Brit Lit 221L
8 May 2015
Imagination and “The Eolian Harp”
Samuel Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp” describes how the imagination is, or can be, linked with spirituality and the natural, external world in which we live in. The poem describes how, like the eolian harp, left in the wind to make a sweet natural music, an untethered imagination left to wander in the natural world can produce a link to spirituality which was previously unattainable. Likewise, “The Eolian Harp” also warns us that too much unchecked imagination and fantasy can lead to incoherency and spiritual confusion.
Coleridge uses a conversational tone to express his thoughts, and begins the poem by describing in detail his real world surroundings — lying with his wife outside of their rural home, enjoying the beauty and serenity of the natural world. His observance of the calm of nature, a “world so hushed,” (10) in the first stanza is then compared, in the second stanza, to the rhythmic music of the aeolian harp. Coleridge delights in his experience of connection with the natural world, of “the one life within us and abroad,” (26) and states that “the mute still air Is
Music slumbering on her instrument” (32-33). I think what he means by this is that the tranquility found in nature — which, like music, is an objective experience — is conducive to, and even synonymous with, the wandering of imagination and philosophical thought. This
Kopshever !2 matches up well with Addison’s interpretation of how the imagination operates in “The Pleasures and Perils of the Imagination” by Paul Baines, where he says that an imagination “which processes images of the visible world… stimulated by greatness, novelty, and beauty… reminds us to admire god… (and) stimulates our delight in creation,” (501). At this point in the poem, this wandering kind of imagination is also seen by the speaker as a wonderful experience, where
“It should have been impossible Not to love all things in a world so filled” with the fantasies produced by such a passive state of mind. Later in the poem, Addison’s ideas about the relationship between spirituality and imagination are echoed by Coleridge as he delights furthering his surroundings and is reminded of the greatness of God in all natural things.
In the third stanza, Coleridge explores this relationship between nature, music and the imagination further, saying that, “many idle flitting phantasies, Traverse my indolent and passive brain, As wild and various as the random gales That swell and flutter on this subject lute!” (40-44). It seems that Coleridge is pointing to a utility in stagnation and lethargy, suggesting that to keep still, mentally, and to allow the extrinsic, natural world to wash over the mind creates (keeping aligned with the allusion to the aeolian harp) a music for the soul more powerful and inspiring than any concentrated or logical thought process can possibly produce.
I think this sentiment prepares the reader, as well as is possible, for Coleridge’s next point, in the fourth stanza. Here he extends the link between nature and the imagination to include an all encompassing sense of spirituality found within this unique, naturally induced process of thought and imagination. Like Addison, Coleridge is inspired by his unchecked admiration of the natural world around him, and guided by his wandering imagination, concludes that God’s beauty, and indeed God himself, is in all natural things. Again using the allusion to an
“organic harp,” (45) Coleridge suggests that God and spirituality is found in nature and imagination, and that God is not a singular entity, but instead the music of nature and imagination and the beauty inherent in the two is, in and of itself, God. This abstract concept of spirituality is far ahead of Coleridge’s time, and is, if not misunderstood, at least perceived dismissively by his wife, whom he appears to be having this conversation with.