Coleridge’s Enjoyment of Words

Coleridge’s Variety: Bicentennial Studies, John Beer (ed.). London: The Macmillan Press, 1974; Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975. 204-218.

There is a little volume in the series known as the Home University Library entitled The English Language. It is rather more than sixty years old now, but it is a book I always recommend very strongly to anyone who either enjoys words already or is anxious to begin enjoying them. But what does one mean when one speaks of ‘enjoying’ words?

When I was a very young man, I was for a brief period in rather close touch with the author of that book, Logan Pearsall Smith. In fact he took me to a certain extent under his wing as the result of an article I had published. Pearsall Smith was a literary friend of the poet Walter de la Mare, and I remember him telling me that, in one of his conversations with the poet, they had agreed there ought to be a word to denote a person with a certain easily recognisable but hardly definable kind of feeling for, or delight in, or enjoyment of words. They decided to invent one and they further decided that, in doing so, they would apply a new principle of coinage. This was, to look around for some especially lovely word, with which there happened to be no available rhyme, and to invent a rhyme for it. The existing word they hit on was ‘silver’ and the word they invented was ‘milver’. A ‘milver’ was to be a man who enjoyed words in the way they both meant.

I believe I am right in saying that that was as far as it went and that neither of them ever did actually use the word in public. So, at all events, de la Mare himself told me many years later. If so, this is the occasion on which it makes its début. And the anecdote will have been worth recording if it draws attention at the outset to the rather elusive quality I had in my mind when I fixed on the title for this lecture. It is not quite the same as a ‘feeling for language’. Every decent writer must have that. Nor does it equate with a scientific or historical interest in language, though it may well overlap all these things. What is exuded by the milver is more like a kind of flavour. It comes through on startlingly different levels, from a taste for puns upward. Lewis Carroll was a milver; but so was Sir Thomas Browne; and so, above all, was Milton. Then there is the long array of what I will call affectionate etymologists, stretching from Horne Took, through Archbishop Trench, to Ivor Brown and Eric Partridge. And there are others at other levels. Perhaps I may attempt a comparison. There is a certain flavour we must acknowledge in one of the consecrated elements of the Eucharist; but that does not alter the fact that we must acknowledge the same flavour in that particular species of custard-pie that is called a Trifle. In this case it has a name, and the name is wine. I am suggesting that there is a similar ‘unity in difference’ in the relation to language of different minds, and again of the same mind on different planes of its activity. And, after a good deal of searching about, the best name I could find for that pervasive unity was ‘enjoyment of words’.

I emphasised a moment ago that Milton had it, and I shall be returning briefly to that a little later on. Meanwhile it may help to pinpoint the indefinable if I now add that Wordsworth, who in other respects has sometimes been associated with Milton, in my opinion rightly, did not have it. M. Paul Deschamps, in his truly admirable book on the formation of Coleridge’s thought, contrasts him in this respect with Coleridge. For Wordsworth, he says,

poesy is a photographic reproduction of reality, every metrical or metaphorical ornament being an artifice it is desirable to eliminate; for Coleridge on the contrary the poet feels himself seized by a lyric and creative emotion in the actual manipulation of the words. There is a magic of words; the word has a living reality in itself…
(Deschamps 532)

It is, as he puts it, ‘substance vivante’. It is because of Coleridge’s insatiable, shall I say, appetite for words – almost any word – as substance vivante that, when I think of that myriad-minded man, I must think of him, among all his other eminences, as a Prince of Milvers. And it is so that I hope to present him.

For he had the appetite on all its different levels. Let me begin with the lowest – the punning and funning one. I have recently been reading the final two volumes of Professor Griggs’s monumental edition of the Collected Letters. They are sometimes heavy going, especially the long-winded apologies for not having written before, including an apology for the length of the apology. There is a great deal about family and domestic problems, both his own and the Gillmans’, and they frequently stress his physical sufferings and the lowness of his spirits. It is however extraordinary how pervasively they are leavened by the recurring ebullience of just that zestful appetite. However low those spirits, and perhaps at their very lowest point, Coleridge always felt up to having a lark with a word. Not so much any particular instance as the frequency of its occurrence is refreshing to the reader, as no doubt it was refreshing to him. However black things were, and however blue he felt, somewhere underneath it all the old Nether Stowey Coleridge, one is made to feel, is still very much alive, the Coleridge who jumped over the fence to save time in reaching Alfoxden, the Coleridge who explained that the reason why a man swings his walking-stick, when he is out for a walk, is that he is using it as a kind of lightning-conductor in reverse, to distribute his own high spirits to as many points of the compass as possible,1 the Coleridge who, when he needed a milkmaid, asked Thomas Poole in a letter to recommend a girl ‘simple of heart, physiognomically handsome, and scientific in vaccimulgence’;2 and who added: ‘That last word is a new one; but soft in sound, and full of expression. Vaccimulgence! – I am pleased with the word.’ Incidentally I sometimes wonder whether his enthusiasm for the Pantisocracy scheme would have burned quite so fiercely if he had not also been rather pleased with the word ‘Susquehanna’.

Actual puns, which mark the lowest level, are not very frequent, though they are always liable to appear, as when he describes his intestinal symptoms to Allsop as ‘increased pain in a wrong place altho’ in recto’, or when he describes those Thursday evenings at Highgate, at which he himself did most of the talking, as ‘one-versazioni’.3 Usually they involve Latin or Greek allusions, perhaps at a schoolboy level, like the Latinising of his own name, when he once chose to refer to himself as ‘Samsartorius Carbonijugius’ – ‘Coal-ridge!’4 He certainly understood, as every good punster does, that the best puns are the worst, and the more excruciating the better: or, as he put it himself: ‘And puns then best when exquisitely bad.’5

Very much more common is a semi-humorous use of his close familiarity with the classical languages, to invent or compound a new word, with which to rub in his meaning. Nimis is the Latin adverb for ‘too much’, and we find him remarking in his Table Talk: ‘There is a nimiety – a too-muchness in all Germans. It is the national fault.’6 And what of his own faults? It is not enough that he was over-fond of parentheses in writing, not enough that he was aware of it; he must invent a new word and call himself a philoparenthesist.7 And since he was also fond of mottoes, he must also remark, in a letter to Estlin, ‘You know, I am a mottophilist, and almost a mottomanist – I love an apt motto to my Heart’;8 hybrid formulations these last, between Latin and Greek, which was most uncharacteristic of him. On another occasion he labels himself, justifiably I think, as an idoloclast.9 And so on.

What are we to call this habit? Humorous pedantry perhaps, but the line between humorous pedantry and actual pedantry is a wavering one, and some of his inventions, like psilanthropy, psilosophy, misosophy, aspheterize,10 and the better-known Pantisocracy that went with it, or Schelling’s theanthropsophy,11 or even the world-famous esemplastic,12 may be thought neither particularly humorous, nor particularly useful. Actually it is not always easy to be sure whether he was in fact inventing or only resuscitating. I had always assumed that he invented nimiety on the spur of the moment, and I am still inclined to think he did, though I find it had already been used in the sixteenth century. So had coadunation, the Latin name for the ‘esemplastic’ activity. We have no means of knowing whether Coleridge had come across it in his reading, or if he reconstructed it for himself.

But if the boundary between humorous pedantry and mere pedantry is unfixed, so also, and much more so, is the boundary between mere pedantry and something much more important. Let us hear Coleridge himself on the subject. In a letter of 1821 to William Blackwood, he adds a footnote on the word aesthetic, which was then a recent and ‘insolens verbum’, but which he hopes, he says,

will be brought into common use as soon as distinct thoughts and definite expressions shall once more become the requisite accomplishment of a gentleman. So it was in the energetic days, and in the starry court of our English-hearted Eliza; when trade, the nurse of freedom, was the enlivening counterpoise of agriculture, not its alien and usurping spirit; when commerce had all the enterprize and more than the romance of war; when the precise yet pregnant terminology of the schools gave bone and muscle to the diction of poetry and eloquence, and received from them in return passion and harmony; but, above all, when from the self-evident truth that what in kind constitutes the superiority of man to animal the same in degree must constitute the superiority of men to each other, the practical inference was drawn, that every proof of these distinctive faculties being in a tense and active state, that even the sparks and crackling of mental electricity, in the sportive approaches and collisions of ordinary intercourse (such as we have in the wit-combats of Benedict and Beatrice, of Mercutio, and in the dialogues assigned to courtiers and gentlemen, by all the dramatic writers of that reign,) are stronger indications of natural superiority, and, therefore, more becoming signs and accompaniments of artificial rank, than apathy, studied mediocrity, and the ostentation of wealth.
(CL V 169)

We perceive here the smooth transition, in Coleridge’s judgement, from what sounds like pedantry, whether humorous or otherwise, to what is very much the concern of literature and, through that, of mental activity in general. A nice choice of words is not merely a matter of ornament; it is one of the marks which distinguish a literature of depth from the literature of mere surface reactions. And, as we follow him in this transition, the phrase ‘enjoyment of words’ itself begins to change its colour a little, There is more than one kind of enjoyment. There is the onlooker’s enjoyment, of a firework display for instance; but there is also the hungry man’s enjoyment of a meal; and there is the craftsman’s enjoyment of his tools, the enjoyment a good cabinet-maker feels in handling his favourite screwdriver; which soon becomes also an enjoyment of, or a feeling for, the screwdriver itself.

This kind of feeling for words is not easily separable from some awareness, explicit or implicit, of their past history. For Coleridge at all events I think the two were inseparable. Moreover, the history of the English language is such, its vocabulary is derived so predominantly from Latin (whether directly or indirectly through French) and from Greek words that the awareness I am speaking of easily, perhaps even necessarily, takes the form of an awareness of the Greek or Latin original still peering, as it were, through some particular English word it has turned into. Among the poets I suppose Milton is the one in whom this awareness is most evident and most effective. If I now proceed to illustrate from him, and if you hear me going on for a surprisingly long time about one or two particular words used on one particular occasion by one particular poet, please be assured that my aim in doing so is, not to be wonderfully precious about them à la Walter Pater, but to evoke for my present purpose, or (as Coleridge himself might have said) to ‘objectize’, a possible way of experiencing most, or at all events, many words with varying degrees of intensity. It is the submarine way; but in the instances I shall dwell on it happens to be easier than usual to detect, because it has been brought nearer than usual to the surface.

Suppose we take the epithet affable. In its ordinary sense, it tends to suggest an avuncular figure with its thumb in its waist-coat arm-hole and perhaps a cigar between its lips, leaning back after a good dinner. And I gather from the quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary that its normal overtones were not so very different in Milton’s time. But when Milton characterises Raphael as ‘the affable archangel’,13 we are drawn back, so to speak, through this rather shrivelled meaning to the naked Latin source of it; not, mark you, merely to the Latin epithet affabilis, which had already begun to acquire the avuncular meaning in addition, but to its origin in ad-and-fari: to ‘speak to’. An archangel, but an archangel who could be spoken to by a mere man. And of course the epithet loses none of its appeal from the fact that it is not mere substitution. We do not lose sight altogether of the shrivelled meaning. The earlier appears, transpires, through the latter. In being called affable Raphael is also rendered very slightly avuncular.

So also, the secure delight with which the upland hamlets in L’Allegro invite us to dance in the chequered shade14 is not simply ‘secure’ in the sense of being free from danger; it is not even simply Latin securus; it is also se-cura – free from care. And so again, when the sun in Paradise Lost appears enlarged by its looking through ‘the horizontal misty air’,15 the insipidly geometrical term is invigorated by this reappearance of its old connection with the ‘horizon’, the great circle that is the horos, or boundary of our earthly vision. More often than not, the earlier, the unshrivelled, meaning has just this kind of concreteness about it. It was figurative – imaginal – metaphorical in the looser sense of the term – and this is even true of most of the words we use. A writer, who has the feeling for them, will tend accordingly to awaken in his reader, by the way he uses them, what M. Bréal, the author of the book Semantics, once called ‘the satisfaction… of feeling a metaphor, whose value has not hitherto been understood, suddenly open and reveal itself’.16

That Coleridge habitually enjoyed words in just this way is certain. That he attached to the habit, and not for himself alone, an importance going far beyond the little aesthetic thrill that may well accompany it we learn from observations he let drop here and there, such as his advice in a letter to Gillman’s schoolboy son, who was studying Greek:

In your Greek never be satisfied with the Latin-pretended Equivalent, or Equivalents, of Lexicon or Translation. With the few exceptions of words imitating sound, every word has its primary visual language, as its proper, at least its original sense – and a man cannot be said to understand the WORD, tho’ he may the whole sentence in which it occurs, unless he sees how that image was captable of such and such applications…
(CL VI 700-1)

It must be added that, in Coleridge (with the great exception of his potent uses of archaism) the sort of enjoyment I am at the moment speaking of is more evident in his prose than in his verse. Notice that, although he is contrasting Coleridge and Wordsworth as poets, the actual examples with which M. Deschamps (whom I quoted earlier) illustrates Coleridge’s sense of the ‘magie’ and the ‘substance vivante’ of words are all taken from his Letters and Notebooks.

If I may be allowed my previous distinction between a literature of depth and a literature of surface-reactions, I would suggest that Coleridge aimed at a poetry of depth by two routes, one of which was successful and the other not. Overtly philosophical poetry is not, as is sometimes affirmed, a contradiction in terms. It is not a thing impossible to be written, as both Lucretius and Dante have sufficiently demonstrated, but it is no service to Coleridge to maintain that his attempts at the genre, in ‘Religious Musings’ and ‘The Destiny of Nations’, were other than failures. By the other route to the depths on the other hand, the way of symbolism, the way of the Ancient Mariner, of Kubla Khan and Christabel and in a lesser degree, as we now realise, of the ‘Conversation Poems’, he was rather more than successful. He gave us great poetry. For that very reason I find it rather strange that this enjoyment of words I am speaking of should be so much more evident in his prose writings than in his verse.

In what way is it evident? As a preliminary to answering that question, let me refer once more to Milton, or rather to a certain accusation which has been levelled against him. It has been said that Milton ‘exhibits a feeling for words rather than a capacity for feeling through words; that we are often, in reading him, moved to comment that he is “external” or that he “works from outside”’. I believe the accusation may have originated in Cambridge, but you will not wish the laws of hospitality to restrain me from voicing the serious doubt I feel whether so large a quantity of error has ever been compressed into so small a quantity of words. You have not invited me to lecture to you on Milton; but my point is, not that these observations are wrong about Milton, but that they are wrong about Milton because they must be wrong about anybody. It is the supposed antithesis itself that is misconceived. It is not simply untrue; it is the painstaking precise opposite of the truth. Words and things are just not related in that way, so that the more you feel of one, the less you feel of the other. It was a nearly contemporary poet who casually remarked that names meant so much to him that he regarded them as an important part of a plant. ‘What excites me’, he added, ‘about a west-country orchard in spring, is to see not just yellow flowers but, as it were, the visible words, Wild Daffodils.’17 And he was there speaking, not as a poet or a critic, but as a botanist.

Coleridge’s feeling for words was an integral part of his whole deeply-felt philosophy of the true relation between words and thoughts, between thoughts and things, and thus, and thus only, between words and things. Language does not reproduce things; it gives ‘outness to thoughts’.18 Why is some acquaintance with etymology important? Because it gives us a pretty-pretty feeling for words as distinct from the reality behind them? He could hardly agree less. Let us hear him on the subject:

In disciplining the mind one of the first rules should be, to lose no opportunity of tracing words to their origin; one good consequence of which will be, that he will be able to use the language of sight without being enslaved by its affections. He will at least save himself from the delusive notion, that what is not imageable is not conceivable.19

He will be emancipated, in fact, from that ‘despotism of the eye’ which is at the root of all shallowness. Imagination is not the slave of images; it is their master. Etymology does not imprison you in words; it frees you from them. It is not the man who knows something of the history of the words he is using, who perhaps instinctively breaks them up into their old component and more concrete parts; it is not he who will use language ‘externally’. On the contrary it is only he who really uses words at all; the others are more often used by them. And that, in the last resort, is the difference between literature and journalism.

There are two ways in which the mind can relate itself to reality; and both of them have their importance. If you care to imagine reality as a vast solid sphere and the individual mind as an ant on its surface, one of the things the ant can do is to crawl about over as much of the surface as it has time for. The other thing is to begin from any point where it happens to be, and bore its way in towards the centre. This is rather what can happen when anyone enjoys, studies and meditates on a particular word. That word, the point where he happens to be, becomes the point of penetration. This was very much Coleridge’s way. And one of the first things this kind of ant discovers is that language is not, as he at first supposed, a kind of thin film spread over the surface of a wordless sphere (a film which he can penetrate by taking care to feel through a word and not for it), but that the entire sphere is composed of a substance for which ‘word’ and ‘thing’ are both correct names in different contexts. ‘I would endeavour’, Coleridge wrote to Godwin in 1800, ‘to destroy the old antithesis of Words and Things, elevating, as it were, words into Things, and living Things too. All the nonsense of vibrations etc. you would of course dismiss.’20

In other words, if your goal is reality, or truth, or Life with a capital ‘L’, or whatever your favourite nickname may be for the sphere as a sphere, and if you are anxious to get at it through words, one of the sharpest instruments you can use is a deep feeling for words, and for their history. You will be all the better equipped for finding out how things came to be what they are, if you know something of how words came to be what they are. Of this Coleridge was profoundly aware and in this respect also he is a true representative of the Romantic school. For a new, and above all a historical, approach to language, as evinced by such men as von Humboldt and Friedrich Schlegel, can almost be said to have presided over the birth of the movement.

We have begun the transition to yet a third level of meaning in my carefully chosen title. For the word ‘enjoyment’ is used not only of impact experiences, as when we speak of enjoying a meal or a play, but also of states or conditions of the whole organism, as when we speak of enjoying good health. Indeed in the strictest sense – that in which the philosopher S. W. Alexander disjoined it from its opposite, ‘contemplation’21 – it would be equally appropriate to speak of ‘enjoying’ ill health! The relation it now expresses is nearly one of identity. Identity, I mean, between the enjoyer and what is enjoyed. And I believe Coleridge enjoyed words in this sense also. He was somehow aware of them as a motion in the depths of his being, and very little that he thought about anything was altogether disengaged from that motion. He saw, he felt, the face of nature and the whole process of creation as the self-division of one active Power into two forces, the one relatively active and the other relatively passive; he saw, he felt, the whole development of language as the self-division of the I AM that is neither verb nor noun (or that is both at the same time) into verb and noun respectively; and as consisting at all stages of its development of parts of speech, some of which have more of the verb and others more of the noun quality in them. And these were not two processes, the one of which is analogous to the other, but one single process. One of his names for it was ‘Separative Projection’.22

In that direction so far, and no further. It is not my intention to expound the ‘dynamic philosophy’. What I do want to suggest is that it is perhaps because of such an immediate union of his own genius with the genius or spirit of language that his positive contributions to the thought of his age, and I would say of posterity, are so often to be found focused or concentrated in some particular word. And the same is true of those prophetic anticipations, to which attention has often been drawn, of whole modes of thought which were later on to become part of the intellectual climate of every day. For example, it is almost a commonplace now that Coleridge was exploring, writing and philosophising about the unconscious mind a hundred years or so before it became the fashion to do so. And in Chapter iv of the Biographia Literaria we find him running together the words ‘collective unconscious’;23 it is true with a comma between them, as parallel adjectives; not as adjective and noun; but all the same there they are lying on the page together, and with the authentic synthesised meaning.

But let me try to arrange things in better order; because I want to conclude with a few examples that will illustrate not only this element of semantic prophecy, but also the various ways of enjoying words of which I spoke earlier; and, which (as I pointed out) you find in Coleridge at many different points in the gamut between seriousness and levity. One of these was the evocation of etymologically latent meaning. Here I found it convenient to wander off into Milton; but I ought not to let it go without a few examples from Coleridge himself. In one of his letters he takes to pieces the word acquaintance,24 contrasting it with two imaginary parallels, in-quaintance (which baby Hartley had invented at the age of five) and con-quaintance. In another, accusing himself of indolence,25 he goes on to break down the word into its components in- and dolcere, as he points out that one of the three meanings he assigns to it is simply ‘freedom from pain’. The etymology of enthusiasm naturally attracts his attention, as it had done that of others before his time. In the Theory of Life the concrete, the planar significance of the plan in explanation is important for the distinction he draws between an explanation and a hypothesis.26 In his Essays on Method he imparts a certain movement to the word method itself by at once dissecting and reinvigorating it into a methodos, a road or way that is a ‘progressive transition’ towards a goal.27 The fact that uttering means ‘outer-ing’ did not escape his notice.28 The very root of both his psychology and his philosophy is not indeed dependent on, but neither is it wholly extricable from, the intimate connection between conscious and conscience, or from the fact that both words break down into con-scire.29

It would be wrong, I think, to omit all reference to the numerous disused or abandoned words which he reintroduced, even though many of them have since been abandoned again, and perhaps it is well if, in doing so, we bear in mind those remarks on the ‘pregnant terminology’, the ‘bone and muscle’ he detected in the diction of the schools.30 If a single word was available for conveying a whole complex of meaning, he was glad to snap it up, never mind how old-fashioned it might sound: coadunation (to which I have already referred), alterity, ipseity,31 objectize,32 circumvolving,33 solifidian,34 illapse,35 radicative,36 involvent.37 What he disliked much more than being unfashionable was vagueness and confusion of thought. To avoid that, if he could not find an old word, he was prepared to coin a new one though he held that, if possible, both the unusual and the newly-made should be avoided. Or so he claimed. ‘Unusual and new-coined words’, he remarks in Chapter xii of the Biographia, ‘are doubtless an evil; but vagueness, confusion and imperfect conveyance of our thoughts, are a far greater.’38

In view of this principle it is perhaps surprising to see how often he found the evil unavoidable. For he did in fact employ a great many unusual words and coin a great many new ones, some of which, like potenziate,39 neuropathology,40 psychosomatic,41 are still with us today (in the last case very much with us), while others, like generific,42 instinctivity,43 centro-peripheric44 and clerisy,45 have not been picked up, though some of them at least might well have proved equally useful. Esemplastic, focusing his whole concept of creative imagination, lies somewhere between the two. It has been picked up, but only by the English School.* Before I add any more examples, however, let me concede that to affirm positively that Coleridge or anyone else ‘coined’, i.e. was the first to use, a word should nearly always be qualified by ‘as far as we know’. Except in the occasional instances (esemplastic is one of them), where he actually tells us he is coining, and why, all I really mean by it is that his own use is either the earliest one quoted in the Oxford Dictionary or else is earlier than the earliest. Exhaustive research in such a field is of course impossible and I am not criticising that monument of learning, which I so much admire and love, when I add that each of the following words was used by Coleridge before the date of its earliest citation in the Dictionary: idoloclast,46 energic,47 organific,48 narcissism,49 and heuristic;50 while his synartesis and impetite51 (by analogy and contrast to ‘appetite’) are not included in the dictionary at all.

All these, and no doubt many others I have failed to notice, could be added to the examples (psilosophy, pantisocracy, and so forth) which I included under the heading of humorous pedantry. One that I have not yet mentioned under any heading is desynonymise,52 which is of particular interest, because it is not only one of Coleridge’s inventions but is also his name for one of the most fruitful contributions that, in his view, can be deliberately offered by a writer to the development of his native language, Its meaning is, I think, fairly obvious. He was operating with it, when he carefully distinguished his multeity53 from the current multiplicity (which implies not simply ‘many’, but a ‘great many’), and when he sought to distinguish the prevalent notion of synthesis, as a fairly crude kind of joining together, from his own notion of it as total interpenetration – and to do so by reserving synthesis for his own notion, and allocating synartesis to the cruder one.54 But desynonymisation need not necessarily entail coinage. It may demand only a vigilance to detect and seize and use what is already there. A potential distinction between two existing synonyms may be already stirring dimly within the genius of a language ‘an instinct of growth’, as he calls it in that fourth chapter of the Biographia to which I have already referred, and where once again we do actually see the word being coined – ‘an instinct of growth, a certain collective, unconscious good sense working progressively to desynonymize… words of the same meaning’.

This occurs of course in the passage where he is introducing the desynonymisation, for which he is most widely known, his distinction between fancy and imagination. Actually I think Coleridge’s influence on meanings is a profounder and, in the long term, a more interesting study than his additions to our stock of words. I would say there is room for more than one dissertation on it; but of course it soon takes you away from language as such and into deeper waters. Concerning his influence on the meaning of the word imagination itself much, and perhaps too much, has already been written. But there are others which have received no attention at all. If you look up the word interpenetration in the Oxford Dictionary, the earliest quotation you will find for it is from Coleridge. Can we therefore say he ‘coined’ the word? It would be a fairly rash assumption, and I am not sure that it matters much. What does matter is the way in which, the meaning with which, he used it. Shelley, we should find, was also quite fond of it, but for him it usually, perhaps always, signified merely an intenser degree of ordinary ‘penetration’, uni-directional penetration, if I may use the term. In Coleridge it normally signifies mutual, reciprocal, either-other penetration – penetration of A by B as well as of B by A – and that is a process which is not only beyond precise conception, but even beyond imagination, though not, I think, beyond that intimate marriage between precise conception and imagination which Coleridge himself desiderated. Or again, look up the word polarity, about which his commentators have been so lukewarm, although he himself insists so firmly and frequently that it is the basis of his whole system. You will find, not indeed that he was the first to use it, but that he was (as far as the O.E.D. is aware) the first to use it in the all-important sense ‘2b’, that is, the general sense of ‘exhibiting opposite or contrasted properties or powers in opposite or contrasted direction’.55 Look up energy and you will find him heading the citations illustrating ‘Sense 3’. But this line of inquiry, though it may begin with the enjoyment of words, soon takes us beyond, beneath and above it. It could launch us on the whole question of Coleridge’s thought and of the significance it may or may not have for the thought of the future. Not a bad threshold perhaps to have reached at the latter end of the last of a series of lectures celebrating his bicentenary.

But not one to cross. Indeed there is much more I could have said without crossing it. For instance, although I have said much of his use of words, I have said almost nothing of his frequently shrewd and penetrating comments on them and on their history; I had hoped in that connection to retail his fascinating gloss on the name haemony,56 which Milton gave to the magic herb in Comus. However, there is just not time for it, and anyway I have said more than enough about Milton already. What I may perhaps hope I have done is to illustrate fairly fully the way in which that faculty for enjoying words informed all the different levels of Coleridge’s mentality, all of them, from the level of jesting, and even rather silly jesting, to the highest and deepest concerns of the human spirit.

Leigh Hunt’s son tells how his father and Charles Lamb were once subjected to a long monologue by Coleridge concerning the blessings of faith. As they came away, Hunt said to Lamb: ‘What makes Coleridge talk in that way about perhaps heavenly grace, and the holy church, and that sort of thing?’ To which Lamb, who had a slight stammer, replied: ‘Ah, there is a g-great deal of fun in Coleridge!’57 I have wondered, and I may leave you wondering, whether this gentle snub was simply a piece of Elian mischief (it was certainly that as well), or whether it may not have sprung from a subtle perception – and Lamb could be very perceptive – of the subtle interpenetration that went on between those contrasted levels of his old friend’s mind, of the intricately organic unity that informed that whole vast, sprawling, complicated structure which in 1772 was christened Samuel Taylor.

Owen Barfield


Abbreviations used in annotations and footnotes to the essay

AR S. T. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825).
BL S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (1907).
BM British Museum
C & S S. T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each, 2nd ed. (1830).
CL Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols (Oxford, 1956-71).
CN The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge eds. Kathleen Coburn, Merton Christensen and Anthony John Harding (1957–2002).
Deschamps Paul Deschamps, La Formation de la pensée de Coleridge, 1772-1804 (Paris, 1964).
Friend S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara Rooke, 2 vols (1969) (Collected Coleridge)
IS Inquiring Spirit, a New Presentation of Coleridge from His Published and Unpublished Prose Writings, ed. Kathleen Coburn (1951) (Cited by page).
LR S. T. Coleridge, Literary Remains, ed. H. N. Coleridge, 4 vols (1836-9).
LS S. T. Coleridge, Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (1972) (Collected Coleridge)
PW The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge ed. E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols (Oxford, 1912).
TT Specimens of the Table Talk of the late S. T. Coleridge, ed. H. N. Coleridge, 2 vols (1835).

* For a valuable account of this and other critical terms coined or reintroduced by Coleridge, see J. Isaacs, ‘Coleridge’s Critical Terminology’, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association (1936) XXI 86-104. Return.

1 Coleridge on Shakespeare…, ed. R. A. Foakes (1972) p. 72. Return.

2 CL I 250-1 (5 Nov 1796). Return.

3 CL V 409-10; V 790. Return.

4 CL V 222. Return.

5 CL I 295. Return.

6 TT 2 June 1834. Return.

7 IS 106 Return.

8 CL I 293. Return.

9 Friend II 185 (and elsewhere). Return.

10 BL I 114 and TT 4 April 1832; BL I 49n; LR III 33; CL I 84. Return.

11 CL IV 792. Return.

12 BL I 107. Return.

13 Paradise Lost VII 47 (cf. VII 648). Return.

14 Line 91. Return.

15 Paradise Lost I 595. Return.

16 M. Bréal, Semantics, tr. M Cust (1900) p. 129. Return.

17 Andrew Young, A Retrospect of Flowers (1950) p. 31. Return.

18 CN I 1387. Return.

19 BM MS Eg. 2826, ff. 403-4. Return.

20 CL I 626. Return.

21 S. W. Alexander, Space, Time and Deity (1927) I 12. Return.

22 See his note at end of Swedenborg’s De Equo Albo (BM copy C. 44.g.5) and my What Coleridge Thought (1972) pp. 53ff. Return.

23 BL I 61. Return.

24 CL V 466 (to Gillman). Return.

25 CL V 332. Return.

26 Friend 432-3; TL 36. Return.

27 Friend I 457. Return.

28 CL VI 756. Return.

29 Essay on Faith, in Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1849) p. 109. Return.

30 See above, p. 208. Return.

31 TT 8 July 1827 (both words). Return.

32 BL I 188. Return.

33 CL VI 551. Return.

34 Friend I 283 and n, 432; LR III 122. Return.

35 CL V 199. Return.

36 CN I 6 (f6v). Return.

37 LR IV 227. Return.

38 BL I 189. Return.

39 Ibid. (cf. IS 224-5). Return.

40 IS 57. Return.

41 IS 67. Return.

42 AR 219n. Return.

43 TT 2 May 1830. Return.

44 BM MS Eg. 2801 f. 15. Return.

45 C & S passim. Return.

46 See above, p. 207. Return.

47 PW I 77, TT 1 March 1834. Return.

48 CL V 517. Return.

49 CL V 196. Return.

50 CL V 133. Return.

51 IS 106. Return.

52 BL I 61 and 63n. Return.

53 BL II 230 (cf. IS 106). Return.

54 Friend I 94 n. Return.

55 But see BL I 198. Return.

56 CL II 866-7; and cf. CL VI 570, LS 88. Return.

57 Leigh Hunt, Autobiography, ed. R. Ingpen (1903) II 54 (interpolation by T. L. Hunt). Quoted Deschamps 281n. Return.

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