These days, do you feel like the natural or supernatural world has a prevailing influence?.
Help me study for my Literature class. I’m stuck and don’t understand.
These days, do you feel like the natural or supernatural world has a prevailing influence? Visible or invisible nature? How do you know, and where do we see the impact of these forces? Be specific in your answers and please feel free to include quotations from the poems of Coleridge we’ve read recently together in support of your claims.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a poet beset by difficulty, seemingly always—often of his own making, as his “indolence” and drug addictions conspired to undermine his clear and universally acknowledged genius, but often also of conditions beyond his control (he was married to a woman he did not love, as part of a philosophical utopian community he intended to establish in America called, wonderfully, a “pantisocracy,” meaning governed by all, while he fell madly in love with a woman he could not wed—the sister of his good friend Wordsworth’s fiancé). At one point, bored and restless, he left school due to the accrual of serious debt (now a seeming prerequisite for being a student), and entered the Light Dragoons (though he was such a dark soul himself) under the glorious alias Silas Tomkyn Comberbache—noted to be the “worst soldier in the history of England.”
- Indeed, it seems obvious that Coleridge was not suited for conformist service: Born in the British countryside, Coleridge was shipped off to London upon his father’s death, which fact eventually proved to be of real interest to William Wordsworth upon their first meeting, as the naturalist recognized that “Thou, my Friend! Wert reared/ In the great City, ‘mid far other scenes.” To a real degree, this urban experience of Coleridge’s youth informed his poetics and inclination toward nature, which can be best described as dreamy, incantatory, hallucinatory, intoxicated/intoxicating, and supernatural. In other words, Coleridge saw behind the veil of the perceived real and apprehended a universe of deep mystery and danger. In this way, he stands as a kind of cohort member to the likes of Hawthorne, Melville and Poe in America—a writer who was absolutely overwhelmed by the incomprehensibilities always present in the ongoing world, and aware of the potential for deep beauty as well as serious woe. For a poet who upheld the idea that “all 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,” the squalor and industrialized realities of city life and 19th Century social vanity in general necessitated an inward turn in order to engage with the undiluted natural and (perhaps most importantly) supernatural forces of the universe.
- Coleridge sought the lightness in dark, and understood the duality of Nature to be a virtue that held great wells of mystery. In his own mind, Coleridge was able to see and feel the exotic and ecstatic; the terrific and terrible. Like his good friend William Wordsworth, Coleridge steadfastly believed that the same animating forces that inspire the beauty of the natural world are also at work inside the human—and that it was possible to learn valuable lessons of the larger world by looking within to the psyche and its capacity for perception. He suffered throughout his life from addiction and sadness, often waking from his infamous nightmares of guilt and regret by the sound of his own screams. And yet, there is an undercurrent of—if not joy itself, at least an awareness of its constant presence in human intercourse. The crime that dooms the mariner is a crime of ego and hubris; the belief that mankind can and ought to exert some modicum of judgment over the natural world, interpreting its signs and symbols rather than merely embracing them. In “Dejection: An Ode,” the full-blown opium addict Coleridge recognizes the failure of his perspective at that moment to feel the resplendence of the world rather than merely conceive of it. The darkness in Coleridge’s work stands as a kind of proof-via-opposite to the glory of our worldy experience, and yet his strife deeply humanizes the emotionality of his work. This, coupled with his inscrutable genius for exposition, makes him a seminal figure in the history of English letters.
John Keats (1795-1821)
Dead at the age of 26, with his poetry only in publication for a handful of years prior to his untimely passing, the work of John Keats stands as some of the most striking and immediate in the English canon, serving as a significant bridge between the poets of the earlier Romantic period (such as Wordsworth and Coleridge) and the later Romantics (including Shelley and Lord Byron). Born in Mooregate, London to working-class family—his father was a hostedler (a stable-manager) and Keats was told that he was born in the Inn where his family worked, a myth he embraced—Keats would go on to be educated in an apothecary and to apprentice with a medical doctor before deciding to focus his significant talents on writing poetry. While Keats had two trusts set up for him of sizeable funds (one of more than $340,000 in modern currency), available after his 21stbirthday, he seemingly was unaware of them, as he never applied for money from either. Keats firmly believed that poetry itself was a medicine capable of improving the human condition more significantly than any tincture; it could alleviate pain, if only temporarily, like an opiate, reducing the suffering and struggle that Keats was all too familiar with having witnessed it both in the social stratification of 19th Century London and viscerally in his time at Guy’s Hospital where he worked for a period. Keats was reputed to be something of a volatile youth, prone to swings in mood between indolence and a propensity toward fighting, and both this characteristic of his personality and the features of his upbringing (his modest beginnings and his later academic and intellectual demonstrations of aptitude) influenced his work notably, especially in his seminal espousal on what he called “negative capability,” a concept that prizes intuition and uncertainty over reason and knowledge; the essential capacity of a poet to entertain two paradoxical ideas in his mind simultaneously without defining or judging them (an ability to see the world, as it were, both as potential and actual mystery). On his tombstone there is an inscription which he requested on his deathbed, “Here lies one/ Whose name was writ in Water.”
- Keats felt that scientific understanding had the potential to help clarify our historical moment, but also to compromised our appreciation of beauty; that the more we knew about natural phenomena and our own internal state, the less we might see of its inherent mystery, inscrutability, and majesty. He writes in Lamia, “There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:/ We know her woof, her texture; she is given/ In the dull catalogue of common things.” Which is to say, now that we comprehend what a rainbow actually is, and how its colors are made, it is no longer a thing of mystery, wonder and splendor.
- This embracing of mystery and uncertainty constitutionally informs his thinking on the subject of Negative Capability, which suggests that a poet’s character could be defined by what it’s not as much as what it is—in the best case for Keats, not reaching after reason, not striving for comprehension, not needing to be clever, celebrated, or comprehensive. Keats celebrates in Negative Capability the art of remaining in doubt—a complex proposal, far removed from obtuseness, which necessarily puts the poet’s mind in a position of humility/subordination to the higher grandeur and verisimilitude of Nature (the universe, God, etc). For Keats, beauty is not to be known, but rather experienced—sought after for the joy and illumination it provides in a moment, fleeting, but nevertheless shockingly revitalizing. Keats uses the phrase “negative capability” only once—in characteristic spontaneity—in a letter he wrote to his brothers about an argument he got into with an earlier Romantic poet:
“I had not a dispute but a disquisition…upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare (Links to an external site.) possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
- Here Keats finds fault with what he perceives to be Coleridge’s inability to be at ease with uncertainty (half-knowledge), and suggests the poet would do better to enjoy a brief moment of beauty (caught without intentionality, almost as if by accident) without attempting to categorize or qualify it—to simply be with the mystery that issues forth from the Penetralium (the most secret place) of wonder. While his criticism of Coleridge doesn’t exactly fit the poet’s earlier work, especially in a poem like Kubla Kahn, it does stand as a reflection on his later work in the Autobiographia Literaria (a kind of theoretical encyclopedia of literary ideas and classifications). Keats proposes that beauty is so much more powerful than thinking that it not only overcomes all reason, but disintegrates it entirely. The infallible mystery of beauty is transient for Keats, however, leading to some of his famous lamentations, such as in “Nightengale,” where the song of the bird is so sweet, and so fleeting, that when the poet awakens from his almost narcotic reverie in its tune, he is compelled to wonder if it was even real at all. Similarly, Keats never repeated the phrase ‘negative capability’ in his letters—it is of the moment, prompted by a desire to share his latest ideas and feelings with his brothers and friends; it is not a piece of an overarching intellectual schema. The inspiration for the term may have come from, or at least coincides with, the negative pole of an electrical circuit that is passive and receives current from the positive pole, rather than generating or exerting its own.
- Keats obviously sought a life of feeling over thinking, as he wrote in a letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817, “O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thoughts!” And yet it must be recognized that this proposal is itself a thought—and to entertain it without being cynical and dismissive, what seems most relevant is that Keats advocates for a life where the mind and the self are not the highest order values or celebrations, but rather one where the poet and his conceptions are passive and open to the celebration of beauty and wonder. It is a kind of pushing to the side of ego; a willingness to enjoy rather than declare. This impulse is seen frequently in her verse, and can be understood as the ars poetica of his being. Humility before Nature is a sizeable part of what he sees as the character of a great writer, and in this way most clearly does he depart from the earlier Romantic poets like Wordsworth, and to a degree, Coleridge. In a letter he wrote to his friend Richard Woodhouse on October 27th following year he described the ‘poetical Character’ as “not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago [the villain of Shakespeare’s Othello] as an Imogen [Shakespeare’s heroine in Cymbeline]. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.”
- Great poets, Keats maintained, are not inhibited or obscured by the force of their own identity—rather, they are able to inhabit a vast array of moments, characters, and experiences fully and equally. A poet, as he once told a friend, has no identity—“he is constantly informing and filling some other body”—which we must understand as a kind of kenosis, the ability to be also constantly filled by another body or force. The discourse must be read both ways.