The Intellectual Breeze, the Corporeality of Thought, and the Eolian Harp

Michael Raiger

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 76-84)




THE MOST SATISFYING POETIC ARTICULATION of Coleridge’s early philosophy of nature is found in ‘Effusion XXXV’ (later to be called ‘The Eolian Harp’), published in 1796 in his collection of Poems on Various Subjects. In the 31 December 1796 letter to Thelwall, Coleridge called this the ‘favorite of my poems’ (CL I 295), and he remained pleased with the poem throughout his life. In this letter he states that the metaphor of the harp representing the idea of the plasticity of nature as an ‘all–pervading’ and ‘immaterial Nature’ is one that ‘Monro believes’ (CL I 294). But the idea of the plasticity of nature was present in many thinkers, both idealist and materialist in their thinking. (Cudworth is an example of the former, Erasmus Darwin of the latter.) In the context of this letter, the lines cited from the poem seem to be an illustration or corroboration of Alexander Monroe’s idea of plasticity, rather than a claim that they are derived from him. They are presented in the context of an inquiry concerning the nature of soul, and are expressed as a position which Coleridge himself no longer believes, having settled on the definition ‘I am a mere apparition—a naked Spirit!—And that Life is I myself I! which is a mighty clear account of it’ (CL I 295). In this conjectural mood, mingled with a mild reproof of materialism, Coleridge is mocking himself, and Thelwall as well. The origin of the eolian harp metaphor cannot be decided on the basis of this letter alone.[1]

       However, in The Philosophical Lectures Coleridge claims that the principle of mind set forth in the earliest published version of the poem is derived from the philosophy of George Berkeley. In Lecture XIII, in which subjectivity is defined as the reflective capacity of the human being to know itself in its own acts of thought, Coleridge explains the idealist position as the collapse of the object into the subject¾Berkeley’s principle of esse est percipi. But the idealist




position which privileges subjective thought over material objectivity does not thereby achieve the full level of the mind’s self–reflective capacities, earlier ‘defined AS a subject which IS its own object’ (Philosophical Lectures, 371). Rather, in contradistinction to the realist who asserts the reality of both subject and object,


an idealist, would declare the material and corporeal world to be wholly subjective, that is, to exist only as far as it is perceived. In other words, he, the idealist, concedes a real existence to one of the two terms only¾to the natura naturans, in Berkeley’s language, to God, and to the finite minds on which it acts, THE NATURA NATURATA, or the bodily world, being the result, even as the tune between the wind and the Aeolian harp. I remember when I was yet young this fancy struck me wonderfully, and here are some verses I wrote on the subject:

‘And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic Harps diversely framed

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual Breeze

At once the Soul of each and God of all.’

                                               (Philosophical Lectures, 371)


But if we accept Coleridge’s claim that the form of causality expressed in his poem ‘Effusion XXXV’ is Berkeleyan, what are we to make of its importance for understanding his philosophy of nature during this period of his career? What I wish to suggest is that the metaphor of the eolian harp can be seen as an emblem for the growing rift in Coleridge’s philosophical thinking at this time, divided between the monistic systems of eighteenth–century British idealism and materialism, which in turn will reveal a deeper division between an active and passive account of the human mind.

       In a general way, Coleridge’s use of Berkeley’s conception of motion as an instrumental cause performed by the principle of æther can be seen in the instrumental metaphor of the eolian harp. The subtlety and elasticity of the Berkeleyan principle of æther, a spiritual fire which is present throughout nature as the one cause of all motion, both physical and mental, is described in the Siris in the following manner: ‘The principles of motion and vegetation in living bodies seem to be debilitations from the invisible fire or spirit of the universe (Sects. 43, 157, 164, 171), which, though present to all things, is not nevertheless one way received by all…’ (Berkeley V 214) Berkeley expresses the idea that all living beings are animated through vibrations caused by æther in this way:


The refraction of light is also thought to proceed from the different density and elastic force of this æthereal medium in different places. The vibrations of this medium, alternately concurring with or obstructing the motions of the rays of light, are supposed to produce




the fits of easy reflection and transmission. Light by the vibrations of this medium is thought to communicate heat to bodies. Animal motion and sensation are also accounted for by the vibrating motions of this æthereal medium, propagated through the solid capillaments of the nerves. In a word, all the phenomena and properties of bodies that were before attributed to attraction, upon later thoughts seem ascribed to this æther, together with the various attractions themselves. (Berkeley V 107–8)


Berkeley’s appeal to æther replaces Newtonian gravity as the cause of motion in nature, thereby supplanting mechanism with a vital, spiritual action in the system of natural causality. It is this animating force that appeals to Coleridge, and in the characterization of that motion as vibratory, the instrumental cause of motion suggests the instrument of the harp as a metaphor for its poetic representation.

       A clearer account of the Berkeleyan influence upon the development of the metaphor of the eolian harp in ‘Effusion XXXV’ can be presented by tracing the history of the composition of the poem evidenced by the Rugby manuscripts. Paul Cheshire’s arrangement of the manuscript versions on one large sheet of paper, published in The Coleridge Bulletin along with a commentary and interpretative reading of the various changes in the text, has aided me immensely in the development of the following argument. For what we see in the first manuscript is the articulation of Cudworth’s principle of plastic nature, which is then transformed in the published version into a Berkeleyan expression of the causal agency of motion performed by God’s immanent activity. In returning the metaphor of the eolian harp to the context of its composition, the articulation of the philosophy which informs it can be seen its proper historical setting.[2]

       Cudworth’s definition of the plastic nature of life is not a unified ordering, but a principle of unity in disparity:


The Seminary Reason or Plastick Nature of the Universe opposing the Parts to one another and making them severally Indigent, produces by that means War and Contention. And therefore though it be One, yet notwithstanding it consists of Different and Contrary things. For there being Hostility in its Parts, it is nevertheless Friendly and Agreeable in the Whole; after the same manner as in a Dramatick Poem, Clashings and Contentions are reconciled into one Harmony. And therefore the Seminary or Plastick Nature of the World, may fitly be resembled to the Harmony of Disagreeing things. (Cambridge Platonists, 296)




Coleridge expresses this idea in Rugby MS Draft 1 in the following lines referring to the harp introduced a few lines before:


And all in diff’rent stations aptly plac’d

So the low Murmurs and loud Bursts sublime,

Shrill Discords and most soothing Melodies

Creation’s great harmonious Concert form?

Thus God the only universal Soul,

Organiz’d Body is the instrument,

And each one’s Tunes are that, which each calls I.—


These lines are crossed out in Rugby MS Draft 1, and are an initial attempt at the following lines in Rugby MS Draft 2:


And what if All of animated Life

Be but as Instruments diversly fram’d

That tremble into thought, while thro’ them breathes

One infinite and intellectual Breeze?

And all in different heights so aptly hung

That Murmurs indistinct and Bursts sublime,

Shrill Discords and most soothing Melodies,

Harmonious form Creation’s vast concért?

Thus God would be the universal Soul,

Mechaniz’d matter as th’organic harps,

And each one’s Tunes are that, which each calls I.—


The idea of the unity of nature drawn out of discordant notes sounded by various beings is from Cudworth. The idea of a mechanized matter is also expressed by Cudworth, who states that, ‘to those who are Considerative, it will plainly appear, that there is a Mixture of Life or Playstick Nature together with Mechanism, which runs through the whole Corporeal Universe’ (Cambridge Platonists, 290). It appears that this second draft is an attempt to construct an account of the way plastic and mechanical natures operate in one system of causes, but the articulation of it is now expressed in terms of a metaphor—’th’organic harps’—which stands for the ‘Mechaniz’d matter,’ which has replaced the instrumental form of the ‘Organiz’d Body’ in the first draft. While the idea for the metaphor of the eolian harp is derived in part from the notion that plastic nature is analogous to the harmonizing of discordant elements, this is the limit of Cudworth’s influence. For the idea of a plastic nature arranged according to a hierarchical ordering determined by form is not from Cudworth, who links plasticity with matter rather than with form.

       In addition, the notion that God is the ‘universal Soul’ of nature playing upon organized bodies as a plastic nature, which in the final version of the poem published in 1796 would be transformed into the idea of an ‘animated nature’ as ‘Plastic and vast, one intellectual Breeze / At once the Soul of each and God of all,’ is an idea explicitly denied by Cudworth, who claims: [T]his




Plastick Nature, is so far from being the First and Highest Life, that it is indeed the Last and Lowest of all Lives; it being really the same thing with the Vegetative, which is Inferiour to the Sensitive’ (Cambridge Platonists, 310). Cudworth agrees with Plotinus, who is quoted as saying in this regard:


The Spermatick Reason or Plastick Nature, is no pure Mind or perfect Intellect, nor any kind of pure Soul neither; but something which depends upon it, being as it were an Effulgency or Eradiation, from both together, Mind and Soul, or Soul affected according to Mind, generating the same as a Lower kind of Life.

(Cambridge Platonists, 310–11)


Cudworth’s account of plastic nature, with its roots in Platonic philosophy, mediates between matter and the world soul, and while the principle of plastic nature is incorporeal because it is a principle of life,[3] it is not to partake of the same nature as Intellect, which according to Plotinus’s account of the hierarchical order of being is a divine principle emanating from the One.[4] While the terminology of a ‘plastic nature’ may be derived from Cudworth, its use by Coleridge in the published version of ‘Effusion XXXV’ suggests an immediate action of the divine mind upon matter, which is denied in Cudworth’s definition of ‘plastic nature’ as a principle of life that mediates between these two realms of being through a hierarchical order.

       The identification of the moving principle of nature with God however is expressed in Berkeley’s Siris. The claim is made against Newton’s attempt to define fire in terms of heat, which is distinguished from the ‘pure elementary fire’ (Berkeley V 106), the ‘vis, force or power of burning’:


This is truly and really in the incorporeal Agent, and not in the vital spirit of the universe. Motion, and even power in an equivocal sense, may be found in this pure æthereal spirit, which ignites bodies, but is not itself the ignited body, being an instrument or medium by which the real Agent doth operate on grosser bodies.

(Berkeley V 107)


The instrumental cause of æther is God’s activity of playing upon bodies to cause their motion. Seen as the act of God, æther is the movement of spirit; seen as a power of nature, æther is the motion of bodies. 

       The identification of the principle of motion with God is articulated more explicitly in a later passage in the Siris:




Instruments, occasions, and signs (Sect. 160) occur in, or rather make up, the whole visible Course of Nature. These, being no agents themselves, are under the direction of one Agent concerting all for one end, the supreme good. All those motions, whether in animal bodies or in other parts of the system of nature, which are not effects of particular wills, seem to spring from the same general cause with the vegetation of plants—an æthereal spirit actuated by a Mind. (Berkeley V 122)


In these two passages we have a clear articulation of the major principles enunciated in the manuscript and published versions of ‘Effusion XXXV’: the direct action of God upon bodies in moving them to act, a concert of effort which orders things to one unified and harmonious end, the classification of all living beings under one single cause, the moving of nature as performed by an act of Mind (metaphorically expressed as an ‘intellectual breeze’), and God as operating upon beings instrumentally. As such, material beings are the instruments God plays; their instrumentality is a sign whereby beings become modes of communicating the divine will to creatures.

       The idea of the harmony of nature represented by the playing of a musical instrument is articulated by Berkeley in a passage immediately following the one previously cited:


The hidden force that unites, adjusts, and causeth all things to hang together and move in harmony—which Orpheus and Empedocles styled Love—this principle of union is no blind principle, but acts with intellect. This divine Love and Intellect are not themselves obvious to our view, or otherwise discerned than in their effects. Intellect enlightens, Love connects, and the Sovereign Good attracts all things. (Berkeley V 122)


Berkeley’s identification of the instrumental causality of æther is transformed by Coleridge into the moving action of God expressed through the metaphor of the eolian harp. The effect is to collapse the two principles of materiality in Cudworth’s system—Playstick Nature and Mechanism—into the order of spiritual cause. The instrumental causality of plastic nature in Cudworth’s system, which along with mechanism gives rise to discord in the parts of nature, is transformed in the published poem into the unitary cause of motion established in the Berkelyan principle of æther. The compositional history of the poem enacts the very process dramatically represented in the poem, whereby passive material forms are transformed into vital forms of motion by God’s spiritual agency, with passive mind animated by that same agency. This process of compositional development, along with the philosophical elements which inform it, are highly compressed in the metaphor of the eolian harp itself; it is no wonder that their intellectual sources have remained concealed




from critical interpretation for so long.

       Written prior to the ‘desynomization’ of the terms ‘phantasy’ and ‘imagination,’ ‘Effusion XXXV’ presents a philosophical account of mind which is both passive and vital, material and spiritual. As Laurence Lockridge has pointed out, the metaphor of the eolian harp articulates a passive account of mind: ‘The poet’s intoxicated and sensual passivity yields a series of enchanted associations. The eolian harp, the metaphor of mind, ‘like some coy maid half yielding to her lover’, is swept over and ‘caress’d’ by the desultory breeze of nature.’[5] Since the mind is conceived according to the very metaphor it creates, it is at once the instrument of ‘phantasy’ and its effect. And at one with the system of nature represented in the metaphor of the harp, the mind which gives rise to the poem is itself raised from passivity to act by the causal agency represented by the metaphor. ‘Effusion XXXV’ articulates the metaphor of the eolian harp as the expression of ‘many idle flitting phantasies,’ the desultory effect of the material operations of nature located in the brain. [6] It is both the product of phantasy, and a figure representing that production, whereby both mind and nature are organically linked, part of the same system of material operations brought into act by God’s agency. [7]

       Coleridge’s metaphor of the eolian harp in ‘Effusion XXXV’ is a philosophical account of the passive operations of the human mind, conceived as a form of materiality raised to spiritual act. Sara’s look of ‘mild reproof’ qualifies his speculations ‘On vain Philosophy’s aye–babbling spring,’ but does so by confirming his speaking of ‘Th’ INCOMPREHENSIBLE!’ For the metaphor of the eolian harp raises the reflections of these material operations to the level of feeling, issuing in a form of praise uttered ‘with Faith that inly feels’ (‘Effusion XXXV,’ Poems 1796, 99). Here the Berkeleyan account of mind corrects a mechanical explanation of nature which renders the system of nature explainable without appeal to God, thereby replacing the unfeeling causality of mechanism with a system alive with spiritual vitality.[8] To say, as Sara does, that




these are ‘shapings of the unregenerate mind’ then is true as applied to his confession of being ‘A sinful and most miserable man’ (‘Effusion XXXV,’ Poems 1796, 99). But to say that the metaphor of the eolian harp is the result of phantasy is to say that the mind, like nature, is a passive, material form animated by God. Subjectively speaking, phantasy is the human capacity which ‘inly feels’ the divine power of God acting vitally, and from within the subject, through the plasticity of nature.

       Coleridge’s account in his Philosophical Lectures of the Berkeleyan source of the metaphor of the eolian harp is a clue to understanding the manner in which the materialism of Hartley and the idealism of Berkeley are convertible into a single system of necessity which nevertheless preserves the sense of the vitality of action in nature, including human nature, in contrast to a mechanical system of causes.[9] Thus we see how Hartley’s law of association, the supposed mechanism which converts self–interest into benevolence in the unity of all in all in God, is aided by Berkeley’s principle of motion¾such an end is achieved by the instrumental and direct action of God upon the bodies of natural beings. The Hartleyan principle of necessity, purged of its mechanical form, retains under the Berkeleyan conception of motion its sole source of animation in God, the idea of God as ‘SUPREME FAIR sole Operant,’ as expressed in Religious Musings. As such, the necessary action of the deity established by Hartley is retained, while the animation of spirit vivifies and warms the natural order, giving the feeling of self–motion (Hartley’s ‘free–will in the popular and practical sense’) enjoyed by the thinking and acting subject.

       Thus it is that the corporeality of thought passes over into the Berkeleyan principle of motion. The implication is that mind, as well as all things that move in nature, are passive instruments played by God, who brings them into action and motion. The Philosophical Lectures express this passage in terms of materialism and idealism; the convertibility of idealism into materialism is here expressed as a problem in the context of the history of philosophy, but can be read as the record of Coleridge’s own mind at this period of time, seen grappling with the major questions addressed by those ‘who have written most wisely on the Nature of Man’:


We have only to reverse this order of thought [of the idealist, in collapsing matter into spirit], and we shall have the opposite result, that of the materialist. All HERE is merged in the objective, as the former in the subjective, and this reduced, as before, into the general and permanent and the particular AND transitory… (Phil. Lectures, 372)




Thus the convertibility of materialism into idealism is implicit in the very structure of the two systems, which according to their particular philosophical methods collapse either object into subject, or subject into object. These are the two possibilities open to a religiously–informed system operating from within the confines of eighteenth–century British empiricism. For the Coleridge of 1795 and early 1796, the corporeality of thought is both necessary and free, material and spiritual, passive and active, Hartleyan and Berkeleyan, depending upon its expression as an objective event in a system of causes or as a subjective experience of human agency.

       But the solution of linking Berkeley with Hartley posed problems that Coleridge would not see clearly until much later. At this point in his career, materialism and idealism appeared to be compatible, and if synthetically unified, might provide a coherent and scientifically verifiable explanation of causes, while also preserving the religious ends of the system of Hartleyan necessity to which Coleridge remained committed at this point in his career. But while Coleridge would eventually attempt to work out a philosophical solution that would lead him out of the problems posed by the monistic systems of Hartley and Berkeley, he would have to experience them as difficulties, in the context of a practical application of these ideas to religious, moral, and political concerns. In doing so, the problem of conjoining Hartleyan materialism and Berkeleyan idealism in Coleridge’s early thought will come to be subsumed under the opposing philosophical terms of passivity and activity, and transposed into a political engagement which uncovers the fundamental tension between necessity and freedom as forms of practical activity. It is these terms, not the shorthand categories of materialism and idealism borrowed from the history of philosophy and imposed upon him by modern scholarship, that trace the deep fissures of Coleridge’s early thought in the middle years of the 1790’s. And it is in these terms that Coleridge will subject his own thought, rising out of and informed by the eighteenth–century British empirical tradition, to further critical reflection in the years ahead.


                This paper originally appeared as part of the final chapter of my doctoral dissertation entitled Coleridge, Hartley, and Berkeley: Philosophy, Religion, and Politics, 1794-1796, written under the direction of Professor Laurence Lockridge in the Department of English at New York University. I am indebted to Professor Lockridge for his careful reading of the manuscript and for his penetrating commentary on the key philosophical and aesthetic issues related to Coleridge’s reading of Berkeley. I am also grateful to Professor Paul Magnuson, who also read the manuscript and offered valuable advice on some of the important historical problems associated with Coleridge’s reading of Berkeley during the period of 1794 to 1796.

[1]              See H. W. Piper, The Active Universe: Pantheism and the Concept of Imagination in the English Romantic Poets (London: Athlone, 1962): 43, for a discussion which questions the idea that Monroe is the source for the lines introducing the eolian metaphor as an illustration of the plasticity of nature, on the basis of the use of the word plastic by both idealists and materialists at the time. As for the link with Cudworth, Piper argues that Coleridge’s notion of ‘Monads of the Infinite Mind’ differs from Cudworth’s plastic nature, and marks a ‘broadening of interest’ from the latter’s Platonic conception of nature (see 45–6). For the suggestion, without any evidence to support the claim, that through the assimilation of Plotinus, the ‘‘ ‘Eolian Harp’ expresses a vital theory of imagination” despite its metaphor of passivity, see James Volant Baker, The Sacred River: Coleridge’s Theory of Imagination (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969): 71.

[2]              For an account of the contextual location of ‘Effusion XXXV’ as part of a series of poetic statements in Poems on Various Subjects which do not exhibit a ‘‘oneness of thought’,’ but rather, reveal the articulation of the metaphor of the eolian harp as ‘merely one figure among other figures’ (8) which are transitory, and thus, does not express a settled philosophical position, see Paul Magnuson, ‘‘The Eolian Harp’ in Context,’ Studies in Romanticism 24 (1985): 3–20.

[3]              ‘But though the Plastick Nature be the Lowest of all Lives, nevertheless since it is Life, it must needs be Incorporeal; all Life being such’ (Ralph Cudworth, ‘The Plastick Nature of Life,’ The Cambridge Platonists, ed. Patrides, C. A. [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969]: 311).

[4]              See Plotinus, The Enneads, 5.2.1, trans. Stephen MacKenna (New York: Penguin, 1991): 361–2, for his account of the origin of the hierarchies of being proceeding from the One, and his distinction between Intellect and the Soul animating the life of nature. For an account of the manner in which, for Plotinus, Soul both partakes of Intellect while at the same time is sharply distinguished from it, as a form of reason operating in sense, see J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967): 84–102.

[5]              Laurence Lockridge, Coleridge the Moralist (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977): 89. And as Lockridge goes on to point out, it is the passivity of this construction of mind that would horrify Coleridge later: ‘The very passivity that has permitted the fancy to work so delightfully in ‘The Eolian Harp’ will be in ‘Dejection: An Ode’ the symptom of the imagination gone dead in an alien, even nightmarish scene’ (89).

[6]              ‘Coleridge’s use of the word ‘brain’ here suggests that this passage was written under the influence of a materialistic concept of the mind’ (Ronald Wendling, ‘Coleridge and the Consistency of ‘The Eolian Harp,’ Studies in Romanticism 8 (1968): 36). Wendling also points out that the account of mind as part of the system of organic nature implies a ‘passivity of mind in the aesthetic process. . . .’ (Wendling, ‘Coleridge,’ 39)

[7]              ‘As figurae constructed by Coleridge’s highly self–conscious poem, the effusion’s surface actions emerge as figures of sensibility. Within that charged affective field, the central figure of the eolian harp becomes an emblem of the poem (and poet) of sensibility, and ‘The Eolian Harp’ becomes in its turn a higher–order poetical move upon and against the materials it takes up’ (Jerome McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996]: 20). While I disagree with McGann’s claim that the poem’s imagery ‘will work against its own enginery’ (22), his claim that the poem presents the emblematic image which exemplifies the ‘indolent and passive’ motions of the mind itself is, I believe, a sound interpretation of the text.

[8]              For discussions which argue that Sara’s ‘mild reproof’ undermines the expression of the eolian harp as a serious philosophical account of the operations of mind and nature, see Max Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1964): 86, 120; and Jean–Pierre Mileur, Vision and Revision: Coleridge’s Art of Immanence (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982): 37–41. For an account which interprets the metaphor of the eolian harp as presenting a serious philosophical statement, see John Beer, Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence (London: Macmillan, 1977): 64–9.

[9]              In formulating this insight, I am indebted to David Vallins’s fine discussion of Berkeley’s principle of motion which is characterized as the necessary cause leading the human mind through progressive and ascending stages of consciousness, in his book Coleridge and the Psychology of Imagination: Feeling and Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000): 118–23. His linkage of Berkeley and Priestley in regard to the principle of motion is particularly suggestive in the context of the present discussion: ‘Berkeley’s confidence in the self–improving and ultimately religious trajectory of the human mind—a kind of perpetual–motion machine as he describes it—also bears important resemblances to Priestley’s conception in The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated’ (120–1).