Romanticism and Transcendence : Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination [1 ed.] 9780826262912, 9780826214539

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Romanticism and Transcendence : Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination [1 ed.]
 9780826262912, 9780826214539

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Romanticism and Transcendence


Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (1969; 2d ed. 1987) Religious Perspectives in Faulkner’s Fiction: Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, ed. (1972) The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition (1977; 2d ed. 2001) Coleridge and the Power of Love (1989) Coleridge, Keats, and the Imagination: Romanticism and Adam’s Dream, ed. with John L. Mahoney (1990) The Fountain Light: Studies in Romanticism and Religion, ed. (2002)

Romanticism and Transcendence

i Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination

J. Robert Barth, S.J.

University of Missouri Press Columbia and London

Copyright © 2003 by The Curators of the University of Missouri University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri 65201 Printed and bound in the United States of America All rights reserved 5 4 3 2 1 07 06 05 04 03 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Barth, J. Robert. Romanticism and transcendence : Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the religious imagination / J. Robert Barth. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-8262-1453-3 1. Wordsworth, William, 1770–1850—Religion. 2. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1772–1834—Religion. 3. Religion and literature—England— History—19th century. 4. Religious poetry, English—History and criticism. 5. Transcendence (Philosophy) in literature. 6. Romanticism—England. I. Title. PR5892.R4 B37 2003 821.709382—dc21 2002151324

  ™ This paper meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, Z39.48, 1984. Text design: Stephanie Foley Jacket design: Jennifer Cropp Typesetter: The Composing Room of Michigan, Inc. Printer and binder: The Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing Group Typefaces: Poppl-Exquisit and Sabon The University of Missouri Press offers its grateful acknowledgment to Dean Michael A. Smyer and the Boston College Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for a generous contribution in support of the publication of this volume.

For Sister Maryan Russo, C.I.J.


Acknowledgments ix

Prologue Imagination and Religious Experience 1

I. Visions and Revisions The Journey to the 1850 Prelude 15

II. The Poet, Death, and Immortality The Prelude, Book 5 30

III. Time and the Timeless The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude 41

IV. “The Feeding Source” Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude 56

V. The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge 72




VI. “A Spring of Love” Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 89

VII. “In the Midnight Wood” The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel” 104

VIII. Religious Imagination and the Transcendence of Art 119

Works Cited 137

Index 143


The symbiotic relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge may serve as a salutary reminder of the ways in which members of the scholarly community depend on one another. After more than a decade in full-time administration—during which I tried, usually in vain, to keep abreast of new developments in Romantic studies—I returned three years ago to full-time teaching and research. I have deeply appreciated the kindness and patience of colleagues who have helped me to reshape my thinking in the light of recent developments, especially in Wordsworth and Coleridge studies. As a result, my debts in the making of this book are more than ordinarily numerous and my gratitude more than usually heartfelt. First of all, I must thank the staff of the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Library of Boston College. The resources of the library, in recent years under the leadership of Jerome Yavarkovsky, are remarkably strong, and its research and support staff has been unfailingly helpful and generous. In addition, the university’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, under its Director, Robert K. O’Neill, offers not only service but inspiration. My faculty colleagues and I are all in the debt of these dedicated professionals. Part of the Prologue of this book appeared in an earlier version in the journal Christianity and Literature, and an early version of Chapter 3 was published as an essay in Thought; a section of Chapter 8 began as an essay in Morphologies of Faith: Essays in Religion and Culture in Honor of Nathan A. Scott, edited by Mary Gerhart and Anthony C. Yu (copyright 2002, American Academy of Religion; used by permission); and the other chapters have their origins in articles published in The Wordsworth Circle. I am grateful to the respective editors for their kind permission to use this material here. At the University of Missouri Press, Director Beverly Jarrett, Clair




Willcox, and my astute and meticulous editor, Jane Lago, have been very supportive and helpful. It is a pleasure to record my gratitude to them and to their staff. For more than twenty-five years I have been fortunate to be a member of the lecture staff of the Wordsworth Summer Conference in Grasmere, England. The community of Romantic scholars that has gathered there annually has been an important source of inspiration and encouragement for me. Several chapters of this book began as lectures there, and they have profited greatly from the response and helpful criticism of conference colleagues. Over the years John Beer, Paul Betz, Frederick Burwick, Marilyn Gaull, Richard Gravil, Anthony John Harding, Molly Lefebure, Thomas McFarland, W. J. B. Owen, Nicholas Roe, and the late William Ruddick, Anya Taylor, Mary Wedd, Jonathan Wordsworth, the late Richard Wordsworth—along with many others too numerous to name—have given support, encouragement, and friendship, for which I am truly grateful. Wordsworth’s beloved vale of Grasmere continues to be a place of blessing. Here at home, my research associate, Matthew Van Winkle, has been a considerable blessing to my work. His intelligence and literary sensibility, his careful attention to detail, along with his dedication and loyalty, have helped to move this project, among others, to a happy conclusion. I am pleased to express my gratitude to Boston College, and especially to the Research Fund of the James P. McIntyre Chair, for support of my research and writing. In particular, for their personal support I want to thank John J. Neuhauser, Academic Vice President; Michael A. Smyer, Dean of the Graduate School; and Joseph P. Quinn, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition, Donna McHale and Margery Ferry of the Dean’s Office in Gasson Hall have continued to be wonderfully kind and supportive. Returning to the English department at Boston College after so many years in administration has been a happy learning experience, and I am deeply grateful to my colleagues for their warm welcome, their kindness, and their patience. Our department Chair, Paul Lewis, has been the soul of thoughtfulness, and any number of colleagues have given of their time to usher me into our rich department culture. Although hesitant to single our individuals, I must thank especially my nineteenth-century colleagues Rosemarie Bodenheimer, James Najarian, Alan Richardson, Dennis Taylor, and Judith Wilt, who—with many others—have helped to open me to new ways of knowing.



Two dear friends and colleagues have contributed more to this book than anyone else, as they have to so many other projects in the past. John L. Mahoney, my generous friend and colleague in the English department at Boston College—with his dear wife, Ann—has been a crucial source of support and inspiration; and Philip C. Rule, S.J., of the English department at the College of the Holy Cross, has been friend and valued confidant for almost forty years. In addition to numerous invaluable conversations about these ideas over the years, both these friends generously read early and late stages of the book and responded with wise and helpful criticism. Other important personal obligations should also be recorded here. The Jesuits of the Roberts House community at Boston College have been generous in their support and companionship—truly brothers and friends. My family, too, has been a great source of strength. Even as we remember lovingly our mother and our brother Karl, we draw strength from one another. My brothers and sisters, with their spouses and their children, continue to be close and caring; and the patriarch of the family, my father, continues to inspire awe at his zest for life. As for the dedication of this book, it is in heartfelt gratitude for almost a quarter-century of loving friendship, through times of sadness and seasons of joy—a friendship that is truly a gift of God. “Mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice”! J. R. B. Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts July 10, 2002

“Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak A lasting inspiration, sanctified By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how; Instruct them how the mind of man becomes A thousand times more beautiful than the earth On which he dwells, above this frame of things (Which, ’mid all revolutions in the hopes And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged) In beauty exalted, as it is itself Of quality and fabric more divine.” The Prelude (1850), Book 14: 446–456

Romanticism and Transcendence

Prologue Imagination and Religious Experience

To what serves mortal beauty / —dangerous; does set dancing blood—the O-seal-that-so / feature, flung prouder form Than Purcell tune lets tread to? / See: it does this: keeps warm Men’s wits to the things that are. —Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.


he view of imagination taken here is admittedly that of a confessed and unabashed follower of Coleridge. This book follows in the wake of a new edition of The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition, which argues that imagination is of its very nature a religious act. In this Coleridgean view, imagination is founded upon an act of faith—faith in the ability of the human mind to attain something approximating truth, and ultimately faith in a divine empowering source. As Coleridge says in his Biographia Literaria, imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”1 It is the faculty that allows the human person, whether instinctively or consciously, to shape the world into meaning, much as in the beginning God shaped chaos into cosmos. But this book is also written with an awareness that if Coleridge was the great theorist of the imagination, Wordsworth was, among their 1. Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 1:304, in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn. Hereafter, a parenthetical CC following a title will indicate that the volume is part of The Collected Works.



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contemporaries, its supreme practitioner. Thus if we look to Coleridge for the theoretical grounding of the view of religious imagination proposed in this book, it is in Wordsworth above all that we see this imagination at work. One must be always aware, to use Thomas McFarland’s phrase,2 of the symbiotic relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge: Wordsworth working within the paradigm—perhaps even the “field of force”—of Coleridge’s thought; Coleridge drawing on Wordsworth’s poetry as the working material for his theory. It is a classic example of what medieval philosophers called “mutual causality.” We neglect this profound relationship at our peril. Even as fine a critic as Nancy Easterlin, in her groundbreaking book, Wordsworth and the Question of “Romantic Religion,” takes no account of this crucial symbiosis; Coleridge plays no role in her otherwise highly nuanced and very helpful study. She quotes approvingly Gerald Graff’s premise of “an autonomous creative imagination” as the foundation of Romantic epistemology, and goes on to characterize Wordsworth’s poetry—and Romantic poetry generally—as “religious, then, in this particularly modern sense: it dramatically asserts authentic religious experience while simultaneously raising doubts about the genesis, ontological status, and social value of the experience.”3 Had Easterlin taken into account the profound relationship between Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s views of the imagination, she would at least have questioned Graff’s view, and her own, of an “autonomous creative imagination” at the heart of the Romantic experience. For Coleridge—and for Wordsworth, as I shall contend—the imagination of its very nature is both divinely empowered and can put one in touch with the divine, for of its very nature it participates in the “infinite I AM.” Let me hasten to add that Easterlin’s important book serves us well in drawing attention to and powerfully analyzing the relationship between the private experience and the social forms and practices of the Romantic expression of religion. As she argues cogently, “more important perhaps than the transcendent moment itself is its perceived goal or function, its meaning beyond the brief moment of experience.” She consciously moves beyond the limitations of “poststructuralist practices” to study seriously the structures of meaning inherent in the poetic text.4 2. See “The Symbiosis of Coleridge and Wordsworth.” 3. Wordsworth and the Question of “Romantic Religion,” 36–37 (emphasis added). 4. Ibid., 10, 9.

Imagination and Religious Experience


This recent attention to the religious dimensions of Romantic texts, and a willingness to take them seriously on their own terms, is a welcome addition to the critical discussion of Romanticism. Robert M. Ryan’s magisterial book The Romantic Reformation is a case in point. Since Ryan’s primary focus is the political dimension of Romantic religion, he emphasizes (in Easterlin’s terms) the social aspects of the experience of Romantic writers; however, he necessarily gives considerable attention to the personal experience that grounds their social practice. Ryan says of the writers of the Romantic period: “I call what they attempted a reformation because, after periods of youthful iconoclasm, they all finally became more interested in purifying or redefining England’s national religion than in attempting to eradicate it. Critics have always acknowledged and usually honored the Romantics’ tendencies toward skepticism, but I will argue here that what made them important figures in our intellectual history was not their skepticism but their belief.”5 One further confession is perhaps called for, concerning my own methodology in this work. Although I am aware, as one must be, of the shifting tides of Romantic criticism in recent decades—poststructuralism, deconstructionism, the New Historicism—my approach to the work of these poets remains rather conventional, accepting the principle that meaning can inhere in poetry, and that words do sometimes stand still enough for us to take in at least some measure of their meaning. I also take the view that poetry can aspire to the transcendent—and even at times attains it. This is meant to imply no disrespect to colleagues who exercise different approaches and work from different premises. Jerome J. McGann is no doubt correct when he says of Romantic scholarship that it is “everywhere informed by ideological commitments of various kinds.” This is as true of deconstructionist or New Historicist criticism as it is of more traditional scholarship and criticism. And McGann is also surely right when he hastens to add that “such commitments do not in themselves vitiate a scholarship or criticism,” for, he goes on, “all science and knowledge is pursued from a particular socio-historical vantage and hence embodies certain ideological presuppositions.”6 What is important is that one makes clear one’s point of view, so that readers can judge of its limits as well as its 5. The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature, 1789– 1824, 7. 6. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation, 28.


Romanticism and Transcendence

virtues. In this book, which admits to being a personal statement as well as a critical study, I trust this Prologue—and the book as a whole—will make apparent my own suppositions and point of view. Before we turn to Wordsworth’s poetry—and then Coleridge’s—to see the religious imagination at work, the rest of the Prologue will attempt to lay a groundwork for this study by bringing Coleridge’s theory of imagination into juxtaposition with one of the classics of Western spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.7 This book, the work not only of a devout Coleridgean and fond admirer of Wordsworth but of a professed and unabashed disciple of Ignatius Loyola, will argue that Coleridge and Loyola have strikingly similar views of the nature of imagination.8 Imagination is not merely an artistic faculty, the power that enables the poet to create a poem or the painter a painting. It is also, indeed first of all, the faculty that permits the human person to give meaning to the world and to his or her life. Ignatius Loyola was not in the least an artist—as anyone knows who has read his wise but rough-hewn Spiritual Exercises—but very much a spiritual counselor and pragmatic religious leader. As these two sides of my life, the spiritual and the literary, have been mutually illuminating for me, perhaps they may help to shed light for others as well. Bringing together these two great spirits, Coleridge and Loyola, in this Prologue is by no means to sug7. My use of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as a heuristic model for my consideration of Coleridge may be thought of as similar to Harold Bloom’s use of Martin Buber’s I-Thou, I-It dialectic in his classic work Shelley’s Mythmaking; see esp. 1–10. 8. In this context it may be appropriate to note that Coleridge was, for much of his life, no lover of Roman Catholicism, though his objections were often more political than religious. To be sure, he rejected the doctrine of Purgatory, for example, and what he saw as a number of “superstitious” ritual practices in Roman Catholicism. However, in many of his anti-Catholic writings in the Courier his objections were more truly political. David Erdman notes “what C considers the political dangers of Roman Catholicism: tyrannous absolutism, arbitrary ritualism, claims of infallibility” (Essays on His Times [CC], ed. David V. Erdman, 2:264, n. 4). It is interesting, though, that near the end of his life, Coleridge—always wary of sectarianism—seems to have softened his views. In 1833, a year before his death, he wrote in one of his notebooks: “Were I young, had I the bodily strength & animal spirits of early manhood with my present powers & convictions, I should not so far despair of a union between the Protestant and the now papal but still Catholic Church, as to prevent me from making it an object” (Notebook 54, f. [17]; quotations from the unpublished notebooks are used with the kind permission of the late A. H. B. Coleridge).

Imagination and Religious Experience


gest lines of influence, but the affinities between them are considerable and, I believe, instructive. The Jesuit tradition has always prized logic and rigorous analytical thought. The Ratio Studiorum—the sixteenth-century set of principles and practices officially set forth for the Jesuit schools of the time—is, after all, a “ratio,” founded on solid intellectual principles. It is sometimes forgotten, however, that Jesuit education has also prized beauty and the movements of the heart. So, from the very beginning of the Society of Jesus, there have been Jesuit artists of every kind: architects, painters, musicians, poets, and playwrights. And four hundred and fifty years later, Jesuits are still active in the arts, from poet Daniel Berrigan and painter William Hart McNichols, to playwrights and directors Ernest Ferlita and Bill Cain, to dancer and choreographer Robert Ver Eecke—and the arts are part of the curriculum in virtually every Jesuit school. In short, the arts have been—and continue to be—a significant part of the Jesuit tradition. But why this commitment to the arts? Perhaps I can begin to explain with the help of an unlikely ally, George Bernard Shaw. At one point in Shaw’s Saint Joan, Joan’s interrogator Robert de Baudricourt asks her: “How do you mean? voices?” Joan replies: “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.” “They come from your imagination,” says Baudricourt. “Of course,” Joan replies. “That is how the messages of God come to us.”9 For all his considerable organizational and administrative skills, Saint Ignatius Loyola was perhaps above all a man of imagination. As his Spiritual Exercises amply demonstrates, Ignatius combined the mystic’s vision of eternity with the pragmatist’s sharp eye for the particularities of things.10 He brought together in a single view the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human, the universal and the deeply particular realities of our world. Ignatius was driven to seek out “the greater glory of God.” And since, as the Psalmist says, the heavens and the earth “show forth the glory of God,” it is there that we find God, in the beauties of creation. It is the special gift of the artist to be able to show us that creation—and that glory—in a new way. In Percy Shelley’s words, the poet (and by this he means any artist) “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar 9. George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan, 16. 10. The text of the Spiritual Exercises used here is found in Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, trans. George E. Ganss, S.J. (Classics of Western Spirituality Series).


Romanticism and Transcendence

objects be as if they were not familiar,” showing us “the before unapprehended relations of things.”11 Every Jesuit is formed, of course, by the Spiritual Exercises, and it is perhaps there that we find in clearest focus the heart of the Jesuit tradition. In the present context, I would like to approach the role of imagination in the Spiritual Exercises through the lens of Coleridge. Admittedly, the relationships between Ignatius and Coleridge are personal for me, since they are among the strongest influences on my own life, but there is a strong connaturality between them: both were deeply grounded in the Incarnation of the Word of God in Christ; both traveled their journeys of faith through suffering; both saw the working of the human imagination as central to their experience. Such a reflection should begin, and I believe Ignatius and Coleridge would agree, with the Incarnation. Here the Logos—the Word of God—enters human life and history. Transcendent reality becomes immanent. But how do the poet (or any artist) and the religious thinker— however seemingly different in their purposes—both strive after this divine reality incarnate in the world, and what is the role of imagination in that striving? Theologian James Cutsinger, who has written perceptively on Coleridge’s religious thought, finds that in much of modern theology an “oppressive set of dividing surfaces” has arisen between the world and God. The result for theology has been a series of dichotomies between “the immanent and transcendent, reason and revelation, the secular and the sacred, the scientific and the religious, and the natural and the supernatural.”12 Coleridge, who brought together in his own intellectual activity the theologian’s mind and the artist’s sensibility, can help us to explore these dichotomies. Coleridge’s idea of imagination is built on the notion of “polarity,” upon a “balance or reconciliation of opposites”: old and new, same and different, real and ideal, sensuous and spiritual, temporal and eternal, immanent and transcendent. These seeming opposites are not in fact dichotomies, but polar tensions within the same “field of force.” If the task of the theologian is, as Cutsinger says, to render intelligible man’s relationship to a God who is “forever overflowing custom’s 11. P. B. Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” in Shelley’s Prose, or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, 282, 278. 12. “Coleridgean Polarity and Theological Vision,” 92, 102. Cutsinger later extended his thought in The Form of Transformed Vision: Coleridge and the Knowledge of God.

Imagination and Religious Experience


bounds,” he must do so in a vision that is true both to the divine reality and to the human experience of that reality, to allow “for the immanence yet transcendence, the sameness yet otherness, the ‘in’ of the ‘out’ and the ‘out’ of the ‘in’ of this strange one called God.” The exercise of imagination, which can (as Coleridge says) “awaken the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom,” can also open our eyes to “the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us,” thereby revealing (in Cutsinger’s fine phrase) “a world translucent to deity.”13 Coleridge’s theory of imagination, grounded in his idea of “polarity,” is deeply bound up with his vital philosophy.14 The merely “mechanical” mind can see only opposition or, at best, the juxtaposition of separate realities. However, for the mind imbued with what Coleridge calls a “living and spiritual philosophy,” there is not only a connaturality between the mind and the world it knows but an innate and active participation of the imagination in the eternal creative act that empowers it. As Coleridge insists in Biographia Literaria, imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Such a mind can envision two distinct realities—two “counter-powers,” Coleridge calls them—actually “interpenetrating” one other, so that each shares in the being of the other.15 Such a “living” vision— and only such a vision—can encompass immanent and transcendent, human and divine, the reality of the self and the reality of God, in a single act of knowing. It is no accident that the Biographia Literaria ends with a paean of praise to the Logos, the pattern of creation, through whom—as the incarnate Christ—humankind and God most fully “interpenetrate.” It is only the imagination that can bring us, whether in a work of art or in the Spiritual Exercises, to the full encounter with religious reality, because it is only the symbolic language of imagination that can resist the human drive for simple clarity and determinateness. The divine, the numinous, the transcendent, can never be encompassed by the clarity of what Coleridge calls “consequent Reasoning.” Reason, without imagination, is not enough. Transcendent reality can only be 13. Cutsinger, “Coleridgean Polarity,” 105; Biographia Literaria, 2:7; Cutsinger, “Coleridgean Polarity,” 93. 14. This paragraph and the next are adapted from my essay “Theological Implications of Coleridge’s Theory of Imagination,” in Coleridge’s Theory of Imagination Today, ed. Christine Gallant, 7. 15. The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons (CC), ed. R. J. White, 89.


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intimated, guessed at, caught out of the corner of the eye, and for this only the splendid ambiguity of symbolic utterance and experience will serve. Since God cannot be seen, we must work with analogues of God: stories, images, rituals, and gestures. And it seems to me inevitable that anyone who wishes to discover as fully as possible the human experience of the divine will turn to the artist’s attempts to capture—in paint, in clay and stone, in words and the sounds of music— her or his own experience, whether within one’s own heart or in the beautiful and terrible world around us, of the God who continues to reach out and touch us. The same is true of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, which I use here as a paradigm for the prayerful experience of God in any religious tradition: the work of imagination is at the heart of the encounter.16 As Thomas Lucas has written, “Ignatius understood and trusted the powers of the human imagination. He shaped his Spiritual Exercises around its careful and attentive use as a means of finding God in all things.” Ignatius, he goes on, “saw the products of the imagination as vehicles that transport us to an understanding and experience of higher realities in ways that linear discourse cannot carry us.”17 The goal of the Exercises is union with God through Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. The first of the four “weeks,” or periods into which it is divided, focuses on the foundations of humanity’s relationship with God—the fact of Creation and of human dependence on God—and on the ways in which we have, in our own lives, weakened through sin our relationship with God. The second week centers on the life of Christ, as he calls each Christian to follow him in loving service. The third week focuses on the Passion, seen as the ultimate proof of the depth of God’s love for us. Finally, the fourth week dwells on the Risen Christ, as sign and efficacious symbol of our own “resurrection,” here and now, to a new life in Christ and a more generous commitment to the love of God and of one another. Throughout the Exercises, the emphasis on the particularities of experience is striking. In the first week, our own personal sinfulness, manifested in quite specific ways, comes to the fore, while we are asked to be aware of God’s creative acts not only generically but in very par16. On this dimension of the Spiritual Exercises, see Ernest Ferlita, S.J., “The Road to Bethlehem—Is It Level or Winding? The Use of the Imagination in the Spiritual Exercises.” 17. “Grandeur of God,” 18.

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ticular interventions in our own lives. In the second week, the life of Christ is brought sharply into focus, and we are asked to dwell prayerfully on the humanness of Jesus: picturing the cave of the Nativity, for example, feeling the cold of the winter, imagining how Mary and Joseph looked, feeling their weariness after their journey, their joy at the birth of the child. In the third week, we are asked to enter into the sufferings of Christ, picturing each moment and detail of Holy Week. In the fourth week, we are called upon to imagine in detail each of the apparitions of the Risen Christ to his loved ones. The emphasis on physical detail throughout the Exercises is striking and insistent. Consider, for example, the first two “preludes” to the contemplation on the Nativity: The First Prelude is the history. Here it will be to recall how Our Lady and Joseph left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem and pay the tribute which Caesar imposed on all those lands. She was pregnant almost nine months and, as we may piously meditate, seated on a donkey; and with her were Joseph and a servant girl, leading an ox. The Second Prelude. The composition, by imagining the place. Here it will be to see in imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Consider its length and breadth, whether it is level or winds through valleys and hills. Similarly, look at the place or cave of the Nativity: How big is it, or small? How low or high? And how is it furnished?18

Throughout the Exercises, too, the exercitant is urged to respond personally and feelingly to the scene, especially to Christ, and through him to God the Father. The retreat is thus, in a very real sense, an exercise in experiencing the Incarnation of God in our material world; in seeing, in the Coleridgean sense, symbolically; in experiencing God in the intimate details of our world. Most important, the whole of the Exercises moves toward a great crowning “colloquy”—an intimate conversation—between the individual and God, the “Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love.” The “Contemplation” begins with the reminder that love is shown in deeds more than in words, and above all in a mutual sharing of self and all one has between lover and beloved. The four points of the Exercise then proceed to demonstrate how God shares with humankind: first, by the gifts God gives, such as Creation itself, Redemption by Christ, and the particular gifts of one’s own life; then, how God not only gives 18. Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises, #111–12.


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to us but dwells in all creatures—in the elements of the earth, in plants, in animals, above all in humankind; next, how God acts, even labors, within all created things, charging them as it were with the energy of their being; finally and climactically, the exercitant is asked to imagine all these gifts—filled with God’s presence and energy—descending from heaven, like the rays of light from the sun or water from a fountain. Clearly the movement is into deeper and deeper union between ourselves and God, a deeper intensity of relationship. Equally important, however, is the response the exercitant is asked to make at the end of each of these four reflections: a personal colloquy of self-offering—a loving response to the love one experiences from God. With each of these exchanges of love, one enters more deeply into loving union with God. The imagery of the closing section of the “Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love” is particularly significant: the rays of light descending from the sun, the water flowing down from the fountain. Such an intensity of union has been reached that one can no longer separate the beloved from the lover: the rays of light, the down-flowing water, are not separate from their source—distinct, yes, but not separate. Such a phenomenon is what Coleridge has called the “translucence” of symbol. In his great essay The Statesman’s Manual (in which he explores the imagination at work in sacred scripture), Coleridge writes of symbol: 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.19

When Coleridge speaks of a symbol “abiding itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative,” the Unity he is speaking of is God, imaged here (implicitly) as light. As I have expressed it elsewhere, “if a symbol of the Eternal is ‘translucent,’ then God is the light that passes through it—the Eternal revealing itself ‘through and in the Temporal.’”20 Throughout the Bible (Coleridge’s privileged ex19. The Statesman’s Manual, 30. 20. The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition, 2d ed., 123.

Imagination and Religious Experience


ample of symbolic expression), God—the Eternal—is constantly revealed in and through the temporal, whether it be in a person like Abraham or David, in an action like the crossing of the Red Sea, or through the rich profusion of the very creation itself. “In the Bible,” Coleridge says, “every agent appears and acts like a self-subsisting individual: each has a life of its own, and yet all are one life.”21 God is distinct from Abraham, from the Red Sea, from all creation, but is not separate from them; God remains abidingly present in power and in love. The image of a stained-glass window may serve to explain this conception. The colored window and the light of the sun are quite distinct, but in an act of vision they are not separate; the sun and the stained glass are “translucent” to one another. We perceive them not separately but in a single act of vision. This is “symbolic” vision: not merely metaphor, in which one reality “points to” another that remains separate from it; but symbol, in which two realities—distinct but not separate—have become so intimately united, have so “interpenetrated,” that we cannot perceive one without the other. The same light at once reveals both; they are “translucent” to one another. This is what takes place as one reaches the climax of the “Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love”: the lover and the beloved, God and the human person, become so intimately united in love that they are perceived together, in a single act of knowing and seeing—as the rays that emanate from the sun remain one with it, as the water from the fountain is one with its source. This is what happens too, I suggest, in works of art that touch the deepest depths of our human experience: the poet’s or painter’s or sculptor’s or composer’s experience of the divine—whether in the artist’s own spirit or in the beauties and agonies of the world—flows over into his or her aesthetic experience, so that the artist’s vision of created reality is at the same time a vision of the Creator. Like the stained glass, the artist’s work is a means of mediating God’s glory. The work of the artist, therefore, can be like the created world itself, showing forth the beauty of God who is—in the words of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”— “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” Nor is this any surprise if one shares Coleridge’s view that the work of the artist, and indeed of any human creative act, participates in a finite way in God’s eternal act of Creation. 21. The Statesman’s Manual, 31.


Romanticism and Transcendence

Thus religion deals, almost by definition, with works of the human imagination. Its sources of revelation include sacred scripture, with all its rich variety of images and literary forms and tropes. Religion deals with sacred ritual, including dance and the language of gestures. But even apart from the art that is bound up with revelation and ritual, all art can attempt to express the ways in which God touches us and the ways in which we search for God, whether it be through the poetry of Dante and Donne and Wordsworth, the fiction of Dostoevski and Graham Greene, the paintings of Rembrandt and Georges Rouault, the music of Mozart and Olivier Messaien, the sculpture of Giacometti and Rodin, or the films of Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. Through close and loving attention to our human experience—the sights and sounds, the shapes and textures—all aspects of it show us something of the glory of God, much as does the created world itself. Like the sunlight passing through the stained-glass window, God lives and acts through the created world—distinct from it, to be sure, but not separate from it. We can distinguish the light of creation from its source, “whose glory bare would blind” (as Hopkins puts it in his poem “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”), but we cannot separate them; they are one light, one glory. We can distinguish God and God’s creation, but we cannot separate them; they are bound together—one in life, one in love. To know and love creation is to know and love God, the author of creation. It is the call of the Spiritual Exercises, and I believe of the human heart itself, to open ourselves to the experience of God—in the beauties of creation, in the movements of our own hearts, in our loving relationships with one another, and in the wondrous artistic creations of the human imagination. In William Faulkner’s novel A Fable an old black Baptist preacher, Rev. Tobe Sutterfield, is questioned about the nature of his vocation: “Are you an ordained minister?” “I dont know. I bears witness.” “To what? God?” “To man. God dont need me. I bears witness to Him of course, but my main witness is to man.”22

Perhaps this is what the artist does in her or his treatment of humanity’s religious experience: provide witness to humankind, and by this 22. A Fable, 180.

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witness give witness to God. As Christ, who for the Christian is the epitome of humanity and human experience, said: “Whoever sees me, sees the Father who sent me” ( John 14:9). The eternal is translucent in and through the temporal. Some twenty-five years ago, the revered Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe, as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, spoke eloquently and movingly to a group of Jesuit artists—poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers—gathered in Italy from all over the world. His words are as true and telling now as they were then, and I cannot help but think that Coleridge would have heard them with sympathy and understanding: Today, as men seek to communicate with one another, they find that there is a gap which words cannot bridge. Youth and age, authority and dependence, priest and people, east and west, white and black, the more they try to reach out to one another, the farther apart they seem to drift. But not you. You are the fortunate ones. You speak and all listen, all understand. More than the preacher’s word, it is the musician’s touch that is bringing the young to God again. More than the politician, it is the folk singer who draws the races hand in hand. Heart speaks to heart in mysterious ways, and it is the artist who holds the key to the mystery. His is the catechesis not of word, but of tone and stone. He can touch the wellsprings of the human heart, and release energies of the soul that the rest of the world does not suspect.23

We need not fear “mortal beauty,” whether in paint or stone or the notes of music. To be sure, it can be at times—in Yeats’s phrase—a “terrible beauty,” revealing the dark side of humankind. But if it is true to who we are, as sinful but redeemed people, it can show us much more than ourselves. It can be the stained-glass window through which we see, in a single act of vision, the human artifact and the glory of the sun, the here-and-now and the eternal. Mortal beauty, at its best, can touch us with “God’s better beauty, grace”—can even reveal to us “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” Not only Coleridge, but Wordsworth as well, knew the power of this beauty and of the human imagination that creates it—both to sustain us and to put us in touch with the divine. The argument of this book will trace such a view of imagination through Wordsworth’s po23. “Art and the Spirit of the Society of Jesus,” 91.


Romanticism and Transcendence

etry, especially The Prelude, and through Coleridge’s poetry and theory. It will also suggest an enduring life for this concept of the religious imagination, by tracing affinities with the work of the influential twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner and the distinguished contemporary literary theorist George Steiner. Since my epigraph for the book is taken from Wordsworth, let the last words of this Prologue be his. Wordsworth’s most ambitious poem, The Prelude, traces the growth of his own imaginative faculty. Its closing lines—in their stunning affirmation of the power of imagination—may well stand as preamble to our argument: Others will what we have loved Others will love, and we will teach them how; Instruct them how the mind of man becomes A thousand times more beautiful than the earth On which he dwells, above this frame of things (Which, ’mid all revolution in the hopes And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged) In beauty exalted, as it is itself Of quality and fabric more divine.24

The chapters that follow will show Wordsworth and Coleridge at work, pondering the nature of imagination, of beauty and love—and, in some of their most ambitious poetry, weaving this “fabric more divine.”

24. The Prelude, 14:448 – 56. All quotations from The Prelude, unless otherwise indicated, will be of the 1850 version, and will be taken from The FourteenBook Prelude, ed. W. J. B. Owen, in The Cornell Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Parrish.


i Visions and Revisions The Journey to the 1850 Prelude

And arrived at evenand so we continued And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. —T. S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”


ike the religious journeys of most of us, Wordsworth’s was long and sometimes arduous—and perhaps never really complete. As a record of his journey, The Prelude, or The Growth of a Poet’s Mind holds a special place in his canon. However, the story told in the earliest versions of The Prelude is only one stage in his growth, for the journey continues through the course of his much discussed revisions of the poem. How much that story changed in the retelling has been a source of considerable discussion, at times generating more heat than light. One might think of T. S. Eliot’s lines from Murder in the Cathedral: You shall forget these things, toiling in the household, You shall remember them, droning by the fire, When age and forgetfulness sweeten memory Only like a dream that has often been told And often been changed in the telling.1 1. Murder in the Cathedral, 66.



Romanticism and Transcendence

Since part of the burden of this chapter will be to ask how much The Prelude has been “changed in the telling,” we begin with several brief comments on principles used in editing the poem, and then move quickly to more detailed consideration of Wordsworth’s practice in revising it. Wordsworth wrote to Alexander Dyce on or about April 30, 1830: “You know what importance I attach to following strictly the last copy of the text of an author.” What urgent or serious reason can absolve an editor or critic from following such a serious injunction by the author of a work? Unhappiness with the author’s political or religious views? Personal taste or preference for a particular stage of the poet’s style? These are certainly questions worth pondering. The editors of Wordsworth’s poetry in the celebrated Cornell series have made much of their desire to return the texts to the state in which, to use Stephen Gill’s words, “they first appeared to Wordsworth’s readers.”2 Why not then apply this principle consistently (as Gill does not in the Oxford Authors edition of Wordsworth, which uses the principles of the Cornell Wordsworth) by giving priority to the 1850 version of The Prelude, the poem “as it first appeared to Wordsworth’s readers”? The most recent Oxford Authors contains only the 1805 Prelude.3 Perhaps the most urgent question we can ask concerning the editing—or reading—of The Prelude is “where is the poem?” It has been suggested that we must make our own Prelude, selecting what best suits us, poetically and otherwise—a bit from 1805, a snippet from 1799, a swatch from 1850. If this is how we are to read the poem— as no doubt many of us do—then we can think of ourselves as singularly fortunate in having several discernible moments in the poet’s experience. But this poses a disturbing philosophical, and perhaps ethical, question: what is the relationship between the poet’s authority and the editor’s or reader’s? At what point does the poet give over control of his work? Are we free to choose as we will—even making different choices from those the poet made? The poet chose—let’s not 2. William Wordsworth (The Oxford Authors), ed. Stephen Gill, “Note on the Text,” xxx. 3. In a review of the most recent volume of the Cornell Wordsworth, Jack Stillinger remarks on “the Cornell editors’ resolute privileging of early over late versions in their reading texts, in effect establishing early texts as the standard for reading, reprinting, and studying while suppressing, even obliterating, the later versions that Wordsworth went to some trouble to substitute for the earlier” (review of Last Poems, 1821–1850, by William Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis, 237). See also Stillinger’s essay “Textual Primitivism and the Editing of Wordsworth.”

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forget—the 1850 version. Donald Reiman says very cogently, in his review of the Norton Prelude: “Modern scholars have not fully reconciled themselves to the fact that the author of The Prelude is William Wordsworth and that his preference, insofar as that can be determined, counts more than the judgments of all his executors, compositors, critics, and editors weighted together.”4 I can think of no other major literary figure whose editors have not accepted this principle. The editors of the Cornell Wordsworth stand, it seems, virtually alone in replacing the poet’s judgment with their own. In the face of this penchant for primitivism, it seems important to explore why Wordsworth made the revisions he did. There are several kinds of revisions the poet made in the course of his years of work on The Prelude. The first sort of revision is the least exciting but perhaps the most pervasive: tightening up the slackness in diction of earlier versions. Taking a passage quite at random (8.665 –710; 1805 version), I find three notable improvements. (I)

I essay’d To give relief, began to deem myself A moral agent, judging between good And evil (8.666– 69; 1805)5 I was led Gravely to ponder, judging between good And evil (8.519–21; 1850)


Yet did I not give way to this light mood Wholly beguiled, as one incapable Of higher things, and ignorant that high things Were round me. Never shall I forget the hour, The moment rather say, when having thridded The labyrinth of suburban Villages, At length I did unto myself first seem To enter the great City (8.686– 93; 1805) But how could I in mood so light indulge, Keeping such fresh remembrance of the day When, having thridded the long labyrinth

4. Donald Reiman, review of the Norton Prelude, 507. 5. Quotations of the 1805 Prelude will be taken from The Thirteen-Book Prelude, ed. Mark Reed, 1:107–324, in The Cornell Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Parrish.


Romanticism and Transcendence Of the suburban villages, I first Entered thy vast Dominion? (8.539–43; 1850) (III)

at the time When to myself it fairly might be said, (The very moment that I seem’d to know, The threshold now is overpass’d—Great God! That aught external to the living mind Should have such mighty sway! yet so it was— (8.697–702; 1805) at the instant When to myself it fairly might be said, The threshold now is overpassed,—(how strange That aught external to the living mind Should have such mighty sway! Yet so it was) (8.547–51; 1850)

The kind of conciseness achieved here—by the elimination of a line in the first instance, three lines in the second, another line in the third— is the sort of effect Wordsworth manages frequently in the later version. One is not surprised to learn, in view of this, that the 1850 version is several hundred lines shorter than its 1805 counterpart. There are losses, to be sure—sometimes a loss of immediacy—but the gain in conciseness and clarity is often considerable. The second kind of revision moves passages in the direction of a more symbolic expression—hence more mysterious, more suggestive, more resonant with cosmic implications. To illustrate this I choose the passage in book 3 that describes his residence at Cambridge. After locating the scene at St. John’s College, where his bedroom was situated above the noise of the college kitchens, the poet recalls the clock of the neighboring Trinity College, in lines that remain virtually unchanged from the earlier to the later version: Near me hung Trinity’s loquacious Clock, Who never let the quarters, night or day, Slip by him unproclaimed, and told the hours Twice over, with a male and female voice. Her pealing Organ was my neighbor too; (3.53–57; 1850)

The 1805 version continues:

The Journey to the 1850 Prelude


And from my Bed-room I in moonlight nights Could see, right opposite, a few yards off, The Antechapel, where the Statue stood Of Newton with his Prism and silent Face. (3.56– 59; 1805)

The 1850 version, however, contains significant revisions: And from my pillow, looking forth by light Of moon or favoring stars, I could behold The Antechapel, where the Statue stood Of Newton, with his prism and silent face: The marble index of a Mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone. (3.58– 63; 1850)

An element of generality has deliberately been added: it is no longer the specific “moonlight nights,” but the more open-ended “by light / Of moon or favoring stars”; and the defining note, “a few yards off,” disappears. The result is a scene more suggestive than simply descriptive, preparing us for the brilliant addition to the picture of Newton, who is now no longer simply the great thinker himself, but a symbolic figure of the poet, the adventurer, the explorer of new worlds—indeed of any creative giant of the imagination. It is one of the most striking and beautiful examples of how Wordsworth, in later years, pushed the poem in the direction of epic resonances and values, of which the late Rachel Trickett spoke so eloquently in a Grasmere lecture—unfortunately, to my knowledge, never published— some years ago. A third sort of revision involves what Harriet Jump has called “depersonalising strategies.”6 This is surely a legitimate and useful area of consideration, since this kind of change no doubt contributed to what many modern critics of Wordsworth see as the relative loss of “spontaneity” and “freshness” in later versions. Although such revisions are an important subject of study, they are not of immediate concern for my argument here. A fourth kind of revision, however, is central to our thesis, since it bears directly on Wordsworth’s religious sensibility. At issue are those passages in which it has been alleged that Wordsworth violates the in6. “Tendencies in Wordsworth’s Prelude Revisions,” 177.


Romanticism and Transcendence

tegrity of his poem by the introduction of elements of what is called “religious orthodoxy.” We have always been led to suppose, from Ernest de Selincourt on, that Wordsworth fell into orthodoxy—like some sort of dread disease— and cleaned up The Prelude in consequence, radically revising in the interests of piety and edification. In de Selincourt’s words, “He took pains to relate, as far as possible, his naturalistic religion to a definitely Christian dogma. He toned down passages that savoured too much of independence. He inserted lines here and there which might lull asleep the watchful eye of the heresy-hunter.”7 In book 10, for example, “As were a joy to hear of” becomes “To which the silver wands of Saints in heaven / Might point with rapturous joy” (10:485–86)—about which perhaps the less said the better! What is particularly persuasive is that de Selincourt offers his examples—fourteen, by my count—as if they are brought forth from an almost bottomless treasure of such revisions. It began to occur to me, though, as I read and reread The Prelude over the years—and read critics who followed the path of de Selincourt (often repeating the same examples)—that the changes in the direction of orthodoxy were not as extensive as some might have us believe. With this in mind, I did a modest study of my own—a kind of “catalog of pieties and orthodoxies.” The results were surprising. Let me explain first that, in making my count, I distinguished between what I might simply call “pieties”—brief embellishments of a word or phrase, or at most a line or two—and what might fairly be thought of as more substantive changes. By “pieties,” I mean such phrases as “Guests welcome almost as the Angels were / To Abraham of old” (6.403 – 4; 1805) or “God, the Giver of all joy, is thank’d / Religiously, in silent blessedness” (6.614 –16; 1805) or “I bow’d low / To God, who thus corrected my desires” (11.374–75; 1805). It is useful to note, though, that all three of the “pieties” I have quoted are not from 1850, but from 1805! Clearly Wordsworth was not without his pieties even before 1805. Of this relatively harmless sort of piety, which serves to edify and to spread an aura of religious spirit, I found in the whole of The Prelude a total of twenty-four: fifteen in the 1805 version and an additional nine in the 1850 version. What one might consider more substantive changes might be, again, as little as a word or phrase, such as this change in book 1, with its 7. The Prelude, or The Growth of a Poet’s Mind, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, rev. Helen Darbishire, 2d ed., lxxi.

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slight allusion to Genesis (“Dust thou art . . .”), reflecting Wordsworth’s growing sense of humility: The mind of man is framed even like the breath And harmony of music (1.352– 53; 1805) Dust as we are, the immortal Spirit grows Like harmony in music (1.340– 41; 1850)

I also included here phrases like “beauty / Old as creation” (1.562– 63; 1850) substituted for “the eternal Beauty” (1.590; 1805)—though it is a change one could hardly cavil at, since it is poetically superior. Some are perhaps still more substantial. Here, for instance, is one that adds a reference to the role of scriptural revelation. In the 1805 version Wordsworth had written of the powers of man that they are only less, For what we may become, and what we need, Than Nature’s self, which is the breath of God. (5.220–22)

In the 1850 revision he added: “Or His pure Word by miracle revealed” (5.224). Or again, in the earlier version he had written in book 6, speaking of his devotion to geometry: Yet from this source more frequently I drew A pleasure calm and deeper, a still sense Of permanent and universal sway And paramount endowment in the mind, An image not unworthy of the one Surpassing Life, which out of space and time, Nor touch’d by welterings of passions, is And hath the name of God. (6.150– 57; 1805)

The significant revision in the later version is to change the phrase “paramount endowment in the mind” to “paramount belief ”—surely a change in emphasis. Very occasionally—perhaps two or three times—a phrase or line is omitted, clearly because of a fear of being misunderstood. In book 3, he wrote: Thus much for the one Presence, and the Life Of the great whole. (3.130– 31; 1805)


Romanticism and Transcendence

This passage is omitted in the later version. I might add, however, that there are six distinct passages in the 1805 version that might be susceptible of similar misunderstanding, which Wordsworth did not omit or change—such as “Ye Presences of Nature, in the sky / Or on the earth!” (1.490 –91). Taking into account what I classified as more “substantial” changes in the direction of what is supposed to be religious orthodoxy—mostly of a line or two—I was able to find in the whole of The Prelude a total of only eighteen. On the other hand, counting up the number of times (even apart from the 1805 “pieties” I referred to earlier) when the clear and unmistakable presence of God—as distinct from Nature—is invoked in the 1805 version, I found even more: twenty-three. The point of this analysis is simple: we have too often been led to believe that the differences between the 1805 and 1850 versions, in terms of their religious attitudes and values, are greater than they actually are. There are, to be sure, a few “pieties” added in the later version, but there were already even more by 1805. We find a few changes in the direction of what might be called “orthodoxy”—though a very modest sort of orthodoxy, the farthest thing from dogma or sectarianism—but there was already at least a very strong religious dimension in the poem by 1805. Whatever one might decide about stylistic or other differences, the religious differences are not, in the last analysis, very great; both versions are deeply religious—and religious (as I shall contend later on) in much the same way.8 But there is yet another compelling reason not to overemphasize the differences between the two versions. The Prelude is, after all, a poem of process—and, before its publication in 1850, a poem in process. What seems clear to me is that Wordsworth himself did not feel he was violating his work or his artistic integrity in the revisions he made. Further, it seems to me that his continued reflection on and articulation of his experience is in the logic of the poem. After all, as he says in book 3 (the same in both versions): Of these and other kindred notices I cannot say what portion is in truth The naked recollection of that time, 8. In his recent fine study, The Christian Wordsworth, 1798–1805, William A. Ulmer comes to much the same conclusion: “the 1805 version of The Prelude seems less solemnly pious but otherwise similar in religious outlook to the 1850 version” (186).

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And what may rather have been call’d to life By after meditation. (3.645– 49; 1805)

Neither in 1850, nor in 1805, nor in 1799 do we have the experience itself. It is always the recollection, an attempt to express what the poet understood of his experience at a moment in time. With the further passage of time, the same experience is understood more clearly—as it sinks more deeply into his “common fund of experience”—and as that fund of experience broadens and deepens. There is vision—and there is re-vision. To deny the validity of this new vision, this new understanding, is to deny the process of growth—and to do so is to deny, it seems to me, the very principle of Wordsworth’s poem. Let me cite one example of what I mean. In an early version of book 2 he had written of his relationship with Nature: Wonder not If such my transports were, for in all things I saw one life, and felt that it was joy. (2.428–30; 1805)

Later, he changed this passage: Wonder not If high the transport, great the joy I felt, Communing in this sort through earth and Heaven With every form of Creature, as it looked Towards the Uncreated with a countenance Of adoration, with an eye of love. (2.410–15; 1850)

It is customary to see this change as a response to criticism that he had not sufficiently distinguished “between Nature as the work of God and God himself.” However, I wonder if it is not possible to see also a deepening of his understanding of that original experience—not a new experience, but a deeper insight into the significance of the same recollected experience. The one is not, after all, a distortion of the other; there is, indeed, what one might call a connaturality between the two articulations of the experience—one emphasizing the emotion felt, the other what he now sees as its source. As is most often the case, the revision is not a negation but an addition. The 1850 version is, by and large, not a breach with the past but a natural extension of it. It is precisely “the growth of the poet’s mind.” My contention is, therefore, that The Prelude was a religious poem


Romanticism and Transcendence

right from the beginning. It may have become somewhat more explicitly or assertively so in the 1850 version, but this was possible only because it was deeply religious from the beginning. Even M. H. Abrams can hardly deny the obvious presence of God in the poem, even in 1799 or 1805. How then does he see The Prelude as an essentially “secular” poem? He writes: “With respect to the conceptual scheme of The Prelude, the relevant question is: ‘What role does God play within the poem itself?’ To answer this question it is not enough to list the passages in which reference is made to God; for the essential matter is, ‘What does God do in the poem?’ And to this the answer is patently, ‘Nothing of consequence.’”9 Abrams falls into precisely the trap he has warned us against: he, too, is looking in the wrong place. I agree that the best place to look for the action of God in The Prelude is not in the passages where God is ceremoniously ushered in or alluded to (the passages of my earlier catalog)—though these should not be dismissed as readily as Abrams does. The most important revelations of God in The Prelude—where the divine presence is most deeply felt—are passages, found throughout earlier and later versions, where the name of God is not spoken. Wordsworth’s most profound experiences of the transcendent are articulated only in symbol—which leaves the mystery of God intact. The divine presence is felt, the divine action is experienced, but God’s name is not spoken. The problem is that Abrams is asking the wrong question. As a student of mine once put it, the question is not “what does God do?” but “how is God’s presence felt or sensed?” The transcendent is not to be named; it is to be experienced. In passages where the real encounter with God takes place, God is not named, not analyzed, not theologized, but simply encountered as a mysterious and transcendent force touching the poet’s life, symbolically, in and through his experience of the world around him. Let us take the familiar passage of the boat-stealing scene in book 1 (1.357–400). It begins with the summer evening, the boy’s “act of stealth / And troubled pleasure,” and the surrounding world of nature—the moon, the “mountain-echoes.” The boy takes pleasure in his rowing (“proud of his skill”) and rows “lustily” across the lake. But with the appearance of the “huge peak, black and huge, / As if with voluntary power instinct,” he is carried into a new experience— 9. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, 90.

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an experience of reality transcending both the self and the world, an experience of grandeur and terror that touches the boy’s life.10 He does not call this unnamed reality God, but the experience is, I suggest, an encounter with transcendent and supernatural reality—a reality he can neither name nor explain, but which he experiences as “other” than himself or the world he knows: after I had seen That spectacle, for many days, my brain Worked with a dim and undetermined sense Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts There hung a darkness, call it solitude Or blank desertion. No familiar Shapes Remained, no pleasant images of trees, Of sea or Sky, no colours of green fields, But huge and mighty Forms, that do not live Like living men, moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams. (1.390–400; 1850)

Now let us notice what follows the encounter: a reflection, a meditation, almost, one might say, a prayer. Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe! Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought, That giv’st to forms and images a breath And everlasting Motion! not in vain, By day or star-light, thus from my first dawn Of Childhood didst thou intertwine for me The passions that build up our human Soul, Not with the mean and vulgar works of man, But with high objects, with enduring things, With life and nature, purifying thus The elements of feeling and of thought, And sanctifying, by such discipline, Both pain and fear; until we recognize A grandeur in the beatings of the heart. (1.401–14; 1850)

10. As John Mahoney writes more generally about the “spots of time” in The Prelude: “for every joy there is a corresponding fear; for every moment of exhilaration there is a corresponding fear and anxiety. . . . These are moments when the mind is its own place, when it intuits value, when seeing gives way to vision” (William Wordsworth: A Poetic Life, 126).


Romanticism and Transcendence

Only here, after the encounter, is the transcendent given a name: “Wisdom and Spirit of the universe! / Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought.” And if it be objected that this name is not precisely “God,” let it be remembered that Wordsworth was content to leave the passage unchanged from the original version, evidently not seeing room for misunderstanding. My point here, however, is that what is most important is not the reflection in which the transcendent is given a name— whether that name be God (as it often is) or “Presence” or “Spirit of the universe”—but the symbolic encounter with that reality. Here is where, I submit, Abrams takes a wrong turn. He does not credit Wordsworth with a sufficiently “sacramental” view of reality. Abrams takes, implicitly but clearly, a dichotomous view of immanent and transcendent, as if reality had to be either one or the other, and sees Wordsworth making what had traditionally been transcendent, the deity, totally immanent—and therefore totally “secular.” But the two realities are not necessarily dichotomous. Indeed, the very concept of sacrament demands the coming together of the two, for a sacrament is precisely the transcendent made immanent—the divine revealed in and through Mankind and Nature. And this is why there is so often, in such passages as I have pointed to—and in the “spots of time” passages generally—a strong sense not only of union but of “otherness”: “more than human weight,” “unknown modes of being,” “the sky seemed not a sky / Of earth” (1.338–39; 1850), “I gazed / As if admonished from another world” (7.648–49; 1850), “the full-orbed Moon / Who, from her sovereign elevation, gazed” (14.53 –54; 1850). But the transcendent is not, in Wordsworth, simply off somewhere in the distance; it is also immanent—revealed in Nature, in the face of a blind man, in the stirrings of his own heart. This is precisely what sacrament means: the transcendent is not only transcendent; it is both transcendent and immanent. And this is what Wordsworth and Coleridge rediscovered: that the far-off deity of the eighteenth century is no longer really far-off; God is in the world around them—and in their own hearts. And this is why we can expect to find deity—even the transcendent God—less in the explicit invocations of God in The Prelude than in the encounters with the mysterious and often numinous other in the “spots of time.” God is most deeply felt in The Prelude—and therefore most deeply present and active—in the places where God is not named. Perhaps one way to answer Abrams’s assertion that the transcendent in Wordsworth has become immanent alone—and therefore sec-

The Journey to the 1850 Prelude


ular—is with Geoffrey H. Hartman’s image of the “janus-faced” character of Wordsworth’s symbols. Hartman speaks of “man” in Wordsworth as “man between”—between nature and the supernatural: “[Wordsworth] guarantees man his own realm without separating him fatally from nature or supernature. Man himself is an omphalos, the mediterranean being.” As a result, Hartman goes on, “With rare exceptions Wordsworth’s poetry stops short of the supernatural and draws its energy from boundary images. Perhaps the symbols affecting us most have this janus-faced quality; one side toward nature, one away from it. Perhaps a symbol is essentially of this structure.”11 In Hartman’s terms, there is in a Wordsworthian “spot of time” a constant interplay between “apocalypse” (the experience of the transcendent or supernatural, separating one from nature) and “akedah” (the binding to nature). The poet “continually displaces or interprets apocalypse as akedah,”12 eager to maintain his hold on the natural world. And why should this be so? Because the poet’s imagination can work only through nature; the experience of the transcendent (apocalypse) can only be articulated through images of sense. And—though I have no desire to draw Professor Hartman into my line of argument, where I suspect he would not care to follow—this is very much like what we call sacrament: the revelation of transcendent reality, the supernatural, in and through sense reality. Now at this point it might be assumed that I am moving toward a solemn ritual baptism of The Prelude, together with the canonization of Wordsworth as the greatest Christian poet since Milton. By no means. But I would like to stake out a middle ground between those who see Wordsworth as essentially a Christian poet and those who, like Abrams, consider him a “secular” poet who offers no real experience of God in his major work. It is unfortunate that the discussions have often become so polarized, because I believe the truth is somewhere between the two extremes.13 I doubt that Wordsworth the poet was ever fully Christian. However Christian the man may have been, the poetry can at no point— even late in his life—be said to reflect a fully Christian view of the world: in particular, there is no sense of the Trinity and—except for 11. Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787–1814, 198. 12. Ibid., 225. 13. A thoughtful and very balanced treatment of Wordsworth’s level of adherence to Christian doctrine may be found in Ulmer, The Christian Wordsworth, chap. 1, “Wordsworth’s Faith.”


Romanticism and Transcendence

some perfunctory references to “the Redeemer” in poems like The Excursion—no real sense either of divine redemption or of mankind’s need for it. Above all, there is no sense of any real understanding of the Incarnation of Christ and its relationship to the world. And here I must distinguish two concepts that are often confused: sacramental and incarnational. There is a strong sacramental sense in Wordsworth, to be sure, as I have insisted. In Christian thought, however, the incarnational sense goes beyond this—to see Christ as the prime and ultimate sacrament, which gives meaning and force to all the rest. For all his sacramentalism, there is no evidence of such an “incarnational” sense in Wordsworth. What William Ulmer says of the thirteenbook Prelude of 1805 may be said as well of the 1850 version: its faith “unfolds as a form of religious humanism sacramentally grounded in the natural world.”14 For this reason especially, I suggest that throughout his life Wordsworth was—imaginatively—a deeply religious but pre-Christian poet. That is to say, he was rather “Hebraic” than Christian in the bent of his imagination. There were, after all, sacraments before Christ: God was revealed through sensible things—sunrise and sunset, a burning bush, the birth of a child, a deluge, a rainbow, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. Christ was—for the Christian—simply the culmination of these sacramental revelations, the fulness of God’s revelation in and through the natural world. However genuine his personal belief and practice, about which there is no question, Wordsworth was imaginatively never fully Christian—as Coleridge was—because he never really integrated Christ into his sacramental view of the world. Thus, I suggest, his imagination was Hebraic rather than Christian. Abrams has very rightly pointed out how important the Bible was in the growth of Wordsworth’s imagination—but it was the Old Testament that was most formative for him, not the New. Or perhaps it might be said that Wordsworth was caught between two worlds: a Christian world whose revelation had been hardened into dogma (the world expressed occasionally in the more explicit statements in The Prelude), and a Hebraic world whose sacramental revelation was still alive for him—the world of nature and of mankind’s ordinary experience—in which he encountered the nameless transcendent—encountered it but, like the Jews, could not name it. Perhaps there is a tragedy here: that he was never quite able, for all his 14. Ibid., 32.

The Journey to the 1850 Prelude


striving, to bring these two worlds together. The one touched his intellect, the other his deepest feelings. The Prelude—even the 1805 Prelude—is not a “secular” poem, as Abrams would have us believe. It is, from the beginning, essentially a theistic poem that, in its revisions, only moves in the direction of a somewhat clearer definition of its theism. There was growth in Wordsworth’s understanding of his experience—and in his naming of it. And I believe this is part of the reason for the resistance one often finds to the 1850 Prelude: there are those who are simply uncomfortable with the names Wordsworth comes to use for his experience. Yet he is really changing nothing: the experience remains the same—it is only given a name. And isn’t this a very human drive—to give a name to our experience? Wordsworth is very like Moses in this: “Who shall I say sent me?” The changes Wordsworth felt compelled to make, as time went on, simply reflect a deepening insight—the same deepening that takes place even within the 1805 version itself—when what was felt in the midst of the experience as “one life” (2.430), or “unknown modes of being” (1.420), is seen to be, in “after-meditation,” a sacramental encounter with God. To say this is not to exhaust the meaning of the experience, which is at the same time an experience of so many other things—the world of nature, the world of humankind, the deepest depths of the self. For The Prelude is in the end, as I. A. Richards says of the greatest myths, “inexhaustible to meditation.”15 We shall continue our own “meditation” on The Prelude in the chapters that follow.

15. Coleridge on Imagination, 171.


i The Poet, Death, and Immortality The Prelude, Book 5

So word by word, and line by line, So The dead man touched me from the past, So And all at once it seemed at last The living soul was flashed on mine, And mine in this was wound, and whirled So About empyreal heights of thought, So And came on that which is, and caught The deep pulsations of the world. —Tennyson, In Memoriam


mong the themes that are “inexhaustible to meditation,” whether in Wordsworth or in any other poet, are surely those of death and immortality. Not only are these mysteries explored with depth and insight in book 5 of The Prelude, but they are a source of the unity of that profound and troubling section of the poem. In reading book 5 of The Prelude, critics have tended either to focus on one of its major episodes—the Dream of the Arab, the Boy of Winander, the Drowned Man—or to relate these episodes to some larger thesis about The Prelude as a whole.1 I am concerned rather 1. Richard Onorato’s unusually sensible and sensitive psychoanalytic study of


The Prelude, Book 5


with the shape of book 5 itself, contending that it is a considerably more unified book than has often been admitted, one whose unity comes especially from the close thematic relationship among its three major episodes. We begin, since that is where Wordsworth’s imaginative experience begins, with the Dream of the Arab. However much this episode may have been appropriated from Descartes by way of Coleridge, it is here presented (in the final version of 1850, which once again I take to be normative) as the poet’s dream. The poet is seated by the seashore, reading Don Quixote. Closing the book, he turns his eyes “toward the wide Sea” (5.64). As he gazes, he muses “on Poetry, and geometric truth, / And their high privilege of lasting life” (5.65–66), finally falling into sleep and dream. His dream is first of an Arab, who bears a stone and a shell that are also, the Arab tells him, two books: I wondered not, although I plainly saw The One to be a Stone, the Other a Shell, Nor doubted once but that they both were Books. (5.112–14)

Wordsworth, for example, discusses particularly the Dream of the Arab, focusing not only on Wordsworth’s “conscious thoughts about the survival of poetry and about human survival” but also on his “obsessive thoughts about a traumatic experience of death which have persisted since childhood” (The Character of the Poet: Wordsworth in The Prelude, 374 –75). Frank McConnell, too, in The Confessional Imagination: A Reading of Wordsworth’s Prelude, places the Dream of the Arab at the center of his argument. Following Hartman in his concern with the apocalyptic character of The Prelude, McConnell sees the dream as “a parable of the poet’s confrontation with the world-destructive power of the imagination” (133). In the context of McConnell’s whole book, the dream is ultimately seen as manifesting the poet’s increasingly healthy awareness of the limitations of imaginative vision. Frances Ferguson, in Wordsworth: Language as CounterSpirit, concerned as she is with the “epitaphic mode” and the nature of poetic language, focuses on the Boy of Winander episode, arguing persuasively that it is a paradigm of the poet’s imaginative experience. As she says, “the very operation of seeing the boy’s experience first as imaginative communion with nature, then as death, and then as not-quite-death itself represents the shift in imaginative process” (249). Such an imaginative act is of its nature paradoxical, always involving death to an old self or mode of perception, but at the same time always affirming a new self, a new awareness. Ulmer, although he refers only in passing to book 5, comments in the context of a discussion of book 13 of the 1805 Prelude that “Wordsworth prefigures his Book 13 allusion to ‘life endless’ in earlier books,” noting (among other passages) the poet’s words in his introduction of the Dream of the Arab: “A soul divine which we participate, / A deathless spirit” (5.16–17; 1805); see The Christian Wordsworth, 176–77.


Romanticism and Transcendence

After a time the Arab becomes, without ceasing to be an Arab of the desert, “the Knight / Whose tale Cervantes tells” (5.123–24). The face of the Arab/Quixote “grew more disturbed” as he looked backward across the wilderness stretched behind him. “‘It is,’ said he, ‘the waters of the Deep / Gathering upon us’” (5.131–32). His task is clearly to save his precious charge, the books, from a deluge that is close at hand. So he rides off: Still in hiswith his twofold charge Still in his grasp, before me, full in view, Went hurrying o’er the illimitable Waste With the fleet waters of a drowning World In chase of him; whereat I waked in terror; And saw the Sea before me, and the Book, In which I had been reading, at my side. (5.135–41)

I begin with the premise, in agreement with Frank McConnell, that “the unifying act of the dream is not the rising of the waters but the reading of the book.”2 The poet begins with the reading of Cervantes’s book, the dream concerns the attempt of the Arab to save the books he holds from destruction, and the episode ends with the poet’s return to the world in which he was reading the book, with the book resting safely at his side. This emphasis on books, both in the dream and in its framing story, should serve to focus attention within the dream on the two symbols the Arab holds, the stone and the shell—the two books—which are evidently the “poetry and geometric truth” on which the poet had been musing when he fell asleep. These two different sources of knowledge, of truth, of revelation, however distinct they may be in the dream—poetry being “something of higher worth”— are considerably more similar than different. After all, what is the source of the stone and the shell? We may assume, as we would of any stone and shell found by the seashore, that both have been shaped by the sea; now they are threatened by it, as if the sea is reclaiming its own. The sea is, I think, not imagination or human experience, as has sometimes been suggested, but nature itself. Both the stone and the shell, like the geometry and poetry they represent, have their beginning in nature. But the stone is not simply geometry. The fascination of geometry 2. The Confessional Imagination, 133.

The Prelude, Book 5


for Wordsworth is not, I suggest, its mathematical aspect but its quality of eternal truth. In Wordsworth’s mind, the eternal forms of geometry are no different from the “beautiful and permanent forms of nature” he speaks of in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, with which the passions of his beloved rustics are so habitually incorporated. We need only turn to book 6 to find the association made clear. He speaks there of “the pleasure gathered from the rudiments / Of geometric science” (6.116–17): With Indian awe and wonder, Ignorance pleased With its own struggles, did I meditate On the relation those abstractions bear To Nature’s laws, and by what process led Those immaterial Agents bowed their heads Duly to serve the mind of earth-born Man From star to star, from kindred sphere to sphere, From system on to system without end. (6.121–28)

Wordsworth’s quasi-Platonic view of eternal forms is close to the heart of book 5, as it is very much at the heart of The Prelude itself. This view is perhaps nowhere better articulated than in book 1, in the poet’s prayer following the boat-stealing episode (1.401–14). There, the “Wisdom and Spirit of the universe,” intertwining “the passions that make up our human soul” with “high objects, with enduring things,” educates the poet into a hard-earned discipline, a knowledge of the eternal forms of nature. In the dream, nature—under its fearful face, which the poet has often experienced—threatens to reclaim what humanity has learned from it: both the stone (the eternal forms of nature experienced in their purity) and the shell (the poetry mankind has shaped out of the human experience of nature). It is no wonder that the poet is frightened—he faces the prospect of losing all that has been won, with such difficulty, from nature! It is no wonder that the Arab, one face of the poet himself, races valiantly to try to save the books. But the Arab is only one face of Wordsworth the poet. The other is the healthier Wordsworth, the poet who awakes to find that what he had feared as reality was only a bad dream. Although he awakes in terror, the closing lines of the episode are a return to normalcy: “the Sea before me, and the Book, / In which I had been reading, at my side” (5.140 –41). The Arab’s madness was only a “fond anxiety” (5.162); nature and books are not at enmity, either with each other or with humanity.


Romanticism and Transcendence

The Dream of the Arab, however, is not only about the possible loss of books but also about the loss of self: “Destruction to the Children of the Earth, / By Deluge now at hand” (5.98–99); “‘It is . . . the waters of the Deep / Gathering upon us’” (5.131–32); “went hurrying o’er the illimitable Waste / With the fleet waters of a drowning World / In chase of him” (5.137– 39). The terror of the dream is really a fear of death as well, and the reassurance that comes, in waking from the dream to the world of normality, is not only about the safety of books, the poet’s distilled knowledge of nature, but about the safety of his very self. The later episodes in book 5 are, on one level, a demonstration of the effects of this reassurance. Given proper understanding of the human relationship to nature—whether through nature itself (as with the Boy of Winander) or through books (which “hallowed the sad spectacle” of the Drowned Man)—even death itself has lost much of its terror for the poet. But the later episodes do more than merely demonstrate the effects of the poet’s reassurance. The incident of the Boy of Winander, for example, not only exemplifies the relationship with nature depicted in the dream but deepens and extends it. There is a sense of deep communion between the boy and the natural world around him, and one may even see in the boy and the world of nature (“he, as through an instrument, / Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls” [5.374 –75]), a figure of the poet himself in his intimate relationship with nature. But what is perhaps even more striking is the depth of this communion: Has carried a gentle shock of mild surprize Has carried far into his heart the voice Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene Would enter unawares into his mind With all its solemn imagery, its rocks, Its woods, and the uncertain heaven, received Into the bosom of the steady lake. (5.384–90)

Earth, lake, heaven, all come together in the perceiving mind of the boy. The end of this scene does indeed give the impression of being, in Frances Ferguson’s phrase, “both absolute and definitive. The interpenetration between the boy and nature becomes so complete that the boy becomes one with nature.”3 3. Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit, 247.

The Prelude, Book 5


The death of the boy is perhaps, poetically, inevitable—like the death of the little girl in Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray.” His intimacy with nature, like hers, is so deep that it can be fulfilled only by death. But this death is not a cause for sadness alone; there is in it beauty, order, harmony. The poet’s reflection following this passage makes it clear that the world is a better place for such a boy having lived—and that indeed, for the poet, the boy remains symbolically alive, in that “race of real children; not too wise, / Too learned, or too good: but wanton, fresh” (5.413 –14). He is indeed like Lucy Gray, who “some maintain” is still “a living child,” who And never lotrips along, And never looks behind; And sings a solitary song That whistles in the wind (“Lucy Gray,” lines 61–64)

The Boy of Winander, too, has become a part of nature, a mythic force. As Lucy Gray sings her “solitary song,” this boy continues eternally (at least for the poet) to blow his “mimic hootings to the silent owls.” Although the Boy of Winander has died, his death has revealed to the poet something beyond death—that death is not an unmitigated evil, that it can in fact be beautiful, can reveal order and harmony. But even beyond this revelation, the poet perceives something of the boy that continues to live on. Since the boy has communed so deeply with the “beautiful and permanent forms of nature,” his spirit is at one with the spirit of nature, and thereby in some way partakes of nature’s immortality. But it is not alone through nature that death is seen to be less frightening than before, and even beautiful and revelatory; in the episode of the Drowned Man, this same effect proceeds from the power of books. The experience takes place shortly after the poet’s arrival in Hawkshead, while he is yet a very young boy. As he roams along the shores of Esthwaite Water, he comes upon a pile of clothing. When it becomes clear that no one is there to claim it, the incident turns to tragedy, culminating in the terrible moment when “the dead Man, ’mid that beauteous scene / Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright / Rose with his ghastly face: a spectre shape / Of terror” (5.450–53). As the Boy of Winander was reminiscent of Lucy Gray, the Drowned Man might be said to recall Lucy of the poem “A slumber did my spirit seal,” to whom the poet responds with the same combination of ter-


Romanticism and Transcendence

ror and recognition of awful beauty, the same sense both of coldness and of harmony. Yet the parallel comes to an end, because in the Lucy poem the terror remains, while in the episode of the Drowned Man the terror is gone—swallowed up in something stronger than itself, stronger even than death. The boy has seen “such sights” before, in books, dignified by imaginative vision—and so he is not afraid. It is as if the eye that has been disciplined by books, like the eye that has been disciplined by nature, can see beyond the horror of the moment: Young as I wno soul-debasing fear, Young as I was, a Child not nine years old, Possessed me; for my inner eye had seen Such sights before, among the shining streams Of fairey land, the forests of romance; Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle With decoration and ideal grace; A dignity, a smoothness, like the works Of Grecian Art, and purest Poesy. (5.453–61)

The eternity of nature—in the Boy of Winander—is here matched by the eternity of art, and it is death that reveals them both. In these two episodes—the Boy of Winander and the Drowned Man—the poet, faced with the fact of death, has had “intimations of immortality,” the immortality of nature and the immortality of art. And in a very real sense we are indeed back with the great Ode. The water imagery that pervades book 5 takes us back in spirit to the seashore of the “Immortality Ode,” that symbol of eternity. The water imagery of book 5 is in reality quite distinct from the threatening waters of the Dream of the Arab, not frightful but ultimately beautiful and reassuring: the seashore by which the poet quietly reads; the “bosom of the steady lake” of Winander; the “breathless stillness” of the “calm lake” of Esthwaite. Against the background of these crucial episodes, we now turn to the opening passage of book 5, which is often dismissed as, in R. D. Havens’s phrase, “a bit of philosophical meditation” on “the perishability of books.”4 In fact, this “philosophical meditation” is not really about books but about humankind’s own thirst for immortality. Hu4. The Mind of a Poet: A Study of Wordsworth’s Thought with Particular Reference to “The Prelude,” 2:375.

The Prelude, Book 5


manity has seen in nature what the poet calls “a deathless Spirit” (5.18). In quest of this same immortality for themselves, poets have written books—“things that aspire to unconquerable life” (5.20). Aware of “our immortal being” (5.23), the poet wonders how, if these books were to perish, the human race could preserve its past, which is part of who we are. Is it possible that humanity might survive only to be “abject, depressed, forlorn, disconsolate” (5.28)? Without “all the meditations of mankind,” without “all the adamantine holds of truth, / By reason built, or passion” (5.38 –40), would mankind really be immortal? Some elementOh! why hath not the Mind Some element to stamp her image on In nature somewhat nearer to her own? Why, gifted with such powers to send abroad Her spirit, must it lodge in shrines so frail? (5.45–49)

Does the human spirit lodge only in these frail shrines? Or is there another, even grander immortality held out to us? The real theme of book 5 is, I believe, the fear of death and the desire for immortality. And Wordsworth begins this book by daring to question the immortality that poets have traditionally—and tenaciously—clung to, from the time of Horace on: Exegi monumentum aere perennius—I have built a monument more lasting than bronze. Book 5 is not merely anyone’s response to the human thirst for immortality; it is a poet’s response. It is, in effect, Wordsworth the poet’s response to the poet’s perennial assertion of immortality for himself or herself through poetry. Having considered three encounters with death in book 5—the Dream of the Arab, the Boy of Winander, the Drowned Man—we can now suggest the nature of Wordsworth’s response. Wordsworth, like any poet—like any human being—hopes for immortality, but his confidence is ultimately neither in nature nor in books, though both of these have given him “intimations of immortality.” His hope comes rather from the Spirit that gives life to both nature and books, what he calls in “Tintern Abbey” “something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man” (lines 96– 99). In book 5 this Spirit is “the living Presence” that would “still sub-


Romanticism and Transcendence

sist / Victorious” (5.34 – 35) even if all the books were destroyed. It is the “wiser spirit” who is seen working through the poet’s experiences of death, bringing blessings out of them, as we see in these lines that pointedly introduce the episodes of the Boy of Winander and the Drowned Man: A wiser Spirit is at work for us, A better eye than theirs, most prodigal Of blessings and most studious of our good, Even in what seem our most unfruitful hours. (5.362–65)

It is, as he says later, “a gracious Spirit” which “o’er this earth presides, / And o’er the heart of man” (5.493–94). Nature and books are deeply related in Wordsworth’s book 5, and indeed interdependent, but their strength is not their own. They can give “intimations of immortality,” but only the Spirit that quickens them both can confer immortality itself. Only this “wiser spirit,” this “living Presence,” can confer the gift of immortality, whether on nature, or on poetry, or on the poet himself. Contrary to the traditional wisdom, the poet cannot create his own immortality; he can only hope to receive it as a gift from a power greater than his own. The “light divine” (5.604) that is revealed in nature and in books is (as the last line of book 5 has it) a “glory not their own” (5.607).5 The poet’s mother, too, has her place in his argument. As it was she 5. Not everyone agrees that this “presence” in nature should be accorded “divine” status. Easterlin, in a nuanced discussion of Wordsworth’s conception of God in The Prelude of 1805 (Wordsworth and the Question of “Romantic Religion,” 100–115), underscores the complexity of Wordsworth’s views. Many passages, she argues, reflect “a traditional concept of the relationship between God, nature, and man; God, the sole source of power and creation, reveals himself to man through nature. But the case is not so simple, for in other parts of the poem Wordsworth also personifies nature and lavishes on her the superlative terms applied to God” (106). Easterlin concludes: “In Wordsworth’s sketchily conceived God, I think, we see the effect of the reintroduction of ambiguity into an orthodox system of belief. The orthodox God and the attendant beliefs are still there, in some sense, but God has become a metaphor for the ineffable, a thing beyond the limits of human conceptualization, language, and emotion” (108). A theologian might reply that even the most orthodox conception of God is an attempt to express the ineffable, to articulate what is ultimately “beyond the limits of human conceptualization, language, and emotion.” I also suggest that this is precisely the point of Wordsworth’s revisions of the 1805 Prelude, which I discussed in the previous chapter, as the poet attempted to express more fully his own experience of the transcendent.

The Prelude, Book 5


who gave him his trust in nature, she in fact who was “the heart / And hinge of all our learnings and our loves” (5.259–60), it was also she who gave him his first experience of death. But it was also she who first taught him Who filfaith that He Who fills the Mother’s breast with innocent milk, Doth also for our nobler part provide, Under His great correction and controul. (5.273–76)

The poet’s opposite, the youth subjected to modern artificial education, divorced from nature, has no such faith: Unnatural or supernatural fear, Unless it leap upon him in a dream, Touches him not. (5.309–11)

The dream suggests the Dream of the Arab, the bad dream from which the poet had to awake—a nightmare that was only terrifying, without the recompense of blessing. The only fear the modern youth knows is the fear that comes from dream, which brings no blessing in its wake. He could not awake to the reality in which spirit dwells, in nature or in books of imaginative literature. One might be reminded here of the terrible and ironic words of Louisa Gradgrind to her father in Hard Times: “You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart . . . You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.”6 The youth subjected to “modern” education—like Louisa Gradgrind—is fed with empirical facts alone. There is no room for faith; there are not even the “intimations of immortality.” Wordsworth has witnessed death and, with the support of nature and of books, has come to (in the words of the “Immortality Ode”) “the faith that looks through death.” Thus, when he comes to summarize his experience of this book, he turns first to external nature, remembering himself as one who “with living Nature hath been intimate” (5.590), and then to “the great Nature that exists in works / Of mighty Poets” (5.596 – 97). But in this experience, through the “vi6. Charles Dickens, Hard Times, ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod, book I, chap. 15, p. 78.


Romanticism and Transcendence

sionary power” that “attends the motions of the viewless winds” and is “embodied in the mystery of words,” he has found that light comes only out of darkness: There darkness makes abode, and all the host Of shadowy things work endless changes there, As in a mansion like their proper home. Even forms and substances are circumfused By that transparent veil with light divine; And, through the turnings intricate of verse, Present themselves as objects recognized, In flashes, and with glory not their own. (5.600–607)

It might be argued that nothing very specific has been asserted about the nature of this immortality, except that it is something more than the immortality of nature and of art. There is a “wiser spirit,” a “living Presence,” that stands above nature and art and reveals itself to mankind through them. This spirit, not nature and art alone, is the source of human hope. This hope is the poet’s response to his earlier “tremblings of the heart”—the longings of his “immortal being” for permanence—as well as to the terrors of his dream. If this implicit belief is not a clear assertion of personal immortality, it is as close to it as many come in their lives, an affirmation that death is not the end of all.


i Time and the Timeless The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude

Neither life nor the literary organism is given in a single stroke. Both are basically actions, achieving themselves in the growth, the moving structure, the flowing pattern. —William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo


f immortality is at the heart of book 5, its enemy, time— and its corollary, timelessness—may be at the heart of The Prelude as a whole. The poem is, after all, about “growth,” and so about the passage through time. According to critic-theologian William Lynch there are two radically different positions—“contrary and hostile”—that the contemporary imagination has taken with regard to time. On one end of the spectrum, “the literary imagination often exhausts itself looking for absolute or infinite points of time.” One must struggle to escape from time, since it leads to neither beauty nor truth nor fulfillment, but only to frustration. The other, more realistic point of view sees time, at least human time, as “nothing but ourselves, as we move without pause through all the phases and stages of our lives.” Those who accept this view believe that “though time is always in motion, it is a motion that has a structure and therefore a meaning, and that only by staying within this structure of temporality and moving with it can one gain access to real insight.”1 1. Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, 31, 33.



Romanticism and Transcendence

I propose to evaluate Wordsworth’s Prelude in the light of these views of time and temporality. I begin with two images. The first is chosen somewhat arbitrarily, since many similar images might have been chosen to make the same point. The image is of a small boy, in the act of plundering a raven’s nest of its eggs: Above the RaOh! when I have hung Above the Raven’s nest, by knots of grass And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock But ill-sustained; and almost (so it seemed) Suspended by the blast that blew amain, Shouldering the naked crag; Oh, at that time, While on the perilous ridge I hung alone, With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind Blow through my ears! the sky seemed not a sky Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds! (1.330–39)

The intimation here is clearly of a moment of time that is somehow out of time: “the sky seemed not a sky / Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!” Lifted up above the earth, the little boy is for the moment outside space and time. It is as if earth and the world of time had suddenly broken down, or broken open, to reveal something beyond themselves—a moment of eternity. The second image is of the poet Wordsworth walking along the shores of Rydal Water or along his garden path, mumbling verses to himself—composing, acting as his own metronome, keeping beat with the rhythms of the earth, allowing the rhythms beneath his feet to pass through him and into his poetry. It is only through the earth’s measure that poetry can come to him. One might think of an earlier time, when the youthful Wordsworth would walk abroad at night, “under the quiet stars”: If the nightand I would stand, If the night blackened with a coming storm, Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are The ghostly language of the ancient earth (2.307–10)

The language of the earth was important to Wordsworth. He had to have his feet in touch with the earth, so that time, “the measure of mo-

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


tion” (according to the classic formulation), might become real and palpable to him—the beat of the earth ultimately revealing to him something beyond time. Here is one of the central paradoxes of Wordsworth’s poetry: on the one hand, his deep need to be in touch with the rhythms of time; on the other, his constant aspiration for the timeless. In the “Immortality Ode,” for example, there is the careful tracing of the passage of time in his life, and yet there is the longing for the “visionary gleam” that precedes and stands outside time. In The Prelude there is “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” and there are the seemingly timeless “spots of time.” There is movement and there is stillness. One way to conceive the Wordsworthian spot of time is to see it as equivalent to a Proustian moment. For Proust, in William Lynch’s words, “the great enemy of the human race and of human happiness is time, which must be overcome by the genius who can, by using all his resources, discover or create within this inimical element some kind of eternity.” In one Proustian image, for example, a passenger on a train, passing a lovely landscape, rushes from window to window, trying desperately to take it all in at once—to make a whole of those swiftly moving parts. Or, elsewhere in Proust, a character mounts a steeple, from which he can see at a glance what normally he could see only piecemeal. (The parallel with Wordsworth standing, for example, atop Helvellyn or overlooking the chaos of Bartholomew Fair is obvious.) For Proust, in Lynch’s view, what is at issue is a thirst for simultaneity, the impulse to bring together all of the world’s fragmented reality, and thus to break the constricting bonds of space and time. It is the desire for what we might call an instant eternity—what Lynch calls “an artificial eternity.”2 Is this indeed what Wordsworth is attempting to achieve? In order to answer that question, we must make certain distinctions. We should recall first the distinction between cyclic time and linear or human time. Cyclic time is the time of nature, with its returning cycles of seasons—a kind of time that is often thought of as, in a certain sense, “eternal”—the kind of eternity that allowed Keats to say of the nightingale, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” (History too, of course, is sometimes conceived of as cyclic, in its recurring cycles of war and peace, want and prosperity, barbarism and civiliza2. Ibid., 34–35, 36. I am indebted to Lynch for Proust’s images of the train and the steeple; see ibid., 35.


Romanticism and Transcendence

tion, but that is not our concern here.) Quite distinct from the cyclic time of nature is linear or human time, the kind of time in which most of us generally conceive ourselves to be living—the chronology of human life or the life of a nation—involving movement in a direction, whether recognized or not. In its very nature linear time implies progress rather than recurrence. Linear time may itself be distinguished as personal, internal time (the time of the individual human person’s life and growth, from birth to death) and historical time (the time of the development of a tribe, a society, or a civilization). Wordsworth works within two of these contexts of time, the personal and the cyclic. First of all, in The Prelude he sets out specifically to explore the time line of his own life, his own internal time; he often called The Prelude, after all, a poem on “the growth of my own mind.” Hence he focuses on the events of his life that have been formative for his inner development, especially the development of his poetic faculty. Nor is it only the essential internal events of his life— love given and received, the trauma of suffering or loss, feelings of hope or joy—that occupy him. His poetry is grounded firmly, as firmly as any poet’s ever was, on physical detail, on a strong sense of place, and on vividly remembered actual events. It is, perhaps before all else, a probing exploration of his own personal life of human time. What, though, of Wordsworth’s spots of time? Are they not attempts to escape from time, to achieve that “simultaneity” of experience of the quasi-eternal cyclic time of nature—like Keats’s momentary experience of the world as a nightingale? In a certain sense perhaps so, as we shall see later. In essence, however, the spots of time are an integral part of Wordsworth’s exploration of the time line itself. The problem for many modern readers of The Prelude is, as Herbert Lindenberger has said, that we have forgotten how to read a long poem. Readers have often tended to lift the spots of time out of their larger context, seeing in them attempts “to fragmentize experience or to work toward the evocation of pure states of being.”3 But the spots of time are not a substitute for the poem itself. The Prelude deals not with isolated moments but with the whole passage through time, the drama, of a human life. The spots of time are a bit like the wall markings made over the years to chart the progress in a child’s growth: they are discernible and memorable moments in the continuum of time— not outside it but demonstrably part of it. They are too, of course, sus3. On Wordsworth’s Prelude, 156.

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


taining moments, moments that give one strength to continue the journey along the line of time. Without their context, however, without the often plodding hundreds of lines between, the sense of journey is lost; there is no sense of growth, but only a disconnected series of disparate moments of illumination. If we have lost patience with the (in several senses) pedestrian poetry between the spots of time, then we have lost patience with the journey itself—and perhaps indeed with life.4 Not only do the spots of time have an integral place in the dramatic movement of the whole poem, but each of these moments of vision is in a sense “earned,” prepared for by a close attention to, even a deep immersion in, the physical and temporal details of the immediate setting itself. We will perhaps be better able to understand the nature of Wordsworth’s exploration of the time line—especially the spots of time as part of this exploration—if we study more closely several of these settings. There is perhaps no more dazzlingly brilliant poetic performance in The Prelude than the ice-skating scene in book 1 (1.425–63). Playing with consummate skill on variations of sound and sight, Wordsworth 4. My view of the spots of time is notably different from that of New Historicist critic Alan Liu, in his brilliant and groundbreaking Wordsworth: The Sense of History (see esp. 388 – 94). Referring to the “official spots of time” in book 11 (1805 version), that is, following the poet’s announcement, “There are in our existence spots of time” (11.258), Liu comments: “Here, in the hushest, frankest tones of what we have received as Wordsworth’s authentic voice of autobiography, we witness the announcement of his final ideology of self—a ‘correct’ ideology that is no less than doctrine in the oldest sense. . . . As such mounting religiosity prophesies, Wordsworth’s culminating ideology of self—his greatest denial of history—will indeed be apocalyptic in the old, high sense” (388). From the spots of time in book 11 (book 12 in the 1850 version)—the moments occasioned by the young boy’s sight of the gibbet and by the Christmas journey preceding his father’s death—“he knows that his essential self, his Imagination, is neither God nor a worldly creature chasing early love and pleasure. It is instead the missive angel in between whose charge is to communicate grace, in glimpses of radiance more divine and of enshrined spirit, to the creature who must live in the world” (390). The major difference between my view and Liu’s is that I am content to leave the poet in possession of that achieved insight, while Liu, if I read him correctly, believes he should not accept Wordsworth’s newly gained “ideology.” “As in the case of any truly critical act,” he says, “such criticism must at last correct the poet’s own correctness. To leave the study of Wordsworth’s most glorious moments of autobiography upon a peak vision of logos, after all, would be to risk assuming the position ourselves. We would be in danger of simply confirming that the poet’s work recovers the spirit implicit in his deepest influences” (392). As for myself, seeing this more as opportunity than as “danger,” I see no reason not to celebrate—even to embrace—the poet’s vision.


Romanticism and Transcendence

evokes the scene with such a wealth of physical detail that the reader is drawn forcefully into the dramatic movement of the incident. The evocation of sounds is especially dazzling: the sound of the village clock in the distance, the skates “hissing” over the ice, the children’s voices carried through the darkness and the cold—so that “the precipices rang aloud,” while “the leafless trees and every icy crag / Tinkled like iron.” Interwoven with these sound images are striking visual images: the cottage windows blazing in the distance, the polished ice, the far distant hills, the stars “sparkling clear” in the east and in the west “the orange sky of evening,” and above all “the reflex of a star” that flees before him across the ice. But the two kinds of imagery—sound and sight—are not simply juxtaposed but woven together through the skillful sense of motion that is either expressed or implied throughout the passage: “I wheeled about,” “we hissed along,” “we flew,” “I retired / Into a silent bay,” “I . . . cut across the reflex of a star / That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed / Upon the glassy plain.” The sense of movement grows faster and faster, until at last everything seems to be in motion—the boy, his companions, the wind, the shores of the lake: When we had and oftentimes, When we had given our bodies to the wind, And all the shadowy banks on either side Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still The rapid line of motion (1.452–56)

But now this motion, faster and faster, drawing everything around it into its whirlpool, draws even the earth itself into its irresistible eddying—or rather, becomes one with the very motion of the earth: Have I, reclthen at once Have I, reclining back upon my heels, Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs Wheeled by me—even as if the earth had rolled With visible motion her diurnal round! (1.456–60)

The illumination that comes through “such ministry” of earth (as he calls it a few lines later) is not articulable, but it is very real, indeed almost palpable. Till all wasI stood and watched Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep. (1.462–63)

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


Wordsworth has carefully modulated the linear time of his own world—the “measured motion” of human life—into the cyclic time of nature, which shares something of the quality of eternity. And this illumination has come not by escaping from the flow of time, but by embracing and exploring it in all the richness of its motion. Only when the poet has done so is he rewarded by a moment of insight. In the crossing of the Alps in book 6 (6.542–641), an even more lengthy passage through time must take place before the moment of apocalypse. The poetic mode is quite different from that of the skating episode—less rich in physical detail, less insistent on striking imagery—but the emphasis on the passage of time is quite as strong. First of all, the setting is clearly and rather insistently a journey—a journey that had begun fourteen weeks before. The motif of the journey still in progress is continued in the period that immediately precedes the climactic incident, for the sight of the “wondrous Vale of Chamouny” is very much part of the journey, and it is clear that this sight is not yet the culminating vision. True enough, the poet and his companion do draw insight and solace from the beauty and sublimity of the valley stretched out before them, for these sights “did sweeten many a meditative hour” (6.557). But however awesome this valley may be (“With its dumb cataracts and streams of ice”), however beautiful its attendant elements of life (“small birds warble from the leafy trees, / The eagle soars high in the element”), it remains still an incomplete vision. Mixed somethYet still in me with those soft luxuries Mixed something of stern mood, an under thirst Of vigor seldom utterly allayed. (6.558–60)

The Vale of Chamouny is a kind of vision, but a vision not yet fully possessed. The journey through the mountains, and through time, must continue. The next stage of the journey is narrated with considerable detail, from the “steep and rugged road” to the “stony channel of the Stream,” but the outcome is again incompletion, indeed disappointment, when the companions learn that they have already crossed the Alps. The moment of vision they had hoped for has not come: “still we had hopes that pointed to the clouds” (6.588). The poet had longed for, even expected, an “instant eternity,” but it was to come only in its own time. The vision, the spot of time, comes only after their disappointment, “the melancholy slackening that ensued,” and the continuation of


Romanticism and Transcendence

their journey. Only as they travel (ironically) downward, does the moment of vision, quite unexpectedly, come: The unfettered clouds, and region of the Heavens, Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light— Were all like workings of one mind, the features Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree, Characters of the great Apocalypse, The types and symbols of Eternity, Of first and last, and midst, and without end. (6.635–41)

An underlying message of the Simplon Pass is precisely that the moment of vision cannot be forced; that it can come only if one passes along the time line; that it will come only in its own time, when it is revealed within the time line itself. On an even larger scale, we might consider a whole book of The Prelude. I select book 7, “Residence in London,” because in my view it is one of the most successfully unified of the books, the whole book being a preparation for three moments of illumination. These moments are not all, in the somewhat restricted sense usually given to that term, “spots of time”—only the encounter with the blind beggar is commonly so described—but they are all attempts to articulate moments of new understanding that come as a result of the London experience. The preparation for these climactic moments takes up fully six hundred lines of the book. The young man comes to London with no “excessive hope,” but only because he has at his command “a little space of intermediate time” (7.60). London appears to him at first a “monstrous Ant-hill on the plain / Of a too busy world!” It flows before his eyes like the continuum of time itself, an “endless stream of men and moving things!” (7.149 – 51). Yet the poet’s eye in him soon begins to descry the individual shapes of things, and he describes them delightedly with a kind of detail that gives the lie to those who feel Wordsworth is not alert to the particularities of things. We encounter a rareeshow, a troop of dancing dogs, a “minstrel band of Savoyards,” a “female vendor’s scream” (“belike / The very shrillest of all London Cries”), the “airy lodges” of the lawyers, looking out on “waters, walks, and gardens green” (7.174 – 88), and a whole procession of other sights and sounds of London. Then there is his lengthy introduction

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


to the London theater (“my dear delight”), particularized by the play about the Maid of Buttermere and the “lovely Boy” of three years whom he encounters in the theater (7.288 – 381), and especially by his detailed descriptions of the theater itself, its trappings and its splendidly costumed characters (7.400 – 441), whether it be the “sovereign King, announced / With flourishing Trumpet,” coming in state, “winding round with Train / Of Courtiers, Banners, and a length of Guards” (7.416–18), or a A scare-crowmumbling Sire, A scare-crow pattern of old Age, dressed up In all the tatters of infirmity All loosely put together . . . Stumping upon a Cane, with which he smites, From time to time, the solid boards (7.422–27)

Finally, the poet’s alert eye takes in both pulpit and parliament, glancing ironically at the vanities of ecclesiastical oratory, while paying sincere tribute to the genius of Burke. In all this he sees, to be sure, folly, vice, “and all the strife of singularity” (7.580), but he is also able to express his delight in the theater and his wonder at Burke’s greatness.5 There are irony and satire, but there are also genuine pleasure and admiration. And, however much he may have been at the time under the “tyranny of the senses” (this is, of course, one of the obvious motifs 5. Few have written better than James Chandler in his fine book, Wordsworth’s Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics, about Wordsworth’s complex relationship with Edmund Burke. Chandler sees the Burkean influence even in the spots of time: “When we consider the spots of time in reference to the structure in which they are imbedded, then, we discover that an implicit traditionalism is implied even in what seem to be Wordsworth’s most intensely lyric and ‘psychological’ moments” (206 –7). While many critics emphasize the personal and private dimension of the spots of time, Chandler argues that “the discipline represented by the spots is ultimately a psychological manifestation of a national character and a native tradition” (187) and that thus they are strongly under the influence of Burke’s conservatism. “The spots of time,” Chandler contends, “must be understood as representing the triumph not only of mental discipline, but also of discipline-as-tradition, a discipline grounded on what Burke calls prejudice” (199). And the value of such “prejudice” in Burke’s view, Chandler goes on, “lies precisely in the advantage it offered in making critical choices” (199). In Burke’s words: “Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, unresolved” (quoted by Chandler, 199).


Romanticism and Transcendence

of book 7), it was this very experience of the senses—in effect, his passage through time—that allowed him to come to a new understanding that was not bound by time, an experience of a timeless truth about this very time-bound London. It is too simple to say that it is merely by contrast with the foolishness and vanity of much of the London scene that the poet is so moved by the father with his child and by the blind beggar, although these figures do, he says—“set off by foil”—appear more touching. Although they are in a certain sense in contrast with much that he has seen, they remain part of the London scene, and even draw from that very fact some of their power to stir his feelings. Set As the black storm upon the mountain top Sets off the sunbeam in the Valley, so That huge fermenting Mass of human-kind Serves as a solemn background or relief To single forms and objects, whence they draw, For feeling and contemplative regard, More than inherent liveliness and power. (7.619–25)

It is precisely because these touching figures are part of that awesome and often oppressive flow of temporal things that he cries out—“amid those overflowing streets”—“the face of everyone / That passes by me is a mystery!” (7.628 –29). It is significant that the two individual figures who most touch him—the father and the blind beggar—emerge only toward the end of the book, after the poet has experienced in detail so much of the London scene. Only because he has seen and felt so much can he truly see them stand out as individuals within the crowd. And it is important that what he sees in each of these very particularized scenes, carefully realized in time and place, is something timeless. In the one case it is the “unutterable love” of the father for his child. The other is not so easily defined, but it has surely to do with the limitations of human knowledge—the blind man’s written paper being a type of “the utmost we can know / Both of ourselves and of the universe” (7.645– 46). Through the mediation of the blind man, it is as if the poet is “admonished from another world” (7.649). But admonished of what? Perhaps the context in which this must be answered is not merely the encounter with the blind man but the whole experience of London: he is admonished not to judge by the appearances of things—either the blind man or anything else in London—but to respect the myster-

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


ies within each. As he has said already, “the face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery.” There are intangible mysteries not only in the “unutterable love” of the father and in the sightless face of the beggar but in all the persons and things he has seen, in all the “strife of singularity.” There is something timeless in all this press and throng of temporal reality. Nor is the mystery of the blind man—nor indeed the mysteries of London and of the world—merely negative. The blind man’s eyes are “sightless,” to be sure, but his face is “steadfast.” There are mysteries of darkness, but there are also mysteries of light. “The face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery” suggests that there are in them deeps still to be plumbed. A mystery is not only ultimately incomprehensible, it is also infinitely knowable—or, in I. A. Richards’s fine phrase, “inexhaustible to meditation.” It is against this background—the poet’s encounter with the mystery of human individuality—that we come to the climactic scene of book 7, Bartholomew Fair. Although it is clear that the poet’s main concern here is with the tyranny of the senses—this riot of humanity in its most bizarre forms can lay “the whole creative powers of man asleep”—it is also clear from what follows that the poet’s imagination is not tyrannized. Although this “perpetual whirl of trivial objects” is for the casual viewer “melted and reduced to one identity,” for the poet nothing in this stream of seemingly mean and trivial sights has lost its individuality. The poet, who has the gift of imagination and can therefore “look in steadiness,” is able to see “the parts / As parts, but with a feeling of the whole” (7.735– 36). The “parts” are clearly the temporal realities he has experienced in London; the “whole” is something transtemporal, an “ennobling Harmony” that is not bound by the limitations of time and place, mediated by the Spirit he had previously found in nature and has now been able to find even in the midst of London. The Spirit of Nature was upon me there; The Soul of Beauty and enduring life Vouchsafed her inspiration; and diffused, Through meagre lines and colours, and the press Of self-destroying transitory things, Composure, and ennobling harmony. (7.767–72)

It is significant that he has found this Spirit precisely “through meagre lines and colours, and the press / Of self-destroying transitory


Romanticism and Transcendence

things.” He has discovered the timeless once more by passing through time, by following out in all the richness of its individuality the time line of his own life. The ascent of Mount Snowdon in book 14 is the culmination of The Prelude in more than mere structure. Thematically and emotionally as well, it is the climax of the whole journey of the poet through time, opening out into his most comprehensive vision of timeless reality. The ascent begins with a closely detailed account of the climbers setting out: the shepherd’s cottage, the warm summer night, the low-hanging fog obscuring the sky, even a “small adventure” of the shepherd’s dog among the crags. There is a strong sense of the passage of time, as the climbers labor up the mountainside, panting, “with forehead bent earthward.” When the moment of vision comes, it is described—for all its visionary character—with a splendid wealth of physical detail: the naked moon, the now cloudless sky, the “silent sea” of mist below, the hills rearing up their “dusky backs,” and finally the great “roar of waters.” This is no “magical” moment, no instant eternity, but a moment firmly rooted in time and place. That this vision is of timeless reality is made clear by the reflection that follows (14.63 –129), for it is “the type of a majestic intellect,” of “a mind that feeds upon infinity.” And yet it is made equally clear, indeed repeatedly and insistently so, that the vision comes only through an encounter with the time-bound reality of sense impressions. If the mind is “sustained / By recognitions of transcendent power,” it is also “in sense, conducting to ideal form” (14.74–76); Nature “to bodily sense exhibits” the power manifested in this scene (14.86–88). The “higher minds” to whom such visions are given, though they are “by sensible impressions not enthralled,” are by the “quickening impulse” of such impressions “made more prompt / To hold fit converse with the spiritual world” (14.106 – 8). It is precisely at this point that the poet relates his experience—the experience of Mount Snowdon and, by implication, the whole passage through The Prelude—specifically to his experience of time. For sense impressions make him “more prompt to hold fit converse” not only “with the spiritual world” but also Spread over with the generations of mankind Spread over time, past, present, and to come, Age after age, till Time shall be no more. (14.109–11)

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


Only through a deep sense of one’s own passage through personal time can one come to a sense of the larger human dimensions of time; and only through the experience of time can one encounter what is outside time, the “spiritual world.” I have said that Wordsworth works in The Prelude with two kinds of time, or—as I might better say at this point—two dimensions of time: his own personal linear time and the quasi-eternal moments represented by the spots of time. Sometimes the poet’s encounters with the “eternal” are clearly an experience of the cyclic time of nature itself, as in the boat-stealing episode in book 1, the ice-skating scene, or the crossing of the Alps. At other times, such as his sight of the shepherd striding through the fog in book 8 or the gibbet scene of book 12, his experience is in some way associated with nature. What I have been at pains to show in my reading of several of the spots of time is that these two dimensions of time, the poet’s personal chronological time and the cyclic “natural time,” do not really stand apart from each other; rather, the poet’s journey through personal time is constantly preparing him for, and leading him into, the experience of natural time. These recurring experiences of natural time are crucial to him because they can offer him what his own mere chronology cannot: a sense of recurring to a locus of stable values, much as he discovered the Spirit of Nature even in the chaos of London. Such experiences, coming at crucial moments in his life, offer a sense of continuity in a world that often seems, at best, mere chronology and, at worst, chaos. Although not strictly eternal themselves, these moments of illumination from the cyclic world of nature reflect for the poet a dimly perceived transcendent world of stable values. Although part of the world of time and space, these experiences are, in the deepest Coleridgean sense, truly symbolic of an eternal reality. These two aspects of time are analogous to certain kinds of time distinguished by biblical scholars, time as chronology (Chronos) and time as fulfillment or opportunity (Kairos).6 Chronos has to do with mere measurement of days, months, and years. Kairos, however, looks not 6. These two kinds of time are discussed at length by biblical scholar James Barr in Biblical Words for Time, 20 – 46. A similar distinction (between Kairos and Aion) is discussed by theologian Oscar Cullman in his Christ and Time, 37–50. John Beer, in Wordsworth in Time, has also applied these biblical categories to Wordsworth; see esp. 30 – 33 and 200 –201. Beer uses primarily the distinction between Kairos and Aion.


Romanticism and Transcendence

to position in a time sequence but to content and significance—the time of planting, the time of harvest, the time of repentance, the appointed time of the Lord’s coming. Although, as biblical scholar John Marsh says, Kairos, this specifically biblical or “theological” time, transcends mere chronological time, it also “presupposes and enters into chronological time.” Kairos mediates the eternal plan of God for his people, for, “though the eternal is not to be identified in any way with the world of time and succession, it is related to it very definitely and positively.” In fact, “it is only in and through the things of time and sense” that one “can know and have normative experience of the eternal.”7 This distinction between Chronos and Kairos can perhaps help to further nuance our understanding of Wordsworth’s use of time. For Wordsworth, too, there is chronological time, his own personal line of time, “the things of time and sense” that he enters into so deeply; there is, in other words, Chronos. But there is also Kairos—or rather, Kairoi—those “spots of time” that are for him both fulfillment and opportunity. They are in some sense incursions of the eternal into his life, offering him (from the point of view of the past) fulfillment or culmination of what has gone before, perhaps with some illumination of its meaning; and (for the future) restoration, comfort, and strength to go forward—in short, opportunity. Such moments are “cyclic”—recurring patterns within the linear flow of the poet’s ongoing life. And how often these moments seem to be “appointed times,” not within his own control—as in the crossing of the Alps, when the moment of vision does not come at his bidding, but only in its own time; or in the episode on Mount Snowdon, when he climbs the mountain to see the sun rise, but is granted instead a vision of the splendor of the moon. And finally, there is the deep and close interrelationship between these two dimensions of time; with Wordsworth, as with the biblical writers, it is “only in and through the things of time and sense” that one can come to experience the eternal. It is only by exploring the time line itself that one comes to catch glimpses of the eternal. As T. S. Eliot says in “Burnt Norton”: “Only through time time is conquered.”8 What is able to bring together these very disparate kinds of time— the one, the everyday passage of hours and days, the other, that special moment that seems to glimpse the eternal—is that very time-bound 7. John Marsh, The Fulness of Time, 158, 145. 8. Four Quartets, in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950, 120.

The Temporal Imagination in The Prelude


faculty, the human imagination. It is imagination, after all, that (in Coleridge’s phrase) balances or reconciles “opposite or discordant qualities”9 —and why not therefore time and eternity? Of its very nature and function, in fact, the imagination joins together the temporal and the eternal. As Coleridge insisted, imagination is in touch with the eternal, for it is a repetition “of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” At the same time, however, it remains firmly in the temporal order, for it is a repetition “in the finite mind”—and therefore bound to express itself in images of sense and within the limitations of human chronology. We are never wholly outside time in The Prelude, for the poet’s expression of his experience is always mediated through images of sense. The poet may experience transcendent reality, but he can only express it in temporal terms. Nonetheless, though Wordsworth knows as well as anyone that there is no escape from our temporal limits, in his moments of vision he does—in the words of the “Immortality Ode”— “have sight of that immortal sea.” We have spoken of time as linear and cyclic, but perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for Wordsworth’s whole journey is that of the spiral, which combines them both. There is recurrence, as if one were traveling up a mountain road, constantly circling back on one’s own path—journeying around a fixed (though unseen) center. But there is also progress, for each time one returns it is at a higher point on the mountain, with a wider angle of vision. How appropriate then the final vision on Mount Snowdon, where the poet at last reaches the top, becomes at last one with the mountain—his mind entering into communion with the transcendent mind, “by communion raised / From earth to heaven, from human to divine” (14.117–18).

9. Biographia Literaria, 2:16.


i “The Feeding Source” Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude

Instead of an object of worship which was altogether artificial, remote, never coming into genuine contact with me, I had now one which I thought to be real, one in which literally I could live and move and have my being, an actual fact present before my eyes. God was brought down from that heaven of the books, and resided on the downs visible in the far-away distances seen from the top of a hill and in every cloud shadow which wandered across the valley. —William Hale White, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Dissenting Minister


he end is where we start from,” T. S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding.”1 As book 14 brought us to “communion” with the divine, we turn to it again, to begin to search out the role of imagination in achieving this communion. We will look specifically at the phrase “the feeding source,” in the climactic passage in book 14, in which Wordsworth speaks of the relationship between “spiritual love” and “Imagination”: WiThis spiritual love acts not, nor can exist Without Imagination, which in truth 1. Four Quartets, in Complete Poems and Plays, 144.


Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


Is but another name for absolute power And clearest insight, amplitude of mind, And reason, in her most exalted mood. This faculty hath been the feeding source Of our long labor: we have traced the stream From the blind cavern whence is faintly heard Its natal murmur; followed it to light And open day; accompanied its course Among the ways of Nature; for a time Lost sight of it, bewildered and engulphed; Then given it greeting as it rose once more In strength, reflecting from its placid breast The works of man, and face of human life; And lastly, from its progress have we drawn Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought Of human being, Eternity, and God. (14.188–205)

It is the course of this stream that I propose, with Wordsworth, to retrace: the progress of this “feeding source,” as the poet follows it from the “blind cavern” to “light and open day,” loses sight of it, then greets it “as it rose once more,” drawing from its progress “faith in life endless”—and God. I suggest that this stream may be Wordsworth’s version of Coleridge’s “Alph, the sacred river” from “Kubla Khan”—though considerably more than five miles “meandering with a mazy motion”—and the “blind cavern” his own “deep romantic chasm” from which the “mighty fountain” of The Prelude is forced. For this stream is clearly, for Wordsworth as for Coleridge, the river of imagination. Might we have in The Prelude, then, “Kubla Khan” writ large? In the title of this chapter I have linked imagination with the word transcendent. Since this is a word capable of many meanings, let me say at the outset that I mean by it nothing less than divine reality. Other uses of the word in Romantic studies are, of course, many. Thomas Weiskel, for example, in his brilliant study, The Romantic Sublime, nowhere clearly defines his usage, but it is evident that he uses the word in a purely secular way. As I wrote in a review of the book: “It is clear that it does not refer to theological transcendence in any traditional sense, since this is rejected throughout as ‘edification,’ ‘Godterms,’ etc. Does it refer simply to transcending the self, that is, getting beyond idealism? One is never quite certain, and the result is disquieting. Surely one of the problems one needs to face in a poet like


Romanticism and Transcendence

Wordsworth is the problem of religious transcendence: whether and to what extent Wordsworth’s epistemology transcends the world of man and nature.”2 Geoffrey Hartman, unlike Weiskel, leaves open in Wordsworth the possibility of perceiving—and revealing—the supernatural. Speaking of Wordsworth’s experience on Mount Snowdon, Hartman suggests (in a passage we saw in Chapter I) that “man on Snowdon is . . . at the boundary of all realms, and himself their boundary.” Thus Wordsworth “guarantees man his own realm without separating him fatally from nature or supernature.” Thus the scene on Snowdon carries suggestions of “a boundary image, the symbol of a border between natural and supernatural.”3 While it is true Hartman believes that “with rare exceptions Wordsworth’s poetry stops short of the supernatural and draw its energy from boundary images,” he does leave the way open for the working of supernatural reality—even the divine— in Wordsworth’s poetry. Believing that for Wordsworth, as for Coleridge, the human imagination has its source in the divine creative act, in this chapter I will argue that it is the working of imagination that leads Wordsworth to an 2. J. Robert Barth, S.J., review of Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, 220. Another term capable of being freighted with such theological meaning is epiphany, a word often used of Wordsworth’s “spots of time.” Martin Bidney writes astutely about the term in his Patterns of Epiphany: From Wordsworth to Tolstoy, Pater, and Barrett Browning. Like Weiskel, Bidney eschews any theological interest: “I will seek to avoid ontological or metaphysical entanglements. . . . To ensure an empirical method I want to define ‘epiphany’ in a way that assumes no ontological commitments” (2). Following the earlier work of Ashton Nichols, however, Bidney distinguishes helpfully between “epiphany” and “theophany,” though denying the latter to Wordsworth because the poet’s visionary experience is not initiated by God or by “his divine or angelic emissary” but by the natural world. “God is not the victor here,” Bidney writes, “as in a traditional theophany.” Rather, the natural object or the poet’s “visionary power” is what “initiates the epiphanic transformation of the perceived universe” (27). For Ashton Nichols’s excellent treatment of the history of the word epiphany, including its Christian origins, see his book The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment, esp. 1– 34. 3. Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry, 198. Jonathan Wordsworth, in William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision, says more generally of the Romantic experience: “For the Christian, border vision is an act of faith: for those with less, or no, belief it is an imaginative compensation in the face of mortality and affronting human littleness. . . . The border impulse seems at some level to be more optimistic, implying that the poetic spirit, and not just the poetry, may be transcendent” (6).

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


encounter with the divine. As Martin Bidney notes, “Wordsworth scrupulously blends natural and supernatural worlds, accentuating their continuity even as he feels awe at their point of juncture.” However, one can agree with this remark without sharing Bidney’s view that “the poet’s insistence on stopping short of the supernatural often seems a reluctance to own up to the full extent of his imagination’s own world-transforming powers—its apocalyptic powers.”4 In this chapter, as we trace the river of imagination and explore its “apocalyptic powers,” we shall see that during the course of his journey Wordsworth moves more and more deeply into the imaginative experience, moving beyond the “border” world into the realm of the supernatural, to encounter the transcendent reality of the divine. The poet makes us aware of the imagination from the beginning; its first appearance in The Prelude, though indirect, is unambiguous. Soon after the opening breeze sets the poet on his way, the earth is all before him: By road or pathwawhither shall I turn, By road or pathway, or through trackless field, Up hill or down, or shall some floating thing Upon the River point me out my course? (1.27–30)

Sitting beneath a tree on a still autumn day, the poet pictures in his mind a familiar vale and a single cottage: I gazed withand while upon the fancied scene I gazed with growing love, a higher power Than Fancy gave assurance of some work Of glory, there forthwith to be begun. (1.76–79)

The journey, and the work, of imagination—a higher power than Fancy—has clearly begun. The river that first touches the poet’s heart is no doubt the river Derwent. Musing on his early inability, at times, to respond creatively to the beauties around him—his “vacant musing” (1.253), his “unreproved neglect” (1.253), his “listlessness” (1.266)—the poet reflects: 4. Bidney, Patterns of Epiphany, 26.


Romanticism and Transcendence O Derwent! wFor this didst Thou, O Derwent! winding among grassy holms Where I was looking on, a Babe in arms, Make ceaseless music, that composed my thoughts To more than infant softness, giving me, Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind, A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm That Nature breathes among the hills and groves? (1.274–81)

There follow, through book 1 and into book 2, powerful instances of the impress of Nature’s “fair seed-time” (1.301) on the boy: the round of the seasons; the theft of the woodcocks; the boat-stealing scene and its guilty aftermath; the ecstasy of skating on Esthwaite; a wild horseback ride through Furness Abbey and Levens Sands; a solitary moment on Windermere when the sky “sank down” into his heart and held him “like a dream” (2.173 –74). But these experiences, powerful as they are in “enlarging his sympathies” (2.175), he now comes to see as incomplete because his love of Nature itself has been secondary to its “incidental charms” (2.198). Thus the poet marks out a new moment in his development of his imagination, in which he begins to seek out Nature “for her own sake” (2.203). Yet the poet questions whether he can in fact determine at what point he began to conceive of Nature as a whole. Who, he asks, “shall point, as with a wand, and say, / ‘This portion of the river of my mind / Came from yon fountain?’” (2.208 –10). Coleridge, on the other hand—the poet goes on—“more deeply read in thy own thoughts” (2.211), would not have been tempted to such divisions, for to him “the unity of all hath been revealed” (2.221). From childhood, the poet concludes, the growing human consciousness is one, interacting with the “active universe” (2.255). This growing consciousness, he says, Doth, like an Agent of the one great Mind, Create, creator and receiver both, Working but in alliance with the works Which it beholds. (2.258– 61)

We need not dwell long on book 3 and Cambridge. As Wordsworth says, “Imagination slept, / And yet not utterly” (3.260–61). We might note that, ironically, this first use of the word imagination in the poem is of its sleeping. There were, to be sure, “unprofitable talk” (3.252),

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


“senseless horsemanship” (3.256), and lazy reading in “trivial books” (3.254). But the touch of Nature was still upon him there, and he found her in moments of solitude; “and all / That I beheld respired with inward meaning” (3.134 – 35). Besides, he could not walk “unmoved” where “generations of illustrious men” had passed (3.263– 64). Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton moved him, as did the memorial of Newton in neighboring Trinity College. But by and large, Wordsworth admits, imagination slumbered during his time at Cambridge. He was like one wandering carelessly “through a wide Museum, from whose stores / A casual rarity is singled out, / And has its brief perusal” (3.620–22). His time was therefore spent “with few wise longings and but little love” (3.629). To this point, the poet has experienced the working of imagination largely through the impress of Nature upon him—“the speaking face of earth and heaven” (5.13)—and his response to it. But now, following his “poetic consecration” in book 4—“vows / Were then made for me” (4.334 –35)—we see a significant deepening of the poet’s imaginative power in book 5, which moves beyond the power of Nature in stirring the imagination, to the very power of poetry itself, incarnate in the works of the giants who went before him: “Thou also, Man! hast wrought . . . / Things that aspire to unconquerable life” (5.18–20). The imaginative power of the great poets—Homer, the Psalmist, Cervantes, Milton, Shakespeare—is worthy of reverence less only than that given to Nature itself: For evespeak of them as Powers For ever to be hallowed; only less, For what we are and what we may become, Than Nature’s self, which is the breath of God. (5.220–23)

I call this development a deepening, because it is here that the poet begins to be aware not only of the working of imagination but also of its source. The origin of imaginative power is the same, whether that power be exercised in Nature or in the works of poetry, for “A gracious Spirit o’er this earth presides, / And o’er the heart of man” (5.493 – 94). Thus the poet has been intimate not only with “living Nature” (5.590), but also with “the great Nature that exists in works / Of mighty Poets” (5.596 – 97), for the poet’s “Visionary Power” (5.597) is not only drawn from the forms of Nature, but also “at-


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tends the motions of the viewless winds / Embodied in the mystery of words” (5.598 – 99). But there is a warning throughout book 5 that the priority must be given to Nature. Wordsworth’s drawn-out attack on “modern education”—which poetically one may find a bit tedious—is important. In his view, the “modern system” of education (5.297) is divorced from Nature, teaching young people to try to control the power of Nature rather than to yield to it. And his own most cogent response is not in his catalog of abuses, but in his recounting of “the Boy of Winander” (5.366–90). For what we have here is not only a surpassing work of imagination, but a dramatization of the working of imagination itself. In this remarkable passage, Wordsworth is showing us, rather than telling us, how imaginative power is the proper response to mechanistic education. But it is crucial that this power is not only itself mysterious but is also an experience of mystery, in which the self and the external world (to use a Coleridgean word) “interpenetrate”: he enters into the beauty of the scene and the “visible scene” enters into his mind, even as the “uncertain heaven” is received “into the bosom of the steady lake.” If this is an experience of unity, it is also an experience of mystery: the mystery of perception, the mystery of listening and surprise, the mystery of heaven and earth, the mystery of the juxtaposition of beauty and death. Like any act of poetic imagination, it might be seen as flowing from and exemplifying what Keats was to call “Negative Capability”—“the willingness to live in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”5 Thus the imagination, for all its acknowledged power, remains for the poet—in its origin and in its workings—still wrapped in mystery. As Wordsworth writes at the end of book 5 about the “visionary power” of the great poets, such power Attends the motions of the viewless winds Embodied in the mystery of words: There darkness makes abode, and all the host Of shadowy things work endless changes there, As in a mansion like their proper home. Even forms and substances are circumfused By that transparent veil with light divine; 5. To George and Georgiana Keats (December 27, 1817), in The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 1:193.

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


And, through the turnings intricate of verse, Present themselves as objects recognized, In flashes, and with glory not their own. (5.598–607)

This is perhaps a hint of the poet’s later more explicit realization of the relationship between imagination and transcendent reality: the power of imagination has its origin elsewhere, and the forms and substances it presents are seen “with glory not their own.” These closing lines of book 5, especially “objects recognized, / In flashes, and with glory not their own,” lay the groundwork—perhaps unconsciously for Wordsworth—for the extraordinary revelation of book 6 that follows the poet’s remembrance of having unknowingly crossed the Alps: ThImagination—here the Power so called Through sad incompetence of human speech— That awful Power rose from the Mind’s abyss Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps At once some lonely Traveller. I was lost, Halted without an effort to break through; But to my conscious soul I now can say, “I recognise thy glory”; in such strength Of usurpation, when the light of sense Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed The invisible world, doth Greatness make abode, There harbours, whether we be young or old. (6.593–604)

Although this is an exercise of memory—the memory of an event that took place in 1790—it is also a moment of vision, an ecstatic moment outside time and beyond sense experience. It has in fact many of the hallmarks of a “mystical” experience: it begins with sense experience but is somehow divorced from sense (“the light of sense goes out”); it comes without any evident predetermining cause (“like an unfathered vapour”); it seems outside time (“halted”); its full meaning remains unutterable (“through sad incompetence of human speech”). One need not go far to find a classic analogue for such an experience, as Saint Paul comes readily to mind: “caught up to the third heaven”— “whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell”—“how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:1–4). This is not to say that in this passage of The Prelude Wordsworth


Romanticism and Transcendence

has in mind God and heaven and choirs of angels when he speaks of “the invisible world”; however, it is truly a mystical experience—in Wordsworth’s case, a direct experience of, as R. D. Havens puts it, “the realm of the supersensuous and ideal.”6 The poet may not have thought of it at this time as an experience of God, but it was surely an experience of transcendent reality: beyond his control, beyond time, beyond sense experience. Because of the “sad incompetence of human speech,” the poet has no name for the power that generated this experience—any more than Saint Paul did—so he calls it “imagination.” He calls it so, Havens suggests, “perhaps because it seemed a revelation of ‘infinitude’ and the imagination reveals the infinite in the finite, and because the imagination gives significance to a commonplace incident and makes it memorable—but strangely enough he speaks of the imagination not as a faculty which he exercises but as an ‘awful power,’ a daemon, which rises ‘from the mind’s abyss’ and seizes him in its grasp.”7 But is it really strange that the poet speaks of imagination as a “power” rather than as a “faculty”? So often throughout The Prelude, imagination is seen as a gift given and received rather than something the poet has earned or learned, and even in his poetic consecration in book 4: “I made no vows, but vows / Were then made for me” (4.334–35). The poet has not simply encountered something but has been grasped—as in any mystical experience—by a power beyond himself and beyond the world of our ordinary experience. At the same time, though, this power—however distinct from him—is not separate from him; its life is cognate with his own. I saw, or heard, whate’er I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream That flowed into a kindred Stream; a gale Confederate with the current of the Soul To speed my voyage. (6.743–47)

The course of this river—and the path of this journey—was his, but 6. Havens, The Mind of a Poet, 1:193. James A. W. Heffernan, in Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetry: The Transforming Imagination, 239–45, writes interestingly and helpfully about Wordsworth’s “mystical” experience. Easterlin also writes perceptively about Wordsworth’s religious experience, including its mystical dimensions, in Wordsworth and the Question of “Romantic Religion”; see esp. 53– 77. 7. Havens, The Mind of a Poet, 2:427.

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


it was not his alone, just as the work of his imagination is his, but not his alone; there is a power “confederate” with his own. As the poet turns in book 7 to his experience of London—that “monstrous Ant-hill on the plain” (7.149)—the play of imagination seems more complex. At times he seems “an Idler” (7.72) entirely taken up with externals, things that appeal to something less than the imagination—“with unchecked fancy ever on the stir” (7.75). The people from every corner of the world, the marvels of museums and sideshows, theatrical spectacle and melodrama, all fed his curiosity but not his imagination. Even serious drama on “more lofty themes” (7.465), though it may have stirred his feelings even to tears, commonly “passed not beyond the suburbs of the mind” (7.476). Only when the action “rose to ideal grandeur” (7.480) did it stir him deeply, or when, through contrast, it evoked some prior and grander experience of reading Shakespeare—after which he “mused, and thought, and felt in solitude” (7.485). It was only when the experience of the city was brought to solitude that it could become an experience of imagination. Without moments of solitude, imaginative power “languished” within him (7.469). But even within the stir of the great city, there are unexpected moments when he finds that solitude—as when in the crowded streets the passing shapes become “a second-sight procession, such as glides / Over still mountains, or appears in dreams” (7.633–34). For the moment lost and alone “amid the moving pageant” (7.637), he is abruptly “smitten” by the sight of the blind beggar, and his mind and heart are touched, “as if admonished from another world” (7.649). More often, however, the city—as in his experience of Bartholomew Fair—lays “the whole creative powers of Man asleep” (7.681). The poet is saved from the “blank confusion” of the city (7.722) only by his earlier experiences of imaginative power in Nature, by being able to see beyond the myriad “trivial objects” (7.726) that “weary out the eye” (7.731) to the larger “whole” of which they are parts. Thus, for all the city’s turmoil and “blank confusion,” the poet can conclude his reflections on London with a stirring affirmation: The Spirit of Nature was upon me there; The Soul of Beauty and enduring life Vouchsafed her inspiration; and diffused, Through meagre lines and colours, and the press


Romanticism and Transcendence Of self-destroying transitory things, Composure, and ennobling harmony. (7.767–72)

The abrupt shift of the opening of book 8 from the “monstrous Anthill” of London to the top of Helvellyn is startling, but it is of course the contrast between Bartholemew Fair and the village festival below Helvellyn that gives it point: the one, in all its bizarre wildness and turmoil, is seemingly so far from the works of Nature; the other, especially seen from the height of “old Helvellyn,” is embraced by the magnificence of the surrounding hills (8.55 – 57). The people here, far from the chaos of the city, “move about upon the soft green turf” (8.58); and “all things serve them: them the morning light / Loves as it glistens on the silent rocks” (8.63 – 64). The poet still feels the charm of the myth of pastoral simplicity (8.173–339), and it certainly colors his view of the simple life of the countryside. But his view of country life is here more realistic, for he adds to the traditional poetic pastoral myth the “snows and streams ungovernable” and “terrifying winds” that are part of the real shepherd’s life (8.219 –22). Thus the real-life shepherd can, in the poet’s imagination, bring together mankind and Nature, for the poet has felt the shepherd’s presence “in his own domain / As of a Lord and Master” (8.257– 58). For the poet, mankind and Nature were first experienced together (8.312–16), and so are always thereafter—at least when imagination is active—seen in light of one another. Thus, in returning to London in memory—as he tries to discern the true reality, to separate the substance from the shadow (8.543–96)— the poet can see beyond “the senseless mass” (8.580) to the city’s deeper human history and experience. He can feel “a sense / Of what in the great City had been done / And suffered, and was doing, suffering still” (8.625 –27). Fostered by Nature, even there in the city his “young Imagination found / No uncongenial element” (8.639–40). Nature was still first in his affections, but love of Nature and love of “humankind” were no longer separate. The three books of The Prelude that recount Wordsworth’s experience in France (books 9 –11) open with the image of the river, a winding river that has “turned and returned with intricate delay” (9.8), as intricate as his reflections on the “growth of his mind” and the role of imagination in that growth. But what at first seems an “intricate delay”—the account of his experience of the French Revolution—con-

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


tributes importantly to his understanding of the power of the imagination. What is for a time a turning from his path returns him at last to a conviction of the central importance of imagination in human life and in the life of the human community. The French Revolution was a temptation for him: first, to see political life and action as a remedy for the world’s ills; second, to exalt reason as the primary human faculty. But both possibilities turned bitter. First, he lost confidence in political action, as he saw the French “become Oppressors in their turn” and “losing sight of all / Which they had struggled for” (11.206 – 9). Then, he came to realize that “Reason’s naked self ” (11.234) was not enough. As he dragged “all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds, / Like culprits to the bar” (11.294– 95), he found himself “now believing, / Now disbelieving, endlessly perplexed” (11.297– 98), until at last, And seedemanding formal proof And seeking it in every thing, I lost All feeling of conviction, and, in fine, Sick, wearied out with contrarieties, Yielded up moral questions in despair. (11.301–5)

As in “Tintern Abbey,” it was Dorothy who led him back to hope and confidence, calling him back to “a saving intercourse / With my true self ” (11.341– 42). Thus he could return to the sources of his earlier power—Nature and the human heart: By all varieties Nature’s self, By all varieties of human love Assisted, led me back through opening day To those sweet counsels between head and heart Whence grew that genuine knowledge fraught with peace Which, through the later sinking of this cause, Hath still upheld me, and upholds me now. (11.349–55)

No wonder the poet turns at once in book 12 to the subject of “Imagination and Taste, how impaired and restored.” He surely believed his imagination had been “impaired” by his experience of the Revolution, by the raising of his hopes and his ultimate disillusionment. Indeed, as he looked back on it he saw it as a time when the “bodily eye,” that “most despotic of our senses, gained / Such strength in me as often held my mind / In absolute dominion” (12.128–31).


Romanticism and Transcendence

Fortunately, though, this “degradation” of his heart was “transient” (12.191–201), and the influence of the “visitings of imaginative power” early in his life enabled him now to escape from this despotism “entirely and for ever” (12.201–7). Through the mediation of several remembered “spots of time” from childhood, his mind is indeed “nourished and invisibly repaired” (12.215). The “days gone by” return upon him “almost from the dawn / Of life” (12.277–79), and through them he can come to believe once more in the sacredness of his own calling (13.300–304). Even more grandly, in the culminating and concluding passage of book 13 (13.368–77), he “seemed about this time to gain clear sight / Of a new world” (13.368 – 69). All this has been prelude for the vision on Mount Snowdon, which—like all Wordsworth’s “spots of time”—is grounded in the unexpected. He set out to see the sun rise from the top of Snowdon, but what he saw—“in that wild place, and at the dead of night” (14.26)— was the rising of the moon. What he sought was the source of light, but what was granted him was only the reflected light of the moon. Yet what a wondrous vision it was: There I beheld the emblem of a Mind That feeds upon infinity, that broods Over the dark abyss, intent to hear Its voices issuing forth to silent light In one continuous stream; a mind sustained By recognitions of transcendent power In sense, conducting to ideal form; In soul, of more than mortal privilege. (14.70–77)

What follows is a meditation on the imagination. It is not simply a reflection on the power of the poet, however, for implicit here is Coleridge’s distinction between the primary and the secondary imagination. The former is available to us all: “The living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception”; the latter is “an echo of the former,” which “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create.” For both, however, this power is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” In the Snowdon meditation, the first faculty is the ability to perceive the power of Nature that is granted to all, “that Men least sensitive see, hear, perceive, / And cannot

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


chuse but feel” (14.85 – 86). Even they—even the “least sensitive”— are souls of “more than mortal privilege” (14.77), capable of welcoming the vision. This ability, common to us all, is the foundation for the higher power given to the poets among us, “that glorious faculty / That higher minds bear with them as their own” (14.89 – 90): They, from their native selves, can send abroad Kindred mutations; for themselves create A like existence . . . . By sensible impressions not enthralled, But, by their quickening impulse, made more prompt To hold fit converse with the spiritual world, And with the generations of mankind Spread over time, past, present, and to come, Age after age, till Time shall be no more. (14.93–95, 106–11)

And what is the source of this power? Such minds are truly from the Deity, For they are powers; and hence the highest bliss That flesh can know is theirs,—the consciousness Of whom they are, habitually infused Through every image, and through every thought, And all affections by communion raised From earth to heaven, from human to divine. (14.112–18)

The most important crux in this passage is, I believe, the phrase “the consciousness / Of whom they are.” One of the most distinguished commentators on The Prelude, W. J. B. Owen, glosses this as “from whom they come.”8 However, this interpretation unduly strains the grammar and is, in addition, redundant, since the poet has just written two lines above that “such minds are truly from the Deity” (14.112). Another respected critic, Jonathan Wordsworth, prefers to call it “self-awareness.”9 Such a reading—taking “the consciousness of whom they are” to mean “the consciousness of who they are”— seems to me grammatically simply untenable. There is an interpretation, however, that respects both the obvious 8. The Fourteen-Book Prelude, 260, n. 115. 9. The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850 (Norton Critical Edition), ed. Jonathan Wordsworth et al., 464, n. 4.


Romanticism and Transcendence

sense of the grammar and the larger context of the passage: such minds are not only from the Deity, but are the consciousness of the Deity, that is, they participate in its being and life. This is not to say that the finite mind—for Wordsworth any more than for Coleridge—is identified with the infinite mind, but that it shares in the power of its source. The two powers, the finite and the infinite, are distinct but not separate— as the water in the fountain is not separate from its hidden source, or as the rays of sunlight falling on my arm are distinct but not separate from their source, the fires that have burned since ages past on the surface of the sun. Wordsworth’s is a profoundly incarnational view of the imaginative faculty: the poet is not “enthralled” by sense impressions, but “quickened” by them and thereby made “more prompt / To hold fit converse with the spiritual world” (14.106–8). The transcendent is mediated in and through sense reality. Material and spiritual, immanent and transcendent, are distinct from one another but not separate. But if this is true of the poet, is it not also true of us all? For the power we all share—“which all / Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus / To bodily sense exhibits” (14.86–88)—is clearly not different in kind (to use a Coleridgean word) but is in fact “the express / Resemblance” of the “glorious faculty” of the poet (14.88–89). In short, we are all partakers in the divine reality; finite though we are, we are sharers in divinity. All of us have power to experience the moment of vision, whether on Snowdon or in Hopkins’s “Goldengrove” or on the road to Damascus; it is the poet’s privilege to re-create that vision (“I would build that dome in air”) and to share his creation with us. We return at last to the passage with which we began this chapter. We have “traced the stream,” have “accompanied its course / Among the ways of Nature,” and “from its progress have we drawn / Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought / Of human being, Eternity, and God.” Jonathan Wordsworth comments movingly about these lines (in their 1805 version): “there had always been a sense in which Wordsworth lived by the one thought of infinity and God, but in May 1805, when these lines were presumably written, it was true in a different way. Possessed by grief at the death of [his brother] John two months before, he leads the stream of imagination right through from the Kubla Khan caves of the womb to the ocean of Christian rest and reward in which he now so urgently needs to believe.”10 10. Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision, 332. .

Imagination and the Transcendent in The Prelude


It is also important that this passage begins with the inextricable linking of imagination and love: “This spiritual love acts not, nor can exist / Without Imagination” (14.188 – 89). But what is this “spiritual love”? To answer, we need to consider the preceding passage, beginning with the splendid lines: All lasting grandBy love subsists All lasting grandeur, by pervading love; That gone, we are as dust. (14.168–70)

There follows what at first blush one might think of as something like the medieval “ladder of love,” beginning with the fields in springtime, the “rising flowers,” the “tender ways” of the lamb and its mother (14.170–73), ascending to the love of lover and beloved (14.175–80), and then to “a still higher love” (14.181), directed to the “Almighty’s Throne” (14.188). However, I believe this seeming progression is not merely an ascent from lower to higher love. This “higher love” is not, on a more careful reading, simply directed to God. Return for a moment to the love of the lover for “the One who is thy choice of all the world” (14.178). This love is said to be Impassioned, but with delight Impassioned, but delight how pitiable! Unless this love by a still higher love Be hallowed. (14.179– 82)

This “higher love”—love “by heaven inspired” (14.184)—is not only an end in itself but also a means by which all other loves are “hallowed.” Lesser loves (like Donne’s “dull sublunary lovers’ loves”) are “pitiable” unless they are seen as somehow sharing in the life of the eternal. Immanent reality—whether the beauties of inanimate Nature, the simple life of the animal world, or human love—is transformed, even given more permanent meaning, by its intrinsic relationship with the transcendent. Good already in itself, it is “hallowed” by the “higher love.” Thus the “spiritual love” the poet speaks of is not simply love of God, but the love of all things seen in the light of divine reality; and imagination is the enabling—and ennobling—human faculty that makes this vision of the world possible. Imagination alone enables us—not just the poet but all of us—to “hold fit converse with the spiritual world.” It is “the feeding source” not only for the poet but for us all.


i The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge

Does the fish soar to find the ocean, The eagle plunge to find the air? That we cry to the stars in motion If they have rumour of thee there? Not where the wheeling systems darken, And our benumbed conceiving soars; The drift of pinions, would we hearken, Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors. The angels keep their ancient places, Turn but a stone and start a wing: ’Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces That miss the many-splendoured thing. —Francis Thompson, “In No Strange Land” (“The Kingdom of God”)


he focus of the first four chapters has been the nature and workings of religious imagination in Wordsworth. Before turning to Coleridge, it may be useful to consider the two poets together, which I propose to do not by addressing the “religious” issue directly, but by reflecting on the role “humanity” or “humankind” plays in their poetry. We begin with what is perhaps the most familiar of Wordsworth’s 72

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


poems, “Tintern Abbey,” which bears strong similarities to Coleridge’s own “Conversation Poems.” Often enough, in fact, one hears it spoken of as a Conversation Poem of the sort Coleridge wrote, sometimes in the context of an argument for the priority of Wordsworth over Coleridge in the development of the genre. “Tintern Abbey” certainly represents, like Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, an organic development of the loco-descriptive tradition of the eighteenth century, the tradition of such poets as Thomson and Cowper. Like Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, too, it does move that tradition forward by elaborating in a methodical way the relationship between mind and landscape. As Donald Wesling has said, Wordsworth’s “method is to exhibit the complete movement of a full mind which has found a pretext for its own examination: a mapping of the self with relation to a significant landscape.” As Wesling points out, Dr. Johnson had criticized Thomson’s Seasons precisely for its lack of “method.” What Wordsworth did, while writing with the same “descriptive-meditative intent” as Thomson, was to “avoid the haphazard construction of the earlier poem: by designing a continuity: by arranging the gradual revelation of a discovery: or, to put it another way, by moving steadily deeper into his subject.”1 But, even granting the similarities between Wordsworth and Coleridge in their expansion and development of this earlier genre, what is Wordsworth’s subject and what is Coleridge’s? Consider the opening lines of the two poems that are often thought of as the earliest “Conversation Poems”—whether one gives priority of influence to one or the other—Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” of 1798 and Coleridge’s admittedly less accomplished but still important and moving “The Eolian Harp” of 1795. Five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a soft inland murmur.—Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect The landscape with the quiet of the sky. The day is come when I again repose 1. Wesling, Wordsworth and the Adequacy of Landscape, 25.


Romanticism and Transcendence Here, under this dark sycamore, and view These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts, Which at this season, with their unripe fruits, Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves ’Mid groves and copses. Once again I see These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms, Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke Sent up, in silence, from among the trees! With some uncertain notice, as might seem Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire The Hermit sits alone.2 (“Tintern Abbey,” 1–22)

“I hear,” “I behold,” “I repose”—and at the close of this section, the unseen Hermit, clearly a figure of the poet, “sits alone.” Contrast this with “The Eolian Harp”: My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown With white-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad leav’d Myrtle (Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!) And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light, Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be) Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents Snatch’d from yon bean-field! and the world so hush’d! The stilly murmur of the distant Sea Tells us of silence.3 (1–12)

From the very start, the poet is not alone, either physically or emotionally. What he expresses is a shared experience: “our Cot,” “the distant Sea . . . tells us of silence.” Surely both Wordsworth and Coleridge do move, in Wesling’s phrase, “steadily deeper into their subjects.” But their subjects are not 2. All quotations of Wordsworth’s poetry will be taken from The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, and cited by line number in the text. 3. All quotations of Coleridge’s poetry will be taken from The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, and cited by line number in the text.

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


the same. At first blush one might suggest that Wordsworth’s subject is the landscape; but it is rather the relationship between the landscape and himself—or the landscape seen through the prism of the self. The other human presence in the poem, the poet’s sister Dorothy, appears only at line 114, and it might be argued that her role is in large measure as a future surrogate for himself: “May I behold in thee what I was once” (120). Even the landscape is, as Wesling suggests, a “pretext”— I would prefer to say “context”—for the mind’s examination of itself. For Coleridge in “The Eolian Harp,” the pretext—or context—is superficially the same, a beautiful and much-loved landscape. But the larger and deeper context is a relationship with someone he loves. Coleridge’s true subject is neither the landscape nor the self, but love. In many of Wordsworth’s poems, of course, the human figures are more in the foreground than they are in “Tintern Abbey.” Although “Resolution and Independence” begins with the poet—first his joy in nature, then the sadness that falls inexplicably upon him—the focus shifts to, and remains upon, the old Leech-gatherer. But his entry into the poem is curious, or rather deeply mysterious. It is in fact as if the old man does not enter the poem at all, but has been there all along, unnoticed. Now, whether it were by peculiar grace, A leading from above, a something given, Yet it befell that, in this lonely place, When I with these untoward thoughts had striven, Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven I saw a Man before me unawares: The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs. As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie Couched on the bald top of an eminence; Wonder to all who do the same espy, By what means it could thither come, and whence; So that it seems a thing endued with sense: Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself; Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead, Nor all asleep—in his extreme old age: (50–65)

The old man has been there all along, one might say, because he is more part of the landscape than of the poet’s world of humanity.


Romanticism and Transcendence Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood, That heareth not the loud winds when they call And moveth all together, if it move at all. (75 –77)

The old man does reply to the poet’s greeting and tells his story with stately dignity, but after a time his words become one with the landscape: The old Man still stood talking by my side; But now his voice to me was like a stream Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide; And the whole body of the Man did seem Like one whom I had met with in a dream; (106–10)

As the old man continues talking, the poet imagines him there eternally, part of that desolate scene: In my mind’s eye I seemed to see him pace About the weary moors continually, Wandering about alone and silently. (129–31)

In the poet’s mind, the old man is there forever as a sign of human “resolution” in the face of a lonely landscape—but as natural as the landscape itself. A similar figure is that of “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” who lives nowhere but in the eye of Nature—a homeless wanderer who “travels on, a solitary Man” (24). His role is like that of Nature, to teach, wordlessly but eloquently. AnThen let him pass, a blessing on his head! And while in that vast solitude to which The tide of things has borne him, he appears To breathe and live but for himself alone, Unblamed, uninjured, let him bear about The good which the benignant law of Heaven Has hung around him: and, while life is his, Still let him prompt the unlettered villagers To tender offices and pensive thoughts. (162–70)

The beggar is more a part of the world of Nature than of human society. Indeed the poet—some might say gratuitously and with unin-

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


tended cruelty—condemns him to homelessness and to the rigors as well as the pleasures of the natural world. May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY, Make him a captive!—for that pent-up din, Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air, Be his the natural silence of old age! Let him be free of mountain solitudes; And have around him, whether heard or not The pleasant melody of woodland birds. . . . And let him, where and when he will, sit down Beneath the trees, or on a grassy bank Of highway side, and with the little birds Share his chance-gathered meal; and, finally, As in the eye of Nature he has lived, So in the eye of Nature let him die! (179–85, 192–97)

In a poem of the same period, “Animal Tranquility and Decay,” the Old Man is reduced—for all the poet’s suggestions to the contrary— to something less than fully human. That peck alThe little hedgegrow birds, That peck along the roads, regard him not. He travels on, and in his face, his step, His gait, is one expression: every limb, His look and bending figure, all bespeak A man who does not move with pain, but moves With thought.—He is insensibly subdued To settled quiet: he is one by whom All effort seems forgotten; one to whom Long patience hath such mild composure given, That patience now doth seem a thing of which He hath no need. He is by nature led To peace so perfect that the young behold With envy, what the Old Man hardly feels.

Is he really one “who does not move with pain, but moves / With thought”? Does his bent figure in fact convey only “mild composure”? Has he truly found a “peace so perfect”? And do the young in fact look on this bent and aged man “with envy”? One might suggest that Wordsworth’s depth of feeling for the natural world may at times have


Romanticism and Transcendence

blinded him to the actual feelings of some of the human figures in his landscape. But it is not only when he is portraying such anonymous figures as the Leech-gatherer, the Old Cumberland Beggar, and the Old Man of “Animal Tranquility and Decay” that Wordsworth gives priority to Nature. It is often the case even with those he knows and loves. The beloved Lucy belongs more to the world of Nature than to humankind. In “She dwelt among the untrodden ways,” Lucy is a lovely flower in a sylvan scene; in “I travelled among unknown men,” she dwells with mountains and bowers and green fields. In “Three years she grew in sun and shower,” Nature’s claim on her is explicit and irrevocable. Three years she grew in sun and shower, Then Nature said, “A lovelier flower On earth was never sown; This Child I to myself will take; She shall be mine, and I will make A Lady of my own. “Myself will to my darling be Both law and impulse: and with me The Girl, in rock and plain, In earth and heaven, in glade and bower, Shall feel an overseeing power To kindle or restrain. “She shall be sportive as the fawn That wild with glee across the lawn Or up the mountain springs; And hers shall be the breathing balm, And hers the silence and the calm Of mute insensate things.” (1–18)

Nature sowed and nurtured her, like any flower; now Nature claims her for “the silence and the calm / Of mute insensate things.” As the poem goes on, Lucy continues to be nurtured by these “mute insensate things”—“the floating clouds,” “the willow,” “the motions of the Storm,” “the stars of midnight”—as they offer her their “silent sympathy.” And it is Nature, not the poet, who enters into a kind of mystic marriage with her, for it is Nature who declares that “she and I [will] together live / Here in this happy dell.” At Lucy’s death, the poet is left behind not as a widower who has lost his spouse or a lover who

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


has lost his beloved to death, but more like an unsuccessful suitor who has lost his beloved to another. “Such thoughts to Lucy I will give While she and I together live Here in this happy dell.” Thus Nature spake—The work was done— How soon my Lucy’s race was run! She died, and left to me This heath, this calm, and quiet scene; The memory of what has been, And never more will be. (34–42)

Finally, in what is for me Wordsworth’s most frightening poem, the identification between humankind and the world of Nature seems complete. A slumber did my spirit seal; I had no human fears: She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In the most characteristic poems of Coleridge, on the other hand, while the natural landscape is a privileged locus—a favored context for human encounter—humankind is both distinct and separate from its natural setting. The focus is not Nature but humanity, and the primary relationship is not between humankind and Nature but between human persons. As I have written elsewhere about the Conversation Poems, “although the setting of these poems is invariably a landscape, the natural surroundings are primarily a vehicle for human presence.”4 What Coleridge said of the sonnets of William Lisle Bowles may be said of Coleridge’s own Conversation Poems: they “domesticate with the heart.” They “assume—or create—a domestic ‘space’ in which the poet and his beloved, spouse or child or friend, can exist together in 4. Coleridge and the Power of Love, 45.


Romanticism and Transcendence

joyful harmony.” Meena Alexander, writing of the Conversation Poems, speaks of “a personal space which is upheld in the tension between mediating consciousness and the human other. The presence of the other is vital to the meditation. Only within a space where the other is potentially available can the self be maintained.”5 For Wordsworth, more self-sufficient than Coleridge, the “other” may or may not be present, but it is not “vital to the meditation”; Nature itself is sufficient. For Coleridge, however, the presence of “the other” is of critical importance. He wrote in an affecting letter to Mrs. Coleridge in 1799: I languish after home for hours together in vacancy; my feelings almost wholly unqualified by Thoughts. . . . After I have recovered from this strange state, and reflected upon it, I have thought of a man who should lose his companion in a desart [sic] of sand where his weary Halloos drop down in the air with an Echo.—I am deeply convinced that if I were to remain a few years among objects for whom I had no affection, I should wholly lose the powers of Intellect—Love is the vital air of my Genius.6

Unlike Wordsworth, for Coleridge the natural landscape, unpeopled, remains empty—“a desart of sand.” “Frost at Midnight” may fairly be taken as representative of the Conversation Poems. It begins, to be sure, with what the poet refers to as solitude—“that solitude, which suits / Abstruser musings” (5– 6). It is significant, however, and crucially important to the poet, that he is surrounded by those he loves, including the “cradled infant” (7) who sleeps at his side. Even the natural form of the fluttering film of ash in the fire—“a companionable form” (19)—takes him in imagination not into the world of Nature but into a past of human companionship. His “heart leaps up” (40), not at beholding a rainbow in the sky, but at the hope of a loved one arriving in a long-ago schoolroom. The blessing toward which the poem moves is, typically, not first for himself (although often it is a blessing for him as well, as here “tender gladness” [49] fills his heart) but for one he loves. 5. Ibid., 46; Alexander, The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism, 37. 6. The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 1:470–71 (March 12, 1799).

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


Nature is, of course, here as elsewhere in the Conversation Poems, an indispensable element or agent in the poet’s experience. But the primary relationship of the poem is between the poet and those he loves, the world of Nature providing a necessary setting or catalyst; and the blessing invoked on the beloved is a gift of Nature, to be sure, but mediated by the poet’s love. 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. (54–62)

The Conversation Poems are, in effect, an experience of and celebration of love. There is love of the natural world, of course, but each poem begins and ends—and has its central meaning—in human love. It passes through and gathers strength from Nature, and leads to and draws meaning from the “eternal language” of the divine “principle of love,” but it is first and last an experience of loving human relationship. Unlike the old men of Wordsworth we spoke of—the Leech-gatherer, the Cumberland Beggar, and the bent and aged man of “Animal Tranquility”—Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is the farthest thing possible from a figure merged with the landscape. He stands apart, in the most striking and dramatic ways, from the natural world through which he moves. Within the tale he tells, the Ancient Mariner is very much apart from the world of Nature. Early in his story, he is in fact a violator of Nature, as he kills the albatross. Then he is its victim, as Nature seems to take vengeance on him: the becalming of the ship, the terrible drought, the rotting deep, the star-dogged moon that brings curses to the lips of his shipmates. Then, as the moon becomes the beneficent “moving Moon,” the Mariner becomes as it were the pupil of Nature—and he begins to experience its beauty, its blessings, and the harmony of its music. And it is Nature, finally, that brings him back to the human community—back to his “own countree,” back to the kirk and its “goodly company.” For this is, I believe, the primary focus of the poem: the human com-


Romanticism and Transcendence

munity. It is there that the Mariner must tell his story, bringing his message about other worlds of experience and possibility to a startled and unwilling humankind—the prophet breaking into their daily lives with word of sufferings and beauties, fears and ecstasies, of which they know nothing. As in the Conversation Poems, Nature is an indispensable agent, mediating for him the “pure principle of love”—especially in his ecstatic vision of the “troop of spirits blest”—but the Mariner is the blessed object of the vision, not himself part of its music. He remains, even after his visionary experience, part of the human community. Much the same may be said of the prophet figure in that very different poem, “Kubla Khan.” He too draws strength from the world of Nature; indeed the “sacred river” is not only the river of life but also the river of imagination. But the poet, however much he is set apart from the human community by the sacred circle (“Weave a circle round him thrice” [51]), remains always and inescapably in the service of that community. His worldly analogue, the tyrant Kubla Khan, is no part of Nature, but rather shapes Nature to his own purposes—restraining the energies of Nature by his gardens and walls and towers. The poet—more in touch with the forces of Nature and more in sympathy with them than Kubla Khan—does no violence to them, but uses them in the service of his vision, allowing these forces to flow through him in all their fullness—like the sacred river itself—to enliven the souls of the human community he serves. Once again, the prophet’s first responsibility is not to Nature but to humankind. I would like to bring just two more poems into the equation—two poems that are inextricably linked in their genesis and that may dramatize for us the differing views of Wordsworth and Coleridge toward humankind in its relationship to the natural world. Although it was two years before Wordsworth could finish his “Immortality Ode,” the first four stanzas were written in March 1802, just days before Coleridge wrote the verse letter to Sara Hutchinson that would shortly be transformed into “Dejection: An Ode.” The two poems are clearly in a kind of dialogue with one another—and one’s sense of this dialogue is further sharpened by the realization that Wordsworth’s own opening lines clearly echo yet another poem Coleridge wrote two years earlier, “The Mad Monk”:

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


‘There was a time when earth, and sea, and skies, ‘There The bright green vale, and forest’s dark recess, With all things, lay before mine eyes ‘There In steady loveliness: But now . . .’ (9–13)

In the “Immortality Ode,” the issue for Wordsworth—whether in sadness or in joy, in loss or in return—is his relationship with Nature. In the first four stanzas, it is Nature that inspired him: There was a time when meadow, grove and stream, The earth, and every common sight. The earth, aTo me did seem The earApparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. (1–5)

Now Nature seems to have deserted him: That thBut yet I know, where’er I go, That there hath past away a glory from the earth. (17–18)

In stanzas 5 –8 it is humankind, with all its responsibilities, cares, and conventions, that draws the soul away from its divine origin, then from its early sense of oneness with the earth. See, where ’mid work of his own hand he lies, Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses, With light upon him from his father’s eyes! See, at his feet, some little plan or chart, Some fragment from his dream of human life, Shaped by himself with newly-learned art; Shaped A wedding or a festival, Shaped A mourning or a funeral; Shaped by hiAnd this hath now his heart, Shaped And unto this he frames his song: Shaped by hiThen will he fit his tongue To dialogues of business, love, or strife; Shaped But it will not be long Shaped Ere this be thrown aside Shaped And with new joy and pride The little Actor cons another part;


Romanticism and Transcendence Filling from time to time his “humorous stage” With all the Persons, down to palsied Age, That Life brings with her in her equipage; Shaped As if his whole vocation Shaped Were endless imitation. (88–108)

As the child learns the conventions of humanity and puts on its masks, he withdraws from Nature, which was his link with the aboriginal light and “the vision splendid.” But for all the deadening weight of human life, in stanzas 9 –11 we hear that the memory of Nature and of the “fountain-light of all our day” (155) yet remains and can at moments be recaptured: Our SouHence in a season of calm weather Our SouThough inland far we be, Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea Our SouWhich brought us hither, Our SouCan in a moment travel thither, And see the Children sport upon the shore, And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore. (162–68)

It is humankind that has had and lost the joy of vision, and has now learned to sustain itself with something less, but it is Nature that provides the strength: And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves Forebode not any severing of our loves! Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; I only have relinquished one delight To live beneath your more habitual sway. (188–92)

For Coleridge, in his response in “Dejection” to Wordsworth’s first four stanzas, the issue may be the same—the loss of joy—but the philosophy, and the strategy, are quite different. Beginning in what seems at first a whimsical mood, reflecting playfully on the “grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,” the poet soon modulates into a darker mood: A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, A griefA stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, A griefIn word, or sigh, or tear. (21–24)

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


He sees the splendor of the sky above him and describes it in lines of moving beauty, but it no longer has power to touch his heart or stir his feelings: And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars, That give away their motion to the stars: Those stars, that glide behind them or between, Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen: Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue; I see them all so excellently fair, I see, not feel, how beautiful they are! (31– 38)

Nature cannot help him, he concludes, and he is thrown back on his own inner resources: I may not hope from outward forms to win The passion and the life, whose fountains are within. (45–46)

Turning to his “Lady” in stanza 4, he declares: O Lady! we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does Nature live. . . . Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud A lightEnveloping the Earth— And from the soul itself must there be sent A liA sweet and potent voice, of its own birth, Of all sweet sounds the life and element! (47–48, 53–58)

There follows (in stanza 5) a moving reflection on “this strong music in the soul”—the joy he has lost, which is “the spirit and the power” that alone can join man and Nature in the “wedding” that should unite them. What finally brings ease, in stanzas 7 and 8, is not Nature itself but human feeling. It is important, however, that this feeling is mediated by Nature—heard in the wind, which is perceived entirely in terms of human emotion. First it is “a scream / Of agony by torture lengthened out” (97–98), then a “Devils’ yule” (106), then the agonies of wounded men in battle, groaning with pain and shuddering with the cold.


Romanticism and Transcendence

But then, following “a pause of deepest silence” (114), the mood abruptly changes as the poet hears other emotions in the wind: It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud! It tellA tale of less affright, And tempered with delight, As Otway’s self had framed the tender lay,— It tell’Tis of a little child It tellUpon a lonesome wild, Not far from home, but she hath lost her way: And now moans low in bitter grief and fear, And now screams loud and hopes to make her mother hear. And now screams loud and hopes to mak(117–25)

There is still “grief and fear,” to be sure, but the tale is now “tempered with delight.” If the tale the poet hears is indeed Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray” (“William’s self ” rather then “Otway’s”), one might well remember that Wordsworth’s poem ends with hope of rebirth: “Yet some maintain that to this day / She is a living child.” But what has brought about this change in the poet? Not Nature— though the wind has been an important catalyst—but the feelings of the poet himself: “O Lady! we receive but what we give.” And the key to what the poet has given is, I suggest, to be found in the last stanza, which in a sense quietly dramatizes that ironic center of the poem: “We receive but what we give.” What the poet begins to experience as he thinks of the little child on the “lonesome wild” is love—the love the child’s distraught mother carried in her heart. Touched by this love, the poet now hears the wind telling a tale “tempered with delight.” It is this love—and this moment of joy in the midst of fear and pain— that carries him into the last stanza, where he passes along that love, and a wish for that joy, in the incomparable blessing that closes the poem. As we hear his kind and generous words to one he deeply loves, do we not feel a lifting of his own heart? As he gives, he himself receives. Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing, Visit hAnd may this storm be but a mountain-birth, May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling, Visit hSilent as though they watched the sleeping Earth! Visit her, gWith light heart may she rise, Visit her, gGay fancy, cheerful eyes, Visit hJoy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;

The Role of Humankind in the Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge


To her may all things live, from pole to pole, Their life the eddying of her living soul! Visit hO simple spirit, guided from above, Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice, Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice. (128–39)

Once again, for Coleridge it is not Nature but humankind that is the source of strength and blessing. Nature can prompt and support, but it is only the human person—and human relationships—that can heal and bless.7 We return at last to the assertion with which we began: Wordsworth’s primary subject is the relationship between himself and Nature, or Nature seen through the prism of the self; Coleridge’s subject, even in the face of Nature, is the relationship between persons, especially love. But the question remains: why does Wordsworth privilege the world of Nature, while Coleridge gives priority to humanity? Certainly for both of them Nature plays a critical, indeed indispensable, role—for Wordsworth as the subject of his deeply felt meditation, for Coleridge as important context and catalyst. For Wordsworth, however, Nature itself—“meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight”—whether peopled or not, has healing power, can itself bring peace and joy. For Coleridge this is not enough; without a loved companion, Nature is the “desart of sand” of which he wrote to Mrs. Coleridge—where his “weary Halloos drop down in the air without an Echo.” This difference between the two poets may stem at bottom from a difference in their conception of God, or at least in how each one discovers the divine. Perhaps I can come at this by means of a passage from Wordsworth, which was originally part of the conclusion of The Ruined Cottage and which Coleridge quotes in a letter of 1798 to his brother George: These shadowy SympathiNot useless do I deem These shadowy Sympathies with things that hold An inarticulate Language: for the Man Once taught to love such objects as excite No morbid passions, no disquietude, No vengeance & no hatred, needs must feel 7. For a fuller discussion of the role of love in “Dejection,” see my Coleridge and the Power of Love, chap. 6.


Romanticism and Transcendence The Joy of that pure principle of Love So deeply, that, unsatisfied with aught Less pure & exquisite, he cannot chuse But seek for objects of a kindred Love In fellow-natures, & a kindred Joy. Accordingly, he by degrees perceives His feelings of aversion softened down, A holy tenderness pervade his frame! His sanity of reason not impair’d, Say rather that his thoughts now flowing clear From a clear fountain flowing, he looks round— He seeks for Good & finds the Good he seeks.8

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge are ultimately seeking the “pure principle of Love”—the divine source from which all joy and goodness flow. Wordsworth discovers this “pure principle” first of all through “things that hold an inarticulate language”—the world of Nature—because such objects “excite / No morbid passions, no disquietude, / No vengeance & no hatred.” From these he can move easily and directly to an experience of “the joy of that pure principle of Love.” Only then does he turn and “seek for objects of a kindred Love / In fellow natures, & a kindred Joy.” For Coleridge, the process is rather different. It is not primarily Nature that helps him discover his “fellow natures,” but rather his fellow men and women—especially his loved ones—who enable him to experience joy in Nature, as well as “the Joy of that pure principle of Love.” It is the sleeping infant, deeply loved, that enables the poet to rejoice in the “lovely shapes and sounds intelligible” of Nature and its “eternal language, which thy God utters.” It is the Mariner who touches the hearts of his hearers and opens them to worlds beyond sight and sound. Even in his time of “Dejection,” it is the imagined presence of the beloved that enables the poet, if not himself to experience the “pure principle of Love,” at least to affirm its beneficent action for her. For Coleridge it is above all humankind, more than Nature, that offers healing. But for all their differences in priority and in process, the two poets share one common belief and one common goal: their search, whether through Nature or through humankind, for that “pure principle of Love”—for neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge will ultimately be satisfied “with aught / Less pure & exquisite.” 8. Collected Letters of Coleridge, 1:397– 398 (March 10, 1798).


i “A Spring of Love” Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

You who come to porO voyagers, O seamen, You who come to port, and you whose bodies Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea, Or whatever event, this is your real destination. —T. S. Eliot, “Dry Salvages”


he “pure principle of love” that both Wordsworth and Coleridge seek—“from a clear fountain flowing”—finds one of its most memorable expressions in the familiar lines from the “Ancient Mariner”: “A spring of love gushed from my heart, / And I blessed them unaware.” Consideration of that poem, especially in light of what it reveals about Coleridge’s views on “prayer” and “blessing,” can tell us much about his deepest religious attitudes and values and about the workings of the religious imagination in his poetry. With all his penchant for theological speculation, Coleridge’s was at bottom always a “practical Christianity.” As he wrote famously in Aids to Reflection, “Christianity is not a Theory, or a Speculation; but a Life. Not a Philosophy of Life, but a Life and a living Process. . . . TRY IT.”1 A significant role in Coleridge’s living out of this practical 1. Aids to Reflection (CC), ed. John Beer, 202. For this “practical” Christianity in Coleridge’s earlier life, see my Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 2d ed., 1–13.



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aspect of his faith is played by prayer, as a primary means of achieving union with God.2 Prayer is variously spoken of in the Christian tradition as prayer of praise, of thanksgiving, and of petition. Although Coleridge does write at times of the prayer of petition—especially as it raises questions about the relationship between human freedom and divine power— and assumes the existence and validity of the prayer of praise and thanksgiving, he is primarily concerned with prayer on a deeper level: as the means of uniting the creature with the Creator. The very need for this union is bound up with Coleridge’s sense of guilt and his consequent need for redemption. His need for redemption and his longing for God’s friendship are two facets of the same psychological and spiritual reality. “As he came to realize more and more the innate weakness of man’s finite will, Coleridge came more and more to see prayer as an essential means of achieving the necessary union of the finite will with the Absolute Will.”3 Thus prayer was for Coleridge, in a remarkable phrase from his notes on the Divine Ideas, “the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God.”4 It is important, however—and will be especially so when we turn to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—to be aware that this “effort” 2. John H. Muirhead, in Coleridge as Philosopher, argues persuasively for the importance of Coleridge’s need for union with God through prayer in his movement from Unitarianism to Trinitarian Christianity: “What drove Coleridge from Unitarian Deism to Spinoza’s ‘intellectual love of God’, thence to Schelling’s ‘intellectual vision’ of Him, and forward from that again, was the failure of one and all to satisfy the demand of the heart for fellowship with God. . . . What his heart craved, and what to him was the essence of religion, was Communion with God of which prayer was the medium” (219). There were other reasons as well that brought Coleridge to Trinitarian Christianity, including his own sense of guilt and the consequent need for redemption (see my Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 11–12), but clearly Muirhead has come close to the heart of Coleridge’s religious sensibility. 3. Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 182. For an overview of Coleridge’s view on the nature of prayer, see ibid., 181–85. 4. In slightly fuller context the passage reads: “Prayer is the mediation—or rather the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God—& its voice is—Mercy! mercy! for Christ’s sake in whom thou hast opened out the fountain of Mercy to sinful Man—. It is a sore evil to be and not in God.—but it is a still more dreadful evil & misery to will to be other than in God.” John Beer, who kindly identified this passage for me, notes in a personal letter that it is part of a longer meditation “on his own spiritual state and the miserable physical results of his opium addiction.” The passage, dated January 7, 1830, is on f. 74v of the folio notebook on the “Divine Ideas” in the Huntington Library.

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


of prayer is not the work of the creature alone, but the joint work of creature and Creator. Prayer is a gift, but a gift that must be received in order to come into being. It is a case of what scholastic philosophers used to call “mutual causality”: one cannot be a husband unless one has a wife or a wife without a husband; they confer that state of being mutually upon one another. Nor can there be—Narcissus notwithstanding—a friendship of one. In prayer, the Creator reaches out to the creature, the creature to the Creator; when they meet, there is prayer. Thus prayer is a supernatural act, prompted and enabled by God, and the response to this grace is the human act of putting oneself into God’s hands. It is an act both divine and human, as Coleridge insists in a notebook entry of 1827: God’s “Gifts, Aids, and Defences will be bestowed on man in such manner that they shall be the product and consequents of his own Act and Will; but from another no less indispensable Postulate we are compelled to declare them the results of the Divine Act and Will; . . . the gifts, aids and interventions of the Divine Power . . . are consequent on an Act and Will of the Recipient, which yet is at the same time the Act and Will of the Divine Spirit.” In the same notebook reflection, Coleridge summarizes his view of the nature of prayer: a “state of Being, in which the productive energy is the produce, where the agent is at the same moment and the self-same Act the patient, and wrestling conquers for himself what is yet bestowed on him of free grace.”5 And what is “produced” is the union of the will of the creature with that of the Creator, the finite with the Absolute. But note that Coleridge speaks of prayer as “wrestling.” Prayer is no easy matter, because it involves a mastery of one’s self, a conquering of one’s own passions and willfulness. Jacob wrestled with the angel, in one of sacred scripture’s most dramatic encounters between mankind and God—wrestled through the night and won a blessing through the struggle. But Coleridge’s struggle in prayer seems to be as much with himself as with the divine power. Coleridge said to his nephew Henry Nelson Coleridge two years before he died: “O no, my dear, it is to pray, to pray as God would have us; this is what at times makes me turn cold to my soul. Believe me, to pray with all your heart 5. The lines are from one of Coleridge’s later notebooks, Notebook 34 (1827), ff. 10–12v. For fuller information on the manuscript notebooks, see Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 21–22, n. 18.


Romanticism and Transcendence

and strength, with the reason and the will, to believe vividly that God will listen to your voice through Christ, and verily do the thing he pleaseth thereupon—this is the last, the greatest achievement of the Christian’s warfare upon earth. Teach us to pray, O Lord!” Then, his nephew records, he broke into tears and begged his nephew to pray for him.6 The warfare for him was not against the divine power but against one’s own self-will, as it strives to conform itself to the Divine Will. As Coleridge wrote in a late notebook: “No Liberty but by coincidence with the Divine Will—& hence the doctrines of the Spirit— No faith but by the Father’s leading—No effectual Prayer but by the Spirit.”7 But for all this “leading” by the Father, Coleridge insists that prayer does not take away responsibility for the reasonable use of one’s human faculties, rejecting the idea that human beings should “blind themselves to the light, which [God] had himself given them, as the contra-distinguishing character of their Humanity, without which they could not pray to Him at all.”8 Prayer, as communion between finite and infinite, is of its essence an act of mutuality. God gives not only the grace of his “leading,” the supernatural “call” to prayer, but the very human faculties themselves—intellect and will—which enable us to respond to God’s leading; and the human responsibility, often exercised only through discipline and self-mastery, is to use these faculties attentively and wisely. What I have sketched out here is, I believe, the view of prayer that we find reflected in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I shall use the Sibylline Leaves version of 1817 because it is closer in time to most of the prose reflections we have seen, but there would not be any substantial difference in my argument had I used the version of 1798.9 Coleridge’s reflections on prayer may have changed as he moved from his Unitarian years to the years of his adherence to Trinitarian Christianity, but I suggest that his religious sensibility about prayer in “The 6. Table Talk (CC), ed. Carl Woodring, 2:103n. 7. Notebook 34 (1827), f. 8. 8. On the Constitution of the Church and State (CC), ed. John Colmer, 170. 9. The text used for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is taken from The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1:186–209, and cited by line number in the text. On the several versions of the text of the poem, see Jack Stillinger’s “The Multiple Versions of Coleridge’s Poems: How Many Mariners Did Coleridge Write?”; of versions of the Rime Stillinger counts “at least eighteen” but feels “certain there are others still to be discovered” (130).

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—and the spiritual journey dramatized there—was as fully formed in 1797 as it was in 1817. It was already deep in his soul. In the poem itself, the following elements about prayer can be discerned: (1) a growing realization of the need for union of the creature with the Creator, the human with the Divine; (2) the awareness of prayer as a gift; (3) the need for responsiveness to the gift of prayer, not simply in words but in attitude and action; (4) the blessings consequent upon prayer given and accepted; (5) a sense of prayer as struggle; and (6) the lifelong nature of the process of prayer as a means of union with God. What follows, however, is by no means meant to be a “complete” reading of the poem, but rather the identification of one strand in the weave of it that I believe contributes significantly to its strength and beauty. We begin with the opening of the Mariner’s narration rather than with the beginning of the poem, since the wedding “frame” is an outcome of his adventure, and so will be seen as a later part of the process. It seems evident that from the very beginning the Mariner is in some ways radically disconnected from the world around him. The journey begins as an ordinary voyage: The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared, Merrily did we drop Below the kirk, below the hill, Below the lighthouse top. (21–24)

But very quickly the story turns ominous: storm blasts, mists, snow, the “dismal sheen” of the threatening ice—followed by a period of good winds and progress—and in the very midst of it the Mariner’s gratuitous killing of the albatross. Part 2 is characterized above all by uncertainty—was it wrong or right to have slain the bird—and by dreadful foreboding: the bloody sun, the rotting deep, the death-fires, the thirst that stifles speech. The albatross hung about the Mariner’s neck seems a fitting emblem of his violation of creation. Part 3 deepens the mystery and dread, as the Mariner becomes more alienated not only from the world of nature but also from his shipmates, as he encounters the phantom ship with its nightmare crew, and as fear drinks the lifeblood from his heart. In part 4 the Mariner’s alienation is complete:


Romanticism and Transcendence Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide wide sea! And never a saint took pity on My soul in agony. (232– 35)

It is at this nadir of hope that the Mariner finally, for the first time, realizes his need for support beyond himself and his shipmates: I looked to heaven, and tried to pray; But or ever a prayer had gusht, A wicked whisper came, and made My heart as dry as dust. (244–47)

What was the “wicked whisper” that dried up the springs of his heart even as he tried to pray? Perhaps a whisper that there was no God? Perhaps that he was beyond love or forgiveness? But the moment does not last, and very shortly he sees and blesses the beauty of the once dreadful water snakes: O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware: Sure my kind saint took pity on me, And I blessed them unaware. (282–87)

What then opened the Mariner’s eyes to see the beauty of the water snakes, and the springs of his heart to bless them? Something he did himself, or a gift gratuitously given? I suggest that the uncertainty— or ambiguity—reflected in the Mariner’s story is because it is both. His attempt to pray, itself a gift occasioned by his desperate need, is met by the gift of love from his “kind saint,” and out of this mutual causality comes prayer: “The self-same moment I could pray” (288). As Coleridge himself wrote years later (in a notebook entry we saw earlier): “The gifts, aids and interventions of the Divine Power . . . are consequent on an Act and Will of the Recipient, which yet is at the same time the Act and Will of the Divine Spirit.” But prayer is not a gift simply given and received once and for all, but an ongoing process. For a time the spirit of prayer clearly stays with the Mariner. His sleep is blessed with refreshing dew, and he is granted a vision of the “troop of spirits blest”:

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


For when it dawned—they dropped their arms, And clustered round the mast: Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths, And from their bodies passed. Around, around, flew each sweet sound, Then darted to the Sun; Slowly the sounds came back again, Now mixed, now one by one. Sometimes a-dropping from the sky I heard the sky-lark sing; Sometimes all little birds that are, How they seemed to fill the sea and air With their sweet jargoning! And now ’twas like all instruments, Now like a lonely flute; And now it is an angel’s song, That makes the heavens be mute. It ceased; yet still the sails made on A pleasant noise till noon, A noise like that of a hidden brook In the leafy mouth of June, That to the sleeping woods all night Singeth a quiet tune. (350–72)

Prayer is not a permanent state. As the spirit says, not threateningly but in a voice “as soft as honey-dew” (407), the Mariner “hath penance done, / And penance more will do” (408–9). Confronted by the vision of his dead shipmates, he is once again unable to pray: I could not draw my eyes from theirs, Nor turn them up to pray. (440– 41)

Again, though, the gift of prayer is given: “this spell was snapt” (442)—and a welcome breeze “breathed” on him. It mingled strangely with my fears, Yet it felt like a welcoming. (458–59)

In all of this, it is not difficult to see prayer as what Coleridge called “the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God.”


Romanticism and Transcendence

However, I should like to dwell more at length on the “wrestling” of the soul, the struggle through which prayer—as the medium for union with God in love—is achieved. In order to elucidate the nature of this struggle, I would like to return to a work we considered in the Prologue, the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola.10 Although as far as I know Coleridge was not familiar with the Exercises, they are generally accepted as expressing profound insight into the nature of prayer and spiritual struggle. Let me reiterate that I suggest no influence whatever, but only that the insights of Loyola into the nature of spiritual journeying may shed light on this most intriguing of journeys of the spirit.11 The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola may be seen as guidelines for anyone who is seeking closer union with God. We recall that the Exercises are divided into four stages, or “weeks,” that mark a deepening movement toward that union. The first week, beginning with the realization of the human person’s essential relationship as creature to Creator, strives to deepen the awareness of one’s sinfulness and ultimate dependence on God. The second week focuses on the life of Christ, as he calls each one to loving service. The third is the week of the Passion, in which Christ’s suffering and death are seen as the proof of God’s love for humankind. Finally, the fourth week turns to the Risen Christ, as efficacious sign of our own “resurrection” to a new life of union with God and love for one another. At the heart of this spiritual retreat, from the human side, is what Loyola calls the “discernment of spirits.” This is the process by which the director, or spiritual guide, helps the exercitant to determine which of the movements of the heart or spirit in prayer are from God (“the good spirit”) and which are from one’s own selfish lower nature (“the evil spirit”). Central to this process, as to prayer itself, are the movements of “consolation” and “desolation” that come to one during prayer. By “spiritual consolation” Loyola means (in the words of the 10. References to section numbers in the translation by George Ganss will be given parenthetically in the text. 11. Patrick Kelly, in “Day and Night: Mystery and Error in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’” makes the useful point that one need not use even a Christian paradigm—much less an Ignatian one—in order to appreciate the Mariner’s spiritual journey, since the poem “justifies faith—Christian or otherwise—in an ultimate spiritual harmony without demanding that this faith be a precondition for reading the poem” (307). John T. Netland explores perceptively the nature of the Mariner’s spiritual journey in “Reading and Resistance: The Hermeneutic Subtext of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


Spiritual Exercises) “that which occurs when some interior motion is caused within the soul through which it comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord,” which includes “every increase in hope, faith, and charity, and every interior joy which calls and attracts one to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, by bringing it tranquillity and peace in its Creator and Lord” (#316). On the other hand, “spiritual desolation” brings “darkness of soul, turmoil within it, an impulsive motion toward low and earthly things, or disquiet from various agitations and temptations,” all of which “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. One is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feels separated from our Creator and Lord” (#317). It is not always easy to know the source of the motions of the soul, Loyola says, because it is “characteristic of the evil angel, who takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along with the devout soul and then to come out his own way” (#332), by enticing the soul to bad ends. For this reason one must “pay close attention to the whole train of our thoughts” (#333). If the train of one’s thoughts is diverted to something less good, or if it disquiets or disturbs the soul, this is clearly not from God. “It is characteristic of God and his angels, by the motions they cause, to give genuine happiness and spiritual joy,” while “it is characteristic of the enemy to fight against this happiness and spiritual consolation, by using specious reasonings, subtleties, and persistent deceits” (#329). Anxiety and sadness cannot be from God, the giver of all good gifts. If, however, one’s thoughts lead to consolation, whose characteristics are peace and joy of heart, courage and inspiration, one can be certain that this is from God. As well as the movements that take place in the soul—consolation or desolation—the director may also look at the way in which the movement touches the soul. For example, “in the case of those going from good to better, the good angel touches the soul gently, lightly, and sweetly, like a drop of water going into a sponge. The evil spirit touches it sharply, with noise and disturbance, like a drop of water falling on a stone” (#335). The exercitant needs to remember, too, that neither consolation nor desolation is a permanent state. “When we are in desolation,” Ignatius says, “we should think that the Lord has left us in order to test us, by leaving us to our own natural power,” and we should strive to preserve ourselves in patience, for “after a while consolation will return


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again” (#321–22). On the other hand, “one who is in consolation should consider how he or she will act in future desolation, and store up new strength for that time” (#323). The idea of the spiritual struggle or warfare is hardly new in Ignatius Loyola. It reflects an element of Christianity as old as Christianity itself. One of its earliest expressions is Saint Paul’s “war of the members,” which finds its classic formulation in his Epistle to the Romans (7:14–25). “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul says. “For I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” It is only God, through Christ, who can deliver him from “this body of death.” This warfare within the self between the spirit of God and the lower self is, I suggest, the struggle Loyola analyzes in the Spiritual Exercises and Coleridge dramatizes in the “Ancient Mariner.” In Coleridge’s poem, clearly the struggle is acute and for very high stakes: the Mariner’s very soul. At the end of part 1, the interior action is set in motion by the gratuitous slaying of the albatross—“the evil I do not want is what I do”—and from that point on the internal “wrestling” within the Mariner precipitates an alternation of “desolation” and “consolation,” with occasional breathing spaces of calm, sometimes hopeful and reassuring, at other times ominous. The killing of the bird is followed in part 2 by confusion of mind— was the slaying a good or a wicked act?—and then by an ominous stillness: “nor breath nor motion” (116). The spirit that presides over the vision of the “rotting deep” and the “slimy things” is the “Spirit that plagued us so” (132). This in turn ushers in the period of desolation in part 3 (“a weary time,” 143), followed by a moment of what turns out to be false hope, as the ship that for a moment promised safety is seen to be a phantom ship, carrying the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” (193). All the signs of desolation are here: darkness of spirit, “fear at my heart,” reminders of his sinfulness as “every soul, it past me by, / Like the whizz of my cross-bow” (222–23). Then in part 4 the Mariner descends into the very depths of desolation as he is thrust into isolation and alienation: “Alone, alone, all, all alone” (232). Prayer is impossible in such a state, and the “wicked whisper”—perhaps of his own despair—dries his heart to dust (244–47).

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


The Mariner had been cast dramatically into the state of desolation, but at the end of part 4 he is drawn out of it gradually and gently, as the water snakes metamorphose for him into a vision of ethereal beauty, culminating in “a flash of golden fire” (281). And beauty moves him to love: O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware. (282–85)

The consolation has come as gratuitously as his sin had been committed, and with it comes love, expressed in his blessing of the beautiful creatures, and the gift of prayer: “The self-same moment I could pray” (288).12 In that moment the sign of his sin, the albatross, falls from his neck. Clearly the “good spirit” has touched the Mariner’s heart, but just as clearly he has been open to the movements of the spirit: he has tried to pray, he has opened his eyes to see the beauty manifested to him. There has been a “leading” of the spirit, for (in Coleridge’s words) there is “No faith but by the Father’s leading—No effectual Prayer but by the Spirit.” At the same time, though, the Mariner has not (again in Coleridge’s words) “blinded himself to the light, which God himself had given” him. Part 5 allows the Mariner to experience even more fully the gift of consolation: gentle sleep (292), the slaking of his thirst (300), the experience of lightness of being: I was so light—almost I thought that I had died in sleep, And was a blessed ghost. (306– 8)

And then the vision of the “troop of spirits blest” (349) draws him into an ecstatic experience of heavenly sights and sounds (350 –72), which takes him quite out of himself, before returning him gently to the silent motion of the ship. This section is notable in that the 12. Patrick J. Keane, in Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: “The Ancient Mariner” and “Robinson Crusoe,” writes perceptively on the blessing of the snakes; see 173–76 and 330–36. In addition to his acute reading of political meanings in the poem, Keane takes good account of its religious dimensions, including linking the blessing of the snakes with “the whole post-Pauline concept of redemptive grace, conversion, and salvation” (174).


Romanticism and Transcendence

consolation he experiences is so varied, from the gentleness of sleep to an intense ecstatic experience of joy to the peaceful calm of the moving ship, all within the space of less than a hundred lines (292– 376). The Mariner’s journey is not yet over, of course, and another period of desolation is to come, but this one is not only shorter in duration but also less dramatic and intense. It begins with the strange stirring of the ship “with a short uneasy motion” (386), throwing the Mariner into a swoon, from which he recovers to hear the voice of the two spirits talking of his sin and his journey, one of them promising “penance more” for him (409). Their voices lead into part 6, the final stage of his voyage. Again he sees his dead shipmates, and again momentarily he is unable to pray. But almost at once “there breathed a wind on me” (452)—a welcoming breeze that brings him at last home. The final vision of his shipmates, now blessed by a beautiful “seraphband” (492), brings “silent music” and joy. Besides the “discernment of spirits” in the patterns of consolation and desolation, one other dimension of the Spiritual Exercises might also serve to help us understand the nature of the Mariner’s experience of prayer. It is the “Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love,” the closing and culminating meditation of the four weeks of the Exercises. As we saw in our discussion in the Prologue, the Contemplation begins by insisting on two basic principles: first, that “love ought to manifest itself more by deeds then by words” (#230); and second, that “love consists in a mutual communication between the two persons,” a mutual sharing of self between the lover and the beloved (#231). It will be remembered that the four stages of the meditation (#234–37) then go on to show how God shares divine life with the human community: first, how God pours gifts out on humankind; next, how God not only gives to creatures but actually dwells in them; then, how God acts, even “labors,” within all created things, charging them with the energy of their being; and finally, how all these gifts—full of God’s life and energy—pour down from heaven, like rays of light from the sun or water from a fountain. Thus the individual is drawn into ever deeper union with God in love. If the interior struggle of the Mariner finds a parallel in the Ignatian “discernment of spirits,” with its alternations of consolation and desolation, there is also a striking parallel between the “Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love”—especially its closing image of God’s gifts, filled with the divine life and energy, descending like the rays of

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


light from the sun—and the Mariner’s vision of the blessed spirits, which we have seen already: Around, around, flew each sweet sound, Then darted to the Sun; Slowly the sounds came back again, Now mixed, now one by one. Sometimes a-dropping from the sky I heard the sky-lark sing; Sometimes all little birds that are, How they seemed to fill the sea and air With their sweet jargoning! And now ’twas like all instruments, Now like a lonely flute; And now it is an angel’s song, That makes the heavens be mute. (354–66)

For the moment, the Mariner’s union with transcendent being seems close and intimate—indeed ecstatic—but, significantly, it is in and through the works of nature that the transcendent is most fully revealed to him. He must return from his visionary state, to the world and to human society, to work out his salvation. He must find God in and through the created world. Ignatius Loyola warned, it will be remembered, that we must “pay close attention to the whole train of our thoughts,” not merely to periods of consolation and desolation or even to moments of ecstatic vision. If the overall movement is toward good, toward peace and joy, toward “increase in faith, hope, and charity,” toward “heavenly things and . . . the salvation of one’s soul,” then the leading of the journey is from God. And in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” it seems clearly so. The work of the Spiritual Exercises never ends; it opens out into one’s daily life, and the process begun there—the “discernment of spirits,” the inevitable waxing and waning of consolation and desolation, the attempts to open oneself to God’s leading, the offering of self in service to others—must be played out again and again, drawing one on to deeper union with God through prayer and through our deeper sharing in the human community. The solitude, the time alone with God or in search of God—like that of Jesus when he drew apart from the crowds or of Moses alone on


Romanticism and Transcendence

the mountaintop—is not for its own sake. It is rather a gift to strengthen the prophetic figure for the people one is called to serve. The solitude is ultimately for the sake of the community: for the people of Israel, for the Apostles, for the wedding guests—in short, for the building up of the human family. Drawing closer to God in solitude is ultimately a means of drawing us closer to one another. Moses did not remain on the mountaintop; he returned to strengthen and lead God’s people. Jesus did not remain in a quiet place apart; he always returned to his disciples and to the crowds that eagerly sought him out. This is, I suggest, the vocation of the whole human family—which may explain why “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has such universal appeal. We are all called to share in this same dialectic: the movement into solitude and the return to community. Nor is it that we find God only in solitude; we find God in both solitude and community. We find God in the silence of our hearts, in the movements of our prayer, in the beauties of sea and sky. But we also find God in the heart of the human family, where God perhaps most deeply dwells. We need them both: solitude and human community. Through our communion with God in prayer, God prepares us to meet one another more deeply and lovingly, and to find one another in the loving divine presence.13 And so it is in Coleridge’s great poem. Through his own “spiritual exercises,” the Mariner has reached not only a new level of awareness but a new state of being; newly touched by the presence of the divine in the world and in himself, he is now awake to beauty and to love.14 He will still have his moments of consolation and desolation, but in moments of desolation he will remember the vision. His heart will 13. The preceding two paragraphs are adapted from my “Wordsworthian Solitude and the Solitude of Christ,” 11. 14. Several critics emphasize this new awareness in the Mariner. A. C. Goodson, in Verbal Imagination: Coleridge and the Language of Modern Criticism, says of the Mariner as he describes his vision of the blessed spirits (line 346 ff.): “the change of air in the wake of his release makes him an altogether different painter of the world of things, one who sees with an inner eye” (196). Jeanie Watson, in Risking Enchantment: Coleridge’s Symbolic World of Faery, speaks of his new awareness as “intuitive self-knowledge, an imaginative perception peculiar to each person” (109); see also 99 –111. Netland, in “Reading and Resistance,” suggests: “Whatever the material reality of his experience, the Mariner has been brought into contact with liminal mystery, has become an actor in a cosmic drama of fall and restoration, or sin and expiation, and his continued susceptibility to compulsive inspiration demonstrates that his life has been irrevocably altered” (53).

Prayer and Blessing in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


burn within him until he tells his tale, for he is now a prophet who has been granted both the vision and the burden, and he must tell the world of the love he has encountered and of the cost of that love. And there is nowhere better to tell his tale than at a wedding feast, a celebration of love, for those who celebrate love must come to know it in its fullness—its mysteries and its visions, its pains and its comforts, its moments of loneliness and its times of consolation. The Mariner’s is indeed a wondrous tale—of God’s leading and his own reluctant following, of suffering and joy, of despair and hope—but in the end it is a tale of comfort, of God’s patient, unrelenting and forgiving love. It has been said that the essential difference between poetry and prayer is that poetry eventuates in words, while prayer moves toward silence—and that union with God is achieved not in and through but between and around and beyond any words that might be spoken. In this poem, as in so much of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s poetry, at their most intense moments the words move us toward silence. And the religious imagination is the means of achieving that movement, for it is imagination—the finite participation in the divine creative act— that allows the poet, as Wordsworth concludes at the end of The Prelude, “to hold fit converse with the spiritual world” (14.108).


i “In the Midnight Wood” The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”

KillThese are thy wonders, Lord of power, Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell KillAnd up to heaven in an houre; Making a chiming of a passing-bell. —George Herbert, “The Flower”


f the “Ancient Mariner” is fraught with mystery and religious resonance—with prayer at its very heart—no less so is Coleridge’s other great poem of the supernatural, “Christabel,” and it too can show us the “religious imagination” working at full stretch. Given the poem’s medieval setting, one is hardly surprised to find in “Christabel” passages that address God in traditional forms of prayer, whether in praise or in petition. After all, there are numerous passages that either dramatize or imply a relationship of dependency between creature and Creator. The poem opens with the “lovely lady, Christabel” at prayer “in the midnight wood” (23, 29);1 she is seen again at prayer with Geraldine at her bedside (214–15); and the imagery of prayer is a strong motif in the conclusion to part 1, especially in the lines that portray Christabel at rest: 1. Quotations from “Christabel” will be taken from The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1:213 – 36, and cited by line number in the text.


The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


Yea, she doth smile, and she doth weep, Like a youthful hermitess, Beauteous in a wilderness, Who, praying always, prays in sleep. (319–22)

Prayer also opens part 2, as the sacristan tolls the matin bell that summons the castle inhabitants to morning prayer, even as it calls them “back to a world of death” (333). Awakening with a feeling of guilt, Christabel prays “that He, who on the cross did groan, / Might wash away her sins unknown” (389 – 90); Bard Bracy wants to use prayer, in the form of “saintly song” (561), to cleanse the forest; and we hear recalled the prayer of Christabel’s mother “the moment ere she died” on behalf of “the babe for whom she died” (629–30). In a sense, prayer is everywhere in the poem, on the lips not only of Christabel but also of Geraldine and Sir Leoline. All of this is not without its interest, but there is a more profound though less obvious way in which prayer can be discerned in the poem. Coleridge does sometimes write of, and assume the validity of, the traditional prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and petition, often as it raises issues about the relationship between human freedom and divine power. However, he is more concerned (as we saw in the last chapter) with prayer on a deeper level: as the means of uniting the creature with the Creator. In the remarkable and moving passage quoted earlier from a late folio notebook of 1830, Coleridge spoke of prayer as “the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God—& its voice is—Mercy! mercy! for Christ’s sake in whom thou hast opened out the fountain of Mercy to sinful Man.” It is this deeper meaning of prayer—as “the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God”—that I wish to explore. For one thing, it is such a meaning as this, I believe, that allows us to understand more fully Coleridge’s famous remark (recorded by Thomas Allsop) that Crashaw’s lines about Saint Teresa, in the passage beginning “Since ’tis not to be had at home, / She’ll travel to a martyrdom,” “were ever present to my mind whilst writing the second part of Christabel; if, indeed, by some subtle process of the mind they did not suggest the first thought of the whole poem.”2 There are persuasive reasons to agree with the famous view of Humphry House 2. Table Talk, 2:367.


Romanticism and Transcendence

that “since the central theme of the Crashaw poem is the desire for martyrdom, and since the traditional view of martyrdom, and of the virtue in the blood of martyrs, includes the idea of the value to others of vicarious suffering, this one remark of Coleridge’s tends strongly to reinforce the evidence of Derwent Coleridge and the shorter account given by [Dr. James] Gillman.” According to their accounts the original story, when fully told, would have had Christabel by her suffering defeat the power of evil personified by Geraldine, and thus save her lover.3 Yet, also in the light of Crashaw’s poem, it is possible to remain unsatisfied, for his poem, “A Hymn to the Name and Honor of the Admirable Saint Teresa,”4 is about a good deal more than martyrdom, as is “Christabel.” Crashaw’s “Hymn” begins with the word “Love,” addressed as “absolute lord / Of life and death” (lines 1–12), and “love” recurs again and again throughout the poem. From the outset, it is clear that martyrdom is not an end in itself but a means of achieving union with Christ, the “fair Spouse” (65), with whom Teresa longs to be united. Unquestionably, she longs to suffer martyrdom in order to demonstrate her love: She never undertook to know What death with Love should have to do; Nor has she e’er yet understood Why to show love she should shed blood; Yet though she cannot tell you why, She can love and she can die. (19–24)

Since love has “touched her heart” (35), Her weak breast heaves with strong desire Of what she may with fruitless wishes Seek for amongst her mother’s kisses. (40–42) 3. Humphry House, Coleridge, 128 –29. Others who have written helpfully about Crashaw’s poem in relationship to Christabel—especially on the theme of vicarious suffering—are John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary, 187–93; Paul Magnuson, Coleridge’s Nightmare Poetry, 96 – 98; Arthur H. Nethercot, The Road to Tryermaine, 207–11; Thomas R. Preston, “Christabel and the Mystical Tradition”; and Robert H. Siegel, “The Serpent and the Dove: Christabel and the Problem of Evil.” 4. The text of Richard Crashaw’s poem will be quoted from SeventeenthCentury Prose and Poetry, ed. Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, 2d ed., 927–29.

The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


With this longing in her heart, “she’ll to the Moors” (47), and offer them her own life—“with Christ’s name in’t” (50)—in return for union with her beloved through death. But clearly Christ wills otherwise: Sweet, not so fast! Lo, thy fair Spouse Whom thou seek’st with so swift vows Calls thee back, and bids thee come T’embrace a milder martyrdom. . . . Thou art Love’s victim, and must die A death more mystical and high. (65–68, 75–76)

It is beyond question that the Teresa of the poem is called to martyrdom—albeit a “milder martyrdom” than the one she envisioned— and that her “martyrdom” is seen to be, as she goes to her Beloved after death, salvific not only for herself but for others: Those rare works where thou shalt leave writ Love’s noble history, with wit Taught thee by none but Him, while here They feed our souls, shall clothe thine there. Each heav’nly word by whose hid flame Our hard hearts shall strike fire, the same Shall flourish on thy brows, and be Both fire to us and flame to thee, Whose light shall live bright in thy face By glory, in our hearts by grace. (155–64)

The concluding lines of the poem, however, clearly demonstrate that her martyrdom is not for its own sake but for the sake of her mystical marriage with the divine Spouse: Thou with the Lamb, thy LorAnd so Thou with the Lamb, thy Lord, shalt go, And whereso’er He sets His white Steps, walk with Him those ways of light Which who in death would live to see Must learn in life to die like thee. (177– 82)

It is ultimately not martyrdom Teresa seeks but union with the beloved; Crashaw is concerned above all not with death but with love. *


Romanticism and Transcendence

So I suggest it is with “Christabel”: for all the fact that much of it portrays “a world of death,” it is more about love than about death. For all the poem’s preoccupation with the perils of Christabel, the decay of the castle, the obtuseness of Sir Leoline, the ominous notes struck by Geraldine, and the frustrations of Bard Bracy, its underlying current is love and its movement is toward union. One never quite forgets Christabel’s lover, who is “far away”; Christabel’s departed mother, who remains an abiding presence; and even Leoline’s estranged but still loved friend Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, the memory of whom comes “back upon his heart again.” However, if the underlying drive of the poem is toward unity, it remains true that division is rife throughout “Christabel.” From the very outset, Christabel is separated from her lover, and the dichotomy between Christabel and Geraldine is apparent at once. The castle itself is set apart from the outside world, and the passage of Christabel through the castle gate with Geraldine is clearly a movement of some import. Heaven and earth, too, are seen as worlds that intersect only, or primarily, through the instrumentality of prayer—a division perhaps best symbolized by the separation between Christabel and her mother. For his part, Sir Leoline is largely defined in terms of the loss of his wife, his longstanding resentment against his old friend Lord Roland, and then by his estrangement from his daughter. Perhaps the most important of these “divisions,” or struggles, is between Christabel and Geraldine. Indeed, it could be argued that all the other dichotomies in the poem are in some way defined by this one: Christabel belonging within the castle, Geraldine without; Geraldine of earth, Christabel of heaven (though at times their positions in this regard seem to be reversed); Christabel the daughter of Leoline, Geraldine (perhaps) the daughter of his estranged friend; Leoline changing his allegiance from his daughter to Geraldine. But it may be that even more central is the division within Christabel herself: divided in her allegiance to her father and the castle on the one hand, and to her lover on the other; uncertain in her perceptions of Geraldine; torn between earth and heaven, represented by the present reality of her encounter with Geraldine and the recurring spiritual presence of her mother. As Anthony John Harding notes, “the language of familial and sexual relationship which Coleridge adopts in ‘Christabel’ should not blind us to the fact that the primary ‘division and opposition’ the poem is concerned with is not in nature, nor even in sexual or familial ‘identity,’ but in the profoundest reaches of the self.” It is no new idea, in fact, to see in Christabel and Geraldine—as

The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


Richard Harter Fogle does—“different aspects of the same person.” Robert Siegel goes so far as to call Geraldine “Christabel’s double,” noting the physical resemblances between the two women, their similar garb, and the ways in which at several points in the poem each takes on characteristics of the other. He concludes that “their intertwined identities can suggest that the struggle here dramatically polarized in two individuals ordinarily finds its stage in a single bosom.”5 Of course, much of the division or struggle within the poem, including that within Christabel—or between Christabel and Geraldine—is based on misperception. In this regard it is far from fanciful to see, as Fogle does, book 1 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene casting a long shadow over the poem. “In Christabel,” he says, “the discrepancy between appearance and reality is vitally important, for evil cannot triumph directly. It must resort for its weapons to confusion and disguise. Thus in the heroine Christabel, appearance and reality are one—Una; but in Geraldine they are two, as in the false witch Duessa, who disguises herself as the maid Fidessa.”6 However, Fogle is careful to distinguish between Spenser’s clear-cut allegory—in which the “good” and “evil” characters, however much they may be difficult to discern at times, are ultimately quite distinct—and Coleridge’s more complex symbolism.7 In “Christabel,” good and evil are inextricably intertwined. Fogle very properly compares Coleridge’s use of symbolism here to “the ambiguity of James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ or of Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter,’ in which only heaven can separate the tangled strands of good and evil.” Heaven and earth, love and resentment, good and evil, are deeply mixed in both Geraldine and Christabel. The struggle of the poem is not only between heaven and earth, powers of good and powers of evil, but also within the human person. It is not only between Christabel and Geraldine, Geraldine and Christabel’s dead mother, Leoline and his daughter, Leoline and Lord Roland, but also within each of them, the battle without reflecting the battle within. Behind all the external struggles and divisions are the interior long5. Harding, The Reception of Myth in English Romanticism, 149; Fogle, The Idea of Coleridge’s Criticism, 132; Siegel, “The Serpent and the Dove,” 170–71. 6. Fogle, Idea of Coleridge’s Criticism, 133. On appearance versus reality and on the use of the weapons of “confusion and disguise,” one might be reminded of the Ignatian “discernment of spirits” discussed in the preceding chapter. 7. On Coleridge’s distinction between allegory and symbol, see my The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition, chap. 7, passim.


Romanticism and Transcendence

ings, anxieties, and fears, the self-seeking and self-loathing, the angers and loves, that dwell in every human heart, including what Harding calls the “discovery of treachery and desertion within the self.”8 Thus the struggle between Christabel and Geraldine is not between two sharply defined figures. It is evident in the poem that Geraldine is herself divided, that she is ambiguous in her intentions. When Christabel prays, “O mother dear! That thou wert here!” (202), Geraldine’s initial reply suggests that she is genuinely moved: “I would, said Geraldine, she were!” (203). But at once another feeling asserts itself, very much at odds with her first response of sympathy: But soon with altered voice, said she— ‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine! I have power to bid thee flee.’ Alas! What ails poor Geraldine? Why stares she with unsettled eye? (204–8)

Again, not long after, as Geraldine approaches Christabel’s bed, she seems to undergo an inner struggle: Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs; Ah! What a stricken look was hers! Deep from within she seems half-way To lift some weight with sick assay, And eyes the maid and seeks delay. (255–59)

Clearly, this is no Spenserian Duessa; this is a more complex figure, perhaps itself compounded of ordered and disordered forces or, even better, of “spiritual” and “fleshly” energies. Perhaps the very fact that Geraldine is not simply evil nor Christabel simply good—but that both are figures struggling within themselves—implies that these two warring forces, the spirit and the flesh, are not meant to be in opposition. They may be not so much in conflict with each another as struggling toward union with one another, and the conflict within both Christabel and Geraldine suggests that in each of them this integration, perhaps through the agency of Christabel’s mother, has already begun. Geraldine is not wholly in the power of the flesh, for “spirit” already works in her; Christabel is no unbodied saint, for the “flesh” draws her. The two forces must aim at integration; neither can have its genuine fulfillment without the other. 8. Fogle, Idea of Coleridge’s Criticism, 134; Harding, Reception of Myth, 150.

The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


The spirit without the flesh has no place in the temporal, mortal world, and flesh without spirit is selfish and ignoble. Coleridge clearly aimed at some kind of resolution, and indeed two proposals for resolution are made in the poem. The first is that of Bard Bracy, whose response to his prophetic dream of the struggle between the dove and the serpent is to propose bringing the two forces into harmony by the power of music. His aim is not to destroy but to reconcile: ‘And hence I vowed this self-same day With music strong and saintly song To wander through the forest bare, Lest aught unholy loiter there.’ (560–63)

The other proposal is that of Sir Leoline, the warrior, whose response to Bracy’s dream is, first of all, to misinterpret the figures of the dream— making Geraldine the dove instead of Christabel—and then to propose resolving the conflict by destroying one of the struggling figures: ‘Sweet maid, Lord Roland’s beauteous dove, With arms more strong than harp or song, Thy sire and I will crush the snake!’ (569–71)

If Bracy is the poet figure, Sir Leoline is the practical man of affairs. In Coleridgean terms, Bracy exercises imagination, the reconciling and mediating faculty; Leoline can achieve only the work of fancy, which deals with “fixities and definites,” which are of course all he can see in the world of death over which he presides. Bracy has the use of “reason,” which can see beyond the appearances of things, to conceive the spiritual idea beyond; Leoline is caught in the world of mere “understanding,” the faculty “which judges according to sense.” Bracy’s benign influence, sadly, is overborne, at least for the moment, by the single-mindedness of Sir Leoline; the subordinate power becomes the ruling power, and death lords it over life, anger and conflict over love. Perhaps all this can help us to understand why Coleridge never finished the poem.9 Coleridge’s own celebrated apologia, given in the year before his death, does not offer much help: “The reason of my not finishing Christabel is not that I don’t know how to do it—for I 9. The next several paragraphs draw heavily from my Coleridge and the Power of Love, 83–86.


Romanticism and Transcendence

have, as I always had, the whole plan entire from beginning to end in my mind; but I fear I could not carry on with equal success the execution of the idea, an extremely subtle and difficult one.”10 Coleridge’s “Conclusion to Part II,” however, which does not seem originally to have been part of the poem but first appeared with it in 1816, is considerably more suggestive: A little child, a limber elf, Singing, dancing to itself, A fairy thing with red round cheeks, That always finds, and never seeks, Makes such a vision to the sight As fills a father’s eyes with light; And pleasures flow in so thick and fast Upon his heart, that he at last Must needs express his love’s excess With words of unmeant bitterness. Perhaps ’tis pretty to force together Thoughts so all unlike each other; To mutter and mock a broken charm, To dally with wrong that does no harm. Perhaps ’tis tender too and pretty At each wild word to feel within A sweet recoil of love and pity. And what, if in a world of sin (O sorrow and shame should this be true!) Such giddiness of heart and brain Comes seldom save from rage and pain, So talks as it’s most used to do. (656–77)11 10. Table Talk, 471 (July 6, 1833). Wordsworth, who would surely have known of it, did not believe Coleridge had a whole plot in his mind from the beginning. Coleridge’s nephew, Justice John Taylor Coleridge, reported in 1836 Wordsworth’s belief that Coleridge “had no idea how ‘Christabelle’ was to have been finished, and he did not think my uncle had ever conceived, in his own mind, any definite plan for it; that the poem had been composed while they were in habits of daily intercourse, and almost in his presence, and when there was the most unreserved intercourse between them as to all their literary projects and productions, and he had never heard from him any plan for finishing it. Not that he doubted my uncle’s sincerity in his subsequent assertions to the contrary; because, he said, schemes of this sort passed rapidly and vividly through his mind, and so impressed him, that he often fancied he had arranged things, which really and upon trial proved to be mere embryos” (Christopher Wordsworth, Memoirs of William Wordsworth, Poet-Laureate, D.C.L., 2:306 –7). 11. The lines, which are about Coleridge’s son Hartley, first appear in a letter

The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


Insufficient attention has been paid, I believe, to the relationship between these lines and the rest of the poem. Indeed, Arthur Nethercot, the most comprehensive commentator on the poem, dismisses them as “little more than an expression of Coleridge’s paternal sentiment toward his young son Hartley,” arguing that they add “nothing to help solve the mystery which he here left dangling to baffle posterity.”12 On the contrary, I believe these lines represent the poet’s own response to his poem and convey at least implicitly the impossibility of reconciling the warring forces of the poem—and hence of completing it. For the conflict is not only in the poem; it is also in the poet himself. Even in the face of his own much-loved child, he cannot escape the ambiguities of his finite self; he would like to be all-loving (who indeed would not?), but there is a power within him warring against the spirit of love. A poet might try to join these forces into harmony—“Perhaps ’tis pretty to force together / Thoughts so all unlike each other”— but they cannot, it seems, be reconciled. Even more, the poet suspects that this experience is not only his but that of everyone. It is perhaps not only he who lives with this sin; we may all be living in a “world of sin,” where such sad conflict is inevitable. Something of this is suggested by an intriguing letter written to Coleridge in 1827 by W. G. Kirkpatrick, in which he asks about man’s innate relationship to the Good that is God, and his longing for that Good: “Is it that . . . by a Desire there-after given to wed us to it [that good], we being made our absolute self divorced from that same good & left to the Worm of that Desire, to that Hunger as of fire, can only in its nature be a Want a Pain & a Rage (?).” Kirkpatrick then adds a significant marginal note: “(comes seldom save from want & pain) The Love rage & the Wrath rage in Christabel at the Conclusion— why is not Christabel finished?”13 John Beer points to Coleridge’s to Southey in 1801; see Collected Letters of Coleridge, 2:728. Coleridge goes on to call the lines “a very metaphysical account of Fathers calling their children rogues, rascals, & little varlets” (729). 12. Road to Tryermaine, 55. A study by Constance Hunting, “Another Look at the ‘Conclusion to Part II’ of Christabel,” traces the continuity of words and images between the conclusion and the rest of the poem but fails to offer a convincing thematic connection. 13. MS letter of November 12, 1827, in the Victoria University Library, quoted by Beer, Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence, 236. Beer conjectures that Kirkpatrick “had evidently either heard Coleridge expounding Christabel directly, or seen the relevance of his more general ideas at the end of Part Two” (236); for Beer’s further comments on the Conclusion to part II, see 231–38.


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“presupposition that the energies of wrath and the energies of love are in necessary connection” and argues persuasively that “Coleridge’s aim was evidently to show that those energies, properly understood, could be seen to be springing from the same source. All such energies were related to the desire which should unite the human being with God, but which, through failure of connection, turns back to ravage it under forms of wrathful destruction.”14 The conclusion affirms, in effect, that what sad experience—both the poem’s and the poet’s—has shown is perhaps inevitable in “a world of sin”: flesh wars against spirit, selfishness against love. “Christabel” is thus a Coleridgean analogue of the Pauline “war of the members”: “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. . . . I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:19, 23). Christabel and Geraldine are both in some measure divorced from a part of themselves: Christabel from her “fleshly self ”; Geraldine from the world of spirit. The two aspects of themselves that should be in fruitful harmony are in conflict. There is (in Beer’s phrase) a “failure of connection.”15 Clearly, this “failure of connection” in the principal characters has its analogues throughout the poem, for there is no relationship in the poem that is fulfilled. Marriage is no more, since Leoline’s wife has died, leaving him with only the bells of perpetual mourning. Friendship has been ruptured, for Leoline and Lord Roland de Vaux have become enemies, and even the fresh hope of reconciliation between them 14. Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence, 236. 15. It may be instructive to recall that the lines that make up the conclusion to “Christabel” were written less than a year before that extraordinary document, Coleridge’s verse “Letter to Sara Hutchinson” (April 4, 1802). The problem posed in that remarkable outpouring of grief seems much the same: marriage has become “my coarse domestic Life,” a clashing of “two discordant Wills”; romantic love, the center of the poem and of his grief, is hopelessly frustrated; the love of his friends, because of their association with his beloved, now “weighs down the Heart”; and even the love of his children has become a joy mingled with regret, so that he has “half-wish’d they never had been born!” If Coleridge did indeed see as early as 1801 the implications of his lines on his child Hartley for his great fragment “Christabel,” it is fascinating to conjecture that these two very different poems—both in fact incomplete—may have been written out of the same anguish, the same “rage and pain,” and that they both portray the same “world of sin.” On the “Letter to Sara Hutchinson” and the great ode “Dejection” that grew out of it, see my book Coleridge and the Power of Love, chap. 6.

The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


is founded on Leoline’s dubious relationship with the duplicitous Geraldine, while the newly formed friendship between Christabel and Geraldine has already been betrayed. Romantic love, too, seems to have lost its power, as Christabel longs fruitlessly for her absent lover. Filial love is tenuous at best, for the rift between Christabel and her father seems to be of long standing and shows no hope of being bridged, while her relationship with her dead mother—the only one in the poem that is even potentially healthy and life-giving—has not had the support of earthly nurturing and embraces. Finally even divine love, of God for mankind or of mankind for God, remains for Christabel more a longing than an experience of fulfillment. The poem is, in short, a whole world of unfulfilled love—love either failed, or frustrated, or at best ambiguous. If we do see at the center of the poem the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, the Pauline “law of the members,” then “the world of sin” the poet speaks of is not only the world of the poem but the world in which we all live. If this conflict between aspects of the self that should be acting in harmony is in fact the common state of things in this “world of sin,” then there seems not only little hope for Christabel and her lover, or for Christabel and her father, but also little hope for the fulfillment of any love relationship at all in such a world. In a world where even a loving father speaks “words of unmeant bitterness” to his child, who can escape “rage and pain”? If Coleridge does indeed mean to indict, as the conclusion suggests, not merely himself and Sir Leoline and Geraldine but also the human condition as it exists in this “world of sin,” then it is difficult to see how he could have completed the poem. For it may be that what the haunting “Conclusion to Part II” affirms in effect is that the poem is not merely an unfinished story, but the story of our broken and unfinished human life. Or, as Anthony Harding puts it: “There is no ‘conclusion’ because the real subject of ‘Christabel’ is not a story but a state.”16 In such a world, what is the use of prayer? The prayers that recur throughout the poem—whether Christabel’s for the weal of her lover; the narrator’s repeated “Jesu, Maria, shield her well!”; Geraldine’s prayer at the bedside; Christabel’s prayer for forgiveness after her night with Geraldine; or the matin bell that, as Leoline says, “knells us back to a world of death”—are in fact invariably rooted in anxi16. Reception of Myth, 151.


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ety, misery, or longing. On the other hand, these prayers betray a deeper underlying sense of the meaning of prayer than simply praise or petition. They spring from a desire to reach beyond oneself: to love and embrace the other—as Christabel longs for her lover, for her departed mother, for her father, even for Geraldine—and ultimately to reach beyond one’s own weakness to a transcendent meaning or reality, what Coleridge was later to call “the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God.” Prayer for Coleridge is meant to be a means of achieving not only unity within the self but also union with God, who alone can give relief from the suffering of life, from the “misery of Self ”—who alone can give the ultimate “blessedness.” But in “Christabel,” what is the outcome of prayer? Is it a release from misery and suffering? No, it seems at worst no answer at all, at best only a momentary surcease. Christabel receives no reassurance about “the weal of her lover”; her prayers of longing for her mother are without avail; her prayer in the presence of her father, smitten with Geraldine, goes unanswered; even the prayer Christabel’s mother prayed at the moment of her death was not enough to keep her daughter from the trial she is now undergoing. Geraldine’s desperate prayer (or at least what seems to be a prayer)—“Deep from within she seems half-way / To lift some weight with sick assay”—is fruitless. Prayer is not without avail, however. What prayer does seem to give is hope and even a moment of vision. The prayer of petition—which predominates in the poem—is of its very nature rooted in hope; one prays for what one believes can happen, whether by miracle or in the ordinary course of nature. Christabel believes her lover can be protected and restored to her; she believes that “the Virgin all divine” rescued Geraldine from her distress; she knows that “He, who on the cross did groan,” can “wash away her sins unknown.” Prayer also gives a moment of vision which, to my mind, stands close to the heart of the poem. At the end of part 1, we see Christabel asleep: Yea, she doth smile, and she doth weep, Like a youthful hermitess, Beauteous in a wilderness, Who, praying always, prays in sleep. . . . No doubt, she hath a vision sweet. What if her guardian spirit ’twere,

The Power and Limits of Prayer in “Christabel”


What if she knew her mother near? But this she knows, in joys and woes, That saints will aid if men will call: For the blue sky bends over all! (319–22, 326–31)

In part 2, at the crucial moment when the spell cast on her by Geraldine still controls her (“a vision fell / Upon the soul of Christabel, / The vision of fear, the touch and pain!” [451– 53]), this blessed vision returns to strengthen her: The touch, the sight, had passed away, And in its stead that vision blest, Which comforted her after-rest While in the lady’s arms she lay, Had put a rapture in her breast, And on her lips and o’er her eyes Spread smiles like light! (463– 69)

Prayer cannot, to be sure, remove us from this “world of sin”; we are time-bound and finite creatures, limited by our selfishness and greed, our petty jealousies, our anxieties and fears. But we are not without resources. “Prayer,” Coleridge wrote, is the “effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God.” But he added, “its voice is—Mercy! mercy! for Christ’s sake in whom thou hast opened out the fountain of Mercy to sinful Man.” Prayer gives us a means of expressing the hope that there is indeed a realm of blessedness to which we can aspire, and that in the end it is possible to reach that blessed state. In Coleridge’s poem, perhaps Christabel not only represents us all but also prays for us all. Crashaw’s Teresa saw her role as linked with the redemptive mission of Christ, and she offered “her dearest breath, / With Christ’s name in’t.” Christabel, whose name also has “Christ’s name in’t,” affirms that in spite of all, even in this “world of sin,” we are not alone: But this she knows, in joys and woes, That saints will aid if men will call: For the blue sky bends over all!

Our other resource is, of course, the imagination. If it is prayer that can “connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God,” it is imagination that (in Wordsworth’s memorable words) allows us to see


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“the mind of man” as “of quality and fabric more divine,” and even (as Coleridge insists) enables the divine and the human to “interpenetrate.” After all, for the reader as for the poet, the imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” And so prayer and imagination are, one might suggest, deeply interdependent, for both have as their ultimate object the transcendent reality we call God.


i Religious Imagination and the Transcendence of Art

From the divine twilight, neither dark nor day, blossoms the morning. Each, at work in his art, perceived his neighbor. Thus the Infinite plays, and in grace gives us clues to His mystery. —Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”


he idea of imagination seen throughout this book, freighted as it is with religious values, is still alive among us. Present virtually everywhere in Wordsworth—at least by implication—and explicit and fully elaborated in Coleridge, it had a profound influence on the rest of the nineteenth century. Such very different figures as Tennyson and Arnold, Newman and Carlyle, Ruskin and Pater, Hopkins and the Rossettis, however much one or another of them may have differed from Wordsworth and Coleridge in some of their beliefs and values, remained under the sway of their view of the poetic imagination. This view saw the imagination as deeply bound up with the serious issues of human life, very much including religious searching and belief. It was no accident that John Stuart Mill saw Coleridge as one of the two seminal figures of the age, and that Wordsworth was viewed by so many throughout the century as a religious and moral leader.1 1. John L. Mahoney, in Wordsworth and the Critics: The Development of a



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The twentieth century surely saw a decline of interest in Wordsworth and Coleridge, as in the Romantics generally, but when the revival came just after midcentury, it came with a vengeance. Initially, it was not the religious views of the Romantics that interested critics, but their poetic craft and theories. However, as new editions and new texts appeared, a broader range of critics entered the field, with new skills and fresh interests. The philosophical and religious thought of both Wordsworth and Coleridge became common currency again. Along with new explorations in the fields of philosophy and theology, and a burgeoning interest in the interdisciplinary relations of literature and religion, studies in Wordsworth and Coleridge helped revive interest in the study of imagination as more than simply a “poetic” faculty. In this last chapter, I propose to reflect further on Coleridge’s thinking about imagination and the nature of language, bringing it into dialogue with two major figures of the late twentieth century for whom a religious view of imagination is deeply important: theologian Karl Rahner and literary critic George Steiner. In neither case do I mean to suggest any direct influence of Wordsworth and Coleridge, but rather that they have a similar view of the nature of imagination, a view that still has relevance and force for contemporary intellectuals. Romantic thought and the Romantic spirit are still alive, I believe, in the worlds of theological discourse and of literary theory and debate. In turning to the work of German theologian Karl Rahner—specifically his magisterial essay “Poetry and the Christian”—perhaps some apology should be offered for appealing to a theologian so professedly Christian in his analysis of art and imagination, but one may hope that his words will evoke suggestive echoes and resonances for those of other religious traditions. Rahner begins with the assumption that Christianity, as a religion of “the word proclaimed, of faith which hears and of a sacred scripture, has a special intrinsic relationship to the word and hence cannot be without such a special relationship to the poetic word.”2 Christianity is not, of course, the only religion in which a sacred scripture has a central role, and much of what Rahner says of the Christian will Critical Reputation, traces skillfully Victorian responses to Wordsworth; see 31– 53. Mahoney is also singularly helpful in tracing the complex course of Wordsworth criticism throughout the twentieth century. 2. “Poetry and the Christian,” in Theological Investigations, 4:357. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text as “P&C.”

Religious Imagination and the Transcendence of Art


have deep resonances for those of any religion in which the spoken or written word is important. For Rahner, it is important that the hearing of the word of God is not “different in kind” (to use the Coleridgean phrase) from our hearing of the poetic word; the grace of God is at work not only in the message of the scriptures but in every work of humankind. “The grace of God,” he explains, “does not only start to work for the first time, when the word of the gospel reaches man through the official preaching. It precedes this word, it prepares the heart for this word by every experience of existence which takes place in the heart of man. It is . . . secretly and powerfully active in what we call human culture” (“P&C,” 358). There are four requisites, Rahner suggests, for the proper hearing of the gospel, and these requisites involve skills that can be learned through our hearing of the poetic word. The first is the ability to hear through the word the “silent mystery” of God, for “only the word has the power of naming the nameless.” Words define and designate, to be sure, but they also evoke “the silent, mystic presence of the nameless” (“P&C,” 358). In the very process of “putting individual things in order,” the word “points to a fundamental background order which cannot itself be ordered but remains the perpetual a priori antecedent to all order,” for “the small, limited region of the determinative word lies within the vast, silent desert of the godhead. But it is this nameless being that words try to name when they speak of things that have a name.” Through words “God’s incomprehensibility” reaches out to us, to “draw us on into his superluminous darkness,” to “call us out of the little house of our homely, close-hugged truths into the strangeness of the night that is our real home” (“P&C,” 359). In short, whoever would hear the words of the gospel must learn, through the evocative words of poetry, to “have ears for the word where the silent mystery makes itself unmistakably heard as the foundation of existence” (“P&C,” 359 – 60). As Wordsworth expresses it in “Tintern Abbey,” A sense of somethI have felt . . . A sense of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man. (93, 96–99)

The second requisite for the proper hearing of the gospel is “the power to hear words which reach the heart, the centre of man.” The


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words to which one listens are not simply “rational words of the intellect, since this can be understood merely as the faculty which grasps and masters the comprehensible,” but they are words that appeal to “the primordial faculty which allows itself to be gripped and overwhelmed by the incomprehensible mystery” (“P&C,” 360). What is required here is a kind of humility before the word, a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to the word that can strike “like a lance,” opening up our “inmost depths”—so that we hear (in Wordsworth’s eloquent phrase) “the still, sad music of humanity.” The third requisite is what Rahner calls “the power of hearing the word which unites” (“P&C,” 360). Such words “reconcile,” Rahner says; “they free the individual from the isolation of his loneliness, they make the whole present in each one; they speak of one death and we taste the death of all; they voice one joy and joy itself penetrates our heart; they tell of one man and we have learned to know all men” (“P&C,” 361). The authentic word speaks “only of one thing, the mystery of love.” How similar this is to Shelley’s insistence, in his “Defence of Poetry,” that “a man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own”; or to Graham Greene’s expression in The Power and the Glory that “hate was just a failure of imagination.”3 The fourth and final requisite Rahner sets down for the hearing of the word of God is a willingness to hear the individuality of every word that is spoken, because “in the region encompassed by the human word, infinity has built itself a tent, infinity itself is there in the finite.” Because the Logos becomes flesh, with all the individuality that entails, the human word is not simply a pointer, “pointing away from itself to the mystery.” Rather, “in every word, the gracious incarnation of God’s own abiding Word and so of God himself can take place, and all true hearers of the word are really listening to the inmost depths of every word, to know if it becomes suddenly the word of eternal love by the very fact that it expresses man and his world.” The mystery of the infinite is grounded for us in the mystery of the finite individual. As Rahner puts it, “one must have courage for what is clear and definite, in order to become aware of the inexpressible, one must bear and love the candour of what is close at hand, to be able to reach what is far away” (“P&C,” 362). 3. Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” 283; Greene, The Power and the Glory, 131.

Religious Imagination and the Transcendence of Art


One can draw several implications from Rahner’s essay. First, it is clear that the poetic word—the product of the imagination—has a universal value. While it has value in itself, it also points beyond itself and beyond the finite reality it represents, to a “fundamental background order.” Second, the aesthetic beauty expressed by the imagination is on some deep level ultimately one. For Rahner, poetic words “make the whole present in each one”—in words perhaps reminiscent of Shelley’s view that all works of art are “episodes to that great poem which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world.”4 Then, the act of the imagination is at bottom an act of love, by which the poet opens himself or herself to the rest of the finite world and, through that finite world, to the larger universe beyond—giving oneself in loving service to mysteries, both finite and infinite, not fully comprehended even by the poet. There is one further implication that can be drawn from the work of this theologian reflecting on the nature of aesthetic experience—an implication that, in fact, gives the lie in some measure to the term used in the title of this chapter: “Religious Imagination.” Implicit here is the belief that there is not a “literary imagination” and a “religious imagination.” There is only “imagination”—a single human faculty that unites the secular and the sacred, the finite and the infinite—which comprehends the symbolic language of religion as well as the symbolic utterances of art. This is, in fact, precisely what Coleridge—himself both poet and theologian—believed about imagination. Coleridge’s great essay The Statesman’s Manual can help us here. Coleridge is careful to distinguish there, as elsewhere, between the mechanical work of the Understanding—whose characteristic is “Clearness without Depth” and which “contemplates the unity of things in their limits only”—and the Imagination, “the completing power which unites clearness with depth, the plenitude of the sense with the comprehensibility of the understanding.” Such is the power of imagination that when understanding is “impregnated” with imagination, understanding itself becomes “intuitive, and a living power.”5 Indeed, it is imagination that produces the very Scripture itself, for the scriptural 4. “A Defence of Poetry,” 287. 5. The Statesman’s Manual, 69. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text as SM.


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histories are, Coleridge says, “the living educts of the Imagination; of 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 conductors. These are the Wheels,” he goes on, “which Ezekiel beheld, when the hand of the Lord was upon him, and he saw visions of God as he sat among the captives by the river of Chebar” (SM, 29).6 The work of the imagination is precisely to create symbols, which reveal eternity through the works of time, which show forth the infinite in and through the finite. As Coleridge continues in the same paragraph, in a now familiar passage, a symbol “is characterized . . . 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 the Unity, of which it is the representative” (SM, 30). For Coleridge there is not, nor can there be, a distinction between a literary imagination and a religious imagination. The literary imagination is of its very nature religious, for it is the symbol-making faculty as well as the faculty of perceiving symbols; it is the faculty without which we can neither conceive nor know either God or eternity or even our own immortal spirit. In his classic definition of imagination in the Biographia Literaria Coleridge goes even further, when he claims for the human imagination a share in the divine act of creation: “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 I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will.”7 The very act of imagination, then, whether of the secondary imagination in the creation of a symbol or of the primary imagination by which we perceive symbols, is for Coleridge itself a religious act— both in its origin, since it is empowered by God, and in its effect, since it allows us to perceive the eternal revealed in and through the temporal reality. We who study the works of the human imagination, therefore, may 6. On Coleridge’s view of the role of imagination in sacred scripture, see my The Symbolic Imagination, 2d ed., chap. 6, “The Scriptural Imagination.” 7. Biographia Literaria, 1:304.

Religious Imagination and the Transcendence of Art


have something important to offer the theologians who study the word of God; and it is no surprise that theologians like Rahner have interested themselves in the arts and in the ways of the imagination. In the Coleridgean conception, the imaginative symbol both expresses temporal reality in all the richness of its individuality and diversity and at the same time remains open to the transcendent. For, as theologian James Cutsinger has remarked, “through the transformation of his vision, Coleridge had glimpsed a world translucent to deity. He had found, in short, that revisioning one’s world could mean the very envisioning of God.”8 The word translucent is crucial here, for it is only through the exercise of imagination and the perception or creation of symbol that such an envisioning of the divine can be achieved. In Coleridge’s words, a symbol “is characterized . . . above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible.” The two realities, temporal and eternal, are “translucent” to one another: the same light shines through both, allowing the reality of both to be glimpsed in a single vision. This is so precisely because the temporal “partakes of the Reality” of the eternal. The assumption here is, as Coleridge wrote in “The Eolian Harp,” that there is “one Life, within us and abroad,” that all reality is (to use the consecrated phrase Coleridge borrowed from Christian theology) “consubstantial.” Underpinning Coleridge’s entire conception of symbol is an acceptance of the notions—prevalent throughout the Platonic Christian tradition—of “analogy,” which allows common predication between finite and infinite, and “participation,” by which we actually share in the being and love that God is in its fullness and that grounds such analogous predication. The value of the symbol is twofold, however. It includes not only the “vertical” dimension by which the transcendent world can, in however limited a way, be apprehended and expressed, but also a “horizontal” dimension, open to the movement of time and therefore capable of growth. For the imaginative symbol is not static, fixed, and limited to one or even several meanings. It is not primarily denotative but connotative—not taking its significance only from historical usage at a point in time, but comprehending in its resonances all its past uses and the pressure of its present context, while remaining open to new uses in fresh and changing contexts in the future. Thus the sym8. “Coleridgean Polarity,” 93.


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bol is singularly apt for the expression of religious experience, for our experience of the divine is necessarily open not only because of the very nature of infinitude—we can catch glimpses of infinity but never fully comprehend it—but also because of the nature of human knowledge, which is essentially cumulative and time-bound. Human symbols, therefore, are of their very nature organic, taking on new meanings and emotional resonances from new contexts, enclosing fresh insights and experiences both of temporal reality and of the divine— and remaining always, as Coleridge insists, “translucent,” so that eternal reality is perceived in the “light” of what we see and hear, while the spirit of the eternal within us remains (in Wordsworth’s phrase from his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”) the “master light of all our seeing” (153). There are two concerns in particular of modern theology that I believe can be enlightened by the study of literature and the imagination. The first is the concern that the experience of religion not remain an abstraction, that there be an “encounter” between the worshiper and God—a personal experience of commitment and of love. Since it is capable of encompassing both the universal and the profoundly individual, both infinite and finite, eternal and temporal—and because it can evoke both a range and a depth of emotional resonance—the imagination and its symbols can be a privileged locus for the encounter between humanity and God, making present some aspect of the divine reality and calling the creature to a loving relationship with its Creator. A second concern of modern theologians has been the issue of process. The human experience of religion is not seen as simply a “given,” a more or less fixed state by which one is either committed in faith or not. It is rather conceived of as a journey of discovery that is never finished, in which God continues to reveal the divine reality to us throughout our lives—so that our work of self-discovery goes handin-hand with our continuing discovery of God. It is perhaps for some such reason that so-called narrative theology came to the fore in the latter half of the twentieth century. Each of us lives in a “story,” it has been said—as did Adam and Moses and Abraham—and God is part of our story as well as of theirs. The works of imagination, whether in the sacred scriptures or in so-called secular literature, can shed light on our own stories—so that the way may be lit for the continuation of our journeys. How many have been led thus, not only by the Gospel

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of Saint John but by the Divina commedia or Hamlet or The Brothers Karamazov? Our journey is through time, and it is the imagination—reconciling temporal and eternal—that can at once encompass the passage of time in our journey and keep us in touch with the eternal source of light. In relating the Romantics to a great theologian of the last half of the twentieth century, whose work is still profoundly influential, I want to show that Romantic thought and the Romantic spirit are still alive in the world of theological discourse. In turning now to George Steiner, and especially in bringing him into juxtaposition with Coleridge, I am suggesting that Romantic ideas and ideals—even in an age that often seems to scorn them—still have an important role to play in contemporary critical discourse. Even at first glance, the similarities between Coleridge and Steiner are striking. Both are “library cormorants,” whose learning is evident and impressive. Both range widely through philosophy and theology, through literature and science, through aesthetic criticism and theory. Both are steeped in classical and medieval philosophy, and in modern philosophy Coleridge’s grasp of Kant, Schlegel, and Schelling is matched by Steiner’s close knowledge of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. The thinking of both is strongly influenced by religious ideas and concerns, and both ponder deeply the nature of art and aesthetic judgments. Even their styles of writing are arguably from the same school: complex, allusive, at times prolix, but invariably following out the train of a thought like a hound on the scent of a fox—with fits and starts, sometimes doubling back, then moving on—letting the words express not simply the outcome of the thought but the very thought process itself. Both Coleridge and Steiner may be said to employ a style that trusts the power of words to express the most complex and nuanced of thoughts and arguments. But there is one similarity between Coleridge and Steiner that is of signal importance: they both saw themselves facing, each in his own day, the same kind of enemy. The names of these enemies are different, to be sure, as is the terminology each uses to describe them, but at bottom the enemy is much the same: those who do not trust language to convey the deepest reality—or perhaps any reality at all. For Coleridge, it is those who have succumbed to what he has called his age’s “mechanic philosophy, and are the product of an unenlivened


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generalizing Understanding” (SM, 28). For Steiner, it is those who have broken what he speaks of as “the covenant between word and world,”9 which had been foundational for all of Western thought, and in doing so ushered in the fractured and fragmented era of postmodernism. In Coleridge, my starting point will be The Statesman’s Manual, with its ringing defense of Reason, Imagination, and Symbol, against the practitioners of the “mechanical Understanding.” In Steiner’s work, the central document is his remarkable essay Real Presences, in which he defends the power of the word in the face of poststructuralism and deconstruction. Coleridge called The Statesman’s Manual, it will be remembered, “A Lay Sermon, Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society”—for which the present readership no doubt qualifies, especially since Coleridge later remarked in a letter to George Frere that “the Title . . . ought to have been, and I had so directed it—addressed to the Learned and Reflecting of all Ranks and Professions” (SM, 3, n. 1). And what a sermon it is! How many of us who preach regularly would dare to preach a sermon with five appendixes longer than the sermon itself!10 Purportedly, The Statesman’s Manual is about the Bible, and its subtitle is “The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight.” It is most deeply, though, about the nature of language, its validity and its power to shape our lives. On the one hand there is the language of Scripture, the reading of which is grounded in faith, and which conveys “ideas” and “principles”; on the other, there is what Coleridge calls the contemporary “shadow-fight of Things and Quantities” (SM, 28), in which shallow thinkers toy with “notions, linked arguments, reference to particular facts and calculations of prudence” (SM, 24). The enemies are clearly the followers of such purveyors of the Understanding as Locke, Hume, and Hobbes—whose work cannot reach beyond the level of the empirical knowledge available to the senses. But it is not only in the Bible that Coleridge finds the deeper truths of human experience, for he also turns in his sermon to Thucydides 9. Real Presences, 93. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text as RP. 10. One might be forgiven for being reminded of Coleridge’s celebrated remark to Charles Lamb, thinking of his early days as a Unitarian preacher: “Charles, I believe you’ve heard me preach?” To which the irrepressible Lamb replied with his inimitable stutter: “N-n-never heard you d-d-do anything else, C-C-Coleridge.”

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and Tacitus, to Machiavelli, to Shakespeare and Sidney, to Bacon and Berkeley, to Thomas More and Walter Raleigh. In place of the “hollow abstractions” of much of the thought of his own day, in these thinkers—as in the inspired writers of the Bible—“their particular rules and prescripts flow directly and visibly from universal principles, as from a fountain” (SM, 17). The foundation of this deeper kind of knowledge—of “principle” and “idea” rather than merely contingent fact—is for Coleridge built on a particular kind of faith. Quoting Saint Paul—“We live by faith” (see Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, Heb. 10:38)—Coleridge glosses the apostle in a statement of the greatest importance: “Whatever we do or know, that in kind is different from the brute creation, has its origin in a determination of the reason to have faith and trust in itself. This, its first act of faith, is scarcely less than identical with its own being. Implicite, it is the COPULA—it contains the possibility—of every position, to which there exists any correspondence in reality.” Coleridge then goes on—in a striking passage—to link this faith in oneself, and especially in one’s capacity to know reality, explicitly to faith in God: “This primal act of faith is enunciated in the word, GOD: a faith not derived from experience, but its ground and source, and without which the fleeting chaos of facts would no more form experience, than the dust of the ground can of itself make a living man” (SM, 18). The very language commonly available in Coleridge’s day, he believes, militates against this deeper level of knowledge, for it is only by “symbol” that such knowledge of “ideas” and “principles”—especially of religious ideas—can be expressed. But, Coleridge laments: “It is among the miseries of the present age that it recognizes no medium between the Literal and Metaphorical. Faith is either to be buried in the dead letter, or its name and honors usurped by a counterfeit product of the mechanical understanding, which in the blindness of selfcomplacency confounds SYMBOLS with ALLEGORIES” (SM, 30). Let us here recall the rest of this familiar locus classicus: 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: the principle being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot. 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


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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. (SM, 30)

Symbol is clearly the key to Coleridge’s view of the human capacity to know and express transcendent reality, and in his own day, Coleridge believed, the capacity to use symbolic language had been badly attenuated. John Coulson wrote feelingly about this attenuation thirty years ago in his remarkable book, Newman and the Common Tradition. The first long section of the book articulates this “common tradition,” in which Coulson finds what he calls a “fiduciary use of language.” Coulson begins by distinguishing between Jeremy Bentham’s use of language and Coleridge’s—and recalling John Stuart Mill’s classic essays on Bentham and Coleridge in which he speaks of them as “the two seminal minds of the period.”11 After linking Bentham with the tradition of Descartes—and the belief that only “clear and distinct ideas” can be trusted as true—Coulson then goes on to point to the weakness of Bentham and his predecessors; besides Descartes, he names Bacon (Coleridge himself would no doubt cavil at this inclusion!), Hobbes, the rational Theologians (Paley and others come easily to mind), and the Deists. Their minds, Coulson believes, “are formed by the method of doubt, as is their critique of language, which begins with an attack on poetry and ends with one upon religion—if our primary response to language is analytic, the metaphors and symbols of poetic and religious statement, where they are inconsistent with clear and distinct ideas, are meaningless.” Coleridge, on the other hand—Coulson continues—“perpetuates the older, alternative tradition—that a language is a living organism whose function is to reconcile the past and present experiences of a community. For him the primary response to language is not analytic but fiduciary. In religion, as in poetry, we are required to make a complex act of inference and assent, and we begin by taking on trust expressions which are usually in analogical, metaphorical, or symbolic form.”12 Symbolic expression—whether in poetry or in religion—is of its nature not “clear and distinct.” The poet, in Coleridge’s fine phrase in a 11. Newman and the Common Tradition: A Study in the Language of Church and Society, 3. 12. Ibid., 4.

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lecture on Romeo and Juliet, “hovers between images.” Coulson comments on this phrase that “the poet confronts us with a use of language in which words do not stand for terms possessing a constant meaning but are to be seen as components in a field of force that take their value from the charge of the field as a whole.” This characteristic of language is a “failure of language in one respect—to pin the words down to exact and determinate meanings—but it is also a success—the diverse and apparently contradictory aspects of a complex experience are being held in the unity which is its essential character, and in terms of which it can alone be adequately communicated to us.”13 Thus only symbol can convey transcendent reality, for only symbol can hold together in a single act of knowing sense and immaterial reality, the natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine. For Coleridge, symbol making—whether in poetry, art, or music— is of its very nature a religious act, because for Coleridge the created reality always reflects, whether one is conscious of it or not, the divine Creator. As I have written elsewhere, Coleridge held a sacramental view of artistic creation. For him the making and perceiving of symbols—whether in poetry or art or religion—is a religious act, through which he encounters God, the Creator and source of all unity and knowledge. “The symbols of poetry and art and the symbols of the material world are never allowed to remain an end in themselves. Because there is a ‘consubstantiality’ of all reality, all things—and all things that stand as symbols of other things—say something of God, the I AM.”14 Paul Tillich speaks of the “opening up of reality” that takes place in a symbol: “All arts create symbols for a level of reality which cannot be reached in any other way.” This is very much like what Coleridge says in the Biographia Literaria: “An IDEA, in the highest sense of that word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol.” Tillich goes on to insist that the symbol “not only opens up dimensions and elements of reality which otherwise would remain unapproachable but also unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality. A great play gives us not only a new vision of the human scene, but it opens up hidden depths of our own being. . . . There are within us dimensions of which we cannot 13. Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, 2:103; Coulson, Newman and the Common Tradition, 10 –11. 14. Barth, The Symbolic Imagination, 2d ed., 40 – 41.


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become aware except through symbols, as melodies and rhythms in music.”15 What the symbol does, for Tillich as for Coleridge, is to mediate between the self and a reality other than the self. In Coleridgean terms, the symbol, the product of the imagination, does not merely “reconcile differences” (as the Biographia Literaria has it)—general and concrete, idea and image, individual and representative—but offers a “translucence” of one to the other (as in The Statesman’s Manual)—“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” (SM, 30). The light of the Creator of all shines through the work of the created and creating artist, and we can perceive them both in a single act of vision. The purpose of George Steiner’s Real Presences is nothing if not straightforward. His essay proposes, he announces at the outset, “that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence. I will put forward the argument that the experience of aesthetic meaning in particular, that of literature, of the arts, of musical form, infers the necessary probability of this ‘real presence’” (RP, 3). The source of what Steiner calls “our current misère” (remember Coleridge’s lament for “the miseries of the present age”) is “the dominance of the secondary and the parasitic” (RP, 7). We live in an Alexandrine age, “in which the exegetic and the critical dominate.” Our age has yielded to “the prevalence of grammatological, editorial, didactic, glossarial and judiciary techniques and ideals over any actual poetic-aesthetic creativity.” These epithets “tell of the imperialism of the second and third hand.” Then he asks, in a splendid Steinerian burst of feeling: “Who, to borrow Homer’s myth of dishevelment and waste, has untied the wind-bags of Aeolus?” (RP, 26). In this “age of the secondary,” not only the journalistic culture but also the academic has weakened the force of creativity. There has always been an academy, to be sure, even in the time of Homer, but the academy of our day is different: less open to the mystery of creation, 15. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 42; Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1:156; Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 42– 43.

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more insistent on egalitarianism, less tolerant of the “canonical.” In Steiner’s trenchant words, “in the agency of the critic, reviewer or mandarin commentator, we welcome those who can domesticate, who can secularize the mystery and summons of creation. . . . Our talk is about talk, and Polonius is master” (RP, 39 –40). Of its nature, however, Steiner argues, language is unbounded. “Every other human instrument and performative capability,” he says, “has its limitations.” We live in a finite world, bounded by time, space, physical limitations—and our life in this world is rounded by the death of our bodies. “Only language,” Steiner argues, “knows no conceptual, no projective finality” (RP, 53). And again: “In root distinction from the leaf, from the animal, man alone can construct and parse the grammar of hope. He can speak, he can write about the morning light on the day after his funeral or about the ordered pace of the galaxies a billion light-years after the extinction of the planet” (RP, 56). Thus it is no accident—it is in fact because of the very nature of language—that “in the Western sphere, the conceptualization of God was at the outset and during its history in action that of a speech-act” (RP, 88), for “the concept and metaphoric reach of the Logos, in religion, in philosophy, in poetics, in the invocation and debating of the law, has been centrally representative” (RP, 89). It is only by the word that we can express what is beyond the finite: it is only the human person—called in ancient Greek the “language-animal”—who can encompass the idea of the infinite. However, this ability to express the infinite—indeed the capacity for meaning itself—is founded upon an act of trust that is often overlooked. We have seen this in Coulson, in Tillich, and especially in Coleridge, and we see it again in Steiner. For, like them, he insists that the whole of human history, with all its religion, philosophy, and aesthetics, depends upon an initial act of trust “between word and world” (RP, 89). This covenant between word and world held true, Steiner believes, until the crisis of meaning that began in the late nineteenth century. Until then, even the most ardent doubter believed in the capacity of words to convey his doubts. But the contact has now been broken, and for the past hundred years we have been experiencing what Steiner calls the time of the “after-Word” (RP, 93). In Coleridgean terms, the purveyors of the “mechanical Understanding” have overcome the ancient, fiduciary use of language. There is no longer trust in language as the carrier of the shared values of community, or in the power of symbol to convey an experience of the transcendent. *


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Not everyone would agree, of course, that the coming of modernity precipitated a “crisis.” If one takes the view that modernism began with Romanticism, then modernism may be seen as a significant advance, still powerful in its effects today, more than a crisis to be feared or lamented. In a longer view, such phenomena as poststructuralism and deconstruction are viewed by some as already on the wane, much as the New Criticism, for example, made its contribution and then passed into history. Perhaps more important, is it true that postmodernism might be heralding the end of the arts as we know them? Even granting (only for the sake of argument) that we are in the age of the “after-Word,” what of the strength in the twentieth century of the visual arts—not only painting and sculpture but photography and film—and music? Not only is the expression of the transcendent not limited to the verbal, but it often strains beyond the verbal; of its very nature it demands symbolic expression, to which visual and musical forms can sometimes best give shape. What words can convey—or need to convey— the experience of Michelangelo’s Pietà or the cathedral of Chartres, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Fauré’s Requiem, of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, or Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise over Hernandez”? Even prayer, after all, is not a formula of words—though such a “prayer” can be the occasion of real prayer. Prayer is rather the silence of awe before God that takes place in and around and after any words that might be spoken. The silence of awe may be invoked in us as well by a symphony or a painting as by a sonnet or an ode. But there is no reason to despair of the power of the word to express or evoke or “intimate” transcendent reality. One need only remember such writers as Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnell, Annie Dillard, and Seamus Heaney to assure oneself that all is not lost. In these, as in significant works of art in other forms, we still find power to take us beyond ourselves, to give us glimpses of a reality beyond. There are, to be sure, discouraging signs, especially in the mass media and in the public discourse of our day: the ascendancy of “reality TV,” the deliberate obfuscation of political statement, the often hollow rhetoric of journalism. Yet the possibilities are still there, as we see in artistic works all around us—the ironic wrestlings of faith and doubt in Robert Frost, the luminous faith of Denise Levertov, the probing reflections on stage of Brian Friel or August Wilson, the soaring music of Messiaen and Bernstein, the delights of Chagall and the

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dark vision of Rouault, the deep religious questioning or celebration of Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, André Dubus, Ron Hansen, and a host of others. Whatever the theory, the artists have been at work— and they find themselves, sometimes even explicitly, in touch with the divine. The work of art, like the artist, is free. The work of art did not have to come into being; the artist was free to create it or not. And that freedom is met, in turn, by that of the perceiver, who is free to respond— or not—to a work of art. And yet, paradoxically, there is also in the experience, for both the artist and the perceiver, an element of the “given.” As Steiner says, “that which comes to call on us,” implying “both spontaneous visitation and summons—will very often do so unbidden” (RP, 179). We might link this dialectic between freedom and “the given” with what we have seen of Wordsworth. Crossing the Alps, Wordsworth could not dictate the moment of vision, but when it came—as he descended through the narrow pass—it came unbidden, as a gift given, a vision of the Alpha and the Omega. And when he climbed Mount Snowdon, expecting to see the sun rise, what he was granted was something far different—the moon, and in it a vision of the eternal mind that “feeds upon infinity.” Both for the artist and for those of us who follow after, what is deepest in the experience is something given, an experience of a reality beyond our power, “from some far region sent.” The work of art, like Wordsworth’s experience of the mountain, puts us in touch with something deep within ourselves, which is at the same time deep within the fabric of the world—“something far more deeply interfused.” Like Wordsworth, we too have “intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood.” We are, at such times, put in touch with a “master-light of all our seeing.” It is an experience not only of our deepest selves but also of the most profound “otherness.” It is heartening for some of us to find a Romantic view of imagination, in the tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge, still part of the critical discourse today, even in the ascendancy of other more skeptical philosophies of literature and the arts. Critics like Steiner, theologians like Rahner, can—like Coleridge and Wordsworth—help keep alive important ideas and ideals: taking on, with daring and vigor and virtuosity, those they see as the enemies of art in their time; defending the essential trustworthiness of language; affirming, in the most ringing terms, the deep grounding of art in theological reality.


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That grounding is nowhere more beautifully expressed than in the words of a poet who, while standing within the Christian tradition, was able to hear the voice of God in the tradition of the East as well— T. S. Eliot. The point of intersectto apprehend The point of intersection of the timeless With time, is an occupation for the saint— No occupation either, but something given And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. . . . Ardour and selfle. . . These are only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses; and the rest Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. The hint half guessed, the gift (“The Dry Salvages”)16

This is what we are about, I believe, when we speak of the relationship between religion and the human imagination: Incarnation— the incarnation of God in the word the artist speaks. “To apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time” is an occupation not only for the saint, but for the artist as well—and for us who follow in the artist’s footsteps. It may be only in “hints and guesses,” it may be a gift only “half understood,” but it is truly “incarnation”— God reaching out to touch us, sometimes even to walk with us, on our journey.

16. Four Quartets, 136.

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Abraham, 11, 126 Abrams, M. H., 24, 26–27, 29 Adam, 126 Adams, Ansel, 134 Alexander, Meena, 80 Allsop, Thomas, 105 Arnold, Matthew, 119 Arrupe, Pedro, S.J., 13 Bacon, Francis, 129– 30 Barth, J. Robert, S.J., 10n, 58n, 79, 87n, 89n, 90n, 91n, 102n, 109n, 111n, 114n, 124n, 131n Beer, John, 90n, 106n, 113–14 Beethoven, Ludwig von, 134 Bentham, Jeremy, 130 Bergman, Ingmar, 12, 134 Berkeley, George, 129 Bernstein, Leonard, 134 Berrigan, Daniel, S.J., 5 Bidney, Martin, 58n, 59 Blessing, 86, 89 Bowles, William Lisle, 79 Burke, Edmund, 49 Cain, Bill, S.J., 5 Carlyle, Thomas, 119 Cervantes, Miguel de, 31– 32, 61 Chagall, Marc, 134 Chandler, James K., 49n Chaucer, Geoffrey, 61 Coleridge, Derwent, 106 Coleridge, George, 87 Coleridge, Hartley, 112n, 113, 114n

Coleridge, Henry Nelson, 91 Coleridge, John Taylor, 112n Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1–2, 4, 13–14, 26, 28, 31, 58, 60, 62, 70, 119–21, 127–28, 133, 135; polarity and imagination in, 6–7 —Poems: “Christabel,” 104–6, 108–18; Conversation Poems, 73, 79– 81; “Dejection: An Ode,” 82, 84– 87; “The Eolian Harp,” 73– 75, 125; “Frost at Midnight,” 80– 81; “Kubla Khan,” 57, 70, 82; “The Mad Monk,” 82; “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” 81– 82, 89–103; Sibylline Leaves, 92 —Prose Works: Aids to Reflection, 89; Biographia Literaria, 1, 7, 55, 68, 124, 131–32; On the Constitution of Church and State, 92; The Statesman’s Manual, 7, 10–11, 123–26, 128– 30, 132 Coleridge, Sarah, 80, 87 Consolation and desolation, 96– 102 Consubstantiality, 125, 131 Coulson, John, 130–31, 133 Cowper, William, 73 Crashaw, Richard: “A Hymn to the Name and Honor of the Admirable St. Teresa,” 105–7, 117 Creation, 1, 5, 8–9, 11–12, 132 Cutsinger, James, 6–7, 125




Dante Alighieri, 12, 127 David, 11 Deconstructionism, 3– 4, 128, 134 Descartes, René, 31, 130 De Selincourt, Ernest, 20 Dickens, Charles, 39 Dillard, Annie, 134 Discernment of spirits, 96–98, 100 –101, 109n Donne, John, 12 Dostoevski, Fyodor, 12, 127 Dubus, André, 135 Dyce, Alexander, 16 Easterlin, Nancy, 2, 38n, 64n Eliot, T. S., 15, 54, 56, 136 Erdman, David, 4n Faith, 1, 39–40, 92, 99, 120, 128–30 Faulkner, William, 12 Fauré, Gabriel, 134 Ferguson, Frances, 31n, 34 Ferlita, Ernest, S.J., 5, 8n Fogle, Richard Harter, 109, 110n Freedom, 90 – 92, 105, 135 Friel, Brian, 134 Frost, Robert, 134 Giacometti, Alberto, 12 Gill, Stephen, 16 Gillman, James, 106 God, 1, 5 –13, 22–24, 69–71, 87– 88, 90 – 93, 96– 98, 100–103, 113 –14, 116, 121–22, 124–26, 129, 131– 32 Goodson, A. C., 102n Graff, Gerald, 2 Greene, Graham, 12, 122 Hall, Donald, 134 Hansen, Ron, 135 Harding, Anthony John, 108, 109n, 110, 115 Hartman, Geoffrey, 27, 31n, 58 Havens, R. D., 36, 64 Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 109 Heaney, Seamus, 134 Heffernan, James A. W., 64n

Heidegger, Martin, 127 Hobbes, Thomas, 129–30 Homer, 61, 132 Hope, 40, 116–18 Hopkins, Gerard Manley, S.J., 11– 13, 70, 119 Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), 37 House, Humphry, 105–6 Hume, David, 129 Hutchinson, Sara, 82, 114n Imagination, 1–14 passim, 119 –20, 122–27; distinguished from fancy, 111; literary and religious aspect of, 124; and prayer, 117–18; primary distinguished from secondary, 68–69; in Wordsworth, 28–29, 41–71 passim Immanence, 6–7, 26–27, 70–71 Incarnation, 6–9, 28, 136 Jacob, 91 James, Henry, 109 Jesuits: and the arts, 5, 13 Jesus Christ, 6–9, 13, 28, 92, 98, 102, 106–7, 117 Johnson, Samuel, 73 Joseph, Saint, 9 Jump, Harriet, 19 Kant, Immanuel, 127 Keats, John, 43–44, 62 Kelly, Patrick, 96n Kinnell, Galway, 134 Kirkpatrick, W. G., 113 Levertov, Denise, 134 Lindenberger, Herbert, 44 Liu, Alan, 45n Locke, John, 128 Logos, 6–7, 133 Love, 71, 75, 80–82, 86–88, 94, 96–97, 99–103, 106–8, 113–16, 123 Loyola, Ignatius: Spiritual Exercises, 4–14, 96–98, 100–101

Index Lucas, Thomas, 8 Lynch, William F., 41, 43 Machiavelli, Niccolò, 129 Mahoney, John L., 25n, 119–20n Marsh, John, 54 Martyrdom, 105 –7 Mary, the Blessed Virgin, 9 McConnell, Frank, 31n, 32 McFarland, Thomas, 2 McGann, Jerome J., 3 McNichols, William Hart, S.J., 5 Mendes, Sam, 134 Messaien, Olivier, 12, 134 Michelangelo, 134 Mill, John Stuart, 119, 130 Milton, John, 27, 61 More, Thomas, 129 Moses, 101–2, 126 Mozart, Wolfgang, 12 Muirhead, John H., 90 Mutual causality, 2, 94 Mysticism, 63 – 65 Narrative theology, 126–27 Nature, 20, 22–24, 26–29, 38– 39, 53, 60 – 62, 65 – 67, 69, 71, 75– 88 passim Nethercot, Arthur H., 106n, 113 Netland, John T., 96n, 102n New Historicism, 3– 4 Newman, John Henry, 119 Newton, Isaac, 19, 61 Nichols, Ashton, 58n Nietzsche, Friedrich, 127 O’Connor, Flannery, 135 Onorato, Richard, 30– 31n Owen, W. J. B., 69 Paley, William, 130 Participation, Christian tradition of, 125 Pater, Walter, 119 Paul, Saint, 63, 70, 98, 114–15, 129 Plato, 33, 125 Poststructuralism, 3– 4, 128, 134


Prayer, 8–10, 25, 89–128 passim; and imagination, 117–18 Preston, Thomas R., 106n Proust, Marcel, 43 Rahner, Karl, S.J., 14, 120–23, 135 Raleigh, Walter, 129 Ratio Studiorum, 5 Redemption, 9, 28, 90 Reiman, Donald, 17 Rembrandt, Harmenszoon van Rijn, 12 Richards, I. A., 29, 51 Rodin, Auguste, 12 Rossetti, Dante Gabriel and Christina, 119 Rouault, Georges, 135 Ruskin, John, 119 Ryan, Robert M., 3 Sacrament, 26–29, 131 Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von, 90, 127 Schlegel, August Wilhelm von, 127 Scorsese, Martin, 12 Scripture, 12, 21, 120–26, 128–30 Shakespeare, William, 61, 127, 129, 131 Shaw, George Bernard, 5 Shelley, Percy Bysshe: “A Defence of Poetry,” 5–6, 122–23 Sidney, Philip, 129 Siegel, Robert H., 106n, 109 Spenser, Edmund, 61, 109–10 Spinoza, Benedict de, 90 Spiritual Exercises. See Loyola, Ignatius Steiner, George, 14, 120, 127–28, 132– 35 Stillinger, Jack, 16n, 92n Symbol, 7–13, 123–27, 129–32; distinguished from allegory, 109, 129– 30; in The Prelude, 18 –19, 26–27; vertical and horizontal dimensions of, 125 Tacitus, 129 Teresa of Avila, Saint, 105–7



Thomson, James, 73 Thucydides, 128 Tillich, Paul, 131, 133 Time, 41–55 passim; Chronos, 53– 54; Kairos, 53– 54; cyclic nature of, distinguished from linear, 43– 44, 47, 54 – 55 Transcendence, 2– 3, 5– 8, 24–27, 53 – 55, 56 –71 passim, 87–88, 100 –103, 116–18, 119– 36 passim Translucence, 7, 10–13, 124–26, 132 Trinitarianism, 92 Trickett, Rachel, 19 Trust, 133, 135 Ullmer, William A., 27n, 28, 31n Unitarianism, 92 Updike, John, 135 Ver Eecke, Robert, S.J., 5 Watson, Jeanie, 102n Weiskel, Thomas, 57– 58 Wesling, Donald, 73–74 Wilbur, Richard, 134 Wilson, August, 134 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 127 Wordsworth, Dorothy, 67, 75 Wordsworth, Jonathan, 58n, 69–70 Wordsworth, William, 1–2, 4, 12– 14, 80, 88, 112n, 119–20; imagination in, 13–14, 28–29; imagination as “Hebraic,” 28–29 —The Prelude (passages): Book 1, 24 –26, 33, 42, 45– 47; Book 2, 23, 42; Book 5, 30– 40 passim; Book 6, 33, 47– 48, 135; Book 7, 48 – 52; Book 14, 52– 53, 56– 57, 103

—The Prelude (specific episodes): “ascent of Mount Snowdon,” 52–55, 58, 68–70; “the Boy of Winander,” 34–36; “crossing of the Alps,” 47–48, 54, 63; “the Dream of the Arab,” 30–34; “the Drowned Man,” 35–36; “iceskating scene,” 45–47 —The Prelude (topics): education in, 39, 111; French Revolution in, 66–67; imagination in, 41–71 passim; immortality in, 35 – 40; presence of God in, 22–24, 69– 71; revisions of, 17–22; role of nature in, 20, 22–24, 26–29, 38– 39, 53, 60–62, 65–67, 69, 71; role of symbol in, 18–19, 26–27; “spots of time” in, 27, 43–45, 47–48, 53–55, 68; transcendence in, 24–27, 53–55, 56–71 passim; time in, 41– 55 passim; versions of, 15 –29 passim —Other works: “Animal Tranquility and Decay,” 77–78; The Excursion, 28; “I travelled among unknown men,” 78; “Lucy Gray,” 35, 86; “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” 36, 39, 43, 83–84, 126, 135; “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” 76–78; preface to Lyrical Ballads, 33; “Resolution and Independence,” 75–76; The Ruined Cottage, 87–88; “She dwelt among the untrodden ways,” 78; “A slumber did my spirit seal,” 35–36, 79; “Three years she grew in sun and shower,” 78–79; “Tintern Abbey,” 37, 67, 73–75, 121–22, 135 Yeats, William Butler, 13