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A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Allegoric Vision

Title:     Allegoric Vision
Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge [More Titles by Coleridge]

A feeling of sadness, a peculiar melancholy, is wont to take
possession of me alike in Spring and in Autumn. But in Spring
it is the melancholy of Hope: in Autumn it is the melancholy
of Resignation. As I was journeying on foot through the
Appennine, I fell in with a pilgrim in whom the Spring and 5
the Autumn and the Melancholy of both seemed to have
combined. In his discourse there were the freshness and the
colours of April:

Qual ramicel a ramo,
Tal da pensier pensiero 10
In lui germogliava.

But as I gazed on his whole form and figure, I bethought me
of the not unlovely decays, both of age and of the late season,
in the stately elm, after the clusters have been plucked from
its entwining vines, and the vines are as bands of dried withies 15
around its trunk and branches. Even so there was a memory
on his smooth and ample forehead, which blended with the
dedication of his steady eyes, that still looked--I know not,
whether upward, or far onward, or rather to the line of meeting
where the sky rests upon the distance. But how may I express 20
that dimness of abstraction which lay on the lustre of the
pilgrim's eyes like the flitting tarnish from the breath of a sigh
on a silver mirror! and which accorded with their slow and
reluctant movement, whenever he turned them to any object
on the right hand or on the left? It seemed, methought, as 25
if there lay upon the brightness a shadowy presence of
disappointments now unfelt, but never forgotten. It was at once
the melancholy of hope and of resignation.

We had not long been fellow-travellers, ere a sudden tempest
of wind and rain forced us to seek protection in the vaulted 30
door-way of a lone chapelry; and we sate face to face each on
the stone bench alongside the low, weather-stained wall, and
as close as possible to the massy door.

After a pause of silence: even thus, said he, like two strangers
that have fled to the same shelter from the same storm, not 35
seldom do Despair and Hope meet for the first time in the
porch of Death! All extremes meet, I answered; but yours
was a strange and visionary thought. The better then doth it
beseem both the place and me, he replied. From a Visionary
wilt thou hear a Vision? Mark that vivid flash through this 40
torrent of rain! Fire and water. Even here thy adage holds
true, and its truth is the moral of my Vision. I entreated him
to proceed. Sloping his face toward the arch and yet averting
his eye from it, he seemed to seek and prepare his words: till
listening to the wind that echoed within the hollow edifice, 45
and to the rain without,

Which stole on his thoughts with its two-fold sound,
The clash hard by and the murmur all round,[1]

he gradually sank away, alike from me and from his own purpose,
and amid the gloom of the storm and in the duskiness of that 50
place, he sate like an emblem on a rich man's sepulchre, or like a
mourner on the sodded grave of an only one--an aged mourner,
who is watching the waned moon and sorroweth not. Starting
at length from his brief trance of abstraction, with courtesy and
an atoning smile he renewed his discourse, and commenced his 55

During one of those short furloughs from the service of the
body, which the soul may sometimes obtain even in this its
militant state, I found myself in a vast plain, which I
immediately knew to be the Valley of Life. It possessed an 60
astonishing diversity of soils: here was a sunny spot, and
there a dark one, forming just such a mixture of sunshine and
shade, as we may have observed on the mountains' side in an
April day, when the thin broken clouds are scattered over
heaven. Almost in the very entrance of the valley stood 65
a large and gloomy pile, into which I seemed constrained to
enter. Every part of the building was crowded with tawdry
ornaments and fantastic deformity. On every window was
portrayed, in glaring and inelegant colours, some horrible tale,
or preternatural incident, so that not a ray of light could enter, 70
untinged by the medium through which it passed. The body
of the building was full of people, some of them dancing, in and
out, in unintelligible figures, with strange ceremonies and antic
merriment, while others seemed convulsed with horror, or
pining in mad melancholy. Intermingled with these, I observed 75
a number of men, clothed in ceremonial robes, who appeared
now to marshal the various groups, and to direct their
movements; and now with menacing countenances, to drag some
reluctant victim to a vast idol, framed of iron bars intercrossed,
which formed at the same time an immense cage, and the shape 80
of a human Colossus.

I stood for a while lost in wonder what these things might
mean; when lo! one of the directors came up to me, and with
a stern and reproachful look bade me uncover my head, for
that the place into which I had entered was the temple of 85
the only true Religion, in the holier recesses of which the
great Goddess personally resided. Himself too he bade me
reverence, as the consecrated minister of her rites. Awestruck
by the name of Religion, I bowed before the priest, and humbly
and earnestly intreated him to conduct me into her presence. 90
He assented. Offerings he took from me, with mystic
sprinklings of water and with salt he purified, and with strange
sufflations he exorcised me; and then led me through many
a dark and winding alley, the dew-damps of which chilled my
flesh, and the hollow echoes under my feet, mingled, methought, 95
with moanings, affrighted me. At length we entered a large
hall, without window, or spiracle, or lamp. The asylum and
dormitory it seemed of perennial night--only that the walls were
brought to the eye by a number of self-luminous inscriptions in
letters of a pale sepulchral light, which held strange neutrality 100
with the darkness, on the verge of which it kept its rayless vigil.
I could read them, methought; but though each of the words
taken separately I seemed to understand, yet when I took them
in sentences, they were riddles and incomprehensible. As I
stood meditating on these hard sayings, my guide thus addressed 105
me--'Read and believe: these are mysteries!'--At the
extremity of the vast hall the Goddess was placed. Her features,
blended with darkness, rose out to my view, terrible, yet vacant.
I prostrated myself before her, and then retired with my guide,
soul-withered, and wondering, and dissatisfied. 110

As I re-entered the body of the temple I heard a deep buzz
as of discontent. A few whose eyes were bright, and either
piercing or steady, and whose ample foreheads, with the weighty
bar, ridge-like, above the eyebrows, bespoke observation followed
by meditative thought; and a much larger number, who were 115
enraged by the severity and insolence of the priests in exacting
their offerings, had collected in one tumultuous group, and with
a confused outcry of 'This is the Temple of Superstition!' after
much contumely, and turmoil, and cruel maltreatment on all
sides, rushed out of the pile: and I, methought, joined them. 120

We speeded from the Temple with hasty steps, and had now
nearly gone round half the valley, when we were addressed by
a woman, tall beyond the stature of mortals, and with a
something more than human in her countenance and mien, which
yet could by mortals be only felt, not conveyed by words or 125
intelligibly distinguished. Deep reflection, animated by ardent
feelings, was displayed in them: and hope, without its
uncertainty, and a something more than all these, which I understood
not, but which yet seemed to blend all these into a divine unity
of expression. Her garments were white and matronly, and of 130
the simplest texture. We inquired her name. 'My name,'
she replied, 'is Religion.'

The more numerous part of our company, affrighted by the
very sound, and sore from recent impostures or sorceries,
hurried onwards and examined no farther. A few of us, struck 135
by the manifest opposition of her form and manners to those
of the living Idol, whom we had so recently abjured, agreed to
follow her, though with cautious circumspection. She led us to
an eminence in the midst of the valley, from the top of which
we could command the whole plain, and observe the relation of 140
the different parts to each other, and of each to the whole, and
of all to each. She then gave us an optic glass which assisted
without contradicting our natural vision, and enabled us to see
far beyond the limits of the Valley of Life; though our eye
even thus assisted permitted us only to behold a light and 145
a glory, but what we could not descry, save only that it was,
and that it was most glorious.

And now with the rapid transition of a dream, I had overtaken
and rejoined the more numerous party, who had abruptly
left us, indignant at the very name of religion. They journied 150
on, goading each other with remembrances of past oppressions,
and never looking back, till in the eagerness to recede from the
Temple of Superstition they had rounded the whole circle of the
valley. And lo! there faced us the mouth of a vast cavern, at
the base of a lofty and almost perpendicular rock, the interior 155
side of which, unknown to them and unsuspected, formed the
extreme and backward wall of the Temple. An impatient
crowd, we entered the vast and dusky cave, which was the only
perforation of the precipice. At the mouth of the cave sate
two figures; the first, by her dress and gestures, I knew to be 160
Sensuality; the second form, from the fierceness of his demeanour,
and the brutal scornfulness of his looks, declared himself
to be the monster Blasphemy. He uttered big words, and yet
ever and anon I observed that he turned pale at his own
courage. We entered. Some remained in the opening of the 165
cave, with the one or the other of its guardians. The rest, and
I among them, pressed on, till we reached an ample chamber,
that seemed the centre of the rock. The climate of the place
was unnaturally cold.

In the furthest distance of the chamber sate an old dim-eyed 170
man, poring with a microscope over the torso of a statue
which had neither basis, nor feet, nor head; but on its breast
was carved Nature! To this he continually applied his glass,
and seemed enraptured with the various inequalities which it
rendered visible on the seemingly polished surface of the 175
marble.--Yet evermore was this delight and triumph followed
by expressions of hatred, and vehement railing against a Being,
who yet, he assured us, had no existence. This mystery
suddenly recalled to me what I had read in the holiest recess
of the temple of Superstition. The old man spake in divers 180
tongues, and continued to utter other and most strange
mysteries. Among the rest he talked much and vehemently
concerning an infinite series of causes and effects, which he
explained to be a string of blind men, the last of whom
caught hold of the skirt of the one before him, he of the next, 185
and so on till they were all out of sight; and that they all
walked infallibly straight, without making one false step
though all were alike blind. Methought I borrowed courage
from surprise, and asked him--Who then is at the head to
guide them? He looked at me with ineffable contempt, not 190
unmixed with an angry suspicion, and then replied, 'No one.'
The string of blind men went on for ever without any beginning;
for although one blind man could not move without stumbling,
yet infinite blindness supplied the want of sight. I burst into
laughter, which instantly turned to terror--for as he started 195
forward in rage, I caught a glimpse of him from behind; and
lo! I beheld a monster bi-form and Janus-headed, in the hinder
face and shape of which I instantly recognised the dread
countenance of Superstition--and in the terror I awoke.


First published in _The Courier_, Saturday, August 31, 1811: included in 1829, 1834-5, &c.; (3 vols.), and in 1844 (1 vol.). Lines 1-56 were first published as part of the 'Introduction' to _A Lay Sermon, &c.;_, 1817, pp. xix-xxxi.

The 'Allegoric Vision' dates from August, 1795. It served as a kind of preface or prologue to Coleridge's first Theological Lecture on 'The Origin of Evil. The Necessity of Revelation deduced from the Nature of Man. An Examination and Defence of the Mosaic Dispensation' (see Cottle's _Early Recollections_, 1837, i. 27). The purport of these Lectures was to uphold the golden mean of Unitarian orthodoxy as opposed to the Church on the one hand, and infidelity or materialism on the other. 'Superstition' stood for and symbolized the Church of England. Sixteen years later this opening portion of an unpublished Lecture was rewritten and printed in _The Courier_ (Aug. 31, 1811), with the heading 'An Allegoric Vision: Superstition, Religion, Atheism'. The attack was now diverted from the Church of England to the Church of Rome. 'Men clad in black robes,' intent on gathering in their Tenths, become 'men clothed in ceremonial robes, who with menacing countenances drag some reluctant victim to a vast idol, framed of iron bars intercrossed which formed at the same time an immense cage, and yet represented the form of a human Colossus. At the base of the Statue I saw engraved the words "To Dominic holy and merciful, the preventer and avenger of soul-murder".' The vision was turned into a political _jeu d'esprit_ levelled at the aiders and abettors of Catholic Emancipation, a measure to which Coleridge was more or less opposed as long as he lived. See _Constitution of Church and State_, 1830, _passim_. A third adaptation of the 'Allegorical Vision' was affixed to the Introduction to _A Lay Sermon: Addressed to the Higher and Middle Classes_, which was published in 1817. The first fifty-six lines, which contain a description of Italian mountain scenery, were entirely new, but the rest of the 'Vision' is an amended and softened reproduction of the preface to the Lecture of 1795. The moral he desires to point is the 'falsehood of extremes'. As Religion is the golden mean between Superstition and Atheism, so the righteous government of a righteous people is the mean between a selfish and oppressive aristocracy, and seditious and unbridled mob-rule. A probable 'Source' of the first draft of the 'Vision' is John Aikin's _Hill of Science, A Vision_, which was included in _Elegant Extracts_, 1794, ii. 801. In the present issue the text of 1834 has been collated with that of 1817 and 1829, but not (exhaustively) with the MS. (1795), or at all with the _Courier_ version of 1811.

[1] From the _Ode to the Rain_, 1802, ll. 15-16:--

O Rain! with your dull two-fold sound,
The clash hard by, and the murmur all round!


[21-3] --the breathed tarnish, shall I name it?--on the lustre of the pilgrim's eyes? Yet had it not a sort of strange accordance with 1817.

[37] Compare:

like strangers shelt'ring from a storm, Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!

_Constancy to an Ideal Object_, p. 456.

[39] VISIONARY 1817, 1829.

[40] VISION 1817, 1829.

[49] sank] sunk 1817.

[51-2] _or like_ an aged mourner on the sodden grave of an only one--a mourner, _who_ 1817.

[57-9] It was towards morning when the Brain begins to reassume its waking state, and our dreams approach to the regular trains of Reality, that I found MS. 1795.

[60] VALLEY OF LIFE 1817, 1829.

[61] and here was 1817, 1829.

[63] mountains' side] Hills MS. 1795.

[75-86] intermingled with all these I observed a great number of men in Black Robes who appeared now marshalling the various Groups and now collecting with scrupulous care the Tenths of everything that grew within their reach. I stood wondering a while what these Things might be when one of these men approached me and with a reproachful Look bade me uncover my Head for the Place into which I had entered was the Temple of _Religion_. MS. 1795.

[80] shape] form 1817.

[92-3] of water he purified me, and then led MS. 1795.

[94-9] chilled and its hollow echoes beneath my feet affrighted me, till at last we entered a large Hall where not even a Lamp glimmered. Around its walls I observed a number of phosphoric Inscriptions MS. 1795.

[96-102] _large hall_ where not even a single lamp glimmered. It was made half visible by the wan phosphoric rays which proceeded from inscriptions on the walls, in letters of the same pale and sepulchral light. I could read them, methought; but though each one of the _words_ 1817.

[106] _me_. The fallible becomes infallible, and the infallible remains fallible. Read and believe: these are MYSTERIES! In the middle of _the vast_ 1817.

[106] MYSTERIES 1829.

[108] _vacant_. No definite thought, no distinct image was afforded me: all was uneasy and obscure feeling. I _prostrated_ 1817.

[118] SUPERSTITION 1817.

[132] RELIGION 1817, 1829.

[141] _parts_ of each to the other, _and of_ 1817, 1829.

[146] _was_ 1817, 1829.

[161] SENSUALITY 1817, 1829.

[163] BLASPHEMY 1817, 1829.

[173] NATURE 1817, 1829.

[180] _Superstition_ 1817, 1829. spake] spoke 1817, 1829.

[196] glimpse] glance 1817, 1829.

[199] SUPERSTITION 1817, 1829.

[The end]
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem: Allegoric Vision