Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Coleridge’s Translucence: A Failed Transcendence?

  • Patrick Wright

…plus d’informations

  • Patrick Wright
    Manchester Metropolitan University

Logo de Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Corps de l’article

“O God save me from myself” bemoaned Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1813, lying penniless in a sweat-soaked bed in a Bath inn, poisoned by laudanum, his literary career and personal life in shambles. [1] Such a descent into an abyss of misery and ruin must qualify our analysis of his aesthetic theories and Christian faith. Indeed, while Coleridge offers an ethics of the imagination and a negation of the mind-body dualism, not unlike the feminine sublime and psychoanalysis (respectively) in postmodern thought, his pursuit of these ideals all too tragically spills over into addiction and suicidal despondency. In Coleridge’s modern brand of mysticism, it appears that his self-sacrifice for the sake of divine union draws upon the agony of melancholia.

In other words, I feel that there is an implicit association between Coleridge’s philosophical ideas, such as polarity, symbol, and translucence, and his more private dark night of the soul. In actual fact, upon closer analysis, his sublimating theory of polarity (two opposing poles united in their opposition, both struggling against each other, and yet effective by benefit of the other) turns out to be the flipside of his more pathological bipolarity. I will elaborate this word play with the argument that Coleridge’s abyss of squalor is the constitutive pole of his prodigious imagination. My intention here is, to a certain extent, to problematise what many critics have identified as a “feminine” or non-Oedipal sublime by showing that Coleridge implements such a position, though pays for it with his suffering body. This is not to suggest that the feminine sublime is inevitably pathogenic, but rather to critique any naïve valorisation of the excess or alterity it speaks of, and to claim that this otherness at least risks the possibility of psychosis.

I will begin with a discussion of Coleridge’s aesthetic theories including that of the sublime, which I will then proceed to relate to his bodily and psychical suffering. Although I accept it is impossible to generalise his work as a whole (since Coleridge, like any thinker, develops and revises his ideas throughout his lifetime), I will assume that the same bipolar condition is ubiquitous. On the one hand, with this conviction, I avoid perpetuating the myth of the Romantic genius, whose torment is somewhat opaque, ultimately ennobling, and the sole province of the artist. On the other hand, I feel it is equally important to combat the more extreme criticisms of this myth: those who would posit, for instance, that Coleridge’s anguish is a result of a particular thing, such toothache, rheumatism, or some slight by Wordsworth, and may have been easily cured by a visit to the dentist, or, in the present day, neutralised by means of antidepressants. Such an approach is, I would propose, both reductive and trivialising in the face of suffering; and, as such, I will read Coleridge’s symptoms are interrelated and originating from the same condition not genius, but rather melancholia as Julia Kristeva interprets it, which is to say as subjacent to the work of the imagination, and as habitually inscribed though bodily affect. [2] My approach will thus regard Coleridge’s opium addiction, along with his hypochondria and marital strife, as epiphenomena of a profounder discontent, what many critics have identified as manic-depressive psychosis or bipolar disorder. [3] Whatever contemporary diagnostic labels one opts to project, the truth of suffering remains. [4] Stephen Weissman writes a more flagrant psychobiography, addressing the critical neglect of the Coleridgean unconscious. [5] In addition to his aforementioned drug addiction and alcoholism, Weissman finds a latent homosexuality and neurotic guilt in relation to Coleridge’s obsessive fondness for Wordsworth. Episodes in the poet’s scarred life are dredged up, alongside his domestic strife and pimping, which, consonant with his theory of polarity/complementarity, are the grime out of which lofty musings rise. [6]

Fittingly, too, the theory that Coleridge most obviously prefigures is psychoanalysis. Critics have noted an affinity between the ideas of Coleridge and Sigmund Freud. Kathleen Coburn, for instance, draws awareness to Coleridge’s memoranda on “the language of the dream” and its relation with sexuality, as well as his coinage of the term “unconscious”. She also declares that Coleridge invented the term “psycho-analytical” in 1805. [7] Therefore, poets not only anticipated psychoanalysis, as Freud acknowledged, [8] but the very term itself. In reference to “the unconscious” Coleridge writes of the “twilight realms of consciousness,” and “subtle interplay between conscious and unconscious in artistic creation” (qtd. in Whyte 134). As a theorist, too, of heterogeneity and unity, it is unsurprising that Coleridge might also lay claim to the term “psychosomatic” [9] a sign, no doubt, of his prescience to postmodern theory and to present day psychopathological disorders, especially the threat of psychosis, which will be the subtext of my analysis.

The Symbolic Imagination

The aesthetic theories Coleridge develops, while in some ways rather precocious, are also, in large measure, purloined from German Idealism. Drawing upon Immanuel Kant, J.G. Fichte, A.W. Schlegel and F.W.J. Schelling, while reinterpreting them (often by misreading them) in his own way, Coleridge sought religious truth by way of the interchange between experience and idea. Stuart Piggin and Dianne Cook reason that Coleridge was “mediating between two poles, and sought the truth in the interconnection or dialectic of the two.” They write:

For Coleridge, the will is the absolute self … mediating in his bi-polar world between the subjective and the objective, the finite and the infinite, the individual and the institutional or ecclesiastical, and the historical and the ideal. The Alignment of active “will” and “Reason” constrains faith in Christ as the one in whom all things cohere, and on this dynamic process of redemption the poetic imagination reflects and creates, producing poetry in which the aesthetic and the theological are mutually reinforcing.


Thus Coleridge’s vision is the bipolar nature of reality and the capacity of art to “to make the reason spread light over our feelings, to make our feelings, with their vital warmth, actualise our reason” (The Friend 108). To recognise this interdependence of warmth and light, “heart and head,” leads to a fuller sense of humanity, that one is “bound in the bundle of the living,” a perception that emanates in sacrificial acts of humankindness (Piggin and Cook 389). Coleridge seeks a non-dichotomizing disposition where reality may be grasped symbolically, his poetic imagination “the interpretation and union of the one with the many,” which “arranges all ideas and expressions in one scale,” that reconciles opposites, partaking of both.

Coleridge describes the “primary imagination” in his Biographia Literaria, where the divine origins of human perception are emphasised:

The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.


Coleridge regards the primary imagination as a continuation of God’s self-consciousness: the mind actively participates in the creative mind of God. The imagination not only comes from a divine cause, but is also at one with the divine mind. Additionally, in contradistinction from the primary imagination, there is also a “secondary imagination,” one which “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates” the synthesis of knower and known “in order to recreate” the union; and through this sacrifice (becoming reflexively awake to the divine’s knowing) the poet may renew their world. Spiritual faith centres on this imaginative action: the poet’s immediate intuition of the divine qualifying them as a moral teacher (Biographia 19, 31, and 676-77, respectively).

The early Coleridge’s Christian faith was a blend of Neoplatonism, the Renaissance humanists, the spirituality of Jakob B(hme, Spinoza’s pantheism, the German Romantic philosophers, and the radical Unitarian thinkers of his time. [10] He saw God’s self-revelation as inspiring his own work, so that it becomes “eternal language,” can “show God,” or present a means for God to speak. One way this speech can be realised is through the Coleridgean symbol, which can be imagined as a lens through which the divine is refracted. In this way the symbol might be related to the sublime; but, if so, it is a somewhat marginal sublime. As a matter of fact, unlike a great deal of eighteenth-century philosophical writings on sublimity, Coleridge’s symbol welcomes a theological ancestry and transcends the Enlightenment rationalisation of mystery.

For Coleridge, one of the startling poverties of his time was that it saw no medium between literal and metaphorical; it expelled the symbolic. [11] Many of his late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century moment still venerated commentators who distrusted mystery, and poets who divorced thought from feeling, who extolled intellectual clarity and discursive reasoning over emotional ambiguity and beauty. [12] The Coleridgean symbol, on the other hand, defined in his Biographia Literaria[13] refers to a mystical vision of the divine, looks back to the premodern procedure of reconciling God’s immanence and transcendence. But it also anticipates like certain mystics postmodern ethics, particularly those based upon self-sacrifice, promoting the aim of becoming rather than being, and including difference within the creative process. [14]

The theological resonance of Coleridge’s symbol is analysed by Robert Barth. Barth recognises that Coleridge saw imagination as a religious act of faith, which empowers one to perceive and create symbols. True symbols, Barth writes, are “sacramental,” since sacraments and symbols are sensible signs, “pointing to something beyond” themselves (the Communion host and wine or the moon in Wordsworth’s visionary poem “A Night-Piece”). Barth advances his belief that the Coleridgean imagination and the symbol-making faculty are one and the same. He remarks: “For [Coleridge] the making and perceiving of symbols, particularly in poetry, is a kind of religious act, by which he encounters God, the ultimate reality and the source of all unity.” [15] Barth also juxtaposes the familiar definition of symbol in the Biographia to an often overlooked but overtly theological one in The Statesman’s Manual (1816), where Coleridge gives the following definition:

… a Symbol is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.


“Translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal” is compared by Barth to light shining through stained glass. Like a hologram, one can see the whole shining through the part, while the part embodies the whole. Superficially, at least, this is a notion as old as Plato. But I would contend that, for Coleridge, what shines through is just as likely to prompt abjection as inspire divine faith. That is, I read translucence as analogous to the concept of numinosity, which calls to mind a ghostly, spiritual light rather than an outwardly visible light, such as the luminosity from a light bulb. Numinosity glints directly into the unconscious, where it either heals (as humility) or destroys (as self-aggrandizement), depending on one’s psychical disposition: to what extent one is able to commune with nonbeing. [16]

To illustrate his concept of translucence, the symbol as synecdoche of the divine, Coleridge also refers to the image of a crystal:

This is the example of the gemstone:

An illustrative hint may be taken from a pure crystal, as compared with an opaque, semiopaque or clouded mass, on the one hand, and with a perfectly transparent body, such as the air, on the other. The crystal is lost in the light, which yet it contains, embodies, gives shape to; but which passes shapeless through the air, and, in a ruder body, is either quenched or dissipated.

Principles of Genial Criticism 474

Coleridge sets apart a “perfectly transparent body” (air) from a “clouded mass” (opaque gem) in order to allocate an interstice between those two poles in the “pure crystal,” which is “transparent,” but not perfectly so. “The crystal is,” paradoxically “lost in the light,” as if the light simply passed through the air it would be “invisible” (nothing but light), while if it shone through “a ruder body” it would be concealed (no light at all). The crystal, neither entirely transparent nor entirely opaque, is the ideal medium in which to render forma informans (shaping form), as “it contains, embodies, gives shape to” (Principles of Genial Criticism 474). Even though it is “lost,” the crystal presents the medium which shapes the light that would otherwise be amorphous. The eye is the catalyst; a translucence that projects and retains. Indeed eyes “see” invisibilities as the language bodies them forth; they receive visibilities and re-create them as thresholds to spiritual ideas. That is to say, Coleridge’s God is logos only insofar as language distorts in order to reflect His blinding gaze. [17]

Coleridge’s poetic imagination serves as a mediator, blending the perceptions of distinction and unity into “multeity in unity” (Biographia 287) the realization that All is One. The imagery of the symbol communicates meaning with more immediacy than discursive argument; it permeates into the whole person, since feeling and thought are not separable for Coleridge. As David Vallins confirms: “what claim to be rational arguments are often dependent on sensation, emotion, and intuition” (6). The purpose of this symbol-perceiving potential of the imagination is to “awaken the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom,” while revealing “the wonders of the world before us” (Biographia 7) a world of numinous mystery, like that encountered by the Ancient Mariner.

The metaphor of translucence is also related to biblical symbols in The Statesman’s Manual (Job’s whirlwind for instance, a symbol through which human and divine realities interpenetrate), thereby confirming the spiritual core of Coleridge’s philosophy. Unlike most Romantic metaphors, which stop short of overt allusions to God, the “sacred river” of “Kubla Khan” invokes the divine (like Wordsworth’s Alpine abyss does in The Prelude). Sacramental refers not only to divine truth but also to psychical reality, the furtive province of Coleridge’s God. Because sacramental symbols indicate mystery, even poems of non-Christian Romantics like Keats embrace a search for the numinous. This search Coleridge’s symbol partakes in, where translucence mediates God’s light without blinding its seer; it allows one to see that wholly Other without abyssal ruin in theory at least. Indeed, as I want to show, given Coleridge’s more communal (rather than conquering) relation with the sacred his consubstantiality of divine and human realities the mediating safeguard of poetic imagination is all the more tenuous, and, when it fails, translucence bleeds through into abjection.

The Coleridgean Sublime

A number of critics have certainly sought to distance Coleridge from the sublime as it is understood by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. If this sublime can be characterised as Oedipal, in the sense that alterity (terror for Burke, imagination for Kant) is sacrificed, for the sake of symbolic identification and self-aggrandizement, Coleridge’s sublime is often construed as providing a less combative approach. Raimondo Modiano observes in Coleridge’s sublime, for instance, no allusion to the “mind’s rupture from sensible forms” or a “flight into the supersensible realm of ideas”; no “threat of being engulfed” by abyssal objects in Nature as a prelude to narcissistic poise; no antecedent “crisis or collapse” of the imagination; “neither pain nor bafflement” (“Coleridge and the Sublime” 117). Steven Knapp advances a similar argument by distinguishing Coleridge’s “metaphysic and psychology of reconciliation with [Burke’s] aesthetic of terror and discontinuity” (10). And Anne Mellor even goes as far as saying that Coleridge’s sublime “radically transformed the Burkean and Kantian sublime by insisting that the experience of infinite power is attended, not by fear and trembling, but rather by a deep awe and profound joy” (89).

Although I would support these various attempts to set the Coleridgean sublime apart, I would be less inclined to regard what is tantamount to a non- or anti-Oedipal sublime as necessarily positive in its departure, especially if Coleridge’s suffering is regarded as symptomatic of the embodiment of his theories. Before I get to these more anguishing consequences, however, I will examine the potentially affirmative side of Coleridge’s self-sacrificing position.

Unlike the Kantian rhetoric of power, Coleridge’s “form of transcendence,” Modiano proposes, “occurs gradually … through an intense engagement with the objects of sense” (117). Rather than have one thing sacrifice the other, Coleridge keeps both in play, in what Elinor Shaffer terms “his characteristically moderate, semi-dialectical method of progressive redefinition: by multiplying slighter gradations between the two terms, they are made to approach each other” (214). I interpret Coleridge as summarising this idea when he asserts that the “mutual counteraction and neutralization” of both halves ultimately moulds the “whole truth,” a “tertium aliquid different from either” (Biographia 44). Coleridge’s sublime, then, which he also enunciates as “a middle state of mind … when it is, as it were, hovering between images” (Coleridge qtd. in Collier 64-66) can be read as a version of the feminine sublime. And this sublime, which is “an emotional experience of spiritual fusion” for Mellor (89-90), [18] also hints at a sexual dynamism beyond categorizations; a bisexuality where the prefix “bi-” is consistent with the sublimated notion of polarity, and, as a result, remains at least a psychical truth. [19] Such openness, and refusal of fixed identity, is also commented upon by Stephen Batchelor, who perceives Coleridge’s “creative sensibility” as consisting in the “suspension of the Act of Comparison, which permits [a] sort of Negative Belief.” In addition Batchelor associates this formula with a Buddhist, or, more specifically, Nagarjunian sublime, a “letting go which is simultaneously an engagement” (46).

Coleridge’s theory of flux and fusion can therefore be read in terms of sacrifice, epitomised in his capacity to erase the difference between self and other. While it predates much of what Coleridge later formalises, his poem “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison” (1797) exemplifies the positive face of such a bearing. Here Coleridge effaces the boundary between here and there, his imprisoned self and the other, Charles Lamb. He is intersubjective in his idea that one may “contemplate / With lively joy that joys we cannot share,” and experience vicarious pleasures. He states his emotional union with Lamb (“and I am glad / As I myself were there!”), and the spatial relationship of their two bodies (“So my friend … may stand as I have stood”). Insisting on his capacity to be Lamb, to participate in that Nature, who “ne’er deserts the wise and pure,” Coleridge forgoes any division between self and other, human and divine, and, though more covertly, male from female. Compared to his fraught isolation, the sense of relatedness that Coleridge conveys is largely gratifying. Such self-sacrifice is most famously discernible in his literary relationship with Wordsworth, which may also be characterised by moments where identities either merge or assert their individuality. After all Coleridge and Wordsworth place value on human bonds above economic or private welfare in their collaboration on a single unauthored volume (Lyrical Ballads), and in aspiring to produce the same poem (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). Nevertheless, in spite of this cross-pollination, Coleridge and Wordsworth still asserted proprietary rights over the texts they initially passed on to each other according to the law of the gift. Wordsworth, for example, continued to use Coleridge’s ideas but tried to displace him as a gift-giving source, turning to Nature or his private fund of “possessions,” to “Something within, which yet is shared by none” (“Home at Grasmere”), guaranteeing that he remained embedded within an egoistic power structure. It is in this milieu of sacrifice that Coleridge’s commandeering of the other’s discourse, his excursions into plagiarism included, reveals a desire to flee the self’s solipsistic confines. [20] Even so, I maintain my contention that Coleridge at no time finds egotistical detachment; instead his border-defying and precarious ego remains open to the Other to the extent that it perpetuates melancholic longing.

The sacrificial aspect of Coleridge is at many times joyous, and this is because joy is predicated upon a loss of self to the Other. The “deeper” a joy the more it “dims” the self’s cognitive grasp of itself; and if this power relates inversely to the translucency of idea, then joy would make one entirely unclear about one’s own thinking self. For the sublimest joy is a de-individuating one which surrenders self-comprehension, not like Spinoza’s joy in thinking clearly, like God does, recognising the causal determinations of things. As a result, pure joy, for Coleridge, must come without self-consciousness and cerebral baggage, and without the erotic longing he felt for Sara Hutchinson. And it must come through grace.

However, well before 1805 Coleridge had abdicated any faith in philosophic joy, and relinquished the hope for bliss in his own life except for what he could find through imagining the immediate joys of others, particularly beings unlike himself. He off-loads joy to God’s fowls, God’s fools, and Gospel-like children.  [21]

In “Dejection: An Ode” (1802) Coleridge speaks of “A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, a stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, / Which finds no natural outlet, no relief” (Poems lines 21-22, 307). Joy and vitality, creativity and youthful experience of Nature, are bemoaned as irremediably lost. “There was a time,” Coleridge laments, “when, though my path was rough / This joy within me dallied with distress.” Yet now he looks at the wonders of Nature, only to “see, not feel, how beautiful they are!” Nature is not the scapegoat for this loss, but rather Coleridge’s deadened sensitivity:

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

lines 47-49, Poetry and Prose 376

For Coleridge, beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder. Though his sorrow is of such intensity that it has become self-perpetuating. Inextricably caught in the throes of dejection, Coleridge cannot make the psychical shift necessary to discard nature’s “shroud” and don her “wedding garment.” Instead, he must comfort himself with the happiness of Sara, writing of the woman he adores, “To her may all things live, from pole to pole, / Their life the eddying of her living soul!” (Poetry and Prose 376, 375, 376 and 378, respectively).

Coleridge’s principle of polarity is a dynamic and ingenious interpenetration of opposites. It is this dialectic which represents the fundamental nexus between Coleridge’s thought and the philosophic-rhetorical tradition of Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others, in which the nature of truth and refusing natural philosophy and sophistic rhetoric (which had become commonplace) are repeated concerns. [22] Following this lineage, Coleridge regards polarity as a basic natural law. In The Friend, for example, he connects polarity with ancient Greek philosophy:

Every power in nature and in spirit must evolve an opposite as the sole means and condition of its manifestation: and all opposition is a tendency to reunion. This is the universal law of polarity or essential dualism, first promulgated by Heraclitus … The identity of thesis and antithesis is the substance of all being; their opposition the condition of all existence or being manifested: and every thing or phenomenon is the exponent of a synthesis as long as the opposite energies are retained in that synthesis.


As a consequence, polarity is the condition in which two opposing poles are united in their opposition, struggling against each other and yet existing by benefit of the other. While logical opposites are contradictory, polar opposites generate each other, since each pole is imaginatively implied in the other. Coleridge is probably indebted here to the Heraclitean dialectic: a reconciliation theory which formulates the dynamic polarity of mind and Nature as a distillation of the ascent to union in alchemy, Romanticism and individuation. The poetic embrace of unity (“all things are one”) mirrors Coleridge’s theory, wherein the opposites coalesce as a unity and the self is in accord with Nature in general. Heraclitus’s vision, in which all contradictory principles are reconciled, represents human experience as an interaction between such opposites as life and death, sleep and waking, mortality and immortality. What is inherited by Coleridge, then, is a dialectic of becoming rather than being, which reveals the secret harmony of opposing states within the self and within Nature. [23]

Heraclitus’s dialectical vision pivots on the universality of change and development through internal contradictions. As this presocratic maintains: “By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine. All things change.” “[T]hat which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension, like that of the bow and the lyre” (Heraclitus qtd. in Kahn 1-23). The synthetic imagination of Coleridge, which directs the immanent feeling of dynamism in Romantic poetry, is in many respects parallel. The Romantic visionary dream, each time set in the future, is beauty, that ultimate unity which is recurrently anticipated through holistic symbols of the ideal One.

These associations are well-established. The point I want to highlight, however, is that the embodiment of this dialectical imagination is treacherously close to melancholia, and that it is no coincidence that Heraclitus (the “obscure”) and Coleridge are both identified with saturnine natures. [24] Thomas McFarland observes, for instance, the consequent anguish of Coleridge’s flux and instability:

The principle of polarity that aligns these sunderings … was treasured, by him and by his Romantic contemporaries, as a path to an ultimate wholeness. But for Coleridge, even more strikingly than for his contemporaries, the actual experience out of which such treasurings arose was one of fragmentation and splitting apart, and those wounds the doctrine of polar reconciliations was never satisfactorily able to heal.


Coleridge’s synthesising proclivity fails to sublimate what is, in other words, a more physical distress. His theory of flux arises from a more private instability; but theorising is not enough to supplant the pain from which it stems. [25] McFarland even goes on to claim that Coleridge’s “incompleteness as a practicing polar schematist becomes a badge of honor,” against Hegel’s more completed system or efforts to tame reality by “a priori networks,” which, in turn, gave way to logical positivism (339). In that Coleridge analyses the relationship between heterogeneity and unity, he may well be thought of as presciently postmodern. Postmodern theory is no doubt concerned with thoughts of fragmentation and unity, but, rather than admit to the agony that is often inseparable from subjective flux, it is more likely to valorise transgression; and, although Coleridge’s unity is unattainable in practice, postmodern thought is more liable to insist upon the materialisation of a unified theory, often a formalist ethical programme, without due consideration of its concrete effects. To counter this leaning to deal in abstractions, I now wish to examine Coleridge’s suffering body, which is, I suggest, his psychosomatic comeuppance; that is the price he pays for his synethesising imagination.

The Sublime as Psychosis: Bodily Suffering

As many critics are now beginning to recognise, [26] it is only after 1805, around the time of his spiraling laudanum addiction and existential crisis in Malta, that Coleridge finds his distinctive poetic voice. And it is no accident that his refusal to sacrifice any factor of a polarity, as well as his shift to a sickly metaphysical mode of being, coincides with the more public late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century discourse on the psychical trauma effected by a gulf between the visible and the symbolizable. Coleridge’s own visionary capability is well recognised. Yet I believe it intersects with a mounting cultural interest in the supernatural, and, more exactly, with the post-Kantian psychologizing of the abject. [27] Such rupture, between the phenomenal/nameable, and that which resists it (though might nevertheless be intuited) is clear in Coleridge’s infinite regress of thought, his manic hyper-reflexiveness (voiced in The Friend), and in fragments of his less publicised notes. [28]

Nevertheless, his poetical and theoretical alchemy is not enough. Signs can no longer sublimate corporeal experience, and, as a consequence, his failure is re-inscribed within the symptomatolgy of his melancholia. Coleridge’s social abjection, his nadir of desublimated vice and/or somaticized stasis, is, I propose, a side effect of his attachment to the “Thing”: the real that resists symbolization. When this Thing is not associated with Sara’s phantasmatic alter ego in the guise of “Asra” (and there sublimated), it is more of a metaphysical despair that leads the seer, Coleridge, to see far too much, through fragmented or abstract dream imagery, and hypnagogic or pharmacologically-induced trances. [29]

A well-known example is “Kubla Khan” (1798), which represents sublimity in all its ambiguity and excess:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Poems ll. 1-5, 249

In this frequently cited passage, not only is it possible to notice allusions to objects which bring to mind Burke’s empirical inventory of sublime triggers (Xanadu’s otherworldliness; a castle’s mystery; an infinite river; an abyssal ocean), but also a dream logic, an esotericism of symbols which index the unconscious drives. [30] The narrative unhinges the coordinates of space-time, conventions which collapse in the midst of the reverie. The spatial and the temporal merge and fuse; the signifier “measureless,” while suggesting spacelessness also indicates the atemporal. Furthermore, Coleridge’s “sunless sea” intimates a matrix-like abyss that destabilizes rational consciousness, and like his other interstitial metaphors evokes a Thing that is both pernicious and the source of fecund imagination. Indeed, the poem can be read as a critique of what the imagination is capable of, before, that is, it engenders psychosomatic illness. Coleridge might be (at least partially) successful in transposing his incestuous dream into phoenix fires, bisexual and androgynous symbols sublimating the poet’s more covert feminine identification. But his reliance on opium, while integral to the poem, ultimately undercuts such alchemy. In fact, Coleridge’s abandonment of personification in his later verse forges analogies between Platonism, allegory and opium as “counterfeit infinities,” whose promise of transcendence finally ends in a limbo of unhappiness, his noble melancholia sacrificing the consolations of philosophy, and emphasising the recurrent power of contingencies and forms. Such tension is more evident in visions of waking dreams, such as “A Day-Dream” (1802) or “Phantom” (1805). Here reverie is celebrated as a spiritual diversion from the agonies of the world. However, both poems are also sceptical of its redemptive appeal. Self-consciousness is bemoaned as a prison of mental anguish or philosophical gloom, yet is revealed to be a paradoxically emancipatory condition insofar as it upholds a productive tension between fantasy and reality.

A “willing suspension of disbelief” can be a homeopathic sacrifice in that a dose of unreason is cathartic and at times pleasurable; but continuing adherence to the liminal hovering in a state where identity is effervescent can also be a sort of purgatory. This is a point enlarged upon by Eric Wilson, who reads Coleridge as “a psychologist of limbo” and a precursor of Kierkegaard’s dread and Nietzsche’s abyss. He suggests that Coleridge’s thought reflects an ability to imagine and keep in tension both poles of life’s maddening antagonisms part and whole, body and soul, reality and dream, flux and permanence. Nevertheless, while this bipolar system may certainly be productive of fascinating writing, it also upsets mental stability. Caught in an abysmal region between equally disturbing and polarising states, the older Coleridge felt chronically incomplete, perplexed and discontent. This pain brought him to a curious frontier of “double vision,” the capacity to perceive two sides of the world at once. Although this double refraction kept Coleridge from finding peace, Wilson makes the case that limbo became an inspiration to complete works on the impossibility of completion. [31] What Linda Brooks reads as Coleridge’s “negative sublime” “faces the absence of form head on,” and “confronts the sheer magnitude … of matter without offering any idealizing … possibilities” (942). “Limbo” (1811), for example, is a poem about the failure of imagination and the absurdity of existence. Limbo is depicted as a psychical status, “where Time & weary Space Fettered from flight, with night-mair sense of fleeing Strive for their last crepuscular half-being” (Poems 357). Coleridge sustains his dynamic tension between unity and plurality, material and metaphysical, evident and numinous. The poem’s distressing phantoms culminate with the allegory of “positive Negation” a trope for the simultaneously heroic and illusory creations of the poetic mind. Here, Brooks asserts, “the romantic artist, like the postmodern artist, attempts neither to regain the possibility of aesthetic form nor to transcend the chaos of phenomena” (955). The nihilistic tone of the poem may be read as an articulation of Coleridge’s failure to formalise a coherent model of the reconciling imagination, in addition to his feeling the effects of an abyss that the poem not only signifies but also incites.

Unlike Kantian reason, which transcends the sublime abyss, for Coleridge reason falls short and the body becomes a sign, alcoholism and hallucinations usurping his metaphors. Because Coleridge’s imagination is so intimately bound up with the divine, creative blockage is associated also with his sporadic crises of faith. Where the divine logos once glistened though his translucence, in “Limbo” it is abjection. Since the sublimating capacity of Kantian reason is undermined, to some extent, by his welcoming of imagination and the spectral features the psyche, Coleridge’s sublime is always threatened with somaticization. That said, this risk is tempered by the fact that Coleridge partakes in aesthetic discourse, is part of a community, which cultivates symbolization and relatedness. Moreover, in this context, his acceptance of orthodox, Anglican Christianity in his later years is not merely a deepening of an ever-present faith, but also a countervailing identification inversely proportionate to his periodic nihilism. He thus exists in the zone that Kristeva calls “nameable melancholia,” between the poles of asymbolia and transcendence, one that “opens up the space of a necessarily heterogeneous subjectivity, torn between the two co-necessary and co-present centers of opacity and ideal” (Black Sun 100). The sublime lines normal discursive functions, but reappears in depression and in other psychoses where those semiological patterns are broken. Coleridge is suspended in between; and, more than an aesthetic inquiry or systematic treatise, his sublime also surfaces at the formal level, [32] saturating his poetic language, when it is not acted out and/or inscribed on his ravaged body.

Coleridge’s accomplishments in his later years are a singular fusion of public speculation and private introspection, under the mantle of depressive idealism, rejecting Romantic apotheosis in favour of self-dramatising failure. [33] This unremitting self-negation can be associated with a genealogy of writers Dante, Jacob B(hme or Jean Paul and to a “poetry of suspension” where the poet can envisage the co-existence of contrary states of body and soul. Wilson for instance divides his study into modes of limbo poles apart readiness, recollection, hypnagogia and stasis whilst offering a redemptive account of Coleridge’s later poetry as witness to existential crises and aesthetic consolation. He writes:

Bravely making limbo his dwelling, hoping that “betweeness” will yield a healing coincidentia oppositorum, this noble melancholic embraces the anxiety that besets him, for he realizes that this agitation is a muse, an inspiring spur that keeps him from settling for solacing unity or apparent diversity, the charted realms on either side of the frontier ... Like a polar explorer or the heretical alchemist, the melancholy limbo dweller undergoes extreme danger in hopes of discovering an elixir the magnet’s attraction, the philosopher’s stone to remedy the universe’s lacerations.

18, 20

Like the ancient alchemical tradition which it revitalizes, [34] the discourse of noble melancholy transfigures suffering into transport, disease into genius, paralysis into vision, so that anguish and failure of will that others regard as an impediment, to Coleridge mark courageous exploration and profound epiphanies. Like Keats’ “negative capability,” [35] Coleridge’s limbo “oscillates freely between oppositions, constrained by neither, fortified by both” (Wilson 53). When this oscillation stalls though, the result is despair, linking the poet with Nietzsche’s and Kierkegaard’s visionary diagnoses of the maladies of modernity, a tradition that celebrates melancholy solitude as a mark of excessive sensibility and philosophical rigor.

I do not wish to paper over Coleridge’s abjection in the tradition of eulogising the dead. To show Coleridge’s failure does not detract from his work, but renders it more transparent, de-mythologised and translucent. His sacramental experience is a counter-depressant. Yet Coleridge is suspended for the most part in between. And this is why his sublime is self-defeating: imagination’s effervescence means that narcissism is never secure against disintegration. This crepuscular realm is more like a tenuous borderland between marginal transcendence and the pangs of somatic seclusion; and if one sees that Coleridge was conditioned in his desperation for redemption, since he was a “man sodden with laudanum and impotently hating himself” (Opus Maximum ccx), then the polarity between bliss and dejection becomes apparent. Coleridge is, in every way, a borderline personality, [36] floundering in an abysmal twilight of idealization and devalorization, which can be contrasted with a poised, Kantian (and Oedipal) sensation of negative pleasure.

His manic pole is striking; Coleridge soars like Icarus, shining twice as bright though finally burning up; he is like Hamlet, blessed and cursed with a morbid excess of intellectual power. And he is like Narcissus, conjuring spectacular beauty only for that fragile meniscus to ripple the illusory imago and to churn up the mud on the fountain’s floor. Eros swings to its darker realms, to depression and psychosis; but each are constitutive (like everything in Coleridge’s universe) of the other.

And thus just as Coleridge the poet is inextricable from Coleridge the critic, [37] his effulgence (his shining forth as an exemplar of vaunted imagination) is dialectically paired with his effluence (his flowing out in more profligate fashion). The price of his sublime vision of homogenous heterogeneity is digestive pain and insomnia; [38] as translucent apprehension of the divine finds a tragic comeuppance in the scatological and excremental; and just as there is a delicate line between lecturing and lechering (between, that is, the sublimated libido in the intellectual conveyance of ideas of the sublime, and the very same libidinousness becoming unsublimated in the sexual act), Coleridge is suspended in a continuum of Eros and Thanatos, which lurches between a surplus of cognitive agitation and an abyss of intoxication.

This Janus-brained subject is crazed by too much awareness and is thus without a home; he is omnisexual to the point of being impotent; and sublime Eros is exorbitant enough to reach jouissance and death. That is to say, the Heraclitean dialectic, where ascent is also a descent, where one embraces an uncertain world of anxious joy and pregnant sadness unto death [39] is Coleridge’s sublimation of a more personal bipolar torquing between wretchedness and meaning’s apex in his sacramental encounter. His self-destructive symptoms are inscribed on the body’s surface as a failure of transcendence as an eclipse of divine translucence where the diaphanous membrane of symbol has faded, to darkness and opacity. Nevertheless, Coleridge survives due to a confluence of Christian faith, social rank and semiotic deftness his tightrope walking a noble sacrifice for the sake of the melancholic beauty he grants us.

Parties annexes