Five Questions: Chris Murray on Tragic Coleridge

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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.