The Celestial Memory Palace


Arts & Culture

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Great Tower of Babel, 1563

Wordsworth’s Prelude, subtitled “Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” exists in many versions, written throughout half a century and revised until the poet’s death. It seems fitting that there should be so many, expanding revisions in parallel with the accumulating layers of a life.

In an 1805 letter to the art patron Sir George Beaumont, Wordsworth says of his greatest work that it is “a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.” During the many years that he wrote it, he did not think that he could be justified in “giving [his] own history to the world” unless he published it alongside a sober, philosophical work, The Recluse.

Wordsworth spent years talking about The Recluse without ever really writing it. But the idea was always there, in his correspondence, in his descriptions of future work, and in the rest of his poetry. In 1814, he published The Excursion, which he called “a Portion of The Recluse,” outlining the rest of the unwritten work in three sections. Eighteen years later, he had made little more progress on The Recluse, but had completed the fourteen-book Prelude and was still editing it. His daughter Dorothy wrote in a letter:

Mother and he work like slaves from morning to night—an arduous work—correcting a long poem, written 30 years back … and not to be published during his life, The Growth of his own Mind—the ante-chapel, as he calls it, to The Recluse.

Wordsworth’s procrastination on The Recluse seems almost pathological; and as the years pass, his constant references to it appear naive, even delusional. So much so that in reading them, one begins to wonder whether the looming idea of The Recluse, which was never written, might have been the driving force for completing The Prelude. Was the blueprint of a different great work the necessary illusion that allowed him to compose a different, equally demanding one?

After finishing The Prelude, Wordsworth told Beaumont,

It was the first long labour that I had finished, and the doubt whether I should ever live to write The Recluse, and the sense which I had of this poem being so far below what I had seemed capable of executing, depressed me so much.

“The reality,” Wordsworth says, was “so far short of the expectation.” His disappointment seems inevitable for any work brought down to tangible form from the infinite stretches of the imagination. For a writer accustomed to the frustrations of craft, the necessary trick was perhaps to work diligently toward a great edifice, all the while calling it small—a mere “ante-chapel” to a grand building that is yet to come.  

Wordsworth writes that The Recluse would resemble a Gothic cathedral, with The Prelude as the antechamber, or portico, and that the rest of his poems would “have such connection with the main Work as may give them claim to be likened to the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices.”

Wordsworth’s vision of an ideal but incomplete building is similar to the famous creation of Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” In 1797, Coleridge envisioned an epic poem called The Brook, “on men, nature, and society.” The Brook, too, was never written. But that same year, Coleridge had a dream in which he saw the building of a great palace for the emperor Kublai Khan and heard a poem of several hundred lines. He woke up and began writing the poem from memory, until he was disturbed by a visitor from the village of Porlock and the architecture of the “whole” poem was lost forever. What’s left of it, as the poem’s subtitle states, is “a vision in a dream; a fragment” of fifty-four lines.

It’s possible to read this creation myth—included by Coleridge as a note to the poem—as not an unfortunate event but a playful extension of the emperor’s half-built dome. Perhaps it is also a shield, like Wordsworth’s Recluse, that protects its author from his own creation with the consolation that his earthly achievement is but part of a grander structure.

“Kubla Khan” and The Prelude are only slivers of the poets’ minds. They are also poems about the imagination, and as such are destined to be fragmentary, because they rest on the unseen structure of a greater edifice—that of the poet’s mind—which can never be captured whole. Wordsworth is aware of this when he calls the imagination “something evermore about to be.”


The idea of the mind as a palace or church, whose individual rooms can be explored with training, is familiar from the memory treatises of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The “memory palace” as a mnemonic device was widely used before the advent of printing to organize and remember vast amounts of information. By memorizing the spatial layout of a building and assigning images or ideas to its various rooms, one could “walk” through the imaginary building and retrieve the ideas relegated to the separate parts.

During the Renaissance, the technique took on mystical dimensions, and the memory palaces of the mind became systems for accessing a celestial consciousness. In the sixteenth century, Giulio Camillo, one of the most famous thinkers of his time, proposed the construction of a theater modeled on the house of Solomon, its pillars corresponding to the seven planets. Beneath each pillar would be gateways adorned with memory images and fitted with drawers containing all of human knowledge. The purpose of the theater, which was also never built, was to give its spectator an understanding of eternal knowledge. The spectator would stand onstage to see the contents of a divine mind—an entire universe packed small enough for the mind to grasp. He writes in his L’idea del theatro,

Now if the ancient orators, wishing to place from day to day the parts of the speeches which they had to recite, confided them to frail places as frail things, it is right that we, wishing to store up eternally the eternal nature of all things … should assign them to eternal places.

So the classical memory palace was transformed from a tool for the feeble human mind into one for understanding eternity. This belief in the mind’s capacity for grasping the boundless form of the universe is everywhere present in The Prelude.

There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity,
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege.
One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That men, least sensitive, see, hear, perceive,
And cannot choose but feel. The power, which all
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus
To bodily sense exhibits, is the express
Resemblance of that glorious faculty
That higher minds bear with them as their own.

There are two minds at work here—that of Nature and that of man—gazing at each other and entering into dialogue. Nature reaches out to the human mind and molds it, like the contents of Camillo’s theater imprinted, by magical ordering, on the mind of the spectator.

It is startling that the Renaissance thinker and the Romantic poet, standing on either side of the Enlightenment’s rigid rationality, should share this intuition for an enchanted world, acting on its subjects through magical forces. In the almost three hundred years separating them, the self’s boundaries have also become rigid, no longer open to the touch of spirits and magic at one time as real as any object.

During a lecture on “Kubla Khan,” Jorge Luis Borges tells his students “how marvelous, how miraculous it is that in the last decade of that reasonable, that very admirable eighteenth century, a poem was composed that is totally magical, a poem that exists above and beyond reason.”

Most striking of the poem’s magic is that it exists, so Coleridge tells us, outside the poet’s mind, and has come to seek him out. Here again is the belief in an animated world—of ideas that are alive, seeking out communication with human minds.


Coleridge was an avid reader of the work of the sixteenth-century friar and polymath Giordano Bruno, who insisted that art was not separate from nature but a faculty of it, an enactment of the creative force of the universe. Shortly after fleeing the Dominican convent, Bruno began working on a Hermetic memory system that transformed Camillo’s theater into an art of seeing beyond appearances to the unity of all things.

In his 1582 book De umbris idearum, Bruno describes this memory structure as a wheel made of thirty concentric circles, with thirty segments, and divided into a hundred fifty divisions, each transcribed with images of the Zodiac, the planets, the moon, and corresponding, in an intensely complicated geometry, to the divisions of human life. The wheel relates the higher world of stars, which are closer to reality, to the lower, sublunary world. As the wheels turn, the “true” structure of the stars exerts its forces on the lower divisions.

Just like Camillo’s theater, Bruno’s memory wheel contained a Hermetic secret—that of the unity of the universe—and the master mind operating it would be imprinted with the form of celestial forces, or universal “ideas.” Thus, by conforming the shape of one’s mind to the shape of the stars, one could gain knowledge and magical powers:

As the ideas are the principal forms of things, according to which all is formed … so we should form in us the shadows of ideas … so that they may be adaptable to all possible formations. We form them in us, as in the revolution of wheels.

The human mind reaching beyond appearances toward the divine also brings The Prelude to a close:

Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this frame of things
(Which, mid all revolutions in the hopes
And fears of men, does still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of substance and of fabric more divine.

No one knows just how Giordano Bruno’s celestial wheel was supposed to function. But the sight of it, redrawn from his plans, leaves one in awe. The wheel grows outward in rays, undulating with permutations of letters in a dizzying mythology and astronomy, with numbers and words on the verge of alchemy. The effect of looking at the wheel is not unlike the feeling of inspiration, at once full and evasive, perfect in shape, yet difficult to grasp, or the transformative power of imagination—“that glorious faculty”—that joins the eternal and the human mind in The Prelude in one leap. The “secret” contained in Bruno’s wheel is perhaps only itself: the promise of a perfect form, not fully visible.

Geometry as a framework for accessing deeper truths was central to the vision of Wordsworth as well as that of Bruno. In Book 5 of The Prelude, the narrator falls asleep in a cave by the sea, contemplating “poetry and geometric truth.” In his dream, he is approached by a Bedouin who presents him a stone and a shell. The shell contains a harmonious song in an unknown language and has voices “more than all the winds, with power / To exhilarate the spirit.” The narrator says in delightful dream logic that the stone is Euclid’s Elements.

And indeed the stone is geometry, because it is nature. We know intuitively, as we do in dreams, what its shape contains, even if we may not be able to dismantle it, just as the dreaming Coleridge knew the entirety of his poem for an instant, before it was lost to him forever.

At the end of his lecture at the University of Buenos Aires, Borges recounts a peculiar incident some ten or twenty years after Coleridge’s death, when a translation of the work of a Persian historian appeared in Europe. In the work, it was told that the emperor Kublai Khan had once built a palace from plans revealed to him in a dream.

“A palace that wants to exist not only in eternity but also in time,” the blind Borges tells his students, “and that through dreams, is revealed to a Chinese medieval emperor and then, centuries later, to an English poet at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Coleridge might not have been surprised to learn that the same inspiration that struck him struck others as well—it was an encounter with a formless truth, seeking embodiment.

“The event, of course, is unusual,” Borges says, “and we can even imagine how the dream continues: we don’t know what other form the palace will look for to fully exist. As architecture, it has disappeared, and poetically, it exists only in an unfinished poem. Who knows how the palace will define itself a third time, if there ever is a third time?”


Aysegul Savas is a writer based in Paris. Her first novel, Walking on the Ceiling, is forthcoming from Riverhead this spring.