In the opening of “Biographia Literaria,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses capital letters to underscore the idea that one of the poets goals should be “to contemplate the ANCIENT of days and all his works…” (Coleridge 629), an obvious reference to God as creator. The author then explains that the real world serves as a bridge to the supernatural, and that which is real with respect to the supernatural is essentially created by an innate power called imagination (634). The assumption is that all readers have on occasion, even if by self-delusion, attributed unexplainable real-life situations to forces outside of the natural world via the power of imagination, a mysterious force which, according to the author, is granted to mankind and even controlled by an omniscient creator (634). He understands clearly that in order for a poet to do the work of a god – to invoke the power of imagination via the written word – he must utilize the kind of stirring realities found only in deep-rooted beliefs and universally accepted truths, otherwise known as Religion.
Coleridge describes his theory of imagination as a portal in theological terms. He describes the imagination as the “living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception,” explaining that this innate ability to create is the result of the “infinite I AM” (634), a clear reference to a biblical verse in which
the God of the Bible refers to himself as “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Additionally, Coleridge had intended to write a study of the Gospel of John, but for one reason or another failed to do so (633). The book of John is thought by most theologians to be more mystical than the other three Gospels, lending credence to the notion that Coleridge, who refers to “mysticism” on numerous occasions and quite possibly viewed the hallucinogenic effects of opium as a means to tap into such thought, based his notion of the supernatural and its connection to the common man on biblical and religious studies.
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Coleridge drenches his poetry in references to Christianity and Catholicism. Ideas of salvation and damnation, prayer and penance, and even the names Mary and Christ saturate the works from beginning to end. In “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge goes so far as to say “He’ll wash away the Albatross’s blood” (lines 508-514), clearly a reference to some sort of absolution and washing away of sins. And in “The Eolian Harp,” a poem not typically regarded as a representation of Coleridge’s supernatural works, the author uses words and phrases such as “reproof” and says he must “walk humbly with my God” (lines 49 and 52). He continues in the same stanza with talk of “the family of Christ” and “the unregenerate mind” (lines 53 and 55). Additionally, the author borrows biblical characters and story lines. For example, in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of three wedding guests is stopped by the Mariner while en route to a wedding banquet. The guest is compelled to continue listening and ignore a call to the wedding as the Mariner tells his story (lines 15-16 and 31-32). This scene mirrors a biblical parable in which the God of the Bible “calls” guests to a wedding banquet where they are to await a bridegroom – a picture of the New Testament Messiah (Matthew 22:1-14). In the parable, those who hear the call and respond are rewarded, while those who become distracted and ignore the call are punished.
As previously stated, Coleridge was far from being alone with respect to the use of religious imagery in his writings. John Keats, for example, begins “The Eve of St. Agnes” with images of the rosary and penance (lines 5-6), and quickly touches on the idea again with the line “penance for his soul” (lines 24-26). Biblical concepts of atonement and original sin are weaker yet still present in Keat’s “La Bell Dame Sans Merci.” Payment for falling under the spell of “The beautiful lady without mercy” is found in the final stanza, where the speaker awakes on the “cold hill side,” where he is found “alone and palely loitering” (lines 44 and 46). In biblical terms, he has bitten from the forbidden fruit and now must pay the price for his sin. Additionally, Keats borrows the name Madeline (line 55) from the infamous prostitute of the Bible, Mary Magdalene (page 937 footnote). The point is that Coleridge is not alone in his theory that the power of religious imagery should be used by the poet in order to conjure the forces of imagination.
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In the preface to “Lyrical Ballads,” William Wordsworth says that poetry should connect with the common man via “the real language of men” (Wordsworth 408). He further explains his intention to cover this “real language” with “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (409). The idea, as explained by the author, is to choose a state of mind or condition of the body or soul – in this case the struggles associated with a lowly position in life – in order to interact with the reader when he is in a vulnerable state, or as Wordsworth describes, “a state of excitement” (409). Accordingly, Wordsworth and other poets of the time concentrate on the natural world. However, a true connection with the hearts and minds of the common person would obviously entail the supernatural – those thoughts and events deemed unexplainable to the general public. Understanding this notion, and further contemplating that the seeds of religion are
the basis for mankind’s belief in the unexplainable, Coleridge simply embraces and expands the ideas of Wordsworth in order to move from the natural to the supernatural.
A poet attempting to do the work of a god, Coleridge uses the stirring imagery found in biblical stories and parables to light the fuse of imagination. He understands there is “no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and the mysterious force of imagination must be based in reality. In short, Coleridge breathes life into ghosts, goblins, and other elements of the supernatural when he uses as a backdrop religious imagery and the universally identifiable concept of original sin and the afterlife.
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