Coleridge and Zen?



Dear Mr. Rexroth, If you haven’t yet written the Coleridge review — could you possibly use it as a vehicle for an article on Zen Buddhism? A good part of the summer issue will be devoted to Zen (“Zen in the arts”—Hesamatsu, “Buddhistic Meditation in the woods”—Kerouac, Zen poems from Whalen and Gary Snyder, “Zen Boom in America”—Alan Watts); so how about “Zen and the notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge”?

Cordially yours,
Edward Leibstone

Hum. Or, to speak in the langue verte of the métier — OM. It seems to me that several assumptions lay behind this postcard. That I like Coleridge. That I am part of the fad for Zen Buddhism. That I think there is some connection between Coleridge and Zen Buddhism, whether of the Japanese, San Francisco or Greenwich Village variety. None of these assumptions is sound. There is something that Coleridge does share with many, but not all, of our native Zenists, and that is a certain kind of personality, or personality disorder. Nothing could be further from the ideal Buddhist personality, Zen or other.

Coleridge had a badly disorganized mind. He was incapable of sustained attention, consistent thinking, persistent work, and he suffered from what the psychiatrists call great lability of affect. He was very untidy in his life and inside his head. In some ways he might be called the first hipster. He took dope. He was an inveterate religious window-shopper. His approach to literature was subjective to the point of being barrenly emotive — he “dug” the plays of Shakespeare, for instance. Reading him it would be quite impossible to tell what Shakespeare altogether or any play separately was simply about. In fact, in complex cases, the major tragedies or the great romances, it is obvious that he didn’t have the foggiest. His mind was as muddy as yen-shi soup. He could take the clearest ideas and make them hopelessly obscure. He liked them that way. Vagueness, indefiniteness, obscurity, excited him. All the moral and intellectual qualities which the eighteenth century abhorred, he liked best — in fact, he dug them. As a thinker and esthetician he is renowned for his theory of the imagination. Numerous books have been written on this subject. None of them agrees as to what Coleridge’s theory was. The most fun to read is I.A. Richards’s which undertakes to prove that Coleridge meant exactly the opposite from what he said. This is a fruitful — sort of Zenny? — approach. Mr. Richards’s mind is a more amusing place than Coleridge’s. There are many confusing books in Muirhead’s Library of Philosophy, the most confusing is his own Coleridge as Philosopher. Husserl and Heidegger can’t hold a candle to it. I read it as a boy and it was one of the major influences that turned me away from Germanic Romantic metaphysics for good and all, and for that I am grateful.

What then is the reason for this century and a half of imposing reputation? Who likes Coleridge and why? Reactionaries. Coleridge and Wordsworth started out on the frivolous edge of the Left of the French Revolution. Wordsworth, who had the moral fiber of a rabbit or sheep or some other herbivorous animal, folded up when the heat was turned on in the Napoleonic Wars — when it became obvious that the Revolution meant business — business that would hurt British business. Coleridge went on, as did the Germans, to lay a swampy philosophical foundation for the Europe of Metternich. We forget that the essence of Romanticism is precisely Restorationism — the vague mystery and terror of pseudo-medievalism. Out of Coleridge does not come Baudelaire, but Walter Scott. Against him stand the intransigents — classicists and Jacobins — Burns, Blake, Landor — the apostles of that French Revolutionary virtúclarté. Out of Walter Scott comes the Myth of The South and the pillowcase headdress school of American poets and critics, just to bring things down to contemporary cases.

How curiously like is Coleridge’s career to that of the editors and contributors of one of America’s best-known quarterlies. The first volume of notebooks covers the years 1794 to 1804, the years that made all the difference. Walks amid the hills and waters of the Lake Country, chemistry experiments, readings in the Byzantine Neo-Platonics, notions for poems and books that never got written, growing fright at what was going on in France, religious speculations that seem extraordinarily superstitious in 1957, brief paragraphs of painstaking analysis of specific sensations, and with this, a constant running commentary on his sensibility as such, a seeking of maximum irritability — a kind of beginning of the reasoned derangement or at least exacerbation of the senses. It is in these latter passages that Coleridge shows at his best — just as his best lines as a poet are concerned with careful scene painting in an occasional and often unfinished poem. At least he had a vast and hungry mind, and poking about in it, as you can in his notebooks, is certainly interesting. There is no question but what Coleridge is interesting as a person — a character — and if you want to take him as, unless you are very naïve, you have to take Leonardo or Goethe or Marcel Duchamp, well and good. Everything he wrote is really “Notebooks,” “Aids to Reflection,” “Biographia Literaria.” There is only one trouble with it all, taken that way — it’s all so endless and amorphous, and, like certain other, similar people, De Quincey, another hipster, there is something a little sickly sweet about it all — like the taste of opium. There are a number of sickly autobiographers, Amiel, Bashkirtsieff, Richard Jefferies, Barbellion, James Hinton — this is Coleridge’s set, he is the greatest of them, but it is here that he belongs. And like them all, he palls on one — he’s so morbid. He’s at his best at his healthiest, describing the shape of a cliff or the flora along a waterfall on Scawfell. He is at his best when he is most like Wordsworth, when he comes nearest to fulfilling the program they set themselves in youth. And this he does only by the way, by accident. His philosophy is vague and pretentious and gets nowhere. His major poems are dreadful things, as cooked as Poe and no more wholesome. If he believed that the imagination is that activity of man by which he apprehends aspects of the universe considered ultimately as an organic whole, he never said so clearly, in so many words.

With Miss Coburn’s work I have no quarrel. I found it entertaining reading, with a certain melancholy wistfulness about it, and her own work, her scholarship, her volume of notes on Coleridge’s notes, is stupendous. With Mr. Baker, well, “His treatment of meter, however, is more satisfactory than Wordsworth’s, and this is not remarkable in one whose mastery of it in The Ancient Mariner and Christabel is little less than miraculous.” I guess stuff like this goes over down in the land of Sidney Lanier and Edgar Allan Poe.

What has all this got to do with Zen Buddhism? Practically nothing. Coleridge, like Cardinal Newman, inhabited a region at the other end of the universe from the world of the Zen masters, the greatest haiku poets, ink painters like Sesshu, the inventors of modern Japanese sword play or ju-jitsu, or for that matter the admirals who planned Pearl Harbor. Zen training is designed precisely to get rid of every trace of just those things that occupied Coleridge the most. His poetry is rhetorical. Latent of course is the bright imagism, the gracile phrase of Basho or Issa or Wordsworth — but he threw it all away for the jimcrackery of Xanadu and the prurience of Christabel and the plain silliness of The Ancient Mariner. All of his thinking, like his poetry, is permeated with the urge to exert power — to get other people to do things. What gives him his pathos is his own knowledge that he could not really affect others. His dreams of power do not end tragically in impotence, they begin pathetically with impotence as the secret presupposition. A Marxist might say that he reflects very clearly the position of the former guiding, clerical class in Great Britain as it saw itself overwhelmed by the Industrial Revolution. Compare him with Baudelaire! They both took dope. They both invented a number of literary fashions that have endured to this day. But Baudelaire is the Romantic who destroyed Romanticism. In fact he destroyed the Social Lie of the whole epoch from the French Revolution to the present. And he did so because he saw “Life,” the life of modern man, steadily and whole in a way no British poet ever did or would. It is that steady gaze which is one of the stigmata of Zen. Bodhidharma looked at the wall until his eyelids dropped off and the wall was no longer there. But this is Zen of a sort:

Entry for December 1803, around Christmas:
What a beautiful Thing Urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous, the Image, diamond shaped of the Candle in it, especially, as it now appeared, I having emptied the Snuffers into it, & the snuff floating about, & painting all-shaped shadows on the Bottom.



This review of The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Kathleen Coburn (Bollingen, 1958), and The Sacred River: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination, by James V. Baker (Baton Rouge, 1958) was originally written for The Chicago Review (1958) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays