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COLERIDGE'S COSMOGONY: A NOTE ON THE POETIC
BY ALICE D. SNYDER
Criticism has often borne witness to the truth that the imagination of the poet tends to seize upon that which is forward-looking in scientific investigation and philosophic theorizing, and not infrequently anticipates some of the results of these more purely intellectual forms of activity; but seldom, if ever, has this truth been as interestingly presented as by Professor C. H. Herford in the Warton Lecture on English Poetry, read before the British Academy in 1916.1
In the course of this lecture, entitled “Is there a Poetic View of the World?” Professor Herford attempted to characterize the way in which the imaginative apprehension of representative poets, from Lucretius down, tended to modify current philosophic views. His general thesis was that the “ view of the World reached through poetic experience” is to some extent a definable view—that, speaking broadly, it tends to “accentuate those aspects of Man and Nature, and those ways of regarding them, which offer most scope, analogy, or sanction, to this type of experience." And his investigation seems to confirm his hypothesis: the poet not only seizes upon those elements of a given world-view that fulfil certain conditions posited by the very nature of the aesthetic experience, but, where the given theory falls short, he supplements it by something not at the time intellectually definable, though clear to his poet's intuition. Without attempting here even to mention the different qualities that are found to characterize the poetic worldview, it is sufficient to note how often the poet's apprehension seems, according to Professor Herford's reading of history, to indicate the next step that intellectual formulation is to take.
Such a study as this of Professor Herford's can scarcely fail to serve as a challenge to further investigation along similar lines, and, from all the mass of pertinent material that exists, one small bit has chanced to suggest itself to me as the basis of a supplementary inquiry possibly of some general significance. In selecting
* Published in the Proceedings of the British Academy for 1915-16.
the material to use in his own inquiry Professor Herford considered the possibility of including Coleridge's relation to the philosophy of Kant, only to reject the suggestion on grounds manifestly valid. Coleridge, as he reminds us, came under the influence of Kantian and cognate ideas “only when the brief chapter of his own poetry was all but closed," and Professor Herford was concerning himself with world-views that had expressed themselves in actual poetic production. To define the poetic modification of other philosophic thought of the same period he found it best to take the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake as related to the philosophy of Godwin; hence Coleridge was quite naturally dismissed. Nevertheless, the temptation to carry Professor Herford's inquiry over into the field, not of Coleridge's poetry but of his prose, is too strong a one to resist; for the stamp of genuine poetic intuition is borne by many of the prose comments, annotations, and other informal jottings, which, it may well be, sometimes diverted Coleridge's energy from verse production and helped to limit the period of his more strictly imaginative work.
Among the notes that show with unmistakable clearness Coleridge's reaction to current views of the world, and that seem in some ways especially pertinent, are a number on the general subject of cosmogony. Such notes, some of them highly rationalistic but others truly imaginative, are to be found in the so-called Gutch notebook,” in the selections from this and other notebooks published by the late Ernest Hartley Coleridge under the title “ Anima Poetae,” 3 and also in the annotations to the scientific volumes once in Coleridge's possession which are available in the British Museum.
· British Museum Additional ms. 27, 901. The notebook was published by Professor Alois Brandl in 1896 in the Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen, under the title “S. T. Coleridges Notizbuch aus den Jahren 1795-1798.” Professor Brandl's version has helped me materially in deciphering difficult passages of the Ms., though in many instances my reading differs from his.
3 London, 1895.
* In 1889 a number of the Coleridge marginalia preserved in the British Museum were published by W. F. Taylor under the title " Critical Annotations,” but none of the volumes referred to in this paper had been covered by Mr. Taylor at that time, and so far as I am aware the work of publication has not yet been completed.
The most casual reading of the jottings in the Gutch notebook or in the "Anima Poetae” collection is bound to impress one with the importance which the astronomer's universe held for Coleridge. In one of his letters to Thomas Poole the poet recalled the impression made upon him while yet a small boy by the elementary instruction in astronomy that he received from his father: “I remember, when eight years old, walking with him one winter evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery; and he then told me the names of the stars, and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world, and that the other twinkling stars were suns that had worlds rolling round them; and when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with a profound delight and admiration, but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity.” 5 And the delight and admiration seem to have followed him through life, for in the notebook entries covering many years the sun, moon, earth, and stars form a significant part of the concrete imagery. Not infrequently, moreover, is such imagery fraught with real poetic and philosophic suggestiveness, as in the following notes from the Gutch manuscript:
“It surely is not impossible that to some infinitely superior being the whole universe may be one plain—the distances between planet and planet only the pores that exist in any grain of sandand the distances between system and system no greater than the distance between one grain and the grain adjacent.'
“World-makers—as if according to Sir Isaac Newton's progressions of force--they had coarct the world to a Ball and were playing with it.” 7
"Moon at present uninhabited owing to th' little or no atmosphere but may in Time—an atheistic Romance might be formeda Theistic one too.—Mem!” 8
“And the two mighty Bears walk round and round the Pole in spite of Mr. Grinston-Watt."
• Published in the Biographical Supplement to the Biographia Literaria. Works, New York, 1854. Vol. II, p. 609.
• M8. p. 15 a.
?Ms. p. 11 a. In the ms. the word which I read “force " is uncertainBrandl reads “
pores.” The “l” is omitted from “world” in the phrase “ coarct the world." 8 Ms. p. 1 a. Ms. p. 10 a. The proper name is uncertain. I follow Brandl's reading.
And of considerable import, in spite of its metaphysical elaboration, is the following longer note published in the “ Anima Poetae " under the date 1804:
"I saw in early youth, as in a dream, the birth of the planets; and my eyes beheld as one what the understanding afterwards divided into (1) the origin of the masses, (2) the origin of their motions, and (3) the site or position of their circles and ellipses. All the deviations, too, were seen as one intuition of one the selfsame necessity, and this necessity was a law of spirit, and all was spirit. And in matter all beheld the past activity of others or their own—and 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 and understood that it was yet more out of my power to comprehend how it could be otherwise and 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 Goodpossesses it not, but is it.” 10
Various as these comments may be in respect both to scientific validity and to the nature of their philosophical implications, the one on world-makers and the one on the birth of the planets are found to deal with a problem of cosmogony admittedly of historic significance, and a problem that occupied Coleridge's attention more than sporadically. The notes that the poet wrote in the margins of sundry scientific treatises indicate, further, that he held a consistent and definable point of view regarding the problem; and this point of view, so integrally involved in his imaginative apprehension as well as in his more discursive reasoning, affords interesting evidence on Professor Herford's question of the poetic view of the world.
The point at issue, and the significance of Coleridge's position, may best be defined, probably, by reference to what had been going on in the field of cosmological speculation,-more specifically, by reference to the advance that Kant's cosmogony marked over that of Sir Isaac Newton.
Certain essential limitations of the Newtonian system were expressed by Professor Hastie, in the introduction to his translation
10 P. 77.
of Kant's “ Cosmogony,” in terms which so facilitate an estimate of Coleridge's comments on the subject that they may well be given verbatim:
“Newton,” Professor Hastie wrote, "goes as far as the Law of Attraction will carry him, but no further. It does not carry him beyond the bounds of the solar system, which is viewed by him as entirely isolated from the stellar universe beyond. And even in the solar system that great Law only explains why the Planets and their satellites are kept revolving in their orbits in constant periods by this obscure centripetal force; it does not explain how they are found to be moving round and round in these orbits, or how they acquired the tangential or centrifugal force by which Newton represented them as driven on. It was at this point where Newton's Law of Attraction stopped, and it failed to explain the revolutional and rotatory motions of the solar system. And Newton in the last resort could only explain them by the immediate interposition of God, who directly communicated these motions to the full-formed Planets and their attendants by impulses from without. In the devout recognition of God's miraculous agency, not only in creating the material of the solar system but in setting its motions agoing, Newton's Natural Philosophy came to & pause.”
It can scarcely be doubted that this necessity for direct intervention, to communicate motion to the already full-formed planets, was the limitation that Coleridge was inveighing against in his imaginative figure—“World-makers—as if according to Sir Isaac Newton's progressions of force—they had coarct the world to a Ball and were playing with it.”
The progress marked by Kant's nebular hypothesis, anticipating in its essentials that of Laplace, cannot be gone into here in any detail, but its advance over the Newtonian system in respect to the particular limitation cited is summed up in the following words of the author:
“The view of the formation of the planets in this system has the advantage over every other possible theory in holding that the origin of the masses gives the origin of the movements, and the position of the orbits as arising at that same point of time; nay,
11 Kant's Cosmogony. Ed. and tr. W. Hastie, University of Glasgow. Glasgow, 1900. Pp. lxiv-lxv.