Two Cardinal Points

Two Cardinal Points
Winter Juno And Aeolus, Eugene Delacroix

The common Romantic trope of the corresponding breeze of intellectual and creative inspiration—a metaphorical and physical lifting of the spirits—carries a similar, yet distinctly different weight for William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As is described in the beginning of Chapter 14 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Coleridge and Wordsworth often spoke on “the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying color of imagination”: the meeting of the mimetic and the imaginative. The difference between the two poets’ conception of rising winds and intellectual breezes is the materiality of thought, as it relates to an active or passive mind, that surrounds this idea.

In Geoffrey H. Hartman’s essay, “Nature and Humanization of the Self in Wordsworth,” Hartman describes Wordsworth’s “return to Nature” in The Prelude as a series of recounts “parallel to those in the world outside”. His return is thus supported by “the idea that nature and human consciousness are interdependent or ‘correspondent’ powers.” Interdependency breeds hope and renewal; a cycle that allows Wordsworth to restore himself, as signaled by his relationship with the wind in The Prelude:

Oh there is a blessing in this gentle breeze,
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky; it beats against my cheek,
And seems half conscious of the joy it gives.
(ll. 1-4)
For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven
Was blowing on my body, felt within
A corresponding mild creative breeze,
A vital breeze which travelled gently on
O’er things which it had made, and is become
A tempest, a redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation.
(ll. 41-7)

Wordsworth composed this passage as a “preamble” to replace the inspirational Muse with a natural force, the “corresponding breeze,” by using the literal definition of “inspiration” as something that is “breathed or blown into by a divinity” that brings with it “pure passions” of music and verse. Coleridge’s response to Wordsworth’s Prelude—which was addressed to Coleridge—in his poem To William Wordsworth mentions the “vital breathings” that were “secret as the soul/Of vernal growth.” He characterizes Wordsworth’s breezes and breathings as if they were one and the same, where to breathe in air was to breathe in inspiration. In M.H. Abrams’ essay, “The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor,” Abrams characterizes this phenomenon: “For not only are nature’s breezes an analogue of human respiration; they are themselves inhaled into the body and assimilated to its substance, and so fuse materially, as well as metaphorically, the ‘spirit’ of man with the ‘soul’ of nature” (129).

Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality reaffirms his idea of the soul’s preexistence to its mortal bind and associates the rising winds with an awakening of the soul, creative energy, and hope, so that nature’s rising breath is in congruence with the body’s breathing:

No more shall grief of mine the season wrong,
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep
(ll. 26-8)

The shift to present tense in line 45 (“and is become”) illustrates the wind’s transition from its creative inception to its dwelling place alongside Wordsworth’s inner reservoir of emotions and ideas. It turns into “a tempest, a redundant energy” (46), eliciting a dual meaning as both redundant and abundant. It gives the poet an abundance of inspiration and also acts as a redundant energy already within him. If the breeze is correspondent, what within Wordsworth already exists to presuppose the breeze of inspiration? Preexistence corresponds to the innate, intuitive inspiration that can only be found in childhood—a childhood that not only relates to, but is of the natural world.

In Coleridge’s The Eolian Harp (named after the Greek ruler of the winds, Aeolus) the music created by nature’s wind is a result of creative power and energy that comes from without rather than within. In I.A. Richards’s book, Coleridge on Imagination, Richards refers to a letter Coleridge wrote to John Thelwall on external inspiration: “You, I understand have adopted the idea it [life] is the result of organized matter acted on by external stimuli” (149) and adds two lines from The Eolian Harp: “And what if all of animated nature/Be but organic harps, etc.” (44-5). Coleridge confides that life itself is inexplicable according to materialists, and that a single unifying force, the corporeality of thought and inspiration, is the only viable reality.

The framing of the poet’s body and mind is like that of the harp—which isn’t to say that it is wholly dependent on external, natural forces—but that his conception of inspiration is responsive, not parallel, to that of nature. It is a wholly philosophical vision of a wind that blows through all living things:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely 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?
(ll. 44-8)

The instrument itself operates by the external influence of nature on its frame; a combination of the elements results in music—or in this instance, poetry. The intellectual breeze acts as a stimulant for Coleridge as the harp is a metaphor for the poetic body and mind. His mind is not aligned with the breeze; it mimics it. Coleridge understands the construction of reality as a process in which external stimuli awaken internal sensory perception. His intellectual breeze is a study in metaphysics, one that inadvertently detaches the poet from his body and nature. He describes his brain in The Eolian Harp as “indolent” and “passive,” filled with “idle flitting phantasies” (ll. 41, 40). Whereas the wind is thought of as a fleeting and abstract force that acts upon the harp, it is the wind’s materiality that acts upon the abstractions of the mind.

Furthermore, the music of Coleridge’s Eolian harp finds itself in Dejection: An Ode, but the poet is in dangerously low spirits:

I turn from you, and listen to the wind.
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth!
(ll. 96-9)

The loss is two-fold: a tragic duality that consists of a dull and at times raving, mad wind, and the indifferent, passive mind of Coleridge. The tumultuousness of the winds echoes the tumultuousness of Coleridge’s mind, but it is not in harmony with him. The intellectual breeze creates a rift between the active and passive mind in the poem, one that results in a turbulent, co-dependent relationship. The “coy maid half yielding to her lover” (15) in The Eolian Harp is now in agony, her song minimized to a “dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes” (6) in the Dejection Ode. The mind’s passivity no longer leaves room for the instrumentality of poetic powers, but rather leaves the poet in a state of vulnerability—without passion or, perhaps even worse, without joy.

I.A. Richards states that Coleridge’s joy “is a conditional power, existing only in minds that are open to Nature, free from impediments to their response” (150), but it is “cut off not only by impediments within, but by afflictions from without” (151). Coleridge’s response to joy’s departure differs with Wordsworth’s, and it perhaps best characterizes the poet’s dependence on the intellectual breeze. While Wordsworth’s ode begins with grief and ends in joy, Coleridge’s Dejection Ode finds no sense of relief. Grief turns to despondency, as symbolized by the wind. In The Prelude, Wordsworth’s apathy and “utter loss of hope itself, and things to hope for” is at once lifted by his invocation of the wind:

And, lastly, utter loss of hope itself
And things to hope for! Not with these began
Our song, and not with these our song must end.
Ye motions of delight, that through the fields
Stir gently, breezes and soft airs that breathe
The breath of paradise, and find your way
To the recesses of the soul!
(Book XI, ll. 6-12)

The Prelude begins with an invocation of the correspondent muse, it addresses the harrowing silence and lack of “Eolian visitations” defrauded, a harmony “dispersed in straggling sounds” and silence (Book I, ll. 104-7), yet he returns to the correspondent breeze (or rather, the breeze returns to him), now a “breath of Paradise.”

Since we cannot only analyze the music (poetry) that is produced by the intellectual or creative breeze, we must observe the very instrument and its ethereal muse. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth are characterized by this complex relationship with nature’s uplifting breezes and turbulent winds, finding inner restoration through chaos. While one poet longs to find creative inspiration of childlike purity, the other builds the foundations of his corporeal reality on external perceptions. For Wordsworth, the mimetic is key to the birth of the imaginative in his poetry; for Coleridge, the imaginative gives way to mimetic practice. One does not necessarily surpass the other in his method or optimism, but both serve as maps for tracing their most elusive sources of inspiration.