In his own words, Coleridge only ever ‘seem’d’ a poet (PW I 2 1145); what he was was a sort of Sandman, a weaver of elusive ‘Day-Dreams’, ‘Sorts of Dreams’, ‘Reveries’, ‘Visions in Dream’, and ‘Fragments from the life of Dreams’ (Toor 1).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge is considered one of the greatest of the English Romantic poets. He was born in 1772 in Devonshire, England to his father, the Vicar of Ottery, the Reverend John Coleridge, and his mother, Anne Bowden Coleridge. We know him best for his epic poems, Kubla Khan, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
He attended Jesus College, Cambridge, where he had a most tumultuous time. It ended in his leaving College in 1795 and taking up public lecturing in Bristol with his friend, Robert Southey. Undoubtedly, his daimon deemed it necessary for him to have different experiences at that point in his life. These would usher forth the beauties that lay within him. Even though his stint at Cambridge was over, the fecundity of his imagination would grace mankind with beauty beyond belief.
Coleridge was not simply a poet. His interests were diverse. He was a pamphleteer and public lecturer during the early days of the French Revolution. His message promoted a communistic, anti-violent form of society that he and Southey wished to create in America. Coleridge was also a philosopher, folklorist, psychologist, playwright, travel writer, and amateur naturalist. He also was quite the literary critic, penning excellent works on Shakespeare.
As a psychologist, Coleridge was very interested in the imagination and dreams. His ideas on the imagination are alchemical and magical. The imaginative poet is one who
brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which I would exclusively appropriate the name of Imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control, laxis effertur habenis, reveals “itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant” qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry (BL II 16).
The imagination is a transformative power within humans that possesses the potential to change anything and everything. Coleridge uses alchemical language to describe the power of the imagination. The reconciliation of opposites is a basic alchemical principle in which the fusion and union of the disparate elements result in the lapis philosophorum, the philosopher’s stone (in this case, the completed poem). Coleridge even goes so far as to cite the Ouroboros as symbolizing this process:
The common end of all narrative, nay, of all Poems is to convert a series into a Whole: to make those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings, a circular motion—the snake with its Tail in its Mouth (CL IV 545).
As with C.G. Jung, this process for Coleridge is the fusing of conscious and unconscious contents within the psyche. Upon reading about Coleridge’s theory of poetry, I was astounded that he had used the same term for the process of integration that Jung had used, except that Coleridge equated the very essence of life itself with individuation.
I define life as the principle of individuation, or the power which unites a given all into a whole that is presupposed by all its parts (BL II 62).
Another aspect of Coleridge’s work that makes him important to modern depth psychology is his dream experiences and subsequent encounters with the archetypes. For example, while working on his poem, Christabel, Coleridge meets with a “deep, unutterable Disgust,” a very dark and terrible disposition that hinders him from completing the poem (CL I 643). This is an example of an encounter with the Shadow. Coleridge notices there are two personalities within, just as Jung had done so years later. Coleridge calls his day-ego, ego-diurnus, while the nighttime-ego is ego nocturnus (CN III 4409). These are the polar powers of the psyche. Coleridge called a poem a “rationalized dream,” where unconscious contents merge with consciousness in giving birth to the poem. To me, this sounds as if the poem is the soul in the process, since it is to be found in the middle region between conscious and unconsciousness.
Finally, in an amazing statement concerning alchemy, Coleridge peers down the pathways of Time and seems to see what Jung saw less than one hundred years later:
I am persuaded that the chymical technology, as far as it was borrowed from Life & Intelligence, half-metaphorically, half mystically, may be brought back again… to the use of psychology in many instances—& above all, in the philosophy of Language—which ought to be experimentative & analytic of the elements of meaning, their single, double, triple & quadruple combinations,—of simple aggregation, or of composition by balance of opposition. Thus innocence is distinguished from Virtue & vice versa—In both there is a positive, but in each opposite. A Decomposition must take place in the first instance, & then a new Composition, in order for Innocence to become Virtue. It loses a positive—& then the base attracts another different positive, by the higher affinity of the [same] Base under a different Temperature for the Latter (CN III 3312, qtd. in Toor 89-90).
Here, Coleridge is referring to applying alchemical processes to psychology and literature, which is exactly what we’ve been doing since Jung rediscovered the effectiveness of alchemy in his psychoanalytic work.
From Coleridge, today we enjoy the valuable gifts of soul that he has bequeathed upon us. Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan are, of course, the most popular. I see these as powerful examples of soul, the soul of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and products of the Anima Mundi, since they emerged autochthonously from nature. Coleridge was a Master of Imagination, and an illustrious Doctor of Soul.
Coleridge references use standard abbreviations. See The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Toor, Kiran. Dream Weaver: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the prefiguring of Jungian Dream Theory. The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 24 (NS) Winter 2004.
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