Friday, November 15, 2013

Coleridge on Scripture: "Heart-Awakening Utterances of Human Hearts"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Painting by Washington Allston (1814)

 "I have known many men who have done wonderful things,
but the most wonderful man I ever knew was Coleridge."
                                                          ...William Wordsworth

Upon his death in 1834, Samuel Taylor Coleridge left a manuscript that he had intended to publish under the title Letters on the Inspiration of the Scriptures. The book appeared posthumously as Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit.

Among Coleridge's most fundamental confessions is his overwhelming indebtedness and devotion to the Bible:
A large part of the light and life, in and by which I see, love, and embrace the truths and the strengths [of faith], has been directly or indirectly derived to me from this sacred volume.... In the Bible there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together; ...the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being.
Because of his devotion to Scripture, Coleridge is distressed by a teaching of the Anglican Church that he calls "the Doctrine":
This Doctrine, I confess, plants the vineyard of the Word with thorns for me, and places snares in its pathways.
The teaching that affronts Coleridge is the infallibility of scripture:
The doctrine in question requires me to believe...that all that exists in the sacred volume...was dictated by an Infallible Intelligence—that the writers, each and all, were divinely informed as well as inspired.
Coleridge is particularly scornful of Anglican clergy who do not believe the doctrine of infallibility yet dare not say so, continuing to perpetuate the doctrine, or simply keeping silent about it:
I am weary of discussing a tenet which the generality of divines...have ceased to defend, and yet continue to assert or imply.
Almost two hundred years after Coleridge, many clergy continue to defend, assert, imply, or simply keep quiet about the Doctrine, and I too have grown weary of discussing scripture's infallibility. I thoroughly admire Coleridge's arguments against the Doctrine, but his arguments are not the source of my affection for his book. Rather, my love for the Confessions grows from what the book reveals about Coleridge's devotion to biblical scripture as a sourcebook of human experience and a source of human healing, and from the corresponding passion of his language.

Throughout his life Coleridge struggled with medical ailments, procrastination, opium addiction, depression, and mental disturbance. On his book's first page he introduces his theme: 
Confessions of one who is neither fair nor saintly, but who, groaning under a deep sense of infirmity and manifold imperfection, feels the want, the necessity of religious support—who cannot afford to lose the smallest buttress.

Coleridge found his religious support in the Bible—specifically, in the lives of biblical authors and other biblical men and women whose struggles with faith mirrored his own:
Need I say that I have met everywhere [in the Bible] more or less copious sources of truth, and power, and purifying impulses—that I have found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness?

 Coleridge resisted the doctrine of scripture's infallibility because it robs the biblical authors—his indispensable companions in spiritual struggle—of their humanity. "Why," Coleridge asks rhetorically,
should I not believe the Scriptures throughout dictated, in word and thought, by an infallible Intelligence? Eagerly and earnestly do I answer: For every reason that makes me prize and revere these Scriptures—prize them, love them, revere them beyond all other books! Why should I not? Because the Doctrine in question petrifies at once the whole body of Holy Writ with all its harmonies and symmetrical gradations: the flexile and the rigid; the supporting hard and the soothing soft; the blood which is the life*; the intelligencing nerves, and the rudely woven, but soft and springy, cellular substance in which all are embedded and lightly bound together. This breathing organism...the Doctrine in question turns at once into a colossal Memnon's head**, a hollow passage for a voice: a voice that mocks the voices of many men, and speaks in their names, and yet is but one voice and the same—and no man uttered it, and never in a human heart was it conceived.
Among the men and women of the Bible who gave Coleridge companionship and comfort, the foremost was David—the "royal Harper," the "sweet Psalmist of Israel." David's Psalms play upon the strings of Coleridge's troubled heart with calming, saving effect. The idea that Infallible Intelligence dictated the Psalms invalidates David's human struggles, turning him instead into an automaton, as lifeless as David's harp would be without its player.

In the biblical authors, Coleridge writes,
I find a lesson of humility, a ground of humiliation, and a shaming, yet rousing, example of faith and fealty. But let me once be persuaded that all these heart-awakening utterances of human hearts—of men of like faculties and passions with myself, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing—are but as a Divina Commedia of a superhuman (Oh bear with me, if I say) Ventriloquist; [let me once be persuaded] that the royal Harper, to whom I have so often submitted myself as a many-stringed instrument for his fire-tipt fingers to traverse, while every several nerve of emotion, passion, thought, that thrids [threads] the flesh-and-blood of our common humanity, responded to the touch; [let me once be persuaded] that this sweet Psalmist of Israel was himself as mere an instrument as his harp, an automaton poet, mourner, and supplicant: [then] all is gone—all sympathy, at least, and all example. 

Readers can hardly fail to notice that Coleridge's paragraph here, after the first couple of lines, is a single sentence of manifold clauses nested within clauses. This pattern is expressive of Coleridge's mental exuberance and typical of his prose. As his spoken discourses sometimes exhausted his listeners, so Coleridge's writing often daunts his would-be readers.

Of a famous actor's performance in Othello, Coleridge wrote:
To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.
This characterization was not wholly complimentary. Context makes clear that Coleridge found the actor's style uneven, alternating between electrifying and obscure.

So it is, I find, with Coleridge's writing in the Confessions. The passages that I have quoted here are lightning flashes. Between flashes Coleridge's logic is ever keen and his expression ever exact, but much is veiled in syntactical darkness. I have known conscientious students, assigned portions of the Confessions, to throw up their hands in defeat.

Experience has taught me that the principal difficulty arises from Coleridge's punctuation. We today are accustomed to shorter sentences punctuated by commas, semicolons, colons, dashes. Coleridge writes protracted sentences like those of the German philosophers who were his mentors, and he sometimes punctuates an entire paragraph with nothing but dashes. In the passage about David quoted above, for example, Coleridge employs the dash eight times. But dashes grant a reader's eyes no assistance in sorting out nested clauses. And the more passionate Coleridge's prose, the more dashes he uses.

For this reason I have taken the liberty of altering his punctuation and adding brief explanatory brackets, always preserving Coleridge's language unchanged.

If we are to enjoy Coleridge's Confessions, our eyes need time to become accustomed, and this demands persistence and patience. I recommend the effort. The reward is abundant: sharing heart-awakening utterances from the human heart of this wonderful man.

* "which is the life": a reference to Deuteronomy 12:23: "Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life...."
** "Memnon's head": a colossal stone head said to gave forth sound at dawn. The head was moved from its original site in Egypt to the British Museum in 1816, inspiring Shelley's poem Ozymandias.

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