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The Storm, the Rainbow, and the Soul: Coleridge on the Interplay of Terror and Transcendence in Nature and Human Nature

“In the hollow… I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy.”

The Storm, the Rainbow, and the Soul: Coleridge on the Interplay of Terror and Transcendence in Nature and Human Nature

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her tiny, tremendous masterpiece The Living Mountain. A couple of mountain ranges south, a century and a half earlier, the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) captured the power of that interpenetration in a stunning letter, later included in The Complete Essays, Lectures & Letters of S. T. Coleridge (public library).

The letter, composed three days before his twenty-eighth birthday, begins with a terrifying, transcendent encounter with the grandeur of nature and ends with a humbling encounter with human nature — with the grandeur of the human spirit, its the capacity for dignity and generosity no matter one’s material circumstances.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nearly a century before the young Van Gogh contemplated the enchantment of storms in nature and human nature while living in poverty in the Hague, the young Coleridge writes to his closest friend from the English Lake District on October 18, 1800:

Our mountains northward end in the mountain Carrock — one huge, steep, enormous bulk of stones, desolately variegated with the heath plant; at its foot runs the river Calder, and a narrow vale between it and the mountain Bowscale, so narrow, that in its greatest width it is not more than a furlong. But that narrow vale is so green, so beautiful, there are moods in which a man might weep to look at it. On this mountain Carrock, at the summit of which are the remains of a vast Druid circle of stones, I was wandering, when a thick cloud came on, and wrapped me in such darkness that I could not see ten yards before me, and with the cloud a storm of wind and hail, the like of which I had never before seen and felt. At the very summit is a cone of stones, built by the shepherds, and called the Carrock Man. Such cones are on the tops of almost all our mountains, and they are all called men. At the bottom of the Carrock Man I seated myself for shelter, but the wind became so fearful and tyrannous, that I was apprehensive some of the stones might topple down upon me, so I groped my way farther down and came to three rocks, placed on this wise 1 / 3 \ 2 each one supported by the other like a child’s house of cards, and in the hollow and screen which they made I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and “eternal link” of energy.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s near-death experience in a Norwegian fjord, Coleridge recounts nature’s sudden turn of temper — a turn from terror to transcendence, which then leads him to an unexpected encounter with the most transcendent qualities of human nature:

The darkness vanished as by enchantment; far off, far, far off to the south, the mountains of Glaramara and Great Gable and their family appeared distinct, in deepest, sablest blue. I rose, and behind me was a rainbow bright as the brightest. I descended by the side of a torrent, and passed, or rather crawled (for I was forced to descend on all fours), by many a naked waterfall, till, fatigued and hungry (and with a finger almost broken, and which remains swelled to the size of two fingers), I reached the narrow vale, and the single house nestled in ash and sycamores. I entered to claim the universal hospitality of this country; but instead of the life and comfort usual in these lonely houses, I saw dirt, and every appearance of misery — a pale woman sitting by a peat fire. I asked her for bread and milk, and she sent a small child to fetch it, but did not rise herself. I eat very heartily of the black, sour bread, and drank a bowl of milk, and asked her to permit me to pay her. “Nay,” says she, “we are not so scant as that — you are right welcome.”


A Young Poet’s Love Letter to Earth and to the Double Courage of Facing a Broken Reality While Refusing to Cease Cherishing This Astonishing World in Its Brokenness

In praise of anemone and dust and “the smallest possible once before once.”

A Young Poet’s Love Letter to Earth and to the Double Courage of Facing a Broken Reality While Refusing to Cease Cherishing This Astonishing World in Its Brokenness

To make anything — a photograph, a theorem, a poem — is to toss a handful of wildflower seeds into the wind, knowing neither the type of soil they will land in, nor the location of the landscape, nor the type of flowers that will bloom. Sometimes, oftentimes, the seeds come abloom generations or civilizations later, in minds many disciplines or cultures or experiences apart. (For, lest we forget, all that survives of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.)

In the spring of 2018, shortly after Stephen Hawking returned his borrowed stardust to the cosmos, poet Marie Howe composed a poem inspired by his life’s work, a stunning poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, for the second Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry I host at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. She titled it “Singularity (after Stephen Hawking)” and premiered it before a rapt audience of a thousand people suspended in wonder. The bit-blown wind then carried it to thousands more online. It has since came alive anew in a consummate animated short film savored by tens of thousands more.

In the spring of 2020, Howe’s poem planted its seed in the fertile mind of the young Kentucky-born, Brooklyn-based poet Marissa Davis and came abloom in a stunning poem of her own, which she titled “Singularity (after Marie Howe)” and premiered in poem-a-day — the lifeline of a newsletter by the Academy of American Poets.

I was so taken with the sweep and splendor of Davis’s quiet cataclysm of a poem that I invited her to read it for Brain Pickings, which she kindly did — a lovely voice that surprised and invigorated me with its audible youth, only amplifying the poem’s atmosphere of possibility and its wondrous, defiant commitment neither to look away from a broken reality nor to cease cherishing this astonishing world in its brokenness.

by Marissa Davis
              (after Marie Howe)

in the wordless beginning
iguana & myrrh
magma & reef              ghost moth
& the cordyceps tickling its nerves
& cedar & archipelago & anemone
dodo bird & cardinal waiting for its red
ocean salt & crude oil              now black
muck now most naïve fumbling plankton
every egg clutched in the copycat soft
of me unwomaned unraced
unsexed              as the ecstatic prokaryote
that would rage my uncle’s blood
or the bacterium that will widow
your eldest daughter’s eldest son
my uncle, her son              our mammoth sun
& her uncountable siblings              & dust mite & peat
apatosaurus & nile river
& maple green & nude & chill-blushed &
yeasty keratined bug-gutted i & you
spleen & femur seven-year refreshed
seven-year shedding & taking & being this dust
& my children & your children
& their children & the children
of the black bears & gladiolus & pink florida grapefruit
here not allied but the same              perpetual breath
held fast to each other as each other’s own skin
cold-dormant & rotting & birthing & being born
in the olympus              of the smallest
possible once before once

Relish more of Davis’s poetry in her chapbook My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak and join me in supporting the life-giving work of the Academy of American Poets, offering stage and succor to young poets like Davis, then revisit the splendid seed that inspired this miraculous blossom.


Mary Shelley on the Courage to Speak Up Against Injustice and the Power of Words in Revising the World

“Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on.”

Mary Shelley on the Courage to Speak Up Against Injustice and the Power of Words in Revising the World

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men*,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — a line Rachel Carson leaned on in summoning her epoch-making courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality… what I most regretted were my silences… My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished a generation later in her blueprint to “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — her own courageous and catalytic manifesto for another vital awakening.

One hundred years before Lorde’s birth, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — another woman of extraordinary vision, courage, and passion for justice — explored the actionable might of words in social change and the power of breaking silence in a tiny, potent fragment from her enormous penultimate novel, Lodore (public library | public domain).

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In a sentiment spoken by a heroine modeled on her own young self — a young woman of radiant intellectual beauty, educated in the classics, a survivor of great personal losses and misfortunes, endowed with a “singular mixture of mildness and independence”; a woman whom one approaches “without fear of encountering any of the baser qualities of human beings, — their hypocrisy, or selfishness”; a woman whose father (like Shelley’s own famous father) had taught her “to penetrate, to anatomize, to purify [her] motives; but once assured of [her] own integrity, to be afraid of nothing” — she writes:

Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on; I never hesitated to use them, when I fought any battle for the miserable and oppressed. People are so afraid to speak, it would seem as if half our fellow-creatures were born with deficient organs; like parrots they can repeat a lesson, but their voice fails them, when that alone is wanting to make the tyrant quail.

Shelley herself built her remarkable life upon the foundational ethos that words are not only our best instrument of change, but our best conduit of the intimacy and understanding which bind us to one another and from which every actionable impulse toward sympathy and solidarity arises. Elsewhere in Lodore, she writes:

That existence is scarcely to be termed life, which does not bring us into intimate connexion with our fellow-creatures.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression and some excellent advice to a young activist from Mary Shelley’s father, the great radical philosopher William Godwin, then revisit Shelley, writing in an earlier novel about a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living.


The Stuff of Stars: A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life

A consummate celebration of the improbable loveliness of life amid the edgeless panorama of cosmic being.

The Stuff of Stars: A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life

“Before I was born out of my mother,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “my embryo has never been torpid… For it the nebula cohered to an orb.” Only by connecting our own birth, our own existence, to that of everything and everyone we know, to the birth of the universe itself, can we confidently and genuinely say with Whitman, who called himself a “Kosmos,” that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”; only then can we not only think but feel the elemental truth in his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A century and a half after Whitman and Muir, a century and a half after staggering leaps in our scientific understanding of the life of the universe and the universe of life, the great evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis moored this poetic truth in the reality of science by observing that “the fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”

That atomic interleaving of existence across the sweep of space and time and individual selves is what author Marion Dane Bauer and artist Ekua Holmes celebrate in The Stuff of Stars (public library) — a serenade to the native poetry inside the science of life, inspired by the iconic Carl Saganism that “we’re made of star-stuff” (itself inspired by the legacy of the trailblazing astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe against the odds of her time and place).

Opening with a narrative verse evocative of Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” the lyrical story begins before the beginning of time and unspools into the everythingness of everything. Bauer writes:

In the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
a speck floated,
invisible as thought,
weighty as God.
There was yet no time,
there was yet no space.
No up,
no down,
no edge,
no center.

No Earth with soaring hawks,
scuttling beetles,
trees reaching for the sky.
There was no sky.
No you.
No me.
Only the speck,

Holmes’s illustrations, nebular and alive and animated by marbling — a technique of rich symbolism and cross-cultural history — furnish the perfect visual metaphor for the book’s elemental reminder that we live in a universe of constant flow, flux, and metamorphosis, and that we ourselves are but a speck of color floating into shape for a brief moment before being washed into the perpetually repatterned marbling of existence; that any one life, including our own, is as precious as it is improbable and transient, and all the more precious for its improbability and transience.

With a poet’s concision and precision of thought-in-image, Bauer chronicles the formation of our Solar System and the chance miracle of our own Pale Blue Dot, so improbably hospitable to life against the odds of an austere cosmos — a planet that orbits its star “from just the right distance and with just the right tilt to be sometimes warm, sometimes cool”; a planet ideally poised to foment the astonishing diversity and splendor of the marbling of matter we call life, “perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria, jellyfish, spiders, into ferns and sharks, into daisies and galloping horses.”

Again and against
gave birth
to stardust.

Bauer goes on to trace the unstoppable rush of species and generations, fading in and out of the scene, restaging the next act with their own existence — the dinosaurs making room for the humans, our ancestors making room for us.

Leafing through the consummately illustrated story as it moves from the Big Bang with its near-instantaneous generation of all the matter that made everything we know to the slow, steady birth of stars and planets, of oceans and mountains, of all the creatures that tread and bloom and burrow and soar over and on and in them, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s immortally poetic observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change”; I am reminded of James Baldwin’s impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed… the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock… the sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.”

Bauer ends this vignette of the panorama with the birth of the reader, addressing the child directly as a child of the universe, with the Whitmanesque recognition of how “the nebula cohered” to manifest this singular existence:

Then one day…
in the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
another speck floated,
invisible as dreams,
special as Love.
Until at last,
YOU burst into the world.

Reminding the young reader that each breath they inhale is air once breathed by the woolly mammoths and each tear they cry is water that once lapped in the primordial seas, Bauer ends the story by inviting the voice of the parent to place the child into this glorious singularity of being — a splendid message that not only enlarges once’s own sense of being but, in celebrating this interbelonging with the rest of the living world, is the only viable seed for any real sense of the ecological responsibility that must bloom in the coming generations if this precious, precarious, shimmering world is to go on cohering into beauty and being.

and the velvet moss,
the caterpillars,
the lions.

and the singing whales,
the larks,
the frogs.

and me
loving you.
All of us
the stuff of stars.

Couple The Stuff of Stars (not to be confused with the similarly titled grownup biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, about whom there also happens to be a wonderful picture-book biography) with a gorgeous animated short film of Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity,” then revisit Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, also inspired by Carl Sagan.

Reproductions courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.


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