As Samuel Taylor Coleridge expresses in his poem “Constancy to an Ideal Object,” we might find in art the most constants, idealized in our creations, which piece together some meaning of truth amid a world of change where it might appear that nothing has meaning.

Although this essay will be about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his poem “Constancy to an Ideal Object,” I want to open with Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XXV” to convey an initial sentiment for this theme of constancy:

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foil’d,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

(For a deeper appreciation of the sonnet, remember to read it aloud)

Fortune appears twice in the first three lines: First, when Shakespeare talks about some people being in favor “with their stars” (1), granting them the right to boast about their public honors and proud titles; and again when he describes himself as someone whom fortune prevents (“bars”) from having similar triumphs (3). But Shakespeare finds unexpected joy in something that he honors most (4), above these proud and public demonstrations of fortune’s graces that are not his. Before telling us what this joy is, he provides a further elaboration and point of comparison.

Shakespeare writes that the “favourites” of great princes spread their leaves the same way as a marigold does when the sun shines on it, meaning that their love and loyalty is transient, dependent on the prince just as the marigold depends on the sun, without the favor of which they both “in their glory die” (5-8). The same goes for the warrior who, made famous by fighting, can so quickly be defamed and removed from the “book of honour” when he is defeated just once—even after “a thousand victories” (9-11).

When a warrior’s achievements are judged by the public opinion, all of his past efforts are immediately forgotten upon a single error. Instead, Shakespeare notices that he is happy (meaning fortunate), because he loves and is loved (13), which is something that is not as transient as achievements or honors. We might extend the warrior’s public predicament and Shakespeare’s internal comfort and generalize them into the gist of these lines. The moral of the sonnet is simple enough: Glories and achievements are not as constant as the personal value of love.

Yet, something more complex appears in the background of the Bard’s lines. Shakespeare marks a line of distinction between the outcomes that we can control and those that we cannot. Presumably, what we cannot control is having the successes and achievements of great men since we cannot control whom fortune favors. But there is a problem: While initially Shakespeare mentions the successes of others as seeming to be the proof of fortune’s favor in their lives, then how can we account for their moments of failure, wherein fortune’s good graces seem to be reversed? Is fortune going back on her promise out of disappointment, anger, or—worse yet—mere mischief?

Indeed, the concept of fortune in the 16th century, wherein individual men had limited power and had therefore no control over their lives, produced a feeling of helplessness. Fortune provides a sense of hope as well as despair, since we can never know what is to come. As Stephano says in The Tempest, “all is but fortune” (Act V, scene I). However, it is not clear that Shakespeare had such a strong fear of fortune as most people did in the early 16th century. By the 17th century, the concept of fortune became less foreboding (a result, in part, of Christian conciliation through the teaching of providence and the growing popularity of Christian humanism) and more of a cultural (that is, theatrical, literary, and artistic) way to depict the fluctuations of fate.[1]

Shakespeare seems to find comfort in being removed from fortune’s sight, leaving him with a simple, constant pleasure that is love. Still, it is not clear if fortune is also the reason for this joy since, arguably, one has less control over finding love than he has over attaining a proud title or public honor. The sonnet, then, may not be as much about fortune as a controlling force but more about the importance of seeking objects of constancy in our lives, which are significantly less volatile than various forms of material or reputational success. Indeed, I tend to read this sonnet as an ironic inversion of fortune, where one is left wondering whom fortune truly favors or, better yet, contemplating the possibility that fortune works in multiple ways. This possibility does not imply that the understanding of fortune in Shakespeare’s time wasn’t the unpredictable, even cruel, force that was described above—indeed it was, but Shakespeare is pointing to a higher value amid fortune’s various manifestations: that of constancy.

I now want to fast forward to the 18th century and shift the focus from Shakespeare to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his beautiful poem, “Constancy to an Ideal Object.” Similar to Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XXV,” the poem treats the topic of love, but Coleridge discusses this topic within a wider discourse about nature’s changing tendencies (similar to those of Fortune). The poem will take us some time to unpack, but first read it slowly:

Since all that beat about in Nature’s range,
Or veer or vanish; why should’st thou remain
The only constant in a world of change,
O yearning Thought! that liv’st but in the brain?
Call to the Hours, that in the distance play,
The faery people of the future day—
Fond Thought! not one of all that shining swarm
Will breathe on thee with life-enkindling breath,
Till when, like strangers shelt’ring from a storm,
Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!
Yet still thou haunt’st me; and though well I see,
She is not thou, and only thou are she,
Still, still as though some dear embodied Good,
Some living Love before my eyes there stood
With answering look a ready ear to lend,
I mourn to thee and say—’Ah! loveliest friend!
That this the meed of all my toils might be,
To have a home, an English home, and thee!’
Vain repetition! Home and Thou are one.
The peacefull’st cot, the moon shall shine upon,
Lulled by the thrush and wakened by the lark,
Without thee were but a becalméd bark,
Whose Helmsman on an ocean waste and wide
Sits mute and pale his mouldering helm beside.

And art thou nothing? Such thou art, as when
The woodman winding westward up the glen
At wintry dawn, where o’er the sheep-track’s maze
The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist’ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head;
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow, he pursues!

The first stanza marks one string of contemplation. Coleridge is aware that everything in Nature’s range tends to “veer” or “vanish” (2), and consequently questions the possibility for his muse (Sara Hutchinson) to remain “the only constant in a world of change” (3). Coleridge sees her at times, despite knowing she is not truly there (11-12) but he admits a couple of lines later that he still saw “Some living Love” (14). In the rest of this first stanza, Coleridge directs himself to his muse, and expresses his wishes to have a home with her.

Up to this point, Coleridge is only wishing for constancy, but the second stanza shows a moment of transformation in the poet’s thought. His prior musings lead him to ask, “And art thou nothing?” (25). The question hints at more than a past memory or a lost lover. Coleridge is wondering if his muse, if not physically present, is truly “gone.” He makes a comparison in his response: She is—notice how Coleridge does not add an adjective or apposition—in the same way that a woodman who is walking through a winter field at dawn is able to see the snow’s mist making a “glist’ning haze” (28). This haze, Coleridge explains, creates a “full” (29) image with a glory around its head. What Coleridge is describing is a natural occurrence known as the Brocken Spectre, named after the Brocken peak in Germany, where an observer can see a large shadow of himself with colorful rings about him when the sun is shining behind him and onto a field of mist or fog.

Coleridge concludes his poem by expressing how the enamored woodman pursues that shadow without knowing it is he who is making it. In this moment we see a reversal of Shakespeare’s unremovable love, since for Coleridge his love was removed; yet, as the end of the poem reveals, his love was only removed physically, not objectively. We might say that his love for his muse is the “constant” of the poem, but remember the title: It is constancy to an ideal object. What Coleridge is doing by saying that his muse just “is” in the way that a glorious shadow appears in the misty mountains is expressing a moment where his muse is no longer an object but an idealized form—a metaphysical subject.

Where does all this lead? The need for constancy in an idealized form is what provides solace in a changing world, since constancy does not exist in any other form. Constancy, moreover, is not just mere memory, as Coleridge explains in his poem. It is only when Coleridge combines his love for his muse and his thoughts of her with his own being (i.e. the production of art) that his muse becomes an ideal constant. The importance of the ideal constant is what it signifies for those who might claim that there is no truth in art. Contrary to that claim, we might find in art the most constants, idealized in our creations, which piece together some meaning of truth amid a world of change where it might appear that nothing has meaning. Coleridge says so himself in one of his essays on Shakespeare:

In the plays of Shakespeare every man sees himself, without knowing that he does so: as in some of the phenomena of nature, in the mist of the mountain, the traveler beholds his own figure, but the glory found the head distinguishes it from a mere vulgar copy. In traversing the Brocken, in the north of Germany, at sunrise, the brilliant beams are shot askance, and you see before you a being of gigantic proportions, and of such elevated dignity, that you only know it to be yourself by similarity of action.[2]

We must not forget that in the Brocken Spectre what we see is really an image of ourselves, albeit in a different light. Constancy, then, is to combine ourselves with our ideals—where better to find this constancy than art? Art, conveyed in this essay through poetry, transforms our thoughts and memories into ideal constants, leaving us with certainty of what is, even if we cannot describe it perfectly, for we do not need to, since we know it to be ourselves by similarity of action.

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Notes:

[1] For further reading on the concept of fortune during Shakespeare’s time, see here.

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s Shakespearean Criticism (London: Constable & coltd, 1930), 163

The featured image is “Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (1795) by Peter Vandyke (1729–1799) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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