2015 Volume 39and40 Pages 51-66
The purpose of this paper is to investigate how Coleridge read Donne’s poetry, with particular attention paid to “passion” and “wit,” to both of which Coleridge frequently refers when he considers Donne’s poetry. As for Donne’s passion, Coleridge stresses that it is inextricably intertwined with the metre and the language of his poetry. As for his wit, some expressions in his poetry come from <good> wit, others from <bad> wit, though Coleridge’s remarks on it are sometimes seemingly contradictory.
Coleridge was an enthusiastic reader of Donne’s poetry. Considering that his poetry had been nearly ignored during the 18th century, we may feel all the more curious why Donne appealed to Coleridge. It was Charles Lamb who aroused Coleridge’s interest in the metaphysical poets first. Coleridge borrowed from him a copy of Donne’s poetry published in 1669, and interpolated comments in it. Coleridge also borrowed from Gillman an anthology of English poetry, which includes Donne’s poetry, and in this book too, Coleridge wrote some notes. These marginal notes give us valuable clues for understanding how Coleridge read Donne, in what respects his critical acumen led him to esteem, and in what respects to criticize, Donne’s poetry. However, for all their worth, only few attempts have so far been made to analyze them. In this paper, I examine what they are intended to convey, with Coleridge’s other related writings taken into consideration, because they are often laconic, reserved, fragmentary, seemingly contradictory and disorganized owing to the limited space on the pages.
Although Donne’s poetry is ostensibly intellectual, Coleridge was sensitively aware of the need, when reading it, to become unified with Donne, and thereby to capture the passion latent in his poetry, and running with its metre. Coleridge’s way of reading Donne is just like a “dialogue of one,” which the lovers in “The Extasie” have. Coleridge as the reader has a dialogue with Donne as the poet in his “well wrought urn,” i.e. his poetry, but their dialogue is a dialogue of not two, but one, as Coleridge becomes Donne with the help of imagination and feels his passion, in order to appreciate the vast richness of Donne’s poetry. His is a way of reading which sacrifices neither heart nor head.