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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.2 (Spring 2008)
literature and faith
courtesy of artrenewal.org
A Kinship Forgotten, A Rebellion Overlooked: Evangelical Influences on English Romanticism (Part Two)
’Tis this that draws the fire up to the moon,
The mover this, in hearts of mortal things,
This that binds up the earth and makes it one.
Dante, Il Paradiso, Canto I: 115-117
Stop, Christian Passer-by!—Stop, child of God
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he, —
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He ask’d, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Epitaph
IV. Evangelicalism’s Kinship with Early English Romanticism The quotation above raises an important point concerning the evangelicals’ kinship with the Lake Poets . The general emphasis on “feeling” and “experience” generated by evangelicalism had its counterpart in poetry—both religious and non-religious—of individual experience, sentiment, and engagement with nature (both personal and external: Coleridge’s “one Life within us and abroad”). While it is difficult to draw any direct connections between the sonneteer William Lisle Bowles, one of the Lake Poets’ most important early influences, and the evangelicals, it is clear, nevertheless, that both the content and style of his poetry share more with the simple, personal, and heartfelt expression of evangelical experience than with the ornate and impersonal poetry of the Augustans and their late-century followers. See, for an example of this sentimental, experiential poetry, Bowles’s “On a Beautiful Landscape,” from his influential Fourteen Sonnets of 1789, published nine years before Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads:
BEAUTIFUL landscape! I could look on thee
For hours, unmindful of the storm and strife,
And mingled murmurs of tumultuous life.
Here, all is still as fair, the stream, the tree,
The wood, the sunshine on the bank: no tear,
No thought of Time’s swift wing, or closing night,
That comes to steal away the long sweet light –
No sighs of sad humanity here.
Here is no tint of mortal change; the day, –
Beneath whose light the dog and peasant-boy
Gambol, with look, and almost bark, of joy, –
Still seems, though centuries have past, to stay.
Then gaze again, that shadowed scenes may teach
Lessons of peace and love, beyond all speech.
Bowles’s poem contains numerous parallels with Wesleyan and romantic style and thought. Most obviously, it emphasizes sense and experience (albeit of a contemplative sort). The poem is written in the first person (Wesley and the Lake Poets ’ characteristic perspective), and reflects not only upon nature’s beauty, but upon those thoughts and feelings it provokes in the viewer. Throughout, and especially in the swift transition from the viewer’s objective description of “the stream, the tree, / The wood, the sunshine on the bank” to his subjective assertion that “No thought of Time’s swift wing… / … comes to steal away the long sweet light” [emphasis added], the poem conveys a sense of subject and object merging in the act of observation. His style, like that of Locke, Wesley, and later the Lake Poets , is one of simplicity; and yet a certain sermonizing, didactic quality characterizes the poem’s closing couplet. While the couplet’s didactic thrust—looking forward to the famous lines of Wordsworth’s The Tables Turned, “Come forth into the light of things, / Let nature be your teacher”—may have its intellectual roots in natural theology and its understanding of the created world’s order as expounding moral principles, the poem’s overall tone of inwardness and sentiment nevertheless bears a strong resemblance to evangelicalism’s emphasis on a “warming” of the heart. Even Bowles’s poetic concern with the “peasant-boy” parallels both Wesley’s concern for England ’s dispossessed and the farmers and peasants who populate many of the Lake Poets ’ early poems. It is difficult to prove that Bowles was directly influenced by the evangelicals. The paragraph above, however, strongly suggests an intellectual kinship between Bowles’s experiential poetry of sentiment and the evangelical’s religious empiricism. While it is true that many of Bowles’s themes could have been drawn from other sources—his stylistic simplicity, for example, from Locke, his emphasis on nature from the natural theologians, and his positive valuation of individuality and human worth from the Enlightenment and political radicals—the simplest explanation of his poetry’s characteristic shape remains an awareness of and kinship with the evangelicals. As noted above, a spiritual understanding of Locke’s Essay, popularized by Wesley’s own writings and his widely-read abridgement of Peter Browne’s Procedure, was “in the air”. When Bowles published Fourteen Sonnets in 1789, only two years before Wesley’s death, the old Methodist was near the height of his influence. Given, then, the extent and nature of Wesley’s influence, an evangelical origin of certain of Bowles’s themes seems likely. His relationship with the evangelicals, however, need not have been exclusive. In terms of this essay’s argument, it is more important to demonstrate that Bowles’s poetry was in the Lockean mainstream of British thought—that is was akin to, if not largely derived from, evangelical thought. Similar problems arise in trying to directly link the romantics and the evangelicals. There is some minor evidence that the romantics directly encountered and admired evangelical writings. In a letter of 1795, Coleridge expressed his admiration for Methodist spiritual autobiography to his friend Thomas Poole and outlines his plan to “write his own autobiography according to the Methodists’ model of heady self-consciousness tempered by the claim of disciplined humility.” Besides Coleridge’s comments on Methodist autobiography, however, there is very little to suggest that the romantics had any important encounters with evangelical thought. Their most important influences clearly lay elsewhere. In 1795, for example, Coleridge delivered a series of lectures to a largely Unitarian audience and throughout the 1790s, Coleridge maintained an extensive correspondence with the prominent Unitarian minister John Prior Estlin. His extensive reading included travel literature, the works of contemporary radicals and obscure metaphysicians, and Bowles’s Fourteen Sonnets. Most tellingly, in 1796, Coleridge named his first-born son David Hartley Coleridge. Wordsworth, like Southey, whose influences were briefly summarized in the introduction, was also influenced by the poetry of sentiment and Europe ’s more radical thinkers. He too was an admirer of Bowles, and his political radicalism culminated in two visits to revolutionary France in the early 1790s. Neither was Wordsworth altogether without evangelical connections. Living near Coleridge in the English southwest in the mid-1790s, Wordsworth developed a friendship with Humphry Davy, a young Methodist who would go on to be one of the most important chemists of his age. These evangelical associations, however, are relatively insignificant in comparison with the direct influence of other, non-evangelical thinkers and writers. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence of romantic kinship with evangelicalism and overwhelming evidence of romantic kinship with the larger Lockean currents of eighteenth-century English thought. Supporting the latter point is the romantics’ early reading and their particular interest in natural religion and theology. Early influences included Hartley, the empirical scientist and Unitarian Joseph Priestley, and the French philosophes, whose political theory was largely grounded in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and whose rational empiricism had its roots in the work of both Locke and Descartes. As Brantley notes, moreover, nearly every major eighteenth-century English nonconformist and the proponents of natural theology (centrally important to the discussion of early romanticism) built upon ideas found in Locke’s writings. “Since the Essay,” writes Brantley, “formed an element of the atmosphere in which Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, John Ray, and Richard Bentley brought about a marriage of science and theology, it should come as no surprise that Socinians [Unitarians], Arians [believer in a created Son, subordinate to the Father], and Deists regarded Locke as a believer in the God of natural religion.” Finally, the Lake Poets ’ admiration and emulation of Bowles, demonstrated above to have been working within the mainstream of English empiricism, advances the case for their intellectual kinship with Locke. As for their kinship with evangelicalism, Brantley’s case is compelling. He quotes for example, Charles Lamb’s characterization of Wordsworth’s Excursion as “natural Methodism”. Brantley’s elaboration is helpful. “The word methodism suggests the religious quality of [Wordsworth’s] thoroughgoing reliance… on experience as a basis for knowing the true and the good.” Brantley’s words call to mind another famous stanza from Wordsworth’s The Tables Turned:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Wordsworth’s notion that the experience of nature brings with it a moral understanding parallels not only the natural theologians’ assertion that the order of nature propounds moral principles but Wesley’s assertion that the spiritual perception of the senses is a form of immediate revelation. The Lake Poets ’ emphasis on individuality and experience is widely noted: e.g., Claude Welch wrote that romanticism was characterized by “the near worship at times of originality and genius”. Of course, romanticism did not discover the individual for the first time. Not only [evangelicalism] but also strains of rationalist thought were close in the background. Yet where the dominating quest of the Enlightenment had been for the universal beyond the individual, or for the participation of the individual in the universal, romanticism self-consciously and enthusiastically turned in the other direction. This particular emphasis manifested itself not only in the first-person, testimonial narrative style so characteristic of romantic poetry (and evangelical autobiography), but in romanticism’s new “sense of the nature of the self”. Following Rousseau, romanticism exalted the immediacy of feeling—in the self, for humanity, and for the world. The fundamental relation of man to the world is not through the dignified structure of reason, with its objectifying categories, but in the direct relation of the whole man in his inner heart and in “sensuous impulse” to the vitality and flux of life. “The whole man in his inner heart”, however, was largely understood by the early romantics as the emotions or the human spirit acting upon the information of the senses. Despite the American transcendentalists’ later emphasis on “intuition”, the Lake Poets largely regarded the physical senses and an empirically understood “spiritual sense” as the sources of their divine inspiration. The Lake Poets ’ moments of spiritual exaltation are nearly always induced: that is, brought about by some sensual experience. In Frost at Midnight, for example, Coleridge, writing to his infant son Hartley, asserts that “thou, my babe”
… shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags : so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
It is not, after all, a trans-sensual understanding on the part of the whole being that perceives God’s didactic “eternal language”. Rather, it is the “lovely shapes and sounds intelligible” that “teach” of God. In fact, there is rarely a sense in the romantics’ early work that man is endowed with an innate understanding. The passages from The Tables Turned and Frost at Midnight both suggest that man must be taught, that neither the inclination towards natural observation nor an understanding of God’s “eternal language” are naturally endowed. Welch’s discussion of “objectifying categories”, moreover, introduces another parallel between Lockean-Wesleyan empiricism and the romantics’ poetic philosophy: the tendency to collapse the distinction between subject and object. This tendency is particularly apparent in Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey and his use of the same words to describe both the objectively perceived and the subjectively felt. See, for example, the following lines:
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs … (ln. 5)
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues… (ln. 128)
The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (ln. 8)
While with an eye made quiet by the power… (ln. 47)
And the round ocean and the living air… (ln. 98)
In body, and become a living soul… (ln. 46)
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns… (ln. 97)
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place… (ln. 141)
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought… (lns. 100-101)
And even the motion of our human blood… (ln. 44)
Colin Clarke, in his Romantic Paradox, takes particular notice of this phenomenon.
If cliffs and thoughts are both “lofty”; if the sky and the human eye are alike “quiet”; the soul and the air both “living”; if both river and human observer wander; if the light of setting suns is a “dwelling”, and the memory a “dwelling-place”; if the spirit or presence is “a motion” and “our human blood” also felt as “motion”, etc. etc., then it becomes difficult for the reader to sustain without radical qualification a normal, common-sense distinction between the living and the lifeless.
In short, Wordsworth, in an attempt to unify man and nature and realize Coleridge’s “one Life within us and abroad”, almost completely abandons the distinction between subject and object. This eschewal of distinction is discussed in greater detail and nuance elsewhere by Coleridge:
The groundwork, therefore, of all true philosophy is the full apprehension of the difference between… that intuition of things which arises when we possess ourselves, as one with the whole… and that which presents itself when… we think of ourselves as separated beings, and place nature in antithesis to the mind, as object to subject, think to thought, death to life.
While Wordsworth seems to indicate that objectivity is impossible, Coleridge instead posits the notion of perceptive modes, of both distinction and coalescence as ways of perceiving. Going further, he suggests that not only is objectivity a purely mental phenomenon—i.e., a way in which an individual thinks about himself and the world—but that the objectifying mode of perception is to be rejected. By comparing the objectifying mode to death and the unifying, subjectifying mode to life, he makes his opinion of both clear. Even taken collectively, however, these parallels do not add up to proof. With the exception of Coleridge’s admiration for Methodist spiritual autobiography and Wordsworth’s friendship with Humphry Davy, there is little to suggest a direct connection between the evangelicals and the romantics. Their ideas and the themes of their poetry, while almost certainly akin to many of the evangelicals’, cannot be definitely shown to have been directly or exclusively derived from Wesley and others. Nevertheless, given the general extent of the evangelicals’ influence, it seems unlikely that the Lake Poets were either unaware of or completely uninfluenced by their ideas. Instead, it would seem that the romantics, building upon their professed influences—Hartley, Priestley, and other Unitarians and natural theologians—integrated other, more distinctly spiritual and sentimental elements of the Lockean empirical atmosphere of eighteenth century thought. While not self-consciously Wesleyan or evangelical, the Lake Poets nevertheless made use of ideas shared by Wesley and the evangelicals. V. Romantic Religion of Conservative Maturity: Coleridge’s Growth in Christianity, and Aids to Reflection’s Theology The Lake Poets gradually came to acknowledge their intellectual kinship with the evangelicals. As noted in the introduction, Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge all renewed their relationship with the Church of England in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Their writing and thought became more overtly Christian and began to suggest a growing sympathy for Methodism and Anglican evangelicalism. A younger generation of radicals, who had found early inspiration in the Lake Poets’ seminal work, roundly rebuked their elders for their political and religious apostasy. William Hazlitt, among the most vocal of the younger generation, penned numerous attacks on Wordsworth and Coleridge. His criticism reached a fever pitch in the late 1810s and early 1820s. Writing a “pre-emptive” review of Coleridge’s yet-to-be-published Lay Sermon, Hazlitt predicted the work would be “‘an endless Preface to an imaginary work”, full of religious obscurantism and political apostasy advocating “despotism, superstition and oppression”.’ The mounting criticism, however, neither altered the course of the Lake Poets’ religious development nor diminished their exploration of evangelical kinship. In 1820, as noted earlier, Southey published his Life of John Wesley, and thirteen years later he published the Life and Works of William Cowper. Coleridge praised the work highly and later in life commended the Methodists in conversation with others. He admired their singing and their being “in the main opposed to an anti-Christian rationalism”. He also asserted that they had provided “a new influx of living waters” and represented “an agency permitted by God in the restoration of our Church”. Finally, as quoted in Table Talk, a collection of quotations from Coleridge’s private conversations, edited by his nephew and son-in-law Henry Nelson Coleridge, the aging poet avowed as his conviction that the Christian faith is what Wesley… described…. It is either the identity of the reason and the will (the proper spiritual part of man), in the full energy of each, consequent on a divine rekindling, or it is not at all. Faith is as real as life; as actual as force; as effectual as volition. It is the physics of the moral being. Coleridge’s high praise of evangelicalism, however, must be read in historical context and with certain qualifications. First, praise must not be confused with affiliation or action. Had Coleridge truly held that “the Christian faith is what Wesley… described,” he surely would have converted to Methodism. Second, Coleridge’s statement in Table Talk was made in the context of a discussion about the nature of faith in God. The word “faith” in Coleridge’s “Christian faith”, therefore, cannot be read as synonymous with the word “religion”. His words were intended not as a blanket statement of approval of Wesley’s theology, but in affirmation of a single, technical theological point: that faith is a gift of Divine grace, given to those whose mind and will are united in a search for faith. Finally, Coleridge’s praise was relative rather than absolute. He admired the evangelicals’ recovery of many traditional doctrines—the Trinity, Original Sin, justification by faith, and others—from the meddling hands of Anglican rationalist theologians and the proponents of an “anti-Christian rationalism”. Moreover, he admired the intensity of their religiosity in comparison with the spiritual apathy of the early nineteenth-century Church of England. He believed, in short, that Wesley’s fervent, empirical Christianity was better than what effectively amounted to no real Christianity at all. He did not, however, approve of the entirety of Wesley’s message. Instead, he spent much of the early nineteenth century engaging in a religious dialogue with the empirical, philosophical core of evangelicalism. The theology he ultimately developed not only went far beyond Wesley’s but, in its assertion of empiricism’s epistemological insufficiency and its attempt to place religious knowledge on firmer ground, Coleridge’s theology was an implicit critique of Methodism’s philosophical theology. Coleridge’s turn away from empiricism seems to have been triggered by a series of personal crises over the course of the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Dejection: An Ode, written around 1806 after a series of personal disappointments involving his unrequited love for Wordsworth’s sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson, marks his first major attack on empiricism. Coleridge’s unshakeable depression, a misery that not even his beloved walks in nature could dispel, seems to have first suggested that “in our life alone does nature live.” Coleridge’s loss of faith in the senses’ reliability may have also been driven by his worsening opium addiction. The extent to which laudanum altered his senses and withdrawal worsened his mood may have led him to question the extent to which any objective reality corresponded to his subjective feeling. Not surprisingly, Coleridge’s sense of empiricism’s limits was accompanied (perhaps partly inspired) by his growing interest in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Coleridge seems to have been especially impressed by Kant’s distinction between noumena (that which actually exists) and phenomena (that information which the mind receives from the senses). Much of his later thought can be construed as an attempt to articulate how noumena are knowable. During this same period, Coleridge came to be convinced of his own inherent sinfulness. His illness, his deepening drug dependency, and his disappointments with Sara Hutchinson also seem to have played a central role in this transformation. Writing after a series of rejections by both Hutchinson and Wordsworth, Coleridge described his feelings of religious need as follows:
… tho’ driven up and down for seven dreadful Days by restless Pain, like a Leopard in a Den, yet the anguish & remorse of Mind was worse than the pain of the whole Body. –O I have had a new world opened to me, in the infinity of my own Spirit!. . . ”
“O how I have prayed even to loud agony only to be able to pray! O how I have felt the impossibility of any real good will not born anew from the Word and the Spirit!… O I have seen, I have felt that the worst offences are those against our own souls! That our souls are infinite in depth, and therefore our sins are infinite, and redeemable only by an infinitely higher infinity; that of the Love of God in Christ Jesus. I have called my soul infinite, but O infinite in the depth of darkness, and infinite craving, and infinite capacity of pain and weakness… Should I recover I will—no—no may God grant me power to struggle to become not another but a better man.
Coleridge’s new-found understanding of Original Sin and its personal implications seem to have been accompanied by a particular disgust with Paley’s theology of evidences. “Evidence of Christianity!” Coleridge exclaimed. “I am weary of the word. Make a man feel the want of it; rouse him, if you can, to the self-knowledge of his need of it; and you may safely trust it to its own Evidence.” Man, he argued, was not to be brought to faith by evidences. He was not to be rationally convinced of God’s existence. He was to be convinced of his inherent sinfulness, of his need for salvation. That, in itself, was enough to awaken a belief in Christianity. Coleridge’s growing concern with empiricism’s solipsistic tendencies seems also to have aroused a certain distrust of Methodism’s emphasis on the receiver, rather than the giver, of grace. His marginal comment in the works of Archbishop Leighton, returning again to the comment cited in the introduction, suggests a belief that evangelicalism had so far emphasized the subjective, inner workings of grace that it teetered dangerously close to neglecting the perceived object: God and His gift of grace through the Son and Holy Spirit.
the main and most noticeable different between Leighton and the modern Methodists is to be found in the uniform Selfishness of the latter Not do you wish to love God? Do you love your neighbour? Do you think O how near and lovely must Christ be or but are you certain, that Christ has saved you, that he died for you—you—you—you yourself on to the end of the Chapter—this is Wesley’s Doctrine.
Christianity, he indicates, must be grounded in a theocentric rather than a homocentric understanding of the world. It was in light of these issues that Coleridge’s theology began to take shape, a theology that would ultimately challenge the intellectual foundations of both rationalism and evangelicalism. In its final form, as articulated in Aids to Reflection, Coleridge’s theology, underpinned by a Platonic-idealist philosophy, seems to have had at its core a notion of the entire man, of a sensing body with an indwelling, Divinely-endowed light of reason. The Coleridgean man begins with Sense, proceeds to a this-worldly organization of the senses’ information through the faculty of Understanding, and ultimately, through the indwelling power of an irradiative Reason, arrives at the infinite—at a participation in a transcendent unity, the knowledge of a God whose Name is Being: “I AM WHO I AM.” Coleridge’s three-tiered conception of man’s intellectual being is a central element of his theology. Intellectual life, according to Coleridge, begins with the senses, but the senses do nothing more than communicate a disorganized mass of information to the mind. The information, in itself, is of relatively little value. It does not, after all, convey to the mind anything essential about the object of perception. Coleridge made his position on the value of sensory information clear when, in 1818, lecturing on the history of philosophy, he asserted as the lectures’ central thesis that “the Aristotelian and the Platonic approaches represented a permanent polarity in the human intellect.” With professed intellectual influences including the Cambridge Platonists, the ancient neoplatonic philosophers (including Plotinus, whom he read as a teenager), and Plato himself, Coleridge clearly considered himself in the latter camp. Of Plato (and consequently of himself), Coleridge stated that, “with Pythagoras before him, [he] had conceived that the phenomenon or outward appearance, all that we call thing or matter, is but as it were a language by which the invisible (that which is not the object of our senses) communicates its existence to our finite beings.” This seems an apt description of Coleridge’s own position on the value of sensory information. The appearance of matter is in relation to matter what words are to thought: no more than a secondary means of communicating something more real. The information of the senses only becomes representative of something real—that is, experience—when organized by the second tier of man’s intellectual being: the Understanding, or “faculty of the finite”. In his notes to the Opus Maximum, a planned statement of his complete philosophical and theological position, Coleridge described the second faculty in the following terms. It is that
which reducing the confused impressions of sense to its own essential forms, to quantity, quality, relation, & inclusively to the forms of action reaction, cause & effect, &c &c, thus raises the materials furnished by the sense and sensations into objects of reflection i.e. renders them capable of being reflection on, & thus makes experience possible. Without this faculty the man’s representative power would be a delirium, a mere chaos & scudding-cloudage of shapes, and it is therefore more appropriately called the understanding or sub-stantiative faculty. Our elder metaphysicians down to Hobbes inclusively named it <in its logical existence> likewise discourse, discursus discursion, from its mode of action as not staying at any one object, but running as it were from this to that to abstract, generize, classify &c…. 
To summarize, Coleridge’s Understanding is that faculty which discovers and comprehends the connections between the “confused impressions of the senses”, which translates the senses’ information into ideas—or, more specifically, back into those ideas from which they proceeded. Here, in the Understanding, the sources of phenomena are once more found in the ideational state from which they issued. The understanding’s systematization, however, while making life, thought, and experience possible, nevertheless obscures the essential unity of the “confused impressions of the senses”. It organizes a unity into a multiplicity. The Reason, or the third-tier of intellectual life, is required to restore the understanding’s multiplicity to its essential unity. This Reason, however, is not the reason of the rationalists. The rationalists’ reason is Coleridge’s Understanding which, within its proper limits, makes life in the world possible, but which cannot be used to judge, analyze, or attempt to apprehend the infinite “without grievous error”. When applied to the infinite, the Understanding becomes that which, to paraphrase Wordsworth, murders by dissection—it becomes, in short, the “vaunted Mechanico-corpuscular Philosophy… of death”. Coleridge’s Reason, instead, is akin to the conscience, to faith, to reflection, and to the will. It is “the irradiative power of the understanding, and the representative of the infinite”, the means whereby the objects of the Understanding are seen in light of their ultimate Divine unity. It is the faculty which allows man to see his experience in reality as, to quote Douglas Hedley, “modes and attributes of the one infinite substance”, to perceive all reality as the subjective “explication of the absolute ‘I AM.’” The conscience, then, is a lower operation of the Reason, a light in which ostensibly private decisions are intuited to be borne upon by an abiding and universal ethical code. Conscience, writes Coleridge, “unconditionally commands us to attribute Reality and actual Existence to those Ideas, and those only without which the conscience itself would be baseless and contradictory, to the ideas of the soul, of free will, of immortality, and of God.” It commands, in short, that man move beyond the unimportant things of this world and search out the higher things of God and eternity. This search is the essence of Reason’s higher operations. The Reason’s higher operations, however, require an act of Will, and a willed act of Faith. Nevertheless, in Reason’s highest sense, Reason, Will, and Faith all essentially become one. As Claude Welch writes, at its highest level, “Reason and Faith become one, where Reason is fidelity. Reason itself requires an act of will, a venturing forth, a throwing of oneself into the act of apprehension of spiritual truth. Just as faith must give a reasoned account of itself, so a reason that had no fidelity in it is unfaithful to Reason.” As the quote above suggests, a certain degree of linguistic bafflement almost invariably attends any attempt at explaining Reason’s highest function. This bafflement, however, is ultimately part of the explanation: the height of Reason is the point at which the discrete ideas represented by the words Faith, Will, Reason, Reflection, and Grace cease to be distinct. It is the point at which the willing hand of man and the graceful hand of God blur and coalesce, at which the Understanding’s ideas fade into the infinite unity of the Divine Name. It is, to quote Coleridge, “unity in multeity; multeity in unity”. Coleridge, then, in response to Paley on the one hand and the evangelicals on the other, denied that religious knowledge could be received through or rationally understood by the senses alone. Instead, he asserted that it is only achieved by moving beyond the senses and the subjective, by making use of the inner, irradiative power of Reason to perceive God’s wholeness. The knowledge of God, for Coleridge, transcends the subjectivity of sense, of feeling and experience. To assert that God’s grace can be sensed or rationally understood is to require that God mediate Himself through an incompleteness, through a feeling or a logic that neither addresses the whole of man or communicate the wholeness of God. Proceeding from the material senses to the mind and soul, Coleridge’s knowledge of an all-encompassing God encompasses all of man. The knowledge of God is not personal for Coleridge. It is trans-personal. It is a knowledge grounded in the reality of both the inner man and his experience of the outer world. It is insulated from solipsism by Coleridge’s assertion that to know of God is to know of the Being in which all being is grounded; it begins with God’s existence and ends in man’s knowing. To quote Coleridge himself:
There is something in the human mind which makes it know… that in all finite Quantity, there is an Infinite, in all measures of Time an Eternal; that the latter are the basis, the substance, the true and abiding reality of the former; and that, as we truly are, only as far as God is with us, so neither can we truly possess (i.e. enjoy) our Being or any other real Good, but by living in the sense of his holy presence.
VI. Aids to Reflection’s Reception Published in 1825, Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection had at its core the epistemology described in the section above. It was an epistemology that placed the foundations of knowledge largely in the mind’s internal activity and a Divinely-endowed Reason. In doing so, it challenged both rationalism and evangelicalism. Remarkably, however, the challenge to evangelicalism went unnoticed by most in the English reading public. The following section will examine the reception of Aids to Reflection and attempt to explain why Coleridge’s critique of evangelicalism failed to attract attention. The mood of Aids to Reflection’s initial reception was quite similar to that which continues to characterize its reception: it was a mood of bafflement. Even at his most sublime, Coleridge is never an easy read. Problems of understanding, however, ran much deeper than Coleridge’s grammatical complexity and his excessive use of obscure vocabulary and neologisms. Basic matters, such as his relationship with reality, confused his readers. The novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle, contradicting Coleridge’s assertion that his theology was grounded in the “true and abiding reality” of God’s Being, wrote that Aids to Reflection propounded a system of “strange Centaurs, spectral Puseyisms, monstrous illusory Hybrids, and ecclesiastical Chimeras, —which now roam the Earth in a very lamentable manner!” In a similar vein, Arthur Hugh Clough noted that he kept “wavering between admiration of [Coleridge’s] exceedingly great perceptive and analytical power and other wonderful points and [an] inclination to turn away from a man who has so great a lack of all reality and actuality.” Both comments above suggest a certain insularity in English philosophical thinking. While much of his theology was novel, the Platonic idealism at the core of Aids to Reflection was grounded in an ancient philosophical tradition. The fact that two bright young Englishmen would reject Coleridge’s theology as a system of “strange Centaurs” and “spectral Puseyisms” lacking in “all reality and actuality” indicates the extent to which early nineteenth century England had rejected Platonic notions of the reality of ideas. While Carlyle and Clough recognize idealism for what it is—an alternative epistemological foundation—they simply reject it out of hand. They apparently felt no need to engage it seriously or formulate an original refutation. It was, in their eyes, obviously nonsense. The anti-idealist bent of English thought is further born out by the fact that between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the publication of Aids to Reflection in 1825, no major English philosopher or theologian espoused an epistemological system that differed greatly from the empirical norm established in the work of Locke. George Berkeley, David Hume, Thomas Reid, William Paley, Jeremy Bentham, and the Deists all operated within a broadly understood empirical framework. This philosophical insularity, directly or indirectly, underlies the three most important reasons for the English public’s failure to recognize the critique of evangelical epistemology implicit in Aids to Reflection. First, this insularity is related to the English public’s general misunderstanding of the interrelationship between its various schools of thought. By narrowly construing epistemology, excluding idealism altogether, it tended to magnify the differences between what were essentially kindred schools of thought. This statement is not intended to totally diminish the difference, for example, between Thomas Reid’s “common sense” assertion that epistemology must begin with the reality of the “external world as a perceptual given”, on the one hand, and Berkeley and Hume’s claim, on the other, that the “immediate objects of perception are our ideas” and “one is obliged to establish by argument that there is an external world.” At the core of both, however, is the basic notion that sense perception is of central importance, that, whether or not external reality is a “perceptual given” or man is innately endowed with the “‘original’ principles by which sensations and remembrances are interpreted,” the knowledge upon which we act, however reliable, comes from the senses’ information. In short, Reid, Berkeley, and Hume were all operating within the broad currents of Lockean empiricism. Just as the English could find a stark contrast between Reid and Berkeley and Hume, so they tended to draw a sharp distinction between empiricism and evangelicalism. Empiricism, after all, provided the foundation of the natural sciences and religious movements that sought to reject elements of Christian doctrine and denude Christianity of the evangelicals’ enthusiasm. How, then, could empiricism be related to evangelicalism? This sense of epistemological disjunction between scientific rationalism and evangelicalism was not only prevalent in the early nineteenth century. It persists into the modern day. Claude Welch’s characterization of evangelicalism as “no system of thought”, but rather a “system of feeling”, supports this notion of a perceived disjunction. Clayton Roberts and his co-authors, moreover, describe evangelicalism as “functional”, typified by “moral seriousness” rather than “abstruse theology”. Understood as either unintellectual or purely practical, evangelicalism could be conceived by few Britons sharing an empirical core with rationalism. This sense of intellectual disjunction between evangelicalism and rationalism seems to have obscured many readers’ full understanding of the purpose of Aids to Reflection. Several noted the text’s importance in retrieving young men from the brink of rational irreligion. “Young men,” writes John Beer, “who were becoming conscious of the difficulty of holding Christian beliefs within the emerging” rational and irreligious “intellectual climate found in a work such as Aids to Reflection accents that they could understand.” It provided them with “a note of assurance in difficult times.” One such young man was John Sterling. He wrote the following to a former tutor and fellow clergyman in 1836: “To Coleridge I owe education. He taught me to believe that an empirical philosophy is none, that Faith is the highest Reason, that all criticism, whether of literature, laws or manners is blind, without the power of discerning the organic unity of the object.” To another friend, he wrote:
I scarcely hold fast by anything but Shakespeare, Milton, and Coleridge and I have nothing serious to say to any one but to read the ‘Aids to Reflection in the formation of a Manly character’—a book the more necessary now to us all because except in England I do not see that there is a chance of any men being produced anywhere.
These two statements, taken together, suggest a great deal about why Coleridge’s public failed to recognize the critique of evangelical epistemology implicit in Aids to Reflection. His first statement, for example, explicitly mentions epistemology. This suggests an awareness, albeit limited, of the epistemological implications of Aids to Reflection. His second statement, moreover, seems to suggest that Aids to Reflection’s epistemology bears directly on the question of rationalism. Only in conservative England, where rationalism’s hold was weaker than on the continent, did Sterling foresee “a chance of any men being produced”. Given, then, that Sterling mentions both epistemology and the importance of Coleridge’s theology in the struggle against empiricism and rationalism, it is surprising that he does not mention the threat it posed to evangelical epistemology. It is even more surprising when Sterling’s statement on epistemology is placed in the larger context of his life and the history of the Church of England. By 1836, Sterling had been a minister for two years, and he was writing to another minister at a time when evangelicals were near the height of their influence in the Church of England. Evangelicals held close to twenty bishoprics, one in eight Anglican clergymen considered himself evangelical, and by 1848, an evangelical would be the Archbishop of Canterbury. It seems unlikely, then, that the subject would have simply slipped Sterling’s mind. Nevertheless, a sense of Coleridge’s threat to evangelicalism is noticeably absent in Sterling’s letters. While he fully understood the challenge Aids to Reflection presented to empiricism and rationalism, he seems to have viewed evangelicalism as something apart from, perhaps even antithetical to, the former. The insularity of English philosophical discourse apparently prevented Sterling from seeing evangelicalism’s kinship with the broader Lockean-empirical tradition. The public’s failure to recognize Coleridge’s critique of evangelicalism might also be explained by the way in which evangelicalism understood itself. While Wesley and others had been tremendous intellects, it seems that the philosophical emphasis of early evangelicalism had been lost by the early nineteenth century. As noted above, evangelicalism, especially as experienced by the masses of Englishmen and women, was characterized by “apostolic simplicity” and “active faith”. It was a “functional”, morally serious religious expression and reform movement. While much of this essay has been devoted to debunking the myth of evangelicalism’s intellectual emptiness, a distinction must be made between Wesley’s learned understanding of evangelical religion and that of its less intellectually gifted practitioners. At its intellectual core, evangelicalism was a philosophically and theologically rigorous movement; as practiced, however, it was primarily a movement of this-worldly reform. It should come as little surprise, then, that while evangelicals took serious issue with Aids to Reflection, it was not with Coleridge’s epistemology. An evangelical review in the British Critic, for example, attacked Coleridge’s undermining of Christian simplicity. “We want sound practical piety,” wrote the reviewer, “content to form itself upon the model of the faith once delivered to the Saints, and looking for no other guide. In the Christian philosophy there is nothing esoteric; there is not one language for the learned, and another for the vulgar.” While the review begins with praise for “the various light thrown by [Coleridge’s] writings upon the excellence and the beauty of the Christian scheme” and doctrinal tradition, it proceeds to rail against his theological formulations’ complexity and the text’s reflective, contemplative quality. The most threatening aspect of Aids to Reflection was not its epistemology. This was of little concern to the majority of evangelicals. The nature of knowing put neither pastors in parishes nor children in Sunday Schools. It addressed neither public drunkenness nor the slave trade. Rather, they railed against a text that threatened to remove religion’s emphasis from the concerns of this world to the abstruse and useless depths of the philosophical mind. Characterized by a distinctly practical outlook, most evangelicals were neither aware of nor concerned with the empirical epistemology that underlay their movement. This emphasis on morality and doctrine extended beyond the evangelical fold. The mainstream Anglican poet and critic Matthew Arnold shared certain concerns with the British Critic’s evangelical reviewer, although he was less interested in an active faith than his evangelical counterpart and fully approved of Coleridge’s religious philosophizing. Arnold’s interest in morality and doctrine is apparent in his essay on Joubert. After lambasting Coleridge’s morals—the theologian’s religious reflection, he asserted, was “not a moral effort, for he had no morals”—he continues to praise his promotion of traditional Christian doctrines. “The great Coleridgean position,” Arnold asserted, was that “Christianity rightly understood, is identical with the highest philosophy, and that, apart from all questions of historical evidence, the essential doctrines of Christianity are necessary and eternal truths of reason.” He concluded by suggesting that Aids to Reflection was “henceforth the key to the whole defence of Christianity”. Arnold’s praise of Coleridge’s work echoes the evangelicals’ concern with morality and the integrity of the Christian doctrinal tradition. His approval of Aids to Reflection, however, had more to do with a sense that Christianity’s survival required that the doctrinal tradition remain intact than with a thoroughgoing appreciation of Coleridge’s epistemology. For Arnold, Aids to Reflection’s significance lay not in its epistemology, but in its reintegration of doctrine and philosophy. This philosophical reintegration was inevitably borne upon by Coleridge’s epistemology, but it is of no small significance that Arnold fails to mention Aids to Reflection’s attack on empiricism. The full significance of Coleridge’s attack seems to have escaped Arnold’s notice. Arnold’s response to Aids to Reflection not only sheds light on moderate Anglicans’ approach to Coleridgean theology; it also provides a link between the particular philosophical insularity of the practical-minded evangelicals and the epistemological disinclination prevalent among the broader non-evangelical English intellectual public. As noted in the introduction, Englishmen and women of the early nineteenth century were not altogether unfamiliar with epistemological discourse. In the eighteenth century, Thomas Reid and Samuel Johnson vied with Berkeley and Hume for the legacy of Locke’s empiricism. Evangelical leaders discussed the experienced knowledge of grace, and early in nineteenth century the Lake Poets expounded on the knowledge of nature’s sublimity. By the 1820s, however, epistemological inquiry had gone into a state of hibernation. Reid and Johnson’s philosophy of “common sense” had become “something like an orthodox or establishment philosophical position”. Bentham employed Hume’s brand of empiricism with few modifications; his movement was “not concerned primarily with epistemology”. Non-evangelical Anglican theology remained preoccupied with an empirical theology of evidences, evangelical thought maintained its focus on experienced grace, and neither ventured far beyond their shared Lockean heritage. In short, English intellectuals seem to have arrived at something of a broad epistemological consensus. While they retained a faint awareness of alternative epistemological options, they seem to have been generally content with their common empiricism. In any event, English empiricism had not been seriously challenged for more than a century. When a critique finally came, they failed to recognize its full implications and dismissed it with the arrogance and superficiality of a people long unchallenged in their beliefs. While dismissive of Coleridge’s idealism, Carlyle and Clough, as noted above, seem to have been aware of what it represented. They understood, to a certain extent, that Coleridge’s theology presented a challenge to the epistemological assumptions of the broad English intellectual tradition. Carlyle’s use of the word “chimera” and Clough’s discussion of “reality and actuality” describe epistemological concerns and, in a unsophisticated sense, represent a rudimentary argument against Coleridge’s idealism. In the main, however, their arguments against Coleridge seem to depend on a self-evident conventional wisdom—on a prevailing sense that to ascribe transcendent reality to ideas was to engage in the most backward of epistemological thinking. This hasty dismissal was not unique to the writings of Carlyle or Clough. Crabb Robinson regarded Aids to Reflection as philosophically interesting but religiously tedious. “On first reading these Aids,” wrote Robinson in his diary, “I remarked that his, Coleridge’s philosophy was his own, his religion that of the vulgar.” Upon completing the work, Robinson summarized it as “a book which excited feelings that will probably never ripen and doubts that will remain unsolved.” He too noted the work’s philosophical novelty, but failed to seriously engage it. Coleridge’s idealism was an interesting brain-teaser, but it hardly merited a serious refutation. In the end, therefore, the English public simply lacked the inclination and the language to fully recognize, engage, or refute Coleridge’s epistemology. Many of Coleridge’s readers recognized the novelty of his epistemology and the extent to which it challenged prevailing assumptions about the nature of knowing. While they may not have grasped that empiricism underlay nearly every English school of thought, they understood that Coleridge’s epistemology differed greatly from their own. Their protests, however, amounted to little more than hasty, intuited dismissals. Rationalists, evangelicals, natural theologians, and romantics had so thoroughly and unquestioningly integrated Locke’s empirical epistemology into their work that most of Coleridge’s readers utterly lacked the background or philosophical vocabulary to grasp and discuss the new footing upon which he had set religious knowledge. The reading public failed to recognize Coleridge’s implicit critique of evangelical epistemology because they understood neither his idealist epistemology nor the common empiricism that bound together the broad spectrum of English thought. They lacked a clear image of both Coleridge’s critique and that which he was critiquing. Like the people of most ages, they understood their intellectual life in terms of false dichotomies. They labored petty differences while ignoring essential ones. They recognized what Coleridge’s theology represented—a challenge to their way of knowing—but for the most part they could do little more than dismiss it as absurd. There were, of course, those exceptions who recognized and fully understood the work’s unique contribution to English thought. John Henry Newman, for example, greatly admired Coleridge’s notion of the Reason as irradiative light and often quoted the passage that closes the previous section. The American Congregationalist minister and editor of Aids to Reflection, James Marsh, also displayed a unique understanding of Coleridge’s message. Marsh was perhaps the first person to explicitly note the anti-Lockean character of Coleridge’s work. In his “Introduction” to Aids to Reflection, he “dwelt particularly on its virtues as providing a proper metaphysical grounding for Christian religion. Unitarians and modern Calvinists, for all their differences, shared a common allegiance to the philosophy of Locke and his successors which Coleridge’s distinction between reason and understanding, properly understood, should lead them to question.” Marsh hoped Aids to Reflection would be the first step towards a post-Lockean intellectual age.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, England’s philosophical insularity gave way to a larger spectrum of epistemological options. By 1840, John Stuart Mill could write, in his famous essays on Jeremy Bentham and Coleridge that
there is hardly to be found in England an individual of any importance in the world of the mind, who… did not first learn to think from one of these two…. [E]very Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgean; [he] hold[s] views of human affairs which can only be proved true on the principles either of Bentham or of Coleridge.
While empirical epistemology continued to play an important role in English intellectual life, Coleridge’s philosophy of knowledge increased in public importance as England discovered German Idealism over the course of the latter nineteenth century. Ultimately, Coleridge’s hold on the Victorian consciousness was greater than that of any other romantic poet. VII . Conclusion: The Resonance of Ancient Songs With few exceptions, Coleridge’s critique of evangelical epistemology continues to go unnoticed. The implications of this cognitive failure are important. They shed light on the societies that continue to receive Coleridge’s theology. Of far greater importance, however, are the implications of English romanticism’s kinship with evangelicalism. This process of silent integration reveals much about the language of the Western mind. Our ideational language is a rich one. Even in an age, as Jonathan Chaves calls it, of “neologism run amuck”—an age of historical parochialism, as Bertrand Russell writes, in which “new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own”—even in such an age as our own, the language of our minds continues to resonate with the sounds of times forgotten. This is hardly an original observation. In his essay, “The Metaphysical Poets” of 1921, T.S. Eliot noted that
poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon the refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
Despite the characteristically elitist overtones of Eliot’s statement, the heart of his message is the same as this section’s: that the language of the mind is one of great complexity, variety, and richness. It resonates with thousands of years of images and ideas. In a relatively simple statement, the modern American or European speaker is likely to invoke images from the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible, use words that have a rich etymology rooted in the deep Indo-European past, employ terminology derived from the likes of Freud and Marx, and all in the process of describing a romantic quarrel or the psychological motivations of a television character. Daily, we use this language—this infinite, fountainous language of the human past—and yet the fullness of its meaning escapes us. We do not understand the language we speak. We cannot comprehend the infinity of even a single breath. It is not surprising, then, that even the Lake Poets, for a time, failed to recognize the extent to which their poetry was akin to evangelicalism. Evangelical thought was, so to speak, but one of many musical strands that together formed the symphony of romanticism. Later they would recognize this kinship, and with it, the vast complexity and variety of their mental language itself. In terms that have guided this essay’s conceptualization of intellectual history, Coleridge compared the transmission of ideas to a movement in music. Musing on the subject of intellectual continuity in his lectures of 1818, Coleridge suggested the following:
If we listen to a symphony of Cimarosa, the present strain still seems not only to recall, but almost to renew, some past movement, and yet present the same! Each present movement bringing back, as it were, and embodying the spirit of some melody that had gone before, anticipates and seems sometimes trying to overtake something that is to come…. The events and characters of one age, like the strains in music, recall those of another.
Our ideas, our images, and our language link us to ages we will never know and persons we will never meet. We think and speak in spider-webs, the ends of which reach to the fringes of human experience. Our words are points of infinite depth. We speak in the fullness of time.
Sean Trainor holds a B.A. in History & Religion from The George Washington University. The present essay (see previous issue for Part One) is substantially the text of his Honors’ thesis for that institution, which was judged to be the year’s best. Mr. Trainor has studied with Praesidium contributor Jonathan Chaves.