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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition by J. Robert Barth (Studies in Religion and Literature, 3: Fordham University Press) The original edition of this book studied the nature of symbol in Coleridge's work, showing that it is central to Coleridge's intellectual endeavor in poetry and criticism as well as in philosophy and theology. Symbol was for Coleridge essentially a religious reality that participates in the nature of a sacrament as an encounter between material and spiritual reality. The author shows how Wordsworth and Coleridge developed a poetry, unlike that of the eighteenth century, based on symbolic imagination. He then related this symbolic poetry to the tradition of romanticism itself Richard Harter Fogle wrote of the original edition: "This is a just, graceful, and penetrating book. Considering the complexity of the material, it is lucid and often eloquent. Father Barth's interpretation of Coleridge's doctrine of symbol is essentially original, as are his illustrative readings from the poems. His substantial essay moves harmoniously from Coleridge's particular insights to their wider implications for romanticism."

In this new edition, the author has enlarged the scope of his study, first reviewing in an introductory chapter the important scholarship of the past twenty years on symbol and imagination. He then goes on to give his work a deeper theological foundation, and to extend his argument to embrace what he calls Coleridge's "scriptural imagination." As in the original edition, he concludes that symbol is a phenomenon profoundly linked with the experience of romanticism itself and with a fundamental change in religious sensibility that has echoes even in our own time.

A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems--Christabel, Kubla Kahn, and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Warren Stevenson (Edwin Mellen Press)
From preface by James C. McKusick:
Warren Stevenson's splendid book, A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems, offers a comprehensive and brilliantly detailed close reading of Coleridge's three major poems. Stevenson examines the cultural, biographical, and geographical contexts of "Christabel," "Kubla Khan," and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," tracing the development of each poem's narrative form and elucidating the pervasive symbolic motifs that Coleridge evidently derived from his vast and omnivorous reading. Despite the fact that these three poems have been the subject of sustained and exhaustive analysis by several previous generations of Coleridge scholars, Stevenson finds many new and provocative things to say about them. His book is remarkable in the breadth of its scholarship, the depth and precision of its critical analysis, and the careful organization and presentation of its findings. Each chapter contains fresh and original insights. The first chapter, "Christabel: A Reinterpretation," proposes a biographical framework that casts light upon the complex interpersonal relationships narrated in this poem. Coleridge's poetic fiction reflects and comments upon the circumstances of his real life, specifically upon his intensely collaborative relationship with Wordsworth that reached its emotional climax during the annus mirabilisof1797-98. Stevenson argues that "Christabel is Coleridge the poet,"while "Geraldine, the malignant demon whom Christabel at first unwittingly succors, is a transmogrification of Wordsworth--rather, of the worst element in Wordsworth's nature." Such a biographical approach, tactfully integrated within a discerning analysis of narrative form, enables the reader to understand this poem in a new way. Stevenson's deft handling of the problematic relation between fact and fiction is always informative, often illuminating, and never reductive.

The second chapter, "The Symbolic Unity of `Kubla Khan,"' offers an insightful reading of this enigmatic poem in the context of some previously unnoticed sources in Thomas Maurice's History of Hindostan and Jacob Bryant's Mythology. In these compendious volumes, Coleridge found an exotic world of myth and legend that purported to stand at the ultimate origin of all human culture. If "Kubla Khan" is a myth of origins, Stevenson has done more than any previous critic to unravel the intricate web of textual sources from which Coleridge wove`its dense, evocative patterns of imagery. Stevenson persuasively refutes the widely-held critical opinion that the poem's opening lines describe a false paradise, erected by a fierce and cruel Tartar king. Stevenson's counter-argument to this critical dogma is succinct and compelling: "None of this is in the poem." He goes on to demonstrate, by reference to the poem's historical sources and Coleridge's own Notebooks, that the opening lines of "Kubla Khan" depict a true paradise, ruled over by a benevolent monarch who is "a patron of the arts and a ruler of intelligence and magnanimity." Like Bryant's Mythology, Coleridge's poem is an exercise in syncretic mythopoesis, weaving together narrative strands from diverse cultures to compose an ur-mythology that is posited as the ultimate ground of all subsequent mythmaking, a Key to All Mythologies.

The rest of the book is primarily concerned with "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which Stevenson elucidates in a thoughtful, meticulous, and eclectic manner. Looking at the poem through a variety of interpretive lenses, Stevenson first examines the biographical circumstances of its composition. He suggests that the archetypal figure of the Wandering Jew, who stands at the poem's narrative core, is also to some extent a fantasized version of Wordsworth, whose "Song for the Wandering Jew" can certainly be regarded as a transparently autobiographical poem. Stevenson argues that "for all practical purposes, Wordsworth was the Wandering Jew, and Coleridge proceeded to model his Cain and Ancient Mariner.. . upon the inner psychology of his fellow poet." Such a biographical approach lends concreteness to the poem's archetypal imagery, while still managing to avoid the pitfalls of critical reductionism. In Chapter 4, Stevenson examines the archetype of the Great Mother as another of the poem's core narrative elements, embodied in the ominous figure of Life-in-Death, whose influence upon the Mariner is both sinister and redemptive. Stevenson's analysis of this poem culminates in Chapter 5, "`The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' as Epic Symbol," which offers a magisterial argument concerning the poem's literary genre. He argues that the poem is a "miniature epic" whose narrative is grounded in the Romantic motif of the westward journey, "fraught with infinite possibilities for cosmic renewal or cosmic betrayal." The actual geography of the Mariner's journey is deeply significant here; Stevenson demonstrates that the poem's "sense of physical and intellectual daring" requires a westward journey through the Pacific Ocean. The Mariner's journey must follow the track of Ferdinand Magellan and of Captain Cook's first voyage around the world. Taking a fresh look at the travel narratives that Coleridge consulted while writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Stevenson sheds fresh light upon the poem's imaginary geography.

Chapter 6, "The Case of the Missing Captain," examines the curious fact that the Mariner's ship, unlike the spectre-bark and the Pilot's boat, evidently lacks a captain. Where is the ship's captain? And what color was the Albatross? Stevenson is the first critic to notice that the poem leaves these questions unanswered in order to rouse the reader's faculties to act, as it were on a poeticized mystery story of crime and redemption. Chapter 7, "Coleridge's Divine Duplicity," investigates the imagery of the Doppelganger in Coleridge's three great poems while also weaving together the strands of biographical, historical, and archetypal criticism that underlie the argument of the entire book.

A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems is a welcome addition to the field of Coleridge studies, and it seems destined to find a place on the short list of truly indispensable books on Coleridge's poetry. Indeed, in its dogged aspiration to discover what Coleridge's three great poems really mean, this book is close in temper and spirit to the great twentieth-century landmarks of Coleridge criticism and biography, from John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu (1927) and Robed Perm Warren's "A Poem of Pure Imagination" (1946) to John Beer's Coleridge the Visionary (1959) and Richard Holmes's Coleridge:: Early Visions (1989). All of these studies are foundational to the concretely biographical and historical approach that Stevenson brings to the study of Coleridge's poetry. Yet A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems marks a distinct advance upon the existing critical tradition; Stevenson has discovered new source materials, he has devised new ways of understanding the role of biography, and he has accomplished a fundamental reinterpretation of these three poems in the light of their underlying symbolic structures. For all of these reasons, this book represents a significant contribution to Coleridge studies. It is a splendidly insightful work of criticism that offers a controversial new perspective on Coleridge's poetic achievement.

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