intractable difficulties arise. In his introduction to the vast collaborative study Patriotism, Raphael Samuel observed how national allegiances routinely vex critical inquiry, since they depend in some measure on irrational modes of argumentation and even the most dispassionate commentator cannot entirely escape them. (10) Discussions about prejudice, whether we like it or not, are always 'loaded'.

But in the case of Coleridge two other factors come into play. One is an abiding nervousness among critics about apostasy and the accompanying reluctance to examine at length the years between the first Morning Post journalism (1798) and the first drafts of the Biographia (1815). Thanks to Nicholas Roe, Ian Wylie, and Patrick Keane, there is now a clearer sense of Coleridge's revolutionary sympathies, and criticism is well placed to inquiry more closely into what happened next. Nevertheless, criticism continues a highly emotional battle between two very different versions of events: consistent conservatism (Thomas McFarland) or elaborate recantation (Norman Fruman), neither of which takes the francophobia into account. …

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