Samuel Taylor Coleridge perhaps took his revolutionary ideals to an extreme when he spoke directly to a quadruped in “To A Young Ass” by saying, “I hail thee BROTHER.” Coleridge’s poetry and prose writings, however, are pervaded by a sense that and understanding of the natural world is a key to human happiness and wisdom. At the same time, “nature” in Coleridge can be terrifying, but never quite as terrifying as the human mind. When asked why he attended so many public lectures on chemistry in London, he said, “To improve my stock of metaphors.” Few poets could claim as detailed or as wide an understanding of the scientific tenor of their times as Coleridge. He corresponded regularly with Humphry Davy, electrochemist and discoverer of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Coleridge’s polymathic writings reveal familiarity with Newton’s mechanics, Herschel’s astronomy, Priestley’s Opticks, Bartram’s natural history, and Erasmus Darwin’s botany, among many other scientific advances of his day. “Nature” for Coleridge, as for Wordsworth, was a complex and sometimes contradictory category. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is perhaps the greatest Romantic statement about the consequences of psychic separation of an isolated individual from the natural world. At the same time, a poem like “To Nature” suggests just how much of our idea of “nature” may be constructed within our own mind:
It may indeed be phantasy, when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and earnest piety.
Coleridge understands this connection between pleasure within the self and pleasure taken from the external world, although he describes the link more dispassionately and more ambiguously than even Wordsworth. We might call Coleridge’s version of this phenomenon transference: that is, our own emotions can be transferred onto nature for psychological reasons. Here is Coleridge’s clearest example: “A child scolding a flower in the words in which he had been himself scolded and whipped, is poetry – passion past with pleasure” (Animae Poetae 10). The child transfers his own enjoyments, and miseries, out onto the objects of nature that surround him. For Coleridge, in “To Nature”: “It may indeed be phantasy, when I / Essay to draw from all created things / Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings” (ll.1-3). But we should remember that this is the same poet who longs passionately for what we might now call a unified ecosystem (“all of animated nature”), a unity in “Nature” that he describes as a strange music of mind identified with joy:
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where. (“The Eolian Harp,” ll. 26-29)
Coleridge connects romantic science to the pleasures of nature in precisely the ways I have been describing. His wild goat looks at the cataract “in awe” (“On a Cataract,” l.18). The ox in “Recantation” may be described in Coleridge’s footnote as a symbol for the French Revolution, but the animal is nevertheless presented in terms of its naturalized emotions: “The ox was glad, as well he might, / Thought the green meadow no bad sight / And frisk’d, – to shew his huge delight” (ll. 9-11). Likewise, the sympathetic creature described fraternally in “To a Young Ass” (“I hail thee Brother” [l.26]) has a “moping head,” (ms. 1794), and the poet asks if its “sad heart thrill’d with filial pain” (l. 13).
Coleridge’s most famous image in this regard is perhaps the transformed description of the sea-snakes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Within the space of fifty lines of this nature-anthem, the “thousand thousand slimy things” (l. 238) crawling on the surface of the ocean are re-imagined by the mariner as “O happy living things!” (l. 282). Coleridge is also honest enough to admit, however, in “The Nightingale,” that it is often merely the poet who fills “all things with himself” and makes “all gentle sounds,” including the song of the nightingale, “tell back the tale / Of his own sorrow” (ll. 19-21). The “joy” we feel within ourselves often seems to be reflected back on us by the natural world beyond us. Then again, as the always ambivalent Coleridge might say, maybe not; perhaps our feelings belong only to us.
For Coleridge, poetry, the human mind, and the natural world are often linked as part of that “one Life within us and abroad,” a force that can connect the apparently disparate aspects of reality into a unity perceived by the creative intellect. Of course, such a radical idea has as many consequences for the science of Coleridge’s time as for poetry: “And what if all of animated nature / Be but organic harps diversely framed” (“The Eolian Harp”). Here he is, writing to Joseph Cottle in 1797 about his plans to write an epic, a project that will require that he become as much a natural scientist as a poet:
I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine–then the mind of man–then the minds of men–in all Travels, Voyages and Histories.
Coleridge’s poetry and prose writings are shot through with images drawn from just such widespread reading and study. At times he seems to doubt in the unifying efficacy of the the natural world when confronted with the human mind’s imagining: “I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within. / O Lady! we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does nature live” (“Dejection: An Ode”), but he is also a poet and thinker who provides an entire generation with new ways of thinking about the wonders and strangeness of the natural world.
Anima Poetae (Coleridge comments on plants, animals, and natural history)