Part I: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination. Poetry is, of itself, often a theory of poetry. Consider, under this thesis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan or: A Vision in a Dream” (1816). In the opening lines, Coleridge plays with the etymological definition of poetry as making. The Khan decrees that the pleasure-dome should rise whereupon his servants presumably conjure it forth:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
The decree itself already functions as a kind of making or articulation; it is imperious, magical, even a bit demonic or demiurgic. The calling-forth of the artificial paradise entails, moreover, the transformation of nature through her re-creation under an idea: Thus the girdling walls enclose the “twice five miles of fertile ground” in a gesture of delimitation. That the ground is “fertile,” as Coleridge (1772 – 1834) writes, suggests that the labor of elevating structures on it has a generative relation to the fecund matter on which the labor operates; the two elements of the event have an a priori and complementary relation to one another. The matter has no features in the description, but presents only a blank aspect, like a mass of clay unformed; even the “gardens bright and sinuous rills,” seemingly natural, result artificially from the determination of a shaping will. The act itself and that which is acted upon thus match one another, forming dual aspects of a concluded whole in which pregnant formlessness has acquired a pleasing form, as in the endeavor of the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus.
The geological and hydrological metaphors of “Kubla Kahn’s” second stanza suggest that this progress from raw matter to perfected object, the poem’s “miracle of rare device,” corresponds to no mere impulse of decoration but rather to the intervention of a sublime process. A reader might justly perceive in “Kubla Khan” that solemn interpenetration of Subject and Object or Self and Nature whose delinquency causes so much anxiety in Wordsworth’s sonnet “The world is too much with is.”
The concluding, third stanza of “Kubla Khan” offers richer material yet for a speculative reconstruction of Coleridge’s ideas of poetry and the poet. The lyric subject of the poem begins to speak in the first person, recounting how he once in vision overheard an entrancing song (the “damsel with a dulcimer… singing of Mount Abora”); and how, just now, in the lyric present, he would like to reproduce such sung tones, so as to hear them again. That is to say, he wishes upon himself the role of poet or bard without, however, being able to rise to it. What stifles his ambition? If the event occurred, he prophesies –
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The phrase “music loud and long” suggests the practice of a Homer, a Virgil, or a Milton, or even, one might daresay, a Wordsworth. Epic grandiloquence equals a grand architecture of stone, “that dome in air,” in sublime achievement. The same phrase also implies longevity of reputation, literary immortality, and greatness. The effort of making requires nourishment, of course, hence the references to “honey-dew” and “the milk of Paradise” in the two final lines of the broken-off poem. “Honey-dew” and “the milk of paradise” belong, however, to no ordinary menu. The names bring to mind heavenly inspiration and generative primordiality, but by far the most startling image of the stanza is the sacrificial circle. The poet as prophet is unwelcome among the people, who fear and demonize him as a monster of “flashing eyes” and “floating hair.” Coleridge feels no requirement to explicate the inevitable consequence of the consensus to “weave a circle round him thrice” in a mood of “holy dread.” Yet even in his immolation, the poet-prophet gives form, provoking the ritual circle of the primitive cult that assaults him. It would hardly be implausible to say that the ritual circle is the foundation of the “dome in air.” It is the primordial form to which the later, architectural form hearkens back, as it were in Platonic commemoration, just as the pyramid hearkens back to the missiles of a lapidation.
A brief review of Coleridge’s overt theory of poetry in his quirky masterpiece Biographia Literaria (1817), especially its Chapter II, will affirm the foregoing, somewhat tentative reading of “Kubla Khan.” Addressing the question of the “supposed irritability of men of Genius,” Coleridge opines it customary that “readers in general take part against the author, in favor of the critic.” The public, Coleridge asserts, shows its “readiness [to] apply to all poets the old sarcasm of Horace upon the scribblers of his time,” namely, “Genius irritabile vatum.” The public is irritable; Genius is the agent of its irritation. Again, “a debility and dimness of imaginative power… render[s] the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” It follows in Coleridge’s argument that “Genius,” invariably capitalized, although creative and necessary, nevertheless in the moment of its apparition keenly troubles the generality of men; perhaps for shedding light on responsibility or indicting laziness, Genius arouses the resentment of men, and forms an object for their spontaneous revilement.
In the Biographia, Chapter IV, Coleridge takes Wordsworth’s reception as an example. The publication in 1798 of the Lyrical Ballads aroused the widespread clamorous fervor of those who “had been all their lives admiring without judgment, and were now about to censure without reason.” The intensity of the agitation and its persistence together testify to Coleridge of Wordsworth’s power as poet. Hostility, writes Coleridge, sees in Wordsworth’s authorship a “bare and bald counterfeit of poetry,” which reposes “below criticism,” but which “engrosses criticism.” The poet conveys to his audience, will-they or nill-they, “the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.” The calumnies against the poet attest the poet’s stature even as they express a lowly spite in respect of it. The matutinal “dew drops” recall the “honey-dew,” the divine food, of “Kubla Khan.” Poetry, in light of Coleridge’s just-quoted remark, might be said to renew the original nourishment of humanity’s latterly malnourished spirit. Of course, it is sometimes the wont of sickness to reject nourishment and so to persevere in its own steadily weakening condition.
Revelation lapses into the writ of dead letters, just as inspiration decays into forgetfulness. This is how humanity’s Fall, in Coleridge’s view, regularly, if not perpetually, renews itself. The poetic faculty opposes, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the habitual slide of whole nations and entire peoples into spiritual sloth. In his poem “To William Wordsworth,” Coleridge writes:
The truly great
Have all one age, and from one visible space
Shed influence! They, both in power and act,
Are permanent, and Time is not with them,
Save as it worketh for them, they in it.
Nor less a sacred Roll, than those of old,
And to be placed, as they, with gradual fame
Among the archives of mankind, thy work
Makes audible a linkéd lay of Truth,
Of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay,
Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes!
Coleridge uses another word for the poetic faculty, Imagination, which he distinguishes from mere fancy, on the one hand, and from reason on the other. In the Biographia, Coleridge begins his discussion by the simple expedient of deploying the two derivative adjectives: “Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind.” Fancy works by association on objects and ideas already in general circulation; it finds novel arrangements in the existing congeries of things; it catalogues and anatomizes. Fancy proceeds from the external world, through the senses, into the mind. That is to say, Fancy is determined from without, and its material is the mental representation of objects. Fancy operates in time; it is ever recalling things, tracing out their cause-effect relations, and noting the patterns of phenomena.
In the Biographia, Chapter XIII, Coleridge gives his definition of Imagination, qualifying it first by the codicil that Imagination comes under two aspects, the Primary and the Secondary, the latter differing from the former in degree. “The primary IMAGINATION,” Coleridge writes, “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.” Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify.” To Imagination Coleridge ascribes the adjective “vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.” In the Biographia, Chapter XV, Coleridge enlarges his definition: Imagination is implicated in the “nature of poetry.” For Coleridge the question, “what is poetry,” is identical with the question, “what is a poet?” The poet “brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of the faculties, each to the other, according to their worth and dignity.” The poet “diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.”
Where Fancy has to do only with items in, or parts of, the realm of what is already created Imagination has to do with vitalization, revivification, creativity, and wholes rather than with parts. In a world that is always-already devitalized, passive, and mechanistic, the poet, through the faculty of Imagination, calls things back to life, instructs men in dignity, and endows them with the renewal of their living power.
Of Coleridge’s definition of imagination and his theory of the poet and poetry, the critic and etymologist Owen Barfield has observed in his History in English Words (1925) that it owes something to Shakespeare, to whom Coleridge devoted much scholarly work. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare writes how “Imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown.” Barfield calls attention to the “mystical conception which the word [imagination] embodies in these lines,” which “is not found again until the Romantic Movement has begun.” In Coleridge, who gathered the notion from its practice in Wordsworth’s poems, Imagination becomes “the mysterious faculty of superimposing on Nature a magical colour or mood created in the observer by the fictions of genius or the myths of bygone ages, expanding until it includes the contemplation of Nature impassioned by any effluence arising from within – it may be emotion or it may be the individual memory.” The Romantic Imagination, in Barfield’s reading of Coleridge, requires that “deep must call unto deep.” Coleridge, according to Barfield, grasped Imagination “as creative in the full religious sense of the word.”
M. H. Abrams, in his study of “Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Modernist Poetics” (collected in The Correspondent Breeze, 1984) finds in Coleridge’s essay “On Poesy or Art” (1818) a helpful adjunct to the somewhat disjoint discussions of Genius and Imagination in the Biographia. Abrams points out how, in the essay, “Coleridge is not claiming… that the artist reproduces spiritual forms which he discerns behind the symbolic surface of nature.” It is the case rather that Coleridge, on Abrams’ authority, asserts for art that it consists in “the result of an evolving process of imagination which accords with the generative process going on within vital nature itself.” Barfield had pointed out that for Coleridge Imagination is “organic.” What Abrams calls the “evolving process” is synonymous with Barfield’s adjective. To exercise Imagination is to participate in the larger ongoing Act of Creation that produced and sustains the cosmos, including humanity. In another essay (also collected in The Correspondent Breeze), this time on Coleridge’s poem “The Eolian Harp” (1795), Abrams links the poet’s theory of poetry to his theory of nature. Abrams writes: “Coleridge’s aim was not to replace experimental science by speculative science, but instead to develop a counter-metaphysic to the metaphysical foundations of modern science; his philosophy of nature, in short, was not science, nor anti-science, but metascience.”
The present discussion began by invoking Coleridge’s “theory of poetry,” as suggested by the metaphors of his poem “Kubla Khan.” “Theory” is a good word that has fallen into abuse and requires, as one might say, imaginative revitalization. Contemporary academic language is full of “theories,” every single one of which consists in a hostile repudiation of the past, including that element of the historically recent past which goes by the name of the Romantic Movement; contemporary “theories” all uniformly validate themselves as “scientific.” “Theory” has its etymon in the Greek noun theoreia and in the related verb theasthein, which incidentally also participate in the concept of theater. Etymologically, theory names the intense, unprejudiced contemplation of phenomena that necessarily precedes describing and understanding them. In a modern context, one might better refer to Coleridge’s discovery of Imagination and to his discovery of the nature of poetry. Coleridge insists that he is addressing realities and that poetry addresses realities – and beyond them the highest Reality.
Part II: Metascience, Scientism, and Politics. Contemporary academic discourse cannot understand Coleridge. Dominated by the “isms” and by what Harold Bloom calls The School of Resentment, recent commentary on “Kubla Khan,” for example, ponders the question to what degree the poem’s “gendered” imagery reflects the poet’s adherence to the ancient and oppressive “Patriarchy” that it is the virtue of the postmodern era, as modernity now styles itself, finally and conclusively to deconstruct. The poem’s erotic metaphors – “But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! / A savage place! as holy and enchanted / As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted / By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” – belong to the regime of male domination of the female and of the invidious propaganda of the male principle as active and the female as passive. Thus in an article on “Coleridge’s Muses and Feminist Criticism,” an au courant critic writes: “Shaped by a masculine sexuality to which women become victims, the Khan’s dome is a place in which women’s suffering and desire are heard as one in the sound of a ‘savage’ wail.” Notice the verbal sleight-of-hand: Coleridge’s “woman” becomes the critic’s women, in the plural, all of whom (naturally) are “victims.”
The au courant critic misses the actual victimary imagery at the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem (called by its author a “Fragment”), where the encircling, imminent sparagmos finds its focus in an object undeniably male. To explain the prominence of the “damsel with a dulcimer” in Coleridge’s poem, the critic claims that “the male poet does not absorb, or wish to absorb, the feminine; rather, he seeks to retain it as the other within the self.” In plainer language, he refuses to grant her autonomy; he oppresses her. But this observation distinguishes insufficiently between Coleridge as author and the first-person singular of the verses, considered as an element of the poem. Ideology ever thus diminishes consciousness and stultifies criticism.
Another reason the understanding of Coleridge eludes the modern mentality is that the modern mentality sits bounded within the narrow horizons of three consciousness-restricting mandates: Moral utilitarianism, epistemological relativism, and radical materialism or naturalism. In the old argument between Coleridge and Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), the modern mentality invariably sides with Bentham, the codifier of Utilitarianism, whose founding gesture abolishes metaphysics in favor of political consensus. Coleridge wrote of “the canting foppery of the Benthamite or Malthusian schools.” In a note from 20 August 1831, Coleridge critiques the Benthamite principle of “the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number.” He argues that “happiness” is a concept too subjective and too tied to the experience of pleasure to serve as the precept of a polity.
What means the Utilitarian by happiness, Coleridge wants to know; and “how does he propose to make other persons agree in his definition of the term”? As Coleridge points out, “The American savage, in scalping his fallen enemy, pursues his happiness naturally and adequately.” It follows logically that, “A Chickasaw or Pawnee Bentham… would necessarily hope for the most frequent opportunities possible of scalping the greatest possible number of savages, for the longest possible time.” Utilitarianism, depending on a survey of irreconcilable preferences, issues in moral and logical absurdity.
As for materialism, one of the presumptions of Bentham’s worldview, it strikes Coleridge as a petulant evasion of reality. In a note collected in the posthumous Anima Poetae Coleridge writes: “Materialists unwilling to admit the mysterious element of our nature make it all mysterious – nothing mysterious in nerves, eyes, etc., but that nerves think, etc.! Stir up the sediment into the transparent water, and so make all opaque.” Any physical thing, to which the materialist points as the cause of something else, can only so rank in the most meaningless way, as when one billiard ball bounces another. The billiard balls and their traffic belong to the realm of phenomena or representations. In his treatise On Method (1818), Coleridge remarks that, “The solution of phaenomena can never be derived from phaenomena.” Just as “heat… in the thawing of ice… may appear only in its effects”; so too the caroming of billiard balls, if it conformed to a pattern, would have a higher cause, remaining unseen, and yet intelligible, in the laws governing kinetic energy.
Coleridge notices that laws have a pattern, forming their own category, from which he derives a Law of Laws, or “law in its absolute perfection.” To this latter, “law in its absolute perfection,” Coleridge next ascribes the status of an object whose subject can only be “the Supreme Being, whose creative idea not only appoints each thing to its position, but in that position, and in consequence of that position, gives it its qualities, yea, gives it its very existence, as that particular thing.”
The science of his day, Coleridge argues, has lost sight of “grounds and principles necessary to method, as the science common to all sciences.” Without metaphysics (“method”), and suppressing the intuition of a capitalized Being that Coleridge asserts as the basis of consciousness, “ingenious men may produce schemes conducive to the peculiar purposes of particular sciences, but no scientific system.” The science of his day, however, Coleridge regards as merely symptomatic of the mentality of his day, for which his word is “alienated.” Botany catalogues endlessly, economists quantify, and Benthamite politicians take opinion-polls to establish the reigning, or as Coleridge would put it fluxional, definition of happiness. It is not that these errands exhibit no method whatever but rather that they exhibit “the lowest attempt at a methodical arrangement” of the phenomena that concern them. Such mere “enormous nomenclature” can never, therefore, pass into genuine theory.
The concept of theory has occurred earlier in the present discussion in connection with Coleridge’s poetry and with his theory of poetry. Poetry and theory stand close to one another in Coleridge’s thinking. In both poetry and theory the subject attempts to discover, beyond the pattern of relation in things, that is to say the law governing those relations, the essence and meaning of each thing. “For no man,” Coleridge writes, “can confidently conceive a fact to be universally true who does not with equal confidence anticipate its necessity, and who does not believe that necessity to be demonstrated by an insight into its nature, whenever and wherever such insight can be obtained.” The modern fact-man indeed resembles an ancient fetish-worshiper. Coleridge adduces stellar religion, from Babylon to Rome, as his case in point. The antique astrologers of the Milky Way, Coleridge asserts, “determined to receive nothing as true, but what they derived, or believed themselves to derive from their senses, or (in the modern phrase) what they could prove a posteriori, they became idolaters of the heavens and the material elements.”
All Coleridge’s contemporaries who endorsed any of the varieties of materialism or mechanism in those days differed not at all from their stultified precursors, who based their lives on star-gazing; nor do their successors today differ from men of the past who submitted to the demands of an illusory Horoscope. The astrological worldview was deterministic, in contradiction with free will, and encouraging, for those reasons, of a hedonistic and often cruel conduct of life. To Coleridge’s critique of science without metaphysics should be juxtaposed another insight from the treatise On Method. “It is strange,” Coleridge writes, “yet characteristic of the spirit that was at work during the latter half of the last century, and of which the French revolution was, I hope, the closing monsoon, that the writings of Plato should be accused of estranging the mind from sober experience and substantial matter of fact, and of debauching it by fictions and generalities.” One or two associations will underscore the remark’s relevance: Plato was the student of Socrates, who became the scapegoat of the Athenians in the aftermath of the war with Sparta, which Athens, that most reasonable of all polities, began and in which Athens committed genocide and suffered humiliating defeat; the emblem of the French Revolution was the guillotine, that scientific instrument of penal fatality whose swooping blade dispatched the enemies of the regime during the Terror – in the name, of course, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
The concluding lines of “Kubla Khan” once again recommend themselves:
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Most readers of “Kubla Khan” assume that Coleridge endorses the pleasure-dome without qualification. Rather: A qualified endorsement. The pleasure-dome stands for original creation; it is a product of Genius, which overcomes sterile ritual. That, Coleridge endorses. The ritual circle of the concluding verses would represent the diminution of consciousness in the form of regression back to the stultified idolatry that the Khan’s making originally overcame. If the lyric subject today sought to imitate the Khan’s Genius, the Pawnee Benthams would object. Men become alienated from the ideas and the polity degenerates. Thus the stars require sacrifice, the Revolution requires sacrifice, and the man who declares the lifeless nullity of star-idols or the doctrine-idols (Blasphemer!) always makes a useful scapegoat. A Twenty-First Century critic, as we have seen, weaves a circle around Coleridge for the offense of having exercised his “male sexuality” in such a way as “to retain… the [female] other within the self.” The sexist poet stands in the way of the pleasure-dome, or Reason’s utopia; and the more stubbornly the utopia fails to appear, the greater the need to cry sexist or racist or xenophobe or whatever might be la condamnation de la journée.
It was Owen Barfield who first called in the docket Coleridge’s precedence to Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and others as a diagnostician of scientism. Barfield employed the term metascience to name Coleridge’s errand to reestablish the organic linkage of metaphysics and physics, indeed of mind and perception. In his essay on “Thinking and Thought” (1927), Barfield characterizes Romanticism as the effort to breathe life back into dead perceptions. “Abstract thought,” the cold stuff of scientism, “has death in it,” as Barfield writes and as Coleridge saw; it deals with “objects fixed and dead,” to borrow a Coleridgean phrase. In Barfield’s historical summation: “By the end of the eighteenth century… the power to think in a living way may be considered as having died right out. The man of the eighteenth century lived in a clockwork cosmos… remote from truth.” Developing this basic idea thirty years later in Saving the Appearances (1957), Barfield chose the subtitle A Study in Idolatry. “Idolatry,” Barfield writes, “is an ugly and emphatic word and it was deliberately chosen to emphasize certain ugly features, and still more certain ugly possibilities, inherent in the present situation.” Barfield refers to what might justly bear the name epistemological idolatry, under the false light of which the subject experiences phenomena “non-representationally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness.” Barfield concedes that this distinctly Cartesian view is useful. Western technology is based on it. The astonishing feats of manipulative prowess of that technology come nevertheless with a steep price: The “fragmentation of science,” “no unity of knowledge,” and a persistent tendency “to eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.”
Barfield’s usage of the term idolatry pays homage to none other than Coleridge, who used it similarly in his critique of the earlier phase of the modern, scientistic mentality. Recall Coleridge’s remark on the French Revolution, that it reviled Plato: That is, it rejected metaphysics. In the Revolution, the intellectual descent happens simultaneously with a political descent, in which objectification draws the human mass within its field as though no individual were more than an object, ready to be manipulated in the great mobilizing scheme. In “France: An Ode” (1798), Coleridge records his own early excitement at news of La Bastille and his subsequent revaluation of the event:
The Sensual and Dark rebel in vain,
Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game
They burst their manacles and wear the name
Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!
In the capitalized adjectives, “Sensual” and “Dark,” Coleridge well symbolizes the matter-bound and opaque mental character of the Cultists of Civic Virtue, who would enforce their shibboleths by naked coercion. In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote how “a debility and dimness of imaginative power… render[s] the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” Twenty years earlier, in “Fears in Solitude” (1798), Coleridge saw the revolutionaries of 1789 as “dupes of delusion,” as “impious and false,” and as “a light yet cruel race… mingling mirth with deeds of murder.” Revolution, Coleridge writes in The Statesman’s Manual (1810), “is a science of cosmopolitanism without a country, of philanthropy without neighbourliness or consanguinity, in short, of all the impostures of that philosophy… which would sacrifice each to the shadowy idol of all.”
Traditionalists think of Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) as the great counter-revolutionary philosophers. Coleridge belongs with them. Coleridge, like de Maistre, saw that the political upheavals of his time maintained an intimate relation with the diminution of consciousness implied by the doctrines of materialism and naturalism. Coleridge did not possess the word scientism, no more than did de Maistre, but he knew that which it signifies. He could see, moreover, that the diminution of consciousness under specious doctrines trended, and that, unchecked, the trend would be precipitous, not to say abyssal. As an expression of “the brute passions and physical force of the multitude” acting under the sanction of “abstract reason,” the scientistic attitude, that monstrum hybridum of the age, would thrash like a Leviathan, leaving the wreckage of humanity in its path.
[This essay appeared previously at The People of Shambhala]