Friday, 2 December 2011


I'm sure there's an academic paper on this, somewhere; though I don't know it. The epigraph to Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner':
Facile credo, plures esse Naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum universitate. Sed horum omnium familiam quis nobis enarrabit ? et gradus et cognationes et discrimina et singulorum munera ? Quid agunt ? quae loca habitant ? Harum rerum notitiam semper ambivit ingenium humanum, nunquam attigit. Juvat, interea, non diffiteor, quandoque in animo, tanquam in tabulâ, majoris et melioris mundi imaginem contemplari : ne mens assuefacta hodiernae vitae minutiis se contrahat nimis, et tota subsidat in pusillas cogitationes. Sed veritati interea invigilandum est, modusque servandus, ut certa ab incertis, diem a nocte, distinguamus.
This is from Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus (1692); and it speaks directly to the imaginative logic of the poem. This is what it means in English:
I can easily believe, that there are more invisible than visible Beings in the universe. But who shall describe for us their families? and their ranks and relationships and distinguishing features and functions? What they do? where they live? The human mind has always circled around a knowledge of these things, never attaining it. I do not doubt, however, that it is sometimes beneficial to contemplate, in thought, as in a Picture, the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the trivia of daily life, may contract itself too much, and wholly sink into trifles. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.
But maybe we should consider the larger design of the Archaeologiae Philosophicae and its relationship to Coleridge's poem: for this was a volume so unacceptable to contemporary theologians that Burnet was compelled to resign his post as chaplain in ordinary and Clerk of the Closet at Court. It is a detailed interrogation of the first chapters of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve that ponders, inter alia, whether the Fall of Man was a symbolic rather than literal event. And is not the 'Rime' a drama of a man's fall, rendered pagan and strange by its nautical resituation?

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