Thursday 25 August 2016

Coleridge and the future of human consciousness - from Kathleen Raine

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's part in the Romantic Movement in poetry is a commonplace of the schoolbooks, where it is usually presented as the inevitable swing of the pendulum of literary fashion; from the artificial rhetoric of Pope and Gray to the language of 'real life'.

The length of time which has elapsed between the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1978 and the Classical Phase of our own time of 1953 is typically seen as a measure of the greatness and prestige of the two great romantics, but no proof that they were right.

However, I suggest that what took place through the agency of Coleridge and Wordsworth was no mere change in literary fashion but a rediscovery of the true nature of poetry, and a formulation of the philosophy of the imagination that can fairly be described as a widening of human consciousness.

It was a discovery and formulation of the true rules of poetry - rules that can be followed, however, only by true poets, and by which no imitator can profit; for the rules are themselves inherent in the imaginative act, in the state of passion, that demands a living participation of the whole man.

Edited from Coleridge: Writers and their Work number 43. by Kathleen Raine. The British Council, 1953, pp 22-3.


The Romantic 'movement' is usually pictured as a 'reaction' of some kind - to the Age of Enlightenment, classical poetry, or the industrial revolution; but it is properly understood as having been not a reaction but The Answer.

In its essence and divine intention, Romanticism was the beginning of the healing of Man's alienation from himself and from the world which had been building-up (on and off) since at least Classical Greek times.

Romanticism was supposed to be Man moving out of his prolonged psychological and social adolescence and into adulthood.

This did not happen; and indeed the understanding of what was at stake has declined over the following two centuries to a pitifully low level - but in fact the solution to the problem was actually achieved in theoretical terms by Coleridge (alas, mostly in his own head and conversation, and only very imperfectly in writing) ; and in lived-practice by Goethe.

Modern understanding is that civilization - when both honestly and rigorously considered (and this is very unusual indeed at present) - entails alienation; and therefore is probably self-destroying - leading via nihilism to a collapse back into pre-civilizational illusion, superstition - indeed systematic delusion (such as the demonically motivated mass-media-delusion that we all inhabit, to some extent).

So we are faced by a realistic and knowledgeable state of fatal demotivation, or else self-gratifying and childish self-deceptions: the future is either more of the present, or a reversion; of being awake and miserable or living a false but happy dream (as moderns perceive it) - as in the past.

But Romanticism points to a third path, a step forward in which there is healing, wholeness of spirit, a recovery of our awareness of the livingess of the world and the presence of divinity - a state of being awake and also 'dreaming', a way of thinking which combines the best of past and present and is different from either.

This is the underground project of the heirs of Romanticism, which has never been abandoned, and will not become impossible until (or if) modernity collapses back to a more ancient type of society - after which we would need to go through the same kind of development again to reach the adolescence of modernity. But this time not to get stuck as perpetual teenagers (living lives of miserable distraction and avoidance of reality under pretence of acute sensitivity) but instead continue to the destined spiritual adulthood...?

The West has been brought to face this choice again and again since the early 1800s in periods of cultural revolution - the 1890s-, the late 1920s-, the middle 1960s-, a barely detectable blip around 1990, and currently...  but so far always failing to grasp the problem and the solution, always turning away into widening the split between bureaucratic materialism in the 'official' world versus dishonest, self-gratifying, self-deceiving hedonism in our aspirations (mostly the materialistic pursuit of socio-political 'freedoms' to avoid responsibility, defy authority and follow unconscious impulses and 'instincts', especially sexual).

To immerse ourselves in total pleasure (thereby obliterating all angst and despair) until we die painlessly and unaware - this is the 'highest' modern aim; the unarticulated ideal...

This time, now, may be our last opportunity, and we would be wise to assume it is. But it is an opportunity, not ultimately a threat - because as things are there is ground only for despair; and only by moving-onto something new and better can there be realistic hope. and opportunity to get off the down-slide into utterly predictable spiritual death and begin a future of great hope.

NOT a future aiming at here-and-now pleasure; but something much better: a future of life with meaning, purpose, knowledge; and of living in relationship with other people and with the world.


Howard Vie said...

Dr Charlton,
Someone you may be interested in, if you are not already aware of him, is the painter Cecil Collins (1908-1989) For many years, Mr & Mrs Collins shared a house in Chelsea with Kathleen Raine.
There is an Arts Council Film "Eye of the Heart" dir. Stephen Cross 1978 which is a good summary. If you are still affiliated to Newcastle University and can access a terminal there, I understand it is possible to watch it at a address. See: ACE067

radiobeloved said...

I am casually familiar with Blake and less so with Coleridge. What sources would you recommend to find out more about what STC and Goethe (and other Romantics) thought, believed, aimed-at?

Bruce Charlton said...

@rb. Owen Barfield is my source, try browsing the relevant essays on, then tackling the superb book - What Coleridge Thought.

William Wildblood said...

It seems to me that the intended purpose of Romanticism [possibly not even completely understood by Romantics themselves at the time] was to restore the sense of immanence in Man and Nature, by which I mean the presence of God within creation. This can collapse into narcissism as it certainly did in the 1960s but, if coupled with a proper recognition of the transcendent Creator, will take humanity forward into an integrated form of spirituality in which outer and inner are at last reconciled and the alienation mentioned above is healed.

It has failed before because we have not been capable of holding two thoughts in our head at the same time[God without and God within], and also no doubt because of a lack of humility on our part. Perhaps now we can learn from the past and integrate what was divided by the Fall.

Bruce Charlton said...

William - Yes,Christians resist focusing on the fact that we are divine beings, children of God, with potential to become fully divine; new age/ Eastern spiritual people resist acknowledging God as creator and Father. But we need both.