Nuture has her proper interest; and he will know what it is, who believes and feels, that every Thing has a Life of it's own, & that we are all one Life.
Coleridge in a letter to William Sotheby, 10 September 1802
The Valley of Life
An allegorical vision of superstition, religion and atheism
It was towards morning when the Brain begins to reassume its waking state, and our dreams approach to the regular trains or Reality, that I found myself in a vast Plain, which I immediately knew to be the Valley of Life. It possessed a great diversity of soils and here was a sunny spot and there a dark one just such a mixture of sunshine and shade as we may have observed on the Hills in an April Day when the thin broken Clouds are scattered over the heaven. Almost in the very entrance of the Valley stood a large and gloomy pile into which I seemed constrained to enter.
Coleridge was twenty-two when he gave a series of lectures on religion and the origins of evil in Bristol in 1795. He introduced that series with an 'Allegorical Vision'. In this dream, he presents three possible metaphysical positions - atheism, religion and superstition – and sides with one.
On a fair spring day, in a beautiful valley, the dreamer came across a large gloomy temple with 'tawdy ornament' and stained-glass windows containing horrible scenes in screaming colours. The shrine was packed with people. Some performed strange ceremonies, others seemed to sigh in deep sadness. Priests in black robes walked about and collected the church tax with scrupulous care. Coleridge learned that a Goddess resided in the sacred rooms at the back. At his request, one of the priests took him there.
He purified me and then led me through many a dark and winding alley the dew damps of which chilled and its hollow echoes beneath my feet affrighted me till at last we entered a large Hall where not even a Lamp glimmered. Around its walls I observed a number of phosphoric Inscriptions – each one of the words separately I seemed to understand but when I read them in sentences they were riddles incomprehensible and contradictory. Read and believe said my Guide – These are mysteries.
In the back of the large hall, in semi-darkness, sat the Goddess with features 'terrible yet vacant'. Coleridge prostrated himself before her, then retired with his guide, 'wondering and dissatisfied'. Once again in the central part of the temple, he met an angry crowd who shouted outrage at the greed of the priests. 'This is the Temple of Superstition,' they cried. They left the place, pulling and pushing, followed by Coleridge.
Religion is my name
The party hurried away from the temple. Halfway up the valley they met a woman 'clad in white garments of simplest Texture'.
Her Air was mild yet majestic, and her Countenance displayed deep Reflection animated by ardent Feelings. We enquired her name. My name is Religion she said. The greater part of our Company affrighted by the sound and sore from recent impostures hurried onwards and examined no farther.
Some were impressed by this extraordinary woman, by her appearance and manners. They decided to follow her cautiously to a platform in the midst of the valley,
on the Top of which we could command the whole Plain, and observe the Relation of its different Parts, each one to the other. She then gave us an optic Glass which assisted without contradiction our natural vision and enabled us to see far beyond the Valley.
Chain of blind men
Now Coleridge rejoined the larger company that had fled from the woman who called herself Religion. Some returned to the Temple of Superstition and slept in its darkest cloisters. Others, including Coleridge, entered a vast and dusky cave.
The climate of the place was unnaturally cold in the midst was an old dim eyed Man poring with a microscope over the Torso of a statue, which had neither basis, nor feet, nor head… but on its breast…was written – NATURE! To this the old Man was continually applying his microscope, and seemed greatly delighted in counting the Irregularities which were made visible by it on the polished surface of the marble! He spoke in diverse Tongues and unfolded many Mysteries, and among other strange Things he talked much about an infinite Series of Causes – which he explained to be – a string of blind men of which the last caught hold of the skirt of the one before him, he of the next, and so on till they were all out of sight; and that all walked straight without making one false step. We enquired, Who there is at the head to guide them. He answered No one, but that the string of blind men went on for ever without a beginning for though one blind man could not move without stumbling, yet that infinite Blindness supplies the want of sight. I burst into Laughter at this strange exposition and awoke –
In full sunlight
In this dream, Coleridge clearly expresses his dislike for what he sees as the frivolousness, greed and superstition of the established Anglican church with its 'tawdy' interiors, stained glass windows, church taxes and dark doctrine. In that church, the Temple of Superstition, resides a shady Goddess of features 'terrible yet vacant'. In great contrast to her is the goddess called Religion. She does not reside in a dark temple, but shows the world from a hill, in full sunlight, to far beyond the horizon. This Goddess on the hill represents the Unitarian Church and its teachings.
When Coleridge wrote his allegorical vision, he was a member of the Unitarian Christian congregation in Bristol. Unitarians come in many guises, but in general reject the doctrine of the Trinity - represented in the dream by the 'incomprehensible and contradictory' inscriptions on the walls of the Temple of Superstition. Unitarians do not consider Jesus as God, but as a god-inspired teacher. They also deny the fallen nature of man. Evil does not root in original sin, but in ignorance, poverty and social injustice. In late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, Unitarians were committed to social and political reform. They argued for the improvement of education, campaigned against the slave trade and initially sympathised with the French revolution. These views informed Coleridge's lectures.
In Coleridge's time, eminent Unitarians were at the vanguard of physics research that was then making giant strides forward. Their leader, Joseph Priestly, for example, made an important contribution to the knowledge of electricity. For Unitarians, there is no contradiction between faith and human reason - they are complementary. Science - like the 'optic Glass' of the goddess on the hilltop - magnifies knowledge of reality. It also substantiates the Unitarians' perceived interdependence of all that exists - the 'Relation of its different Parts, each one to the other'.
Non-feeling from non- thinking
We saw that in Coleridge's allegorical vision some of the religion haters who ran away from the Goddess on the hill, once back in the temple, fell back into their old superstition. They went to sleep in its darkest cloisters, that is to say: turned monk. Another part of the company, that of the rabid infidels, disappeared into a dusky cave. The half-blind old man they found there, symbolises the majority of scientists who - unlike their Unitarian colleagues - with their microscopes, telescopes, sextants, hygrometers, thermometers and barometers, meticulously chart physical reality ('NATURE'), focusing exclusively on detail, with no eye for overall coherence. Their gaze, according to Coleridge and his co-religionists, is limited to an amputated reality, just as the old man stares blindly at a statue 'which had neither basis, nor feet, nor head'.
The contrast between the woman called Religion, who symbolises Unitarianism, and the old half-blind man who represents the atheist, could not be greater. The woman's vantage point bathes in warm sunlight. With her 'optic Glass' she shows reality beyond the horizon. The old man's cave is dark and chilly. With his microscope he scans the surface of a cold piece of marble. There is no warmth, neither in his workshop nor in his scientific endeavours. On the other hand, the woman's 'Air was mild and majestic, and her Countenance displayed deep Reflection animated by ardent Feelings. 'Reflection' and 'Feeling', apparently are the human faculties that are indispensable for an all-embracing view of reality.
Evil is lurking
This image of feelinglessness immediately excites the association with the incident of the 'poor hawk' described by Coleridge nine years later in his notebook while sailing to Malta. As we saw, he then witnessed sailors in the high seas firing shots at an exhausted hawk seeking a resting place on the convoy ships. 'Poor Hawk!', he noted, 'O strange Lust of Murder in Man! It is not cruelty: it is mere non-feeling from non-thinking'.
When feeling is absent through unthoughtfulness, evil is lurking. For Unitarians like Coleridge, a one-sided worldview leads to a moral deficit. In the breeding bed of insensitivity thrive social inequality, slavery and cruelty, as was also proven by the blood that smothered the French Revolution. Both Coleridge's notebook entry and allegorical vision express the same conviction. In the intervening years, he described how an old sailor unfeelingly and thoughtlessly aimed his crossbow and shot an albatross. ►