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
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
of, the poet." Meditating by
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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." -->
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.
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
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.
Talk; qtd. in Richard Holmes, Coleridge (
1982), pp. 51-52.
of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings (
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
(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.
Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (
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.
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.