Sacramental Poetry

The Symbolic Imaginationby By J. Robert Barth, S.J.Fordham Univ. Press. 176p

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) believed that one of the great miseries of his time was that it recognized no medium between Literal and Metaphorical: it ignored the symbolic. Too many of his age still followed the lead of 18th-century writers, philosophers who distrusted mystery and poets who divorced thought from feeling, preferring intellectual clarity to emotional ambiguity. In other words, the poets before Coleridge avoided the open-endedness of imagination and symbol, which reconcile opposites.

Similarly, in the prologue to this expanded (second) edition of The Symbolic Imagination, J. Robert Barth, S.J., implies that we too may live in a dark time of intellectual skepticism, distrust of language and denial of soul. Part of Barth’s mission is to show that the romantic spirit lives on. This spirit is best understood, he contends, through Coleridge and his theories of symbol and imagination. For Barth, a professor of English at Boston College, Coleridge’s achievement lies in seeing the need to rediscover the unified sensibility lost during the Enlightenment. To fill this need, Coleridge turned to religious vision and used it (as Wordsworth did) to create symbolic poetry of sacramental encounter.

One of Barth’s significant contributions to the study of Coleridge involves interpreting the famous theory of imagination in Biographia Literaria (1817), not only through the lens of poetry and criticism but especially through the lens of theology. Barth realizes that Coleridge defined imagination as a religious act of faith that empowers us to perceive and create symbols. True symbols, Barth maintains, are sacramental, for both sacraments and symbols are sensible signs pointing to something beyond themselves (e.g., the Communion host and wine or the moon in Wordsworth’s visionary poem A Night-Piece). Ultimately, the symbols perceived through religious vision point to the one Life within us and abroada phrase from Coleridge’s poem The Eolian Harp that Barth repeatedly quotes. By it, Barth argues, Coleridge invokes the consubstantiality, or oneness, of all things, secular and religious, natural and supernatural, human and divine. Hence, through the sacramental symbols of the romantic imagination, we envision transcendental reality and apprehend that the natural is supernatural, the human divinized.

Barth’s sacramental argument gains force in this edition through two new chapters. In the first, Theological Foundations, Barth juxtaposes the common definition of symbol in Biographia to an often overlooked but explicitly theological one in The Statesman’s Manual (1816). Here Coleridge refers to the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. Barth helpfully compares this idea to light shining through stained glass. The symbol-perceiving power of imagination, then, can awaken the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom (in words from Biographia) and thus reveals the wonders of the world before us, a world of numinous mystery like that encountered by the Ancient Mariner. The other chapter on scriptural imagination further deepens Barth’s claim of the religious essence of Coleridge’s thought. Barth shows Coleridge applying translucence to biblical symbols in The Statesman’s Manual. For instance, Barth cites Job’s whirlwind, a symbol through which the human and divine realities interpenetrate.

Unlike biblical symbols, the poetic symbols of most Romantics exclude direct reference to God or Christ. This is true even of Barth’s examples from Wordsworth and Coleridge: the Alpine abyss in The Prelude and the sacred river in Kubla Khan. Yet Barth clarifies that sacramental refers not only to supernatural or divine reality but also to inward psychic reality, where Coleridge believed God dwells. Because sacramental symbols evoke mystery, even poems of non-Christian Romantics like Keats entail a search for the numinous.

To accept Barth’s argument, readers may need to make an act of faithand the classically minded may be loath to do so. But of course the same goes for accepting Coleridge’s theory. What all must allow, however, is that Father Barth brilliantly and lucidly explains Coleridge’s complex ideas and gives them currency as well. His review in the prologue of pertinent studies published since the first edition (1977) might have fit better in an appendix, but it demonstrates at once the continuing importance of his contribution. Like the romantic spirit it embodies, The Symbolic Imagination lives on.

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