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Coleridge dies OTD in 1834. Hazlitt and Romantic failure.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Troubled years | Britannica

Hazlitt’s description of Coleridge in Spirit of the Age helps create a desperately sad little chapter. It’s the description of an aging man who has spread himself too thin.

“There is no subject on which he has not touched, none on which he has rested. With an understanding fertile, subtle, expansive, “quick, forgetive, apprehensive,” beyond all living precedent, few traces of it will perhaps remain. He lends himself to all impressions alike; he gives up his mind and liberty of thought to none. He is a general lover of art and science, and wedded to no one in particular. He pursues knowledge as a mistress, with outstretched hands and winged speed; but as he is about to embrace her, his Daphne turns — alas! not to a laurel!”

Hazlitt regards “The Ancient Mariner” as the only Coleridge poem that posterity will respect. This is harsh. Hazlitt has established an elegant comparison between Coleridge and Godwin and decided that Coleridge exists in the magic of the conversational moment while Godwin lives in some deep and brooding futurity. Hazlitt is chillingly harsh when he declares of Coleridge that “if our author’s poetry is inferior to his conversation, his prose is utterly abortive.”

It is nonsense of course to say that “The Ancient Mariner” is Coleridge’s only poem. There is something wrong with anyone who can read “Frost at Midnight” or “This Lime Tree Bower my Prison” unmoved. All readers respond warmly (if not deeply) to the mellifluous excesses of “Kubla Khan”. But it is true that reading the essential verse of Coleridge is work of an afternoon not a week.

If his poetic vocation ended in a kind of failure then, contrariwise, failure was his muse. The Dejection Ode explicitly but other poems implicitly manages to generate a sense of transcendence attached to the very failure of inspiration. Coleridge knowing that Coleridge is not Wordsworth is a work of self-fashioning charged with great pathos. Mind you, Wordsworth did not know when Wordsworth was not Wordsworth.

Coleridge, sketchy, erratic, druggy, as he was, is a very very great poet whose very great theme is about not being a very very great poet.

Of course, if he had been on the 27 club – if he had died in 1799 – then perhaps his star would shine brighter today. The drugs don’t work. If the drugs had fried him like they fried Syd Barrett, then his diamond would have shone crazily. But Coleridge did not crawl under a rock. He kept talking. He talked and talked, and scribbled and scribbled.

He became the man more responsible for the theorisation of English literature than anyone else, arguably. Nobody was more important than STC for formulating and disseminating the idea that the thing that pays for my mortgage might be important. For as long as I can keep a roof over my family’s head, I need to respect his memory.

Penguin Monarchs: Charles II

Charles II (r. 1660-1685) | The Royal Family

Here’s a different approach. Instead of marching sequentially through the lifetime of Charles II, Clare Jackson clears up the basic chronology in an early chapter before offering more thematic treatments of this most mercurial, deplorable, and irritatingly charming of monarchs. “Life”, “Image”, “Majesty”, “Words”, and “Afterlife” are the chapter titles which explore ways in which Charles II was represented and how he intervened, decisively, in the process of his self-representation.

Jackson admits that Ronald Hutton’s far longer and more censorious biography is pretty “standard” but insists on being drawn to certain mitigating factors. A problem with this (admittedly) very short book is that it doesn’t really attempt to develop these mitigating arguments. This Charles can seduce from beyond the grave in ways that are hard to justify.

It is true, admittedly, that this Charles was not a religious bigot. He was not one to want to set fire to people over small points of theological difference. This seems like a very obvious and passive virtue to us, but perhaps in a seventeenth-century context it’s massive. He was one of the very few European monarchs in any age that you can actually imagine wanting to have drink with.

On the other hand Charles II was selfish, lazy, lecherous, mendacious, treacherous, abusive, and utterly undeserving of friendship or loyalty. Yet he possessed a version of charisma that kept him going as the state lurched from crisis to crisis. To what extent can you retain power based on a version of superficial charm? This is not just a question for the mid seventeenth century.

Charles II believed in the Divine Right of Kings as firmly as either his father or his brother. He just had a way of softening and smudging these beliefs so that when he did act dictatorially people looked the other way. He would have dearly loved to have ruled consistently as Louis XIV ruled, but lacked the means to do so. His experiences in Scotland where his royal claim was recognised but rendered contingent on the most humiliating adherence to humiliating Presbyterian conditions helped form (or warp) his character. Jackson seems skeptical about Charles’ real commitment to Catholicism though Charles surely preferred Catholicism to Presbysterianism.

Jackson notes that Charles found a way of showing himself to his people on an unprecedented scale. He could, like all entitled aristocrats, “slum it” – and yet he could instantly put people in their place with just a glance of disfavour. Everyone knew his weaknesses, but a critical mass of people did not seem to care.

One critical factor that Jackson notes is luck. Charles II was, without doubt, an astonishingly fortunate king in certain key respects. Had the secret provisions of the Treaty of Dover become generally known, then all hell would have broken loose. This treaty made Charles II far more deposable (and perhaps decapitatible) than either his father or his brother. A few tweaks of fate and this monarch’s memory would have been unambiguously damned in any historical record.

Finally, Jackson reminds us that Captain Hook is based on Charles II. Captain Hook does not just look like Charles II. Barrie makes it clear that Captain Hook is essentially an unlucky version of the quintessential errant English gentleman abroad. He is a Charles II who was never restored and whose peregrinations have drifted into piracy in a spirit of louche despair.

I have thoughts about other little books in this series.

See below:

James II:

William and Mary:

Nah, Giles Coren, Jane Austen really is great after all – and you’re just a lazy contrarian.

Just thought I’d repost this old blog. Just thought I would.



Some writers need to be defended from their foes.  Jane Austen needs to be defended from her friends, for the most part.  Giles Coren’s Times article cannot topple Jane Austen, because Jane Austen has already survived crass commodification and wrong headed appropriation – two far more serious threats to her critical appreciation and long term survival.

Giles Coren, however, has decided that overblown Janeite bi-centennial commemoration offers the opportunity to jump on, or kick-start, a reactive band-waggon.  Attacking someone or something that has been enduringly popular for two hundred years may or may not make you a bold iconoclast.  It may also make you a lazy attention-getting contrarian.  On the one hand, it is critically important to challenge institutions that have somehow survived for centuries.  On the other hand, there is no easier way of getting attention than by trashing the classics.

I don’t know Giles Coren’s writing.   Life is…

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Penguin Monarchs: William and Mary

Day in History – February 13: William and Mary are declared co-regnant  Monarchs | Artemisia's Royal Den

Perhaps the most valuable thing about these tiny books are the bibliographies attached to them. These very slim volumes are designed to tickle and provoke and finally provide a roadmap for anyone who takes a more sustained interest.

Jonathan Keates treats William and Mary, two of the least glamorous monarchs ever to rule Ireland, Scotland or England. Nobody in ENGLAND sings songs about either of them. Furthermore, since King Billy has become central to the iconography of Ulster loyalism, attempts to “commemorate” either monarch run into urgent political difficulties, as Keates observes from the outset.

William and Mary were rarely together for the short period of their joint reigns. As this book confirms – William had devoted pretty much his entire adult life to checking the ambitions of Louis XIV and was therefore campaigning for much of his reign. In his absence, Mary played an important role not only as Home Secretary, but also overseeing the maritime aspect of Scotland and England’s defenses. Far more of a true blue protestant than her high church Anglican sister, Mary’s cultural preferences were touchingly middlebrow.

Amusingly, Mary was strikingly taller than her husband so that on the few occasions where they were seen side by side, he was the one wearing heels. The marriage of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman comes to mind.

These short volumes are primarily valuable as corrective prods. Keates establishes himself cautiously as part of the reaction to the reaction to “Whig History”. William emerges from this book as a figure of quiet decency whose ability to compromise domestically was honed by many years experience attempting some version of governance within the United Provinces. The significance of “monarchy by contract” is hard to overstate, and needs to be restated because of the political efforts that were made (and which continue to be made) to smudge the transition from Filmerian to Lockean versions of sovereignty.

This book is, therefore, a work of tentative re-whiggification. The larger philosophical question is aptly stated. If William and Mary were on the “right side of history”, then to what extent does individual agency come in to play. Did they give history a decisive nudge, or were they sailing in the slipstream of unstoppable dialectical forces? Perhaps this is why biographers sometimes have a perverse fondness for rulers demonstrably on the “wrong side” of history, since the limits of their agency are more strikingly delineated.

It has often occurred to me that co-existence of republicanism with royal titles in the seventeenth-century Netherlands may have provided the inspiration for George Lucas’s retention of titles like “Princess” within the Galactic Republic.

Although the understated homeliness of the 1690s court may appear to some advantage alongside the more sordid excesses of the previous two reigns, it is worth reminding ourselves that much of the campaigning efforts of so called Societies for the Reformation of Manners took the form of bands of foaming bigots raiding gay pubs.

People died.

The conclusion to the book is perhaps slightly too buoyant. Although the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 might be regarded as a liberalising moment, as Tom Keymer has extensively demonstrated – the various applications of “seditious libel” post publication, many of which involved the terrifying application of the pillory – had the effect of deterring open political debate for much of the eighteenth-century. The notion that “the people” (defined rather elastically) had the right to express their views on government was not secured in the 1690s or for many decades to come.

But this is perhaps as good, as pointed, as eloquent, and as provocative as any very short book about such seismic events can ever hope to be.

I have thoughts about other books in this series.

Such as

James II/VII:

Penguin Monarchs: James II and VII

James II, King of England | Monarchy of Britain Wiki | Fandom

I suppose someone as anti-monarchist as myself has a kind of intellectual responsibility to keep as well informed about royal history as possible. I’ve just been aware of this Penguin series of very little books, consisting of a few hours reading each.

Acquire any of them on Kindle and you’ve a very affordable and agreeable afternoon of reading purchased for far less than you’d pay to see a bad film in your local gigaplex. And unlike the gigaplex, you’re allowed to graze on your own moderately priced snacks while reading.

The great virtue of this series is the list of authors engaged, a number of whom are known to me personally. A mixture of scholarly writers and writerly scholars, it’s a catalogue that inspires a deal of trust.

I started with James II rather than with any Saxon monarch because James II is at the heart of my own research right now. I will go forward and I will go backward from this most pivotal of rulers.

David Womersley plausibly presents a James II who is very hard to love indeed. Even the most necessary and salutary of reactions to the long shadow of triumphalist Whig history has trouble building a corrective positive case for James II.

The unpleasantness of James II is all the more striking when it is considered that his great stated aim was “Toleration”. I know of nobody in the twenty-first century who would defend the Test Acts. None of my acquaintance are of the view that non-Anglicans should be excluded from political office or the learned professions. But because of the way in which James used his “Dispensing” power to override electoral processes and the cherished rights of episcopal and university governance, he managed to persuade otherwise loyal and complacent people to distrust any supposed freedoms which were contingent on the unfettered whim of one individual.

Womersley remarks notes that James regarded his own father’s destruction as the result of too much accommodation and too much flexibility. He goes on to argue that James never really understood the complex conditionality of all forms of power, and that even the most immediate and obvious example of regal absolutism (Louis XIV) had to function within a framework of shared assumptions.

Louis XIV was perhaps the ruin of James II. The Sun King was the fatal proximate example. James’ elder brother was just as envious of Louis’ version of sovereignty of course, but Charles was both sneakier and luckier. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes convinced many in England that concessions granted by the monarchy in one generation could be rescinded in another. The birth of a Catholic male heir in 1688 was therefore a last straw.

Little is said by Womersley about James in Ireland, which becomes subsumed into the familiar observation that although James II had demonstrated conspicuous battlefield courage as a younger man, as a monarch he went into what we used to call “a blue funk”. The nosebleeds which afflicted him at a critical phase of the contest seem rather suspect. Even after William of Orange had landed and gathered significant support, James might have counted on a competitive level of popular and military support had he stood his ground. Instead, be buggered off – creating the constitutional justification of “abdication” which served to legitimate the new order.

This little book cannot accommodate the arguments it gestates. These arguments continue to resonate because the meaning of the fall of James II involves us with questions of legal authority itself, its origins and its means of justification. Understanding James II was central to how people like Richard Price and Edmund Burke argued about the French Revolution. This story is not just about what makes a “good king” or a “bad king”. This is a story about structural problems inherent in the very nature of what “good kingship” might mean.

Womersely is a cautious historian, too cautious to properly invite such a massive discussion into such a tiny book. But the rest of us have plenty of time and space.

410 AD. Emperor Honorius declares “Freedom Day” for Britannia

Honorius (Flavius Honorius), 9.9.384 - 15.8.423, Western Roman, emperor,  full length, as general, dyptich of Anicius Petronius P Stock Photo - Alamy

Responding to urgent calls to defend Britannia from the ongoing relentless plague of Saxon invaders, the Emperor Honorius instead proclaimed “Freedom Day”, a rhetorical gimmick for which he expects to be loudly applauded by what remains of the Senate.

Although the emperor was too busy playing with his pet chickens to speak directly to the Britannic embassy, in a formal edict made from his fortified palace at Ravenna, Honorius declared his opinion that “people should be free to make their own decisions regarding Saxon invaders. Repelling the Saxons should be all about individual responsibility. If individual Britons decide to continue taking anti-Saxon measures, that’s their own affair. That’s what ‘freedom’ is all about.”

“We cannot, in any case, keep restrictive anti-Saxon measures in place forever. It’s far better that Britons surrender to them now than later, in the winter, when things might be worse. Or something. Besides which, Britons will eventually develop natural herd immunity to Saxons, once they are exposed to enough of them. I confidently predict that by 412, everyone in Britain will have forgotten about Saxons.”

This will be the fourth time that Honorius has suggested that the war against the Saxons is “basically over”. In the past, his nervous looking Chief Saxon Advisor has argued that policy should “follow the Saxons” rather than making grandiloquent calendrical promises.

Others, meanwhile, have expressed a degree of surprise that Honorius has remained in office despite the wholesale sacking of the imperial capital by Alaric the Visigoth earlier this year. Opinion polls suggest that Honorius still enjoys the firm support of many Romans.

Speaking from the smoking ruins of his house, one representative heavily bandaged Roman citizen spoke for many when he declared “I don’t care what they say about Honorius. He makes me laugh.”

Maggie Lane’s “Jane Austen and Names”



Sometimes, you read books in the wrong order.  I read Margaret Anne Doody’s hefty tome about Jane Austen and names a while ago and I’ve only just got around to reading Maggie Lane’s much much slimmer book on the same subject.

Two challenges to Maggie Lane’s book, to get out of the way.  Somehow, the editorial process failed to catch the strange assertion that Henry Fielding invented the name “Pamela”.  The name was invented by Sir Philip Sidney and then far more influentially revived by Samuel Richardson.  There is also the rather arch comment that “political correctness” was responsible for the British Burney Society dropping the name “Fanny”.  While I accept that Burney’s family and very close friends called her “Fanny”, she would not have approved of people who’d never met her assuming such a liberty.  And I never have.  Indeed, Burney’s diary records a meeting with society hostess Mrs Cholmondely…

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Jane Austen – Game Theorist – by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

Reposting on the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death


I was a bit slow finding out about this one.  It was published way back in 2013 and gathered a few headlines at the time.   This is a book about how Jane Austen’s novels can be read as a description of what has become known first as rational choice theory and now as game theory.  Incidentally, the book is not concerned with the metaphorical significance of actual games or sports – and Chwe notes that “Austen’s characters who like card and board games are generally not good at strategic thinking in the social realm”.

“In this and the next six chapters, I take Austen’s six novels together as one body of work” says Chwe.  Ho hum.  “One body of work” is not how the books were conceived, composed, or experienced, but never mind.  “One body of work” serves Chwe’s intention to construct an Austen who is building a consistent intellectual…

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Wish I could be like Isaac Watts… born OTD in 1674.



Isaac Watts was added to the famous Lives of the Poets on Johnson’s own insistence.  There’s something amusingly apologetic about how Johnson introduces him:

The Poems of Dr. WATTS were by my recommendation inserted in the late Collection; the readers of which are to impute to me whatever pleasure or weariness they may find in the perusal of Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret, and Yalden.

You’d think that such an unfashionable inclusion indicated some special appreciation for Watts’ verse on Johnson’s part.  But no.

 … his devotional poetry is, like that of others, unsatisfactory. The paucity of its topicks enforces perpetual repetition, and the sanctity of the matter rejects the ornaments of figurative diction. It is sufficient for Watts to have done better than others what no man has done well.

In fact, Johnson doesn’t want to read Watt’s poems particularly. He doesn’t really want to write like Isaac Watts – he…

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Happy Birthday Joshua Reynolds. We don’t know if this is Francis Barber or not.



Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s personal servant and legatee, has long been the preferred candidate for this “unfinished” portrait.

But perhaps more than we want it to be Francis Barber we want it to be somebody.  We want to be able to put a name to a face and we want this picture to be more than just “Unfinished Portrait of a Young Black” (one of its unsatisfying putative titles).

We (I’m into the first person plural today) do not especially regret the fact that the painting is unfinished.  The face is completed and fully realised and very expressive and the stormy skies in the background are effectively rendered.  The rest of the painting would be just fabric.  In its present state, the face emerges from the canvas with a sense of eerie purpose.  Of course, from the twentieth century onwards this painting would  be considered exhibitable in its present form…

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