Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Coleridge and the Geometric Idiom: Walking with Euclid

Ann C. Colley

A few years ago after finishing a study about the collecting of wild animal skins in Victorian Britain, I felt disturbingly empty—perhaps even a bit lost. I wondered what now could offer me a sense of purpose? Surprisingly, an answer emerged from a memory belonging to some time ago when I had briefly sat across a Cambridge University Library table from a graduate student who was assisting the editor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notebooks. I had been impressed with, if not slightly envious, of her work and engagement with one of the great minds of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Since that encounter, I have often recalled that chance meeting and faulted myself for not reading or studying Coleridge’s journals. Now almost half a century later a space had fortuitously opened up in which I could repair this nagging sense of missed opportunity. I went over to the bookcase and pulled out the first two volumes of Coleridge’s notebooks. I soon found myself captivated by those entries in which Coleridge describes the landscape of his walks among the fells, mountain, valleys, and hills of Britain between 1794 and 1804. I felt an affinity for his excursions. In my younger days I too had been a rambler, though never as vigorous as Coleridge, and later in life had taken walking holidays through areas familiar to him. I recognized the terrain of his thoughts.

In the course of this reading, I became fascinated with the ways in which Coleridge perceived and represented the landscape of his wanderings. In particular, I was enthralled with his calling upon what I came to term “the geometric idiom” to portray and diagram the appearance of what he saw. Entries jotted down in the enthusiasm of the moment abound with references to squares, triangles, ellipses, parallelograms, circles, ovals, spheres, pyramids, angles, and ovals. These forms allowed him to capture the shapes of the mountains, streams, rivers, clouds, and even the flights of birds. In October 1803, for instance, when he watched a murmuration of starlings “Borne along like smoke,” he noted how their collective flight shifted from one geometric figure to another:

Now it shaped itself into a circular area, inclined—now they formed a Square—now a Globe—now from complete Orb into an Ellipse—then oblongated into a Balloon with the Car suspended, now a concave Semicircle; still expanding, or contracting, thickening or condensing, now glimmering and shivering, now thickening, deepening, blackening! (Coleridge’s Notebooks, Vol. 1, entry 1589)
In many other entries, he recorded, for example, the sight of a “flat pink-colour’d stone painted over in jagged circles & strange parallelograms with the greenish black-spotted lichens” (CN 1:1227) or the appearance of a mountain’s wild “angular outline…rising in triangles” and “sinking in inverting arches” (CN 1:1224). Over the years Coleridge’s sensitivity to the geometric form continued so that while walking in Scotland in 1803, he gazed at a cone-shaped mountain connected by a “semicircular Bason” to a “rude triangle-shaped Mountain, of equal Height” (CN 2:2637). I also soon realized that this propensity to discover geometric figures in the landscape contributed to his intermittent habit of diagramming as well his commenting on the angles of the shapes that emerged before him. In August 1802, for instance, while rambling among the fells, he remarked on and diagramed “a delightful angle of sheltered Land” (CN 1:1209), and while walking in the Lake District, he drew a diagrammatic sketch of the dripping water that falls from “a semiround stone” into a “tarn oval” (CN 1:784).

I soon learned that Coleridge was living at a time when Euclid’s Elements was still a basic text in eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century England, so much so that English editions of Euclid proliferated and taught not only to the elite but also to the “ordinary Englishman”—to such people as carpenters, joiners, masons, and farmers, who needed it for practical reasons. Knowing Euclid was considered to be essential if one were to comprehend both the phenomenal world and intellectual thought. Euclidian geometry was a scaffolding of thought and a process of reasoning. Coleridge belonged to a culture that believed one should take Euclid seriously. As a result, during his last year at Christ’s Hospital, he was sent over to the Royal Mathematical School to take extra tutorials in geometry from William Wales, and then when he was at the University of Cambridge, particularly during his first year, he was subject to lectures and tutorials in geometry and algebra. Even though he often rebelled against this training and, like many of his contemporaries, worried that it took time away from other interests, Coleridge ultimately accepted its worth and went on not only to evoke its figures when gazing upon a landscape but also respected the geometric perspective when composing his nature poetry and working out ideas concerning faith, thought, and other metaphysical matters.

My quest to understand why Coleridge would invoke the geometric idiom when describing the landscape of his vigorous walks took me to the rare book and manuscript room in the British Library where most of the original notebooks are housed. To hold and turn the pages of these weather-worn notebooks was extraordinary. The experience of actually reading what Coleridge had kept in his pocket while tromping through Wales, Somersetshire, the Lakes, and Scotland made what he was describing even more at hand–literally. To touch what he had also added to the immediacy of it all. I then traveled to the Christ’s Hospital School Archives where I not only got a chance to read through unpublished documents concerning Coleridge’s training in Euclid at the school but also had the privilege of seeing the present-day students who continue to wear, with some modifications, the very uniform that Coleridge would have worn: the long blue buttoned coat, the yellow stockings, the leather belt, and a white cravat. The past was populating the present. I also visited Leicester in order to consult a large collection of late eighteenth and nineteenth-century mathematical copybooks compiled and made by students during Coleridge’s lifetime. The John Hersee Collection of these hand-made books in the Special Collections at the University of Leicester Library continued to give me a vivid understanding of the importance of Euclid in the education of youth.

Eventually I spent several months reading various texts at the Cambridge University Library. In a sense, by going there I was returning to the beginning of this project, for once more I was sitting at the very table where over fifty years ago I had met a graduate student working on Coleridge’s notebooks. In the course of my months in Cambridge, and as fate and fortune would have it, I was introduced to a retired Coleridge scholar. After chatting with her for a while, I soon realized that this was the very person whom I had briefly met in the 1970s and who had been working on Coleridge’s notebooks. She didn’t remember me—why should she?—but I remembered her. In a sense, by returning to Cambridge I had come full circle back to my project’s beginnings. The past was still circulating in the present. The experience felt and still seems slightly uncanny.

Coleridge’s vital relationship to this geometric perspective has either been glossed over or virtually ignored by commentators. It is always interesting to me how much attention is given to Wordsworth’s references to geometry (most recently in Jordan Ellenberg’s Shape) but no time given to Coleridge, who integrated and considered the role of Euclid to a far greater extent than most of his contemporaries. As a result, his pervasive attachment to the geometric idiom in his notebooks, prose, and poetry begged to be recognized and explored.

Coleridge and the Geometric Idiom by Ann C. Colley

About The Author

Ann C. Colley

Ann C. Colley is SUNY Distinguished Professor Emerita at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. She has taught in Ukraine and Poland as a Fulbright Senior Scholar and h...

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