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Coleridge's Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe by Patrick J. Keane (1994)

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Book cover of Coleridge's Submerged Politics. Image source:

Coleridge’s Submerged Politics examines the political, social, and even philosophical context of Samuel Coleridge’s life and its impact upon his writing. Patrick Keane focuses on the relationship between Daniel Defoe and Coleridge – rather, the relationship between Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Coleridge – and Coleridge’s “submerged politics” that bob under the surface in his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The unspoken in the texts bobbing below the surface have captured Keane’s attention, where “a listening to what is just below the threshold of hearing and a saying of those ‘not saids’ by one reader” is necessary for his critical examination (42). Keane’s work, steeped in historical research and both past and contemporary Romantic criticism, should allow the reader to see the many political facets present within "Ancient Mariner", enhancing his understanding of an artistic work rather than confining him to one allegorical reading. Keane accomplishes this by splitting Submerged Politics into two parts. In Part I, he concentrates on Coleridge’s omissions in his reading and annotation of Robinson Crusoe; in Part II, Keane looks at the possible connections within "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to domestic and international politics.

The sheer amount of research within this work, spanning from the political and social climate surrounding slavery and abolition to English radicalism, could potentially benefit any Romanticist. That being said, Keane’s primary focus is Coleridge; thus, Coleridge scholars stand to benefit the most here. While Keane does occasionally cast his net out to a larger audience, he soon draws it in to examine Coleridge’s viewpoints and reactions rather than England’s. Additionally, New Historicism and cultural criticism are both explicitly referenced within the introduction, and these are among the fields most likely to be drawn to Submerged Politics.

Part 1: Coleridge, Race, and Slavery Edit

Part I is dedicated to examining Coleridge’s attitude toward slavery. “Coleridge, Race, and Slavery” opens by questioning why Coleridge in his extensive notes on Crusoe would not address the slavery or slave trade within the novel. The chapter then supplies evidence of Coleridge’s views on slavery and race, and theorizes on what those might have been when annotating Crusoe. “Crusoe, Defoe, and Friday” shifts to Defoe rather than Coleridge for Crusoe’s treatment of Friday and the ultimate conclusion of the white man’s burden. Giving voice to the mute minority becomes a central theme in this chapter as Keane provides synopses for various adaptations of Robinson Crusoe to compare their presentation of Friday with Defoe’s. “Coleridge, Crusoe, and 'The Ancient Mariner'” is partially a segue into Part II. Keane suggests why Coleridge’s politics concerning the slave trade might lie beneath the surface in his poetry. The chapter also contrasts Coleridge with Crusoe, theorizing for the final time why Coleridge, an opponent of slavery and the slave trade, would not have commented on Crusoe’s behavior.

Part 2: Critical Introduction and The Political and Philosophic Context Edit

Part II is prefaced with Keane’s “Critical Introduction” that outlines the next portion of the book, where he primarily pays attention to three themes in "The Ancient Mariner" that connect with his overarching focus on omissions. The first is the whirlpool that precedes the ship sinking, which he associates with revolution and upheaval in the late 18th century; Keane then draws parallels with Coleridge’s politically charged writing in the same timeframe. The second is the flash of joy followed by horror – “Life-in-Death” – within the poem and its relation to dungeons and imprisonment. The third is the antithesis to the second, where horror is soon followed by joy in the universally acclaimed scene of the water snakes (169). This preface is also dedicated to further background for Keane’s reading of "The Ancient Mariner"; he references scholars such as Jerome McGann and Peter Kitson, who share similar approaches. Many scholars’ work concerning Coleridge and even Defoe are referenced throughout this work and are given due credit by Keane; I have only mentioned a few here.

Part II continues with “The Political and Philosophic Context”, which contains an examination of the conflict and resolution between the inner (self/imagination) and outer (conflict/nature) worlds. Keane concludes that his first and second points (mentioned above) have been ignored by critics, when they ought to be addressed because they intrude upon the poem “from a region of Coleridge’s conscious and unconscious mind” (247). His first and second points are addressed in “Pestful Calms and Whirlwinds, Rumbles and Earthquakes” and “England a Dungeon.” Keane traces the turmoil of the era to the sinking ship in "The Ancient Mariner" and draws parallels between Coleridge’s fear of imprisonment (because of his inflammatory journalism) and the dungeon imagery in the poem. However, Keane stresses that the poem cannot be reduced to a simple political allegory. His third and final point is addressed in “Benedictions in the Cosmic Dungeon: Enforced Love in the Mariner’s Nightmare Universe”; the gap here is the “apparent failure to sustain the dialectic between vengeance and sympathy, hatred and love” (341). Keane does suppose this imbalance may be unconsciously connected to the political; yet he also observes that this mystery, like the poem itself, cannot be forced into any one category. On that note, his final conclusion is that recontextualizing poems should not limit them, but enhance and reaffirm them as a work of art.

The introduction at the beginning of Coleridge’s Submerged Politics mentions a purpose which I have not fully addressed in this review. Keane supports examining historical context as a legitimate way to study literature critically. As he addresses potential pitfalls in this manner of critical reading, he states he is “incapable of treating works of art as if they were hermetically sealed off from their context in the actual world”. His book reflects this dedication, and Coleridge’s historical climate takes up a large (if not the largest) portion of this work. Interspersed throughout the text are also comments about historicism's gradual return to the forefront of academia, such as in Part II. “Despite accommodations and even fusions, deconstruction is in decline, historicism is still on the march” (187). At points, it feels as though this revival of historicism becomes the center of the text, rather than merging various theories with the historical situation to give more meaning to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". However, Keane strives for balance in his theoretical approach and ultimately does not privilege either the text or context; he acknowledges the actual world these texts were created in and “also continue[s] to value intrinsic criticism and to pledge primary allegiance to the work of art” (42). I believe both parts of Submerged Politics reflect this balance, and this is a valuable text for Coleridge scholars, New Historicists, and any Romanticist who gain a better understanding of slavery politics and its impact upon literature.

Works Cited Edit

Keane, Patrick J. Submerged Politics: “The Ancient Mariner” and “Robinson Crusoe”. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Print.

Contributed by Sally Ferguson

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