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Jennifer Ford, Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination

Monday, May 17, 1999 - 10:33
Jennifer Ford, Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 26. Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii + 256pp. illus. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-58316-0).

Reviewed by
Richard Matlak
College of the Holycross

I believe it was Walter Jackson Bate who commented that one could quote Coleridge to support either side of almost any argument, and, one might add, believe wholeheartedly in its one-sidedness. Because of the subject of this review, let us consider Bate's part in creating the prevailing understanding of the Coleridgean imagination. His influential explication of Coleridge on imagination began with Criticism: The Major Texts (Harcourt, Brace,1952), continued in his lucid and once-standard biography, Coleridge (Macmillan,1968), and rests now at the permanent center of Coleridge studies in the editorial introduction to the Bollingen Bate-Engell edition of Biographia Literaria (Princeton University Press, 1983; pp. lxxxi–civ). This finely-honed and learned exposition of Coleridge's Primary and Secondary Imaginations, which was prepared by James Engell, is illustrated by a conceptual diagram that would please anyone with a rage for order. "God, The 'Great I AM'" sits at the top, "Philosophy scientia scientiarum," at its base, and the term Imagination is positioned right above a midline of demarcation identified as natura naturata and is connected to the meaningfully ordered concepts of Reason, Understanding, Perception, Senses, Art (Subjective & Objective), Organic Form, and Symbols by arrows shooting every which way (cf. p. lxxx). Jennifer Ford, however, suggests a surreal, more fleshly, image to represent another side of Coleridge on imagination in Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination. It is Henry Fuseli's painting of The Nightmare, with its Goblin sitting on the sleeping, restless virgin, and the head of an excited stallion leering out of the gloom at the foot of her bed. As opposed to the received Germanic-philosophical-aesthetic lineage of the Creative Imagination, the "Medical Imagination" has its grounding in contemporary medical debates whose arguments are to be found in tomes such as John Brown's Elementa Medicinæ (1780), Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia (1794–96), John Haygarth's Of the Imagination as a Cause and Cure of Disorders in the Body (1800), and William Falconer's A Dissertation on the Influence of the Passions on Disorders of the Body (3rd ed, 1796). Coleridge's relationship to the contemporary debate, coupled with his private reflections on the mysterious functioning of (his) imagination as a translator of bodily ailments and sensations into the "dramatic dreaming spaces" of his consciousness, is not to be found primarily in the public pronouncements of his lectures, essays, or the Biographia, but rather in letters, marginalia, and especially the Notebooks, more than twenty of which still remain unpublished. Ford shows that "[i]n adopting a fundamentally physiological doctrine of the source and production of dreams, Coleridge was also able to explore the physiological, medical nature of the imagination" (3). In other words, Ford knowingly counters the quite convincing "spiritual, poetic, idealist" understanding of the Coleridgean imagination with a quite convincing description of the Coleridgean imagination as "a physical and medical faculty, . . . distinctly linked to the material, to the corporeal" (185).

Let me offer as an example of Ford's discourse her discussion of "the mysterious problem of dreams" (chapter six), that is, questions on their cause, their meaning, and, in Coleridge's case, their horrific nature. She shows that Coleridge had reason at different times to consider seriously three prevailing theories of causation: that dreams "are caused by gods intervening in the lives of men," "that they are a result of the action of malignant spirits," and that "the dreamer's bodily position and state of health both causes and influences dreams" (130). The first theory begins with a discussion of prophetic dreams. When his mother shrieked on the night of his father's death, Coleridge claims he started from his sleep exclaiming "Papa is dead." Although Coleridge did not know it at the time, John Coleridge had recently dreamed he would die (STCL, I: 355). As Coleridge thought more deeply into the matter, he ascribed the possibility of prophecy to "deeper dreams," which he said were imageless but contained "a profound Presentiment or Boding" (135). As he was to query in Lay Sermons, "who shall determine, to what extent this reproductive imagination, unsophisticated by the will, and undistracted by intrusions from the senses, may or may not be concentrated and sublimed into foresight and presentiment?" (LS, 80–81). Ford first considers this category of dream in her discussion on "the language of dreams" in chapter three, where she explains that Coleridge believed in something like the Jungian notion of dreams having a common universal language, the "various dialects" of which are "far less different from each other, than the various <day> Languages of Nations" (STCNB, III: 4409), which suggests that he was thinking about a universal dream language (56). But then there were those prophetic dreams that seemed to come from a realm of "divination" (LS, 80; quoted on 63). Christabel offers an example of a prescient, if not prophetic, dream in Bracy the Bard's nocturnal vision of the dove in the embrace of the snake. Leoline and Bracy argue over the interpretation of the dream, but not over its prophetic significance (137). Coleridge came to recognize that prophetic dreams were the stuff of tragic drama from Shakespeare, and he infused his redrafting of Osorio, i.e., Remorse, with prophetic dreams not originally included in 1797.

The attraction of the second theory for Coleridge, that dreams were caused by malignant spirits, was a way of accounting for the inexplicable terrors he suffered from in his dreams. Believing that, relatively speaking, he had done no great evil, as he claims in "Pains of Sleep," from whence would come the "fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts" to torture? Ford argues convincingly that the "theme of not knowing why the sinful feeling arises, of being spellbound and unable to articulate why the guilt is felt, was a recurrent feature of Coleridge's quest to comprehend his dreams" (143–44), and finds its poetical outlet in Christabel's confusion over her fallen state upon awakening from her night with Geraldine. The inability to account satisfactorily for the origin of his nightmares confounded Coleridge's reflections on evil (146). As late as 1826, in his analysis of Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, he could not quite dismiss the possibility of an external, spiritual influence on dreams. He thus continued to take seriously as a way of accounting for his experience Eve's prophetic dream of the Fall being caused by the whisperings of Satan into her ear, even though Adam was left bewildered: "of evil sprung I fear: / Yet evil whence? in thee can harbor none, / Created pure" (Milton, Paradise Lost 5.98-100). Such speculations blend with Coleridge's thinking on miracles, which are like dreams: "[i]n dreams, it is also possible to see and hear things which are not 'really' there to be seen or heard. The understanding of the dream is 'equally inevitable and innocent', but carries with it complex possibilities which may confirm or deny an important fact or personal truth. . . ." (quoted on 157).

Ford's fifth chapter, "Nightmairs," provides an interesting exposition of Coleridge's complex reflections upon "night-mair." Coleridge used the "mair" suffix, meaning a (female) subscribe or monster, rather than "mare" (from Old English mere) meaning a female horse, because "he implicitly [wished] to convey his belief in their suffocating, monstrous qualities" (111). Coleridge also placed great emphasis upon the agony of being "touched" in nightmairs, as when "a claw-like talon-mailed Hand grasped hold" of him (STCNB, III: 4046). Sensations of sight, hearing, and taste also occurred, all of which caused him to decide that nightmairs were not properly dreams, but rather a "species of Reverie . . . during which the Understanding & Moral Sense are awake tho' more or less confused, and over the Terrors of which the Reason can exert no influence . . . because it is not true Terror" (STCNB, III: 4046; Ford, 124). In addition to the sense of touch being aroused (125), Coleridge's nightmairs were also characterized by sensations of suffocation, emptiness, and nothingness (127). Charles Lloyd's maddening nocturnal experiences during his residence in the Coleridge cottage in 1796 provided yet another refinement of nightmair. Coleridge writes that Lloyd "perceives every thing & hears every thing, and whatever he perceives & hears he perverts into the substance of his delirious Vision" (STCL, I: 257). Ford integrates much of this exposition on nightmair into the psychological states of The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere:

[m]uch of the mariner's experience can be seen as this integration of all things seen and heard into a "delirious Vision": the dead bodies, with "each right-arm burnt like a torch," with "stony eye- balls" . . . ; the moon pops up into the sky, but then "no where did abide". . . ; and the mariner himself is described as an "it", that "hath a fiendish look." . . . But the mariner's experiences are intensely physical while also being void of properties usually ascribed to physical entities: the stifling, suffocating stillness of the ship as it is "stuck" upon the ocean, with neither "breath nor motion" . . . ; the burden of the albatross around his neck . . . ; the desperate act of biting his arm to suck his blood to give his mouth moisture . . . ; the feeling of his eyeballs as beating pulses under his eyelids . . . . (127–28)

But it is primarily the third hypothesis of dream causation that provoked Coleridge's most original and sometimes wild speculations as he sought to trace specific dreams and the characters of his "Morphean space," whom he called his "dreamatis personae," to specific bodily ailments. Guilt and Falsehood could be "traced to the Gastric Life" (STCNB, III: 4409); the liver provides the organic source for "life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame" (163); the need to urinate might provoke dreams containing water imagery; a dream of many colours might be a translation of feces accumulating in the bowels (173); fear has its origin in the digestive system; rage, in the vascular- muscular system, etc. (175). The concepts Coleridge used to name the phenomenon of the material made psychological are translation and transmutation: "certain intellectual and psychological faculties could be translated and transformed into bodily functions; . . . bodily functions could be translated into dream emotions, thoughts and passions; into dreamatis personae" (167).

In nightmairs, either the imagination proved too active a power translating the material effects of gastric and other diseased organs into images and sensations, or it was stagnant and nightmares of suffocation resulted. Ancyent Marinere is again used to illustrate the suffocating, retentive imagination of stupefied action (199): "The mariner's experience reveals, in many ways, the true physical and spiritual horror of an imagination that has doubled up on itself and frozen, 'suspended' in time" (200). Ford concludes that "the operation of imagination involves a psychosomatic translation. Once Coleridge recognised this, he increasingly perceived dreams to have physical properties and pathological causes. And it was this view of dreams that he maintained throughout the last thirty years of his life. . . . His dreams and nightmares belong to a physiological world of organs, the 'world of Guts' (STCL, V: 392), as much as to a world of fancy, to the 'realized Faery Land' of the 'stuff of Sleep & Dreams' (STCNB, I: 1718)." (Ford, 201–02).

The medical imagination is thus the link between the body and the mental activity of dreams and poetry. Most of the medical literature found the imagination to be "a physical and medical faculty, . . . distinctly linked to the material, to the corporeal" (185). An interesting example from the medical literature of imagination's physical power is found in the phenomenon known as the "maternal impressions theory," whereby the mother's imagination can produce "impressions" upon her foetus, with either deformed or beautiful results (189). A complementary surmise on imagination's power, not mentioned by Ford, is Erasmus Darwin's accounting in Zoonomia for the sex of the child as resulting from the father's imaginings at the moment of ejaculation. Ford notes that the works of both Wordsworth and Coleridge were recognized by some commentators as relevant to the medical debate on whether imagination was both a medical as well as a poetic faculty. Wordsworth's "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" and Coleridge's passage from The Friend on Luther's vision of the devil at Warteburg were used as evidence (194). Medically speaking, then, the imagination as an "esemplastic" power would translate to mean a faculty that "shapes and coadunates both psyche and soma, emotion and organ, dream and body" (185).

Although a material understanding of the Romantic imagination has been briefly discussed in Clifford Siskin's The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (Oxford University Press, 1988) and G. S. Rousseau's Enlightenment Crossing; Pre- and Post-Modern Discourses: Anthropological (Manchester University Press, 1991), Ford has completed the task as convincingly as it can be done. Her results and conclusions do not lead to exalted claims for the imagination as a pseudo-divine faculty, and the application of her findings to poetic interpretation yields only fragmentary insights rather than the kind of powerful interpretations once inspired by the thesis of the Primary and Secondary imaginations. Yet, in such shortcomings one finds, or at least I find, the evidence of plausibility. Ford's is a study of the Coleridgean imagination that Bate did not consider. It might be a while before someone can reconcile what she has to say with its established opposition.