In his new book Tragic Coleridge, Chris Murray hypothesises that tragedy pervades the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who viewed life’s vicissitudes, like the crises and catharses of Greek drama, as stages in a process of humanity’s purification.
While George Steiner has written influentially that the Romantic period brought about the death of the tragic form, Murray argues that the tradition was reinvented rather than discontinued and that Coleridge was a chief participant in this effort:
Tragedy could and did exist during the Romantic period, but rarely in the form of stage tragedies. More often it is detectable as an inflection, a Tragic Romanticism.
Tragedy occurs endlessly in Coleridge’s works in diverse guises: in the dramatic machinations of his narrative verse, the Classical and Shakespearean aspects of his stage plays, and Coleridge’s tendency to characterise himself as a tragic figure in the mode of Tiresias or Cassandra. Ultimately tragedy appeals to Coleridge for its sacrificial function, by which the necessity of hardship becomes comprehensible. In turn, Murray writes, Coleridge as author must “harrow the audience with a Dionysian mix of passions” so that the beneficial effects of sacrifice might be achieved via the vicarious experience of suffering in literature.
Offering new readings of canonical poems, as well as neglected plays and critical works, the book elaborates Coleridge’s tragic vision in relation to a range of thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to George Steiner and Raymond Williams.
Tragic Coleridge is published by Ashgate, priced £49.50.