Coleridge on the Interplay of Terror and Transcendence in Nature and Human Nature – Brain Pickings

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“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her tiny, tremendous masterpiece The Living Mountain. A couple of mountain ranges south, a century and a half earlier, the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) captured the power of that interpenetration in a stunning letter, later included in The Complete Essays, Lectures & Letters of S. T. Coleridge (public library).

The letter, composed three days before his twenty-eighth birthday, begins with a terrifying, transcendent encounter with the grandeur of nature and ends with a humbling encounter with human nature — with the grandeur of the human spirit, its the capacity for dignity and generosity no matter one’s material circumstances.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nearly a century before the young Van Gogh contemplated the enchantment of storms in nature and human nature while living in poverty in the Hague, the young Coleridge writes to his closest friend from the English Lake District on October 18, 1800:

Our mountains northward end in the mountain Carrock — one huge, steep, enormous bulk of stones, desolately variegated with the heath plant; at its foot runs the river Calder, and a narrow vale between it and the mountain Bowscale, so narrow, that in its greatest width it is not more than a furlong. But that narrow vale is so green, so beautiful, there are moods in which a man might weep to look at it. On this mountain Carrock, at the summit of which are the remains of a vast Druid circle of stones, I was wandering, when a thick cloud came on, and wrapped me in such darkness that I could not see ten yards before me, and with the cloud a storm of wind and hail, the like of which I had never before seen and felt. At the very summit is a cone of stones, built by the shepherds, and called the Carrock Man. Such cones are on the tops of almost all our mountains, and they are all called men. At the bottom of the Carrock Man I seated myself for shelter, but the wind became so fearful and tyrannous, that I was apprehensive some of the stones might topple down upon me, so I groped my way farther down and came to three rocks, placed on this wise 1 / 3 2 each one supported by the other like a child’s house of cards, and in the hollow and screen which they made I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and “eternal link” of energy.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s near-death experience in a Norwegian fjord, Coleridge recounts nature’s sudden turn of temper — a turn from terror to transcendence, which then leads him to an unexpected encounter with the most transcendent qualities of human nature:

The darkness vanished as by enchantment; far off, far, far off to the south, the mountains of Glaramara and Great Gable and their family appeared distinct, in deepest, sablest blue. I rose, and behind me was a rainbow bright as the brightest. I descended by the side of a torrent, and passed, or rather crawled (for I was forced to descend on all fours), by many a naked waterfall, till, fatigued and hungry (and with a finger almost broken, and which remains swelled to the size of two fingers), I reached the narrow vale, and the single house nestled in ash and sycamores. I entered to claim the universal hospitality of this country; but instead of the life and comfort usual in these lonely houses, I saw dirt, and every appearance of misery — a pale woman sitting by a peat fire. I asked her for bread and milk, and she sent a small child to fetch it, but did not rise herself. I eat very heartily of the black, sour bread, and drank a bowl of milk, and asked her to permit me to pay her. “Nay,” says she, “we are not so scant as that — you are right welcome.”

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