The Politics of Matter: Newtonian Science and Priestleyan Metaphysics in Coleridge’s Preternatural Agency

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European Romantic Review




Coleridge’s “Preternatural Agency,” a three hundred and sixty?one line verse contribution to Robert Southey’s Jacobin epic Joan of Arc (1796), represents his earliest attempt at a poetics of the supernatural. This essay links “Preternatural Agency” with Coleridge’s early Unitarian theology, metaphysics, and radical politics, which he was concerned to distinguish from atheistic expressions of political radicalism. The poem’s argument for the existence of spirit agents that guide human affairs is particularly indebted to the Unitarian Joseph Priestley whose metaphysical treatise Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (1777) blurred conventional distinctions between materiality and immateriality, corporeal and spirit agency. Priestley’s work in turn participated in a debate reaching back to the Interregnum regarding the nature of matter and the ontological connection between physical motion and political action. “Preternatural Agency” thus enters this debate as well and reveals that Coleridge’s early interest in the supernatural is an expression of his engagement in the theologico?political discourse of Unitarian Dissent.