Reviving Coleridge’s Utopian Vision


Linda Reesman


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.80-86)




“For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

                                  S.T. Coleridge


Amidst the turbulence of the revolutionary ideals in 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge embraced his utopian principles in his poem Kubla Khan in reaction to the social violence and political needs of the time.  The paradise of an ideal state, originating with the pre-Christian utopia in Plato’s Republic, anticipated the dialectic encountered in the Romantic era by poets and philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau in the Contrat Social and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the Wanderjahre.  Along with Rousseau, Coleridge upheld the importance of individual freedom yet distinguished his desire for the sovereign will to govern, based on Reason, from Rousseau’s conclusion that all men should share in the power to govern equally, or the consent of the will (Calleo 65).  Struggling with these democratic ideals Coleridge probed the fundamental belief of the Jacobins, equality.  According to David Calleo, “Constitutionalism, for him, meant the preservation of variety within the State, of diverse distinctive groups and classes leading their lives in harmonious interdependence but not dissolved into some universal undifferentiated Jacobin abstraction” (110).           

Considering Coleridge’s changing political and religious beliefs during the revolutionary period, the representation of paradise within the utopian myth of this era can be examined more precisely through an analysis of his poetic language and socio-political theory.  Two powerful influences on Coleridge’s thought, the ancient Greek and the German, support the argument I am attempting to prove that Coleridge’s utopian principles are a deliberate component of his poetics in Kubla Khan written in 1797.

       In Chapter 10 of Biographia Literaria Coleridge quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book V, in his careful elucidation of the terms, Sense, Reason, and Understanding.


. . .  both life, and sense,

Fancy, and understanding: whence the soul

Reason receives, and REASON is her being,


Is oftest your’s, the latter most is our’s,

Differing but in degree, in kind the same.


In his explication of “Reason” as “Understanding” in The Friend I (1818), Coleridge states, “We name God the Supreme Reason; and Milton says,




‘Whence the Soul Reason receives, and Reason is her Being’ ” (156).  Coleridge makes his case for the religious nature of Reason as a spiritual entity rather than a human faculty.  Following his logic from human understanding through an understanding of “God, the Soul, eternal Truth” as Reason, Coleridge establishes a new definition for the imagination as that faculty of “inward sense” which links the human to the divine. Coleridge explains this connection:


Whatever is conscious Self-knowledge is Reason; . . . defined the organ of the Super-sensuous; even as the Understanding wherever it does not possess or use the Reason, as another and inward eye, may be defined the conception of the Sensuous, or the faculty by which we generalize and arrange the phaenomena [sic] of perception: that faculty, the functions of which contain the rules and constitute the possibility of outward Experience.

                                                                       The Friend I, 156


He thereby establishes his definition of the imagination not by degree but rather, as Plato indicates, by “KIND abstracted from degree” (BL I, 10: 171). 

In Coleridge’s attempt to redefine Sense, Reason, and Understanding he relies on the German terms empfindlich, Anschauung, and the dialectic pair objektiv-subjectiv which were prevalent in German philosophical discussions during the 1790s (BL I, 10: 168 n1).  He then synthesizes modern philosophy with the Platonic idea that “. . . Truth is the correlative of Being,” both of which construct the foundation of his thinking.  Among the mystics and the writings of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, Coleridge found, as he says, “a genial coincidence with much that I had toiled out for myself, and a powerful assistance in what I had yet to do” (BL I, 9: 152-60).

       On these philosophical underpinnings, Coleridge bases his design for good government, coined pantisocracy.  According to John Morrow, “Pantisocracy was based on the expectation that in the absence of political institutions and social conventions which generated subservience and oppression, it would be possible to live according to the dictates of rational benevolence” (8).  Coleridge examined the possibility of a society that could operate according to reason and benevolence yet maintain economic prosperity.  He found in Plato’s blueprint for an ideal state “. . .  justice exemplified on a larger scale than in the individual” (Republic 119).  Plato acknowledges four essential qualities that make up the whole of virtue—wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice—which are evident in “the individuals composing the state in their public capacity as citizens” (119).  Furthermore, just as Plato looked to the larger body of the state to understand the individual nature of self-government, he also recognized the virtues of self-control or temperance as “a condition of internal harmony” and justice arising from “the internal order of the soul,” injustice from “internal discord” (139).  His emphasis on the internal coincides with Coleridge’s reliance on individual virtue as a model for the state or community.




       Furthering his concept of a good ruler Coleridge continued reading not only Plato but other works[1] including Machiavelli’s The Prince.  He understood the dilemma between virtuous actions and effective authority that challenged rulers.  Machiavelli pointed to models of former successful rulers declaring that a ruler should be feared rather than loved.  He indicated that goodness and benevolence towards one’s subjects was not always the best approach. 

       Aware that many victorious rulers have sacrificed virtue for power, Coleridge explores Plato’s paradox that philosophers should be kings when he addresses his poem to the ancient ruler Kubla Khan.  As a mighty conqueror, Kubla Khan represents an unquestioned power and authority that confront Coleridge’s understanding of wisdom and justice in a ruling body.  The poetic language and imagery in Kubla Khan illustrates the battle between good and evil, vice and virtue, in its contradictions, unrealities, and imaginative treatment.  Early in the poem Coleridge poses these contradictions of “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” (36), and “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea” (3-5), which suggest irreconcilable conditions within human nature and earth’s natural forms.  Yet, with the wisdom of the philosopher-king whose virtue is knowledge, the governed will be taught “ ‘popular’ or ‘civic’ virtue” based on “correct belief,” according to Plato (175).  Coleridge offers a synthesis between human nature and nature through his pantisocratic principles as a foundation for the poem’s imagery. 

       In order to arrive at the understanding of knowledge and belief requires not only virtue which underlies Coleridge’s utopian vision, but also curiosity (an ancient definition of knowledge) to learn about the nature of the individual.  While he romanticizes self-discovery, Coleridge also enlarges the scope of Romanticism to include an imagination that embodies truth more than fiction in his poetry.  His distinction of imagination from fancy explains how Coleridge associates the former with truth and the latter with the temporal.  He states:


The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM . . . . The Fancy is indeed no other than a Mode of Memory emancipated from the orderof time and space; . . .

                                                         BL I, 13: 304-05




Not only through his essays and lectures but also through his poetry Coleridge strives to illuminate the dark shadows of tyranny against liberty and happiness. 

Relying on his understanding of human nature rather than his political conservatism, Coleridge maintained his radical enthusiasm for the utopian vision of his time.  Perhaps then this is why as David Calleo points out, “It was never easy for Coleridge to reject the Utopianism of the Revolution as most English conservatives believed it should have been” (63).  With Robert Southey he planned their utopian society in June of 1794 which grew out of his radical opposition to the establishment and was deeply embedded in his religious beliefs in unitarianism.  In his political and religious lectures of 1795 Coleridge attempted to counteract William Godwin’s atheistic writings on Political Justice.

       However, while his public lectures served as a platform for his radical reactions, his more subjective and imaginative outlet for dissension took form in his poem Religious Musings written on Christmas Eve of 1794.  Coleridge writes:


O’er waken’d realms Philosophers and Bards

Spread in concentric circles: they whose souls,

Conscious of their high dignities from God,

Brook not wealth’s rivalry! and they who long

Enamoured with the charms of order hate

The unseemly disproportion:



Apparently discontent with the inequities of wealth and property Coleridge was keenly aware of the ideal forms towards which society should turn its gaze in order to achieve some measure of equality.  He further expresses his utopian ideal in response to the current conflict:


Return pure Faith! return meek Piety!

The kingdoms of the world are yours: each heart   

Self-governed, the vast family of Love                   

Raised from the common earth by common toil

Enjoy the equal produce.



Coleridge defines his system of pantisocracy as “ ‘a scheme of emigration on the principles of an abolition of individual property’ (CL i. 96-7),” and as Nicholas Roe suggests, his “equalitarian principles were not wholly political or economic, but religious and emotional as well” (113).  Coleridge intends for this ‘family of Love’ to be a model for mankind’s growth and spiritual development. 




       Nevertheless, while Coleridge’s Religious Musings [2] can be tied directly to his political and religious principles, his well-known vision fragment Kubla Khan appears linked, by critics and content, to his supernatural poems of the same period, Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Having begun with the paradoxical nature of the poem’s imagery, I will exchange the sensuality Coleridge rejected in Godwin for the idealized concept of sense experienced by the poem’s narrator.  Here the senses embrace a pastoral and idyllic location.  The speaker notices “gardens bright with sinuous rills; Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;” (8-9) which are protected by walls and towers enclosing the ground where small winding brooks fertilize the land and trees.  This ideal spot for vegetative growth exists not only in the present but has endured throughout time: “And here were forests ancient as the hills,/ Enfolding sunny spots of greenery” (10-11).   Not just a momentary appeal to the whims of the senses, these lines suggest Nature’s essential forms unchanged throughout the centuries. 

       When this ideal place is suddenly besieged by “that deep romantic chasm which slanted/ Down the green hill . . . ” (12-13),  Coleridge projects a threatening view of what could become “A savage place!” (14) through enchantment and sensuality originating in fancy not imagination.   From his early conversations with William Wordsworth in 1797-98 come “the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination” (BL 2 14: 5).  Now, the specters of fancy dissipate before the imagination.  Coleridge accomplishes both the excitement of the reader’s sympathy and the novelty supplied by the imagination as he challenges the sensual with a new view of sense.  The attraction is vivid and alluring when the appeal is to the baser instinct; however, the ideal need not be insipid when inspired by truth.

       Coleridge continues to juxtapose the romantic and supernatural with the idyllic and innocent with the brief occurrence of the sacred river as a reminder of what is truly real: “It flung up momently the sacred river” (24).  Once again the “dome of pleasure” (31) reappears as “a miracle of rare device” (35), the uncommon and yet longed for perfection that seems just out of reach.  Coleridge suggests a holy and sanctified atmosphere filled with the music of the dulcimer played by an innocent Abyssinian maid knowing that “Her symphony and song,/ To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,” (43-44).  Here Coleridge develops what he refers to as “poetic faith” when through these “characters supernatural, or at least romantic,” he would direct the reader “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth




sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (BL 2 14: 6).  In an attempt to realize his ideal world Coleridge draws on his poetic sensibility and philosophical principles to affirm his utopian vision. 

       When Coleridge first published Kubla Khan in 1816, the poem appeared in a volume with its own title-page reading “Kubla Khan: Or a Vision in a Dream.”  As Elisabeth Schneider argues, “. . . by reinforcing vision with dream or dream with vision, Coleridge took care to redouble the unreality and abdicate his responsibility for the piece” (22).  Nevertheless, further examination of dreams as understood scientifically during the Romantic period indicates a physiological theory of the imagination that Coleridge explored extensively with scientists and philosophers  like Sir Humphry Davy, Thomas Beddoes, and Erasmus Darwin, along with the reading of Andrew Baxter’s two-volume second edition of 1737 Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul; Wherein the Immateriality of the Soul is Evinced From the Principles of Reason and Philosophy (Ford 18).  For Coleridge the sovereignty of the imagination is significantly linked to the suspension of the will and accounts for the construction of poetry/dreams as a rational activity of the human mind.  Jennifer Ford’s historical evaluation of dreams provides substantial evidence to support Coleridge’s thinking during this time.  She states:


These [scientific] works formed a rich background for him as he attempted to understand whether or not dreams were the creations of his own mind, the creations of supernatural, external spirits, or perhaps revelations of deeply complex physiological processes; and they provided him with numerous illustrations of the ways in which dreams could be treated and understood as diseases, and the imagination understood as a medical faculty: a psychological, intellectual faculty which could both cure and cause diseases. 



Ford continues to elaborate on Coleridge’s explication of the wholeness of the mind as he debates the objectivity and subjectivity of the ‘I’ arguing for the physical existence of a dreaming place.  Coleridge grounds his discussion for the morality of the individual and the nature of good and evil in this understanding.  Ford remarks, “Poetry was an instance of a ‘rationalized dream’ (CN I 2086), which suggests that the creation of poetry requires the magnitude of loss of volition as experienced in dreams, with the crucial qualifier that there is still some reason present” (35-36).

       In his letter to John Thelwall dated December 31, 1796, Coleridge points out the difference between Godwin’s and Jesus’s systems of theology and the failure of Southey’s poem to reach beyond the “sentimental” to the “poetical, Sublime.”  He says, “In language at once natural, perspicuous, & dignified, in manly pathos, in soothing & sonnet-like description, and above all, in character, & dramatic dialogue, Southey is unrivalled; but as certainly he does not possess opulence of Imagination, lofty-paced Harmony, or that toil of




thinking, which is necessary in order to plan a Whole” (Jackson 50).  Coleridge’s estimation of an opulent imagination necessarily includes the faculty of reason as an active component of the whole mind thereby refuting Hartley’s and Locke’s arguments which give weight to the passivity of mind and dreams as limited to imaginations, fancies, and reveries of sleep.  The rejection of these metaphysical theories significantly establishes Coleridge’s position that the vision or dream-induced content of Kubla Khan was not produced by the theory of association contrary to John Livingston Lowe’s argument that as Coleridge fell asleep reading Purchas’s Pilgrimage, the laws of Hartleyan association took over.  Schneider explains, “Coleridge had questioned whether ideas (the term idea included images) ever are suggested by other ideas” (115).  Moreover, Coleridge understood the process of association as operating “not by idea-links” but by “feeling-links,” an emotional not a mechanical relationship between images (115).

       The paradise in Kubla Khan, not merely derived from or linked to the ideas of others, substantiates Coleridge’s dreaming place where he envisioned his utopian society.  His vision represented an idealized form of government wherein society could learn to achieve some semblance of equality, but Coleridge also recognized that equality in a diverse environment could not become a symbol of uniformity.  As we examine these concerns of individual freedom today to discover the relevance of our democratic ideals, we may very likely turn to Coleridge with his insightful, intellectual remarks and question the firmness with which individuality and constitutionalism remain girded by democracy (110).

[1]   In The Friend Coleridge discusses different philosophical systems of political justice.  He says, “. . . all the Theories on the rightful Origin of Government, are reducible in the end to three classes, correspondent to the three different points of view, in which the Human Being itself may be contemplated.  The first denies all truth and distinct meaning to the words, RIGHT and DUTY, and affirming that the human mind consists of nothing, but manifold modifications of passive sensation, considers men as the highest sort of animals indeed, but at the same time the most wretched; inasmuch as their defenceless nature forces them into society, while such is the multiplicity of wants engendered by the social state, that the wishes of one are sure to be in contradiction with those of some other.  The assertors of this system consequently ascribe the origin and continuance of Government to fear, or the power of the stronger, aided by the force of custom.” Barbara E. Rooke, ed., The Friend I (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1969) 166.


[2]   John Morrow explains the connection between Coleridge’s political theory and poetic expression.  Regarding the two aspects of equality and communism he states, “These goals were to be features of pantisocracy, and the combination of millenarianism and utopian communism played an important role in Coleridge’s Religious Musings of 1794.” Coleridge’s Political Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990)  9.