Introduction: The Tool of the Imagination
If the Imagination can stand as the best concept with which to define
Romanticism, then the pursuit of the coincidence of opposites, one of the
favorite tools of the Imagination--if not indeed its only tool--can stand as a
fundamental activity of writers of the Romantic era. The power of the
coincidence of opposites to generate the visions of Romanticism arises from
its simplicity and its profundity. What could be simpler than to say "black"
in response to "white"? What could be more profound than to say that God
becomes man or Jesus becomes Satan?
The urging toward coincidences of opposites in the writers I discuss here
originates from a discontent with the way things are. Nicolas Cusanus,
Alexander Pope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley,
and William Blake all lament ordinary, accepted ways of living and perceiving;
they all insist that we should change our ontology and therefore our
epistemology by acknowledging that logical opposites, which by standard
Aristotelian thinking are mutually exclusive, can indeed coincide.
To the twentieth-century ear, the word "coincidence" smacks of chance and
randomness. To call something a coincidence implies that it should not really
happen and thus allows us to dismiss the coincidence as an improbable, unusual
anomoly that, according to probability, will not happen again. The history of
the word in English, as chronicled in the Oxford English Dictionary, reveals
that this dismissive meaning gradually creeps in, as the word is linked with
"casual" and "undesigned." The root meaning of the Latin word, which was used
in the seventeenth century as a verb in English in its Latin form,
"coincidere," is simply "to occur together." <1> It was a term in astrology.
When two planets come together in the sky in a conjunction, they coincide.
For example, Venus and Mars, whose basic energies are opposed, can come
together in conjunction. Neither one necessarily over-rules the other, but
neither are they reconciled. The two opposing forces, occupying the same
space at the same time, interact in dynamic interchange. <2> They exert their
opposing forces in a coincidence of opposites. From an astrological
perspective, such a coincidence is not an improbable accident of chance, but
an essential element of God's total artistic pattern of the universe. As we
lost astrology from our universe, we also lost the most basic meaning of
coincidence. "Having no apparent causal connexion" gradually became the most
common meaning of the word. So to the modern lack of imagination the
conjunction of Venus and Mars is a meaningless coincidence. In fact, from
that perspective, the two planets do not really occupy the same space at the
same time; they simply appear close from our vantage point.
When the writers in this study explore the coincidentia oppositorum, they
are not only working to bring opposites together, but they are working from an
assumption that coincidence is not chance, but pattern. Pope, without using
the word "coincidence," virtually says as much. Thus, the struggle of these
writers is twice as hard as one might expect: not only are they working
against the powerful Aristotelian tradition that logically excludes the
coincidence of opposites, but they are also working against a trend in which
the very word which basically means "occurring together because these things
are part of a total harmonious plan" is coming more and more to mean
"occurring by unimportant chance because in this unfathomable universe you
might be unlucky enough to get struck by lightning."
The most frequent emphasis in the definitions of "coincide" and
"coincidence" in the OED is on the occupation of space:
Coincidence . . . the occupation of the same place or part of space.
Coincide . . . To fall together and agree in position; to occupy the same
area or portion of space (as e.g. the superposed triangles in Euclid I.8);
to be identical in area and position. Said of points, lines, or any
As we shall see, Nicolas Cusanus works especially from principles of Euclidean
congruence to develop his divine geometry, in which the infinite line and the
infinite circle coincide. For now we can note that if two finite triangles
coincide so perfectly as to be exactly superimposable, they will appear to be
one. From a Newtonian perspective, such oneness would be only an optical
illusion, much like the illusion from astrology when Venus and Mars appear to
coincide. When Isaac Newton describes his experiments, as quoted in the OED,
he implies just such a perspective:
1704 Newton Opticks 1 J These circles..as I went from them, they
came nearer and nearer together, and at length became coincident.
Obviously the circles did not really become one; they just looked like one
from the observer's skewed perspective. The writers here will also play with
such perspectives, especially in mirror images, but beyond the games on the
surface, these writers are searching for a bedrock of coincidences of
opposites in which the oneness does not arise like some optical illusion just
because of the relative values of space and time, but because of the
fundamental structures of the universe, both physical and spiritual, beyond
space and time.
In chapter 1, I set out some of the key concepts of the fifteenth-century
monk who is credited with developing the concept of the coincidentia oppositorum in his De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance). Essentially Nicolas Cusanus argues that finite logic prohibits us from understanding much about God, Who by His very perfect completeness must include coincidences of opposites. Although Cusanus seems content to leave most of the ways of God unfathomable to man, he does point toward more radical joinings of man and God that Blake will fulfill. In chapter 2, I show how Alexander Pope's Essay on Man sets man in relation to a universe, the apparent disorder of which is
really God's artistic plan. Like Cusanus, Pope insists that only by confounding ordinary logical restrictions can man begin to accept the totality that includes him. When I originally decided to include Pope, I thought that he would provide a useful neo-classical, conservative contrast to the later Romantics. Although he does provide such a contrast, I have discovered that many of his pronouncements are remarkably similar not only to Coleridge's but even to Blake's. In chapter 3, I discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge's explicit
search for the reconciliation of oppositions in his prose and poetry, and I conclude with a late poem dedicated to the eleventh-century monk Berengarius, who, in a way that Coleridge is particularly sympathetic to, tried but failed to maintain his vision of one particular coincidence of opposites, the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Those first three writers all maintain, to varying degrees and with various emphases, a fundamentally conservative view of God's universe. Although Coleridge, as the first Romantic writer in my study, tries to break through to a greater participation in the spiritual world, he finally
acquiesces in mystery, as do Cusanus and Pope, as the final condition of man and universe.
Chapter 4, on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, comes in the middle, halfway
between the conservatism of Cusanus, Pope, and Coleridge, and the radicalism
of Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. With attention especially to the
concentric circles of the narrative technique, I explore the opposition
between the selfish egotism that blatantly strikes every reader and the less
obvious selflessness that goes beyond even friendship, especially in the
critically neglected tale of the noble fellow near the beginning of the novel.
Although Frankenstein does present basically a pessimistic view of the human
condition, its counter-theme of disinterested benevolence constructs a dynamic
attempt to find a coincidence of opposites. In chapter 5, the opposition
between self and other emerges in several poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
After the disasters of solipsism in Alastor and the triumph of coincidences of
opposites in Prometheus Unbound, I conclude with the unresolved struggle
between outer and inner in The Triumph of Life.
Chapters 6, 7, and 8 are devoted to William Blake. In chapter 6, I
analyze "The Mental Traveller," an archetypal presentation of the absolute
failure of the oppositions between male and female to come to any resolution
as they spin around in their circles of mutual hatred. In chapter 7, I
explore Blake's internal eternity, especially in
self becoming other that Blake urges to help us perceive and live that
internal eternity. In chapter 8, I focus on "Monos o Iesous," the Greek
inscription on plate 4 of
transcendence and immanence contained in that phrase lead to a totally
inclusive vision of the coincidence of opposites.
Clearly my approach is not chronological, but instead situates these
writers along a continuum of how far they go in exploiting the revolutionary
potential of the coincidentia oppositorum. Although the order of my
presentation of these writers thus contains a certain logic, each chapter is
fundamentally self-contained and therefore can be read on its own. The reader
who skips over the chapters on Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley may find
the thread of the argument clearer, but she will miss some marvelous
Through all eight chapters I point out similarities in the writers'
confrontations with the question of the coindentia oppositorum, especially in
the ways that they use the imagery of circles to give us geometrical pictures
of abstract concepts. In each writer, those circles arise from the
interaction of two basic universal forces, a centripetal, implosive force that
works toward the center and promotes self-preservation, and a centrifugal,
explosive force that pushes out the circumference and urges self-annihilation.
Since the former force is the one that "naturally" predominates in humans,
these writers all emphasize the latter, not in order to replace one force with
the other, but to find a fruitful interaction between them.
Although the principle of the coincidentia oppositorum that I explore here
has many similarites with other binary systems, I must distinguish it from
some of the most obvious other systems that might spring to mind. First,
although Hegelian patterns can be useful by analogy, finally the coincidentia
oppositorum does not search for a tertium quid to resolve the tension.
Reconciliation, although sometimes the goal of some of these writers, is not
essential, and in fact is explicitly eschewed by Blake: "Whoever tries to
reconcile them [opposing forces of Devouring and Prolific] seeks to destroy
existence." <3> The word "oppositorum" in coincidentia oppositorum requires a
dynamic back-and-forth, springing from irreducible alterity. At the other
extreme of binary criticism, deconstruction can provide worthwhile analogies:
Far from being a chain which moves deeper and deeper into the text, closer
and closer to a definitive interpretation of it, the mode of criticism
sometimes now called 'deconstruction,' which is analytic criticism as
such, encounters always, if it is carried far enough, some mode of
oscillation. In this oscillation two genuine insights into literature in
general and into a given text in particular inhibit, subvert, and undercut
one another. This inhibition makes it impossible for either insight to
function as a firm resting place, the end point of analysis. <4>
Although the dynamic character of deconstructive moves is similar to that of
the coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidentia oppositorum does not revel in
endless oscillation. Instead the word "coincidentia" requires a complete
coming together, a copulative interpenetration.
In this combination of coincidence, which always unifies, and opposites,
which always repel each other, lies the fundamental paradox, with which the
finite mind can stretch itself to a larger, more comprehensive view of
existence. But that stretching is not simply a shift in perspective, by which
to alter epistemology. Although each of these writers focusses intently on
issues of sight, and often on issues of light that aids or baffles that sight,
the epistemology that they urge is a by-product of a new ontology. For if
one's being in the universe changes, then one's perspective changes also. And
vice versa. Blake brings to a climax a view of the universe that these other
writers approach: accepting the coincidence of opposites gives us a whole new
universe to see and a whole new ontology of living in that universe. In the
thematically opposed stories of the transfiguration and of the woman taken in
adultery, which I discuss in chapter 8, Blake presents a revolutionary
combination of transcendence and immanence. The opposites come together in a
way that can propel us into a new world, which, as at the end of Prometheus
or the end of
the same time totally different. Sameness in difference, and difference in
I do not attempt to escape what McGann describes as the Romantic Ideology:
scholarship and criticism of Romanticism and its works are dominated by a
Romantic Ideology, by an uncritical absorption in Romanticism's own self-
representations. . . . Romantic poetry incorporates Romantic Ideology as
a drama of the contradictions which are inherent to that ideology. <5>
Still less do I escape what Anne Mellor calls "masculine" Romanticism:
a binary model is already deeply implicated in "masculine" Romanticism. .
. . The principle of polarity . . . requires the construction of an Other
which is seen as a threat to the originating subject. . . . the women
writers of the Romantic period resisted this model of oppositional
polarity . . . for one based on sympathy and likeness. <6>
Mellor herself questions her own method of employing a binary structure, which
she says is necessary on the way toward learning to "think beyond a dialectic
based on polarities" <7>. In fact, I contend that the coincidence of
opposites, especially in the hands of Blake, incorporates not only struggle
against an Other in a masculine model of oppositional polarity but also, and
just as strongly, a feminine model of sympathy and likeness with that Other.
While I agree that we need to think beyond polarities, or at least to try to,
the practice of thinking into and with polarities is one method that will help
us think beyond. "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become
wise." This book is my folly; perhaps one day I will achieve a prospect from
which, as Jerome McGann has done, I can repudiate my former errors.
Meanwhile, I plunge in, willing to fall rather than not make definite shapes
and minute particulars.
The imagination as I explore it through the coincidence of opposites
refuses to be bound by rationality--it does not seek a middle ground between
extremes. It includes extremes. It embraces paradox. The simplest and most
fundamental way of rising from ordinary perception to imaginative perception
is by seeing through the false limits imposed by an abstract logic that denies
that A and not-A can exist at the same time and to the same extent.
The logic of the human mind, and its attempts to find or establish
institutions and other forms of order, need to work in dualisms--us/them,
inside/outside, good/evil, etc. Such binarism is widely condemned by many
literary critics today, as they seek new positions that are more inclusive.
While emphases on inclusion and diversity take us in the right direction, they
can become static and even dogmatic. The implications of the coincidence of
opposites lead toward dynamic open-mindedness. The coincidence of opposites
requires a radical combination of otherness and selfhood. The imagination
must hold--without clutching--the unity of all humanity in one--called
by Blake--and at the same time the absolute individuality of each person and
therefore the irreducible otherness of individuals and the world. This
paradoxical combination opens a world of inclusiveness, tolerance, and
Of course all theories of literature, even the most inclusive ones, remain
too small. The coincidence of opposites, however, provides a dynamic
framework for thought that refuses to accept its own boundaries. I do not
intend in my emphasis on the coincidence of opposites to assert closure or
any kind of dogmatic system or "key" to Romanticism or to Blake. But I do
assert that the coincidence of opposites is an often neglected tool for
opening up Blake and Romanticism.
The coincidence of opposites serves as a fundamental and inclusive theory
to incorporate and confront not only older methods of thought but also to
acknowledge and respond to recent trends such as dialogism and deconstruction.
Like deconstruction, the coincidence of opposites destroys complacency with
the simplest of techniques: slap-in-the-face denial:
Blake's technique of contrary or diabolical reading . . . which proceeds
by inverting the privileged oppositions in a text (as in his
question the whole system that keeps them opposed, seems to me very close
to the method of deconstruction. <8>
And like dialogism, the coincidence of opposites constructs systems in the
most comprehensive way by allowing various voices to be heard. Refusing to
tolerate the soft edges of compromise and smiley faces, it produces a hard
edge that escapes perspectivism.
Except for Blake, the writers covered in this volume all accept, in one
form or another, a kind of "learned ignorance," like that promulgated by
Nicholas of Cusa. The human condition is frequently baffled by
contradictions; we remain ignorant, but hope or believe that some higher power
has the contradictions well in hand. Refusing to allow such ignorance, Blake
blasts through the mysteries of contradictions to transcend, to
transubstantiate, to transfigure the dull round of rationality. Stephen
Behrendt describes Blake's break-throughs as "a daring end run around the
reasoning intellect that is everywhere both the goal and the mechanism of
Blake's art." <9> I prefer, however, to describe Blake's break-throughs as
confrontations of the reasoning intellect with its contrary, the imagination.
reason, like Bacon,
be defeated and abandoned, is not to be dismissed and avoided in an end run,
but rather to be confronted at every turn, forced into illuminating
coincidences of opposites. In fact, Behrendt's own description of Blake's
method includes, confronts, and contains rationality instead of excluding it:
Blake's art is grounded not in the empirical/analytical model of
perception and cognition to which we have all become accustomed as readers
and viewers but rather in one that invokes and exploits that conditioned
expectation of empirical orientation in order to destablize and subvert
Like deconstruction, with which Blake's method has many similarities, terms
under erasure are questioned, fronted, opposed, but not completely destroyed.
They still exist as vivid and necessary parts of the process of the
I can remember countless times when I dropped the books of the
philosophers and picked up those of the poets again. The philosophers kept
insisting that I abandon paradoxes, that I agree to submit to reasonable
probability, step by logical step. But I always agreed with Blake, when he
stated a similar preference for miracles over probabilistic history:
Historians . . . cannot see either miracle or prodigy; all is to them a
dull round of probabilities and possibilites; but the history of all times
and places, is nothing else but improbabilities and impossibilities; what
we should say, was impossible if we did not see it always before our eyes.
The coincidence of opposites is one of the major ways to celebrate those
impossibilities and improbabilities that spring up every moment before us and
The title of this volume, "All Nature is but Art" is taken from Pope's
Essay on Man, in which the assertion means that man's limited viewpoint can
not fully understand God's: according to Pope, what seems natural to us,
perhaps even disorderly, is actually carefully planned by an intelligence much
higher than ours. Nature, that which seems "natural," probably even
inevitable, is actually a work of art created by God the artist. And if this
is the best of all possible worlds, full in its dinvely made plenitude, then
the natural and the divine must be the same. When we see the universe from
our limited viewpoint, we see a lack of coherent order. However, from God's
point of view the universe is a unified work of art. Since man can never see
from God's point of view, he can never fully understand the artistry in its
wholeness. He must take the order of the universe on faith. But he can
approximate or perhaps simulate an understanding of God's artistic wholeness
by allowing his mind to entertain the existence of the coincidence of
opposites. If he denies the coincidence of opposites, then he denies the
possibility that God has created a work of art in the universe, for
disqualifying the coincidence of opposites disqualifies the universe from
being coherent. Nature, which can seem incoherent, disorderly, and even
hostile to man, must be accepted as coherent, orderly, and congenial to man's
higher purposes. Pope reconciles the traditional contraries of Nature and Art
by insisting that man humble his reason to accept logical absurdities.
Although Blake's purposes in using the coincidence of opposites are quite
different from Pope's, the motto "All Nature is but Art" can similarly
epitomize his idea: what appears to us "given" and therefore natural is
actually created, by man and his God working as one. At his most vehement,
condemns all unthinking ideology as grossly mistaken; in "
Songs of Experience the "mind-forged manacles," metaphorically created by the
blacksmithing destructiveness of social consensus, bind us all without our
knowledge or understanding. However, as always in Blake, the idea that "All
Nature is but Art" contains its redeeming contrary as well: what appears to be
natural is actually created by us, the Divine Humanity. Therefore, we need
not simply accept and succumb to Nature, whether exhibited in the mores of
society or in the stars of the heavens; we can, and must, create existence in
Many critics, implicitly or explicitly, dismiss any coincidence of
opposites out of hand. The most extreme kind of dismissal comes from Morton
Paley: in number two of his five principles of interpretation for Blake's
Interpretations according to which mutually exclusive meanings are seen
as equally valid are not likely to be helpful. We should remember
Blake's love of the definite. <12>
Paley's correct admonition--remember Blake's love of the definite--belies his
advice. Love of the definite is the best way of achieving a vision of the
coincidence of opposites. Only abstract reason denies that opposites co-
exist. Living in definite minute particulars, which make up the impossible
improbabilites of every moment's existence, could not happen if our rational
minds stayed on guard to exclude acceptance of the coincidence of opposites.
Whether or not binary thinking is inescapably fundamental to human
thought, Blake thought it was necessary to human existence, and if anyone has
escaped its grasp (and I doubt that anyone has yet), the writers I study here,
and of course I myself, are still inextricably caught in its grasp.
Throughout this book I hope to show the productive contraries that can arise
from binary thinking as Alexander Pope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake struggle to conceive of and articulate
a world that seems to tear itself apart in oppositions, oppositions that must
coincide. Because without the extreme of total unity, we float isolated in
the void; and without the extreme of complete individuality, we cluster
indistinguishably in an amorphous lump. Both extremes are necessary to
Notes to Introduction
1. "1663 Butler Iliad 1.1.726 'For where the first does hap to be, The last
2. Indeed, in my natal chart, Venus and Mars are in conjunction, within 1.5
degrees of each other. I remember an astrologer telling me that such a
conjunction of opposing forces creates a "short circuit." Occasionally I
still meditate on how to convert those opposing forces into dynamic
3. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, E40. All quotations of Blake are taken
from William Blake, Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Ed. David V.
Erdman (Doubleday, 1982). "E" with a number indicates the page in that
4. J. Hillis Miller, "The Critic as Host," in Deconstruction and Criticism,
ed. Harold Bloom (NY: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 252.
5. Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1983),
pp. 1, 2.
6. Romanticism and Gender (NY: Routledge, 1993), p. 3.
7. Mellor, Gender, p. 4.
8. W. J. T. Mitchell, "Visible Language: Blake's Wond'rous Art of Writing," in
Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism, eds. Morris Eaves and Michael Fischer
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986), p. 90.
9. Stephen Behrendt, Reading William Blake (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1992), p.
11. "Descriptive Catalogue," E543.
12. The Continuing City ( p. 118.