Coleridge on Reading, and Reading Coleridge Himself

There are different types of readers within everyone. Though most would not likely admit to being a superficial “Sponge,” an air-brain “Sandglass” reader, or a rubbish-ridden “Strain-bag", Coleridge, as the creator of those terms, exemplifies a reader who can be at one time vapid and at another time insightful.


The early nineteenth century Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge read a good deal on a variety of topics. He wrote poems such as Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and he read everything from tabloid pieces in newspapers to books on scientific phenomena. He read so much that he developed thoughts on the different ways to read:


Readers may be divided into four classes: I. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. II. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. III. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. IV. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also. (Coleridge, 2019)

These strange, poetic, and admittedly harsh categorization of reader types show how Coleridge thought of the intellectuals (and non-intellectuals) of his time. But, with a little perspective, it becomes apparent that Coleridge himself embodies each one of the reader types that he so flippantly described. Many critics say that he was a great reader; Coleridgean scholar John Livingston Lowes says, “When Coleridge once started on a book, he was apt to devour it whole” (Lowes, 2007). Yet, such a voracious reader is bound to have moments of clarity, and of opacity. Each category (the Sponge, the Sandglass, the Strain-bag, and the Mogul Diamond) is worth exploring from a critic's perspective with regard to Coleridge himself.



The Sponge


This category describes a person who absorbs information from a book but does not think much for themselves. They get a little “dirty” or integrated with the information, but not enough to contribute to the world with their own thoughts. It is difficult to imagine Coleridge only sullying himself superficially in any reading material. However, it is true that he saw some materials in opposition to others which shows that he had a shortcut for thinking about certain types of reading material. He believed “poetry is opposed not to prose, but to unemotional assertions of fact or ‘science’” according to M. H. Abrams, a renowned Romantic scholar (1971). By thinking of science in opposition to poetry, Coleridge, in a way, skimmed the surface of a poem and only retained its emotional resonance rather than absorbing all it had to offer.


In contrast, some Sponge reading can be helpful in approaching a book. Coleridge introduced the English-language term “suspension of disbelief” into the lexicon, a term that shows that it can be beneficial to absorb only certain parts of a piece of fiction and suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative (2022). Coleridge employs this technique in Christabel, exemplified by the line, "In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell" (2010). To be the Sponge reader in this sense is to appreciate a piece of fiction for what it is — a story to absorb, get a little dirty with the details, and forget that the fantasy elements are not real.



Dawe, G. (1815). Coleridge. [Portrait].

The Sandglass


Sandglass readers simply pass time with a book. Can a person read a book and retain nothing from it? Perhaps their mind is preoccupied with something else, and they cannot focus on the words. Or one takes in the words like taking in an image, floating through the content with nothing in mind. But beyond the book, there is also the make-up of the reader to take into account. It was no secret that Coleridge could be lazy. According to literary theorist and well-known Coleridgean Owen Barfield, “He was constitutionally dependent, and he abhorred having to exert his will” (2014). Coleridge's opium usage made him especially slothful; He would often spend long periods in bed. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see Coleridge as a Sandglass reader in these stretches of indolence and pain, passing the time by casually reading a book.



Strain-bags


Strain-bags only retain the dregs, the deplorable parts of what they read. But who is to say what people should or should not retain from their reading? Perhaps these are the sullied parts, the pornographic, the violent, the shameful. Like sex and violence on the internet, some people might read for the thrill of a battle or a romantic embrace. Coleridge was not above the dregs of the literary world since, “It is well known that he became also one of the most omnivorous of English readers, one with a taste for certain kinds of eccentricities” says Kathleen Coburn, a lifetime Coleridgean and collector of his notebooks (1979). With such a palate for reading material, he knew the best and the worst humanity had to offer.



Vandyke, P. (1795). Coleridge. [Portrait].

Mogul Diamonds


The Mogul Diamonds are those rare, insightful readers who know how to obtain their knowledge from books and share it. It becomes a part of them, like a splendid jewel that they wear all of the time. Coleridge was a Mogul Diamond reader in that he “not only read books with minute attention, but he also habitually passed from any book he read to the books to which that book referred. And that, in turn, makes it possible to follow him into the most remote and unsuspected fields” (Lowes, 2007). Additionally, his reading helped him to reflect, going so far as, “He was almost the discoverer of the unconscious mind and one who was constantly and penetratingly pondering his own” (Barfield, 2014). To discover the unconscious mind by always analyzing your own thoughts goes beyond what most great readers can achieve. Coleridge brought much to modern psychology through his never-ending reading and self-analysis. For example, he came up with the term "psychosomatic" after watching his friend perform an experiment (Coleridge, 2010). Nevertheless, through his life as a poet he did contribute to a community of readers and writers that celebrated the diamond-like knowledge of all that they read. As Wordsworth so poignantly put it, a poet “differs from other men because he is endowed with a more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness… a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him” (Abrams, 1971).


Conclusion


Reading in Coleridge's time was a dominant form of entertainment prior to the technological evolution of media. Coleridge's criticism was largely applied to the way people read for entertainment. He saw people in terms of "Sponges", "Sandglasses", and "Strain-bags" and he saw himself as the "Mogul Diamond," a shining intellectual among wishy-washy readers. But critics endorse that Coleridge had all four types of reader in him, showing that perhaps embodying the skillsets of a Mogul Diamond reader does not disbar you from the struggles of other reading habits.


Bibliography

Abrams, M. H. (1971, September 15). The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Galaxy Books) (Later prt.). Oxford University Press.


Barfield, O. (2014, March 17). What Coleridge Thought. Barfield Press UK.


Coburn, Kathleen. (1979, December 15). Experience Into Thought. University of Toronto Press.


Coleridge, S. T. (2010, March 18). [Christabel: Kubla Khan, a vision; The Pains of Sleep.]. The British Library.


Coleridge, S. T. (2019, August 13). Notes and Lectures Upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists: With Other Literary Remains of S. T. Coleridge. HardPress Publishing.


Coleridge, S. T. (2022, September 12). Biographia Literaria.


Lowes, J. L. (2007, November 29). The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (Revised). Dyer Press.


Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43971/christabel

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