THE publication of Coleridge and Contemplation, a wide-ranging collection of specialist academic essays that cover Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work as a poet, philosopher, and theologian, is part of a more general recognition among scholars of Coleridge’s importance as a religious thinker as well as a literary figure.
Though written from many different perspectives, all these essays focus, in one way or another, on how Coleridge experienced and explored the human capacity to contemplate the transcendent or eternal, in and through the temporal, and, further, how he made the case for a steady gaze, a contemplation of the great Ideas of Reason, even when they seem to take us beyond our present concepts and understanding.
A central passage for Coleridge, occurring in the notebooks and at the end of the Biographia Literaria, and frequently quoted in this book, speaks of such contemplation in these terms: “The upraised Eye views only the starry Heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward Beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the aweful depth, though Suns of other Worlds, only to preserve the Soul steady and collected in its pure Act of inward Adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from Eternity to Eternity, whose choral Echo is the Universe.”
That transition from the “upraised Eye”, the bodily gaze at outward phenomena, to the “Soul steady and collected” in its inward act, while flowing beautifully and easily from Coleridge’s pen, in fact invites many questions. Do the phenomena, the mere appearances, bear any relation to the reality behind them? Is that transcendent reality behind the phenomena in any way amenable to our human thought or containable in any concept? What happens when reason takes us beyond the limits of our understanding? Does faith itself inform the way we perceive? Can imagination come to our aid?
These are questions that Coleridge was himself asking and endeavouring to answer all his life, both rationally and imaginatively, and this book brings together experts in many fields to help in sifting through and assessing some of Coleridge’s questions and answers.
The book is divided into four parts, covering Poetics and Aesthetics; World Views (Science, Ethics, and Politics); Metaphysics; and, finally, Philosophy of Religion. It is in this last section that the discussion comes closest to what most people would think of as “contemplation” in the prayerful or spiritual sense, and it contains an interesting Buddhist response to what it might mean, in Coleridge’s phrase, to “keep the soul steady and collected”.
What emerges throughout, however, is Coleridge’s conviction that Christian faith is a foundation for deep and original thinking, an “aid to reflection” rather than a substitute for it.
Peter Cheyne has done an excellent job in editing this volume, and the range and calibre of his contributors is very impressive: from Mary Warnock’s trenchant and very well-informed foreword, through Roger Scruton’s “Reflections after Coleridge” — a review of his own work in light of Coleridge’s thought — to Douglas Hedley’s lucid and helpful chapter on “Contemplative Imagination”; and, finally, to a coda on Coleridge’s last notebook as being itself a “contemplative coda” to his life’s work.
This is not a light read, and at £65 may not be on everyone’s list, but for the serious student of Coleridge, interested in what he has to say to our age as well as his own, this will be rich and rewarding.
The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge.
Coleridge and Contemplation
Peter Cheyne, editor