Swedenborg's Trail in the Coleridgean Landscape
by James F Lawrence
In 1772, the vicinity of London witnessed the exit and entrance of two remarkable Christian theologians: Emanuel Swedenborg passed away quietly in the English capital after seeing his last theological work safely through publication; a few months later in nearby Devonshire, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born.
Prolific writers, both men are associated with Christian mysticism generally, and more specifically with effective roles in the 19th-century revolution in religious thought called Romanticism in England and Transcendentalism in the United States. Tales of both men's prodigious intellect cause them to cross paths through those whom they influenced. For example, the Terman group at Stanford University, the original scholars establishing the "intelligence quotient," once applied their testing method to hundreds of figures of history via a massive computer database. The results were used as the standard for years in the Guinness Book of World Records for "history's highest I.Q."
Three persons, in fact, were determined to possess such high I.Q.'s that they surpassed numerical value and could not be assessed: Mill, Goethe, and Swedenborg (all "somewhere over 200"). Interestingly, Goethe once said that only by reading Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell was he enabled to finish his masterpiece, Faustus, which he had put aside in frustration for a decade. The other figure this grand triumvirate, Mill, devoted an entire book arguing that the two seminal thinkers shaping 19th-century English thought were Bentham (Utilitarianism) and Coleridge (Romanticism).
Coleridge survives in our day chiefly as a poet, but in his own times he reigned equally as a philosopher and theologian. Christian Church historian, James O. Duke, declares that Coleridge stands alone in the 19th century as an influence on English theology. Not only did Coleridge live during a time of immense intellectual upheaval, but he was perhaps the most potent voice for a new way of thinking in period of great transition. Emerson would be the closest American comparison. But Coleridge maintained a Christian passion more in sympathy with the Church than was true of Emerson, but Coleridge was also radical enough in his thinking that his influence over liberals was no less than Emerson's.
Essentially, Coleridge constructed two careers. A brief but potent period as a poet began in 1797 with one of the great creative collaborations in literary history, as he and William Wordsworth jointly produced their masterpiece, Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge's poetic career, as brilliant as it was short, ended five years later as he panicked that his lyrical talent was waning. He wrote his last great poem, "Dejection: An Ode," in 1802.
His contributions to Lyrical Ballads entail most of his greatest work, including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and "Christabel," which together secure a reputation as the greatest lyrical poet in English, with the exception of Wordsworth, who though producing a more extensive and diverse body of first-rate poetry, was not a close peer to Coleridge in analytical thinking. When the Lyrical Ballads were released, their vision and excellence rocked the intelligentsia. Coleridge was immediately established as a major force with which to be reckoned. Having a powerful philosophic cast of mind, as well as a poetic one, Coleridge soon reigned as the undisputed intellectual leader of English Romanticism.
When his poetic talents faded, he developed his potential as a philosopher, with far-reaching effects upon politics, art, literary criticism, and Christian theology. This effort he pursued somewhat fitfully for twenty years, until ill health brought his output to a close. Many moderns fail to appreciate that his second career was as influential for 19th-century English theology as his first career is still today for modern poetry.
While Coleridge is often cited by Swedenborgians as one of many 19th-century luminaries drawing direct illumination from Swedenborg's revelatory works, Coleridgean scholars have given scant notice to Coleridge's debt to Swedenborg. Undoubtedly this oversight is due to Coleridge's scarce mention of Swedenborg in the works that he prepared for publication. In the past twenty years, however, the publication of previously unavailable, but extensive Coleridge notebooks and correspondence, along with a heightened awareness of the Swedenborgian influence in some key relationships and an informed understanding of the strong similarity between Coleridge's theological innovations and Swedenborg's system, all aid in seeing clear lines of Swedenborg's trail in the varied landscape of Coleridge's thought.
Coleridge likely first encountered Swedenborg as a philosopher while still in his teens in London, where the early Hindmarsh group was conducting a brisk publishing ministry. His best youthful friend, Charles Lamb, lived in the same neighborhood where the Swedenborgians met, and Swedenborg tracts were gaining attention. Coleridge was the son of an Anglican vicar, and all his early education was undertaken as preparation for the ministry. But even though his father was quite orthodox, Coleridge apparently had a lively interest in innovative, if not radical, approaches to Christianity. It is only speculative that he began an awareness of Swedenborgianism through their presence, but since Hindmarsh was carrying on an ongoing published debate with Coleridge's soon-to-be new "mentor," the Unitarian theologian, J. B. Priestley, it is an irresistible speculation.
When he soon decamped to Cambridge, Coleridge wrote a sonnet full of rococo praise of Priestley, and he changed his stripes of affiliation to Unitarianism. He also went off to Bristol for a brief fling as a Unitarian minister, where interestingly, a fledgling Swedenborgian congregation had begun to thrive. His support for Priestley did not last long, however, when he decided that he must break from him over matters that would become central to his theology: a commitment to free will and an ardent opposition to determinism. Priestley's brand of Uni-tarianism, it turns out, is little more than Deism, removing Jesus from divine status and turning the creation into a grand clock, with all motion pre-set. So his movement away from Priestley's thinking was in profound accord with Swedenborgian positions on the doctrinal issues in question.
It is interesting to note here that Swedenborg is so famous for his unitarian presentation of the trinity within the Godhead that to this day in England the English Conference of the New Jerusalem is denied admission to the national ecumenical Christian council on the grounds that its theology is insufficiently trinitarian! But, of course, Swedenborg maintains a very high Christology and scrupulously protects a clear understanding that Jesus' nature was fully divine, as well as fully human, which later became characteristic of Coleridge's position. With only Servetus writing earlier (and much more obscurely), Swedenborg is the original unitarian theologian--a fact undoubtedly not lost on the brilliant Coleridge.
Coleridge soon left both college and the ministry, however, as he sensed that his path was more as a social and literary philosopher. He even joined the dragoons for a short time, being deeply inspired by the French Revolution. Quitting that ill-fitting daily regimen, he attempted a continuation of his social ideals as he and his newest radical ally, Robert Southey and future Romantic figure of more minor note, made plans to establish a communitarian society on the banks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, only to shelve the effort when they realized they had no fundraising talent for launching their grandiose vision. But they did manage to launch a magazine devoted to social justice and harmony, "The Friend," which produced 28 issues before folding.
There is no primary source material linking Coleridge with actual Swedenborgians until 1817. By this time, Coleridge had divorced his wife and submitted to permanent resident with the physician, James Sullivan, who tried to keep Coleridge's legendary addiction to laudanum (an opiate mixture in alcohol) under control. Sullivan's residence, Highgate, was Coleridge's home for his last eighteen years, and it became one of the most important centers for artistic and intellectual gatherings in Europe. And it is during this period when Coleridge's interactions with Swedenborgians can be verified. Whether he read deeply into Swedenborg in his early, formative years is unknown.
After 1817, however, Coleridge's relationship with Swedenborgian thought becomes much clearer. In the extant Coleridge papers, edited by Kathleen Colburn, there are 33 letters that survive to C. A. Tulk, the son of a noted founding Swedenborgian organizer and minister, J. A. Tulk, and a major patron of romantic poets, which included both Coleridge and Blake. Coleridgean and Blakean scholars have often speculated as to whether the two poets ever crossed paths (Blake being a generation older and living in near-total obscurity, in marked contrast to his junior but highly social and celebrated colleague).
Raymond Deck seemed to solve the matter in his dissertation when he unearthed a piece published in the London University Magazine, whose authorship he convincingly established as C. A. Tulk. The writer is trying to interest the audience in the significance of the unknown Blake and confesses to having brought the great Coleridge to Blake's home in 1825 to view Blake's magnificent, "Last Judgement." The author gushes: "Blake and Coleridge, when in company, seemed like congenial beings of another sphere, breathing for awhile on our earth; which may easily be perceived from the similarity of thought pervading their works." How interesting, then, in one of Coleridge's newly published letters, to the British writer and critic, H. F. Carey, that Coleridge avers that he understands Blake to "be a Swedenborgian--certainly."
One of the most impressive suggestions of Coleridge's admiration for Swedenborg comes from his offer to the London Swedenborgians, at the height of his renown, to write a "Life of Swedenborg." Due to an unfortunate exchange with one of the more argumentative Swedenborgians who questioned Coleridge's fidelity to the seer's doctrines, the offer seems to have been rescinded. But a companion offer, made to the Swedenborg enthusiast Anglican cleric, John Clowes, to write a book on Swedenborg's doctrine of correspondences underscores Coleridge's more-than-passing study of Swedenborg. Clowes, in fact, wrote to a mutual friend that he is satisfied with Coleridge's understanding of correspondences. (Using his poetry as the proof of the pudding, one may wonder who equaled his facility with the concept!) It is unknown whether Coleridge ever began work on the project, but no proof that he did has ever surfaced. Due to Coleridge's weaknesses, he began many projects that he never finished--a hallmark his friends felt kept him from true greatness.
Now let us turn to another category of primary source material for Coleridge's study of Swedenborg-his own library. Solidly exhibiting his enduring fascination with the Swedish revelator are quite extensive annotations in at least ten works from Swedenborg's corpus. He penned qualitatively and quantitatively impressive marginalia for The Worship and Love of God, The White Horse, The Animal Kingdom, The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, Heaven and Hell, Prodromus, Intercourse Between Soul and Body, Divine Love and Wisdom, True Christian Religion, and Divine Providence.
Coleridge's marginalia indicate a lively interaction with the ideas he encountered there. Sometimes he takes Swedenborg to task, and sometimes he glows with admiration, but on the whole his respect for the power of the ideas he finds in Swedenborg is evident. In one place he declares: "I have known strong minds, with imposing, undoubting, Cobbettlike manners, but I have never met a great mind of this sort. And of the former, they are at least as often wrong as right. The truth is, a great mind must be androgynous. Great minds--Swedenborg's, for instance--are never wrong but in consequence of being in the right, but imperfectly." And to a correspondent, he writes: "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."
Plumbing fully the theological and philosophical thinking of Coleridge ranges beyond the scope of this article, but a few forays are in order, because the ultimate evidence that Coleridge's own influential theology owed much (or at least shared much) with Swedenborg needs to be found here, or the whole matter is irrelevant.
In the largest sense, Coleridge's theological passions inveighed against the then-reigning philosophy of empiricism. In contrast, he promoted an idealistic philosophy, derived partly from Kant and Schelling, but also from Swedenborg. In essence, Coleridge argued that the mind is an active free-will life-force (rather than a passive result, which the empiricists believed). The human spirit is in a dynamic co-creative relationship with the divine, and the great quest involves an effort to create a higher experience of life through the faculty of the imagination, which alone is able to apprehend the forces of love.
To get more specific, Coleridge became renowned for his way of distinguishing between Reason and Understanding--a timeless philosophic discussion. Kant and Plato, both of whom Coleridge considered foundational for his own work, had formulated a classic distinction. But Coleridge came to believe that they did not go far enough in their grasp of the concept of Reason. His ambition was to clarify the distinction more sharply so as to subordinate Understanding and exalt Reasoning. Understanding, which had been elevated as the supreme attribute by Locke, is for Coleridge merely a faculty of the human mind, quite capable of distortion and corruption. Reason, on the other hand, is an inner light, an indwelling flow which is the source of all genuine revelation. Reason cannot be corrupted: it is either wholly present or wholly obscured.
In an 1821 letter to Tulk, Coleridge explains his distinction according to Swedenborgian principles. He calls his Higher Reason "celestial influx"--well-known Swedenborgian terminology. He describes it as the eternal God operating through the human receptacle. He describes Understanding as the power that adapts means to approximate ends, but Reason is its own ultimate end and is its own manifestation. At the precise point, then, where Coleridge believes Kant and Plato must be improved as philosophers, he becomes a theologian, and the kind of theology he needs to accomplish this goal he derives from Swedenborg's terminology and insights.
One of Coleridge's most famous poems, "Time, Real and Imaginary," is thought by some to present the superiority of Reason over Understanding:
The sister is Reason, always with sure step and clear sight, who tries to bring along her brother, Understanding, who's sight is highly provisional, so much so that he doesn't even know or see his relation to her, Reason.
"What is Life," a short poem written in 1805, reveals Coleridge's conviction that there is a higher self within the person that is always in contact with God. This accords with Swedenborg's description of the "anima," or that part of the human soul that is in direct contact with the inflowing divine.
Also supremely significant in Coleridge is the intuitive belief that the natural world holds a special key to comprehending the meaning of life and to human happiness. His most mature work (his contributions to Lyrical Ballads) revolves around the grand subject of Nature. Wordsworth and Coleridge were deeply into their work as nature poets when Emerson undertook an extended visit in England between 1833 and 1835. His most important contacts, by his own admission, were with Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, whose neo-platonist ideas on nature, correspondences, and higher reality gave him the foundation to return home and take up the leadership of incipient Transcendentalism in America, along with Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Henry James, Sr., and Bronson Alcott.
Coleridge's most famous poetic work, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," is generally regarded as the foremost Romantic statement about the consequences of psychic separation of a person from the natural world. The way in which Coleridge carried this concern into theology is reflected in his commitment to personal salvation through an inner faith, a right connection with the rest of life. Christian doctrine must be made to accord with this sensible foundation.
On justification by faith, for example, Coleridge attacked both of the extreme positions of either mere emotional and personal salvation on the one hand, or the cold creedal fidelity of Calvinism. He believed that there were objective aspects of salvation, but that it all hinged on a personal relationship to God--a relationship that could not be judged from without. He felt that the Calvinist error was caused by the limited foundation upon which it was based: Lockean "Understanding." During the first decades of the 19th century in England, William Paley was probably the best known church theologian articulating a rationalistic basis for religion, which removed all personalized elements and all inner experience as particularly pertinent. Coleridge's abhorrence of Paley's Lockean debasement of higher reality brought on his full break from the Socinian conclusions of Priestley's Unitarian-ism, which had ultimately pulled Jesus all the way down to earth and denied him any special status.
The established Christian churches were profoundly affected by the upheaval of thought from the likes of Coleridge and Bentham, as formalism and dogmatic forms from the Middle Ages gave way to more rational and sensible bases for understanding spiritual life. In particular, Coleridge exerted in the immediate English church world a singular influence upon four key 19th-century liberal theologians who formed the core for what came to be known as the Broad Church Movement. By mid-century, the Broad Church movement was colloquially familiar at Oxford and Cambridge, describing a liberalism in English Christianity toward politics, art, and Christian doctrine. Their leaders (Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Arnold, Julius Hare, and F. D. Maurice) all acknowledged their profound debt to Coleridge.
In both large and specific ways, the theologies of Coleridge and Swedenborg show a striking compatibility. Both thinkers demonstrate a primary philosophic interest in reconciling the infinite diversity with the finite and the permanent; both believed the True Catholic Church consisted in real, direct, and practical union between people and their Lord, and that popery is irrelevant on those grounds; both taught an internal sense to Scripture, and Coleridge often used Swedenborg's correspondential interpretations of the first eleven chapters of Genesis; both believed the First Cause argument for the existence of God is valid. More conspicuously, both seekers found greatest meaning in viewing truths as a spiritual reality behind and within the world of everyday life. Taken all together, a considerable trail of Swedenborg's influence can be discerned in the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge--a pivotal poet and theologian .......
Barth, J. Robert, S.J. Coleridge and Christian Doctrine. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965.
Boulger, James D. Coleridge as Religious Thinker. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1961.
Colburn, Kathleefi', ed. Coleridge: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, Englewood, New Jersey, 1967.
Deck, Raymond C. "Blake and Swedenborg." (Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1978).
Edmisten, Leonard. "Coleridge's Commentary on Swedenborg." (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Missouri, 1954).
Jasper, David. Coleridge as Poet and Religious Thinker. Pickwick Publications, Allison Park, Pennsylvania, 1985.
Sanders, Charles Richard. Coleridge and the Broad Church Movement. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1942.
Wendling, Ronald C. Coleridge's Progress to Christianity. Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 1995.
From Studia Swedenborgiana, Vol. 11, No. 2 (also here)