BARS Blog

BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive for July 2014

Five Questions: Chris Murray on Tragic Coleridge

Chris Murray - Tragic Coleridge

Chris Murray is currently a Junior Research Fellow in the Department of English Studies at Durham University.  Previously, he completed a PhD at the University of Warwick, worked at the University of Bristol and taught for two years at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.  His research focuses on dialogues between British Romanticism and works and discourses in other national, historical and generic traditions.  His first monograph, Tragic Coleridge, which we discuss in the interview below, was published by Ashgate last year.

1) How did you first become interested in Coleridge’s uses of tragedy?

I’ve always been interested in Classics, and there are many allusions to ancient literature in Coleridge’s poems.  In particular, Coleridge’s discussion of the ancient tragic trilogy caught my attention.  He suggests that all Greek tragedies formed part of a trilogy whose outcome was ultimately positive.  He wrote a play according to that very model, called Zapolya, which was staged in London in 1818.  The flavour of that play is closer to The Winter’s Tale than to King Oedipus, because the idea of restoration accords with Coleridge’s sense of how tragedy should end: positively.  Then I realised that similar ideas permeate Coleridge’s works in various forms.  So, it was clear that Coleridge’s comprehension of tragedy was well-informed, critically underexplored, and also quite unusual compared to other commentators, few of whom would wager – for example – that Heracles massacring his children paves the way for a happy ending in a future installment.  That Coleridge’s sense of tragedy is so unconventional, and pervades his works from ‘Christabel’ to Biographia Literaria, made the project irresistible to a Coleridgean Classicist.

2) How did your plans for the monograph shift during the course of its composition?

At one point I was set to write about the reception of Classical tragedy across a range of Romantic authors.  I explored Byron, the Shelleys, and Thomas Moore, but felt that this diversity would pull the book towards survey, which I didn’t want.  Concerning Coleridge and tragedy specifically, several books seemed possible.  One would simply collate his various comments on Classical drama; lectures, table talk, letters, etc.  I think this would make a useful volume, and I may return to it at some point.  A potential monograph would have taken that idea further and attempted to derive a theory of tragedy from those works.  But the problem with Coleridge is that he changes his mind so greatly that you couldn’t cobble his thoughts together, and call them one theory of tragedy, without great misrepresentation.  Another book still would explore Coleridge’s tragic vision solely in relation to German theorists.  And of course, in its lowest, graduate-student incarnation, my work on Coleridge simply documented his poetic allusions to tragedy in a dutiful way.  But none of those approaches would let me investigate what really interested me: the notion that tragedy is a protean concept in a range of Coleridge’s works, occurring one moment in political journalism, next on the popular stage, and the next – in a completely different way – in a poetic fragment.

3) In your introduction, you contend that ‘the tragic is a deeply personal concept to Coleridge’.  How can understanding his particular sense of the tragic help us better understand Coleridge’s thought, life and works?

Tragedy is important within Coleridge’s attempts to reconcile the different modes of thought that appeal to him.  He hoped this effort would yield the ‘one system,’ a sort of master-philosophy.  A positive interpretation of tragedy could render pagan culture compatible with Christianity, which Coleridge suggests when he says that tragic ‘atonement’ foreshadows Christian ‘redemption’.  The tragedian, making sense of life’s turmoil, is a hierophant within this system of thought, so the tragic vision includes Coleridge’s sense of the author’s civic role.  The tragic philosophy of beneficial hardship also intimates ideological consistency between Coleridge as a supporter of Robespierre’s Terrors, Coleridge whose Mariner is tormented, and the Coleridge who discusses his own swollen testicle with an air of martyrdom, the self-anointed sacrificial goat.

To consider the broad importance of an artistic mode such as the tragic in Coleridge’s thought – to trace tragic ideas beyond his poetical works, including writing on non-literary subjects – also offers an alternative to the historicist overkill of criticism in recent decades.  We’re used to looking for a hidden revolutionary behind every daffodil, and it’s become somewhat unfashionable to suggest that Romantic authors were interested in literature per se.  But we can reverse that historicist perspective and study the ways in which, for example, even when Coleridge lectures on the war, or on politics, his rhetoric draws on ideas from tragedy.  These are not merely decorative allusions to literature: Coleridge’s hopes for a positive outcome to hardship originate in his reading of tragedy as wisdom literature that offers real-life lessons.

4) You write that ‘Coleridge invents tragedy for himself, using materials from various literary and philosophical traditions​’. What are the principal influences you trace in his tragically-inflected works and ruminations, and how do you see Coleridge in turn influencing later tragic theorists?

In addition to the big three of Greek tragedy – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – the main influences include Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and contemporary German authors such as Schiller and the Schlegels.  Coleridge also attended the theatre quite frequently in some periods, and his staged plays are marked by the uses and abuses of tragedy he saw in popular entertainment.

Unfortunately, tragic theorists have tended to overlook Coleridge because he didn’t formulate a unified theory.  And since tragedy is a protean presence in Coleridge’s oeuvre, to identify the influence of his tragic vision is pretty much to recount the afterlives of his various works, which are quite familiar to commentators.  Prominent examples include Coleridge’s psychological interpretation of Hamlet’s paralysed character, which has been massively influential on great critics including AC Bradley, and remains the dominant interpretation of the character today; also the tragically inflected balladry of the ‘Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’.

The most obvious and accomplished inheritor of Coleridge’s reinventions of tragedy is W.B. Yeats; in his diary, Yeats is a wonderful reader of Coleridge’s tragic persona, which is derived from the Greek prophet Tiresias.  Yeats is not only greatly influenced by Coleridge as a poet, and as someone who reinvents tragedy in his own way, but in conceiving his role within society as commentator and adviser on civic affairs he looks back to Coleridge as journalist and religious writer.  Yeats – the Irish Senator – would be the success story in that tradition.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

My new, major project examines the place of Classics in Romantic conceptions of China.  For example, a forthcoming essay looks at the transposition of ideas between de Quincey’s belligerent Opium Wars journalism and his contemporaneous ‘Theory of Greek Tragedy’.  The more closely we look at that exchange, the less literally de Quincey appears to endorse bloodshed in China, because his conception of war is so heavily reliant on ideas of symbolic violence taken from tragedy.

I’m also nearly finished a narrative non-fiction book about Zen masters I met in Asia.  They have amazing stories, fascinating practices, and there’s a degree of overlap with the Asian philosophies that I work with in my academic project.  It’s a weird and wonderful adventure that will doubtless secure my reputation as a mad Orientalist.

Five Questions: Laura Kirkley on Caroline of Lichtfield

Caroline of Lichtfield

Laura Kirkley is currently a Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at Newcastle University.  She completed her PhD at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, writing an interdisciplinery thesis focusing on Mary Wollstonecraft; subsequently, she worked as a College Lecturer at The Queen’s College Oxford before returning to Trinity Hall as a Lecturer in English and French.  Her work focuses particularly on women’s writing, feminist theory, cross-cultural exchanges and translation, which made her an ideal editor for Caroline of Lichtfield, a novel originally composed in French by Isabelle de Montolieu and translated into English by Thomas Holcroft.  Her edition, which we discuss below, was published by Pickering & Chatto in April as the nineteenth volume in the Chawton House Library series.

1) You write in your acknowledgements that you first came across Caroline of Lichtfield through Mary Wollstonecraft.  To what extent were the expectations Wollstonecraft raised satisfied when you first read the novel?

I didn’t have any particular expectations, I was simply intrigued.  From what I could gather, Caroline de Lichtfield – Wollstonecraft seems to have read the French version – was a sentimental novel, and Wollstonecraft’s reviews of such works were generally waspish and disapproving, so I was surprised by her enthusiasm.  She seems to have found the novel in the library of the Kingsborough family home when she was a governess in Ireland, and I was interested in her French literary influences in that period, so I decided to find out why she’d been so delighted with Caroline.  I wondered if there had been an English translation, and I found a particularly lively one by none other than Thomas Holcroft.  I know translation is often regarded as hack-work, but I was still surprised: I’d tended to associate Holcroft with political, polemical, or theatrical works – and indeed, Caroline turns out to be the only novel he ever translated.  So I read Caroline (in French and in English) as part of my research into Wollstonecraft and her fellow radicals, and I found, both times, that I couldn’t put it down!  It’s a sentimental novel, but it’s one that engages intelligently, and often humorously, with the literature and culture of sensibility.  Montolieu is very aware of the conventions of her own genre, and she embraces and mocks them in equal measure.  I kept thinking of Austen – who, it turns out, read and enjoyed Caroline – and I’m convinced her reading of Montolieu played a part in the creation of Sense and Sensibility. Caroline is a very enjoyable read, which explains why it was a bestseller, but it’s clear to me that Montolieu was also highly influential.

2) In what ways do you believe that the novel and Montolieu’s wider work have been misrepresented in critical accounts?

Very little has been written about Montolieu.  That might sound odd, given that she was both prolific and well received; but because she often translated or adapted existing texts, she’s been sidelined as an imitative, populist writer.  Personally, I think her neglect is a feminist issue too: there’s been a tendency, in the past, to regard women writers as less inventive than their male counterparts.  Look at Aphra Behn: her works were criticised as derivative for years, even though highly respected contemporaries, such as Dryden, also adapted source texts.  Feminist critics have rehabilitated many neglected women writers, but there’s still more work to do.  Of course, our understanding of writers like Montolieu is now also being shaped by advances in Translation Studies, which suggest that translation and adaptation should, indeed, be regarded as creative practices.  To my knowledge, with the exception of Joan Hinde Stewart, critics have tended to dismiss Caroline as sentimental melodrama.  And yet exacting critics of the novel, such as Wollstonecraft, Germaine de Staël, and Maria Edgeworth, singled out Montolieu for praise.  I think they were alert to her metafictional commentary and the moral argument of her works in a way that many modern critics are not.  Hopefully my introduction to the edition will do something to address that problem!

3) How did the text’s status as a translation and its Swiss and European contexts affect the preparation of your edition?

I wanted to highlight the differences between Montolieu’s text and Holcroft’s translation, so I spent a lot of time comparing the versions and creating a set of footnotes that point out, and suggest possible reasons for, important cuts, additions, or alterations.  In the introduction, I also devoted a lot of space to contextualising Montolieu, who was a Swiss-French gentlewoman, and Holcroft, who was a working-class British radical.  That brief description makes them sound poles apart, but I believe that Caroline testifies to certain shared moral and cultural values that promoted literary exchange between Britain and Switzerland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

4) In what ways do you think the novel might productively be used in undergraduate and postgraduate courses and by researchers?

Caroline epitomises the French novel of sentiment, so it would be invaluable reading for students of French and Comparative Literature.  The English version was incredibly well received in Britain, so Holcroft’s translation could also be used to explore ideas of sensibility and moral sentiment with students of English literature.  The novel was written at a pivotal moment, when the literature of sensibility was enjoying its heyday on the European continent but was also a well-established genre increasingly vulnerable to ridicule.  Montolieu provides material to explore both kinds of response to sentimental literature.  Researchers of any novelist writing in this period – particularly scholars of Austen, Wollstonecraft, Edgeworth or De Staël – may also want to consider the influence of Caroline on the novel in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It’s also essential reading, I believe, for scholars of Holcroft.  As my introduction suggests, it’s instructive to observe what aspects of the novel he changed in the process of translation.  In my view, his translations were often apprentice efforts – he used them to develop various styles of writing and, in Caroline of Lichtfield, his prose is distinctively theatrical.  I hope the novel also provokes more interest in the works of Montolieu, who has been neglected for far too long.

5) What new projects are you currently pursuing?

Too many!  I’m currently finishing the Wollstonecraft monograph that I was researching when I came across Caroline de Lichtfield.  It’s called The Revolutionary Cosmopolitanism of Mary Wollstonecraft, and it redefines Wollstonecraft as a cosmopolitan intellectual who was profoundly influenced by the European commerce des lumières and by Revolutionary political and linguistic theories.  I analyse her engagement with the works of Rousseau, her work as a translator, and her evolving philosophical and creative response to issues of patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and cultural difference.  I’ve also been researching Wollstonecraft’s translation into French and German in her own lifetime and in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and considering how the different agendas of the translators gave her multiple European ‘afterlives’.  I’m interested in attitudes to translation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that’s also led to some research into Germaine de Staël, the quintessential cosmopolitan.  And finally, I’ve begun work, with some colleagues at Cambridge and St Andrews, on a project that explores the literary and aesthetic treatment of maternal sentiments in the early modern era.  My research for that project has focussed partly on Wollstonecraft – again! – but I’ve also been considering the lyric and elegiac poetry of women writing earlier in the eighteenth century.