If He Found that Flower in His Hand When He Awoke — Ay! And What Then?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A fascinating fragment describes the tangible intrusion of a dream into the prosaic world:

What if you slept
And what if in your sleep you dreamed
And what if in your dream you went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if when you awoke you had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?

The famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who crafted “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” has been credited with this fragment, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Coleridge died in 1834, and more than sixty years later in 1895 excerpts from his unpublished notebooks were printed in the work “Anima Poetae” edited by his grandson Ernest Hartley Coleridge. Chapter 9 contained notebook entries created between 1814 and 1818. A passage at the end of the chapter included a strong semantic match, but the phrasing was quite different. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke — Ay! and what then?

The more exquisite and delicate a flower of joy, the tenderer must be the hand that plucks it.

Floods and general inundations render for the time even the purest springs turbid.

For compassion a human heart suffices; but for full, adequate sympathy with joy, an angel’s.

QI conjectures that the popular modern text was based on a paraphrase or a misremembering of the passage above written by Coleridge circa 1818.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1907 the dream passage was printed in “English Quotations: A Collection of the More Memorable Passages and Poems of English Literature” edited by Robinson Smith. A precise date of composition was supplied perhaps from a specification in Coleridge’s notebook. The word “could” was added to yield “could have a flower”: 2

If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and could have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke — ay! and what then?
January 25 1817

In 1974 the parapsychology researcher Lawrence LeShan published “The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist: Toward a General Theory of the Paranormal”. LeShan included the modern version of Coleridge’s words: 3

Coleridge wrote somewhere: “What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if in your dream you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah! What then?”

The human race has dreamed. We have dreamed of men like angels and have awakened with the long gold-tipped feathers of angels’ wings in our hands. The “impossible facts” of ESP are these feathers.

In 1983 an article in the popular science periodical “New Scientist” printed a slightly condensed modern version: 4

“What if in your sleep you dreamed,” asked Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke you had the flower in your hand?”

There have been several reported instances of people who awoke from dreams in possession of a “flower”, in the sense of an artistic creation or a solution to a problem, which they “plucked” in their dreams.

In conclusion, circa 1818 Samuel Taylor Coleridge did mention the possibility of a flower transmigrating out of the dream realm. His words were published in “Anima Poetae” in 1895. The popular modern version is inaccurate.

Image Notes: Hand holding a rose on a book. Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Washington Allston circa 1814; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Terri Drake Imhoof whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1895, Anima Poetae: From the Unpublished Note-Books of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge, Chapter 9: 1814-1818, Quote Page 238 and 239, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1907, English Quotations: A Collection of the More Memorable Passages and Poems of English Literature, Edited by Robinson Smith, Section: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Quote Page 204, George Routledge & Sons, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1974, The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist: Toward a General Theory of the Paranormal by Lawrence LeShan, Part 1: Section 1: What Is Important about the Paranormal?, Quote Page 14 The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1983 June 9, New Scientist, Start Page 692, Quote Page 692, Solve your problems in your sleep by Morton Schatzman, New Science Publications, London. (Google Books Full View)