Extra: An explanation of ghosts, 1805
Who was the "high-shouldered hypochondriacal bottle-man"?
I once told a lady the reason why I did not believe in the existence of ghosts, etc., was that I had seen too many of them myself.
The above quotation by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (aka STC) – whose notebooks I’ve explored here and here on account of the 250th anniversary of his birth – has always been one of my favourites. As he’s been on my mind here, and he was fascinated by accounts of ghosts (“I have indeed a whole memorandum-book filled with records of these phenomena”) and it’s Halloween, forgive me one more brief trip into the baroque halls of his unique mind, as a little bonus Histories piece for the season of spookiness.
That quote popped up a few times in his published writings, and was later referenced by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, but I was curious to find its origin. It’s to be found in his notebooks as part of the following story,which he recorded while working as Public Secretary in Malta in 1805. In it he uses a strange visual phenomenon – or hallucination – to reflect on how our minds can be easily misled.
Sunday Midnight, 12 May 1805, at the Treasury, La Vallette, Malta, in the room the windows of which directly face the piazzas and vast saloon built for the Archives and Library and now used as the Garrison Ball-room, sitting at one corner of a large parallelogram table well-littered with books, in a red arm-chair, at the other corner of which (diagonally) Mr. Dennison had been sitting—he and I having conversed for a long time, he bade me good night, and retired—I meaning to retire too, however sunk for five minutes or so into a doze and on suddenly awaking up I saw him as distinctly sitting in the chair, as I had, really, some ten minutes before.
I was startled, and thinking of it, sunk into a second doze, out of which awaking as before I saw again the same appearance; not more distinct indeed, but more of his form—for at the first time I had seen only his face and bust—but now I saw as much as I could have seen if he had been really there. The appearance was very nearly that of a person seen through thin smoke distinct indeed, but yet a sort of distinct shape and colour, with a diminished sense of substantiality—like a face in a clear stream.
My nerves had been violently agitated yesterday morning by the attack of three dogs as I was mounting the steps of Captain Pasley’s door—two of them savage Bedouins, who wounded me in the calf of my left leg. I have noted this down, not three minutes having intervened since the illusion took place. Often and often I have had similar experiences and, therefore, resolved to write down the particulars whenever any new instance should occur, as a weapon against superstition, and an explanation of ghosts—Banquo in Macbeth the very same thing. I once told a lady the reason why I did not believe in the existence of ghosts, etc., was that I had seen too many of them myself.
N.B. There were on the table a common black wine-bottle, a decanter of water, and, between these, one of the half-gallon glass flasks which Sir G. Beaumont had given me (four of these full of port), the cork in, covered with leather, and having a white plated ring on the top. I mention this because since I wrote the former pages, on blinking a bit a third time, and opening my eyes, I clearly detected that this high-shouldered hypochondriacal bottle-man had a great share in producing the effect. The metamorphosis was clearly beginning, though I snapped the spell before it had assumed a recognisable form. The red-leather arm-chair was so placed at the corner that the flask was exactly between me and it—and the lamp being close to my corner of the large table, and not giving much light, the chair was rather obscure, and the brass nails where the leather was fastened to the outward wooden rim reflecting the light more copiously were seen almost for themselves. What if instead of immediately checking the sight, and then pleased with it as a philosophical case, I had been frightened and encouraged it, and my understanding had joined its vote to that of my senses?
My own shadow, too, on the wall not far from Mr. D.’s chair—the white paper, the sheet of Harbour Reports lying spread out on the table on the other side of the bottles—influence of mere colour, influence of shape—wonderful coalescence of scattered colours at distances, and, then, all going to some one shape, and the modification!
Likewise I am more convinced by repeated observation that, perhaps, always in a very minute degree but assuredly in certain states and postures of the eye, as in drowsiness, in the state of the brain and nerves after distress or agitation, especially if it had been accompanied by weeping, and in many others, we see our own faces, and project them according to the distance given them by the degree of indistinctness—that this may occasion in the highest degree the Wraith (vide a hundred Scotch stories, but better than all, Wordsworth’s most wonderful and admirable poem, Peter Bell, when he sees his own figure), and, still oftener, that it facilitates the formation of a human face out of some really present object, and from the alteration of the distance among other causes never suspected as the occasion and substratum.
A few years later, in his publication The Friend, Coleridge returned to this theme in two of his essays. He ponders a tale told about Martin Luther, in which he allegedly hurled his inkwell at a vision of Satan – an inkstain certainly marked the wall of his study in Wartburg Castle many years later. STC speculates that Luther’s half-awake obsessive thinking about the Devil led to him later seeing the stain as corroboration that the supernatural visitation was real. In the second essay Coleridge says “I will endeavour to make my ghost theory more clear”. (The full account is here but I’ll summarise.) He ponders the play of light from the fire of his Keswick study and from outside, in conjunction with reflections on the windows in twilight and, importantly, the preoccupations of one’s own brain – classic, finely honed observations of the kind we saw last week. He also considers how easily auditory hallucinations occur as well as visual ones:
Even when we are broad awake, if we are in anxious expectation, how often will not the most confused sounds of nature be heard by us as articulate sounds? For instance, the babbling of a brook will appear for a moment the voice of a friend, for whom we are waiting, calling out our own names, &c.
All of this fits into his broader ideas about the creative power of the human imagination – ghosts are real enough, albeit not independent of us.
“I have long wished to devote an entire work to the subject of dreams, visions, ghosts, witchcraft, &c. in which I might first give, and then endeavour to explain the most interesting and best attested fact of each, which has come within my knowledge, either from books or from personal testimony. I might then explain in a more satisfactory way the mode in which our thoughts, in states of morbid slumber, become at times perfectly dramatic (for in certain sorts of dreams the dullest wight becomes a Shakespeare), and by what law the form of the vision appears to talk to us its own thoughts in a voice as audible as the shape is visible…”
It’s a pity he never did!
For this article I have used the slightly tidied-up version published in Anima Poetae in 1895 by his grandson Ernest Hartley Coleridge.