Blind to the Real Presence: Coleridge and the Tension of Opposites


    As much as any writer, and certainly more than most, Samuel

Taylor Coleridge actively seeks for coincidences of opposites. 

According to N. M. Goldsmith,


    Coleridge was thinking out thoughts which had been half

    conscious in Pope and a number of other men of a religious

    temperament since the seventeenth century, . . .  the feeling

    that a mechanistic theory of the mind which denied the

    validity of intuition, concentrating instead on men's

    capacity for deduction and analysis, was a philosophy of

    death.  <1>


Thus, as Coleridge develops his theories of the coincidence of

opposites and other theories of the way the mind works, he will

be carrying on many of the ideas that Pope developed, although in

most cases he tries to take them further. <2>

    Unlike Pope, Coleridge gives a particularly personal slant to

the problem of the coincidence of opposites.  Sometimes,

especially in his philosophical prose, Coleridge does present a

generalized, overall discussion of the problem, but most often,

especially in his poetry, he explores the issue from an intensely

personal point of view.  The problem tears him apart and he

reveals that tearing most painfully and most despairingly.

    I do not intend to review all aspects of his struggles with

opposites, which have been thoroughly studied by many critics,

but simply to set out some of the main lines of Coleridge's

interest, leading up to one of his late poems, "Lines Suggested

by the Last Words of Berengarius," a poem that epitomizes the

dead end in which Coleridge found himself when he tried to

reconcile opposing forces in his poetry.  My line of inquiry will

show how, even though Coleridge seems largely to come to terms

with the issue of the coincidentia oppositorum in his

philosophical writings, he finds dead ends instead of solutions

in his poetry.  I do not belittle Coleridge.  I admire his

bravery as much as Richard Holmes and Thomas McFarland do in

passages quoted below.  Rather, his heroic struggles give us a

sense of the enormous difficulty of the problem and allow us to

admire Shelley's and Blake's solutions even more.

    Coleridge's desire to reconcile opposites is closely

connected to his desire to see wholeness whenever possible.  In

his essay "On Method" he defines the superior man in terms of



    What is that which first strikes us, and strikes us at once,

    in a man of education, and which, among educated men, so

    instantly distinguishes the man of superior mind?  Not the

    weight or novelty of his remarks; not any unusual interest of

    facts communicated by him. . . .  It is the unpremeditated

    and evidently habitual arrangement of his words, grounded on

    the habit of foreseeing, in each integral part, or (more

    plainly) in every sentence, the whole that he then intends to

    communicate.  However irregular and desultory his talk, there

    is method in the fragments.<3>


Similarly, when Coleridge contemplates writing an epic, the

encyclopedic genre of wholeness, he can be satisfied with nothing

less than all.  While most writers of epic do feel a need to

surpass the accomplishments of their predecessors, <4> Coleridge

seems unable to omit anything.  In a letter to Joseph Cottle in

early April 1797, after agreeing with Wordsworth "that Southey

writes too much at his ease," Coleridge laments Southey's

reliance "too much on story and event in his poems, to the

neglect of those lofty imaginings, that are peculiar to, and

definitive of, the poet."  Meditating by contrast on Milton,

Samuel Taylor Coleridge imagines his epic:


    The story of Milton [Paradise Lost] might be told in two

    pages--it is this which distinguishes an Epic Poem from a

    Romance in metre.  Observe the march of Milton--his severe

    application, his laborious polish, his deep metaphysical

    researches, his prayers to God before he began his great

    poem, all that could lift and swell his intellect, became his

    daily food.  I should not think of devoting less than 20

    years to an Epic Poem.  Ten to collect materials and warm my

    mind with universal science.  I would be a tolerable

    Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics,

    Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy,

    Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine--then the

    mind of man--then the minds of men--in all Travels, Voyages

    and Histories.  So I would spend ten years--the next five to

    the composition of the poem--and the five last to the

    correction of it.  So I would write haply not unhearing of

    that divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to

    mighty minds of predestinated Garlands, starry and

    unwithering. <5>


Future whispers of glory notwithstanding, such an ambitious

project seems almost doomed to failure from the start.  If

Coleridge insists on including everything, and on having all

knowledge before getting started, he must fall short.

    Many commentators on Coleridge have noted this encompassing

tendency, which Thomas McFarland defines as fundamental to

Coleridge and to his age:


    To understand Coleridge's thought, both in its own structure

    and in its relationship to the thought of his contemporaries,

    it is necessary to refer all its manifestations constantly

    and explicitly to the systematic unity, the total organism

    which he, and almost all other thinkers of his era, accepted

    as the necessary condition of any intellectual activity at

    all.  <6>       


McFarland explains this tendency as a responsibility to vast

amounts of data, based on a philosophical belief in complexity

rather than simplicity, in accumulation rather than



    If one tends to travel light intellectually, to live, as it

    were, out of a suitcase--after the manner of Wittgenstein, or

    Schlick, or even of Socrates--then no great housekeeping

    abilities are called for; but if one tends to admit

    intellectual responsibility for an enormous amount of data,

    with a continuing urge to accumulate still more, then the

    internal economy of this intellectual establishment becomes

    increasingly important. It is this principle of internal

    economy that we call system. <7>  


As a philosophical system, such inclusiveness is more than

admirable.  It seems the apex of liberal, educated open-

mindedness.  What McFarland sees as Coleridge's central idea sets 3

up a principle of inclusion that requires the thinker to include

almost all possible systems of thought:


    The deeper . . . we penetrate into the ground of things, the

    more truth we discover in the doctrines of the greater number

    of the philosophical sects. . . .  all these we shall find

    united in one perspective central point, which shows

    regularity and a coincidence of all the parts in the very

    object, which from every other point of view must appear

    confused and distorted.  The spirit of sectarianism has been

    hitherto our fault, and the cause of our failures.  We have

    imprisoned our own conceptions in the lines, which we have

    drawn, in order to exclude the conceptions of others. 

    [Coleridge then quotes Leibniz]   J'ai trouve que la plupart

    des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce qu'elles

    avancent, mais non pas tant en ce qu'elles nient.  [my

    translation: I have found that most sects are quite correct

    in most of what they proclaim but not so correct in what they

    deny.] <8>                   


The lack of inclusiveness arises from the exclusion of opposites

from most systems of thought.  Any partial truth is limited if it

does not acknowledge the truths that oppose it, because it

relegates those opposing truths to the category of falsehood:


    . . . the most influencive Errors have ever been . . .

    partial Truths mistaken for the whole Truth, Truths divorced

    from their correspondent and supporting opposites, and

    coverted into contrary Falsehoods by being reciprocally

    unbalanced and disintegrated . . . he alone deserves the name

    of a Philosopher, who has attained to see and learnt to

    supply the difference between Contraries that preclude, and

    Opposites that reciprocally suppose and require, each the

    other.  <9>


Over and over again, Coleridge explicitly sets such open-minded

inclusiveness as his goal:


    'My system,' he told his nephew, 'if I may venture to give it

    so fine a name, is the only attempt I know ever made to

    reduce all knowledges into harmony.  It opposes no other

    system, but shows what was true in each; and how that which

    was true in the particular, in each of them became error,

    because it was only half the truth.' <10>


Keats was one of the first to recognize the probable result of

such an attempt at vast inclusiveness.  In his definition of

Negative Capability, he finds in Shakespeare an example to be

admired, but in Coleridge an example to be lamented:


    several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me,

    what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in

    Literature & which Shakepeare posessed so enormously--I mean

    Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in

    uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable

    reaching after fact & reason--Coleridge, for instance, would

    let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the

    Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining

    content with half knowledge. <11>         


    While we can lament the negative result of Coleridge's system

building, we can also praise what he did accomplish:


    The rich multi-level quality of Coleridge's imagination was

    obviously achieved at tremendous cost.  It contains terrible

    tensions and contradictions. . . . the essential terms of

    Coleridge's reconciling system are dialectical.   They stem

    initially from his awareness of contradictions within his own

    experience, . . .  between radical disbelief and traditional

    faith. . . . when he read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason . .

    . Coleridge found the fundamental encroachment of the subject

    upon the object in human experience.  In the Aids to

    Reflection he urged, as the greatest assistance to clear

    thinking, the re-introduction into English of 'subjective'

    and 'objective' reality--terms which are now in completely

    current use.  <12>


Thus, within the concern for systematic wholeness, Coleridge

insists on the inclusion of opposites.  One of the primary sets

of opposites of course is that between subject and object, which

also can be defined as inner and outer:


    The notebooks record the collisions of a hugely developed

    sense of inner reality with a hugely developed sense of outer

    reality, with neither sense giving ground.  <13>


As so often, Coleridge mocks his extreme interest in this issue,

making it into a weakness that bores his listeners.  He makes the

issue extremely personal as he implicitly, like Keats,

participates in all of existence.  His delight in revealing

differences (we shall later encounter the term desynonomize) is

overcome by his delight in making connections, as the circling

ripples of his imagination try to include all:


    I feel too intensely the omnipresence of all in each,

    platonically speaking, or psychologically my brain-fibres or

    the spiritual light which abides in the brain marrow, as

    visible light appears to do in sundry rotten mackerel and

    other smashy matters is of too general an affinity with all

    things.  And though it perceives the difference of things,

    yet is eternally pursuing the likeness, or rather that which

    is common. Bring me two things that seem the very same, and

    then I am quick enough to shew the difference, even to hair-

    splitting; but to go on from circle to circle till I break

    against the shore of my hearer's patience or have my

    Concentricals dashed to nothing by a Snore, this is my

    ordinary mishap.  <14> 


    Through these pathways of logic Coleridge continues to

explore the question.  Although he tries to penetrate the

coincidence of opposites, the problem always remains a stand-off

for him.  As the foundation of his always promised opus maximum,

it may have prevented him from completing that amibitious



    It was with logic as the focal point that Coleridge early

    began his investigation of the 'Coincidentia oppositorum,'

    the idea of the reconciliation of opposites.  By 1803 he had

    formulated a detailed prospectus of his 'great work.'  <15> 


    His project to fill a notebook with examples of "extremes

meet" was based on his belief that all philosophy was contained

in that phrase:


    Extremes meet--a proverb, by the bye, to collect and explain

    all the instances and exemplifications of which would

    constitute and exhaust all philosophy.  <16>


    This obsession with opposites dominates much of Coleridge's

writing, both poetic and philosophical.  In the Biographia he

even defines contraries as the basis not only of philosophy but

of all creation:


    the transcendental philosopher says; grant me a nature having

    two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand

    infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find

    itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of

    intelligences with the whole system of their representations

    to rise up before you.   <17>


Thus, in Coleridge, as in Cusanus, the entire philosophical

structure begins with a statement of contrary forces, centrifugal

and centripetal. 

    Although Coleridge wants all, although nothing less than the

whole Truth will satisfy him, again and again he finds reasons to

back away from the holistic vision that attracts him.  One of the

most excruciating tensions of contraries that Coleridge felt

himself caught in was the tension between pantheism and

orthodoxy.  His conversation poem "The Aeolian Harp," composed in

1795, illustrates that tension.  After setting a scene of

domestic bliss with cottage and wife, inspired like almost every

Romantic poet by the Aeolian Harp, Coleridge suddenly imagines


    . . . the one Life within us and abroad,

    Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,

    A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

    Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where--

    Methinks, it should have been impossible

    Not to love all things in a world so fill'd

    . . .

    And what if all of animated nature

    Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd,

    That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps

    Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

    At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

    But thy more serious eye a mild reproof

    Darts, O beloved Woman! nor such thoughts

    Dim and unhallow'd dost thou not reject,

    And biddest me walk humbly with my God.

    Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!

    Well hast thou said and holily disprais'd

    These shapings fo the unregenerate mind;

    Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break

    On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.


    As we see in this poem, Coleridge will have good reason to

sympathize with the Berengarius (see discussion below) who had

trouble perceiving the Real Presence in the Eucharist and who

found himself struggling between conscience and the Pope.  No

matter how hard he tries in his poetry to achieve this oneness

with all of life, Coleridge always falls back into isolation:


    The quest for a 'something one & indivisible' underlying and

    animating the world is perhaps above all others the unifying

    principle of Coleridge's multifarious writings, although it

    will be seen how his statement of the 'One Life' is

    persistently checked and qualified.  <18> 


Because of his sensitivity to his audience, in this case his wife

Sara as spokesman for orthodox Christianity, Coleridge recants

his pantheism almost as soon as it is spoken.  For, like

Bernegarius, whom I will discuss at the end of this chapter, he

will not be able to live in his society, and certainly not as a

clergyman, if he does not hold to the orthodox line.  Ironically,

seeing more unity than is officially allowed will place him into

a form of excommunication, which will separate him from those

closest to him instead of increasing the social oneness that is

implied by a belief in pantheism.


    Instead of blaming Coleridge for his inability to resolve

this problem, McFarland defines the problem as existing in the

nature of things rather than in Coleridge himself:


    Inability either really to accept or wholeheartedly to reject

    pantheism is the central truth of Coleridge's philosophical

    activity. . . .  As with the dilemma of Hamlet, who, not

    indecisive in himself, is confronted with alternatives that

    in themselves admit of no right solution, so with the dilemma

    of Coleridge: he could not resolve the ambivalences of the

    Pantheismusstreit without diminishing one whole side of his

    awareness and vital commitment.  And so he bore the pain of

    conflicting interests rather than choose the anodyne of a

    solution that did violence to the claims of either side in

    the conflict. <19>


Thus McFarland agrees with Holmes in attributing courage to

Coleridge's failure to reconcile opposites.  Indeed, in their

formulations, Coleridge's refusal to let either side of the

opposition win constitutes his admirable strength.  McFarland

thus paints Coleridge as braver than most, able to bear almost

unbearable tensions because of his principled refusal to


    Indeed, for all these writers who are concerned with the

coincidence of opposites, the question of whether the problem

exists in the very nature of things is an important one. 

Cusanus, Pope, and Blake definitely believe that the coincidence

of opposites is fundamental to the make-up of the universe and of

humanity.  They assert that belief in various ways and stand by

it.  Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley, to varying

degrees, want to believe in the coincidence of opposites, but

fail to maintain and assert consistently and strongly their

vision in that direction. McFarland defines the split in

Coleridge as one between head and heart:


    We are here interested in the emotional attraction of

    pantheism for Coleridge; on the rational level his attitude

    to pantheism is clear and unfailingly censorious.  <20>  


In "The Aeolian Harp" Coleridge reaches for pantheism in an

attempt to obtain and reconcile all.  Such a reconciliation would

necessitate the joining together of philosophical opposites. 

Then he finds himself also compelled, with just as much force and

in the reverse direction (like his very description of the forces

of the universe quoted above) to reject that wholeness. 

Therefore he finds himself caught in a higher coincidence of

opposites, one that vacillates between accepting and rejecting

the coincidence of opposites. 

    In his late, politically conservative work, On the

Constitution of Church and State, Coleridge combines his

philosophical and religious ideas with political ones to propose

what he calls the clerisy, a kind of mediating force made up of

the intellectual estates of universities and schools in addition

to the clergy, that would provide for the constructive balance of

opposites in society:


    Coleridge presented this national clerisy as the great

    reconciling and sustaining body within the Constitution as a

    whole, which would balance those forces of permanency and

    progression which are continuously in conflict within the

    nation. . . .  The clerisy would be the dynamic centre of

    renewal within national life, its object 'to secure and

    improve that civilisation, without which the nation could be

    neither permanent nor progressive'.  <21> 


    In that work, Coleridge makes a distinction to clarify his

conception of opposites.  As with all these thinkers into


opposites, some terms take on great importance, while others seem



    Permit me to draw your attention to the essential difference

    between opposite and contrary.  Opposite powers are always of

    the same kind, and tend to union, either by equipoise or by a

    common product.  Thus the + and - poles of the magnet, thus

    positive and negative electricity are opposites.  Sweet and

    sour are opposites; sweet and bitter are contraries.  The

    feminine character is opposed to the masculine; but the

    effeminate is its contrary.  Even so in the present instance,

    the interest of permanence is opposed to that of

    progressiveness; but so far from being contrary interests,

    they, like the magnetic forces suppose and require each

    other.  Even the most mobile of creatures, the serpent, makes

    a rest of its own body, and drawing up its voluminous train

    from behind on this fulcrum, propels itself onward.  <22>


Barfield dismisses this distinction:


    The distinction between 'opposite' and 'contrary' made in . .

    . Church and State . . . may, I think, be ignored.  In common

    use both terms are taken to connote mutual exclusion. 

    Coleridge was there apparently attempting to 'desynonymise'

    them by appropriating this connotation to one of them

    ('contrary') only.  The distinction however is not one that

    he maintained.  While, in the footnote, 'contrary' is made

    virtually equivalent to 'contradictory,' elsewhere it is not

    infrequently synonymous with 'opposite.' <23>


Similarly, Blake asserts fundamental distinctions between

negations and contraries, which Damrosch dismisses as

inconsequential.  In Blake, "contrary" is the favorable term:

everything needs its contrary.  In Coleridge "opposite" is the

favorable term: opposites tend to union.  In Blake, "negation" is

the pejorative term.  Negations try to cancel out the forces they

feel opposed to.  In Coleridge "contrary" is the pejorative term:

contraries try to cancel each other out. Blake's negations are

defined in terms of religious systems that try to impose their

reifications onto others.  Coleridge, however, simply finds

logical impossibility in certain statements of opposites:


    Opposites, he well observes, are of two kinds, either

    logical, i.e. such as are absolutely incompatible; or real

    without being contradictory.  The former he denominates Nihil

    negativum irrepresentabile, [Engell's footnote: "Nothing in a

    negative sense, not representable" (the logical opposite)--

    i.e. the state of a body both at rest and in motion, as

    C[oleridge] goes on to explain, following Kant] the connexion

    of which produces nonsense.  A body in motion is something--

    Aliquid cogitabile; but a body, at one and the same time in

    motion and not in motion, is nothing, or at most, air

    articulated into nonsense.  But a motory force of a body in

    one direction, and an equal force of the same body in an

    opposite direction is not incompatible, and the result,

    namely rest, is real and representable. <24> 


    This distinction between opposites and contraries, between

dynamism and stasis, seems to haunt Coleridge's poetry.  In his

Dejection Ode, Coleridge is at least in part answering his friend

William Wordsworth's Intimations Ode, which wonders why childhood

bliss disappears:


         There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

         The earth, and every common sight,

         To me did seem

         Apparelled in celestial light,


         The glory and the freshness of a dream.

         . . .

         Whither is it fled, the visionary gleam,

         Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


Although Coleridge's memory is not of such perfect bliss, he does

remember something similar to Wordsworth's memory:


         There was a time when . . .

         . . .  hope grew round me, like the twining vine,

         And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.


Coleridge does not specifically recall the glow in Nature that

Wordsworth recalls; he had only hope.  Whereas Wordsworth

directly perceived something outside himself that gave him a

feeling of warmth and joy, Coleridge's perception of joy outside

himself was only a hope; even less than a hope, it only "seemed"

to grow around, comfort, and belong to him.  Finally, Coleridge

receives no reciprocity; he has to perform the whole task



         I may not hope from outward forms to win

         The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.


         O Lady! we receive but what we give,

         And in our life alone does Nature live


Coleridge sets himself the impossible task of virtually creating

Nature by his own power.  In that sense "All Nature is but Art"

is an impossibly heavy burden. 

    His metaphor of marriage with Nature makes the herculean task

even more painful:


         Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,

         Which, wedding Nature to us, gives in dower

         A new Earth and new Heaven.


Although the syntax becomes rather confusing, Coleridge here

makes Joy the father of the bride.  Only Joy can give the dowry

of a new Earth and new Heaven.  But where does that Joy come

from?  It can come only from within the poet, who in this

metaphor is the bridegroom.  Thus Coleridge sets up a short-

circuit.  Asking for a new Earth and a new Heaven from outside,

he can imagine it only as coming from within himself, just as

earlier in the poem, when trying to receive joy from Nature, he

asserted that he could receive only what he gave.  He has put

himself in the impossible double position of groom and father of

the bride!  Therefore Coleridge is left with an insoluble

dilemma, which degenerates further into "Reality's dark dream." 

    By contrast, when Wordsworth tries to answer the problem of

joy in the last half of Intimations Ode, he constructs two

outside, benevolent forces with which to interact, one in Nature

and one in the idealism of Platonic metempsychosis.  He is

grateful for obstinate questionings that give him an origin and a

goal beyond Nature.  While the homely Nurse tries to keep him as

an inmate, Wordsworth's babe escapes because of the Platonic

glory from which he came.  Even though Wordsworth in remarks

outside the Intimations Ode claimed that reincarnation was only a

hypothesis, not his firm belief, the tone of the poem is strong

and certain, not at all like Coleridge's doubts and hesitations. 

Wordsworth is able to thrust himself, by the willing suspension

of disbelief, into a position that might not accord with his

Christian orthodoxy, a move which, as we saw in "The Aeolian

Harp," Coleridge is not able to sustain.


    Thus Coleridge's poem implies a kind of stasis in the total

system rather than a dynamic reciprocity.  In both "The Aeolian

Harp" and the Dejection Ode, Coleridge does not measure up to

Wordsworth's dynamic recreation of the dead-ends of perception. 

Instead of setting up a reciprocal system, Coleridge thinks that

glory can arise only from within.  By putting the whole burden on

himself, Coleridge remains in stasis, unable to move because he

doesn't really seem to believe in a corresponding outside

opposite.  He has put himself in a position perilously close to

that of the Alastor poet (see later chapter on Percy Shelley),

who ignores the outside world in preference to his solipsistic

musings.  He can not therefore imagine the opposites of self and

other coming together, as do Blake and Shelley. 

    His philosophical theory finally does not fully enter his

poetry.  Wordsworth's tentative hypothesis strongly invests the

Intimations Ode (and "Tintern Abbey") but Coleridge's strongly

held belief remains tentative and hesitant in "The Aeolian Harp"

and the Dejection Ode. 

    Like Cusanus, Coleridge begins his whole system with opposite



    Now the transcendental philosophy demands; first, that two

    forces should be conceived which counteract each other by

    their essential nature; not only not in consequence of the

    accidental direction of each, but as prior to all direction,

    nay, as the primary forces from which the conditions of all

    possible directions are derivative and deducible: secondly,

    that these forces should be assumed to be both alike

    infinite, both alike indestructible.  The problem will then

    be to discover the result or product of two such forces, as

    distinguished from the result of those forces which are

    finite, and derive their difference solely from the

    circumstance of their direction.  When we have formed a

    scheme or outline of these two different kinds of force, and

    of their different results by the process of discursive

    reasoning, it will then remain for us to elevate the Thesis

    from notional to actual, by contemplating intuitively this

    one power with its two inherent indestructible yet counter-

    acting forces, and the results or generations to which their

    interpenetration gives existence, in the living principle and

    in the process of our own self-consciousness.  <25>   


But it is this movement of the coincidence of opposites "from the

notional to the actual" that Coleridge does not achieve in his

poetry.  Like Cusanus and like Pope, his reasoning from what he

knows seems to hold him back.  Blake's method of rejecting Reason

as a method and going straight to intuition penetrates that

limit.  As long as we reason only from what we know, we are

limited because, as Blake emphasizes in "There is No Natural

Religion," we start with certain pre-conceived definitions of

what is avaiable to our perception.  Perceiving more than

empiricism allows and thus refusing to allow the limits of

empiricism and reason to control us, we can perceive miracles

through expanded perceptions.  Empiricism, like any deadening,

abstract system, tells that we do not have the experiences that

we have because they do not fit the official system.

    Coleridge's famous definition of the Imagination does try to

bring together the divine and the human, even while it

distinguishes between them:


    The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or

    secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living

    Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a

    repetition the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in

    the infinite I AM.  The secondary I consider as an echo    of

    the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as

    identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and

    differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. 


    It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or

    where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all

    events it struggles to idealize and to unify.  It is

    essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are

    essentially fixed and dead.  

       FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play

    with, but fixities and definites.  The Fancy is indeed no

    other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of

    time and space; and blended with, and modified by that

    empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the

    word CHOICE.  But equally with the ordinary memory it must

    receive all its materials ready made from the law of

    association.  <26>


First, Coleridge defines the human imagination as a repetition of

the divine mind, not as an identical force, as will Blake. 

Second, although he claims that the secondary imagination is

"identical with the primary," he clearly gives it a lesser place

not only by the denomination "secondary," but also by saying that

it differs in degree from the primary.  It is clearly lesser on

some kind of measurable scale.  But the greatest diminishment in

the definition comes when, after defining the secondary

imagination as having the power to re-create, he immediately

qualifies the marvelous power with a resounding, discouraging,

"where this process is rendered impossible."  So, after being

relegated to a lower level in the scale of imaginations (but soon

to be reassured by hearing that the fancy is even lower), the

secondary imagination must find frequent frustration, of the kind

that we have seen in "The Aeolian Harp."  Struggling to idealize

and to unify in that poem, Coleridge found himself forced to

recant.  And now in his definition of the marvelous power of the

creative imagination, he finds himself forced to qualify to the

point of frustration.  

    In her study of the imagination, Mary Warnock defines

Coleridge's concept in very strong and constructive terms:


    something working actively from within to enable us to

    perceive the general in the particular, to make us treat the

    particular, whether something we see or something we call up

    as an image, as symbolic, as meaning something beyond itself.

    . . .  Imagination . . . must try to create one thing (one

    thought or one form) out of the many different elements of

    experience; and this entails extracting the essence of the

    differing phenomena of experience.   <27>


This explanation, like Coleridge's definitions, implies the

abstraction of total system, not a Blakean imagination of minute

particulars.  Most people naturally think that oneness, total

unity can come only from abstracting, from generalizing about the

characteristics that different particulars have in common, but

the idea of the coincidence of opposites helps us break through

that limitation to see unity and disparity simultaneously, just

like seeing two parts of an optical illusion at the same time. 

Warnock reproduces an optical illusion that can be seen as either

a rabbit or a duck.<28>  As in the more famous optical illusion

of two faces or a vase (reproduced in Prickett's Words and the

Word),<29> most people think that they can see only one or the

other, that their powers of generalizing and abstracting from

vague lines must choose.  (For more discussion of this optical

illusion, see chapter 7: Internal Eternity.) They also naturally

think that words must abstract and generalize.

    As Coleridge continues to explain his theory of imagination

in the following chapter of Biographia Literaria, he continues to

define it in terms of reconciling oppositions:


    The poet . . . diffuses a tone and spirit of unity . . . by

    that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively

    appropriated the name of imagination.  This power, first put


    into action by the will and understanding, and retained under

    their unremissive though gentle and unnoticed control,

    reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite

    or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference; of the

    general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the

    individual with the representative.   <30>


Deirdre Coleman and Peter Otto, in their introduction to

Imagining Romanticism, deconstruct Coleridge's definition, by

revealing how fancy apparently undercuts imagination:


    What is not so often remarked is that the Biographia passage,

    in the course of mapping the progression of the 'I AM' to the

    primary and then to the secondary imagination . . . maps a

    strange countermovement to its own argument.  Coleridge's

    affirmation of presence is shadowed by a regressive movement

    of inversion and loss. . . . Repetition and reduction suggest

    that the primary imagination is engendered by a process which

    more closely parallels the repetitions of fancy than the

    vital and idealizing activities that it is itself said to

    undertake: the vital is born from the mechanical; the

    original finds its moment of birth in the secondary and

    derivative.  <31> 


But this apparent undercutting of Coleridge's idea, if seen from

the perspective of the coincidence of opposites, actually

strengthens it.  For, as Blake will make even clearer, the

dynamism of the coincidence of opposites always produces

reversals of this kind.  When making distinctions, or

desynomizing, Coleridge is not separating words into discrete

categories that never interact.  Rather, he is setting up a

dynamic movement back and forth between opposites.

    When Stephen Prickett analyzes Coleridge's attempts to

desynonymize words, he also deconstructs Coleridge's approach and

then seems surprised when he discovers that Coleridge is trying

to re-synomize with another coined term, "esemplastic."  We can

learn from the coincidence of opposites not to be surprised at

this kind of maneuver, and recognize it from the beginning.  Or

perhaps the power of the coincidence of opposites is always to

surprise, always to keep the dynamics of our awareness of world

and words alive.

    When Prickett traces Coleridge's defition of imagination back

to Greek thought and to the word logos, he concludes:


    For Heraclitus, for instance, the logos, or God, was seen as

    the common connecting element in all extremes. . . . For

    [Coleridge] the biblical logos is part of an even earlier

    philosophic tradition where the 'Word' combines under tension

    opposite or discordant qualities in a creative unity. <32>


Prickett is uncovering the fundamentally religious foundation of

Coleridge's coincidence of opposites:


    there is almost a suggestion that the Primary and Secondary

    Imaginations are, as it were, typologically linked in a

    manner analogous to the Old and New Testaments: that is, that

    we only fully come to understand the unconscious activity of

    sense-perception through the conscious activity of artistic

    creation.  <33>  


This insight by Prickett is very similar to one that I will

develop later in Blake.  For now, we can recognize that in

Prickett's reading the primary imagination, like the Old

Testament God, begins all life, but does not fully realize its

potential.  The secondary imagination, like the New Testament


God, fulfills His potential by sending his son to link the realms

of divine and human, in a move similar to the one insisted on by

Cusanus.  Without Jesus as the divine humanity, according to

Cusanus and Coleridge and Blake, the gap between divine and human

remains unbridgeable.

    The source of the whole of Coleridge's definition is the

primary imagination of God, the great "I AM," existence itself. 

Without that fiat, there would be no further commands such as

"Let there be light."  Without the great "I AM," who is able to

contain all opposites, there would be no existence.  Although

from God's point of view, as it were, the imagination is the

repetition of the great I AM, from the human perspective, the

imagination is based on two forces, self (centripetal) and other



    C[oleridge] summarizes an outline or schema of a definition

    of the imagination that has clear similarities to long

    deductions and definitions of the imagination in Fichte and

    Schelling.  Two forces or concepts in dynamic tension both

    find themselves in the imagination, which reconciles and

    unifies them: the self or mind ("I am") with nature or the

    cosmos, the subjective with the objective.  <34>


    Logic and social injunction cannot dissolve the boundaries

between man and nature, or between man and God; in fact they

strengthen those boundaries.  Only the imagination, which

dissolves and dissipates in order to re-create, can overcome the

boundaries.  In Pope there was no real attempt to overcome the

boundaries.  The distinctions were crucial, fundamental to

humans, and only from the mysterious power of God's viewpoint did

the opposites coincide.  In Blake and Shelley and Coleridge, the

human participates in the conjunction of opposites not just by

accepting the mystery imposed from on high, but by participating

in the divine as fully as in the human.  Coleridge often seems to

wish he could attain that height; Shelley and Blake actually

accomplish the feat. 

    One of the strangest characteristics of Coleridge's

definition of the imagination is its placement in the Biographia. 

It comes right at the end of chapter XIII, right at the end of

part I, with a promise:


    I shall content myself for the present with stating the main

    result of the Chapter, which I have reserved for that future

    publication, a detailed prospectus of which the reader will

    find at the close of the second volume. <35> 


As Engell drily remarks, "The prospectus does not appear in the

1817 ed and apparently was never written." <36>  And what made

Coleridge decide to state only the main result--the definitions

of imagination and fancy--and save the rest for a future that

never came?  It was "a letter from a friend, . . . [a] very

judicious letter, which produced complete conviction on my mind,"

<37> a conviction that appears in the quotation above. 

    Just before the "letter from a friend," Coleridge has been

building his definition based on the interpenetration of opposite



    The counteraction then of the two assumed forces does not

    depend on their meeting from opposite directions; the power

    which acts in them is indestructible; . . . and as something

    must be the result of these two forces, both alike infinite,

    and both alike indestructible; and as rest or neutralization

    cannot be this result; no other conception is possible, but

    that the product must be a tertium aliquid, or finite

    generation.     Consequently this conception is necessary. 

    Now this tertium aliquid can be no other than an inter-

    penetration of the counteracting powers, partaking of both.

    [[Coleridge's page contains asterisks]]  <38>


At this point a line of asterisks interrupts the headlong


momentum, and the Coleridgean short-circuit kicks in.  Just as in

"The Aeolian Harp," when orthodoxy denies pantheism; just as in

the writing of "Kubla Khan," when the person from Porlock

interrupts the poet's recall of his reverie; just as we shall see

later in his understanding of Berengarius; Coleridge always

blames outside forces for his inability to see the real presence,

the mystical wholeness.  He puts himself into an impossible bind:

on the one hand, as in the Dejection Ode, he must re-create all

of the outside world single-handedly; on the other hand, he can

not finish his writing because of the interruptions and

misunderstandings of the outside world:


    Thus far had the work been transcribed for the press, when I

    received the following letter from a friend . . . [ellipsis

    in original]  Dear C.  You ask my opinion concerning your

    Chapter on the Imagination, both as to the impressions it

    made on myself, and as to those which I think it will make on

    the PUBLIC, . . . As to myself, and stating in the first

    place the effect on my understanding, your opinions and

    method of argument were not only so new to me, but so

    directly the reverse of all I had ever been accustomed to

    consider as truth, that even if I had comprehended your

    premises sufficiently to have admitted them, and had seen the

    necessity of your conclusions, I should still have been in

    that state of mind, which . . . you have so ingeniously

    evolved, as the antithesis to that in which a man is, when he

    makes a bull.  In your own words, I should have felt as if I

    had been standing on my head.   <39>


This interruption, which was composed by Coleridge himself (and

don't some of us suspect as much about the person from Porlock?),

stops the idealistic rush just as surely as the reproving glance

of Sara quells the unregenerate musings in The Aeolian Harp.  But

instead of being thwarted by something from outside, as Coleridge

makes it appear, he is being thwarted by something inside.  In a

bizarre revisiting of the Dejection Ode from a different angle,

Coleridge tries to make us believe that he can not project his

joyful theory because the cruel world will throw it right back at

him as if in a rejecting mirror.  In that poem, he could not

receive any joy from nature because he could receive only what he

gave.  In this passage from the Biographia he can not receive the

joy of a delighted audience because he will not give it. 

    The spurious letter states as its primary concern the

impression that Coleridge's definitions will have on the reading

public.  While this concern for audience is certainly a

legitimate one, Coleridge is going to great pains to fabricate a

resistant reader to interrupt his attempt to explain his theory

to the general public, whose reaction he fears.  His fictitous

interlocutor objects to the theory, among other reasons, because

it is "the reverse" of what he has previously believed.  Thus

Coleridge fears that his readers will use their ordinary,

everyday logic and refuse to admit anything that contradicts it,

especially a theory that wants them to accept a coincidence of

opposites.  His theory, he thinks, is so opposed to the

prevailing ideology that it has no chance of acceptance.  The

cousin of the person from Porlock then goes on to explain that

instead of making a bull,<40> he feels that he has received one

that has stood him on his head.  In other words, Coleridge's

pronouncements, like Cusanus's, are usually seen as Lewis

Carroll-like jokes that disturb good, decent folk instead of

revealing fundamental truths.

    When Owen Barfield elucidates Coleridge's thought, he

emphasizes the concept of "polarity," which was so important that

Coleridge invented a short-hand symbol for it:


    he habitually employed the symbol )-(, to avoid the tedium of

    writing out in full some such phrase as 'is polarically


    related to' or 'is the polar opposite of.'  <41>


    According to Barfield's explanation of Coleridge's ideas, the

importance of polarity is not just its usefulness or its

applicability or its potential for the imagination to use; it is

a law of the universe, a fundamental fact of existence: 


    Polarity is, according to Coleridge, a 'law'; it is a law

    which reigns through all Nature; the duality of the 'opposite

    forces' is the manifestation of a prior unity; and that unity

    is a 'power.'  It is not, that is to say, any abstract

    'principle of unity' or of identity--a point which it is

    hardly possible to over-emphasise, since that is precisely

    what it is commonly presumed to be . . .                

         Polarity is dynamic, not abstract.  It is not 'a mere

    balance or compromise,' but 'a living and generative

    interpenetration.' Where logical opposites are contradictory,

    polar opposites are generative of each other--and together

    generative of new product.  Polar opposites exist by virtue

    of each other as well as at the expense of each other; 'each

    is that which is called, relatively, by predominance of the

    one character or quality, not by the absolute exclusion of

    the other.' Moreover each quality or character is present in

    the other.  We can and must distinguish, but there is no

    possibility of dividing them.

         But when one has said all this, how much has one

    succeeded in conveying?  How much use are definitions of the

    undefinable?  The point is, has the imagination grasped it? 

    For nothing else can do so.  At this point the reader must be

    called on, not to think about imagination, but to use it. 

    Indeed we shall see that the apprehension of polarity is

    itself the basic act of imagination.   <42>


    Barfield insists on activity and not just contemplation:


    what does the principle of contradiction, without more, offer

    to a mind?  What does the mind obtain by 'submitting all

    positions alike . . . to the criterion of the mere

    understanding'?  Quite literally nothing.  The principle of

    contradiction tells us nothing of what nature, or anything

    else, is.  It tells us only what it is not; and, in doing so,

    clenches our absurd detachment from it.   <43>


Although Barfield is partly correct here, he does give a

misleading impression.  To the extent that the coincidence of

opposites means submitting all positions to a criterion of

understanding, or reason, it is only negative.  Often opposites

in Coleridge do simply negate each other.  In "The Aeolian Harp"

the poet's reverie is stopped dead by the reasoning contradiction

of orthodoxy spoken by Sara.  But in a more dynamic use of the

coincidence of opposites, as in Blake, the contradiction which

affronts mere reason encourages us to expand our imaginations and

see more than limited reason allows.  The obvious result of

contradiction is the telling us what is not, but the larger

result is telling us what is, in the largest possible sense.  

Monism can easily degenerate into exclusive dogmatism.  But the

coincidence of opposites allows us to rise above preconceptions

to a larger view.  While telling us what is not, and keeping us

from reifying, the coincidence of opposites also allows us the

leap of imagination which sees the universe whole, which can see

both the vase and the faces in the optical illusion, which can

see both the human the divine, both the living and the dead,

which can overcome the limitations of the reason to see into the

divine world.

     In a description of metaphor, Barfield captures precisely

the power of the coincidence of opposites.  It is not just an


abstraction, but a basic feature of existence and of language:

seeing the coincidence of opposites is recapturing a kind of

primitive innocence, but is also participating in a wholeness

which reason forbids.  Trying to insist on no coincidence of

opposites denies a fundamental fact of existence.


    The element of contradiction is most apparent in that

    particular form of symbolic utterance called a metaphor; but

    it is certainly (for the understanding) characteristic of

    figurative language as a whole.  Primitive language is

    instinctively figurative. The further back we penetrate in

    the history of speech, the more symbolic, and therefore the

    less logical, it shows itself to have been.  There are, for

    instance, Hebrew roots, whose semantic range is so wide that

    one end of their gamut of meanings appears to us to be

    positively the reverse of the other.  Living opposites have

    not yet been reduced to contradictions.  <44>


    In 1827 Coleridge published a poem on the subject of the monk

Berengarius, who was the focus of an eleventh-century controversy

that helped the Church clarify its position on the Real Presence

in the Eucharist.  Berengarius denied the Real Presence.  Like

many in the ongoing argument before the Church pronounced the

final word, Berengarius believed in a symbolic, spritual presence

of Christ in the bread and wine rather than a physical one. 

During his struggles with the Church over this issue, he signed

three professions of faith (in 1055, 1078, and 1079), each one

more explicitly acknowledging the Church's orthodox position. 

Coleridge's poem sympathetically captures the uncertainty, the

difficulty of seeing a mystery that the mind confesses to, but

which the understanding refuses to grasp.  

    According to Robert J. Barth, Coleridge himself remained

firmly in line with Anglican doctrine on the Eucharist, while

arguing against Catholic beliefs:


    In his occasional comments on the sacrament of the Eucharist,

    Coleridge remained faithful . . . in his consistent assertion

    of the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the

    sacrament.  For the mature Coleridge, this was never in

    doubt.  What did occasionally attract his attention was the

    matter of how Christ is present in the Eucharist. <45>  


This issue of how the Real Presence entered the bread and wine

was indeed the focus of much of the Berengarian heresy. 

Coleridge himself had no strong objection in principle to the

Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but saw no need for such

a doctrine and no clear biblical justification.  Like

Berengarius, he could not accept that the physical body born of

Mary was the same one that appeared in the Eucharist: "applied to

the phenomenal flesh and blood, it is nonsense." <46>  But

clearly, like the Berengarius of his poem, Coleridge did not

think the matter worth fighting over.  For Anglicans, the mystery

of the Real Presence remains a mystery; how it happens is not

prescribed by doctrine.  For Catholics, however, and particularly

for Berengarius, failure to see the Real Presence in the

prescribed way can result in excommunication and eternal





        Suggested by the Last Words of Berengarius

                 Ob. Anno Dom. 1088


  No more 'twixt conscience staggering and the Pope

  Soon shall I now before my God appear,

  By him to be acquitted, as I hope;


  By him to be condemned, as I fear.--

                            Reflection on the Above


Lynx among moles! had I stood by thy bed,

Be of good cheer, meek soul! I would have said:

I see a hope spring from that humble fear.

All are not strong alike through storms to steer

Right onward.  What? though dread of threatened death        5

And dungeon torture made thy hand and breath

Inconstant to the truth within thy heart!

That truth, from which, through fear, thou twice didst start,

Fear haply told thee, was a learned strife,

Or not so vital as to claim thy life:                        10

And myriads had reached Heaven, who never knew

Where lay the difference 'twixt the false and true!


Ye, who secure 'mid trophies not your own,

Judge him who won them when he stood alone,

And proudly talk of recreant Berengare--                     15

O first the age, and then the man compare!

That age how dark! congenial minds how rare!

No host of friends with kindred zeal did burn!

No throbbing hearts awaited his return!

Prostrate alike when prince and peasant fell,                20

He only disenchanted from the spell,

Like the weak worm that gems the starless night,

Moved in the scanty circlet of his light:

And was it strange if he withdrew the ray

That did but guide the night-birds to their prey?            25


The ascending day-star with a bolder eye

Hath lit each dew-drop on our trimmer lawn!

Yet not for this, if wise, shall we decry

The spots and struggles of the timid Dawn;

Lest so we tempt th'approaching Noon to scorn                30

The mists and painted vapours of our Morn.  <47>


Allan John Macdonald explains Bernegarius's heresy in a way that

is reminiscent of the disinction between Aristotle's Law of Non-

Contradiction, based on reason and nature, and Cusanus's

coincidentia oppositorum, based on a higher divine law. 

Macdonald explains what is


    the fundamental principle of the whole Berengarian criticism

    of the Catholic dogma of Transubstantiation.  It is contrary

    to the evidence of the senses. . . .  Secondly, reason

    compels an admission that it is contrary to the law of nature

    that one thing can be changed into another without the

    breaking-up or annihilation of its original elements. <48>  


So the issue joined by Berengarius pitted a rational explanation

against a mystical one.  The Church's position was that the

opposites of bread/wine and flesh/blood do coincide in the

Eucharist.  Just as the mystery of the Incarnation made a

supposedly impossible combination of spirit and flesh in the

person of Jesus, so does the mystery of the Eucharist bring

together the food and the risen body.  Although we can still see

the bread and wine, they are in reality the body of Jesus.  But

since we can still see the bread and wine, reasoned Berengarius,

the doctrine of the Real Presence requires us to deny the

evidence of our senses.  


    As Coleridge explores the issue, he sets up a carefully

constructed opposition: to believe or not to believe.  Whatever

the intricacies of the theological arguments, Berengarius is torn

between obedience to the order of the Pope to conform and the

decision of his own conscience.  The two sides of the opposition

can not possibly be reconciled on this earth, but they may be

reconciled in heaven.  Berengarius has been condemned by the Pope

for not being able to see the Real Presence in the Eucharist. 

Opposed to this condemnation, Berengarius's own conscience would

acquit him.  Berengarius hopes that God will agree with

Berengarius's conscience and acquit him also, but His fear of

God's condemnation, following the Pope's, is set in contrast to

his hope of acquittal by his conscience.  For indeed, his

unstated fear is that even his own conscience may not acquit him;

he might die and find that he has to condemn himself.  His hope

of acquittal is based on a perspective above the earthly;

perhaps, for some reason that he can not see on earth, God, like

his conscience, will acquit him.  Here and now he is painfully

balanced, "staggering" between conscience and Pope. 

    His deepest fear is that the two sides are irreconcilable. 

After death he will be in the presence of God, who may provide

the missing element that will bring together the opposing earthly

forces.  Perhaps, Berengarius implicitly hopes in Coleridge's

poem, God can leap over the dead-end that stymies him and the

Pope.  The hopeful formula coincides exactly with those of

Cusanus discussed in my introductory chapter: what appears to be

in opposition on earth actually coincides in the mind of God. 

Cusanus's certainty is missing here, of course; the coincidence

of opposites is merely a projected hope into the future.  As in

the Dejection Ode, the hope is not a Wordsworthian certainty. 

But Berengarius's only way out of the unbearable tension is to

die and find that the opposites no longer will tear him apart. 

The poem implies that a higher resolution is possible, and hoped

for, but the fear is based on the fact that the coincidence of

opposites can not happen on earth, where Aristotle's Law of Non-

Contradiction reigns.

    Ironically, the hope that opposites can coincide in God in a

way that they can not on earth is embodied in the very problem of

Berengarius's heresy: his inability to acquiese to the doctrine

of the Real Presence.  He can not accept the church's doctrine

that in the Eucharist the body and blood of Christ actually

appear in the bread and wine.  As we have seen in Coleridge, in

"The Aeolian Harp" and in the Dejection Ode, he is caught in an

impossible bind, impossible because of the constraints of logic. 

Although this logic is not explicitly discussed in the lines to

Berengarius, the dilemma certainly suggests that logical trap. 

If Berengarius is right, and divine and human do not become a

perfect coincidence of opposites in the Real Presence of the

Eucharist, then Berengarius has strong reason to doubt that God

can solve the problem of the opposition of conscience and Pope by

somehow bringing them together in a miraculous, divine

coincidence of opposites.  But if God can indeed effect a

coincidence of opposites when Berengarius appears before him in

heaven, then surely he can effect a coincidence of opposites in

the body/blood and bread/wine of the Eucharist.  If God can not

make flesh and spirit coincide on earth, then he might not be

able to resolve the problem of perceiving that paradox when

Berengarius gets to heaven. 

    Berengarius is being judged by the Church because he cannot

see; he cannot see the Real Presence that the Church demands that

he see.  The metaphor of sight guides the poem from the

beginning: the lynx is legendary for its superior sense of sight,

while moles are blind from living underground.  Coleridge is thus

performing another twist on the themes of opposition: although

Berengarius's official heresy was that he could not see,

Coleridge defines him as better at seeing than his contemporary

accusers were. 

    In line 3, in Coleridge's apostrophe to Berengarius ("had I

stood by thy bed" also means if I had been you, and in a

fundamental way, I am like you) he attempts to take a reconciling


view, that is to imagine what God's position on the matter might

be.  By seeing a hope springing from the fear, Coleridge makes

fear yield its opposite.

    As another part of his reassurance, Coleridge continues the

separation that had been set up in Pope/condemnation/fear vs.

conscience/acquittal/hope.  He adds "hand and breath" to the

former set of terms and "truth within thy heart" to the latter

set.  Now the latter set of terms receives most of the value,

whereas before the two sets of terms had been equally balanced. 

The condemnation by the Pope is further devalued by being linked

to "dungeon torture," whereas the acquittal of conscience is

linked to "truth."  So Coleridge has set up an equation in which

heart equals spiritual equals acquittal while hand and breath

equal physical equal condemnation. 

    Line 13 implies that the ignorant, who do not trouble their

brains with the question of the Real Presence, do go to Heaven

without worrying about it.  In fact, the whole problem seems to

be that Berengarius was too smart: if he had not ever worried

about the Real Presence, as ordinary people do not worry, then he

could have gone to heaven along with them.  And, in line 9, if he

had not possessed fear, he might have defied the Pope and gone to

hell.  His learnedness would have been better off as ignorance. 

He is better off if his potential courage becomes fear instead. 

Coleridge obviously sympathizes deeply with someone whose fears

wisely overcame his bold reaches into heterodoxy, someone, who,

like the Coleridge who took on responsibility for all knowledge,

was just too smart for his own good.

    In his intelligence, Berengarius had to go through the agony

of twice recanting and finally dying without really knowing the

answer to his problem before death.  Berengarius, like Coleridge,

from being too intelligent and too scrupulous, by considering too

curiously, has worried about "the false and true," but has

finally decided that the issue of the Real Presence is not

important enough to take a stand on.  The fear of earthly torture

may have saved Berengarius from the eternity of hellish torture. 

The Inquisition wins again, just as in "The Aeolian Harp."

    Whereas the first stanza of the poem addresses Berengarius

himself, the second stanza addresses Bernegarius's modern-day

accusers.  By implication, they are parallel to the Pope who

condemned Berengarius.  Since they do not understand the

perspective of Berengarius (and by implication do not understand

that of Coleridge) those who judge are not seeing from God's

perspective, which might very well include the coincidence of

opposites.  Most ironically, their accusation, like the Pope's,

arises because they accuse Berengarius of not seeing from God's

perspective when he does not see the Real Presence.

    After the first stanza addresses Berengarius and the second

stanza addresses his accusers, the third stanza speaks in first

person plural, including all, especially Coleridge's

contemporaries.  In this third stanza Coleridge speaks from a

lengthy historical perspective, as if he were trying to see from

God's point of view.  With the greatest tolerance and a vast

sweep of time, Coleridge tries to reconcile the agonized

oppositions of the beginning of the poem. 

    In line 29 the sun of enlightenment, brighter in the

nineteenth century than in the eleventh, rises and removes

darkness.  The earlier starless night had been broken only by the

single light of Berengarius.  The sequence of dawn, morn, noon

sets up a time-line of progress.  The dawn was Berengarius's

time, with only incipient light.  By Coleridge's time, the morn,

more light appears, but even though we can see better than did

previous ages, we should not condemn Berengarius, who did his

best with his limited light.  And if we do judge Berengarius

harshly, says Coleridge, then we can expect that the brightest

time, the noon that will arrive in the future, will also judge

us.  Like Berengarius, we can hope to suspend earthly judgment


and obtain heavenly acquittal.  Since God will have forgiven, so

should we, all the more so because Coleridge feels himself in the

same problem when he tries to see the everlasting presence in


    Coleridge, after imagining the prayer said by Berengarius

before his death, declares his sympathy for one who would declare

what he fain would see, even if he couldn't see it.  As in "The

Aeolian Harp," Berengarius/Coleridge sees more than others do,

but his ideas do not fit the established system's doctrine.  Over

and over he attempts to see a coincidence of opposites that he

cannot see, falls back from his position, confesses his

inability, but then tries to remain orthodox nonetheless.  As

contrasted with the definite assertions of the coincidence of

opposites in Shelley and Blake, Coleridge always hesitates. 

Therefore he understands and sympathizes with the apparent

weakness of Berengarius.

    Raoul Heurtevent, in his study of the heresy of Berengarius

(without reference to Coleridge), introduces an argument very

similar to Coleridge's: according to Heurtevent, in an age when

an issue is not questioned, the language is necessarily less

precise.<49>  Thus, before Berengarius questioned the Real

Presence, the Church had not worked to define the issue

precisely.  After the language has been made more precise because

of controversy, it is not fair to implicate someone by means of

that precise language without respect for its earlier, more naive

context.  Coleridge's similar point also calls for open-

mindedness: in our more tolerant and enlightened time, we can

better understand the dilemma of Berengarius, who saw more

clearly than his contemporaries, although they thought that he

could not see.

    The issue between Berengarius and the Church was precisely

the same issue between Coleridge and Nature: a distinction

between what the senses require and what faith requires.


    Il [Florus, one of the debaters in the Berengarisn issue]

    distinguait nettement les deux cotes de la question

    eucharistique.  Ce que voient les sens, et ce que disent la

    raison et la foi ne concordent pas.  Quant a l'explication,

    elle est simple: c'est un mystere.  <50>  


    [my translation] He clearly distinguished the two sides of

    the question of the Eucharist.  What the senses see and what

    reason and faith say do not coincide.  Why?  Simple.  It is a



    Finally, the matter can be referred back to the first

principle that I discussed in Nicolas Cusansu, who refused to let

the power of God be limited by Aristotle's Law of Non-



    all sections of Berengarian opinion are agreed that the

    accidence of bread and wine remains after consecration, . . .

    By making this denial [that bread and wine can also be flesh

    and blood], the Berengarians leave out of account the will of

    God, for, according to the Psalmist, God can do anything that

    He wills, and if God is almighty He can will a change to take

    place in natural objects.  <51>  


Thus, despite his yearnings for wholeness, expressed especially

in his philosophical and political prose, Coleridge in his

poetry, specifically in "The Aeolian Harp," the Dejection Ode,

and "Lines Suggested by the Last Words of Berengarius," chooses

the limits of Aristotelian reason and Christian orthodoxy over

the callings of his beloved coincidentia oppositorum.  He had

good reason to; most of us make the same kind of decison.  His

brilliance, the bright noon of his mind and soul, remind us of

the scale of the struggle:


    Coleridge lives and gains more life with each generation, not

    because he completed metaphysical systems, like Schelling,

    Fichte, and Hegel, whose Procrustean achievements only feebly


    command our attention today; and not, as Dr. Leavis and T.S.

    Eliot and a hallowed tradition of Anglo-American commentary

    would have it, because he was a poet and critic in spite of

    his metaphysical preoccupations; but because he honoured to

    the full the demands of a reticulated response to all the

    data of his consciousness--because, in short, his was a mind

    of rare integrity.  He did not, like Goethe, stifle his

    metaphysical interests the better to breathe in the green

    world of things, and he did not, like the transcendental

    systematists, distort the texture of experience to achieve a

    completed network of abstraction.

         Coleridge's endeavour was always towards system.  But

    this orientation was first of all the need to connect rather

    than the need to complete.  <52>  


In the four years of his life remaining after the lines to

Berengarius, Coleridge pursues a new train of thought that leads

us on to Blake:


    During the last few years of his life, Coleridge seems to

    have reflected often on a Christological doctrine which,

    until then, had held no special place in his thinking: the

    doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ . . . In Notebook 41

    . . . "Christ [must] be considered not only as a spiritual

    divine Man but as the essential Divine Humanity."  <53>


Had he lived to explore the issue more fully, Coleridge would

have certainly, like Pope, chosen conservative, orthodox paths. 

The Berengarian tension of defying established authority he

obviously chose to solve in a Berengarian fashion: recant all

heresies, live in orthodoxy.  Blake will explode those cautious

fears, living to the full the implications of the Human Form

Divine, maintaining both his orthodoxy and his defiance in a

white-hot coincidentia oppositorum.




Notes to Chapter 3: Blind to the Real Presence


1. N. M. Goldsmith, "A Reconciliation of Opposites: Concepts of

the Mind in Pope and Coleridge," Prose Studies, 7 (1984), p. 6.


2. Although we do not know whether Pope had read Nicholas of

Cusa, we do know that Coleridge had.  In his notebooks (ed.

Kathleen Coburn, 1957-71) in 1803, we find the following entry in

the context of musings over "the nature of Being which Creatures



    vide Cusan. Dialog. de Genesi, quomodo idem identificando

    pluralitatem producit.--<The Hebrews called God "Space." --> 

    (I: 1379)


This cryptic note, although it does not tell us very much, does

tell us that Coleridge thought that Cusanus was an important

reference in the question of one of the fundamental aspects of

the coincidence of opposites: the Many and the One.


3. The Friend, Second Section, Essay IV, 1818, in The Portable

Coleridge, pp. 339-40.


4.  Milton tried to outdo Homer; Wordsworth tried to outdo



    For I must tread on shadowy ground, must sink

    Deep--and, aloft ascending, breathe in words

    To which the heaven of heavens is but a veil.

    All strength--all terror, single or in bands,

    That ever was put forth in personal form--

    Jehovah--with his thunder, and the choir

    Of shouting Angels, and the empyreal thrones--

    I pass them unalarmed.  (Prospectus to The Recluse)


5.  Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie

Griggs (Oxford, 1956), I:320.


6. Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition

(Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), p. xxxix.


7. McFarland, p. 139.


8. Biographia Literaria; qtd. in McFarland, p. 135.


9. Notebooks; qtd. in Wheeler, p. 54.


10. Table Talk; qtd. in Richard Holmes, Coleridge (Oxford UP,

1982), pp. 51-52.


11. Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford, 1970), p.



12. Richard Holmes, Coleridge (Oxford UP, 1972), pp. 51,52.


13. McFarland, p. 111.



14. Notebook, Dec 1804, no. 2372; qtd. in Mary Warnock,

Imagination (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1976), p. 80.


15. Wheeler, p. 50.


16. The Friend; qtd. in Wheeler, p. 57.


17. Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate

(Princeton UP, 1983), 1:296.


18. Nigel Leask, The Politics of Imagination in Coleridge's

Critical Thought (NY: St. Martin's, 1988), p. 23.


19. McFarland, p. 107.


20. McFarland, p. 120.


21. Holmes, Coleridge, p. 64.


22. On the Constitution of Church & State, ed. John Barrell

(London: Dent, 1972), p. 16.


23. Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (Middleton, CT:

Wesleyan UP, 1971), p. 201.


24. Biographia, 1:298.


25. Biographia, 1:299.


26. Biographia, 1:304-05.


27. Warnock, pp. 83-84, 92.


28. Warnock, p. 185.


29. Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word: Language, Poetics and

Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge UP, 1986), p. 163. 


30. Biographia, 2:15-17.


31. Coleman, Deirdre, and Peter Otto, "Introduction," Imagining

Romanticism (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hiss Press, 1992), p. x.


32. Prickett, Words, p. 15.


33. Prickett, Words, p. 17.


34. Biographia, 1:299.


35. Biographia, 1:304.


36. Biographia, 1:304.


37. Biographia, 1:300, 304.


38. Biographia, 1:300.


39. Biographia, 1:300.



40. Oxford English Dictionary: "1803 Sydney Smith: apparent

congruity, and real incongruity of ideas, suddenly discovered."


41. Barfield, p. 34.


42. Barfield, p. 35.


43. Barfield, p. 110.


44. Barfield, p. 232.


45. Barth, Doctrine, p. 175.


46. Qtd. in Barth, Doctrine, p. 177. 




48. Macdonald, p. 256.


49. Raoul Heurtevent, Durand de Troarn et les Origines de

l'Heresie Berengarienne (Paris: Beauchesne, 1912).


50. Heurtevent, p. 184.


51. MacDonald, p. 341.


52. McFarland, p. 110.


53. Barth, Doctrine, p. 136.