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Coleridge and the unconscious

Metaphysics manifested in art

Seamus Perry Samuel Taylor Coleridge the unconscious

In the work of Samuel Coleridge we find a fascination with the unconscious mind. Like the German idealists, the much celebrated poet sought to explore the twilight between acts of agency and the creativity that appears to spring from an imagination beyond our control

No one knows when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his mysterious, insistently memorable poem ‘Kubla Khan’, but most scholars think it was the autumn of 1797. Coleridge, who would have been twenty-five if that’s right, had produced a masterpiece but it seems as though he did not know quite what to do with it. In succeeding years he recited it from memory at dinner parties as a turn, and to judge by the reports to remarkable effect, but he clearly did not think to publish the poem, as though not quite sure what he had produced: it only appeared, almost twenty years after its composition, because Byron, who had heard it recited, was so taken with it. Even then, in the preface he added to the poem Coleridge felt the need to explain that he was printing the work ‘as a psychological curiosity’ and not on ‘the ground of any supposed poetic merits’. Few great poems can have made a more hesitant appearance in the world.

In its own way, though, the preface was a remarkable and highly successful piece of advertising because in it Coleridge span a story (how much of it true who can say?) about the circumstances of the poem which quickly became a modern legend.

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire.   In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimage’: ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto.  And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.’   The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation of consciousness of effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.   At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Many resourceful scholars and enthusiasts have hunted for the farmhouse in question and sought to relate the oriental scenery of the poem to the landscapes of north Somerset, and indeed the story does not sound entirely implausible as an explanation for the fragmentary nature of the poem. But Purchas His Pilgrimage (1626), the travel book to which he refers, is an immense and lavish work which even Coleridge would be unlikely to take on an excursion and an extremely unusual thing to find in a farmer’s book collection. So the story must be an invention as much as it is a diverting piece of anecdotage, and what it invents is a myth of literary creativity as the work of the unconscious mind. The ‘images rose up before him as things’, accompanied by the words to describe them, and all ‘without any sensation of consciousness of effort’: magically, the poem wrote itself.

The story must be an invention as much as it is a diverting piece of anecdotage, and what it invents is a myth of literary creativity as the work of the unconscious mind.

The ‘anodyne’ that Coleridge took was opium, a customary medication at the time, but here it liberates the poet into the sublime internal spaces of the mind, an up-to-date version of the inspired rhapsode whom Socrates describes with such appalled fascination in Plato’s Phaedrus: ‘he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success’, says Socrates, ‘and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen’. That the writing of poetry required something more than the determination to write a poem was a key part of many Romantic theories of imagination: ‘A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry”’, said Shelley, ‘The greatest poet even cannot say it’; and Coleridge agreed, though of course he recognised, as did Shelley, that, outside the colourful myth of the ‘Kubla Khan’ preface at least, the conscious will must come into it somehow. In his autobiography-cum-aesthetic-treatise, Biographia Literaria, Coleridge said that the imagination at work in the making of art was something ‘co-existing with the conscious will’, a slightly obscure form of phrasing which attempts to splice volition and unconscious activity.

The business of imagination extended far beyond poetry. The imagination that Coleridge described in Biographia, somehow co-habiting the poet’s mind alongside conscious purpose, was itself merely an echo of a much more profound and ubiquitous imagination—what he called the ‘primary’ as opposed to the ‘secondary’ imagination—that operated unconsciously, or pre-consciously, all the time: ‘the living power and prime agent of all human perception’, as he put it, very impressively, in Biographia, ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’. Just as God calls the cosmos into existence through his divine fiat so the god-like agency of imagination summons the incoherent data of the world into the owned reality of human experience. Coleridge, unusually for his day, read deeply in the literature of German idealism, which is full of philosophical wonder at all the things the mind does before you know it. ‘Man’s noblest activity is that which knows not itself’, as Schelling says; or, as Fichte put it, more abstractly, ‘the apperceptive faculty of the mind is an activity which contains the ultimate basis of all consciousness, but never itself comes to consciousness’. This sort of language was not to the taste of most Englishmen who might, if asked, have accepted as wholly uncontentious Locke’s conception of the self as a ‘conscious thinking thing’ able to ‘consider itself as itself’; but Coleridge took to such German mysteries with great enthusiasm, compelled by the idea that, in the depths of his being, ‘Man exists … to himself & to God alone/—Yea, in how much only to God—how much lies below his own Consciousness’. He saw the attempt to describe the unknowable basis of life—‘depths of Being below, & radicative of, all Consciousness’—as a positively heroic endeavour, writing in his notebook of ‘the original unific Consciousness, the primary Perception, & its extreme difficulty’, and reminding himself ‘to draw a lively picture of the energies, self-denials, sacrifices, toils, trembling knees, & sweat-drops on the Brow, of a philosopher who has really been sounding the depths of our being—& to compare it with the greatest & most perseverant Labors of Travellers, Soldiers, and whomever else Men honor & admire—how trifling the latter!’

Coleridge’s attraction to the unconscious part the mind had to play in the depths of German metaphysics was no doubt connected with the interest he had always had more generally in the psychology of unconscious acts. What he called ‘facts of mind’ were, as he told a friend, ‘my darling studies’, and chief among those were phenomena that seemed to cast some dim light on, in his phrase, ‘the twilight realms of consciousness’. One evening, for instance, sitting by his fire, he found himself doing something which he thought worthy to record at once in his notebook:

Seeing a nice bed of glowing Embers with one Junk of firewood well placed, like the remains of an old Edifice, and another well nigh mouldered one, corresponding to it, I felt an impulse to put on three pieces of Wood, that exactly completed this perishable architecture, tho’ it was 11 o’clock, tho’ I was that instant going to bed, & there could be in common ideas no possible use in it. Hence I seem (for I write, not having yet gone to bed) to suspect, that this desire of totalizing, of perfecting, may be the bottom-impulse of many, many actions, in which it never is brought forward as an avowed, or even agnized as a conscious motive.

Coleridge, unusually for his day, read deeply in the literature of German idealism, which is full of philosophical wonder at all the things the mind does before you know it.

Behaviour like this, motivated by impulses about which one can only retrospectively speculate, fascinated him as it implied that the mind had a structure in which different levels were variously known or knowable. Episodes that suggest as much—moments when, as he put it, ‘our nature seemed to act by a mechanism of its own, without any conscious effort of the will, or even against it’—feature repeatedly in his voluminous notebooks, like case histories. When confronted by an especially lovely night sky, for example: ‘Unconsciously I stretched forth my arms as to embrace the Sky, and in a trance I had worshipped God in the Moon…’, where the use of the past tense to describe one’s own experience is curiously self-alienating. ‘Imagine a Poet’, he once instructed himself, presumably with self-reference, ‘intensely watching a Tree in a Storm of Wind, unconsciously imitating its motions with his body’. Finding yourself doing something is a phenomenon that crops up in many places. For instance, at the close of his handsome poem of tribute to Wordsworth, having listened rapt to his friend reciting his autobiography, The Prelude, over successive evenings, Coleridge describes his response as the last lines were uttered, ‘scarce conscious, and yet conscious of its close’: ‘Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound— / And when I rose, I found myself in prayer’. Prayer was not something he decided to do but something he discovered himself doing, and in this respect his behaviour resembled that of his most famous creation:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware. 

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.


The Mariner is saved from his hellish experience by having the correct response to the savage beauty of the sea creatures (that’s how he sees it anyway); but it is very striking that the blessing he bestows upon them is only recognised for what it was after the event and at the time went ‘unaware’, a word with which he and his author are so taken that it is repeated in troubled wonder. As though in a trance, he must have blessed them, rather like discovering that ‘he had worshipped’ the moon: the act of blessing (if there was one) arises from the most obscure origins that are almost completely resistant to enquiry—a place of which one is ‘semi-demi-conscious’, to use the fine phrase he once wrote in his notebook.

This is all complicated by the emphasis that Coleridge placed as a moralist on the importance of the will. As consciousness expands, he told his readers with robust purpose in a work called The Statesman’s Manual, it encounters more and more of ‘the terra incognita of our nature’ which ‘our will may conquer and bring into subjection to itself under the sovereignty of reason’. He deplored the prevailing psychological theories that attributed human consciousness to the association of ideas for that implied, oddly enough, that mental activity was something that happened to you (you don’t choose to associate this idea with that) rather than something that you did. In his poetry unconscious activity is sometimes a thing to be feared. At the climax of his unfinished poem ‘Christabel’, for instance, the lovely and guileless heroine is faced with the ghastly spectacle of Geraldine, a snake-woman, and her response is unwittingly to begin emulating what she sees: ‘And thus she stood, in dizzy trance, / Still picturing that look askance / With forced unconscious sympathy’. Her lack of consciousness is there a kind of liability or weakness.

Dreams were fascinating because they occurred at the very edge of the conscious self, somehow both the product of your mind and something that happened to it.

Coleridge’s mind typically worked in antithetical ways, and he was careful when he printed the elated opiate possession of ‘Kubla Khan’ to pair it off with something which, as he said in the preface, described ‘with equal fidelity the dream of pain and disease’. This was a poem called ‘The Pains of Sleep’, the vivid and appalling rendition of a bad trip, in which the loss of individual agency is something unspeakably awful:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did …

We would probably seek to explain such a dream in Freudian terms, and the analyst would discover much excellent material in the notebooks to be sure; but whatever the accuracy of the analysis in its own terms it would involve a conception of ‘the unconscious’ that Coleridge himself did not entertain. He seems to have been the first person to use the word ‘subconsciousness’ (in the privacy of his notebook) but it was untouched by a theory of repression. The idea that you never really forget anything appealed to him, it is true: ‘it may be more possible that heaven and earth should pass away, than that a single act, a single thought, should be loosened or lost from that living chain of causes, with all the links of which, conscious or unconscious, the free-will, our only absolute Self, is coextensive and co-present’; but the agency that pushed some of those acts and thoughts into unconsciousness was not pathological. Coleridge once proposed to dedicate ‘an entire work to the subject of Dreams’, one of innumerable unrealised projects; and yet after a lifetime observing his sleeping life with the keenest interest he still confessed himself ‘incapable of explaining any one Figure of all the numberless Personages of this shadowy world’. He typically attributed his recurrently terrible dreams to his bad digestion or his posture in bed or some chance suggestion: Freudian dreams are, in duly complicated ways, expressions of the will, whereas for Coleridge the principal source of the pains of sleep was, as he lamented, ‘the passiveness of the Soul to the Body’. Dreams were fascinating because they occurred at the very edge of the conscious self, somehow both the product of your mind and something that happened to it, an elusive state which language might just hope to catch through the interstices of a double negative: ‘a most strange dream’, as Coleridge wrote at one point, ‘When not unconscious that she dreamt, the soul / Questions herself in sleep’. Not quite unconscious; but not conscious, of course; instead, ‘not unconscious’.

Part of his admiration for The Prelude, no doubt, was for Wordsworth’s tentative exploration of the unconscious life, an interest which, no less surely, had developed in conversations with Coleridge in the first place. ‘Yes, I remember when the changeful earth, / And twice five summers on my mind had stamped / The faces of the moving year’, says Wordsworth at one striking point, ‘even then / I held unconscious intercourse with beauty’. A paradoxical claim, to remember so clearly something that was happening unconsciously, but something that speaks eloquently to a Coleridgean interest in the mind as a thing of different levels, variously accessible—‘the mysterious gradations of Consciousness’, as he put it in his notebook.

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