The Organic Metaphor and Coleridge

by Alfred J. Drake

Coleridge says that "the spirit of poetry" must "circumscribe itself by rules"; it must "embody [itself] in order to reveal itself." A living organism consists of many parts, but one life courses through them all, and they all work together to serve that one life or living principle. Each part simultaneously serves as both an end in itself and a means sustaining the harmonious existence of the whole. As with plants, take the part from the whole, and the whole dies; neither can a part exist independently of the whole. It is interesting to note how Coleridge spiritualizes this idea about organization when he writes of the human soul. Since he was such a prolific thinker, his interest in one field of thought tends to have implications for his other concerns as well. I am thinking of a passage from Aids to Reflection: "Life is the one universal soul, which, by virtue of the enlivening BREATH, and the informing WORD, all organized bodies have in common, each after its kind. This, therefore, all animals possess, and man as an animal. But, in addition to this, God transfused into man a higher gift, and specially inbreathed: -- even a living (that is, self-subsisting) soul, a soul having its life in itself" (Portable Coleridge 394). Aside from this rather abstruse point of mine, let me set down for you some of what Meyer Abrams says in The Mirror and the Lamp (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1953) about Coleridge's use of the organic metaphor in relation to "organic imagination." Abrams lists the five properties of a plant according to Coleridge:

(A) "The plant originates in a seed. . the whole is primary and the parts secondary and derived." Abrams further quotes Coleridge: "the living whole is prior to the parts."

(B) "The plant grows. 'Productivity or Growth,' Coleridge said, is 'the first power' of all living things, and it exhibits itself as 'evolution and extension in the Plant.' No less is this a power of the greatest poets. In Shakespeare, for example, we find "Growth as in a plant.' 'All is growth, evolution, genesis -- each line, each word almost, begets the following . .'" Abrams adds that while theorists all the way back to Plato and Aristotle developed an organic theory of some sort, only with Coleridge do we see "all aspects of the analogy . . exploited," and only in his work do we find "extraordinary stress laid on this attribute of growth. Coleridge's interest is persistently genetic -- in the process as well as in the product; in becoming no less than in being." Coleridge always wants to understand the "mental process" that produced a given poem.

(C) "Growing, the plant assimilates to its own substance the alien and diverse elements of earth, air, light, and water." Abrams continues, "Extended from plant to mind, this property effects another revolution in associationist theory. In the elementarist scheme, all products of invention had consisted of recombinations of the unit images of sense. In Coleridge's organic theory, images of sense become merely materials on which the mind feeds -- materials which quite lose their identity in being assimilated to a new whole. 'From the first, or initiative Idea, as from a seed, successive Ideas germinate' . . At the same time the 'ideas,' which in the earlier theory had been fainter replicas of sensation, are metamorphosed into seeds that grow in the soil of sensation . . To Coleridge, the ideas of reason, and those in the imagination of the artist, are 'living and life-producing ideas, which . . are essentially one with the germinal causes in nature . .'"

(D) "The plant evolves spontaneously from an internal source of energy -- 'effectuates,' as Coleridge put it, 'its own secret growth' -- and organizes itself into its proper form. An artifact needs to be made, but a plant makes itself. . In the realm of mind, this is precisely the difference between a 'free and rival originality' and that 'lifeless mechanism' which by servile imitation imposes an alien form on inorganic materials." Abrams points out that Coleridge's famous distinction between mechanical and organic form is in fact derived from August Wilhelm Schlegel. Against Lockean mechanists, Coleridge gives his own account of "the genesis of order and design," and this account does not, according to Abrams, depend upon merely mechanical laws. There is an important distinction to be made between a machine's functioning and that of an organic entity. In Coleridge's own words, "herein consists the essential difference, the contra-distinction, of an organ from a machine; that not only the characteristic shape is evolved from the invisible central power, but the material mass itself is acquired by assimilation. The germinal power of the plant transmutes the fixed air and the elementary base of water into grass or leaves . ." Thus, Abrams points out, since Coleridge's conception of organic function involves inherent teleology, since the form of an organism is "endogenous and automotive," there is no need to appeal to an external "architect" to draw up the plans for our living organ or plant. This leaves open the problem, Abrams says, that the metaphor of "growth" may wind up implying that artistic creation is every bit as deterministic and non-conscious as the mechanists said it is. If organic form is self-generating, that is, it may prove difficult to "justify the participation of consciousness in the creative process." Coleridge insists, unlike certain Germans, that artistic creation is not simply unconscious (in fact, he seems to arrogate consciousness to nature itself -- see Hazard Adams' introduction to our Coleridge selections); he insists, as Abrams reminds us, that Shakespeare's art is self-conscious, not a blind repetition of natural operations.

(E) "The achieved structure of a plant is an organic unity. In contradistinction to the combination of discrete elements in a machine, the parts of a plant, from the simplest unit, in its tight integration, interchange, and interdependence with its neighbors, through the larger and more complex structures, are related to each other, and to the plant as a whole, in a complex and peculiarly intimate way. For example, since the existing parts of a plant themselves propagate new parts, the parts may be said to be their own causes, in a process of which the terminus seems to be the existence of the whole. Also, while the whole owes its being to the co-existence of the parts, the existence of that whole is a necessary condition to the survival of the parts; if, for example, a leaf is removed from the parent-plant, the leaf dies." Ultimately, says Abrams, Coleridge's "Imaginative unity is an organic unity: a self-evolved system, constituted by a living interdependence of parts, whose identity cannot survive their removal from the whole." (The Abrams selections come from The Mirror and the Lamp, pp. 170-175)