Coleridge, Thoreau, and the Transatlantic "Riddle of the World"

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[T]he benefits conferred by [Coleridge] on this and future ages are as yet incalculable...To the unprepared he is nothing, to the prepared, every thing.

Margaret Fuller1

When Henry David Thoreau alludes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" in his epigraph to Walden, he situates his Walden Pond "experiment" as a contribution to a transatlantic conversation concerning a central theme in Coleridge's poem - namely, how the self makes meaning of its relation to the world.2 In fact, Coleridge's corpus shaped Thoreau's dedicated exploration of just this relation - that between the self and nature. For Thoreau, and for Coleridge before him, this relation involved a third integral category: spirit. While today we tend to separate the human "self," the external world of "nature," adn the world of "spirit," Coleridge envisioned these categories as comprising a continuum accessible through the human mind. Hence, he wrote, "Then it is, that Nature, like an individual spirit or fellow soul, seems to think and hold commune with us."3 Thoreau expressed a similar interest in nature, spirit, and self: "My desire to commune with the spirit of the universe - to be intoxicated even with the fumes, call it, of that divine nectar - to bear my head through atmospheres and over heights unknown to my feet - is perennial & constant."4 Both writers pursued a notion of spirit as interrelated and integrated with the self and with the natural world.

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This material has been published in Thoreau at 200: Essays and Reassessments edited by Kristen Case and K.P. Van Anglen. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press.