The Vocation of the Poet

This analysis did not, of course, come instantaneously to the young Romantic Coleridge, and it seems that he was content for some time to accept the tensions and celebrate the new life that he saw all around - as may be seen in the Conversation Poems, and during his early friendship with William Wordsworth. From such a position, pantheism was an obviously attractive theological step, and Coleridge and Wordsworth would discuss Spinoza together often whilst working on Lyrical Ballads.21 Pantheism was, however, fundamentally unsatisfactory for Coleridge, as it removed any possibility of personality in God, or of human freedom. Here, perhaps, is Coleridge's most pressing question in his life as a young poet: he wished to ascribe both personality and will to both God and humanity. Again, and perhaps better, he came to believe God to be personal and volitional, knew the same to be true of humanity, and sought ways to understand these things. This may be done in a trivial way by separating God from His creation, but Coleridge was a Romantic. If he could not be a pantheist, he must at least preserve a strong doctrine of immanence, and therein lies the problem, which he famously described, "of admitting a one Ground of the Universe (which however must be admitted) and yet finding room for anything else."22

Or there, at least, lies the intellectual problem. To understand why finding an adequate theology haunted Coleridge the way it did, we need to glance at his understanding of what it means to be a poet.23 In 1796, whilst discussing "The Destiny of Nations," Coleridge announces,

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem Symbolical, one mighty alphabet For infant minds; and we in this low world Placed with our backs to bright Reality, That we may learn with young unwounded ken The substance from its shadow 24

Here, the young Coleridge affirms with great optimism our ability to interpret the world of nature in order to speak of ultimate realities - in order, that is, to do theology. Two features of this passage are important: the allusion to Plato's cave, and the appearance, even this early, of the concept of the "symbolical" which was to become a further part of Coleridge's sophisticated analysis of epistemol-ogy. In an important discussion in The Statesman's Manual, Coleridge describes the imagination as that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense, and organizing (as it were) the flux of the Senses by the permanence and self-circling energies of the Reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the con-ductors.25

The imagination, then, produces symbols, which are expressions of reason in language appropriate to the understanding ("sense" here indicates the apprehension of the phenomenal world which provides the raw materials on which the understanding does its work).26 The poet's role - and that of any artist, we may surmise - is to use this power to interpret reality to others, to reveal the presence of the Logos in the world. The poet is to act as prophet, to speak God's truth to the people.27

The idea recurs throughout Coleridge's early poetry; of particular interest is a passage from Frost at Midnight, which Harding describes as the "apotheosis" of the theme:28

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores And mountain crags: So shalt thou see and hear The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from eternity doth teach Himself in all, and all things in himself.29

What is interesting here is that Coleridge looks to his son, Hartley, to read the "eternal language" in a way that he cannot (as has been made clear earlier in the poem). For the first time, the question of hermeneutics raises itself - the poet may interpret nature, but who will give authority to his interpretation? The Romantics' models as poet-prophets, the Hebrew writing prophets and John Milton, were confirmed in their role by long acceptance, but who was to give this confirmation to the Romantics themselves?30 Coleridge here looks to Hartley; in Tintern Abbey Wordsworth looks to Dorothy to play the same role.31 Soon, in his daemonic poems, Coleridge is doubting the very possibility of the role. In Christabel, Geraldine exists as a source of inspiration, certainly, but there is a basic ambiguity running through much of the poem as to whether she inspires beatific vision or the most fundamental evil; even at the end whilst the reader is encouraged to share Christabel's perception of her friend, her father's blindness, or doubt, raises acutely the issue of who perceives truly and who is deceived.

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, this theme is deployed much more centrally: the Mariner's tale constantly asks its hearers to question how much is real and how much is fantasy; not to doubt the Mariner's integrity, but to doubt that his own understanding of his experiences in any way corresponds to truth. The last of the daemonic poems, Kubla Khan, shows this need for a hermeneut most powerfully, as Coleridge remembers "[a] damsel with a dulcimer" whose "symphony and song" would, if remembered, enable him to "build that dome in air" so that "all who pass would see." Coleridge has lost his hermeneut, but remembers the feeling of having known one.32

After this, he was for some years to produce little significant poetry.33 The only major work is Dejection, which laments his loss of the ability to write. His devotion to metaphysical study was at its strongest around the time when he was writing Dejection: Coleridge remembered what it was to have been a prophet, and a satisfactory metaphysics was the hermeneutical key that would enable him to prophesy again. This, more than any intellectual challenge about "finding room," was the real problem, for Coleridge at least.

I have pre-empted the history at several points, presenting accounts of how his engagement with, and adjustments to, current philosophy led him to construct an epistemology that sought to answer these questions. The issue that underlies the existential challenge at least is one of trust. All the epistemological connectedness that Coleridge sought to discover in his philosophical explorations still comes up against the question of the daemonic poems, which is just the question of Descartes' own demon: how can we know that what we experience as access to reality is trustworthy and not deceptive? Finally, then, the intellectual and existential challenges coalesce into the same problem, which, as Colin Gunton has ably explored,34 is the ancient one of the one and the many. Coleridge must affirm the glorious diversity of creation, and particularly the discrete existence of human persons; but having done this, there must also be some form of unity to the world, a connectedness, if our knowledge of the world is to be trustworthy. Says Coleridge,

The grand problem, the solution of which forms, according to Plato, the final object and distinctive character of philosophy, is this: for all that exists conditionally (i.e., the existence of which is inconceivable except under the condition of its dependency on some other as its antecedent) to find a ground that is unconditioned and absolute, and thereby to reduce the aggregate of human knowledge to a system.35

The aggregate must be reduced to a system; the world must be both many and one. Coleridge found a way of describing human connectedness to reality in epis-temological analysis; he found reason to trust that this connectedness was not illusory in a doctrine of God. This doctrine is the source of the uniting of episte-mology and theology that we observed toward the beginning of this chapter, and this is what we must next analyze more carefully.

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