On This Day in 1821: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Little-Known Love For Aphorisms

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The BARS ‘On This Day’ Blog series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

In solidarity with the University College Union strikes for pensions and improved working conditions which took place in the first week of December 2021, BARS observed a digital picket line, and out of respect for this, the author and editor of this post agreed to delay its publication from the 3rd of December.

The 3rd of December 2021 is the 200th anniversary of a strange, meandering and gnomic letter from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to his friend Thomas Allsop. Poet and Coleridge scholar Adam Neikirk takes us through this letter to explore the poet’s fascinating and esoteric approach to the aphorism.

Ab Hydromaniâ Hydrophobia: from Water-lust comes Water-dread. But this is a violent metaphor, and disagreeable to boot. Suppose then by some caprice or colic of Nature an Aqueduct split on this side of the Slider or Sluice-gate, the two parts removed some 20 or 30 feet distance from [each] other, and the communication kept up only by a hollow Reed split lengthways, of just enough width and depth to lay one’s finger or at most one’s fist in—the Likeness would be fantastic, to be sure; but still it would be no inapt likeness or emblem of the state of mind, in which I feel myself, as often as I have just received a letter from you.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected Letters, V, p.1283

On 3 December, 1821, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to his friend Thomas Allsop (1795 – 1880), a businessman who had first heard him lecture in London in 1818. Attempting in his usual long-winded way to express his “state of mind” about receiving a friendly letter, Coleridge begins by invoking, and then dismissing, an aphorism—“Ab Hydromaniâ Hydrophobia,” which neatly summarizes how a person can both enjoy writing letters and also be unable to answer correspondence in a timely fashion, apparently dreading the indulgence. And in a way this sort of opening is precisely emblematic of the Micawberishness which Virginia Woolf attributed to Coleridge in her essay “The Man at the Gate” (from the 1942 collection The Death of the Moth). Why use a ‘violent’ aphorism when something more befuddling, original, and sympathetic will do?

Figure 1: Max Beerbohm, ‘Coleridge Table-Talking’, from The Poet’s Corner (London: Heinemann, 1904)

Coleridge’s reputation, which was active even among his contemporaries, for gentle, highly abstract, and ultimately sleep-inducing conversation, was founded in part on the lectures on literature and philosophy, as well as on the brilliant private talk, which had made of Allsop such a devoted friend: one who was willing to forgive protracted gaps in Coleridge’s correspondence (unlike, say, his wife). As usual, Coleridge is in this opening performing his learnedness and his role as “Sage of Highgate” (he had moved to Highgate in 1816 to live under the care of the physician James Gillman), attempting to improve upon a received witticism. This sense of advancing on something permanent was exactly what the younger generation liked about Coleridge (when they did like him).

It may come as some surprise to the reader, then, to hear Coleridge gushing, in 1821, about his love for aphorisms: those brief turns of phrase, usually sparkling with wit, which we typically associate with thinkers like Coleridge’s contemporary, the French novelist Stendhal (1783 – 1842) and, later, one of Stendhal’s biggest fans, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). We do not think of Coleridge as a user or coiner of aphorisms. Yet, here he is in his private notebooks, around the time of his letter to Allsop, recounting the way certain linguistic nuggets have allowed him to cultivate his understanding (and his good behavior) in a world full of conflicting accounts of the truth:

I should like to know, whether or how far the delight, I feel & have always felt, in adages or aphorisms of universal or very extensive application, is a general or common feeling with man, or a peculiarity of my own mind. I cannot describe how much pleasure I have derived from “Extremes meet” for instance; or “Treat every thing according to its Nature”, and “Be”! In the last I bring in all inward Rectitude to its Test, in the former all outward Morality to its Rule, and in the first all <problematic> Results to their Solution, and reduce apparent Contraries to correspondent Opposites. How many hostile Tenets has it enabled me to contemplate, as Fragments of the Truth—false only by negation, and mutual exclusion—.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected Notebooks, § 4380

Coleridge’s writing is interesting here and gives us a surprisingly wide glimpse into the philosophy of his later thought (a complex area which is still being explored; see, e.g., Murray Evans, Sublime Coleridge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); or Jeffrey Barbeau, Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion (Peeters, 2006), which both deal with the unpublished ‘Opus Maximum’ fragments). For one thing, we see his famous syncretism on display in the equation of “hostile Tenets” with “Fragments of the Truth—false only by negation, and mutual exclusion—”. Coleridge is signalling to Allsop that the universality of his approach is vindicated by the cognitive meaning of an aphorism. And what his approach involves is the acceptance of viewpoints which are different from his own: philosophical syncretism which bleeds into the private life. The connections he makes between certain aphorisms and their meaning for the moral or intellectual conduct of the person who follows them parallels the letter to Allsop, when the aphorism on water is unpacked into a kind of living emblem of the writer’s dread and love of composition; and yet it is changed in the unpacking.

Coleridge’s pairing of aphorism to its expanded meaning is oddly sequenced (probably on purpose), so I will make it more explicit:

  • “Extremes meet” :: brings all problematic results to their solution, and reduce apparent contraries to their opposites
  • “Treat every thing according to its Nature” :: is the rule of outward morality
  • “Be!” :: is the test of all inward rectitude
Figure 2: “Extremes Meet” – Instagram Coleridge

Coleridge has attempted—perhaps eye-openingly—to bring the entirety of “problematic results,” of “morality” and “rectitude” under the umbrella of these pithy phrases. His desire, as with Aids to Reflection, which would appear a few years later in 1825, seems to be to make subjects of social debate, especially those bearing on the meaning of religion, simple to the mind; and not only simple but rememberable. This may have been the poet in him at work upon his more philosophical and sociological preoccupations. What Coleridge’s notebook entry reveals is a desire to create permanent and literal “watchwords” for people engaged in social reform (as Allsop himself was). He is even now thinking of his ‘clerisy’: thinking of an educated subset of persons who are prepared to help others navigate through life’s difficult questions. And so imagine the enormous class of social and spiritual questions that can be filed away under the headings of contraries, of outward morality—i.e. the performance of morality—and of “inward rectitude”, the correctness of our own bearing which we feel within us. Can such a vast array of possible questions, of the ‘fear and trembling’ induced by such questions, be situated toward an answer so easily?

The test of all this is whether we think of language as being a universal augment to our understanding. For Coleridge, certain ideas, ‘embodied’ in phrases, are like pieces of code which we may find to be greatly suitable to a huge array of lived experiences, or like skeleton keys which open many different doors. The experience reveals that, on closer examination, these doors have the same style of locking mechanism, for all their outward differences. Coleridge was always—as Tom Marshall argues in Aesthetics, Poetics and Phenomenology in Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)—trying to find ways not only to show the translucence of ideas within lived experience, but also trying to offer ways for people to quickly and efficiently be able to trace their lived experience to the illuminating presence of a universal idea. His love for aphorisms itself, in his consideration, reflects this possibility: is it a “general or common feeling with man” or “a peculiarity of [his] own mind”? He was to contemplate this style of question often during his later life, and in some ways this puzzling alternative is his most extensive bequeathment to us.

It is even arguable that, for all his reputation for long-windedness, Coleridge was an aphoristic thinker in the traditions of Stendahl, Pascal, and Nietzsche, to name a few. He wrote such complex sentences so that he could arrive at simple truths; or, more importantly, at methods for resolving real social issues into a harmony of understanding on all sides. In our own time we have tended to aphorize him for the sake of social media reductionism (sometimes into total silence!). Coleridge never said “Poetry: the best words in the best order,” but that phrase is a lot snappier than what he really said. Yet, he might not have minded so much having his work compacted in such a way—not the best words in the best order, perhaps, but at least words in an order. After all, there is nothing stopping us from doing the exact opposite.

Adam Neikirk (@tweets4thedead) is a PhD student in Creative Writing currently under examination at the University of Essex. His thesis comprises a verse biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge together with a critical commentary. Adam’s creative and critical writings have appeared in the Coleridge Bulletin, the Charles Lamb Bulletin, and in Creel: an anthology of creative writing. He is the Communications Officer for the Charles Lamb Society.


Bibliography

Barbeau, Jeffrey. Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum. Leuven: Peeters, 2006.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 5: 1820-1825, edited by Earl Leslie Griggs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

—-. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 4: 1819-1826, edited by Kathleen Coburn. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Evans, Murray. Sublime Coleridge: The Opus Maximum. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Marshall, Tom. Aesthetics, Poetics and Phenomenology in Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: The Hogarth Press, 1942.