Archives For Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a man of faith. Who like the rest of us, struggled from time to time. His poetry, some of which is tainted by “prescription” laudanum (the liquid variety of opium), can seem to us to be untouchable. Coleridge’s original meaning almost unattainable.

Kubla Khan being a quintessential example, followed closely by his ‘Aids to reflection: confessions of an inquiring spirit’ written in latter part of his life. The work starts out strong, but veers off in strange statements that appear unrelated to the whole.

Throughout his life Coleridge moved from Christian orthodoxy towards Unitarianism and back again. Ever since my first encounter with Kubla Khan, Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and Frost at Midnight, I’ve had an interest in this wild–at-heart eclectic 18th Century Christian.

Reading Coleridge is an adventure. Over the years I find myself finding new depth in the way Coleridge expressed his theology through poetry. It’s his theology that interests me. Especially where it becomes obvious in certain portions of his work.

One of the less obvious poems where Coleridge expresses his theology through poetry is ‘Ode to the departing year’, written near the end of 1796. The poem is nine stanzas long and reads like a political sigh.

Coleridge’s tone is sombre, firm; paralleling the same, very human gasps for breath, found in the imprecatory Psalms, which call on the name of Yahweh for guidance and deliverance.

Reflecting on this piece R.A Foakes wrote:

‘in such poems Coleridge frequently falls into a sort of quasi-Miltonic heroics that morph into gothic melodramatics…but Coleridge was a man deeply engaged with the political problems of the time’.[ii]

It’s easy to agree because “Ode to the departing year’ was written during the late 18th Century, a ‘time of great political turbulence’ (Foakes, 2009:2).

The ‘French Revolution’ and its reign of terror, general turbulence in Europe, and war. A spiral of conflict triggered  by the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793.

‘Ode to the departing year’ is rich in imagery. It could be mined for days, by anyone with a keen theological eye who has the gusto to read, reread and discover the many new ways the passages could be understood.

For example, in its closing refrain Coleridge ends with an almost introspective note to himself:

‘Away, my soul, away!
I unpartaking of the evil thing,
With daily prayer and daily toil
Soliciting for food my scanty soil,
Have wailed my country with a loud lament.
Now I recentre my immortal mind
In deep Sabbath of meek self-content;
Cleansed from the vaporous passions that bedim
God’s image, sister of the Seraphim’.[iii] 

Understanding what Coleridge means by ‘sister of the Seraphim’, and how it is used in this context is difficult to determine.

I presume he means that nations stand alongside Angels in close proximity to God. Like the Seraphim, humans can also stand before God [v]. Since in Christ, we are permitted to approach as freely as He has chosen to approach us.

The reference to Seraphim is strange. Does Coleridge mean the Seraphim of the Bible? If so, the image takes on a whole new picture when the historical context is applied.

‘The “fiery serpents” for which the Israelites feared the desert (Num 21:6–8; Deut 8:15) become further embellished as “flying serpents” (Is 14:29; 30:6). The serpents, designated by the same Hebrew word as seraphim, are distinguishable from them only by context (Is 6:2, 6). This pairing suggests that the image of a seraph may have had more in common with our idea of dragon than of angel’.[vi]

The reference to the ‘Lampad seven’ indicates light, candle or torch. Perhaps even Light bearer. Lampad is a term found in Greek mythology, a connection that Coleridge exploits in order to paint an image of blinding light.

‘‘Throughout the blissful throng,
Hushed were harp and song:
Till wheeling round the throne the Lampads seven,
(the mystic Words of Heaven)
Permissive signal make:
The fervent Spirit bowed, then spread his wings and spake!
”Thou in stormy blackness throning
Love and uncreated Light,
By the Earth’s unsolaced groaning,
… Seize thy terrors. Arm of might!…
The Past to thee, to thee the Future cries!
Hark! how wide Nature joins her groans below!
Rise, God of Nature! rise”

Coleridge may have borrowed from the significance of the imagery surrounding God’s heavenly throne in Rev.4:5:

From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. (Rev. 4:5, ESV)
From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. And in front of the throne were seven torches with burning flames. This is the sevenfold Spirit of God. (Rev. 4:5, NLT)

There are ‘torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God‘ gathered before His throne, along with the unique creatures (Seraphim) assigned to the task of protecting God’s Holiness.

Coleridge’s words are a lament. Carried with this is a solemn prayer. ‘Departing Year! ’twas on no earthly shore My soul beheld thy vision!’ War and calamity appear to be what the closing year has brought upon his world.

It’s not just the year, but the era that Coleridge now sees as being brought to a close. For Coleridge this is the apocalypse. Hence Foalke’s comment about Gothic melodramatics that I mentioned earlier.

The only source of solace is in the one who commands Heaven and earth. Fixing eyes to heaven, even when ‘human ruin chokes the streams’; when ‘Ambition is marked in his war-array!’ and when nations take ‘mad avarice [as their] guide. [And] At cowardly distance, kindle with pride‘. 

Coleridge isn’t alone. Minus the Gothic melodramatics, Peter wrote with a similar grasp of the times:

‘The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Peter 4:7-11, ESV)

For the Christian, the New Year is also about an ending. It is a new beginning to the beginning of the end of all things!! With the New Year we are reminded that God owns time and space, just as He owns everything He created; and with that we are reminded that God entered time and space in Jesus Christ, and we have His promise that He will do so again for the final time.

The New Year also a good time to be reminded that faith is not a feeling. Faith is lived out through prayer and gratitude. Faith impacts emotions and as such it walks alongside reason. As such we should take a moment to reconsider all that we can be grateful for in the passing year. Laying down before God, like Coleridge does in Ode To the Departing Year, all that we may struggle with, giving over to God, also those things that have perhaps weighed us down or look to weigh us down.

With the New Year, we may not be able to see beyond the days ahead, but we are called by God to rest, recognise and acknowledge that He is the one who does. As the clock moves past 12 on the evening of 31st, may we too, sing with those gathered around His throne,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
  who was and is and is to come!” (Rev 4:8)

 


References: 

[i] Foakes, R.A 2009, Shadowy nobodies and other Minutiae: Coleridge’s originality in The Coleridge Bulletin,  The journal of the friends of Coleridge Summer new series 33 (NS) 2009

[ii] “beings who stand before God” (see Isa. 6:1–2), McGee, J. V. Thru the Bible

[iii] Coleridge, S.T 1796 Ode to a departing year in The complete poems, 1997 Penguin Classics, Penguin Group (p.126)

[iv] Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G. 2000  Dictionary of biblical imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Fusion rock outfit, Skillet, continue to punch out solid melody and lyrics. Accurate accompaniment for both broken poet and grateful theologian.

Coleridge:

Picture of a swing mount_#Coleridgequote_RL 2013

 

Barth:

‘Lord, do not let us – not one of us – remain dull and indifferent to your gift and revelation…Awaken us to the small joy and thankfulness that we are capable of, the timid faith that we bring, the incomplete obedience that we cannot refuse – to the hope in the greatness, wholeness, and completeness that you have prepared for us in the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and that you have promised us in his resurrection from the dead. Amen’
[Fifty Prayers, pp.29-30]

 

Skillet:


Source:

Karl Barth, 2008 Fifty prayers #23,  Westminster John Knox Press

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aid to reflection Kindle Ed.

…the clouds are the dust of his feet. (Nahum 1:3)

Blogpost Western Skies

 

From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s: God’s Omnipresence: A Hymn

‘Lord, even as Thou all-present art,

O may we still with heedful heart

Thy presence know and find!

Then, come what will, of weal or woe,

Joy’s bosom-spring shall steady flow;

For though tis Heaven thyself to see,

Where but thy Shadow fall, Grief cannot be!’

(The Complete Poems Penguin Classics 1997, p.306)

 

I seem to be on a roll with pictures of some of the scenery surrounding us.

Despite being temperamental at times, the Australian climate is both breathtaking and beautiful. It compliments the landscape, consistently outshining itself with every announcement made about the close of each new day.

It maybe a little long in the tooth, but if I had to name the photo I would ‘christen’ it: “Autumn blossoms and cold skies roll in from the West.”

 

Advent Day 4: A glorious light, suspending Night

Coleridge Carol111

Coleridge: A Christmas Carol.

I

The shepherds went their hasty way,

 And found the lowly stable-shed

Where the Virgin-Mother lay:

 And now they checked their eager tread,

For to the Babe, that at her bosom clung,

A mother’s song the Virgin-Mother sung

II

They told her how a glorious light,

Streaming from  heavenly throng,

Around them shone, suspending night!

While sweeter than a mother’s song,

Blest Angels heralded the Saviour’s birth,

Glory to God on high! and Peace on Earth.

III

She listened to the tale divine,

 And closer still the Babe she prest;

And while she cried: ‘The Babe is mine!’

 The milk rushed faster to her breast:

Joy rose within her, like a summer’s morn;

Peace, Peace on Earth!

The Prince of Peace is born.

 

I find the phrase ‘sweeter than a mother’s song’ interesting. I immediately wonder, what could be sweeter? Then with a jovial tone, I imagine, its author, both a poet and a theologian, answering me: “Why the euangelion! The Gospel. For without Jesus there could be no gospel. The shepherds, now evangelists proclaim the Good news heralded by Angels. In a sense both Joseph and Mary’s choices have been validated. This.Is.For real. The Angels message sent through the shepherds confirm, that what was, now is!…now pass to me the eggnog!”

There are eight stanza’s to this poem. Morning Sun_STC_0012In the first three which are presented above Coleridge focuses heavily on motherhood, in the remaining five he shifts into a discussion about war, poverty, and the veneer of Christianity sometimes used by those in power (nominalism & injustice).

Unlike other works of his, thankfully, it is easy to catch the depth of his meaning. In a sense, this is evidenced by language that unpacks the story of a real, very human mother, present with her new-born child. Compared to some of his earlier poetry it doesn’t get any more real than the raw way in which Coleridge describes the relationship between mother and son. For example: Coleridge’s description of breastfeeding; a hint at the nurture, or real work ahead.

On the surface there appears to be a contrast between the mother’s song before shepherds, and the herald issued by Angels to them; a contrast between a human and angelic being. However, it is quite probable that Coleridge’s use of the phrase “mother’s song” is a metaphor for the joy, care, hope and vulnerability.This is supported by the phrase ‘joy rose within her, like a summer’s morn’. Human elements that would have been present in what we have come to know as the Nativity.

If I had more time, I would love to dig more into this poem. For the moment, I’m content to reflect theologically on the image of a ‘suspended night’, and wonder about answers to the question, what could be more sweeter than a mother’s song?

Source:

Coleridge, S.T 1997 The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics, p.273
Images: Both background photos are mine. Text and overlays: Picmonkey

Coleridge quote Warmth with light

‘Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’.

– Simeon Peter, Apostle of Jesus Christ (2 Pet.3:15-18)

This was one of four items that found its way onto my desk this week:

 ‘The Dungeon’ – Coleridge

And this place our forefathers made for man!
This is the process of our love and wisdom,
To each poor brother who offends against us –
 Most innocent, perhaps and what if guilty?
Is this the only cure? Merciful God!
 Each pore and natural outlet shrivelled up
By Ignorance and parching Poverty,
His energies roll back upon his heart,
And stagnate and corrupt; till changed to poison,
They break out on him, like a loathsome plague-spot;
Then we call in our pampered mountebanks –

And this is their best cure! uncomforted
And friendless solitude, groaning and tears,
And savage faces, at the clanking hour,
Seen through the steam and vapours of his dungeon,
By the lamp’s dismal twilight! So he lies
Circled with evil, till his very soul
 Unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed
By sights of ever more deformity!

With other ministrations thou, O Nature!
 Healest thy wandering and distempered child:
 Thou pourest on him thy soft influences,
Thy sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets,
Thy melodies of woods, and winds, and waters,
Till he relent, and can no more endure
To be a jarring and a dissonant thing
Amid this general dance and minstrelsy;
But, bursting into tears, wins back his way,
His angry spirit healed and harmonized
By the benignant touch of Love and Beauty.

The other three being my careful reading of Elshtain’s ‘Democracy on Trial’, a brief discussion with someone about the freedom of the Holy Spirit and my recent attachment to a song from Canadian three-piece band, Thousand Foot Krutch.

This may all sound a little dislocated, as in all four genres are unrelated; if so it is because they are and yet they aren’t. The themes within each are similar and it is this discernible connection that has me intrigued.

I have settled on labelling this link ‘permission to speak freely’.  It is a loose category but one that seems to best fit the interwoven nexus observed here.

When I am encountered by something like this I generally make an effort to slow down enough in order to hear what is being said. Some readers will know right away that this repeated and discernible “voice” before us can be the Holy Spirit unveiling some truth, delivering correction or affirming a direction. Although I have some reservations I would agree with that conclusion.

Of course this means that we need to actively discern and then determine whether or not this “word” is free from the manipulation of others or that it isn’t just a construct of our own imagination. Something which might occur because of excessive anxiety or some other ailment.

To do this we examine content critically. Matching what we hear and the form of it with an authority such as the Bible, theology and community. Keeping in mind that: ‘scripture is the primary organ of the voice of God in the church. Thus, it will stand over-against the church; and the voice of God must not be confused with the voice of the church’ (2010:1752-1753, Kindle Ed.).

When we are being constantly made aware of a particular “something”; such as a discernible pattern, theme, consistent word or message, it is likely that God is whispering something sweet as well as potentially transformative into our lives.

The statement ‘permission to speak freely’ is itself to be regarded as being both political and theological. The former, because it is grounded in the promise of the democratic right to freedom of speech (classical liberalism), and the latter because the Christian understanding reveals a reconciliation affected by the incarnation of Christ, between a rebellious and therefore unfree humanity and our free creator.

Humanity can as a consequence, speak and approach Him freely. Realising a living relationship with God can exist, does exist and is one that God longs for. For example the covenant formula: I will be your God and you will be my people.

In sum, the four working theses which can arrived at here:

First: Gagging God may serve to fuel denial of His existence, but in the end it just perpetuates ignorance. This falls in line perhaps with Coleridge’s lament – Humanity ‘lies circled with evil, till his very soul, unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed
By sights of ever more deformity!’.

Second: Gagging God does not delegitimise the potency or reality of what He has spoken and still speaks today.

Third: Gagging God as he speaks to us through the Biblical documents is hypocritical and unscientific. Eliminating the possibility for us to hear God, as he speaks, serves a narrow political agenda in much the same way that name dropping Christ in the malicious service of confusing rights with wants does.

Fourth: In gagging God we fall prey to a ‘politics of resentment, the collapse of distinctions where we gradually lose the right to call things by their real names’ (Elshtain 1995:38).  There are multiple examples of this happening. Particularly from the 20th century where citizens in “free” countries have fallen victim to superstition, oppressive regimes, and mundane routines brought about by impersonal industrialization and excessive-sometimes-murderous consumption.

We must allow the God of the Scriptures the same permission to speak (His word) as freely as we allow ourselves to speak. Coleridge’s ‘benignant touch of love and beauty that heals and harmonizes an angry spirit – calls for confession – a bursting into tears’; (benignant: a kindness and warm courtesy from a King to His subjects). If `God speaks to us through communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him…the church in its commission must then seek to obey by listening and responding’ (Karl Barth, CD 1.1, 1936:55).

Do you agree with my tentative conclusions here? Rhetorically: If so is there any discernible evidence this week, where the Holy Spirit might have been or is perhaps still speaking to you?

Sources:

Barth, K. 1936 Church Dogmatics 1.1: the doctrine of the Word of God , Hendrickson Publishers
Coleridge, S.T The complete Poems Penguin Classics
Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy on Trial, Basic Books Perseus Books Group
Jensen, M &  Wilhite, D. 2010 Church: A Guide for the Perplexed Kindle Edition.

©RL2013