Five Questions: Ewan Jones on Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form

Ewan James Jones - Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form

Ewan Jones is presently Thole Research Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge; previously, he completed his PhD at King’s College, Cambridge.  He is interested in the uses and implications of verse forms; in aesthetics; in conceptual histories; and in the works of a wide variety of poets with careers spanning from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries.  His doctoral research focused particularly on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and this work forms the basis for his first monograph, Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press and which we discuss below.

1) How did you come to decide that you wanted to write a book on the relationship between verse form and philosophical thought in Coleridge’s poetry?

I’m well aware that Coleridge might seem the most obvious figure for any such inquiry.  After all, here’s a romantic poet who, even in the later period of life when his verse output allegedly diminishes, still formulates many of his philosophical convictions (from the symbol to the primary and secondary imaginations) in roughly ‘poetical’ terms.  But as I looked more deeply into recent Coleridge scholarship, it became increasingly apparent to me that there was a pronounced unwillingness specifically to consider his verse, as opposed to his writing on verse.  In part this is for good reasons: Kathleen Coburn’s version of the Notebooks, alongside the Bollingen Series Collected Works (without either of which my book would clearly have been impossible) have massively expanded our sense of Coleridge’s intellectual breadth, and therefore encouraged much work on the previously unpublished or marginal prose writings.  I think, however, that this remarkable burst of publication calls for a re-assessment of Coleridge’s poetry—not merely as one more item in his intellectual achievement, but as a specific medium that enabled Coleridge to explore ideas in a manner that he couldn’t have in any other form.  It’s interesting to see that over the long period that I researched and wrote the project (first as a dissertation, and then as the book), Jim Mays also came to a similar conclusion, in his Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics (2013), which appeared just too late for me to engage with it.  I certainly don’t worry about too large an overlap, however: rather, I see both projects as a hopeful sign that Coleridge’s poetry might once again come in for the sort of sustained attention that it merits; and while we have similar starting-points, Mays and I read that poetry to very different ends.

2) In your introduction, you contend that Coleridge’s versification has been neglected in recent years. What, in your eyes, do we stand to gain by re-engaging with this aspect of his work?

First off, I think that we can rescue Coleridge’s verse both from neglect and from a common sort of intellectual dismissal.  The neglect I’ve described in the previous answer; the dismissal takes a variety of forms.  I’ve always found it of great interest that Coleridge’s reputation suffered at the hands both of deconstruction and new historicism—think respectively of de Man’s ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’, and of Jerome McGann’s extremely powerful charge of Romantic Ideology (although McGann has elsewhere written more positively and quite wonderfully on Coleridge).  What these dismissals have in common is the association of Coleridge with a kind of self-sufficient formalism that he certainly did inspire (see the New Critics), but which unnecessarily limits the scope of his thinking. By seeing the dynamic and often conflictual relation between Coleridge’s verse and his philosophy, we don’t only better understand the former, but also complicate the latter.  The often remarkable revisions that Coleridge made to his conversation poem sequence throughout his life, for instance, both anticipate and test his affiliation and later disillusionment with ‘transcendental’ idealism.  In my chapter on ‘Christabel’, by contrast, I show that Coleridge’s wavering uncertainty over ‘passion’ as a reactive or a generative force emerges also at the level of his late philosophical writing—specifically, his essay ‘On the Passions’ (1828), which carries out a revisionary reading of Descartes’ Passions of the Soul, yet which is yet to receive any critical attention.  But of course I have aspirations for this book beyond Coleridge himself.  If his symbol or ‘organic unity’ always were more complex than some more recent critics have alleged, perhaps this goes to show that we need to recognise our habitual associations of formalism with autonomy, the occlusion of history, etc.  To this end, my coda reads Kenneth Burke, in many respects the most Coleridgean of all twentieth-century critics, whose attention to literary form could never be reduced in such a manner—yet who currently languishes in obscurity for reasons, I claim, that are structurally comparable to our current treatment of Coleridge himself.

3) How did you select the four poems upon which your chapters principally focus, and were there other options which you considered?

I found the process of selecting the poems extremely difficult—so much so that, despite having four chapters, I hardly restrict myself to four poems.  The first chapter deals with five of Coleridge’s so-called conversation poems, while later sections treat much verse that is unfamiliar or currently out of favour: from some of Coleridge’s curious late allegories (despite his animadversions against the mode), such as ‘The Pang More Sharp than All’, to a series of extremely strange translations that he made of his friend Hyman Hurwitz’s Jewish dirges.  I knew from the start that I had to write about the conversation poems and ‘Christabel’, given a pledge to self to do so long ago.  In the cases of the third and fourth chapters, I found myself exploring specific philosophical problems (respectively, the issues of paronomasia or punning, and of self-identity or tautology), before belatedly realising that one of the reasons I was so interested in said questions lay in specific poems by Coleridge—the late work ‘Limbo’, and the ‘Rime’.  Given world enough and time, I would have liked to write on every single line that Coleridge composed, so perhaps it makes more sense to consider which works I didn’t include.  ‘Kubla Khan’ was purposefully left out, because it seemed to confirm too obviously and therefore rather uninterestingly my general thesis, that verse form offers a specific means of self-reflection.  But since writing my book, I’ve come to feel that the poem’s self-evident reflexivity is more interesting than I had first thought; as a result of which, I just presented on ‘Kubla Khan’ at this year’s Coleridge conference.  ‘Dejection’ is another matter.  I know I’ll have a reckoning with it at some point.  But not yet.

4) How has completing the monograph helped to shape the ways that you teach Coleridge’s works?

A simple if rather perverse answer is that it has made me feel able to teach Coleridge’s work at all.  During my research toward the book, I made a point of not setting Coleridge for practical criticism supervisions, given that I find that teaching works best when you’re in that happy space somewhere between over-famiiarity and pig ignorance (two extremes that I know well).  I wouldn’t actively dissuade students who wanted to read Coleridge’s poetry for the long eighteenth century paper that we teach in Cambridge, but my sense was that they often instinctively preferred to read Wordsworth or Shelley or Blake, for instance, or even a poet such as Charlotte Smith—one symptom, perhaps, of my book’s general thesis?  Having finished the project at last, I’m now looking forward to discovering another Coleridge through teaching him.  Yet there’s a less paradoxical way of answering your question—although I’d want to turn it around, by saying that my teaching practice deeply informed what ended up as the book.  In my experience, poetry causes even the very bright students, with whom I’m extremely fortunate to work, more anxiety than any other literary medium.  Very often they feel that there’s a panoply of technical terms (iambs, spondees, hypercatalectics and the rest) that not only terrify, but also kill their intuitive sense of the poem.  My task is often therefore first, to allow them to experience this intuitive sense at all, whether it comes from reading aloud, or reading while walking around the room, or whatever; and secondly, to convince them that the different technical ways of explaining or scanning verse are not objective descriptions parachuted in from elsewhere, but rather a more or less exact way of describing, exploring or even defending what they already feel.  In many ways I feel my book is best thought as a response to the pedagogical challenge to talk about verse in a manner that is feeling without being impressionistic, technical without reverting to the stale contentions of prosody.

5) What new projects do you currently have under way?

I’m currently trying to write a conceptual history of rhythm from the period 1770–1880.  I want to argue that the concept as we today understand it gets invented over that historical timeframe—I’m still at the happy illusioned phase where I can make such quixotic claims!  I think that in a number of different discourses—ranging from natural science, to idealist philosophy, to speech therapy—the term comes to sudden prominence, and in doing so transforms its conceptual reach.  The term ‘rhythm’ doesn’t even appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, although he does define ‘rhythmical’, as being equivalent to harmony—a strange thought for contemporaries.  The popular scientist Herbert Spencer, meanwhile, defines it in 1880 as ‘a conflict of forces not in equilibrium’—almost the opposite of Johnson’s definition.  While it feels good to imagine a project that has a larger historical scope, and is unrestricted to a single author, much of this project aims to build on ideas within the Coleridge book.  More concretely, I feel that the aforementioned different disciplines exist in a dialectical relationship with poems of the period—if they transfigure the concept of rhythm, it is in part because they inherit it from either works of poetry or from prosodic theory.  I’m presently working on a range of poets from Robert Browning to Coventry Patmore to Alice Meynell, so am moving later and later—although I’m extremely interested in how the recent rich vein of scholarship in historical poetics (a largely Victorianist phenomenon) needs to adapt in order to incorporate earlier, romantic texts.  I’m also taking up a research associateship on an interdisciplinary project entitled the Concept Lab, at CRASSH, from the coming year.  This project aims to chart conceptual architecture and change, by making use of the rapidly increasing data sets now at our disposal.  As such, it might be seen as one instance of what Franco Morretti calls distant reading—although I’m more interested in exposing the ways in which ‘close’ and ‘distant’ imply a false scale.

1 thought on “Five Questions: Ewan Jones on Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form

Comments are closed.