The critical literature gives us two Coleridges, the young poet and the later thinker, and the Bible was important for both. The young Coleridge of the 1790s wrote poetry, preached Unitarian sermons, celebrated the French Revolution, and developed plans for an egalitarian community or Pantisocracy. As early as 1802, in “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge attributed a perceived decline in his poetic powers to his metaphysical speculations. By The Friend (1809–1810), Coleridge’s political and religious vision was conservative and increasingly Anglican, and he was lecturing and writing prose on literature, politics, philosophy, and religion. The later Coleridge devoted his energies to developing “a total and undivided philosophy” that would reconcile faith and reason and unify all the arts and sciences (Biographia Literaria, 1817).
Scholarship tends to focus on either the poet or the thinker, with a few notable exceptions, and there is ongoing debate about the coherence of Coleridge’s uncompleted system. While Coleridge is often credited as a key early mediator of German idealism to Britain, Thomas De Quincey noted in 1821 that substantial portions of the philosophical material in Biographia Literaria were plagiarized, and René Wellek in Immanuel Kant in England (1931) popularized the notion that Coleridge borrowed heterogeneous ideas that he did not understand. While recent assessments are more charitable, many scholars continue to see unreconciled tensions and pantheistic tendencies in Coleridge’s peculiar synthesis of German idealism and Christian orthodoxy.
The completion of The Collected Works (1969–2002), including the fragments of the Opus Maximum, and the publication of Coleridge’s Notebooks (1961–2002) and Marginalia (1980–2001) now provides a better sense of the scope, originality, and relative completion of Coleridge’s later project. In recent decades, Coleridge’s credibility as a philosophical and religious thinker has steadily improved, in large part because of various efforts to reconstruct his philosophy in terms of the Logos, Christian Platonism, sacramental theology, and hermeneutics. The result is not a system but a searching for a method that balances particulars and universals and affirms unity-in-diversity. At the same time, because Coleridge’s later writings and notebooks are so disorganized and miscellaneous, questions about the coherence and viability of his project remain.
Scholars are only beginning to appreciate that the Bible is a constant in this diversity. The young poet was already a careful student of scripture. Coleridge’s study of German higher criticism contributed to his poetic vision in the 1790s, his mature writings on literature and religion, and the emergence of a secular theory of poetic inspiration. While Coleridge’s politics changed, the prominent role of the Bible in his political thinking did not, for the young radical in 1795 was already lecturing on politics and revealed religion. Issues of biblical interpretation informed Coleridge’s theory of symbol, which was crucial to his theory of the poetic imagination and his later religious and political writings. Finally, Coleridge’s private notebooks reveal a sustained practice in biblical exegesis that was influenced by modern historical criticism within an authentic life of faith.
A new appreciation in the late eighteenth century for the Bible as poetry influenced British Romanticism, including William Blake and the Lake Poets Coleridge and William Wordsworth. A key influence was Robert Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), later edited with annotations by the higher critic J. D. Michaelis (1758, 1761). The lectures are a prominent early example of modern literary and historical criticism of the Bible, and they give special attention to biblical poetry’s use of parallelism, allegory, the sublime, and profane or everyday imagery for the sacred. Lowth influenced J. G. Herder’s On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782–1783) and Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), and in this larger intellectual context the Bible emerged as a new model for modern poetry.
This idea of visionary poetry is evident in Coleridge’s two most iconic poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Kubla Khan” (ca. 1797). The poems combine archetypal imagery with a heightened aural power that is suggestive of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. While many early readers complained about their obscurity and lack of clear moral meaning, the prevailing tendency has been to interpret the poems as allegories, with “The Ancient Mariner” often read as a morality tale of fall and redemption. By the mid-twentieth century, critics began to complicate earlier Christian readings, to interpret the poems as allegories of the creative process or the unconscious, and to note tension between Coleridge’s early poetic practice and his later theoretical preference for symbol. In 1816 Coleridge added a marginal gloss to “The Ancient Mariner” and an explanatory preface to “Kubla Khan,” and the revised poems call attention to the problem of their own interpretation in ways that are comparable to historical and textual criticism of the Bible.
“The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” combine biblical allusions with fragments from other mythological traditions, mix orthodox faith and popular superstitions, and engage distant and exotic geographic and historical contexts. In a groundbreaking study, E. S. Shaffer (1975) connected this syncretism to Coleridge’s study of modern historical criticism of the Bible and ancient mythology, which included the classical scholar C. G. Heyne, the biblical higher critic J. G. Eichhorn, and the philologist G. F. Creuzer. Coleridge learned from the higher critics to appreciate the power of myth to disclose spiritual and universal truths, and he envisioned creating an epic poetic synthesis of the world’s great religions and cultures. All of this influenced Coleridge’s emerging theory of poetic inspiration, and for Shaffer, “Kubla Khan” is not a fragment of a larger unfinished work but the modulation of Coleridge’s epic ambition into a single arresting moment of intense lyrical vision.
Visionary poetry for Coleridge was not limited to the supernatural. The Biographia Literaria praises Wordsworth’s power to awaken readers to the spiritual depths of physical nature and everyday life, and Coleridge explored these depths in his own conversation poems, including “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1797) and “Frost at Midnight” (1798). The first conversation poem, commonly referenced as “The Eolian Harp” (1795), dramatizes an issue that became important to Coleridge’s later religious writings: the divine revelation available to us in both scripture and nature. The poem both celebrates and questions the experience of divinity in nature, and for many critics, this represents Coleridge’s developing struggle between pantheism and Christian orthodoxy. Importantly, Coleridge retained a fondness for the poem throughout his life, and Coleridge’s early poetic expressions of “the one Life within us and abroad” anticipated his later sacramental understanding of symbol.
Symbol and Imagination.
In his productive middle period, Coleridge used similar language to celebrate the symbolic power of the Bible and the imaginative power of poetry. In The Statesman’s Manual (1816), the Bible awakens the soul from exile through symbols that achieve “a translucence” of the universal in the particular and the eternal in the temporal. In the Biographia Literaria (1817), poetry brings the whole soul into activity through “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” These texts focus attention on the power of mind and subjective response that establishes the revelatory power of scripture and poetry to transform vision, to enliven and develop the moral feelings, and to disclose the symbolic depths of creation and human existence.
The Statesman’s Manual extols the vital power of the Bible’s “system of symbols” in shaping the individual and the cultural imagination. The immediate context of Coleridge’s well-known distinction between symbol and allegory is the claim that the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not to be understood as abstract allegories but as “consubstantial” symbols. Whereas an allegory is a one-dimensional “translation of abstract notions into a picture-language” that can be decoded or demythologized, such that interpretation ends, a symbol retains a substantial presence that participates in its deeper meaning “as a living part in that Unity.” As symbols, the biblical histories have a “twofold significance” that is both literal and spiritual: “In the Bible every agent appears and acts as a self-subsisting individual: each has a life of its own, and yet all are one life.” Importantly, symbols retain a translucent opacity, such that ongoing interpretive imagination is necessary to participate in their depth.
The issue is interpretation, and Coleridge warns against reducing symbols to abstract allegories. Coleridge’s distinction is remarkably similar to Robert Lowth’s distinction between mystical allegory and regular allegory; however, The Statesman’s Manual extends symbol to every dimension of creation and human existence. In this, Coleridge critically appropriated German idealism (notably Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schelling) to revive in modern form the ancient allegorical notion that the Bible is microcosm and macrocosm, revealing the twofold significance of the human person and physical nature. Importantly, even secular history has symbolic significance, and the appendix engages the book of nature as an analogous word from God. For Coleridge, history and nature should be interpreted the way one most profitably reads scripture. In contrast, Coleridge condemned as dehumanizing modern histories and political economies that reduce persons to “Things and Quantities.” Coleridge’s larger concern was that modern industrial culture was abandoning the Bible’s system of symbols and symbol-reading, and thus neglecting the spiritual and ethical significance of human persons and created nature.
There is an analogous dynamic in Coleridge’s formulation of primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria. The primary imagination is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception” and “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite i AM.” The secondary imagination is the poetic or creative imagination. It is a higher degree of imaginative power that “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create” and thereby “struggles to idealize and to unify.” Through ordinary perception and artistic creation, human beings participate in divine creation, and like symbol, this dynamic involves seeing unity-in-diversity. Art re-creates nature by disclosing the inner life or spiritual truth of nature and human experience. Wordsworth exemplifies the prophetic power of poetry to lift “the film of familiarity” and reveal the wonders of the world to those who “have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” For Coleridge, a poem has organic integrity as a literary object, but like scripture, it also involves the reader in an activity of imagination akin to sacramental participation.
Coleridge’s later writings build upon the dynamic of spiritual interpretation first articulated in The Statesman’s Manual. Coleridge thus reads physical nature, national political life, and the human person the way he reads the Bible, as an organic unity of diverse particulars that must be read for the spirit and not just the letter. The 1818 version of The Friend applies this interpretive dynamic again to politics, but also in miscellaneous fashion to natural science, literature, and the moral life, and this method informs Coleridge’s theoretical construction of the British constitution in On the Constitution of Church and State (1829).
Spiritual interpretation of the Bible figures prominently in Aids to Reflection (1825). The work’s purpose is to encourage Christian readers to reflect on their own nature as a means of deepening their faith and developing their moral character. The work gives an account of the spiritual nature of the human person by correlating German Idealism with the Christian Platonism of seventeenth-century Anglican theology. While critics have questioned the coherence of this synthesis, Douglas Hedley (2000) has defended the intelligibility of Coleridge’s effort to revive an earlier tradition of thinking Christianity that harmonizes reason and revelation, and this in part through a philosophical engagement with scripture as a means of meditating on the inner word.
Aids to Reflection defends the authenticity of the Gospel of John as exemplary among the Gospels in disclosing the spiritual significance of Jesus Christ. This spiritual approach informs Coleridge’s meditations on sin and redemption. Sin is a moral fact of human experience verified by history and self-reflection. Coleridge rejects notions of original sin as hereditary, and citing Origen, he interprets the Fall in Genesis as a mythic illustration of the sin that originates in the will of every person. However, contra Kant, Jesus is more than a moral example but “the Bread of Life” (cf. John 6:35). Jesus is the historical incarnation of the divine Logos and reveals the sacramental participation of all creation and knowledge in the divine Word (John 1:1–18). As redeemer, Jesus is the source of new life and spiritual rebirth in more than a metaphorical sense (John 3:1–8). However, while scripture affirms that Jesus’s death is necessary for redemption, the Bible does not provide a literal explanation but uses “figures of speech” to illustrate the consequences of redemption, and Coleridge warns against over-literalizing these metaphors. Coleridge insists that the only way to confirm Christianity is to “TRY IT,” for ultimately, “Christianity is not a Theory, or a Speculation; but a Life.”
This spiritual affirmation of biblical truth is evident in Coleridge’s letters on the interpretation of scripture, which he likely intended for publication with Aids to Reflection, but which were published posthumously by his nephew H. N. Coleridge as Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1840). In the letters Coleridge proposes to read the Bible like any other book by applying the same methods of literary and historical criticism, but he also confesses, “In the Bible there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together; that the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being; and that whatever finds me brings with it an irresistible evidence of its having proceeded from the Holy Spirit.” This is not pure subjectivism, but a dialectic of revelation and reason, with Christian tradition and community serving as “the master-key of interpretation.”
The letters warn against “indiscriminate Bibliolatry,” or making an idol of scripture, through overly literal and unthinking interpretation, and Coleridge rejects the idea that scripture is “dictated by an Infallible Intelligence.” For Coleridge, inspiration applies to all of scripture, but revelation applies to those few passages of direct miraculous communication from God. Such revelation is without error, but most of the Bible is composed by fallible human authors writing under “the predisposing, abiding, and directing actuation of God’s Holy Spirit.” Spiritual interpretation involves discerning the inner truth of scripture from its literal weaknesses and historical inaccuracies.
Coleridge’s poetic practice and theory contributed in the nineteenth century to a new appreciation for visionary poetry and the symbolic imagination, and this created new possibilities for the Bible’s influence on literature. Coleridge’s attention to organic form and his “practical criticism” of Shakespeare and Wordsworth were especially influential on T. S. Eliot and the New Critics of the twentieth century. Coleridge was an important early mediator of German philosophy and biblical criticism, and his philosophical engagement with scripture, specifically the dynamic of spiritual interpretation extended to nature and society, had a wide-ranging impact.
In an 1840 essay, John Stuart Mill identified Coleridge and Jeremy Bentham as the two great seminal minds of early nineteenth-century England, specifically noting Coleridge’s radical reinterpretation of the church’s role in society. Through his influence especially on F. D. Maurice, J. C. Hare, and John Sterling, Coleridge became a founding figure for the Broad Church Movement and liberal Anglican theology, and Benjamin Jowett drew on Coleridge in his essay on biblical interpretation in Essays and Reviews (1860). At the same time, the organicism in Coleridge’s approach to symbol and tradition influenced John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement. James Marsh’s 1829 edition of Aids to Reflection received an enthusiastic following among the American Transcendentalists including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who appreciated Coleridge’s spiritual approach to the human mind and physical nature. John Tulloch gave prominent attention to Coleridge’s influence in his Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the Nineteenth Century (1885).
While critics have often focused on Coleridge’s religious and political conservatism, his approach to the Bible was a remarkably forward-looking demonstration that traditional faith can be critical and progressive. Throughout his life, Coleridge attempted to integrate modern historical and literary criticism of the Bible with his own journey of faith. In this, Coleridge recognized the informing role of tradition and the church community, the value of both rational inquiry and religious feeling, and the dangers of overly metaphorical and overly literal approaches. He aspired to read the Bible critically like any other text, while also affirming the unique influence of its system of symbols on the cultural imagination and on his own thinking and perceptions. Here Coleridge anticipated later developments in philosophical hermeneutics and literary criticism, including Paul Ricoeur’s work on symbol and Northrop Frye’s study of the Bible as the great code for Western art and literature.
[See also ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]
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- Harding, Anthony John. Coleridge and the Inspired Word. Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985.
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- Hedley, Douglas. Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion: Aids to Reflection and the Mirror of the Spirit. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
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- McGann, Jerome J. “The Meaning of the Ancient Mariner.” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 35–67.
- Prickett, Stephen. Words and the Word: Language, Poetics, and Biblical Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
- Shaffer, E. S. “Kubla Khan” and the Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature, 1770–1880. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
- Wright, Luke Savin Herrick. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.