Alexander von Humboldt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Intersection of Science and Poetry

Dometa Wiegand


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 105-113)




ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT is a ubiquitous figure in the scientific, the political, the literary, and the social worlds from the 1790s to his death in 1859.  Paradoxically, he has been obscured by time precisely because of the breadth of his popularity; by dividing his interest between the sciences he diminished his appeal to modern scholars.[1]  Humboldt published widely on such topics as geology, geography, botany, chemistry, astronomy, mineralogy, meteorology, and anthropology.  He is known as the ‘father of geography’ and the ‘father of ecology.’  The three volume Personal Narrative outlining his travels to and research in South America was an international bestseller.

       This paper seeks to examine the influence of Alexander  von Humboldt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge, like Humboldt, read widely in the sciences and philosophy including the German Naturphilosophen. Coleridge and von Humboldt both studied at Göttingen under Blumenbach and were influenced by members of the Weimar circle. I want to illuminate this parallel development.

       Not only did Coleridge meet the Humboldts in 1806 in Rome, there is also evidence that Coleridge read and incorporated Humboldt’s work more directly.  Lectures delivered in 1822 have references to some of Humboldt’s early work which was reprinted in English in the Journals Nic Jour (1798) and Monthly Review (1799)  Reference to Humboldt’s work on ocean currents is evident in Coleridge’s essay Comparative Etymology in1826 [2]  Further, Coleridge’s Notebooks IV contains no less than five entries on Humboldt between June of 1820 and September of 1825.  Coleridge’s Notebooks V contains an additional five entries between May 1828 and August 1830.  These references indicate that Coleridge was very familiar with both The Tableaux de la Nature  (1807) and The Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctal Regions of the New Continent (trans. 1814 by Helena Maria Williams).

       I shall attempt to show this influence by establishing a context for the perfusion of certain characteristic ideas through a few well chosen concrete examples of poetry and prose.  Let us first establish what Humboldtian characteristics reassert themselves in all of Humboldt’s works: 1 – Humboldt is against a split in forms of knowledge and instead embraces an interdependent and inter-relational approach resulting in an attempt to establish a scientific




method aimed at the ever-growing relationship of constituent sciences;  2 – He worked with specific particular empirical data as it leads to a construction of reality including the ‘aesthetic and creative.’[3]  3 – In the Humboldtian scheme direct knowledge of nature through science did not ‘destroy’ the mystery and ‘charm of nature.’[4]

       Let us begin the analysis with two of Coleridge’s prose works, ‘The Science and System of Logic’ and ‘Life’, which appeared in Frazer’s Magazine from transcriptions from Coleridge’s lectures of 1822.  ‘Life’ is generally taken as a digression from ‘Science and System.’  In ‘Science and System’ Coleridge vigorously debates the loss of philosophic theory from the sciences:


It was at the Restoration [of Charles II in 1660] however, that the effect became more strikingly manifest, and its operation enforced and accelerated by concurrent causes…It is not even my purpose to blame that eagerness in collecting single and detached facts so noticeable in the earlier transactions of the Royal Society, then newly established.  It might or it might not be a necessary preliminary of a true reformation, but neither, on the other hand, can it be denied that this devotion to the fractional materials of knowledge , as so many independent and integral truths…did weaken the connective powers of the understanding.[5]


In this passage we see the stress being shifted away from the enlightenment principle of direct sense as the only form of knowing.  Coleridge sees this as a real difficulty in Baconian science—that it results in a disconnection between the facts within and between the sciences.  There is instead here a call to treat the sciences and logic more holistically and study not only the constituent parts, but rather, the whole of the natural and intellectual world.  Compare this passage from Humboldt’s Personal Narrative:


I do not fear having too much enlarged on objects so worthy of attention: one of the noblest characteristics which distinguishes…civilization…is that it has enlarged the mass of our conceptions, rendered us more capable of perceiving the connections between the physical and intellectual world, and thrown a more general interest over objects which heretofore occupied only a few scientific men, because those objects were contemplated separately, and from a narrower point of view. [6]


There is a definite call for the move away from only narrow collecting and




categorization and toward a more connective philosophy.  Furthermore, Humboldt considers it one of the great possibilities of the age to enlarge perspectives to include points of connection rather than only the points of differentiation which mark the taxonomic approaches to science.  Clearly Humboldt is writing a very different kind of travel narrative, one which reflects a scientific perspective I would call phenomenological ecology, seeking to retain empirical physical data but also considering emotional and aesthetic effects of the world to be data about the world and its objects.

       Coleridge read Humboldt’s travel narrative and copied passages from the narrative into his notebooks.  The Personal Narratives are not the only works of Humboldt’s which Coleridge read.  The other prose work which I will consider, although transcribed from lectures given in 1822, make  reference to some of Humboldt’s early publications.  Consider the following passage from ‘Life’:


if only by being themselves plural in one sense, and yet one in another; in the same manner as the magnetic power is strictly one and yet at the same time consists of two opposite and correspondent forces or poles, in attraction or  repulsion; yet one I say—for as nature herself instances in the magnetic serpentine, each of these forces supposes the other and every particle of a serpentine magnetic detached from the mass becomes attractive at one end and repulsive at the other. [7]


This passage shows a general Humboldtian influence of valuing specific scientific knowledge as it relates to and illuminates larger philosophic theory; however, it is significant also for its specific reference to serpentine.  As we know from an editorial footnote in Shorter Works and Fragments, the magnetic properties of serpentine were discovered and brought to the world’s general attention in 1796 by Alexander von Humboldt.  This specific reference is to some of Alexander von Humboldt’s earliest publications. The article was reprinted in English journals in 1798 and 1799.[8]  However, it is important to remember that Coleridge read French and German and certainly might have read a previous publication of the work.

       The prospect of Coleridge having read German scientific articles is not at all improbable when we examine the outline of his self-education as presented in a 1797 letter to his friend Joseph Cottle:


I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossillium.  Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages, and




Histories. [9]


Coleridge was setting goals for himself which would most certainly have brought him to Humboldt very early in his career.

       This possibility is tantalizing, but less important than the fact that we know Coleridge did read Humboldt, and, that Humboldt’s work was imbricated with the intellectual world Coleridge was constructing for himself.  Some of his most famous works he continued to revise throughout his entire life.  One such work the poem ‘Eolian Harp,’ especially the following famous lines:


Oh the one life within us and abroad

Which meets all motion and becomes its soul

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythms in all thought, and joyance everywhere.[10]


Those lines did not appear in the original composition of 1795, or in the version published in 1797.  It is, as one editor says, ‘surprising to find that this was written not in 1795 but in 1817.’[11]  It is interesting to note that Humboldt’s Personal Narrative was translated and published in England in 1814.

       It is more likely that these lines exhibit a Humboldtian/Naturphilosophic influence rather than pantheism.  Pantheism was a product of Coleridge’s youth and these lines were added twenty years after Coleridge and Wordsworth explored and then rejected pantheism.  It seems indeed that they are a poetic manifestation of the scientific and philosophic ideas that fixed Coleridge in the latter half of his career.  Important to this reading is the line ‘A light in sound, a sound-like power in light.’  This line clearly indicates the inter-relations Coleridge perceived between various physical phenomena.  Furthermore, it goes on to connect those physical properties to the realm of the intellectual world in the line ‘Rhythms in all thought, and joyance everywhere.’ This attempt to relate the sensory world of physical experience to the intellectual and philosophical world reverberates with echoes of Humboldt’s, ‘mass of our conceptions, rendered …more capable of perceiving the connections between the physical and intellectual world.’ [12] Coleridge’s ideas here developed under the influence of Humboldt and the philosopher Steffens.[13]  Coleridge embraces a conception of the universe which incorporates sound, light, and magnetism. It is an attempt to unite the material world of the physical sciences and the philosophic world.  As we have seen already in Coleridge’s ‘Life,’ the suggestion that magnetism as a scientific manifestation of philosophic laws, is




reiterated here in the poetry.

       Of all Coleridge’s poems that explore the interconnectedness of outward forms, probably the most famous of these is ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’  It is easily identifiable by the modern twenty-first century as ‘ecological.’  By ecological, I do not mean merely having to do with nature, or even with an environmental approach.  What is important in this poem is the internal awareness in the mariner as he perceives himself in relationship to the physical world.  In order to illustrate this phenomenological process in the mariner it is necessary to concentrate on an examination of how the mariner interacts with, processes, and thinks about the natural world.  The best example of the reconciliation of data from the material world and intellectual phenomena occurs within the context of the sea serpents.

       The sea serpents do not appear in the poem until the mariner commits the transgression of killing the albatross.  Killing the bird becomes a physical manifestation of the complexity principle of the ‘butterfly effect,’ the idea that changes in a complex system such as an eco-structure, no matter how tiny, can have calamitous unpredictable consequences.  In this case, causing the sea winds to stop blowing.  It is here that we first see ‘… the slimy things [that] did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea.[14].  This appearance of the ‘slimy things’ is almost peripheral to the mariner at this time.  They are mentioned in passing as part of the background scenery.  They are not even yet identified as particular animals, but only as objects.  No other sensory or empirical detail is given about them.  They are only ‘slimy’ and horribly ‘other’ to the mariner.

       When next the serpents appear it is after the ghost ship appears and Life-in Death[15] wins the mariner.  The question must be here:  Why does Life in Death win the Mariner?  And, why does the mariner make the point with the wedding guest that he did not bodily die?  To make this even more a focus of attention, note that Coleridge gives an additional gloss ‘assur[ing] him of his bodily life’.[16]  Certainly if ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is only about the supernatural spirits and their activities in the world it would not be of paramount importance to attest to his life.  Ostensibly they could use a corpse as well as a living being (indeed they do use a whole ship full of corpses).  With the reappearance of the sea creatures we get a partial answer to this question:


Alone, alone, all all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea;

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony.


The many men so beautiful,

And they all dead did lie!




And a thousand slimy things

Lived on—and so did I.[17]


It is at this moment in the poem, not at the moment of blessing so often cited in criticism, that the mariner makes a connection that he is in some sense like the ‘slimy things’ in the sea.  They share in that they are alive, connected by the larger world.  He had thought he was alone when the other men died, but, with the recognition of the existing ‘slimy things’ in the ocean, he is making the mental connection that he shares something with these creatures.  All are connected by bodily life.  This, for the mariner, apparently must be a physical bodily life, and not a metaphysical sympathy as a starting point in perceptual awareness.

       Physical connection to the world is paramount to the development of the poem. Compare the following description of the sea creatures with the previous passage:


Beyond the shadow of the ship

I watched the water-snakes;

They moved in tracks of shining white,

And when they reared, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.


Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,

They coiled and swam, and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.


Oh happy Living things!  No tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring gushed from my heart

And I blessed them unaware! [18]


Two things about the development of this passage are significant—the physical description of the snakes and that description as it relates to the moment of blessing.

       In the previous passages it is not even clear that the creatures are specifically snakes.  They are merely described as ‘things.’  First the mariner has made the intellectual connection that he shares a commonality with the creatures, which happens in lines 237-238.  If we examine the passage as he is floating in the becalmed sea, the ‘things’ in the ocean become snakes to him.  He begins to note and compile specific sensory data about the animals.  He notes their colors, ‘Blue, glossy green, and velvet black;’ he notes their shape




and motion, ‘They coiled and swam.’  He even notes their effect on the material world, ‘and every track/Was a flash of golden fire.’  This intake of sensory impression as data is the bridge between the material reality of the world and the interior psychological world.  This connection between the material and intellectual manifests itself in the phenomenological and transcendent moment.  Here Coleridge attempts to form an alliance between the real and ideal through the use of sensory data from the ecostructure and our spiritual and intellectual connection to it.  Prior to this there can be no empathy of imagination, no glimpse into the umwelt of another creature.   Finally, there is in this passage the lines ‘Oh happy living things! No tongue/Their beauty might declare’.  These lines might seem only poetic hyperbole, but in the context of a phenomenological or ecological reading they also carry additional significance.  The mariner is the sole human observer of this scene and as participant he has had the transcendent moment going beyond and bridging the split between the mind and body.  There are echoes here of Humboldt’s description of the South American landscape when he says it ‘speaks to the soul and escapes our measurements as it does the forms of language’.[19]    As with Coleridge, Humboldt is doing more than waxing poetic.  Both men are earnestly describing a difficult phenomenological problem—that of adequately describing how data about the material world in the form of sense impressions translates or explains cognition in the intellectual realm.

       The nataure of this gap between the mind and the body (a problem left from Descarte’s dualistic philosophy) is a question taken on by a new naturalized phenomenology as practiced by Varela and others.[20]  How does the human observer account for the ‘explanatory gap’ of how the mind of the observer participates in both the material and intellectual and explains the world in terms of both?  How does cognition of sensory data lead to the realm of ideal transcendence or explain and recreate it?  This is a very real problem for both Humboldt and Coleridge.  I submit that one of Coleridge’s most famous poems addresses the issue of this explanatory gap.

       ‘Kubla Khan’ has been discussed more than almost any other poem in the language for its uncertainty of meaning, wildness of imagery and exotic subject matter.  Only in the last century has it been seen as somewhat comprehensible, being most often read as a metaphor for the creative process. In its complex uncertainty lies its ability to support several interpretive readings.  I wish only to add a further layer to the many interesting interpretations—that of the act of perception of an intelligent observer in the material world.  Here, I mean the actual act of perception, the moment when sense data is transformed into intellectual awareness.

       ‘Kubla Khan’ has three distinct sections in the 1816 version, two sections




in the 1797 version edited from manuscript.[21]  The addition of a stanza break may seem inconsequential, but it is integral to the perceptual/ phenomenological reading.  The break, coming between lines ten and eleven, separates the ‘pleasure dome’ and walled gardens of the Kubla Kahn from the ‘deep romantic chasm’ from which issues the fountain forming the key imagery of the second section.

       The first section of the poem with its dome and walled garden is a world where both the natural and the man-made are imposed upon by order and domestication.  This material world is quantifiable in that the building of a dome requires advanced, precise mathematical calculations.  Also, even the natural world is imprinted with the order and understanding of humans, as its domesticated gardens require knowledge of the biology of plants.  In a phenomenological reading this is the realm of verifiable fact and quantifiable natural science as practiced by humans.  In an historical sense of science at the time this is a Linnaean model in which the chaos of nature needs to be ordered and a positivistic model of empirical data.  Interestingly, the split of the poem occurs at this point before discussion of the ‘deep romantic chasm.’

       This chasm is a place of creation surely, and seems to be in stark opposition to the palace and gardens of Khan.  It is often read as sexual in nature or as the wellspring of an artist’s creativity.  The section break between the material ordered world of scientific data and the intense, passionately imagined world of the second section seems almost the physical manifestation of the phenomenological explanatory gap separating the physical material world (including the body) and the interior psychological world (including the mind) of the observer/participant of both worlds—in this case Kubla Khan, and eventually, the reader.

       The question here then is: are the material world of exteriority and the intellectual world of interiority allied and reconciled in some way? Are they really a dual conception of a single ecostructure as manifests itself in both the world of empirical data and also emotional and aesthetic transcendence? The second section of the poem ends with the puzzling lines ‘And mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/ Ancestral voices prophesying war!’[22]  The ancestral voices here could be read as a kind of ‘oversoul’ such as occurs in the lines added to the ‘Eolian Harp’ shortly hereafter, ‘the one life within us and abroad’.[23]  These voices then are speaking to the individual mind.  They are uniting, oddly, for war—perhaps a metaphoric war—which unites the material world and the individual mind through connectedness to the larger ecological world.  This world is united (physical/sensory and intellectual/emotional) here through the individual mind, but also the ‘ancestral’ nature of the voices unites the individual to a community across space and time.




       The next stanza break introduces us to the artist who pines for the ability to sing the words which would recreate this miracle of perception/cognition.  Incredibly the poet does just that.  He recreates and ‘build[s] that dome in air’.[24]  This dome is built or emerges manifest in the form of language.  Language bridges the individual psyches of people and encompasses a description of the exterior world and the intellectual interior world.  It threads from mind to mind like the ‘sacred river’ running through all three sections of the poem—the ordered, exterior material world, the imaginative interior world of the psyche, and the artistic need to recreate the lived phenomenal experience.  Coleridge uses language, the tool of the poet and philosopher, to form a bond between nature (material world) and the imagination (cognitive experience).  As a scientist, Alexander von Humboldt uses data and scientific theory to explain the same bond.   

       This reconciliation between science and poetry, the particularities of scientific knowledge and the generalities of natural philosophy was to consume Coleridge for the rest of his career.  He sought desperately for what could only be called a ‘Theory of Everything’ until his death in 1834.  Twenty one years later in the year 1855 Humboldt writes in his work Cosmos :


The totality of empirical knowledge and a fully developed philosophy of nature cannot be in conflict as long as the philosophy of nature, according to its promises is a reasoned comprehension of the actual phenomena in the universe.  Where any contradiction appears, the fault must lie either in the hollowness of the speculation or in the arrogance of empiricism, which believes more to be proved through experience than can be justified.[25]


Alexander von Humboldt lived to be ninety years old and never wavered in his belief that the ‘essential inspiration of poetry… is also the foundation of a science of nature’.[26] Direct influence is really a misnomer and a vast oversimplification.  In the historical, intellectual, and personal web of a human’s life, influences flow in all directions, interrupted, rethreaded, connected and severed in millions of inconceivable ways with as many unforeseeable consequences.  All people are imbricated in a tangle of history.  However, it is important to remember, as we re-evaluate Coleridge in the historical context of the intellectual climate he was a part of, that Coleridge’s entire life occurred in what might be aptly named the ‘Age of Humboldt’.[27]

[1]              Laura Dassow Walls, ‘ “The Napoleon of Science”:Alexander von Humboldt in Antebellum America’, Nineteenth Century Contexts, 14.1 (1990), 71-98 (p. 71).

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Comparative Etymology’, Shorter Works and Fragments II: The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed by Kathleen Coburn et al., (London: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.1351.

[3]              Margarita Bowen, Empiricism and Geographical Thought from Francis Bacon to Alexander von Humboldt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 217.

[4]              Ibid  p. 216.

[5]              Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Science and System of Logic’, Shorter works and Fragments II: Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. By Kathleen Coburn et al., (London: Princeton University Press, 1995). pp. 1022-1023.

[6]              Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years  1799-1804, ed. and trans. by Thomasina Ross, 3 vols (London:  G. Bell  and Sons Ltd., 1914), p. xxiv.

[7]              Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Life,’ Shorter Works and Fragments II: The Collected Works of Samuel  Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Kathleen Coburn et al., (London: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 1027.

[8]              SWF ed. note, p.1027

[9]              Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge I., ed. by Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956) pp. 320-321.

[10]            Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Eolian Harp (1834)’, Romanticism, ed. by Duncan Wu, 2nd edn. (Oxford:            Blackwell, 1997), lines 26-29, p. 549.

[11]            Romanticism, ed. note, p.549.

[12]            Humboldt, PN I, p.xiv.

[13]            Ramonda Modiano, Coleridge and the Concept of Nature (London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1985), pp. 174-179.

[14]            Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  In Seven Parts’, Romanticism, ed. by Duncan Wu, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), lines 124-125, p. 531.

[15]            It is interesting to note that Life-in-Death is also an 1817 addition to the poem.

[16]            Ibid. gloss, lines 230-231, p. 534.

[17]            Ibid lines 231-238, p.534.

[18]            Ibid lines 272-287, p. 535.

[19]            Humboldt, PN II, p.4.

[20]            For more on the ‘explanatory gap’ see the introduction of  Naturalizing Phenomenology. ed by Jean Petitot and Francisco J. Varela et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[21]            Romanticism, ed. note 2, p. 461.

[22]            Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Kubla Kahn (1816)’, Romanticism, ed by Duncan Wu, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994) lines 29-30, p.524.

[23]            Coleridge, ‘Eolian Harp’, line 26. p. 549.

[24]            Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, line 46, p. 524.

[25]            I have chosen the translation appended and quoted in Bowen p. 225 purely for the lucidity and elegance of the translation.  For comaprison, here is the translation by E. C. Otte (closest in time to Humboldt): ‘The results yielded by an earnest investigation in the path of experiment cannot be at variance with a true philosophy of nature.  If there be any contradiction, the fault must lie either in the unsoundness of speculation, or in the exaggerated pretensions of empiricism, which thinks that more is proved by experiment than is actually derivable from it.’ Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, trans. by E. C. Otte 4 vols, (New York: Harper &Brothers Publishers, 1855), vol I, p. 76.

[26]            Bowen, p. 217.

[27]            Bowen, p. 210.