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Coleridge and Communication

  • Alan Bewell

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  • Alan Bewell
    University of Toronto

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To address the topic of Coleridge and communication is to venture upon a study in extremes. On one hand, at the height of his career as a poet, Coleridge proposed one of the most visionary and extraordinary conceptions of universal communication that has ever been imagined. After reading George Berkeley in 1796, he concluded that nature was neither a thing nor an idea, but instead a medium of communication, the preeminent means by which God spoke to human beings. God, he believed, had created nature as a language—a system of signs—in order to communicate with human beings. Sensory perceptions were thus equivalent to words. In My First Acquaintance with Poets, William Hazlitt captured the dizzying excitement produced by this idea in January 1798 when Coleridge, visiting Shrewsbury, dazzled his listeners as, holding forth “on the Berkleian theory . . . he made the whole material universe look like a transparency of fine words” (17: 114). John Dewey once remarked that “of all things communication is the most wonderful” (385), and for a brief period, which coincides with the composition of his best poetry, Coleridge adopted a communication theory no less radical or expansive than the vision of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, hoping that nature, seen as a divine medium of communication, might serve as the foundation for a truly human community. During the Somerset years, all of nature seemed to be speaking to Coleridge, in sounds and images infused with meaning, and Coleridge believed that he had found a new way of understanding poetic images. What poet would not want to live in a world where images are even more divine than words, and where poetry achieves its highest purposes when it speaks through images? In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan writes that “if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent” (41). In Somerset, Coleridge began to think about nature in a new way, as God’s communication technology, and it changed how he wrote poetry. For a poet who valued community above all other things, it suggested that the basis for a meaningful human community was available to anyone willing to open his or her eyes. Human beings only had to use their God-given senses to receive the meanings transmitted to them through nature. To tune-in to this medium was to participate in the “One Life” that this medium made possible. It was a radical vision of a world in which all sentient beings would be brought together, across space and time, by a wonderfully intricate, divinely authorized communication network called Nature. At least, that was God’s promise, as Coleridge understood it, as he settled in Nether Stowey and began to promote this new theory of nature poetry with his friend William Wordsworth.

Against this utopian vision of nature as a divine form of communication speaking to anyone properly tuned to her senses must be set a darker picture of communication in Coleridge, one that deals with the fact that the Romantic period’s greatest talker was also its worst communicator. Contemporaries commenting on Coleridge’s conversation and table-talk were astonished by his capacity for producing a steady flow or torrent of words. Keats famously captures the streamy quality of his conversation:

I walked with him a[t] his alderman-after dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch—single and double touch—A dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition—so m[an]y metaphysicans from a want of smoking the second consciousness—Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—southey believes in them—southey’s belief too much diluted—A Ghost story—Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I had heard it all the interval—if it may be called so.

Keats 2: 88-89

De Quincey likened his speech to “some great river, the Orellana, or the St. Lawrence,” whose “volume of waters, and . . . mighty music, – swept at once” all things “into a continuous strain of eloquent dissertation” (Coleridge, Interviews 113).[1] In these accounts, language no longer communicates intelligible meanings, at least to human beings, and Coleridge seems less a person who converses with others than an impersonal force transmitting words. An encounter with Coleridge seemed to be an encounter with language itself, a matter less of communication than of transport. Samuel Rogers provides another anecdote of Coleridge as a non-communicator: “[Coleridge] talked uninterruptedly for about two hours, during which Wordsworth listened to him with profound attention, every now and then nodding his head as if in assent. On quitting the lodging, I said to Wordsworth, ‘Well, for my own part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge’s oration : pray, did you understand it ?’ ‘Not one syllable of it,’ was Wordsworth’s reply” (Zeldin 5-6). Max Beerbohm famously satirized this aspect of Coleridge in his cartoon “Samuel Taylor Coleridge Table-Talking,” in The Poet’s Corner (1904). (Fig. 1). Here we are given a kind inverse parody of the Last Supper, but the words do not provide spiritual sustenance. Coleridge is portrayed as a drowsy solipsist, droning on and on amidst his snoring auditors, little more than a tired machine of language, driveling forth a steady flow of words that have no meaning. This is not a picture of communication, but of its failure. Instead of bridging the distances separating each of us from one another and from the world, language only increases our isolation. In Beerbohm’s cartoon, we seem to be a long way from the divine promise of “One Life” held together by our communication with nature. This is a world in which Coleridge inhabits a prison-house of language, suffering from the liabilities of words rather than finding the revolutionary capacity to reach out to others. Here words speak of the silences and gaps between people, not of the meanings that they share.

Fig. 1

-> See the list of figures

I do not have space here to trace how one passes from the radical vision of communication that sustained Coleridge in Somerset to the Coleridge of the Table Talk. What I would like to do instead is to discuss in some detail Coleridge’s commitment to the idea of language as divine communication and the manner in which this idea transformed his understanding of poetic language. At the same time, I hope to suggest that the two kinds of communication that I have outlined here did not so much follow each upon the other, as co-exist together in his writing. The Somerset poetry is as much about communication failure as it is about the new possibilities that were to be ushered into being by attuning one’s senses to the language of nature. Although Coleridge believed that poetry should be the spontaneous expression of a poet’s participation in the “One Life,” the ideal of a perfect and complete communication between self, nature, and God—“Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where” (“Eolian Harp,” PW I.i. l. 29)—much of his poetry is actually about what it means to inhabit a world in which that communication is denied. The transmission fails, God is off the air, or the receiver for these transmissions, Coleridge, feels that somehow he has been wired incorrectly, with the result that his poetry often ends up dramatizing what it means to listen intently for a promised communication that never comes. “Sometimes when I earnestly look at a beautiful Object or Landscape,” Coleridge wrote in a notebook, “it seems as if I were on the brink of a Fruition still denied—as if Vision were an appetite: even as a man would feel, who having put forth all his muscular strength in an act of prosilience, [is] at that very moment held back—he leaps & yet moves not from his place” (3: 3767). Coleridge is the poet who “leaps & yet moves not from his place,” a poet who desperately wanted nature to take him somewhere, to bridge the gap that separated him from others and from God, and yet who found that he was “held back,” standing on “the brink of a Fruition still denied.” Coleridge knew in his heart that God was speaking to him through nature, that he had been created to receive these transmissions, and that poetry was the highest human medium for communicating these truths to others, but somehow, perhaps because he had been “too soon transplanted” from Ottery St Mary, “ere my soul had fix’d / Its first domestic loves” (“To the Rev. George Coleridge,” PW 1.i. ll. 18-19), or because he had spent too much of his childhood in the city, or because he had read too many books, or devoted too much time to philosophy, somehow his constitutional wiring had gotten crossed and the communication failed.

I. Nature as a Divine Visual Language

It is well known that Coleridge began reading Berkeley in late March, 1796, and that he very quickly became an enthusiastic disciple of the Bishop of Cloyne, writing in November, 1796, that “Bishop Taylor, old Baxter, David Hartley, and the Bishop of Cloyne are my men" (CL 1: 245), declaring later that year to Thelwall, “I am a Berkleian” (CL 1: 137). Valuable attention has been given to the impact of Berkeley’s concept of nature as a divine visual language on Coleridge, particularly in regard to eighteenth-century ideas about natural language and his attempt to reconcile the division between the subject and nature.[2] Less has been said about his philosophy as a theory of communication. Berkeley is famous for having taken Locke’s idea that all knowledge is based upon sensory perception and used it to defend a radical philosophical anti-materialism. For Berkeley, nothing exists except ideas and perceptions: esse est percipi—“to be is to be perceived.” As he remarks in the Principles of Human Knowledge, “all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit: it being perfectly unintelligible and involving all the absurdity of abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of a spirit” (2: 43). Neither the world nor our perception of it is caused by material substances. Our ideas or perceptions of things do not refer to those shadowy material substances that Locke argued we could not have access to directly. Instead, all nature and the sensible objects that compose it reside in the mind of God whose all-encompassing perceptions guarantee their continuance.

In answer to the question of why, in the first place, God had created a world that exists only to be perceived, Berkeley gave an extraordinary answer: Nature exists to be seen because God had created it as a means to communicate with human beings. Toward the end of the Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), Berkeley writes that “the proper objects of vision constitute an universal language of the Author of nature, whereby we are instructed how to regulate our actions in order to attain those things that are necessary to the preservation and well-being of our bodies . . . And the manner wherein they signify and mark unto us the objects which are at a distance is the same with that of languages and signs of human appointment, which do not suggest the things signified by any likeness or identity of nature, but only by an habitual connexion that experience has made us to observe between them” (1: 231).[3] Berkeley saw nature as a medium of communication, a divine visual language by which God speaks to us on a daily basis. In Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1732), he writes: “Vision [is] only a language speaking to the eyes” (3: 155).

When, in a Theory of Vision Vindicated¸ Berkeley writes that “Vision is the Language of the Author of Nature” (1: 265), it is tempting to treat this idea simply as a modern version of the medieval idea of nature as the Book of God.[4] As an eighteenth-century clergyman, the idea that nature was a text or book authored by God would have come ready-to-hand to Berkeley. From St Paul and St Augustine forward, the “Book of Nature” was seen as a primary means, alongside that of Scripture itself, by which God makes himself known to us through the things that he has made. In Romans 1: 20, we learn, for instance, that “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” As a Unitarian minister, Coleridge was already familiar with the idea that nature could be read like a book. In his 1795 Lectures on Politics and Religion, he declares that “The Omnipotent has unfolded to us the Volume of the World, that there we may read the Transcript of himself” (94). Elsewhere in the Lectures, he states that “We see our God everywhere—the Universe in the most literal Sense is his written Language”; “all Nature is . . . beautiful because its every Feature is the Symbol and all its Parts the written Language of infinite Goodness and all powerful Intelligence” (339). That having been said, from a communications perspective, which focuses as much on the medium as the content of a communication, there is a world of difference between Berkeley and his contemporaries, because Berkeley did not understand nature as a written language—as a book, a transcript, a text, or print—, but instead as God’s living speech. In Alciphron, he writes that God is just as present to us through nature, as others are to us in conversation. “Nothing so much convinces me of the existence of another person as his speaking to me,” Euphronor declares in his dialogue with Alciphron. “It is my hearing you talk that, in strict and philosophical truth, is to me the best argument for your being” (3: 148). Whereas the signs of speech always point back to the presence of a speaker, books have the capacity to communicate to their readers long after their authors have disappeared, so books cannot guarantee the continued existence of their authors; inherently, they allow us to communicate with ghosts. Speech, on the other hand, holds the promise (even if illusory) of face-to-face communication. When Alciphron skeptically asks how Euphronor “can have the same assurance of the existence of a God that you can have of my existence, when you actually see me stand in front of you and talk to you?” Euphronor answers “that though I cannot with eyes of flesh behold the invisible God, yet I do in the strictest sense behold and perceive by all my senses such signs and tokens, such effects and operations, that suggest, indicate, and demonstrate an invisible God, as certainly, and with the same evidence, at least, as any other signs perceived by my sense do suggest to me the existence of your soul, spirit, or thinking principle” (3: 147). Euphronor is thus able to conclude that “God himself speaks every day and in every place to the eyes of all men,” the only difference being that where human beings speak to each other through tongues and ears, God speaks to us through our eyes. He writes that we see “God with our fleshly eyes as plain as we see any human person whatsoever, and that He daily speaks to our senses in a manifest and clear dialect” (3: 159).

In Berkeley’s replacement of Nature as a book with the idea that it is the speech of God, Coleridge recognized a philosophy that promised a new relationship to God and nature, one that was premised neither on the Deist notion that God had created nature so he could separate himself from it and human beings, nor on the pantheistic idea that nature was the embodiment of God. Berkeley replaced nature as print with nature as a form of conversation, a daily communication that was available to anyone willing to open his eyes. For Coleridge, who did not want to believe in an abstract or distant God, but instead in a God who was close at hand, Berkeley’s philosophy of nature offered a relationship to God through nature that he found difficult to resist.

It is probably not too much of a simplification to say that “The Eolian Harp” is simultaneously about Coleridge’s courtship of Sara Fricker and about his honeymoon with George Berkeley’s theory of nature as divine communication. Unfortunately, both of these relationships were short-lived. The poem is valuable not only because it demonstrates the enormous impact that Berkeley’s philosophy had upon the poet, but also because the extensive revisions to the poem document the changes in that relationship. “Effusion XXXV,” as it was originally called, was from the beginning a poem about communication, but it was only in the 1796 revisions that Coleridge extended the analogy between the touching relationship of the wind and the harp and the lover and his beloved to encompass the relationship between the poet, nature, and the divine communication of God. Written in the period just before Coleridge began reading Berkeley, the first seventeen lines of the poem, which constituted the entirety of the poem in 1795, center upon the intimate physical communication between Coleridge and Sara—“thy soft cheek reclined / Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is” (PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 1-2)—and how this relationship extends outward to the poet’s relationship to nature. Here nature reinforces the views of the poet by providing a moral symbolic framework for his relationship with Sara. The “white-flowered Jasmine” and “the broad-leaved Myrtle, / (Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)” (4-5), refer back to traditional ways of reading nature in allegorical and emblematic terms, a way of seeing nature that Coleridge was about to relinquish.

In the Rugby manuscript, revised sometime in late 1795 or early 1796, as Paul Cheshire suggests, Coleridge provides the first draft of the poem’s extraordinary image of universal communication by extending the metaphor of the wind-harp first to himself and then to all animated nature. He transforms all sentient life into a “vast concent” of mechanical receivers brought to life as an “intellectual breeze” plays over all sentient beings:

And what if All of animated Life

Be but as Instruments diversly fram’d

That tremble into thought, while thro’ them breathes

One infinite and intellectual Breeze?

And all in different Heights so aptly hung,

Shrill Discords and most soothing Melodies

Harmonious form Creation’s vast concént?

Thus GOD would be the universal Soul;

Mechaniz’d matter as th’organic harps,

And each one’s Tunes be that, which each calls I .—

Cheshire 105

In this visionary representation of nature as a harmony of material instruments “diversly fram’d,” a concert composed of all the unique sounds produced by each instrument—“each one’s Tunes be that, which each calls I”—Coleridge understands God as an invisible power that is constantly transmitted through nature as “One infinite and intellectual Breeze.” In speculating that all things communicate with each other through a universal aether, Coleridge is adopting a viewpoint that was held by idealists and materialists alike, from Newton, who spoke of a “cosmos . . . bathed in a cosmic intelligence communicating at a distance through a marvelous, intangible essense” of motion (Peters 80), to Berkeley, who in Siris, speaks of the power and motion of a “pure aethereal spirit, which ignites bodies, but is not itself the ignited body, being an instrument or medium by which the real Agent doth operate on grosser bodies” (5: 107).[5] If Coleridge were living nowadays, he would not have used the metaphor of a “wind-harp” as a primary figure for talking about how human experience and perception are products of communication. He would have recognized that a radio, a television, a cellphone, or an Ipad only work insofar as they are capable of receiving or transmitting the signals that have meaning only within networks of which they are a part. They allow us to see and hear things across distances because they have been built for that purpose. Critics have been far too willing to see such statements as expressions of pantheism, by assuming that Coleridge was making the ontological claim that there is no difference between human beings and nature. Instead, his is a much different claim: that human beings have been designed to receive the sensory impressions provided by nature as a form of divine communication. Whereas angels may be said to communicate without mediation, human beings cannot. Their bodies are thus the means by which they are connected to God.

It may be worthwhile dwelling a little more on what lay behind Coleridge’s recognition that Berkeley’s communication theory would allow him to extend the poem beyond the joys of marital intimacy to the entire universe. When Berkeley declared that nature is God’s language, he was not speaking metaphorically, but instead was basing it upon a modern conception of what language is. For nature to be a language, 1) it had to be composed of signs; 2) the relationship between these signs and what they signified could not be natural, but had to be arbitrary, that is, produced by convention or custom; and 3) these signs had to be able to be organized into different combinations to communicate new meanings. As Berkeley remarks: “God speaks to men by the intervention and use of arbitrary, outward, sensible signs, having no resemblance or necessary connexion with the things they stand for and suggest; . . . by innumerable combinations of these signs, an endless variety of things is discovered and made known to us; and . . . we are thereby instructed or informed in their different natures; . . . we are taught and admonished what to shun, and what to pursue; and are directed how to regulate our motions, and how to act with respect to things distant from us, as well in time as place: will this content you? God speaks to men through arbitrary, outward, perceptible signs that do not resemble—and are not necessarily connected with—the things they stand for and suggest . . . by countless combinations of these signs an endless variety of things is revealed and made known to us; and . . . we are instructed or informed about the different natures of things, are taught and warned about what to avoid and what to pursue” (3: 149). Instead of speaking to us through words, God speaks through images directed toward our senses. All sensation is thus inherently meaningful as signs that compose a language. Yet because nature exists as speech, in the perceptions that we experience at any given moment in time, Berkeley was also the first philosopher, as McLuhan claimed, to give meaning to appearances and to attach the world to “our sense lives” (53). As Yeats commented, “Berkeley has brought back to us the world that only exists because it shines and sounds” (387). It would be difficult to overstate just how important this idea was for Coleridge and for the poetry of nature that he began writing at this time, because it changed how he thought about nature. Instead of seeing it as a thing or an idea, as something that exists outside of its being perceived, he now understood it as a language speaking through appearances. Seamus Perry has cogently suggested that Coleridge was in search of a philosophy that provided “a respectable confirmation of the ‘reality and immediateness’ of experience, the saving demonstration of an utter intimacy between perceiving self and world perceived” (Coleridge and the Uses of Division 107). Berkeley’s philosophy encouraged him to read nature in its appearances, to look at it with an inquiring eye and a listening regard, attempting to understand these natural appearances as signs whose meaning lay beyond themselves yet which were simultaneously the only means by which that meaning could be communicated. The engagement with the symbolical was thus a way of recovering nature in its plenitude. “All that meets the bodily sense I deem / Symbolical,” Coleridge would write in “The Destiny of Nations,” “one mighty alphabet / For infant minds” (PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 18-20).

There is no question that Berkeley wants to have it both ways, with nature being at once an arbitrary divine language and a language that speaks immediately to human senses without the need for education or interpretation. Communication and perception are thus one. He insists that nature has been divinely instituted by God as speech, and that by means of these signs, this “alphabet,” to use Coleridge’s terms, God is able to communicate, to instruct, and to inform human beings about what they should and should not do. Still, it is difficult to understand how “this language of natural signs” can communicate, in David Wellberry’s words, anything more than “nature itself” (Halmi 60). Increasingly, Coleridge struggled with the question of whether nature could actually communicate anything to him that he did not already know. However, in the poetry that Coleridge wrote in Somerset, while under the influence of this extraordinary theory of natural language, he sought to convey to his readers the joy to be gained from entering into this conversation. In this poetry, Coleridge may not have been able to decipher what nature was saying to him, but he approached it as a language that he knew was pregnant with meaning.

II. Building a Community

“The Eolian Harp” is not a good example of the ways in which Coleridge’s commitment to the idea of nature as communication changed how he wrote poetry, because the poem is essentially presented as a philosophical sermon, maybe even a Hymn to Joy, that ends up going too far, at least for the person to whom it is ostensibly directed. Its real objective is to communicate Coleridge’s excitement in discovering this new philosophy of nature. Faced with Sara’s “more serious eye” of “mild reproof,” however, Coleridge relinquishes “these shapings” as the “bubbles” of “vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring” (PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 49-57). The embarrassed silence with which the poem ends and Coleridge’s retraction of this vision in favour of a more traditional Christian message suggests the degree to which the poem enacts a failure of communication on the human level and Coleridge’s inability to communicate the joy that he feels surrounding him to the person who matters most to him. Consequently, in the meditative nature lyrics that followed “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge devotes most of his attention not to claiming a relationship to nature felt upon his own senses, but instead to attempting to convince himself and his readers through the silent auditors that populate his poems that nature can communicate joy and lead to a love of others. As he writes in “Fears in Solitude,” on viewing the landscape from Castle Hill:

This burst of prospect, here the shadowy Main,

Dim tinted, there the mighty majesty

Of that huge amphitheatre of rich

And elmy Fields, seems like society—

Conversing with the mind

PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 216-20

Through this seeing, Coleridge claims that his “heart / Is soften’d, and made worthy to indulge / Love, and the thoughts that yearn for human kind” (ll. 231-33). Following upon G. M. Harper’s suggestion in 1925 that the subtitle of Coleridge’s “The Nightingale”—“A Conversation Poem”—be extended to a small group of meditative lyrics that adopt a conversational style addressed to a silent auditor, critics have at least implicitly recognized that these poems deal with communication. As I have sought to suggest, communication also structures these poems in a much more fundamental way. Since communication, communion, and community arise from the same root, it should not surprise us that these poems also explore the possibility that understanding the language of nature might serve as the basis for a revitalized human community. As Dewey remarks in Democracy and Education, “Society exists not only by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication” (5).

The problem that Coleridge faced was that even though Berkeley had argued that nature was God’s conversation, he had not explained how this communication actually worked in practice. What would it mean to claim that nature is a language if nobody understands it as such or if nature can only speak of what it is? In the “conversation poems” Coleridge attempted to put Berkeley’s philosophy into practice, by showing how nature communicates a divine message. Many of the poems, notably “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” “The Nightingale,” and “Frost at Midnight” can be said to be language education poems. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Charles Lamb, first, by going on a journey through the Quantocks and, second, by reading Coleridge’s visionary account of that journey, learns how to see through Coleridge’s eyes even as Coleridge discovers, just as importantly, that poetry can bridge the distance between self and nature, standing in for nature, that is, translating it, when nature seems to be absent to us. In the poem, Coleridge stands in the same relation to Lamb as God stands to us, as he seeks to communicate with Lamb through nature. Thus, through the medium of the poem he stands imaginatively beside Lamb seeing and experiencing what he imagines Lamb sees and experiences in the culminating vision of the Somerset countryside:

 So my Friend

Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,

Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round

On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem

Less gross than bodily: and of such hues

As veil the Almighty Spirit, when he makes

Spirits perceive his presence.

PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 37-444

“You remember, I am a Berkleian” (CL 1: 135), Coleridge wrote in regard to this passage in a letter to Robert Southey. In a poem in which the distance between “here” and “there” is bridged by the words of the poet and by the existence of nature, Coleridge finds his own natural symbol of that communication in the creaking flight of the rook, which links his activity of seeing in the bower with that of Lamb on the Quantocks.

“The Nightingale” begins as a lesson in how not to understand the song of the nightingale. Reflecting on a whole tradition of poems in which the nightingale’s song has been interpreted as an expression of poetic melancholy, Coleridge counters that the language of nature has been misread, for the song of the nightingale is instead a “love-chant” in which the bird’s only fear is that an April night will prove too short to “disburthen his full soul / Of all its music!” (PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 48-9). In Coleridge’s description of the nightingale grove, the natural world speaks to us in a language that is uniquely Coleridgean:

. . . never elsewhere in one place I knew

So many Nightingales; and far and near,

In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,

They answer and provoke each other’s song,

With skirmish and capricious passagings,

And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,

And one low piping Sound more sweet than all—

Stirring the air with such a harmony,

That should you close your eyes, you might almost

Forget it was not day! On moonlight bushes,

Whose dewy leafits are but half disclosed,

You may perchance behold them on the twigs,

Their bright, bright eyes, their eyes both bright and full,

Glistening, while many a glow-worm in the shade

Lights up her love-torch.

PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 55-69

In seeking to find a language that would truly convey what nature communicates to humankind, Coleridge found his own characteristic poetic voice. In the concluding lines of this passage, he uses repetition to pare down the communication to its most fundamental meanings, treating the images and sounds that he is experiencing as if they were the basic elements of this divine language. In “Their bright, bright eyes, their eyes both bright and full,” half of the words are repeated, and “bright” is used three times. The poetic effects of this repetition are integrally bound up with the extraordinary success of the poem, but they are also very much an expression of Coleridge’s attempt to ground his poetry in the recognition of the actual vocabulary of nature.

Probably the greatest of Coleridge’s nature-as-a-second-language poems is “Frost at Midnight.” The poem concludes with Coleridge’s strongest affirmation of the idea of nature as a divine language, a “secret ministry,” and of the poet’s faith that Hartley will learn “far other lore” than he did as a child:

. . . 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.

Great universal Teacher! He shall mould

Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 54-64

In this vision of natural communication, of a God who teaches himself through things, the “eternal language” of a nature that he continually “utters,” Coleridge is not describing what he is actually seeing or experiencing, however, but what he hopes Hartley will see in the future. In what is both a benediction and a prophecy, Coleridge imagines a communication that will be received and fulfilled by his son, and this prospect allows him to bring the poem to its conclusion in what are probably some of the finest verses on nature in the English language. What makes this verse special is that the poetic images communicate meanings that can be conveyed by no other means than these images themselves:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eve-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast,

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

65-74

Coleridge is intent upon capturing a nature that exists and speaks only in its appearances, and yet these appearances are enough. The quietness that ends the poem in the “silent icicles, / Quietly shining to the quiet moon,” is the calm that follows upon a sense of complete communication, and thus it counters the “strange / And extreme silentness” (9-10) with which the poem initially began.

III. Communication Breakdown

Coleridge’s best poetry was shaped by the idea that nature, functioning as a divine form of communication, might bridge the divisions within himself and between himself and others. Believing that nature was itself a symbolic language, Coleridge wrote poems that sought to celebrate this communication. Here poetic images are not so much a representation of nature as an attempt to translate this divine language into words. In his highly influential essay “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” M. H. Abrams argues that Coleridge inaugurated a new genre of lyric that overcame the dualism between mind and matter, subject and object, through a meditative form that lyricized or internalized the landscape. In his view, these poems exhibit a tri-partite structure, “an out-in-out process” (202), in which an initial description of a landscape gives rise to a personal meditation that subsumes it: “the mind confronts nature and their interplay constitutes the poem” (202). “[T]he description is structurally subordinate to the meditation” (224). What I have tried to suggest in this article is that Coleridge’s “conversation poems” do not seek to achieve unity through a dialectical model of the engagement of mind and nature, through a mind that discovers itself by contemplating its object, thus turning them into objects of thought, but instead by a theory of communication in which the universe speaks to the poet and s/he seeks to find an appropriate response.

This theory, as I have also sought to suggest, was troubled from the beginning, for what is striking about these poems is that they continually struggle with communication breakdown, with a nature that does not speak to the poet. “Frost at Midnight” is not about Coleridge’s relationship to a speaking nature, but instead his imagining of a relationship that Hartley will enjoy in the future. “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” begins with Coleridge’s inability to join William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Charles Lamb on their nature excursion; unable to commune with nature, he uses all the resources of poetry to build a relationship with his friends at a distance and establish a communication with a nature that was otherwise denied him. These poems implicitly ask what do you need to do in order to have nature (and thus God) speak directly to you. Against the vision in “The Eolian Harp” of a universal speaking voice of nature, perhaps we should set the experience of the Ancient Mariner. What did he have to do in order to reach the point where, on seeing the water snakes, he could bless them unawares and fully receive that message whose meaning continues to elude him? “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is certainly a poem about building a community through the communication of a story across time and space, but it is also a poem about suffering and isolation and the darknesses that lie in a nature that, if it truly is a language, speaks to us through mysteries. Coleridge wanted to see nature as a universal medium of communication, but much of his best writing is about what happens when communication fails and when nature goes silent. In 1802, marking the wedding of Wordsworth, Coleridge reflected on his failed marriage and on the Berkeleian promise of a unity of being grounded in nature as divine communication. He concluded that nature could not communicate anything that was not already known:

 Though I should gaze for ever

On that green light that lingers in the west:

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

PW 1.i and 2.i. ll. 43-48

One might argue that Coleridge’s development of the concept of the symbol came when he turned away from nature and a theory of communication to a model of thought that was based upon the dialectical attempt to discover the subject within all external things. Certainly that is one way of understanding the well-known passage in the Notebooks, where the poet writes that “in looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing any thing new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phaenomenon were the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature” (CN 2: 2546). Coleridge asked a lot from nature, and perhaps he can be forgiven for wanting too much. With the lines of communication down, Coleridge in his later years still asked nature to communicate something to him. It remained a medium, though now for a self that felt cut off from the community that he once believed was promised him.

Appendices