From Chinese Cosmology to English Romanticism: The Intricate Journey of a Monistic Idea(從中國文化到英國浪漫主義詩歌 ──天人合一概念的轉移歷程)

Yu Liu(劉豫) 著

From Chinese Cosmology to English Romanticism explores the intricate early-modern English and European reception of the Chinese monistic idea tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven via the Chinese rites controversy, the philosophical innovation of Spinoza, the transformation of English garden layout, and the poetic revolution of Coleridge and Wordsworth.


“Yu Liu offers a groundbreaking analysis of cross-cultural exchange by exploring the influence of Chinese philosophical traditions on English art, gardening, and literature up to the Romantic period . . . A must-read for scholars interested in Anglo-Chinese relations between 1600 and 1830.”
—Robert Markley, W. D. and Sara E. Trowbridge Professor of English, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

“In this deeply learned study, Yu Liu traces a ‘relay of ideas’ that made their way from Chinese philosophy to Western Romanticism, transformed along the way in Spinoza’s thought and in theories of English landscape gardening. A tour de force of intellectual history, his book shapes a persuasive story out of disparate strands whose significance deepens when seen in a unifying perspective.”
—Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature, Emeritus, Harvard University

“A thoughtful and imaginative attempt to trace the migration of the ancient Chinese cosmological unity of heaven and humanity to seventeenth-andeighteenth-century Europe via the China Jesuits, Spinoza, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, leading to the redesign of English gardens and Romantic poetry.”
—D. E. Mungello, professor of history emeritus, Baylor University

“In his powerfully original monograph, Yu Liu upends the all-too-familiar asymmetry of theorizing Chinese culture through a Western conceptual structure. He mounts a carefully documented and compelling argument that the ‘idea’ of the persistent Chinese organismic worldview captured in the language of ‘humanity’s unity with nature’ set its roots in the antinomian European Enlightenment thinkers as early as the complex Rites Controversy, and then spreads out as a root system through the heretical philosopher Spinoza to shape British Romanticism in all of its parts.”
—Roger T. Ames, Peking University

Yu Liu(劉豫)is professor of English at Niagara County Community College (SUNY). In addition to over thirty-five essays in peer-reviewed journals of literature, history, and philosophy, he is author of Poetics and Politics: The Revolutions of Wordsworth (1999), Seeds of a Different Eden: Chinese Gardening Ideas and a New English Aesthetic Ideal (2008), and Harmonious Disagreement: Matteo Ricci and His Closest Chinese Friends (2015).

List of Illustrations
Series Editor’s Preface

Introduction: A Distinct Type of Cross-cultural Interaction and Influence

Part 1. By Chance or Design: The Detectable Route of Philosophical Transmission

Chapter 1 Behind the Book Cover: The Real Fight and Legacy of the Chinese Rites Controversy
Chapter 2 The Uncanny Resemblance: A Telltale Clue to the Unusual Cosmology of Spinoza

Part 2. For Pride or Prejudice: The Hitherto Unrecognized Route of Aesthetic Transmission

Chapter 3 From Regularity to Irregularity: The Landscaping Innovation of William Kent
Chapter 4 Changing What Is Foreign into What Is Native: The Horticultural Nationalism of Horace Walpole

Part 3. To Accept or Reject: The History-Making Choices in English Romanticism

Chapter 5 The Intrigue of Both Attraction and Repulsion: Coleridge, Spinoza, and China
Chapter 6 The Inspiration of an Originally Chinese Idea: The Conceptual Innovation of Wordsworth in The Ruined Cottage


Series Editor’s Preface
In accounts of planetary history, scientists often elaborate on alien meteors’ impact to envisage the prehistoric momentum of the earth rock. The takeaway of such an approach is simple: it takes the dizzying ecology of the universe, or the cosmopolitanism of stars, to comprehend the long duration of our home, the planet Earth. In a similar sense, Yu Liu urges readers to open their visionary imagination to the alien contributions to the untold stories of Europe and the British Isles in much the same way as scientists take seriously the generative contributions of alien visits. This book turns us away from a vision of individuated cultures to an ecology of civilizational cohabitation and collaboration.
First, we draw your attention to another author, the anthropologist William Pietz, to borrow his cross-cultural vision in describing the civilizational significance of Liu’s project. Pietz articulates the coexistence of civilizations in his study of fetishism. He exposes a reductive understanding of fetishism that prevailed in European history. This reduction was possible because it was done in abstraction from the ecology of civilizational exchanges. Countering this appropriation, Pietz locates fetishism in a geography between the two sides of the Atlantic, which delimits an ecology of civilizational clusters. When the Portuguese interacted with West Africans in the sixteenth century, the encounters were nothing short of a sci-fi rendering.
Europeans sought to translate alien practices and perplexing thoughts of pantheism in the term of “fetish,” the pidgin word fetisso, deriving from the Portuguese word feitiço, meaning “magical practice” or “witchcraft” in the late Middle Ages (Pietz 5, 1985). Pietz accentuates the cross-cultural nature of this translation: “The idea of the fetish originated in a mercantile intercultural space created by the ongoing trade relations between cultures so radically different as to be mutually incomprehensible. It is proper to neither West African nor Christian European culture” (24, 1987). Fetishism neither derives linearly from Africa nor finds its true meaning exclusively in the African soil. Instead, it derives its new semantic affordance from alien provocation. Fetishism does not just mean idolatry; it also makes it possible that material objects can mean what the given cultural lexicons cannot articulate and becomes a vitally productive source in Western cultures.
Now, Yu Liu joins Pietz in this cross-cultural dialogue, chiming in with “monism,” which, Liu describes, emerged in an ecology of cultural crossings between East Asia and Western Europe. Historically, Europeans faced Chinese civilization in the missions of the Jesuits, parallel to the encounters of the Portuguese with West African cultures at the coast of Guinea. Europeans were as bewildered by strange rites in China as they were in Africa. The European Jesuits needed to translate an alien cosmology behind the Chinese’s rites into Christian concepts. But they did not attempt a coherent assimilation of the Chinese cosmology of tianren heyi, “humanity’s unity with heaven,” to Western philosophical concepts. One had to wait until Baruch Spinoza, Liu maintains, stabilized the coworking of Europe and China for the transmission–translation of tianren heyi in terms of monism; Spinoza’s monism belongs to neither China nor Europe, but to both. As a result of such coworking, Liu contends, monism owes everything creative to the impetus of fresh input from China. This alien monism was nothing less than a cosmological challenge to any conceptualization of how the world existed. Liu reminds the reader that monism ushered in an affordance of meaning previously unavailable in the West, which encouraged the appreciation of a self-propelling and self-ordering ecology. In fact, Spinoza’s monism still enjoys a suggestive potency in contemporary efforts to rethink the Western Enlightenment. The new-millennial philosophers of ontological materialism, by critiquing the human-centeredness of the Enlightenment, often hark back to Spinoza for the recognition of ontological self-power and self-order, as Jane Bennett does in Vibrant Matter. Liu’s thesis on the Chinese origin of monism supports Bennett’s argument, which not only goes back to Spinoza’s monistic conatus to historicize the ontology of “thing power” but also visualizes this power with the Chinese notion of shi, a historical term for imagining how ecologies demonstrate self-adjusting flows from a bird’s-eye view (34–35).
Liu’s serious historical and relational reading evinces that toward monism, intellectually productive Europeans, such as the Jesuits, Spinoza, Horace Walpole, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, entertained relationships not just of love and hate but also of hate and create. In their first encounters, Jesuits were locked in debates about whether the westernization of Chinese cosmology could facilitate the cause of the church, as an indirect result of which the Jewish Spinoza created monism. In the history of the English garden, Horace Walpole, a professed hater of China, used the monist nature, the ecological consciousness from China, creatively (and without explicit acknowledgment). Instead of imposing the geometrical order as found in the French garden, Walpole articulated a revolutionary design based on the irregularity principle, which drew on Chinese conceptualizations of nature’s self-generated ordering. Liu describes Walpole’s innovation as “evocative of [the Jesuit] Ricci’s calculated conceptual sleight of hand in the early seventeenth century,” creatively using the Chinese logic of tienren heyi without saying so (7). Liu also shows Coleridge’s precarious balance of explicit hate and implicit love of China to account for the poet’s brief span of high creativity.
Attending to civilizational crisscrossing, Liu takes a challenging path to investigate how monism thrived. The main chapters resemble historical-biographical sketches of Europeans, in which Liu depicts in narratives how from their viewpoints Europeans used resources when complex cultural crossings were the real deal. Even though such a mode of writing demands on the part of Liu the patient work of historical recoding, this unique approach avoids oversimplified ideas of cultural dissemination that map cultural influences by returning to the origin. It is important to note that on the basis of the narrative mode, Liu is well poised to explore the constitutive moments when the key players depicted in these sketches make creative leaps in the midst of genuinely making sense of cultural crossings. Monism in the six moments described in this book did not manifest itself in abstraction.
Instead, it suggested itself forcefully to the key players who had explored ecologically, having taken into serious consideration their changing environments with insights gained from an alien cosmology and having recognized the self-initiating newness of the environments in which they lived.
Thus, the East-West Encounters in Literature and Cultural Studies series editors proudly present Yu Liu, who invites readers to globally minded readings open to civilizational ecologies.
Introduction: A Distinct Type of Cross-cultural Interaction and Influence
Ideas travel, sometimes across vastly different cultures. Through geographical space, the movement of an idea takes time, sometimes as long as two or three centuries. The beginning of a trip, as well as its continuation and its final stop, depends precariously on the initiative of human agents who become engrossed for their own reasons and sometimes simply by chance. At the start of the passage, the idea is well known, even though its transmission to another culture is not the intention, let alone the goal, of its transmitters. Moved along by local exigencies and morphed into different names or guises, it is in time received into various aspects of the new culture which it enriches by engendering change. After being appropriated as an iconoclast or a catalyst or both, it merges eventually into the new culture. The intricate journey of a monistic idea from Chinese cosmology to English Romanticism epitomizes this distinct type of cross-cultural interaction and influence which is neither planned beforehand nor deliberately pushed forward in the process, but which involves sustained and substantive engagement of one culture with another. While treating this subject matter and revealing it as this distinct type of self-impelled and self-nourished cross-cultural interaction and influence, this book also challenges the problematically narrow focus of recent scholarship on orientalist representations or misrepresentations of China such as chinoiserie which are only nominally about cross-cultural contact or impact while in reality about the self-interactions of one culture or its fanciful and fictional exoticizations of another culture for domestic reasons and purposes.
Resulting both in and from genuine cross-cultural contact or impact or both, the pivotal events making up the westward migration of the Chinese monistic paradigm are all noticeable. However, they have so far been noticed only separately as disjointed situations attracting attention mostly for various local reasons rather than cumulatively as mutually evocative and constitutive parts of one organically evolved intellectual history. Since the etymology and the entire moving trajectory are not always retained in memory, the impact of the originally foreign conceptual framework on the receiving culture during any one phase or all phases of the journey is not and cannot be fully recognized and appreciated as a distinct type of self-originated and self-sustained cross-cultural interaction and influence.
The Chinese rites controversy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, for instance, fatefully inaugurated the transmission of the Chinese monistic idea to Europe and England. Until now, however, the crucially important implication of this historical event has been largely overlooked. Aside from being linked occasionally with Spinoza, that prolonged and often antagonistic quarrel among European missionaries about Chinese religious terms and customs has not been acknowledged at all thus far as being connected with the influence of the irregular and naturalistic Chinese garden design in England or with the innovative and revolutionary poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. In isolation from that early modern religious debate, the possible contribution of Chinese landscaping ideas to the rise of English Romanticism was noted as early as the 1930s. Ever since then, this topic has also returned periodically in scholarly studies. However, without being identified as part of a much larger and longer organically evolved intellectual history, the precise nature and extent of the involved cross-cultural interaction and influence have not hitherto been adequately grasped.
A different approach is evidently needed, and it is taken in this book. In particular, what took place at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end in the long and twisty movement of a monistic idea from Chinese cosmology to English Romanticism is all looked at in this book in the steady and constant context of progressively uncovered and, as much as possible, closely documented connections between both chronologically contiguous and not so contiguous situations. Thanks to this surprisingly illuminating temporal and relational prism, what occurred early in time in one country can at last be perceived now as helping both hermeneutically and heuristically to expose what happened later in a different country as appropriations or adaptations in the complex reception and acceptance of a new and iconoclastic worldview while what occurred later in time can in its turn be finally seen and appreciated retrospectively as helping to make clear the special implication and significance of what happened earlier in relaying a monistic idea from China to Europe and England.
After the introduction, the six chapters of this book trace six key constitutive moments in the westward migration of the Chinese cosmological belief in the early modern period. Though brought together in this book and unified by their common membership in the same self-impelled and self-nourished cross-cultural interaction and influence, these six key moments nevertheless remain relatively autonomous or independent of each other. Due to this special status, they can and do serve as reminders of the spontaneous or beforehand unplanned manner in which the Chinese organismic worldview was moved westward and driven every step of the way by local exigencies. By themselves and in their own right, the Chinese rites controversy and the related Jesuit China mission, Spinoza, William Kent, Horace Walpole, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth have long been familiar subjects in their respective and usually segregated fields of academic study, but for all of them, the special perspective from the intricate journey of a monistic idea from Chinese cosmology to English Romanticism and from the crucial character of this momentous and monumental trip as a distinct type of self-originated and self-sustained cross-cultural interaction and influence is shown in this book as providing a noticeably different and surprisingly revealing and enriching light.
Divided into two chapters, the first part of this book is about the detectable route of philosophical transmission via which the Chinese cosmological paradigm was conveyed to Europe and received into one important aspect of the local culture. In the late sixteenth century, Matteo Ricci, the legendary founder of the Jesuit China mission, first learned from his Chinese friends about the foundational belief of Chinese culture in tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven.1 As shown in or by the earliest canonical work of the Confucian tradition, Yijing (I Ching) or The Book of Changes, the Chinese organismic conviction means the recognition and appreciation of “a common law governing both man and nature.” Based on close observations about the inherent ability of natural phenomena to act freely and independently in conformity with the opportunities and limitations of their circumstances and formed out of intense reflections over time about the related symbiotic implications for humanity, the Chinese monistic understanding of life is, above anything else, about the analogical inspiration and instruction of nature or heaven for humanity. Since how nature or heaven acts is how humanity should also do, tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven is about the necessity and benefit of modeling human behavior on the self-driven and self-adjusted operations of nature or about “eternity and harmony” (yongheng yu hexie) which, as the noted American scholar of Chinese philosophy Roger T. Ames says, “we humanity must strive to pursue in the infinite richness and diversity of myriad things in the universe” (women renlei bixu zai yuzhou de wuxian fengfuxing he duoyangxing ji wanwuzhong, nuli zhuiqiu).
Ricci knew he had to combat the Chinese monistic idea because it was not at all preoccupied with an all-powerful personalized deity as Christianity was. To fight it while avoiding antagonism, he decided in 1600 to adopt Chinese sacred names for the European notion of divinity in his proselytizing works written in Chinese and to tolerate customary Chinese mortuary and memorial services in the newly established Chinese Christian community as comparable or otherwise acceptable to Catholic practices. In the name of befriending and endorsing traditional Chinese cultural norms and mores, he hoped to use this dubious equation of Chinese and European religious terms and rituals to convert the fundamental meaning of Chinese philosophy and religion or to refashion it unobtrusively in the very different conceptual mold of superficially similar European ideas and practices. Soon after his death in 1610, however, his evangelizing strategy of cultural accommodation was challenged by his own Jesuit confreres. In the long and acrimonious debate which followed in the Catholic Church and beyond, the monistic essence of Chinese cosmology was progressively exposed as neither theism nor atheism in the conventional European conceptual and religious framework and somehow seemingly both the one and the other.
The protracted and multifaceted debate about Ricci’s legacy of policy stand on Chinese religious concepts and rites is usually presented in scholarship today as between Jesuit missionaries who were for cultural accommodation and missionaries in the Dominican and other Catholic orders who were against it, and the dispute is also commonly characterized as a technical fight over the proper translation of European theistic ideas into the Chinese language and the appropriate interpretation of Chinese mortuary and memorial rituals as civic or religious. In reality, both of these views are seriously problematic. As shown in chapter 1 of this book, Jesuit missionaries did not agree with each other, and even though many European missionaries (including some of the earliest Jesuit missionaries in China) were opposed to Ricci’s practice, they were against his Christian reading or misreading of Chinese sacred names and funerary and commemorative customs rather than any cultural or cross-cultural accommodation per se or any terminological translation or technical judgment.
Like the Jesuits, Dominicans and missionaries in other Catholic orders recognized the crucial need of adapting their activities in China to local circumstances, but like dissidents in the Jesuit China mission, they saw Ricci’s willful imposition of European meanings on traditional Chinese religious terms and services as complicating rather than facilitating the necessary confrontation of cross-cultural ideas and practices. The long and often belligerent missionary debate has often been blamed for dooming the early modern evangelical aspiration of the Catholic Church in China. Whether or not that blame is warranted, the controversy should be rightly credited today with inadvertently launching the profoundly important and diversely consequential journey of a monistic idea from Chinese cosmology to English Romanticism.
From the European missionary quarrel about Chinese sacred names and mortuary and memorial customs or about Ricci’s Christian reading or misreading of them, many European enlightenment thinkers learned about the Chinese organismic concept of tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven and grasped its significance as a refreshingly different way of philosophical and religious thinking outside the usual European binary paradigm of either theism or atheism. One of these thinkers was the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. Like many in seventeenth-century Europe, Spinoza was interested in China. In the crucially important formative years of his life in the early 1650s when he was still in his late teens and early twenties and was already working precociously on his iconoclastic philosophy, he also apparently was uniquely privy to various Chinese ideas including the monistic conviction of Chinese culture.
Because of his daringly subversive identification of God with nature (Deus sive Natura), Spinoza was already known in his day as “the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality, and what was everywhere regarded, in absolutist and non-absolutist states alike, as divinely constituted political authority.” Despite the severe limitations of his Jewish upbringing which included no conventional higher education and no contact with any notable European scholar except his Latin teacher, he managed to originate a cosmological creed which differed from everything in European philosophical and religious traditions but which was already recognized widely in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as resembling the Chinese monistic belief in tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven and vice versa. Rather than a case where “Western philosophers strove valiantly to grasp the fundamentals of classical Chinese philosophy but ended up, in the main, merely mirroring their own prior obsessions,” this astute recognition of a striking resemblance, as it is contended in chapter 2 of this book, is the telltale clue to Spinoza’s remarkably early and quickly maturing philosophical development and should be appreciated in the context of his many documentable associations with China, particularly via his Latin teacher Van den Enden who, as a former Jesuit, was familiar with internal Jesuit debates behind closed doors about the Chinese organismic worldview and was therefore uniquely able to pass on that critical information to him during the most important phase of his ideological evolution.
Without knowing it, Spinoza played what in retrospect can be seen as the pivotal role of a relay in the tortuously winding movement of a monistic idea from Chinese cosmology to English Romanticism, because he was the one whom Coleridge read for the new and iconoclastic kind of monism which differed from the old Platonist and Neoplatonist version or any latter-day deist or pantheist variation of subsuming all effects into a singular primordial originating cause or the whole natural world into a unique divine creator. Coleridge was both attracted to and repulsed by Spinoza. In the distinctively different monistic philosophy of the Dutch philosopher, what is it which aroused his intense interest and heart-felt excitement but could not long sustain these nor prevent devastatingly punishing consequences for his mind and spirit? In the same thrillingly innovative cosmological paradigm, what is it which compelled him to condemn it unequivocally but could not keep him from undercutting the philosophical and religious orthodoxy which drove him to such a condemnation?
The puzzle over Coleridge’s ambivalence is reminiscent of the bewilderment which Spinoza’s contemporaries experienced at his highly unusual and seemingly illogical equation of divinity with nature and which scholars of his philosophy still feel today while attempting in vain to pin him down precisely as either an atheist or a theist. In the one case, as in the other, the situation becomes understandable only against the notable peculiarity of the Chinese monistic idea which confounded its very first European readers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries because it seemed to be amenable to both theism and atheism in the conventional European conceptual and religious framework and yet could not be encompassed exclusively by either the one or the other.
Also divided into two chapters, the second part of this book is about the hitherto only inadequately recognized route of aesthetic transmission via which the same Chinese organismic worldview was transported to England and absorbed into mainstream English culture. In the long eighteenth century, the English landscaping ideal changed from the regularity and discipline of ancient European art to the irregularity and freedom of nature. Right at the beginning of that monumental
change which would profoundly transform not only English garden layout but also English attitudes toward natural beauty and sublimity, there was ample and indisputable evidence that the inspiration came from China, particularly in the rousing propaganda campaign for garden design reform which was spearheaded by Sir William Temple, Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope. As early as 1933, that evidence was already noted prominently in scholarship when Arthur Lovejoy famously used it to spotlight what he called “the Chinese origin of a Romanticism.”
Following the lead of Horace Walpole in the late eighteenth century, however, English garden historians have so far generally minimalized, if not completely disavowed, the once widely and explicitly acknowledged Chinese connection of the English landscaping revolution. Like Walpole, they portrayed for a long time the truly bold pioneering experiment of William Kent with natural or naturalistic irregularity in the Chiswick gardens of his most important patron and friend Lord Burlington in the late 1720s and early 1730s as an enactment of his native English genius. Since that blatantly nationalistic plot line became in time obviously untenable, they have problematically recharacterized his landscaping achievement in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as a reflection of his early artistic training in Italy or as a result of his lifelong passion for Renaissance Italian art. In reality, as it is exposed in chapter 3 of this book, Kent had access to detailed verbal and visual information about specific Chinese gardens which was provided by European missionaries returning from China. Evidence of his easy access in the 1720s to that crucial gardening information from the Far East was already discovered in 1960. As shown in chapter 3 of this book, his apparent use of Chinese landscaping ideas affords a most illuminating light on his otherwise unexpected and indeed inexplicable turn from artful regularity to natural or naturalistic irregularity in garden design.
For reasons of domestic politics and nationalistic pride, Horace Walpole denied any inspirational debt of England to China on garden arrangement in a widely publicized polemical exchange with Sir William Chambers in the 1770s and 1780s. Despite that well-known denial which explains his reputation today as a vociferous Sinophobe of his day, Walpole was in fact an impassioned Sinophile when he was a young and impressionable student at Cambridge University. In his biography, there is also abundant evidence that he retained his well-informed appreciation of China till the end of his life. As revealed in chapter 4 of this book, he practiced the same natural or naturalistic irregularity in his home gardens at Strawberry Hill as Kent did at Chiswick or as Chambers did at Kew. Branding publicly what was Chinese as what was English for his political and other purposes, his horticultural nationalism cannot but be evocative of Ricci’s calculated conceptual sleight of hand in the early seventeenth century with the equation of Chinese and European religious terms and practices. Because of his public persona late in his life as a Sinophobe, Walpole is usually viewed in scholarship today as antagonistic to Chinese aesthetic ideas. In reality, he should be recognized instead as someone who effectively continued and indeed helped to complete the acceptance and assimilation of the irregular and naturalistic Chinese garden layout into mainstream English culture.
In the meandering migration of a monistic idea from Chinese cosmology to English Romanticism, the English embrace of the Chinese landscaping ideal in the eighteenth century was also a pivotal relay, because the irregular and naturalistic Chinese garden layout was not just a technical device but also a potent carrier and a tangible expression of the foundational conviction of Chinese culture about tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven. Once the Chinese aesthetic principle of irregularity and freedom was endorsed, the underlying symbiotic affinity of humanity with heaven or the beneficial necessity of modeling human behavior including human art after the self-driven and self-adjusted operations of nature was in time also taken over. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth were passionate lovers of natural landscapes and naturalistically designed pleasure grounds. Not only did Chinese garden images make notable appearances in “Kubla Khan” and The Prelude respectively, but Wordsworth was also well known in his circle of friends as an enthusiastic and knowledgeable landscape gardener. Without reference to the pervasive influence of Chinese landscaping ideas in England in the long eighteenth century and without reference to the concurrent English absorption of the inextricably intertwined Chinese monistic mindset, the thought-provoking and much-celebrated sentiments of Coleridge and Wordsworth about nature as monistic or pantheistic and about life as, by implication, organismic or as an ever-ongoing creative and self-creative process cannot and will not be adequately understood.
In still another two chapters, the last part of this book takes a close look at the history-making emergence of the originally Chinese monistic idea in the rise of English Romanticism. Neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge was ever aware of their role in introducing the foundational conviction of Chinese culture into English poetry, but via Spinoza on the one hand and via the immensely popular transformation of English garden layout on the other hand, the closely related aesthetic and philosophical thinking of China had already been long available to them. For Spinoza, as for English garden design reformers, the Chinese organismic understanding of nature was something thoroughly alien, different, and iconoclastic. For Wordsworth, as for Coleridge, however, it was in contrast more of an in-house catalyst for innovation than of a rebellious outlier, because, after being appropriated and adapted in diverse ways, it had already become an integral, though still largely latent, part of mainstream English culture.
Thanks to the drastic change of English garden layout and the related transformation of English attitudes toward natural beauty and sublimity, Wordsworth and Coleridge always loved nature and naturalistically designed pleasure grounds. Whether reinforced by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing or by their youthful openness to new-fangled fashions and ideas, this love no doubt helpedto pave the way for their poetic innovation, but by itself it was not necessarily amarker of them seeing nature in the monistically novel and revolutionary way. As revealed in chapters 5 and 6 of this book, both Coleridge and Wordsworth expressed their love for the irregularity of nature in the early 1790s in terms of the old Platonist and Neoplatonist idea of concordia discors or the latter-day necessitarian variation. In “Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree,” first published in 1798, Wordsworth also went out of his way to portray a character, based on real life, who was often moved to tears by beautiful natural landscapes but whose love of nature never extended to the love of mankind and who consequently wasted away his life in misanthropic feeling and self-imposed isolation. With Wordsworth, as with Coleridge, there was a clear and identifiable eureka moment in their major poetry when the new and mind-liberating monistic perspective dawned on them, and they had to decide whether or not to allow it to act as a catalyst for innovation.
In The Ruined Cottage, which was composed in 1797, Wordsworth apparently took the plunge, and his whole-hearted acceptance of the originally Chinese cosmological view helped him to achieve a decisive breakthrough in his troubled relationship with the French Revolution. In particular, the monistic idea which he embraced enabled him to view life as organismic so that everything and everyone in the universe had importance and dignity in its or his or her own right as a free and essential participant in a self-energized and self-regulated ecosystem of life or One Life. In The Ruined Cottage, this provocatively novel and iconoclastic worldview made it possible for Wordsworth to understand the failure of the French Revolution from the perspective of his personal experience as resulting to a significant extent from a misguided chivalric glamorization which had prior moved him out of his political lethargy and ignited his self-gratifying, if not self-aggrandizing, zeal as an aspiring activist or an imaginary knight-errant. Seeing radical activism as in need of an operational model different from chivalric romance and thinking about his activist role as in need of confirming rather than unwittingly contradicting the egalitarian aspiration of the French Revolution, he was then able to begin a distinctively new kind of poetry which, in addition to being psychologically and spiritually invigorating, was innovative not just poetically and politically but also conceptually.
In 1795 or two years before Wordsworth, Coleridge already talked about the originally Chinese monistic idea via Spinoza in “The Eolian Harp,” but unlike Wordsworth, he both accepted and rejected it. For the next five or so years, his conflicted feelings exploded into an exceptionally dazzling and dizzying display of creative energy. Since so much of this uncommonly productive activity consisted in a relentless exposure of him as being at once exhilarated and traumatized by the new philosophy of life or One Life, however, the extraordinarily brilliant outburst of the inventive impulse did not and could not last long. As his evidently contradictory or self-contradictory interest in the etymologically Chinese organismic worldview proved to be both a blessing and a curse, he effectively became a remarkably unusual marker between the past and the future of English poetics. To explain his attitudinal vicissitudes, Coleridgean scholarship has hitherto taken for granted that Spinoza was an atheist and that Coleridge’s recurrent excitement about his monistic philosophy between 1795 and 1800 was therefore an irresolute or guilty flirtation with something nefarious. The problem with these long-standing representative interpretations and with a small number of recent readings which push for but are unable to provide a viable alternative explanation is exposed in chapter 5 of this book where, as in chapter 6 of this book, the Chinese origin and connection of the involved cosmological idea are shown as casting a decisively different illuminating and penetrating light.