Coleridge, the Afterlife, and the Meaning of “Hades”[1]


Anthony John Harding


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp73-79)




DURING HER VOYAGE to Scandinavia in 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft—who was certainly not a woman to accept conventional ideas at face value—recorded having felt a profound conviction of the reality of a future state: “it appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organized dust—ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together.”[2]  Wollstonecraft here expresses a conviction which she shared with many of her contemporaries, and with many of the next generation.  It is as if the notion of the afterlife, rather than suffering from the turn toward scepticism that led to the rejection of so many other religious doctrines (those more strongly tied to a particular belief system), was suddenly freed from its connection with specific religious practices, and became the focus of increased attention, hope, and anxiety. 

       Coleridge shared Mary Wollstonecraft’s feeling of absolute certainty that human beings must continue to enjoy some form of existence after the death of the body.   He was more like Keats, however, in his need to probe and question the nature of this belief: whether, for instance, believing in an afterlife necessarily meant believing that a person’s individual consciousness would continue to exist.  Coleridge’s questioning of the belief in an afterlife became particularly intense after he passed the age of fifty.  He certainly did not question it in the sense of doubting whether there was an afterlife.  All the passions, fears, thoughts, hopes, ideas, and longings that fill a person’s mind and soul in this life could not simply vanish, and become as nothing, when the last breath is drawn.  Expressing this conviction in a note of February or March 1829, Coleridge asserts that immortality is “The inevitable Rebound of the I am.”  He continues: “The moment that the Soul affirms, I am, it asserts, I cannot cease to be.”  To Coleridge, not to believe in an afterlife in some form or other was simply inconceivable, virtually a negation of life itself.  (Somehow he continued to regard Charles Lamb as still a Christian at heart, despite his shakiness on this point.)[3]  Coleridge did try, however, to reach a better




understanding of the basis on which this belief should be built; and by this I mean its scientific and philosophical as well as its scriptural basis.

       This paper will set out what appear to have been the two major lines of enquiry Coleridge followed: first, investigating the biblical understanding of “a future state,” an investigation which Coleridge approached with a biblical critic’s sense of the evolving and sometimes elusive nature of the biblical record; and, second, examining the contemporary scientific understanding of life in its material as well as its organizational connection.  Both lines of enquiry came to focus particularly on the meaning of “the Hades,” or the negative state of being, to which the ideas of “life” and “afterlife” are a contrary.  Coleridge’s synthesis attempts to place the biblical idea of an afterlife—relatively inchoate and undefined until the second century BC—in a new union with a christianized Naturphilosophie that treats nature not as the arch-enemy of spirit but as its necessary, if ambivalent, Ground.

       In Coleridge’s time, a great many people thought that the last word on immortality had been spoken by Dr William Paley, who in Book V of his Moral and Political Philosophy (first published 1788; fifth edition 1814) claimed that if Jesus had done no more than proclaim the existence of a “future state,” with a heaven for the good and a hell for those who did evil, “he had pronounced a message of inestimable importance.”  Coleridge considered this an appallingly shallow, merely pragmatic, and therefore unspiritual idea.  What particularly aroused his wrath, however, was not the reductive and pragmatic nature of Paley’s statement but the fact that Paley continued by claiming that—since the ancients had already affirmed the existence of an afterlife—the peculiar achievement of Jesus, and the reason there was a Christian religion at all, was that Jesus had proved there was a future state, by performing miracles.  Paley’s argument was that.” He alone discovers, who proves; and no man can prove this point [the existence of a future state], but the teacher who testifies by miracles that his doctrine comes from God” (AR 411).

       The problem with this position, for Coleridge, was that the credibility of the New Testament reports of miracles had been severely shaken by contemporary biblical criticism, and in many ways also by the findings of early nineteenth-century psychologists about the power of hypnotic suggestion, which had been proved and widely exploited by Mesmer and his imitators.  To make the afterlife (“a future state”) the key doctrine of Christianity, and then to pin the proof of a future state on the performance of miracles, was to put faith on a very shaky footing indeed.  So one thrust of Coleridge’s investigation was to try to discover what biblical testimony there actually was for the orthodox belief in personal immortality, that is (as he expresses it in 1826), for “the resuscitation of the Man—not of a Soul or Spirit but of the Man.”  This is what Coleridge holds must be meant by “the Resurrection of the Body” (CN 4, 5377, f 44r).

       Some form of belief in “a Resurrection, and a Future State” was evidently




established among the Twelve Tribes by the time of Christ but the exact content of this belief is more difficult to establish.[4] As many commentators have noted, little is said in the Hebrew scriptures about life after death.  Often, too, what is said would suggest the existence of a future state only to those already expecting to be told about it.  This near-total absence of positive evidence in the Hebrew scriptures for a belief in the afterlife, in the full sense of “the survival of human Consciousness after the dissolution of the Sensible Body,” is for the Coleridge of the winter of 1827 and spring of 1828.” The Great Problem.”  Rather than clear doctrinal principles regarding the immortality of the soul, the Hebrew Scriptures provide at best metaphors—“Ornament and Garnish.”  And both Catholic and Protestant churches have been responsible for working up such metaphors, “fancies and anachronisms,” into articles of belief.

       Coleridge was certain that the Hebrew scriptures did confirm the Jewish belief in the survival of the spirit after the death of the body.  The issue for him was whether anything peculiar to the individual human being, to the person we know in this life, survived; and, if so, whether this being, in its future state, would meet with life, or only (like the Ancient Mariner) with “Life in Death” (Notebook 37, f 32r).  The difficulties were compounded by the fact that for centuries Christian interpreters had given particular significance to the word that, in such texts as Genesis 42:38, 44:29-31, I Kings 2:6, Job 14:13, and Psalm 49:14-15, the King James Bible translates as “grave.”  In other places, such as Deuteronomy 32:22, Job 11:8, 26:6, Psalms 9:17, 16:10, 55:15, the King James Bible translates the same Hebrew word, Sheol, by the English word “hell.”  This is the word that, as Coleridge knew, the Septuagint regularly renders άδησ (Hades) though it should be noted that the Septuagint also uses “Hades” to translate five other Hebrew words (including “Gehenna”), but in fewer instances.  The key point here is that, as the seventeenth-century divine Richard Field wrote (in a work that Coleridge annotated), “Sheol, which the Septuagint translate άδησ, doth not precisely, and immediatly signifie the place of damned soules, but in an indifferencie, and generality of signification, noteth out to us the receptacles of the dead…”  Field concludes that whether it means “hell” or simply “the grave” must therefore be deduced from the context.[5]

       The word άδης or Άδης (Hades) occurs also in some crucial passages in the New Testament.  In Acts 2:27, Peter is reported to have quoted from the Septuagint version of Psalm 16:10 in his address to the assembled crowd on the Day of Pentecost: “thou wilt not leave my soul in hell” (ούκ ένκαταλείψεις τήν ψυχήν μου είς Άιδην) In Revelations 20:14, “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire,” the Greek word translated “hell” is ό Άιδης Examples could be multiplied.  Because of the connotations of the Greek term “Hades” and the emphasis in the Christian creeds on the resurrection of the dead, the references to “Sheol” in the Hebrew Scriptures tended to be read by Christian




interpreters as meaning the same, in terms of Christian eschatology, as “hell.”

       In short, both the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament appear to suggest that there is a place, called Hades, which receives the bodies of those not granted everlasting life.  The King James Bible translates the term sometimes as “the grave,” sometimes as “hell”; but it also uses “hell” to translate “Gehenna” (as in Matthew 5:29, Matthew 10:28, and Luke 12:5), and several other terms.  Understanding the scriptural evidence for belief in the afterlife thus necessarily entailed understanding what “Sheol” might have meant to the Jews who compiled the Torah, and what the term Hades might have meant to the translators who composed the Septuagint, as well as what it meant to the authors of the Gospels, Acts, and Revelations.  Coleridge knew that the language of the King James version (the authority of which, we must remember, seemed unshakeable in his day) was highly unreliable as a guide to what devout Jews actually believed, in the approximately ten centuries between the time of David and the time of Christ, since (as Coleridge notes in his comment on Deuteronomy 32:22) the translators were influenced by classical and mediaeval conceptions of hell. 

       It may be important to remind ourselves also that Coleridge’s interest in Hades is not evidence of a morbid fear of damnation, or even of a suspiciously occult or gothic taste for the more arcane aspects of Christian eschatology.  Rather, it proves how seriously Coleridge takes the demand that to understand the nature of the soul you must understand the soul of nature.  If “Hades” was to have any meaning at all, it must have seemed to Coleridge essential to understand it in terms of a full account of the body, of the human organism itself, as a product of nature and participant in nature’s processes, and of consciousness and self-consciousness as phenomena that co-exist with bodily life.  Coleridge realized, in other words, that an informed and credible understanding of the biblical allusions to the afterlife (most importantly, the New Testament ones, but also those in the Hebrew scriptures which formed the context for the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles) necessitated a new understanding of the whole order of nature; a Christian Naturphilosophie.  Understanding death, and what if anything awaits us after death, must involve all of nature, since nature “leaves nothing behind” (CN 4, 5182).  Part of the key to bringing together a scripture-based understanding of life after death and a science-based understanding of nature was precisely the concept of Hades.

       What he does is essentially to construct a christianized philosophy of nature that preserves the promise of redemption while redefining its necessary opposite—the grave, Sheol, Hades, hell—as the prepared ground, out of which redemption is to be sought and against which redemption is defined.  For it was clear to Coleridge that a Heaven necessitates a Hades.  As he put it in a daring speculation of December 1823 “the Dark Fire and its Eternity are is the final cause of the World—because it is the pledge of the Eternity of the Light and <the> Beatitude” (CN 4, 5077, f 33r).  Coleridge seeks to reconceptualize the Hades of Scripture as a mythological term for the natural matrix or (to use




the term which increasingly Coleridge himself uses) the Ground, out of which the more individualized forms of existence must be raised.  Hades, in this reconceptualization, does not mean the traditional hell in the sense of a place where the wicked are punished, but is rather a symbolic or mythic way of representing a metaphysical concept, that of the permitted opposite of Being, or rather, of the actual.  This appears to be the meaning of the equation in Notebook 43: “Hades, Chaos = mera potentialitas,” and of the statement that echoes it in Notebook 45: “Death, Hades, the Grave, Relapse into merely potential Being, are different terms for the same thing.” [6]

       Science, mythology, and biblical studies co-operate in this project.  For Coleridge himself, Hades is sometimes simply equated with nature, meaning, at the cosmological level, Chaos, or “the Indistinction,”[7] and at the human level, “the Natural Man, in all it’s particulars of Soil, Moisture, Air, Warmth, Light, Magnetic attraction &c.”  (Notebook 41, f 27r).  This “Ground of our creaturely Being,” Coleridge remarks in a margin note of September 1830, is “potential Evil,” but—it is vital to note—only potential (CM 3:876).  Chapter 2 of Genesis, in Coleridge’s reading of it, symbolizes this lowest level of “Nature,” or the “Ground,” in the image of the Tree of Life (Notebook 42, f 21v).  But more often he emphasizes that nature, at any rate when seen in the light of reason, exhibits the irradiation of the Hades-Chaos of pure potentiality by the organizing, individualizing, and redeeming power, that makes the potential, actual.  Taking from Schelling’s Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit the idea of the Ground (in which there is only potential, not actual, evil), as a necessary condition of the fully realized human condition with its freedom to choose between light and darkness, Coleridge stresses that whatever actually is, is “good as far as it actually is or is actual.”  It is misleading to speak of “the goodness, loveliness, beauty &c of Nature.”  Rather, we should learn to think of these qualities in nature as “in nascendo, i.e.  in the redemption of the contradiction in the Nature-ground by the divine energy condescending.  Nature is but a term or name for Hades, the chaos…”  (Notebook 43, ff 8v-9r).

       What is remarkable about Coleridge’s speculations, then, is how frequently he emphasizes that nature as Hades is not simply inert, dead weight, dragging “ spirit” down, but has its own permitted striving toward the realization of a higher state.  Material nature has itself an active function (like Schelling’s “opposing activity”) in the emergence of human consciousness, of individualization, and (through individualization) of the spiritual.  This view of nature is thoroughly evolutionary, though not of course Darwinian.  In building the system he and Joseph Henry Green worked on together and which resulted in only one published work, Green’s Vital Dynamics (published 1840), Coleridge




drew on a vast mass of data from contemporary geology, mineralogy, optics, chemistry, botany, biology, zoology, and medicine to show that the whole natural order participates in what in religious terms is called a redemptive process.  The “instinctivity” of the protozoa, molluscs, insects and other living things is a sign of the divine energy working on the chaos of nature. 

       It is only with this overall aim in mind that we can make sense of a remark like this one in Notebook 43, on instinct: “the more wonderful the acts of the Bees, the Ants, <&> the Termites, are, the greater is the pre superiority over of our (mine & Mr Green’s) View of the spirituality of Hades over the ordinary notions of the corpuscular Materialists” (Notebook 43, ff 4r, 5v).  To state the obvious: that Coleridge should introduce the term “Hades” into a discussion of “instinctivity” as seen in the Ant-republics, and moreover should speak of the spirituality of Hades (here and in other notebook entries), indicates how far we are from the Gnostic view of material nature as utterly removed from spirit and at enmity with it.  Coleridge virtually rebuilds Naturphilosophie on the basis of a theistic metaphysics, and the findings of contemporary science (in the vitalist not the materialist model) are not just bolted on as a concession to contemporary scientific interests, but incorporated as a fully integral part of the system.

       To show the relation of the Hades-Ground to individual consciousness, Coleridge tentatively postulates a “triple Ichheit,” a model that must owe something to his wrestling with Eschenmayer and Kluge, though Coleridge vacillates on the question of whether the lowest level of the “I” is truly an “I” at all.  By October 1830, Coleridge is certain that the “I” is twofold, consisting of the “Spiritual I” and the “Self of the Flesh” (earlier called the “I of the Ground”), which however is only an “ I” at all by virtue of its “copresence <with> and opposition to, the Spiritual I” (Notebook 47, f 12v). 

       Coleridge’s synthesis thus reconceptualizes the Hades of the Septuagint and the New Testament by, in a sense, making it part of the structure of the human—the “ground” of our separate personal existence, nature in the sense of “natural man,” the "particulars of Soil, Moisture, Air, Warmth, Light, Magnetic attraction &c.”  Unlike the nature of the materialists, this Hades is not inert but has its own primal form of will, its inarticulate “counterstriving” to achieve Being independently of the Logos.  But only by “potenziation,” through the downshining of the Light invoked at the beginning of St John’s Gospel (John 1:4, 9), does the Ground in the universe as a whole and of the “vegetive and the lower instinctive Life” in individual human beings assume “actual” Being.  In the case of the individual human, this “actual” Being is identified with the “Spiritual I”—the part that will survive after physical death.  This “I” (Coleridge writes on 23 December 1830), conquering the Hades or natural man, “converts it to an anti-me” (Notebook 49, f 21v)—now, we might say, following Julia Kristeva, to “the abject.”

       What awaits the individual who is unresponsive to the reason, the “Light,” is not in any ordinary sense physical punishment or torment, but non-being, or




more strictly, decline into merely potential being, the total absence of “actual” being (Notebook 46, f 15r).[8] So in this sense, falling into Hades is “no longer having actual Being.”  In a final chiasmic formulation in this 23 December 1830 entry, Coleridge suggests that “<Objectively, Hades> is the outward material Nature of Heaven—and Subjectively the Hell of Nature” (Notebook 49, f 22r).

       Let me offer, by way of conclusion, a final speculation.  In MS D of The Prelude (written in Mary Wordsworth’s hand, and completed in 1832 but much revised in 1838-39), appear some lines that have puzzled commentators.  These lines constitute a major revision of the paragraphs addressed to Coleridge at the end of the 1850 Prelude.  They appear on a slip of paper pasted into the manuscript, and it is therefore likely that they date from the 1838-39 revisions, and were thus written four or five years after Coleridge’s death.  They hardly seem appropriate as applied to Wordsworth’s state of mind around the time of his marriage to Mary Hutchinson, which is referred to immediately before his apostrophe to Coleridge, as a return to and reiteration of the earlier tribute to Dorothy, as W.J.B. Owen points out.  Could it be that, through the intermittent exchanges he held with Coleridge during the 1820s, Wordsworth was aware how deeply Coleridge was then investigating the question of a future state? If that is the case, these lines, with their allusion to the haunting questions of “Life and death, time and eternity,” might reflect a re-reading of Wordsworth’s own struggle with “The incumbent mystery of sense and soul”; a different understanding of what it was that he and Coleridge had tried to grapple with, forty years earlier, as—with Coleridge’s advice and encouragement—he had embarked on the writing of The Recluse, and of the long autobiographical preamble to that work, the poem which eventually became The Prelude:


Thus fear relaxed

Her overweening grasp, thus thoughts and things

In the self-haunting spirit learned to take

More rational proportions; mystery,

The incumbent mystery of sense and soul,

Of Life and death, time and eternity,

Admitted more habitually a mild

Interposition—a serene delight

In closelier gathering cares, such as become

A human creature, howsoe’er endowed,

Poet, or destined for a humbler name… [9]


[1]   This paper was written during a term of residence at Grey College, Durham, as Sidney Holgate Visiting Research Fellow.  I am grateful to Victor Watts, Master of Grey College, and to the faculty of English Studies at the University of Durham for their support and encouragement.  My thanks also to Nicholas Roe, Director of the Coleridge Summer Conference, and to conference participants, for giving the paper a sympathetic hearing and for many helpful comments and questions. A longer version of this paper appeared in Studies in Philology 96 (1999):204-23.  The portion reprinted here appears by kind permission of the copyright holder, University of North Carolina Press.

[2]   Mary Wollstonecraft, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of “The Rights of Woman”, ed. Richard Holmes (Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1987), 112.

[3]   Notebook 39 (BM Add MS 47534), f 36v.

[4]   Notebook 23 (BM Add MS 47521), f 47r.

[5]   Richard Field, Of the Church (Oxford:  Printed by William Turner, 1635), 457.

[6]   Notebook 43 (BM Add MS 47538), f 47v;  Notebook 45, f 20r.  Compare the margin note on Eschenmayer where Coleridge disagrees with Eschenmayer’s concept of the life in the body and continues “Far more intelligible is the idea of Behmen [Jakob Böhme] who derives the Body from Death, as the residuum inertiæ of a potential not entirely actualized” (CM 2:542).

[7]   S.T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, ed. John Colmer, Collected Works, Bollingen Series LXXV, vol. 10 (London and Princeton, N.J.:  Routledge and Princeton University Press, 1976), 113.

[8]   For the role of the Logos in the continuing creation and individualizing of nature and the human, see Mary Anne Perkins, Coleridge’s Philosophy:  The Logos as Unifying Principle (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1996), 117-36.

     [9]  William Wordsworth, The Fourteen-Book Prelude, ed. W.J.B. Owen (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1985), 266 (Book XIV, lines 275-77, 282-92). W.J.B. Owen’s remarks are in the editor’s commentary (266).