To the consternation of his fellow Oxford Inklings, Owen Barfield was a disciple of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. Of Steiner, Barfield wrote that “[b]y comparison, not only with his contemporaries but with the general history of the western mind, his stature is almost too excessive to be borne.” This devotion perplexed Barfield’s beloved friend C.S. Lewis and, in 1922 or 1923, the two began what they called The Great War, a character-forging debate about imagination, epistemology, history and God.
Barfield thought of Steiner as the sole figure at the vanguard of a new way of knowing and being, “the transition from homo sapiens to homo imaginans et amans,” a unification of matter and spirit within human understanding. Barfield also acknowledged the prescient efforts of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge before Steiner arrived to change history. Goethe developed what he called a scientific method, though it might look to traditional empiricists like a spiritual exercise.
“Exact sensorial imagination” is the practice of seeing deeply into nature by, first, observing a natural phenomenon carefully and faithfully, then enlivening and extending the image of the phenomenon retained in the mind. In his poem “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge seems to describe a spontaneous experience of exact sensorial imagination. The description is so accurate that the poem can almost be taken as a manual for the practice.
The poem was written after Coleridge’s wife spilled hot milk on his foot so that he was unable to accompany his friends on a walk through much-loved countryside. The narrator at first grieves his inability to follow his friends through a landscape that he knows at least as well as he has come to know them. As he follows them in his mind, however, he realizes, not only that Nature is fully present in even the humble bower that he had cursed as his prison, but that the contemplation of the natural is, itself, an expression of Nature’s vitality. With this understanding, he finds himself in the presence of “Love and Beauty” and, in the final line, is able to attribute to one of his wandering friends a sentiment that could well be the motto of those who have learned to speak what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the proper language of birds and beasts.” Coleridge wrote that “[n]o sound is dissonant which tells of Life.”
Centuries before, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius expressed a similar sentiment in his Meditations. He wrote:If a person has experience and a deeper insight into the processes of the universe, there will hardly be any phenomenon accompanying these processes that does not appear to him, at least in some of its aspects, as pleasant. And he will look upon the actual gaping jaws of wild beasts with no less pleasure than upon all the imitations of them that sculptors and painters offer us… and there are many such things, which do not appeal to everyone, only to that person who has truly familiarized himself with nature and her workings.
Reading through his Meditations, a work the emperor would have intended for no eyes but his own, one can surmise that this realization was more than a maxim but an insight attained after years of inward practice of communion with the external world. Reading through Coleridge’s notebooks, such as Biographia Literaria, and with the help of Barfield’s What Coleridge Thought, one can construct a similar spiritual biography for the poet.
Here is the full text of Coleridge’s poem.