That Terror Alone can Check the Wandering Mind

“It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches . . . and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.” 

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (1851-1853)

When Ruskin speaks of the “dreaming mind,” I believe he means the daydreaming mind, for it is the mind of a daydreamer that “wanders hither and thither” and “is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.”  The daydreamer loves to let his mind wander, and he nowhere finds a thought so satisfying that he is tempted to stop and dwell on it.  He is the opposite of single-minded and will not be harnessed to an obsession. His greatest wish is to wander, fancy free.

I once described this wandering mind with the words romantic and vagabond, observing that,

“a rational mind marches forward with a method, and at the end of the day has gotten somewhere.  A romantic mind wanders off on a whim, and is lucky to make it home for supper.”

Yet a romantic wanderer is not altogether mistaken if he tells us that there is a method to his madness, even if he wanders off before he tells us just what that method is.  If I may speak on his behalf, the romantic’s method is to proceed by association rather than inference. A rationalist says, if A, then B, and since B, then C.  A romantic says, A reminds me of Y, and Y reminds me of N.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that this romantic method makes use of “the hooks-and-eyes of memory” (1).  Since Coleridge spoke of these hooks and eyes while denouncing frivolity, he clearly believed that the associations made by “a man long accustomed to silent and solitary meditation” were altogether different than the associations made by a flighty flibbertigibbet.

He also believed that such “silent and solitary meditations” were different than ratiocination, because the man who undertakes them employs a distinct “power of thinking in long and connected trains.”  As I said earlier, such a man proceeds by association, not inference, one thought suggesting the thought that follows.  As William Wordsworth, a friend of Coleridge, described it in The Recluse (c. 1814):

“Musing in solitude, I oft perceive
Fair trains of imagery before me rise,
Accompanied by feelings of delight.”

Writing in his journal in 1803, Coleridge remarked the “streamy nature of association,” and not long after noted that these streams of association run more strongly in some individuals than others (2).  In himself, for instance.  Or his son Hartley.  Coleridge described such individuals as “reverie-ish and streamy,” which is just another way of saying prone to daydreams and happiest with their heads in the clouds.

Coleridge noted another thing about the “the streamy nature of the associative faculty.”  Because those “fair trains of imagery” are, as Wordsworth said, “accompanied by feelings of delight,” a wandering mind resents intrusions and finds “disruption itself is painful.” To a daydreamer, nothing is more pleasant than to drift down a stream of associations, and few things more unpleasant than to be torn from a reverie by a harsh demand from the world outside.

Which is why the demand must be harsh, since a daydreamer is no more willing to leave his daydream than a sluggard is willing to leave his bed.  Describing a rare fit of mental discipline in the course of his dreamy youth, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote,

 “I had learnt it in the terror that alone could check my wandering mind” (3).

That a wandering mind should be recalled by terror is not surprising.  There would likely be no romantics if they did not start with alarm when a hungry tiger disturbed their reverie.  But, on the theory of natural selection, it is also surprising that so many romantics can be recalled by nothing short of terror.  And that there are, nevertheless, so many romantics.

I believe we may draw a theological point from this, but that reminds me of something else . . .


(1) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend (1809).  This metaphor was expanded to a theory of imagination by John Livingston Lowes in The Road to Xanadu (1927).

(2) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Anima Poetae: From the Unpublished Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge(1895).

(3) William Butler Yeats, Reveries Over Childhood and Youth (1916)

4 thoughts on “That Terror Alone can Check the Wandering Mind

  1. Higher education on the peripatetic or wandering-through-the-woods model appeals to me a good deal more than higher education on the methodical marching-through-the-institutions model. The methodical marching-through-the-institutions model might indeed be described as inferential (“if anything — then white supremacist!”), but only in the narrowest possible way. And I prefer a prospect of gracious danger over a “safe space” any day. Letting the lions — no, letting the raptors — loose in the ivory halls is an experiment that I’d like to try. According to the Spielberg movie, the raptors, at least, have learning intelligence.

    • To wander through a woods, one must have some prior knowledge of that woods. Otherwise one is just lost. Maybe that is the professor’s job–to get students to the point where they can actually wander. Something similar might be said about daydreaming. The “associative faculty” must work with the memories with which a mind has been stocked. I these are trash, the daydream will be trashy. A person can’t really think about things until they know some things to think about.

  2. Pingback: That Terror Alone can Check the Wandering Mind | Reaction Times

  3. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 06/23/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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