Coleridge the Anglican: Idea and Experience


(A talk given from the pulpit of the church at Watchet, October 1998)


Phil S Teacy


(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series 18, Winter 2001, pp.32-42)




Coleridge was born, in 1772, into an Anglican family–his father was both vicar and schoolmaster in Ottery St Mary–and having flirted with radical politics, Unitarianism and pantheism; having married, had children, become dependent on opiates, fallen in love with another woman, separated from his wife, and then fallen in love again, he died in 1834, just short of 62, a committed Anglican and a devout Christian–terms which he knew were not always synonyms.

Such a man, who took such a wayward course through life, did not of course subscribe to the doctrines of Christianity just because they were backed by the authority of the Church.  He wanted to show that the truths of our humanity, or what he called the ideas of Reason, are at one with Christian doctrines, ‘the flower and seal of our humanity’, as he put it. (N.40 f.22)  All these doctrines, he felt, ‘must converge to one point, and with them all the essential faculties and excellencies of the human being–so that Christ in the Man, and the Man in Christ, will be one in one.’  (CN III 3803)

This is a striking agenda: Faith and Reason, doctrinal authority and psychological insight, are given equal significance and each allowed to test the truth of the other.  It is also a highly risky venture: many in the nineteenth century who took a comparable line–Strauss, for instance, and his translator George Eliot–lost their faith; and although I am not familiar with current trends, earlier and materialistic models of human psychology such as behaviourism, have done nothing to help re-establish the truths of Christian doctrine–indeed are almost universally inimical to it.

But of course Coleridge was no materialist, and he did not lose his faith, though like other committed Christians of the nineteenth century, he had a struggle to experience anything positive, anything that could be likened to the love or presence of Christ–and he suffered in the absence of such experience.  But in the course of this struggle, he opened every aspect of his faith to inspection.  You will find in his works, particularly in his notebooks, sustained meditations on the origin of evil, on the idea of original sin, on free will, on the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, on baptism, on Jesus the man, on Christ crucified from the beginning of time, on the idea of the Logos, meditations on the nature of Protestantism, hundreds of pages of commentary on his close readings of the Old and New Testaments, and of course frequent speculations about the right relations between Church and State.  In attempting to re-found the doctrines of Christianity in conformity to the ideas




of Reason–by which he meant not only ideas all human beings may subscribe to, ideas such as justice, mercy and love, but also specifically Christian ideas such as the Trinity–he disturbed many truths enjoying their midnight slumbers in the dormitory of the British soul.  But his was not just theological speculation: in the midst of all his thinking and reflecting, you will find a man praying, praying to be at one with Christ, longing for his will to become Christ’s will.

The key element was the will.  The irony of a man addicted to laudanum, unable to free himself from a longing to be loved by a sympathetic, and beautiful, woman, yet asserting the freedom of the will, has not been lost on modern commentators; but nor was it lost on Coleridge himself.  It seems that his very condition enabled him to understand the necessity and possibility of a liberated will.  Together with the imagination, the will, he believed, may co-operate to make true, or real, what is latent in us.  Nowadays we are not taught to look at truth in this way.  We suppose that what is true may be tested by observation, and what we discover exists independently of our will.  This is the scientific method, and though some of its limitations are easily discernible, it is nonetheless the dominant model for our understanding of reality.

In Coleridge’s time, the defenders of Christianity thought to apply this method to the miracles–in order to prove it to be a revealed religion; and by removing all doubt about the truth of the most contentious aspects of Christianity, thus remove doubts about the validity of subsequent doctrines.  William Paley thought he had done just that, and his book, The Evidences of Christianity, was all the rage among the intelligentsia of his day.  Coleridge would have none of it.  ‘Evidences!’ he said, ‘I am sick of the word.  Make people feel the want of it!’  One might call this a puritan approach to Christianity, where feeling or experience, particularly of the moment of grace which is prepared for by self-discipline or suffering, dominate the sacramental or liturgical–broadly the Catholic model.  Coleridge certainly did think that through self-discipline and suffering a Christian could come to know the love of Christ.  And he did not believe that the Christian doctrines could be proved like the laws of physics.  He objected to the method because he felt that these so-called proofs would undermine the function of the will. The truths of religion cannot be compared to the laws of light or gravity.  The moral world does not understudy the physical–something Coleridge asserted as forcefully in his maturity as in his youth he might have denied it.  The very least objection such a method would be the utter dissolution of free will, and will and faith were firmly linked in Coleridge’s mind.  Because he believed in ideas as self-originating powers, distinct from notions or deductions from sense, so experience is not the sole test of truth.  The will, he believed, can make or unmake, empower or disempower, our potential humanity.  He would have been sympathetic to Keats’s remark that we do not live in the the shadow of death, but in the vale of soul-making.

But if ideas depend upon the function of the will for their realization, disappointment may easily get a foot in the door, and experience prove the




master of the man.  We have all felt, I imagine, the difference between the idea of Christianity and our experience of it.  It seems to me that the distinction between idea and experience is evident in much of Coleridge’s thinking, particularly in his relations with the Anglican Church; on the one hand it was an institution, at best, sustaining ideas essential to our humanity; on the other, church-going was itself a sadly insufficient experience, and proved a disappointment on the few occasions he actually got there.

Something of his divided response, and its causes, may be seen in a letter he wrote to Godwin in September 1800, soon after the birth of Derwent, his third son:


Your feelings respecting Baptism are, I suppose, much like mine!  At times I dwell on Man with… such reverence, resolve all his follies, & superstitions into… such grand primary laws of intellect… &… in such wise so contemplate them as ever-varying incarnations of the eternal Life, that the Lama’s Dung-pellet, or the Cow-tail which the dying Brahman clutches convulsively, become sanctified and sublime by the feelings which cluster round them.  In that mood I exclaim, My boys shall be christened!  But then another fit of moody philosophy attacks me–I look at my doted-on Hartley–he moves, he lives, he finds impulses from within and from without–he is the darling of the Sun and of the Breeze!  Nature seems to bless him as a thing of her own!  He looks at the clouds, the mountains, the living Beings of the Earth, & vaults and jubilates!  Solemn looks & solemn Words have been hitherto connected in his mind with great and magnificent objects only–with lightning, with thunder, with the waterfall blazing in the Sunset–then I say, Shall I suffer the Toad of Priesthood to spurt out his foul juice in this Babe’s face?  Shall I suffer him to see grave countenances & hear grave accents, while his face is sprinkled, & while the fat paw of Parson crosses his Forehead?  Shall I be grave myself, & tell a lie to him?  Or shall I laugh, and teach him to insult the feelings of his fellow-men?…  From such thoughts I start up, & vow a book of severe analysis, in which I will tell all I believe to be Truth in the nakedest Language in which it can be told.’


In this surprising outburst, we can see a main division between life as originating from and being resolved into ‘the grand primary laws of the intellect’–this is the idealist speaking–and life as a pantheistic unity of sensation–‘he is the darling of the Sun and of the Breeze!  Nature seems to bless him as a thing of her own!’  In that mood, the sheer magnificence of the experience, the joy–a key Romantic word–seeming to irradiate Hartley, make the grave ceremony of baptism a fake and a fraud.

These two ways of looking at life, as originating either from sense or from intellect, experience or idea, are seeking a resolution in Coleridge–which is perhaps why the passage ends with his emphatically expressed determination to write a book of severe analysis, telling all the truth in the nakedest language




possible.  It is of course quite characteristic of him that no such book was forthcoming; but equally characteristic that we can see a clear resolution of this dilemma in his Dejection ode, some two and a half years later, where he acknowledges that he ‘may not hope from outward forms to win/The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.’

But Coleridge’s willingness to adopt the idea of life as generated from within the human heart, and not from ‘out there’, was encouraged by the position he came to occupy within his own social circle, and which I think may have contributed to his disappointment with the Anglican Church–which of course in one respect is ‘out there’ for all of us.

Reggie Watters has pointed out that in a dream vision of the Church prefacing his 1795 lectures on Revealed Religion, Coleridge has presented the priests as ‘predatory Black Robed figures taking their Tithes from the People’–oppressing them as ‘The priests in black gowns… walking their rounds/And binding with briars my joys and desires’ oppress the poet in Blake’s Garden of Love.  Reggie then asks, Could Coleridge have forgotten that such figures must have included his beloved father and his brother George?  Well, I wonder.  Thinking back to my own youth, I was more than happy to jibe at the values of the industry in which my father worked, and which enabled him to support his family in some comfort.  So I can imagine Coleridge at 23, brilliant and radical, ignoring the domestic implications of his public rhetoric.  But this much more vehement passage was written over five years later, by which time Coleridge was a family man, who had tempered his radicalism.  Is he again forgetting or ignoring his family background, while inveighing against the decadence of a Church?

In this instance, I don’t think so.  In an autobiographical letters to Thomas Poole, written in March 1797, Coleridge describes, delightfully and most touchingly, what he understood of his father: having outlined the subject matter of his books, he goes on


‘His various works, uncut, unthumbed, have been preserved free from all pollution…  This piece of  good-luck promises to be hereditary: for all my compositions have the same amiable home-staying propensity.  The truth is, My Father was not a first-rate Genius–he was however a first-rate Christian… In learning, good heartedness, absentness of mind, and excessive ignorance of the world, he was a perfect Parson Adams.’


Coleridge was only eight when his father died, and touching though his tribute is, can we completely exclude the possibility of some creative fiction in this portrayal?  Probably not: but the point to make is that, given this picture of the ideal parson, it is hard to believe that Coleridge had his father in mind either in his lecture of 1795 or in his letter of 1800.  However, in that same letter he speaks very differently of his brother Edward, ‘the wit of the family [who] went to Pembroke College; and afterwards, to Salisbury, as assistant to Dr.Skinner:




he married a woman 20 years older than his Mother.  She is dead; and he now lives at Ottery St Mary, an idle Parson.’

An idle parson. Here are the two poles of the eighteenth century Church represented by different members of the same family, the first-rate Christian and the idle parson.  Coleridge’s disgust at Edward’s actions are implicit, as too is the assumption that he married for money–he is a self-seeker, now idle because he has money enough.  And so one can imagine Coleridge having his brother in mind when he speaks of the ‘fat paw of a parson’.

In Coleridge’s various reactions to the ordained members of his family–and he revered his brother George, also in orders–I think we can see his consciousness both of what the Church and the priesthood ought to be, and what it too often was.  And it is quite possible that this sense of division deepened in him as he worked his way back from unitarianism and pantheism to orthodox Christianity; as he discovered, we may say, the growing significance of the idea of the Church: which is perhaps why the letter is more vehement than the lecture given some years earlier.

But the division Coleridge felt between the Church as an idea and as a reality was also part of his experience of family life in Greta Hall.  One would have thought a christening most unlikely after the outburst of that letter; but a mere five days later, perhaps not wishing to ‘insult the feelings of his fellow-men’, a note records: ‘The child being very ill was baptized by the name of Derwent’; and a letter to Davy some two weeks later, offers some explanation for this apparent volte-face:


‘My wife and children are well–the Baby was dying some weeks ago so the good People would have it baptized–his name is Derwent Coleridge–so called from the River: for fronting our House the Greta runs into the Derwent… To Griet in Cumbrian dialect [signifies] to roar aloud for grief and pain–and it does roar with a vengeance.’


Is not Coleridge’s scorn at the superstition he believes baptism to be apparent in ‘so the good People would have it baptized’?  Is not his emotional alienation evident in the detached tone, the seemingly casual ‘the Baby was dying some weeks ago’, the rather unhappy use of ‘it’ twice to describe Derwent, even the surely unnecessary additon of ‘Coleridge’ to his chosen name?  Perhaps some accommodation was reached with ‘the good People’ because Derwent is not a Christian name: it is a name for a thing of Nature, a living Being of the Earth. And though Coleridge was probably not of one mind with the people of his household, he was not willing to impose his opinions on them.  And so we feel that despite his punning elsewhere on his initials–apparently STC can mean ‘he hath stood’ in questionable Greek–Coleridge’s standing in his own family is very uncertain.

There are two curious post-scripts to Derwent’s birth and baptism.  Ernest Hartley Coleridge, Derwent’s son, prepared the first collection of his




grandfather’s letters.  He notes apropos these events,


‘My father’s life was saved by his mother’s devotion’ and he then quotes Derwent directly: “On the occasion here recorded I had eleven convulsion fits.  At last my father took my mother gently out of the room, and told her she must make up her mind to lose this child.  By and by she heard the nurse lulling me, and said she would try once more to give me the breast” and E.H.Coleridge then records ‘that she did so and from that time all went well, and the child recovered.’


The father’s resignation, the mother’s determination, the underlying conflict overlaid by a self-disciplined gentleness, this I am sure is the dramatic stuff of crisis management in millions of households past and present.  But these kinds of event are not forgotten in their passing, and Derwent’s consciousness that his life was saved by his mother’s determination, rather than by both his parents together, again points to Coleridge being at an emotional remove from his family.  And the apparently rather casual way in which he took the prospect of Derwent’s death points back to the occasion, some eighteen months before, when Thomas Poole, his friend in Nether Stowey, and looking after his family in his absence, had written to him in Germany, telling him of Berkeley’s death.  Coleridge’s response is full, but chiefly metaphysical, reflecting on the nature of consciousness and so forth: it is as if, removed from the actual experience, Coleridge is freer to reflect upon the ideas inherent in the event.  He certainly did not hurry home from Germany to comfort his wife: in fact much to her chagrin, his return seems to have been frequently deferred; and the letter to Poole ends on a cheerful upbeat note, discussing his German studies.

Finally, re-inforcing the division in Coleridge between idea and experience, is what we might call a professional set-back.  In 1800, Wordsworth was preparing a second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, and coming to realize that Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Christabel were very unlike his own poems.  He decided not to include the unfinished Christabel, and moved the Ancient Mariner from being the first to the penultimate poem, subtitled it ‘A Poet’s Reverie’, and included a less than complimentary note about its qualities.  So Coleridge has to watch his major work being sidelined, and is told that it is merely the dream of a dreamer–not belonging to the real world of men and experience to which Wordsworth thought his poetry belonged.  Poor Coleridge indeed: at odds with his family, his poetry is being tacitly dismissed by the man he admired above all men.  And just what an effect this is having on his relationship with life real or actual may be glimpsed in a note attached to his letter to Poole: ‘Sunday night–halfpast ten, Sept 14 1800 a boy born (Bracy)’.  Bracy, the bard and visionary, the dreamer, who has an intimation of the real nature of Geraldine, and who begs to be allowed ‘to clear yon wood of thing unblessed’; but who is curtly dismissed by Sir Leoline, blinded by Geraldine’s apparent beauty, because Leoline lives in a world of sense and superstition, rather like, Coleridge believes, the good People of his own family.




By suggesting that his son might be called Bracy, Coleridge seems to be furthering a kind of hope for him which he had for Hartley in Frost at Midnight–that he might be the bearer of a vision that he does not expect to realize himself; and this tendency to transpose his vision to another person is evident in many of his autobiographical poems–especially in the Verse Letter version of Dejection, where he imagines Sara Hutchinson beholding a unity of life and being that he is excluded from on account of his miserable family life.

It is out of this nexus of idea, reality and experience, that we can see Coleridge’s relationship with the Anglican Church developing.  Like the family, it is on the one hand a focus of his idealism; on the other it is a subject of severe disappointment.  And Coleridge may have had this hilltop church in mind, which he passed below in his walking tour in 1797, when he wrote


‘The ship was cheered, the Harbour clear’d–

       Merrily did we drop

Below the Kirk, below the Hill

       Below the Lighthouse top.’


Although the church is mentioned only in passing as the mariner sets out, the events of his journey return him to a consciousness of the centrality of prayer in his life, and finally to the church as the right place to join other believers in prayer; and by having to listen to the mariner’s story, the Wedding Guest is at first kept away from the marriage feast against his will; but as the tale ends he willingly turns aside from the bridegroom’s door.  The mariner makes a deliberate contrast between the marriage feast and the act of prayer–a distinction at odds with the Church’s own doctrines:


‘O sweeter than the Marriage feast

       ‘Tis sweeter far to me

To walk together to the Kirk

       With a goodly company.


To walk together to the Kirk

       And all together pray

While each to his great father bends

Old men, and babes, and loving friends,

       And youths, and Maidens gay.’


Well, that ideal of church-going seems to be something that Coleridge never experienced.  But one must wonder why Coleridge made such a stark distinction between the celebration of marriage and the act of prayer.  Perhaps because the marriage feast is here a symbol of domestic life based on the senses, and so on those follies and superstitions which the ‘good people’ in a family are subject to, and which in Coleridge’s mind prevent any real experience of the transcendental, achieved either by being open to the great




objects of nature, or through the imagination and the will awakening the power of ideas.

It is, however, a distinction that became more and not less marked in Coleridge’s thinking; and he came, like the mariner and the wedding guest, to seek detachment from his domestic world.  Some years later he wrote in a letter, ‘To feel the full force of the Christian religion, it is necessary, for many tempers, that they should first be made to feel, experimentally, the hollowness of human friendship, the presumptuous emptiness of human hopes.’ (CL IV 893)  Implicit in that statement is the supposition that our attachments in this world prevent, rather than encourage, our understanding of Christianity: that mundane experience will mask the truth, not reveal it.

This is not comfortable stuff.  It is Coleridge saying what perhaps almost all those gifted with spiritual insight have said–attachment to this world is not compatible with attachment to God–or as he puts it elsewhere, ‘Life begins in detachment from nature, and ends in attachment to God.’ (LS 183)  Because Coleridge did not believe that we could don the human dress by retaining our concept of self as a physical or material being, or even as a social entity, he also came to believe that there were two modes of comprehending the self: one life-giving, and depending finally on a consciousness of Christ; and the other, sense-based, tolling us back to a world of death, in which the self finds itself in its own passions, instincts and desires–or in the objects with which these passions are associated.  The great rule of self-discipline was, he claimed, to keep the I and the me distinct, ‘and remove Me till it is almost lost in the remote distance… The worst solecism is–I am me, and to God only belongs the right grammar–I am I.’  We find our true humanity, he believed, by looking beyond ourself, in seeking another not ourself.   Or as he put it in a notebook: ‘No I without a Thou: no Thou without a Law from Him to whom I and Thou stand in the same relation.  Distinct Self-knowledge begins with sense of Duty to my Neighbour… ’

This manner of thinking was not just theological speculation for Coleridge.  His attempts to pray were often defeated, and these defeats meant the ‘I’ discovered ‘me’, and not a ‘thou’. One entry in an unpublished notebook makes it clear how deeply he felt these setbacks:


‘Alas! I implore the Light which is at the same time Life–Life and Power in the Will… But I feel and find only the weakness, darkness, hollowness, which are my Self–and therein my calamity and my sin, that I do find myself, instead of God and the Divine Man, one with God… ’


But even in the most personal notes, Coleridge does not cease to reflect upon his experience.  The following entry shows his combination of reflection, insight and prayer:


My Soul.  My?–Yes! as long as Sin reigns, so long must this “my” have a




tremendous force, a substantial meaning.  Every Sin and thought of Sin sink us back in upon the swampy rotten ground of our division from God, make us participant and accomplices of the Hades, the only conceivable contrary of God not indeed conceivable of itself, but only by means of the coercion from the at once determining and the subliming Word and Spirit… Nature is Hades rendered intelligible by the energy, which combining therewith makes it no longer Hades… But in proportion as the captivity, and the chain is loosened, and we can go forth, we leave the my behind, forget it and so find it, our own I becoming an indivisible Breathing included in the Eternal I AM.’


This task is of a kind with one aspect of Romanticism–a determination to find working in oneself ‘the subliming Word and Spirit’, the transcendental, the moment of renovating virtue.  The context is Christian of course, but the main task, in which the self is transformed and made at one with the source of life, is characteristic of the major Romantic poets.  The Mariner himself seems to unite these two worlds.

That desirable union of Christian belief and romantic experience is part of our spiritual heritage–and in my opinion a particularly difficult one to come to terms with.  It is, I think, no necessary part of being a Christian, or at least of being a Christian in a moral sense–although as I wrote that down, Jesus’s own words echoed through my mind…‘Unless a man be born again…’  Certainly, not to have a sense of the love of Christ is to have no experience, no power to counter what Coleridge called the brute unbelief of the flesh–which in one way or another we all know too well and feel too much of.  The lack of one and the insistant presence of the other is a recipe for despair; and Coleridge faced despair on many occasions; and I think it is one of his small heroisms that he did not sink back into the equation of ‘I’ with ‘me’ when thus tempted. 

In the 1820’s he describes self-contempt as ‘a willingness to the evanescence of the Personal in us, [a] virtual suicide–it is truly self-centering–we will not the Will of God.’  So, what is truly personal, or the person in us, is found in the will of God; and in a note dated Wed.Night 28 July 1830, he writes as if in prayer,


‘O God!… who art in thy Redeemed to will and to do, preserve me from the deadly Hensbane of self-contempt–the worst and most concentrated form of selfishness.  For it is a shrinking down into the mere Self, an abstraction from the redeeming God… O merciful Father!  For Christ’s sake enlighten my faith, enliven my Hope and kindle my Love.’


In this state of mind, to counter his sense of desolation, Coleridge felt the profound need for a community of believers–a Church.  And it is interesting to note, that later in life, long after he had separated from his wife, and the idea of marriage had no domestic implications for him, he feels able to re-present it as




the symbol of Christ’s relationship with his Church:


‘The Jehovah Christ founded a Church and declared marriage the mystery and the symbol of the [same].  I feel and know by bitter experience, to what temptations I have exposed myself, by being a Churchless Christian–A Christian, with the total assent and adhesion of my Will, my Mind, and my affections, thro’ vouchsafed Grace, I am.  [But] O! how bitterly I want the aid of fellow-believers… O blessed is the communion of the Redeemed.’


That communion, he supposed, could give support to those struggling to re-order their lives; they could retire to this ‘common Nest’ while they endured a season of weakness and sorrow, like a caterpillar in a chrysalis, before emerging reborn.

However much Coleridge felt the need of such a communion, he appears to have made no attempt to become part of any actual Church.  And his experience of Church-going was, just like his experience of marriage, a disappointment to him.  On Christmas Day, 1827, he received the sacrament for the first in 33 years; and believing that in his latter years he has fed spiritually on the body of Christ, he then speaks rather slightingly of the sacrament in the Church of England as no more than a ‘visual metaphor for the mere purpose of reminding the partakers of a single event, the sensible crucifixion of Jesus.’

Well, us church-goers might ask, what did he expect?   But here again is that division between idea and experience–between Christ as our indwelling humanity, the real person in all of us, who sustains our spiritual life, and the taking of bread and wine in a cold and perhaps rather gloomy church in Highgate. We all know, I imagine, this kind of hiatus between idea and experience–and sadly, for many of us, experience gradually erodes our willingness to believe that ideas or doctrines may become life-giving powers.

But for Coleridge, I am glad to say, experience did not get the upper hand–and the essence of Coleridge’s Christianity is his longing for a personal relationship with Christ, inspired by the free will.  Because he more or less refused to see religion except in terms of the human will, he would barely have acknowledged the validity of the common question, If God can prevent earthquakes, famine, cancer, war and so forth, why doesn’t he?  That mode of reasoning takes us away from any kind of personal relationship, and towards the notion of God as an independent force, rather like gravity, but with the ability to switch himself on and off, and making prayer a sort of ritual incantation to get him to flick the switch for our benefit.  Nothing could be further from Coleridge’s idea of what it meant to be a Christian.

By all the usual standards, Coleridge had a disastrous life; he failed in almost all his major undertakings: he failed as a husband and father; what might have been his greatest poem remained unfinished; of his philosophical work, planned for thirty years, we have but a few chapters; he frequently




disappointed and sometimes deceived both himself and other people.  Everybody admitted his genius, and everbody knew that he produced a mere fraction, or fragment, of what he was capable.

And yet I cannot think of his life as a failure.  In his later years, nothing was more important to him than knowing that he existed in Christ, and Christ in him.  And on those grounds, the grounds of his beseeching, I don’t think he failed.  The indications in the notebooks are not many, but they reveal an occasional confidence that all is well.  One evening, after writing at length on other matters, he jots down a simple note, saying that he feels ‘more than commonly open to the love of Christ’.  Those are words that may give comfort to all his fellow believers.