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vi. The psychology of the sublime

vi. The psychology of the sublime

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Coleridge and Romantic Psychology

of all Sublimity on Association.—The sound of Thunder?—Sublime—No! it is a mistake—it is a cart over a hollow road, or going

under an arch way.—Where is the Sublimity.—This fairly took me in,

but now I see the fallacy. There is here no dependence—of Sublimity

&c—but a true actual Substitution of the visual Image of a Cart and its

low accompaniments and of the word Cart & its associations for the

Sound first heard which was & always will be sublime if indeed it can

be mistaken for Thunder. It is false that the Thunder clap depends

for all its sublimity on our notion of the danger of Lightning

& Thunder—with its height &c—These aid but do not constitute/for

how divinely grand in beauty is the great Aurora Borealis/yet no one

will pretend that its crackling, tho’ strange & impressive, is either

sublime or grand or beautiful. But the fairest Proof a contra, & that

which darted this Truth thro’ my mind was the Commodore’s

Signal—which is truly sublime even as a Star is/so truly so, as long as

I look at it or keep its Image before me, that even the word & visual

Image Lanthorn & Candle only stands near it or under it, inert—Let

that noise be produced by the Chariot Wheels of Salmoneus—So too

recollect the Hawk’s flying all that cloudy day falling like a shooting

Star thro’ a Jacob’s Ladder or slanting Column of Sunshine—I am much

pleased with this Suggestion, as with everything that overthrows &

or illustrates the overthrow of that all-annihilating system of explaining every thing wholly by association/either conjuring millions out of

o, o, o, o, o, o, o o—or into noughts.

(BL Add. MS 47, 512 ff45–46)

* * *


In the outward misfortunes or common sorrows of Life from Sickness, the Death of Child or Friend, or Loss of temporal advantages, . . .

the noble Being within me, the Veiled Immortal, will rebuke my Grief,

and in its own innate yearnings after Infinity awaken Correspondent

Thoughts of the Infinite, will bring before my Imagination the pomp

of Creation, before my purest Reason the aweful Sense of the

Creator, how he has distributed the Suns & their circling Worlds,

Coleridge and Romantic Psychology


the Angels & higher Intelligences, the little human Hearts & arranged

all our days, and all our Sorrows—all alike parts of our system, links

of the same Chain/and then forced the awing yet elevating question

to men—And wouldst thou . . . lift thyself up out of thy Dust against

him and say—Omniscient Goodness, change thy plans, revoke thy


(BL Add. MS 47, 515 f82)

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‘An intuitive beholding’:1 Aspects

of the Sublime in Coleridge’s

Religious Thought

Coleridge was always a religious writer of one kind or another—

whether in terms of the Christian and Neoplatonic vision (paradoxically

supported by materialist or scientific arguments) which he derived

from Hartley and Priestley in the 1790s, or in terms of his attempt to

combine Schellingian idealism with Christianity in the middle

period of his writing, or in terms of his later meditations on the Supreme

Reason and its relation to the human soul—again, a Neoplatonic

vision in the sense of (partly) echoing Plotinus’s conception of Being

as striving upwards towards its divine origin, yet at the same time

emphatically Christian in its values, though partly Kantian in its

terminology. 2 The majority of the passages collected below illustrate

the third of these phases of Coleridge’s work, when the successive

influences of eighteenth-century British empiricist thinkers and of

the post-Kantian idealists had given way to a more consistent—

though still exploratory—emphasis on the sublimity of religious

truths. Reason, Coleridge repeatedly argues, is the organ of a faith

which at the same time constitutes knowledge—specifically, a knowledge

of truths which are incomprehensible to the human understanding.3

Just as our consciousness can never reflect directly on itself, but only

on our prior experiences, and hence can have no direct knowledge of

its own continuity, or of the logical connectedness of its arguments,

and must therefore assume a continuity—an identity of self and other—

of which it has no direct evidence, Coleridge argues, so consciousness

in general assumes a unity of self and other underlying all aspects of

our experience—a ‘self-comprehending being’ who possesses this

capacity for direct self-intuition which human beings can never



Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought

achieve. 4 Hence consciousness implies a certain ‘faith’ which we can

never wholly escape from however much we might seek to question

it—a faith in the unity of our own consciousness which he sees as

echoing or reflecting the higher and originating unity of God. This

conception—partly derived from Schelling, but given an emphatically

Christian articulation in Coleridge’s later writings—became the central

focus of his celebration of our direct confrontation with the incomprehensible ‘Infinite’, which is in an important sense the purest form

of the sublime in Coleridge’s writings.

In addition to this recurrent theme, however, Coleridge’s persistent

preoccupation with discovering unity among the apparent separateness and diversity of the objects of consciousness often gave rise—

particularly in his earlier writings—to a more pantheistic vision of

God as constituting or grounding the unity of the infinite universe,

or in other words as the Plotinian ‘One’ from which all being emerges

and up to which it reascends.5 Like his meditations on human

and divine Reason or the inspiration of the human soul by a unity

above that which it assumes in itself, these earlier conceptions which

lean towards pantheism involve a similar celebration of man’s

constant striving and sublimely elevating failure to achieve that

‘intuitive beholding of truth in its eternal and immutable source’

which St. Paul describes as constituting ‘the final bliss of the glorified

spirit’ (LS [CC], 48).6 Perhaps the most consistent feature of Coleridge’s

religious thought, indeed, is its envisaging of two contrasting levels

of consciousness, the lower of which continually confronts its own

limitations and the mysterious grandeur of the higher, echoing

Kant’s conception of sublime feeling as arising from an inability to

comprehend everything that we apprehend.7 What enables us to

apprehend or ‘intuit’ the divine, again, is for Coleridge the miraculous

faculty of a Reason which connects us with God, yet whose insight

can never be grasped by intellect or understanding. One of the most

important ways in which this preoccupation with the incomprehensible manifests itself in his later writings is in his fascination with

paradoxes or antinomies which he uses to evoke the inability of the

understanding to form any conception of the ideas of Reason.8 This

view of consciousness and psychology, though in large part derived

from Kant, clearly expresses Coleridge’s enduring sense of the division

not only between ‘classes’ of intellect and imagination, but also

between those who have, and have not, been awakened to the influx

Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought


of divine Reason in themselves. 9 The opposition between reason and

understanding—or, as Kant describes it in his most important discussion

of the sublime, between our intuition of truth and our inability to

comprehend it10—in other words, is also used by Coleridge to

express his consistent sense of alienation from the mundane and

materialistic values which he felt were increasingly prevalent in early

nineteenth-century society, and to distinguish his own insights and

values (as well as those of his philosophical and literary precursors)

from the dominant values of his age.

From ‘A Sermon written when the Author was but 17 Years old’


In addition to your steady faith in Revealed Religion, accustom

yourselves to contemplate the grand and sublime works of God in

his Creation. They will assimilate your minds and make them great.

Consider Omnipotence pervading and vivifying all Nature with his

Wisdom and Benevolence. Lift yourselves above the little sphere of

present existence, and contemplate yourselves in your future being.

When inspired by these surveys with the holy flame of Devotion the

soul pours itself forth in generous extacy; who can retain the little

cold heart? Who not despise the low Passions and yet lower Appetites

of this World[?]

(SWF, 1: 16–17)

From a letter to Thomas Poole, 19 September 180112

By a letter from Davy I have learnt, Poole, that your mother is with

the Blessed. I have given her the tears and the pang which belong to

her departure, and now she will remain to me forever, what she had

long been—a dear and venerable image, often gazed at by me in

imagination, and always with affection and filial piety. She was the

only being whom I ever felt in the relation of Mother; and she is with

God! We are all with God!

What shall I say to you! I can only offer a prayer of thanksgiving

for you, that you are one who has habitually connected the act of


Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought

thought with that of feeling; and that your natural sorrow is so mingled

up with a sense of the omnipresence of the Good Agent, that I cannot

wish it to be other than what I know it is. The frail and the too painful

will gradually pass away from you, and there will abide in your spirit

a great and sacred accession to those solemn Remembrances and

faithful Hopes in which, and by which, the Almighty lays deep the

foundations of our continuous Life, and distinguishes us from the

Brutes that perish. As all things pass away, and those habits are broken

up which constituted our own and particular Self, our nature by a moral

instinct cherishes the desire of an unchangeable Something, and

thereby awakens or stirs up anew the passion to promote permanent

good, and facilitates that grand business of our existence—still further,

and further still, to generalise our affections, till Existence itself is swallowed up in Being, and we are in Christ even as He is in the Father.

(CLE, 1: 364–5)

From his notebook

September–October 1802 13

Meditate on Trans substantiation! What a conception of a miracle!

Were . . . one a Catholic, what a sublime oration might not one make

of it!—Perpetual, παntopical—yet offering no violence to the Sense,

exercising no domination over the free will—a miracle always existing, yet perceived only by an act of the free will—the beautiful Fuel

of the Fire of Faith/the fire must be pre-existent, or it is not fuel—yet

it feeds & supports, & is necessary to feed & support, the fire that

converts it into its own nature.

(BL Add. MS 47, 518 ff49v–50)

* * *

July–August 1804 14

Saw in early youth as in a Dream the Birth of the Planets; & my eyes

beheld as one what the Understanding afterwards divided into 1. the

Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought


origin of the masses, 2. the origin of their motions, and 3. the site or

position of their Circles & Ellipses—all the deviations too were

seen . . . in one intuition of one, the self-same, necessity—& this

necessity was a Law of Spirit—& all was Spirit—and in matter . . . all

beheld the past activity of others or their own—this Reflection, this

Echo, is matter—its only essence, if essence it be—and of this too

I saw the necessity and understood it—but I understood not, how

infinite multitude and manifoldness could be one. Only I saw & understood, that it was yet more out of my power to comprehend how it

could be otherwise—& . . . in this unity I worshipped in the depth of

knowledge that passes all understanding the Being of all things—and

in Being their sole Goodness—and I saw that God is the one, the

Good—possesses it not, but is it.

(BL Add. MS 47, 518 f103)

From ‘Confessio Fidei of S.T. Coleridge’ (1810) 15

I BELIEVE that I am a free agent, inasmuch as, and so far as, I have

a will, which renders me justly responsible for my actions, omissive

as well as commissive. Likewise that I possess reason, or a law of right

and wrong, which, uniting with my sense of moral responsibility,

constitutes the voice of conscience.

II. Hence it becomes my absolute duty to believe, and I do believe,

that there is a God, that is, a Being, in whom supreme reason and

a most holy will are one with an infinite power; and that all holy will

is coincident with the will of God, and therefore secure in its

ultimate consequences by His omnipotence;—having, if such similitude

be not unlawful, such a relation to the goodness of the Almighty, as

a perfect time-piece will have to the sun.

(Shedd, 5: 15)

From his notebook, April 181116

As the most far-sighted Eye even aided by the most powerful

Telescope will not make a fixed Star appear larger than it does to an


Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought

ordinary & unaided Sight, even so there are heights of Knowledge,

& Truths sublime, which all men . . . in possession of the ordinary

human understanding may comprehend as much and as well as the

profoundest Philosopher & the most learned Theologian. Such are

the Truths relating to the Logos, and its Oneness with the Selfexistent

Deity, and of the Humanity of Christ, & its union with the Logos—.

It is idle therefore to refrain from preaching on these Subjects,

provided only such preparation have been made, as no man can be

a Christian without. The misfortune is, that the majority are Christians

in name & by birth only—let them but once according to S t James

have looked down steadfastly into the Law of Liberty or Freedom in

their own Souls (the Will & the Conscience) & they are capable of

whatever God has chosen to reveal.

(BL Add. MS 47, 514 ff118v–119)

From The Statesman’s Manual (1816)17

We (that is the human race) live by faith. Whatever we do or know

that in kind is different from the brute creation, has its origin in

a determination of the reason to have faith and trust in itself. This,

its first act of faith, is scarcely less than identical with its own being.

Implicite, it is the copula—it contains the possibility—of every

position, to which there exists any correspondence in reality. It is

itself, therefore, the realizing principle, the spiritual substratum of the

whole complex body of truths. This primal act of faith is enunciated

in the word, God: a faith not derived from, but itself the ground and

source of, experience, and without which the fleeting chaos of facts

would no more form experience, than the dust of the grave can of

itself make a living man. The imperative and oracular form of the

inspired Scripture is the form of reason itself in all things purely

rational and moral.

If Scripture be the word of Divine Wisdom, we might anticipate

that it would in all things be distinguished from other books, as the

Supreme Reason, whose knowledge is creative, and antecedent to the

things known, is distinguished from the understanding, or creaturely mind of the individual, the acts of which are posterior to the

things which it records and arranges. Man alone was created in the

Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought


image of God: a position groundless and inexplicable, if the reason

in man do not differ from the understanding. For this the inferior

animals (many at least) possess in degree: and assuredly the divine

image or idea is not a thing of degrees.

Hence it follows that what is expressed in the Scriptures is implied

in all absolute science. The latter whispers what the former utter as

with the voice of a trumpet. As sure as God liveth, is the pledge and

assurance of every positive truth, that is asserted by the reason. The

human understanding musing on many things snatches at truth, but

is frustrated and disheartened by the fluctuating nature of its objects;

its conclusions therefore are timid and uncertain, and it hath no way

of giving permanence to things but by reducing them to abstractions.

Hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth, and with labor do

we find the things that are before us; but all certain knowledge is in the

power of God, and a presence from above. So only have the ways of men

been reformed, and every doctrine that contains a saving truth, and

all acts pleasing to God (in other words, all actions consonant with

human nature, in its original intention) are through wisdom; that is,

the rational spirit of man.

(Shedd, 1: 430–1)

* * *

It is highly worthy of observation that the inspired Writings

received by Christians are distinguishable from all other books pretending to inspiration, from the scriptures of the Bramins, and even

from the Koran, in their strong and frequent recommendations of

truth. I do not here mean veracity, which can not but be enforced in

every code which appeals to the religious principle of man; but

knowledge. This is not only extolled as the crown and honor of

a man, but to seek after it is again and again commanded us as one

of our most sacred duties. Yea, the very perfection and final bliss of

the glorified spirit is represented by the Apostle as a plain aspect or

intuitive beholding of truth in its eternal and immutable source.

Not that knowledge can of itself do all. The light of religion is not

that of the moon, light without heat; but neither is its warmth that

of the stove, warmth without light. Religion is the sun whose

warmth indeed swells, and stirs, and actuates the life of nature, but


Aspects of the Sublime in Coleridge’s Religious Thought

who at the same time beholds all the growth of life with a master-eye,

makes all objects glorious on which he looks, and by that glory

visible to others.

(Shedd, 1: 448–9)

From Biographia Literaria (1817)18

This has been my object, and this alone can be my defence—and O!

that with this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE might

conclude!—the unquenched desire I mean, not without the

consciousness of having earnestly endeavored to kindle young

minds, and to guard them against the temptations of scorners, by

showing that the scheme of Christianity, as taught in the liturgy and

homilies of our Church, though not discoverable by human reason,

is yet in accordance with it; that link follows link by necessary

consequence; that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only

where the eye of Reason has reached its own horizon; and that Faith

is then but its continuation: even as the day softens away into the

sweet twilight, and twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into

the darkness. It is night, sacred night! the upraised eye views only the

starry heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward beholding

is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the awful depth, though suns of

other worlds, only to preserve the soul steady and collected in its

pure act of inward adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial

WORD that re-affirmeth it from eternity to eternity, whose choral

echo is the universe.

(Shedd, 3: 594–5)

From his marginalia on Boehme, Works (c. 1817–18)19

B. carries on the sublime metaphor (plusquam metaphora) of “THE

WORD”: the representation by which of the Son of God is the

sublimest Thought, that ever entered the Soul of man, the purest

Form of Intuition—“eine mehr als geometrcisrischen Anschauung”.

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