David Ward, Coleridge and the Nature of Imagination: Evolution, Engagement with the World, and Poetry

David Ward, Coleridge and the Nature of Imagination: Evolution, Engagement with the World, and Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

David Ward's approach to reading Coleridge through the 'sciences of the brain' (vii) yields a valuable contribution to scholarship on the Imagination in Coleridge's poetry, with close readings of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', 'Kubla Khan' and 'Christabel'. Ward builds on earlier conceptions of the nature of mind and knowledge, particularly that of I. A. Richards, to make productive use of recent neuro-scientific developments including brain imaging. The central Coleridgean concern with unity-in-multeity is illuminated anew by a twenty-first century approach to brain structure, as is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis in 'Christabel'.

Ward draws on Coleridge's letters and notebooks to establish a 'common root' (3) for both the poetic and scientific imagination. Readers of Alan Richardson's ground-breaking British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (CUP 2001) may welcome the development of ideas in this fresh field of research while the literary scholar unfamiliar with the value of inter-disciplinary work drawing on scientific ways of thinking is made welcome by Ward. His tone is reassuring and his poetry analysis does not assume specialist knowledge of the cognitive sciences. Throughout, Ward celebrates the generative qualities and elegance of the 'marvellous device of language' (3), introduced as the enabling feature of the thought experiments of both poetic thinkers and physicists from Einstein to Hawkings. Due credit is given to Coleridge as a poet of extraordinary prescience in terms of the implications of emerging scientific perspectives on the world and our place in it.

Chapter One establishes and confronts the problem of qualia, empathy and incommunicable subjectivity in clear prose that resists a reductively materialist account of human experience. By focusing on the evolution of neural structures, Ward links the imagination to the emergence of speech and provides a thorough account of memory and dream states integrated with mental and physical responses to emotion, particularly fear. Ward's framework allows for a fresh reading of both 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Christabel'. The discussion of the twin neurological processes that allow for 'the conscious aesthetic delight in resolving the paradoxes of multeity and unity' (22) in Chapter Two, further prepares the ground for a deeper understanding of the poetic imagination that is enriched by being informed by scientific research.

A cogent discussion of Schiller's 'An die Freude' ('Ode to Joy'), in Chapter Three allows Ward to read the complexity of Coleridge's Dejection Ode alongside the power and drama of Beethoven's Choral Symphony. Ward then gives a detailed account of Coleridge's response to shamanic ritual myths in Crantz's The History of Greenland in tandem with crucial consideration of generative chaos, 'the tiny changes which can disrupt the apparent existing order of things'. Ward's parallel insights here are particularly exciting. He argues convincingly that both the mariner's killing of the albatross and Geraldine's seduction of Christabel represent Coleridge's attempts to create a 'terrible' legend (49) in response to Schiller's dilemma of reconciling active and passive understanding. Ward goes beyond Livingston Lowes's interpretation of Coleridge's use of the 'Greenland wizard', reformulating the poet's response as a critical experiment with these materials that yields the release of 'unconscious energy' (50).

Chapter Four deals with 'the conscious will and dream consciousness' (52) along with the process of articulating experience as a performance of a 'thought-experiment' (59) over time. Ward's emphasis on temporal process over the spatial aspects of experience is effective at this stage of his argument, allowing him to skirt, with Coleridge, 'mechanical, materialistic' analysis (66). Examination of an analogous process in the reader extends the argument with due account of a 'complex process of collaboration, resistance and compromise' (67). Again, the notion of legend as 'narrative vehicle' (67) is brought into play to elucidate Coleridge's manner of bringing together perceptions and feelings that might otherwise be beyond language.

Chapter Five draws Ward's theoretical concerns together for a close reading of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' with a productive focus on dialogue and mood. An explanation of Coleridge's deeply intuitive understanding of visual perception is a delight as the mariner observes a 'speck, or shape, or mist' (77). Similarly, Ward unpacks this climactic section of the ballad in terms of 'the animal reaction to threat' (78). It is here that the scientific and the poetic meet most effectively in Ward's reimagining of Coleridge's philosophically rich yet profoundly affecting engagement with the world in terms of primal brain structures that still exert influence over our reading of the ballad as a 'terrible legend' (72).

In Chapter Six, Ward successfully argues for a reading of 'Kubla Khan' as another 'terrible legend' that 'is about the terror (and the delight) of the legend' (147). Performed poetry is cast as a music of dangerous power that takes seriously the delusive effects of 'Animal magnetism' (150). Chapter Seven takes up this strand of argument in a neuro-scientific treatment of 'Christabel'. Ward's focus on reversals yields an analysis that is consistent with his reading of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

A key strength of the work, overall, is the coherence that emerges from Ward's judicious use of the scientific as a means of understanding the poetic, in a modern inquiry into the nature of the imagination that updates the formidable scholarship on this central concern of Romanticism. Ward's contribution is original in its scientifically sound documentation of elements of Coleridge's early poetry - the 'film in the grate, the tongue of flame, the red leaf, the albatross, the submarine spirit, the couple dicing for souls' (163) - as modes of thought. He recognises Coleridge's interest in 'tactility' as more than an experiment by tracking its development as 'a metaphysical enquiry' that we may now recognise as a 'theory of everything' (184).

Ward concludes, in Chapter Eight, that 'the work of scientific thinkers and techniques can help us understand what is happening when poets write and readers read' (208). The final discussion of the evolutionary transformation effected by the emergence of language is appropriately cautious in its claims for what can be codified and is suitably humble before the infinite potential of the human imagination. Ultimately, Ward's work on Coleridge makes exemplary critical use of the sciences to explore the complex processes of reading and writing poetry.


Alison Cardinale, Department of English, University of Sydney