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On 1 August 1802, Coleridge walked away from Greta Hall and into the Cumbrian mountains. He had no firm destination in mind, and four days later he found himself on the summit of Scafell elated in a moment of sublime transport. Over the subsequent five weeks, he transposed this experience onto the Alps in “Hymn Before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouny.” The poem assumes the universal affective power of sublimity, thus making it possible, according to Coleridge, to geographically relocate the originary moment on Scafell. The poem is also the site of religious recuperation, or, less generously, aesthetic evasion—substituting piety for crisis. In this essay, I will focus not on moments of ascension (of the mountain or in the poem), but rather on Coleridge’s nearly disastrous descent. Choosing the ‘wrong way’ off Scafell into Eskdale, Coleridge’s physical elation led him into the folly of negotiating the daunting rock formation Broad Stand. His descent was anything but recuperative in the way we typically figure the sublime, as he was by turns elated, giddy, terrified, irrationally calm, chastened, stoic. His letters to Sara Hutchinson and notebook entries, show us how such chaotic somatic experiences might find their way into the fictional Alps of the “Hymn,” how reverence might arise from physical unease.

I want to begin at the end of the process. On 10 September, on the eve of the first publication of the Chamouny poem in the Morning Post, Coleridge wrote to William Sotheby describing the composition of the poem in response to his experience on Scafell: “I involuntarily poured forth a Hymn in the manner of the Psalms, tho afterwards I thought the Ideas &c. disproportionate to our humble mountains--& accidentally lighting on a short Note in some swiss Poems, concerning the Vale of Chamouny and its Mountain, I transferred myself thither, in the Spirit, & adapted my former feelings to these grander external objects” (CL 2: 864-5). This account insists on the affective experience on the mountain as the source of poem. Further the process was “involuntary” as aesthetic transport translated itself into language. A textual accident, happening on “a short Note in some swiss Poems,” triggered a repetition of that compositional reverie. When Coleridge claims “I transferred myself thither, in Spirit” he can only mean that he “transferred” his affective experiences on Scafell—nothing else is transferrable. The idea that “former feelings” reawakened by chance might create “Hymn Before Sun-rise” thus constitutes an extraordinary claim for the power of those originary feelings. It, of course, also testifies to the power of Frederica Brun’s note that it could provide such a trigger. The account effaces her poem, and instead her note on the blue gentian, repeated in Coleridge’s headnote, gets credit as the moment beginning the process of transposition as Coleridge’s “moves” his experiences in the Cumbrian mountains to the Alps. Coleridge uses “transferred” as opposed to “translated,” but “translated,” in both its senses of changed from one language to another and of being transported from one state to another, seems a more obvious choice.[1] The Sotheby letter also leaves us with a double contradiction: first, the experience on Scafell is deemed unworthy, Coleridge’s “feelings and Ideas” “disproportionate” to the landscape, yet his experience of those “humble mountains” is the poem. And, second, the Brun text is presented as a casual discovery “in some [unspecified] swiss Poems,” yet it was powerful enough to re-evoke his feelings on the mountain and complete the originally “involuntary” process of composition. It goes without saying that I’m resisting the most common critical solution to these puzzles, which has been to say something snide about Sotheby’s intelligence and dismiss the letter as disingenuous.[2] Foreclosing discussion misses an opportunity to recover something of the chaotic beginnings of composition, of the messy origins of aesthetic production. I hope to recover the affective content of that day.

Other than local shepherds, Coleridge was one of the first people to stand on the summit of Scafell, and almost certainly the first “tourist.” Despite this, the descriptive summit passage only hints at the mathematical sublime: “all before is the dying away of all the Fells” (CN 1: 1217, 2.24),[3] and in the diagesis of the notebook entries it disappoints. Coleridge’s composition method for the notebook was to write in situ whenever possible. The result was a series of detailed descriptions, complete with hand-drawn, if often inaccurate, maps and drawings. On the route map that occupies the second page of the dedicated notebook Coleridge reserved for the tour, the word “Eskdale” appears twice as large as any other place name, and the rough itinerary of the tour which opens the notebook focuses on Eskdale both in its proto-guidebook natural descriptions and in its physical centrality in his scheme: “The Esk, the third and lowest Prong of this Vergivian Trident [formed by the three rivers draining the Scafell range], rises from under Stye-head, flows between Sca fell and Bowfell, from which it receives a feeder, from two fountains—passes Hard Knott, from whence it receives a feeder, from three fountains/a mile or more onward it receives another Beck [etc.]” until it culminates “with all these the Esk runs South West, & joins the third prong of the Trident” (1205, 2.1). As the tour unfolds, Coleridge becomes another tributary whose progress and body are caught up in the inexorable descent of the Esk. It would be too strong to characterize this as a plan, but it is clear that part of the purpose of the walk is to experience the sublime geography of the region, to live its terrain.

The interplay of time and composition in the notebook fascinates in its complexity. The account begins in the past tense, “Quitted My house on Sunday morning,” but then moves closer to present tense with a perceptual account of walking: “over the bridge by the Hops/Skiddaw to my right, upper halves of Borrodale mountains behind me” (1207, 2.3). This produces the illusion of his body in motion, the scene a constantly shifting set of relations as he negotiates a series of present moments. The entry moves back and forth between the “guidebook” second person (“you cross the pretty Beck that goes to Loweswater—you again ascend & reach a ruined sheepfold”), and the moment of present composition (“here I write these lines/a wild green view, bleating of Sheep & noise of waters”). The sounds create a specific lived moment in the landscape, and the emphasis on sensual experience continues as he physically looks forward to a route rich in sublime potential:

I write this, the sun with a soft & watery gleam setting behind the hill which I am now to ascend/I am to pass with a bulging green Hill to my left—to the left of it a frightful craggy precipice with shivers, & all wrinkled--& a chasm between the Hill & it—

1207, 2.3

The peripheral view, to the left of left, reveals a frisson of danger. The softness of the sunlight contrasts with the frightful unfolding scene, sheer precipice wrenched and broken by geological force and the “chasm” set off between disjunctive dashes. The interplay of immediate affective response, composed scene, and aesthetic judgment makes for a jarring sort of reportage. The immediacy of, “I take it [a large hill] on my right hand/get above the bulging green hill on my left—and am now just above it,” gives way to a series of static views culminating in an act of aesthetic translation:

I never beheld a more glorious view of its kind—I turn & look behind me/what a wonderful group of mountains—what a scene for Salvator Rosa/and before the glorious Sea with opposite high shores & mountains/not a single minute object to break the oneness of the view, save those two green fields of Buttermere

1207, 2.3

Pivoting one hundred and eighty degrees from his “glorious view,” he discovers another view to which he attributes value by noting its worthiness for the violent picturesque of Rosa. Turning back, the somewhat cinematic effects end with the sublime expanse of sea and distant mountains, punctuated by the merest trace of the pastoral in the two verdant fields. As an account of aesthetic experience, the passage is as complete as it is complex: the sheer sensation of walking and turning, and thus shifting the view, becomes a conscious perception (“what a wonderful group of mountains”) becomes a unifying aesthetic experience (“the oneness of the view”) becomes an association and artistic judgment (“what a scene for Salvator Rosa”).

As he moves Coleridge experiences a kind of walking reverie in which random thoughts rise and fall in his mind. In a wooded valley in Eskdale, he imagines himself as figure of perpetual wandering: “A gentle Madman that would wander still over the Mountains …the like never seen since the crazy Shepherd, who having lost almost all his sheep in a long hard snow was repulsed or thought himself treated coldly by his Sweet-heart--& so went a wanderer seeking his sheep for ever” (1214, 2.10). Wandering as a brooding compulsion, a response to trauma and rejection, surprises, but perhaps shouldn’t give the sense of free play attributed to the whole tour—he has slipped the lead and anything might occur, including the unpredictability of the thoughts arising in his mind. The reverie is broken as the present moment intrudes: “Now the Glead Mews over my head” (1214, 2.10). The cry of the raptor (the local name for a kite is a Glade) literally punctuates the scene. This fluctuation between abstracted dreaminess and intense presence receives its own entry as a philosophical/psychological subject, and appears alone on its own page: “Motion of objects present & not present, in a half drunken mood, when we would be glad to go to sleep, represents, in the clouds, rapid motion simply presence, & the feeling of the absence & the presence—” (1210, 2.6). The experience of temporality in the motion of the body in relation to fleeting objects, some phenomenal, some internal, creates meditative play on the word “present” (“present,” “not present,” “represents,” “presence”), and dramatizes how the dreaminess of “a half drunken mood” might suddenly, in focusing on the motion of the clouds, discover “simply presence.” The “feeling” however, is of the “absence” inevitable in the very fleetingness of the experience. By tacking “& the presence” on at the end, Coleridge prevents the event from signifying irreparable loss, yet it creates an implied experiential infinite regress: “the absence & the presence & the absence & the presence & the absence…” sutured together with ampersands; the dash propels us thus. This page of the notebook operates outside the narrative of the walk, yet as a meditation it constructs the nature and the status of the rest. Kathleen Coburn suggestively cross-references the entry with one conjecturally dated from the first days of the New Year 1803 in notebook eight. Coleridge personalizes the earlier observation, commenting on his sadness at both Dorothy’s absence on New Year’s Day and his imminent departure: “Fear of Parting gives a yearning so like Absence, as at moments to turn your presence into absence” (1334, 8.70). Again led by feeling, anxiety displaces presence, and the moment collapses into loss as “yearning” overwhelms the subject. The profound sadness of the everyday, constant fear of irreparable loss, conditions the account of the tour as Coleridge negotiates a constantly shifting landscape and attempts to extract value, if only provisionally, from it. That rescue, of course, takes place in language—composition as salvage.

The entry from the summit captures little of this tension, instead presenting a relatively stable panorama. Constituting a single panning shot, Coleridge positions himself (“[s]tanding facing the Sea/behind me, & a little to my right, Bow fell”), and then scans the peaks ending in their “dying away” “apparently in an elevenfold ridge running West-ward” “Black Comb the furthest South Ridge rises high, and all the ridges within it sink down, like steps in a Theatre” (1217, 2.24). Other than its kinetic quality, this seems a conventional prospect moment—authorial power gathered into the commanding view. The passage also occurs outside the material confines of the rest of the walk in that it is not in its chronological place in the notebook, but rather on the last leaf of what Coburn calls “this unbound and battered notebook” (Notes, 1217, 2.24). There may well be a banal reason for this placement (it was too windy on the summit to risk opening the notebook is one possible explanation), but nonetheless it seems interesting that this composure at the summit physically falls outside the diagesis.

From this moment of ultimate ascent, Coleridge took a line towards his next destination and descended along the ridge apparently leading to Scafell Pike which he mistakenly calls Bowfell. His next entry in the notebook describes a spot where he is “lounded,” his new favorite Lakeland dialect word, meaning sheltered. He crossed a boulder field and climbed up to reach this point and in the process discovered that there is no direct traverse path between the peaks, and so found himself perched high above the Mickledore Gap, “the frightfullest Cove, with huge Precipice Walls” (1218, 2.12). We get a sense of his giddiness in the letter to Sara from this spot. The interplay of his sense of exposure and his current “lounded” state produces a tension between feeling powerful—he takes in the prospect, looking through Borrowdale up Derwent Water to his house lost in the mist—and vulnerable—his hollowed out shelter of stones provides a safe place but in the most savage of locales. Writing to Sara, he captures the tension: “And here I am lounded—so fully lounded—that tho’ the wind is strong, & the Clouds are hast’ning hither from the Sea—and the whole air seaward has a lurid Look—and we shall certainly have Thunder—yet here…here I could lie warm and wait methinks for tomorrow’s Sun” (CL 2: 840). Coleridge seems to relish the feeling of the word in his mouth—lounded, lounded, lounded—and the insistence on sheltered safety proves telling. He has located himself physically in a Kantian safe place—safe, yet suspended above the precipice, “this sweet lounding Place,” as he calls it, becomes the site of composition: “on a nice Stone Table… —between 2 and 3 o’Clock…surely the first Letter ever written from the Top of Sca’ Fell!” (CL 2: 840). Secured temporally and spatially, the moment/site of composition records the sublime terror of the scene: “But O! what a look down just under my Feet! The frightfullest Cove that might ever be seen / huge perpendicular Precipices, and one Sheep upon it’s only Ledge, that must surely be crag!” (CL 2: 840). The vertigo-inducing “just under my Feet” in a vertical landscape of cliffs, “their height & depth…terrible,” contrasts the horizontal “nice Stone Table” to produce a precise moment/point of sublime composition. His frightful, yet lounded, position acknowledges the danger of the precipice, but he chooses to emphasize the vast prospect—Borrowdale, Derwent Water and home, Bowfell before him, the coming storm.

Coleridge leaves the safety of his shelter and emerges into the weather, moved by compulsion and necessity: “The clouds came on fast—& yet I long to ascend Bowfell—I pass along Scafell Precipices; & came to one place where I thought could descend, & get upon the low Ridge that runs between Sca Fell & Bowfell, & look down into the wild savage savage Head of Eskdale” (CN 1: 1218, 2.12). His appetite for the sublime, the experience of savagery, the desire for ascent, lead him into a colossal mistake—what he’ll call “gambling” in his letter to Sara the next day. The conditional “I thought could” highlights, retrospectively, his folly. The elation produced by the summit, and his subsequent composition at his stone table propel him forward and down to reach the low ridge walk to Bowfell. The notebook entry is suitably abrupt, the power of the prospect replaced by a chaotic descent: “Good heavens! what a climb! dropping from Precipices and at last should have been crag fast but for the chasm—” (1218, 2.12). To be crag fast represents the worst possible circumstance—suspended on a ledge neither able to move back or forward. To be crag fast is to wait for the inevitable end, death from exposure or a headlong plummet onto the rocks. The entry ends with a dash—pushing the reader nearer oblivion. He wrote this entry immediately following the terrifying events midway down the Esk, at the cusp between upper and lower Eskdale described to Sara as: “the wildest & savagest surely of all the Vales… / and the lower part the loveliest” (CL 2: 841). A full account of the “frightfulness” of the descent had to wait until the next day, in the letter to Sara composed at a cottage in lovely lower Eskdale.

The letter gives us a glimpse of how an affective experience of terror can be translated into the sublime, a “fantastic Pleasure” that may awaken within us an apprehension of the divine. It describes the specifics of the descent as bodily, visceral, chaotic—as inchoate moments of unorganized experience—the stuff of future composition, events that may finally, in retrospect, have aesthetic or religious meaning. This retrospect, however, written in the safety of the cottage the following day, does not realize some ultimate meaning (aesthetic or otherwise); it remains too hot, and instead captures the immediacy of events. The day before, he could not speak at all—thus the dash in the notebook. The letter begins: “There is one sort of Gambling, to which I am addicted” (CL 2: 841), capturing both the sense of chance and the compulsiveness that follows. The tone of calm insouciance belies the seriousness of subsequent events: “When I find it convenient to descend from a mountain, I am too confident & too indolent to look round about & wind about ’till I find a track or other symptom of safety; but I wander on, & where it is first possible to descend, there I go—relying upon fortune for how far this possibility will continue” (841). Another long dash projecting into the unknown punctuates the “there I go,” and Coleridge makes the typographic/topographic connection explicit: “[I] found myself cut off from the most sublime Crag-summit…. A Ridge of Hill…divided this Crag… & Broad-Crag—even as the hyphen divides the words broad & crag.” The subsequent sequence gives a sense of the affective terrain, as he moves from elation to terrible recognition to dread:

I determined to go thither [to the ‘sublime crag-summit’ opposite]; the first place I came to, that was not direct Rock, I slipped down, & went on for a while with tolerable ease—but now I came (it was midway down) to a smooth perpendicular Rock about 7 feet high—this was nothing—I put my hands on the Ledge, & dropped down / in a few yards came just such another / I dropped that too / and yet another, seemed not higher—I would not stand for a trifle / so I dropped that too / but the stretching of the muscle[s] of my hands & arms, & the jolt of the Fall on my Feet, put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and I paused, & looking down, saw that I had little else to encounter but a succession of these little Precipices—it was in truth a Path that in a very hard Rain is, no doubt, the channel of a most splendid Waterfall.—So I began to suspect that I ought not to go on / but then unfortunately tho’ I could with ease drop down a smooth Rock 7 feet high, I could not climb it / so go on I must


The “I ought not” never entered into it; judgment suspended by physical elation, he entered an ecstasy of descent, the first drop “was nothing,” the third, a “trifle.” It is only after a series of drops that the adrenaline rush of picking his way down gets displaced by muscle fatigue—the feeling of absolute physical well-being slowly replaced by trembling, a physical “palsy” increasing with each drop. Physically arrested, he chances on the unfortunate fact that he cannot go back. Coleridge, as we know, was not stupid. He has come to this pass through being “too indolent,” propelled by a chemical cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine. He is out of his mind—undone by sublimity and power. He goes down three more drops, each of only a foot or so, but the cumulative effect begins to tell: “every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs—I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear” (842). His danger lies in his physical trembling translating itself into fear, and the recognition that he cannot go back sets this possibility in motion—retreat to a safe place is no longer an option:

…now I had only two more to drop down / to return was impossible—but of these two the first was tremendous / it was twice my own height, & the Ledge at the bottom was [so] exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble—


The physical trembling now intermingled with fear, Coleridge feels himself powerless, subject to necessity—to drop such a height he “must” “of course kill” himself. He is on the precipice, balanced on the physical edge, and on the edge of panic. Fall and die; remain where he is, crag fast, and await a grim end. Most accounts of the sublime, if that’s what this is, acknowledge the need for terror, but this moment teeters on the verge of Burkean unpleasure, the merely terrible.

Coleridge and the moment are rescued by the decision to listen to his body: “I lay upon my Back to rest myself.” This action arrests the growing unease of the descent. He becomes horizontal, figuratively reproducing the stone table from his “sweet lounded place,” and here he composes himself: “[I] was beginning according to my custom to laugh at myself for a Madman,” creating distance from his present predicament by placing it in the context of a long history of folly. The laughter relieves the potentially fatal tension. Coleridge rests his body, allowing the lactic acid causing his trembling to dissipate, and calms his mind by enabling thoughts beyond the compulsive circuit: ledge/drop, ledge/drop. The physical respite, and the thoughts that enter his mind as he gazes upward into the clouds, save him from the terrible necessity that he “must” “of course kill” himself:

…the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly northward overawed me / I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight—& blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason & the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us! O God, I exclaimed aloud—how calm, how blessed am I now / I know not how to proceed, how to return / but I am calm & fearless & confident


This cloud-gathering, drifting into a “Trance” state, allows him to come back into himself. If the answer to the question, “were you out of your mind to descend there?”—is yes, then in this moment he comes back into his mind, rescuing agency in the face of necessity. He is “calm & fearless & confident” to pick his route down to safety, free of the growing panic of his formerly fixated descent. Now calm, doubly so writing the next day, he can speculate on how the giddy elation of the summit could darken into terror and even self-loathing: “When the Reason & the Will are away, what remain to us but Darkness & Dimness & bewildering Shame, and Pain that is utterly Lord over us” (842). Compulsion and helplessness become utter subjection; but lest we forget where we are figuratively, he includes a powerful simile of sublime transport, the positive potential of this abyss: “fantastic Pleasure, that draws the Soul along swimming through the air in many shapes, even as a Flight of Starlings in a Wind” (842). The divine gifts of reason and will make us adequate to these experiences, negative or positive, and it is this recognition that causes Coleridge to bless “God aloud” in praise—an affective Hymn created in a moment of equipoise within a crisis of physical terror.

These “feelings and Ideas” (843) are not immediately transferred to the “Hymn Before Sunrise” where he repeatedly sounds the name “God” in response to sublime objects in his imagined visual field. Reverential awe is not the dynamic on the ledge—he names God aloud in a spontaneous outburst of recognition. However, some of the day is transferred directly into the scenery of the poem in this conventional sense. He records a viewpoint farther down the Esk in his notebook where five of the valley’s eight waterfalls can be seen at once: “nearly at the bottom of the Hill, you may stand so as to command 5 of them of which the first of 80 yards fall, & the fourth about 50, but more perpendicular” (CN 1: 1218, 2.12). This scene appears as the opening prospect in the breathless list of objects signifying God in the poem:

And you, ye five wild torrents fiercely glad!

Who call’d you forth from night and utter death,

From dark and icy caverns call’d you forth,

Down those precipitous, black, jagged Rocks

For ever shattered and the same for ever?

PW 1: 721, ll. 39-43

Originating in a moment of safety “nearly at the bottom of the Hill,” and in a position of power as he “commands” the scene, the penultimate verse paragraph originates in one of the less interesting affective moments of the day, yet the sheer relief of the successful descent seems more than sufficient to have triggered such a breathless apostrophe to God.

This would be a disappointing argument if I concluded that no, the experience on Scafell isn’t transferred to the poem, but luckily that’s not the case. The final verse paragraph moves closer as the speaker gazes down into a chasm and the vapour produced by the warming sun becomes intermingled with his affective response:

Slow-travelling with dim eyes suffused with tears,

Solemnly seemest, like a vapoury cloud,

To rise before me—Rise, O ever rise,

Rise like a cloud of Incense, from the Earth.

723, ll. 77-80

The metaphorically rich repetition of “Rise,” capturing the ascent of the vapour mingling with his tears and lifting his gaze skyward in a pious evocation of the promise of the resurrection originates on the ledge on Broad Stand. Deploying the divine gifts of reason and will Coleridge “arose” from the ledge, and now calm, made his way: dropping down and coming upon the physical stakes in becoming crag fast, “a dead Sheep quite rotten” (CL2: 842). Saved by a conscientious shepherd who piled stones in vain to save his sheep, Coleridge picked his way, discovering a very different chasm from the one at the “Base” (l. 76) of the mountain sending up its sublime effluent. Returning to the notebook entry, and the abrupt ending I mentioned earlier: “at last should have been crag fast but for the chasm—” (CN 1: 1218, 2.12), the disjunctive dash seems a perfect ending. The “chasm” to which he refers, as he explains to Sara, was a rent in the rock that he shimmied down: “—I measured the breadth of the Rent, and found that there was no danger of my being wedged in / so I put my Knap-sack round to my side, & slipped down as between two walls, without any danger or difficulty” (CL 2: 842). This somewhat undignified descent seems a long way from the sublime chasm on the side of his imagined Alp, yet the gratitude and release he experienced as he found, tossed down before him, his “Besom Stick” (the walking stick he had improvised from the kitchen broom at Greta Hall and thus a figure of the domestic to which he returns) provided the experiential real from which the poem might arise. Elated to be alive, he made his way past the waterfalls of the upper Esk to a “sweet lounded place” in a cottage in the “loveliest vale” in England—the safe place where composition begins.


Notebook two contains another short entry outside the temporal confines of the walk, and like the earlier entry on “the absence & the presence” of lived experience it inhabits its own page, only this time almost outside the material confines of the book; Kathleen Coburn describes it: “On a scrap of paper, pinned to f16” (Notes, 1229, 2.25). I have characterized Coleridge’s ampersands as sutures, impossible attempts to salvage meaning from the raw inchoate experiences of the tour. Here the fragility of such connections takes a physical form—the entry cannot be in the narrative, but must be interleaved, connected. The entry/fragment expresses faith, or perhaps a wish, that the passions evoked by the experience on Scafell (elation, terror, panic, sublimity) might all be subsumed in a final devotional push:

Love to all the Passions & Faculties, as Music to all the varieties of Sound/

1229, 2.25

All the terror and confusion of the descent, “the Reason & the Will,” might resolve into “Love” of self-preservation, of Sara, of God, of his beloved addressees in the letter and the poem. The chaos of the noises around him might take formal shape as “Music,” a “Hymn.”