Playfulness and Samuel Taylor Coleridge? The two are not generally associated. After all, Thomas Carlyle compared Coleridge with "a hundred horse-power engine stuck in the mud and with the boiler burst". And Lord Byron wished that the man who was "explaining metaphysics to the Nation, (would) explain his Explanation". Hardly the stuff of jouissance, one should think.
But John Beer, one of the grand old men of Coleridge studies, makes a very convincing case that playfulness can indeed be regarded as a key concept for the understanding of Coleridge's life and works. Of course, not playfulness in the physical sense.
In a series of 17 chapters, Beer explores how the notion of "play" illuminates the particular quality of Coleridge's thinking and writing and how it relates to his ideas of the imagination or the "one life", of duty and guilt.
These chapters are arranged chronologically, following the course of Coleridge's life from cradle to deathbed. With his enormous erudition and detailed expertise, Beer lets the works shed new light on the life, but his readings do not constitute exercises in mutual elucidation: this is primarily a biographical study. Abstaining from anything that smacks of theory, it engages with no current critical trends. It is a study in the old English tradition: solid, reliable, immensely impressive - yet with an inbuilt contradiction.
For Coleridge's texts, even and especially his poetic texts, are cited merely as "evidence". Hardly any ambiguities are allowed - as if poems were factual statements, referential texts - and there is next to nothing about the form of poetry, its rhythms, its sounds, its imagery, its rhetoric. The contradiction is this: what Coleridge admired most in Shakespeare, whose "myriad-mindedness" he praised, was that, by shifting words and images, he created newness, and would "hover between images", "to reconcile opposites and qualify contradictions". It is exactly this quality that many love in Coleridge's best poems. But it is annihilated if poetry is adduced as solid "evidence", as if its meanings were ever clear-cut.
Later in his life, Coleridge came to the conclusion, as Beer puts it, that "it was the gravest of mistakes to imagine that truth would eventually be discovered in some version of stability, or stabilities. Ultimate truth must rather be found, if at all, behind the dialectical play of stability and movement." Too true. But too little survives of that "Flux and Reflux of my Mind within itself", because Coleridge's poetical texts are here more often used to stabilise a certain view of his life than as a fluid medium through which his life would be refracted.
In Frost at Midnight, the speaker muses how the idling spirit interprets the "puny flaps and freaks" of the low-burnt fire "by its own moods", "Every where/Echo or mirror seeking of itself,/And makes a toy of thought". The mind cannot help but project patterns and meanings, even if there are none, objectively. It was one of Coleridge's problems that, having acknowledged this basic playfulness of the human mind, he could never again be sure whether the patterns and meanings he saw in the universe at large were "really" there - or just a figment of his imagination. "Play of mind" is both: constitutive of our being-in-the-world and potentially delusionary. Coleridge's last recorded words were: "I could even be witty." No joke.
Coleridge's Play of Mind
By John Beer. Oxford University Press 288pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780199574018. Published 2 September 2010