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George Berkeley (1685-1753) was an Irish clergyman and philosopher who studied and taught at Trinity College in Ireland, where he completed some of his best known works on the immateriality of matter (believing that all matter was composed of ideas of perception and therefore did not exist if it was not being perceived).
Coleridge himself acknowledge the influence of Berkeley on his work, in particular his poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” when he wrote a letter to Robert Southey in July 1797, in which the poem was included, with the following note, “You remember, I am a Berkleian.” We can see the influence of Berkeleyin “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” in three main ways: perceptions of light, the idea of a divine spirit in everything yet still separate and itself, and the idea that there are as many “minima visibilia” in an enclosed space as out in the wide-open spaces.
According to Stephen Prickett, one of the main ideas that Berkeley had hoped to prove was that all reality is mental, but the idea that truly came through in his works is that each person does not perceive object, but instead qualities (like color, form, sent, and sound), and each person perceives these qualities differently. Prickett goes further to claim that the effect of this idea on Coleridge “was to make him intensely conscious of light” (12). We can see this obsession with light and they way it plays on different object throughout “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”:
Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight…
Coleridge’s preoccupation with light and the way in which it changes the perception of the object is what links this passage with the ideas of Berkeley. Even though Coleridge and many other Romantics (such as Wordsworth) used the came to different conclusions about perception than Berkeley, his theories about light “pointed to the why in which such phenomena of light as the rainbow could be used as a scientific model for the imagination as a perceptual relationship between man and nature” (Prickett 13).
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Berkeley believed that “all visible nature constitutes a divine natural language…seen and interpreted as signifying the presence of an Almighty Spirit…[but] the Spirit has created those objects of sense and remains immanent in them, yet also exists as a Spirit in its own original identity” (Engell, 84). This idea is clearly seen in Coleridge’s poem when he writes:
I have stood
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
Moreover, this idea of objects being invested with a divine Spirit, yet the Spirit remaining whole in its original form is brought into play by the many references to light and the sun. James Engell notes, “Not only is the sun the source of all light, what Berkeley calls ‘the spirit of the world,’ making all things visible to us, it also appears as a separate, distinct body” (85).
Third is the idea of being able to see just as many vistas in an enclosed space as out in the open. The poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” was written initially as a complaint because Coleridge was forced to remain at home because of an injured foot while his friends went walking through the hills, enjoying views of the “roaring dell” and waterfalls. But by the end, Coleridge realizes that “No plot so narrow, be but Nature there.” This line expresses an opinion that Berkeley directly puts forward: “that in an enclosed space, such as his study…, there are as many minima visibilia as in ‘a full prospect of the circumjacent fields, mountains, sea, and open firmament’ (82;1:74)” (Engell 86).
Finally, and just in general, the influence the Berkeley had on Coleridge can be seen in details about Coleridge’s life, such as the fact that he read much of his work and commented on it (there is a copy of Berkeley’s Siris at Yale University with a long note on the fly-leaf, and eight other annotations within the text of the work), and the fact that he named his second son Berkeley Coleridge on May 17, 1798.
Engell, James. “Imagining into Nature.” In Coleridge, Keats, and the Imagination: Romanticism and Adam’s Dream. Ed. J. Robert Barth and John L. Mahoney. Columbia: University of MissouriPress, 1989. (81-96)
Haney, John Louis. “Coleridge the Commentator.” In Coleridge: Studies by Several Hands on the Hundredth Anniversary of His Death. Ed. Edmund Blunden and Earl Leslie Griggs. London: Constable & Co, Ltd, 1934. (109-129)
Prickett, Stephen. Coleridge and Wordsworth: Poetry of Growth. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 1970.