On the 31st December 1803 Coleridge wrote in his notebook:
The waterfall at the head of the Vale, (the circular mountain walled vale) white, stedfast, silent from Distance /—the River belonging to it, smooth, full, silent—the Lake into which it empties itself silent / yet the noise of waters every where / — and the pillar of smoke / the smooth winter fields — the indistinct Shadows in the lake are all eloquent of Silence. [Notebooks, 1:1784]The eloquence of silence is a nice seeming-paradox, and very Coleridgean. Because this waterfall is somehow simultaneously silent and noisy (‘yet the noise of waters every where’), as if its very clamour somehow generates its silence. In ‘The Eolian Harp’ Coleridge says ‘the stilly murmur of the distant sea / Tells us of silence’ (11-12). ‘“Tells us of silence” is no mere word game,' says G S Morris. ‘In the world of the conversation poems, in which there is no such thing as true silence, the sound of the sea focuses the poet's mind and allows him to see the sound in silence.’
This entry has something to do with the end of the year, and the ending of other things more generally. Two weeks after writing it, on January 14th 1804, Coleridge walked away from Grasmere. By the 26th January he was in London, and from there he travelled to Malta. He was trying to restart his life, to escape the dead end of his inacitivity, his ill-health and addictions and his hopeless love for Asra. He was, in point of fact, trying to escape himself.
Seamus Perry [Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Clarendon 1999)] notes how earnestly and consistently Coleridge yearned for a dissolution of self, an eradication or annihilation of identity as such, a yearning that was at once mystical and practical, another manifestation for his desire to escape. It had its political aspect: Pantisocracy, for Coleridge, was the dream of abandoning the self into selfless serving of others, to ‘throw aside the panoply of artificial and personal distinction and feel a common identity with mankind at large.’
The splenetic letter that followed Southey’s resignation from the scheme complained, ‘I returned to Cambridge hot in the anticipation of that happy Season, when we should remove the selfish principle from ourselves’ only to find Southey relapsing into the language of ‘“I and I” and “will and will”—sentences of gloomy and self-centering Resolves’: ‘Why do you say, I—I—I—will do so and so?’ [Letters 1:163, 164, 150] … prominent among Southey’s failings, as Coleridge enunciated them to his notebook, was that, whatever his political theory, ‘HE IS NOT self-oblivious or self-diffused.’ [Notebooks 1:1815] [Perry, 157]That last complaint about Southey was written five days after the silent waterfall passage. Perry goes on:
Coleridge exclaims to the notebook ‘O! how quiet it is to the Eye, & to the Heart when it will entrance itself in the present vision, & know nothing, feel nothing, but the Abiding Things of Nature, great, calm, majestic, and one’; and a few days before speculates how obstructive it would be to know that a tree you were contemplating was planted by Shakespeare: ‘the constant association of Shakespeare’s having planted it [would be] an intrusion that prevented me wholly & as a whole man losing myself in the flexures of its Branches & interweaving of its Roots [Notebooks 2:2026]. Such ‘silent aweful idealess Watching’ [Letters 2:1008] is precisely the being ‘lost and scattered in sensible Objects’ that he elsewhere belittled when compared to the Platonic appeal ‘to the fact within, to the mind’s Consciousness’ [Notebooks, 3:3935]. He writes in a late notebook: ‘it is an instinct of my Nature to pass out of myself, and to exist in the form of others.’ [Perry, 158]Go back to the 1804 notebook entry. It's him, I suppose: this cold fall surrounded by its ridge, the ‘waterfall at the head of the Vale, (the circular mountain walled vale)’—STC knows that, etymologically, the words wall and vale are linked (Latin vallum, ‘wall, rampart, entrenchment, palisade’ and vallis ‘valley, vale, hollow’, since the one defines the other). The problem is that this silent isolation flips about so easily into a kind of frozen egoism: ‘white, stedfast, silent from Distance’. This notebook entry is saying that the point is not this walled separation, but the fact that—as in Xanadu—a river flows out of it, ‘belonging to it’, the externalisation of fluidity and plenitude (‘smooth, full’) in contrast to the icicle-jaggedness of the walled vale, a river also ‘silent’, just as ‘the Lake into which it empties itself’ is silent. The poetry this cold subjectivity produces is only eloquent insofar as it says nothing and makes no sound, although it is at the same time endlessly saying and sounding-off.