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The Poets

June 03, 2010

Poetry and Idealism


Toward the end of 1798 Coleridge, along with his buddy Wordsworth, took a trip that would land him in Germany for two years where he would study its language and its philosophical giants- including Kant and the transcendental idealism he espoused.

From Kant to Fichte to Schleiermacher, German philosophy was dominated by idealism- the doctrine that our cognitive faculties actively impose subjective properties upon the world it perceives, so much so that it can never know reality as it is, but only as it appears. Some have gone as far as to deny objective reality altogether.

Proponents of this philosophical movement swelled in Germany through the 18th and 19th century and heavily influenced that period's well known zeit geist ... romanticism.

That lead me to conclude that Coleridge- a contemporary of Kant- was not only cognizant of German idealism, but also swayed in one form or another by it.

According to transcendental idealism, we can never experience objective reality in its purity (Kant calls this purity of things things in-themselves, or noumenon). In order for a person (like a poet) to experience anything, there must exist, as a pre-condition to that experience, a cognitive aspect capable of organizing the sense-data.

Therefore, one’s never truly influenced by nature’s beauty directly, because nature’s beauty in its purity is only known through pre-existing cognitive filters; and these filters don't just passively receive sense-date, they aggressively mold it to correspond to its own structure. Therefore, by virtue of these filters, we lose reality in its purest form.

This has lead some idealists to concluded that what a person really perceives is not reality at all, but only an idea of it. Others, like the more radical solipsists, have concluded that all we're really perceiving is ourselves, that it is the mind ‘positing’ ideas in such a way that we believe there to be an objective reality, when in fact there's not.

Now try to imagine selling this to a poet- especially a poet of the romantic period! That Coleridge knew of these prevailing philosophies, and that he stood in modest antipathy toward them, is evident to me from a poem he wrote entitled, To Nature.


To Nature

It may indeed be phantasy, when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings ;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and earnest piety.
So let it be ; and if the wide world rings
In mock of this belief, it brings
Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.
So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,
Thee only God ! and thou shalt not despise
Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice



Of the Poem (Parameters and Summary)

Parameters

The poem can be broken up in a couple ways to be better understood. It can be broken up into two quatrain and two tercets (i.e. an octave and a sestet) so that it represents something similar to an Italian sonnet- which seems to be the pattern Coleridge employed here (i.e. abba, clearly an Italian quatrain). Or we can divide the poem up so that its contents are easily seen. In that case the poem would look like this:

It may indeed be phantasy, when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings ;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and earnest piety.

So let it be ; and if the wide world rings
In mock of this belief, it brings
Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,
Thee only God ! and thou shalt not despise
Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice


Rhyme Scheme: abbacbbcefefgg
Meter: loose (revolves round, but is not, a pentameter)

Summary

Lines 1 though 5:

The poet contends that- despite the possibility of it being untrue- that nature is inherently symbolic and suggestive and beautiful in and of herself, that this beauty is self-contained. He draws "from all created things" the deepest of joys, tracing out lessons and meaning from nature as if he were reading a book.

Lines 6 through 8:

Resolute that this is so, the poet clings to his belief regardless of how the world may mock.

Lines 9 through 14:

In the remaining lines the poet concludes with imagery that depicts nature as God’s temple, and the poet himself as priest. Notice the how he also utilizes- very intentionally- religious terminology and concepts borrowed from theology (especially lines 9 through 14).

created things- line 2
inward joy- line 3
love and piety- line 5
my altar- 9
my fretted dome- 10
incense- line 12
God alone- line 13
priest- line 14
sacrifice- line 14

It’s beautiful. It’s almost as if- and I may be pushing too hard here- as if the poet not only denies the notion that the human mind constructs* reality, but posits audaciously the independent and objective reality of both God and nature in the face of idealism (e.g. line 2, created things).

What say you?


*This is actually what solipsists contend- neither Kant, nor idealism in general, hold this belief.

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