On Writing and the Will

Here’s something Thomas Carlyle said about Coleridge:


His cardinal sin is that he wants will. He has no resolution. He shrinks from pain or labour in any of its shapes. …He would do with all his heart, but he knows he dares not. The conversation of the man is much as I anticipated — a forest of thoughts, some true, many false, more part dubious, all of them ingenious in some degree, often in a high degree. But there is no method in his talk; he wanders like a man sailing among many currents, whithersoever his lazy mind directs him; … I reckon him a man of great and useless genius: a strange, not at all a great man.

According to Wikiquote (yeah, I know, it’s Wiki, Font of Accuracy it ain’t), Carlyle wrote this in a letter to his brother on June 24, 1824.  (Hey, that’s 190 years ago today!  No wonder someone posted this on Twitter!  Har!  I iz genius cat!)  So this is a private meditation on Coleridge’s personality, not a book blurb–not something Coleridge would have found in a review of one of his books, not what he would have chanced across in a magazine and smiled a quiet, bitter smile at and muttered, “Thanks, Tom,” after he inhaled to suck up his own drool.  (That’s another happy detail that Carlyle noted: Coleridge, constantly fighting to keep spit inside his mouth.)  But still, wow, what a cutting, merciless summation of a person’s existence.  What would drive one author to say this about another?  Is it a young man tearing down the idolatry surrounding an older man?  (In 1824, Coleridge would have been 52, and Carlyle, 29.)  Is it the vicious drumbeat of Carlyle’s Great Man theory, twenty years before he officially formulated it, bearing down on the philosopher’s mind, compelling him to devalue any thinker who doesn’t dominate or colonize, influence or convert by force?  Yeah, I’d love to jump into readers’ minds, too, grab them by the brain stem and yank until they start paying attention to me.  Constraint is such an easy way to gain notoriety, but then, don’t you also need magic powers or a white face or money or the muzzle of a gun?

Words and ideas are such slippery creatures, Mr. Carlyle.  How is one supposed to know what a Great Idea is, unless the definition is tethered to the model of the Great Man?  Frankly, I don’t consider drifting among many currents to be laziness.  Fickleness, maybe, but the unfocused urges of the unconscious are nothing to be sneezed at.  True, Coleridge’s fame came to him in large part because of abandoned poems he decided to publish as “fragments”–purposefully incomplete, like newly constructed ruins.  And yet that aesthetic sleight-of-hand (which I think is one of the greatest cons in Western poetry–think of it! being able to collect the scraps of old pieces and get them in print as if you completely meant to do it) introduced stunning images and words and lines that still ferment in the minds of writers.  Know what I can recite off the top of my head? “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree.”  In Seattle a few years ago, I saw an African-American spoken-word poet named Christabel.  I can still hear her intoning her own name in one of her pieces…Om….Om…Om Christabel.  Om Christabel.  Artists feel empowered by the imaginings of Coleridge’s “lazy” mind.  Yours?  Not so much.

Want to know what I remember about you, Thomas Carlyle?

Great Man Theory.

That’s not even a sentence.  How useless.


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