The Moon: Coleridge’s Intelligible Mystery [1]

Kristel Havreluk

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp20-31)



According to several entries in his Notebooks, [2] Coleridge planned to write some hymns, including one dedicated to the moon.  In an entry we find him jotting down: “Hymns to the Sun, the Moon, and the Elements—six hymns.  In one of them to introduce a dissection of Atheism—particularly the Godwinian System of Pride    Proud of what?  An outcast of blind Nature ruled by a fatal Necessity—Slave of an ideot Nature!” (CN I, 174)

       Miss Coburn has assumed that Coleridge “was driven to this project” by Thomas Maurice’s The History of Hindostan (1795), which was reviewed at length in the Critical Review of December 1795 (xv 439-47), a journal to which Coleridge himself began contributing in 1795.  Parts of the critique focused on Hindoo conceptions of the Sun, Moon, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.[3]   Although Coleridge’s hymns were never completed, the material he collected for this purpose must have influenced the imagery he used in his own writings, which make numerous references to the moon.  At the time, he and the Wordsworths seem to have been establishing a moon vocabulary of which the development can be witnessed in detail in the exchange of precise descriptions of the moon, revealed in their diaries, letters, and poems.

       On April 4 1802 Coleridge wrote his famous “Dejection: an Ode”, at Keswick, which in its first form was addressed to Wordsworth.  Prefixed to this “Ode”, as its motto, is a stanza from “The Grand Old Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence”:[4]


Late, late yestereen I saw the new Moon,

     With the old moon in her arms;

And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!

     We shall have a deadly storm.


       On that same day, as Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal reveals,[5] she and William were at Keswick, and Dorothy, at least, “walked down to Coleridge’s” (p. 83).  Early in March of the same year she entered in her Journal:  “No letters.  I was sadly mortified.  I expected one fully from Coleridge—wrote to William.  Read the LB, got into sad thoughts, tried at German but could not go




on—Read LB—Blessings on that brother of mine!  Beautiful new moon over Silver How”. (p. 75)

       A few days later, she recalled:


“On friday Evening the Moon hung over the Northern side of the highest point of Silver How, like a gold ring snapped in two & shaven off at the Ends it was so narrow.  Within this Ring lay the Circle of the Round moon, as distinctly to be seen as ever the enlightened moon is—William had observed the same appearance at Keswick perhaps at the very same moment hanging over the Newlands fells.  Sent off a letter to Mary H, also to Coleridge & Sara.” (p. 76; my italics)


       On 4 May 1802, after the happy record of a day among the Westmoreland hills, when “William and Coleridge repeated & read verses”, Dorothy’s Journal reads: “We had the Crescent moon with the Auld moon in her arms” (p. 96) Clearly, there is little doubt that Dorothy had seen that moon again through the visionary power of Coleridge’s “Ode”.  The next day she wrote: “the moon had the old moon in her arms but not so plain to be seen as the night before.  When we went to bed it was a Boat without the Circle” (p. 96)  It is therefore not unlikely that she was here making a double reference, one to “Dejection”, and another to the verses Coleridge had read aloud the day before.  Among these we find:


Yon crescent moon, as fix’d as if it grew

In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue,

A boat becalm’d! thy own sweet sky-canoe!


This is an unambiguous allusion to the “little Boat” whose “shape is like the crescent-moon”, occurring in the prologue to “Peter Bell” (1819): “My little vagrant Form of light,/ My gay and beautiful Canoe” (lines 111-112).  Earlier, Coleridge had already brought up “Peter Bell”.  We know that in its original form “Dejection: an Ode” was a love-letter, addressed to Sara Hutchinson.  Lines 35 and 36 of this verse-letter,[6] dated, ‘April 4 1802.—Sunday evening’are as follows: “Yon crescent Moon, as fix’d as if it grew/ In it’s own cloudless, starless Lake of Blue—“ (CL II, p. 791).  Then, before continuing with the lines 37 and 38, the following unnumbered line appears between brackets: “A boat becalm’d! dear William’s Sky Canoe!”, which was omitted in the poem’s final draught.  On 6 May, when a letter from Coleridge did arrive, Dorothy wrote once more: “The Moon was a perfect Boat, a silver Boat” (p. 97).

       Coleridge did not only incorporate his own, direct observations of natural phenomena in his work, but also had an eye for striking passages in other people’s writings, which he stored in his memory and recalled at the




appropriate moment.  In the Biographia Literaria (1817)[7] he observed: “a valuable thought, or a particular train of thoughts, gives me additional pleasure when I can safely refer and attribute it to the conversation or correspondences of another” (pp. 7-8).

       Coleridge could be enthusiastic about other poets’ visions and expressions.  Impressed by a line in a poem by Mary Robinson, he admitted in a letter to Southey, dated February 1800:


[...] In the Morning Post was a poem of fascinating Metre by Mary Robinson—’twas on Wednesday, Feb. 26—& entitled the Haunted Beach.  I was so struck with it that I sent to her to desire that [it] might be preserved in the Anthology—… The Images are new & very distinct—that ‘silvery carpet’ is so just, that it is unfortunate it should seem so bad—for it is really good—but the Metre—ay! That Woman has an Ear … (CL I, pp. 575-76)


Robinson’s “Haunted Beach” appeared in the Annual Anthology for 1800.  Its sixth stanza is as follows:


The SPECTRE band, his MESSMATES bold,

         Sunk in the yawning ocean!

While to the mast, he lash’d him fast,

         And brav’d the storm’s commotion!

The winter MOON upon the sand

         A silvery carpet made,

And mark’d the sailor reach the land –

And mark’d his MURDERER wash his hand,

         Where the green billows play’d!


In another letter to Southey, dated Saturday 25 January 1800 (CL I, p. 563) Coleridge wrote how struck he was by a line in another poem from Robinson’s pen.  The line from the poem “Jasper” also appeared in an 1800 issue of the Annual Anthology, reading: “Pale Moon! thou Spectre of the Sky!”  A few weeks before Mrs Robinson’s death, Coleridge addressed to her the poem “A Stranger Ministrel” (1800).  When Coleridge laments her loss, the mountain Skiddaw replies:


     And hence I know her soul is free,

     She is where’er she wills to be,

     Unfetter’d by mortality!

Now to the ‘haunted beach’ can fly,

     Beside the threshold scourged with waves,

     Now where the maniac wildly raves,

Pale moon, thou spectre of the sky!’                (lines 52-58)




In September, on the way to Hamburg, he wrote a letter to his wife Sara, from which I quote the well-known passage:


Tuesday Night, 9’ o clock. Sept. 18th, 1798 

Over what place does the Moon hang to your eye, my dearest Sara?  To me it hangs over the left bank of the Elbe and a long trembling road of moonlight reaches from thence up to the stern of our Vessel, & there it ends… The Ocean is a noble Thing by night; a beautiful white cloud of foam at momently intervals roars & rushes by the side of the Vessel, and Stars of Flame dance & sparkle & go out in it. – & every now and then light Detachments of Foam dart away from the Vessel’s side with their galaxies of stars, & scour out of sight, like a Tartar Troop over a Wilderness!—What these stars are, I cannot say—the sailors say, that they are the Fish Spawn which is phosphorescent… (CL I, p.415-16)


The differences between the loose jottings of his Notebooks and the more elaborate and finished version, be it in a letter, a sermon or a poem demonstrate how much importance Coleridge attached to the precision of his descriptions.  It is worthwhile comparing the above extract to the simpler version in his Notebook I, as witnessed in entry 335: “Tuesday Night, 9 o’clock. Sept. 18th, 1798 - Over what place does the Moon hang to your eye, my dearest Sara?  To me it hangs over the left bank of the Elbe and a long trembling road of moonlight comes transversely from the left bank, reaches the stern of our Vessel, & there it ends.”

       In a rational age as is ours, it is hard to imagine being addressed in such a “Coleridgean” manner, as the moon’s position seems totally irrelevant to our daily occupations.  The opening line reveals much more information than at first might appear.  Translated into a very unpoetic, blunt manner, it would probably sound like: “How are you?  As for myself, I am doing fine, because I am surrounded by the beauty of nature.”  Moreover, most people would find it difficult to answer Coleridge’s question concerning the position of the moon, because describing something requires both patience and an extensive vocabulary.  It seems as if Coleridge’s circle turned the description of natural phenomena including skyscapes into a delicate exercise of accuracy. Other people attached importance to Coleridge’s opinion on the products of their attempts to write poems.  For example, in the following letter to John M. Gutch, dated 12 October 1815, Coleridge gave his opinion about a poem by Mr. Montgomery:


First, the word ‘vanished’ not only does not carry on the image in the foregoing line, but contradicts it—and (but more doubtfully) I think that the stanza would have been improved by ending the thought, as it began, namely, with the idea of motion, instead of changing it at once—without the intervention of any pause, into a holding colloquy—The following ‘so’ I object to; because the point of




Likeness is so much less than the difference—but still more to the ‘Thus? Thus’, whether it be taken as referring to the Moon (= in the same way, as) or as merely referring to the three lines preceding.  If the former the calmness and even unconquered course of the moon so beautifully described contrasts too violently with the throbbing brain etc. to permit the mind to recognize any similarity: if the latter, it is obscure—In the stanza, ‘All gone!’ I object to the second line, as either both obscure and useless (save for the rhyme) or as destroying the image in the 4th line.  I remember that I was rewarded by Bowyer for a simile of Friendship compared with the Moon, that in prosperity hides itself or becomes a thin fragment of a cloud; but when the darkness of adversity etc.—and in my [recent] Letters to Judge Fletcher I resorted the same image.  ‘Not more modest than benignant is the Light that streams from the countenance of human Wisdom while it gazes reverentially on its source and centre: which, when, it would rival, into how wan and worthless a Day—moon does it fade, outshone by every Cloud-speck that floats beside it’—Now the day-moon vested in a dusky shroud, if that means a cloud, could not be seen at all—and if mean the moon itself, it does not look dusky—but wan and white—for dusky does not signify dim—…

(CL IV, p.595)


       When travelling to Malta in April 1805, his observation on the sea-voyage features the following entry (italics mine):


Half past 7 almost a calm/ to the Left the arc of Heaven which I have before me shipless, cloudless/ I turn round, and lo! the arc which was behind me, & now to my right hand before, the whole Convoy the Leviathan in the seeming centre & outside of them (for our Ship is the foremost & the outermost by half a mile) exactly comprized under one magnificent twi-cleft white mountain of Cloud/ beginning with and ending with the Ships/-/ or the other black clouds with stripes & streaks of darkening Gold/ and mid way between our Top mast & the Right Horizon the crescent Moon with the Old Moon in her Lap, and below it 20 times its own Diam. a bright Planet- <below it just 27/ 190 of the Cope. > While writing this we caught a young Bird, a Lark as I believe.

     1 July, from near 10 to past in the evening saw the moon full or very near it, considerably above the Garrison Batt. & traversing its breadth, of the strangest appearance/ the Stars were bright in the Sky, the air even cold, the milky way very full, yet the moon like a new-moon with the old moon in her Lap, only that the silver Thread was not there, & its color was reddish smoke-color/ its continuance in the same shape—What was it?                                        (CN II, 2009)


Coleridge did not live in competition with analytic thought and science, according to which most poetry is associated with vagueness and lack of




reason.  In his Notebooks, for example, attempts can be discovered to find a mnemonic for the waxing and the waning moon.  Science was valuable, Coleridge believed, because it brings to light relation in nature. It is the antidote to speculation in philosophy, and he used it accordingly.  By  regularly verifying the correspondence between the products of the imagination and the outside world, sophisms can be avoided.

       As is well-known, Coleridge and the Wordsworths considered exposure to nature to be one of the most beneficial moral resources available to man. Therefore Coleridge raised his son Hartley close to nature in order for the boy to gain religious awareness through the beauty of the natural world.  About the development of human consciousness, Coleridge had his own theory based on his observations from the ordinary magnetism of physics.  In “The Nightingale”(1798) when the moon is “lost behind a cloud” instead of the songs of the nightingales, “a pause of silence” can be heard.  When the moon emerges, there is a burst of harmony, as if the nightingales are transmitting an inward joy that is always present in nature, as if they are physically stimulated to do so by a radiation from the moon.  The attraction of the moon indicates the presence of some powerful magnetism, which operates on all living things and induces the sense of magic that is sometimes experienced in looking at a moonlit scene.  In a letter to Thomas Poole, dated 14 October 1803 Coleridge described his son as “an utter Visionary! like the Moon among thin Clouds, he moves in a circle of Light of his own making … A great Lover of Truth, and of the finest moral nicety of Feeling—apprehension all over—& yet always Dreaming” (CL II, p.1024).  About his little daughter Sara, who was not yet a year old, he wrote that she was “…a quiet little creature… (who) seems to bask in a Sunshine, as mild as Moonlight, of her own Happiness” (CL II, p.1022).  Famously, both children seem to have lacked any tendency to violence or hatred.  Hartley was never angry with anybody and Sara distinguished herself with her sweet temper.  Coleridge also wrote about an occasion on which he took his crying son outside to watch the moon: “Hartley fell down & hurt himself—I caught him up crying & screaming—& ran out of doors with him.—The Moon caught his eye—he ceased crying immediately—& his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the Moonlight!” (CN I, 219)  Apparently Hartley’s sudden change in mood was not just a simple movement of delight, but a psychological reaction to an actual impulse.  The omnipresence of nature, in which he saw a unifying power, might even have been a consolation for Coleridge when he was far from home.  He could ascertain that the moon would shed its light on the people he had left behind.  In a notable line illustrating his fascination with the moon, he wrote: “The moon—reflected Light—soft, melancholy, warmthless—the absolute purity (nay, it is always pure: but) the incorporeity of true Love in absence” (CN III, 4036).

       Yet the older Coleridge grew, the more disillusioned he became. This growing pessimism leaves us with entries in The Notebooks such as: “We all look




up to the blue Sky for comfort, but nothing appears there—nothing comforts nothing answers us – & so we die” (CN III, 4214).

       When chased by clouds and wind, the symbol of the moon can acquire a much more extended meaning.  In a “Sonnet to the Autumnal Moon”(1788), the moon is associated with Hope, the storm with Despair, and appropriately for a boy aged sixteen, when Coleridge wrote this poem, Despair is chased away by Hope. Often the evening-moon image operates as an ambivalent symbol of sadness and joy. But the joy associated with the moon-world becomes fragile, evanescent joy.  Finally, in “Dejection, an Ode”(1802), there is a moon and yet no Joy.

       Influenced by Platonism, Coleridge was convinced that a spiritual reality lay behind the everyday world. He could not possibly be satisfied with a poetry based purely on individual experience, constantly preoccupied as he was with the search for an all-embracing vision which should encompass all things in heaven and earth, reconciling the truths of science with those of religion.  This search led him to a lifelong interest in allegory and symbolism of all types, ranging from the personifications of moral qualities to mystical theories of “correspondences” between the physical world and the spiritual.  He was always in search for the relation between the divine and human reason which, to him, are concepts invested with a luminous quality.  Wherever he saw light, in fact, he saw potential symbolism.

       The French Revolution led Coleridge to a long period of thought on the nature of man.  According to John Beer, there are two phases in Coleridge’s reaction to the political events in France.  In the first he tried to establish a Pantisocracy: a miniature libertarian state from which all violence would be excluded.  The practical obstacles he met, however, forced him to abandon the scheme, and in the subsequent period of frustration he reconsidered his view of human nature.  An inquiry into his lucubrations on this issue reveals the relevance of light, and in particular the light of the sun and the moon, in the origin of good and evil in human nature.

       In Berkeley’s interpretation of the Neoplatonic writings, Coleridge could spot passages picturing God as a pure intelligence.  He could also find the groundwork of a theory of evil and redemption.  One of his philosophical lectures in 1818, which assigned to Berkeley the identification of the natura naturans with God, testifies that Coleridge did read the following passage from the eighteenth-century thinker: “The difference of Isis from Osiris resembles that of the moon from the sun, of the female from the male, of natura naturata (as the schoolmen speak) from natura naturans…” (Beer 1959; p. 115).  The myth included not only Isis, the healing principle of nature, but also Typhon, the evil, destructive principle.  In Plutarch’s treatise on Isis and Osiris, Typhon has destroyed Osiris, hewn his body in pieces and usurped his kingdom; Isis is constantly and patiently seeking to find the pieces and restore her lost husband.

       “Christabel” (1816) can, for example, easily be interpreted as Isis, seeking her lost Osiris.  Christabel may have the innocence of a child, she is, however,




in all respects a fully grown woman—even a priestess of the supernatural.  If the identification with Isis is to be made, the imagery of the poem suggests that Coleridge is producing the myth in a strangely inverted form.  The moon of this poem is not a crescent, but a full moon, veiled and distorted.  This is significant, as in “Christabel”, it is the element of distortion, not of revelation, which dominates the moon-imagery.  The change is emphasized by a slight alteration in the description of the moon from its initial formulation in the Gutch notebook.  There Coleridge had written:


                             Behind the thin

Grey cloud that cover’d but not hid the sky

The round full moon look’d small

(CN I, 216 and notes).


In “Christabel”, this becomes:


The thin gray cloud is spread on high,

It covers but not hides the sky.

The moon is behind, and at full;

And yet she looks both small and dull.

(lines 16-19)


The introduction of the word “dull” links the passage with the later description of Geraldine “looking askance” at Christabel:


A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy;

And the lady’s eyes shrunk in her head,

Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,

(lines 583-585)


Coleridge evidently intended a conscious parallel between the sinister veiling of the moon and that of Geraldine’s “large bright eyes divine”.  In fact, both Geraldine and Christabel are related to the moon of the poem, but in different ways: Geraldine is the daemonic spirit, veiling herself until she assumes the appearance of evil, while Christabel, unconsciously imitating her gestures, is the human Isis who suffers these daemonic ravages, takes them into her own nature and eventually transfigures them into what is good.  And in a mysterious way, this acts for “the weal of her lover that’s far away”—probably by transfiguring his desire into true love, and reviving the lost Osiris within him (Beer 1959; p. 182-184). 

       Similarly the woman in “Kubla Khan” can be seen as a woman longing for her daemon lover, for only in him can she hope to find the lost Schechina: yet in reality he is always the daemon-lover, an angel of heat rather than light, of lust rather than love.  At first sight, wailing beneath the waning moon, she is a personification of crazy terror.  Yet in her very yearning, she expresses




something of the Isis who longs for her lost Osiris.  The image of sun and moon veiled by cloud is one which Coleridge uses with great frequency to express his view that apparent evils are really good viewed in distortion.  For example:


Life is a vision shadowy of Truth;

And vice, and anguish, and the wormy grave,

Shapes of a dream! The veiling clouds retire,

And lo! The Throne of the redeeming God

Forth flashing unimaginable day

Wraps in one blaze earth, heaven, and deepest hell.

                                              (“Religious Musings”, lines 398-402)


or in his private writing: “The Sun, eclipsed & clouded still maintained the Day—misfortunes illustrious clouds cloud the moon—a Thought unwieldy or strutting” ( CN I, 1278).

       Isis or Osiris are familiar figures in English literature.  In Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), for example, Isis seeking for the pieces of her lost Osiris, symbolizes the search for the lost “Truth”.  In his public statements later in life, Coleridge occasionally spoke with some scepticism on Egyptian lore.  In a 1818 lecture, he pointed out that the Egyptian worshippers of nature did not take the further step by which they would have seen nature as an allegory or revelation of God (Beer 1959; p. 111).  As a way of expressing the discrepancy between the world of mankind and the ideal order, Coleridge often referred to the “lost Shechinah”.  He had come to see original sin not as an inherited guilt, but as a lack of enlightenment and of power to perform the good.

       Coleridge always saw himself as the wandering visionary, giving light, if lacking the fullness of power.  But there can be little doubt that, for himself and others, he dreamed of a state where light and power might combine, as in the transfigured Moses.  In entry 467 we see Coleridge toying with the separation of heat and light as elements of a lost ideal: “Socianism Moonlight—Methodism &c A stove! O for some Sun that shall unite Light & Warmth” (CN I, 467).

       According to Beer, Coleridge derived this entry from Swedenborg, according to whom there is a Sun in the spiritual world, which is “pure love from Jehova God”, and from which “proceedeth Heat, which in its Essence is Love; and Light, which in its essence is Wisdom”.  Coleridge used the Swedenborgian dichotomy in a new way, however, treating all forms of fanaticism as heat and all intellectualism as light—sterile poles so long as they remain separate (Beer 1959; p. 117).

       In the essay “Virtue and Knowledge”, contributed to The Friend (1809-10), Coleridge described religion as follows:


The light of religion is not that of the moon, light without heat; but neither is its warmth that of the stove, warmth without light.  Religion




is the sun, whose warmth indeed swells, and stirs and activates the life of nature; but who at the same time beholds all the growth of life with a master-eye, makes all objects glorious on which he looks, and by that glory visible to all others (p. 105).


Coleridge was fond of relating the polarity light–heat to the distinction between the activities of the head and the heart.  Thus he took over the old Puritan term “heart-work” as a description of both the virtues and the limitations of enthusiasm, and used the parallel term  “head-work”, to describe the corresponding virtues and limitations of Unitarianism.

       Elsewhere he brought the two images, sun and moon, heart and head, into closer parallel.  Keeping in mind his description of his ideal self—“The Head shall be the Mass—the Heart the fiery Spirit, that fills, informs and agitates the whole…”, it is interesting to turn to a passage in his translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein (1800), made just after his return from Germany.  Wallenstein, in The Piccolomini, is considering the results of his astronomical observations:


And the sun and moon, too, in Sextile aspect,

The soft light with the vehement—so I love it.

Sol is the heart, Luna the head of heaven,

Bold be the plan, fiery the execution.


In a later note, Coleridge showed that he interpreted the Isis-Osiris cult in terms which Berkeley had used.  The ceremonial burning of a heifer by the Israelites, Berkeley said, was a rejection of the Egyptian Isis-worship, which had become the cult of a World-God, the worship of Nature as the natura Gemina, naturans et naturata.  All this was an apostasy from the conception of God as I AM, and therefore the true natura naturans.  An example of his treatment of Isis as an image of this sort may be found in a note which he made in Grew’s Cosmologia Sacra (1701): “…such must be the sophistic results of every pretence to understand God by the World, instead of the World by God.  It is an attempt to see the Sun by Moonlight” (Beer 1959; p. 118).

       In general, though not always, he tends to speak of “moonlight” when he is showing some sympathy with the idea of natural revelation, and of  “moonshine” to display his contempt for the concept when held only in isolation (Beer 1959; p. 118).  His final position in relation to the symbol is to be found in his conclusion to the Aids to Reflection (1825) , where he limits the moonlight image to describe the natural mystic within a religious faith.  The natural mystic outside religion, on the other hand, is merely a man with a lantern: he illuminates the scene, but is totally incapable of interpreting it to others (Beer 1959; p. 118).

       Contemplating the moon, a constituent of the universe, was to Coleridge the most immediate way to approach reason, and thus to make him aware of the divinity of the Creation.  Entry 1611 of the Notebooks shows how highly he thought of the moon, and certainly when it was surrounded with a glory, to




remind him of the Creator: “Dim eyes that put a glory round the Moon—a false praise erroneously ascribed to a noble Object” (CN I, 1611).

       It will appear that not only moonlight, but all half lights, all reflected, diffused lights, seem to constitute a symbolic cluster for Coleridge.  As he observed the waxing moon and the unseen rising sun, he found an image for the emergence of ideas—systems, poems, religions.  Here is entry 2603 of the Notebooks:


The De crescent still bright in heaven, very bright, & with its shadow moon, but giving no light, for the Dawn gave it/ the unseen Sun an hour before his personal appearance gave it, yet suffered the Benefactress of the Darkness to retain awhile her full Dignity = the old System still formally established, & even honour-bright, yet still the power of the coming System diffused soberly over all/ faint indeed, compared with its presence in the rising, not to think of it/ as fully risen, yet even in its faintness being the true & by its superiority sole effective Light/                                                              (CN II, 2603)


By translating what he called the “scientific calculus” from a useful working fiction into an ontology, Coleridge claimed in 1817 that man has lost “all communion with life and the spirit of Nature”,[8] and is left isolated and alien, his mind the passive recipient of the impact of particles which it converts into images of sensation.  Against this “philosophy of death”, which posits only the “relations of unproductive particles to each other”, Coleridge posed his own philosophy of life, in which, he says, “two component counter-powers actually interpenetrate each other, and generate a higher third, including both the former”.[9]  That is, in radical opposition to the post-Newtonian picture of the world, Coleridge put forward what, following Schelling, he called a “vital”, or “constructive” philosophy of nature.

       Entry 1628 illustrates how Coleridge laid stress on movement in Nature:


Monday Morning, Oct.31 1/2 past 7.—The Sky has been cloudy all night, clouds in large masses, all conglutinated, no interspace, some dark, some pierced with Light—Now it is full daylight.  The Moon in about half an hour or a little more will sink behind the Thornwaite Fells between Scale How & Baragh/ as I guess.  She glides, See! see!  she is gone in behind a Cloud, ten times brighter than herself—of a rich brassy Light from the Sun.  It set, more than an hour afterwards, & on the commencement of the flat Low ridge of Withop close behind Sir F. Vane’s 3 cornered Cut of Bowness—before it set vanished completely & its dimness as I have fully described in G Ward’s pocket book. (CN I, 1628)




The repetition of the verb “see” in this entry might at first seem useless, since it draws the attention to a process, which is going on at the very moment.  Consequently, a reader will always be too late to “see”.  Yet, if we keep in mind Coleridge’s attempt to focus on the dynamics in the universe, the repetition of “see” does make sense.

       The numerous references to the moon clearly fitted in with Coleridge’s quest for a symbolic language, in which he could express his “vision”, or as Rimbaud put it in the “Lettre Du Voyant” : “ a universal language, moreover every word being an idea, a language from soul to soul, embodying everything…” (Suther 1960; p.207).

       In this search Coleridge himself was to act like moonlight, actively awakening the supernatural, while Wordsworth was to imitate the sunset in giving “the charm of novelty to things of every day”[10].


© Contributor 2003-2006

[1]          This article is a synopsis of my master’s thesis The Moon, An Intelligible Mystery to S.T. Coleridge, Free University of Brussels 2000.

[2]          The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 4 double vols, (Texts and Notes), 1794-1826, ed. Kathleen Coburn and (vol.4) Merten Christensen, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press and Routledge, 1957-90.

The Notebooks will be referred to as NB, volume, entry.

[3]          Notes to the Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol I, p.240.

[4]          Coleridge quoted these lines from Bishop Percy’s version of Sir Patrick Spens, as they appeared in the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 4th ed., 3 vols, 1794 – I 80.

[5]          Wordsworth, D, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, ed. Pamela Woof, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[6]          In the Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols. ed. E.L. Griggs, Oxford, 1956-71. The Collected Letters will be referred to as CL ,volume, page.

[7]          Biographia Literaria, ed. G. Watson, Everyman’s Library, 1906-1971.

[8]          In Lay Sermon, ed. R.J. White , 1972.

[9]          Biographia Literaria,  pp. 197-98.

[10]        Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, vol I, Oxford, 1907, 1979, p.6.