Friday, June 5, 2009

Such Thought Possessed The Nameless Artist's Mind

Paul the appostle once looked at an altar dedicated TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. This unknown god, he told a group of philosophers and religious speculators, was not unknown to Paul. "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everthing else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth: and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'"

Hartley Coleridge, one of the sons of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, once looked at a statue of the infant Hercules wrestling with some serpents, and he saw an example of what Paul had said about men reaching out and seeking after God. There seem to me to be many points of comparison between Hartley Coleridge's poem below and the ideas that Paul was working with in his evangelism before the Areopagus.

by Hartley Coleridge

BEHOLD Art’s triumph! Yea, but what is Art?
Is it the Iris sent from mind to heart?
Or a bright exhalation, raised, refined,
And organized with various hues of mind?
Nay, let the min and heart, as nature meant,
Unite to work their Maker’s great intent;
As light and heat, diffused by the same sun,
To sense are diverse, but in essence one.
The poet’s craft in rosy breath transpires,
And the quick music of a thousand lyres,
That wake to ecstasy the slumbering air,
Dies into nought, or flits we know not where.
The patient sculptor views, from day to day,
An image that can never pass away;
With resolute faith, which nothing can surprise,
Beholds the type of true proportions rise:
His progress slow, and every touch as slight
As dawn encroaching on a summer night;
His purpose sure, for consummated beauty
To him is love, religion, law and duty.
Long ere our God vouchsafed himself to be
A baby God, a human Deity,
The vast prophetic impulse of the earth
Foretold, and shadow’d forth the mystic birth;
Nor all the art of sacerdotal lies,
Nor the world’s state, could so incarnalise
The strong idea, but that men, set free
By pure imagination’s liberty,
Conceived the fancy of a boy divine.
Some fables fashion’d a fierce God of wine,
Abortive issue of intense desire,
Begot by Thunder and brought forth by Fire.
Some milder spirits cull’d two twinkling lights
From the throng’d brilliance of their Grecian nights,
And gave them names, and deem’d them great to save
The wandering mariner on the weltering wave.
Some, wiser still, believed the sun on high
A deathless offspring of the empyreal sky,
A personal power that could all truths reveal,
Mighty to slay, and merciful to heal.
Some feign’d−and they came nearest truth−
A destined husband of eternal youth,
Born of a mortal mother, and, ere born,
Doom’d to the pilgrim’s houseless lot forlorn,
To fight and conquer, a victorious slave,
Strong in subjection, by obedience brave.
Such thought possess’d the nameless artist’s mind
When he the God, the baby God, design’d,
That perfect symbol of awaken’d will,
Matching its might against predestinate ill.
The serpent writhing round his lower part,
His infant arm defies to reach his heart.
One mighty act is all the wondrous boy,
Line, limb, and feature, all are strength and joy.
Yet half an hour ago that infant slept,
Smiled at his mother’s breast, and haply wept:
And when his task is done, the serpent slain,
Soft in his cradle-sheild may sleep again.


John W. May said...

That was truly a great read, and probably the best heroic verse I’ve read thus far.

I know that Blake and Yeats- and many of the New England Transcendentalists- were in no small way influenced by an Emanuel Swedenborg (particularly by his doctrine of correspondences). Coleridge’s poem here seems riddled with Swedenborgian ideas. Do you know if this is so?

Doug P. Baker said...


I'm sorry to say that my only acquaintance with Swedenborg is through Jonathan Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) who was an early missionary to the region of the country that I inhabit. Thus I am more familiar with their ideals of benevolence and pacifism, of showing kindness equally to worms and angels. It is an interesting question. Perhaps you could elaborate? Fill me in on what Swedenborg actually taught (or at least what Swedenborgians believed) that you see in this poem.

I'm intrigued!