Monday, November 08, 2004

Week 12, Coleridge, Shelley

Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual (668-74).

673. Allegory turns upon keeping two points of comparison distinct; it wields abstractions, and is no more than extended metaphor. An example from chivalric romance: the poet may allegorize a demonstration of virtue as “a knight slaying dragons.” This satisfies mechanical understanding, which in our mental capacity is most closely tied to sensory data. Even metaphor, considered as a mere literary device, is mechanical. By contrast, Coleridge says, symbolic language participates in the reality it renders; it is not something separate from reality. A symbol allows us to discover universal meaning in a particular representation. In fact, “representation” is not strictly the right word—symbolic language doesn’t merely represent something universal or spiritual; it is part of the universal to which it refers. Coleridge’s key example is Jesus’ remark that “the light of the body is the eye.” The eye here is both material and spiritual at the same time.

674. The phrase “I am”—implies that our self-positing is a divine mystery. It seems that Coleridge is adapting the philosophical notions of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schelling to his present critical needs. The mind plays an active role in construing what we term reality, and this ability is a divine gift. Symbolic language, as Coleridge describes it, honors that gift. Language works like nature; it creates organic, living unities. As John Milton says in “Areopagitica,” a book is “a living thing.”

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (674-82).

675. Regarding the precision required of poets, we can see that Coleridge’s schoolmaster the Reverend James Bowyer is the patron saint of formalism. Coleridge does not care about the author’s cleverness but rather about the unity of the poem itself. He’s against the C18 emphasis on “wittiness” because such wittiness demands the kind of language that calls attention to itself as ornamentation. Evidently, Coleridge believes symbolic utterances participate in reality without defacing or otherwise leading us away from reality.

676-77. The primary imagination is the miracle of consciousness itself—human consciousness involves self-consciousness: “I see a tree.” If I posit a tree, first I must posit the “I” that sees the tree. Coleridge says that this act is a finite repetition of God’s pure and continual act of self-consciousness. (As God says to Moses, “I am who am.”) As subjects, we are aware of ourselves confronting an object. The tree is an object of our experience; being human involves synthesis of subject and object.** We constitute raw data into intelligible forms, making them correspond to our mental categories. In this basic sense, imagination is the creative, synthesizing power that operates in all perception. We continually create the intelligibility we discover. Fancy is more limited to sensory data. Fancy is dead; it is too dependent upon the laws of association, as set forth by David Hartley, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. We—that is, our will and imagination—are not the concentrated effect of nerve impulses, fluids, synapse-firing, imprints on gray matter, and so forth. To overemphasize memory and fancy is to deemphasize free agency until human beings are determined by external forces (or by internal forces that might as well be external since they are characterized as mechanical.)

**Postmodern theorists might say that we are thereby always doing something to something else, incorporating it by means of language and self-consciousness. Still, if such incorporation is inevitable, it comes down to “table manners”—perhaps how we incorporate something makes all the difference.

676. “Secondary imagination” is apparently Coleridge’s term for the poetic imagination. It is a purposive, directed “echo” of the primary imagination. The poet is used by and uses imagination to create symbolic meaning systems. Poetic imagination “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to re-create.” Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray” and “Solitary Reaper” exemplify symbolic treatment of a given character. A symbol is not just one word or a mere device—it is a mode of language in its own right. Wordsworth’s secondary imagination breaks up, conjoins, and reconciles disparate categories of perception, feeling, and experience—the “Lucy Gray” lines, “a violet by a mossy stone / half hidden from the eye / fair as a star when only one / is shining in the sky do exactly that with respect to our ideas about Lucy, violets, and stars. We wouldn’t ordinarily put them into a meaningful relationship, but Wordsworth does so without hesitation.

In the above poem, the poet has made free choices; as Coleridge would say, the secondary imagination coexists with the conscious will. This does not necessarily mean that the source of poetry is consciousness, but rather that this power operates alongside of the conscious will. The esemplastic power (the imagination) generates complex unities but does not simply cancel distinctions—good symbolic language depends upon dynamic tension between a word and its contextual neighbors. What goes on in the poet’s imagination explains such poems as “Lucy Gray”—the poet brings together and synthesizes ideas, emotions, and sensory perceptions, and integrates them into an organic whole. Lucy is a star, a violet, and just Lucy all at once, and not simply in a mechanical way. The poet’s imaginative act generates this Lucy-star-violet, and we, as well, can understand and feel what Coleridge would call “multeity in unity.”

Further comments—in speaking of the primary imagination, Coleridge says it posits pure being. As repetition and re-seeking, it is linked with the basic human capacity to perceive and bring order to an otherwise chaotic world of sense data. Rhetorically, Coleridge is elevating our sense of humanity’s status perhaps to an even higher level than that posited of the Renaissance “man the microcosm,” since in Coleridge’s partly Schelling-based view, the mind is fundamentally creative. Coleridge cultivates a sense of mysterious communion drawn from the Bible, the Scholastic notion of community, and German Idealism. God says that he simply is. Being is mysterious, and so is our power of perception: the harmony between our minds and the world is mysterious. If secondary imagination is poetic imagination, it answers a need—it responds to the threat posed by quotidian habit and stale perception (cf. Nietzsche “On Truth and Lying in an Ultramoral Sense” on this matter), and it gives us a chance to “make it new” perpetually. The imagination makes possible a permanent revolution in consciousness. Mystery and belief in the supernatural are a meeting ground between Wordsworth and Coleridge, although they start from a different place to get there.

677. Notice the phrases “lethargy of custom” and “film of familiarity.” The secondary imagination helps to counter the threat posed by daily habit, which leads to stale perceptions and thoughts. We turn everything into an abstraction, a category, “other people’s convictions,” perceptions, and feelings. Coleridge makes one of the first in a long line of arguments against “mass culture” as something dehumanizing. Poetry is revolutionary with regard to perception—it shakes up the mind. It reorganizes minds so that they perceive and think themselves and the world differently, and to some extent more democratically and ecumenically. We may even, as Wordsworth promises, “see into the life of things.”

680. What is a poem? It is “that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species . . . it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.” So a poem is a living, complex entity. If you cut a branch from the tree, the tree isn’t whole anymore, and the branch has lost its purpose.

681. The poet is the person who can, by creative imagination, produce the poetry alluded to above. A poet is a unified person who “brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Imagination of this sort demonstrates the potential for the harmonious operation of our faculties: sensory perception, feeling, reason or intellect, willpower, will not be at odds when we are engaged with a poem; all will be exercised in a productive way. Imagination may be what Coleridge calls in the Biographia Literaria the esemplastic power or the power that “makes things into one,” but that same power doesn’t cancel differences to arrive at some indeterminate lump of oneness. Instead, it “Reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” Our “Lucy Gray” example in the Wordsworth section is a fine illustration of imagination at work in creating symbolic language: Lucy, the star, and the violet don’t lose their identity but instead gain something by being related to one another so vitally. Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode” offers a negative illustration in which the poet’s imagination isn’t harmonizing the natural world with his own subjective experience and emotional state. He remains isolated, and can create no order because his “genial spirits fail” and he can only “see, not feel,” how beautiful nature’s eternal forms are. Also on 681, symbolic language is said to remain true to the creative and imaginative process; it registers the “life” in which alone “nature lives.” It does not render the world as externality, and does not imitate it or distort it, but brings home to us the power of the primary and secondary imagination.

Final Comment. Coleridge disagrees with Wordsworth on the idea that we must get back to nature. He does not agree with the idea that rustic life is purer than city life. Only a philosopher (or at least an educated person) could benefit from close contact with nature. Nature, like trade, narrows the mind, and we quickly become impervious to its charms. Moreover, while Wordsworth relies a great deal on habit and meditation, Coleridge’s concept of imagination seems more dynamic and active, and his idealism is more thoroughgoing than that of Wordsworth’s “wise passiveness,” which implies a high degree of openness to the power of external things and the sensations they provide. (Walter Pater’s essays on these two men in Appreciations make this distinction aptly.) Coleridge opposes the materialist concept of experience, and he applies his point of disagreement with Wordsworth very broadly—only cultivation makes us capable of experiencing nature and truly appreciating the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness.

It is true that both poets offer a touch of the meditative and the mystical, but Coleridge privileges the philosophy of self-consciousness over Wordsworth’s rustic “wise passiveness.” As for poetic diction, rustic language is tied too closely to narrow, particular things. Philosophical language is superior because it flows from “reflections on the acts of the mind itself.” (See the Everyman edition of Biographia Literaria 197.) As for the effect of this kind of philosophical poetry, the audience would perhaps imbibe some of the benefits of reflection from their superiors and religious instructors.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York : Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defence of Poetry"

Shelley writes in the purest romantic optative strain: he makes the fullest statements about poetry’s power to transform the individual and the world, the highest estimation of imagination and expression, and the grandest claims for the poet-priest-prophet who imagines and expresses.

But you also find the greatest anxiety about all these things -- sometimes in the same passage. Shelley’s work is based upon a poetics of isolation, alienation, and the incommensurability of language and the world. It is no wonder that post-structuralist critics like Paul de Man have so much to say about Shelley: here’s a case of the critic naturally gravitating towards his object.

Lyre: a dramatic figure for the way the imagination, played upon or “inspired” by a divine power, harmonizes what is outside us with our mental and spiritual operations. The lyre is merely mechanical, but the mind, explains Shelley, has much greater power to harmonize. You can see this lyre metaphor at work in several romantic poems -- Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp,” for instance, or Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” where his prayer to the wind is “make me thy lyre,” or in his early poem “Mutability,” which underscores the “dark” side of romanticism I mentioned above:

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! -- yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest. -- A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. -- One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! -- For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.

Smile: Just as a lyre will keep vibrating with sound after the wind dies away, a child’s smile at first expresses its pleasure, but when it persists after the pleasure has faded, the smile becomes a representation of a pleasure that has passed away. Poetry is like that -- it “represents” the feelings and ideals that generate it, keeping us in mind of them. Again, we find that romanticism is not necessarily primitivism: Shelley’s theory of poetry as representation of the mind’s operations and the spirit’s movements does not amount to “primitive expressivism.”

What is a poet? Someone whose “faculty of approximation to the beautiful” allows him to do what Coleridge said is necessary: strip away from our eyes the film of familiarity. Notice how Shelley takes mimetic theory -- as when he says people “imitate” and dance and sing, obeying a “certain rhythm or order” -- and makes it into an expressive act. Poets still do this best since they “express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds” in a way that pleases their fellows in society. (Shelley doesn’t seem to care which -- nature or society). Poets bring us back to the most vital kind of language -- the kind that can “mark…the before unapprehended relations of things,” and they can move us away from the stale, dead way we generally sling around words as convenient abstractions.

We have seen this claim in Wordsworth and Coleridge: the poet can “make it new.” The vitality of language is subject to a cycle of death and rebirth -- language tends towards abstraction, and we must keep bringing it back to its more vital state, the one in which it doesn’t simply plaster over the continuous miracles of humanity and nature for the benefit of the power-hungry, the comfort-seekers, and all who have no higher desire than to “get by” in this world. This is no idle connection I am drawing from Shelley’s passage: there is a deep connection, much explored in C20, between language and power, most particularly the abuse of power. Read Orwell’s 1984 for a delightfully distressing illustration of this issue: “Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc!”

What is poetry? Shelley defines poetry, at least in the infancy of human history, as a very broad phenomenon indeed: primitive language is poetry, he insists. It’s close to the vitality of nature and the human heart, the deep bonds that tie human beings together and make them want to live together in a community. It is not as prone as our modern, sophisticated language is to alienate us from the truth we perceive. For early man, to be is to perceive, and to perceive is to feel and express. (There are more barriers for us between the conception and the expression.) The early law-givers, the “founders of civil society,” etc. -- these people all perceived the order of things and relations and were able directly to express it, set it down, for the rest of their fellows. And when the setting down settles into stale codes perpetuation hierarchy and blindness, it’s time for new artists, teachers, lawgivers, and a new foundation.

792. But the distinguishing characteristic of poetry is that it conveys the universal, the “eternal, the infinite, and the one.” It, and the poet who writes it, is beyond time, space, and number. The poet is beyond culture, beyond politics, beyond history. He apprehends what is timeless and universal for all of us at all times. This is a grand claim, even an apocalyptic claim on behalf of poetic genius. It takes an implicit tension between genius and history and environment, and pushes it to the limit. Genius isn’t just skill in writing or thinking -- it’s something beyond every conceivable limitation upon humanity. It is close to God. Wordsworth sometimes makes large claims for genius and imagination, but he sounds much more like a man of the eighteenth century than does Shelley. There’s a touch of the mystic striving after unity in Wordsworth, but he isn’t “apocalyptic.”

Notice how (793) Shelley sees language as doing anything but merely representing nature: words, he says, don’t refer primarily to anything in the world; they are “arbitrarily produced by the Imagination” and have “relation to thoughts alone.” This notion, of course, goes along with idealism, which says that the reality we perceive is the one we ourselves largely or entirely create by the operations of our own minds. Modern philosophy, by the way, wouldn’t necessarily disagree with this idea: except that the autonomous individual’s “imagination” here would be said to reflect a much larger social determination: we do not speak, but are spoken by language. Heidegger says that “language makes man.” The point is, some have come to doubt that language’s primary function is to refer to objects in the real world; they see it as a self-referential system of signifiers that refer to other signifiers, not to “rocks, and stones, and trees.”

On translation: I like the “violet in a crucible” image. Translation destroys the deep organic meaning of a poem: its significance is in the relations and tensions it establishes within its own little universe of words. If you translate them, you have torn a delicate flower and pounded it to extract its value. As if you could just mechanically translate the thoughts of one language into another. This is pretty much what later formalists will say about translation and paraphrasing of poems: you can’t do it without making a knave of yourself. Though it’s possible that Walter Benjamin was right when he said that in fact, only translation can “liberate the essence of a language.” Something comes out in the movement from one language to the other, which is neither the one nor the other, but something different.

795. Nightingale: Here is the finest statement of romantic alienation and isolation. The poet is a songbird who sings to lift its own spirits, and does not understand the profound effects it generates in its listeners. An attractive image, but in a sense a false one, as Shelley, author of “To a Skylark,” surely understood: the poet strives for the pure, unself-conscious expressive power, the one-to-one correspondence between heart and word, spirit and language, that a songbird has achieved without even trying. As Friedrich Schelling says, the songbird “bringeth forth something more excellent than it knows.” But human beings cannot achieve this kind of purity! They want to desperately, but they can’t: self-consciousness is a great gift, and yet a great curse, dooming us to perpetual deferral of correspondence between expression and desire. Shelley says it a lot better:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not --
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught --
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn
Hate and pride and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

But our poet-nightingale is a glorious failure in the human quest to transform the world. He must await the judgment of his “peers,” his fellow poets in times to come. This implies a paradox: the poet is isolated in his own time, but speaks for all mankind in all times. Wordsworth, you will recall, made somewhat gentler, but more immediate, claims about the universal and therapeutic value of poetry. Shelley, like Schiller before him, has here admitted the problem that we shall find Matthew Arnold exploring later in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Namely, poetry, or culture more broadly, has great potential to improve and transform us, but when will it be able to do that? We can’t really say, and cynics will ask, “what good does it do to sing to yourself, or to perfect yourself, while the world suffers?” It’s always difficult to say, “don’t just do something, stand there.”

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.


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