When is a Symbol not a Symbol? Coleridge on the Eucharist


Nicholas Halmi


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 85-92)



EIGHT YEARS AGO, when I addressed the Coleridge Summer Conference for the first time, I undertook to examine Coleridge’s concept of the symbol, as formulated in The Statesman’s Manual and a handful of other texts, in accordance first with my own sense of the need for greater methodological rigour than had prevailed in analyses of Coleridge’s use of theological terminology, and secondly with Coleridge’s avowal, in the preface to Aids to Reflection, of ‘the value of the Science of Words, their use and abuse… and the incalculable advantages attached to the habit of using them appropriately’.1 Although the conclusion I reached on that occasion—namely that Coleridge’s concept of the consubstantial symbol is incompatible with the most basic doctrines of Christian theology—has been, so far as I am aware, disregarded in subsequent studies of Coleridge’s theological thought, it forms the point of departure for my examination here of his reflections on the Eucharist. I shall need briefly to reprise the part of my argument specifically concerned with the Incarnation, because the Incarnation is closely linked with the Eucharist both in the theological tradition and in Coleridge’s own mind. ‘Sublimely did the Fathers call the Eucharist, the extension of the Incarnation’, Coleridge observed.2 But did his concept of the symbol leave any room in the world for such an extension?

       In The Statesman’s Manual, as I hardly need to remind readers of this journal, Coleridge defined the symbol, whether it manifested itself in scripture or in nature, as being ‘consubstantial’ with its referent, and it was a point of sufficient importance to him that he proceeded to expound it twice, first in the body of the sermon and then in the third of the five appendices. The symbol ‘always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible’; it is ‘an actual and essential part of that, the whole of which it represents’.3 By appealing to the notion of participation, or identity of substance, to efface the distinction between representational function and ontological content—between meaning and being, in other words—Coleridge, like his German contemporaries who




conceived the symbol along very similar lines, was responding to a double burden of the Enlightenment. That burden consisted on the one hand in an anxiety about the nature of representation generally, an anxiety precipitated by the invidious differentiation in eighteenth-century aesthetics of natural from artificial signs, and on the other hand in the renunciation of sensory intuition—saving the phaenomena—as the foundation of scientific theorization.4  To rephrase the problem in the form of question: how can we be sure that nature is naturally meaningful to humanity?

       Coleridge’s only distinctive contributions to the body of Romantic symbolist theory were, characteristically, terminological: one was coining the word tautegorical, the other appropriating the word consubstantial from Trinitarian theology. If the first word had nothing but its novelty to recommend it (though that was enough for Schelling, who, conscious of the irony involved, borrowed the term from Coleridge), the second had its history, and consequent familiarity. Coleridge was perfectly aware, and could assume his readers were aware, that the Nicene Creed, adopted in 325 and surviving vestigially in the Anglican Church’s first Article of Religion, described the Father and the Son as consubstantial (homoousios in the original Greek), by which no more—and no less—was meant than the full deity of the Son and the nonidentity of his intratrinitarian generation with the creation of the world: ‘That the Faith of the Church in the co-eternity and true deity of the Son should be placed beyond all pretence of doubt’, as Coleridge summarized the doctrinal situation, ‘was a point of infinite importance’.5 What Coleridge appropriated when he described the symbol as consubstantial, therefore, was not merely a single term but the conceptual system in which that term had acquired its historical significance and without which its appropriation would not even have been recognizable as such. But by substituting the world for the Son in the systematic position of the second Person in the Trinity, as he did when he conceived natural phenomena as consubstantial symbols of the divine reason, Coleridge violated precisely that minimum standard of orthodoxy which the bishops at the Nicene Council had sought to guarantee by incorporating homoousios into the creed in the first place.6 In these circumstances the very predicate person loses whatever applicability to the deity it might have had, so that Coleridge’s regret that the different aspects of God had ever been designated prosôpata, or persons—‘methinks, a less equivocal word than Person ought to have been adopted’—was at least consistent with his concept of the symbol.7 And it requires little effort, though more than Coleridge himself was willing to risk, to recognize the Christological consequence of ensuring the naturalness of the




symbol and the symbolic status of nature by committing the world to a relation of consubstantiality with the divine reason: once the world has displaced the Son within the structure of the Trinity, the Son can no longer be incarnated in the world. From a strictly theological perspective, therefore, there is little difference between Coleridge’s concept of the consubstantial symbol and Giordano Bruno’s concept of an infinite universe, according to which God reproduces himself fully as the world.8  But Bruno was more conscious of what his cosmology implied for the Incarnation, as he demonstrated at the stake by averting his eyes from the Crucifix that was held before him.

       Now I do not claim of Coleridge, as St Jerome claimed of St Paul, that like a true David he used the enemy’s own sword to behead him.9 Coleridge’s appropriation of Trinitarian theology in his symbolist theory is devoid of the cunning that Jerome discerned in Paul’s allusions to pagan philosophy, for Coleridge was not seeking to discredit what he was appropriating. On the contrary, the ‘Confessio Fidei’ of November 1810—confided to a notebook but now well known—attests to his conscious rejection of Unitarianism in favour of Trinitarianism, including the doctrine of the Incarnation, while the numerous public and private statements adduced by Thomas McFarland attest to his acceptance of Trinitarianism as the only viable alternative to pantheism, the moral implications of which had consistently disturbed him.10 In his movement towards Trinitarianism, Coleridge’s private reflections on the symbol, insofar as they served to spiritualize his love for Sara Hutchinson, may well have played a decisive, enabling role, as Tim Fulford has proposed.11 Thus acknowledging that Coleridge relied on a decidedly unorthodox association of God and nature to persuade himself of nature’s meaningfulness is by no means equivalent to denying that he believed in traditional theological doctrines and relied on their provisions of free will and divine intervention in history to account for the existence of evil and the possibility of release from it. If anything, his inability to base ethics and natural philosophy on the same set of cosmogonic assumptions confirms Goethe’s sense of the need for a notion of divinity that could be altered according to the purpose it was expected to serve: ‘We are pantheists in the study of nature, polytheists in poetry, monotheists in ethics.’12 Of course Coleridge would not have acknowledged such a need, much less endorsed Goethe’s answer to it, which virtually parodies the Trinity. He is not a Whitman, consciously embracing self-contradiction: ‘Do I




contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes).’13 But the fact remains that his considerations of theological issues can be far more radical, and his appropriations of theological language far more daring, than his occasional professions of faith would authorize one to expect. The unresolved co-existence of contradictory theological conceptions exemplifies the ‘muddlesome doubleness’ that Seamus Perry has affirmed as characteristic of Coleridge’s thought.14 But in the present context, it is insufficient to speak of a muddle. As Henry Crabb Robinson, a close and often shrewd observer of Coleridge, noted more pointedly, ‘Coleridge is very desirous to be a refined and subtle philosopher and metaphysician, and at the same time conform with the people in its religion. That this desire is consciously excited by any unworthy suggestions, or that he is grossly insincere in any of his assertions, I do not believe; but I believe there is in him much self-deception.’15

       The essential ambiguity of Coleridge’s conception of divinity allowed him to avoid making the choice that his theory of the consubstantial symbol would otherwise have presented: the choice between simply rejecting the Incarnation as incomprehensible, as Bruno had done, or more prudently allegorizing it as the philosophically necessary unity of the transcendent and the immanent, as the German Idealists were doing. Schelling, for example, taught that the Incarnation must be understood not as God’s assumption of human nature ‘at a definite moment in time’ but rather as ‘the humanization of eternity’, a process of which ‘the man Christ appears only as the summit and to that extent also the beginning, since his successors were supposed to continue it in such a way that they would all be parts of one and the same body as that of which he is the head’.16 Schleiermacher replaced the hypostatic union with self-consciousness, so that Jesus was now distinguished from other persons only by the ‘magnificent clarity’ with which he perceived and communicated ‘the idea that everything finite requires higher mediations to be connected with divinity’. 17 Hegel too conceived the Incarnation as a kind of self-consciousness, but related it to the self-realization of the spirit and absolute knowledge: in becoming human the divine essence becomes conscious of itself as spirit, ‘for the spirit is the knowledge of itself in its externalization, the essence . . . retaining its likeness with itself in its otherness’. 18




       Because he understood that ‘in orthodox Christianity the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ is the Religion itself’,19 Coleridge did not follow his German contemporaries in denying the historicity of the divine incarnation in Jesus, although he was prepared to admit that the Logos had manifested itself incompletely in certain of the Old Testament prophets.20 However, that he was able explicitly to affirm in one context what he implicitly rejected in another—or so I maintain—does not mean that his belief in the hypostatic union never came into conflict with his concept of the consubstantial symbol. Their point of conflict was, logically enough, their point of intersection in his reflections on the Christian sacrament in which incarnation and symbolic function coincide: the Eucharist.

       What makes this conflict obvious is the limit to which Coleridge was able to apply his theory of the symbol to defending the doctrine of the Real Presence. This effort began in an appendix to The Statesman’s Manual, when he pressed his distinction between symbol and metaphor into service against the sacramentarian view of the Eucharist strictly as a metaphor for and remembrance of Christ. As a symbol, the sacrament must be essentially connected with what it represents: ‘mysterious as the symbol may be’, he wrote, ‘the sacramental Wine is no mere or arbitrary memento’.21 In scattered statements of the 1820s and 1830s Coleridge continued to refer to the Eucharist as a symbol and to define it in almost exactly the same terms he used for the consubstantial symbol—that is, as ‘a part, or particular instance selected as representative of the whole, of which whole however it is itself an actual, or real part’.22 But it was one thing to explain that the sacramental elements truly participate in Christ, and something else to explain in what way they do so.

       For the latter purpose Coleridge might have appealed to the idea of the consubstantiality of signifier and signified. That would have been consistent not only with his own conception of the symbol in other contexts, but also with the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, according to which the substance of the body and blood of Christ coexists with the original substance of the consecrated bread and wine in a manner that Luther, with characteristic homeliness, illustrated by an analogy from the blacksmith’s shop: ‘Consider how the two substances of iron and fire are mixed in red-hot iron, so that each part is equally iron and fire: why is it not much more possible for the glorious




body of Christ to exist that way in all parts of the bread’s substance?’ 23 Strangely, while proposing the equivalence of symbol and sacrament in Coleridge’s mind, Robert Barth is silent about the striking parallels between Coleridge’s symbolist theory and Luther’s Eucharistic theology. 24 Central to both are the concepts of synecdoche (pars pro toto) and ubiquity (totus in omni parte). Seeking scriptural support for his belief in the complete as well as real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Luther had insisted that the words instituting the sacrament are meant as a synecdoche: ‘this is my body . . . this is my blood’. And from this interpretation of the institution of the Eucharist had followed Luther’s teaching on ubiquity, which maintained that the mysterious nature of the divine presence in the world permits Christ to be fully present in a given place without being confined to it.25

       But far from accepting the doctrine of consubstantiation, Coleridge found it even more objectionable than the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which the Church of England specifically condemns in its twenty-eighth Article of Religion. (According to the Roman doctrine, only the ‘accidents’ of the bread and wine remain after consecration, while their substance is entirely transformed into that of the body and blood of Christ.) As early as 1810 Coleridge declared ‘not indeed that Transubstantiation is a Doctrine of Scripture, but that it is a mistaken conception of a true doctrine, far nearer the truth… than the Consubstantiation of Luther, which according to that ubiquity of the Body of Christ which he deduced from the union of God with man… allows of no peculiarity of the sacramental Elements, but applies equally to every morsel of food taken by Man & Beast thro’ out the Universe’.26 Though perhaps unfair to Luther, this objection to the concept of divine ubiquity suggests that Coleridge regarded symbols consumed at the altar as somehow different from symbols beheld through the window. What remains unclear from this early foray into sacramental theology, however, is whether he conceived the Eucharist to be one species within the genus symbolum or something sui generis.

       Two decades later this ambiguity was resolved in an annotation on Donne’s Sermons. Reaffirming his disagreement with Lutheran orthodoxy, Coleridge opined that Luther would never have ‘had to seek a murky Hiding-hole




in the figment of Consubstantiation’ if he had understood ‘the true definition of a Symbol as distinguished from the Thing on one hand, and from a mere metaphor or conventional exponent of a Thing, on the other’.27 We are not told what this definition is, but we are told enough to know that it is not the one with which we are already familiar—which is to say, the one Coleridge shared with the German Romantics. That he assumed the relation of signifier to signified to be synecdochal in everything he called a symbol—be it the Eucharist or the moon dim-glimmering outside his window—did not prevent him from drawing contradictory conclusions from that assumption. In The Statesman’s Manual the symbol is defined as consubstantial with the truth of which it is the conductor, but in this annotational animadversion on Luther it is defined as incompatible with such consubstantiality. When he proposes the concept of the symbol as a corrective to the doctrine of consubstantiation, he is implying that the Eucharist cannot be consubstantial with the body and blood of Christ because it is symbolic of them. Thus it is accurate to credit Coleridge with not one but two concepts of the symbol, virtually identical and mutually exclusive. As Heraclitus would say, each lives the other’s death.

       The dissociation of synecdoche from consubstantiality is made necessary by Coleridge’s desire to account for the Real Presence without imputing divinity to the sacramental elements themselves. That imputation, which turns the sacrament into an idol, was what he found objectionable in the doctrines of consubstantiation and transubstantiation alike. The difference between the Lutheran and Catholic doctrines is ‘only a difference between the same absurdity’, an absurdity that consists in making ‘the Symbol representant, the whole thing represented’.28 But in order to avoid this absurdity himself, Coleridge had to reverse the procedure by which he had already deduced the symbol to be the same as what it symbolizes—the deduction that for Schelling was so brilliantly expressed in the coinage tautegorical.29 In other words, the symbol is now supposed to be different from that of which it is a part. Whereas in the tautegorical symbol the relations of participation and identity are conflated, in the sacramental symbol they are opposed. The symbol can be tautegorical or sacramental, it appears, but not both.

       Small wonder, then, that Coleridge more than once affirmed the principle ‘Rem credimus, modum nescimus’, a refusal of explanation, to be the ‘most rational Doctrine’ concerning the Eucharist, even though he also acknowledged it to be ‘a poor evasion’.30 By denying his concept of the sacramental symbol the predicate consubstantiality that he allowed his concept of the tautegorical symbol, Coleridge managed not merely to avoid openly violating Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles, but more importantly




to avoid acknowledging that his assertion of a synecdochical relation between nature and the divine reason excluded the possibility of the Incarnation itself, let alone its repetition in the Eucharist. But it is possible that this knowledge lay just below the threshold of his consciousness. Consider one of his annotations, probably dating from the 1820s, on Luther’s Table Talk. While retaining his insistence that the Eucharist is a synecdochical symbol, he revised his definition of what it symbolizes. It is no longer, or not solely, the Incarnation that is represented, but the sum of the actions demanded of Christians by their religion: ‘The ceremonial Sign, viz. the eating the Bread and drinking the Wine, became a Symbol—i.e. a solemn instance and exemplification of the Class of mysterious acts, which we are, or as Christians should be, performing daily & hourly in every social duty and recreation.—This is indeed to re-create the Man in and by Christ.’ 31 The implication here is that for Coleridge divinity is not so much ritually readmitted into the world as perpetually present in it and manifested in our actions. Perhaps, therefore, it was because he deemed it unnecessary that, despite enjoining the Eucharist on others in The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge declined to receive it himself for thirty-six years—until Christmas Day of 1827, as he recorded in his notebook.32 Or perhaps, believing that the bread was an actual and real part of that, the whole of which it represented, he simply feared biting off more than he could chew.


1      AR 6–7. The present paper, derived from a talk presented at the Coleridge Summer Conference in July 2002,  is a much-delayed response to a question about the Eucharist that Mary Anne Perkins asked me after my talk at the Coleridge Summer Conference of 1994 (published the following year: see n. 6). I am grateful to Graham Davidson for his helpful comments on this paper.

2      M III 758. The note refers to Jeremy Taylor’s Worthy Communicant (London, 1674) § 2 as Coleridge’s authority; see M V 675 for the passage  in which the phrase ‘extension of the Incarnation’ occurs.

3      SM 29, 30, 79; cf. AR 263n.

4       On the Romantic response to Enlightenment semiotics see Tzvetan Todorov, Théories du symbole (Paris, 1977), ch. 5 and 6, and my article ‘Symbol and Allegory’ in the Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, ed Chris Murray (London, forthcoming 2003).

5       M II 731 (annotation on Charles Fleury’s Ecclesiastical History).

6       This argument, necessarily condensed here, was developed more fully in my article ‘How Christian Is the Coleridgean Symbol?’, The Wordsworth Circle XXVI (1995) 26–30.

7       M II 264. See also M I 681 and CL V 88 and n.

8       For a full exposition of Bruno’s cosmology and its Christological implications, see Hans Blumenberg, Die Legitmität der Neuzeit, 3rd ed. (Frankfurt, 1996), pp. 639–700.

9       Jerome, Epistola 70 § 2 in Patrologia Latina, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris, 1844–64) XXII 665: ‘Didicerat enim a vero David, extorquere de manibus hostium gladium, et Goliae superbissimi caput proprio mucrone truncare.’

10     CN III 4005; McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford, 1969), ch. 4.

11     Coleridge’s Figurative Language (Basingstoke, 1991), pp. 90–1. In Coleridge’s Career (Basingstoke, 1990), pp. 137–51, Graham Davidson presents what might appear to be the opposed argument that it was precisely Coleridge’s spiritualized view of  Sara Hutchinson that led him to an  understanding of the Trinity. But insofar as both Fulford and Davidson see Coleridge’s relationship to ‘Asra’ as fundamental to his Trinitarianism, they are in agreement.

12     Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen no. 807 in Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, ed. Ernst Beutler (Zürich, 1948–71) IX 608.

13     Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, part 51.

14     Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford, 1999), pp. 7–34; quotation from p. 12. Perry cites approvingly Thomas McFarland’s reference to Coleridge’s ‘including temperament’, but the citation is tellingly selective: McFarland’s complete phrase is ‘reconciling and including temperament’ (Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau [Oxford, 1995], p. 243). Like Perry, I distinguish inclusion from reconciliation.

15     Crabb Robinson, On Books and Their Writers, ed. Edith J. Morley (London, 1938) I 108.

16     Schelling, Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums (1803), lect. 9, in Sämmtliche Werke, ed. K.F.A. Schelling (Stuttgart, 1856–61) V 297–98.

17     Schleiermacher, Über die Religion (1799), ed. H.-J. Rothert (Hamburg, 1970), p. 167.  The sentence contains an etymological pun, as herrlich (‘magnificent, glorious’) derives from Herr, one of whose meanings is ‘Lord’; in the next sentence Schleiermacher puns on his own name in the phrase den Schleier hinwegnehmen (‘to take away the veil’).

18 Hegel, Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), in Werke in zwanzig Bänden, ed. Eve Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel (Frankfurt, 1986) III 552.  In his later lectures on religion Hegel explained that although the concept of incarnation has been developed most completely (vollkommen ausgebildet) in Christianity, it is an essential element (wesentliches Moment) of all religions (Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, in Werke XVI 75; cf. p. 81).

19     M III 662 (annotation on Lessing’s Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft).  Cf. the ‘Confessio Fidei’ (CN III 4005): ‘I believe that this Assumption of Humanity by the Godhead Son of God was revealed & realized to us by the Word made flesh, and manifested to us, in Jesus Christ. . . .’

20     On the manifestation of the Logos in Old Testament prophets, see the late notebook entries quoted by J. R. Barth, Coleridge and Christian Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), pp. 138–39.

21     LS 88. For further instances of Coleridge’s opposition to the sacramentarians, see M I 524 and II 279–80; CN IV 5215 (May 1825); and TT I 135–36 (13 May 1830).

22     M I 862 (an annotation on Charles Butler’s Vindication of ‘The Book of the Roman Catholic Church’); cf. pp. 524–25, 704, and V 550 (an annotation on Jeremy Taylor’s Real Presence).

23     Luther, De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium (1520), in Werke (Weimar, 1883–) VI 510: ‘Ecce ignis et ferrum duae substantiae sic miscentur in ferro ignito, ut quaelibet pars sit ferrum et ignis: cur non multo magnis corpus gloriosum Christi sic in omni parte substantiae panis esse possit?’ This analogy, which Luther repeated eight years later in Vom Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis (Werke, XXVI 444), had already been used in Patristic times to elucidate the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures: see, e.g., Origen, De principiis 2.6.6.

24     Cf. The Symbolic Imagination, 2nd ed. (New York, 2001), pp. 13–22.

25     For Luther’s fullest exposition of his mature Eucharistic theology, see Vom Abendmahl Christi, in Werke XXVI 241–509, esp. pp. 339–49 (on ubiquity) and pp. 441–45 (on synecdoche). For further details see Albrecht Peters, Realpräsenz (Berlin, 1960), pp. 86–113.

26     CN III 3847 (June 1810); cf. M I 862–3 (on Charles Butler), V 4–5 (on William Sherlock). In an annotation of 1814–15 (or possibly later) on Richard Field’s Book of the Church, Coleridge opposed the Lutheran doctrine less categorically, allowing it an ‘intelligible Sense’ on the somewhat cryptically expressed condition that ‘by Substance be meant id quod vere? est’ and ‘the divine Nature be sole ens vere? ens’ (M II 671).

27     M II 280.

28     M I 862.

29     See SM 30 n. 3 and Schelling’s Philosophie der Mythologie, lect. 8, Sämmtliche Werke XI 196n. Schelling encountered the word in Coleridge’s Prometheus lecture of 1825 (SW&F 1268).

30     M V 5 (ca. 1820), 554 (on Jeremy Taylor, after 1816); M II 281 (on Donne’s LXXX Sermons, 1831–2).

31     M III 757–8.

32     SM 87–8; CN V 5703; cf. AR 386–7 n. 13.