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Coleridge and Swedenborg

Richard Lines MA

The influence of Swedenborg on William Blake has been widely recognized. The influence of Swedenborg on Blake's younger contemporary, the poet, philosopher and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is not so well known. In his magnificent two volume biography of Coleridge, "Early Visions" (1989) and "Darker Reflections"(1998), Richard Holmes makes just one reference to Swedenborg, although in the second volume he does deal extensively with Coleridge's friendship with the Swedenborgian Charles Augustus Tulk, a founder member of this Society and a long-serving Chairman in its early years. It appears that Coleridge, born in the year of Swedenborg's death (1772), became acquainted with some of the religious writings quite early in life. William Hazlitt, in his essay "Mr Coleridge" in "The Spirit of the Age" (1825), wrote that the young Coleridge " ...walked hand in hand with Swedenborg through the pavilions of the New Jerusalem, and sang his faith in the promise and in the word in his 'Religious Musings'". "Religious Musings" is a long philosophic poem which appeared in Coleridge's first volume of "Poems", published in 1796, just before he was twenty four. Wordsworth liked particularly the millennial close to this poem:

"When in some hour of solemn jubilee
The massive gates of Paradise are thrown
Wide open: and forth come in fragments wild
Sweet echoes of unearthly melodies, ..."

Richard Holmes observes that Coleridge's "Notebooks" for 1796 are full of lists of works he intended to write. They include an essay (never written) on the "Reveries" of Swedenborg.

It is in the writings of his later years that most of Coleridge's appreciative comments on Swedenborg are to be found. In September 1817 Coleridge met Tulk while both were on holiday at Littlehampton and their ensuing friendship produced an important crop of correspondence, much of it about Swedenborg's theology and German metaphysics. Coleridge began one letter to Tulk:

"They say, Coleridge! that you are a Swedenborgian!" "Would to God," I replied fervently, that they were anything".

One of the first fruits of their friendship was that Tulk lent Coleridge one of the very rare plates of Blake's illustrated poems, "Songs of Innocence and Experience". In February 1818 Coleridge wrote with enthusiasm to his friend the Rev. Henry Francis Cary (the translator of Dante) of these poems "... with very wild and interesting pictures" and declared that their author was " ... a man of Genius - and I apprehend a Swedenborgian - ...". He returned the poems to Tulk the following week with a learned commentary in which he wrote of "... the error which is most likely to beset the scholars of Emanuel Swedenborg ...", of sinking the love of God into merely good nature.

In a letter to Tulk (now a Member of Parliament) in July 1820 Coleridge wrote:

"Of the too limited time which my ill health and the exigencies of today leave in my power, I have given the larger portion to the works of Swedenborg, particularly to the "Universal Theology of the New Church" - [ie "True Christian Religion"]. I find very few, and even those but doubtful, instances of tenets in which I am conscious of any substantial difference of opinion with the enlightened author".

Other works of Swedenborg's which Coleridge is known to have studied include "The Economy of the Animal Kingdom", "The Worship and Love of God", "Heaven and Hell", and "Divine Love and Wisdom". Like Blake at an earlier date, he made his own marginal notes on a copy of the last of these. Of parts of "The Economy of the Animal Kingdom" (which he appears to have read in an original Latin edition of 1740), he wrote:

"I remember nothing in Lord Bacon superior, few passages equal, either in depth of thought, or of richness, dignity, and felicity of diction, to the weightiness of the truths contained in these articles".

He was of the view that "The Worship and Love of God" (a pre-illumination work), "would of itself suffice to mark Swedenborg as a man of philosophic genius, radicative and evolvent. Much of what is most valuable in the physiosophic works of Schelling, Schubert [not the composer, but another German philosopher and friend of Schelling] and Eschermeyer is to be found anticipated in this supposed Dementato...".

As is apparent from this passage, Coleridge was deeply read in contemporary German idealist philosophy. He is widely credited with introducing the philosophy of Kant and Schelling to the English reading public, particularly in "Biographia Literaria" (1817) where Schelling's thought (which Coleridge plagiarised extensively elsewhere) is given special prominence. It is interesting that Coleridge, in noting the apparent influence of Swedenborg upon Schelling, anticipated the views of the twentieth century German Swedenborg scholar, Ernst Benz, who described Swedenborg as "the Spiritual Pioneer of German Idealism and German Romanticism". The reader who is interested in tracing the influence of Swedenborg on Schelling (a philosopher little known to the English reader except as a stepping-stone from Kant to Hegel) is recommended to turn to the late Dr Friedemann Horn's fine book, "Schelling and Swedenborg", now available in an excellent English translation (1997) by Dr George Dole published by the Swedenborg Foundation (£8.50).

A book which Coleridge wished to write, but never did, was a vindication of great men unjustly branded. The heterodox thinkers he had in mind were Giordano Bruno, Jakob Boehme, Benedict Spinoza, and Emanuel Swedenborg. He actually offered to write a "Life of the Mind of Swedenborg" if £200 (a great sum of money in those days) could be raised for him. It appears that, notwithstanding Tulk's eloquent advocacy of Coleridge's merits, the committee of the Swedenborg Society was not persuaded and nothing came of this proposal. Another suggestion made by Coleridge to Tulk was to write a rational account of the doctrine of correspondences. The Anglican divine and translator of Swedenborg, the Rev. John Clowes, thought that this idea had merit, but (ever the pastor mindful of the needs of his flock) felt that, however serviceable such a study might be to scholarly readers, it would be of little help to simple folk. Tulk actually did write such an account which was published in 1832, two years before Coleridge's death, under the title "A Record of Family Instruction". This work was re-issued many years after Tulk's death as "The Science of Correspondency".

Perhaps Coleridge's most affirmative statement about Swedenborg is the following:

"I can venture to assert that as a moralist Swedenborg is above all praise; and that as a naturalist, psychologist, and theologian he has strong and varied claims on the gratitude and admiration of the professional and philosophical student".

Apart from his poetry, Coleridge is remembered today for his literary criticism (above all in developing theories about the role of the imagination) and for his social and religious philosophy. In a most interesting footnote in "Early Visions" Richard Holmes raises the question "... whether life - or literature - can have any real meaning without some form of Divine continuity or assurance within the structure of reality". He mentions his own mentor, the eminent critic and literary scholar George Steiner, who has considered the question (which was familiar to Coleridge) of "... whether language itself ultimately depends on the notion of Divine articulation within the universe". Coleridge himself (as is noted above) was familiar with the doctrine of correspondences, which he found expressed at great length in Swedenborg's religious writings, even though he thought it could be reduced to a more coherent form for the contemporary reader.

Coleridge was briefly a Unitarian preacher as a young man, but he never became an ordained clergyman. Yet his religious thought exercised a powerful effect on Anglican theologians like Frederick Denison Maurice (himself a reader of Swedenborg), who was famous as the inspiration of the Christian Socialists and of the liberal, "Broad Church" tendency within the Church of England. In 1842 Maurice, in the preface to "The Kingdom of Christ", referred to the power of Coleridge's social and religious philosophy which, he wrote, "... shows us what we have to seek for". It is interesting to note that in 1818 Coleridge and Tulk anticipated the Christian Socialists and the Evangelical reformer Lord Shaftesbury by campaigning in support of Sir Robert Peel the elder's Children's Relief Bill, a measure (supported also by John Clowes) to introduce more humane conditions for children working in the cotton factories.

The influence of Swedenborg, whose religious writings have exerted a powerful effect on some of the greatest minds in literature and philosophy, has often been indirect rather than direct. In Coleridge's case, that influence (little noticed in Coleridgean scholarship) has been spread very widely through the writings of Coleridge himself. Tulk, who knew both Blake and Coleridge and actually introduced them to each other on one occasion and who was in as good a position as anyone has ever been to judge the influence that Swedenborg had had on both men, wrote after Blake's death that:

"Blake and Coleridge, when in company, seemed like beings of another sphere, breathing for a while on our earth, which may easily be perceived from the similarity of thought pervading their works".

( Richard Lines, a Barrister, is a Past President of the Society and has a strong interest in Swedenborg’s influence on Literature.)

Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 1 (Spring 2000) pp. 2-3.


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