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.
As a writer of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien hardly needs an introduction. Even before the success of the film adaptations of his work turned Tolkien into a household name, he had won first the hearts of children with The Hobbit in 1937 and, some twenty years later, the hearts and minds of adult readers with The Lord of the Rings. But, like Coleridge and MacDonald before him, Tolkien thought deeply about his craft as a writer and creator, and it is by largely virtue of this thought that his art has achieved such timeless success. His 1939 lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” subsequently published as an essay in the 1964 book Tree and Leaf, is, as the editors of the recent authoritative edition of the essay put it, “Tolkien’s defining study of and the centre-point in his thinking about the genre (of fantasy), as well as being the theoretical basis for his fiction” (Flinger and Anderson 9). In this seminal work, he addresses all the points about the imagination raised by Coleridge and, following the Victorian writer George MacDonald, defends their application in the literary arts. Continue reading Coleridge’s Imagination through the lens of J. R. R. Tolkien→
This blog represents a “jump-for-joy” moment in my studies where my reading relates directly to an activity that I dearly love: rock climbing. In the process, the news to me was how the act of close reading this small passage in The Prelude that taps into my adrenaline-performance-junky self became more about language and representations of identity. More specifically, it became about how Wordsworth lays bare the way in which the process of *writing* about memories changes them and merges selves in ways that logically conflict, and that teach.
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Yesterday I reread a bunch of books in ThePrelude as well as book 1 of The Excursion, and right now I’m rereading (for the first time since a sophomore year poetry class with Robert Pack at Middlebury College) “Michael”. In the process of diving back into all this Wordsworthian juice and joy, I’ve been thinking about individual connections to language, activity (mostly bodily), and histories.
It seemed to me while working through the Prelude, that one important pivot for WW is the body: its a place where outside (nature, society, history, words on a page) meets inside (nature [again], imagination, identity, desire, memory). It is a locomotive human frame that interacts with the motions of nature and that contains the whirrings of ideas and blood. In a very Lockean sense, the body is the gateway to thought and perception of the world at large.
I’m an avid rock climber, and this passage made my palms sweat (Book I (1850) ll. 326-356). Finally, my two worlds — academic and athletic — were colliding in my work. Like free gelato, it’s just too good to be true. (Why didn’t this passage catch me in previous Prelude readings?)
Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds!
Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have been borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.
The emphases on the “means” are mine, of course. My first thought when reading this passage was: I know exactly what he means when he describes the sensation of being quite high off the deck, “ill-sustained” on “slippery rock,” barely hanging on by half-inch fissures and protected by a bunch of knots (hopefully cams and/or nuts would be involved as well, but not in the author’s time!). Your senses pick up on the most interesting things when you are relaxed mid-route and can observe the vertical environment without being concerned about gear or falling. You find birds nested in cracks (who might poop on you); you notice the “exposure” or the “airy” feel of being up high and having a panoramic view, as if from the side of a tower; and you might notice how your shadow moves with you on the adjacent rock wall.
But in this passage, WW is not relaxed: he’s nervous, hanging by “grass” knots, on a “perilous” ridge. When that’s me (and I use a really good rope, not grass!), I am so NOT listening to the utterances of the wind, I’m not noticing the sublimity of the sky, and I’m definitely not tracking the motion of the clouds unless a storm is rolling in. I would be focused on executing the moves and placing/clipping gear to make sure I reach the top without taking a bad fall, (though I also happen to find this fun).
So WW here is taking a moment of real, physical danger, and mentioning how he notices the natural world in which he is suspended. The rock and the climbing are just a means to an end: that of gaining a different perspective on the elements, one that makes the climber feel incapable of falling, like the birds, and supported by the wind. The question becomes for me: how can the knowledge of bodily peril and discomfort and serene appreciation and enchantment by the motions of the wind and sky exist together? I argue that they can’t (unless you’re comfortably hanging out on a nice, big ledge, or belaying, or celebrating on the summit!). The body’s survival mechanisms don’t readily allow for those separate feelings and emotions to coexist simultaneously. And yet somehow they do in that stanza … Here’s some real-life evidence:
In this moment, as a poet, and due to his engagement with his changing self, his history and his memories, WW can’t help but write or record tenuousness and fear-factor into this passage. As a kid playing around on steep, slippery, probably potentially fatal vertical rocky terrain, he was fearless (and stupid) and therefore could look around while dangling from a cliff. As an adult, both W and I would find it hard not to think about the painful ends – possible consequences – of falling.
In the next stanza, WW goes fairly “meta” and comments on the fusion of his child and adult perspective and language in the preceding stanza’s moment: “there is a dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society.” Suddenly, we’re not rock climbing anymore: were thinking about *writing about* rock climbing long ago. The “discordant elements” of fearless child’s play and adult awareness “cling together” as if hanging onto the rock for dear life. Crag meets poem, nature meets society, past meets present, reader meets poet. They don’t get the job done on their own.
The “means which Nature deigned employ”: he gives thanks to them, but precisely for what? For not killing him? Nature seems to encompass the narrator’s reckless desire to climb this rock, the rock itself, as well as an idea or a construct that exists in the author’s memory that urged him to do things that would make an impression on him (or break his leg). Even if the impression is only understood later (like the way in which his books from Cambridge mean more to him in later years than they did while in school). And what means? Why “deigned”? Nature is billed as a teacher here – but one whose lessons you have to learn while potentially soloing a crag and then live on to tell the tale. And nature is stooping to teach you. But doesn’t that sortof mean that we are stooping to teach ourselves, since we are not only affected by, but also create the natural world that we exist in? Is WW learning nature’s lesson not through climbing, or remembering climbing, but through writing about remembering this climb?
Does his attention to the work of writing poetry about memories then, which brings back all the risk that he never encountered in the moment, go hand in hand with an inherent realization of risk? Perhaps the risk in writing about memory is somewhere in the lacunae between now and then, the inability to ever fully return on our own, and the reliance upon readers or audience to make an imaginative “leap” (or climb) in order to attempt to preserve these things which do not endure. The risk infused in the climb was also, perhaps, the risk in recording it.