The Idea of Transcendence and the Images of Childhood
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 9, pp 25-55)
The purpose of this paper, by way of hints and digressions, is to offer some insights into one aspect of the Romantic understanding of childhood, and also to show that this source of power, as Wordsworth described it, is evident both in some poetry written before the Romantic period, and has some sort of a tradition into the middle of the twentieth century.
Henry Vaughan’s ‘The Retreat’ is the seventeenth century poem most often compared to Wordsworth’s Immortality ode: both see in childhood a glory lost to the grown man, and Vaughan longs ‘to travel back/ And tread again that ancient track’—a longing that if Wordsworth feels he doesn’t really express, perhaps being more conscious how far removed, how far inland he is from that immortal sea, and how rarely his childhood ‘spots of time’ rise up to renovate his soul. And whereas Wordsworth’s association of childhood experience with a sublime power virtually forms the keystone of his thinking, in Vaughan it is one reading among several : he is quite as willing to say ‘I saw Eternity the other night’—experiencing much the same thing in his manhood that he had in his youth. This cheering knowledge that eternity may be open to him throughout the course of his life is quite beyond the pale of Wordsworth’s experience. He can only look, not go back to his past, while all the time travelling further from it, though looking back he is occasionally fed by mighty moments rising out of the dark, backward abysm of infinity.
But those moments, as he gives them to us, have certain characteristics, I believe, which we may also see, not so much in Henry Vaughan, but in the work and attitudes of Thomas Traherne. I am going to suggest that the idea of
transcendence actually plays a significant part in developing the qualities of the image, and where we can perceive these qualities, which later I will try to demonstrate, we will also perceive the power of the idea.
We should, I think, at this point sort out the terms: transcendent, transcendence, and transcendental—this last sometimes with an ‘ism’ on the end: and, roughly speaking, bad, indifferent and good in that order. Transcendent is bad because it indicates a notion beyond comprehension, and is originally a term applied to the Schoolmen’s treatment of the Aristotelian categories—in the Biographia Coleridge uses the term to describe notions anchored in no discernible reality, and Kant also used the term to denigrate any notion not conforming to his categories: Wordsworth though uses it positively; transcendence is the attribute of being above and independent of the universe, and is principally applied to God, and is to be distinguished from the idea of immanence; as a perfected state it is of course inapplicable to human life, but it is used to express the reality of an order of being not open to investigation through the senses; transcendental was more or less a synonym of metaphysical in the 17th century; Kant used the term to describe any philosophy with an a priori element, containing pre-suppositions on the nature of experience, and Schelling used it to describe his philosophy of mind as opposed to that of nature; it is this philosophy that at first so appealed to Coleridge, because it presumed not that the mind was constituted by experience, but rather that all experience depends upon the powers and ideas of the mind.
It was no great step for Coleridge to assert that our likeness to God is best seen in the construction of our intellect, particularly in respect of one power, which he called Reason, and which he illustrated from Paradise Lost, Book V. The passage begins ‘O Adam! one Almighty is, from whom/ All things proceed, and up to him return/ If not depraved from good’ and concludes ‘whence the soul/ Reason
receives. And reason is her being.’
Nor is it an accident that this passage forms the epigraph of Ch. 13 of the Biographia—
on imagination—which, although it fails to deduce this power logically, ends with a definition that has ever since haunted our literature and our literary criticism. What this concatenation of terms—God, reason and imagination—tacitly asserts is that the unity of being that Raphael outlines to Abraham is not only open to human conception and belief, but that we may experience the unity of life. This is an extraordinary, almost Faustian, or perhaps Frankenstinian, assertion; but I think it’s one of the principal marks of the Romantic undertaking. Don’t take my word for it, though: listen first to Wordsworth: having thoroughly confused himself and usurped his senses by getting lost on the Alps, he contemplates the power of imagination liberated by this usurpation, saying that as a consequence he recognizes the glory of his soul, and that:
in such strength
Of usurpation... when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shown to us
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours, whether we be young or old.
and there the sentence ends, greatness apparently undefined, the passage perhaps only a piece of high rhetoric. But immediately appended is what I think of as one of the most remarkable of romantic statements: ‘Our destiny, our nature, and our home/ Is with infinitude, and only there’. The greatness of our soul, then, depends upon its relation with infinitude, and in moments such as this Wordsworth is asserting that that relationship may be experienced, or as he puts it at the end of The Prelude, nature’s presentation of ‘ the perfect image of a mighty mind/ Of one that feeds upon infinity’ is but the ‘express resemblance... a genuine counterpart/ And brother of that glorious faculty/ Which higher minds bear with them as their own.’
It seems to me that much of the most interesting romantic poetry deals with the process of entering into or the discovery of the transcendental; with the relationship between habitual experience and experience modified by this power. The song of the nightingale takes Keats from this world of immanent death to a timeless world infused with immortality, to a world where all life is one life; Wordsworth recognizes the same thing when he says that ‘ a mind sustained/ By recognitions of transcendent power’ is thus prepared 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.’[XIV 70/110] And Coleridge is on the same track when, meditating on how we discover ‘A new earth and new heaven/ Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud’, he declares that ‘from the Soul itself must there be sent/ A sweet and potent Voice, of it’s own Birth,/ Of all sweet sounds the life and element.’ The recognition or discovery of this kind of power is often accompanied by an emotion exceeding all others: Keats hears the nightingale pouring forth her soul in ‘such an ecstacy’; Coleridge insists that this ‘beautiful and beauty-making power’ is itself joy; Wordsworth knows that the deep power of joy enables us to see into the life of things.
The faculty that establishes some relation between sense and transcendence is the imagination, which organises sense perception according to the ideas of reason; in a word it has a foot in both worlds. But this is not a faculty that necessarily springs forth fully-armed from the human soul; it is one that may be encouraged or repressed, and both Coleridge and Wordsworth felt that the philosophical materialism of Hume, Locke and their followers had prevented the proper flowering of this faculty. In what ways could it be encouraged, especially in children, so that their adult life would not simply be limited by following the
precepts of the Understanding, with soul-damaging consequences?
Coleridge, as we know, gave his answer very clearly. From his ‘early reading of Faery Tales’ in his aunt’s ‘everything shop at Crediton’ his mind became ‘habituated to the Vast from which time he never regarded his senses, and their dependence on the Understanding, as supplying the criteria of his belief. Or, the imagination is not subject to the limitations of experience. No tabula rasa here. He asks whether children should be ‘permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants and Magicians, & Genii’, knowing all that has been said against it—mostly by philosophical materialists—and asserts that he knows no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’, & ‘the Whole’. ‘Great’, ‘Whole’, ‘Vast’, ‘Unity’ and ‘the One’ are all terms pointing towards a truth or power which unifies experience, towards Reason—the appearance of which in a person he says is marked by this very desire to find the single common ground of all life. And those who have attempted to come to the same truth ‘step by step thro’ the constant testimony of their senses’ seem to him to want a sense that he has—they contemplate nothing but parts—and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things, without an organic unity. It is true, he goes on, that the mind may become credulous & prone to superstition following his method, ‘but are not the Experimentalists credulous even to madness in believing any absurdity, rather than believe the grandest truths, if they have not the testimony of their own senses in their favor?’
Of course this begs the question that we all now ask, Are
the grandest truths true? And like Pilate, we haven’t the patience to wait upon
an answer. His dismissive mode of thinking would eventually allow Coleridge to
deny some of the most remarkable experimental results of his time, particularly
the work of
giving imagination special and select powers, he is seeking to retain certain features of human discourse that had come under attack in the 18th century, and which were again being confronted by the age’s increasing and material knowledge of nature. It is as if Coleridge felt that a necessitarian world was closing in upon him, in which the individual will was subject to the force of circumstance, and he had to fight it—certainly the attractions of the philosophy were short-lived for Coleridge. So thinking again about the significance of The Arabian Nights he remarks that the supernatural beings there ‘are all produced by imagining an excessive magnitude, or an excessive smallness combined with great power...exhibiting, through the working of the imagination, the idea of power in the will.’ (LL II 191-2) The imagination frees itself from the restrictions of time and space—just as the will frees itself from necessity—in order to inhabit all time and all space, as Keats supposed for the song of his nightingale. And in thus freeing itself, it presents the possibility of a transcendental power enabling some kind of deathless existence. So Coleridge remarks, ‘by the power of imagination... in our present imperfect state, are we enabled to anticipate the glories and honours of a future existence...’(LL 1587) Were you to suggest to Coleridge that the imagination can exist in a mind incapable of contemplating a future existence, in a mind willing to refuse the transcendental as the basis of action here, (terrestrial charts are made by celestial observation) he would indeed call the suggestion absurd. ‘An undevout poet is mad’, he thundered in the Biographia, (I think but can’t find it) and in the notes for a lecture on Shakespeare in 1808, he defines the imagination as ‘the power of modifying one image or feeling by the precedent or following ones’ and goes on to describe the consequent effect as:
that of combining many circumstances into one moment of thought to produce the ultimate end of human Thought, and human Feeling, Unity and thereby the reduction of the Spirit to its Principle
& Fountain, who alone is truly one. (LL 168)
If possible I would like you to consider this familiar statement afresh, and think how remarkable it is. The imagination’s power of dissolving, diffusing and dissipating in order to idealize and unify (BL I 304) is symbolic of the unity of God’s being, and the final end of our intellectual and spiritual life. This is in profound contrast to the traditional ideas of spiritual progress, discipline of the mind and body in a way which may well refuse houseroom to the very kind of images that Coleridge had in mind. After all, the note was for a Lecture on King Lear, whose essential problem is a passion undisciplined. Coleridge is claiming that by participating in that passion as reader or audience, burning through it, to adapt Keats’ phrase, we will be so taken by the power of Shakespeare’s imagination, as to get a glimpse of that unity of being symbolic of the unity of God. A point to keep in mind, and the kernel of Coleridge’s argument, and of a piece with his later assertion that a poem of pure imagination is free of moral consequence, is that the hope of transcendental unity, and not any moral purpose, is the proper object of the imagination.
If books provide Coleridge’s method of educating the imagination, Nature is the provider for Wordsworth. But he first deals with what he considers the mistaken methods of education prevalent in his time, and it is a splendid piece of rhetoric which nicely balances the difficulties of condemning with real horror at the result. Children as but miniature men or women—but usually men—was the typical 18th century view. This Wordsworth attacks immediately as ‘the monster birth/Engendered by these too industrious times’ and the result:
‘twas a child, a child,
But a dwarf man; in knowledge, virtue, skill
In what he is not, and in what he is,
The noontide shadow of a man complete;
A worshipper of worldly seemliness—...
Arch are his notices, and nice his sense
Of the ridiculous; deceit and guile,
Meanness and falsehood, he detects, can treat
With apt and graceful laughter; nor is blind
To the broad follies of the licensed world;
Though shrewd, yet innocent himself withal...
Briefly, the moral part
Is perfect, and in learning and in books
He is a prodigy... He sifts, he weighs,
Takes nothing upon trust...
All things are put to question: he must live
Knowing that he grows wiser every day....
This is a splendid picture of the public school boy, which would make every parent proud, and from which ‘panoply complete’ anyone so unfortunately educated must eventually break out. Wordsworth’s comment on his own picture is savage : ‘Now this is hollow, ‘tis a life of lies/ From the beginning, and in lies must end.’ Wherein lies the lie? Probably in the detachment from life: given that both Wordsworth and Coleridge believe that our proper being is to be found in relation to the transcendental, the retention of the self within the confines of the phenomenal must defeat that purpose.
But what happens next in Wordsworth’s insight into education is curious, and in the long run, I think revealing. he first nods briefly to Coleridge’s heroes, Jack the Giant-killer, Robin Hood and others, of which he says ‘The child whose love is here, at least doth reap/ One precious gain—that he forgets himself’. The significance of that remark is best explained by Coleridge, who says exactly the same thing in a lecture of 1811, berating the moral tales of Maria Edgeworth, in which, typically, little Billy asks his mother whether he did right in giving a beggar the sixpence she’d
given him the day before, and receives delighted approval, thus, says Coleridge, ‘blending one of the first virtues, Charity, with one of the basest passions of the human heart, the love of hearing oneself praised.’
It would seem logical for Wordsworth now to give us his picture of an ideal education. Perhaps he does, but it is by no means self-evident. he tells the story of the boy of Winander who was ‘taken from his mates, and died/ In childhood ere he was full ten years old’. Given that the original version of this passage was told in the first person, this dying is a psychological curiosity—and we might think of it as Wordsworth somehow defining the end of his visionary childhood. What is most curious though is that the only distinct activity recorded of this boy is to mimic the hooting of the owls—Reggie Watters has noted a parallel in the ‘Foster-Mother’s Tale’ , where the ‘most unteachable’ boy ‘knew the names of birds, and mock’d their notes,/ And whistled, as he were a bird himself’. Can this be the option preferred to all that glorious education so witheringly dismissed? Well, probably yes, and solely because of the boy’s response to his own activity; during a pause of deep silence, then sometimes:
while he hung
Listening, 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 that uncertain heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
This is a passage that one might read through without much comment. But de Quincey read it, and of the lines ‘ a gentle shock of mild surprize/ Has carried far into his heart the voice/ Of mountain torrents’ he wrote:
This very expression, ‘far’ by which space and its infinities are attributed to the human heart, and to its capacities of re-echoing the sublimities of nature, has always struck me as with a flash of sublime revelation.
Such comment from such a man gives us reason to pause. Infinities of the human heart re-echoing the sublimities of nature? Is Wordsworth here establishing some relation between transcendental powers of the mind and the appearances of nature? Again, I think the answer is yes, probably. It is a moment during which, made quiet by the deep power of joy, he has seen into the life of things. But Wordsworth does not admit a Kantian distinction between the appearance of things and things in themselves. The more he sees into the life of things, the more these things become what they are. It is as if the depths or infinities of his mind have opened up, what he elsewhere calls the hiding places of his power, and he is able to receive these images—in their totality, as they stand before him—and just as this process receives almost no commentary from the poet, so he records the visible scene as entering into his mind unawares, ‘all its solemn imagery, its rocks/ Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received/ Into the bosom of the steady lake.’ Note the word ‘solemn’—this is a profound and significant moment, and that word is designed to dignify the occasion. Note also the contrast between ‘uncertain heaven’ and ‘steady lake’ (and the disposition of the adjectives: heaven is ‘uncertain’ and nature ‘steady’)—that heaven is received into the lake, as it is, without modification, in the fullness of its being, for no attempt is made to describe, the landscape—its chief features are merely listed; and we would normally think of the images on the surface of the lake as uncertain and the sky and the woods around it as steady; here it is as if that uncertain heaven gains its stability by being received into the lake; could this be the mind half-perceiving and half-creating the reality which it is receiving?
Whatever we make of the boy of Winander, Wordsworth’s comments on his upbringing and those of his surviving friends make a clear contrast with the ‘child, no child,/ But a dwarf man’ and his life of lies. Their education, based on simplicity in habit and truth in speech, will result in ‘knowledge, rightly honoured with that name -/ Knowledge not purchased with the loss of power!’ This I think may reassure us that what Wordsworth was describing in the Winander episode was a moment of power, a moment when the imagination was able to unite the appearance of nature with the infinities of the mind. Coleridge provides perhaps the best gloss on ‘Knowledge not purchased with the loss of power!’ The third of his three principles of education is ‘to excite power’, and the only kind of knowledge that does not suffocate this power is that which resides in ideas and principles, and not facts or information. The knowledge of the ‘dwarf man’ is so much based in sense as to risk losing the power of Reason as mediated by the imagination.
The particular kind of power that Wordsworth sought, the union of immediate appearance to an undivided consciousness, is perhaps something more open to children than adults; Coleridge apparently thought so when he commented on ‘the seeming Identity of Body and Mind in Infants’(CN III 4398), and there may be an echo of the same thought in his backward glance to happier times in ‘Dejection’, ‘When as an own child I to Joy belonged’: Wordsworth himself describes the loved and loving child as ‘ eager to combine/ In one appearance all the elements / And parts of the same object, else detached/ And loth to coalesce’ by means of a power, or virtue as he calls it, which ‘irradiates and exalts/ All objects through all intercourse of sense.’
Certainly later in The Prelude Wordsworth seems to depend upon moments from his childhood as his source of power. The two episodes he describes under the generic title ‘spots of time’ are moments ‘taking their date/ From our first
childhood: in our childhood even/ Perhaps are most conspicuous’ which ‘retain/ A vivifying virtue’ and whose:
... efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life in which
We have had deepest feeling that the mind
Is lord and master, and that outward sense
Is but the obedient servant of her will.
As an illustration of this insight Wordsworth records how one Christmas, he and his brothers went onto the hillside to await the return of their father; the poet seems to have gone by himself to a point overlooking the junction of two roads, and waited on a stormy day, in the company of a stone wall, a single sheep, and a hawthorn whistling in the wind. Within then days of his return, his father had died and he and his brothers had followed his coffin to the grave.
Wordsworth’s comments on this traumatic event have all the oddness of a singular experience:
With all the sorrow which it brought, appeared
A chastisement; and when I called to mind
That day so lately past, when from the crag
I looked in such anxiety of hope;
With trite reflections of morality,
Yet in the deepest passion, I bowed low
To God, Who thus corrected my desires.
This must have been a personal catastrophe, and chastisement perhaps reflects some guilt felt about his father’s death; yet he is describing a cherished moment from his past, a moment of ‘vivifying virtue’: the man dismisses the moral reflections of the boy as trite; but he approves that boy’s deepest passion in bowing low to God. This is precisely the order of thinking we have found Coleridge asserting as required of ‘the pure
imagination’, and as educed in children by faery tales. A few lines later he states that in later life he now and then returns to the sights and sounds of this event ‘and thence would drink,/ As at a fountain.’ However disparate the images of sense, the imagination has transformed them into a single—source of ‘renovating virtue’(1850)—‘vivifying’ in 1805, but ‘virtue’ in both and no doubt carrying all the associations `’ the word has with goodness, strength and power. This, we might say, is the pure imagination working in precisely the way Coleridge had described it in ‘ideal perfection’, giving the spiritual priority over the moral, ordering the images of sense in the light of Reason. Here the various and accidental images are co-ordinated into one moment to produce the ultimate end of human feeling, unity. So we might say: but look at the ten lines or so in which Wordsworth renders the significance of his experience:
And, afterwards, the wind and sleety rain,
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
Which on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes;
All these were spectacles and sounds to which
I often would repair, and thence would drink
As at a fountain.
Is this diffusion, dissipation, idealizing in order to unify? I think not. I think in fact it is very little more than a listing of images present when the mind was ‘lord and master’ and ‘outward sense.., but the obedient servant of her will’. Little more is done, apparently, than note the images in the context in which they occurred. The context is all. And I do not think this method is peculiar to this event; it is the method used in the boy of Winander, and of the other example of a ‘spot of time’ Wordsworth says:
It was, in truth,
An ordinary sight: but I should need
Colours and words that are unknown to man,
To paint the visionary dreariness
Which, while I looked around for my lost guide,
Did at that time invest the naked pool,
The beacon on the lonely eminence,
The woman and her garments vexed and tossed
By the strong wind.
Again the significant images are simply listed, and expecting the reader to share his acceptance of ‘the sad incompetence of human speech’, Wordsworth merely asserts the mood in which he saw those images, and this is enough to spread over them an intensity of feeling that in themselves, I would say, they do not have. And we have seen, in the Winander episode, that where no commentary is supplied, we risk passing over the event uncertain of Wordsworth’s intention. What I would like to suggest is that many of the key and remembered episodes in The Prelude are either events described or images listed; and the events or images take their significance from what is asserted of them, not from anything intrinsic within themselves. In the light of transcendence, they become nothing but themselves; they have a primal purity and simplicity, associated with childhood, and with human greatness:
Oh! mystery of man, from what a depth
Proceed thy honours. I am lost, but see
In simple childhood something of the base
On which thy greatness stands.
Simple childhood: that is a phrase which would have appealed to Thomas Traherne, and for very much the same reasons: that our best hope of understanding the purpose of adulthood is to recover the experiences of childhood, one of the chief marks of which is a purity of sense and sensation—what
Traherne calls a ‘Disentangled and a Naked Sense’. In a poem which, given our manner of reading, he has rather aptly titled ‘The Author to the Critical Peruser’, he describes the virtues of his poetry:
A Simple Light, transparent Words, a Strain
That lowly creeps, yet maketh Mountains plain
Brings down the highest Mysteries to Sense
And keeps them there: that is Our Excellence.
And like Wordsworth, the grand simplicities of nature become on occasions the substance of Traherne’s spirit: reflecting on his childhood he comments:
My Naked Simple Life was I
That Act so Strongly Shind
Upon the Earth, the Sea, the Skie
It was the substance of My Mind.
We should not miss the creativity of this—earth, sea and sky become the substance of the poet’s mind because of the act of his naked simple life, which shines out strongly: from his soul a light, a glory is issuing forth. And this independent act might help explain a verse which could otherwise be taken as opposing the notion that, like Wordsworth, Traherne is attempting the incarnation of spirit in pure sense: in a poem he calls ‘Innocence’ he writes:
A serious Meditation did Employ
My Soul within, which taken up with joy
Did seem no outward thing to note, but the
All objects that do feed the Eye.
The act of meditation is the primary act for Traherne, as eventually for Coleridge, and intermittently for Wordsworth. But the association of this act with the knowledge of joy further confirms the common method by which these three poets sought to re-unite the worlds of sense and spirit, so
rudely severed by Descartes and subsequent British philosophers.
Traherne’s view of the world, or at least of the world God has made, which he distinguishes vigorously from the world Man has made, is very similar to Coleridge’s early view that it is the revelation of the divine; for he asserts that to enjoy the world aright is to enjoy God. Early in the first Century of Meditations, he writes ‘To Conceiv aright and to enjoy the World, is to Conceiv the Holy Ghost, and to see His Lov; which is the Mind of the Father.’
And in his poetry, if on the one hand he was willing to accept the meditative mind turning away from objects of sense, on the other he is at times quite willing to assert their assistance in guiding him towards infinity or eternity: so in ‘Nature’ he writes:
My Senses were informers to my Heart,
The Conduits of his Glory Power and Art.
His Greatness Wisdom Goodness I did see,
His Glorious Lov, and his Eternitie,
Almost as soon as Born; and evry Sence
Was in me like to som Intelligence...
My Inclinations raisd me up on high,
And guided me to all Infinitie.
What, however, this short digression must recognize is that the poetry of Traherne is nothing like the poetry of Wordsworth or Coleridge. All three may be seen to occupy a common philosophical position, but Traherne’s pervading Christian consciousness, so little evident in Wordsworth, prevents his declarations from being much more than that: Wordsworth gains a power from having no system of belief imposed upon his experience—thus far from being a set of assertions, his verse is more often a description of the actual moments of empowerment, from which some beliefs may be
deduced, but on which none are imposed. So whereas Traherne may simply say ‘ I felt a vigour in my Sence/ That was all SPIRIT’, and say nothing of the occasion when he discovered this, that statement is our deduction from reading Wordsworth’s poetry, independent of what he himself has to say about it.
We can though safely say that Wordsworth’s ideal union of this image, as it is, and consciousness of a divine or transcendental power, is very close to Traherne’s vision. The world—as it is—and seen aright, is the expression of pure spirit, and there for all pure spirits to find: and sinful man has been sanctioned a glimpse of that purity through the memories of their childhood. So in phrases that cannot but remind us of the ‘Immortality Ode’, Traherne recalls:
How like an Angel came I down!
How bright are all Things here!
When first among his Works I did appear
O how their GLORY me did crown?
- II -
But Wordsworth’s association of the power of seeing images as they are with childhood, though an honest reading of his experience, seems to inhibit his development as a poet and, as I hope to outline later, may have had some detrimental effect on the development of English literature. To illustrate this inhibition, I want to turn to that poem which Wordsworth entitled ‘Ode’, and subtitled ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’.
The experience in that poem, the impetus of the whole, is a vision lost. And as we have seen, for Wordsworth, vision, the sense of being empowered, was inescapably bound up with those profound and almost intangible experiences of childhood. It is therefore more or less inevitable that he
should turn to the child, and by extrapolation, the supposed spiritual condition of the child, to comprehend where and what his vision once was, and how it had since been lost. But where things might he said to go wrong is in what seems to be the tacit transference of the fullness and perfection of his childhood vision to the perfection of the child’s moral and intellectual condition. He has supposed the child somehow fully conscious of the qualities of his vision, and that growing up into manhood is a gradual diminution of that consciousness. This, as we shall see, is not the pattern presented in the making of The Prelude, where Wordsworth’s mature consciousness is certainly in part, and perhaps wholly, responsible for the re-discovery, even the re-making, of certain experiences had as a child. Nor can Wordsworth’s acceptance of the decay of that kind of consciousness be squared with Coleridge’s frequent insistence that human life is a progression, the hope of which is itself one of the marks of the imagination, that it is a development and not a loss of power, nor with his description of genius as carrying on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood—a nice distinction that, between feelings and powers, and one which Wordsworth has failed to realize in the ‘Intimations Ode’. It is one thing to suggest either that ‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting’, or that ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’ or that Nature ‘doth all she can/ To make her foster-child.../ Forget... that imperial palace whence he came’, for all these are perceptions consequent upon adult reflection and may be tied into the general platonic view that this life enables a rediscovery of what we knew in another life. For, despite adult activity being restricted to a recovery of the perceived childhood state, it does not remove the possibility of developing powers particular to the adult, which are a real progression from the child’s state of being. However, in stanza VIII, even this potential form of progression seems taken away:
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, reads’t th eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
To whom the grave
Is but a lonely bed without the sense or sight
Of day or the warm light,
A place of thought where we in waiting lie.
These last four lines were of course excised by Wordsworth after Coleridge’s criticisms in the Biographia, though he has done nothing about Coleridge’s more substantial criticisms. If kept in, however, they force a contrast between Wordsworth’s view of adult life as lost in the darkness of the grave, incapable either of action or reflection, with the child’s view of the grave (and Coleridge, influenced by or influencing Wordsworth, points us towards ‘We Are Seven’) as a place where we lie waiting—presumably to resume our immortality.
Coleridge took exception to this stanza in a tirade that sometimes has been seen as extreme, and fired by other forces than real objections to the insights proclaimed. It is my opinion that what Coleridge is actually doing is rescuing the possibility of progression for the mature human being—allowing the adult their particular life, with its own distinct gifts and powers, and not merely existing as a decayed version of the child, ‘glorious in the might/Of heaven-born freedom’. But let Coleridge speak for himself: some twelve
years after the ‘Ode’ was finished, and after questioning the appropriateness of some of Wordsworth’s adjectives and metaphors, he asks:
what does all this mean? In what sense is a child of that age a philosopher? In what sense does he read ‘the eternal deep’? In what sense is he declared to be ‘for ever haunted by the Supreme Being’? [Wordsworth had written ‘Eternal Mind’, but STC de-pantheizes] or so inspired as to deserve the splendid titles of a mighty prophet, a blessed seer? By reflection? by knowledge? by conscious intuition? or by any form or modification of consciousness? These would be tidings indeed; but... Children at this age give us no such information of themselves, and what time were we dipt in the Lethe, which has produced such oblivion of a state so godlike? [Hasn’t Wordsworth told us?—‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’]
There are many of us [Coleridge goes on] that still
possess some remembrances, respecting themselves at six year old; pity that
worthless straws should only float... while treasures... compared with which
all the mines of...
Well, say some people, isn’t Coleridge’s failure to find or remember any childhood glories the very point? He looks back upon no spots of time, no transcendent moment, and therefore cannot read Wordsworth’s lines aright. Apart from the dubious implication that to read a poem satisfactorily one must have had the experience it describes, the explanation does not do justice to the depth of Coleridge’s objections. As I have pointed out, Coleridge asserted that man is a progressive being—that adulthood is a development of childhood, not a regression from it. The terms that Wordsworth uses almost metaphorically—‘best philosopher’, ‘mighty prophet’ and
‘blessed seer’—Coleridge takes as real possibilities, to which every human being may, and perhaps ought, to aspire. To have the child be, without self-conscious effort, what the adult seeks through a lifetime’s self-discipline and self-surrender is, for Coleridge a serious inversion of the actual order, a hysteron-proteron he might have called it, a profound misreading of what a child is, and what a philosopher is. It undermines belief in possibility of human progression, one of the marks of the imagination. It is also, perhaps, an epistemological argument: Wordsworth tacitly dismisses the value of all steadily gained and steadily held knowledge, and for it substitutes the brief powerful moment of insight, of ‘renovating virtue’, which infuses a human being with immediate life.
That is one line of argument by which we might justify Coleridge’s objections to this stanza. But there is one sentence in that tirade that I would like to give a little more attention to: ‘Children at this age give no such information of themselves.’ It seems that between the ages of five and twelve Wordsworth had the important visionary experiences of his childhood, and also, as we shall see, Coleridge records from that time at least one experience he calls ‘a kind of Vision’. But, to make the point again, these childhood visions are not recorded by the children at the time of their happening. They are recalled, revived, by the adults long after they have ceased to be those children: whatever the adult makes of their experience, the visionary children give no such information of themselves.
This, surely, is the process by which Wordsworth realized and redeemed his childhood visions: isolated in Germany, divorced from daily contact with the source of his inspiration, his way forward as a poet uncertain, his powers unkindled, he discovered in his childhood certain experiences which seemed to hold the kind of power he was then in search of, which he wrote down in the two-book Prelude, which
begins, demonstrating how deeply he felt his loss of power:
Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song...
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams?
and which in the 1805/50 Prelude comes immediately after his self-indictment as a false steward, unprofitably travelling towards the grave, who hath much received, and renders nothing back.
The distinction so vital to Coleridge, between the experience or feelings of the child, and the powers of the poet or philosopher, and the progression from one state to the other, is thus evident in the making of the Prelude; Wordsworth’s conflation of the two states in the ode arises because he tends to see his adulthood as negative, as days spent in contradiction, locked up in blank reserve; and his childhood as entirely positive, the fair seed-time of his soul, and containing the hiding places of his power.
The quality of their different childhoods ( though their deepest similarity, the loss of their fathers at about the same age seems not to have struck them) was no doubt a subject of discussion between Wordsworth and Coleridge, for each comments on the experience of the other; and again, the comments we are left with suppose that Wordsworth’s experience was to the benefit of his favoured being, and Coleridge’s to his detriment. Nothing is made of Wordsworth’s early orphaning, his separation from his brothers and from Dorothy; it is supposed that being reared in the Lake District was adequate compensation for these catastrophes—as we would now regard them; but everything is made by Coleridge of the death of his father, and his thus being sent to school in London, away from the rural scenes he only ever took a
moderate interest in, without the resources of nature that so satisfactorily fed Wordsworth’s soul. Given that this is the tenor of their understanding of each other’s childhoods, and that Coleridge nowhere declares his experience of a ‘spot of time’ as such, it is perhaps not surprising that some scholars, such as Tom McFarland, damn Coleridge’s objections to the ‘Intimations ode’ as the simple consequence of Coleridge not having had the Wordsworthian experience—which even if true is too simplistic a reaction to Coleridge’s objections. But in fact it is probably not true that Coleridge had no visionary experiences in his childhood. The one he records—in the ‘Verse Letter to Sara Hutchinson’—is profoundly characteristic of his mature thinking, just as those Wordsworth records are characteristic of his.
Coleridge’s assertion of his vision originates from a state of dejection—which might be compared both with the mood in which Wordsworth began The Prelude in Germany and the loss of vision recorded in the opening of the ‘Intimations ode’; the lines analysing his mood are exactly those of ‘Dejection’:
My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smoth’ring weight from off my breast?
… I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
Wordsworth’s rendering of a similar experience has always seemed to me to be more obtuse, and running the risk of being a self-evident pathetic fallacy: ‘But yet I know, whe’er I go,/ That there hath past away a glory from the earth.’ This apparently determined refusal to accept the loss as not originating within himself, but out there, in nature, may in part be explained by his tendency to pantheism, which Coleridge was always sensitive to, and which was the immediate object of his criticisms of stanza VIII. It seems to me that Coleridge’s particularly forceful and intellectually
lucid lines ought to be read as a direct critique of just this intermittent Wordsworthian attitude, uncertain whether the vision lies in the bosom of the lake, or in the unsteady heaven above, whether it comes from ‘out there’, or from within the human heart.
The next six lines in the ‘Verse Letter’ are omitted in the ‘Dejection Ode’, but are vital to understand Coleridge’s process of restoration, for they initiate his re-discovery of his vision:
These lifeless shapes, around, below, Above,
O what can they impart?
When even the gentle Thought, that thou, my Love!
Art gazing now, like me,
And see’st the Heaven, I see—
Sweet Thought it is—yet feebly stirs my Heart!
The heaven that the two lovers look upon here is of course the heaven of the sky and moon and stars, the world of nature. But in the course of the poem it will become an inward moral and spiritual condition. and even at this relatively early point in the poem, we should not forget the ambivalence of the word ‘heaven’, and its significance to Coleridge. And that thought, that Sara is looking upon the heaven he knows, is enough to remind Coleridge of what we may now think of as the fantasy of a young public school-boy deprived of all immediate affection, and associated perhaps with the tale of a pure virgin; but which vision, just like Wordsworth’s recalling certain episodes from his childhood, enables a further restoration of power in the very midst of his loss:
Feebly! O feebly!—Yet
(I well remember it)
In my first dawn of Youth that Fancy stole
With many secret Yearnings on my Soul.
At eve, Sky-gazing in ‘ecstatic fit’
(Alas! for cloister’d in a
The Sky was all, I knew, of Beautiful)
At the barr’d window often did I sit,
And oft upon the leaded School-roof lay,
And to myself would say—
There does not live the Man so stripp’d of good affections
As not to love to see a Maiden’s quiet Eyes
Uprais’d, and linking on sweet Dreams by dim Connections
To Moon, or Evening Star, or glorious western Skies—
While yet a Boy, this Thought would so pursue me
That often it became a kind of Vision to me!
This is the beginning of Coleridge’s re-empowerment which he pursues through several stages and difficulties to a conclusion which releases him from the consequences of his dejection.
Both Wordsworth and Coleridge recover their poetic powers by a re-discovery of childhood experience—from their first dim dawn of youth as Coleridge puts it here. The quality of their experiences, however, seems radically different. At the heart of Coleridge’s vision there is a person—in his boyhood the abstract idea of a maiden, but who appears in other forms in the poetry he wrote as a young man—Sara Fricker, Charles Lamb, and Hartley as a babe all have crucial places in his Conversation Poems, and in the Supernatural poems I would suggest that Christabel’s mother and the Mariner’s kind saint have minor but significant roles in the establishment or re-establishment of unified consciousness—which is perhaps the purport of all his poetry. In ‘Kubla Khan’ the relationship between the creative potential of the poet and the damsel whom he saw in a vision is self-evident: could he revive within him her symphony and song he would be enabled to build that dome, that sunny dome—the archetype of creativity. The ‘Verse Letter’ or ‘Dejection’ is the last great poem of this period of his life, and in it I think we
see all the discrete figures of Coleridge’s poetry gathered together in Sara Hutchinson : she is the maiden of his youth, the friend of his manhood, a member and living symbol of the Wordsworth household, maternal and creative; she is also described at the very end of the ‘Verse Letter’ as ‘Light and Impulse from above’, which places her in the role of kind saint, and of course she is the ‘strong music’ of the Abyssinian maid in Coleridge’s soul. John Powell Ward has called this figure in Coleridge’s poetry, the figure of re-assurance, and certainly it plays that role. I think it also plays the role of mediation, particularly of the transcendental, which is always presented through a person, never as a direct experience, or if ,as direct experience, then only as a proposition. Given therefore that a person is central to Coleridge’s vision, and the images of nature only receive their significance from the power imparted to the poet by this figure, it is not surprising that we do not find in Coleridge’s work any of those sustained meditations on the forms of nature so characteristic of Wordsworth’s poetry, and which might be described as the unmediated transcendental interacting with the appearances of nature.
Whatever the relative poetic merits of the ‘Verse Letter’ compared to ‘Dejection, an Ode’, it is much easier to trace the re-establishment of vision in the ‘Letter’, simply because the key moments of restoration, being apparently private, have been cut out of the published poem. The pattern of restoration is complex, and there are moments when one may wonder whether Coleridge doesn’t appear to have lost what he has just gained, particularly in his harsh analysis of his ‘coarse domestic life’, forcing upon him the necessity of being ‘still and patient all I can’. But although there is a frequent return to the causes of his grief and the difficulties of his life, we may see that both in himself and he presumes in other people, the life-giving and life-unifying power of joy arises when the individual knows themselves to be deeply loved and deeply loving—which curiously, and not quite
accidentally, was also his first principle of education.
The power that Coleridge has discovered is not sufficient to suddenly remove all the ills and trouble of his life; indeed, were it to do so, we might think it rather more magical than real; but even though he knows he is stuck with a ‘coarse domestic life’, he contemplates the potential operation of this rediscovered power in the ‘heart within his heart’, in Sara Hutchinson, whose life hasn’t been contaminated by the kinds of mistakes and failures that have marked his own. This is a significant motion in the poem, entirely characteristic of a method apparent in much of his previous poetry—and easily dismissed as an act not far short of despair—of the hopeless seeking life and hope in someone else. Such an argument is materialistic, based on the notion of the individual as a function of their senses, and early dismissed by Coleridge; his classic and opposing declaration, No I without a Thou, is the key to much of his thinking, and as a consequence he frequently asserts that we cannot know ourselves until we love another: ‘... the equation of Thou with I, by means of the free act... is the true definition of conscience’ he wrote in the Essay on Faith, and conscience is the logical predecessor of consciousness. In a note which seems to be addressed to Sara Hutchinson, he recorded the emotional truth of this position: ‘... for to love you is all I know of my Life, as far as my Life is an object of my consciousness or my Free will.’ (CN III 3996)
Therefore his turning from himself as a phenomenal being to Sara Hutchinson as a profounder reality, or as the truth of his soul, is not to be read as the act of a hopeless or despairing man. It is the act of someone discovering how his imagination works, and how he can know the reality of his being. The cheerfulness, even the ebullience, that characterizes the last forty or so lines of the poem—the ode to joy as we could almost call them—focussed as they are in the life of Sara Hutchinson, is therefore a real working out
of the essential pattern of restoration that began with the revival of a boyhood vision. And it also is a pattern which is prospective: it looks forward to the discovery of the person in distinct and discrete forms—to the growth of what Coleridge, after John Smith, called ‘ the infant Christ’ in our being. It is perhaps the first step in the long voyage, subsequently undertaken by Coleridge, to discover how the non-material figure of a person is present both in life as we experience it and in history. For me, this process compares favourably with the pattern of restoration that is presented in the ‘Intimations Ode’: there the hope is at best retrospective—‘O Joy! that in our embers / Is something that doth live’—and seems to offer little prospect of a pattern of human development: the experience, if there at all, is in the past, and the best the future can offer is an occasional reminder that all this once was—that certain images may be recalled bright with the glory of eternity: but those images remaining only themselves, incapable of analysis, or of sustaining discrete ideas, offer no path into the development of the intellect or the spirit, nothing other than the occasional burst of power which Wordsworth recognized as a ‘tempest, a redundant energy,/ Vexing its own creation’. No wonder Wordsworth was a despondent old man: he had nothing steady to hold onto.
- III -
As a generation, the Victorians thought the ‘Intimations Ode’ the greatest poem of the century, and among minor poets it spawned shoals of imitations, with much ‘prurient transcendentalizing’ in Alan Richardson’s choice phrase. In America such was the influence of this tradition that a significant intellectual group was formed known as the Transcendentalists, among whom was the editor of the first collection of Coleridge’s works, W.G.T. Shedd, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared that ‘Infancy is the perpetual Messiah which comes into the arms of fallen men and pleads with them to return to Paradise.’
But the mode of experience, the essential connection between emotion and belief, was unknown to or denied by most of the major Victorian writers. It is to be found in their hymns if anywhere. Newman would have nothing to do with it, because to secure a theology on the fleeting basis of feeling is to build on sand. Tennyson seems to have touched on the matter in ‘The Holy Grail’ , but clearly questions its validity. Browning skirts round the question all the time—‘Agricola in Meditation’, for instance, slides between irony on the one hand, and curiosity at so alien a system of belief on the other. The prologue to Men and Women is entitled ‘Transcendentalism: a Poem in Twelve Books’, barely lasts two pages, and is occupied in trying to find the right balance between thought and image. The tone is detached and ironic.
Wordsworth’s central theme—that there could be an
interpenetration between the images of nature and the transcendental powers of
the mind—seems to have got broken up into the question of the validity of
personal experience on the one hand, and the self-sufficiency of images on the
other, something which perhaps evolved into the Symbolist movement.
Only, I think, because apart from these rare moments,
Eliot describes life as ridiculous, a waste sad time stretching before and after; all the other modes and manners of life are dismissed as forms of death, men and bits of paper whirled by the cold wind that blows through time. This withdrawal of all life to a rare ‘spot of time’ is effectively an abandonment of those forces in us that need consecration to their right ordering, so that they do not become disordered and destructive. Love is willing the good, said Aquinas, and the good can only be willed if all the forces of our human nature can find their places in that love. Eliot’s dismissal of the substance of life, ‘The time of the coupling of man and woman/ And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling,/ Eating and drinking. Dung and death’, distasteful at best, has set a pattern for the dismissal of his work by those not gifted with moments of renovating virtue to look back on—or who find so much of their life, indeed all of it most probably, elsewhere, with one or two memories stuck in their minds ‘for no reason at all’, unable to perceive how they might be their source of renovation.
Both Eliot and Wordsworth feel the weight of this ‘weary and unintelligible world’, and this distinction between transcendent truth and the world it is known in and apparently at odds with is, I think, something of a novel phenomenon in the history of our literature. It is not something we could associate with Chaucer, or Spenser, or Shakespeare, or Milton. And just as Collingwood felt that a philosophy, logical positivism in this instance, was capable of destroying lives, so a poetical and spiritual method explicitly compared to the occupation of saints is not likely to embrace the powerful forces of human nature, to find an order in which the will is able to render them good, in the face of our fractured and otherwise disparate experiences. Whereas I have no personal doubt that without insights of the kind that have been the ‘fountain light of all our seeing’ for the last two hundred years, we would have no experiential centre, no active heart, no core of meaning, and therefore find ourselves living
essentially meaningless and purposeless lives, simply pursuing ends necessary for our physical or psychical comfort, yet that good, that reality, as I think it is, can, by virtue of its exclusivity, its being hedged around with so many caveats, conditions and consequences, both moral and spiritual, become almost as destructive in its inability to act in ordinary lives as logical positivism. They are two extremes, and they meet in their worst effects.
Such, or something like it, would be my brief history of the ‘spots of time’.