A German Lake In Winter
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
from The Friend, 28 December 1809
Yester-morning I saw the lesser Lake completely hidden by Mist; but the moment the Sun peeped over the Hill, the mist broke in the middle, and in a few seconds stood divided, leaving a broad road all across the Lake; and be- tween these two Walls of mist the sunlight burnt upon the ice, forming a road of golden ﬁre, intolerably bright! and the mist-walls themselves partook of the blaze in a multitude of shining colours. This is our second Frost. About a month ago, before the Thaw came on, there was a storm of wind; during the whole night, such were the thunders and howlings of the breaking ice, that they have left a conviction on my mind, that there are Sounds more sublime than any Sight can be, more absolutely suspending the power of comparison, and more utterly absorbing the mind’s self-consciousness in its total attention to the object working upon it. Part of the ice which the vehemence of the wind had shattered, was driven shore-ward and froze anew. On the evening of the next day, at sun-set, the shattered ice thus frozen, appeared of a deep blue, and in shape like an agitated sea; beyond this, the water, that ran up between the great Islands of ice which had preserved their masses entire and smooth, shone of a yellow green; but all these scattered Ice-islands, themselves, were of an in- tensely bright blood colour—they seemed blood and light in union!
The three months Coleridge had planned for his German sabbatical turned into ten and included a deep, cold winter. The physical isolation afforded little communication with his wife and friends in England, and he was unaware that Berkeley had contracted smallpox only three weeks after his departure. While the seclusion of winter brought circumstantial inconveniences and hardship, it also helped him to embrace a metaphysical isolation that would at once facilitate his writing yet drive a wedge into human relationships.
As Malcolm Guite writes in Mariner, Chapter Six:
Just as the mariner finds himself in a new hemisphere, leaving behind the familiar, “Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken— / The ice was all between,” so Coleridge, both outwardly in the extremities of the German winter, and inwardly in the adventures of his mind and soul, was beginning in his own phrase to “ascend from animated Nature, from men, and cattle, & the common birds.” For it was in Germany that he began his “metaphysical” mountain climbing, particularly in reading Kant and trying to ascend mentally beyond the phenomena, the world of familiar shapes and appearances, to penetrate what Kant called the noumena; those underlying and overarching realities, pre-existent categories, shapes of the mind itself, which give rise to our ordinary experience, that always exist just beyond or below them. Coleridge’s lifelong passion for metaphysics was, at one level, part of his never-appeased desire for truth and meaning, but it also became a retreat, a withdrawal, a refusal of the inconvenient demands of the present: another kind of opium.
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