Sunday, 21 October 2018

Coleridge and Plato's Luminous Gloom

Coleridge wrote this luminously gloomy line not once but twice in his Notebooks: first in November 1799 [1:528] and then again, almost identically save for the capitalisation of ‘Gloom’ (and an extra comma) in October 1803 [1:1558]. Critics have been, by and large, rather struck by it. Elliott B. Gose, Jr. [‘Coleridge and the Luminous Gloom: An Analysis of the “Symbolical Language” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, PMLA 75:3 (1960), 238-44] thinks the phrase unlocks the mysteries of the Rime. More proportionately, James Vigus, in his powerful study Platonic Coleridge (Leeds: LEGENDA 2009), sees the line as indicative of ‘Coleridge’s characterization of Plato as a mystic’:
The polarity of nonsense and truth, ‘dark with excessive bright’ is reflected in the [luminous gloom] image, which was so adhesive to Coleridge’s mind that he uses identical expressions in Notebook entries separated by years. [Vigus, 21]
Vigus stresses that if STC thought Plato wrote ‘nonsense’ it was at least ‘dear gorgeous nonsense, worth unravelling’; and he points out that the November 1799 notebook entry is followed by the following bit of drafted (unpublished) Coleridgean verse:
Mist as from a volcano—
Waterfall rolled after long looking at like a segment of a Wheel
—the rock gleaming thro’ it—
Amid the roar a noise as of innumerable grasshoppers or of spinning wheels [Notebooks 1:529]
Vigus goes on to pick out several related images from Coleridge's writing: a description of the religious mystic Jacob Boehme as one who ‘contemplated Truth and the forms of Nature thro’ a luminous Mist, the vaporous darkness rising from his Ignorance and accidental peculiarities of fancy and sensation, but the Light streaming into it from his inmost Soul’ and the ‘fair luminous mist’ of Dejection; an Ode. [Vigus, 22], amongst others. We could add many other examples. In 1802, for instance, he records in that Statius's nec caret umbra Deo (Thebiad 4:425) is ‘obscure indeed, but certainly profound’. The Latin means: ‘nor even the shadows lack Divinity’ [Notebooks 1:1179].

It seems nobody has noted that ‘luminous gloom’ is not Coleridge's coinage. He is quoting Dionysius the Areopagite, or as scholars now insist on calling him, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (a much cooler name, I think: as if he wasn't a human being who happened to be called Dionysius like various other famous men, but was some kind of synthetic man or android). Anyway: Dionysius's Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας (‘On Mystical Theology’, which probably dates to the early 6th century, but which Coleridge may have thought was a 1st-century work) ponders how we can view God, since God Himself is ‘viewless’, or invisible. The work argues that we approach God's brilliance and light through a mystic darkness, and that the mystery of the Trinity abides in a ὑπέρ-φωτον γνόφον, a ‘hyper-luminous gloom’. This little phrase is a famous bit of pseudo-Dionysius's work, actually (it occurs at the beginning of the opening prayer of the On Mystical Theology) and fairly widely known.

It's possible that Coleridge wasn't actually reading an edition of Dionysius at this time, but he was certainly reading the ninth-century theological writer John Scotus Erigena (in July 1803 STC wrote to Southey telling him ‘I have received great delight & instruction from Scotus Erigena’, and he often copied out bits of Scotus's Latin into his notebooks at this time) and Scotus very often quotes Dionysius—indeed, Scotus's contemporary fame, in an age when few scholars knew Greek, derived from the fact that he translated Dionysius and wrote a commentary upon him. The key thing is that Scotus used Dionysius to revive a neo-Platonic mode of Christian theology that was to go on to have a vast influence across medieval Europe. An 1803 Coleridgean notebook entry quotes Jonannes Scotus quoting Dionysius:
ipse omnium essentia est qui solus vere est, ut ait Dionysius Ariopagita. Esse, inquit, omnium superesse Divinitatis. ‘[He] who alone is the essence of things, truly is, as Dionysius the Areopagite put it: Being, he says, in all things [comes from] the over-being Divinity’ [Notebooks 1:1369]
Here's my working theory, for which I need a little more (or, you know: any, at all) evidence: over the years 1799-1803 Coleridge was planning a poem, perhaps to be called ‘On Mystical Theology’, in which he versified and explored some of these Dionysian and Scotus-Ergenan neo-Platonic ideas in poetry. The line at the head of this post, provided we take luminous as a disyllable (‘lum’nous’), is a feminine-ending pentameter, after all. So, it might be that the concrete imagery of a poem like 1802's ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’ (partly plagiarised from German poets though that poem was) might have provided the launch-point for some Neo-Platonic philosophical-poetizing. What is Mont Blanc, in that poem, if not luminously gloomy?
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
It's the divine inversion of Milton's ‘Darkness Visible’—‘Visibility Engloomed’ perhaps. Vigus quotes Ernst Cassirer (‘to poeticize philosophy and to philosophize poetry—such was the highest aim of all romantic thinkers’) before qualifying:
Those English and German Romantics who pursued this aim, including Coleridge, often looked naturally to Plato as a precedent or model. Nevertheless, a contrary model loomed larger still: Kant, who in an essay of 1796 attacked contemporary poetic, Platonizing philosophers as merely decking out their presumptuous, ungrounded assertion. ‘Philosophy is fundamentally prosaic,’ insisted Kant, who pointed to Plato as this vain tendency in philosophical writing. [Vigus, 6]
‘This censure,’ Vigus adds, ‘is consistent with the restriction Kant places on speculative Reason. Unlike Coleridge (and much of Plato) Kant denies that human Reason can have access to the noumenal realm.’ Coleridge, in point of fact, was caught between his desire to see poetry's luminous gloom shine darkly through the noumenal truths of God, and his belief that he might, if he tried to capture this, do nothing more than throw chaff in the readers' eyes. Hence, perhaps, his repeated badgering of Wordsworth to write the great philosophical poem of the age: simultaneously an expression of his belief that such a poem could be written, and an admission that he didn't believe he could write such a poem. It's even possible he considered using this the sunny mist, the lum'nous gloom of Plato line as part of ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’, which is certainly a poem as much about the mystic interpenetration of light and shadow, or blindness and vision, of materiality and spirit, as it is about anything. It might explain why that poem breaks off so abruptly.


  1. Well of course STC was himself a (closet) mystic and that, it seems to me, is the important point. Somewhere in his notebooks there's an account of him out and about on one of his rambles through the country side and (I believe) he trips and falls and has what sounds an awful lot like a mystical experience. And I can't help but think a mystical experience is behind "Kubla Khan". He may have palmed it off on opium and the Porlockian, but he was OUT there, of is it IN there?

    David Hogsette has an interesting paper in which he argues about that pesky preface:

    Such a strategy conditions listeners to the storytelling act and implies that what they are about to hear will indeed be an interesting and well-told story. The disclaimer is a sign of a good storyteller. Therefore, by subtitling his poem ‘A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment’ and classifying it as a ‘psychological curiosity’, Coleridge actually encourages his audience to consider the poem as more than a meaningless dream. Also, by deferring his own poetic authority to that of the celebrated Byron, Coleridge provides more authority to his poem than if he were to assert himself—as if boasting—that he has produced a poetic masterpiece.

    1. To be completely honest, Bill, I'm not sure I entirely agree with your description of STC as a 'mystic', closet or otherwise. He certainly read many religious mystics, studied and thought about the topic and discussed it in his own writing (in the Biographia, for instance), but I'm not 100% certain that it was his own mode. There are tens of thousands of notebook entries and though I've read pretty widely among them I can't bring to mind the incident you mention: if you had any more specific pointers on this, I'd be interested.

      I'd say that C worked hard to be a writer, in prose and poetry, of the rational imagination, but that sometimes he wrote poetry of the irrational imagination, or what we would more generally describe as 'Gothic'. The poetic articulation of the subconscious, though, is not at all the same thing as 'mysticism', it seems to me.

    2. It was in one of those various collections of STC snippets. Alas, most of my library is in storage and I don't remember the title. Or perhaps Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit? Whatever it was, if it was one of those collections, it would have been something in print no later than 1972.

  2. So, let us say that "Kubla Khan" is a mystical poem, but that doesn't necessarily make STC himself a mystic, just an ecSTatiC. Have you read Reuven Tsur on KK?

    ‘Kubla Khan’ – Poetic Structure, Hypnotic Quality and Cognitive Style
    A study in mental, vocal and critical performance
    Reuven Tsur | Tel Aviv University
    The book alas is horribly expensive. But your uni library should have it.
    ISBN 9789027223692 | EUR 110.00 | USD 165.00

    This book endorses Coleridge's statement: "nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so". It conceives 'Kubla Khan' as of a hypnotic poem, in which the "obtrusive rhythms" produce a hypnotic, emotionally heightened response, giving false security to the "Platonic Censor", so that our imagination is left free to explore higher levels of uncertainty. Critics intolerant of uncertainty tend to account for the poem's effect by extraneous background information. The book consists of three parts employing different research methods. Part One is speculative, and discusses three aspects of a complex aesthetic event: the verbal structure of 'Kubla Khan', validity in interpretation, and the influence of the critic's decision style on his critical decisions. The other two parts are empirical. Part Two explores reader response to gestalt qualities of rhyme patterns and hypnotic poems in perspective of decision style and professional training. Part Three submits four recordings of the poem by leading British actors to instrumental investigation.

    One of those chapters is available online in an earlier form: "Kubla Khan" and the Implied Critic's Decision Style. It contains a nice critique/review of the KK literature up a certain date in the earlier geological era.

    1. That's interesting, Bill: thanks for the link.

      I'm not sure I agree with all of it, mind (I think he misunderstands Negative Capability by defining it as 'mystical or theological poetry': it's not that at all for Keats. And I think a concept like 'ecstasy' needs to be contextualised and historicised a bit: it is v. important to the Metaphysicals, for instance, and their sort of poetry is a long way from the hippy cloud-of-unknowing-y stuff we're otherwise talking about).