Positive Negation: On Coleridge’s “Human Life”

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Romantic literature at times features instances of positive negation, that trope whereby a literary text gives a body, face, visible form, or effective agency to negativity. In doing so, it anticipates similar features in modernist critical theory, such as Heidegger’s notion of the possibility of the impossibility of existence, or Bataille’s rendition of the presence of the absence of God. Such figures appear in the late poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially “Human Life, On the Denial of Immortality,” which reveal a counterside to his late theological reflections. That poem’s deployment of what Coleridge elsewhere considers to be the “positive state” of “Eternal Death” proposes that without the immortality of the soul, the best instance of positive negation is the living human being, who (in an echo of Milton’s Death) personifies the nothingness she or he must face. Such a figure, the poem suggests, can neither mount a suitable emotion in relation to its nothingness nor make its nothingness meaningful; nevertheless, as something crafted by nature’s “restless hands unconsciously,” the mortal becomes a figure of excess, of what interrupts mere blankness, exemplifying not a dialectical rendition of death but a second-order nullity, and thus can be defined through a Lacanian enigmatic signifier, even if one deprived of any code in which it may make sense. The poem thus anticipates certain a/theological features of recent thought, mapping the human as a site for the assertion of negativity.

Positive Negation: On Coleridge’s “Human Life”

David Collings
Bowdoin College

1.         In taking up the theme of the “rights of the negative,” one might reasonably ask how the negative has rights, how it might assert its rights, indeed how it might make a demand of any kind. The negative, one might argue, is negative, operating over against the domain of positive institutions, assertions, and demands. Yet one might reasonably argue that by virtue of that fact, nothing asserts itself so insistently as the negative, that any positive instance necessarily operates in relation to a negativity that never ceases to make itself felt.

2.         Such reflections, however, rely on the prior fact that something like “the negative” or one of its analogues has been isolated, named, and given specific powers within a discourse or practice. But this minimal figure, which makes of negativity a moment within the domain of the apparently positive, may at times adopt a more radical form through the trope of direct embodiment—that is, a face, voice, or agency, a capacity to challenge the subject explicitly. Within canonic Romantic literature, one might find several examples of this trope, including the metafictional ghost that appears in The Monk, the “unfathered vapour” in Wordsworth’s crossing of the Alps, the creature in Frankenstein, and the figure of deathly negation in The Triumph of Life. All of these instances, as well as many others, no doubt allude on some level to the most notorious instance of the figure, that darkness visible, Milton’s Death. These versions of the negative appear in order to assert themselves, to make implacable demands, and thus in some degree to horrify and alter those who encounter them. Various renditions of positive negation emerge in other forms of articulation in the Romantic era as well: one might think of the “empty place of power” that according to Claude Lefort emerges over the course of the French Revolution to become a constitutive aspect of modern democracies (27), or alternatively of the formative role of natural disaster, war, and famine in Malthusian demography. Some might argue that the Kantian analytic of the sublime, Schelling’s notion of the rotary motion of antithetical principles in his Ages of the World, or Hegel’s account of Absolute Knowledge belong within this field as well. If one glances ahead to later moments in the philosophical tradition, one might think of Heidegger’s discussion of the “possibility of the measureless impossibility of existence” in Being and Time (307) and of what Denis Hollier, capturing the sense of Georges Bataille’s notion of the sacred, describes not as the “absence of [God’s] presence” but the “presence of [his] absence” (133). Even nearer to us is the Lacanian Real, which takes a logic or process that perpetually undermines the symbolic and imaginary orders and treats it as an entity, an uncanny Thing.

3.         Within this broad ensemble, certain moments in Coleridge’s late poems may seem inconsequential, for they do not seem to be motivated by any ambitious poetic or philosophical project. Indeed, in some cases the key articulations take place in poems he did not at first intend to publish. Yet it is well worth reading those moments carefully with a view toward the broader questions raised by Romanticism and its heirs, for they make visible the counterseams in the texture of Coleridge’s overall theological and philosophical thought, and articulate, with unusual brevity and precision, some of the continuing stakes of positive negation.

4.         These preoccupations first appear explicitly in a tangle of incipient poems written in an 1811 Notebook entry, especially the two poems eventually published in 1834 under the titles of “Limbo” and “Ne Plus Ultra” (Notebooks 4073–74; Complete Poems 357–59). The poem “Limbo” initially outlines the limbo-zone of “half-being,” which is “Wall’d round” to secure it from a more fearful state, “the mere horror of blank Naught-at-all” (4, 23). In its final lines it moves beyond the “Purgatory curse” of “dull Privation” to contemplate a darker alternative: “Hell knows a fear far worse / A fear—a future state;—‘tis positive Negation!” (26–28). In settling on this final phrase, Coleridge departs from an earlier line in the notebook draft where he writes of “aye-unepithetable Negation” (Complete Poems 584; Notebooks 4073), in effect hinting that “unepithetable” is itself an epithet—and that the notion of a positive negation only makes sharper the idea of an unmodifiable one. As Morton Paley points out, these lines allude to a notion in the third sermon of John Donne, an author central to the entire notebook entry, that hell is the privation of God (Paley 202). But by shifting from privation to negation, Coleridge suggests in effect that hell is nothing other than a certain negation itself, or what in a later annotation to the anonymous book Eternal Punishment Proved to Be Not Suffering, but Privation (1817), he calls the “positive State” of “Eternal Death” (Marginalia 559). Through the notion of “positive Negation,” Coleridge does not simply write an oxymoron but invokes a fully considered concept, one we could describe not merely as absence, but more fundamentally as the presence of absence, the possibility of impossibility.

5.         That poem’s intervention is so brief, however, that it only broaches the theme. Thus it is not surprising that Coleridge extends its musings in nearby notebook lines, published under the title “Ne Plus Ultra,” where a speaker initially addresses nothingness as the “Sole Positive of Night!” (1). Here that nothingness is given a much broader force, for the speaker goes on to suggest that it is “The one permitted opposite of God!,” the “sole despair / Of both th’ eternities in Heaven!” (4, 14–15). The poem seems to rest on the notion that only nothingness is permitted to oppose God, insofar as God has no true opposite. But if there is a positive negation, then its antithetical persistence can indeed generate astonishment. Rather than representing Hell, a domain presumably subject to divine control, or a blank naught-at-all of death, which only those alive may fear, here it has power to interdict the activity of God and the angels. The negative has become a threat to the most assertive sway of the positive itself.

6.         But the import of this poem’s stance remains unclear: how might sheer nothingness have the capacity to interdict God’s actions? Is Coleridge riffing on his trope here, as if in the spirit of his version of Donne, or is he beginning to conceive of a negativity like those that appear in Hegel or Schelling? The final lines of the notebook entry speak of his ambivalence in this regard, where he writes, “A Specimen of the Sublime dashed to pieces by cutting too close with her fiery Four in Hand round the corner of Non-sense” (Complete Poems 584; Notebooks 4073).

7.         Yet Coleridge does not abandon the themes broached in these lines, for he explores them more fully soon thereafter in a poem published in 1817, “Human Life, On the Denial of Immortality” (Complete Poems 362)—a continuity made even more evident by Coleridge’s remark in a marginal annotation that this poem, too, was written “in purposed imitation of Donne” (Poetical Works 1101). Here he takes up the possibility, already broached in “Limbo,” that human beings may enter the “future state” of nonexistence, but for now considers the implications of that possibility for the significance of human life as it is lived. If human beings face a blank nothingness after death, the poem suggests, then the value of life itself is cancelled. Accordingly, in this poem positive negation is neither what the living fear nor an agency that interdicts God’s activity but an absence that transforms the positive itself into a nullity, into a “Blank accident” (14). If human life is mortal, the poem suggests, then the exemplary figure of “positive Negation” is the human being, who ultimately personifies the nothingness that she must face, as if to instance in another way what is visible in Milton’s Death. Yet here that trope uniquely appears not as a ghost, monster, allegorical construction, structural principle, or demographic driver, but as the living human being.

8.         In that respect, Coleridge’s nullified subject comes into close proximity with the subject of Hegel’s Phenomenology. [1]  Indeed, one can trace in this poem certain features of a dialectical shift: the transformation of an external or future nullity—death, a future state of nonexistence—into an internal or present one. Here the subject is placed in dialectical relation with death, except that in this case, no negation of the negation takes place, no sublation of the subject’s mortality. Here one arrives at “positive” negation not through a dialectical reversal of the negative but through its intensification, its emergence as an even more clearly delineated instance of the negative, one that leads to nothing other than itself. This poem thus anticipates those who refuse the turn whereby Hegel transforms the negative into the starting point of the subject’s becoming (cf. Bataille); instead, it transforms nullity into a higher version of nullity, into a subjectivity nearly indistinguishable from its own future inexistence. Where Hegel affirms and dialectically transposes the subject’s mortality, Coleridge refuses to accept it; for him, a subject characterized by its negation becomes the very emblem of absurdity and inexistence, of a life lived under the shadow of what Tilottama Rajan has in another context called “unusable negativity” (46).

9.         Of course, the poem is meant in part to explore a reductio ad absurdum, to conceive of the ludicrous implications of what its title marks as the “denial” of the immortality of the soul. As several scholars have suggested, the fact that the poem is written in the conditional mode—“If dead, we cease to be” (1)—signals that it takes up a contrary-to-fact scenario, a possibility excluded by the theology Coleridge articulates in many of his late writings (Kessler 69–80; Vaz-Hooper). [2]  But such is not its entire purpose, for it also takes up the concern with hopelessness or loss which informs a half-dozen lyrics he composed after 1805, from “Constancy to an Ideal Object” through “Love’s Apparition and Evanishment,” and thus exemplifies what Eric Wilson has described as the poet’s “double vision,” his ability to linger with opposed possibilities (xiii). [3]  This lyric, in short, balances itself between the scorn for disbelief and the lyrical evocation of a negated state; it explores nonsense seriously, articulating the nearly inexplicable logic of the theological uncanny.

10.         Initially it charts its concerns by suggesting that a purely mortal life, in finding no realization after death, consists of nothing but biological life, nothing but “sound,” “motion,” or “breath” (4, 5)—not so much bare life as wasted life. In a later passage, the poem extends this thought by suggesting that such a life’s “laughter and tears / Mean but themselves” (17–18)—in effect, that even nonverbal expressions cease to find their place in any code. The reflexive consciousness of this state is equally futile; as the poem later suggests, it would be just as useless to mourn the passing of such a life as to attempt not to mourn it. To react to it in any fashion, it suggests, would be vacuous: “Yet what and whence thy gain, if thou withhold / These costless shadows of thy shadowy self? / Be sad, be glad, be neither! seek, or shun!” (25–26). Moreover, it contends that the defeat of signification also defeats affect itself, making “dreams” and “hopes and fears” equally weightless (16–17). The poem thus expresses a longing for the gap between sign and signified, between nonverbal expression and code; the absence of that gap, it seems, cancels significance, emotion, and purpose alike, as if in its absence existence remains so insistently literal that it cannot even attain to the minimal, impoverished status of the pure signifier. In the poem’s account, only a possible immortality can ground meaning; without that immortality, human life has an uncanny status, for having only “phantom purposes,” it becomes merely an “Image of image, ghost of ghostly elf” (9, 23)—a ghostly “gust[]” and no more (3). [4] 

11.         But if it is merely an image of image, ghost of ghostly elf, then it replicates a nonexistence it shares with the nonhuman world; what precedes and generates it is a phantom like itself. The absence of substance in human life implies in retrospect the absence of substance in nature as well. The poem thus begins to outline a logic of nullity’s perpetual replication, whereby the absence of immortality undoes the substance of human being, which in turn demonstrates the absence of being in nature.

12.         Although it often relies on this repetition of futility across several registers, and thus on a sort of flat “hauntology” (Bryant 245–90; Derrida 10), in a key passage it interrupts that prospect as it depicts the moment in which nature produces humankind:

O Man! thou vessel purposeless, unmeant,
Yet drove-hive strange of phantom purposes!
Surplus of nature’s dread activity,
Which, as she gazed on some nigh-finished vase,
Retreating slow, with meditative pause,
She formed with restless hands unconsciously!
Blank accident! nothing’s anomaly! (8–14)
At first a reader might think that in these lines apostrophe, which may be taken as a trope that typically animates or gives life, instead disanimates “Man.” [5]  But rather than being reducible to flat nothingness, human life soon attains the status of “surplus” or “anomaly,” terms that retain the sense of the purposeless or unintended but that also hint that human life exceeds mere blankness. Indeed, if nature—herself an instance of personified nullity, of positive negation—could interrupt herself and create humankind with “restless hands unconsciously,” then humankind is the surplus of an unconscious act, a slip of the hand, something unmeant—but still exceptional and potentially significant in the way that the father’s “unmeant” words in the Conclusion to Part II of Christabel, for example, still retain an unconscious import (cf. Mileur 63–66). [6]  A phantom, it seems, is not merely nothing; insofar as it instantiates an impulse that caused an artist meditatively to interrupt her task of shaping a “nigh-unfinished vase,” it reveals a telling nothingness, one that would intrude into the activity of positive creation to produce the anomalous signifier. In this respect, it enacts an agency quite similar to the interruptive power we encountered in “Ne Plus Ultra,” the sort capable of interdicting the activity of a god; after all, if nature here is in the midst of producing an artifact such as a vase, she may be informed by the capacity for creative intention, however dreadful her activity may be. In that case, however, humanity remains distinctive as the product of an unconscious act, a cryptic intention. Since the poem regards humanity as “nothing’s anomaly,” as if nature here is synonymous with the nothing, perhaps it suggests that nullity, through its power to interrupt itself, can produce something distinctive, something irreducible to bare absence. Of course, the poem almost simultaneously suggests that the significance of that accidental surplus must remain “blank,” that the unmeant can never attain positive meaning. Yet the anomalous blankness to which it points suggests that human life is a meaningfully meaningless interruption, a significant insignificance, a distinctive sort of nonsense—in effect a semiotic and ontological phantom.

13.         In the absence of a gap between affect and meaning appears another gap: that between nothingness and its surplus. This second gap enables human life to become more than merely literal, for its status as unconsciously generated surplus makes it an enigmatic signifier, even if one deprived of any code in which it can make sense. That development, however, suggests as well that the negative has not merely replicated itself across registers, for by interrupting itself it gives the further version of nullity a distinctive import. As if to confirm these suggestions, in its final line—which, as Onita Vaz-Hooper points out, as a twenty-ninth line, constitutes a surplus within a poem that otherwise consists of two complete sonnets (536–37)—the poem does not claim that human life lacks being; on the contrary, it broaches the possibility that the human “being’s being” is contradiction, suggesting that one finds contradiction in the being of human being, the difficult shift from one level to another. In some measure, then, that line registers the deadlock inherent in the status of being nothing’s anomaly and, through its very status as surplus, insists on the haunting quality of that useless excess.

14.         These possibilities may return us as well to the invocation of Milton as a highly conventional emblem of theological, political, poetic, and personal immortality (7). On one level, this passage invites us to consider and repudiate the apparently absurd possibility that such a figure could “know death,” could indeed cease to be. Yet until his correction to the poem’s proofs, Coleridge had written, “And when a soul like Milton’s can know death” (Poetical Works 1101), gesturing toward the possibility, which still lingers in the published version of the poem, that perhaps so great a soul as Milton’s could do that difficult thing and know death, could contend with the impossible task of grasping it—or that so great a poet as Milton, through his figure of Death, could create the template for later attempts, indeed for Coleridge’s own effort in this poem. [7]  By suggesting, even in such a cryptic manner, that such an act might be done, and to some extent attempting to carry it out in its own right, the poem hints that attempting to know a final death could be its most urgent, if undeclared business, as if it could set itself the task of exploring the possibility of a certain impossibility, the presence of a certain absence.

15.         Thus this poem in certain moments articulates a distinctive rendition of negativity, conceiving of a broadly Gothic a/theology or hauntology that refuses the dialectical process visible in Hegel in favor of a proto-psychoanalytic account. Indeed, Coleridge’s most direct interlocutor may be Lacan, whose sense that the subject is an enigmatic signifier that ultimately lacks an Other in which that signifier would attain a secure meaning (cf. Žižek 110–128) and which can perhaps best encounter itself anamorphically in the image of a skull (Lacan 79–90) matches well with the indications in this poem. But the poem may anticipate Lacan in these ways precisely by making explicit those elements of Romanticism on which psychoanalysis eventually draws, taking its place within the long genealogy of a certain rendition of human inexistence.

16.         In doing so, the poem also entangles that genealogy with other important strands. In his recent book, Minding the Modern (2013), Thomas Pfau lucidly designates the Coleridge of the Opus Maximum as his chief exemplar of one who, living in the midst of modernity, nevertheless sustains and advocates those concepts of person, relationship, and normative framework, inherited from Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and others, that modernity has forsaken (Pfau). But one might well take up a question Pfau does not consider: whether Coleridge’s positive theology might be shadowed by another discourse, not by a concession to modernity per se, but rather by the counterside of theological certainty itself, a poetics that finds in that contrary domain the distinctive possibilities of positive negation. Such a poetics might anticipate as well certain a/theological features of recent thought, not least in Lacan, where negativity continues to assert its rights, even over against the apparent nullity of the human condition.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice.” Yale French Studies, no. 78, 1990, pp. 9–28.

Brice, Ben. Coleridge and Scepticism. Oxford UP, 2007.

Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities P, 2010.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poems. Edited by William Keach, Penguin, 1997.

---. Marginalia. Volume II: Camden to Hutton. Edited by George Whalley, Princeton UP, 1984.

---. Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edited by Kathleen Coburn, vol. 3, Princeton UP, 1973.

---. Opus Maximum. Edited by Thomas McFarland and Nicholas Halmi, Princeton UP, 2002.

---. Poetical Works, Volume II (Variorum Text), Edited by J. C. C. Mays, part 2, Princeton UP, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, 1994.

Evans, Murray J. Sublime Coleridge: The Opus Maximum. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Guyer, Sara. Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism. Fordham, 2015.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford UP, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, SCM P, 1962.

Hollier, Denis. “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille.” Yale French Studies, no. 78, 1990, pp. 124–39.

Kessler, Edward. Coleridge’s Metaphors of Being. Princeton UP, 1979.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Norton, 1978.

Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory. Translated by David Macey, U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Mileur, Jean-Pierre. Vision and Revision: Coleridge’s Art of Immanence. U of California P, 1982.

Paley, Morton D. “Coleridge’s Limbo Constellation.” Studies in Romanticism, no. 34, 1995, pp. 189–209.

Pfau, Thomas. Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. U of Notre Dame P, 2013.

Rajan, Tilottama. “Mary Shelley’s ‘Mathilda’: Melancholy and the Political Economy of Romanticism.” Studies in the Novel, no. 26, 1994, pp. 43–68.

Vaz-Hooper, Onita. “‘If dead we cease to be’: The Logic of Immortality in Coleridge’s ‘Human Life.’” European Romantic Review, no. 20, 2009, pp. 529–44.

Wilson, Eric. Coleridge’s Melancholia: An Anatomy of Limbo. UP of Florida, 2004.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.


[1] In the Preface to that work, Hegel crucially places his account of “tarrying with the negative” in the context of the demand to confront death; for him, Spirit “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.” Moreover, in his depiction of this tarrying, Hegel gives death’s negativity a certain positive force, a face: “Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” In this key passage, Hegel arguably places a version of positive negation (negation given a face, voice, or agency) at the heart of his project. See Hegel 19. BACK

[2] Insofar as the poem pursues this approach, it deploys a strategy characteristic of the late theological writings. A key passage of the Opus Maximum, for example, maintains that “[w]e affirm” that work’s central postulate “<not> because we . . . comprehend the affirmation, but because we clearly comprehend the absurdity of the denial” (221). On negative proofs in that work, see Evans 17, 36–38, 59, 105–117. BACK

[3] The most significant poems in this group (apart from several notebook fragments) include “Constancy to an Ideal Object,” “The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree. A Lament,” “The Visionary Hope,” “Limbo,” “Ne Plus Ultra,” “Human Life, On the Denial of Immortality,” “Work Without Hope,” “The Pang More Sharp Than All: An Allegory,” “Phantom or Fact?,” and “Love’s Apparition and Evanishment: An Allegoric Romance.” The fact that Coleridge wrote so many poems of such ambition on these themes suggests that together they constitute a key dimension of his corpus, an important—if less discussed—dimension of his authorship. BACK

[4] My thanks to Brian McGrath for the suggestion that “gust” resonates with the theme of the ghost and phantom throughout the poem. BACK

[5] For a key intertext here see the passage in which Sara Guyer follows Barbara Johnson’s discussion of lyric animation, apostrophe, prososopeia, and abortion (11–20). “Human Life” for a moment deploys similar tropes to figure what one might call an animated instance of nonlife (or abortive creation), but it eventually resorts to a slightly different set of tropes as discussed below. BACK

[6] The prospect of interpreting nature as a nullity with restless hands would, of course, ordinarily vex Coleridge, but such a rendition of nature is not entirely outside the realm of his thought; on his difficulty in establishing a firm interpretation of nature within the context of natural religion, see Brice. BACK

[7] For a contrasting reading of the revision of this line consistent with her overall account, see Vaz-Hooper, 538–39. BACK