Circulations of Feeling: Akenside, Coleridge, and the Pleasures of Transcendence


David Vallins


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp98-106)



Debates as to the sources of a poet’s or philosopher’s ideas are liable to become sterile unless we share Coleridge’s - and probably Akenside’s - pleasure in identifying coincidences and resemblances across the sometimes artificial divisions of period and genre.[1] That Akenside’s visions of an ascending scale of beings or mental states have several sources in common with Coleridge’s is almost indubitable, and that certain of Coleridge’s articulations of his neoplatonic vision owe much to Akenside’s thought and expression is also beyond reasonable doubt.[2] My aim in this paper, however, will be to demonstrate how vividly, or forcefully the similarities of Coleridge and Akenside rise above the question of mere common sources or influences. In terms of the extent to which both authors emphasize the pleasure of thought, and in so doing not only highlight a curious combination of the sensuous with a puritanical injunction to transcend the ‘low’ concerns of the majority, but also seem to base their visions of increasing knowledge, virtue, and pleasure on the elevating experiences of contemplating and developing precisely such ideas (I will argue), Akenside and Coleridge are often so close that differences of period, style, and (to some extent) source become all but irrelevant. The mode of the sublime which both exemplify, in other words, is a distinctively circular one in which the pleasure of contemplating our ascent towards the deity (or at least, towards a state of comprehension which is close to being divine) continually feeds into the development or presentation of that vision - a process which, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, David Hume described first in his Treatise, published five years before The Pleasures of Imagination, and later in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  Though most of our ideas are the effects of external impressions., Hume argues, a particularly “strong” or “lively” idea - one, that is, which the mind is particularly active in contemplating - can itself acquire the force of an impression or sensation, whose qualities are often attributed to the idea itself.  Thus in considering relationships between events in the external world we not only “feel a customary connection between the events,” but also “transfer that feeling to the objects of our contemplation” by postulating a “Force, Power, Energy. &c” through which they are connected.[3] Hence our thinking often




involves a form of circularity whereby our efforts to explain the world produce sensations or emotions which themselves determine the nature of our explanations.  Such a pattern, I will argue, is especially prominent in both Akenside’s and Coleridge’s evocation of an ascent of knowledge and virtue which is also one of pleasure - or more precisely, of a sublime elevation and excitement uniquely associated with the energetic activity of mind described by Hume.

These aspects of Akenside first become apparent in lines 79-108 of The Pleasures of Imagination. which immediately follow his description of the divine act of creation- “But not alike to every mortal eye,” he writes,


Is this great scene unveil’d. For since the claims

Of social life, to diff’rent lab ours urge

The active pow’rs of man; with wise intent

The hand of nature on peculiar minds

Imprints a diff’rent byass, and to each

Decrees its province in the common toil.

To some she taught the fabric of the sphere,

The changeful moon, the circuit of the stars,

The golden zones of heav’n; to some she gave

To weigh the moment of eternal things.

Of time, and space, and fate’s unbroken chain,

And will’s quick impulse...

                          But some, to higher hopes

Were destin’d; some within a finer mould

She wrought, and temper’d with a purer flame.

To these the sire omnipotent unfolds

The world’s harmonious volume, there to read

The transcript of himself.[4]:


I quote at such length not only because of the numerous aspects of this passage which prefigure Coleridge’s writing, but also because one of these aspects is precisely the expansiveness with which Akenside evokes this ascending series of mental states or degrees of comprehension [5]  The first class of humans he describes is that, approximately, of geologists and astronomers, or more generally those whose sphere of knowledge is the material world. The second class is that of philosophers. or those who seek out the causes and principles underlying the mechanical knowledge of the scientist. The last group he describes, however, is characterized by a purity of vision or understanding which approaches that of God himself, and whose revelatory completeness




makes all other forms and degrees of knowledge seem distinctly secondary. So close to being divine is their vision or experience, indeed, that in addition to tracing “On every part [of nature]… the bright impressions of [God’s] hand,” these highest or most blessed of humans share God’s own delight at the eternal Platonic forms and at the life which He has given them.[6]. In every part of reality, Akenside says,


…they see portray’d

That uncreated beauty, which delights

The mind supreme. They also feel her charms,

Enamour’d; they partake th’eternal joy [7]


Human kind according to Akenside is thus arranged in a natural hierarchy of knowledge or understanding - a hierarchy which, moreover, we cannot alter, since nature has imprinted on each mind “a diff’rent byass, and to each/Decree[d] its province in the common toil.” In addition to having “higher hopes” and being wrought “within a finer mould” than the majority, however, these fortunate beings seem destined to derive much finer, or rarer, pleasures from their distinctive labour than does the scientist or even the philosopher. [8] Though Akenside does not explicitly state, at this stage, that those of near divine vision are also more virtuous than other groups, moreover, the adjectives he uses to describe their aspirations and qualities - “higher,” “finer,” “purer” - certainly suggest that their superiority has a moral aspect in addition to its epistemological and aesthetic ones. Every group, however, is involved in deploying its “active pow’rs” in a way which emphasizes that even the pleasures of the “highest” class depend on effort or activity. As so often in Coleridge, that is, the process of thought or inquiry is what Akenside seems chiefly to celebrate - that process which raises us above popular opinion into a combination of knowledge and “deIight” which only such intellectual and creative effort can produce.

The best-known parallel in Coleridge to this vision of humanity as a kind of ‘ladder’ in which each class has a certain potential and a correspondent duty, but in which no progression from one class to another is possible, is the passage of Biographia Literaria where he distinguishes the “philosophic… consciousness” from that which is “common to all reflecting beings.” [9] Like Akenside, Coleridge divides humanity into a fixed hierarchy of mental ‘classes’ between which little or no communication is possible. Either one is “on this side, or on the other side of the spontaneous consciousness”,- and though - as he indicates shortly afterwards - the possessors of genius are capable of




increasing their insight into the creative power of God, what he calls “the multitude below” do not have this potential - nor, it seems, should waste their time trying to acquire it. At the same time, Coleridge’s discussion has a quality of expansiveness which, as in the analogous passage of Akenside, seems almost to act as a metaphor for the expanded intellect or comprehension he describes. In the process of evoking the superiority of his own “genius,” that is, Coleridge - or at least his prose - acquires a quality of energy, elevation, or excitement which seems itself to engender the repeated images of ascent or expansion which this passage contains. As in Akenside, moreover, the concept of hope, or of continually seeking something higher and better than past experience and achievement, is fundamental to Coleridge’s vision; and in the immediately following passage he evokes the necessity of such progress by comparing the capacity for religious or philosophical insight with the mysterious “potential” underlying the. metamorphosis of insects.[10]

Another, and much earlier, passage of Coleridge, however. also forcefully recalls these lines of The Pleasures of Imagination - namely the second paragraph of “Religious Musings” (1794), which perhaps as vividly as anything in Coleridge evokes the image of man’s (or mind’s) ascent to knowledge, virtue and religious joy – a joy which is essentially aspirational, or in other words depends on a sense of the potentially infinite growth of our understanding towards unity with the divine. God’s guidance of the sceptic’s “drowsed soul” towards religious truth, Coleridge writes, first stimulates “Dim recollections” of “its nobler nature,” from which it soars “to Hope,” and then:


From Hope and firmer Faith to perfect Love…

Till by exclusive consciousness of God

All self-annihilated it shall make

God its identity: God all in all!

We and our Father one! [11]


The resemblance to Akenside’s description of superior minds as sharing that vision which “delights/The mind supreme” is obvious: yet Coleridge’s conception in this passage differs from Akenside’s (or from his own later message in Biographia) in not distinguishing human beings into a series of unchangeable ‘classes’, but rather describing a process of enlightenment occurring within the individual soul. That Akenside in fact combines his hierarchy with a celebration of universal ascent, however, is particularly evident




from a later passage of The Pleasures of Imagination describing (in terms similar to those of Plotinus) how


        …all things which have life aspire to God,

The sun of being, boundless, unimpair’d

Centre of souls…

…nor is the care of heaven witheld

From granting to the task proportion’d aid;

That in their stations all may persevere

To climb the ascent of being, and approach

For ever nearer to the life divine [12]


This and analogous celebrations of visionary yearning in Akenside, moreover, were clearly among the sources for Coleridge’s statement, in a lecture of 1795, that religious aspirations “bestow the virtues which they anticipate,” so that one “whose mind is habitually imprest with them soars above the present state of humanity, and may be justly said to dwell in the presence of the most high” [13]. In explicitly attributing the fulfillment of this destiny to our contemplation of it, indeed, Coleridge includes within his cosmology an almost literal reflection of the patterns of thought and emotion described by Hume, in which the feelings produced by thinking are used to characterize the essential forces of nature. Yet at the same time, the simultaneous emanation and ascent of being described by both Plotinus and Akenside (and which is also reflected in Coleridge’s later theories of nature) involves a circularity analogous to that of the experiential processes which seem to underly it, and seems almost to act as a metaphor for the elevating experiences of intellectual or imaginative creation. [14]

This destined ascent of mind is again given a hierarchical form in the penultimate paragraph of Book 1, whose extension of Akenside’s earlier hierarchy to include the various forms of nature particularly resembles the single scale which Coleridge uses to connect the rational and voluntary powers of man with the entirely external life of protozoa in his Aids to Reflection [15] As in Coleridge’s adaptations of Schelling, indeed, the summit of Akenside’s continuum is that “MIND” which “The living fountains in itself contains/Of




beauteous and sublime.”[16] Paralleling this ascent, moreover, is the repeated process whereby nature itself leads us to the recognition that its beauties depend on our inherent powers of “imagination,” or as Akenside puts it:


Thus doth beauty dwell

There most conspicuous, even in outward shape

Where dawns the high expression of a mind,

By steps conducting our inraptur’d search

To that eternal origin, whose pow’r

Through all th’unbounded symmetry of things,

Like rays effulging from the parent sun,

This endless mixture of her charms diffus’d.[17]


That this “eternal origin” should not be God, but rather (in unambiguous capitals) “MIND, MIND alone,” moreover, indicates the extent to which Akenside, as early as 1744, has transformed the traditional neoplatonic emanation of being from the deity into a process of what Schelling calls “unconscious” production, whereby the physical world is generated through a series of oppositions between mental and physical or subject and object.[18] And at the same time, Akenside describes that beauty which itself depends on the mind as guiding as towards an understanding of its origin, or in other words, towards the self-reflexive knowledge which Coleridge and Wordsworth also associate with the benign influence of natural beauty. [19]

In the immediately following passage, however, Akenside reflects with unusual directness on the cyclical process whereby contemplation of our glorious ascent itself engenders the emotions which inform, or further, that contemplation - a process which seems to inform so much of his own philosophical poetry. In addition to describing the pleasure resulting from the mind’s discovery of its own powers in external nature, however, Akenside here celebrates the elevating emotions which arise from contemplating moral virtue - and especially the virtue involved in a pursuit of political liberty.[20] Not only, he suggests, are the outward forms of nature lifeless and meaningless compared with “the powr’s/Of genius and design” - powers which, he implies are also involved in creating external beauty; these forms - however magnificent - cannot “with half that kindling majesty dilate/Thy strong conception, as when Brutus rose/Refulgent from the stroke of Caesar’s fate” - an act of tyrannicide which (he suggests) reveals an admirable devotion to the interests of others.[21]




In addition to prefiguring Coleridge’s emphasis on a subjective energy which discovers itself in the external world, therefore, Akenside expresses a commitment to political liberty - or more generally, to an egalitarian fellowship of human beings - which seems to conflict with his earlier evocation of a natural hierarchy of intellect or visionary power.[22] This apparent divergence from the value-system adumbrated earlier in Book I is still more prominent at the beginning of Book II of The Pleasures of Imagination, which expresses Akenside’s ambition to re-establish the unity of art and philosophy which, he says, prevailed in ancient times, but was suspended in the “Gothic night” that followed, and even in the age of Raphael, whose hand


Effus’d its fair creation to enchant

The fond adoring herd in Latian fanes

To blind belief, while on their prostrate necks

The sable tyrant plants his heel secure. [23]


Despite the elitist and hierarchical view of imagination and intellect developed earlier in the poem, therefore, Akenside here expresses his desire for a process of democratization whereby imagination will involve all who enjoy her “dreams” (as he puts it) in considering those philosophical or political questions formerly reserved for tyrannous rulers. A clue to the relationship between these positions, however, is provided by the parallel contradiction, in Coleridge’s work, between his early ideal of universal enlightenment and liberation, and his later distinction between the knowledge and responsibilities appropriate to the intellectual elite, and the non-intellectual “faith” they should encourage in the majority.[24] That both the hierarchical and the democratic attitudes of these authors are linked to a single aesthetic impulse, indeed, is suggested by comparing their descriptions of the more general ascent of nature to which both envisage the higher developments of intellect and imagination as belonging. God’s “parent hand,” Akenside writes,


From the mute shell-fish gasping on the shore.

To men, to angels, to coelestial minds

                       For ever leads the generations on

To higher scenes of being. [25]


Like Coleridge and his German contemporaries, Akenside expresses a vision of ascent which is emotional or intuitive rather than rational or scientific, and whose suggestion that (as Aldridge ironically phrases it) “we are on our way to




evolve into angels and celestial minds” highlights the essentially religious feeling from which later, scientific theories of evolution seem themselves to have evolved.[26] An analogous passage in Coleridge’s Aids to Ref1ection, moreover, suggests that such visions of ascent were substantially influenced by the liberating effects of contemplating or describing them. “The lowest class of Animals or Protozoa,” Coleridge writes,


...have neither brain nor nerves. Their motive powers are all from without....As life ascends, nerves appear; but still only as the conductors of an external Influence; next are seen the knots or Ganglions, as so many Foci of instinctive agency, that imperfectly imitate the yet wanting Center. And now the Promise and Token of a true Individuality are disclosed;...the Spontaneous rises into the Voluntary, and finally after various steps and a long Ascent, the Material and Animal Means and Conditions are prepared for the manifestation of a Free Will...bound to originate its own Acts, not only without but even against alien stimulants.[27]


Far from being political, the “Liberty” which Coleridge goes on to associate with this ascent is the mental autonomy also celebrated by Akenside and his contemporary, Berkeley - the power not only to “originate [our] own Acts,” but also to ascend (as Berkeley puts it) “from the sensible into the intellectual world,” where we perceive “that ‘mind creates all, and acts all, and is to all created beings the source of unity and identity, harmony and order, existence and stability.” [28] Like his visions of spiritual liberation, however, Coleridge’s political ideals express his desire for a transcendence of external limitations, whether through the universal process of enlightenment he advocated in the 1790s, or through the dominance of society by those he later deemed exclusively capable of achieving the highest insight and the greatest emancipation from external influences. Though neither Akenside nor Coleridge resolves this contradiction intellectually. therefore, the parallels between their work suggest that a similar passion for freedom in all its senses expresses itself in Akenside’s contrasting visions of universal liberty and individual transcendence.[29] That his chief model for these ideals is the liberating experience of reflection, moreover, is suggested by his recurrent emphasis on the necessity of active thought or creativity to that joyful contemplation of God’s design which he describes as humankind’s ultimate




destiny. What Akenside’s poem most consistently focuses on, in other words, is the effort or activity of mind through which we may replace quotidian experience with the sublimest pleasures of intellect and creativity- And it is this pattern of experience, together with the process by which thought or writing first generates and then interprets this sublime transcendence, that most strikingly connects Akenside with Coleridge.

[1] See The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn (London: Routledge,1957-), 2:1695 (hereafter CN) and analogous passages in CN 2:2546 and 3:3346.

[2] 0n the neoplatonic aspects of Akenside’s thought see, for example, Nicholas Reid, “Coleridge, Akenside and the Platonic Tradition: Reading in The Pleasures of Imagination”. Journal of Australasian Universities Modern Language Association  80(1993) :33

[3] David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: 0UP, 1975), 77-8n.

[4] The Poetical Works of Mark Akenside, ed. Robin Dix (London: Associated University Presses, 1996), 93, ll.79-101 (hereafter APW)

[5] This sequence is to some extent disrupted by lines 91-6 (omitted in my quotation) which describe an additional class, characterized by practical knowledge “Of herbs and flowers,” though Akenside’s emphasis on the supremacy of the last, visionary class is unambiguous.

[6] SeeAPW, 93, ll.65-78.

[7] APW, 94, ll.65-78.

[8] 8 See also APW 175-6 on this point.

[9] S.T. Coleridge.. Biographia Literaria, ed James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1983), 1:236 (hereafter BL).

[10] See BL I 241-2

[11] The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E.H. Coleridge 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912) 1:110-11, ll.30-44 (hereafter CPW).

[12] APW; 121, ll 355-63. See also W.R. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus, 2 vols (London:

Longman’s, Green & Co., 1918; 1923), 1:254, and Plotinus, Enneads- trans. Stephen Mackenna (London: Faber, 1956), 622-3

[13] S.T. Coleridge, Lectures (1795) on Politics and Religion, ed- Lewis Patton and Peter Mann (Princeton: Princeton U.P. 1971), 13 (hereafter Lects 1795). See also the immediate continuation of this passage, which echoes Akenside’s description (quoted above) f how the religious visionary sees the beauty of the eternal Platonic forms.

[14] See especially S.T Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, ed. John Beer (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1993), 97-8 (hereafter AR), S.T. Coleridge, Shorter Works and Fragments. ed. H.J. Jackson and J.R de J. Jackson, 2 vols- (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1995), 1:516-18, Philip Merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1953), 114-5 and Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus, 1:254

[15] See AR, 97-8.

[16] APW, 105, ll.481-3- See also BL 1:256.

[17] APW, 105, ll.473-80

[18] See, for example. F.W.J. Schelling. System of Transcendental Idealism (1800); tr. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P. 1978), 12 (hereafter STI).

[19] See, for example, WPW, 2; 260-1, ll. 22-57 and CPW, 1:179-80, ll.20-43.

[20]  See, for example, STI 230, 233

[21] 21 See APW, 105-6, ll. 487-511

[22] See especially Friend 1:519

[23] 23 APW, 112, ll.538-41

[24] See especially S.T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, ed. John Colmer (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1976), 69

[25] 25 APW; 121, ll. 344-7.

[26]  See Aldridge, “The Eclecticism of Mark Akenside’s ‘The Pleasures of Imagination’.” Journal of the History of Ideas 5 (1944): 362

[27]  AR, 97-8.

[28] The Works of George Berkeley, ed. A.A. Luce and T.E. Jessop. 9 vols. [London: Thomas Nelson, 1948-57], 5:137. For Coleridge’s description of the increasing “Liberty” involved in this ascent of being see AR, 98.

[29] See also LS, 12-13. where Coleridge quotes at length from Akenside to illustrate the (unexplained) connection between the ideals of political freedom and spiritual ‘ascent’, and Jump, “High Sentiments of Liberty,” 216 on how Coleridge found in Akenside’s “combination of radicalism and aesthetics…a philosophy which precisely suited his own mood during the middle years of the 1790s.”