To give it its full title: 'Religious Musings: A Desultory Poem, Written on the Christmas Eve of 1794'. This 419-line poem is Coleridge's first fully accomplished work, the first composition we might want to call 'major'. What it is, you'll be pleased to hear, is a blank verse meditation on God, faith, religion, oneness, contemporary politics and impending 'universal redemption'. This description may not be selling it to you. (No, really! It's great! You should read it! Give it a go: here's the whole thing!) At least it was respectfully and sometimes ecstatically received by contemporaries; but by 1972 William Empson was saying 'Religious Musings and The Destiny of Nations are hard for us to take seriously today', although he does at least concede that 'Charles Lamb thought the Musings the greatest religious poetry since Milton'. Still: taking it seriously is the key. Either we align our reading of this poem along the grain of its own earnest pontificating, or else it will almost inevitably strike us as windy and bloated and unengaging.
The poem opens, as the full title says, on Christmas Eve:
This is the time, when most divine to hear,All those rolling polysyllables! A couple of them too long for the metre (heavenly, Bethlehem) and therefore liable to a slightly crushing compression. It's possible to miss that Coleridge's 'this is the time', marks the poem as jumping-off from Saint Augustine, and specifically from Augustine's commentary upon Psalm 100. That's the Psalm that begins (appropriately enough for Coleridge's poem) 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.' Augustine glosses: Ecce tempus misericordiae; Dei Filius ad hoc nos hortatur dicens ...Ostenderer Christus Jesu omnem longanimitatem; ecce ostendit se, erexit. This is the time of mercy; the voice of the son of god rouses me ... view Jesus Christ, all long-suffering, behold him as he shows himself, as he looked upwards. [Augustine Enarratio in Psalmum 100]. Coleridge's own opening-line version of ecce tempus introduces a poem that is a kind of psalm, which is only to say—the word psalm comes from the Hebrew tehillim which means 'praises'—that it distils into itself the 'voice of adoration'. Then again, Coleridge calls his poem not a psalm but 'A Desultory Poem'. By desultory he presumably means sketched, superficial, unmethodical; but etymology-geek Coleridge of course knew that the word derives from the Latin dēsiliō (“jump down”), from dē (“down”) + saliō (“jump, leap”). His poem starts in a rather ostentatiously elevated place, with the speaker floating up in the sky 'high upborne' with the angels. But it does so in order to leap down.
The voice of adoration rouses me,
As with a Cherub’s trump: and high upborne,
Yea, mingling with the Choir, I seem to view
The vision of the heavenly multitude,
Who hymned the song of Peace o’er Bethlehem’s fields! [1-8]
And down we go. Coleridge later summarised the structure of the whole, such as it is, as follows: 'Introduction. Person of Christ. His Prayer on the Cross. The process of his Doctrines on the mind of the Individual. Character of the Elect. Superstition. Digression to the present War. Origin and Uses of Government and Property. The present State of Society. The French Revolution. Millennium. Universal Redemption. Conclusion.' Christ is invoked as 'Thou Man of Woes' (Isaiah 53:3's vir dolorum), whose true glory is rendered not actually but symbolically 'with a peculiar and surpassing light':
Fair the vernal Mead,Vernal mead perhaps strikes a slightly hackneyed note; and indeed, the whole of this passage chimes the familiarity bell at several points, and with several examples of eighteenth-century pastoral. Compare, for instance, this from a 1790 poem by John Jortin, a writer we know Coleridge liked, from a book we know he read. 'Thee', here, is the human soul:
Fair the high Grove, the Sea, the Sun, the Stars;
True Impress each of their creating Sire!
Yet nor high Grove, nor many-coloured Mead
Nor the green Ocean with his thousand Isles,
Nor the starr'd Azure, nor the sovran Sun,
E'er with such majesty of portraiture
Imag'd the supreme beauty uncreate,
As thou, meek Saviour! at the fearful hour
When thy insulted Anguish wing'd the prayer
Harp'd by Archangels, when they sing of Mercy!
Survey th' expanse of earth, the starry sky,There's your vernal mead. There, too, are high groves, ocean and the starry sky. Jortin's 'crystal river' gets picked up later in Coleridge's Musings ('the crystal river of life', 350); and 'mazy' gets transferred from the stream to the 'mazy surge' of serpent hair (176). There's more: the very next lines in Jortin poem, 'when fruitful earth, and circumambient air,/The ocean, and the ever-flowing streams/Receiv'd their first inhabitants', lead to:
The flowery fields, and ocean's waves Immense:
Nature for Thee unlocks the' earth's gay treasures,
For Thee suspends the twinkling lamps on high,
Leads on the crystal stream in mazy course,
And paints the vernal mead with purple flowers. [Jortin 'On the Nature of the Soul', Tracts, Philological, Critical, and Miscellaneous (2 vols 1790), 1:464]
Th' Almighty Power survey'd his fair creation'Plastic' is a striking word there; not typical of many poets. Except Coleridge, coiner of the critical term 'esemplastic', and author of Religious Musings which uses it not once but twice: 'creative Deity! Ye of plastic power' [404-5]; God 'with plastic might/Moulding Confusion to such perfect forms' [246-7]. I'm starting to wonder whether Coleridge read Jortin's poem quite carefully before writing his own.
With looks that spoke ineffable delight.
To crown his works, he breath'd the plastic word;
And bade the soul exist. [Jortin, 1:464]
I don't mean to get bogged-down in desiccated source hunting. My point is broader: Coleridge is not trying to be 'original' in this poem. He is trying, in his modestly down-stepping way, to be true to his sense of faith, and to faith's working in the world. Reworking Augustine, or Jortin, is not plagiary, but the way musings work: one must, after all, start with something to muse upon. I think this is from whence STC's desultoriness steps-down: not God or anything so high, but other people's thoughts about God. At any rate, there are multiple examples of such indebtedness all the way through the poem. For example, 'Lovely was the death/Of Him whose life was Love!' [28-29] isn't Coleridge conjuring a metaphysical conceit out of the ingenuity of his brain; it's Coleridge's version of a theological commonplace (one instance among many: 'haec autem passionis Christi, ô passio desiderabilis, ô mors amabilis!' [Laurentius Justinianus, 'De incendio divini amoris tractatus nuper' 734]. A few lines later, 'God all in all!' is a version of the Vulgate 1 Corinthians 9:22 ('ut sit Deus omnia in omnibus'). And so on, throughout.
This adaptation of various different theological adages and sentiments from various sources gives the whole poem a rather bitty, mosaic feel: desultory, I suppose we could say. Looking to this poem for a coherent overall shape is, perhaps, a fool's errand. That said, reading through the work one single theme emerges unmissably: transcendent unity in God.
There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind,There's a lot of this:
Omnific. His most holy name is LOVE.
Truth of subliming import! with the which
Who feeds and saturates his constant soul,
He from his small particular orbit flies
With blest outstarting! [105-10]
The last great Spirit lifting high in airThe poem ends with the speaker 'breathing the empyreal air/Of Love, omnific, omnipresent Love'. This is one of Coleridge's recurring themes, of course: apparent multiplicity is actual, if hidden, unity. Which is all very well and good, if it didn't also include a sense of inchoate contradiction. The essential point is something like: division is the nature of material reality only; spiritual reality is One. The fact of the Trinity doesn't falsify this, since the holy mystery of the three-in-one and one-in-three is the very central mystery of Christian faith. But what about other spirits? What if there are a multitude of those?
Shall swear by Him, the ever-living One,
Time is no more!
Believe thou, O my soul,
Life is a vision shadowy of Truth;
And vice, and anguish, and the wormy grave
Shapes of a dream ! The veiling clouds retire
And lo ! the Throne of the redeeming God
Forth flashing unimaginable day
Wraps in one blaze earth, heaven, and deepest hell. [394--401]
This is Empson's theory: he thinks the beliefs expressed in Religious Musings 'ought to interest a reader of The Ancient Mariner, because what they are saying (with merely polite expressions of uncertainty) is that spirits like those in The Ancient Mariner really exist, so that all the events in that poem might really happen.' Empson compares Yeats's A Vision, written (he says) so that Yeats might 'believe that all the incidents in his two Byzantium poems might really happen, so that to explain them away as Symbolism in misleading.' I find myself rather doubtful about this, delightful though the idea is. Although at least I have to concede that Coleridge does conclude with a sort of peroration to the sorts of daemonic, or eudaemonic, forces that interact with his mariner:
Contemplant Spirits! ye that hover o'erThat apologetic little parenthesis in the middle, with its tonally-wrongfooting Leibnitzianism, hardly defuses the explosive potential of this passage. God is spritually one, one only, wholly unified and indivisible; except for the myriad swarming spiritual beings, from angels down to contemplant spirits, the membership of whose society is so porous that Coleridge himself can plausibly hope to join them. That looks ... odd; or at least it looks odd in terms of overall consistency.
With untired gaze the immeasurable fount
Ebullient with creative Deity!
And ye of plastic power, that interfused
Roll through the grosser and material mass
In organizing surge! Holies of God!
(And what if Monads of the infinite mind?)
I haply journeying my immortal course
Shall sometime join your mystic choir! Till then
I discipline my young and novice thought
In ministeries of heart-stirring song. [402-12]
Trivial postscript. I'm wondering whether Coleridge took his title from Thomas Hull's 1772 popular play, Henry the Second: Or, The Fall of Rosamond: a Tragedy.In that play, Clifford talks of
Much they avail: within these silent WallsI can't find any evidence that Coleridge read Hull, an actor-manager who dabbled in writing and publication (his Henry the Second was actually the completion of an unfinished manuscript by Shenstone); but Hull was in his mid-eighteenth-century day something of a West Country celebrity, who had a house in Marpool. So it's possible.
Chaste Contemplation dwells; this hallow'd Gloom
Inspires religious Musings, ardent Prayer,
Which, by their, fervid Impulse, waft the Soul
Of erring Man, above this Vale of Weakness,
And teach him to regain, by heavenly Aid,
What he had forfeited by human Frailty.