Friday, May 22, 2009

Coleridge's "Eolian Harp" (lines 44-48)

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversly framed,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

This passage comes from Coleridge's early "Effusion XXXV" (1795) which was later revised and retitled as "The Eolian Harp." The lines present one of the clearest statements anywhere of the pantheistic thinking underlying many of Coleridge and Wordsworth's early poems.

The poem as a whole develops the Eolian harp as an extended metaphor for human/divine relations and the origins of poetic creation. Eolian harps themselves are devices that function something like stinged-instrument versions of wind chimes. They are made of wood fashioned into a shape resembling an elongated hollow box/sounding board with strings stretched lengthwise inside. On either side of the box are holes to let the breeze pass through. The harp is then clasped into a window frame ("and that simplest lute / Placed lengthwise in the clasping casement" [12-13]), and, as the wind blows, the strings vibrate and create the "floating witchery of sound" (20) that here inspires the poet's musings on this otherwise tranquil evening.

For Coleridge, the Eolian Harp becomes a metaphor for human consciousness, especially the consciousness of a perceptive poetic mind. The structure of the metaphor works something like this: The human mind is analogous to the harp itself—well made and finely strung perhaps, but inert and passive unless activated by some external force. Taken literally, this external force is, of course, the breeze that causes the strings of the harp to vibrate; metaphorically this breeze is the flow of visual, auditory, even olfactory perceptions that inspires the thoughts and musings of the perceptive human mind (hence all the descriptive "here and now" detail of the poem's opening verse paragraph.) Following through on the figure, the music produced by an Eolian harp would, metaphorically, refer to those thoughts and musings—including poems like this one—that are produced by human intellectual and creative effort.

It is this line of metaphorical thought (recurrent, as M. H. Abrams and others have shown, in canonical romantic poetry) that explains the romantic fascination with nature in general and natural beauty in particular. Nature presents a beautiful, sometimes awesome, and constantly changing array of perceptions which flow through the attentive and receptive mind of the poet. The resulting poetry—that is, the music produced from the poet's mental "harp"—is thus a joint product of Nature and Mind, the inspiring breeze and the well tuned harp.

There are a number of significant implications of this model of human consciousness and creativity. One involves the (potentially heretical) religious stance of pantheism. As the speaker of Coleridge's poem muses on his current scene and as he develops and contemplates the Eolian harp metaphor, he suddenly generates the speculative question expressed in the passage quoted above. In effect, the speaker expands on the harp metaphor, considering that, if such a structure is applicable to human beings, then why wouldn't the same structure apply to "all of animated nature"? After all, humans are not alone in being equipped with the ability to perceive the natural world around them, so wouldn't cows and fish and foxes and the rest of "animated nature" be similarly harp-like? And further, if all creatures of "animated nature" are essentially "organic Harps diversely framed," then all are animated by the same "intellectual breeze" (the word "intellectual" meaning something like "non-material" or "metaphysical" here—see the commentary on Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"). Human beings and "animated nature" are thus all the instruments of a single metaphysical entity which might here be equated with Nature and which is, in effect, our single collective soul and our God. Though it's important to recognize that Coleridge expresses this idea as a speculative question rather than a philosophical or theological claim, the passage nonetheless stands as a singularly decisive statement of romantic pantheism.

In thinking further about this Coleridgean theology, it would potentially be fruitful to consider the pantheism of the focus passage here in the context of the repudiation that follows immediately thereafter. Why does Coleridge's wife cast a look of "mild reproof" on these speculations, and why does the speaker of the poem acquiesce in this repudiation of "philosophy's aye-babbling spring" (57)?

Another useful comparison would be to see the pantheism of "Eolian Harp" in relation to Blake's condition of Innocence as expressed, for example, in "The Lamb." Both identify a sense of common divinity between human beings, animals, and some inspiring metaphysical force. Does that mean that Blake, too, is a pantheist?

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