Chasing Sublime Existence
Before advancing to the material I have been reading for class on Tuesday, I wanted to return to a sonnet that we read on our first day of class by Samuel Taylor Coleridge because I think it highlights an interesting juncture in Romantic thought where authors were deciding whether to deal straight up with the problems of a society in tumult or to push it all away and live a life of sublime ignorance along the banks of the Susquehanna River. In Pantisocracy (1794) Coleridge lays out a new social contract, one to be constructed under the poetic pretense that the political world of Europe had up to this point only created a society of servitude and oppression. The answer for Coleridge was a fascinating form of Romantic Escapism that was built around the idea of Paradise and Utopia, reminiscent of the Puritan colonization of America in which they believed that they were creating a new form of Eden. This egalitarian experiment was, for Coleridge, a chance for humanity to avoid the pitfalls of social and political movements like the French Revolution in which Reason and the Rights of Man were being murdered by the brutality of the Guillotine. The poem is as follows;No more my visionary soul shall dwell On joys that were; no more endure to weigh The shame and anguish of the evil day, Wisely forgetful! O’er the ocean swell Sublime of Hope, I seek the cottag’d dell Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray, And dancing to the moonlight roundelay, The wizard Passions weave an holy spell. Eyes that have ach’d with Sorrow! Ye shall weep Tears of doubt-mingled joy, like theirs who start From Precipices of distemper’d sleep, On which the fierce-eyed Fiends their revels keep, And see the rising Sun, and feel it dart New rays of pleasance trembling to the heart.
Coleridge sent this sonnet to fellow Pantisocrat Robert Southey in September 1794 but by the winter of 1795 the plan had all but collapsed under economic strain and philosophical impasse. But I think the idea is quite important for our class moving forward. Specifically for our definition of the sublime and our attempt to answer the question of whether or not literature should be used to shape the political world or to escape from it.
The new rays of the rising sun, bathing the Pantisocrats in the mind of Coleridge, reflects an idea that within poetry there is a small crevice in which one may crawl into and feel the warmth of what I will call Divine Nature; Love and Paradise in the imagination, trying to manifest itself into a Utopia formed to avoid the pains of life. Those that seemed to stem from human Reason, Revolution and Bloodshed.
The Romantics were true visionaries. There is no doubt about it. But was leaving England really the only choice they had? Is it better for writers to live in what they considered to be a toxic social system and attempt to find a way to inspire change or is the only answer chasing a new form of Sublime Existence?