Thursday, March 27, 2008

counterfeit infinity

Samuel Taylor Coleridge to John Thelwall. *

Saturday morning [October 16], 1797.

y Dear Thelwall,

I have just received your letter, having been absent a day or two, and have already, before I write to you, written to Dr. Beddoes. I would to Heaven it were in my power to serve you; but alas! I have neither money or influence, and I suppose that at last I must become a Unitarian minister, as a less evil than starvation. For I get nothing by literature. . . . You have my wishes and, what is very liberal in me for such an atheist reprobate, my prayers. I can at times feel strongly the beauties you describe, in themselves and for themselves; but more frequently all things appear little, all the knowledge that can be acquired child's play; the universe itself! what but an immense heap of little things? I can contemplate nothing but parts, and parts are all little! My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible. And it is only in the faith of that that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns, give me the sense of sublimity or majesty! But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity.

Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
-from "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

It is but seldom that I raise and spiritualize my intellect to this height; and at other times I adopt the Brahmin creed, and say, "It is better to sit than to stand, it is better to lie than to sit, it is better to sleep than to wake, but Death is the best of all!" I should much wish, like the Indian Vishnu, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more. I have put this feeling in the mouth of Alhadra, my Moorish Woman. She is going by moonlight to the house of Velez, where the band turn off to wreak their vengeance on Francesco, but

She moved steadily on,
Unswerving from the path of her resolve.

A Moorish priest, who has been with her and then left her to seek the men, had just mentioned the owl, "Its note comes dreariest in the fall of the year." This dwells on her mind, and she bursts into this soliloquy:

The hanging woods, that touch'd by autumn seem'd
As they were blossoming hues of fire and gold,
The hanging woods, most lovely in decay,
The many clouds, the sea, the rock, the sands,
Lay in the silent moonshine; and the owl,
(Strange! very strange!) the scritch owl only waked,
Sole voice, sole eye of all that world of beauty!
Why such a thing am I?
Where are these men?
I need the sympathy of human faces
To beat away this deep contempt for all things,
Which quenches my revenge.
-from "Osorio," Act V., Sc. 1, 1. 39.

Hartley is well, and will not walk or run, having discovered the art of crawling with wonderful ease and rapidity. Wordsworth and his sister are well. I want to see your wife. God bless her ! . . . Oh, my Tragedy! it is finished, transcribed, and to be sent off to-day; but I have no hope of its success, or even of its being acted.
God bless, etc., .
S. T. Coleridge

* "During the French Revolution Thelwall was an outspoken member of the London Corresponding Society advocating radical, Jacobin politics. He publicly criticized the government for waging a war against France and thereby causing a financial drain directly affecting working and lower classes. Noting Thelwall's attention to lower classes, Coleridge claimed that "Thelwall [was] the voice of tens of thousands." For this activity, he was charged with high treason and imprisoned for seven months. During his imprisonment he gained notoriety as a hero. After his confinement he wrote "Poems written in close confinement in the Tower and Newgate." Despite his fame, his personal life suffered. When he visited Coleridge and Wordsworth at their home in Alfoxden in 1797, a spy investigated the visit and consequently the Wordsworths lost their lease." [this quote from The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: note on John Thelwall]

-from Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge in Two Volumes (London: William Heinemann, 1895) vol. 1.

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