Coleridges' Continental Connections: British Idealism and Varieties of Enlightenment, 1797–1817

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:20 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Pamela Edwards, Jack Miller Center
Coleridge has famously defied categorization neither in ideological terms nor regards questions of method. Was he a romantic poet or an enlightenment philosopher? The answer is both. Classic interpretations by literary critics as divergent  as Rene Wellek’s Emannual Kant in England through Livingstons Lowe’s The Road to Xanadu,  have stressed the eclectic nature of Coleridge’s work. While Wellek went so far as to accuse Coleridge of plagerising Kant, Livingston Lowe emphasized the synthetic nature of his thought describing him as a library cormorant. More recently Seamus has argued that the contradictory strands in Coleridge’s writings need not be criticized as incoherencies, but as a window into the complexity of his thought. Poigniantly describing Coleridge as a man ‘simultaneously unable to make up his mind nor refrain from speaking it.’  

I would offer another set of prospects here and suggest that the problem may not be entirely with Coleridge but with categories and contexts. Partly this may be a problem in reading influences and associations as ideological categories. Partly, this has been a consequence of the difficulty in considering the meaning of Enlightenment in the long eighteenth century---arguably longer in Britain than it was on the Continent. Coleridge is a particularly useful window the crisis of reform because in terms of his networks and connections he was  effectively a human doorway: he knew everyone, he read everything and he went everywhere. From Bristol to London, from Gottingen to Bala, from Malta to Naples, Coleridge read and talked and argued his way through a variety of enlightenments.  Through his continental experience, he reflected the Scottish Enlightenment principles back to England through a German lens. This paper will consider the degree to which that experience clarifies the varieties of enlightenment question or considers the genesis of an intrinsically British historicism.