Skip to main content

A Story About Coleridge


This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic waterfall.” “Sublime and beautiful,” replied his friend. Poor Coleridge could make no answer, and, not very desirous to continue the conversation, came to us and related the story, laughing heartily.


Now: what is the point of this story?  what is it that bothered and/or amused Coleridge about his new friend's second remark?

The problem, if I understand it, is that the anonymous fellow used the terms "sublime" and "beautiful" as if they were synonyms. To the Romantics, especially the more lettered of them (those who would be reading Kant on aesthetics for example) "sublime," like "majestic," could very well refer to a waterfall. But "beautiful"? That was a very different category, intended for smaller sorts of things. "Beautiful" as they understood the term has more in common with "pretty" than with "sublime."

I can't say I agree with the memoirist that the incident reflects Coleridge's good nature, though.


  1. Christopher,

    I do not dispute your interpretation, but I see Coleridge as having been upset for a more general reason as well--a reason that could apply today or at any period in addition to the Romantic era. Being a poet, Coleridge was precise in his use of language, and, when the other gentleman used "majestic," Coleridge considered it apt and was pleased. But then, when the gentleman indiscriminately threw two other adjectives at him, Coleridge realized that he was not conversing with another lover of language, and he was disappointed.

    I do not see Coleridge's ending the conversation as reflecting an ill nature. Dorothy Wordsworth's "Poor Coleridge" suggests that he was genuinely distressed, not that he was ill natured.

  2. I also wonder whether Coleridge was associating the gentleman's "Sublime and beautiful" with Edmund Burke's "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful." I have not read that book; nor am I aware of Coleridge's opinion of it or of Burke. Perhaps someone can say whether I have noticed something more than a coincidence.

    1. Perhaps the gentleman was not consciously quoting Burke, but did so unconsciously because the title of Burke's book was in the air, so to speak. If so, then it would not be profitable to pursue a possible Burkean connection.

    2. Perhaps Coleridge saw "majestic" and "sublime" as inconsistent.

    3. And the fact that he saw them as inconsistent caused him to lose his admiration for the man's use of "majestic." He realized that the man was throwing adjectives around, speaking loosely and not with precision.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …