ROMANTIC CONFLICT – WORDSWORTH V COLERIDGE

14 Mar

A Duality of Romanticism Discovered Within the Verse of Wordsworth and Coleridge

 

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            Humanity, during the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th, centuries began to be regarded merely as a soulless collection of evolved animal responses; the body and its very essence, the rendering of an egocentric assembly of selfish genes. The great chain of life, where divinity could be recognized in all things, had seemingly been broken. A new, nihilistic, modern perspective had replaced the old idea that one existed at the will of a divinely initiated, incomprehensible plan. Prior to the revolution in scientific thinking and philosophic reasoning the estates of being where regarded as predestined and one had simply to fulfill the ardors of one’s allotted task under the supervision of an all seeing, if myopic, omnipotent god.

            The establishment of the Romantic Movement was a harkening to another period and time when the sublimity of nature and the universality of god within it was a matter of wisdom. Now with enlightenment dawning on Britain and a withdrawal from the old ways and a focus on the new, god had been demoted to the position of engineer rather than that of great architect and the ultimate authority within the universe. There had to be more, and the Romantics refused to accept the idea that life, nature and the pursuit of a singular, plodding existence were all that prevailed. Surely the abundance and diversity to be found within nature was evidence enough that there was more to life than that which the newly-enlightened were declaring? Beset by modernism the Romantics dug in their heels and declared the new world order as being out of step with the old. The rise of pantheism, as evidenced by the writing of the period meant that god was in all, and everything was god. Even the Deists of the new republics created by recent world turmoil acquiesced to a common, if undefined, creative hand. The world had always existed as was, and nature was the only evidence required to enlighten a darkened mind. It was the recognition of god in nature and the oneness of everything that was inspiration to many poets of the period.

             The pantheistic revelations contained within the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth lends explicit form to the idea that god and creation are one and the same, and that creation and the natural world are evidence thereof. This is apparent in both poets, but for different reasons. There is an inherent duality within their individual poetry that describes both pantheism and escapism; two separate and distinct inspirational ideas. Although both poets utilize nature to express themselves, I suggest they did this for different reasons. By analyzing several poems, their dialectic for their individual regard of a natural and verdant divinity will become self-evident.

            In order to understand this duality one needs to be aware of poetic precedence; of a poet who, although not greatly regarded for his verse during his own lifetime, was keenly aware of the sublime and the existence of a natural order “beyond rational understanding [with] a sense that transcended earthly industry.” One who recognized and understood the need to escape the encroachment of modernity and the proto-empiricism of contemporary science. The herald to the “dark satanic mills” that were appearing throughout Britain, and enslaving a population within them, was William Blake. Blake was a worthy forerunner of the Lake Poets; a literary esthetician who, in his own poetry, formulated and demonstrated the concept that nature could be considered in many different ways. In “Auguries of Innocence” we see the connections the poet makes with a pantheistic, cognizant, natural world and his realization of it as a living entity. A revelation that everyone and everything is connected, and that god, or the creative force, can be found in all living things. Everything, according to Blake, is consciousness and we as people are “simply the imagination of ourselves experiencing the world subjectively.”  Not new ideas, as we can find the genus of them embedded in Eastern religions and even closer to home in the Christian Bible where we are told in the Gospel of Saint Thomas “Split a wooden stick and I am there…lift a stone and you shall find me.” Blake’s, in my opinion, most explicit language as to the unity of man with nature, and nature within man can be found in the following lines from his poetry, “ To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour.’

            With the onset of industrial revolution and the commonplace usage of children to perform the most dangerous and demanding work, Blake came to understand that just as there was another world beyond the peripheral there was also a need for escapism. “Auguries of Innocence” were quickly followed up by “Songs of Experience” in which Blake exposes the evils of society and the ills associated with the onset of the modern age. Enlightenment may have been burgeoning on the door with a large stick however there was so much, as evidenced in his sometimes horrific lines, more to life than production quotas, mercantilism and the need for humanity to disappear in a cloud of coal dust and steam. He seems to ponder the loss of antique sensibilities, when nature had been contiguous; when the connections between man and his creator had been so much closer instead of being driven further from human consciousness by the laying of railway lines, the canalization of the countryside and the imprisonment of the population in that which were little more than houses of servitude. In his own words, “Imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself.” Little wonder then that Wordsworth and Coleridge where able to deftly reconnoiter the boundaries of pantheism and succinctly utilize the keys to sublimity, although in a different manner, within their own poetry.

            The natural environment represented in Wordsworth’s work is a zoetic entity that excited, frightened, and inspired. His pantheistic representations portray an affinity and understanding beyond that of mere pathetic fallacy. Rather than use his verse to express the ornamented language of the rhetoricians he instead opted to use the uncomplicated voice of the common man to engender a symbiotic relationship with nature, hither to only hinted at by other poets. Wordsworth saw nature as an active element of existence rather than a passive backdrop to encroaching industrialization. In letters to his sister Dorothy, whilst traveling through the Alps in Germany, he describes “A perpetual hurry of delight….that [has] passed before my eyes.” To Wordsworth the magnificence of the environment through which he travelled was clearly more than just an escape from the urbane and self-evidently “the power behind his imagination … [his] connection with eternity.” (Wordsworth. 6.34) In his autobiographical poem “The Prelude,” we learn how he “identifies spiritual freedom with the absence of the encumbrances of civilization.” It’s nature in all its magnificence that hones the poet’s attention and his appreciation of the animus within the natural world that is indicative of a greater consciousness. A youthful delinquency that undoubtedly fostered an affinity with raw nature, and which later helped to shape his writing, was when he stole a boat and rowed it out into the middle of Ullswater Lake. Whilst on the water he experienced what would later help to cement his feelings towards pantheism and his affinity with the sublime, when in his mind a rocky outcrop came to life to admonish him for stealing his neighbor’s boat!  What he termed “the spirit of the universe,” may well have been the coalescing moment of his appreciation of divinity within nature and of nature being divine; his “Blake” moment.

            Surprisingly it’s Wordsworth’s dearth of imagination and creativity that helps one to solidify him as a pantheist. In “Intimations of Immortality” Wordsworth confronts the reader with the troubling scenario that he can no longer see beauty in nature; that which once was so obvious has been dispelled, “There was a time when meadow, grove and stream/ The earth and every common sight/ To me did seem/ Apparell’d in celestial light.” He complains that the natural muse and her inherent inspiration has faded; that the bounty of the natural environment is no longer supplicant to his whim and so despairs of his prospective loss of poetical talent, “It is not now as it hath been of yore.” The majesty of the wide open spaces no longer supplies that which he desires most; therefore, one must question his reasons for his doubt and melancholia. We know that at this time William was living in the countryside and experienced nature on a daily basis and so, as a Romantic, should have been over-brimmed with a cornucopia of natural abundance. According to Wordsworth this was not the case and he subsequently proceeds to enlighten the reader. There has, we’re told, “pass’d away a glory of the earth” that prevents him from connecting with the sublime. Despite his frustration he’s all too aware of its causes. In the poem he pinpoints several that seem to him to interfere with the pantheistic abundance to which he’d become accustomed.

             The first is the encroachment of quotidian society and the obfuscating abundance of modernity with its detriment to inspiration and natural wonderment, “Shades of the prison house begin to close/ Upon the growing boy.” How the bright lights and pressures of the new age are turning the heads of the people inwards instead of outward and who, under the burden of “earthly freight,” can no longer connect with that which is truly important. The modern world to Wordsworth is anathema as all he truly needs, as he describes, is to be at one with nature. No other inspirational sustenance is required. The poet recognizes this and understands instinctively why his musings are not as lush as they once were and so is able to succinctly identify the second reason for their demise; the loss of innocence and the unconvuluted understanding and wonderment of childish discovery. His depression is brought about by the remembrance, a morphic-resonance, of that which he once held to be obvious when he viewed nature through the eyes of the child. It was through these eyes that he first discovered the divinity of nature upon the waters of the lake when confronted by a rock face. A childhood experience that created the link between imagination and nature and a realization that the older one became, the further one was removed from it. As he tells us, “the child is the father of man” and hence the relationship with nature is stronger when one is young and diminishes as one grows older. The maturation away from the core of understanding, the wisdom gained in its place, is detrimental to that which was once self-evident. Wordsworth recognizes his tenuous all though very real connection with nature, mourns its loss and then regains it when he once again sees through the proxy of a child’s eyes, “Behold the Child among his new-born blisses.” The realm of pantheistic grandeur, he understands, hasn’t gone anywhere; it was exactly where he’d left it, “Mighty prophet!/ Seer blest!/ On whom those truths do rest.” His near loss is nothing more than a reaffirmation of earlier feelings. It’s this that makes us realize that Wordsworth isn’t a man trying to find the sublimity of pantheism but rather a man who knows that he’s losing “primal sympathy” with nature. Thankfully, he recovered what was seemingly lost and his profound joy described within the poem compounds his relationship with nature. Therefore by confronting his own negative feelings he reaffirms the divinity of nature and his connection to it, “Ye blessed creatures, I have heard the call/ Ye to each other make; I see/ The heavens laugh with you in jubilee.”

 

            Affirmation of his pantheism can be found in his poem “Tintern Abbey” where Wordsworth boldly describes his intimacy with the natural world and his affinity with bucolic perfection. No longer do we hear the complaint that nature was “once mystical” but instead are exposed to a pristine wilderness where the reader is confronted with the magnificence of the occasion. It isn’t just a vista to which we’re treated but rather an experience, a sense of its grandeur and innate allure; the testimonial of an awe inspiring verdant world. “Tintern,” although a highly spiritual poem, does not embody the rhetoric of Christian doctrine purely for the sake of it. Nature in this instance is the church and the affirmation of a god is apparent in the symbiosis of all living things, “We stood together…a worshipper of nature…with far deeper zeal of holier love.” Neither the fracture of religious schism nor the persuasion of enlightened argument can describe his experience but rather an appreciation of a divinely infused organic totality. A creator god is tangible; he can be felt, sensed and appreciated. Wordsworth’s experience isn’t a struggle of intellect but instead an immediate recognition of pantheism in the Wye Valley; the exposition of a mere moment and yet an experience of being part of something greater, “And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts.” Anthropomorphism is apparent in his description of “glad animal movements” when as a child he unquestionably accepted the synthesis of boy and nature, as he himself describes, “sober pleasure.” It’s the recurring theme of the child in nature and the natural perception of the sublime that is recurrent in his verse. Retention and loss proceeded by the acceptance of a distancing between the conscious world and the world into which one matures. Wordsworth’s ability to retain childhood sensibilities, all be it with some difficulty, shows a determination to not only be a part of nature but to strive to be indistinguishable from it, if only in his imagination. The hall mark, in my opinion, of one who has accepted that god is in everything and everything is god.

            If poetry is “the image of man and nature” then Coleridge may be viewed as one who’s adopted nature as a medium instead of one who proclaims pantheistic affinity. Rather than embrace nature as Wordsworth does, Coleridge appears to view nature with a utilitarian eye. His appreciation of the natural world is undeniable, but it’s his understanding of it as God-given rather than innately divine that separates the two poets. Although both he and Wordsworth share an appreciation there is undoubtedly evidence to show that Coleridge, rather than using nature as a muse, was instead amused by it. At this particular period, Romanticism was at a zenith  and therefore the choice of nature as a poetical subject was an obvious one. Given his close relationship with the Wordsworths and his proximity to the countryside it’s hardly surprising that pantheistic musings crept into his writings. Surrounded by an abundance of nature and his close collaboration with a man who could see creation in everything, it could be argued, that it was predictable where his poetry would ultimately lead.

             In the “Aeolian Harp” we are offered an exhortation of nature, the distinction being that it’s the harp that transmits the voice of nature rather than a personal grasp of the sublime through which the wind can be imagined. Pathetic symbolism is rich as he sits outside his cottage with his wife Sara, and Coleridge goes to great lengths to describe the lush conditions of his environment. “With white flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,” his cottage is surrounded by, and overgrown with nature, but it’s his use of nature as an adjective rather than a verb which defines its role within his poetry, “The stilly murmur of [a] distant sea.” Nature is merely scene-setting for both the poetry and his romantic interlude; lyrical props rather than the focus. His appreciation is not pantheism but recognition of divine creation and an elopement into romantic fallacy. It’s the harp that suggests nature as a tangible presence, and the harp that he briefly imagines to be instrumental in the chords that dwell within nature itself, “How by the desultory breeze caressed/ Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover.” Without the harp in the window there would be no thought provoking sounds and the wind would uninspiringly blow through gaping glass. He briefly gives into pantheistic reverie, “And what if all of animated nature/ Be but organic harps diversely framed,” but is chastised by his wife with her, “… more serious eye,” who quickly restores his perspective. The brief slip where he momentarily seems to understand the natural rhythm of life is quickly curbed by admonishment and “many idle flitting fantasies” are dismissed from his thoughts as a flirtation with vain fantasy.

            Further evidence of his usage of nature can be seen in “Frost at Midnight.” Sitting alone with his son in the wee hours, Coleridge is aware of his imagination and its rousing effect on his inspiration. His metaphor describing the ministries of the creeping frost is perceptible. He can sense the warmth of the fire, feel the cool chill from the window and is secure in the knowledge that his family is safe around him and therefore by musing on the elements creates a sense of tranquility, “Tis calm indeed! So calm, that it disturbs/ And vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silence.” There’s no recognition of natural essence; it’s simply the frost performing its natural process. It’s not the tread of a divinity that coats the countryside outside his home but simply the drop in temperature. His attention is drawn to the embers of a fire where a film of wood or coal flutters on the grate. His imagination is in the flames, the colors, the physical, rather than in rural fantasy. “The thin blue flame/ Lies on my low-burnt fire…Only that film…still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.” His musings are palpable and his imagination is stirred by what he can see, not by what he feels instinctively. These constant allusions to nature within both poems show Coleridge’s juxtaposition from that of Wordsworth who considered nature central to his very existence. “Frost” leads us down a path of reverie and fond recollection as Coleridge reminisces on village life, his schooling and his time spent in the towns, “In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim.” His heart felt wish is that his young son sleeping at his feet will not be as he, but will instead enjoy the wild open spaces, “…wander like a breeze/ By lakes and sandy shore, beneath the crags/ Of ancient mountain.” Once again it’s the romance of nature that’s foremost in his imaginings. Coleridge is a romantic escaping the drudgery of the modern world rather than one who is innately inspired by the spirit of nature. His poetry dictates a love of, an admiration for, but not a synergy with nature as he admits, “The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible/…Which thy God utters.”

            Pantheism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a doctrine that identifies god with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of god; that god is in everything and everything is god,” and clearly there is a theme within the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge which could be labelled thus. The sublimity of both poets demonstrates an intimacy with nature but not necessarily a pantheistic appreciation. Wordsworth comprehends the consciousness of being, senses the resonance of the natural environment and fights to retain the child within himself in order to maintain the wonderment and delight in the oneness of everything. Coleridge on the other hand tends to gloss over natural intimacy in order to create vivid description. He’s clearly aware and even admonished for his brief interludes into pantheism and holds what can only be described as cognitive dissonance; a belief in two separate and opposing ideas whilst holding them both to be true. Coleridge, I maintain, is conflicted. He intuitively understands that there’s more than he appreciates. Unfortunately he’s beyond redemption; the child who was the father of the man has long since expired. Although without doubt there are pantheistic apologies contained within their verse, it’s their duality of comprehension that endures and fascinates.

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