Monday, February 7, 2011

Week 5, John Keats

Notes on John Keats

“St. Agnes’ Eve” (834-44)

Comments by Professor Albert O. Wlecke in a lecture from the 1990’s at UC Irvine:

“The Eve of St. Agnes” constructs a world of medieval romance and ritual. St. Agnes dreams of her future husband. It is a world of feuding families.

“Angela” is a rather ironic name for the old woman in “St. Agnes.” Angela tells Porphyro what Madeline is doing. She is supposed to protect Madeline, not lead the man to her. We get rather erotic descriptions of Madeline’s rites and dreams and of Porphyro’s entering into them, etc.

A central theme for Keats is that of the figure of the dreamer and the critical moment upon awakening. Reality is not the same as the dream; thus, Madeline’s tears. Porphyro is “pallid, civil, and drear” in comparison to the dream image. We can see a counter-movement here: reality works against idealization. In the dream, Porphyro is said to be possessed of “looks immortal.”

See Stanza 36: Porphyro is “beyond a mortal man impassioned far,” and he melts into Madeline’s dream. This act makes for an interesting blend of reality and the dream. The wind blows, and the moon sets. Nature, then, cooperates in the moment of consummation.

Throughout “The Eve of St. Agnes,” dreaming and idealization have been associated with freezing, with being frozen in opposition to the real world. Melting, therefore, is a crucial image here. The dream melts into reality. See Stanza 32: The speaker calls Madeline’s dream “a midnight charm/Impossible to melt as iced stream.”

So the setting of “The Eve of St. Agnes” is that of a cold, frozen night because it is a night for dreams, for practicing old traditions and rituals. The poem’s setting is oddly antithetical to the real world of human passion. Madeline’s first desire on waking is to return to the ideal or dream world, and, at that moment, to “enter” Porphyro. At this point, we are dealing with a world of process and becoming.

It is possible to take two different views of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” The first is that Porphyro is a bad man who takes advantage of Madeline. The second is that he is a hero who rescues Madeline (the damsel in distress) from a world of frozen fantasy, helping her to leave behind the castle and its inhabitants.

In conclusion, “The Eve of St. Agnes” claims that dreams do come true—the dream lover does indeed become Madeline’s husband; however, the whole poem suggests that we should be skeptical about dreams. Madeline may be a naïve fool, but she gets exactly what she wants.

“To a Nightingale” (849-51)

Comments by Professor Albert O. Wlecke in a lecture from the 1990’s at UC Irvine:

“Ode to a Nightingale” investigates the fundamental opposites of the ideal world of art and the empirical world of human experience. Notice the speaker’s strong imaginative response to the nightingale’s song, a song that brings to him an ideal world. The bird is “immortal,” and the speaker wants simply to disappear into its world. Nonetheless, the speaker is always held back in his attempt to join the bird. Stanza 3 shows his desire to dissolve into the immortal world, but then a long list of this world’s trials follows. The key reference here is to the poet’s death.

Thinking itself, in fact, produces sorrow. We cannot help but see the negative things inevitable in the world of experience. There is no way to “quite forget” this world. At this juncture, the speaker is an escapist because he wants to escape from the world below. The fourth stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale” refers not to wine but to the wings of poetry that the speaker wishes would carry him away to the ideal world. Imagination is the way to get to the ideal world, but the dull brain perplexes and retards the flight. The phrase “Already with thee!” signals an apparent moment of success, but the triumph does not last.

Stanza 6 of “Ode to a Nightingale” shows the speaker’s recognition, by contrast to his desire to escape, that such an attempt may be seeking a kind of death. Is all the foregoing in the poem no more than a death wish? If so, the bird may sing eternally, but he [i.e. the speaker] will be dead to that singing. The speaker is confronted with the split between the real world and the ideal world.

Al Drake’s additional comments on “To a Nightingale”: it’s worth contrasting Keats’ attitude towards the bird with that of Shelley in “To a Sky Lark.” While the latter’s relation is one of striving with the songbird, it seems that Keats neither vies with his nightingale nor “envies” its purity – he is “too happy” in the happiness of the bird: it just isn’t possible to stay with the nightingale in its happiness for the eternity the speaker would like to remain with it; indeed, this wish gives way to a wish for death itself, for absolute forgetfulness and nothingness. But he is left alone and “Forlorn” as the bird flies out of hearing range, and must return to his own sad thoughts and longings for forgetfulness. Imagination is at best only a temporary escape from these things, and “To a Nightingale” testifies to the limitations of poetry as an accomplice of imaginative liberation.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” (851-53)

Pastoral is a sophisticated genre, one that has long attempted to remove desire to an ideal world beyond ordinary experience and mortality. The genre speaks to our “desire to desire” (to borrow a title phrase from critic Mary Ann Doane), and it seems to have been sophisticated even when Theocritus composed his works in the 3rd Century BCE. In Keats’ poem, the pastoral genre itself has become an object of critical reflection, almost as if it were an art object to be contemplated in splendid isolation. What is the purpose of pastoral representation—what does it do for us?

Keats’ urn represents scenes from ordinary life (from high erotic passion to daily activities and religious rituals). We don’t know whether the urn’s creation was an expressive act or simply something done to make a living. Yet the images themselves have the power to “eternalize” intense feelings and interesting scenes for us as objects of contemplation, frozen in space and detached from the decay inherent in the passage of time. The isolated art object provokes contemplation, and makes us study the emotions and events of human life in a detached way. What does this contemplation yield? The urn remains silent and “cold,” offering no answers to the questions it provokes. The real things, of course, must pass, and only the artistic representations can last forever. So which matters more—us or the works of art we create as acts of representation or expression? Even answers like Horace’s “art is long; life is short” don’t really answer this question, and in any case we seem compelled to keep asking it.

It is hard to believe the final lines about the equivalence of truth and beauty—”Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”—are meant to initiate an abstract philosophical debate. By “truth” here the urn may refer generally to a felt sense of reality or authenticity, or even to “context.” The beauty of the work doesn’t lead you back to the motives and methods involved in its making. All you have is what you can see in front of you and your experience with the visual object. Keats brackets out all surrounding considerations and (perhaps—depending those much-debated quotation marks) personifies the urn, making contact with it as if it were another consciousness. And it seems to speak briefly to him, rebuffing him with enigmatic, chastening words about the limitations of his knowledge. When the speaker says to the urn, “Thou . . . dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity!” he implies that the urn promises a glimpse of some ultimate truth or reality beyond time, beyond language and humanity. But the poet must return to the vicissitudes of language and “expression” since he can’t bear the silence of the realm that the art object offers. Like so many romantic poems, then, “Grecian Urn” is about its own failure to achieve an impossible task—the speaker has been trying to follow the urn where it would lead him, but in the end he must return to the realm of words, and the result we get is the poem. Art has great powers of suggestion, and its capacity to provoke the same unanswerable questions is infinitely repeatable, but in the end a work of art doesn’t offer us permanent escape from life’s cares or from the burden of being merely human. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to do that anyway, and should be satisfied with the urn’s statement about the kind of “truth” that is possible for us to live with. In a sense, the urn’s advice amounts to no more than “Hush!”—impossible as that command is for us to obey.

In the last stanza, the speaker goes to the work of art searching for meaning about something human -- the urn represents different sorts of pleasurable human activities, so shouldn’t it tell us something about “the meaning of life”? Well, what it tells us is that beauty is truth, end of story. It leaves us with a tautological statement. I think what the urn is saying is simply, “here I am.” In other words, it is a beautiful object, or more generally, beauty. The urn is asserting that it is its own reality, and, presumably would just keep repeating the very same thing forever. When personified, it tells us it cares nothing about what it represents or about the artist who made the representation. An urn should not mean, but be, to borrow a phrase from Archibald McLeish. Well, some may say that is a very limited, formalist, escapist opinion for the urn to hold. But it seems to me that sometimes limitation is perfection. Might the urn not be equated with the pure song of the Skylark in that Shelley poem, the little bird that defied the form/content, matter/spirit split? The irony here would be that the Skylark is not something made by human beings, but the urn is -- it is something human beings have created which then slips beyond their control. And what is more, this seems to be a good thing. We can create something pure and perfect, but the cost is that the pure and perfect thing then becomes alien to us. It becomes a “cold pastoral,” and even though the speaker describes the urn as “a friend to man,” there seems to be something forbidding about this beautiful object. It reminds us of our own mortality because the representations on the urn suggest that passion can only be eternal in the form of a lifeless representation. We can represent our immortality, but cannot experience it; we can only contemplate it from a distance. I think what Keats has accomplished in this ekphrastic poem is to make the experience of beauty almost as unsettling as the experience of the sublime. As so often, art is closely connected with death in Keats.

Further thoughts on “Grecian Urn”: What about the status of the urn as a work of art? Probably the thing was a commodity produced for sale at the local “pottery barn.” If I recall correctly, Keats was originally looking at a vase in a museum—most likely a work of art taken by the British from Greece around the time Lord Elgin took those famous fragmentary sculpture pieces from Greece in 1802. Elgin, as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire fighting Napoleon alongside the British, managed to get permission to take casts of the Parthenon’s fine friezes and stand-alone statuary. Then he took the real objects, ruining some in the process, and shipped them back to England, wrenching them from their proper cultural context.

The plastic art medium contemplated by the speaker should be contrasted with music; music is sometimes praised by romantic poets as the best kind of art because it is pure form, or perfectly formalized expression. In a piece of music, all you have is a pleasing succession of notes that don’t point to anything in the real world and don’t imitate an object in nature. The composer may have poured his or her soul into the melody, but what is that to the listener? All the auditor has is the succession of notes and the pleasure they provide. Keats’ urn reminds us, I think, that other kinds of art are difficult to enjoy in such purely formal terms: the urn, even if intact, is a temporal and cultural fragment, an object that evokes the ruin of a glorious ancient culture. It’s hard to bracket out that kind of information. You see a piece of shaped pottery, and it leads you to wonder about the hand that shaped it, and why.

The kind of art object Keats has chosen poses a challenge to our formalist instincts. Perhaps, however, Keats is suggesting that the aesthetic appropriation of an object means detaching the thing from its original context as a social product and endowing it with a new and possibly more interesting meaning. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do—I don’t see anything inherently wrong with aesthetic contemplation. Still, to refer to contemporary arguments about the status of aesthetics, there is always a danger that aesthetic appreciation may slide into obliviousness to the bad things that may have been associated with an object’s production. In this instance, the bad thing probably has to do more with how such art objects ended up in Britain. A beautiful object can hide a multitude of sins. Walter Benjamin wrote in the 1930’s that the Nazis’ success lay partly in their ability to turn politics and violence into aesthetics, thereby disabling people’s ability to contextualize and criticize what was happening. The formal study of aesthetics has long been reproached by people who insist that art is always the bearer of ideology and that it must, therefore, be dealt with in a manner that allows us to “demystify” the sway beautiful objects have over us. The issue can become tiresome, but it is an important one: is the usual relationship between art and individuals simply a matter of escaping from “real life” into a make-believe world where we can dwell in isolation from other people and larger concerns? If so, what are the ethical implications of such escapism? Is it, for example, a necessary and healthy thing to do, or does it make us culpable indirectly for the evil others do in our name?

Notes on Selected Letters by John Keats, from the Norton Anthology of English Lit., Vol. E, 8th. edition.

“To Benjamin Bailey. The Authenticity of the Imagination, Nov. 22, 1817.”
“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.” Here is perhaps the meaning of that famous line in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” about the oneness of beauty and truth. Keats is suggesting that we live by what our imagination produces, first and foremost, just as surely as Adam “awoke and found [his dream] truth.” In this sense, I suppose, imagination might even be prelapsarian, something not subject to the Christian doctrine of the Fall.

“O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” This statement marks Keats’ way of being a romantic poet as different from the ways of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Shelley. It isn’t even so much what he says here as what most of us will take as the tone or attitude of his statement, especially when combined with the vision of an earth-like paradise that follows the remark: “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.” There doesn’t seem to be a tone of wistfulness here, but rather a palpable excitement—maybe it is possible to come close to this ideal life of sensuous and sensual delight, the feeling seems to run.

For someone we think of as a tragic youth, Keats shows a remarkably sunny, even dispassionate quality in the second half of this letter: “I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” And further, “I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week.” So much for Wordsworth’s ideas about the key role of the deepest passions in life. Keats is as happy as a lizard skipping around on a warm day, or a bird hunting for treats. What other Romantics consistently agonize over—their desire to escape from the curse of human self-consciousness—Keats suggests he is able to rid himself of, at least to a satisfying extent and for short periods. It seems to me that his attitude shows an understanding of nature’s power to draw us out of ourselves, and a healthy disregard for our need to come back to ourselves in some exalted or improved fashion. Nature, he says, simply “set[s] me to rights.”

“To John Hamilton Reynolds. Wordsworth’s Poetry, Feb. 3, 1818.”

“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & obtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.” Keats simply doesn’t care for poetry that is mostly self-expression, especially if it calls attention to itself as such: Byronism, the Wordsworth of The Prelude (had Keats or the public known of this epic since it wasn’t published until 1850, after the author died), etc. This is rather an extreme statement since a fair amount of poetry is moral or has some design on us, yet pleases many: Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, is both deeply imaginative and yet determined to convey the author’s religious convictions. And John Bunyan is didactic, but no slouch as a writer of fiction. Understood generously, however, Keats’ remark makes good sense: we come to art expecting to be set free, liberated from harsh necessity or stultifying doctrine, not preached at.

“To John Taylor. Keats’s Axioms in Poetry, Feb. 27, 1818.”

I like Keats’ axiom that poetry should “strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” This suggests that poetry is all about our highest aspirations—it speaks to desire, but not in a condescending way. The author and reader are very close together, in this view, and the latter has a creative role to play in the after-making of the poem. Then, too, there’s a sense on this page that poetry is not so much good for inculcating feelings of sublimity or maddening suggestiveness or mystery as of spreading sunshine into our very being: “Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content.” That’s a fine thought. No need to make it an all-encompassing model, but an excellent idea all the same.

“If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” It’s easy to interpret this as a silly pronouncement reducing to, “never revise.” But that’s perhaps not what Keats means. He may mean the remark in something like a Coleridgean sense: a poem is like a living being; it grows organically from successive and interrelated acts of imagination. In other words, one shouldn’t write poetry “by the rules” any more than one should paint by numbers and expect to be considered a great artist.

“To John Hamilton Reynolds. Milton, Wordsworth, and the Chambers of Human Life, May 3, 1818.”

Keats says he is able to describe only two chambers in life’s “Mansion of Many Apartments.” The first is the “infant or thoughtless Chamber,” and the second is the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought.” The latter is initially delightful, all light and atmosphere, but in this Chamber we also learn much about the “heart and nature of Man,” which causes us to become fixated on the world’s high quotient of “Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression.” On the whole, at this stage we cannot see our way clearly; there seems to be no way out of our dark confusion, and we are caught up in the unhappy rhythms and dilemmas and burdens of life. Keats recalls Wordsworth’s line about “the burthen of the mystery” from “Tintern Abbey.” On the whole, Keats uses the distinctions he has made to praise Wordsworth, but only because that later poet’s depth is given him by the times in which he lives. Milton was a man of his era, and so is Wordsworth.

“To Richard Woodhouse. A Poet Has No Identity, Oct. 27, 1818.”

“As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion poet.” Evidently, Keats would more or less agree with Oscar Wilde that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.” Art isn’t a species of moral discourse; art is simply art, something that is bound to “end in speculation” rather than action. And again, art isn’t primarily self-expression for Keats; it isn’t about shoring up our morals or our sense of self. It is about exploring our relation to objects, to the world beyond our solitary selves.

“To George and Georgiana Keats. The Vale of Soul-Making, Feb. 14 – May 3, 1819.”

Keats opposes moral abstractions of any sort: he construes life not as a “vale of tears” as in traditional Christian thought, but instead as a “Vale of Soul-Making,” where the main thing is to learn about the human “heart.” This line of thinking is in part a call for an almost pagan “openness to experience”: he writes that “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine.” We may be reminded of Imlac’s remark in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, “To a poet nothing can be useless.”

“To Percy Bysshe Shelley. Load Every Rift with Ore, Aug. 16, 1820.”

Keats seems to be saying to Shelley regarding his play The Cenci, “more rich matter, more drama, and less morality, please.” Keats says an artist must, in a sense, serve not God (purpose) but Mammon – the particular needs of the work of art at hand. The Cenci is a play with an exciting Renaissance subject, so it should honor those qualities.

Week 4, Percy B. Shelley

Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley

“A Defence of Poetry”

Shelley writes as the Vishnu and Shiva of romantic theory—he both preserves (Vishnu’s role) and destroys (Shiva’s role); he writes exquisite poetry and prose in the “romantic optative mode”—you can find in his poetry strong statements about poetry’s power to transform the individual and the world, a very high estimation of imagination and expression, and the great claims for the poet-priest-prophet who imagines and expresses more fully than ordinary people. Like Blake (and unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Keats), Shelley is a poet of the apocalyptic strain. And again like Blake, whom he apparently never met, Shelley is a prophet of Old Testament dimensions—he doesn’t so much offer predictions of things to come as express “firm persuasions” about matters both public and private. But at the same time, Shelley’s poetry and prose betray honest doubt, even anxiety, about his most optimistic ideas. His is often a poetics of isolation, alienation, and dark thoughts about what may be the incommensurability of words, spirit, and the world. So by way of helping us read the poetry, I will offer some thoughts about Shelley’s theories of inspiration, expression, and poetic prophecy as a means of individual and social renewal.

Wind Harps, Ocean Tracks and Fading Coals:
Inspiration and Expression. Like many romantic poets, Shelley uses the Aeolian lyre or wind harp as a metaphor of poetic inspiration. In “A Defence of Poetry,” he writes, Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them (Norton 2A 7th ed. 790).

Lyres (and chimes) make lovely music, but it is a random effect. Of course, the randomness of such music is part of its charm (as in Coleridge’s “The Aolian Harp,” which I believe uses the lyre metaphor to refer to what STC calls “primary imagination”). But from sentient and particularly from self-conscious beings, we expect something more than this mechanical music. The imagination, explains Shelley, has the power to harmonize what is outside us with our mental and spiritual operations. So when the speaker of “Ode to the West Wind,” prays to the Wind (named Favonius in Roman mythology) to “make me thy lyre,” he asks not to be turned into an inanimate instrument over which the wind may play, but a living instrument that responds from within to what has been given from without. Shelley’s lyre metaphor amounts to philosophical idealism: whatever the nature of the external realm, the important thing is that we do something vital and creative with the sensations and impressions given to us: the mind makes not just melody, as it were, but harmony—something both beautiful and intelligible, something orderly and spiritual.

Perhaps this relation between the external realm of sensation and the inner world of imaginative process is all Shelley means to address with his metaphor. But at the same time, a metaphor that figures the mind as a living instrument over which the wind plays brings up the issue of spirit. As Shelley knew, wind has long been metaphor used to invoke the divine breath and actions of gods, not just “sensations from the external world.” So to bring up such a metaphor is to invoke the question of exactly what the ultimate source of poetic inspiration might be. Perhaps it’s best to suggest that Shelley—a man who once signed his name Atheos (godless or atheist)—leaves the question open-ended, especially if we consider his poetry and prose together. For example, I like Harold Bloom’s early borrowing from the theologian Martin Buber’s book I and Thou to explain “Ode to the West Wind”: Shelley, with his desire to become the Wind’s instrument, really wants an I/Thou relationship that implies reciprocity even as it acknowledges the necessity of death for the individual consciousness and its inspired expressions. Shelley’s poet-speaker does not want to become a mere “it,” a thing for the Wind to experience rather than relate to as a living being with his own “spiritus” (breath). When Shelley writes in “Defence” that “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man” (799 bottom), it would seem that by “the divinity in man” he means “that within us which is divine” and not “visitations of spiritual exaltation from some external source, call it God or what you will.” But we should remember that claiming “all deities reside in the human breast” (as the narrator does in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) risks collapse into solipsism or narcissism. And so our romantic authors—both in their poetry and their prose—are constantly generating strategies and language to image forth the workings of inner imaginative process, externalizing them as mythic figures, divine winds, and so forth, lest imagination itself become as a god and play the tyrant over us.

That Shelley is open to the dark side of his lyre metaphor is obvious from one of his finest early poems, “Mutability,” itself perhaps drawing upon Spencer’s pathos-filled Mutabilitie Cantos of The Faerie Queene. In “Mutability,” the lyre metaphor refers not to the glorious way we make music of the world but rather to the way that world tosses us about until we perish, ever unsatisfied and finding no stability: the second stanza describes human beings as “like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast, / To whose frail frame no second motion brings / One mood or modulation like the last.”

Let’s move on to the metaphor of the “fading coal” Shelley employs to discuss the difficulties of poetic composition, or the creative process. He writes, “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet. (798-99)

The central claim of this passage is that by the time the poet begins composing—which to the romantics usually means “in one’s head, before writing it down”—the inspiration has already begun to fade. The passage has a certain elegiac quality—it is not pleasant, I suppose, for a poet to admit that his original state of inspiration from within is “always already” in decline and that he can never, therefore, capture the inspiration in its entirety even for himself, much less convey it in full force to somebody else. As a theory of inspiration, this is a far cry from Plato’s Ion. In that dialogue, Socrates uses the metaphor of the magnetic Stone of Heraklea to suggest that poets receive their verses directly from the gods and then transmit their inspiration directly into listeners’ souls. This lack of directness in Shelley’s poetics is a troubling matter since, after all, any good romantic poet wants poetry to be as dangerous as Socrates considers Homer’s epics—the highest goal of romantic poetry is to transform the human spirit and, if possible, to change the way people relate to one another at the collective political and social level.
I don’t think Shelley would admit that his passage is an occasion for despair. He sometimes writes in a defiantly Satanic mode, and Milton’s Satan—if we misread him sympathetically enough—draws considerable strength from an assertion of personal autonomy and high aspirations even in the face of impossible constraint. One of Milton’s strongest descriptions of Satan in Paradise Lost may remind us of Shelley’s “fading coal” metaphor: “his form had yet not lost / All her Original brightness, nor appear’d / Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess / Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n / Looks through the Horizontal misty Air…” (1.591-95, 1667 edition). Perhaps we are to understand that the poet’s mind, at the point of composition, has something of its own “excess of glory obscured.” In any case, the “fading coal” passage retains some elegiac sadness. We are led to contemplate just how frail is the power of one poet’s best efforts in the face of the limitations on conceiving and transmitting inspired states. And these limitations, in turn, can’t help but remind us of the loss of purity entailed in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace—I think it is true that romantic poetics is haunted by the loss of understanding and expressive power entailed in the Christian theory of “fallen man.”

What is a Poet?
Shelley’s third inspiration metaphor follows soon after the “fading coal” passage, and it transitions us to his definition of the poet and poetry:
It [poetry or poetic inspiration] is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over a sea, where the coming calm erases, and whose traces remain only as on the wrinkled sand which paves it. These and corresponding conditions of being are experienced principally by those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination; and the state of mind produced by them is at war with every base desire. (799)
This is an interesting statement since, as Shelley has already written, the power to which he refers arises from within. Here, the trace left behind by the working of inspiration is subtle, like the sand-patterns that result from the shifting currents of water in response to surface winds. These are hidden from the light of day and from analysis—as Shelley says, we cannot command ourselves to write poetry; inspiration comes when it will and art does not have its source in conscious thought. A poet is a person “with the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination.” But given the elegiac and otherwise complex metaphors Shelley has used to describe inspiration, we may wonder how certain he is that a poet’s words will be sufficiently inspiring to move others and change the world. This is something to keep in mind while you read his poetry—Shelley’s poetry (like that of other British romantics) is often about poetry and its effects; to use a theoretical term, it is “metapoetic.” In the early stages of human society, it seems, there was no such doubt about the importance of artists and their work. Here is one of Shelley’s main statements about the development of poetry:

In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order. . . . Those in whom . . . [the faculty of approximation to the beautiful] exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community. Their language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become through time signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse. . . . In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression. Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem… (791-92).
In the passage above, Shelley transforms mimetic commentary of the sort we can find in Aristotle’s Poetics—as when the ancient philosopher says people learn their earliest lessons by imitating the sights, actions, and sounds around them—into an expressive theory of art. Poets “express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds” in a way that pleases their fellows. But above all, Shelley’s passage describes a cyclical tendency in human language to move from initial closeness to certain primal feelings and experiences towards ever greater abstraction. In sum, we become more comfortable with broad concepts than with the instability and dynamism that comes from being too close to things in the natural world or to primal consciousness. Shelley is by no means alone in formulating this kind of vitalistic conception of primitive language—it was common in the 19th century. Poets bring us back to this more vital kind of language—the kind that can “mark…the before unapprehended relations of things,” and they can reawaken us to the dangers of our fondness for abstraction. The process Shelley describes is necessary, but has unfortunate consequences at both the individual and collective levels.

We have seen this claim in Wordsworth and Coleridge, and now we see it in Shelley: the poet can “make it new.” The vitality of language, if we can recover at least some portion of it through imaginative acts, should prevent us from plastering over the continuous miracles of humanity and nature for the benefit of the power-hungry, the comfortable, and all who have no higher desire than to get by. This is no idle connection I am drawing from Shelley’s passage: there is a deep connection, much explored in the 20th century, between language and power—most particularly the abuse of power. Read Orwell’s 1984 for a distressing exploration of this problem: the express purpose of the Newspeak dictionary is to reduce the potential of language to express complex emotions and sophisticated, potentially subversive thoughts. What Orwell describes is different from the tendency towards abstract complexity Shelley and other romantics describe, but the result is similar: language becomes divorced from anything worthwhile in humanity, and becomes nothing more than an instrument. And if language is merely an instrument, so are the people who “use” it.

Shelley defines poetry, therefore,—at least in the infancy of human history—as a very broad phenomenon: primitive language is poetry; it involves an energetic thrust of the perceiving and feeling mind towards the world and other human beings. It is close to the vitality of nature and the human heart, to the deep bonds that tie human beings together and make them want to live together in a community. It is not as prone as our modern, sophisticated language is to alienate us from the truth we perceive. For early man, to be is to perceive, and to perceive is to feel and express. The early law-givers, the “founders of civil society,” etc.—these people all perceived the order of things and relations and were able directly to express this order, set it down, for the rest of their fellows. And when the setting down settles into stale codes perpetuating hierarchy and deadness to the world, it’s time for new artists, teachers, lawgivers. It is time for a new foundation.

But here we come to the problem. While the vitalistic conception of language I have described seems to be twinned with a cyclical conception of history—one that implies the perpetual availability of imaginative redemption—the modern artist is confronted with the linear march of bourgeois and industrial development. The romantics write near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and witness the ascendancy of the middle class to social dominance. (Political dominance will come a generation or so later during the Victorian period). The romantic poet’s dilemma shows in Shelley’s famous comparison of the poet to an isolated songbird in the woods: “A Poet is a Nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the ability of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why” (795). It’s true that in this passage the bird has listeners, and that the primary meaning of the passage is to say that poets compose first and foremost for themselves, simply because they are moved to lyric utterance. But we can draw the implication as well that so far as the bird is concerned, it is singing to itself and is not even aware of the effects it has upon others. Shelley probably was not familiar with the work of Friedrich Schelling, but I am reminded of a passage from On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature in which Schelling refers to “the bird that, intoxicated with music, transcends itself in soullike tones” (Hazard Adams, Critical Theory since Plato, revised ed. San Diego: Harcourt, 1992. 459).

The comparison between romantic poet and bird is irresistible and revealing—it is perhaps the finest possible expression of artistic alienation and isolation. What makes it so revealing and attractive is that it is, in the deepest sense, false, as Shelley, author of “To a Skylark,” certainly understands. Unlike Schelling’s unselfconscious songbirds that can “bring about innumerable results far more excellent than themselves,” a human poet or singer is painfully aware, painfully self-conscious, and this self-consciousness brings with it a sense of the disjunction between conception, expression, and meaning (either to oneself or to others). The poet strives for the pure, unselfconscious expressive power, the one-to-one correspondence between heart and word, spirit and language, that a songbird has achieved without even trying. Human beings cannot achieve this kind of purity! The intelligent self-awareness we have makes us ask questions about being and meaning, and it is in the very nature of such questions to call for anything but satisfying, comforting answers. As John Stuart Mill later says in analyzing his spiritual troubles, “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” (The same might be said of expression and meaning.) Self-consciousness is a great gift because it allows us to appreciate nature in a way that nature cannot and need not appreciate itself, but it is also a terrible curse that dooms us to perpetual deferral of any correspondence between expression and desire, between self and other. Shelley says it a lot better in “To a Sky-lark”:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not—
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught—
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn
Hate and pride and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
Try listening to the beautiful music of a Nightingale or a Skylark—even in the form of an Internet audio clip (, and it is easy to agree with the pure romanticism of Shelley’s stanzas. Our poet-nightingale / skylark is a glorious failure in the human quest to transform the world with a song, and the inevitability of this failure prevents him from achieving even the initial goal of personal happiness. He must await the judgment of his peers, his fellow poets in times to come. This implies a paradox: the poet is isolated in his own time, but speaks for all humankind in all times. Wordsworth, you will recall, made somewhat gentler, but more immediate, claims about the universal and therapeutic value of poetry. Shelley, like Friedrich Schiller before him in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, has here admitted the problem that we shall find Matthew Arnold exploring later in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Namely, poetry, or culture more broadly, has great potential to improve and transform us, but when will it be able to do that? We can’t really say, and cynics will ask, “what good does it do to sing to yourself, or to perfect yourself, while the world suffers?” It’s always difficult to say, “don’t just do something, stand there.” That is a paradox that artists have struggled with at least since the end of the 18th century and on through the present. If you understand how deep this paradox is, you will find it everywhere in Shelley’s poetry.

Post-It Notes on “A Defence of Poetry”

838. The Aeolian lyre metaphor invokes the power of imagination. The power of harmonizing “external and internal impressions” comes from within. We are living instruments.

839-40. The language of the first poets is “vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things.” Shelley transforms the Aristotelian doctrine of art as imitation. Imitation itself becomes an expressive act -- in a sense, Aristotle implied that, but Shelley makes it explicit. Poetic language cyclically revitalizes stale, abstract language. Poets are broadly defined as the founders of civilization; they pattern the material realm after spiritual realization. The poet is beyond temporality and relativity.

841-42. Since the imagination produces language, language is the medium most free from material limitation. What about poetic meter? Well, it makes for “harmony” in which sound and sense are connected.

842-43. Narrative versus poetry. Poetry suits actions to universal human nature. It is not limited to individual expression -- see page 795. Poetry un--distorts, overcomes time and fragmentation, the limits of ordinary language. (Compare to William Blake’s creative cauldrons of imagination.)

843. The poet is a Nightingale who sings to itself, but who also entrances human beings. We cannot judge a poet rashly -- only time and peers should judge. Shelley acknowledges the difficult relation a poet has to his or her audience.

844-45. Poetry combines what seems to have been unconnected, lifts the veil of ordinariness from things, de-familiarizes and imaginatively re-creates and transforms what it represents. This is certainly no doctrine of imitation. Shelley believes in love and imagination as trans-subjective powers. He is not moralistic. (Refer to Thomas Carlyle’s clothing metaphor.)

845-46. Art offers the promise of the highest sustainable pleasure, and constitutes true utility -- a term Shelley insistently redefines. But what is our melancholy “defect” -- why is pleasure usually mixed?

846-47. Poetry “creates new materials of knowledge” and it aligns them with ideal beauty and goodness. Now more than ever we need its power to bring order and harmony. On poetic inspiration, contrast Shelley to Coleridge’s comments about secondary imagination. The metaphor of the fading coal implies that there is no direct communication of spiritual truth through words.

847-48. Poets are finely attuned, sensitive, and “delicate.” Poetry leaves a sand-trace of divinity from within. It is redemptive, and reminds us in successive waves of our own spiritual dimension. Compare Shelley to Coleridge again -- imagination unites otherwise “irreconcilable” things. I often use the reference to Wordsworth’s “Violet/star” comparison. A central statement is that poetry strips away the “veil of familiarity,” and does so whether it spreads its own curtain or removes the veil from the “scene of things.” Does that mean poetry gives us insight into ultimate reality? Poetry creates within us another being, and revives wonder at the universe as a continual miracle. (Thomas Carlyle says something quite similar. Shelley also comments on rhythm versus repetition.

Notes on Various Poems


The poem is almost “eastern” in its admission that self-certainty isn’t to be found. It eludes us whether we turn to reason or to passion. Change is the only constant, but it is an abstraction, not a substantial reality or a fixed ground. Expression—at least in the context of this poem—doesn’t result in a stable identity. But what is western enough about the poem is its pathos over what is felt as a loss or absence. Eastern philosophy isn’t elegiac about self-annihilation, though perhaps the notion of instability is more complex. This poem might be said to echo Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos of The Faerie Queene—Spenser laments that everything in nature must pass away, even the most beautiful things.

Mont Blanc

This poem asserts correspondent processes -- nature’s creative power and Hume creative power. Nature talks to itself, and the mind has its own wildness and sublimity. The poem starts as imitative of natural process and landscape, but the poet’s own spirit leads to a different kind of “imitation” -- his soul moves like nature, untamable and having no immediate source. Lines 78-83 show that the speaker is not sure which is true -- whether nature and mind are commensurate or not. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, glaciers overrun human endeavor, and the time frame of the glaciers swallows us up. This kind of sublimity is not comforting. By the conclusion, the speaker asks the basic philosophical idealist question -- what is nature without mind? I don’t see an answer, although the Lucretian line “Power dwells apart in its tranquility” (95) is suggestive. Stylistically, the poem hides its subject, which seems to appear and disappear. What is the status of images? The point is mostly to convey the flow of feelings -- solemnity, wildness, etc.


The poem sees are as an attempt at rebellion, in this case not a successful one. How much good did the sculptor’s attempt at mockery do? Rebellion usually remains tied to what it opposes, and ends up repeating the very structures it means to destroy. Prometheus Unbound explores that problem well, as Prometheus makes no progress until he recalls his own curse against the tyrant Jupiter. This is a poem about ruins, fragments that remind us of the whole. But here that “whole” or historical context reminds us that tyranny is always a threat, in any age. Destruction and cruelty are always in the offing. Pharaoh is dead; long live pharaoh.

“Ode to the West Wind”

Paragraph 1: The speaker personifies the wind and endows it with purpose. He prays to serve nature’s power and borrow from its permanence. The seasons (ancient vegetation myth) reveal a cycle beyond the individual and collective limits of humanity; winter prepares the way for spring, and sorrow prepares the way for joy, goes the assertion. The poem’s terza rima structure suits the impetuous subject matter and speaker. The point of this poem is to stir up and intensify passion, not so much to analyze a problem, although that happens, too.

Paragraph 2: The speaker links the landscape and the scyscape. The references to Bacchus drive home the speaker’s need to surrender his individual identity to the Wind’s power.

Paragraph 3: Earth, sky, sea, and fire—the elements sympathize with one another. Nature knows the Wind’s purpose and power, and “despoils itself.”

Paragraph 4: The speaker prays to become like the elements, and wants to act in harmony with
the inspiriting wind. The poem, he admits, has been written from “sore need” and in a spirit of striving. He says he is too like the wind—why is that a problem?

Paragraph 5: The prayer works only if we see that the speaker wants to be a living instrument, that he prays for an “I/Thou” relationship with the wind. This relationship would be reciprocal, not passive and one-way. Inspiration and expression both carry death as their condition for effectiveness. The inspiration is always already fading, and the expression can’t equal even the inspiration. This is always the lurking reality in romantic authors’ use of the organic metaphor, and in fact even in its use by ancient authors: humans are born to die, or as Heidegger says, “Dasein” is constituted by “being towards death.” Prophets speak in hopes of spiritual regeneration for their people, but they speak only when their audience has become an abomination in the Lord’s sight. The optimism here isn’t, perhaps, owing to certainty that the message will get through in due time, but rather by the idea that the poet can at least be true to his own spiritual strivings, can become inspired and express these strivings. An interesting question: why will the sound in the forest become “Sweet though in sadness” (61)? The poem is so impetuous and oriented towards wildness that it’s surprising to see this elegiac note towards the end. Is this line analogous to Wordsworth’s and Arnold’s “still, sad music of humanity” that only the philosopher or poet can hear? Finally, the line “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” deserves attention: the poet is asserting his optimism for renewal in the bitter breath of late autumn. It is in fact going to be quite a while until spring follows autumn and then winter. There will be much death and destruction before the thaw.

“To a Sky-Lark”

Stanzas 1-6: The bird and its song are described as pure spirit. The song is direct, untroubled expression. The bird soars above sight into the blue empyrean (azure, in Shelley, is often a term implying “clarity” or “translucence”). It soars beyond the eye’s passive-making tyranny. We remember Wordsworth’s call for “an eye made quiet by the deep power of joy” so that we can “see into the life of things.” The bird seems to be a perfect union of body and soul; as such, it is a miracle in ordinary, a little bit of natural supernaturalism. When its song overflows heaven, this is the same thing that happens when, as Blake says, “one thought fills immensity” or the Highland Lass’s song in Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” overflows the deep vale, provoking us to our own flights of imagination and bringing home to us that the imagination can go well beyond the limits of materiality.

Stanzas 7-12. So this series of similes (the romantic-era “like”) are bound to fail in describing the sky-lark. They are too much like analysis, which can only murder to dissect, or word-painting that puts up graven images in place of ineffable Jehovah. The bird exceeds the power of language (even “poetic language”) to define it, so metaphor and simile must fail. At best, they amount to something like “negative theology,” where the point is to know God better by enumerating a great many things He is not. But imagination shouldn’t try to tame the excess or mystery of the natural world. As the Blake character says, “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way is a world of delight closed to your senses five”? We can’t account for the bird’s effects on us. Refer to the poet-as-Nightingale simile in “A Defence of Poetry.” In lines 59-60, the bird’s clarity and joy sum up and exceed that of all nature; its song is the ultimate romantic music. As Walter Pater will say more than half a century later, “all art is constantly aspiring to the condition of music.” The birdsong’s beauty is not marred by any resistance from a material medium like wood or stone, or, for that matter, even the human burden placed on speech. Here art really has transcended itself and become more, even, than philosophy. One can only imagine what Hegel would say to that proposition!

Stanzas 13-20. Now the bird is asked to teach us the secret of its joy. What it unselfconsciously possesses is better than any human song or wisdom or institution (weddings, martial glory, poetic genres, etc.) So what is the source of this song? Well, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And since you’re human, you have no choice but to make a question of it. As J.S. Mill later writes, “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” The bird’s song doesn’t come from sad necessity (“sore need”), from self-consciousness, from “experience” in the human sense. Friedrich Schelling writes in “On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature” that the bird brings forth something more excellent that it knows, and I would add in romantic fashion, it brings forth something more excellent than it needs to know. Schelling’s point is mostly that humanity is higher than “bird-consciousness” because a human mind is needed to appreciate the beauty and excellence of the bird’s music. The self-positing human being (“I” see a tree – even such a simple act of perception requires us to posit a self that perceives, over against the thing or being that is perceived.) But even if we take Shelley’s poem as optimistic, I don’t think Schelling would carry him along on this point of elevating humanity above nature—at least not in the context of this particular poem. The emphasis seems rather to be on the fact that humanity is by its very nature riven with deep contradictions (self/other, self/self, desire/realization of desire, etc.), and that we are, as the Greek gods call us, merely brotoi, they who die. So hope, in this context, seems like the obverse of elegy—it does not stand on its own or in all its purity. The bird is its own source of divine inspiration, and it need not prophesy, call for social renewal, or anything of that human sort. Our intelligence and self-awareness drive us to ask questions the very asking of which dooms us to failure.

Still, the poem’s stubborn optimism remains; the poet can listen to the bird and find a correspondence between his own spirit and the bird’s song. We have to go with our desires because that’s all we have. And it’s fair to say that half of infinity yields infinity—as in “Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know.” Remaining just as stubbornly alongside the optimism, however, is the fact that the poet’s song flows from and (indirectly) speaks to a human world of need and pain. Can the poet’s song transmit his inspiration to us? The bird has no need of the poet’s fall/recovery, limitation/transcendence game—perceived rightly, its limitation is itself transcendence. But can we, as human beings, ever transcend our condition? Or does the fact that we are complex enough to need to transcend it mean that we will never be able to do so?

Week 3, S. T. Coleridge

Notes on Coleridge’s Poetry

“The Eolian Harp” (426-27)

The poem’s ruling thought (culminating in the statement, “what if all of animated nature / Be but organic harps diversely framed”) is a note from “philosophy’s aye-babbling spring,” and the speaker lets this idea wander around as if his own mind were being played upon by a wind-harp. The thought is just passing through his mind, unbidden and un-detained. The poem’s setting and form echo the ruling idea. The metaphor of a wind-harp allows something external (currents of air) to serve as a source of inspiration, but not in a domineering way. Ordinarily, the intellect or the imagination assert their superiority to nature by making harmony from the random notes given to perception. See, for example Shelley’s “Defence” page 790. But here in this poem, Coleridge makes the principle of order come from Christian theology, as figured by the un-approving gaze of Sarah. The poem’s flirtation with pantheistic thought is “guilty,” and the only thing that would not be guilty is praise of God. The poet must learn to be happy with a much narrower circuit in which his intellect may roam. The only true rest is with God.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (430-46)

The poem is about humanity’s relationship with nature, of course, but it also seems to be a meditation on evil and on our need for “enchantment.” Blessing and dread are both experienced as a kind of demonic possession-we don’t understand the “why” of our relationship with nature. Why does the Mariner shoot the Albatross? And why does he bless the sea snakes? The Mariner himself does not seem to know the answer to these questions, though I think he has a better handle on the second one. There seems to be a fundamentally destructive, de-creative impulse behind the shooting of the Albatross-this impulse comes from within, but we do not experience it that way. The capacity to bless nature comes from God, we might logically infer; it is possible to read the poem with reference to Saint Augustine ’s notions about human depravity. Namely, sin punishes itself and fallen humanity remains mystified about itself. Only Grace (the Albatross, the Polar Spirit, etc.) can intervene, seemingly for no reason. But the reason may really be set down to God’s generosity.

What is the Mariner doomed to repeat? He is doomed to repeat his dreadful story about the need to be generous towards his fellow creatures, which amounts to an injunction to praise God’s generosity and creativity. In the end, we learn by sad experience, and the Mariner’s story recounts a sad experience. He must employ enchantment because it is necessary to tear readers away from their ordinary, everyday contexts and bind them to the story itself. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge discusses the purpose of his contributions to Lyrical Ballads, saying that his task was to make the supernatural an object of meditation. He wants to induce a state of “poetic faith” (478) a “willing suspension of disbelief.” We are not to scoff at Polar Spirits and other such entities, but should rather regard them with awe for their supernatural qualities. The Mariner’s penance begins when the Hermit demands that he reveal “What manner of man” he is. What is his nature? Well, he is inexplicably destructive and de-creative. How does one explain that, without resorting to formulaic lines like, “The infernal serpent, he it was”? The Mariner’s evil act, to put the case somewhat humorously, may remind us of those occasional stories in the newspaper that describe how some damned fool simply shot a California Condor or a bald eagle for no reason whatsoever. Sometimes we just do things “because we can,” perhaps because we take delight in destroying things - one recalls that when Milton ’s Satan loses the War in Heaven, that becomes his task: to frustrate God’s generosity by tearing down everything he has accomplished.

“Kubla Khan” (446-448)

What is the source of poetry? How is poetry composed? What is the value of expressive acts? The impossible dream here is to make the inner workings of the mind available to the waking self and other people. To borrow a term from the Twentieth Century, can the Unconscious become available to the conscious mind? Freud would say we can only make inferences based on certain screening, masking, and distorting devices that keep unpleasant emotional and psychic events hidden from us. We are always “translators” when it comes to understanding the mind, and what we must work with is always fragmentary or somehow distorted.

In Coleridge’s context, the Man from Porlock represents the world noisily breaking in and preventing us from accessing the Imagination (in the form of Kubla Khan the poet-emperor.) Kubla seems to be a god-figure who simply speaks, and the thing is done; he decrees that a Pleasure-Dome be built, and it is built. Kubla is close to the source of unconscious creation, which, I think, is figured by the sacred river Alph. (The Norton notes suggest that the word comes from the Greek river-god Alpheus , but I can’t see why it shouldn’t be the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Aleph.”) Coleridge treats the Man from Porlock as an external nuisance, but his arrival just in time to shatter the poet’s attempt to write down his vision intact points rather to a need that he should show up. Perhaps, then, the Man is an internal mechanism that maintains the barrier between the dream world and waking consciousness. To break down that barrier permanently or entirely would almost certainly result in madness. In the prose preface affixed to his poem, Coleridge indicates a perfect kind of poetic composition: images rise up as things, and the right words (“correspondent expressions”) come just as automatically to the dreamer. There seems to be no need here for what Coleridge describes in the Biographia as Secondary Imagination’s coexistence with the “conscious will.” In other words, we are dealing with automatic writing from a source deeper than any that could coexist with ordinary consciousness and will.

But this perfect way of composing cannot be realized, so the composition we see consists of written fragments on the printed page. In this sense, perhaps the Man from Porlock is ultimately writing. A dream vision, to be communicated as a poem, will have to be written down, and thereby comes a second and irretrievable loss.

Well, what does the written fragment dwell upon? Mostly it dwells on the river Alph, the chasm, and the fountain. Kubla is mentioned twice - first when he decrees the Pleasure-Dome and then when he hears “ancestral voices prophesying war.” The miraculous Dome itself can’t be fully represented by Coleridge the poet, it seems. Well, what would the result be if the poet could build the Dome in writing? We would, he suggests, have to build barriers around him and treat him as an object of holy dread: he would be a direct co-emperor of Kubla’s Empire of Imagination, I suppose: “weave a circle round him thrice.” But given what we actually, have, it appears that poetry’s chief power lies not in delivering such magical realities, but rather in suggesting them. That is what Mary Robinson’s “To the Poet Coleridge” identifies as the chief value of “Kubla Khan.”

“Frost at Midnight ” (464-66)

The poem suggests that the mind seeks an image of itself everywhere, seeks correspondence between mental/spiritual activity and natural process. As a child, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had to make his search more or less in a domestic setting, with objects like the bar of soot fluttering at the fireplace grate. But his child Hartley will “read” God by way of the echoes and mirror-images he has placed in the Book of Nature. What is the Ministry of Frost? It seems to refer to nature’s healing power, to the way it mysteriously assists the seeking process described above. As with so many conversation poems, the speaker ends where he began - quietly sitting with his child and musing on nature and spirit.

“Dejection: an Ode” (466-69)

The speaker’s imagination (his “genial spirits”) has failed. He can “see, not feel” how beautiful nature is, and such a failure stems from both depression and a certain philosophical tendency whereby self-consciousness makes itself sick and alienates the individual from nature and other human beings. Some lines make it sound as if nature is dead unless a human mind animates it. From the speaker’s morbid perspective, that is true, but it may not be what Coleridge, as an admirer of Schelling, would say in the final analysis. In an 1807 essay, Schelling says that the artist must grasp and emulate the inner creative power of nature; nature isn’t really dead, but our failure of imagination makes it seem so to us. So for practical purposes, nature might as well be dead because we are dead to it. What else, in such a state, could an artist do but accurately see and describe how beautiful a landscape is? Painting a picturesque scene isn’t the same thing as feeling nature’s beauty and being able to create art in the same way nature creates its beautiful forms. “Joy,” for Coleridge, is something like Schelling’s natural energy. An analogous Christian term would be charitas-this impulse flows from the intuition that something binds all of God’s creatures together into one community. All true being is grounded in (has its source in) God. The romantics-though not necessarily Coleridge, who was always a theologian, first Unitarian and then more conventionally Trinitarian-tend to replace this figure with Nature itself. The speaker arrives at a resolution by passing along the hope of regeneration to Sara Hutchinson-he derives some comfort from this, but his blank depression complicates the idea that the poem achieves an “affective resolution.” The depressive episodes to which Coleridge was prone tend to recur, in cyclical fashion, so the resolution would seem temporary. Serious depression almost forces a person to imagine a state of permanent freedom from sadness-something none of us can have-and daily denies that freedom.

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (474-88).

From Chapter 4, “Mr. Wordsworth’s Earlier Poems” (474-77).

476. Coleridge says that in Wordsworth’s early poetry, we can find “the union of deep feeling with profound thought.” He goes on to suggest that “the prime merit of genius... [is] so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them.” More emphatically still, he writes that “genius produces the strongest impressions of novelty while it rescues the most admitted truths from the impotence caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission.” As always, romanticism is at enmity with all things stale and common. Later in the century, this insight will congeal into Oscar Wilde’s quip that a truth is no longer true when more than a few people know about it. But in Coleridge, it is an earnest statement that poetry is about the redemption of seeing and speaking.

From Chapter 13, “On the Imagination, or Esemplastic Power” (477-78).

477-78. The primary imagination is the miracle of consciousness itself-human consciousness involves self-consciousness: I see a tree. If I posit a tree, first I must posit the I that sees the tree. Coleridge says that this act is a finite repetition of God’s pure acts of self-consciousness. God says to Moses, “I am who am.” As subjects, we are aware of ourselves confronting an object. The tree is an object of our experience; being human involves synthesis of subject and object. (Postmodern theorists would say that we are thereby always doing something to something else, incorporating it by means of language and self-consciousness. Still, if such incorporation is inevitable, it comes down to “table manners”-perhaps how we incorporate something makes all the difference.) We constitute raw data into intelligible forms, make them correspond to our mental categories. In this basic sense, imagination is the creative, synthesizing power that operates in all perception. We continually create the intelligibility we discover. Fancy is more limited to sensory data. Fancy is dead; it is too dependent upon the law of association, as set forth by David Hartley, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. We—that is our will and imagination—are not the concentrated effect of nerve impulses, fluids, synapse-firing, imprints on gray matter, and so forth. If you overemphasize memory and fancy, you strip us of free agency. We become determined by external forces or by interval forces that might as well be external. The phrase “I am” implies that our self-positing is a divine mystery. Coleridge is offering a modern version of the Renaissance belief in “man the microcosm.” It seems that Coleridge adapts Immanuel Kant to his theological needs. The mind construes what we term reality, and this ability is a divine gift honored by symbolic language. Such language works like nature in that it creates substantive, organic unities. As John Milton says, a book is “a living thing.”

477-78. The secondary imagination is the poetic imagination. It is a purposive, directed “echo” of the primary imagination. The poet is used by and uses imagination to create symbolic meaning systems. Poetic imagination “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to recreate.” Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray” and “Solitary Reaper” exemplify symbolic treatment of a given character. A symbol is not just one word or a literary device-it is a mode of language in its own right. Wordsworth’s secondary imagination breaks up, conjoins, and reconciles disparate categories of perception, feeling, and experience-the “Lucy Gray” lines, “a violet by a mossy stone / half hidden from the eye / fair as a star when only one / is shining in the sky” do exactly that with respect to our ideas about Lucy, violets, and stars. We wouldn’t ordinarily put violets, Lucys, and skies into a meaningful relationship that changes how we see all three, but Wordsworth does so without hesitation. The secondary imagination helps to counter the threat posed by daily habit, which leads to stale perceptions and thoughts. We turn everything into an abstraction, a category, “other people’s convictions,” perceptions, and feelings. Our creative capacity is under siege by external forces, by social customs that make us foreigners regarding what is most proper to us as human beings. Coleridge makes perhaps the first in a long line of arguments against “mass culture” as something dehumanizing. Poetry is revolutionary with regard to perception-it shakes up the mind. It reorganizes minds so that they see and think themselves and the world differently. We may even, as Wordsworth promises, “see into the life of things.”

In the above “Lucy” poem, the poet has made free choices; as Coleridge would say, the secondary imagination coexists with the conscious will. This does not necessarily mean that the source of poetry is consciousness, but rather that this power operates alongside of the conscious will. The esemplastic power (the imagination) generates complex unities but does not simply cancel distinctions-good symbolic language depends upon dynamic tension between a word and its contextual neighbors.

What goes on in the poet’s imagination explains such poems as “Lucy Gray”—the poet brings together and synthesizes ideas, emotions, and sensory perceptions, and integrates them into an organic whole. Lucy is a star, a violet, and just Lucy all at once, and not simply in a mechanical way. The poet’s imaginative act generates this Lucy-star-violet, and we, as well, can understand and feel what Coleridge would call “multeity in unity.”

Further comments: in speaking of the primary imagination, Coleridge says it posits pure being. As repetition and re-seeking, it is linked with the basic human capacity to perceive and bring order to an otherwise chaotic world of sense data. Rhetorically, Coleridge is elevating our sense of humanity’s status: the mind is fundamentally creative. Coleridge cultivates a sense of mysterious communion drawn from the Bible and from the Scholastic notion of community. God says that he simply is. Being is mysterious, and so is our power of perception: the harmony between our minds and the world is mysterious. If secondary imagination is poetic imagination, it answers a need-it responds to the threat posed by quotidian habit and stale perception (cf. Nietzsche on this matter), and it gives us a chance to “make it new” perpetually. The imagination makes possible a permanent revolution in consciousness. Mystery and belief in the supernatural are a meeting ground between Wordsworth and Coleridge, although they start from a different place to get there.

Chapter 14. “Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads…” (478-83).

481. Coleridge insists that a legitimate poem is one in which “the parts... mutually support and explain each other.” Where does the pleasure from reading poetry come from? It stems in part from the implied link between imaginative process and poetic language. The journey the reader takes is a linguistic and spiritual one at the same time. Coleridge compares the movements of the reader’s imagination to “the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power....”

482. The poet is a unified person who “brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Furthermore, this great power, says Coleridge, “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order....” imagination, then, balances and reconciles opposites, bringing harmony from this harmony. It does not cancel things out but rather puts them in dynamic relationships. In the Lucy Gray poem I mentioned earlier, the violet and the star and Lucy remain substantive entities in their own right, but the poet has made us understand the deep connection between them, thereby awakening us from what Coleridge calls “the lethargy of custom” with respect to perception. Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode” offers a negative illustration in which the poet’s imagination is not harmonizing the natural world with his own subjective experience and emotional state. He remains isolated, and can create no order because his “genial spirits fail” and he can only “see, not feel,” how beautiful nature’s eternal forms are. Also on 482, symbolic language is said to remain true to the creative and imaginative process; it registers the “life” in which alone “nature lives.” It does not render the world as externality, and does not imitate it, but brings home to us the power of the primary and secondary imagination.

483-84. Coleridge disagrees with Wordsworth on the idea that we must get back to nature. He does not agree that rustic life is more pure than city life. Only a philosopher (or at least an educated person) could benefit from close contact with nature. Nature, like trade, narrows the mind, and we quickly become impervious to its charms. Moreover, while Wordsworth relies a great deal on habit and meditation, Coleridge’s concept of imagination seems more dynamic and active, and his idealism is more thoroughgoing than that of Wordsworth’s “wise passiveness,” which implies a certain openness to the power of external things and the sensations they provide. Coleridge opposes the materialist concept of experience, and he applies his point of disagreement with Wordsworth very broadly—only cultivation makes us capable of experiencing nature, and of truly appreciating the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness. It is true that both poets offer a touch of the meditative and the mystical, but Coleridge privileges the philosophy of self-consciousness over Wordsworth’s rustic “wise passiveness.” As for poetic diction, rustic language is tied too closely to narrow, particular things. Philosophical language is superior because it flows from “reflections on the acts of the mind itself.” (See the Everyman edition of Biographia Literaria 197.) As for the effect of this kind of philosophical poetry, the audience would perhaps imbibe some of the benefits of reflection from their superiors and religious instructors. The implication of this view is that culture is a sort of harvest that ordinary people may enjoy—that may seem rather jarring since Coleridge is after all a romantic who is supposed to believe in folk culture and possess a Democratic sensibility. And indeed, there’s no need to suggest he is devoid of these qualities. I suppose he is suggesting that in a civilized setting, even the most uneducated people benefit from something like a cultural trickle-down effect. Then too, it seems as if for Coleridge, the poet is something like a lay priest ministering to the spiritual needs of the public. Poets are the lords of language, and are part of the learned clerisy.

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare (485-88).

486. At base, Coleridge describes Shakespeare as the ultimate romantic poet, a man with tremendous facility who is capable of wielding the productions of fancy, and even more capable of deeper imaginative insight. I like the passage on 487 in which Coleridge attributes to Shakespeare “the power of so carrying on the eye of the reader as to make him almost lose the consciousness of words.” Samuel Johnson lamented Shakespeare’s propensity to engage in silly quibbling and Ben Jonson said he wished Shakespeare had “blotted” more lines than he did. Some of the man’s contemporaries accused him of being an upstart egotist, but none of these charges rings particularly true—especially the last. In the passage from Venus and Adonis, we can see and feel the Lark’s intense perception of the world. Shakespeare’s poetry is trans-subjective to the point of sublimity. We might almost say that he achieves John Keats’s dream of becoming the creatures he describes. None of this is to say that in Coleridge’s view, language simply opens out onto the referential world and disappears; I think it would be more accurate to say that in his view, Shakespearean language is so excellent that it partakes of the reality it supposedly describes. It is symbolic utterance to the greatest degree possible.

487-88. Coleridge insists that romantic genius is not disorderly or wild. As critics have pointed out, in this he follows August Wilhelm von Schlegel, who wrote about organic form in connection with drama. A production of genius generates its own laws as it goes along; it is as simple and as complex as that. If you try to impose form upon a work of art externally, you are essentially painting by numbers or making cookies with one of those shaped baking pans. Mind first shapes matter and then responds to the externalized “self” it sees; the artist’s imagination responds to its own productions or acts as they are externalized in clay, stone, canvas, the printed page, or whatever medium we are talking about. In this way, the medium turns out to be quite important in cannot be dismissed as merely a static receptacle—the artist must confront the externalization of his or her own imaginative acts. Coleridge’s is suggesting rather optimistically that spirit can realize itself in matter, that inward development can foster outward perfection of form. Well, that is a central tenet of romantic metaphysics: spirit can be realized or actualized in matter. To create by means of mechanical regularity would be to lose control over the creative process and to become the slave of technical reproducibility and the material realm. Creators and what they create are linked in romantic theory—that linkage is part of art’s value.

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual (488-91).

489-490. To speak symbolically is to employ terms that represent the universal without sacrificing the integrity of the particular. It is to attain a sense of unity without having to cancel all distinctions among things. In the Gospel of Matthew 6:22, Christ says “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” The stakes are high because if the eye is not pure, “how great is that darkness.” Matthew 6:24 says, “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” Coleridge places great faith in signification to bear the burden of imagination and spirit. The abuse of language delivers us over to the material realm and makes us its servants.

Symbol vs. Allegory. Allegory turns upon keeping two points of comparison distinct; it wields abstractions, and is no more than extended metaphor. An example from chivalric romance: the poet may allegorize a demonstration of virtue as “a knight slaying dragons.” This satisfies mechanical understanding, which in our mental capacity is most closely tied to sensory data. Even metaphor, considered as a mere literary device, is mechanical. Coleridge says that symbolic language participates in the reality it renders; it is not something separate from reality. Words are not merely referential and they are not ciphers devoid of substantiality. A symbol allows us to discover universal meaning in a particular representation. In fact, “representation” is not strictly the right word-symbolic language does not merely represent something universal or spiritual; it is part of the universal to which it refers. Again, Coleridge’s key example is Jesus’ remark that “the light of the body is the eye.” The eye here is both material and spiritual at the same time.

General Notes on Coleridge’s Prose.

The work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) shows the influence of Continental thinkers such as Kant, Schelling, and Schiller. English Romanticism is often cast as a strong, if at times complicated, reaction both against the materialist aspects of British empiricism (the doctrine that all knowledge derives from simple sensory experience), and especially against French rationalism (which suggests that that knowledge derives from reason, not sensory experience—”I think; therefore, I am”). Coleridge, like many of his contemporaries, opposes the mechanistic world view of Newtonian physics and the passivity of the psychological doctrines of Hobbes and Locke, according to which the mind, like a soft machine, merely receives and combines sense-data. For Coleridge, imagination is more than the faculty of combining ideas derived from sensory perception, just as memory, for his friend William Wordsworth, is more than Hobbes’ “decaying sense.” It isn’t that Coleridge or the other romantics have anything against close observation of the world around them; rather, they refuse to accept the notion—which could be derived from Blake’s unholy trinity of “Bacon Newton & Locke” if one were to read them unsympathetically—that mind is no more than mechanism and that nothing exists beyond the material world, leaving us with nothing but a contemptible “universe of little things.”

Coleridge tries to overcome the rift between mind and matter implied by the formula, cogito, ergo sum, positing a more vital and interdependent view of science, history, nature, artistic creation, and human potential. Since his thinking is indebted to many of the German idealist philosophers, it makes sense to offer a sketch of Immanuel Kant’s most important ideas. Kant (1724-1804), was born in Königsberg , Germany , in which city he remained to study mathematics, physics, and philosophy at university, and later to profess the latter subject himself. Although a quiet, untraveled man whose Enlightenment emphasis on reason hardly qualifies him as a romantic, he nonetheless provides later thinkers with the foundation for a fully romantic outlook. Kant is determined to avoid extreme tendencies in any brand of philosophy, whether that extremism comes in the form of radical skepticism or empiricism, absolute rationalism, or the metaphysical word-wrangling of the medieval scholastic philosophers. In Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen vernunft, 1781), he synthesizes the empiricism and rationalism that influenced his early thinking into a coherent theory of knowledge (that is, a coherent epistemology). Kant argues that humans have no direct access to the outside world. Presumably, there is a world out there, a “noumenal world,” but we have no direct knowledge of it, and no right to claim that we do. So much for the cruder type of empiricist who assumes too easily that he really does have some direct link with material objects; so much, also, for those who argue that there simply is no outside world. So how do we perceive things and know things? That question occupies the whole of the Critique of Pure Reason (often just called the First Critique), but I’ll only examine a few paragraphs from Kant’s Book I, “Transcendental Aesthetic”:
In whatever manner and by whatever means a mode of knowledge may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in immediate relation to them, and to which all thought as a means is directed. But intuition takes place only in so far as the object is given to us. This again is only possible, to man at least, in so far as the mind is affected in a certain way. The capacity (receptivity) for receiving representations through the mode in which we are affected by objects, is entitled sensibility. Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts. But all thought must, directly or indirectly, by way of certain characters, relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In the transcendental aesthetic we shall, therefore, first isolate sensibility, by taking away from it everything which the understanding thinks through its concepts, so that nothing may be left save empirical intuition. Secondly, we shall also separate off from it everything which belongs to sensation, so that nothing may remain save pure intuition and the mere form of appearances, which is all that sensibility can supply a priori. In the course of this investigation it will be found that there are two pure forms of sensible intuition, serving as principles of a priori knowledge, namely, space and time. (trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York : Saint Martin ’s Press, 1965.)

Kant says here that his analytical task is to strip away particular, everyday mental operations in order to isolate “sensibility”—the “capacity . . . for receiving representations through the mode in which we are affected by objects.” Having performed that reduction, Kant believes that he can posit “pure intuition” and its “forms of sensible intuition,” the categories space and time. He wants to show that these categories exist a priori (i.e., before any empirical experience) in the mind and that they necessarily structure the reception of objects. In Critical Theory Since Plato (Harcourt: San Diego 1971; the more recent edition does not contain the language below), Hazard Adams clarifies the Kantian transition from simple perception to higher thinking:

[Kant] proposed the existence of the “manifold of sensation,” the raw data collected and organized by the mind through the creative power of the sensibility. The sensibility abstracts from the manifold, formulating the world intellectually according to space and time, the a priori forms of consciousness . . . . we cast all our perceptions into the forms of space and time, which are the spectacles we all wear but can never remove. At a higher level, further removed from direct sensation, the power of the understanding comes into play and schematizes our sensible experience according to “categories”—unity plurality, totality, substance, causation, and so on. These categories govern our conceptual thought. (377)
This cautious formulation will have profound effects on later thinkers. In a sense, Kant is the Milton of philosophy—the figure whom interested parties will have to take into account when they set pen to paper concerning epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

We might make the same statement about Kant’s status in the branch of philosophy known as “aesthetics,” the study of the beautiful. In his third Critique, the Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant argues that when humans make judgments about beautiful objects, they do not make them with reference to any external standard or determinate purpose. So referring a pronouncement on natural or artistic beauty to some theory of imitation or to moral concerns will not do. Rather, a judgment that, say, a rose, a building, or a work of art is beautiful must be made with unbiased or disinterested satisfaction. Here is how Kant explains his point:

If anyone asks me if I find that palace beautiful which I see before me, I may answer: I do not like things of that kind which are made merely to be stared at. Or I can answer like that Iroquois sachem, who was pleased in Paris by nothing more than by the cook shops. Or again, after the manner of Rousseau, I may rebuke the vanity of the great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous things. In fine, I could easily convince myself that if I found myself on an uninhabited island without the hope of ever again coming among men, and could conjure up just such a splendid building by my mere wish, I should not even give myself the trouble if I had a sufficiently comfortable hut. This may all be admitted and approved, but we are not now talking of this. We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation . . . . We must not be in the least prejudiced in favor of the existence of the things, but be quite indifferent in this respect, in order to play the judge in things of taste. ( Adams 379-80; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 506 offers a different translation of the passage.)
To say that a rose is beautiful, then, is fundamentally different from saying that it is good or sensually gratifying or useful. Such a judgment does not accord with the kind of moral condemnation of art we see in Plato, who claimed that artists, in copying “mere appearances” rather than authentic Forms, misled deluded spectators and listeners. (Plato’s epistemology is closely related to his ethics—to mislead a person’s eyes or senses is also to corrupt that person’s morals and citizenship ethos. For Plato, we arrive at truth not through the senses but through internal reflection, i.e. through the dialectical method of argumentation, and through recollection of ideal, eternal Forms.) Neither does Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment accord well with certain moral defenses of art—the Elizabethan Sir Philip Sidney’s, for example, which posits (drawing from Horace’s Ars Poetica) that the “speaking pictures” artists create fill us with the desire to behave virtuously. But in Kant’s view, we must judge of the beautiful with respect only to our disinterested pleasure in the presence of the thing we call “beautiful .” Without resorting to further technicalities, we can say that for Kant, what happens when we make a judgment that something is beautiful is that we experience what he calls “purposiveness without a [determinate or specific] purpose.” Aesthetic judgments offer us a way to experience the mind’s power over material nature and the allied realm of necessity, but without simply abandoning nature and taking flight into an arrogant overemphasis on the power of mind. In plain terms, aesthetic experience lets us take pleasure in a kind of freedom; it is a valuable part of life because it’s something we can do simply for its own sake, and not because it leads to some benefit such as profit, moral improvement, or anything of that sort. We don’t even have to desire that an aesthetic object exist to take pleasure in it—in fact, such a desire would disqualify our judgment of the thing as beautiful at all.

We can sum up as follows the threads in Kant’s philosophy later to be exploited by the romantics: firstly, Kantian epistemology, while making no attempt to bridge the gap between mind (subject) and world (objective realm), nonetheless concentrates acutely on the mental constructs whereby humans perceive and know. Without sacrificing the validity of the external world, Kant focuses on the constitutive power of mental experience. The mind actively construes what we call “reality,” whatever the ultimate truth about “reality” may turn out to be. In terms of aesthetics, Kant’s emphasis on the special quality of judgments about the beautiful opens up for later theorists an important claim—namely, that both art and the artists who create it deserve consideration because they have and provide access to a kind of freedom, a kind of autonomy, lacking in more immediately practical areas of life—politics, religion, economics, and so on. Art will soon be taken up, credibly or otherwise, as a means whereby rifts in the individual and in human societies may be made whole. Imagination, for Kant, may be straightforwardly “an active power or ability to structure the particular features of . . . [an] intuition in accordance with the structure of the concept [that it matches]” (Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis : Hackett, 1987, pg. xxxv), but men like Schiller, Schelling, and Coleridge will soon argue that imagination is a truly creative, dynamic power which does not merely structure reality for the perceiving subject but which, to some extent, makes it, or at least participates in its making.

That comment brings us back to Coleridge’s speculations, most specifically to his ideas about imagination in Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14. The book as a whole is a sprawling masterpiece of the sort that only Coleridge could have produced. It contains much material assimilated from several Romantic authors—amongst them Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Schiller. Most instructive for us is the following passage, in which Coleridge goes far beyond Kant’s modest claims about the creative powers of the mind:
The imagination then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. // Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. (Norton Criticism 1st ed. 676-77, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 477-78.)
Here Coleridge appears to be identifying as the “primary imagination” the basic capacity of the mind to participate in the creation of the world around it. In order to see how Coleridge has expanded Kant’s term “imagination,” we must examine that term in a little more detail than we have yet done. In his “Introduction” to Critique of Judgment, Werner Pluhar explains the Kantian imagination’s function:

If an empirical judgment consists in the awareness that an empirical intuition matches some concept, how did that match come about? The data we receive passively through sensation are structured in terms of space and time and thus become an empirical intuition. If this intuition is to match a concept, we must have an active power or ability to structure the particular features of that intuition in accordance with the structure of the concept; this power is what Kant calls our “imagination.” The imagination “apprehends” (takes up) what is given in intuition and then puts together or “combines” this diversity (or “manifold”) so that it matches the concept. (xxxv)
The Kantian imagination, then, allows us to verify that there is a basic harmony between mental categories and, if not the “real world,” then at least our sensory experience of it. Coleridge’s imagination, however, gives us access to something more: it reveals that the mind participates in the creation of the world. While Kant had implied that “one can neither think without an object nor prove that objects in themselves exist independently of thought,” Coleridge comes much closer to saying that imagination can, at least for an instant, overcome the distinction between self and world; it can fuse subject and object into a unified whole. Coleridge describes the “primary” imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.” God, the infinite Mind in Coleridge’s view, is pure Being. In Genesis, God’s creation of the universe is cast in terms of a grand perlocutionary “speech act” (“Let there be light,” and so on). The world was spoken into existence, and its continued existence implies that all creation is the perpetual unfolding of God’s Word.

Consider also how God, in Exodus, answers Moses when the latter asks how he should speak of God to the Israelites: “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel , I AM hath sent me unto you ( 3:14 ). So God has given his answer to a question of self-consciousness. He says that he is pure existence. He thinks about himself, engages in an act of self-consciousness, and says, “I am that I am.” On our less exalted, finite scale, we can say that in any act of perception, imagination is involved—something creative happens. Whatever John Locke and other empiricists may have thought, even the simplest kind of perception is not passive. Imagination is the creative, synthesizing power that operates in all human perception. Take this sentence: “I see a tree.” The positing of the “I” is an act of self-consciousness. The subject is aware of itself as it confronts an object of experience (such as a tree), and in fact the initial distinction between subject and object, between (in Emerson’s terms) the “me” and the “not me,” is vital. A fully human perception requires a synthesis of subject and object. Perhaps we can say, therefore, that the primary imagination is the miracle of consciousness itself, which, for human beings, turns out to involve self-consciousness as well.

But what about Coleridge’s “secondary imagination”? We recall that he writes in Chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria regarding two kinds of imagination, not just one:
The secondary … [imagination] I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. (Norton Criticism 1st ed. 676, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 477.)
The secondary imagination is the poetic imagination. It is a purposive, directed “echo” of the primary imagination’s power, and it works creatively upon phenomenal experience to generate new meanings. Poetic imagination “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to re-create” something genuinely new. (In this, it differs markedly from the operations of the “fancy,” which only rearranges prefabricated, stale perceptions into predictable patterns, in accordance with the empirical view that ideas are mechanically “associated” with one another to form complex combinations.) A concrete example of Coleridge’s “secondary imagination” will serve us best: how about a few of Wordsworth’s short lyric poems? Consider “She dwelt among the untrodden ways”—the speaker describes Lucy as “A violet by a mossy stone, / half hidden from the eye, / Fair as a star, when only one / is shining in the sky.” Wordsworth has placed two very different natural phenomena alongside each other, but now we understand that something vital connects them—the earthly flower and the heavenly star share something with each other. They shared something with Lucy, too, when she was alive, and they come together again in the speaker’s imagination now that Lucy is gone. In Coleridge’s view, a poet like Wordsworth can “dissolve, diffuse, and dissipate” our ordinary ways of looking at objects and even human beings, encouraging us to see that the world need not be thought to consist of an aggregation of lifeless or self-contained objects with no connection to one another. Some critics have even said convincingly that Coleridge’s terminology is partly drawn from the ancient language of alchemy, whereby ordinary matter is transformed magically (by incantation and ritual) into precious materials such as gold. Another example of this romantic alchemy would be Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper,” where the song of an ordinary Highland Lass commands the speaker’s attention, and, “the vale…overflowing with the sound” of her unselfconscious voice serves as the vehicle for the speaker’s own exotic flights of imagination into distant lands and strange, yet appropriate, comparisons between the human voice and the sounds of the natural world. At his best, Coleridge might say, Wordsworth breaks up, conjoins, and reconciles disparate categories of perception, feeling, and experience. The result is a fresh new way of understanding ourselves and the world around us.

In both poems that I have mentioned, the poet has made free choices; as Coleridge would say, the secondary imagination coexists with the conscious will. This does not necessarily mean that the source of poetry is available to us—a reading of “Kubla Khan” should convince us otherwise—but rather that this power operates alongside of the conscious will. The esemplastic (“molding into one,” Coleridge’s coinage from the Greek) or imaginative power generates complex unities but does not simply cancel distinctions—good symbolic language depends upon dynamic tension, as the New Critics or formalists say. The poet’s imagination brings together and synthesizes ideas, emotions, and sense perceptions, and integrates them into an organic whole. Lucy is a star, a violet, and just Lucy all at once, and not simply in a mechanical way. The poet’s imaginative act generates a Lucy-star-violet, and we, as well, can understand and feel what Coleridge would call the “multeity in unity” of such a new symbolic creation.

Ultimately, with regard to “secondary imagination,” it might be said that the creative acts of the poet’s mind do not merely imitate the processes of external nature; those creative acts actually repeat natural—i.e. divine—process. We are no longer dealing, as in earlier times, with a merely mimetic, mechanical doctrine about art; there is an organic likeness between art and the divine processes of nature. When Milton ’s Satan says early in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place,” the context makes it clear that Milton puts the statement down to heresy; when Coleridge makes a similar point, we take him as a romantic theorist.

If Coleridge ascribes such creative power to the poetic imagination, what of the written works poets create? This question brings to the fore two central issues in romantic literature: what is the relationship between imaginative acts and language (both spoken and written), and what is the communal or social value of the British romantics’ favorite kind of art, poetry? The two questions turn out to be related, but let’s begin with Coleridge’s commentary on the symbol. In The Statesman’s Manual of 1816, Coleridge makes a key distinction between mechanical allegory and living symbol:

Now an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses . . . . On the other hand a symbol . . . is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative. (Norton Criticism 673, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 490)

The example Coleridge gives is as follows: “Thus our Lord speaks symbolically when he says that ‘the eye is the light of the body’” (Norton Criticism 674, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 490). That sentence is from the Gospel According to Saint Luke 11:34 -35 , and the King James version runs, “The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. / Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness.” The “eye” here is obviously no mere body part—Jesus apparently means that the material eye is a spiritually energized, organic part of the living human body: if your spirit is unwholesome, you will pursue unwholesome objects; you will do evil with the body as your vital instrument. And as for the “translucence of the Special in the Individual,” one of my old professors’ favorite examples is drawn from Coleridge’s lecture on Romeo and Juliet in Volume 2 of Literary Remains: “The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakespeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class, just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age” (Project Gutenberg edition). So the talkative, antic Nurse is both an individual and yet the very type of all nurses—she is fully individualized, and at the same time represents the species of nurses. That’s something we can probably say about a lot of Shakespeare’s characters and, by the way, I would recommend Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare highly—they remain wonderful reading and remarkably insightful criticism.

While allegory’s operations call to mind the associational epistemology of John Locke, who argued that all knowledge arises from, and then builds upon, sensory experience in combinatory fashion, the symbol appears, in Coleridge’s definition, to be invested with a being, an “ontological status” of its own. The poet’s imagination literally brings something vital into being—the linguistic symbol and the work of art as a whole. Only the symbolic work, in fine, puts readers in touch with an otherwise inaccessible reality; readers learn through poetry the power of their own minds to overcome the distinction between self and world outside, between the individual’s temporal limitations and eternity. In this way—through the symbolic poem—implies Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria Ch. 14, “[t]he poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity” (Norton Criticism 681, Norton English Lit. 2A, 482). Coleridge’s emphatic claims that the poet’s creative imagination serves as a unifying force for other human spirits, we can see by now, go much further than any of Kant’s remarks about the importance of aesthetic judgment in human affairs.

But what about the specifically linguistic quality of imagination’s products? What about the fact that a “poem,” by the time it gets to us, has gone from what the romantics generally call the stage of “composition” (by which they usually mean not writing the poem down but rather the act of original conception in the mind—as when Wordsworth says in his notes to “Tintern Abbey” that he composed the entire poem on his way home from his perch overlooking the Abbey and only later wrote it all down) to the different status of written language? Well, herein lies the rub of romantic poetics. A “symbol,” for Coleridge, isn’t just a lonely word, a closed and final unit of corrugated speech. It is not any dead thing, as a word tends to be considered in the classical disciplines of rhetoric and grammar. In rhetoric, the point is to arrange words into pleasing and convincing patterns—thus the division of rhetoric into ceremonial, forensic, and deliberative branches, depending on whether the speaker’s motive is to praise, to prove innocence or guilt, or to help others decide what course of action to pursue.

When we hear the term “symbol,” we tend to think of an emblem—as when we talk about “symbols on cave walls,” or of a standard literary device, as when we explain metaphor (or, more accurately in this case, simile—a close comparison between two things) by quoting the Robert Burns lines, “O my love’s like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June.” We get it—lover = rose; something ineffable like the spiritual essence of one’s beloved is being compared to something we understand—a rose with its charming color, its beautiful form, and its pleasing perfume. In this way, a classical metaphor (even a fancy metaphysical one like John Donne’s “If they [our souls] be two, they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two, / Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show / To move, but doth if th’ other do” in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”—is an explanatory device, not a profound, higher synthesis that reconciles “opposite and discordant qualities” into a dynamic symbolic unity. The fact that a simile by Burns is so commonly used as an illustration of metaphor drives the point home: in classical terms, the two serve much the same purpose of comparing unlike with like.

The Coleridgean symbol purports to be a living thing, if indeed we insist on calling it a thing at all—Coleridge writes that the symbol “is characterized by a translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.” As Gerald Bruns explains in his book Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language: A Critical and Historical Study (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1974), romanticists construe language as a function, not a collection of isolated words, whether written or spoken. At their most optimistic, the romantic theorists tend towards an Orphic explanation of the word as a primal poetic utterance that reaches out to join the world and by no means simply describes inert external material things. So when, as in “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge says, “O lady, we receive but what we give / In our life alone does nature live,” we might well take “language” as integral to what Coleridge means by “life.” A symbolic utterance doesn’t refer to reality; it is indissolubly part of the reality it speaks; it has authentic being and isn’t just a dead code that points towards real beings. What language must express, therefore, is the inner workings of the imagination itself, the spiritual and vital dimension of human being.

Like most European philosophers, Coleridge privileges the notion of language as voice, as an utterance that remains close to the source of authentic being as grasped in continual and creative acts of self-positing. But we should—as the British romantics often do—acknowledge the doubt that shadows such radiant notions of self-present truth as their obverse: writing. Here we can borrow from the thought of Jacques Derrida, whose first major work, Of Grammatology, remains one of his most insightful and accessible alongside much excellent later work. As far back as Plato, the written word has been taken as subordinate to the spoken word, and the reason for this, though hard to accept, isn’t far to seek: it is painfully obvious that “texts” (even romantic ones about sky-larks and crumbling abbeys) are not in our control once they reach the handwritten or printed page. What Socrates says in the Phaedrus about the written word is true: it is always subject to an interpretation that has little or nothing to do with what we, the authors, originally meant, and if questioned, our written texts just go on repeating themselves in code-fashion—the same words in the same order, with the repetition getting us no closer to the writer’s intention than before. A written piece of language is rather like an orphaned child that doesn’t know its parents; it cannot offer you a further explanation if you should desire one. But if you ask the “parent” of a spoken utterance for clarification, you might get your wish. (See Phaedrus paragraphs 275-76 especially.)

The point is that the aristocratic philosopher Plato has found out the promiscuity of written language—it slips away from us all too easily and goes on signifying things we never meant it to signify. Just as the demagogues in Athens used to stir up the people and get them to betray the noblest political aims for crass self-interest and pleasure, so does the written text desecrate the carefully constructed temple of meaning: consciousness itself. The insight Derrida brings to this analysis of the relationship between speaking and writing is that what Plato wrote about writing is just as true about speaking: both are haunted by an absence at the very moment when the full presence of meaning seems nearest: the spoken word is no closer to an originating truth residing in human consciousness than is the written word. “Language” is something that, as a broadly accessible code, goes well beyond whatever is occurring in the head of the individual who speaks or writes. So the privileging of voice in philosophical discourse is symptomatic, we might say, of a deep need to repress a disturbing insight about our relationship to meaning that applies equally to what we write and to what we speak. The same would be true of romantic poetry, where so often the scene of writing is effaced and we are supposed to think of the poem as an actual utterance spoken by a lyric voice, as if the speaker or the author were actually here and talking conveying the words right into the depths of our souls. This insight makes for an immense complication of the entire philosophical project to build up systems of truth—something that Derrida, as he gladly admitted, is hardly the first person to have noticed.

If all of the above sounds rather abstruse, try the following generalized “consciousness experiment”: see if you can wrap your mind around your own thought processes of any complexity. I defy you to do it—you have no idea where your thoughts come from or why they come. Shelley’s wistful poem “We are as clouds” is right: in the revolutions of thought, “no second motion brings / one mood or modulation like the last.” You can hardly begin to control the process whereby thoughts present themselves to your consciousness, if that phrasing even makes sense. You have no more control over what goes on in your head than Plato says our author has over the texts he or she has written. What we mean by “meaning,” I suspect, is that ex post facto we interpret prior thoughts and say we “meant” such and such. And on the process goes, with no real beginning or end. We can find no originary source for our meanings—at least not one that comes from us as self-conscious, thinking individuals. And in Derrida’s view, there isn’t one in “language” as a supposedly integral system of meanings, either. For language isn’t such a system at all—construe it as the evidence of one gigantic superhuman consciousness as we will, language won’t deliver to us the full presence of consciousness to itself or a self-verifying, stable system of meaning; it never delivers on what we take it to promise: endless deferral and difference is our reward. This “reward” is by no means to be despised but in deconstructive terms, it remains our burden to admit that consciousness, far from being the cause of anything, is itself an effect of something we find very difficult fully to explain. That isn’t an invitation to cultivate the worship of mystery; it’s a challenge not to get trapped into taking our explanations about consciousness, truth, or language for the last word.

But let’s return to Coleridge’s notion of the symbol—it makes sense to admit that the above problem is exactly what Coleridgean symbolism is determined to bury. The symbol retains the power of voice that is in turn linked to unitary consciousness, or—since Coleridge was a Unitarian minister and no nature-worshiper—to the Truth we mean when we say “God.” I mentioned earlier that romantic poetry tends to efface its status as written word in favor of lyric utterance. This isn’t just a polite convention as perhaps it is for, say, Sidney or Wyatt when they create their anguished semi-Petrarchan speakers; the romantic symbol or poetic word is to work its magic upon our spirits, carrying alive into the heart the poet’s passions and expressive truth. The therapeutic power of romantic poetry depends largely on their validity of their model of consciousness and speech. Words bespeak our humanity in the deepest sense, and have a vital bond with the natural world. Imagination and symbol are beyond our ordinary relationship to consciousness and to language (respectively), and they have the capacity to revitalize and refresh those relationships, which, ultimately, the romantics hope will lead to renewal on both the individual and collective levels—and at the broad social level, we might just see a more harmonious society for all, without oppression, false distinctions of class, race, or gender, and without fanaticism or bigotry. “Meaning,” if we want to call it that, would become an agent of our liberation, not a vehicle for the perpetuation of social injustice and self-alienation. None of this is meant to carry forwards some naïve view of the romantics as gloriously optimistic children of hope and light—that isn’t what I find interesting about them at all; it is more a construction of modern critics (perhaps themselves a little naïve?) than the product of attentive reading of the major British or Continental romantics. What I find most wonderful about Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats is that in their respective ways, they all “know better” than to give us the sort of simple “primitivism” or poetic optimism we sometimes say they give us. Can you think of anyone who questions simplistic notions about language, consciousness, or social harmony more insistently than those same romantics? I find it hard to do. Nobody writes more eloquently about the brightest prospects for humanity’s future than, say, Shelley in Prometheus Unbound; but at the same time, nobody asks more searching questions about those prospects and the processes and media by which we set them forth, I should think, than did the romantics themselves. Both are good reasons—preferably taken together—to enjoy romantic poetry.