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Sound, silence, and voice in meditation: Coleridge, Berkeley, and the conversation poems.

... the interment of such a treasure in a dead language must needs be contrary to the intentions of the gracious Donor.

Coleridge, The Statesman's Manual

As James Engell reminds us, S. T. Coleridge considered himself a Berkeleian (110), yet elsewhere in Coleridge criticism we find more convincing denials: J. Robert Barth, for example, claims that we do not "have to resort to a Berkeleian philosophy" to find the source of Coleridge's belief in a God who actively sustains creation (Symbolic 20), while Seamus Perry argues that "his Berkeleianism is impure," because, "Even at his most rampantly idealist, he didn't deny that real existence of other things" (34). Thomas McFarland tells us that Berkeley "is specifically identified in the Biographia as one of the thinkers who had not provided [Coleridge] with 'an abiding place' for his 'reason'" (158). Coleridge's Berkeleianism is indeed impure, and, as Perry and McFarland would agree, nearly all Coleridge's work is held in suspension between idealist and realist tendencies; (1) furthermore, this tension is a fundamentally Christian one, inherent in a religion that worships a figure conceived as fully God and fully man. From such a viewpoint, Coleridge, so frequently accused of pantheism, appears more orthodox than a pseudo-Gnostic (and, McFarland would argue, implicitly pantheist) Berkeley.

In the writings of J. Robert Barth we find a valuable theoretical perspective from which to view the purpose of Christian poetry in general and of Coleridge's poetry in particular. We take as our starting point a concept drawn from Barth's study The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition: the idea that Christian poetry is essentially sacramental. That is to say, as the sacraments--particularly the Eucharist--represent God's entrance into the temporal world from transcendence (originally by the Incarnation, reenacted by the sacraments), so a Christian poetry properly conceived represents God's entrance into the world through language. Barth ties this idea of sacramental poetry to Coleridge's concept of symbol, which "articulates, however dimly, the 'interpenetration' of two disparate and often seemingly very distinct realities, such as humankind and God. It is by such language--poetic language--that the chasm between the immanent and the transcendent can be bridged" (Symbolic 26). Most important to Barth is "the notion of sacrament--and symbol--as encounter" (40), an encounter that takes place on two planes, "between the poet and the reader, for which the poem is setting and catalyst" and "between [the poet] and the sacred--the numinous 'other'--whether discovered within or outside one's self" (145). We may go farther; to conceive of poetry as an encounter between the poet and the divine can be understood as the continuation of revelation. The poet, therefore, becomes a sort of prophet (as indeed the Romantics often imagined), recording that inspired, revealed truth in such a way that others can follow and experience their own sacramental encounters.

We may, therefore, take as our guiding principle one central idea: the truest poetry records an encounter with God. The symbol of conversation, representing God's incarnational and sacramental communion with humankind, is central to the poems here under study; conversation in Coleridge is a sacramental act between the human and the divine, mediated by nature-as-language and by poetic language. His use of sound--both as sound imagery within the poem, and sound as the music of the poem's expression--correlates to the symbolic colloquy of sacrament. This technique depends upon a conception of the interdependence of the spiritual and physical worlds: as God is the ground of all being, the physical world depends upon the active and sustaining power of divinity to animate it; the spiritual, in turn, uses the physical world as a language, expressing divinity through and within the world it sustains. Accordingly, Coleridge uses sound to depict and emulate the fullness of creation, God's language, blurring the distinctions between spoken and written language, between sound and meaning, to perform his sacramental conversations. Finally, Coleridge is inspired to write a poetry that itself carries an inspired sacral and scriptural value, not only recording a sacramental encounter but also reenacting that encounter with each reading. Coleridge's poetry, then, is not intended to preserve revelation like a fly in amber, but to be a way for others, a road or doorway to the divine.

Coleridge's transformation of his intellectual debt to Berkeley, and the brilliant generic experiments in his conversation poems, provide us valuable examples to demonstrate the purposes and techniques described above. By building upon Berkeleian idealist principals but using his own realism as a reformative tool, Coleridge models a radical method of Christian meditation in his conversation poems. The key to Coleridge's reform is sound, silence, and conversation as a corrective, balancing measure against idealism's alienating distance from creation and, ultimately, the Creator. Coleridge's meditation, in contrast to the Western (and Eastern, for that matter) tradition of silent, inward contemplation, relies on--in fact, consists of--conversation; only through conversation can one encounter the Divine. The conversation poems, then, are useful in three ways: first, they demonstrate the tension in Coleridge's thinking between idealism and realism, showing how Berkeley's influence is mediated by Coleridge's faith in the word and poetry; secondly, they record and enact an encounter with divinity that steps beyond the dead letter of written scripture into a continuing and continuous divine revelation; finally, with their plentiful sound imagery and music, the conversation poems represent the ideal poetic genre for Coleridgean meditation, a meditation rooted in the living, sounding word.

Berkeleian Influence

Engell is correct in arguing that Berkeleian theosophy informs Coleridge's poetry and thought (110); Coleridge's whole poetic seems indebted to one crucial Berkeleian concept, the formulation of nature as a readable, comprehensible language of divine revelation. As early as A New Theory of Vision, Berkeley's first great work and the ground of his philosophy, Berkeley insists, "I think we may fairly conclude that the proper objects of vision constitute an universal language of the Author of nature" (147). Near the end of his career, in Siris, he reiterates this assertion:
 We know a thing when we understand it; and we understand it when
 we can interpret or tell what it signifies.... Therefore, the
 phenomena of nature, which strike on the senses and are understood
 by the mind, form not only a magnificent spectacle, but also a
 most coherent, entertaining, and instructive Discourse; and to
 effect this, they are conducted, adjusted, and ranged by the
 greatest wisdom. (253-54)

To Berkeley, in whose idealist philosophy all things exist by perception ("esse is percipi" he writes in Principles of Human Knowledge [3]), and take on meaning by understanding, all that exists, exists as a system of signs. That this language can be the language of God only is, to Berkeley, unquestionable, as it is God who not only created, but continues to sustain existence itself by his continual presence: "so long as they [created phenomena] 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" (Siris 6)--that is, while sensible objects exist only as they are perceived, all objects continually exist because they are continually perceived by God. In this way God sustains existence by his "immediate presence and immediate action," and it is God who "connects, moves, and disposes all things according to such rules, and for such purposes, as seem good to Him" (237). God is, according to Berkeley, an active, all-enveloping force that keeps all creation in existence by his continual attention, and he chooses to reveal himself through his creation. Thus "we do in all times and in all places perceive manifest tokens of the divinity" (Principles 148).

Berkeley's conception of God as sustainer of existence, and of nature as the intelligible language of God, with a grammar and interpretation, winds through Coleridge's poetry. We hear an echo of this sustaining God in the "one life within us and abroad / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul" in "The Eolian Harp" (lines 26-7). (2) In other conversation poems, Coleridge makes clear nature's role as language, veiling and revealing the divine: in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" for example, the long contemplation of nature makes it "seem / Less gross than bodily, and of such hues / As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes / Spirits perceive his presence" (40-43). Coleridge's use of the word "Spirits" is a notably Berkeleian touch, as Berkeley favors this word to differentiate "perceiving, active being" (particularly human subjects) from "ideas" the non-perceiving perceived (Principles 2). Interestingly, though, Coleridge imagines the spirit perceiving not signs of God through his language, but "his presence"--perhaps he is merely collapsing sign and author for poetic effect, but more likely the distinction reflects Coleridge's belief in the life and "thingness" of language, which we will discuss in more detail later. Elsewhere, in "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge hopes that his child will one day learn to "see and hear / The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language, which thy God / Utters" (63-6). In this passage, in contrast to "Lime-Tree Bower" the pause signified by a comma emphasizes "language" while the caesura delays the utterance and gives "God" a second emphasis in the line. The effect, however, seems rather similar; Coleridge collapses God and his language in line 65, giving the things--language and God--priority over the action that one uses to call the other into being.

These slight revisions of Berkeley give hints of Coleridge's larger break with Berkeleian thought, as does his description of "the great book of his [God's] servant Nature" in The Statesman's Manual (70). Already we see an odd touch: nature is a "servant" not only a language system; nature apparently has some active life. Nature, Coleridge writes, "has been the music of gentle and pious minds in all ages, it is the poetry of all human nature, to read it likewise in a figurative sense, and to find therein correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual world" (70). On one hand, we see Coleridge's Berkeleian insistence on nature as a language to be read; on the other, Coleridge formulates nature as a "music" and a "poetry," systems quite different from, though like, language. Coleridge's use of sound will further illuminate the importance of music and poetry for encountering God.

A second Berkeleian concept that needs consideration is the "minimum visibile" outlined in the Theory of Vision and revisited throughout Berkeley's writing. Quite simply, the minimum visibile represents the limit of human vision, the smallest perceivable point "beyond which sense cannot perceive" (54). The minimum visibile has been frequently misconstrued as a concept of the infinitesimal, but Berkeley makes it clear that the minimum visibile "is not infinitely divisible" and, in fact, that the concept renders the idea of infinity unnecessary (54). Berkeley reiterates this concept, renamed the "minimum sensible," in the Principles, again asserting that the concept itself makes the idea of infinity, which is "impossible" anyway, useless (132). There is no reason for infinity when imagining the minimum visibile because it conceives how the limits of vision effect the fullness of perception; in either case, since human vision cannot perceive infinity and because perception is full regardless, infinity is an unworkable concept. In every object, every plane of perception, the minimum visibile is "at all times an equal number" and whether in his study or outside surrounded by nature, Berkeley explains that his senses can perceive only a finite, but full, number of minima visibilia (Vision 82). As Engell writes, "Nature is everywhere equally full to our eye" (111).

Coleridge's claim, in "Lime-Tree Bower," that "No plot so narrow, be but Nature there" (61) points to Berkeley's concept of a full creation; no matter how small one's environment, whether under a bower or "the wide wide Heaven" (21), there is never any more or less to see. Further, Coleridge extends Berkeley's minimum visibile just as Berkeley himself did in the Principles, by continuing, "No waste so vacant, but may well employ / Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty!" (62-4, my italics). Here we have the minimum sensible demonstrated within a tiny bower, previously a prison, now a wide-open space filled with sensation. Plentitude, then, not infinitude, characterizes the minimum sensible, and the limitation of human sense is not a poverty but a richness, as Berkeley himself claims numerous times: "if we consider the use and end of sight ... we shall not find any great cause to complain of any defect or imperfection in it, or easily conceive how it could be mended" (Vision 87)--what could be better than fullness? In the Principles and Siris, respectively, Berkeley goes on to claim that "the very blemishes and defects of Nature [including, presumably, the limitations of our senses] are not without their use, in that they make an agreeable sort of variety, and augment the beauty of the rest of the creation" (152), while "excesses, defects, and contrary qualities conspire to the beauty and harmony of the world" (262). It is the "use and end of sight" that concerns Coleridge in "Lime-Tree Bower"--to "keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty." Here Coleridge does not conflict with Berkeley.

Idealism Vs Realism

Coleridge, however, is by no means a strict Berkeleian. His knowledge and thinking are too eclectic to call him a strict anything; as we have seen, even his most Berkeleian pronouncements are tempered by a revisionary spirit. As Seamus Perry convincingly argues, Coleridge's thought is formed by a tension between Berkeleian idealism and an abiding sense of reality, understood as the real existence of things. While "spirits" may perceive "ideas," Coleridge's break with Berkeley comes, according to Perry, on this crucial question of "things"--Coleridge's "objection is to the denial of things' otherness, independent of the mind" (33). While Berkeleian philosophy attempts to circumvent the problem of pure idealism by arguing that ideas exist outside individual perception because of God's continual perception, nevertheless, he refuses to acknowledge the existence of things:
 If it be demanded why I make use of the word idea, and do not
 rather in compliance with custom call them things. I answer,
 I do it for two reasons: first, because the term thing, in
 contradistinction to idea, is generally supposed to denote
 something existing without the mind:
 secondly, because thing hath a more comprehensive signification
 than idea, including spirits and thinking things as well as
 ideas. Since therefore the objects of sense exist only in the
 mind, and are withal thoughtless and inactive, I choose to mark
 them by the word idea, which implies these properties.
 (Principles 39)

Coleridge, on the other hand, takes exception with Berkeley's version of idea. In The Statesman's Manual he argues that "every idea is living, productive, partaketh of infinity, and ... containeth an endless power of semination" (23-24). In affirming the life of ideas, of Berkeley's things, Coleridge breaks from Berkeley's idealism in favor of a system that respects the sacral potential in all creation. Coleridge's dissatisfaction with pure idealism is of a piece with what Claire Miller Colombo calls his "dual affirmation of the temporal and the infinite" (34), his assurance that the spiritual world requires the physical world, and vice-versa, as a compound symbol.

Coleridge's problem with Berkeley can be easily situated as well within Thomas McFarland's discussion of the "I am" and "it is" traditions of philosophy. In his magnificent Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition, McFarland considers Western philosophy as a debate between two main schools of thought, in Coleridge's time identifiable as between Spinoza and Kant: the "I am" school, from Plato to Kant, which begins inward, with individual psychology; and the "it is" school, from Aristotle to Spinoza, which begins with the material world and always ends in pantheism. Coleridge's problem, as McFarland explains, is his "unresolvable tension of interests"--Coleridge's "inability either really to accept or wholeheartedly to reject pantheism is the central truth of Coleridge's philosophical activity" (107). As a poet, Coleridge was attracted to the pantheism that as a systematic philosopher he could not accept rationally, and yet neither could he accept the solipsism of radical idealism; he "never rejected the external world, and in fact, ultimately found neither Kant nor Plato sufficiently orientated towards nature to satisfy him--ultimately only Christianity satisfied him, and Christianity not only provides the strongest moral guarantees for the integrity of the human personality, but also, significantly, turns our eyes towards nature as the handiwork of God" (McFarland 129). Christian faith could fill all of Coleridge's philosophical needs: "All was connected, the moral sense was primary, the dignity of nature was necessary, and God was the anchor of the whole system" (222). Hence Coleridge's words in The Statesman's Manual, "A hunger-bitten and idea-less philosophy naturally produces a starveling and comfortless religion" (30); philosophy and religion owe their lives to one another.

When considered in McFarland's context, the failings in Berkeley's philosophy, from Coleridge's point of view, are clear. Berkeley's philosophy is too abstract, too cerebral, leaving no room for faith--all "head" and no "heart" which, according to McFarland, were equally essential for a full philosophy ("With Coleridge the emotional need for Christianity always came before the intellectual need for philosophy, but where the one went, the second was sure to follow" [170]). Coleridge needed "affirmation of the whole man--not just man thinking, but man thinking and feeling and longing" (McFarland 210). Coleridge's break with Berkeley, then, is based on one surprising fact: Berkeley's philosophy is not Christian enough. Berkeley, throughout his writing, considers the way in which God reveals himself--through thinking spirits' perception of ideas which can be read as God's language. But Berkeley's is a strangely passive version of reading; one encounters only the writing, not the writer. In short, Berkeley's theosophy finds no way to encounter God, only to read his revelation: his philosophy is not relational, but observational, though sacramental encounter with God ought to be at the center of any Christian world-view.

Further, Berkeleianism not only refuses a means to encounter God, but also to encounter other human beings. Berkeley, in fact, only slimly acknowledges that other human beings exist: "We may even assert, that the existence of God"--who is behind all things, always active in his creation, but oddly distant nonetheless--"is far more evidently perceived than the existence of men; because the effects of Nature are infinitely more numerous and considerable, than those ascribed to human agents" (Principles 147). But, in McFarland's words, it was necessary for Coleridge to "guarantee the living richness of the world and the moral freedom of the person" (223). Throughout Berkeley's writing, the emphasis is on perception, vision, seeing the things of God, never on experiencing or encountering them; Berkeley's theology, to use Barth's definition, is largely non-sacramental, insofar as sacrament is "an encounter of the human person with God" (Symbolic 41). Berkeley allows us only to see God's hand; Coleridge demands more.

The Conversation Poems

Though Western philosophy's tradition of privileging speech over writing, as proposed by Derrida, is today taken as gospel by many theorists, it more effectively describes Western secular thought than Western theological tradition. When he writes, in Of Grammatology, that "writing, the letter, the sensible inscription, has always been considered by Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit, to breath, to speech, and to the logos" (35), Derrida's purpose leads him to turn a blind eye to the near-worship, particularly in sola scriptura Protestantism, of the written word, especially of The Written Word of the Bible. (3) Such a conception makes revelation a past tense, leaving the Christian in the passive position of reading old formulations of the truth instead of experiencing new in the Holy Spirit, an abuse against which Coleridge argued strenuously in "Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit," calling it "Bibliolatry" (1142) (4). The same tendency informs Berkeley's conception of the divine writing of nature; for Coleridge, Berkeley's philosophy fails because it essentially embalms the word of God, even in supposedly vital nature. Therefore, Coleridge's critical revision of Berkeley can be understood as something more significant than a simple flip-flop of privileged terms, speech for writing; in fact, Coleridge extends and enriches Berkeley's theory to assert the continued revelation of God over a passive reading of messages long sent. In linking Berkeley's divine writing with the sound-speech of poetry, in writing his poetry at all, Coleridge seems, long before Derrida, to be uniting the spoken and the written. It would not be going too far to suggest that Coleridge, in his poetry in general and in the conversation poems in particular, seeks to establish a new scripture, a continued revelation, that performs the function of holy writ in recording and enacting a divine encounter.

Coleridge's conception of scripture must be taken as a piece with his ideas on symbol. The importance of "symbol" in Coleridge's thinking has been studied at length, and we need only a brief explanation. In The Statesman's Manual, Coleridge sets up an endlessly debated distinction between the language of allegory--"a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses ... both alike unsubstantial"--and the language of symbol, "characterized by a translucence of the Special into the Individual ... Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal" (30). The purpose of symbol, according to Barth, is "to reconcile opposites, or what seem to be opposites, including the secular and the religious, the temporal and the eternal" (Symbolic 140)--we might also add, of the real and the ideal. Coleridge's vision is one which simultaneously unifies and respects difference. However, many commentators since Paul de Man have trusted de Man's claim of a "certain degree of ambiguity" that closes the separation between symbol and allegory. According to de Man, the use of "translucence" means, "The material substantiality [of the symbol] dissolves and becomes a mere reflection of a more original unity that does not exist in the material world" (192). Coleridge's definitions are thus part of a Platonic material/spiritual dichotomy that privileges the spiritual. Because both symbol and allegory are "reflections," then, according to de Man, both "alike now have a common origin beyond the world of matter" breaking down the supposed superiority of the symbol's "organic or material richness" (192). By de Man's understanding, then, the difference between symbol and allegory is negligible.

But de Man does not adequately consider Coleridge's use of "translucence," like most critics, he makes the mistake of attempting to take the paragraph on symbol and allegory out of its spiritual/scriptural context without taking into account the discussion of scripture directly preceding. It is yet another example of how a purely secular philosophical approach to Coleridge is insufficient. Coleridge's words on symbol and allegory are prompted by his consideration of history in the Bible, in which the people and events "are the living educts of the Imagination" which "gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors" (Statesman's Manual, 29). Coleridge, we see, considers figures in scripture as both real and symbolic, equalizing as he always does both the material, organic (to use de Man's term) reality and the transcendent reality; such is the unification possible with symbol. As Coleridge writes, the scripture's "contents present to us the stream of time continuous as Life and a symbol of Eternity, inasmuch as the Past and the Future are virtually contained in the Present" (Manual, 29)--essentially "translucence" from a historical/temporal perspective. In a symbol, transcendent divinity shines through while leaving the symbol itself still intact, not, as de Man thinks, carrying the symbol so far in spiritualization "that the moment of material existence by which it was originally defined has now become altogether unimportant" (192). Coleridge's vision is not of a simplistically Platonic material=false, ideal=real dichotomy, but of a double reality of material and ideal. The symbol continues to be a real, particular thing, as Coleridge conceived of ideas as real, just as Jonah is understood simultaneously as a real, historical man and a symbolic type of Christ.

Accurately understood, the search for adequate symbol is in fact the search for divine revelation, but in the essential Appendix C to the Manual, Coleridge seems to go even further. Describing the way in which nature reveals the divine (the scripture of nature already discussed), Coleridge imagines the following:
 It seems as if the soul said to herself: from this state
 [of nature] hast thou fallen! Such shouldst thou still
 become, thy Self all permeable to a holier power! thy
 Self at once hidden and glorified by its own transparency.
 ... But what the plant is, by an act not its own and
 unconsciously--that must thou make thyself to become! must
 by prayer and by a watchful and unresisting spirit, join at
 last with the preventative and assisting grace to make
 thyself, in that light of conscience which inflameth not,
 and with the knowledge which puffeth not up. (71)

Here we see Coleridge urging himself to make himself symbol, to make himself translucent; in fact, it is nothing short of the sublimation of self into symbol, into scripture, into poetry, into divine revelation itself. Here Coleridge describes the sacramental encounter that the conversation poems attempt to put into motion and reality. Such an encounter, such a sublimation of self, is possible, Coleridge writes, by prayer. To Coleridge, Barth tells us, prayer was "an essential means of achieving the necessary union of the finite will with the Absolute Will" an act which is "supernatural, performed under the influence of grace, and so is an act both of God and of man" (Doctrine 182)--the "preventative and assisting grace" of which Coleridge writes. Coleridge thought of prayer as "wrestling," and called it "faith passing into act; a union of the will and the intellect realizing in an intellectual act. It is the whole man that prays" (quoted in Barth, Doctrine 183).

Considering this willful, agonistic understanding of prayer gives us another perspective from which to look at the conversation poems. We may consider them as prayer, as meditation, as sacrament, as attempting to write or rewrite scripture in a new and vital form; and, in Coleridge's unifying imagination, all these possibilities are in fact one and the same. To meet these heavy demands--to bring God, as it were, into the world--Coleridge designs a system with its roots in the strongest point of Berkeleian idealism--namely, the world as God's language--but that includes a place for sacramental encounter via other things and people. The indeterminate form of the genre he created for the purpose, the conversation poem, reflects its underlying philosophical bricolage: "he was consciously rejecting established genres, attempting to blend the best of flexible developments in meditative, descriptive, and reflective verse" (Engell 109). The concept itself--a conversation poem--seems Coleridge's response, as a poet, to Berkeley's reliance on sight and light to the detriment of the Word. Berkeley's conception of nature as the language of God seems to restrict nature to a written language, ignoring the life of language as intelligible sound; the curious absence of sound in a list early in the Principles--"the sensible qualities are colour, figure, motion, smell, taste, and such like, that is, the ideas perceived by sense (7)--makes the fact abundantly clear. Berkeley prioritized light, and visible ideas, as divine signs.

But Coleridge, as a poet, certainly seems to follow the Gospel's priority of the Word as sign of God (as in, of course, the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" [1.1]); as a poet, he considers the word in all its forms, as written symbol, as intelligible sound, and even as senseless, musical sound. Compare his version of nature to Berkeley's; Coleridge's nature is the "music of gentle and pious minds" and the "poetry of all human nature" (Statesman 70). Poetry is more than a set of written words for interpretation and understanding; poetry is the music of words, dependent on the relations of sounds for its meaning. In poetry particularly, words without sounds are incomplete. Furthermore, according to Barth, Coleridge has an abiding faith in the word, against "those who do not trust language to convey the deepest reality" (Transcendence 127); it is, in fact, the indeterminacy of language, its resistance to univocal readings, that demonstrates the vitality of the word, and gives it its sacramental strength (Symbolic 39). Words, as Engell notes, are to Coleridge "living things" (112), for nothing that is not living can have sacramental value. Language exists and gains meaning through relation, conversation, interaction; and it is this quality that Coleridge finds useful for meditation.

The second key problem with Berkeley's thought that Coleridge confronts with his conversation poems is the inability to relate to things, to others, or to God. "Thought for Coleridge," in Barth's words, "involves quest and discovery, and he expects his readers to join him on the quest, with Coleridge as intellectual friend and guide" (Symbolic 29). The egalitarian vision contained in that image is one that Coleridge's Christian faith is built upon. To Barth, Coleridge's poetry is a poetry of encounter, "the encounter between the poet and the reader, for whom the poem is setting and catalyst," and the "encounter between himself or herself and the sacred--the numinous 'other'--whether discovered within or outside one's self" (Symbolic 145). This poetic encounter is fundamentally Christian; the problem with Berkeleian subjectivity is its failure to account for others when Christian faith demands that other things, and people, exist. Christian faith, after all, requires others for the believer to love: Christ's only two commandments (loosely paraphrased) are "Love God" and "Love Others" Barth may put Coleridge's poetic philosophy best: "the act of imagination is at bottom an act of love" a most Christian act (Transcendence 123).

Therefore, the conversations share the crucial element of a second person (or persons) who functions variously as a surrogate (Charles in "Lime-Tree Bower, Hartley in "Frost at Midnight" [Barry 602]), a listener (Wordsworth and Dorothy in "The Nightingale," Sara in "The Eolian Harp"), or a questioner (Sara again). The presence of this second person is absolutely necessary for the meditation represented by the poem to take place; Coleridge's poet must have a listener to hear and respond to the intelligible sounds of his poetry. The possibility that such a use of individuals as tools for meditation objectifies these listeners is a problem not easily answered. Coleridge seemed to think of others largely in terms of identification and greater self-awareness, as Lockridge explains: "to be conscious of oneself requires a synchronous commitment to the reality of another" (124-25). "If one were not aware of the relatedness of the self to others" Lockridge writes, "the self would lack definition" (156); the imagination, then, has a "moral or humanizing power" because it makes us aware of a "community of living selves" (97). As Coleridge himself wrote, "there can be no I without a Thou, and ... a Thou is only possible by an equation in which I is taken as equal to Thou, and yet not the same" (qtd. in McFarland 238). Coleridge's manner of using others as his surrogates, or of imputing his thoughts to another, could be taken as egotistical, but we shall see in our examination of the poems that such imaginative reaching-out offers instead the opportunity to express Christian charitas toward the other souls whose very existence Berkeley would doubt.

Relation, then--whether the relation of sounds in poetry, the relation of sound to written sign, or the relation of human to God or other human--is the fundamental point of the conversation poems. Coleridge even, correcting Berkeley, provides a relation and equalization between light and sound: the "one life" in "The Eolian Harp" is "a light in sound, a sound-like power in light / Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere" (28 -9). Though Engell claims that, as in traditional meditative tradition, "it is the absence of sound--stillness and silence--that likewise accompanies and envelops epiphanic moments of feeling" (115), sound, in fact, initiates, sustains, and guides meditation in all of the conversation poems. It is through sound and conversation that encounters between the poet and other people, and between the poet and God, occur. Because conversation is dependent on language, and in Coleridge's poetic art language and sound are mutually dependent, sound provides the critical medium for encounter and meditation. A reading of the central poems--those poems undeniably identified as "conversation poems"--will demonstrate Coleridge's conversational method of meditation.

First, sound: in "The Eolian Harp," for example, the sound of the harp is obviously the thing that triggers the poet's contemplation, but it is not the first sound in the poem; after a movement through sight ("watch the clouds" [6]) and smell ("How exquisite the scents / Snatched from yon bean-field!" [9-10]), Coleridge notices first the "world so hushed" then revises his understanding of this sensation: "The stilly murmur of the distant sea / Tells us of silence" (11-12). "Tells us of silence" is no mere word game; in the world of the conversation poems, in which there is no such thing as true silence, the sound of the sea focuses the poet's mind and allows him to see the sound in silence. It is, in fact, this telling of silence that focuses his mind to hear the "simplest lute" on which his meditation proper depends.

Michael Raiger claims that the central symbol of "The Eolian Harp" represents the way in which Coleridge converts realism and idealism "into a single system of necessity which nevertheless preserves the sense of the vitality of action in nature, including human nature, in contrast to a mechanical system of causes" (83), and if he is incorrect in anything, it is in thinking that the conversion is ultimately unsatisfying to Coleridge. The meditation does not fail when Coleridge is pulled back into reality at the end. This "failure" in fact, is the point; the real problem with his meditation on the harp is that the "witchery of sound" the harp creates leads the poet into an idealist reverie that separates him from reality and his listener. He checks the minimum sensible in exclaiming, "Methinks, it should have been impossible / Not to love all things in a world so filled" (30-1), then launches into his most purely Idealist dream:
 And what if all of animated nature
 Be but organic harps diversely framed,
 That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
 Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

 At once the Soul of each, and God of all? (44-8)

So we see a Berkeleian passivity, a world of non-agents without life only moved by God like toys. It is Sara who calls him back to the world of reality with the "mild reproof" of her "serious eye" (49), and we suddenly recall that the poem begins with "pensive Sara"; it is she, as a perceivable, encounterable thing, that begins the contemplation that turns into meditation. In his idealist fervor the poet forgets her (that is, separates himself), but without Sara's thoughtful presence, there would be no meditation, and while she may be considered negatively as the one who drags the poet down from the heights of transcendence, it is rather her reproof that saves him from "vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring" and reminds him of the humility necessary for sacramental encounter: "never guiltless may I speak of him, / The Incomprehensible! save when with awe / I praise him" (57-60). Notice Coleridge does not say that he cannot speak of God--only that speaking of him without praising him (taking his name in vain, as it were) is illegitimate. Coleridge retains his faith in the word.

So is it in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" a poem in which Berkeleian philosophy is especially upended and re-created. Here we can use James Engell's reading, which posits the poem as thoroughly Berkeleian, against itself. Tellingly, the first few lines depict an image of a future day "when age / Had dimmed mine eyes to blindness!" (4-5). Ironically, Engell sees this opening as an affirmation of Berkeley's insistence on the eye as "a visual semiotic organ [that] ultimately nurtures moral feelings and actions" (114); Coleridge's use of blindness, according to Engell, demonstrates the way in which vision, as all senses, should be used not for its own sake, but for reading natural signs that can be remembered, as moral lessons, later. While, as Engell insists, we should not think of "Coleridge's condemnation of the 'tyranny of the eye'" as a "flat rejection of vision nor a presumption of its false light" (114), we have seen Coleridge's condemnation already, not directed against the eye specifically, but against the priority of any sense over another. In foretelling a future of blindness, Coleridge reminds us, yet again, of the equality, unity, and mutual dependency of the senses.

Engell recognizes that sound and silence, in addition to vision and blindness, "play a vital role in the poem" but he fails to recognize the importance of sound as meditative medium. In fact, he mistakenly claims that "it is the absence of sound--stillness and silence--that likewise accompanies and envelops epiphanic moments of feeling" (115), when we can clearly hear that there is no silence whatsoever in the poem. Engell's examples--"as I have stood, / Silent with swimming sense," and "While thou stood'st gazing; or, when all was still"--do not fit (115). In the first, only the speaker is still; his "swimming sense" suggests all the senses in concert, all in a high register. In the second, "when all was still" is broken by the "creeking" of the rook, which Coleridge imagines flying over carrying his charm. Even in his bower Coleridge notices that, though the bat and the swallow are silent, he can still hear "the solitary humble bee [that] / Sings in the bean-flower" (58-59). What Coleridge demonstrates is not the power of silence to enrapture a subject but a variation on Berkeley's minimum sensible--nature is full, and his recognition of this fullness is key to his meditative moment. As in the other conversation poems, however, this recognition is not a passive reading of nature but an active encounter and engagement with it. Engell recognizes the "remarkable number of repetitions that connect and advance," the way in which the poem has a "larger structure of inclusion and connection" in which "Coleridge, Lamb, the Wordsworths, and natural objects are all syntactically bound each to each" (117), yet he does not attempt to explain how this linguistic structure constitutes the meditative power of the poem. Again, this is not a Berkeleian poetry of observation but a Coleridgean poetry of encounter: Coleridge, always the great connector, uses even the structure of his poem to bring human subjects and natural things together. Coleridge does not just read the written language of God, he involves himself with it, when, after his contemplation, he sees "the last rook / Beat its straight path along the dusky air / Homeward" and blesses it (68-70). Whatever Engell may believe, we have seen that such engagement is not Berkeleian, but Coleridgean.

The interplay of silence and sound is especially fascinating in "The Nightingale." As the one poem labeled "A Conversation Poem," its status as the archetype of the form is unquestionable. In this poem, as in all the others, the poet addresses an immediate audience, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. In this poem, also as in all the others, sound is the trigger of meditation. Coleridge stacks the deck against light and vision here, opening with an image of imagelessness: "No cloud, no relique of the sunken day / Distinguishes the West, no long thin slip / Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues" (1-3). He further notes that there is no sound, as the stream under their bridge "flows silently" and "All is still, / A balmy night!" (6-8). But slowly the sensory deprivation, like the sea that "tells us of silence," reveals sensations: "we shall find / A pleasure in the dimness of the stars. / And hark! the Nightingale begins its song" (10-12). The silence of the opening is only a precursor to sound, as it is again later in the poem when he tells the story of the "gentle maid" who "heard a pause of silence" that came just before a flock of nightingales, wakened by the moon, "burst forth in choral minstrelsy, / As if one quick and sudden Gale had swept / An hundred airy harps!" (69-82). Coleridge returns here to the image of the eolian harp, to the sound that is a medium for meditation, but with the change that the birds act out of their own vitality, only awakened and excited by the wind, not dependent upon it. The birds may be ideas, but they are also things, with their own life and activity.

The imagery of this poem, too, appears to be in dialogue with idealism's prioritizing of sight and light (visual reading); Coleridge insists that the poet's art is shaped by "the influxes / Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements," implicitly equalizing vision, hearing, and all of the other senses (27-8). Elsewhere, the poet describes the nightingales "Stirring the air with such an harmony, / That should you close your eyes, you might almost / Forget it was not day!" (62-3). These are deeply strange, and deeply revelatory, lines. Notice first that it is "harmony," the relation of sounds, that has such an effect on the listener; notice then the conflation of sound and light, as the nightingales' song makes day of night. Here we have a refutation of Berkeley's visionary passivity, an affirmation of sensory unity and relation. The interplay of sound and silence, light and sound, also finds a vehicle in Coleridge's child, who ends the poem. The poet speculates that his "dear Babe, / Who, capable of no articulate sound, / Mars all things with his imitative lisp" would, on hearing the nightingale, "place his hand beside his ear, / His little hand, the small forefinger up, and bid us listen!" (91-6). Here the child could be seen as a poet figure; as the poet uses language in imitation of God, marring it; nevertheless he has a crucial role in showing others the need to listen. The child's innocent affirmation of the importance of listening represents the poet leading his listeners and readers in meditation, however limited and imperfect, on the audible, intelligible language of God.

The infant Hartley plays a critical role in another of the conversation poems, "Frost at Midnight" and here as well he is a kind of surrogate for the poet. The poem begins, again, with silence, as there is no wind (or sound of wind) to aid the frost's "secret ministry" (1-2). There is, briefly, the cry of an owl, then utter silence. While the poet claims that his "solitude ... suits / Abstruser musings" (5-6), still the calm is "so calm, that it disturbs / And vexes meditation with it's [sic] strange / And extreme silentness" (8-10). Contrary to the usual Western conception, silence is not a boon to meditation, but an impediment, for silence represents a dearth of conversation, the absence of divine language or human encounter. The poet cannot proceed in his meditation without some sound, which he finds metaphorically in the "stranger," the "sole unquiet thing" (16). Interestingly, the adjective "unquiet" with its double meaning, refers specifically to the fluttering movement of the film stuck to the fireplace grate, not to a sound; once again, Coleridge is demonstrating not only the relations of senses to each other but also the relations of words by making his meditation turn on a pun. What matters to his meditation is finding a "companionable form" in the stranger. The encounter his child cannot provide is shifted instead to a thing. Nor is it insignificant that his meditative remembrance calls up memories of "the old church tower, / Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang ... So sweetly, that they stirr'd and haunted me / With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear / Most like articulate sounds of things to come" (33-8). His meditation returns him to an enthusiastic moment in his past, to another time when sound became the medium of some divine encounter. The sound of the bells, of music, seems like "articulate" prophetic sounds, the sounds of revelation. In this passage, Coleridge alerts us to the multiplicity of divine encounters, of the many possibilities of meditation, by introducing an ecstatic moment into what is otherwise a quiet, restful (but not silent) meditation.

His meditation, mediated by the stranger, brings the poet's attention back to his child, who, it seems, was never silent at all: the baby's breathings, "heard in this dead calm / Fill up the interspersed vacancies / And momentary pauses of the thought!" (50-2); the baby was never silent, but the poet, lost in his loneliness, could not hear or recognize the other presence. As he discovers his child's presence, the poet is able to establish an imaginary identification with him, making the child his surrogate. Barry calls it a "peculiar composite subjectivity--two companionable forms sharing one identity" (611). He dreams of bringing the child up in the countryside, where he will "see and hear / The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language, which thy God / Utters" (63-6). He will teach his son, as his son teaches him in "The Nightingale," his way of meditation, to see the unity of senses and to hear and read the revelation of God; what he dreams of, in fact, is his own unification with the child he loves into a sacramental emblem for a fragmentary world.

We notice, undoubtedly, that in none of these poems does a divine encounter appear as a blinding revelation, a sudden, violent act of God, or anything else we customarily consider signs of a meeting with the Almighty. Rather, these poems record small moments of recognition, founded on connections with people, places, and things, simple reality. Indeed, their sacred import seems more a matter of mood or tone than dramatic epiphany; they are meditative, sacramental, in themselves, not because of their outcomes. As Barth reminds us, to Coleridge "the act of perceiving symbols (primary imagination) or of making symbols (secondary imagination) is essentially a religious act," because God is "the supreme symbol-maker, the supreme symbol-perceiver" (Symbolic 38). The personal nature of the poems--in using his closest family and friends as surrogates, in often revealing himself confessionally (as is appropriate for inward, meditative prayers), is also in keeping with the aspects Coleridge found most engaging about scripture: the human, the particular, even the weak and flawed. In the Confessions, Coleridge, arguing against the doctrine of biblical infallibility, writes of the scripture:
 But let me once be persuaded that all these heart-awakening
 Utterances of human Hearts, of Men of like faculties and passions
 with my own, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing, are but
 as a 'Comedia Diving of a superhuman--O bear with me, if I
 say--Ventriloquist ... --all is gone! all sympathy, at least, all
 example! I listen in awe and fear, but likewise in perplexity and
 confusion of Spirit. (1136)

Ultimately it is with this concentration on the human that Coleridge revives divine language from Berkeley's "dead letter" of divine writing. Berkeley's failing from a Christian point of view, it would seem, is an emphasis on the Light over the Word, of the visible, written word over the living and continually speaking Word. In place of Berkeley's incomplete, unsatisfying idealism, Coleridge proposes a symbolic language of meditation that, if unsustainable and broken, still provides the comfort of encounter in a multi-leveled conversation: external, with another human; internal, within one's self; and sacral, with God. Using the word in its completeness, as written sign and audible sound, Coleridge creates a poetry in which the fullness of sound metonymically represents the fullness of physical creation and of God's complete presence in creation. In combining idealism with realism, in creating the conversation poem as a hybrid genre, Coleridge is in fact following the example of his God: "From God's Love through his Son, crucified for us from the beginning of the world, Religion begins: and in Love towards God and the creatures of God it hath its end and completion" (Manual 92).


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Berkeley, George. An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision. 1709. Luce and Jessop, Vol. 1.

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--. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. 1710. Luce and Jessop, Vol. 2.

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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit" 1824. Shorter Works and Fragments. Eds. H. J. Jackson and J. R. de J. Jackson. Vol. 11 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 16 vols. to date. 1969-.

--. Poetical Works. Ed. J. C. C. Mays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Vol. 16 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 16 vols. to date. 1969-.

--. The Statesman's Manual. 1816. Lay Sermons. Ed. R. J. White. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972. Vol. 6 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 16 vols. to date. 1969-.

Colombo, Claire Miller. "Reading Scripture, Writing Self: Coleridge's Animation of the 'Dead Letter.'" Studies in Romanticism 35 (1996): 27-53.

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Engell, James. "Imagining into Nature: 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison'" Critical Essays on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Leonard Orr. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994. 108-23.

Lockridge, Laurence S. Coleridge the Moralist. London: Cornell UP, 1977.

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Eolian Harp." Coleridge Bulletin: The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge 20 (2002): 76-84.


(1) I will here be using the word "idealist" to refer specifically to Berkeley's denial of material reality, and "realist" to Coleridge's defense thereof; no other technical uses should be assumed. Such usage largely corresponds to McFarland's "I am/it is" dichotomy.

(2) All Coleridge poems are cited from Poetical Works, Vol. 16 of the Princeton Collected Works, ed. J. C. C. Mays.

(3) Though Derrida himself recognizes a second tradition in his discussion of Saussure's battles with the "tyranny of writing" (38), pursuing such does not serve his purpose. An investigation of the roots and shoots of this "tyranny" though sadly far out of the scope of this essay, would be a fascinating path of research.

(4) Barth sees Coleridge's attempt to find a middle ground between the two extremes of sola scriptura and Roman Catholic faith in church tradition as an important part of his religious development (Doctrine 82). The desire, of course, is yet another example of Coleridge's abiding unifying impulse.

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Title Annotation:Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Berkeley
Author:Morris, G.S.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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