“3 But evidently, for some knowledge of God, knowledge of nature is necessary: just as to know a friend you need to talk to them, in spite of the limitations of language. His belief in a more direct divinity can be seen in Coleridge’s constant striving to overreach the everyday world and talk directly to God: to become “the infinite I AM”. He does this with his imagination. The world and God can in many ways be compared to Coleridge’s secondary and primary imagination respectively.
Any man can be seen as the harp, as “organic harps”, but Coleridge’s case in particular draws to attention certain points: if we see Coleridge as the harp, we see him yearning for God “Like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover”. The harp unifies nature and God. We see time and time again in that it is Coleridge’s imagination that unifies, this time not just metaphorically, not only nature but also himself to God. The harp comes up in Dejection: An Ode, but this time there is no celebration of it: “it better far were mute.
” It is in this poem in particular that Coleridge sees a real link between himself and the “lute”: What scream Of agony, by torture lengthened out, That lute sent fourth. Thou wind that ravest without! Coleridge’s depression has now, as he wished in the beginning of the poem, turned into something much more violent. But because of the adverse outside circumstances of his life – his relationship with Sara Hutchinson, he marriage – Coleridge is no longer inspired by “nature” – he is agonised and tortured by it.
This is because imagination and suffering are two sides of the same coin: sensitivity. While Coleridge’s poetic sensitivity afford him a perceptiveness and visionary power when the wind is pleasant, they also mean he is hurt when the wind “ravest” and nature is less kind. The image is powerful as we see him as this helpless skeleton, his frame battered by the winds and he himself forced to cry out. But in no way does the suffering take him further from God: it is merely a different form of imagination.
In his dejection, here Coleridge offers a rigorous and honest self-examination and inevitably knows himself the better for it. It is the same in This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison: as once again events in Coleridge’s life cause frustration and suffering, he is able to turn this around and almost becomes part of the walk. If the first few lines are overlooked, you could only assume he is on the walk, and enjoying it. His imagination, borne out of his suffering, brings him into real contact with nature, which eventually produces a poem of great intimacy, not least in his description of Charles Lamb.
The imagination can really be seen as Coleridge’s link between himself and nature and therefore in dialogue in some way with God. Within this is the fact the self-realisation is important, because, I would like to suggest, you are your most important part of nature. This is however, never going to be enough for Coleridge; in the poems such as Dejection: An Ode and This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, and also any of the nature poems of Wordsworth, the poet is always reliant on the Secondary Imagination.
“There are no groves/ For Love” in the world, Coleridge says; and presumably we must look further than the fancy now and then to achieve a more direct contact with God. The Secondary Imagination always draws on what has been experienced (ie. Nature), by the senses, and by rearranging and associating, it creates; but it would not exist without nature and is entirely derived, having “no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. ” Because nature is only a symbol, or merely the language of God, Coleridge feels he must strive for a much more direct contact with Him: by the Primary Imagination.
In the Ancient Mariner the shooting of the bird was an interaction with God, be it good or bad, just in the as writing a poem of “such pure imagination”4 is. Though Coleridge later regrets the moralism (the notion that “He prayeth well who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast”) in the poem, he sees that it is a work of pure imagination: that is, not reliant on the “random gales” that we see in The Eolian Harp. He is helped in this by making the poem supernatural, which by the very definition of the word reaches above and beyond what we see in the world: that is, reaching what is God.
Despite Coleridge’s regrets, there is a great feeling of the moral being almost unconsciously conveyed in the poem, which comes out as a mere side-effect of the flow of primary imagination: morality or religious theology may be something inherent and inseparable from the Primary Imagination; and it may indeed be this which brings the human soul closer to God. 5 This can be seen also in Kubla Khan. Because we know of the circumstances of the poem, we can even more point to its subconscious and visionary nature. The fact that Coleridge calls it “A Vision” does suggest it was in some way ‘given’ to him by a divine being.
Though the work doesn’t so much mean, but more so is, there is a message in there. The pleasure-dome of Xanadu and all the images of over-indulgence and debauchery, are countered by a warning: the “ancestral voices prophesying war. ” This, as all the lines do, seem to have been written down as the idea came, and kept, in an almost Andre Breton surrealist way, or like some of the rantings of William S. Burroughs. The lines seem fragmented, often with little relation to each other. But could it be that these “voices” are a warning of punishment for, or an assertion of the wrongness of, over-indulgence?
The value Coleridge puts on suffering has already been discussed. I do not claim this was intentional from Coleridge, but in this most brilliant poem comes through a certain advice on the ‘way to heaven’. It is in these poems of “pure imagination” that Coleridge really touches the reader, in the a way they know not of; the poems can’t be deciphered or even have any intended meaning because they do not draw upon a the shared world of everyone, but on Coleridge’s own spiritual world, which is bound to be personal and obscure, even to him, because he’s attempting to reach above language.
Unfortunately, all does not tie in neatly. Particularly in his later years when Coleridge was almost scathing of the Unitarian doctrine and his own previous philosophy, which is why I’ve concentrated on his earlier work – but even in this there are hints of scepticism. In Frost At Midnight there are various differences with his other conversational poems. In it there is a “silentness” which nonetheless affects him as it “vexes meditation”: in the strange silence he cannot be calm, whereas in The Eolian Harp and Dejection: and Ode, he was moved by sound.
Where he was effected greatly, and inspired in The Eolian Harp, he can now be seen as the “low-burnt fire” that “quivers not”. All the motion found in The Eolian Harp has gone as the frost is “unhelped by any wind. ” Referring to lines 20 to 25, Wu suggests, “Coleridge’s language indicates that the mind, when it infers the existence of an inner life in external objects, is engaging in an essentially fanciful act. ” This rejection of nature as a self-fulfilling object is continued in The Picture where, as Kessler suggests, “Coleridge could be satirising all nature lovers.
“6 And it is clear to see he is; he scorns the likes of Wordsworth who “worship the spirit of unconscious life. ” The fact is that nature is simply not enough for Coleridge, and he once again uses the idea of Plato’s cave in this addition to Frost at Midnight: [Nature,] Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit By its own moods interprets, every where Echo or Mirror seeking of itself, And makes a toy of thought. Clearly Coleridge moves away from the sensational meditations in This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison, or in The Eolian Harp, where indeed Coleridge does “seek” and “interprets” himself as the harp.
In the above lines the secondary imagination has become dangerous and degenerate, an “idling spirit” that “makes a toy of thought. ” Notably in the same later version, Coleridge also leaves out Hartley’s reaction to the frost. In many ways here Coleridge begins to see the secondary imagination as a kind of indulgence, the associations too easy compared to the self-analysis he gives himself in poems like Dejection: An Ode and many later poems. So we can clearly see that Coleridge’s poetic relationship with God and Nature are by no means typically Unitarian.
Coleridge is an original thinker and, like Blake, he needs to free himself from the inflexible and heavily generalised rules and doctrines of institutionalised religion: he needs to because his own theology and intuitive ideas are so subjective and dependent on self-knowledge: even God can be seen as “the infinite I AM. ” Coleridge contacts God in two ways: through the primary imagination, which can be seen as self-sufficient, and the secondary imagination and the nature it needs.
But it is simply not enough to rely on the “Echo” of God; one must seek to know oneself, a far more direct and knowable form of divine substance. Coleridge himself in his Biographia Literaria sums up the whole thing: The postulate of philosophy and at the same time the test of philosophic capacity, is no other than the heaven-descended KNOW THYSELF! 7
Bibliography C. R. Sanders, Coleridge and the broad Church Movement, Durham, 1942. Duncan Wu, Romanticism: An Anthology, 2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishers, 1998.J. Robert Barth, Coleridge and the Christian Doctrine, Harvard, 1969. M. Jadwiga Swiatecka, The Idea of the Symbol, Cambridge, 1980. Katherine Cooke, Coleridge, Routledge, 1979. Edward Kessler, Coleridge’s Metaphor of Being, Princeton University Press, 1979. M. Lefebure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: a bondage of opium, Gollancz, 1974. 1 C. R. Sanders, Coleridge and the broad Church Movement, Durham, North Carolina, 1942, p. 77 2 Duncan Wu, Romanticism: An Anthology, 2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
3 C. R. Sanders, Coleridge and the broad Church Movement, Durham, North Carolina, 1942, p. 78 4 Attrib. 5 There are also in it links, whether intentional or unintentional, with the Zong Case which would have been occurring around the time of composition; Coleridge strong abolitionist inclinations may have also been surfacing in this poem. 6 Edward Kessler, Coleridge’s Metaphor of Being, Princeton University Press, p. 64. 7 Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, Oxford, 1907.