Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge, Shelley and the Aesthetics of Correction

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge, Shelley and the Aesthetics of Correction

Article excerpt

In his 1817 volume Sibylline Leaves, Coleridge attaches an "Apologetic Preface" to "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," a satire on the policies of the Pitt administration originally published in the Morning Post on January 8, 1798. This serves as a kind of locus classicus for the Romantic punitive imagination: an instance of how Romantic writers used their works to address the issue of punishment and saw punishment, curiously, as an opportunity for the imagination to meditate on its own powers. Here, Coleridge relates an incident that took place in 1803 at the home of William Sotheby. Humphry Davy, Coleridge, and Walter Scott were discussing Coleridge's satire--a poem that Scott claims to have been "a good deal talked of in Scotland," but which induces "feelings ... not of the most comfortable kind" for the author, who (Coleridge assumes) remains anonymous to everyone but Davy. Scott ultimately recites the poem, after which Sotheby accuses the unknown author of "malignity of heart" and "atrocious" sentiments. (1) Presumably, the lines that "Famine" speaks inspire this opinion: "Wisdom comes with lack of food./I'll gnaw, I'll gnaw the multitude,/Till the cup of rage o'erbrim:/They shall seize him and his brood--" and Slaughter continues the thought--"They shall tear him limb from limb" (239).

Still anonymous, Coleridge defends the poem and the lines that cause the uproar. The defense rests upon a claim about "imaginary punishment," as Coleridge calls it, asking whether the imagined punishments in the poem recommend actual social policy (602). The answer is, of course, no. The preface shows how poets and theologians like Dante, Milton, and Jeremy Taylor represent the punishments they inflict upon their ideological adversaries as distinct from the "tortures ... to be inflicted on a living individual" (598). Such writers' "fantastic and horrible punishments" are "mere bubbles, flashes and electrical apparitions, from the magic cauldron of a fervid and ebullient fancy, constantly fuelled by an unexampled opulence of language" (598, syntax altered).

The poet's cauldron, faintly recalling Macbeth's witches, does Coleridge little service here. After all, the uncertain status of the weird sisters' speeches--as prophecy, as conjuring, as vague, chattering fodder for Macbeth's ambitions, or as Macbeth's fantasy--hardly explains the standing of poetic utterances in relation to real historical events. But the preface further layers its explanation of the poet's "ebullient fancy" by showing how the issue of unjust punishment depends upon a particular set of claims about personification. Those claims bear directly both on this poem specifically and on poetry more generally. The poem does everything but name Pitt ("Letters four do form his name," the allegorical figures of Fire, Famine, and Slaughter chant [237]), requiring Coleridge to explain the historical referentiality of the work--the sensuous attributes of the abstract figures of "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter"--as mere historical accident and not the poetic part of the poem. The poet must be excused because the authorial act of personification, not entirely intentional but partly accidental or contingent, requires him to rely upon whatever sensuous materials he finds closest at hand. From this point of view, the unreality of the poem--the product of the writer's "warm feelings and active fancy"--separates it from concerns about just punishments and from the "management and measures" of living persons (like Pitt) which are guided by "discretion," or by "human virtue," or by "disinterested zeal" (599, 601). The same logic applies to Milton's personifications, which are not "worded historically" but only "hypothetically." To infer that either Taylor or Milton wanted to inflict their poetic punishments on actual living beings not only misunderstands the poetic structure of personification, but it also indulges in bigotry and intolerance directed toward the poet's imagination (602-3). …

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