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“Apologia Pro Vita Sua” [Defence of his own life]
The poet in his lone yet genial hour
Gives to his eyes a magnifying power:
Or rather he emancipates his eyes
From the black shapeless accidents of size—
In unctuous cones of kindling coal,
Or smoke upwreathing from the pipe’s trim bole,
His gifted ken can see
Phantoms of sublimity.
Shaped somewhat like the eye it describes, this Coleridge poem captures thoughts of greater magnitude than one might expect from the humble size of human eyes. In the same way that the reach of eyesight exceeds the physical dimensions of the eye, the poet, as he uses his eyes, employs imagination to exceed the limits of physical eyesight. In doing so, Coleridge revitalizes the reader’s attention to their own senses, and they share through poetic expression the “magnifying power” of Coleridge’s unique vision, emancipating their own vision to see more than the bare senses can provide. By reminding us that “the black shapeless accidents of size” of our pupils can, with a loving gaze, create warmth in the way that black coal does, it also reminds us that our senses capture a world richer in meaning than a merely empirical approach to their capacities can yield. The unreality of the poet’s creations, the phantoms of sublimity which haunt his writing, thus become less disconnected from life in general when we remember the necessity of imagination even for interpreting the images which meet our literal eyesight.
Likewise, as he concludes his prose masterpiece, the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge reflects on the eye:
This has been my object, and this alone can be my defence—and O! that with this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE might conclude!—the unquenched desire I mean, not without the consciousness of having earnestly endeavoured to kindle young minds, and to guard them against the temptations of scorners, by showing that the scheme of Christianity, as taught in the liturgy and homilies of our Church, though not discoverable by human reason, is yet in accordance with it; that link follows link by necessary consequence; that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own horizon. [Emphasis added]
Here we see that Coleridge makes a direct connection between his literary life–the process of discovering how narrative and poetics intertwine with the history of philosophy–and the defensibility of “the scheme of Christianity, as taught in the liturgy and homilies of our Church.” The metaphor of reason as an eye with a limiting horizon recalls the poetic eye of “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” and its capacity to perceive “phantoms of sublimity” beyond the scope of the literal eye. Taking the two eyes together, we can conclude that literature has something to contribute to reason not only when it operates within its natural purview (i.e. the sensible world) but also when it attempts to grasp the truths of revelation in the liturgy and homilies of the Church. When we understand the philosophical value of the imagination to reason per se (as in the “Apologia”), then it becomes easier to reconcile the apparent bifurcation between reason and faith. Elsewhere in the Biographia, Coleridge states that “Faith is then but its [reason’s] continuation: even as the day softens away into the sweet twilight, and twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the darkness.” The poetic comparison of the transition from daylight to twilight with the transition from human reason to the mysteries of faith not only provides a metaphor to conceptualize that latter transition, but constitutes an argument from it: that, in essence, the supposed dichotomy between faith and reason comes from a failure to properly conceptualize the role of imaginative expression in the pursuit of truth. It comes from a failure to realize that rational perception without poetry constitutes a paltry view of rationality itself.
It is no accident, then, that in his magnum opus, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Ancient Mariner captivates the Wedding Guest through the latter’s vision:
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
As a condensed cipher for the power of poetic insight in general, the Ancient Mariner’s gaze demonstrates how imaginative “phantoms of sublimity” can lead the rational mind to meditate on realities which otherwise pass into the mysterious darkness of inherent Being, which as a reader of Kant, Coleridge knows is argued to move out of reason’s ken. Coleridge’s poetic project can be understood as a defense of the cognitive value of the imagination, in a way which makes the poet not someone who entertains us with fanciful expression or even uses it to teach us truths which could be derived just as well means other than the imagination (the classic “instruct and delight” thesis of poetry, for example). Rather, Coleridge’s contention is that the imagination is properly basic to the apprehension of truth, and so to the perception of being itself. Continuing in his conclusion of Biographia Literaria, he writes,
“It is night, sacred night! the upraised eye views only the starry heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the awful 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.”
As the eye is the physical means by which the perceiver goes beyond the physical limits of his body, so imagination take naked reason beyond its limits and sustain this “pure act of inward adoration” of the eternal, which our temporal natures long to grasp and participate in. Coleridge’s philosophical and theological project is to inquire into how this understanding operates, to probe the problems of the claim that imagination is necessary for seeking truth and to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of an imagination too emaciated or too bloated in that function. In my Davenant Hall Summer 2022 class, Coleridge’s Christian Romanticism, we will explore his project to develop a philosophical theology of poetry, examining both his prose and poetry throughout the course to that end.
Dr. Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.