The Medieval Mystic Behind Coleridge’s Imagination

Developing a Counter-Enlightenment Mind

Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination in his Biographia Literaria rejects John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience impresses, though we find the empiricist view extending back to classical thought (see Plato’s Theaetetus and Aristotle’s De Anima). Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) supposes that the mind is a “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas,” a passive slate void of agency or a priori knowledge until acted upon by the external world. Coleridge, who was an increasingly Christian Neoplatonist, abhorred Locke’s static conception of the mind and attributed the decline in English philosophy and theology to the popularity of empiricist modes of thinking.

Under Locke’s view, the imagination can only be produced by a synthesis of what the individual has already seen and experienced. Coleridge’s indebtedness to German Idealists like J.G. Fichte and, especially, Friedrich von Schelling has often been acknowledged, but, perhaps even lesser known is his debt to the ninth-century Irish mystic, John Scotus Eriugena.

In his Periphyseon, often called simply De divisione naturae, Eriugena analyzes the essence of nature and its manifestation within the universe through a dialogue between master and disciple. Drawing on his Christian Platonist predecessors in the east such as Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor, Eriugena is concerned primarily with being as it is and explores the spiritual source of nature and its correlation to things and thought. In Book IV, Chapter 7 of De divisione naturae, Eriugena defines the human mind as being formed eternally within the divine: “For I understand the substance of the entire man to be no other than his idea in the mind of the artificer who knew all things in himself before they were made; and that very knowledge is the true and only substance of those things which are known, since they subsist formed most perfectly in it eternally and immutably.”

The earliest evidence of Coleridge reading Eriugena is a letter written in 1803. On July 2nd of that year, Coleridge wrote to Robert Southey, “I have received great delight & instruction from Scotus Erigena” (Collected Letters 506), and that Christmas he had asked Southey for “Thomas Aquinas & Scotus Erigena.”

By 1810, he was already exploring Eriugena’s understanding of nature in relation to imagination. In March, we find an early adumbration of what would later be published in the Biographia. He writes, “I wish very much to investigate the connections of the Imagination with the BildungstriebImagiatio = imitation vel repititio Imaginis—Per motum? Ergo, et motuum—The Variolae—generation—Is not there a link between physical Imitation & Imagination?” (CN III Entry 3744). The formula reflects a condensed consideration on imagination and imaginative repetition. In context, we can read Coleridge’s “primary Imagination,” the “repetition in the infinite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” as a more developed elaboration of Eriugena’s concept of nature as theophany, and the human mind as something that is created and creates.

Even before Coleridge had read Eriugena, his earlier writings are full of anticipations. In his 1795 Lecture on the Slave Trade, Coleridge writes “The mind must enlarge the sphere of its activity, and busy itself in the acquisition of intellectual ailment. To develope the powers of the Creator is our proper employment—and to imitate Creativeness by combination is our most exalted and self-satisfying Delight.” For Coleridge, the agency of the mind depends on its ability to imitate the creative power of the divine. He continues, “The noblest gift of the Imagination is the power of discerning the Cause and Effect, a power which when employed on the works of the Creator elevates and by the variety of its pleasures almost monopolizes the Soul. We see God everywhere—the Universe in the most literal Sense is his written language.” The mind and its imaginative powers actively shape our conception of the eternal world. Readers of the German Idealists will be quick to recognize the similarities between Fichte’s early systems and Coleridge’s reciprocal understanding of the mind and the world. Coleridge’s “Universe” as God’s “written language” correlates with Eriugena’s notion of creation as theophany, a profoundly spiritual revelation.

Further Exploration

Students of Coleridge’s poetic theory will find these traces of Eriugena worth considering. Coleridge, in Essay VI from “On the Grounds of Morals and Religion,” writes, “It is the sense of a principle of connections given by the mind, and sanctioned by the correspondence of nature. Hence the strong hold which in all ages chemistry has had on the imagination… we find poetry, as it were, substantiated and realized in nature: yea, nature itself disclosed to us, Geminam istam naturam, quae fit et facit, et creat et creatur, as at once the poet and the poem!” The Latin, translated as “that duel nature, which is made and makes, both creates and is created,” is a direct quotation from Eriugena’s De divisione naturae, and the phrase often reappears in Coleridge’s letters and notes.

It is also worth noting that the marginalia from Coleridge’s copy of De divisione naturae (currently held by the British Museum) were used in his later essays, most prominently in the Philosophical Lectures. Coleridge admired the pantheistic proclivities of Eriugena, but, as evident in his later work, he was cautious of the moral and religious implications if applied to the highly rationalized religion of the times. Students of Coleridge’s theology will also find a fruitful discussion on Coleridge’s Trinitarianism in light of his readings of Eriugena, as they often have found in his readings of Spinoza and Schelling.

The past century of Coleridge scholarship has yielded many fruitful, though often belabored, studies on the influences of the German Idealists on Coleridge, particularly his poetic theory and shift from Unitarianism to Trinitarianism. However, few studies have been devoted specifically to the connection between Coleridge and Eriugena (see below for further reading). Perhaps, as scholarship moves forward, the rules of Coleridgean imagination and counter-enlightenment theology should be further examined in light of Eriugena and other early and medieval Christian Platonists.

Further Reading:

Douglas Hedley’s Coleridge, Philosophy, and Religion (2000) provides considerations on Coleridge’s neo-platonic inclinations concerning Unitarianism and Platonic Idealism. Hedley attributes some of Coleridge’s thoughts to Eriugena.

The recent Eriugena, Berkeley, and the Idealist Tradition (2006), edited by Stephen Gersh and Dermot Moran, is an excellent volume of essays, which explores the definitions of idealism(s) from early Platonic philosophies to nineteenth century philosophical movements.

Alfred K. Siewer’s article “Cooper, Coleridge, and Re-Imagining a Native Cosmology” employs an erudite discussion about cosmology in Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, and highlights the influences of Eriugena and other non-Scholastic Christian writers.

Art & Oil in the Age of Monopoly and Disaster Capital

Daniel Beltrá, "Oil Spill #4," from the series May 6, 2010, 2010. Photograph
Daniel Beltrá, “Oil Spill #4,” from the series May 6, 2010, 2010. Photograph. Used with the permission of the artist

It’s been a half century since the publication of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order. 1 The book was written by the American Marxist economists Paul Baran and Paul Swezy. Monopoly Capital advances a trenchant critique of advanced industrial capitalism. Still salient, the book remains important for romanticists invested both in the Marxist tradition in critical theory, and the project of tracing the eighteenth-century British origins of contemporary constellations of global capitalist political economy. In this post, I return to Monopoly Capital, trace the text’s key contours, and argue for both its importance for understanding aspects of the contemporary ecological predicament, and the need to update Baran and Swezy’s ideas according to the concept of “disaster capitalism.” 2

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  1. Paul Baran and Paul Swezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).
  2. See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007); Antony Lowenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe (London: Verso, 2015).

“‘[I]f mine had been the Painter’s hand’: Reflecting on the Holidays in a Time of Mourning”

William Wordsworth opens “Elegiac Stanzas” (1807) by looking at George Beaumont’s Peele Castle in a Storm (1805) and admitting that he naïvely idealized nature and life prior to his brother John’s death—that “deep distress [which] hath humaniz’d [his] Soul” (36). Wordsworth states that he deceived himself about the reality of “thou rugged Pile” (1) so much that, if his “had been the Painter’s hand” as a younger man, he would have “add[ed] the gleam, / The light that never was” (14-15), and placed the castle “beside a sea that could not cease to smile” (19). Beaumont’s painting thus becomes an occasion for Wordsworth to reflect on his younger self and on his approach to art; through metaphor and ekphrasis, Wordsworth casts his former pastoral visions of a Golden Age as delusions and projects himself as a weather-beaten castle riding out the storm of his brother’s death.

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How much history?


At CUNY, a New York state public university where I teach an introductory course in literature and writing, undergraduates like thinking about power. Their material disadvantages make social critique come naturally. Knowing this and wanting to get them hooked, I present Romantic literature as an early expression of dissatisfaction with social processes and conventions, a perspective to be developed later by Marx. This semester, I threw Jane Austen into the mix, and oriented reading and discussions of Persuasion around questions of social class. We spent a lot of time discussing the historical attributes of Austen’s class system that seem strange to modern sensibilities: the phenomenon of rank, the marriage between cash and land, the ambiguous category of the “gentleman” and the expanding mercantile economy.

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Pride and Prejudice and Politics

As we march ahead, perhaps forebodingly, into a new epoch in America’s political climate, one might wonder exactly what can be the value of teaching Romantic poetry and prose. In the weeks immediately following the recent historic election (however one chooses to define “historic”), we must consider whether undergraduate students really want to spend their time reading Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal” or Keats’s “To Autumn” or Austen’s Emma. When these students are otherwise preoccupied with what Twitter and Snapchat have to tell them about the current state of the world, why would they choose to bow their heads over texts that, while they may have something to say about the early nineteenth century in Britain, seem to be so distant and disjointed from our own time and place? This was a question I set out to explore this fall…and then November 8th happened.

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Romantic Landscapes, Part II

I was lucky enough, during one of the few trips I made into London from the West Country via rail, to catch a musical performance of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the Trad Academy Sea Shanty Choir at historic Wilton’s Music Hall. The show was at 7:30 pm on 15 July, a Saturday; and because the last train back to Templecombe would leave Waterloo Station at precisely 9:20, I had to find lodgings in London for that night or risk getting “locked out” and, possibly, forced to pay through the nose for a few restless hours in a room that didn’t fit into my budget (this had happened once before, but is a story for a different day). I booked a room for that night in a nearby Chamberlain’s (the pub chain) hotel about a ten minute walk from the music hall. I showed up there several hours early, ate fish and chips, requested “iced tea” as my complimentary beverage (to the utter dismay of the bartender), climbed the five flights of stairs to my room (for the lift was broken), and took a nap. After the 140-minute train ride in, and another two hour walk from the station (I refused to pay for a cab), I knew that I needed to sleep or I would be unable to savor the coming performance.

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“Visualeyes-ing Intertextuality: Digital Humanities and the Curious Case of William Wells Brown’s Clotel

Looking out from the ship set to remove her from her native land forever, the eponymous heroine of William Wells Brown’s Miralda; or, The Beautiful Octoroon (1860-61) sings a bittersweet song:

Farewell, farewell to the land of my
birth, and welcome, welcome ye dark blue
waves. I care not where I go, so it is
‘Where a tyrant never trod,
Where a slave was never known,
But where nature worships God,
If in the wilderness alone.’ (II.31.83)

Miralda concludes the song by turning to her future husband, Devenant, and whispering into his ear, “Away, away, o’er land and sea / America is now no home for me” (II.31.83). The song reveals Miralda’s conflicted feelings about leaving her home, as the double “farewell, farewell” suggesting longing is counteracted by the double “welcome, welcome” to “dark blue / waves” transporting her to Europe. America is “no home” for Miralda because she, a slave, has no rights—and no future—there.

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Report from CSECS-SCEDHS 2016

I grew up in Toronto, but having lived on the west coast for the last five years, for me, one of the highlights of this year’s Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (CSECS-SCEDHS) conference was the chance to see snow! The conference was held in Kingston, Ontario, from October 26–30, 2016, and was sponsored by Qu20161109_160940een’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada. I watched the weather change from sunny and clear to grey and snowy on the train from Toronto to Kingston, and the stormy skies in Kingston were a fitting backdrop for the conference’s theme of Secret/s & Surveillance.

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“[I]n language strange”: Using Omeka to Bring (Digital) Archives to the Classroom

Students in survey poetry courses often encounter poems in anthologies. Poetry anthologies are comparatively inexpensive and well edited, and they offer an eclectic mix of brilliant work from a diverse set of authors. Much like the poems they contain, though, anthologies themselves can become sites of deep critical inquiry and fantastic resources for instructors wishing to train students on matters of book history and editorial practices. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy’s The Norton Anthology of Poetry (2005) offers a case in point: the decisions that the editors made when presenting John Keats’s famous ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” reveal some of the difficult choices that editors must make when compiling an anthology, and become an occasion for exploring the competing versions of Keats’s poem and the ways in which historical and contemporary editors have shaped its meaning.

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Frankenstein and Halloween


As someone who has devoted much of her academic life to the work of Mary Shelley, the relationship between Frankenstein and Halloween has always interested me. In the 21st century, it is hard to think about Halloween without thinking about some of the iconic characters associated with the holiday: the Mummy, Dracula, and, of course, Frankenstein’s monster.

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Resources for Graduate Students of Romanticism