Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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John Livingston Lowes (essay date 1927)

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SOURCE: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927, pp. 240-307.

[The Road to Xanadu is considered the foundation of serious modern study of Coleridge's poetry. In the following excerpt, the critic confirms the poet's own assessment of "The Ancient Mariner" as a "work of pure imagination." Lowes regards the moral of the poem not as an intentional, didactic message but as one element in a work unified by Coleridge's "constructive imagination. "]

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is 'a work of pure imagination,' and Coleridge himself has so referred to it. And this study, far from undermining that declaration, is lending it confirmation at every turn. For a work of pure imagination is not something fabricated by a tour de force from nothing, and suspended, without anchorage in fact, in the impalpable ether of a visionary world. No conception could run more sharply counter to the truth. And I question, in the light of all that is now before us, whether any other poem in English is so closely compacted out of fact, or so steeped in the thought and instinct with the action which characterized its time. Keats, in 'La belle Dame sans Merci,' distilled into a single poem the quintessence of mediaeval romance and balladry. And what 'La belle Dame sans Merci' is to the gramarye of the Middle Ages, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is to the voyaging, Neoplatonizing, naively scientific spirit of the closing eighteenth century. It has swept within its assimilating influence a bewildering diversity of facts in which contemporary interest was active. The facts are forgotten, and the poem stays. But the power that wrought the facts into the fabric of a vision outlasts both. And if we are rifling the urns where the dead bones of fact have long quietly rested, it is because the unquenchable spirit which gives beauty for ashes is there not wholly past finding out….

When Coleridge set to work on 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' its plot, not unlike the budding morrow in midnight, lay … beneath a queer jumble of fortuitous suggestions: an old seaman, a skeleton ship with figures in it, a shot bird, a 'spectral persecution,' a ship sailed by dead men, a crew of angelic spirits. The formative design of the voyage, surpassingly adapted as it was to the incorporation of masses of associated impressions, possessed in itself a large simplicity of outline. The supernatural machinery (at the outset a thing of shreds and patches) presented, on the other hand, a problem complex to the last degree…. [In] the moulding of the separate fragments that underlie the plot, subliminal associations and conscious imaginative control have again worked hand in hand. And when at last the poem was completed, the plot which Coleridge had wrought from his intractable and heterogeneous elements was a consistent and homogeneous whole.

For the action has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. In the first half of the poem the agency of an avenging daemon is in the ascendent; in the second, the prevailing power of an angel band. It is an overt act of the Mariner which precipitates the daemonic vengeance; it is an inner impulse counter to the act which brings to pass the angelic intervention; and in the end it is 'the penance of life' which falls upon the rescued wanderer, a fated wanderer still. Exciting force, rising action, climax, falling action, catastrophe—all are there. And through the transfer to the Mariner of the legendary associations of the Wandering Jew, undying among the dead, Cruikshank's dream—its figures metamorphosed into into Death and Life-in-Death—is built into the basic structure of the plot. And under the influence of another ship, sailed by an angelic crew, the suggestion of the navigation of the Mariner's vessel by the bodies of the dead is so transformed as to provide that cardinal antithesis of angelic and daemonic agencies on which the action of the poem turns. And finally, by a stroke of consummate art, ship and poem alike are brought back in the end to the secure, familiar, happy world from which they had set out. The supernatural machinery is a masterpiece of constructive skill. But only, I think, in the light of the genesis of its component parts can the triumph of the faculty which shaped them into unity be fully understood'.

'During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours,' the famous fourteenth chapter of the Biographia Literaria begins, 'our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both…. In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith…. With this view I wrote the "Ancient Mariner."'

The far-reaching significance of the paragraphs from which I have just quoted has met with universal recognition. It is, however, their vital bearing on the interpretation of a single basic element of 'The Ancient Mariner' which concerns us now. For if Coleridge's words mean anything, they mean that some interest deeply human, anchored in the familiar frame of things, was fundamental to his plan. What, in a word, is the 'known and familiar landscape' which, in the poem, persists unchangeable beneath the accidents of light and shade? Are there truths of 'our inward nature' which do, in fact, uphold and cherish, as we read, our sense of actuality in a phantom universe, peopled with the shadows of a dream?

Every mortal who finds himself enmeshed in the inexplicable or the fantastic reaches out instinctively to something rooted deep, in order to retain a steadying hold upon reality. That is the predicament of the reader of 'The Ancient Mariner.' There before him, to be sure, are the tangible facts of a charted course beneath the enduring skies. But the broad bright sun peers through skeleton ribs, and the moon glitters in the stony eyes of the reanimated dead, and the dance of the wan stars is a strange sight in the element. The most ancient heavens themselves have suffered, with the sea, the touch of goblin hands. But Coleridge's sure instinct was not, for all that, at fault. For through the spectral mise en scène of 'The Ancient Mariner,' side by side with the lengthening orbit of the voyage, there runs, like the everlasting hills beneath the shifting play of eerie light, another moving principle, this time profoundly human: one of the immemorial, traditional convictions of the race. And it constitutes the most conspicuous formal element of the poem.

The last stanza of each of the first six parts of 'The Ancient Mariner' marks a step in the evolution of the action. Let us isolate their salient phrases for a moment from their context.

There is the initial act.

And the consequences first attach themselves to the transgressor.

The consequences pass beyond the doer of the deed, and fall upon his shipmates. And now 'Life-in-Death begins her work on the Ancient Mariner,' till at last the turningpoint of the action comes:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

And then:

And so the burden of the transgression falls. But its results march on relentlessly.

But the voyage, at least, has a destined end, and with the Hermit's entrance, a new note is heard.

But even absolution leaves the doer, now as before, 'the deed's creature.'

The train of cause and consequence knows no end. The Mariner has reached his haven, and his soul is shrieved, and now (in the brief comment of the gloss) 'the penance of life falls on him.' And with that the action of the poem, though not the poem, ends.

There, thrown into strong relief by the strategic disposition of the stanzas which disclose it, is the ground-plan of 'The Ancient Mariner,' as a master-architect has drawn and executed it. Through it runs the grand structural line of the voyage; and with its movement keep even pace—like those Intellectual Spirits that walk with the comets in their orbits—the daemons, and spectral shapes, and angels which are also agents in the action. Each of the three shaping principles has its own independent evolution, and each is interlocked with the unfolding of the other two. The interpenetration and coherence of the fundamental unifying elements of the poem is an achievement of constructive imagination, seconded by finished craftsmanship, such as only the supreme artists have attained. 'I learnt from him,' said Coleridge of his old master, Boyer, 'that Poetry, even that of the loftiest and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes.' And that describes the logic of 'The Ancient Mariner.' …

The sequence … which follows from the Mariner's initial act accomplishes two ends: it unifies and (again to borrow Coleridge's coinage) it 'credibilizes' the poem. Has it still another end, to wit, edification? I am well aware of Coleridge's homiletical propensity. Nevertheless, to interpret the drift of 'The Ancient Mariner' as didactic in its intention is to stultify both Coleridge and one's self…. Coleridge is not intent on teaching (pro foundly as he believed the truth) that what a man soweth, that shall he also reap; he is giving coherence and inner congruity to the dream-like fabric of an imagined world. Given that world—and were it not given, there would be no poem, and were it otherwise given, this poem would not be—given that world, its inviolate keeping with itself becomes the sole condition of our acceptance, 'for the moment,' of its validity. And that requirement Coleridge, with surpassing skill, has met.

But the fulfilment of the indispensable condition carries with it an equally inevitable corollary. For that inner consistency which creates the illusion of reality is attained at the expense of the integrity of the elements which enter into it. They too, no less than the poet's own nature, are 'subdued to what they work in, like the dyer's hand.' And once wrought into keeping with each other and with the whole, by as far as they have taken on the colours of their visionary world, by so far have they ceased to be, thus coloured, independent entities, with a status of their own. Even poetry cannot transform reality and have it, untransmuted, too. And through the very completeness of their incorporation with the texture of 'The Ancient Mariner,' the truths of experience which run in sequence through it have lost, so far as any inculcation of a moral through the poem is concerned, all didactic value.

For the 'moral' of the poem, outside the poem, will not hold water. It is valid only within that magic circle. The great loop of the voyage from Equator to Equator around the Cape runs true to the chart. But daemons, and spectres, and angels, and revenants haunt its course, and the Mariner's voyage, magnificent metamorphosis of fact though it be, can scarcely be regarded as a profitable guide to the fauna of equatorial and arctic seas. The relentless line of cause and consequence runs likewise, unswerving as the voyage, through the poem. But consequence and cause, in terms of the world of reality, are ridiculously incommensurable. The shooting of a sea-bird carries in its train the vengeance of an aquatic daemon, acting in conjunction with a spectre-bark; and an impulse of love for other living creatures of the deep summons a troop of angels to navigate an unmanned ship. Moreover, because the Mariner has shot a bird, four times fifty sailors drop down dead, and the slayer himself is doomed to an endless life. The punishment, measured by the standards of a world of balanced penalties, palpably does not fit the crime. But the sphere of balanced penalties is not the given world in which the poem moves. Within that world, where birds have tutelary daemons and ships are driven by spectral and angelic powers, consequence and antecedent are in keeping—if for the poet's moment we accept the poet's premises. And the function of the ethical background of 'The Ancient Mariner,' as Coleridge employs it, is to give the illusion of inevitable sequence to that superb inconsequence. The imaginative use of familiar moral values, like the imaginative use of the familiar outline of a voyage, is leagues away from the promulgation of edifying doctrine through the vehicle of a fairy-tale.

It would be a work of supererogation thus to labour a point which Coleridge himself might be thought to have rendered fairly obvious, were it not that this rudimentary principle of the poem has been persistently misinterpreted. A distinguished modern critic, for example, after drawing from certain verses of Browning the inference that, in Browning's view, 'to go out and mix one's self up with the landscape is the same as doing one's duty,' proceeds as follows: 'As a method of salvation this is even easier and more aesthetic than that of the Ancient Mariner, who, it will be remembered, is relieved of the burden of his transgression by admiring the color of watersnakes!' Occurring as it does in a justly severe arraignment of pantheistic revery as 'a painless substitute for genuine spiritual effort,' this statement, despite its touch of piquant raillery, must be taken seriously as an interpretation of what Coleridge is supposed to teach. It is immaterial that the Mariner's admiration of water-snakes is not the means of salvation … which the plain words of the poem state. The value of the criticism lies in its exposition of what happens when one disregards the fundamental premises of a work of art, and interprets it as if it were solely a document in ethics. Carried to its logical conclusion, such an interpretation makes Coleridge precisely to the same degree the serious exponent of the moral fitness of the 'ruthless slaying of the crew because the Mariner had killed a bird'—and that is the reductio ad absurdum of everything. Coleridge, in some of those all too frequent moments when he was not a poet, may well have betrayed an addiction to 'pantheistic revery.' But when he wrote 'The Ancient Mariner,' he was constructing on definite principles, with the clearest possible consciousness of what he was about, a work of pure imagination….

There is no mistaking the point of [Coleridge's commentary in an 1830 conversation concerning 'The Ancient Mariner']. Coleridge may (he felt) have carried his premises too far for safety in a world of Mrs. Barbaulds who yearn for a moral with their poetry, as they hanker after bread and butter with their tea. With the moral sentiment so patent in the poem they would be bound to put in their thumb and exultantly pull out their plum—as indeed they have. 'The obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a poem of such pure imagination'—that was what gave Coleridge pause. 'The only, or chief fault' of the poem, as he saw it, was a fault of technique. Instead of procuring a momentary suspension of disbelief, he ran the risk of implanting firmly a belief! Of the historic Mrs. Barbauld he need on that score have had no fear. For her, even in the Mariner's valedictory piety, which does, I fear, warrant Coleridge's (and our own) regret, the moral sentiment was not obtruded openly enough. Had the mariner shot a shipmate instead of an albatross, she would have understood—and there would have been no 'Ancient Mariner.'

For the very triviality of the act which precipitates its astounding train of consequences is the sine qua non of the impression which the poem was intended to convey. The discrepancy is essential to the design. And I really know no better short-cut to the comprehension of the poem's unique art than to imagine (as I lightly suggested a moment ago) the substitution of a human being, as the victim, for a bird. A tale the inalienable charm of which (as Coleridge himself perceived) lies in its kinship with the immortal fictions of the Arabian Nights, becomes, so motivated, a grotesque and unintelligible caricature of tragedy. Springing from the fall of a feather, it becomes a dome in air, built with music, yet with the shadows of supporting arch and pillar floating midway in the wave. For its world is, in essence, the world of a dream. Its inconsequence is the dream's irrelevance, and by a miracle of art we are possessed, as we read, with that sense of an intimate logic, consecutive and irresistible and more real than reality, which is the dream's supreme illusion…. The events in a dream do not produce each other, but they seem to. And that is the sole requirement of the action of the poem….

Is a poem like 'The Ancient Mariner' merely the upshot of the subliminal stirrings and convergences of countless dormant images? Or is it solely the product of an unremittingly deliberate constructive energy, recollecting of its own volition whatever is necessary to its ends, consciously willing every subtle blending of its myriad remembered images? Or is the seeming discord susceptible of resolution?

Behind 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' lie crowding masses of impressions, incredible in their richness and variety. That admits no doubt. But the poem is not the sum of the impressions, as a heap of diamond dust is the sum of its shining particles; nor is the poet merely a sensitized medium for their reception and transmission. Beneath the poem lie also innumerable blendings and fusings of impressions, brought about below the level of conscious mental processes. That too is no longer open to question. But the poem is not the confluence of unconsciously merging images, as a pool of water forms from the coalescence of scattered drops; nor is the poet a somnambulist in a subliminal world. Neither the conscious impressions nor their unconscious interpenetrations constitute the poem. They are inseparable from it, but it is an entity which they do not create. On the contrary, every impression, every new creature rising from the potent waters of the Well, is what it now is through its participation in a whole, foreseen as a whole in each integral part—a whole which is the working out of a controlling imaginative design. The incommunicable, unique essence of the poem is its form.

And that form is the handiwork of choice, and a directing intelligence, and the sweat of a forging brain. The design of 'The Ancient Mariner' did not lie, like a landscape in a crystal, pellucid and complete in Coleridge's mind from the beginning. It was there potentially, together with a hundred hovering alternatives, in a mélange of disparate and fortuitous suggestions. To drive through that farrago, 'straightforward as a Roman road,' the structural lines of the charted voyage, and the balanced opposition of daemonic and angelic agencies, and the unfolding consequences of the initial act—that involves more than the spontaneous welling up of images from secret depths. Beyond a doubt, that ceaseless play of swift associations which flashed, like flying shuttles, through Coleridge's shaping brain, was present and coöperating from the first. I am not suggesting that Coleridge, on or about the 13th of November, 1797, withdrew from the rest of himself into the dry light of a 'cool cranium' to excogitate his plan, and then and only then threw open the doors to his other faculties, and summoned the sleeping images from their slumber. All his powers, conscious and unconscious, at the inception of the poem no less than while it 'grew and grew,' moved together when they moved at all. And there are few pages of this study which have not disclosed, directly or indirectly, traces of creative forces operating without reference to the bidding of the will. The last thing I have in mind is to minimize that obscure but powerful influence. But the energy which made the poem a poem, rather than an assemblage of radiant images, was the capacity of the human brain to think through chaos, and by sheer force of the driving will behind it to impose upon confusion the clarity of an ordered whole. And over the throng of luminous impressions and their subliminal confluences 'broods like the Day, a Master o'er a Slave,' the compelling power of the design. Whatever their origin, the component images have been wrought into conformity with a setting determined by the conception which constructs the poem. Through that amazing confluence of associations out of which sprang the shining creatures of the calm, strikes the huge shadow of the ship, lending the picture the symmetry which is the secret of its balanced beauty, and at the same time locking it into the basic structure of the poem. The breathless moment when the sun's rim dips, and the stars rush out, and the dark comes at one stride—that magnificent cluster-point in the chaos of elements has its raison d'être, not in itself, but in the incredible swiftness which the downward leap of night imparts to the disappearance of the spectrebark. The bloody sun stands right up above the mast in a hot and copper sky, not for its own sake as a lucidly exact delineation of a galaxy of images, but as a great sea-mark in the controlling outline of the voyage. The images which sow the poem as with stars owe their meaning and their beauty to a form which is theirs by virtue of the evolution of a plan….

But Coleridge, it will be pointed out, has put himself on record against himself. For when the poem reappeared, revised, in 1800, he appended a sub-title: 'A Poet's Reverie.' …

[If] there is anything on earth which 'The Ancient Mariner' is not, it is a reverie.


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Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772–1834

English poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and journalist.

See also, "Kubla Khan" Criticism.

Coleridge is considered one of the most significant poets and critics in the English language. As a major figure in the English Romantic movement, he is best known for three poems, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and "Christabel" as well as one volume of criticism, Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. While "The Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and "Christabel" were poorly received during Coleridge's lifetime, they are now praised as classic examples of imaginative poetry, illuminated by Coleridge's poetic theories, of which he said in the Biographia Literaria, "My endeavors should be directed to persons and characters spiritual and supernatural, or at least romantic."

Biographical Information

Coleridge was born in Devon, the tenth child of John Coleridge, a vicar and schoolmaster, and his wife Ann Bowdon Coleridge. At the age of ten his father died and the young Coleridge was sent to Christ's Hospital, a boarding school in London where he was befriended by fellow student Charles Lamb. Later, he was awarded a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge University, showing promise as a gifted writer and brilliant conversationalist. In 1794, before completing his degree, Coleridge went on a walking tour to Oxford where he met poet Robert Southey. Espousing the revolutionary concepts of liberty and equality for all individuals, and inspired by the initial events of the French Revolution, Coleridge and Southey collaborated on The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama. As an outgrowth of their shared beliefs, they developed a plan for a "pantisocracy," an egalitarian and self-sufficient agricultural system to be built in Pennsylvania. The pantisocratic philosophy required every member to be married, and at Southey's urging, Coleridge wed Sarah Fricker, the sister of Southey's fiancée. However, the match proved disastrous, and Coleridge's unhappy marriage was a source of grief to him throughout his life. To compound these difficulties, Southey later lost interest in the scheme, abandoning it in 1795. Coleridge's fortunes changed, though, when in 1796 he met the poet William Wordsworth, with whom he had corresponded casually for several years. Their rapport was instantaneous, and the next year Coleridge moved to Nether Stowey in the Lake District, the site of their literary collaboration. Following the publication of Lyrical Ballads, with a few Other Poems, completed with Wordsworth, Coleridge traveled to Germany where he developed an interest in the

German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich von Schelling, and brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel; he later introduced German aesthetic theories in England through his critical writing. Upon his return in 1799 Coleridge settled in Keswick near the Lake District, gaining, together with Wordsworth and Southey, the title "Lake Poet." During this period, Coleridge suffered poor health and personal strife; his marriage was failing and he had fallen in love with Wordsworth's sister-in-law Sarah Hutchinson—a love that was unrequited and a source of great pain. He began taking opium as a remedy for his poor health and, seeking a more temperate climate to improve his morale, traveled to Italy. Upon his return to England Coleridge began a series of lectures on poetry and Shakespeare, which are now considered the basis of his reputation as a critic. Because of Coleridge's abuse of opium and alcohol, his erratic behavior caused him to quarrel with Wordsworth, and he left Keswick to return to London. In the last years of his life Coleridge wrote the Biographia Literaria, considered his greatest critical writing, in which he developed aesthetic theories intended as the introduction to a great philosophical opus. Coleridge died in 1834 of complications stemming from his dependence on opium.

Major Works

The bulk of Coleridge's most admired work was composed between the years 1798 and 1800, his most prolific period of poetic output. Lyrical Ballads, which was published anonymously, includes the now-famous preface by Wordsworth, stating that the poems "were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure." The collection also contains Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" in its original "archaic" form. The poem, a tale of a seaman who kills an albatross, presents a variety of religious and supernatural images to depict a moving spiritual journey of doubt, renewal, and eventual redemption. Many of the poem's symbols have sparked radically different interpretations, and several commentators consider it an allegorical record of Coleridge's own spiritual pilgrimage. Coleridge himself, however, commented that the poem's major fault consisted of "the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader…. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates." Coleridge's concern with religious themes is also evidenced in "Kubla Khan," which was published with a note explaining the strange circumstances of its composition. He wrote that he fell asleep while reading an account of how the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan had ordered the building of a palace within a walled garden. Upon awakening, he claimed, he wrote down the several hundred lines he had composed in his sleep. Although Coleridge dismissed "Kubla Khan" as simply a "psychological experiment," the poem is now regarded as a forerunner of the work of the Symbolists and Surrealists in its presentation of the unconscious. In Coleridge's other poetic fragment, "Christabel," he combined exotic images with gothic romance to create an atmosphere of terror. Like "The Ancient Mariner," "Christabel" deals with the themes of evil and guilt in a setting pervaded by supernatural elements. Most critics now contend that Coleridge's inability to sustain the poem's eerie mood prevented him from completing "Christabel." In 1995 it was reported that a professor from University College in Dublin discovered 300 previously unknown Coleridge poems which had been dispersed across five continents.

Critical Reception

Although critical estimation of Coleridge's work increased dramatically after his death, relatively little commentary was written on him until the turn of the century. Today, his problems of disorganization and fragmented writing are largely ignored, and most critics agree that his works constitute a seminal contribution to literature. While a few commentators have termed both Coleridge's criticism and stature overrated, the majority acknowledge his poetical talent and insight. Contemporary scholars now look to Coleridge as the intellectual center of the English Romantic movement.

Elisabeth Schneider (essay date 1953)

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SOURCE: Coleridge, Opium, and "Kubla Khan," The University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp. 238-88.

[Schneider's study is considered by many scholars one of the most important interpretations of "Kubla Khan" in the twentieth century. In the following excerpt, the critic considers the poem an incomplete fragment and discusses its form and texture, which evoke "the soul of ambivalence, oscillation's very self."]

"Kubla Khan" has been read with equal conviction as cosmic allegory and incantatory nonsense; and with reference to both meaning and form it has been described equally as a fragment and a perfectly rounded complete whole. It has been called the quintessential poem of romanticism, even while its magical virgin birth placed it quite outside literary tradition or pedigree. To the aesthetic purist these may still be peripheral questions; they must be acknowledged, however, to lead at least in the direction of the poetic essence itself. They will serve for a beginning….

[To] one who reads "Kubla Khan" attentively without ulterior motive and without fixed preconceptions, "Kubla Khan" has, throughout, a perfectly normal meaning, one that is as logical and, as far as one can tell, as conscious as that of most deliberately composed poems. This is evident, once we cease to be dazzled by the familiar prefatory note and Kubla's bewitching scenery. Indeed, one hesitates to explain the meaning because of its obviousness and because it must be a commonplace to many….

The first part is merely the picture that everyone knows of the strange and beautiful Paradise or pleasure-grounds, enriched and poeticized ultimately from many sources. The topography of the scene is somewhat unprecise, so that the reader could scarcely draw a map of it. But the actual statement and the separate elements of the picture are perfectly clear. Almost, though not quite literally, like the stream in [John Milton's] Paradise Lost, Coleridge's "sacred river" rises from the earth in a fountain, winds through the garden, and sinks again underground. The poet leaves off without finishing or putting to use these pleasure-grounds, either dissatisfied with his presentation of them or unable to continue, or both. In the last eighteen lines … the poet makes an explicit statement about what precedes. In a vision, he says, he once heard music sung and played by a damsel. Her song was of an earthly Paradise. If he could only revive within himself that music, the joy it would give him would enable him really to recreate the scene of Kubla's Paradise, in poetry that would be truly immortal. He would then be looked upon with awe as one of the inspired great ones, the poet-prophets of the world…. [The last eighteen lines are] the poet's explanation of his failure to complete the poem. As Coleridge said often in his waking hours, so he says here: he could have accomplished something truly worthy of himself, if only—.

In part, the thought is related to the later ode "Dejection." The mood of gloom is not mentioned explicitly, but Coleridge feels the same lack that he described in the ode, a lack of inner joy or delight—what Gerard Hopkins afterward called "the fine delight that fathers thought." This is needed to stir his creative imagination…. In both poems joy or delight is represented as an inner music that inspires the poet to create; the presence of a woman is imagined; and the epithets for the music, "loud and long" in the one, find echo of both sound and sense in the "strong" of the other. If, then—to return to the direct statement of "Kubla Khan"—the writer, "I," had this inspiration that is rooted in joy, "with music … I would build that dome … those caves of ice! And all who heard [my music] should see them [domes, caves] there, And all should cry, Beware! … "

The idea has been advanced more than once in recent years that the poem is not a fragment but a complete and perfect whole. This view has attracted so many readers and, if sound, would have such real bearing upon the poetic effect of the lines that the basis for it had better be examined. Coleridge himself called the poem a "fragment"; and, haunted as he was by the ghosts of his many unfinished works, I should think it unlikely that he would have added by a deliberate falsehood to the number of that congregation in limbo. He also treated it as a fragment, keeping it, as he did "Christabel," unpublished for many years, though his usual custom was to publish finished works promptly except for a few obviously intimate ones the publication of which would embarrass himself or others—verses such as those unmistakably addressed to Sara Hutchinson, for example, and "The Pains of Sleep."

It is difficult, on the other hand, to imagine the poem carried beyond its present close. Conceivably, following a momentary cross-current of thought in the passage that introduces the Abyssinian maid, Coleridge might have written the poem into a hole from which he could not extricate it. He might, that is, have destined the poem to progress in one direction but, having once interrupted this current to comment on the inadequacy of his inspiration, have found he had actually written what must put an end to the work, a continuation of the original being unthinkable afterwards. Coleridge would not be the first poet whose matter had got beyond its inventor's control and taken him where he had not meant to go. But that is not what one means by a finished poem. It is conceivable, too, that he had in mind a three-part musical form with a more beautiful and heightened return to the original garden theme—the Inspired Poet, having recovered his "vision," now demonstrating what he could really do. The poem might then have remained incomplete from Coleridge's inability to transcend what he had already done as the theme would require. On the whole, however, I think this not the most likely reconstruction of Coleridge's intention (though the idea of translating musical into poetic forms had occurred to poets in Germany and might have been familiar to Coleridge). There is nothing like it to be found elsewhere in his work, and I doubt whether "Kubla Khan" represents a departure of that sort from his usual practice.

The most likely explanation of the actual form of the poem would seem to be also the most natural. As it stands, it clearly consists of two parts, the description of Kubla's Paradise gardens and an explanation of why the poet could not after all finish what he had begun, or, to speak within the framework of the dream, why he could not re-create the vision he had seen. The whole reads like a fragment with a postscript added at some later time when it has become obvious to the poet that he cannot finish the piece. The postscript is skilfully linked with the rest by the recurrence of the dome and caves of ice; but these and other devices do not conceal, and I imagine were not meant to conceal, the actually disparate parts. If a man begins a poem, gets stuck, and then adds the comment, "I cannot finish this," even though he versify his comment to match his fragment, he is not likely to produce a whole in the poetic or aesthetic sense, though he does bring his piece to an end beyond which it could not be continued.

To me, at any rate, the poem has never sounded complete in any other sense than this. Several things in it, furthermore, have charm and interest if one reads it as a fragment but are poetically unsatisfactory if one tries to regard it as an organic whole, even a dreamed whole. One of these is Kubla's hearing of the "ancestral voices prophesying war," which Coleridge makes impressive and then drops. It is true that if the poem is read as an actual incoherent and unaltered dream one cannot cavil at the flaw, since the dream produced it; but I do not find enough incoherence for that. So the "ancestral" threat of war is too prominent and at the same time too much out of key with the other images—too pointless, in fact, since no further use is made of it—to be satisfactory poetically if the fifty-four lines must be regarded as a finished piece; the image remains unassimilated. Only if one reads those words as a hint at something to come in the poem, do they charm the mind as they should with their portentousness.

I think Coleridge would have agreed. On just such a point in "Christabel" a comment survives which was probably Coleridge's in substance and perhaps in language as well. It concerned the lines about the mastiff bitch and Christabel's mother:

Sixteen short howls, not over loud;
Some say, she sees my lady's shroud.

These details, so the comment runs, not only give "a prevailing colour or Harmony to the whole," but are "indicative also that my Lady's spirit is to make a principal interest in the after story." They prepare us also for the "visionary and dreamlike manner which pervades the Poem." Christabel's mother, the writer points out, is dropped into the story again, though no structural use is made of her in the fragment as it exists. He justifies and explains these unused references on the specific ground that they would have been an important structural part of the finished poem. Every event in the fragment "is completely in Harmony with the general wildness of the Poem, and is yet consistent and connected with and dependent upon the other." Coleridge would probably have justified the "ancestral voices" of Kubla, from the poetic standpoint, only by a similar unfulfilled intention of something to come later in the poem. The two lines on the woman wailing beneath a waning moon for her demon-lover also seem poetically in keeping in a fragment but would be out of proportion in a short whole. Shifting the scene from day to night as they do and introducing two figures, obviously not as part of a shifting dream-sequence of irrelevancies but in the language and syntax of a conventional literary comparison, the lines are nearly as much out of drawing as an elaborate Virgilian simile would be in a lyric.

The division of "Kubla Khan" into its two parts also seems fatal to the unity of the poem if it must be regarded as a complete whole. The first part is given over entirely to Kubla's pleasure-grounds, the demon-lover lines being not a new scene but only a comparison. In the last eighteen lines, time, place, and speaker all are changed. The first part is wholly impersonal; the last is written wholly in the first person. The poet enters in the thirty-eighth line unannounced, but, unlike the stars of "The Ancient Mariner," his place is not prepared and appointed, nor does he enter as a lord that is certainly expected; he rather breaks in. The last eighteen lines terminate but do not fulfil the first part—or so it seems to me. I do not find that the main descriptive portion—the gardens, the fountains, the romantic glen—becomes any different in memory after I have read the concluding lines, for the break remains too complete despite the links in imagery. The conviction does not rush upon me at the end that the split is after all no split; for the end makes the beginning no brighter, no dimmer, deepens the meaning by no tragic implications or irony or illuminating reversal. A fulfilment is still absent at the end, partly because action, not pure description, has been left in the air. The place is being built before one's eyes. Kubla decreed the pleasure-dome; and so the ten miles of ground were girdled round. The progression thus started cries out to continue, like an unresolved cadence in music.

On the whole, not only do the first thirty-six lines of the poem refuse to sound as if they had been dreamed; they sound more than anything else like a fine opening for a romantic narrative poem of some magnitude….

[Whatever proportions] went into the making of "Kubla Khan" … we end, as we began, with an awareness of its special character. It may not be the unique and novel synthesis of geographical elements that Lowes thought it [in his Road to Xanadu, 1927], and it may not carry a great weight of specific symbols or tell us anything we did not know about unconscious genius. It may not be—and in fact I think is not—among the very greatest achievements of English poetry. Still, it has perfection in its kind; we do not forget it, and we never mistake it for anything else. And some things about the essence of poetry can be perceived more easily, perhaps, in the lesser than in the greater masterpieces.

In part, the special "witchery" of "Kubla Khan" is owing to its odd union of Miltonic verse texture with rather ordinary, conventional Gothic-oriental-tale matter. When Milton himself used Eastern material it succumbed, like all his other sources, to his own severe logic and the firmly organic continuity he gave it. But between his use of it and Coleridge's there intervened the epidemic of oriental and pseudo-oriental tales, which exhibit the wayward structure almost of improvisation. The tales of the Arabian Nights themselves seem to Western habits of mind a fabulous sequence of nonsequiturs…. Southey composed Thalaba as if with a dump truck; despite all the pains bestowed upon his work, the final impression upon the reader is of an indiscriminate pouring-out of large lumps of inert matter animated by no living breath, held together by no structure in the design and no texture in the writing. In "Kubla Khan" the materials are the same. But the Miltonic texture transforms the whole into something altogether different, something that is neither Milton's nor Gothic-oriental. The intricate complexities and unifications of the verse pattern here produce a subtle music that bestows upon ordinarily chaotic—and also stale—material an air of mysterious meaning. It is a new tune; though the texture is Milton's, the voice is the voice of Coleridge.

I do not know any other poem in which the pattern is played primarily with œ-sounds. The outlandish proportion of these, along with the Eastern names, is in some measure responsible for the particular flavor of the poem. They are intersprinkled with a good many other short vowel sounds, and most of the long vowels are rather light—either without depth of tone or carried quickly by. Even the other œ-sounds, except for the dome, are mostly light passing ones that can scarcely be dwelt upon—momently, holy, float. Throughout the poem many of the syllables carrying the nominal verse stress are but lightly touched. In the midst of them the "dome" stands out, dominating the poem by pure frequency as well as contrast. This dwelling upon the dome might be thought to justify reading into it such profound symbolic meanings as the "immortality" or the union of male and female…. The word dome may have had an emotional richness for Coleridge that led him in "Kubla Khan," half intentionally and half by the accidents of a developing sound pattern, to give it a prominence not fully deserved by its actual meaning within the poem. Set aloft by itself as it is in the opening lines, dome is bound, I suppose, wherever it came from, to carry a hint of its cousin doom….

This air of importance without visible foundation contributes to the suggestion of mystery about the poem that is part of its charm. A severe critic may object that such charm is factitious and the imputation of it an insult to the poet, but that is not really so. It occurs often enough elsewhere, whether in life or art. An accident of light or shadow along a street may lend an air of mystery to a scene not at all mysterious, transforming an ordinary house front into something as final or portentous as doomsday….

I sometimes think we overwork Coleridge's idea of "the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities." I have to come back to it here, however, for the particular flavor of "Kubla Khan," with its air of mystery, is describable in part through that convenient phrase. Yet the "reconciliation" does not quite occur either. It is in fact avoided. What we have instead is the very spirit of "oscillation" itself…. The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation's very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven. The irregular and inexact rhymes and the varied lengths of the lines play some part. More important is the musical effect in which a smooth, rather swift forward movement is emphasized by the relation of grammatical structure to line and rhyme, yet is impeded and thrown back upon itself even from the beginning by the œ-inclosed line units. Like the Mariner's ship at the Equator, the verse moves "backwards and forwards half her length," or like tides rocking in a basin. In the middle of the poem the slightly stronger forward movement loses itself altogether in the floating equivocation between backward-turned trochaic and forward-leaning iambic movement. One hears the texture of Milton, whose great will and drive, even in his discursive moments, gives to all he wrote an air of power and singleness of direction, however elaborate and circuitous his form may be. But in "Kubla Khan" one hears this elaboration almost wholly deprived of such will or with only enough will to keep it afloat….

In this forward-flowing movement counterpointed against a stationary-oscillating one, form and meaning are almost indistinguishable. The pleasure-dome is built, then it is unbuilt. The poem is about Kubla, then it is not about him. The oppositions of image are not only the obvious ones of light and darkness, sunny dome and sunless sea or caves of ice, Paradise garden and hints of hell. In the elaborate opening passage stately, dome, decree, sacred, caverns, measureless, and sunless are all rather solemn words and, except for stately, not cheerful-solemn but awful-solemn. Yet the dome is a pleasure-palace; the movement and music of the verse are light rather than solemn. The central statement, through the first half of the poem, is one of bright affirmation. The talk and activity are of building, the pleasure-dome and a delightful Paradise materialize. But even as the words give they take away with half-Miltonic negatives. Pleasure itself is rhymed with one of them—measureless; deprivation haunts the language. The negations recur in sunless, ceaseless, lifeless, a second measureless. The demon-lover is not in Paradise; he is an as-if brought in to cast his shadow. Images of awe and mystery underlie Paradise in the subterranean river and ocean, and the ancestral threat of war is heard far off. The whole poem oscillates between giving and taking away, bright affirmation and sunless negation, light flowing music that nevertheless stands still and rings the portentous sound of dome time after time. The spirit of the poem, moreover, is cool and rather non-human. One feels no real warmth even in the sunny garden. And though the verse is nominally well peopled, Kubla, the wailing woman, and the Abyssinian maid are not really there, and their half-presence leaves the place less human than if the theme were a poetic scene of nature alone. Even the poet, who is half-present in the end, is dehumanized behind his mask of hair and eyes and magic circle and is only present as mirrored in the exclamations of nebulous beholders—or rather, he would be mirrored if he had built his dome and there had been beholders. Nor is there any human or personal feeling in the poem; the poet's "deep delight," impersonal enough even if it were there, exists only to be denied.

Here in these interwoven oscillations dwells the magic, the "dream," and the air of mysterious meaning of "Kubla Khan." I question whether this effect was all deliberately thought out by Coleridge, though it might have been. It is possibly half-inherent in his subject. Paradise is usually lost and always threatened, in Genesis and Milton, in the Paradise gardens of Iem, of Aloadin, of Abyssinian princes. The historical Cubla did not apparently lose his in the end, but it too was threatened with war and dissension and portents. The Paradise of Coleridge's poem was not exactly lost either. What was lost, the closing lines tell us, was the vision of an unbuilt Paradise, an unwritten poem. His Paradise in that sense was truly enough a dream. What remains is the spirit of "oscillation," perfectly poeticized, and possibly ironically commemorative of the author.

Principal Works

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*Poems on Various Subjects [with Robert Southey and Charles Lamb] 1796

Ode on the Departing Year 1797

Fears in Solitude, Written in 1798 during the alarm of an invasion. To which are added, FRANCE, AN ODE; and FROST AT MIDNIGHT 1798

Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems [with William Wordsworth] 1798

Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep. 1816

Sibylline Leaves: A Collection of Poems 1817

The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 3 vols. 1828

The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. 1912

Other Major Works

The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama [with Robert Southey] (drama) 1794

Osorio (drama) 1797; revised as Remorse, A Tragedy, in Five Acts 1813

Wallenstein (translation; from the dramas Die piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller) 1800

The Statesman's Manual; or, The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon (essay) 1816

Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (essays) 1817

Zapolya: A Christmas Tale, in Two Parts (drama) 1817

Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion: Illustrated by Select Passages from Our Elder Divines, Especially from Archbishop Leighton (essays) 1825

On the Constitution of Church and State, according to the Idea of Each: with Aids toward a Right Judgment on the late Catholic Bill (essay) 1830

Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols, (conversations) 1835

The Literary Remains in Prose and Verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols, (poetry, drama, and essays) 1836-39

Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists With Other Literary Remains (lectures) 1849

The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols, (poetry, drama, essays, and translations) 1853

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 6 vols, (letters) 1956-71

The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols, (notebooks) 1957-73

The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 13 vols. (poetry, drama, essays, translations, and lectures) 1969-

*This work was revised and enlarged as Poems in 1797 and revised again in 1803.

George Watson (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: "The Meaning of 'Kubla Khan'," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 2, 1961, pp. 21-9.

[Australian-born Watson is a distinguished critic, editor, and lecturer of English at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous studies of English Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian literature and political history. In the following essay, Watson disputes interpretations of "Kubla Khan" as a "dream poem"; it is instead, he asserts, a lucid critique of the poetic imagination.]

We now know almost everything about Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' except what the poem is about. E. H. Coleridge, years ago, shrewdly corrected Coleridge's misdating of his own poem to May 1798 [Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1912], and Mr. Morchard Bishop has plausibly identified the very farmhouse in Culborne, a tiny village on the Somerset coast, where the poet may have been interrupted in his composition by 'a person on business from Porlock' ["The Farmhouse of Kubla Khan", in The Times Literary Supplement, 10 May 1957]; while medical evidence has discouraged loose talk about the creative effects of opium. All this—and, of course, J. L. Lowes's researches into Coleridge's reading in The Road to Xanadu (1927)—should have left the critic free to make a decisive interpretation in the light of all the evidence. But, in fact, the increasing technicality of Coleridge scholarship seems to have scared good criticism away, and we are no nearer an interpretation than we were before we knew the bare facts of the case. Even Humphry House, in his Coleridge (1953), though he calls 'Kubla Khan' 'a triumphant positive statement of the potentialities of poetry', fumbles oddly in his conclusion, narrowly misses the central point of the poem, and fails to show how its rigorous logic works.

Taking heart from the medical evidence, which discounts the idea that opium gives rise either to dreams in sleep or to waking hallucinations, we may surely dismiss one troublesome possibility at once: 'Kubla Khan' is not a dream-poem. This is not to say that Coleridge's own account of how the poem came to be written, in the 1816 preface, is mendacious or mistaken. It is only to assert that the dream-hypothesis does not help. The poem that we have is obviously not a dream-poem in the technical sense that Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is—or Coleridge's own poem 'The Pains of Sleep'; that is to say, it does not (except in the single detail of the damsel with the dulcimer) purport to relate the experience of a dream. Nor is it, in any helpful sense, 'dream-like'. That odd expression is usually applied to qualities that are not, in any case, clearly proper to dreams, and usually suggests something vague, shadowy, and mystical. Lowes's defence [in The Road to Xanadu] of Coleridge's story is based on an assumption that few wide-awake readers will find convincing:

Nobody in his waking senses could have fabricated those amazing eighteen [last] lines. For if anything ever bore the infallible marks of authenticity, it is that dissolving panorama in which fugitive hints of Aloadine's Paradise succeed each other with the vivid incoherence, and the illusion of natural and expected sequence, and the sense of an identity that is not identity, which are the distinctive attributes of dreams. Coleridge's statement of his experiences has more than once been called in question. These lines alone … should banish doubt.

Of course they do nothing of the kind. Even if we could admit that Lowes's dreams are like ours—or, what is more to the point, like Coleridge's—is it so clear that the last eighteen lines are vividly incoherent? They seem to me very coherent indeed. Certainly 'Kubla Khan' is a difficult poem, in the sense that it calls for careful exegesis based on a good deal of pure information about Coleridge's current preoccupations. But incoherent or muddled it certainly is not. It may sound faint praise indeed to call it one of the best organised of all Coleridge's works: more explicit, perhaps, to remark that it is one of those poems that seem all bones, so firm and self-assertive is the structure. It is not even, on the face of it (to continue the argument as if the troublesome preface did not exist), an emotionally intense poem, apart from the last half-dozen lines. Its characteristic tone is matter-of-fact, informative, even slightly technical, as if Coleridge were anxious, as he is in the opening section of 'The Ancient Mariner', to get his measurements right. And it is worth noticing at once that he does get his measurements right: we are enabled and encouraged to construct a model, or draw a map, of the Khan's whole device, and it can be no accident that the figure 'five', mentioned in 1. 6: 'So twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round … ' is repeated in 1. 25: 'Five miles meandering with a mazy motion … ' The walls are ten miles long, in fact, in order to surround the five-mile stretch of the sacred river that is above the surface of the earth. The tone is precise, almost statistical. Besides, as many critics have noticed, there is nothing fragmentary about the poem as we have it, in spite of the 1816 subtitle 'A Fragment': it seems to say all it has to say. And the logical progression of the poem is unusually good, each of its four paragraphs being an advance upon its predecessor, and each one tightly organised within itself. All this is not to deny that Coleridge composed the poem in a dream, but only to insist that the dream-hypothesis is implausible, unhelpful, and even—in so far as it may encourage us to let down our guard and disregard what the poem is saying—a positive nuisance.

What is 'Kubla Khan' about? This is, or ought to be, an established fact of criticism: 'Kubla Khan' is a poem about poetry. It is probably the most acute poem about poetry in English, our primal example of what Mr. F. W. Bateson would call 'the Critical Muse'; and our first hint, outside his notebooks and letters, that a major critic lies hidden in the twenty-five-year-old Coleridge, waiting to get out. Those who object at once that there is not a word about poetry in the whole poem should be sent at once to the conclusion that Lowes found vividly incoherent, and asked, if they have never read any Plato, what in English poetry it is like:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

There are dozens of parallels in Renaissance English to this account of poetic inspiration, all based—though not usually at first hand—on Plato's view of poetic madness in the Ion or the Phaedrus. Theseus's banter about 'the poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling', in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is perhaps the most famous. The 'flashing eyes' and 'floating hair' of Coleridge's poem belong to a poet in the fury of creation. Such evidence, it may be objected, is not so much conclusive as circumstantial. But it is circumstantial over such a wide area that we are bound eventually to accept it. Certainly all other interpretations are forced to leave out much of the poem. Some of them are as mad as any Platonic poet. One living critic [Robert Graves, in his The Meaning of Dreams, 1924], claimed that the Khan is Coleridge himself, worrying about his wife's pregnancy, and tracked down a vast amount of sexual symbolism: and Professor G. Wilson Knight's view that the poem is an allegory of human existence and Alph a 'river of life' has been influential and time-wasting. If it is not at first obvious that the conclusion of the poem is about poetic creation, no one who re-read the poem in the light of this hypothesis could ever doubt again that it was.

The prose meaning of 'Kubla Khan' is not difficult to unravel, and real difficulties only arise when we try to account for every detail in terms of its total significance. The fifty-four lines of the poem divide, very clearly, at 1. 36. The first section describes, mainly in coldly literal detail, the Khan's 'rare device'. Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage (1613)—the Jacobean geography-book Coleridge says he was reading when he fell asleep—tells us hardly more than that the Khan built a movable palace in a beautiful enclosed park. Coleridge is much more specific, and concentrates many of Purchas's details, and some others, into a closely consistent picture. The park is a mixture of the natural and the artificial, at once a wilderness and a garden, and what is manmade contains, or is contained in, the wild and uncontrollable:

And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Moreover, though the whole design is of course artificial—an enclosed park centering upon a palace or 'stately pleasure-dome'—it contains within itself, as its unique possession, something utterly natural and utterly uncontrollable: the sacred river itself, for the rest of its course subterranean, bursts into the light at this point and flows violently above ground before sinking back. It is for this reason, evidently, that the tyrant chose the site for his palace, which stands so close to the water that it casts its shadow upon it and is within earshot of the sound of the river, both above and below ground. And these two noises, we are told, harmonise:

Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

With full emphasis upon the effect of contrast, the first section ends.

The second begins on an apparently irrevelant note, but its relevance is justified at once: the song of an Abyssinian girl, once heard in a dream, is capable of moving such 'deep delight' that

I would build that dome in air …

'In air' presumably means as a poem, or not substantially, and the reader's first instinct is to say that this is just what Coleridge has done. But this is evidently quite wrong. Coleridge's syntax makes it very clear that the project remains unfulfilled:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry …

'Kubla Khan', then, is not just about poetry: it is about two kinds of poem. We have one of them in the first thirty-six lines of the poem; and though we do not have the other, we are told what it would do to the reader and what it would do to the poet. The reader would be able to visualise a palace and park he had never seen; and the poet would behave after the classic manner of poets, like a madman. This second poem—the poem that does not exist—is so evidently the real thing that it is clear that the poem we have, in ll. 1-36, is not the real thing—not quite a poem at all, in Coleridge's terms. And if we ask why Coleridge in 1798 would be likely to find ll. 1-36 unpoetical, we may find our question already answered. They are factual, detailed, matter-of-fact. And we know precisely why Coleridge objected to 'matter-of-factness' in poetry—the very word, in his own view, was his coinage. In Chapter XXII of the Biographia Literaria, written nearly twenty years later, he lists this very quality as the second of Wordsworth's defects as a poet:

… a matter-of-factness in certain poems … a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects; …

This may sound rather remote from the Coleridge who wrote 'Kubla Khan'. But Hazlitt, if we may trust his evidence (it may have been conditioned by a reading of this very passage in the Biographia, which appeared in 1817), supplies us with the one detail to complete the case. In his essay 'My First Acquaintance with Poets', published in the third number of The Liberal, April 1823, he tells how Coleridge had made the same objection to some of Wordsworth's poems in a walk with Hazlitt near Nether Stowey in June 1798—or only a few weeks after the probable date of composition of 'Kubla Khan'. Coleridge, says Hazlitt:

lamented that Wordsworth was not prone enough to believe in the traditional superstitions of the place, and that there was something corporeal, a matter-of-factness, a clinging to the palpable, or often to the petty, in his poetry in consequence … He said, however (if I remember right), that this objection must be confined to his descriptive pieces, that his philosophic poetry had a grand and compre-hensive spirit in it, so that his soul seemed to inhabit the universe like a palace, and to discover truth by intuition rather than by deduction.

Here are two kinds of poetry, and here too is evidence that this preoccupation of Coleridge's later career as a critic was already present in the poetically fertile year of 1797-98. In a sense, it is the same question that led him, in the five years that followed, out of poetry and into criticism. How far may poetry be informative, or literally descriptive? Coleridge's answer, of course, is 'Ideally, not at all': information is not the business of poetry. Poetry may have an informative effect, may leave us 'sadder and wiser', as the Mariner's tale leaves the Wedding Guest. But it ought not to proceed, as some of Wordsworth's lesser poems do, by a mere aggregation of detail ('Tis three feet long and two feet wide'). This, at its simplest, is the point of Coleridge's imagination/fancy distinction, and there is evidence beyond Hazlitt, in Coleridge's own notebooks and letters, to show how early he hit upon it as a summary of his case for and against Wordsworth's poetry. The early letter of 15 January 1804, addressed to Richard Sharp, contains a full outline of the distinction:

Imagination, or the modifying power in the highest sense of the word, in which I have ventured to oppose it to Fancy, or the aggregating power.

The classic discussion at the end of Chapter XIII of the Biographia Literaria, where the 'essentially vital' power of imagination is contrasted with the 'fixties and definities' of fancy, fills out the account of a dozen years earlier. But the letter to Sharp is precise enough, and early enough, to make us feel that the young poet of 'Kubla Khan' may already have been close to such a conclusion.

Now there are two aspects of the imagination/fancy distinction which, obvious as they are, tend to be overlooked. The first is that it is a value-distinction. 'Imagination' is the power that writes good poems: 'fancy' writes inferior ones. There is no such thing, in Coleridgean terms, as a bad imaginative poem. If the 'shaping spirit' really has shaped, if the poem is more than a sum of its parts, more than a mere aggregate of the poet's perceptions, then it is so far a good poem. Secondly, the distinction is an historical one: it comes from a view of the whole past of English poetry, for it is precisely the great innovation of the romantic poet to write imaginative poems rather than fanciful ones, just as it was the characteristic role of the Augustans to condemn themselves to a poetry 'addressed to the fancy or the intellect'. Wordsworth, of course, is pathetically capable of both, and the Biographia is a belated plea inviting him to recognise his excellence and his failings. And here, finally, we are faced with an embarrassing choice between two interpretations of 'Kubla Khan'. Given that it is a poem about two kinds of poetry, and given that Coleridge's classic distinction may well have been present to him, in essence at least, as early as 1798, we need not resist the conclusion that its first thirtysix lines are 'fanciful' and the remainder a programme for imaginative creation. But I do not know that we have any clear reason for assigning the fancifulness of the first section of the poem to what Coleridge disliked in all Augustan poetry, or to what he disliked in some of Wordsworth's.

Certainly the Khan is very like an Augustan Englishman as seen through romantic eyes. The overwhelmingly important fact about his 'pleasure-dome' with its surrounding park is its artificiality. It is 'a miracle of rare device', despotically willed into existence as a tyrant's toy:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree …

The authoritarian word 'decree' is not in Purchas, who simply says: 'In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace … ' And the painfully contrived quality of the tyrant's pleasure becomes clearer with every line: in the formal (though not entirely formal) gardens, and the trivial purpose to which the brute strength of the sacred river has been harnessed. We are left with a disagreeable image of the patron himself, congratulating himself on his facile ingenuity in degrading a matchless natural phenomenon to the service of a landscape garden—in itself a very Augustan pleasure—in order to flatter his own megalomaniac dreams:

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

'In perusing French tragedies,' Coleridge remarked years later, in the first chapter of the Biographia, 'I have fancied two marks of admiration at the end of each line, as hieroglyphics of the author's own admiration at his own cleverness.' Kubla's arrogance is much alike. If only he knew it, the poem hints, he has bitten off more than he can chew. For all the violence of great emotional experience is there in the river, contained by the Khan's device as Augustan poems seem to sterilise the emotions of man: 'thoughts translated into the language of poetry', as Coleridge later complained of Pope. The vast power of the river is allowed to rise, but only 'momently', and then sinks back into silence, 'a lifeless ocean'. This is not the River of Life. It is the river of poetry—the poetry of imagination which, under the old order, had been debased into a plaything and allowed its liberty only when properly 'girdled round'. The passage that describes the river as it rushes above ground is dense with the imagery of the violent reshaping of dull matter, like the 'essentially vital' power of the imagination working, as he later put it, in Chapter XIII of the Biographia, upon objects 'essentially fixed and dead':

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced,
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail …

So many rivers and springs of classical mythology are associated with poetry that there is nothing remote or improbable about Coleridge's imagery here. But, to look more closely, we may see in the passage a premonition of his critical achievement: of the echo of the same metaphor in the 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads which, two years later, he made Wordsworth write ('poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'); and of the fluid imagery to which, even in the prose of the Biographia, he felt bound to resort in defining the work of the poetic imagination, which 'dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create'.

Further Reading

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Milton, Mary Lee Taylor. The Poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1935-1970. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981, 251 p.

Includes an extended introduction that discusses major issues and trends in Coleridge criticism.

Raysor, Thomas M.; Schulz, Max F.; and Wellek, René. "Coleridge." In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, third revised edition, edited by Frank Jordan, pp. 135-258. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1972.

Study of bibliographies and editions of Coleridge's notebooks, verse, and letters, including a section devoted to an overview of historical and literary criticism of Coleridge's poetry. The chapter concludes with an essay by Wellek entitled "Coleridge's Philosophy and Criticism (To 1956)."


Bawer, Bruce. "Hungering for Eternity: Coleridge the Poet." The New Criterion 8, No. 8 (April 1990): 20-32.

Biographical essay on Coleridge's life and writing career.

Caine, Hall. Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Walter Scott, 1887, 154 p.

Biographical study drawing on a variety of sources, including "table-talk, letters, diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, magazine articles, [and] newspaper reports."

Charpentier, John. Coleridge: The Sublime Somnambulist, translated by M. V. Nugent. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1929, 332 p.

Extensive examination of Coleridge's life and works.

Taylor, Anya. "Coleridge and Alcohol." In Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33, No. 3 (Fall 1991): 355-72.

Historical study of Coleridge's alcohol abuse—which he considered an "Ideocy of the Will"—and how it influenced his works. Taylor correlates modern medical evidence about alcoholism with Coleridge's writings about his drinking, concluding that Coleridge experienced the mental, emotional, and physical effects of alcoholism.


Alcorn, Marshall W., Jr. "Coleridge's Literary Use of Narcissism." The Wordsworth Circle XVI, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 13-21.

Psychoanalytic study of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in which Alcorn discusses and disputes various interpretations of the poem's rich symbolic meaning and Coleridge's own view of the work as theological. Alcorn suggests "that the symbology portrays original sin as an expression of narcissistic incompletion; similarly, it grasps redemption as the sublimated recovery of an original narcissism."

Austin, Frances. "Coleridge." In her The Language of Wordsworth and Coleridge, pp. 122-68. London: MacMillan Education, 1989.

Analyzes the verse and language of the "mystery" and "conversation" poems and compares their style and syntax to the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Bahti, Timothy. "Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' and the Fragment of Romanticism." Modern Language Notes 96, No. 5 (December 1981): 1035-50.

Examination of the structure and language of "Kubla Khan," detailing how "many self-reflecting notions of part and whole, fragment and totality, come into play" in the poem.

Beer, J. B. Coleridge the Visionary. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959, 367 p.

Study of Coleridge's political, philosophical, and religious thought, as well as literary influences on his poetry, attempting to "throw light on both the intellectual organization of the poetry and the imaginative qualities implicit in the philosophy."

Berkoben, L. D. Coleridge's Decline as a Poet. The Hague: Mouton, 1975, 171 p.

Analyzes the symbolic progression of Coleridge's poetry in order to explain the decline of Coleridge's output after 1802.

Bohm, Arnd. "Text and Technology in Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'." English Studies in Canada XV, No. 1 (March 1989): 35-47.

Hermeneutical analysis of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which Bohm "historicizes" the poem.

Collings, David. "Coleridge Beginning a Career: Desultory Authorship in Religious Musings." English Literary History 58, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 167-93.

Argues that the early poem "Religious Musings" gives evidence of the multifaceted nature of Coleridge's subsequent writing career, which "encompassed poetry, literary criticism, theology, philosophy, political theory, journalism, science, and notes or marginalia … writings … too various to be read in the terms of a single discipline or a particular model of the authorial career."

Findlay, L. M. "Death or Life of the Spirit: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Thalassian Poetry in the Nineteenth Century." In Poetics of the Elements in the Human Condition: The Sea: From Elemental Stirrings to Symbolic Inspiration, Language, and Life-Significance in Literary Interpretation and Theory, edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, pp. 23-44. Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1985.

Explains the symbolic and metaphoric function of the sea and its correlation to identity and poetry in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Gravil, Richard; Newlyn, Lucy; and Roe, Nicholas, eds. Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 277 p.

Collection of essays by Coleridge scholars such as John Beer, Thomas McFarland, J. Robert Barth, S.J., and others, offering diverse approaches to Coleridge's theories regarding the role and function of the imagination.

Harding, Anthony John. "Inspiration and the Historical Sense in 'Kubla Khan'." The Wordsworth Circle XIII, No. 1 (Winter 1982): 3-8.

Analysis of historical and biblical representations in "Kubla Khan."

Henderson, Andrea. "Revolution, Response, and 'Christabel'." English Literary History 57, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 881-900.

Discusses Coleridge's response to the French Revolution as evidenced in "Christabel."

Kessler, Edward. Coleridge's Metaphors of Being. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979, 202 p.

Study of Coleridge's later poetry, demonstrating how Coleridge devoted himself to "bringing poetry into the service of Being, in making it follow the 'working of the mind'."

Knight, G. W. "Coleridge's Divine Comedy." In English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by M. H. Abrams, pp. 158-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Comparison of "Christabel," "The Ancient Mariner," and "Kubla Khan" to Dante's Divina Commedia and the works of Shakespeare. Knight states, "These three poems … may be grouped as a little Divina Commedia exploring in turn Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise."

Magnuson, Paul. Coleridge's Nightmare Poetry. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974, 133 p.

Critical study of the major poems "that reveal an increasing awareness of [Coleridge's] failure to create the self, the resulting fear that gripped him, and the expression of that fear and guilt in dreams."

Mahoney, John L. "'We Must Away': Tragedy and the Imagination in Coleridge's Later Poems." In Coleridge, Keats, and the Imagination: Romanticism and Adam's Dream, edited by J. Robert Barth, S.J., and John L. Mahon ey, pp. 109-34. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

Analysis of the development of Coleridge's poetry across different periods of his life, explaining why scholarship emphasizes the works written before 1800.

Marks, Emerson R. Coleridge on the Language of Verse. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981, 117 p.

Examines Coleridge's applications of his theories relative to diction, rhyme, and meter.

McFarland, Thomas. Originality & Imagination. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, 208 p.

Discusses Coleridge's role in developing the Romantic concept of imagination and belief in divine intervention at the time of poetic creation.

McKim, A. Elizabeth. "'An Epicure in Sound': Coleridge on the Scansion of Verse." English Studies in Canada XVIII, No. 3 (September 1992): 289-300.

Study of Coleridge's use of rhyme and meter in his verse.

Modiano, Raimonda. Coleridge and the Concept of Nature. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985, 270 p.

Examination of Coleridge's philosophical concept of nature and it's manifesation in his poetical works.

Newlyn, Lucy. Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Language of Allusion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, 214 p.

Explains that Coleridge and Wordsworth "mythologized their relationship" in their poetry, "presenting themselves as joint labourers, even while they were moving apart."

Ower, John. "The 'Death-Fires,' the 'Fire-Flags' and the Corposant in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'." Philological Quarterly 70, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 199-218.

Examines metaphysical imagery in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Paley, Morton D. "Apocalypse and Millennium in the Poetry of Coleridge." The Wordsworth Circle XXIII, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 24-34.

Investigation of the influence of millenarian thought on Coleridge's verse.

Parker, Reeve. Coleridge's Meditative Art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975, 270 p.

Analyzes "Dejection: An Ode," and the "Meditative Poems in Blank Verse"—"Frost at Midnight," "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "Hymn Before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni," and "To William Wordsworth"—separately and as a group in order to understand "the process that [Coleridge] variously called 'thinking' or 'reflection' or 'meditation' and valued as a source of consolation and comfort in a troubled life."

Peterfreund, Stuart. "The Way of Immanence, Coleridge, and the Problem of Evil." English Literary History 55, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 125-58.

Explicates the poetical and other writings that reveal Coleridge's theological views in relation to seventeenth-century scientific, philosophical, and religious beliefs.

Piper, H. W. The Singing of Mount Abora: Coleridge's Use of Biblical Imagery and Natural Symbolism in Poetry and Philosophy. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1987, 124 p.

Analysis of the symbolism and imagery of Coleridge's verse.

Randel, Fred V. "Coleridge and the Contentiousness of Romantic Nightingales." Studies in Romanticism 21, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 33-55.

Examination of Coleridge's use of the nightingale as a common Romantic symbol as well as a metaphoric vehicle for his critique of John Milton.

Rowe, M. W. '"Kubla Khan' and the Structure of the Psyche." English: The Journal of the English Association 40, No. 167 (Summer 1991): 145-54.

Psychoanalytic interpretation of "Kubla Khan" as a poem about the psyche and its role in the creative process.

Rudich, Norman. "Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan': His Anti-Political Vision." In Weapons of Criticism: Marxism in America and the Literary Tradition, edited by Norman Rudich, pp. 215—41. Palo Alto, Calif.: Ramparts Press, 1976.

Discusses "Kubla Khan" in its historical and political contexts and ascertains that it is "an anti-political poem in that it decries the blindness of the state to the profoundest truths of human nature, the state's pretentious arrogance, unbounded hubris, pagan hedonism and ultimate failure to represent mankind's aspiration to happiness."

Stevenson, Warren. Nimbus of Glory: A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1983, 98 p.

Regards "Kubla Khan," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and "Christabel" as a unified grouping because of the time and place of their writing. Stevenson's study finds the impact of William Wordsworth on Coleridge to be far greater than previously realized.

Tave, Katherine Bruner. The Demon and the Poet: An Interpretation of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' according to Coleridge's Demonological Sources. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1983, 98 p.

Traces sources Coleridge used for creating "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," concluding that the poem "illustrates the sometimes divergent, sometimes parallel actions of the forces of God and the forces of Evil."

Warren, Robert Penn. "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading." In his Selected Essays, pp. 198-272. New York: Random House, 1951.

Extensive explication of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Watson, George. Coleridge the Poet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966, 147 p.

Critical study of textual influences on Coleridge's poetry and interpretations of his most popular works.

Wheeler, K. M. The Creative Mind in Coleridge 's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, 189 p.

Investigation of the literary, political, and philosophical influences operating in Coleridge's imagery and language in several of his prominent poems.

——. "Disruption and Displacement in Coleridge's 'Christabel'." The Wordsworth Circle XX, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 85-90.

Maintains that "Christabel" "grapples with … fundamental issues of human experience, with, that is, inward nature, basic perception, and self-knowledge as knowledge constitutive of the world."

——. '"Kubla Khan' and Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theories." The Wordsworth Circle XXII, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 15-24.

Argues that despite Coleridge's efforts to "disassociate the poem from its literary tradition," "Kubla Khan" reflects "the concerns and interests of its age."

Woodring, Carl R. Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961, 270 p.

Focuses on social, political, and philosophical themes in Coleridge's poetry.

The Wordsworth Circle XXII, No. 1 (Winter 1991).

Issue devoted to Coleridge, containing eleven papers given at the Coleridge Summer Conference held at Cannington College in Cannington, England, in 1990.

Additional coverage of Coleridge's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 93, 107; DISCovering Authors; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 9; and World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present.

Harold Bloom (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge: The Anxiety of Influence," in New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman, Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. 247-67.

[Bloom is one of the most prominent contemporary American critics and literary theorists. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), he formulated a controversial theory of literary creation called revisionism. Influenced strongly by Freudian theory, Bloom believes that all poets are subject to the influence of earlier poets and that, to develop their own voices, they attempt to overcome this influence through a process of misreading. By misreading, Bloom means a deliberate, personal revision of what has been said by another so that it conforms to one's own vision. In this way the poet creates a singular voice, overcoming the fear of being inferior to poetic predecessors. In addition to his theoretical work, Bloom is one of the foremost authorities on English Romantic poetry and has written widely on the influences of Romanticism in contemporary literature. The following essay was originally presented as a paper at a 1971 conference on Coleridge. He examines why, in his opinion, Coleridge failed to overcome the powerful influence of John Milton's poetry.]

Coleridge observed that "psychologically, Consciousness is the problem," and he added somberly: "almost all is yet to be achieved." How much he achieved, Kathleen Coburn and others are showing us. My concern here is the sadder one of speculating yet again why he did not achieve more as a poet. Walter Jackson Bate has meditated, persuasively and recently, upon Coleridge's human and literary anxieties, particularly in regard to the burden of the past and its inhibiting poetic splendors. I swerve away from Mr. Bate to center the critical meditation upon what might be called the poetics of anxiety, the process of misprision by which any latecomer strong poet attempts to clear an imaginative space for himself. Coleridge could have been a strong poet, as strong as Blake or Wordsworth. He could have been another mighty antagonist for the Great Spectre Milton to engage and, yes, to overcome, but not without contests as titanic as The Four Zoas and The Excursion, and parental victories as equivocal as Jerusalem and The Prelude. But we have no such poems by Coleridge. When my path winds home at the end of this essay, I will speculate as to what these poems should have been. As critical fathers for my quest I invoke first, Oscar Wilde, with his glorious principle that the highest criticism sees the object as in itself it really is not, and second, Wilde's critical father, Walter Pater, whose essay of 1866 on "Coleridge's Writings" seems to me still the best short treatment of Coleridge, and this after a century of commentary. Pater, who knew his debt to Coleridge, knew also the anxiety Coleridge caused him, and Pater therefore came to a further and subtler knowing. In the Organic Analogue, against which the entire soul of the great Epicurean critic rebelled, Pater recognized the product of Coleridge's profound anxieties as a creator. I begin therefore with Pater on Coleridge, and then will move immediately deep into the Coleridgean interior, to look upon Coleridge's fierce refusal to take on the ferocity of the strong poet.

This ferocity, as both Coleridge and Pater well knew, expresses itself as a near-solipsism, an Egotistical Sublime, or Miltonic godlike stance. From 1795 on, Coleridge knew, loved, envied, was both cheered and darkened by the largest instance of that Sublime since Milton himself. He studied constantly, almost involuntarily, the glories of the truly modern strong poet, Wordsworth. Whether he gave Wordsworth rather more than he received, we cannot be certain; we know only that he wanted more from Wordsworth than he received, but then it was his endearing though exasperating weakness that he always needed more love than he could get, no matter how much he got: "To be beloved is all I need, / And whom I love, I love indeed."

Pater understood what he called Coleridge's "peculiar charm," but he resisted it in the sacred name of what he called the "relative" spirit against Coleridge's archaizing "absolute" spirit. In gracious but equivocal tribute to Coleridge he observed:

The literary life of Coleridge was a disinterested struggle against the application of the relative spirit to moral and religious questions. Everywhere he is restlessly scheming to apprehend the absolute; to affirm it effectively; to get it acknowledged. Coleridge failed in that attempt, happily even for him, for it was a struggle against the increasing life of the mind itself…. How did his choice of a controversial interest, his determination to affirm the absolute, weaken or modify his poetic gift?

To affirm the absolute, Pater says, or as we might say, to reject all dualisms except those sanctioned by orthodox Christian thought; this is not materia poetica for the start of the nineteenth century, and if we think of a poem like the "Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni," then we are likely to agree with Pater. We will agree also when he contrasts Wordsworth favorably with Coleridge, and even with Goethe, commending Wordsworth for "that flawless temperament … which keeps his conviction of a latent intelligence in nature within the limits of sentiment or instinct, and confines it to those delicate and subdued shades of expression which perfect art allows." Pater goes on to say that Coleridge's version of Wordsworth's instinct is a philosophical idea, which means that Coleridge's poetry had to be "more dramatic, more self-conscious" than Wordsworth's. But this in turn, Pater insists, means that for aesthetic success ideas must be held loosely, in the relative spirit. One idea that Coleridge did not hold loosely was the Organic Analogue, and it becomes clearer as we proceed in Pater's essay that the aesthetic critic is building toward a passionate assault upon the Organic principle. He quotes Coleridge's description of Shakespeare as "a nature humanized, a genial understanding, directing self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper even than our consciousness." "There," Pater comments, with bitter eloquence, "'the absolute' has been affirmed in the sphere of art; and thought begins to congeal." With great dignity Pater adds that Coleridge has "obscured the true interest of art." By likening the work of art to a living organism, Coleridge does justice to the impression the work may give us, but he "does not express the process by which that work was produced."

M. H. Abrams, in his The Mirror and the Lamp, defends Coleridge against Pater by insisting that Coleridge knew his central problem: "was to use analogy with organic growth to account for the spontaneous, the inspired, and the self-evolving in the psychology of invention, yet not to commit himself as far to the elected figure as to minimize the supervention of the antithetic qualities of foresight and choice." Though Abrams called Pater "shortsighted," I am afraid the critical palms remain with the relative spirit, for Pater's point was not that Coleridge had no awareness of the dangers of using the Organic Analogue, but rather that awareness, here as elsewhere, was no salvation for Coleridge. The issue is whether Coleridge, not Shakespeare, was able to direct "self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness." Pater's complaint is valid because Coleridge, in describing Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, keeps repeating his absolute formula that poems grow from within themselves, that their "wholeness is not in vision or conception, but in an inner feeling of totality and absolute being." As Pater says, "that exaggerated inwardness is barren" because it "withdraws us too far from what we can see, hear, and feel," because it cheats the senses and the emotions of their triumph. I urge Pater's wisdom here not only against Coleridge, though I share Pater's love for Coleridge, but against the formalist criticism that continued in Coleridge's absolute spirit.

What is the imaginative source of Coleridge's disabling hunger for the Absolute? On August 9, 1831, about three years before he died, he wrote in his Notebook: "From my earliest recollection I have had a consciousness of Power without Strength—a perception, an experience, of more than ordinary power with an inward sense of Weakness…. More than ever do I feel this now, when all my fancies still in their integrity are, as it were, drawn inward and by their suppression and compression rendered a mock substitute for Strength." Here again is Pater's barren and exaggerated inwardness, but in a darker context than the Organic principle provided.

This context is Milton's "universe of death," where Coleridge apprehended death-in-life as being "the wretchedness of division." If we stand in that universe, then "we think of ourselves as separated beings, and place nature in antithesis to the mind, as object to subject, thing to thought, death to life." To be so separated is to become, Coleridge says, "a soul-less fixed star, receiving no rays nor influences into my Being, a Solitude which I so tremble at, that I cannot attribute it even to the Divine Nature." This, we can say, is Coleridge's Counter-Sublime, his answer to the anxiety of influence in strong poets. The fear of solipsism is greater in him than the fear of not individuating his own imagination.

As with every other major Romantic, the prime precursor poet for Coleridge was Milton. There is a proviso to be entered here; for all these poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge (only Keats is an exception)—there is a greater Sublime poetry behind Milton, but as its author is a people and not a single poet, and as it is far removed in time, its greatness does not inhibit a new imagination, not unless it is taken as the work of the Prime Precursor Himself, to whom all creation belongs. Only Coleridge acquired a doubly Sublime anxiety of influence, among these poets. Beyond the beauty that has terror in it of Milton was beauty more terrible. In a letter to Thelwall, December 17, 1796, Coleridge wrote: "Is not Milton a sublimer poet than Homer or Virgil? Are not his Personages more sublimely cloathed? And do you not know, that there is not perhaps one page in Milton's Paradise Lost, in which he has not borrowed his imagery from the Scriptures?—I allow, and rejoice that Christ appealed only to the understanding & the affections; but I affirm that, after reading Isaiah, or St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, Homer & Virgil are disgustingly tame to me, & Milton himself barely tolerable." Yet these statements are rare in Coleridge. Frequently, Milton seems to blend with the ultimate Influence, which I think is a normal enough procedure. In 1796, Coleridge also says, in his review of Burke's Letter to a Noble Lord: "It is lucky for poetry, that Milton did not live in our days." Here Coleridge moves toward the center of his concern, and we should remember his formula: "Shakespeare was all men, potentially, except Milton." This leads to a more ambiguous formula, reported to us of a lecture that Coleridge gave on November 28, 1811: "Shakespeare became all things well into which he infused himself, while all forms, all things became Milton—the poet ever present to our minds and more than gratifying us for the loss of the distinct individuality of what he represents." Though Coleridge truly professes himself more than gratified, he admits loss. Milton's greatness is purchased at the cost of something dear to Coleridge, a principle of difference he knows may be flooded out by his monistic yearnings. For Milton, to Coleridge, is a mythic monad in himself. Commenting upon the apostrophe to light at the commencement of the third book of Paradise Lost, Coleridge notes: "In all modern poetry in Christendom there is an under consciousness of a sinful nature, a fleeting away of external things, the mind or subject greater than the object, the reflective character predominant. In the Paradise Lost the sublimest parts are the revelations of Milton's own mind, producing itself and evolving its own greatness; and this is truly so, that when that which is merely entertaining for its objective beauty is introduced, it at first seems a discord." This might be summarized as: where Milton is not, nature is barren, and its significance is that Milton is permitted just such a solitude as Coleridge trembles to imagine for the Divine Being.

Humphry House observed that "Coleridge was quite unbelievably modest about his own poems; and the modesty was of a curious kind, sometimes rather humble and overelaborate." As House adds, Coleridge "dreaded publication" of his poetry, and until 1828, when he was fifty-six, there was nothing like an adequate gathering of his verse. Wordsworth's attitude was no help, of course, and the Hutchinson girls and Dorothy no doubt followed Wordsworth in his judgments. There was Wordsworth, and before him there had been Milton. Coleridge presumably knew what "Tintern Abbey" owed to "Frost at Midnight," but this knowledge nowhere found expression. Must we resort to psychological speculation in order to see what inhibited Coleridge, or are there more reliable aids available?

In the Biographia Literaria Coleridge is not very kind to his pre-Wordsworthian poetry, and particularly to the "Religious Musings." Yet this is where we must seek what went wrong with Coleridge's ambitions, here, and if there were space, in "The Destiny of Nations" fragments (not its arbitrarily yoked-together form of 1817), and in the "Ode to the Departing Year" and "Monody on the Death of Chatterton" in its earlier versions. After Wordsworth had descended upon Coleridge, supposedly as a "know-thyself" admonition from heaven, but really rather more like a new form of the Miltonic blight, then Coleridge's poetic ambitions sustained another kind of inhibition. The Miltonic shadow needs to be studied first in early Coleridge, before a view can be obtained of his maturer struggles with influence.

With characteristic self-destructiveness, Coleridge gave "Religious Musings" the definitive subtitle: "A Desultory Poem, Written on the Christmas Eve of 1794." The rootmeaning of "desultory" is "vaulting," and though Coleridge consciously meant that his poem skipped about and wavered, his imagination meant "vaulting," for "Religious Musings" is a wildly ambitious poem. "This is the time," it begins, in direct recall of Milton's "Nativity" Hymn, yet it follows not the Hymn but the most sublime moments of Paradise Lost, particularly the invocation to Book III. As with the 1802 "Hymn before Sunrise," its great fault as a poem is that it never stops whooping; in its final version I count well over one hundred exclamation-points in just over four hundred lines. Whether one finds this habit in Coleridge distressing or endearing hardly matters; he just never could stop doing it. He whoops because he vaults; he is a high-jumper of the Sublime, and psychologically he could not avoid this. I quote the poem's final passage, with relish and with puzzlement, for I am uncertain as to how good after all it may not be, though it does seem palpably awful. Yet its awfulness is at least Sublime; it is not the drab, flat awfulness of Wordsworth at his common worst in The Excursion or even (heresy to admit this!) in so many passages of The Prelude that we hastily skip by, with our zeal and relief in getting at the great moments. Having just shouted out his odd version of Berkeley, that "Life is a vision shadowy of truth," Coleridge sees "the veiling clouds retire" and God appears in a blaze upon His Throne. Raised to a pitch of delirium by this vision, Coleridge soars aloft to join it:

Contemplant Spirits! ye that hover o'er
With untired gaze the immeasurable fount
Ebullient with creative Deity!
And ye of plastic power, that interfused
Roll through the grosser and material mass
In organizing surge! Holies of God!
(And what if Monads of the infinite mind?)
I haply journeying my immortal course
Shall sometime join your mystic choir! Till then
I discipline my young and novice thought
In ministeries of heart-stirring song,
And aye on Meditation's heaven-ward wing
Soaring aloft I breathe the empyreal air
Of Love, omnific, omnipresent Love,
Whose day-spring rises glorious in my soul
As the great Sun, when he his influence
Sheds on the frost-bound waters—The glad stream
Flows to the ray and warbles as it flows.

Scholars agree that this not terribly pellucid passage somehow combines an early Unitarianism with a later orthodox overlay, as well as quantities of Berkeley, Hartley, Newton, Neo-Platonism, and possibly more esoteric matter. A mere reader will be reminded primarily of Milton, and will be in the right, for Milton counts here and the rest do not. The Spirits Coleridge invokes are Miltonic Angels, though their functions seem to be more complicated. Coleridge confidently assures himself and us that his course is immortal, that he may end up as a Miltonic angel, and so perhaps also a Monad of the infinite mind. In the meantime, he will study Milton's "heart-stirring song." Otherwise, all he needs is Love, which is literally the air he breathes, the sunrise radiating out of his soul in a stream of song, and the natural Sun toward which he flows, a Sun that is not distinct from God. If we reflect on how palpably sincere this is, how wholehearted, and consider what was to be Coleridge's actual poetic course, then we will be moved. Moved to what? Well, perhaps to remember a remark of Coleridge's: "There are many men, especially at the outset of life, who, in their too eager desire for the end, overlook the difficulties in the way; there is another class, who see nothing else. The first class may sometimes fail; the latter rarely succeed." What ever the truth of this for other men, no man becomes a strong poet unless he starts out with a certain obliviousness of the difficulties in the way. But soon enough he will meet those difficulties, and one of them will be that his precursor and inspirer threatens to subsume him, as Coleridge is subsumed by Milton in "Religious Musings" and his other pre-Wordsworthian poems. And here, I shall digress massively, before returning to Coleridge's poetry, for I enter now upon the enchanted and baleful ground of poetic influence, through which I am learning to find my way by a singular light, which will bear a little explanation.

I do not believe that poetic influence is simply something that happens, that it is just the process by which ideas and images are transmitted from earlier to later poets. On that view, whether or not influence causes anxiety in the later poet is a matter of temperament and circumstance. Poetic influence thus reduces to source-study, of the kind performed upon Coleridge by Lowes and later scholars. Coleridge was properly scornful of such study, and I think most critics learn how barren an enterprise it turns out to be. I myself have no use for it as such, and what I mean by the study of poetic influence turns source-study inside out. The first principle of the proper study of poetic influence, as I conceive it, is that no strong poem has sources and no strong poem merely alludes to another poem. The meaning of a strong poem is another strong poem, a precursor's poem which is being misinterpreted, revised, corrected, evaded, twisted askew, made to suffer an inclination or bias which is the property of the later and not the earlier poet. Poetic influence, in this sense, is actually poetic misprision, a poet's taking or doing amiss of a parent-poem that keeps finding him, to use a Coleridgean turn-of-phrase. Yet even this misprision is only the first step that a new poet takes when he advances from the early phase where his precursor floods him, to a more Promethean phase where he quests for his own fire, which nevertheless must be stolen from his precursor.

I count some half-dozen steps in the life-cycle of the strong poet, as he attempts to convert his inheritance into what will aid him without inhibiting him by the anxiety of a failure in priority, a failure to have begotten himself. These steps are revisionary ratios, and for the convenience of shorthand, I find myself giving them arbitrary names, which are proving useful to me, and perhaps can be of use to others. I list them herewith, with descriptions but not examples, as this can only be a brief sketch, and I must get back to Coleridge's poetry, but I hope, with this list helpfully in hand, to find my examples in Coleridge.

1. Clinamen, which is poetic misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a "swerve" of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. The later poet swerves away from the precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as the corrective movement of his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves.

2. Tessera, which is completion and antithesis; I take the word not from mosaic-making, where it is still used, but from the ancient Mystery-cults, where it meant a token of recognition, the fragment, say, of a small pot which with the other fragments would reconstitute the vessel. The later poet antithetically "completes" the precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in an opposite sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.

3. Kenosis, which is a breaking-device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetitioncompulsions; kenosis, then, is a movement toward discontinuity with the precursor. I take the word from St. Paul, where it means the humbling or emptying-out of Jesus by himself, when he accepts reduction from Divine to human status. The later poet, apparently emptying himself of his own afflatus, his imaginative godhood, seems to humble himself as though he ceased to be a poet, but this ebbing is so performed in relation to a precursor's poem-of-ebbing that the precursor is emptied out also, and so the later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems.

4. Daemonization, or a movement toward a personalized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor's Sublime; I take the term from general Neo-Platonic usage, where an intermediary being, neither Divine nor human, enters into the adept to aid him. The later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond that precursor. He does this, in his poem, by so stationing its relation to the parent-poem as to generalize away the uniqueness of the earlier work.

5. Askesis, or a movement of self-purgation which intends the attainment of a state of solitude; I take the term, general as it is, particularly from the practice of pre-Socratic shamans like Empedocles. The later poet does not, as in kenosis, undergo a revisionary movement of emptying, but of curtailing; he yields up part of his own and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others, including the precursor, and he does this in his poem by so stationing it in regard to the parent-poem as to make that poem undergo an askesis also; the precursor's endowment is also truncated.

6. Apophrades, or the return of the dead; I take the word from the Athenian dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead returned to reinhabit the houses in which they had lived. The later poet, in his own final phase, already burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism, holds his own poem so open again to the precursor's work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle, and that we are back in the later poet's flooded apprenticeship, before his strength began to assert itself in the revisionary ratios of clinamen and the others. But the poem is now held open to the precursor, where once it was open, and the uncanny effect is that the new poem's achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor's characteristic work.

These then are six revisionary ratios, and I think they can be observed, usually in cyclic appearance, in the life's work of every post-Enlightenment strong poet, which in English means, for practical purposes, every post-Miltonic strong poet. Coleridge, to return now where I began, had the potential of the strong poet, but declined the full process of developing into one, unlike Blake, Wordsworth, and the major poets after them down to Yeats and Stevens in our time. Yet his work, even in its fragmentary state, demonstrates this revisionary cycle in spite of himself. My ulterior purpose in this discussion is to use Coleridge as an instance because he is apparently so poor an example of the cycle I have sketched. But that makes him a sterner test for my theory of influence than any other poet I could have chosen.

I return to Coleridge's first mature poetry, and to its clinamen away from Milton, the Cowperizing turn that gave Coleridge the Conversation Poems, particularly "Frost at Midnight." Hazlitt quotes Coleridge as having said to him in the spring of 1798 that Cowper was the best modern poet, meaning the best since Milton, which was also Blake's judgment. Humphry House demonstrated the relation between "Frost at Midnight" and The Task, which is the happy one, causing no anxieties, where a stronger poet appropriates from a weaker one. Coleridge used Cowper as he used Bowles, Akenside, and Collins, finding in all of them hints that could help him escape the Miltonic influx that had drowned out "Religious Musings." "Frost at Midnight," like The Task, swerves away from Milton by softening him, by domesticating his style in a context that excludes all Sublime terrors. When Coleridge rises to his blessing of his infant son at the poem's conclusion he is in some sense poetically "misinterpreting" the beautiful declaration of Adam to Eve: "With thee conversing I forget all time," gentling the darker overtones of the infatuated Adam's declaration of love. Or, more simply, like Cowper he is not so much humanizing Milton—that will take the strenuous, head-on struggles of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats—as he is making Milton more childlike, or perhaps better, reading Milton as though Milton loved in a more childlike way.

The revisionary step beyond this, an antithetical completion or tessera, is ventured by Coleridge only in a few pantheistic passages that sneaked past his orthodox censor, like the later additions to "The Eolian Harp," or the veiled vision at the end of the second verse paragraph of "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison." With his horror of division, his endless quest for unity, Coleridge could not sustain any revisionary impulse which involved his reversing Milton, or daring to complete that sacred father.

But the next revisionary ratio, the kenosis or self-emptying, seems to me almost obsessive in Coleridge's poetry, for what is the total situation of the Ancient Mariner but a repetition-compulsion, which his poet breaks for himself only by the writing of the poem, and then breaks only momentarily. Coleridge had contemplated an Epic on the Origin of Evil, but we may ask: where would Coleridge, if pressed, have located the origin of evil in himself? His Mariner is neither depraved in will nor even disobedient, but is merely ignorant, and the spiritual machinery his crime sets into motion is so ambiguously presented as to be finally beyond analysis. I would ask the question: what was Coleridge trying (not necessarily consciously) to do for himself by writing the poem? and by this question I do not mean Kenneth Burke's notion of trying to do something for oneself as a person. Rather, what was Coleridge the poet trying to do for himself as poet? To which I would answer: trying to free himself from the inhibitions of Miltonic influence, by humbling his poetic self, and so humbling the Miltonic in the process. The Mariner does not empty himself out; he starts empty and acquires a Primary Imagination through his suffering. But, for Coleridge, the poem is a kenosis, and what is being humbled is the Miltonic Sublime's account of the Origin of Evil. There is a reduction from disobedience to ignorance, from the self-aggrandizing consciousness of Eve to the painful awakening of a minimal consciousness in the Mariner.

The next revisionary step in clearing an imaginative space for a maturing strong poet is the Counter-Sublime, the attaining of which I have termed daemonization, and this I take to be the relation of "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel" to Paradise Lost. Far more than "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," these poems demonstrate a trafficking by Coleridge with powers that are daemonic, even though the "Rime" explicitly invokes Neo-Platonic daemons in its marginal glosses. Opium was the avenging daemon or alastor of Coleridge's life, his Dark or Fallen Angel, his experiential acquaintance with Milton's Satan. Opium was for him what wandering and moral taletelling became for the Mariner—the personal shape of repetition-compulsion. The lust for paradise in "Kubla Khan," Geraldine's lust for Christabel; these are manifestations of Coleridge's revisionary daemonization of Milton, these are Coleridge's Counter-Sublime. Poetic Genius, the genial spirit itself, Coleridge must see as daemonic when it is his own, rather than when it is Milton's.

It is at this point in the revisionary cycle that Coleridge begins to back away decisively from the ferocity necessary for the strong poet. He does not sustain his daemonization, closes his eyes in holy dread, stands outside the circumference of the daemonic agent, and is startled by his own sexual daring out of finishing "Christabel." He moved on to the revisionary ratio I have called askesis, or the purgation into solitude, the curtailing of some imaginative powers in the name of others. In doing so, he prophesied the pattern for Keats in The Fall of Hyperion, since in his askesis he struggles against the influence of a composite poetic father, Milton-Wordsworth. The great poems of this askesis are "Dejection: An Ode" and "To William Wordsworth," where criticism has demonstrated to us how acute the revision of Wordsworth's stance is, and how much of himself Coleridge purges away to make this revision justified. I would add only that both poems misread Milton as sensitively and desperately as they do Wordsworth; the meaning of "Dejection" is in its relation to "Lycidas" as much as in its relation to the "Intimations" Ode, even as the poem "To William Words-worth" assimilates The Prelude to Paradise Lost. Trapped in his own involuntary dualisms, longing for a monistic wholeness such as he believes he is found by in Milton and Wordsworth, Coleridge in his askesis declines to see how much of his composite parent-poet he has purged away also.

After that, sadly enough, we have only a very few occasional poems of any quality by Coleridge, and they are mostly not the poems of a strong poet, that is, of a man vaulting into the Sublime. Having refused the full exercise of a strong poet's misprisions, Coleridge ceased to have poetic ambitions. But there is a significant exception, the late manuscript fragment "Limbo" and evidently still-later fragment "Ne Plus Ultra." Here, and I think here only, Coleridge experiences the particular reward of the strong poet in his last phase, what I have called the apophrades or return of the dead, not a Counter-Sublime but a negative Sublime, like the Last Poems of Yeats or The Rock of Stevens. Indeed, negative sublimity is the mode of these Coleridgean fragments, and indicates to us what Coleridge might have become had he permitted himself enough of the perverse zeal that the great poet must exhibit in malforming his great precursor. "Limbo" and "Ne Plus Ultra" show that Coleridge could have become, at last, the poet of the Miltonic abyss, the bard of Demogorgon. Even as they stand, these fragments make us read Book II of Paradise Lost a little differently; they enable Coleridge to claim a corner of Milton's Chaos as his own.

Pater thought that Coleridge had succumbed to the Organic Analogue, because he hungered too intensely for eternity, as Lamb had said of his old school-friend. Pater also quoted De Quincey's summary of Coleridge: "he wanted better bread than can be made with wheat." I would add that Coleridge hungered also for an eternity of generosity between poets, as between people, a generosity that is not allowed in a world where each poet must struggle to individuate his own breath, and this at the expense of his forebears as much as his contemporaries. Perhaps also, to modify De Quincey, Coleridge wanted better poems than can be made without misprision.

I suggest then that the Organic Analogue, with all its pragmatic neglect of the processes by which poems have to be produced, appealed so overwhelmingly to Coleridge because it seemed to preclude the anxiety of influence, and to obviate the poet's necessity not just to unfold like a natural growth but to develop at the expense of others. Whatever the values of the Organic Analogue for literary criticism—and I believe, with Pater, that it does more harm than good—it provided Coleridge with a rationale for a dangerous evasion of inner steps he had to take for his own poetic development. As Blake might have said, Coleridge's imagination insisted upon slaying itself on the stems of generation, or to invoke another Blakean image, Coleridge lay down to sleep upon the Organic Analogue as though it were a Beulah-couch of soft, moony repose.

What was our loss in this? What poems might a stronger Coleridge have composed? The Notebooks list The Origin of Evil, an Epic Poem, Hymns to the Sun, the Moon, and the Elementssix hymns, and more fascinating even than these, a scheme for an epic on "the destruction of Jerusalem" by the Romans. Still more compelling is a March, 1802, entry in the Notebooks: "Milton, a Monody in the metres of Samson's Choruses—only with more rhymes / —poetical influences—political-moral-Dr. Johnson/". Consider the date of this entry, only a month before the first draft of "Dejection," and some sense of what Milton, a Monody might have been begins to be generated. In March, 1802, William Blake, in the midst of his sojourn at Hayley's Felpham, was deep in the composition of Milton: A Poem in 2 Books, to Justify the Ways of God to Men. In the brief, enigmatic notes for Milton, a Monody Coleridge sets down "—poetical influences—political-moral-Dr. Johnson," the last being, we can assume, a refutation of Johnson's vision of Milton in The Lives of the Poets, a refutation that Cowper and Blake would have endorsed. "Poetical influences" Coleridge says, and we may recall that this is one of the themes of Blake's Milton, where the Shadow of the Poet Milton is one with the Covering Cherub, the great blocking-agent who inhibits fresh human creativity by embodying in himself all the sinister beauty of tradition. Blake's Milton is a kind of monody in places, not as a mourning for Milton, but as Milton's own, solitary utterance, as he goes down from a premature Eternity (where he is unhappy) to struggle again in fallen time and space. I take it though that Milton, a Monody would be modeled upon Coleridge's early "Monody on the Death of Chatterton," and so would have been Coleridge's lamentation for his Great Original. Whether, as Blake was doing at precisely the same time, Coleridge would have dared to identify Milton as the Covering Cherub, as the angel or daemon blocking Coleridge himself out from the poet's paradise, I cannot surmise. I wish deeply that Coleridge had written the poem.

It is ungrateful, I suppose, as the best of Coleridge's recent scholars keep telling us, to feel that Coleridge did not give us the poems he had it in him to write. Yet we have, all apology aside, only a double handful of marvelous poems by him. I close therefore by attempting a description of the kind of poem I believe Coleridge's genius owed us, and which we badly need, and always will need. I would maintain that the finest achievement of the High Romantic poets of England was their humanization of the Miltonic Sublime. But when we attend deeply to the works where this humanization is most strenuously accomplished—Blake's Milton and Jerusalem, The Prelude, Prometheus Unbound, the two Hyperions, even in a way Don Juan—we sense at last a quality lacking, in which Milton abounds, for all his severity. This quality, though not in itself a tenderness, made Milton's Eve possible, and we miss such a figure in all her Romantic descendants. More than the other five great Romantic poets, Coleridge was able, by temperament and by subtly shaded intellect, to have given us a High Romantic Eve, a total humanization of the tenderest and most appealing element in the Miltonic Sublime. Many anxieties blocked Coleridge from that rare accomplishment, and of these the anxiety of influence was not the least.

Reeve Parker (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge's 'Hymn Before Sun-rise': Mont Blanc, Mon Frère, Mon Semblable," in Coleridge's Meditative Art, Cornell, 1975, pp. 144-72.

[In the following excerpt, Parker explores the biographical, psychological, and textual influences at work in "Hymn before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni."]

["Dejection: An Ode," "To William Wordsworth Composed on the Night after His Recitation of a Poem on the Growth of the Individual Mind," and "Hymn Before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni"] in varying degrees of explicitness, derive from what by all odds was Coleridge's besetting preoccupation as a poet during the period of roughly ten years following his first major successes in a meditative style, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" and "Frost at Midnight." That preoccupation was, to put it simply, Wordsworth. More and more in the years following 1798 an increasingly anxious Coleridge turned to him for support, friendship, and a precarious self-definition….

The most problematic of the three poems is the "Hymn Before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni." I think it calls for the boldest departure from traditional readings. Coleridge's hope that it would eventually gain something of the high admiration readers in his own day accorded to "The Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel" has remained unfulfilled. It would be simplifying subsequent history to say that De Quincey's exposure, two months after Coleridge's death, of the "plagiarism" from Friederika Brun's ode "Chamouny Beim Sonnenaufgange" cast the poem in a shadow from which it has never emerged, but the fact is that the poem has found few enthusiastic readers even after much has been done to enhance appreciation of Coleridge's meditative poetry. Though some readers today are inclined to make rather less of the plagiarism charge or, with Adrian Bonjour, to insist on the essential originality of the poem's inspiration despite an indebtedness to several sources, still it seems generally felt that Coleridge was not at ease in what Southey might have called a Dutch attempt at Swiss sublimity. Most readers find its stridency uninteresting and its worshipful posturing uncongenial, if not actually distasteful. The truth is we like our reverence laid on less heavily.

In the most extensive and generous appreciation of the hymn that has yet appeared, Harold Bloom—one of Coleridge's sympathetic readers—uses it as a minor term for comparison with the more exciting powers of Shelley's "Mont Blanc." He comments [in his Shelley's Mythmaking, 1959] that its notorious stridency undoubtedly stems from the strength with which Coleridge sought to revitalize the modes of Christian orthodoxy in his own poetry: "To have challenged the poet of Job, as Coleridge comes very close to doing, on his own prime ground is not an inconsiderable achievement." For others, the poem is rather less satisfactory, a reversion, after Coleridge's success in the so-called conversational mode, to the frenetic pseudosublimity of such earlier efforts as "Religious Musings" and the "deep preluding strains" of his contribution to Joan of Arc, evidence that Coleridge's was at best a minor talent when he strained after the mode of sublime genius. This [essay] is not intended as a head-on refutation of that verdict, which is in any case partly a matter of taste. What I hope to establish is that the poem deserves to be judged in a rather more complicated biographical, psychological, and literary context than has so far been supposed⁢.

Among those who regard the "Hymn Before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni" with substantial interest, only Adrian Bonjour has seen the poem as a significant document in the psychological and literary life of the poet. His contention, surely accurate, is that the writing and publication of the poem (on September 11, 1802, in the Morning Post) are best seen as gestures related to Coleridge's "Dejection crisis." Bonjour, however, invokes the crisis chiefly to explain Coleridge's embarrassing duplicity over the plagiarism from Friederika Brun's poem. Positing in the summer of 1802 a resurgence of interest in poetry and something of a recovery from the crippling despair of the spring, Bonjour argues [in his Coleridge's Hymn Before Sunrise, 1942] that

this new atmosphere probably contributed to bring about the impulse which led him to the composition of a new poem…. We can suspect that the German poem seemed afterward somewhat obtrusive. If he could not really dismiss it in his own eyes, is it too adventurous to assume that he was tempted to ignore it when he came to publish the "Hymn," so that it should remain unknown to those friends whose opinion was of some weight to him, and whom he wished to feel confident again in his own power?

The point is that Coleridge's use of Brun's ode was a triumph of meditative playfulness over anxiety. Distant Swiss sublimities were more appropriate than local English ones to the kind of poetic fiction Coleridge was intent

upon, and Mont Blanc before sunrise made a richer and more oblique setting for the allegory, which, as I conceive it, is an imaginative meditation on his relationship with Wordsworth at a juncture in their personal lives Coleridge was compelled to acknowledge and define. If we bear in mind Coleridge's probable state of mind as he set out on the walking trip during which he allegedly composed the Hymn, we can make some tentative guesses at the nature of the "Thoughts and Emotions in which there was no Mockery" that were imaged and uttered in the Hymn.

In August and September 1802 the friendship of Words-worth and Coleridge must have seemed to be approaching a crisis, about which Coleridge at least was no doubt apprehensive. It had been through many stages of growth and, for both of them, many trials, stemming largely, one guesses, from Coleridge's need, especially in his unhappy marriage and his deepening opium addiction, for steady evidence of love and esteem and from Wordsworth's own steady wish for independence from such encumbering claims. The months since early winter had seen the friendship sorely tested through Coleridge's mercurial pursuit of Sara Hutchinson's affections (partly no doubt as a way of establishing some safe nexus to the increasingly Edenic Wordsworth ménage at Grasmere) and through Words-worth's enviable resolve in moving finally to settle the lingering claims of Annette and Caroline Vallon [Wordsworth's former lover, whom he had met in France in December, 1791, and their daughter], and thus clear the way for marriage to Mary Hutchinson. (Coleridge's Sca'Fell trip coincided, significantly, with the visit of William and [his sister] Dorothy to Calais to conclude arrangements with the Vallons.) However dispassionately we may be inclined, from the perspective of time and psychoanalytic hypothesis, to regard that upcoming marriage as a move of premeditated sexual politics undertaken to stabilize passion (whether deflected from Dorothy or not), it was for Coleridge an act and occasion of consummate importance and one he was inclined, as various pieces of notebook evidence indicate, to idealize. Since late 1799, Grasmere had been the goal of his imaginary and actual pedestrian journeys. Dorothy's journals and his own letters make that plain. He had watched, with what ambivalent feelings one can guess, while Wordsworth not only made substantial headway on The Recluse ("Home at Grasmere" was drafted in 1800 and "The Pedlar" perfected during the winter of 1801-1802) but also turned out with impressive rapidity some thirty-odd shorter lyrics, among them the first stanzas of the "Intimations Ode" and all of "Resolution and Independence." The evidence indicated that Wordsworth was emerging, like Mont Blanc, from the dark night of doubts and personal anxieties that had, at least to Coleridge's mind, beset him, and that he was entering on a career of radiant and productive creativity, secure in the undersong of domestic affections Coleridge likened to the "still hive at quiet midnight humming."

The Arve and Arveiron at thy base
Rave ceaselessly; but thou, most awful Form!
Risest from forth thy silent sea of pines,
How silently! Around thee and above
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!

(In "The Ancient Mariner" a similar moment of yearning perception of the moon and stars in their heavenly progress had occasioned for the mariner his release from the burden of the slain albatross: as Coleridge's prose gloss subsequently put it, "In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival." Coleridge, we know, was wont to live out the myth of the mariner, and the conjunction of Wordsworth's emerging day and his own darkness in dejection may have seemed one more occasion for such imaginative activity.) Though the idea may seem at first wholly improbable, I want to suggest that, on the analogy of the "still wilder" 1819 allegory, Mont Blanc is a figure for Wordsworth, a "bald awful head" that, in the opening lines of the poem, seems to exercise a mighty sway over the very heavens, to hold (in Coleridge's Miltonic phrase) "the moon and stars in fee":

Hast thou a charm to stay the morning-star
In his steep course? So long he seems to pause
On thy bald awful head, O sovran blanc.

Bloom has noted, tentatively, elements of anthropomorphism in the Hymn that give the mountain "almost the status of a Miltonic angel, contending against the dark forces of night." But it would be an error, I think, to seek in all the topographical details of the scene vehicles for implicit human—in this case Wordsworthian—tenors. With Coleridge, allegory tends to be both less painstaking and more strenuously inventive than that. Consider, for example, this notebook entry a year and a half previous to the Hymn:

The soil is a deep, rich, dark Mould on a deep Stratum of tenacious Clay, and that on a foundation of Rocks, which often break through both Strata, lifting their back above the Surface. The Trees, which chiefly grow here, are the gigantic Black Oak, Magnolia, Fraxinus excelsior, Platane, & a few stately Tulip Trees.—Bart, p. 36. I applied this by a fantastic analogue & similitude to Wordsworth's Mind. March 26 1801. Fagus exaltata sylvatica.

In the "Hymn Before Sun-rise," the massive strength and aloof, silent self-possession of the lofty mountain generate in the beholder language instinct with the awed reverence Coleridge, especially in his moments of anxious, generous self-abasement, was inclined to offer Wordsworth.

An implicit temporal structure informs Coleridge's Hymn. The chief narrative event is the emergence of the summit of Mont Blanc from the black of night to the light of day and, then, the progressive downward illumination of the mountain flanks by the sunlight, a light whose direct rays are still denied to the poet watching from the Vale of Chamouny. The Hymn is "before Sun-rise" but not "before dawn," and in fact constitutes a morning hymn in praise of God's works sung by one still himself in the shade of night. Read as an allegorical celebration of Wordsworth's emergent being as poet and husband, two roles Coleridge cherished unavailingly for himself, the revelation, in the direct light of the rising sun, of the manifold energies and beauties of Mont Blanc represents Coleridge's perhaps envious but certainly yearning blessing of the marriage as the event to finally domesticate and humanize, in effect to realize, the sublime austerity of his Friend. (Or, as he addressed Wordsworth in a letter nearly two years after, "the man, for whom I must find another name than Friend, if I call any others but him by the name of Friend" [from Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Volume 2, edited by E. L. Griggs, 1956-1971].)

As a morning hymn, the poem has a literary precedent, which Harold Bloom has noted, in the voice of Jehovah speaking out of the whirlwind to Job. Another is that of the Psalmist, especially the singer of Psalms 19 and 148, or that of the canticle Coleridge would have heard as a child hundreds of times at services in Ottery St. Mary and Christ's Hospital, Benedicite omnia opera, from the Book of Common Prayer. But in his 1819 letter Coleridge also cited "Milton's Hymn" as an analogy. The best guess, I think, is that he had in mind the morning song of Adam and Eve (Paradise Lost, V, 153-209), a "hymn" both Wordsworth and Coleridge would have known not only in the context of the poem they revered beyond all others but also as a famous anthology piece. The presunrise hymn of praise by our first parents, rising from their nuptial bower in prelude to their daily labors in Eden, would have been for Coleridge a moving text by which to measure his sense of Wordsworth's emerging Grasmere paradise:

Fairest of stars, last in the train of night,
If better thou belong not to the dawn,
Sure pledge of day, that crown'st the smiling morn
With thy bright circlet, praise him in thy sphere
While day arises, that sweet hour of prime.
Thou sun, of this great world both eye and soul,
Acknowledge him thy greater, sound his praise
In thy eternal course, both when thou climb'st,
And when high noon hast gained, and when thou fall'st….
Ye mists and exhalations that now rise
From hill or steaming lake, dusky or grey,
Till the sun paint your fleecy skirts with gold,
In honour to the world's great author rise,
Whether to deck with clouds the uncoloured sky,
Or wet the thirsty earth with falling showers,
Rising or falling still advance his praise.
His praise ye winds, that from four quarters blow,
Breathe soft or loud; and wave your tops, ye pines,
With every plant, in sign of worship wave.
Fountains and ye, that warble, as ye flow,
Melodious murmurs, warbling tune his praise.
[V, 166-196]

Is it too implausible to suggest that Coleridge's lines may have had a nearer terrain than the Vale of Chamouny for their allegorical locus? ("Now he never was at Chamouni, or near it, in his life," said Wordsworth in 1844 [in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, edited by Alexander B. Grosart, 3 volumes, 1876].) And that the sublime form, the summit of all Europe, should have been a playful metaphor for his friend?

The most striking (and most revised) passage in Coleridge's Hymn is the one he recalled, in the 1819 letter, as having particularly drawn Wordsworth's censure: "I described myself under the influence of strong devotional feelings gazing on the Mountain till as if it had been a Shape emanating from and sensibly representing her own essence, my Soul had become diffus'd thro' 'the mighty Vision'; and there 'As in her natural Form, swell'd vast to Heaven.'" Coleridge then went on to offer this apology for the passage, which has, I think, often been misunderstood: "For from my very childhood I have been accustomed to abstract and as it were unrealize whatever of more than common interest my eyes dwelt on; and then by a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the Object." In the Morning Post version this passage ran thus:

O dread and silent form! I gaz'd upon thee,
Till thou, still present to my bodily eye,
Did'st vanish from my thought. Entranc'd in pray'r
I worshipped the invisible alone.
Yet thou, meantime, wast working on my soul,
E'en like some sweet enhanting melody,
So sweet, we know not, we are list'ning to it.

And in revision the lines were expanded to this final version:

It is probably impossible to identify behind this language a single Ur-experience that took place on the slopes of Sca'Fell in August, 1802. It is true, according to a letter to Sara Hutchinson, that at one point in the descent from the summit, during a particularly harrowing passage when Coleridge felt himself foolishly and helplessly trapped on a series of ledges, he lapsed into a kind of visionary state:

My Limbs were all in a tremble—I lay upon my Back to rest myself, & was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly & so rapidly northward, overawed me / I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight—& blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason & the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us.

But if the prayerful trance in the Hymn had its genesis in this triumph of "Reason & the Will" over the potential terror of Coleridge's Sca'Fell plight, it is a far different utterance in a substantially altered context. The Sca'Fell letter suggests no mediating presence of the mountain nor any striking process of visionary "identification" with the mountain that prepares the experience of exultation. In all versions of the Hymn that experience of entranced self-projection and blending with the mountain's huge shape serves as a transition leading the poet from the blank, awed sense of darkness and silence associated with the dread of the sublime to the sense of a joyous, mediated participation in the fully uttered worship of the natural universe. We may compare the experience to Coleridge's description of the stranger in the Sibylline Leaves (1828) version of "Frost at Midnight":

Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
To which the living spirit in our frame,
That loves not to behold a lifeless thing,
Transfuses its own pleasures, its own will.

Paraphrasing a notebook passage, Kathleen Coburn argues, that with Coleridge "images must fuse, melt, dim, and unfix themselves, fused by an energy that has more than the cerebral at stake, that is concerned with knowledge not merely as percepts and concepts but knowledge as emotive, as animating, as power" ["Reflexions in a Coleridge Mirror: Some Images in His Poems," in From Sensibility to Romanticism]. Part of the long passage she then cites speaks of "the worth & dignity of poetic Imagination, of the fusing power, that fixing unfixes & while it melts & bedims the Image, still leaves in the Soul its living meaning." The similarity of this language to that of the identification passage in its expanded version suggests that Coleridge shaped the moment in the poem as an experience of imaginative activity.

In the poem, that moment coincides, apparently (though the scheme of verb tenses, shifting from narrative present to past and back once more to present, is obscure at this point), with the uncanny transition from the absolute blackness of night to the first intimations, brought with the morning star, of the rosy hue of dawn. The earnest of day and life in that transition mediates for the poet—and for the mountain, "struggling with the darkness all the night—the dreadful isolation and desolation of the night."

Coleridge's controversial "identification" passage presents further evidence of his propensity for reimagining a Miltonic situation so as to elicit from it subtle resonance and informing significance for his own verse. The passage has its chief inspiration in Adam's account to Raphael of his creation, when he recalls how, led into Eden and given dominion over the beasts, he had pursued God boldly and presumptuously about his need for a companion and mate. God, testing Adam's faith and insight into his condition, counters with the example of His own solitude; whereupon Adam, humbly but still with the license of boldness, responds that Man is by nature deficient, as God is not, and therefore seeks "By conversation with his like to help / Or solace his defects." God then praises Adam's self-knowledge, declaring:

Adam's narrative is one of those striking passages in Paradise Lost when Milton, depicting man conversing with God, is concerned to preserve, even if somewhat cumbersomely, human initiative and strength in the face of divine omnipotence and omniscience. The strain of presenting his case takes its toll of Adam, however, and what follows is the moment in Adam's reminiscence when, exhausted by the effort of conversation with God, he collapses as in a trance:

Out of Adam's sublime trance is born, in Milton's words, "Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self, / Thy wish, exactly to thy heart's desire"; awaking to find his dream true, Adam finds the fit counterpart of himself, what his spirit had been yearing for, in Eve, a Creature

Out of the yearning struggle with the Almighty, Adam is vouchsafed an "other self," a double in the world, a counterpart to supply his sense of incompleteness and bring his situation into an approximation of God's.

Such moments of narcissistic fulfillment appealed to Coleridge. We have other evidence in the lines of "Frost at Midnight" where the poet recalls his loneliness at Christ's Hospital and his yearning for the visit of "Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved, / My playmate when we both were clothed alike!" and in Osorio, when Maria voices her fidelity to Albert, "Were we not born on one day / Nursed in one cradle?" And that Coleridge had this part of Milton's Eden story in mind at the time we may infer from a contemporary poem, "To Matilda Betham" (which he quoted in the letter to Sotheby cited above) where, playfully celebrating Matilda Betham's poetic gifts, Coleridge proposes that

The Almighty, having first composed a Man,
Set him to music, framing Woman for him,
And fitted each to each, and made them one!
And 'tis my faith, that there's a natural bond
Between the female mind and measured sounds.

The association here of a "sweet enchanting melody" and the creation of a visionary counterpart is also part of the landscape experience of the "Hymn Before Sun-rise," where the poet imagines that his soul has found "her natural form" (my emphasis) in the mountain. But if Coleridge explores his situation, by analogy, as Adam's, moving through sublime colloquy and trance to visionary satisfaction, he may also be using that analogy, as I have suggested, to address himself to Wordsworth, and especially to the occasion of marrying Mary Hutchinson. The appropriateness of Coleridge's adaptation of the "trance" passage from Paradise Lost is illuminated if we recall Adam's account to Raphael, just after the narrative of his trance, of leading the woman to the nuptial bower:

I led her blushing like the morn: all heaven,
And happy constellations on that hour
Shed their selectest influence; the earth
Gave sign of gratulation, and each hill;
Joyous the birds; fresh gales and gentle airs
Whispered it to the woods, and from their wings
Flung rose, flung odours from the spicy shrub,
Disporting, till the amorous bird of night
Sung spousal, and bid haste the evening star
On his hill top, to light the bridal lamp.
[VIII, 511-520]

Seen in the allegorical light created out of these passages in Milton, the "Hymn Before Sun-rise" is more obviously in keeping with the familiar pattern of Coleridge's meditative poems. To address Mont Blanc and to celebrate its living nature in an adaptation of Adam's experience of the spousal mediation of his sublime vacancy is to offer, simultaneously, a gesture of blessing toward his friend on the eve of his wedding. (That Wordsworth, in the section of The Recluse known as "Home at Grasmere," also likened himself to Adam and his poetic situation to that of a spousal consummation with nature may have provided Coleridge with the impetus his analogical mind wanted.) It is a gesture that permits him, again momentarily as in "Dejection: An Ode" (and as in "To William Wordsworth" four years later), to shed the burden of his own personal distress and to participate imaginatively in the bliss he wished for his friend.

The cost of that momentary easing of distress, though strictly speaking incalculable, was no doubt great. Geoffrey Hartman has recently emphasized, in connection with the "Hymn Before Sun-rise," how intimately connected in Coleridge are the impulse to the sublime and the process of sublimating anxiety through self-sacrifice. The stridency in the poem, which resonates with momentary efforts at sublimity in "Dejection: An Ode" …, can be seen as an aspect of the exhausting effort involved in attempting over the years to transcend his own feelings of rivalry with his friend Wordsworth, just as the loving and gladsome self-abasement in the company of greater poetic brethren in the allegory he projected in 1819 can be seen as generosity achieved at the cost of his own need for self-assertion. We should not ignore the stridency, nor should we imagine that if he had written that parable of the rocks as a poem, it would have been any less strident than the "Hymn Before Sun-rise": too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart. What I wish to emphasize again, however, is the resourcefulness Coleridge was capable of in elaborating such meditative fantasies. If the 1802 "Hymn" remains a minor achievement, its context in Coleridge's personal history suggests again the importance, in interpreting his meditative poems, of seeing his analogical propensities at work as they inform his personal experience with a rich literary tradition.

Jerome J. McGann (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: "The Meaning of 'The Ancient Mariner'," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 35-67.

[In the following excerpt, McGann argues that Coleridge's revisions of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" reflect the author's evolving theory of literary criticism, which derived from Biblical analysis. According to McGann, the marginal glosses added to the 1817 version of the poem, in particular, create the effect of a work of great antiquity that has passed through various versions and redactions.]

What does "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" mean? This question, in one form or another, has been asked of the poem from the beginning; indeed, so interesting and so dominant has this question been that Coleridge's poem now serves as one of our culture's standard texts for introducing students to poetic interpretation. The question has been, and still is, an important one, and I shall try to present here yet another answer to it. My approach, however, will differ slightly from the traditional ones, for I do not believe that we can arrive at a synthetic answer until we reflect upon the meaning of the question itself. I will begin, therefore, by reconsidering briefly the history of the poem's criticism.

The Critical History

From its first appearance in Lyrical Ballads, the "Rime" was an arresting, if problematic, work. Though well known to readers during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, no early consensus about the meaning or value of the poem was reached. Readers might praise Coleridge's imitation of "the elder poets"—which is what Francis Wrangham, Wordsworth's friend, had done [in The British Critic 14, October 1799]—or they might, like Robert Southey, ridicule the act of imitation [in The Critical Review 24, October 1798]; in either case, most early readers found the poem difficult to understand, mysterious, strange. This response itself divided into two judgmental camps: on the one hand, those who, like Charles Lamb, valued the poem for its ability to keep "the mind … in a placid state of wonderments"; and, on the other, those who, like the anonymous Analytical reviewer, compared it to "the extravagance of a mad German poet" [The Analytical Review 28, December 1798]. Dr. Charles Burney's conflicted set of remarks [in The Monthly Review 29, June 1799] is entirely typical of the situation:

The author's first piece, the Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in imitation of the Style as well as the spirit of the elder poets, is the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper: yet, though it seems a rhapsody of unintelligible wildness and incoherence, there are in it poetical touches of an exquisite kind.

The "Rime" was the opening poem in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, and these troubled reactions of the book's first readers were a serious worry to Wordsworth:

From what I can gather it seems that The Ancyent Marinere has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.

[Letter to Cottle, 24 June 1799]

In the end the poem was not replaced, but its position was changed, its title was altered, and its archaic style was drastically modernized. All this was done at Wordsworth's insistence, but not every reader was pleased with the result. Lamb was dismayed because the alterations had the effect of rationalizing the strange beauty of the poem:

I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere, a Poet's Reverie; it is as bad as Bottom the Weaver's declaration that he is not a lion, but only the scenical representation of a lion. What new idea is gained by this title but one subversive of all credit—which the tale should force upon us—of its truth.

[The Letters of Charles Lamb, ed. E.V. Lucas, 1935].

Lamb was right, of course, but then so was Wordsworth: each simply had a different way of responding to the poem's "obscurity." Coleridge, typically, had his own special response: to expound at length with "metaphysical elucidations" the profound "mysteries" of his ballad imitation. Coleridge's interlocutor on this occasion—in Germany, from 1798-99—was Clement Carlyon, who did not find Coleridge's commentary much more lucid than the ballad and who later poked fun at Coleridge's explanations when he was recollecting the events.

During Coleridge's lifetime the poem was recognized to have an intellectual or allegorical import, even—witness the essay by J. G. Lockhart [Blackwood's Magazine 6, 1819]—a religious or visionary significance. These impressions remained inchoate until the mid-century, however, when critics first began to develop explicitly symbolic and allegorical interpretations. Those mid-Victorian readings established the hermeneutic models which have dominated the subsequent history of the poem's interpretations. Though details and emphases have changed and shifted, and though the commentaries have become more extended, the fundamental interpretive approach has not altered significantly since that time. Those who have veered away from such interpretations do so not by developing alternative hermeneutic methods but by rejecting the approach at more fundamental levels. Thus E. E. Stoll [PMLA 63, 1948] and Elisabeth Schneider [Coleridge, Opium, and "Kubla Khan," 1953] deny that Coleridge ever "intended" his poem to be read symbolically or allegorically; on the other hand, Irving Babbitt, William Empson, and David Pirie reject the entire Christian-symbolic schema not because it is unintended but because it is trivial [Irving Babbitt, "Coleridge and Imagination," On Being Creative and Other Essays, 1932; and William Empson and David Pirie, eds., Coleridge's Verse: A Selection, 1973]. Rather than simply dismiss the poem, as Babbitt does, Empson and Pirie go on to solve the problem by substituting one (trivial) text with another (important) one: that is to say, they argue the necessity of reading the poem in its 1798 rather than in its 1817 version.

This brief analytic summary of the poem's interpretive tradition is necessary if we are to come to grips with the problem of the "Rime" and its meaning; for meaning, in a literary event, is a function not of "the poem itself but of the poem's historical relations with its readers and interpreters. As we shall see, when the history of the "Rime"'s hermeneutics is traced to the ballad's point of origin, we begin to understand how the work developed under the dominion of Coleridge's own hermeneutic models. To see this last point in its full historical particularity is to arrive, finally, at a critical vantage on the poem. For not until we see that our dominant interpretive tradition has been licensed and underwritten by Coleridge himself will we be able to understand the meaning of that tradition, and hence the meaning of the meanings of the "Rime." Richard Haven has said that the poem "seems to rule out few of the interpretations which have been offered" during the past one hundred and eighty years; and his further argument—that modern interpretations represent variant rather than alternative versions of nineteenth-century commentaries—is a point equally well taken ["The Ancient Mariner in the Nineteenth Century," Studies in Romanticism 11, 1972]. The full significance of Haven's findings emerges when we come to see the relation of these facts to Coleridge himself and to the hermeneutic traditions which he helped to establish in the academy.

Early Textual History: The Formal Significance

Everyone knows that the "Rime" underwent a series of major textual alterations between 1798, when it first appeared in Lyrical Ballads, and 1817, when Coleridge all but completed his revisions in the Sibylline Leaves collection of his verse. These revisions included additions, subtractions, and changes in the verse text; changes in the poem's title and prefatory material; and, most dramatic of all, the addition of the prose gloss in the textual margin.

Let me begin with the gloss, which to this day most readers take to represent at least one level of Coleridge's own interpretation of his poem. M. H. Abrams [in Natural Supernaturalism, 1972], for example, takes this view for granted: "Coleridge added [the gloss] to assist the bewildered readers of the first published version" in interpreting the poem's symbolic Christian narrative. Even critics who, unlike Abrams, dislike the gloss share his view of its function and status. Pirie's comments [in Coleridge's Verse], for instance, illustrate the sort of problems which arise when the status of the gloss is misconceived in this way. The following passage appears in Pirie's longer argument for taking the 1798 rather than 1817 version as the base-reading text:

The most serious attempt to distract the reader from the poem in the Sibylline Leaves version is of course the addition in the margin of the ageing Coleridge's own interpretation of his poem. Partly just a feeble literary joke, this must have always been intended to confuse the unwary as indeed it continues to do. Whether Coleridge was optimistic enough to hope that the marginalia would be regarded as much a part of the poem proper as they now are is debatable. But the marginalia are by their very nature perverting. They are a third-person, and thus by implication objectively true, account of a story whose essence is that it is a first-person narrative. Its full title, its narrative framework of the hypnotized listener, its disturbing vividness, all stress that it is at once event and account. The poem breaks through simplistic distinctions between "subjective feeling" and "objective reality". It concentrates by its very form on the fact that the mariner is condemned to recurring moments of "total recall" of which this is but a single example, condemned to experience again all that he felt alone on the wide, wide sea. The marginalia turn the speaker into a specimen. Worse, they lie. It is clearly not true, nor ever could be, that "the curse is finally expiated" and the very real creature that the mariners fed on biscuit-worms cannot become "a pious bird of good omen" without being ludicrous. To tell the reader in the margin that it is a good omën, when the succeeding stanzas demonstrate how impossible it is until too late to tell whether it is of good or bad omen, is to make nonsense of the poem at its very core. Coleridge claimed that Walter Scott's handling of superstition put the writer in a damagingly superior position to his story: "that discrepance between the Narrator and the Narrative chills and deadens the Sympathy." The narrator in the marginalia puts a similarly cold distance between the reader's sympathy and the story as experienced by the mariner.

First, some preliminary explanations. Pirie speaks of the gloss as "a feeble literary joke" because he recognizes its antique character. When he calls it a "third-person" account, he points toward an important fact about the gloss, but he seems to miss the significance of that fact. Finally, his discussion of the gloss's "lies" also registers an important fact whose function Pirie seems once again to overlook.

We may begin to unravel the problems raised by Pirie (and preserved as well in nearly all contemporary interpretations) if we return to the poem's initial publication. The "Rime," as noted above, was the opening poem in Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. This 1798 version tries to adhere so closely to the conventions of ancient balladry, which Coleridge adapted from Thomas Percy, that the work sometimes approaches pastiche. This quality in the early "Rime"—its status as an imitation or literary ballad—sets it quite apart from all the other ballad-influenced poems written forLyrical Ballads. The others are not literary ballads but lyrical ballads, a very different thing altogether.

When a second edition of Lyrical Ballads was called for in 1800, Wordsworth, as we have seen, urged Coleridge to make some alterations. His views carried the day, and the result was a conscious attempt, acutely registered by Lamb, to make the "Rime" appear less a literary ballad and more a lyrical ballad. Archaisms were removed from the verse text, but the most important alterations came at the beginning. The title was changed from "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" to "The Ancient Mariner: A Poet's Reverie," and the 1798 Argument, which was archaic and slightly mysterious,

How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by Storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitutde of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country,

became more descriptively straightforward:

How a Ship, having first sailed to the Equator, was driven by Storms, to the cold Country towards the South Pole; how the Ancient Mariner cruelly, and in contempt of the laws of hospitality, killed a Sea-bird; and how he was followed by many and strange Judgments; and in what manner he came back to his own Country.

The former, archaic in style, is appropriate to a literary ballad; the latter, on the other hand, remains in a contemporary idiom that perfectly marries with the new, self-conscious title. Lamb did not like the distance which the 1800 changes enforced between the "mariner's ballad" and "Coleridge's poem." Changes like these broke the spell under which Lamb's belief, in 1798, had been willingly suspended.

Pirie's (and Empson's) discussion of the "Rime" is fundamentally akin to Lamb's: all three prefer the work in its most primitive character and appearance. This is a poem in which Coleridge in propria persona seems most thoroughly removed from his own work. When Empson and Pirie object to the further changes introduced into the work in 1817—and principally to the addition of the gloss—they argue that these alterations represent a further, and even worse, modernization ("the ageing Coleridge's own interpretation of his poem"). In fact, however, Coleridge's 1817 additions were a complex effort to represent (if also to methodize) his poem as a literary ballad. In this he worked on two fronts especially: first, to strengthen the original archaic aspect of the work; and second, to carry even further the process, begun in 1800, of distinguishing as it were "levels of authority" or points of view in terms of which the poetic events were to be experienced and narrated.

When Pirie called the gloss a third-person account, he drew attention to the distance between the attitude represented in the gloss and that represented in the verse text conceived as imitation archaic ballad. For the truth is that the verse narrative and the prose gloss present themselves in Coleridge's poem as the work of two distinct (fictional) personages. The verse narrative appears as one "received text" of an early English ballad, a type that Percy called an "old minstrel ballad" and that Scott, later, called a "romantic ballad." When Coleridge printed his poem in 1817, however, he added the prose gloss, which is to say he added to his work a fictive editor of the (presumptively) ancient ballad text. In an important and much neglected article, Huntington Brown demonstrates very clearly the distinctive character of these two figures in Coleridge's poem, and he shows that (a) the minstrel's ballad is meant to be seen as dating from the time of Henry VII or thereabouts—in any case, certainly after the voyage of Columbus but prior to the age of Shakespeare—and (b) the editor is a later figure still, a scholar and an antiquarian whose prose indicates that he lived sometime between the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries ["The Gloss to the Ancient Mariner," Modern Language Quarterly 6, 1945].

As Brown has shown, this fundamental distinction between the verse text and the gloss has two principal effects. First, it "serves to emphasize the remoteness of the story and its teller by setting them off at two removes" from the contemporary reader. Second, it calls attention to the multiple points of view which are embedded in the total work. Brown distinguishes "the personality of the Mariner who reports [the voyage], … the Wedding-Guest who listens [to the story], … the minstrel [who authors the verse] and, finally, … the pious antiquarian [who edits the ballad]." As we shall see, Coleridge's "Rime" in fact presents yet another point of view—that is, Coleridge's, or the contemporary author's—who operates in a determining way, controlling all the others.

The textual changes which the "Rime" underwent between 1798 and 1817 tell an important story about Coleridge's developing purposes toward his poem. These changes, in fact, highlight the formal poetic terms within which all interpretations of the poem must take place. Before we can take up the hermeneutical problem, however, we must elucidate more clearly the historical significance of the textual events. Empson and Pirie regard the process of revision as a reactionary movement in which a daring and radical poem is transformed into a relatively tame work of Christian symbolism. For them, the textual changes tell the story of Coleridge's scandalous ideological retreat from his radical views of the 1790s to his later Christian orthodoxy. Their position eventually places the poem's entire interpretive tradition of criticism under an inquisition; for this tradition, in their view, has merely carried forward into our own day symbolic Christian interpretations sanctioned by "the ageing Coleridge."

As I shall try to show in the next section, Pirie and Empson have accurately represented the historical relation between Coleridge's developed theory of hermeneutics and the later, dominant tradition of interpretation. Important as it is, however, their attack upon the established critical tradition needs to be revised historically. That is to say, we must look again, much more carefully than Empson and Pirie have done, at the sorts of continuities which exist between the "radical" Coleridge of the 1790s and the Sage of Highgate. Not only do Empson and Pirie misrepresent Coleridge when they characterize the history of his religious convictions; what is worse, they fail to see the relation of his religious ideas to the "Rime" either at the poem's point of origin in the late 1790s or at its later stages of revision up to 1817.

Coleridge's Hermeneutic Models: 1792-1834

At his death in 1834, Coleridge left his manuscript treatise Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit in which he set forth his most mature and coherent thoughts "on the Inspiration of the Scriptures." Indeed, the essay sums up the developed state of Coleridge's ideas from their first emergence in the early 1790s to their latest—and in many ways most radical—form. Coleridge's marginal glosses on J. G. Eichhorn, Gotthold Lessing, and Johann Gottfried von Herder, his Lay Sermons, the Aids to Reflection, and all of Coleridge's scattered commentary on the issues of the Higher Criticism are gathered together and summed up in the Confessions.

In the Aids to Reflection, Coleridge condemned "the pretended right of every individual competent and incompetent, to interpret Scripture in a sense of his own, in opposition to the judgment of the Church, without knowledge of the originals or of the languages, the history, the customs, opinions, and controversies of the age and country in which they were written." The Confessions explains Coleridge's view more clearly when he rejects the conservative theological position which insists upon the immediate divine authority for every word and line in the Bible:

Why should I not believe the Scriptures throughout dictated, in word and thought, by an infallible Intelligence? … Why should I not?—Because the doctrine evacuates of all sense and efficacy the sure and constant tradition, that all the several books bound up together in our precious family Bible were composed in different and widely distant ages, under the greatest diversity of circumstances, and degrees of light and information, and yet that the composers, whether as uttering or as recording what was uttered and what was done, were all actuated by a pure and holy Spirit, one and the same—(for is there any spirit pure and holy, and yet not proceeding from God—and yet not proceeding in and with the Holy Spirit?)—one Spirit, working diversly, now awakening strength, and now glorifying itself in weakness, now giving power and direction to knowledge, and now taking away the sting from error!

Coleridge's view is that the Scriptures are, as it were, a living and processive organism, one that comes into existence in human time and continues to develop in that "fallible" and limited sphere. This view leads him to affirm that the Bible is indeed the Word of God, but that its Word is uttered by God's mortal creatures:

Every sentence found in a canonical Book, rightly interpreted, contains the dictum of an infallible Mind;—but what the right interpretation is,—or whether the very words now extant are corrupt or genuine—must be determined by the industry and understanding of fallible, and alas! more or less prejudiced theologians.

Such a historical view of the Scriptures leads Coleridge along a radical path to a relatively conservative stance as regards the authority of the Church. Each new generation, and every new reader of the Bible, must listen to the assembled "panharmonicon" which is the Church's authority, that is, its recorded history of those who read and interpreted the Scriptures in the enthusiasm and the faith that was peculiar to their age and circumstances. The faith of the historical Church must be the model for the contemporary faithful. God's eternal Word is expressed and later reexpressed through commentary, gloss, and interpretation by particular people at different times according to their differing lights. The sting is taken out of whatever error they may introduce by the existence of their faith, by their enthusiasm for the Word and the diffusion of the Word, and by their participation in the continuous historical process of incarnation.

As Elinor Shaffer has shown [in "Kubla Khan" and the Fall of Jerusalem, 1975], these views represent Coleridge's particular reformulation of the Higher Critical approaches of men like C. G. Heyne, J. D. Michaelis, Alexander Geddes, Lessing, F. A. Wolf, Herder, and Eichhorn—that is, of the leading figures in the new approaches to textual criticism which were being most radically pursued in Germany. The theoretical foundations of this movement were laid by the mythographic, philological, and historical exegetes of the eighteenth century who studied various sorts of ancient texts and cultures—classical, oriental, biblical, and national. In her discussion of this movement, Shaffer has shown that Coleridge was not merely influenced by its work, he himself emerged as one of its principal and most important representatives.

Like the other founders of the Higher Criticism, Coleridge was not trying to use its methods to destroy religion but to salvage it. The program resulted in what Shaffer calls "a new form of history" as well as a mythological hermeneutics which dominated Western thought for over a century and which continues, to this day, to exercise considerable authority, especially in the literary academy. Shaffer describes very well the originary circumstances in terms of the famous problem of the "authenticity" of the Scriptures:

Coleridge's argument reflects a long struggle of the new criticism with the idea that an eye-witness account must be of special value. If, by their own critical endeavour, it became clear that none of the Gospels was an eye-witness account, the status of the "event" therein recounted must, on the old view, be diminished, its credibility undermined; but if there are no such privileged accounts, if all event is interpretation, then the Gospels need not suffer. Indeed, as we shall see, their value as literature is increased. For Coleridge, "event" and "mystery" must be expressed with equal delicacy, obliquity, and restraint. The miracle becomes the paradigm of reported historical event; the historical events reported by eye-witnesses represent instantaneous mythmaking. "Erkennen ist mythologisieren."

Such a view of experience (it is to this day a prevalent one) carries with it a wholly revised sense of "tradition" and "authority":

It is neither the unquestioned authority of the Church nor the unquestioned authority of the Biblical text on which tradition rests, but the perpetually shifting sense within the Christian community of what has the power to persuade its members and strengthen them in the faith. Coleridge was to develop these two, still embryonic, approaches into one in his later writings: whatever the literal, documentable truth might be found to be, the historical experience of conviction within the Christian community was in itself a form of validation, and this experience could be maintained and reawakened through an imaginative grasp of what that experience had been.

As Shaffer goes on to remark, "These concerns were, of course, at the centre of romantic aesthetics."

Coleridge's explicit, extended prose discussions of the leading figures and ideas dealt with by the Higher Critics were not made until after he went to Germany in 1798. Nevertheless, that he was earlier thoroughly familiar with the general approach and with the work of Heyne, Michaelis, Lessing, and Geddes is absolutely certain. Shaffer dates Coleridge's acquaintance with this critical tradition from the late 1780s, but her estimate may be too early. Still, by 1792 Coleridge was fully aware of these important scholarly developments, though his own views were, at that point, still fairly traditional. In 1795, for example, Coleridge was still arguing that Moses had authored the Pentateuch. By 1796 his views had begun to show some considerable alterations, however, for in his "Essay on Fasts" we find him arguing that the "coincidence of the number of days [between Elijah's and Pythagoras' forty-day fastings] seems to cast a shade of doubt on the genuineness of the beginning of the fourth chapter of Matthew and Luke: in which the same miraculous circumstance is related of our Savior." Coleridge's method of reasoning here plainly follows a Higher Critical line:

It was the policy of the early Christians to assimilate their religion to that of the Heathens in all possible respects. The ceremonies of the Romish church have been traced to this source by Middleton; the miraculous conception is a palpable imitation of the story of Romulus, the son of a vestal virgin, by the descent of a Deity; and so, I suppose, because Pythagoras fasted forty days, the Interpolators of the Gospels must needs palm the same useless prodigy on Jesus. Indeed the conversion of the Heathens to Christianity, after the first century, does very much resemble Mahomet's miracle: as the mountain would not come over to him, he went over to the mountain.

[The Watchman]

The set of Coleridge's mind revealed in this passage differs very little from what is to be found later in his annotations to Herder and Eichhorn, in the Lay Sermons, and in the Aids and Confessions. The only marked difference is a tonal one: for the later Coleridge would not have permitted even the suggestion of jocularity in his discussion of such weighty matters. Interpolations and glosses in the text of Scripture by later writers, redactors, and scribes was a matter for the most serious thought and analysis.

The plainest evidence for the continuity of Coleridge's thought lies, however, in the coincidence of ideas between his 1796 "The Destiny of Nations" (see especially 11. 13-126) and his later prose writings. Coleridge says in his early poem, for example, that the highest form in which "Freedom" appears is the following:

But chiefly this, him First, him Last to view
Through meaner powers and secondary things
Effulgent, as through clouds that veil his blaze.
For all that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
For infant minds;
[11. 15-20]

This theory of symbolism is well known from "The Aeolian Harp" and The Statesman's Manual. In "The Destiny of Nations," Coleridge develops his thought in some detail:

So by a strange and dim similitude
Infinite myriads of self-conscious minds
Are one all-conscious Spirit, which informs
With absolute ubiquity of thought
(His one eternal self-affirming act!)
All his involved Monads, that yet seem
With various province and apt agency
Each to pursue its own self-centering end.
[11. 42-49]

Implicit in both of these passages is Coleridge's further range of thought which he expands upon later in the poem: that God's self-revelation through the "apt agency" of finite, historical beings is a processive event. When Coleridge presents his example from primitive Lapland culture (11. 60-126), his point is that the "Wild phantasies" of Greenland's epic lore are full of deep import. Not only is such primitive lore symbolic, it illustrates the developing historical operation of the One Life:

The "legends terrible" (1. 90) teach, immediately, certain fundamental human virtues, but ultimately they operate as part of a vast, worldwide, spiritualizing scheme:

Till from Bethabra northward, heavenly Truth
With gradual steps, winning her difficult way,
Transfer their rude Faith perfected and pure.
[11. 124-26]

The "Beings of higher class than Man"—God and his angels—"choose their human ministers" (11. 127, 130) to carry out a providential economy; and each historical period raises up its ministers of this continuous revelation. When Coleridge writes "The Destiny of Nations," he reveals himself to be an important functionary in the scheme he himself is articulating.

These ideas coincide fundamentally with what Coleridge says later in the works already cited. A repetition of this important point, however, is not out of order. In the Confessions, for example, Coleridge argues at length that the Scriptures are not an unmediated and fixed biblical text but an evolved and continuously evolving set of records which include the Church's later glosses on and interpretations of the earlier documents. The entire project of textual transmission and elucidation is a symbolic, revelatory act: "all the intermediate applications and realizations of the words are but types and repetitions—translations, as it were, from the language of letters and articulate sounds into the language of events and symbolical persons?" As a result, Coleridge goes on to argue that every person should approach the Scriptures with a double understanding. First, readers must see that the received documents—primitive texts, interpolations, commentaries—report historically mediated materials and hence must be "examined each in reference to the circumstances of the Writer or Speaker, the dispensation under which he lived, the purpose of the particular passage, and the intent and object of the Scriptures at large." Second, the reader must also understand that he is, as a reader, equally subject to time-specific cultural limitations: "the conflicts of grace and infirmity in your own soul, will enable you to discern and to know in and by what spirit they spake and acted,—as far at least as shall be needful for you, and in the times of your need."

This is Coleridge's version of "a man speaking to men." Having a more explicitly historicized theoretical view than Wordsworth, however, Coleridge is able to see that the communication involves contact between what we would today call ideologically committed beings—between individuals whose humanness seems complete because they appear so thoroughly involved in their social and cultural milieux. As Coleridge had said earlier in The Statesman's Manual:

And in nothing is Scriptural history more strongly contrasted with the histories of highest note in the present age than in its freedom from the hollowness of abstractions. While the latter present a shadow-fight of Things and Quantities, the former gives us the history of Men, and balances the important influence of individual Minds with the previous state of the national morals and manners, in which, as constituting a specific susceptibility, it presents to us the true cause both of the Influence itself, and of the Weal or Woe that were its Consequents.

This sure grasp that the concreteness and particularity of an individual is a function of his ideology ("national morals and manners") is an important aspect of Coleridge's thought to which I shall return later.

The "Rime" and the Critical Tradition

As far as the "Rime" is concerned, we have to note the special importance of certain aspects of this body of thinking. I refer specifically to the idea, which Coleridge explicitly endorsed, that the biblical narratives were originally bardic (oral) poetry which gradually evolved into a cycle of communal literary materials. Embedded in primitive and legendary saga, the Scriptures grew by accretion and interpolation over an extended period of time. They do not represent a "true" narrative of certain fixed original events; rather, they are a collection of poetic materials which represent the changing form of "witness" or testament of faith created by a religious community in the course of its history. The function of the Higher Criticism, as a method, was to reveal the various "layers" of this poetic work by distinguishing the Bible's different religious/poetic styles, or forms of expression, from the earliest and most primitive to the latest and most sophisticated.

This general approach toward historically transmitted texts produced two specific theories which bear particularly on the "Rime." Geddes' "Fragment Hypothesis" argued that the Pentateuch "was put together by an editor out of a collection of independent and often conflicting fragments." Coleridge accepted this interpretation but modified it by arguing that the conflation of the disparate fragments was a communal process rather than a unique event.

The second theory, put forth by Wolf in his Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795), argued that the Iliad was a redaction of different lays which had been passed down through a bardic tradition. Wolf's ballad theory of the epic partly drew its inspiration from the scholarship developed in the writings of the ballad revival. The argument in Percy's influential "Essay on the Ancient Minstrels of England," which introduced his Reliques, is paradigmatic. According to Percy, England's ancient poetic traditions from the pagan skalds to the old Christian minstrels was a continuous one; and although "the Poet and the Minstrel early with us became two persons," "the ancient minstrels" preserved in their ballad and song traditions a profound continuity with the old pagan skalds. Indeed, the common practice of the ancient minstrels—in contrast to the new, developing line of leisured poets—was not to compose new works but to adapt and extend the older ones which descended through the tradition from primitive pagan times.

The foregoing is the ideological framework for the following remarkable passage. The quotation is Coleridge's marginal gloss in his copy of Eichhorn's Einleitung in das alte Testament and is itself a theory, or explanation, of the meaning of glosses and textual interpolations. Commenting on Genesis 36:31, Coleridge writes:

But why not consider this as a gloss introduced by the Editors of the Pentateuch, or Preparers of the Copy that was to be layed up in the Temple of Solomon? The authenticity of the Books would be no more compromised by such glosses, than that of the Book before me by this marginal Note of mine.

Coleridge means that, given a coherent cultural tradition, the text which exhibits marks of its historical passage (in the form of later interpolations, glosses, and other textual additions and "impurities") retains its ideological coherence despite the process of apparent fragmentation. Such a text is, in truth, a Book of Revelation by itself, an apocalypse of its evolved and interconnected poetic/religious coherences.

When Coleridge applies these critical views to non-Scriptural texts, as he does in "The Destiny of Nations," his idea is that the pagan bards of Greenland initiated a body of poetic material whose traditions culminated in the Christian revelation. Ancient "superstition," in these poetic repositories, will eventually "Seat Reason on her throne" through the processive movement of spiritual history. The textual history of primary epic and ballad materials exhibits in a concrete way the process of continuous spiritual revelation.

The "Rime" is presented as just this sort of text, and its own bibliographical history illustrates in fact what Coleridge fictively represents his poem to be in imagination. The special significance of the gloss, as far as the "Rime" is concerned, lies in its (imagined) historical relation to the ancient ballad which Coleridge has represented through his poem. By the time Coleridge has "evolved" his 1817 text, we are able to distinguish four clear layers of development: (a) an original mariner's tale; (b) the ballad narrative of that story; (c) the editorial gloss added when the ballad was, we are to suppose, first printed; and (d) Coleridge's own point of view on his invented materials. This last represents Coleridge's special religious/symbolic theory of interpretation founded upon his own understanding of the Higher Critical analytic.

From Coleridge's viewpoint, the "Rime" is a poem which illustrates a special theory of the historical interpretation of texts. In its earliest state (1798), the theory is not easy to deduce, though it is certainly in operation; when the glosses are added, however, Coleridge has extrapolated fully, and thereby made explicit, his religious theory of interpretation which has its roots in the Higher Critical tradition.

Like all literary ballads, the "Rime" is a tour de force, for Coleridge built it according to theories of the ballad (and of other historically transmitted works) which he had studied and which he expected his readers to know and to recognize. Certain stylistic facts about the poem demonstrate—on the authority of Percy—that the text has material which "dates back" to the early lays of the ancient minstrels. On the other hand, other stylistic aspects of the text, including the gloss, show that its "date" is relatively late, certainly after Columbus, but perhaps before Magellan's voyage to the Pacific. In general, Coleridge means us to understand that the ballad narrative dates from the sixteenth century, that the gloss is a late seventeenth-century addition, and, of course, that Coleridge, at the turn of the nineteenth century, has provided yet another (and controlling) perspective upon the poetic material. Indeed, Coleridge certainly intended his more perspicuous readers—that is, those read in the theory and practice of the new historical criticism—to see that the "Rime" was an imaginative presentation of a work comprising textual layers of the most primitive, even pre-Christian, sort. No one schooled in the new German textual criticism could fail to "see" that the opening portions of part 6 represented a textual survival of the most ancient kind of pagan lore.

Coleridge's final (Broad Church) grasp of the "Rime" demonstrates his great theme of the One Life. Like the Bible, the Iliad, and all great imaginative works possessed and transmitted by different cultures, the "Rime" is Coleridge's imitation of a culturally redacted literary work. The special function of the poem was to illustrate a significant continuity of meaning between cultural phenomena that seemed as diverse as pagan superstitions, Catholic theology, Aristotelian science, and contemporary philological theory, to name only a few of the work's ostentatiously present materials. The "Rime," in its 1798 or its 1817 form, reconciles many opposite and discordant qualities.

A well-known passage from The Table Talk sets out the structural and thematic foundation of the "Rime" in its most general philosophic formulation:

My system, if I may venture to give it so fine a name, is the only attempt I know, ever made to reduce all knowledges into harmony. It opposes no other system, but shows what was true in each; and how that which was true in the particular, in each of them became error, because it was only half the truth. I have endeavoured to unite the insulated fragments of truth, and therewith to frame a perfect mirror. I show to each system that I fully understand and rightfully appreciate what that system means; but then I lift up that system to a higher point of view, from which I enable it to see its former position, where it was, indeed, but under another light and with different relations; so that the fragment of truth is not only acknowledged, but explained. Thus the old astronomers discovered and maintained much that was true; but, because they were placed on a false ground, and looked from a wrong point of view, they never did, they never could, discover the truth—that is, the whole truth. As soon as they left the earth, their false centre, and took their stand in the sun, immediately they saw the whole system in its true light, and their former station remaining, but remaining as a part of the prospect.

The "Rime" is structured around three fundamental ideologies: pagan superstition and philosophy, Catholic legend and theology, and Broad Church Protestantism. As noted, the poem's formal layering reflects this material. The pre-Coleridgean "fragments of truth" represent "a wrong point of view" on the material of human experience. The "events" treated in the poem actually represent interpretations of events carried out in terms of certain fragmentary "systems" of human thought, and the purpose of the poem is to "lift [these systems] to a higher point of view" whence they will be open to a critical, self-conscious, but sympathetic valuation. This "higher point of view," which The Table Talk passage represents as a final (divine) one, is Coleridge's own "system" where "the whole truth" adumbrated by the (historically relative) fragments of truth is discovered. What that whole truth constitutes is (a) that there is a whole truth which justifies and is the ground of all the fragments of the truth; and (b) that this whole truth is in a perpetual process of becoming—indeed, that its being is the process of its being.

Coleridge's system, then, is justified in the continuous and developing history of human thought. In terms of the "Rime," Coleridge's ideological commitment to a preconditioned conditioned ground of processive truth sanctions in its readers a diversity of interpretations based upon their particular lights. Because "the whole truth," recognized or not, subsumes a priori all the interpretations, readers are encouraged to formulate their particular expressions of the truth. Coleridge's much-discussed symbolic method in the poem is nothing more (or less) than his rhetorical machinery for producing such interpretive results. In Coleridge's terms, the symbolically grounded interpretations are acts of witness rather than definitions, human events which dramatically testify to the desire to know and continuously create the truth that has always set men free.

In this context, when Haven shows the congruence between nineteenth- and twentieth-century interpretations of the "Rime," we are able to extrapolate the significance of his research. The basic continuum of thought comprising the poem's many interpretations testifies to the power of Coleridge's own poetic project. Although a few critics have attempted to resist the tradition outlined by Haven—I will return to them in a moment—the vast majority follow the model set forth in Coleridge's own comprehensive hermeneutic system established through the poem itself. The interpretive tradition licensed by the "Rime" corresponds to the network of ideological institutions (the Clerisy) which Coleridge's ideas helped to create. Before Coleridge, the Church for centuries had been the principal ideological state apparatus, but On the Constitution of Church and State, among other works, marks the change which Coleridge was promoting. With him we witness the retreat of the Church and the emergence of the educational system, the academy, as Western society's principal ideological institution. As John Colmer recently remarked [in Coleridge: Critic of Society, 1959], in referring to educators in today's secular world, "We are the clerisy." To measure the influence of Coleridge's program one need but recall the dominant ideologues in Anglo-American culture during the past one hundred and fifty years: from Coleridge, through Arnold, Emerson, Leavis, and Eliot, to Trilling, Abrams, and the contemporary apologists for English and American Romantic thought.

The complex cultural problems related to the hegemony of this tradition appear again, in miniature form, when we approach Coleridge's great literary ballad. The history of the poem's criticism reveals, for example, that readers have not found it easy to escape the power of Coleridge's hermeneutics. From Babbitt to Empson and Pirie, a few critics have struggled against the dominant tradition of readers. Their characteristic method is to attack either the Romantic-symbolical readings—ridiculed by Empson and Pirie, for example—or Coleridge himself and the entire project ("spilt religion") which generated such readings. Sometimes, as in Empson's case, a distinction is drawn between the "early," "secular" Coleridge—author of the 1798 "Rime"—and the late, Christian dodderer—author of the 1817 revisionist piece. This antithetical tradition is important chiefly because it corroborates, from a hostile position, the basic ideological uniformity which underlies the dominant symbolic tradition initiated by Coleridge. The problem with such antithetical readings is that they are at war with the differentials they themselves emphasize and corroborate. Babbitt and Empson are married, by antithesis and anxiety, to the positions they are attacking. The rules for such relationships, which have been laid down in the theoretical works initiated by The Anxiety of Influence, produce what can well be called "the fate of reading." What this means—I merely state the basic problem in another form—is that a historical process begins to appear as a fatal one; specifically, the act of literary criticism comes to seem so repetitional that drastic evasive measures begin to be taken. Babbitt's and Empson's violence succeeds to the play of differences in post-structuralism because acts which make a difference, in the mind as well as in the world, begin to seem difficult if not impossible to achieve. When traditional human activities seem as unimportant as academic criticism has grown to seem in this period of our culture—when it appears to make no difference what, if any, literary criticism you read or write—movements begin (deconstructionism in this period, aestheticism and naturalism at the end of the nineteenth century) which throw into relief the crisis line of an ideological tradition.

In terms of the critical history of the "Rime," antithetical critics like Babbitt and Empson seem to violate the past of its treasures, while the traditional line seems to have exhausted its future and left us with nothing to follow. At such moments a historical analysis becomes a cultural imperative, for it is through such an analysis that we can recover what the past has sent to us and redefine the future of our own work. Such a method demands that differences be sharpened and clarified historically. The resources made available through the "Rime" and its critical history will not be recovered until we begin to specify clearly the ideological gulf which separates us from them both. A poem like the "Rime" dramatizes a salvation story, but it is not the old story of our salvation in Christ; rather, it is the new story of our salvation of Christ. Coleridge would have us believe that the latter story is the latest expression of the former and hence that the former retains its cultural truth. To the critical view of a contemporary materialist and historical consciousness, however, the "Rime"'s advanced Christian machinery represents a view of the world only qualitatively less alien to ourselves than the ideology which supports the Iliad or the writings of Confucius. These works, we must come to see, transcend their particular cultural circumstances not because they contain unchanging human truths but rather because their particular truthfulness has been so thoroughly—so materially—specified.

Like the Iliad or Paradise Lost any great historical product, the "Rime" is a work of transhistorical rather than so-called universal significance. This verbal distinction is important because it calls attention to a real one. Like The Divine Comedy or any other poem, the "Rime" is not valued or used always or everywhere or by everyone in the same way or for the same reasons. Poetical and artistic works have chequered critical histories which testify to their discontinuous power and employment. The study of a work's critical history is imperative precisely

for that reason: the analysis reveals to us, in yet another form, the special historical life which a work has been living in the dialectic of its processive career. Historical analysis uncovers, therefore, a paradox of thought which yet contains a fundamental human truth: that the universal or transhistorical significance of any ideological product is a function of the specific limits of place and circumstance which are inscribed, and therefore "immortalized," in those works we call poems which are created and re-created over time. The importance of great art is that it has always made a difference.

Anyone who has taught ancient or culturally removed literature has experienced the difficulty of transmitting historically alienated material. Nor does it help much to assume or pretend that what Bacon says in "Of Education," what Sophocles dramatizes in the Oedipus, or what the Jahwist has presented in his Genesis can be appreciated or even understood by an uneducated student or reader. Of course, the problem can be solved if the teacher avoids it altogether and asks the student to deal with the work in its present context only, that is, to supply it with a "reading." Alien works may be, as we say, "interpreted." But we must understand that such exercises, carried out in relative historical ignorance, are not critical operations. Rather, they are vehicles for recapitulating and objectifying the reader's particular ideological commitments. To "read" in this way is to confront Ahab's doubloon, to read self-reflexively. The danger in such a method is that it will not be able to provide the reader with a social differential that can illuminate the limits of that immediate interpretation. The importance of ancient or culturally removed works lies precisely in this fact: that they themselves, as culturally alienated products, confront present readers with ideological differentials that help to define the limits and special functions of those current ideological practises. Great works continue to have something to say because what they have to say is so peculiarly and specifically their own that we, who are different, can learn from them.

Though the "Rime" is not nearly so removed from the present as the Oedipus, we must not allow its alienation to escape us. The force of a line like "It is an ancient mariner" comes from one's sense that an ancient minstrel did not write it but that Coleridge did. This is an awareness which was, and was meant to be, available to audiences from the poem's first appearance. But with the passage of time other perspectives become both possible and necessary. We see, for example, that the minstrel represented to us here is not the figure known to Child or Gummere but the one specifically available to a reader and admirer of Percy. To see this fact, even in so small an event as that line, is to be able to read the line in its own terms but without being made subject to those terms. We willingly suspend our disbelief only when disbelief, or critical distance, is the ground of our response. Such critical skepticism (it is not an attitude but a method) is especially important for a work like the "Rime," since the poem itself seeks to break down a sense of ultimate discontinuity through the structure of its artistic illusions. Criticism must penetrate those illusions and specify what is involved in the particular uses to which they have been put. The meaning of the "Rime" emerges through the study of the history of its illusions.

…. .


What, then, is the meaning of the "Rime"? Coleridge tried to guide his early readers to an answer in his famous Biographia Literaria pronouncement on the poem and the entire Lyrical Ballads project:

In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads; in which it was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

If we examine this passage carefully—assisted, perhaps, by our knowledge of its critical history—we will see that the famous dictum about the "willing suspension of disbelief " is being used in two senses. In the first instance the phrase refers to Coleridge's use of legendary, "supernatural," "romantic" materials, that is, to what is "contained" in the "Rime" when we see it as an ancient tale or, as we might now say, as a "myth." This sort of material is recognized to be a "delusion" by Coleridge, and his work shows that similar delusions can be found at the level of the ballad narrative as well as at the level of the gloss. The spectre-bark, Life-in-Death, the Polar Spirit, and the "grace of the Holy Mother" are not, to use Coleridge's term, "real" except under the deluded eye of the beholders of such phenomena. The art of the "Rime" persuades us to suspend our disbelief in such matters; indeed, when Coleridge speaks of a "willing suspension of disbelief," we understand that he is presuming in his readers a shared consciousness of the superstitious character of his primitive (mainly pagan and Roman Catholic) materials.

But Coleridge intimates a more comprehensive understanding of the willing suspension of disbelief when he says that it "constitutes poetic faith." From this vantage the statement can be seen, and of course has been seen, as a locus classicus for the Romantic ideology of the creative imagination. "To transfer from our inward nature a human interest and semblance of truth" to the "Rime"'s superstitious materials is to psychologize reality and to suggest that the "true" reality of all external phenomena, whether "real" or "delusion," is inward and subjective. In this case, the willing suspension of disbelief does not apply to a poetic tour de force but to an imaginative construct which offers limitless opportunities for symbolic interpretation. In the first case the reader is willing to suspend his disbelief—which he nonetheless remains conscious of and attached to—whereas in the second he is willing to gain a poetic faith. When the latter occurs the "Rime" enters upon its symbolic history and becomes the object of Romantic hermeneutics.

From our present vantage, what we must do is inaugurate our disbelief in Coleridge's "poetic faith." This Romantic ideology must be seen for what it is, a historical phenomenon of European culture, generated to save the "traditional concepts, schemes, and values" of the Christian heritage. To interpret the "Rime" at all, without a prior historical analytic, is necessarily to reify the Romantic concept of the creative imagination. But that concept must become for us the same sort of "superstition" and "delusion" which "the grace of the Holy Mother" was to Coleridge. Only then will the poem become available once again to a (new) tradition of interpreters. Indeed, only then will Coleridge's own "poetic faith" become possible, for such a faith depends upon the hypothetical suspension of a prior, and presumed, disbelief.

To inaugurate such a disbelief in the "Rime'"s ideology of symbolism, we must historicize every aspect of the work. This is a procedure which the poem's own method has initiated. The mariner interprets his experiences by his own lights, and each subsequent mediator—the ballad transmitters, the author of the gloss, and Coleridge himself—all represent their specific cultural views. In such a situation we must read the poem with the fullest possible consciousness of its poetically organized "historical layerings." The spectre-bark is seen as such by the mariner and is accepted literatim by the fictive textual transmitters. But if the poem assumes these superstitious attitudes into itself, it also presumes the presence of Enlightened readers. The latter will of course recognize the ship to be a hallucination, perhaps with no basis in physical reality at all, perhaps an imagined structure created by the mariner's fevered brain out of some whisps of sea fog. Because Coleridge has an Enlightened mind as well, he knows that "In a distempered dream things & forms in themselves harmless inflict a terror of anguish" [Notebooks entry dated 1796–97]. But his mind is also Christian and symbolist, so even as he asks us, in the "Rime," to disbelieve in the phenomenal reality of the spectre-bark, he also asks us to suspend that disbelief:

The excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.

What may be seen as a "delusion" in one point of view may be usefully regarded as a spiritual truth in another. Meaning replaces event, and word replaces fact as the real gives way to the symbolic.

When Newman watched Coleridge replace the Truth with the Imagination of the Truth, he concluded that Coleridge had "indulged a liberty of speculation which no Christian can tolerate, and advanced conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian" ["The Prospects of the Anglican Church," Essays Critical and Historical, 1987]. Newman's analysis, like his orthodox fears, were both correct and farsighted, for Coleridge's own method would necessarily place his interpretive scheme beneath the critical razor he first employed. Interpretation of the spectre-bark is analogous to the interpretation of every facet of the poem, including its general theme and structure: interpretation, including the author's interpretation, falls subject to those historical limitations which critical analysis can explicate. The fictive writer of the gloss gives a long and beautiful commentary on the stars of line 266. The best gloss on such a gloss is a passage like the following from The Stateman's Manual:

The great PRINCIPLES of our religion, the sublime IDEAS spoken out everywhere in the Old and New Testament, resemble the fixed stars, which appear of the same size to the naked as to the armed eye; the magnitude of which the telescope may rather seem to diminish than to increase. At the annunciation of principles, of ideas, the soul of man awakes, and starts up, as an exile in a far distant land at the unexpected sounds of his native language, when after long years of absence, and almost of oblivion, he is suddenly addressed in his own mother-tongue. He weeps for joy, and embraces the speaker as his brother.

This is not the meaning of the poem's text, but it is the meaning which perhaps best clarifies what kind of poem we are dealing with. Coleridge might associate the meaning of this passage with his text, but it is a special reading, peculiar to Coleridge. In such matters, as Coleridge had said, "Each person must be … querist and respondent to himself."

A poem like the "Rime" encourages, therefore, the most diverse readings and interpretations. Since this encouragement is made in terms of the Christian economy, the interpretations have generally remained within the broad spiritualist terms—"heathen" terms, in Newman's view—which Coleridge's mind had allowed for. The historical method of the "Rime," however, had also prepared the ground for a thoroughly revisionist view of the poem, in which the entire ideological structure of its symbolist procedures would finally be able to be seen in their special historical terms. When this happens the meaning of the "Rime" emerges as the "dramatic truth" of Coleridge's intellectual and religious commitments. In the event the poem suffers no loss of power or significance; on the contrary, at that point we begin to see quite clearly the true extent of its power and the immense significance it has had, just as we also begin to see how these things came to pass. When the entire poetical work—including, perhaps especially, its verbal forms and its symbolic procedures—is scrutinized through the lens of a critical rather than a hermeneutic method, the "Rime" will once again begin to discover its future. It will cease to be an object of faith—whether Romantic or Christian—and become, instead, a human—a social and a historical—resource.

J. Robert Barth (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge's 'Dejection': Imagination, Joy, and the Power of Love," in Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver, Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn, Nicholas Roe, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 179–92.

[Barth is an American Catholic priest, professor of English, and critic who specializes in religious symbolism in Romantic literature. He is the author of Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (1969). In the following essay, he interprets "Dejection: An Ode" to be about "love, … imagination and joy—for the three are inextricably bound together—and the power of art."]

Poetic origins are often obscure, as witness the genesis of Shakespeare's sonnets or the history of Keats' two Hyperions. Among such mysteries, the relationship between Coleridge's verse 'Letter to Sara Hutchinson' (written on 4 April 1802, but first published only in 1937) and his 'Dejection: an Ode' (published in the Morning Post, 4 October 1802, Wordsworth's wedding-day) has been a matter of considerable discussion and debate. Although it is evident that the one is a drastic revision of the other, it remains unclear what were Coleridge's poetic purposes in making the revision, and what was in his mind in publishing it on the wedding-day of his friend Wordsworth, which was also the seventh anniversary of his own unfortunate marriage to Sara Fricker.

A cogent case has been made that 'Dejection' has its origin as much in Coleridge's relationship with Wordsworth as in his frustrated love for Sara Hutchinson. The first four stanzas of Wordsworth's 'Immortality Ode', in which Wordsworth laments his loss of the 'visionary gleam', were written just days before Coleridge composed his verse-letter to Sara, and it was two years before Wordsworth was able to complete it. Written as they are on what appears to be a similar theme, it is difficult not to see the two poems as 'in some sense in a dialogue with each other' [George Watson, Coleridge the Poet, 1966]. The sense of 'dialogue' is deepened when one realizes that Wordsworth's own stanzas echo clearly a poem of Coleridge written two years earlier—'The Mad Monk' (1800), which begins:

Wordsworth's answer to his sense of loss, written two years later, was a re-affirmation of the strength still to be found in the world of nature: 'Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might'. Coleridge's answer to his loss, it has been said, was rather to turn inward, despairing of nature as a healing power: 'O Lady! we receive but what we give'. If this is so, the two friends had certainly parted company poetically and philosophically long before their friendship was ruptured in 1810.

Perhaps even more tantalizing is the question of the relationship between the two major versions of Coleridge's poem, the verse-letter and the textus receptus. As to the poetic superiority of one over the other, each version has its proponents. As Reeve Parker writes, the 'Letter to Sara' 'has been called an incomparably greater poem … chiefly on grounds of its being a less disguised personal lament over marital unhappiness, ill-health, and weakened poetic power'. There are others, however, 'who prefer the final, shorter ode form for its greater lyric dignity and who find the sprawling earlier text embarrassing in its self-pity' [Reeve Parker Coleridge's Meditative Art, 1975].

John Beer [in his edition of Coleridge's Poems, 1974], for example, seems to give the nod to the earlier version: 'Both poems have their peculiar value. "Dejection" stands to its predecessor rather as an engraving may stand in relation to an original painting. Its points are made more sharply and stringently: but in order to hear the full throb of Coleridge's unhappiness the greater length of the earlier version is needed.' Humphry House [in his Coleridge: The Clark Lectures 1951–52, 1953], too, although he admits that 'a case cannot be made for the full coherence of the original version', argues for its overall superiority, stressing especially what he sees as its greater artistic unity; he argues, in effect, that 'Dejection' betrays the essential unity of the original. George Watson, on the other hand, insists that 'there can be no doubt of the superiority of the final version, where the original 340 lines have been reduced to a tight-packed 139…. On the whole, … the reduction of the ode to its familiar form is a continuous triumph of critical acumen'. In the last analysis, it comes down no doubt to a matter of poetic taste, a conflict (as Reeve Parker characterizes it) 'between those who like confessional sincerity in art and those whose inclination is for the orderliness of form'.

We are faced, however, with the two major versions of the poem; and one question that seems continually to be urged in the recent history of Coleridge criticism is Coleridge's purpose in changing the form of the poem so drastically. Some critics have suggested that Coleridge found it necessary, for personal reasons, to hide (or suppress) the real origins of his feelings; others, that he realized his real theme was the loss of his 'shaping spirit of Imagination', and so pruned and reshaped the poem to highlight that loss; and still others, that, having experienced such deep grief, he used 'Dejection' to explore the process of grief with which the experience began. Each of these approaches has something to recommend it, nor should they be thought of as necessarily exclusive of one another.

The first of these views—that Coleridge found it necessary to suppress the real origins of his feelings—may be represented by Beverly Fields' interesting psycho-analytic study, Reality's Dark Dream [1967]. Her case can be fairly enough summed up in these words from her Conclusion:

The shifts in organization appear to have been made partly for reasons of coherence but also partly in order to suppress as far as possible the real reasons for his depression. It was undoubtedly far easier for him to assign the cause of the depression to metaphysical speculation than it would have been to let the poem stand as a revelation of the sadomasochistic fantasies that paralyzed his feeling and his behavior.

Other, less psycho-analytic readers, like Max Schulz and Charles Bouslog, also see Coleridge's desire to camouflage his real feelings as the reason for his revision of the poem.

The second reading—that Coleridge realized his real theme was the loss of his 'shaping spirit of Imagination'—is persuasively argued by Paul Magnuson in Coleridge's Nightmare Poetry [1974]. Magnuson finds, in effect, not two versions of the same poem but two quite distinct poems. The 'Letter' focuses on 'the pain he has caused Asra', while 'Dejection' focuses on himself—his own pain, his own loss.

The Letter is nearer the spirit of the earlier Conversation Poems in that there is an imagined exchange of sympathy, but in 'Dejection,' he faces a far more fundamental problem. If he himself has lost joy, and if he is the victim of strong feelings, then his blessing could well turn into a curse upon himself and Asra.

The only shared experience between them is that of grief. He has lost, perhaps forever, his old sense of the One Life. As Magnuson puts it, 'We project a meaning upon nature, and whatever we receive from nature is only a reflection of our minds', but since the poet has lost joy and his 'shaping spirit of Imagination', for him the world is now without meaning. There is still hope for 'the Lady', since her soul is still alive—and so for her things can still live—'their life the eddying of her living soul!'—but for him there is no life in the world because there is no life within him: 'O Lady! we receive but what we give.'

The third view—that Coleridge, having experienced such deep grief, used 'Dejection' to explore the process of grief itself—is articulated by Reeve Parker in his splendid book Coleridge's Meditative Art. The ode was, in effect, a gesture 'offered to reassure the Grasmere circle that he was capable of transcending the impulses toward despair and unseemliness that were so much responsible for the original letter'. The original letter is merely an expression of grief, while the more shapely, more carefully crafted ode is an exploration of the state of grief in which the poet finds himself. This exploration is, in effect and even perhaps in intention, a kind of therapy. As Coleridge had argued in the Preface to his Poems of 1796, from the intellectual labor of poetic composition 'a pleasure results which is gradually associated and mingles as a corrective with the painful subject of the description'. Thus there is, in Parker's phrase, 'a salutary egotism in poetic composition'.

Parker thus finds 'Dejection' a much more positive poetic experience than do many other critics. He believes, in fact, that modern readers of the poem often read into it their own preoccupations:

In emphasizing the elements of personal distress discernible in and through the poem and in seeing it as a lament over suspended poetic imagination, readers … have presumed a greater continuity than actually exists between the concerns of a poet like Coleridge, at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the characteristic preoccupation of many twentieth-century writers with alienation, self-doubt, and distrust of the artful imagination.

There is an entry from 1803 in one of Coleridge's notebooks which Parker believes sheds light on Coleridge's 'heuristic' motives in 'Dejection': 'One excellent use of communication of Sorrows to a Friend is this: that in relating what ails us we ourselves first know exactly what the real Grief is—& see it for itself, in its own form & limits'. With the help of the controlling metaphor of the poem, the storm, the poet is able to dramatize his situation—and in doing so, is able to 'generalize' his grief, to (in a phrase of Coleridge) 'abstract the thoughts and images from their original cause' and to reflect on them 'with less and less reference to the individual suffering that had been their first subject' [quote from The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by W. G. T. Shedd, 1856]. When the poet returns, late in the poem, to an awareness of the wind that still rages, he is able to achieve, in Parker's phrase, an 'absolute distancing of wind and poet'. He is not under the control of the wind, but rather can hear in it different voices, as he soon reveals—hearing first the voices of violence and war, then a new voice, 'A tale of less affright / And tempered with delight'. He can now hear in the wind the voice of Wordsworth's Lucy Gray, and it is a voice of life in the face of the lonesome wind.

For Parker, then, the 'sounds less deep and loud' at the end of stanza VII are 'correlative to a mind that, having gone through the process of deliberately exploring the melancholy grief with which the poem opens, is winning its way to a substantial calm'. Having achieved this calm, the poet is then able 'to "send his soul abroad" in the blessing that constitutes the final stanza'.

Without in any way denying the cogency of Parker's approach, with which I find myself generally in considerable agreement, I would like to go on to suggest that there is a motif implicit in 'Dejection' which is quite compatible with the exploration of the process of grief—a motif which has been given little or no attention.

Let me begin with the 'Letter to Sara'. No one would deny, I suspect, that the 'Letter', whatever else it is about—loss or grief or despair—is also about love. It may be love lost or grieved over or despaired of, but any careful reading makes it clear how preoccupied the original poem is with love. And this love ranges through the whole spectrum of possibilities. The most obvious—and indeed central—love is what we may call his 'romantic' love for Sara Hutchinson. She is his 'best belov'd! who lovest me the best'; she is 'My Comforter! A Heart within my Heart!' she is the 'Sister & Friend of my devoutest Choice!' She is beyond question the central figure of the 'Letter' addressed to her. At the same time, however, the context in which she is placed must be taken account of: she is constantly seen as part of a whole domestic scene, as in 'that happy night / When Mary, thou & I together were, / The low decaying fire our only Light', or when he speaks despairingly of visiting 'those, I love, as I love thee, / Mary, & William, & dear Dorothy'. It is not only Sara, but the loving circle of which she is part, that is the object of his love and longing. This is not to say that there is no romantic or sexual component in his longing for Sara; there clearly is. It is to suggest, however, that there is more than one kind of love at issue, not only in the poem but even in his relationship with Sara.

With this peacefully remembered scene of domestic tranquillity, Coleridge contrasts his own home: 'My own peculiar Lot, my house-hold Life / It is, & will remain, Indifference or Strife'. It is, perhaps even more movingly, 'my coarse domestic life'. There is joy, to be sure, in the love of his children: 'My Little Children are a Joy, a Love, / A good Gift from above'. But his grief (perhaps over the failure of his own domestic life) lessens the joy of even this great love: 'This clinging Grief too, in it's turn, awakes / That Love, and Father's Joy; but O! it makes / The Love the greater, & the Joy far less'.

There is love of Nature in the poem, too, for he goes on to apostrophize its beauty:

These Mountains too, these Vales, these Woods, these Lakes,
Scenes full of Beauty & of Loftiness
Where all my Life I fondly hop'd to live—
I were sunk low indeed, did they no solace give.

But even they have failed him, for—and here the Wordsworthian parallel will be evident—'They are not to me now the Things, which once they were'.

Thus there is in the 'Letter to Sara' a whole range of human loves: romantic and sexual love, love of family, love of children, love of friends, love of nature. All are either lessened or lost or in some way frustrated. One may well say that the 'Letter' is about loss, but I suggest that even more fundamental to it is the question of what it is that is lost: love of every kind. The most basic dichotomy of the 'Letter' is between Coleridge and Sara—the one who has lost love and the one who is still surrounded by it, as the last stanza continues to insist:

Sister & Friend of my devoutest Choice!
Thou being innocent & full of love,
And nested with the Darlings of thy Love …

Whatever else it is, the 'Letter to Sara' is a poem about love and its loss.

Against this background, it is perhaps startling to discover that while the word 'love' (or its cognates—loved, lover, and beloved) appears twenty-one times in the 'Letter,' its only cognate in 'Dejection' is, ironically, 'loveless' in line 52. Does this mean that a motif that was so prominent in the earlier version has been completely written out of the later one? I would like to suggest that what was explicit throughout the 'Letter' has simply gone underground, becoming an implicit principle of action in 'Dejection'. I would like to argue, in fact, that the word 'loveless'—'The poor loveless ever-anxious crowd'—is a key to the poem.

My argument turns around the interpretation one gives to the much-quoted line, 'O Lady! we receive but what we give'. This line is most commonly taken to refer to the poet's relationship with nature: that he is arguing, in effect, against Wordsworth's belief in the healing power of nature. Nature has no power to affect our lives; our response to nature is determined by our own feelings, by the projection of our selves. And if our feelings, or our inner selves, have lost their sense of life, then there is nothing but the blankness of despair.

This may indeed be the initial meaning of the line, but it does not, I think, remain its sole meaning. This understanding of the relationship of nature and self does last, to be sure, through the two stanzas that follow—stanza V, which extols joy, 'this strong music in the soul', and stanza VI, which laments the passing of that joy. Stanza VII, however, marks a decisive turn away from this view:

Putting aside the almost solipsistic view of himself and nature, he finally allows himself really to listen to the wind, to allow its power to work in him. At the beginning of the poem, he had projected his own feelings onto the wind—and so could hear only his own depression. This is precisely what had led to his reflection: 'We receive but what we give'. Later, after rejecting this self-centred and self-pitying attitude ('Hence, viper-thoughts!'), he is able to let nature touch him, and he finds that it is healing. Perhaps Wordsworth is right after all.

Therefore stanza IV was a self-pitying, wrongheaded view, which the poet now finds strength to reject; and the vehicle for this discovery is the wind. His perception of the wind had begun as superstition (the folk-beliefs concerning the weather) and self-projection; but through the process of the poem he has come to see it as a natural force from which he can learn: it has its cycles, from wild to gentle, as he does himself. And as the wind gentles down—singing 'a tale of less affright, / And tempered with delight'—so does his own soul. He was right in stanza IV:

And this voice is the voice that issues forth from him at the end of the poem, offering blessing to one he loves. It is perhaps no accident that in stanza IV this voice is contrasted with 'the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd'—because we come to see that it is the voice of love, of one who has learned that only if he is open to receive will he be able to give. Had he not opened himself to the voice of nature—first wild but ultimately healing—he would never have found his own voice. But he did find it, and in the closing lines of blessing it is indeed 'a sweet and potent voice', newly potent because it now speaks not out of self-pity but out of loving concern for another.

The pattern of this poem is, in fact, no different from that of a number of others of Coleridge's poems. It is the same pattern found in 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison', in which the poet overcomes his dejection by entering into the feelings of Charles Lamb as he enjoys the country sunset:

What is this but an act of love: a giving of oneself to another? And so with the Ancient Mariner, who is able to move out of his isolation by an act of imaginative sympathy with the watersnakes:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.

Whatever name one may give to such an act, it is a movement of love: a going-forth out of the self to encounter the being of another. In the last analysis, Coleridge is not content to remain one of the 'loveless ever-anxious crowd'; he does not remain mired in 'dejection'. Through the ministry of nature, he is able to love. 'Dejection' remains, therefore, in its transformation from the 'Letter to Sara', a love poem; but it becomes a love poem in a broader and deeper sense—now not merely the lament of a frustrated lover, but an ode to the power of love itself, which can bring him out of dejection into calm, out of selfishness and self-pity into generous-hearted blessing.

But if 'Dejection' is about love, it is also about imagination and joy—for the three are inextricably bound together—and about the power of art. That 'Dejection' is concerned with imagination is perhaps the best known truth about the poem: the poet is dejected at least in part because he has lost his 'shaping spirit of Imagination'. He has allowed the understanding—the analytic faculty, the power of mind that deals with parts and with merely sense impressions—to take away his power to shape his experience of the world into a meaningful whole: 'by abstruse research to steal / From my own nature all the natural man'.

What is it, though, that has brought him to this sad pass? Surely it is the loss of joy, the very joy that he wishes for the 'virtuous Lady'. Joy is

It is joy that can enable one to bring together man and nature, heaven and earth, sense experience and spiritual reality, and it is at the same time joy that celebrates the union of all these things. The 'natural man' could feel joy, for he was in harmony with nature and could not only perceive but feel the unity of all creation. His faculties all in harmony, he could appreciate the 'wholeness' of experience and rejoice in it, for wholeness and joy are functions of one another. Hence the joyful exclamation of 'The Eolian Harp': 'O! the one Life within us and abroad'. However, having 'by abstruse research' narrowed down his vision of the world, the poet can now see only parts of the great world. And with the loss of wholeness, joy is lost.

For joy is not only a feeling but a power of perception; it affords both creative vision and emotional exaltation. Joy or 'delight' is, in fact, a prerequisite not only for harmonious living but for the writing of poetry. As Coleridge had written of the Abyssinian maid:

This is, I suggest, precisely the role of Lucy Gray, the tale 'tempered with delight'. The poet has revived within himself, or the wind has raised within him, or better yet, the poet and the wind in fruitful concert have revived a song—not the song of the Abyssinian maid but the song sung by the little girl. As Irene H. Chayes says, 'the poet of "Dejection" begins in his reverie to re-compose another man's poem and for the moment becomes a poet again' ["Rhetoric as Drama: An Approach to the Romantic Ode," in Publications of the Modern Language Association 79, 1964]. His imagination has come to life again.

But we are concerned for the moment with the role of joy. How can a tale that tells of the suffering of a frightened child—her moans and grief and fear—be a cause of 'delight' for the poet, or indeed for anyone? The answer has to do with the nature of aesthetic experience. The wind is, after all, a 'Poet, e'en to frenzy bold'. Through the agency of the wind and the power of the poet's poet-friend, the actual experience of grief (both Coleridge's grief and the grief of the lost child) is transformed into a tale, an artistic form, which distances the listener from the actual experience, giving it shape and meaning. The terrifying experience is sublimated to another level of reality, a mythic level, which is both meaningful and sustaining. For myth universalizes our experiences, showing them to be part of the larger experience of mankind; and by binding us to each other through our common humanity, especially through our common experience of suffering, myth allows us to draw strength from each other. It is thus we learn that mankind survives, even in the face of diminishment and loss. Therefore the experience the poet could not bear becomes through art (the 'tale' which the wind tells) not only bearable but even hopeful.

This is not to say, of course, that in the 'tale' the grief is taken away. It still retains, for the reader as well as for the poet, a strong sense of the terror of the child irretrievably lost. It is, however, 'tempered' by art, so that the grief is bearable and life can go on. And if the tale of the wind has made the child's grief bearable to the hearer, so the poet's tale of his own grief (his poem, 'Dejection') may serve the same function, giving him enough 'distance' from his grief that he can bear it—and that life can go on.

Rachel Trickett has remarked that the secret of morality in Wordsworth is that love must precede understanding. Her comment recalls Shelley's famous dictum in the Defence of Poetry that 'the great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own'. What Trickett, like Shelley, has in mind of course is not merely morality but poetry, as a distillation and articulation of the highest human values. And if this is true of Wordsworth, it is no less true of Coleridge; without love there can be no poetry. Without love, no joy; without joy, no working of that shaping power, imagination.

But since the three—love, joy and imagination—work so closely in concert, any one of them can help to rouse the others. In 'Dejection', the momentary return of imagination and imaginative delight—in the poet's recollection of 'Lucy Gray'—can stir in him a return of love, moving him to the loving gesture of blessing which closes the poem, and can hold out at least the hope of a more personal joy for him, as he prays the gift of joy for one he loves.

One question yet remains: what did Coleridge mean by publishing 'Dejection' on Wordsworth's wedding-day and his own anniversary? I would like to suggest that he intended the poem as a kind of ironic epithalamion, for himself rather than for his friend. For Coleridge's tribute to the power of love is bound up, however subtly, with the nuptial imagery of the first half of the poem. The nuptial portrayed is, of course, the marriage between nature and man, and it is joy which presides over the solemnity:

Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven.

But this wedding involves, paradoxically, both life and death:

And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud.

And yet, if our union with nature implies death, it does so in a sense analogous to sexual union as 'a little death'—a death which can bring about new life, in this case indeed 'a new Earth and new Heaven'. So too the 'phantom light'—the ghost of the old moon held in the arms of the new—implies death, while the new moon affirms life. The old moon must die if the new moon is to be born. (One might even suggest that the 'silver thread' with which the phantom light is 'rimmed and circled' might point ahead to the 'wedding garment'.) Thus the phases of the moon, which are of course cycles of nature, are caught up in the nuptial imagery, which itself, as Robert Siegel has suggested, 'reflects the theme of imaginative wholeness' [The Serpent and the Dove: The Problem of Evil in Coleridge's Poetry, Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1968].

However, in striking contrast to the ideal marriage described in stanza V, in which Joy,

there is the poet's own wedding with nature (stanza VII), which brings forth not 'a new Earth and new Heaven' but a terrifying storm. The storm is not to last forever, though, for the poet hears at length another voice of nature:

A tale of less affright,
And tempered with delight.

And if the poet's stormy wedding with nature—which is indeed more like a divorce than a marriage—may be seen as metaphor for Coleridge's ill-fated marriage to Sara Fricker, then the incomplete but longed-for union with the kinder face of nature ('tempered with delight') may be taken as a metaphor for his impossible yet somehow sustaining union with Sara Hutchinson.

Coleridge's marriage to Sara Fricker is over, no doubt, leaving behind only a 'phantom light' like that of the old moon, and marriage to Sara Hutchinson is only a longing. But if the song the poet hears in the wind is indeed 'Lucy Gray', then there is at least a sustaining dream at the end. Lucy Gray is dead, to be sure, but she is still alive as a dream, a mythic reality, as Lucy 'sings a solitary song / That whistles in the wind'. So too the poet's love for 'the other Sara' is alive for him, at least as a comforting dream. But this love is not merely a dream; like the song sung by Lucy Gray, it has something of the healing power of myth. As Coleridge's spiritual divorce from his wife is reflected in his divorce from nature, from 'the one Life within us and abroad', the 'sympathy between his soul and Sara Hutchinson's looks forward to a new wedding of his soul to nature' [Siegel]. And he too, I might add, like Lucy Gray, sings his 'solitary song'—this poem—that 'whistles in the wind', affirming life even in the midst of death.

This is indeed the power of love: to bless, to heal, even—and even in the face of dejection—to bring the hope of joy. And the power of love is, as we have seen, for Coleridge as for Wordsworth, deeply bound up with imaginative power. Wordsworth wrote, at the end of 'The Prelude':

This spiritual Love acts not nor can exist
Without Imagination.
(Norton 'Prelude', 1850 text)

Coleridge would stress, I think, the corollary: that imagination cannot exist without love. He could write this poem only because the love he thought he had lost was not wholly dead in him, because—whether or not his love was returned—he was still, or perhaps again, capable of giving love. Perhaps indeed his gift of love was all the greater because it was at last unconditional love, given not for his sake but for the sake of the beloved, given whether or not it was returned. In that generous-hearted gift of self lay his hope.

Fred L. Milne (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan': A Metaphor for the Creative Process," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 17-29.

[In the following essay, Milne provides an analysis of the symbolism in "Kubla Khan " and postulates that Xanadu is a metaphor of the human mind.]


Although debate continues over whether or not the head-note Coleridge published with "Kubla Khan" in 1816 should be regarded as a factual account of the poem's origin, recent studies have suggested that regardless of its basis in fact the headnote serves most importantly as what Warren Stevenson calls [in his "'Kubla Khan' as Symbol," in Texas Studies in Literature 14, 1973], an "imaginative adjunct to the poem." In that context, the headnote can be seen as "a prose imitation of the poem it introduces," functioning "in part as argument and gloss" [Irene H. Chayes, "'Kubla Khan' and the Creative Process," Studies in Romanticism 6, 1966]. Such an understanding of the headnote reinforces the view that "Kubla Khan" is a poem about the creative process. To say that certainly is not new, but the reading that follows, while benefiting from those preceding it, differs from them in its interpretation of specific elements in the poem, particularly the function of Kubla Khan.

According to the account given in the headnote, Coleridge sensed that he composed a poem in simultaneous response to a vision seen during "a profound sleep, at least of the external senses" (Poetical Works). He asserts that "he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort." In other words, not only the content ("all the images"), but also the form ("the correspondent expressions") for the extended poem were simultaneously given during the vision. Together they presented themselves as a fully realized creation in the mind of the sleeping or entranced Coleridge. All that remained for him to do upon waking was to embody the creation in written form, that is, transfer it from mind to paper, thereby giving it an externalized mode of existence. That, according to the headnote, is exactly what Coleridge set about when he awoke. Having "a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, [he] instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved." Had the act of transferring the "composition" from mind to paper been completed, it would have represented the final but all-important step in the creative process, for externalizing the artist's conception not only gives it a concrete embodiment, but also makes it accessible to others who can then respond to it as the artist responded. Unfortunately, this last step of the creative process was interrupted by "a person on business from Porlock" who detained Coleridge "above an hour," after which he found "that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"

Critics disagree on just how much of the published poem actually reflects the vision. Some maintain that it is only the first two stanzas, the third stanza having been added later as a postscript explaining why the poem could not be finished in its original form [claims Elizabeth Schneider in her Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, 1953]. Still others think Coleridge wrote all fifty-four lines between his waking and the interruption [Stevenson]. Another possibility, supported I think by the headnote, is that the published poem incorporates in the first stanza, which corresponds closely with Purchas His Pilgrimage, the work Coleridge was reading when he fell asleep, the "eight or ten scattered lines and images" committed to paper between Coleridge's waking and the interruption by the man from Porlock. The rest of the poem as published is most probably the result of later composition, for Coleridge claims at the end of the headnote that "from still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him." Thus, realizing that the essence of what would have been a poem of "two to three hundred lines" had been forever lost, Coleridge ended by composing from the surviving fragments a very different poem. Incorporating what had originally been "given to him," he adapted that to a new purpose suggested by his experience—a poem about the creative process itself.

Although it ostensibly serves only to explain the circumstances surrounding the original but never fully executed conception for an extended poem, the headnote's real significance lies in what it reveals about the tenuous nature of the creative moment. In that sense, the headnote signals the subject of the poem it introduces and provides a context for reading the poem. Thus, debate over the literal truth of certain details in the headnote, interesting as it may be in terms of Coleridge biography, is not really relevant to an understanding of the poem. What does it matter if Coleridge correctly or incorrectly remembers the year of the original but abortive composition? What does it matter whether the conception came in a "profound sleep," as claimed in the headnote, or in a "sort of Reverie," as claimed in the Crewe MS? [The Crewe Manuscript is a version of "Kubla Khan," in Coleridge's handwriting, discovered in 1934.] Even if the entire headnote were a fabrication, which I do not think it is, it would not significantly change its relationship to the poem. Its function would remain the same; it would still serve to establish a context for reading "Kubla Khan."


The landscape described in stanzas one and two of "Kubla Khan" is the usual starting point for any reading of the poem in terms of the creative process. Even if, as I believe, the first stanza basically reflects all that was transcribed of the grand poem conceived during the vision, it nevertheless stands in close relationship with the second stanza, the two forming a unit but differing in focus, as I shall explain later. The relational pattern established in the first two stanzas between the chasm, fountain, river, caverns, and underground sea does suggest the mind and its activities. As Irene Chayes argues, "the landscape with its descending levels would be the mind as structure, and the processes within it, summed up in the flowing of the river, 'meandering with a mazy motion,' the mind as activity." Because some have assumed that Xanadu is a specific element or locale within the landscape to be isolated and identified as merely the enclosure decreed by Kubla Khan, it should be emphasized from the outset that the poem reads "In Xanadu" not "At Xanadu." Thus, everything described in the first two stanzas is "In Xanadu"—the fountain, chasm, river, caverns, sea, as well as Kubla Khan, his garden and his pleasure-dome. If the landscape reflects the mind and its activities, then Xanadu is the symbolic name for the mind.

The basic structural feature of Xanadu is its circularity, defined by the course of Alph, "the sacred river" (line 3). Rising out of the "deep romantic chasm" (l. 12) amid the turbulent but intermittent gushings of a "mighty fountain" (l. 19) which is its source in the upper or visible region of Xanadu, the river flows "with a mazy motion / Through wood and dale" (ll. 25-26) until it reaches "the caverns measureless to man" (l. 27). There it descends "in tumult" (l. 28) into what is called alternately a "sunless sea" (l. 5) or "lifeless ocean" (l. 28), that is, into the lower, hidden region of Xanadu. What I call the visible and hidden regions of Xanadu correspond to the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind, an identification Chayes terms "fundamental to the meaning of the first two stanzas." The course of the river unites those two realms, for as Warren Stevenson points out, "the river presumably returns to the fountain via the sunless sea, like a serpent with its tail in its mouth—the ancient symbol of eternity" [see also Richard Gerber, "Keys to 'Kubla Khan'," in English Studies 44, 1963]. In so doing, the river both completes and renews its circular flow which then becomes perpetual in its motion. Stevenson's reference to the ouroboros, a symbol frequently employed by the Gnostics and the alchemists, is quite apropos. In some versions of the symbol, the serpent's body is half light and half dark, suggesting a basic dichotomy united through the circle. The structure of the Xanadu landscape is analogous in that it encompasses both light and dark, visible and hidden, conscious and unconscious aspects united through the circular course of the river. Because the circular pattern in Xanadu involves motion, it is also analogous in function to the meaning attached to circular motion by the alchemists for whom it signified "that which brings into being, activates and animates all forces in a given process, sweeping them along with it, including those forces which would otherwise act against each other" [J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage, 1963]. As the basic structural pattern of the Xanadu mind-landscape, circular motion allows depiction of the conscious and unconscious, the measured and measureless aspects co-existing in the mind's processes. The perpetual, circular course of the river reflects the unity of the diverse and seemingly opposed elements.

Each element within the poem's mind-landscape must now be more precisely identified. Although I agree with Chayes's basic interpretation of the landscape's symbolic meaning, I disagree with her identification of specific elements within the landscape. To identify the fountain in "Kubla Khan" with creativity and say it "corresponds to the imagination in its primary sense" goes too far. The fountain is a necessary component for creativity in the poem, but it does not serve as a creative power in any sense that would be analogous to the imagination. If anything, its "ceaseless turmoil seething" suggests something vital but nevertheless chaotic. As the immediate source of the river in the visible or conscious region of Xanadu, the fountain and the chasm from which it "momently" gushes represent the well-spring through which the unconscious becomes conscious. The fountain-chasm symbolizes the initiating point of conscious thought, depicted as a violent but potentially fertile springing forth from what has been "sunless" and "lifeless," dark and unformed. Because the passage from the unconscious to the conscious is shrouded in mystery, the place where that passage or birth occurs is appropriately "holy and enchanted," like the originating stage of life itself.

Just as it goes too far to identify the fountain with the imagination in its primary sense, Chayes's claim that the river "corresponds to the secondary imagination" is unconvincing. Like the fountain, the river is also a necessary condition for creativity in that it presumably fertilizes the ground upon which creation takes place in the poem, but the river itself is not a creative power any more than the fountain is. Nevertheless, even as the fountain is "holy and enchanted," the river is properly termed "sacred" because it represents the stream of thought; it is the life of the mind, the unifying first principle of all mental activity, signified by its name, Alph. As indicated earlier, the river flows through the conscious realm of Xanadu from a source ultimately rooted in the unconscious to a terminal point that returns it once again to that dark, mysterious region. In contrast to the fountain-chasm, the "caverns measureless to man" represent the initiating point of the unfathomable unconscious, the "sunless" or "lifeless" underground sea. There, the river is seemingly lost as it becomes undifferentiated in the formless sea but only to well up again through the fountain-chasm, ever new yet ever the same.


If indeed "Kubla Khan" became, as Coleridge "frequently purposed to finish" the original fragment, a poem about the creative process set in the general context of the mind and its activities, then where, if not in the fountain or the river, is the creative power to be found? What element in the poem corresponds to that "synthetic and magical power" that "reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities" defined in the Biographia Literaria as the imagination? According to Coleridge, the imagination is the mind's "shaping or modifying power," the "true inward creatrix," that "instantly out of the chaos of elements or shattered fragments of memory, puts together some form to fit it" (Anima Poetae). In the poem, that function is best fulfilled by Kubla Khan himself, for it is he alone who creates in the mind-landscape.

To say that Kubla Khan represents the imagination necessarily rejects previous suggestions that he is "fierce and cruel" [J. B. Beer, Coleridge the Visionary, 1959], that he resembles an "Augustan gentleman as seen through Romantic eyes" [George Watson, "The Meaning of 'Kubla Khan'," in Review of English Literature 2, 1961], or that "in the context of the poem Kubla Khan occupies a relatively limited place" (Chayes). Even though he is neither a symbol of God nor of "Mankind" [Marshall Suther, Visions of Xanadu, 1965], his role in the poem is all-important, a point reinforced by the very title of the poem, and recognized by [G. Wilson Knight, in his The Star-lit Dome: Studies in the Poetry of Vision, 1941] and [Humphrey House, in Coleridge (1953)] before me. As the mind's creative power, Kubla Khan is a reflection of the divine in man, what Coleridge calls "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" (Biographia). As the imagination, Kubla Khan resides in the mind—"In Xanadu"—and there he creates the visions that must then be embodied in art.

Kubla Khan's creation best justifies his identification as the imagination. Considered in its totality, his creation reflects a triple structure, and Coleridge would have known that three is the Pythagorean number signifying completion and the synthesis of opposing elements (Cirlot). At the center of Kubla's creation stands the pleasure-dome with its opposing elements of sun and ice unified into what is later called "a miracle of rare device" (l. 35). Surrounding the dome and forming the second of the three structural divisions are "gardens bright with sinuous rills" (l. 8) and "forests ancient as the hills" (l. 10). Like the sun and ice of the dome, the gardens and forests reflect opposing elements, the gardens suggesting the ordered, cultivated, and artificial and the forests the free, untamed, and natural. Yet, despite their opposition, both seem to blend harmoniously in their "here" and "there" placement around the dome. They are further unified by the third structural division of Kubla's creation, for the gardens and forests are in turn "with walls and towers … girdled round" (l. 7). Even this third division reflects a union of opposites, the walls representing the horizontal and the towers the vertical or even perhaps the feminine and masculine respectively. Some have speculated that the outer enclosure of walls and towers forms a square or rectangle [Suther, and Carl R. Woodring, "Coleridge and the Khan," in Essays in Criticism 9, 1959], but the words "girdled round" suggest that even this portion is circular in shape. Imagistically, Kubla's entire creation could be said to resemble a domed, three-tiered crown, the walls and towers forming the outer circlet. As such, the creation emblems Kubla's crowning achievement: his transmutation of opposing elements into a unified whole symbolizing perfection. As described in the first stanza, the creation reflects the shaping and modifying, the balancing and reconciling power of imagination, not, as Chayes argues, the mere "work of the arranging and ornamenting fancy." The idea of achieved perfection is further implied by the "twice five miles" occupied by the total creation (a dimension I take as referring to the diameter of the whole circular structure), for ten is the Pythagorean number that raises all things to unity and is considered the number of perfection (Cirlot).

In addition to denigrating Kubla himself, some critics have faulted his creation because its purpose is pleasure, but that reflects an underestimation of the positive connotation Coleridge attached to the word when used in the context of poetry or art in general. As the product of Kubla's decree, the circular, tripartite enclosure should be understood as a unified artistic conception, reflecting both completeness and perfection in the relation of its parts to each other and to the whole. As such, it symbolizes a potential work of art, or, more particularly, a potential poem. In terms of Coleridge's own definition, pleasure must necessarily be one of its essential attributes:

A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.


Thus, pleasure or delight is the first or immediate object of a poem, and Kubla's creation would fulfill that requirement. Nothing in the poem qualifies the word "pleasure" in any negative way, nor should the word be contrasted with "delight" in stanza three. As the passage from the Biographia suggests, Coleridge uses the two words interchangeably in the context of art, and the same holds true for their usage in "Kubla Khan."

I have said that Kubla Khan's creation symbolizes a potential poem. As described in the first two stanzas, the creation exists only "In Xanadu"; it has yet to be given the final mode of existence that would make it a work of art in the true sense. All of the balancing and reconciling of opposing elements in the creation, which reflect the power of imagination, are effected through Kubla's decree. One gets the impression that "In Xanadu" Kubla's decree gives immediate existence to the creation—the dome, the gardens and forests, the walls and towers. That impression is reinforced if the first two lines of the poem are compared with Coleridge's recollection of the passage he was reading from Purchas His Pilgrimage at the moment he fell into his "profound sleep." As given in the headnote, the passage supposedly read "'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built'." In other words, Kubla ordered it, and the palace was built, presumably by others. However, in the poem, "commanded … to be built" becomes "did … decree" (1-2). No mention is made of building in stanza one. It is as if Kubla decrees and, by fiat of that decree, the thing instantly exists. The act of building is unnecessary "In Xanadu" because the imagination is a "synthetic and magical power" which "instantly out of the chaos of elements … puts together some form to fit it." Significantly, the only reference to building in the poem comes later in stanza three, and there it is the "I" who proclaims he "would build that dome in air" (46). I think the hiatus between the "decree" of stanza one and the "build" of stanza three is crucial to an understanding of the poem as a metaphorical expression of the mind's creative process. Without the actual step of building, which implies precisely the "consciousness of effort" Coleridge maintains was missing during the "composition" evoked by the vision, Kubla's creation has only a conceptual reality in Xanadu. As evidenced in the second stanza, that reality is tenuous.

Whereas the first stanza focuses on Kubla's creation itself, the second stanza focuses on that creation in relation to the surrounding landscape, particularly the river. Chayes has argued that the course of the river in the second stanza "must be understood as on a second circuit." but I see no compelling reason why that must be so. Both stanzas can be seen as providing different perspectives on a single moment—the moment of Kubla's decree and the resulting creation. The instant Kubla's creation came into existence, it would be reflected on the river, and that is how it is seen in the second stanza. Because its reflection is projected midway on the waves between the "ceaseless turmoil" of the fountain and the "tumult" of the caverns leading to the "lifeless ocean," Kubla's creation has an uncertain reality in relation to the river:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

Although it presumably fertilized the ground where Kubla's creation came to be, the river merely allows the "shadow" of that creation to be reflected back on itself, the only reality assigned to Kubla's work in stanza two, and a rather insubstantial reality it is. The stream of thought supplies imagination with the "fertile ground" upon which to exercise its "synthetic and magical power," and it simultaneously serves as the mirror upon which the imagination projects or reflects its creation, thereby giving it a conscious but not a concrete reality. That reality is not only shadowy or conceptual, but also temporary or impermanent because the reflection is projected "midway on the waves" at a point of momentary equipoise, manifested as a "mingled measure" between "turmoil" and "tumult." The next "momently" eruption from the fountain will propel the river on its way toward the caverns. The "mingled measure" or equipoise will be disrupted and the shadow-reflection of the "miracle of rare device" carried away and soon dissolved, just as in the headnote Coleridge had said of the original vision that "all had passed away like images on a stream into which a stone has been cast." Because the river is moving toward the caverns that lead to the formless sea of the unconscious, it is appropriate that from there Kubla hears "Ancestral voices prophesying war" (30). Those voices are the harbingers of the destruction and dissolution awaiting the shadow of his creation as the river carries its image toward the descent into the unconscious. The voices are "Ancestral" because they represent recollection of past losses even as they foretell the one that is about to occur.

If stanza one begins with creation, stanza two ends with impending destruction. Together the first two stanzas parallel in symbolic terms the argument of the headnote. Although the actual dissolution of Kubla's creation is not depicted in the poem, use of the past tense in the first two stanzas confirms that the prophesied destruction took place. As Woodring points out, "the poem speaks of the dome and pleasure-grounds uniformly in the past tense. The dome was; it is no longer. Something greater … has destroyed it." That "something greater" is the powerful current of the mind's complex thought processes which foster both creation and destruction. The power of imagination is, as Coleridge once acknowledged, "a dim Analogue of Creation" (Letters 2). Unlike the infinite Creator, the imagination is finite in power, its creations subject to what Coleridge calls "the flux and reflux" (Biographia) of the mind which, like a kaleidoscope, always changes. Thus, the creation of stanza one is a floating shadow in stanza two, and both have been lost in the passage of time.


The only counter against the implied loss is missing from the first two stanzas, but it is recognized and celebrated in stanza three, an integral part of the poem's metaphor, not a mere postscript. As Chayes argues, stanza three is a corrective stanza, but it does not reflect a "new creative process" at work in the poem itself. The third stanza is corrective in that it suggests what should have been the final stage of the creative process begun in stanza one with Kubla's decree. Addressing the question of the relation of stanza three to the rest of the poem, Stevenson says that "What Coleridge has done is leave a rhetorical gap between conception and execution." The sense of such a gap is reinforced, as I suggested earlier, by the hiatus between Kubla's decree, representing conception, and any reference to building, corresponding to what Stevenson calls execution. Preservation of the imagination's conceptions from the "flux and reflux" threatening their destruction demands that they be built, that is, somehow embodied or externalized, thereby giving them concrete reality outside the mind. Only when it is built or executed does an imaginative conception move from a potential to an actual work of art. The picture must be painted, the statue sculpted, the poem written to be considered finally as fully realized works of art. In other words, the artist must act on the conception; there must be "consciousness of effort," reflecting what Coleridge calls imagination "coexisting with the conscious will" (Biographia). Through an effort of will, the artist can, as it were, rescue the conception and give it an external form through art. That finalizing step is the subject of stanza three.

The vision of the damsel with the dulcimer singing of Mt. Abora symbolizes the artist in the act of executing what has been conceived or created. Because this vision is also from the past, it may reflect Coleridge's own past achievements, but more likely it represents those of artists in general that serve as models or examples for the "I" of stanza three. As depicted, the damsel gives outward expression to her own inner vision or imaginative conception in "symphony and song." In so doing, she transmits her conception and awakens in those who hear a responding sense of pleasure or delight. Together her "symphony and song" is analogous to the written poem, the symphony or underlying melody corresponding to the poem's rhythm or meter and the song to its words or images, both combined as a unified expression that embodies and externalizes the inner conception.

The "I" of stanza three is the poet recognizing the need to bridge the gap between conception and execution, between the decree and the building. To that end, he would follow the damsel's example:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

The union of symphony and song, meter and word, form and content would allow the poet to execute Kubla's decree by building the "dome in air." However, the conditional "Could I … I would" does not mean that the "I" of the poem can or will be able to do so, but the very recognition of what would follow could he in fact revive the power of expression closes the poem with what Stevenson calls "a triumphant affirmation of the divine potentialities of poetry" (also House). Thus, the final emphasis in the poem falls on the effects that would be produced on those who hear the poet's own music/poem. If only conditionally, the creative process has been carried to its completion within the poem itself.

Thus, the original poem begun but never finished becomes finally a poem about the creative process, symbolically depicting the unexpressed fragility of the original conception while at the same time affirming the powerful effect of that conception when built or expressed through the efforts of the poet's conscious will working in tandem with imagination. Of course, the great irony is the poem produced from the fragment of the initial failure. If the original conception decreed by the imagination was lost in the "lifeless ocean" of Coleridge's unconscious after the interruption by the "person on business from Porlock," subsequent pulsations from the fountain supplied his imagination with new "elements or shattered fragments of memory" sufficient for a new conception, allowing Coleridge himself to overcome the conditional terms used in stanza three and actually build the dome "in air." The published poem is a finished work about a fragment. The three stanzas of the published poem reflect in their own "symphony and song" the lost tripartitie creation once decreed by Kubla Khan in the Xanadu of the poet's mind.

H. W. Piper (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Natural Symbolism and the Conversation Poems," in The Singing of Mount Abora: Coleridge's Use of Biblical Imagery and Natural Symbolism in Poetry and Philosophy, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 29-42.

[Piper is an Australian educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the nature symbolism and the expression of religious experience in the poetry Coleridge produced between 1795 and 1798.]

Coleridge's long inquiry for a religious faith that would satisfy him intellectually and morally began in Cambridge in 1794 and lasted all his life. There are two things to be kept in mind about this inquiry. In the first place Coleridge did not remain in any state of suspended judgment; he was always in possession of an active faith that he was anxious to preach. Secondly, it should not be thought of as a progress from unsatisfactory answers to a final solution. The later nineteenth-century belief that German idealist philosophy had discovered the truth of things no longer holds so firmly, and, in any case, Coleridge did not seem to reach any final resting place after he abandoned (if he did so) his last guide, Schelling. What matters is what he made of each stage in his thought, and it was his earlier ideas which underlay the literary achievements that give him his general reputation.

In 1794, the last year which Coleridge spent at Cambridge, his tutor in mathematics was William Frend, the Unitarian who was brought before the Vice-Chancellor's court and expelled from his fellowship. Coleridge was one of his most enthusiastic supporters and quickly adopted his religious ideas. Early in 1795 the Lectures on Revealed Religion, which Coleridge gave at Bristol, showed that he had adopted all the main Unitarian positions and arguments. He had come to dislike intensely the doctrine of the atonement, a main target of Unitarian attack: indeed he said towards the end of his life that this dislike had been the main reason for his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, with which it was associated. With this he rejected the companion doctrines of predestination and eternal damnation. His new faith in the benevolence of God meant that he also preached the Unitarian belief that, even for the wicked, the afterlife would begin with a period of re-education, after which they too would be admitted to eternal bliss….

Coleridge's dislike of a wrathful God who demanded sacrifice remained with him all his life. There were other beliefs that lasted in the same way, even if the ways in which he stated them changed considerably. One of these was the belief that God was at once, and in the same way, the ground of physical being and of mental and moral being, a belief which he stated and restated in Priestleyan terms, Berkeleyan terms, Spinozan terms, and finally, following Schelling, in terms of the Logos. The Unitarian grounds for this belief were quasi-scientific, as befitted a system largely founded by the scientist Priestley, for he held what was to be known much later as the energy theory of matter. Hence, because they were both energy, matter and spirit were the same things under different names and were both manifestations of the Divine Spirit. While still at Cambridge, Coleridge drew from his college library the work of Boscovitch, which Priestley considered the main support for this theory. (Presumably the book was recommended by Frend.) While he was first at Bristol he read Baxter on The Immateriality of the Soul, another prop in Priestley's exposition of the doctrine. All this was, of course, quite different from the classic physics of Sir Isaac Newton, who sharply distinguished matter from mind—Coleridge throughout his life attacked all dualists, and particularly Newton, as what he called materialists. William Frend has been described as an anti-Newtonian [in the Dictionary of National Biography] and it was possibly he who directed Coleridge's invective in this direction. The Unitarian doctrine had, as we shall see, implications for necessarianism and for God's judgment on men, but it also had important implications for Coleridge's attitude to nature as both the manifestation and the language of God, two ideas that remained prominent in his thought from this time on.

These metaphysical ideas were an important background in Coleridge's thought, but in his poetry it was his thinking about experience that counted. There were several strands to this, and one strand … was his thinking about the experiential meaning of biblical prophecy. Priestley, as might be expected in the period of the French Revolution, placed great stress on the literal fulfilment of the apocalyptic prophecies and the arrival of the millennium, but he also interpreted the millennium as the arrival of "the universal fraternity of love," a point which Coleridge … took up in both his lectures and his poetry of 1795. From here his thinking about the apocalyptic story and paradise in terms of love and sterility, joy and despair, led him into the rich imagery of his greatest poetry. But for clarity this must be dealt with separately.

Meanwhile Coleridge's ideas on the relation of God to nature led him on to that particularly potent employment of natural imagery in his poetry that he shared with Wordsworth. At first, in 1795, he seemed to be going back rather than forward. In preparing for the Lectures on Revealed Religion he drew the poems of Akenside and Young from the Bristol Library and it was their ideas (and their phrases) that he reproduced in the lectures.

The Omnipotent has unfolded to us the Volume of the World, that there we may read the Transcript of himself. In Earth or Air the meadow's purple stores, the Moons mild radiance, or the Virgins form Blooming with rosy smiles, we see portrayed the bright impressions of the eternal Mind.

That is Akenside, word for word. Another passage seems to owe more to Young.

To the philanthropic Physiognomist a Face is beautiful because its Features are the symbols and visible signs of the inward Benevolence or Wisdom—to the pious man all Nature is thus beautiful because its every Feature is the Symbol and all its Parts the written Language of infinite Goodness and allpowerful Intelligence.

This is clearly related to a passage he wrote about the same time as part of his contribution to "Joan of Arc":

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
For infant minds.
[The Destiny of Nations]

In the volume of Young which Coleridge had borrowed there is a passage describing the heavens as a "Golden Alphabet" by which man could learn to read God in nature. In both these passages Coleridge is using the word "symbol" in its sense of a single alphabetical letter to be used in reading God's "Transcript of himself," while in the prose passage there is some play on the word's more general meaning of sign. In "Religious Musings" he went on to an illustration based on the Unitarian explanation of such controversial texts as "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father," which Priestley explained as meaning that what was seen was behavior from which God's qualities could be inferred. The resemblance of this to the doctrine of the Lectures can be seen.

For chiefly in the oppressed Good Man's face
The Great Invisible (by symbols seen)
Shines with peculiar and concentrated light,
When all of Self regardless the scourg'd Saint
Mourns for th'oppressor …
Who thee beheld thy imag'd Father saw.

In the 1797 edition of the poem this leads into Akenside's view of natural symbolism.

Thus Coleridge early had a clear theory of natural symbolism and of the discovery of God in nature, but his ideas were not new and certainly not an anticipation of later philosophies. These ideas alone would not be enough to account for the greater depth of response to landscape, the greater attention to its detail, the greater significance, the desire "to achieve a unity with Nature which is almost visionary in mood" which critics have found in Coleridge when compared with his predecessors. [W. K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon, 1958; A. Matheson, "The Influence of Cowper's 'The Task' on Coleridge's conversation Poems," in New Approaches to Coleridge, edited by D. S. Sultana, 1981] To understand this we must digress into the part played by Hartley's system of psychology in Coleridge's religion. Hartley's psychology had been adopted by Priestley and his followers as part of Unitarianism and it was a logically necessary part of the system, making the necessitarian link between God's action and man's religious life. God's presence in all parts of his creation provided its ultimate unity, so that all apparent evil must be ultimate good and all apparent disharmony ultimate harmony. Through Hartley's psychology this applied also to the world of man. If God acted on man through senseimpressions, and if the landscape was, in effect, his language, then all his diverse effects in human beings must ultimately be a harmony. In what was Coleridge's first really successful poem he set out to grapple with this problem of reconciling God's unity with the world's diversity and produced the first of the Conversation Poems, "The Eolian Harp." The problem was one which long interested him and as late as 1799, in describing the attitude of Spinoza, the philosopher who then engaged him, he wrote:

I would make a pilgrimage to the burning sands of Arabia or &c &c to find the Man who could explain to me there can be oneness, there being infinite Perceptions—yet there must be a oneness, not an intense Union but an absolute Unity.

[The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by K. Coburn, 1957]

W. J. Bate [in Coleridge, 1968] rightly connected this note with the theme of "The Eolian Harp." The Unitarian background to Coleridge's special concern for this unity can be seen in "Religious Musings":

The passage leads on to make this understanding the basis for that universal sympathy and love which is the millennial paradise. It is a point which was to be important in "The Ancient Mariner."

At the end of 1795 Coleridge had to hand an "Effusion" which he had begun a little earlier. It was quite short, using an image which he had used several times before, that of the Eolian harp played on by the breeze. In this case, in a figure addressed to Sara, the caresses of the wind bring from the lute, as the lover will from the coy maid, sweet upbraidings and then delicious surges of music. To this Coleridge added two further sections. In the first he began by comparing the aimless thoughts and fantasies flitting through his mind with the sound produced in the lute by the random breeze and went on, in an image based on the relation between the single instrument and the orchestra, to speculate that all of animated nature may be such harps, acted on by God to produce their individual tunes and hence his universal harmony: what might seem aimless in the single life is an harmonious part of the whole.

And what if all of animated Life
Be but as instruments diversely fram'd
That tremble into thought, while thro' them breathes
One infinite and intellectual breeze,
And all in different heights so aptly hung,
That murmurs indistinct and Bursts sublime,
Shrill Discords and most soothing Melodies,
Harmonious from Creation's vast concent—.
Thus God would be the universal Soul,
Mechaniz'd matter as the organic harps
And each one's Tunes be that which each calls I.

This he finally condensed into a form that stressed the direct action of God on men's minds as well as his allconsciousness and his all-inclusiveness:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all!

This is a necessarian and pantheistic metaphor—pantheistic because God is "the Soul of each" and necessarian because the sound (the metaphorical equivalent of thought) is produced by the direct action of the breeze which is God. (A moment's reflection will make it obvious that the strings sound because they are acted upon while to tremble is, by dictionary definition, an involuntary act: attempts to read this as an anti-Hartleyan poem ignore both language and logic.) Coleridge later confirmed the meaning of the figure when he quoted the poem in his Philosophical Lectures of 1819 to illustrate a pantheism of which he then disapproved, and when he used the image of the breeze and the harp in Biographia Literaria to illustrate the Hartleyan system of psychology.

This passage is followed by a palinode, felt by many critics to be rather odd, in which he submits to the rebuke of Sara for his indulgence in vain philosophy. What Sara here particularly points out is that he has forgotten that God is incomprehensible, and that the proper response to him is simply awe and deep feeling. What makes this conclusion odd is the suggestion that Coleridge could indeed have been satisfied with such a fideistic, knownothing response to God. Certainly he let the speculations stand as, apparently, the main purpose of the poem. Both in the rather vapid effusion to Sara that begins the poem and in the speculations that follow, Coleridge is concerned with response, harmony, and unity, first between the lover and the beloved, and then between God and man. Nevertheless the poem as a whole is very poorly unified and the warmth given by the figure of the lover, and perhaps by the implied parallel of God with the lover, is thoroughly dissipated by the frigid and pietistic conclusion.

The next of the Conversation Poems, "Reflections on having left a place of retirement," also began from a Hartleyan idea, though this connection is not immediately obvious, and it issued in something vital to his future development. Like its predecessor the poem was set at Clevedon and dated 1795, but it was probably written a good many months after he had left the cottage there. It first appeared in print in The Monthly Magazine of October 1796, and if he had had the poem available in any form when his Poems were being printed in March 1796, then it seems most improbable that he would have withheld it. The poem is constructed on the same pattern of sections dealing with domestic bliss, relationship with God, and pious duty, as "The Eolian Harp" and, as in that poem, the only part that rises above mediocrity is the middle section, here describing an encounter with the nature of God on the summit of the stony mount that lies between Clevedon and the sea.

Oh! what a goodly scene! Here the bleak mount,
The bare bleak mountain speckled thin with sheep;
Grey clouds, that shadowing spot the sunny fields;
And river, now with bushy rocks o'er-brow'd,
Now winding bright and full, with naked banks;
And seats, and lawns, the Abbey and the wood,
And cots, and hamlets, and faint city-spire;
The channel there, the Islands and white sails,
Dim coasts, and cloud-like hills, and shoreless ocean—

It is a comment on the making of a poem, and on its relation to the experience it claims to describe, that this seems to owe something to an earlier poem describing a view seen "while climbing the left ascent of Drockley Coomb" in May, 1795 ["Lines: composed while climb ing the left ascent of Drockley Coomb, Somersetshire, May 1795"].

Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadow'd Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea!
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here!

What, then, accounts for the difference in the depth of the description, and then for what follows in the later poem—a description of the ecstasy of knowing God in the landscape?

It seemed like Omnipresence! God, methought,
Had built him there a Temple: the whole World
Seem'd imag'd in its vast circumference:
No wish profan'd my overwhelmed heart.
Blest hour! It was a luxury,—to be!

Coleridge had described such an ecstasy, rather more didactically and less as experience, earlier in 1796 in his "Religious Musings." What made Hartley's psychology particularly attractive to Unitarians was his belief that the sense-impressions which built up complex ideas came from God and that they could lead eventually to theopathy, or the knowledge and love of God. Coleridge described this culmination:

Strong to believe whate'er of mystic good
The Eternal dooms for His immortal sons.
From Hope and firmer Faith to perfect Love
Attracted and absorbed: and centered there
God only to behold, and know, and feel,
Till by exclusive consciousness of God
All self-annihilated it shall make
God its Identity: God all in all!
We and our Father one!

To this Coleridge added triumphantly:

See this demonstrated by Hartley…. See it likewise proved, and freed from the charge of Mysticism, by Pistorius in his Notes and Additions.

Theopathy of this sort may not be technically mystical but this nature-ecstasy is at the heart of what is new in the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Here Coleridge drew for the first time in an actual landscape on his theory that the character of God can be read in the features of a scene, and at the same time he made the encounter with a particular landscape an encounter with God. Of course, in traditional mysticism the encounter with God is not normally mediated by a landscape, but in this case landscape was the way in which Coleridge brought his longing for union to a focus and to an ecstasy, which there is no reason to think feigned. Certainly in the Conversation Poems of 1797 and 1798 the search for God in nature continued to be just such a search for union and ecstasy, and, whether or not it was a change in his theory of natural symbolism, it was a change in his experience of it.

From the time that Coleridge and Wordsworth became close friends in June 1797, Coleridge's letters show that they were engaged in close discussions of nature and poetry. Wordsworth's ideas were not radically different from Coleridge's, for these ideas were rooted in late eighteenth-century thought, and those who wish to make one or the other poet the sole source only show that, between them, both had something to contribute. Perhaps Wordsworth's ideas were less thoroughly worked out, were less involved with formal philosophy or religion, and appeared less frequently in his writings (though appear they did). Nevertheless, there is one point that shows Wordsworth's independence of Coleridge, and this concerns their experience of ecstasy. Coleridge's experience was based on the idea that God could be "read" in nature, reinforced now by the Berkeleyan idea that nature is the language of God (for he had declared himself a Berkeleyan in the previous December), and it also depended on the old, widely known idea that the beauty of the world provides an intuition of God. But it is not mystical in the strict sense of the word, that is to say, it was not the same experience as that of the great mystics. It is true that towards the end of 1796, in the revisions of "Joan of Arc," which he then called "The Visions of the Maid of Orleans," he described a state of trance, into which Joan is thrown by her discovery of the wickedness and misery about her and in which she becomes aware of a "Presence" who, as "A horror of great darkness wrapt her round," calmed her soul, but this, though it may hint at the moral illumination which the mystical experience brings, is still not strictly a mystical experience. (The "horror of great darkness" is a biblical quotation [Genesis 15:12], not a personal experience.) Certainly this revision was to have been, and perhaps was, sent to Wordsworth at the end of 1796, and his attention would have been further drawn to it when the "Visions" were published in the Morning Post of 26 December 1797, and perhaps that "Presence" had a reverberation in Tintern Abbey. But, all the same, Wordsworth's experiences went back to his boyhood, and nothing in Coleridge's writing suggests that he would have been able to communicate to Wordsworth those marks which show the latter's mature experiences to be authentic. Unlike Coleridge's tentative and never wholly fulfilled explorations, Wordsworth's experience was the same as that described by the mystics, Western or Eastern, and this is all the more remarkable because he seems to have had no knowledge of the tradition. Like them he described the darkness in which the light of sense failed or slept, the encounter with the presence behind appearances, and the moral illumination and certainty that followed, even if that could not be translated into ordinary language. But though Coleridge's experiences could not claim the weight of this tradition, they were nevertheless intuitions of God in the world and, as Coleridge insisted in poems and letters, they had moral consequences for ordinary life. Certainly we see Coleridge from the beginning of the friendship exploring the meaning of the experience.

The word which the two poets chose to express this intuition of God and of moral meaning in the forms of nature was imagination. Wordsworth worked the word into a revised poem in which he spoke of the forms of nature as "the holy forms / Of young imagination." Wherever the word came from Coleridge worked out the idea further in one of his letters, which, Gabriel Marcel remarks [in his Coleridge et Schelling, 1971], shows the nature of his pantheism and how it attaches to his then theory of the imagination. He had earlier, in a different context, quoted a passage of Madame Roland's which claimed that the atheist seems to lack a sense compared to the religious man and to seek a syllogism where the believer finds an action of grace [The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by E. H. Coleridge, 1912]. Coleridge found the distinction illuminating and on 16 October 1797, he wrote, after discussing the importance of children's tales:

I know no other way of giving the mind a love of 'the Great' & 'the Whole'.—Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro' the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess…. They … uniformly put the negation of a power for the possession of a power—& called the want of imagination Judgement.

In another letter of 14 October he wrote:

It is only in the faith of something great—something one and indivisible that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty! But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity.

The curious phrase "counterfeit infinity" has been traced [by W. Schrickx, in "Coleridge and the Cambridge Platonists," Review of English Literature 7, 1966] to the seventeenth-century Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who used it in explaining that God is the only true infinity. Mathematical infinities, whether in number, size, or duration, can always be added to, and so, far from being true infinities, they can only counterfeit or imitate infinity. What presumably attracted Coleridge was the idea that a physical object could imitate infinity, and this would be no disadvantage in the language of God. When one puts this idea of the imagination that can sense the great and indivisible—that is, God—in nature together with the idea that the appearances of nature are the language of God, one can then understand the faith and intensity with which Coleridge set out to read and understand that language.

The poem of his own that Coleridge quoted to illustrate the second of these letters was "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison," written in … June of 1797. This follows the typical pattern of the Conversation Poems, beginning in domestic seclusion (if only for a few lines), rising to a wider contact with God in nature, and returning to draw the moral meaning from this. What is noticeable here is that in all the sections of the poem there is a vivid and loving detail in the natural descriptions, more intense here than in any of the earlier poems.

The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann'd by the waterfall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

Though the description is of water and plants, yet the active verbs—roar, tremble, fan, nod—suggest a pow erful life that makes the scene a suggestion of the power and activity of God in nature.

This scene makes a poetical preparation for the central passages of the poem, in which God actively reveals himself in the landscape. Coleridge tampered with the passage in his old age, but the earliest version, given in a letter to Southey of 17 July 1797, reads:

Coleridge attached to the word "view" a note which read, "You remember I am a Berkleian," so that the communication between God and man through the hues of the landscape is deliberate, part of the language of God. There have been discussions as to whether the phrase "less gross than bodily" can apply to God, and as to whether the spirits who perceive his presence can be men. In the previous year Coleridge had said that, because he was a Berkeleyan, he did not believe in an incarcerated soul or spirit in man: by implication he believed that man was spirit, physically and mentally—"I am a mere apparition—a naked Spirit," he wrote to Thelwall on 31 December 1796. A further corollary is that God, the essence of nature, is perceived in the landscape which is his language and so he cannot be wholly different from the bodily landscape any more than man, as Coleridge then saw him, could be different from spirit. There is a unity of kind between man, landscape, and God that brings out the deeper religious quality which Coleridge now found in the perception of nature.

When Coleridge returned his thought to the bower in which he sat, his conclusion was that nature will employ even its more humble and ordinary aspects to keep the heart "awake to love and beauty." This is an implication of the vision at the center of the poem, and it embodies a feeling about such experiences that is older than Coleridge's particular theories about them: it is one whole side of the religious debate about man's nature and his relation to his world. What the poem, and other romantic poems like it, do is to take the sense of man's natural kinship with the divine, and the sense of the goodness and health of his natural and ordinary emotions, and attach them to aspects of experience that are most felt as enduring, beautiful, and symbolic—symbolic because they represent to us those intuitions about the goodness of God, of natural man, and of the natural world—beautiful because of the sanction and reassurance they give. In this way the poem is part of a long tradition of contemplating and describing nature, but this does not diminish its own importance or its originality. It makes man part of nature as well as making nature divine, and it places both in an intimate relation with God. It was this seamless relationship which justified the natural feelings that were so powerfully attractive to the romantics, as well as inspiring those feelings in the first place, but it is important to realize that for Coleridge this was not a well-worn commonplace but something that came to him through his own religious beliefs and insights.

The letters of October bring us down to the period when "Kubla Khan" and "The Ancient Mariner" were written. The next of the Conversation Poems, "Frost at Midnight," came in February 1798, when Coleridge was writing in a letter that he had finished "The Ancient Mariner" and when he was also writing to Thomas Poole a long description of his life as an often homesick schoolboy at Christ's Hospital. This homesickness was certainly something less terrible than the loneliness of the Mariner, but the Conversation Poems are personal where the long poems are universal. Here, the poem begins with darkness and solitude, the solitude of the poet writing alone at midnight, looking for companionable life and finding it only in the flapping of the film on the grate. From here it moves back in time to the schoolboy watching the same thing and longing for some contact with his family. The resolution this time does not lie in a personal encounter with God, but in a magnificent passage which might be described as yet another gloss, and a more contemporary one, on "The Ancient Mariner," describing the presence of God everywhere in nature and the whole of nature as his language.

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

From here the poem returns to the cycle of the seasons, and finally to the frost, as part of the secret ministry of nature.

If "Frost at Midnight" forms a kind of personal subscript to "The Ancient Mariner," the last of the Conversation Poems of the year bears a similar relation to "Christabel." It was finished in early May 1798, and, while the first writing of "Christabel" cannot be dated exactly, that must also have been at about this time. Certainly there is one very obvious link. The first part of "Christabel" (the part written in this year) ends with a "Conclusion" in which a chorus of nightbirds, in this case owls, celebrate the couching together of Christabel and Geraldine. There is something at least sinister about their rejoicing, but it is followed by Christabel's visionary dream, in which joy seems to swallow up distress. In the uncompleted long poem this vision was never fully worked out, nor the daemonic fully taken up and resolved, but when we turn to the Conversation Poem, there is no doubt about the joy. Here the nightbirds are not owls but nightingales, full of daemonic energy and also full of joy [F. V. Randell, "Coleridge and the Contentiousness of Romantic Nightingales," Studies in Romanticism 21, 1982]. In the first part of the poem Coleridge insists that the tradition of the melancholy nightingale is false, these are the birds of joy. And the main part of the poem is the realization of this as the birds crowd singing through the whole wood:

This is a Dionysian rout, even to the tossing of the head. The poem is full of extraordinary elation, life, and vigor. In "Christabel" the darknesss had been a threatening, alien territory, but in this poem the wish for young Hartley, "that with the dark he may associate joy," has been fully acted out, and the whole poem shows that Coleridge had captured the world of the darkness and the daemonic for joy.

The Conversation Poems of Coleridge's great year have here been treated in their conjunction with the very different long poems because only in that way can they be given their full weight. The Conversation Poems record Coleridge's search for encounter with God, and, naturally, what they record is the joy of discovery. There is no place in them for the darker parts of life. When we turn to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" we find what is missing in Coleridge's poem:

The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
Here where men sit and hear each other groan.

It is the same when we compare the Conversation Poems as a whole, "Wordsworthian" though they sound and great as they are as expressions of the "Wordsworth-ian" joy, with Wordsworth's own lyric poetry. Words-worth used his feeling for Nature and the natural order to face and comprehend deep and disturbing emotions, to explore dark passages. His faith is based on the experience and the conquest of suffering and misery. As against this, when Coleridge wrote:

A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
In Nature there is nothing melancholy
["The Nightingale"]

he was expressing triumphantly a moment of almost mystical exultation. For that moment of insight to be valid, there had to be somewhere else in his thought a facing of the deep problems involved. For insight into the more intense and disturbing parts of his being, and for his attempts to find joy even through them, we must turn to the sometimes very different symbols of the great poems, which provide at once a mask and a revelation. In these poems Coleridge was freed to express such feelings by his use of vision, reverie, and Gothic narrative, but the license and the distancing which these forms gave him would not have been enough in themselves. What enabled him to explore and express this world of feelings was the new symbolic mode which he developed.

Regina Hewitt (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "The False Poets in 'Kubla Khan,'" in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, December, 1988, pp. 48-55.

[In the essay below, Hewitt identifies two distinctive themes present in "Kubla Khan " which reveal that the "poem as a whole displays a dilemma: it shows that the two extant theories accounting for poetic composition fail to provide a sufficient explanation of that phenomenon."]

Readers choosing to understand "Kubla Khan" as a comment on poetry may deem most concomitant interpretive issues settled some time ago by George Watson [in "The meaning of 'Kubla Khan'," in A Review in English Literature, 1961]:

"Kubla Khan," then, is not just about poetry: it is about two kinds of poem. We have one of them in the first thirty-six lines of the poem; and though we do not have the other, we are told what it would do to the reader and what it would do to the poet. The reader would be able to visualize a palace and park he had never seen; and the poet would behave after the classic manner of poets, like a madman. This second poem—the poem that does not exist—is so evidently the real thing that it is clear that the poem we have, in 11. 1-36, is not the real thing—not quite a poem at all, in Coleridge's terms.

Watson's argument has a certain finality that implies that further speculation would be useful only if it shifts its focus, and such a shift is indeed evidenced in more recent criticism of "Kubla Khan," which concentrates on its political dimension, celebrates the poetics of the fragment, or traces the Hellenic and Hebraic sources for the views on inspiration the poem displays. Investigating the nature of inspiration, however, inevitably suggests investigating the nature of poetry. So it would seem that criticism of "Kubla Khan" has come full circle during the last two decades and now requires a revaluation of the argument for poetry.

Such a reconsideration may find that "Kubla Khan" is not only about poetry but about the poet who creates it and, specifically, about how he creates it. "Kubla Khan" consists of two successive sections that parallel each other in subject matter. The first part (1-36) deals with the manufacture of poetry through skilled, rational craftsmanship; the second (37-54), with the generation of poetry through artless, irrational inspiration. Each section contains a problem that shows its approach to poetry to be inadequate, its poet figure false. Hence, the poem as a whole displays a dilemma: it shows that the two extant theories accounting for poetic composition fail to provide a sufficient explanation of that phenomenon. By implication, it calls for a new theory of poetic creation. Although it does not suggest what that theory should be and does not present a figure of a true poet, it contributes to the formulation of new theories and new symbols by pointing out the pitfalls fresh thought must avoid. In essence, "Kubla Khan" shows Coleridge weighing the merits of inherited ideas of poetic creation, finding them wanting, and leaving a space for a new idea to fill. A closer look at "Kubla Khan" may make this reading of the poem more readily apparent.

As Watson notes, the first thirty-six lines of "Kubla Khan" may be assigned a historical referent. They are emblematic of Neo-classical or Augustan poetic theory with its prescriptions and proscriptions. The Khan, as Neoclassical poet, brings his work into existence by "decree" and refines it by system and measure ("So twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round"). The architectural metaphor reduces the poem to the status of any ordinary object put together piece-by-piece according to an exact blueprint. The Khan's plans, however, cannot account for all aspects of the natural environment in which his construction occurs. The "twice five miles" fail to incorporate the chasm and the river, which violate the enclosure:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments valuted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

The river escapes the Khan's confines, reaching the caverns—themselves measureless—and the ocean—obviously illimitable, especially within "twice five miles," no matter how one construes the geometry of that figure.

The Khan's method results in an illusory order, a shaky structure on the brink of overthrow by the elements it could momentarily ignore but not permanently exclude. The first section draws to a close by adumbrating the destruction of the Khan's little world: it addresses "ancestral voices prophesying war," and it shifts its focus from the pleasure-dome to the shadow of the pleasure-dome appearing on waves, waves to which the excluded river and fountain have contributed and which can, by a bit of agitation, break up the mere illusion reflected on them. Following from the architectural vehicle, the tenor of the metaphor indicates the unstable and incomplete nature of a Neo-classicism that tries to exclude structural and thematic elements inconvenient to its limited design. It implies that the poet must take into account all parts of the organic, natural order, for these elements belong in poetry and will surface there despite all rules to the contrary.

Juxtaposed to the flawed Neoclassical view of poetic creation is a second different but still flawed view—the ancient fury of the poet shown in the last eighteen lines of "Kubla Khan." This poet, with his "flashing eyes" and "floating hair," portrays—possibly even parodies—the "enthused" poet that Plato condemned. This poet's own mind and judgment have been usurped by some spirit. The poet becomes the passive instrument through which the spirit expresses itself in a way that may or may not be intelligible. Watson notes the analogue, of course. But he privileges it as if it were the view of the poet that Coleridge prefers, whereas "Kubla Khan" makes this figure suspect. He believes himself to have received some extraordinary vision ("A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw"). He was passive at the time and continues passive to the extent that he cannot recollect the experience sufficiently to write anything about it:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air….

His is "the poem that does not exist" because it cannot and should not. His is a private ecstasy. It results from an esoteric fantasy and not from an insight into nature. Failing at poetic creation, this poet falls back on the exaggerated affectations of "irritable" genius, relishing his ability to mystify others ("And all should cry, Beware! Beware!") instead of welcoming a chance to convey his insight to them (as a true poet would).

It seems, perhaps, odd to reject both figures of the poet in "Kubla Khan." After all, finding a "Romantic" poet critical of Neoclassicism constitutes almost a stock response, but finding him critical of inspiration disturbs some standard assumptions. A glance at Coleridge's attitude toward the figure of the poet as he expresses it in some of his prose works may help to justify the second rejection. The bulk of his writings show an unqualifiedly positive valuation of the possessed poet to be inconsistent with his statements about the nature of poetic genius.

Most of Coleridge's reflections on this matter occur in works of a later date than the time at which "Kubla Khan" is alleged to have been written. The Watchman, however, provides at least one example from the later 1790s of what Coleridge then considered an acceptable figure of a poet. Of Louis de Boissy, Coleridge writes in his essay for Thursday, May 5, 1796:

Boissy, the author of several dramatic pieces, that were acted with applause, met with the usual fate of those men, whom the very genius, that fits them to be authors, incapacitates for successful authorship.—Their productions are too refined for the lower classes, and too sincere for the wealtheir ranks of Society. Boissy in addition to great intellectual ability, possessed the virtues of Industry and Temperance; yet his works produced him fame only. He laboured incessantly for uncertain bread.

Hence, Coleridge ranks the poet among men of genius and characterizes those as intelligent, industrious, temperate, and hard-working. Instances of failure are really triumphs, for they stem from an inability to pander to popular taste. While this early essay neither provides a definitive anatomy of genius nor purports to explain how works of genius come into being, it does allow certain attributes to the genius that could not be imputed to a manic bard. Anyone adhering to the Platonic notion of frenzied inspiration would have had a different explanation of Boissy's talents and fate.

Since "Kubla Kahn" returned to Coleridge's thoughts at least once later in his career—when he published it, for whatever reason, in 1816—it may not be inappropriate to examine Coleridge's statements in later prose on this question. Coleridge's early description of Boissy as a "man of genius" suggests that further information be sought in the second chapter of Biographia Literaria, the chapter on "irritable" genius. With Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Spenser as examples, Coleridge finds that "men of the greatest genius … appear to have been of calm and tranquil temper," whereas the "counterfeit" genius is characterized by irritability, fanaticism, and morbid sensibility. In the former, passion serves insight; in the latter, "passion [is] in inverse proportion to … insight." Persons of true genius build on and sustain themselves by a "foundation within their own minds." They control and are not controlled by their insights so that they are characterized above all by their "creative and self-sufficing power."

In "Shakespeare's Judgment Equal to His Genius," Coleridge singles out the Bard as the epitome of true poetic genius and carefully defends him from the Neoclassicists' charges that he was

a delightful monster, wild, indeed, and without taste or judgment, but like the inspired idiot so much venerated in the East, uttering, amid the strangest follies, the sublimest truths.

Had Coleridge subscribed to the "inspired idiot" theory of poetic genius, he would not have found the Neoclassical view of Shakespeare objectionable. He would have endorsed it, holding it up as the proper model for the poet, for it describes someone who creates by the caprice of nature and not by the engagement of his mind. It describes someone in whom passion ranges far from any mental foundation or genuine insight. Coleridge, however, does not welcome such a view. He rejects it as a "dangerous falsehood," and opposes to it his argument that "the judgment of Shakespeare is commensurate with his genius, nay that his genius reveals itself in his judgment, as in its most exalted form"; his essay pleads for the critical discovery of the organization inherent in Shakespeare's works, an organization that takes its pattern from nature (and not from artificial Neoclassical rules) in which every "living body is of necessity an organized one … [evidencing] the connection of parts in and for a whole, so that each part is at once an end and a means."

It is Shakespeare's ability to make these organic, natural connections that Coleridge most often praises and most often cites to approximate how the imagination works. In "Shakspeare [sic], a Poet Generally," Coleridge argues that Shakespeare's imagination was greatest because it succeeded in "produc[ing] that ultimate end of all human thought and human feeling, unity." Coleridge acknowledges the rarity of such achievement, but never suggests that it is not fully human. In fact, he often repeats "human" and "humanizing" throughout the essay in connection with the operation of Shakespeare's imagination. His emphasis in no way contradicts his famous statement on imagination in Chapter 13 of the Biographia, the statement in which he establishes a link between the creative activity of the imagination and the creative activity of God. That statement identifies the authority and precedent for the function of the imagination. Far from suggesting that the operation is aberrent from human activity, it reinforces its appropriateness to it. The appropriateness obtains likewise in the operation of the more specialized secondary imagination, for Coleridge sees the poet's imagination as "co-existing with [his] conscious will," a condition that shows Coleridge to be opposed to the idea of a poet inspired irrespective of his volition.

Coleridge again addresses the "human" aspects of poetry in "On Poesy or Art," writing: "Poetry also is purely human; for all its materials are from the mind … and all its products are for the mind." His emphasis surely precludes manic "enthusiasm," but perhaps his most definitive rejection of it is to be found in Anima Poetae:

Idly talk they who speak of poets as mere indulgers of fancy, imagination, superstition, etc. They are the bridlers by delight, the purifiers; they that combine all these with reason and order—the true protoplasts—Gods of Love who tame chaos.

Even such a fitful perusal of Coleridge's criticism as is represented above suffices to show that neither figure in "Kubla Khan" possesses the attributes of a true poet. One is a Urizenic type, capable only of weighing and measuring and desirous of forcing his control upon all things; the other is an "indulger of fancy," who can achieve no order at all and who has given up even his self-control to the sway of his visions. Neither is a "bridler by delight." What, then, is the function of the false poets in "Kubla Khan"?

The answer to that question may draw on Harding's recent exploration of inspiration and "Kubla Khan" in which he posits that "tension itself [between two views of inspiration] was Coleridge's real subject in 'Kubla Khan'" [Anthony John Harding, "Inspiration and the Historical Sense in 'Kubla Khan'," The Wordsworth Circle 13, 1982]. On the one hand, "Kubla Khan" contains the ancient "belief in the possibility that divine truth may be imparted to human minds," as evidenced by the success (albeit temporary) of the Khan's creation; on the other hand, it accomodates the modern "historicist outlook … that the normative tradition must be the judge of any inspired or oracular utterance," as evidenced by the concluding reflections "of the bard who knows what it is to be possessed, and knows too that this inspired state has escaped him."

Harding's explanation poses a problem similar to Watson's insofar as it makes the will-usurped condition of the inspired poet seem attractive, while Coleridge takes a less wistful attitude toward the manic bard. One may, however, borrow from Harding the key idea of tension and posit a different development. The tension in "Kubla Khan" may be seen as a tension between the extant theories of poetic creation—represented by the false poets—which Coleridge rejects and the new theory of imaginative creation that Coleridge embraces but cannot quite completely work out.

Coleridge turned to the imagination to find the alternative to the theories of poetic creation he had inherited from previous generations and found unsatisfactory. "The poem that does not exist"—but should—is the poem of imaginative creation. To finish that poem, Coleridge would also have to finish the thirteenth chapter of his Biographia Literaria. He would have to pronounce how, specifically, the imagination operates so he could display it emblematically and set it forth as the true alternative to the faulty theories of creation. This Coleridge did not do. His insights into the flaws suggested by "Kubla Khan" nevertheless remain with his other monumental contributions to the development of Romantic theories of imaginative poetic creation.

Warren Stevenson (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge's Divine Duplicity: Being a Concatenation of His Surrogates, Succedaneums, and Doppelgängers," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 74-8.

[In the following essay, Stevenson explores the theme of superimposed identity, or the "double" in several of Coleridge's poems.]

The name "Samuel" means "name of God," and is thus a substitute for the unsayable. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who believed that an idea can be presented only by a symbol, saw art and hence language as a sweet succedaneum for ultimate reality. As the Canadian poet Irving Layton has observed in Waiting for the Messiah (1986), it is not an accident that "lyre" and "liar" are homonyms. From this it follows that any direct assault upon the fortress of truth is doomed to failure, and that one must "tell the truth, but tell it slant," as the bard of Amherst so adeptly intimated. In the case of Coleridge, this inspired indirection is typically coupled with a subtly secularized version, or versions, of the doctrine of Atonement expressed in the form of a series of poems dealing with the motif of vicarious fulfillment, wherein another typically takes on, at least temporarily and symbolically, Christ's traditional role as mediator and redeemer, bringing the poet's imagination into a state of at-one-ness with nature and God.

This theme can be seen underlying Coleridge's protohoneymoon poem, "The Eolian Harp," wherein, after the poet has been indulging in some daringly heterodox metaphysical speculation regarding wind harps, nature, and the anima mundi, a look of "mild reproof" darting from his fiancée Sara's "more serious eye" brings him back down to the ground of common orthodoxy, and he ends the poem on a note of humble thanksgiving. While that look of "mild reproof" was to augur ill for the future of Coleridge's marriage, it does illustrate a point about the way his poetic imagination uses another—a sort of double—to "save" his personae from their supposedly wilder or baser impulses, or vice versa. This pattern is no doubt partly attributable to Coleridge's need for a substitute parent figure, granted that he had lost his father while so young and never really got along with his mother, which leads him to make a great emotional investment in a succession of friends and lovers and to abase himself before them, frequently leading to disillusion when the surrogate fails to deliver the hoped for nurturance and wisdom.

The double theme with a difference can be seen underlying "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," wherein Charles Lamb, to whom the poem is addressed, takes on the role of substitute for the temporarily disabled poet, who is thus able to follow his peripatetic friend vicariously while writing the poem: "So my friend / Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood, / Silent with swimming sense" and "gaze till all doth seem / Less gross than bodily … " (37-41). Here the apocalyptic moment is characteristically experienced, at least hypothetically, by both Coleridge and his "gentle-hearted Charles," or double, so that a sort of mystic communion of both friends and "the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes / Spirits perceive his presence" (42-43) is attained.

The various hues which "veil the Almighty Spirit" work in symbolic conjunction with the double motif: nature is conceived as God's double. It is first viewed with implicit revulsion in the form of the "dark green file of long lank weeds" (17)—adder's-tongue ferns, as Coleridge's note helpfully informs us—anticipating the Mariner's first sight of the water-snakes in "The Ancient Mariner." And just as the Mariner later blesses the water-snakes, Coleridge, after the apocalyptic moment has passed, blesses the "last rook" (68) of evening, whose purple plumage as it crosses the setting sun—a submerged but important colour motif—was anticipated by the earlier reference to "purple shadow" (26) and "purple heath-flowers" (35) in the second verse paragraph building up to the apocalyptic passage. The Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition) refers to the "rich purple gloss" of the rook's black plumage—something Shelley also notices in "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills" (80); and Coleridge is anticipating the apocalyptic moment in "The Ancient Mariner" when the Mariner blesses the water-snakes: "blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and every track / Was a flash of golden fire" (278-80).

Coleridge is saying we cannot apprehend God directly, but only indirectly, through His creatures, which is why he tended to prefer the sublime, surrogate moon to the patristic, theistic sun. So too, the double motif, which in this poem laterally embraces Sara, is now emblemized by the imprisoning lime-tree bower, which will bear exotic but bittersweet fruit. Hence the erotic symbolism of Coleridge's earlier honeymoon poetry has given way to the love "passing the love of women" to which Wordsworth was to refer in his "Lines Written After the Death of Charles Lamb." The unripe fruit implicit in Coleridge's poem, written in June, 1797, anticipates that of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (12), written a year later, as both poets were rapidly approaching the mellowing year.

The double motif is also employed in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" insofar as the Mariner appears to be based partly upon Coleridge's friend and rival Wordsworth, who began the poem in collaboration with him, and who, while in France, had, as someone has observed, "shot the bird / That made the breeze to blow." In The Road to Xanadu (1930), John Livingstone Lowes first suggested Wordsworth's agency in Coleridge's portrayal of the Mariner, and others have followed suit. In Nimbus of Glory: A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems (1983), I have argued that in 1797-98, the supersensitive Coleridge picked up vibrations from the morally troubled Wordsworth and transmuted them, along with the legend of the Wandering Jew, into the rich mosaic of the poem. Joseph Gaer in The Legend of the Wandering Jew (1961) refers to the tradition that the Wandering Jew was a philanderer as well as a huntsman; and Wordsworth, who at different times had been a bit of both, suggested to Coleridge the idea of shooting the Albatross, without which the poem could scarcely have been written. "The Wanderings of Cain," a fragmentary prose-poem which Coleridge was also to have written in collaboration with Wordsworth, deals with the paradox of murderer and victim doubling one another to the extent that Abel's ghost shares Cain's misery. The ghost of Abel is portrayed as white—"his naked skin was like the white sands beneath their [Cain's and Enos's] feet"—making it both a fit counterpart of the Albatross—that other innocent victim—and a double of the Mariner, whose skin was "brown / As is the ribbed sea-sand" (226-27). Likewise doubling the double, the Albatross symbolizes Christ's atonement as he paid penance for the sins of others—something which curiously resembles the Mariner's later sufferings vis-àvis the other mariners. The Albatross, which before its death formed a kind of living cross, and after its death temporarily replaced what Blake might have called "the dead cross" around the Mariner's neck, is thus a redemptive figure, as well as a double of the Mariner.

Granted the quasi-sexual nature of the Mariner's act of shooting the albatross, whose eponymous whiteness associates it with both Christian purity and pagan moon-white chastity, if the Mariner first violates, and then, in the end, accepts the sacramental view of the universe to which Robert Penn Warren drew attention in an essay published with the 1946 edition of the poem ["A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading"] the sacrament of marriage is doubly involved: once literally, in the poem's frame, and once hypothetically, as that which is pre-empted. Once more Coleridge is using a Doppelgànger—a word which is usually taken to mean the ghost of a living person—and artfully dovetailing it to the legend of the Wandering Jew, who, according to Gaer, was a kind of alter ego to Jesus, with whom he exchanged curses on the Via Dolorosa: "For though he was still an alien in the world … he was destined to wander with the mission of love for life and for mankind, and to teach others the brotherhood of man." It would be hard to find a more succinct description of a Romantic poet. For this and for other reasons, the Ancient Mariner is Coleridge's most successful succedaneum.

In "Frost at Midnight," written in February, 1798, during an interval in his composition of "The Ancient Mariner," Coleridge uses his infant son Hartley, the "Dear Babe" sleeping cradled by his side, as his double, and after reflecting on the wintry landscape outside the cottage, and his own childhood at Christ's Hospital in London, goes on to express the hope that Hartley may come to enjoy the beauty in nature that had been denied his, as we now know, paradoxically more famous father. Once again, Coleridge is expressing himself vicariously through an alter ego, whose future life is meant to be seen as a sort of sweet substitute for his own.

The text of this poem, like that of "This Lime-Tree Bower," presents a replication of the double motif by its intimation of nature as a succedaneum of God: the "idling Spirit" of Coleridge's imagination looks constantly for counterparts, whether in carbon films or local superstitions, as well as "in this hush of nature," and thus "interprets, every where / Echo or mirror seeking of itself" (17-22). This thematic replication is further developed by a doubling of words throughout the poem, such as "secret ministry" (1, 72), "Sea, hill, and wood" (10, 11), "stranger" (26, 41) and, in the last line, "quietly" and "quiet," describing the shining icicles and the moon, or nature and the numinous, respectively. But as with the last-mentioned example, none of these verbal echoes is exact: "The Frost performs its secret ministry" of line 1 becomes "the secret ministry of frost" of line 72; "Sea, hill, and wood" of line 10 becomes "Sea, and hill, and wood" of line 11; "stranger" of line 26 becomes "stranger's," modifying "face," of line 41. In the part describing Hartley's imagined future life in the Lake District, there is a similar verbal doubling-with-a-difference:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags …
(54-58; italics added, except for the first)

Instead of the lakes reflecting the clouds, mountains, etc., as might have been expected, the clouds are imaging the lakes, mountains, etc. The suggestion is that Hartley's life will be similar to his father's—both were poets—yet different. Coleridge's boyhood was nipped by the secret ministry of frost, without which certain varieties of trees will not bear fruit, as was Hartley's adulthood. But both were, at different periods of their lives, enchanted.

Tillotama Rajan, in a particularly interesting passage from Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism (1980), says of the central portion of this poem (ll. 23-43): "He recalls how he sought, even as a child, the stranger whose arrival was portended by the film of the grate: 'Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved, / My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!' (ll. 42-43). This being was to have been the double or similitude of desire, incarn-ating it in the actual world…. The sister, clothed identically to Coleridge yet other than him, allows vision to externalize itself without ceasing to be present to itself. Conversely, as a stranger she brings before him a world that is not initially companionable and in Hegel's words, strips this 'external world of its inflexible foreignness' by revealing it as a mere 'external realization of himself." However, I cannot entirely agree with the deconstructive exegesis of the conversation poems which follows. True, by using alter egos, Coleridge "points in turn to the surrogate status of literary signs"; but to conclude that "In part, the conversation poems seem genuinely blind to the fictitiousness of this communion between a self-conscious mind and a completely spontaneous being such as a harp [sic] or babe" is to miss the assumption of total intelligibility that underlies most of Coleridge's best poetry, to say nothing of a poem such as Blake's "The Lamb," which Coleridge greatly enjoyed. As Hazlitt remarked in The Spirit of the Age, "Mr. Coleridge talks of himself without being an egotist, for in him the individual is always merged in the abstract and general."

In his later poems, as Rajan acutely observes, Coleridge tended to relapse into a more cryptic and deconstructable mode; but the self-effacing genre of the conversation poems is a sufficient guard against such solipsism, or would be, were it not for the sometimes excessive vigilance of critics who tend to read backward into the Cole-ridge canon, as Rajan does in this remark on "Dejection": "The curious fact that Coleridge sees himself as imitating or following the Wordsworth group, even though the conversation poems were actually written before 'Tintern Abbey,' suggests that vicariousness is not so much a matter of literary indebtedness as of a feeling that vision itself is incapable of self-authentication." We shall see.

"Kubla Khan," that long withheld and much maligned miracle, is built upon a circular—actually, a spiralling—structure. The poem is subtitled "A Vision in a Dream," which itself suggests a kind of replication, though visions and dreams are of course quite different things, and here the double figure emerges as the thirteenth-century Mongol emperor of Cathay, symbolizing Cole-ridge's superself—the poet as he would like to be, as against what he actually is. This double motif is also indicated by a circuitous split, like a double winding staircase, between the poet as dreamer who, by whatever means, has conjured up this remarkable vision of an exotic oriental paradise—literally, an enclosed park—redolent of the Golden Age, and the poet as visionary who, catching a glimpse of his Abyssinian muse unforgettably singing of the prelapsarian unity of heaven and earth as apprehended by her Cuthite ancestors—who were also the Khan's—suddenly raises the ante, as it were doubling the stakes, and by an incredibly bold stroke exclaims,

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air….

and the mystic conjunction of heaven and earth, dream and reality, poetry and pre-history, would be complete—rather, is left to be completed by the reader, who in typically Romantic fashion is now meant to be fully involved in the creative process (for relation to Cuthites, see my Nimbus of Glory). This poetic gesture may be seen as a variation on the theme of vicarious atonement, as the poet's imagination "dies" in order that the reader's might live.

Indeed, the poem's symbolic structure may include a buried reference to Christ insofar as the fountain-fed Alph, thrice referred to as "the sacred river," and the shape of its counterpart the dome, together with its reflection in the water, suggest the phrase "Alpha and Omega" with which Jesus thrice identifies himself in Revelation: "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely" (Rev. xxi.6; cf. Rev. i.8 and xxii.13). This motif also relates to the theme of creation and re-creation which it is the purpose of the poem-as-process to explore, and which Coleridge elsewhere calls the Divine Analogue. Like the Mariner's preternaturally selected auditors, the chosen reader of "Kubla Khan" is meant to seize the initiative and step inside that magically thrice-woven circle, leaving the frightened throng outside paying their respectful obeisance. So this time Coleridge the dreamer uses Coleridge the visionary, symbolized by the Khan, as his own double, and the poem becomes one of not merely "vicarious," but, insofar as the reader responds audaciously to the dramatic and self-authenticating gesture of the poem's conclusion, victorious atonement.

"Christabel," even more than "Kubla Khan," is a poet's poem, in which the effects attained through rhythm and imagery, folklore and myth, starlight and moonlight, are once more well-nigh miraculous. It also, as I suggested in Nimbus of Glory, deals on the subliminal level with Coleridge's poetic rivalry and psychic conflict with Wordsworth. Small wonder, then, that Wordsworth doggedly and sometimes even viciously opposed its printing, intended as it was for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. The paradigm: Christabel is to Geraldine as Coleridge was to Wordsworth should be now be self-evident.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Geraldine at this juncture is her doubleness, mirroring the psychic conflict she conjures up within Christabel, whose name, like the symbolism of the Albatross, once more comprises both "Christ" and "Abel," or vicarious atoner and victim. Cole-ridge told his son Derwent that "the sufferings of Christabel were to have been represented as vicarious, endured for her 'lover far away'"; and Geraldine, no witch or goblin, or malignant being of any kind, but a spirit executing her appointed task with the best good will, as she herself says—"All they who live in the upper sky, / Do love you, holy Christabel" (ll. 227-32). This does not, however, accord with James Gillman's account of the ending of the poem, presumably based on what Coleridge had told him during their many years of residence together, namely that Christabel "defeats the power of evil represented in the person of Geraldine" (The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge [1838]). It would seem that Christabel's suffering is not so much for the sake of her absent lover as it is for the sake of Geraldine, who, according to one projected ending of the poem, impersonates the lover (for further discussion, see my Myth of the Golden Age in English Romantic Poetry [1981]).

Thus the theme of vicarious atonement in "Christabel" is once more ingeniously doubled—i.e., the double figure is doubled, comprising both the absent lover and Geraldine—which helps to account for, if not explain, some of the poem's remarkable convolutions. Geraldine, insofar as she is a divided creature, is suffering in part for what she inflicts on Christabel, who is suffering for the sins of her absent lover, who turns out to be a surrogate of Geraldine. As in "The Wanderings of Cain," Coleridge once more presents the reader with a seemingly inextricable—hence, incomplete—nexus of victim and victimizer in which both are divided and neither can hope to attain at-one-ment or psychic wholeness without the mediation of the other. Small wonder that Coleridge remarked on July 6, 1833, a year before his death, "The reason of my not finishing 'Christabel' is not, that I don't know how to do it—for I have always had the plan entire from beginning to end in my mind, but I fear I could not carry on with equal success the execution of the idea, an extremely subtle and difficult one" (Table Talk [1909]). When that is placed beside a crie de coeur found in Coleridge's notebook entry of October 20, 1823—"Were I free to do so, I feel as if I could compose the third part of 'Christabel,' or the song of her desolation" (unpublished notebook #30, 60v)—one is forced to the conclusion that the last thirty-four years of Coleridge's life constitute the third part of the tragic triptych which is "Christabel."

I do not propose to deal here with all the double figures or vicars of Christ in Coleridge's poetry, but any such discussion would be incomplete without some mention of "Dejection: an Ode" and the role played in it by Wordsworth's Doppelgänger. Indeed, Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations," whose first four stanzas pre-date "Dejection" and whose remainder was to follow two years later, encloses Coleridge's most famous ode like a sash and window sill clasping a wind-harp.

By a circuitous route we have come back to Coleridge's early pre-honeymoon poem "The Eolian Harp," wherein we can now see that the double figure is actually both Sara Fricker and the wind-harp, itself an image of both poetry and female sexuality—"like some coy maid half yielding to her lover." In the first and final versions of "Dejection," Sara Fricker has given way to her real-life double Sara Hutchinson, the "Lady" to whom the poem is finally addressed in the hope that she too will experience the life-giving joy denied the poet and likewise help to create "A new Earth and new Heaven" (all three versions appear in Wm. Heath, Major British Poets of the Romantic Period [1973]).

Coleridge called the first version of the poem "A Letter to Sara," and began writing it on April 4, 1802. On that evening he saw "the New Moon" with the "Old Moon in her Lap" (9-13), a double paradigm presaging a storm and also reminiscent of the fateful embrace which provides the central image of "Christabel." This apprehended symbiosis leads Coleridge to contrast his own misery and dejection with the good fortune of Wordsworth, who had but recently become engaged to the sister of the woman in whom Coleridge sought solace for his marital discord.

As the verse-letter develops, Coleridge's new-found love for Sara Hutchinson partially rouses him from his lethargy:

The acrobatics of this scene are rather interesting to try and visualize. As the companion poem "A Day-Dream," in which Sara is called "Asra," makes clear, the approximate situation was that Coleridge and Sara were both lying, probably in opposite directions, on a window-seat, with their heads on Sara's sister Mary's lap, so that Coleridge was able to feel Sara's eyelash play on his cheek as well as Mary's hand on his brow.

The infantilism, or perhaps one should say polymorphous perversity, of this suggests a psychic condition analogous to that hinted at by the pleasure-dome of "Kubla Khan." Not without interest is the fact that Coleridge portrays his head on the lap of the woman who was soon to become Wordsworth's wife, thus simultaneously "cuckolding" Wordsworth and physically approximating the psychic symbiosis suggested by the moon imagery, but with the roles reversed. Now Coleridge is the old moon or dying poet, who has symbolically transferred at his own cost hope of new life to Wordsworth and Mary. As Coleridge exclaims elsewhere in the poem apropos of Sara's distress (and, by prolepsis, her joy), "And I,—I made thee so!" (129).

Now he turns to thoughts of Mary, Sara, and by implication Dorothy—all soon to live in Wordsworth's household:

The coronal image, picked up from stanza four of Wordsworth's as-yet-unfinished Immortality Ode, suggests that Coleridge is accepting his fellow poet and double's challenge and resuming, at least in wish, the poetic rivalry. "I too" is weak, like many of the 340 lines in the verseletter, which is why Coleridge carved from it the fine poem we now know as "Dejection: an Ode," published on October 4, 1802, Wordsworth's wedding-day, and, by a double coincidence too remarkable not to be noticed in this paper on doubles, the seventh anniversary of Coleridge's unhappy marriage.

In the second draft of "Dejection," contained in a letter to W. Sotheby dated July 19, 1802, Coleridge addressed the poem to Wordsworth throughout, including the crucial lines—

In these lines, which anticipate Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Noosphere or envelope of Mind surrounding the earth, Coleridge finally rounded on his favourite double and provided Wordsworth with the clue that was to enable him to finish the Intimations Ode.

By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest that the continuing controversy surrounding Coleridge's "Hymn Before Sun-Rise in the Vale of Chamouni" might profitably be seen in the context of his fascination with the motif of the vicarious double. "Mature poets steal; immature poets imitate," T. S. Eliot reminded us; and Coleridge's grand larceny in transforming a poem of some twenty lines by Frederike Brun into a better one of some eighty lines, complete with partially pilfered preface, is at least in keeping with his doctrine that just as an idea can be expressed only by a symbol, we can achieve self-realization only through one another, "lending our minds out," as Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi put it. In as late a poem as "To William Wordsworth," we find Coleridge still dealing with the motif of (partial) vicarious fulfillment, hence atonement, although the sub-text of this pontifical parody suggests continuing psychic conflicts vis-à-vis his great friend and adversary. At any rate, Coleridge's idea of self-actualization through another—perhaps, when all is said, a self-chosen mentor—is one that should continue to provide aid and comfort to most literary scholars.

Peter Kitson (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge, the French Revolution, and 'The Ancient Mariner': Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation," in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 19, 1989, pp. 197-207.

[In the following analysis of Coleridge's political poetry, Kitson opines that the "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is essentially a political poem revealing the "internalization" of a "moral revolution" that is a direct consequence of the events of the French Revolution.]

S. T. Coleridge's 'The Rime of Ancient Mariner' was written against the background of the collapse of the poet's hopes for the improvement of mankind by political action, the ultimate failure of the French Revolution to distinguish itself from its oppressive Bourbon predecessors. The contribution of Coleridge's political beliefs to this poem has never been fully appreciated. Certainly 'The Ancient Mariner' has none of the political allusions which stud the contemporaneous 'France: an Ode' or 'Fears in Solitude' and this has led most critics to concur with E. M. W. Tillyard [in his Poetry and Its Background, 1961] that the poem exhibits 'a total lack of politics'. Yet given the circumstances which gave rise to 'The Ancient Mariner', this very absence of political content is itself political. As Carl Woodring puts it [in his Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge, 1961], if Coleridge's supernatural poems are poems of escape, 'politics form a large part of what they escaped from'.

The importance of the French Revolution to 'The Ancient Mariner' can be seen in Coleridge's obsession with that other poet and disillusioned supporter of revolution, John Milton. During 1795-96 he fills the Gutch memorandum notebook with allusions and references to Toland's edition of Milton's prose works of 1698 [see The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Kathleen Coburn, 1957-]. Coleridge had Milton's career very much in mind when writing 'The Ancient Mariner'. Like himself, the poet of Paradise Lost had witnessed the complete wreck of his own hopes for a regenerated nation. In March 1819 Coleridge delivered a lecture on Milton and Paradise Lost which tells us a great deal about his own state of mind. Milton was: ' … as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendent ideal' [quoted in Cole-ridge on the Seventeenth Century, edited by R. F. Brink-ley, 1955]. Although ultimately Coleridge hoped that his own vengeance would be achieved by proxy in the Wordsworthian epic 'The Recluse', 'The Ancient Mariner' is an early attempt to enrich the world with a transcendent ideal forged, like Paradise Lost, from the wreck of his political aspirations….

Coleridge's belief that 'general Illumination should precede Revolution', (Lectures 1795) marks him out from his contemporaries and allies him more closely with his great predecessor Milton. Milton's own belief that outward freedom must depend on inner virtue and that whoever truly loves freedom 'must first be wise and good' may well have been in Coleridge's mind. Coleridge's own stress on the necessity for a prior moral revolution becomes a key idea in his thinking about political change as well as an important element in the spiritual journey of his ancient mariner. At this stage in his life, however, he believed that there could be a sudden, collective illumination of a nation, and that political action could be almost contemporaneous with the preaching of the Gospel (i.e. that preaching the Gospel in the 1790s was itself a political act). This faith was to be sorely tested, yet it found some support in his understanding of the prophecies of revelation.

In his poetry of 1794-96 Coleridge interpreted the excesses of the French Revolution as regrettable but unavoidable conditions of the establishment of the 'blest future state' which he approximated to the millennium itself. This can be seen in his long, philosophical poem 'Religious Musings':

Even now the storm begins: each gentle name,
Faith and meek Piety, with fearful joy
Tremble far-off—for lo! the Giant Frenzy
Uprooting empires with his whirlwind arm
Mocketh high Heaven; burst hideous from the cell
Where the old Hag, unconquerable, huge,
Creation's eyeless drudge, black Ruin, sits
Nursing the impatient earthquake.

As Coleridge makes clear, in a footnote of 1796, 'this passage alludes to the French Revolution'. The function of destruction in the divine scheme is regrettable but necessary, as Coleridge explains how the 'Philosophers and Bards' who understand the inevitability of the process mould the terrible confusion into the 'perfect forms' of their prophetic visions. Coleridge appears to regard this as a transitional stage in the establishment of an imminent millennium: the 'blest future' when we will see 'the passing away of this Earth and by our entering the state of pure intellect'. Thus Cole-ridge regards the French Revolution as the means of collective, human salvation, the prelude to the establishment of the millennium itself. He believes that the political earthquake of the French Revolution, humanized by an elect of 'Philosophers and Bards', can create a world which will be indistinguishable from, and which will merge into, the prophesied Second Coming of Christ. Humanity can be redeemed by collective, political action.

'Religious Musings' does not ignore the atrocities and cruelties which have accompanied the revolutionary process. It attempts to place these in the divine scheme of universal restitution. The means of restitution is plainly external and collective. Coleridge, however, was never blind to the appalling suffering that this process occasioned. His optimism was always brittle and liable to shatter. In his 'Ode to the Departing Year' (1796) he once more declares this optimism but his expression is pained and bewildered:

This poem is infused with guilt. Now the name of 'Liberty' is dreaded because it has become the pretext for crimes and horrors. The hope and promise of 'Religious Musings' is replaced by a consciousness of guilt and a preoccupation with revenge. There is a shift in the poem from a faith in the efficacy of human action to a fear of the inevitability of natural disturbance. The 'Ode' implies that change will be brought about not by the actions of 'Philosophers and Bards' but through the wrath of an angry nature: by a real earthquake not a metaphorical one. This earthquake will punish his own nation for its crimes against France and its participation in the slave trade:

The divine scheme will no longer be entrusted to the hands of men but will occur through the agency of nature. Earthquakes may, in the language of prophecy, stand for the fall of kingdoms, but, Coleridge implies, it will be by a real earthquake that Albion will be punished as the prelude to the millennium. Coleridge is less concerned with the restitution promised in the 'blest future' and more convinced that the process will involve the punishment of mankind by natural forces. 'Strange-eyed Destruction' could be seen as a forerunner of the avenging agencies of the Polar Spirit and the Nightmare Life-in-Death from 'The Ancient Mariner'. In the 'Ode', however, it appears that guilt is collective and that it will be purged by a national disaster created by external geological violence.

By 1798 Coleridge had given up any hope of improvement by political action. In March he writes to his brother George criticizing those who endow governments with a 'talismanic' influence. People get the government they deserve; why should 'a nation of Drunkards presume to babble against sickness & the head-ach'? He is disgusted with both the supporters of the government and of reform. It is his intention to withdraw from the consideration of political matters to contemplate, 'fundamental & general causes'. Natural landscape is important in this process but its contemplation is a personal and inward experience: 'I love fields & woods & mounta(ins) with almost a visionary foundness—and because I have found benevolence & quietness growing within me as that fondness (has) increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others—& to destroy the bad passions not by combating them, but by keeping them in inaction' [Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by E. L. Griggs, 1956-]. Coleridge is here describing the beginnings of an inward process of redemption achieved through the contemplation of the divine presence in nature. He also implies that it is a process of universal, though not collective, application. During 1797-98 Coleridge composed some of his greatest poetry, including 'The Ancient Mariner'. He also wrote two overtly political poems which place the retreat from politics in a more explicit framework. All three poems demonstrate the importance of a process of inward and individual restoration achieved through the awareness of the divine in natural landscape.

'France: an Ode' appeared in the Morning Post of 16 April 1798 under the title of 'The Recantation: an Ode. By S. T. Coleridge'. The direct occasion for the poem was the French invasion of Switzerland. Coleridge regarded this as a direct betrayal of all that the Revolution had stood for: rightly or wrongly the Swiss nation was regarded as the home of liberty by British reformers. This poem shows the development of Cole-ridge's career as a supporter of the Revolution who had dreamt of France compelling nations to be free. These dreams are shattered but Coleridge maintains his belief in Liberty. Now, however, it is an inward state of the mind and not a political arrangement:

In his formulation of this tenet, that freedom is a state of the virtuous mind, Coleridge explicitly has Milton in mind. This can be seen in his annotation of Sir George Beaumont's copy of the 1798 quarto of the poem:

Southey in a review made some (me judice) unfounded objections to this last Stanza—as if I had con-founded moral with political Freedom—but surely the Object of the Stanza is to shew, that true pol-itical Freedom can only arise out of moral Freedom—what indeed is it but a Dilation of those golden Lines of Milton—

License they mean, when they cry—Liberty!
For who loves that must first be wise & good.

Like Milton, Coleridge had come to realize that he will not find freedom 'in forms of human power'. Freedom only exists, elusively but surely, in the forms and powers of nature. It can only be experienced as 'the guide of homeless winds':

When Coleridge republished the poem in 1802 he added a prose argument which explicitly denied that the 'grand ideal of Freedom' can be realized 'under any form of human government'. It belongs instead to 'the individual man, so far as he is pure, and inflamed with the love and adoration of God in Nature'. The scale of Liberty has been reduced from the heady days of 'Religious Musings'. It can now only be realized individually and personally.

'Fears in Solitude' (1798) also takes up the Miltonic idea that the freedom of a nation depends upon the virtue of its people. Those demoncrats who advocate the panacea of universal manhood suffrage miss this point:

Rather it is our 'own folly and rank wickedness' which necessitate our oppression. Equally odious are the supporters of government who are idolatrous and corrupt. Once more guilt infuses the poetry. Although Coleridge despises the new French tyrants of the Directory, he is still painfully aware of his own country's crimes against the Revolution and against humanity. He fears the wrath of an 'all-avenging Providence' which will smite the pride of his countrymen as the mariner himself is smitten.

Coleridge is, however, aware of the positive role of nature: it is through the contemplation of his beloved Stowey that he finds solace:

… grateful, that by nature's quietness
And solitary musings, all my heart
Is softened, and made worthy to indulge
Love, and thoughts that yearn for human kind.

There is not a shred of faith here in political conviction of any kind. The emphasis is solely placed on the 'solitary musings' of the poet's softened heart. Coleridge shows a real sense of anguish resulting from an acceptance of the general depravity of mankind. As he says in the letter to his brother: 'Of GUILT I say nothing; but I believe most stedfastly in original Sin; that from our mothers' wombs our understandings are darkened … And for this inherent depravity, I believe, that the Spirit of the Gospel is the sole cure—'. Coleridge's observation of the career of the French Revolution convinced him that humanity was inherently depraved and that any attempt by politicians to improve conditions would simply lead to an exacerbation of those conditions. The French Revolution was misguided insofar as it attempted to short-cut the process of restoration. As 'Religious Musings' demonstrated, the Revolution attempted to build paradise on earth but the result of this construction was more akin to Babel. Coleridge came to realize that the millennium could never be realized in a collective sense given that the majority of mankind were sinful. The millennium could only exist as a state of mind, the 'paradise within' of Milton's great epic. It is this sense of guilt and possible restoration experienced on an individual scale which informs 'The Ancient Mariner'.

There have been almost as many readings of 'The Ancient Mariner' as there are critics. Few, however, have made any real attempt to place the poem within the context of Coleridge's loss of faith in political action, a context which is demanded by Coleridge's other writings. Most critics have taken as a starting point Cole-ridge's contemporaneous candidature for the Unitarian ministry at Shrewsbury and have located the poem in a Christian environment. As Robert Penn Warren puts it, [in his 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1946], the shooting of the albatross 'symbolises the Fall, and the Fall has the qualities important here: it is a condition of will, as Coleridge says "out of time", it is the result of no single motive'. Non-Christian evaluations of the poem have tended to follow J. L. Lowes's dictum that 'The punishment, measured by the standards of a world of balanced penalties, palpably does not fit the crime' [The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, 1927]. The moral of the poem, outside the poem, is meaningless. Such critics as E. E. Bostetter [in "The Nightmare World of 'The Ancient Mariner'," Studies in Romanticism I, 1962] have denied that the poem contains any balanced theology; instead it shows that 'the universe is the projection not of reasoned beliefs but of irrational fears and guilt feelings'. These critics ignore the religious elements of the poem, concentrating instead on its psychological aspects. At least two critics, however, have made an attempt to locate the poem in Coleridge's political development. William Empson argues [in his '"The Ancient Mariner'," Critical Quarterly 6, 1964] that it was the maritime expansion of colonial powers and their subsequent guilt at their treatment of other civilizations which is the poem's main theme, and J. R. Ebbatson [in "Coleridge's Mariner and the Rights of Man," Studies in Romanticism 11, 1972] believes that the punishment meted out to the mariner and his shipmates represents 'European racial guilt, and the need to make restitution'.

Christian readings tend to stress the redemptive aspects of the poem whereas non-Christian evaluations concentrate on the strong sense of guilt it communicates. It is not within the scope of this discussion to adjudicate between the two positions. Instead I should like to place the poem in the context of Coleridge's retreat from politics and his new-found sense of inward and individual restoration. Within this framework the elements of redemption and guilt are of paramount importance.

Coleridge was disillusioned with the French Revolution but also convinced of the depth of his own country's guilt. He had come to believe that this national and collective guilt was only a reflection of man's original sin. During the composition of 'The Ancient Mariner' Coleridge was brooding upon his own sense of personal guilt. In this sense D. W. Harding is right [see Experience into Words, 1963]; Coleridge knew very well the mental depression and sense of worthlessness with which he invests his mariner in Part IV of the poem:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The Mariner becomes aware of his own inner depravity and isolation: ¢ wicked whisper came, and made / My heart as dry as dust'. It was a crime for the mariner to shoot the albatross just as it was a crime for Eve to eat the apple. It was also a crime for Coleridge to believe and encourage people to expect that mankind could improve itself by its own action unaided by grace. As R. L. Brett puts it [in Reason and Imagination, 1960], 'the killing of the albatross is representative of a class of which it is itself typical. It is symbolical … of all sin'. This symbol can also accommodate the sins of the British nation against the young republic, and its pursuit of gain in the slave trade. We do not need the events of the French Revolution to make sense of 'The Ancient Mariner' any more than we need those of the Puritan Revolution to explain Paradise Lost; however, it is necessary to realize that both these political events are included within the scope of the respective poems.

Both 'The Ancient Mariner' and Paradise Lost are explorations into the reality of human guilt. It is important to realize that their poets' shared sense of collective guilt contributes to their symbolic presentation of that guilt.

In 1796 Coleridge had toyed with the idea that the millennium might be introduced solely through the agency of natural forces. In his notebooks he sketches a plan of a history of the millennium, 'as brought about by a progression in natural philosophy—particularly, meteorology or science of air & winds'. As an epigraph to 'The Ancient Mariner' he quotes Thomas Burnet, whose great work, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), provided a 'scientific' account of how natural forces could produce the conditions described in Revelation at the world's destruction. The millennium of 'Religious Musings' has not completely disappeared. Instead it has been subordinated to a process of individual restoration, a personal millennium. As H. W. Piper notes [in '"The Ancient Mariner': Biblical Allegory, Poetic Symbolism, and Religious Crisis," Southern Review, 1977], the book of Revelation is a prominent source for the imagery of 'The Ancient Mariner', especially the rotting deeps of the ocean which affect the mariner so profoundly. For Piper it is the semi-conscious emphasis on those un-Unitarian elements of guilt, original sin, and punishment which account for the nightmare horrors of the poem.

'The Ancient Mariner' is also a poem of restoration. Recoiling from his faith in political action Coleridge had confided to his brother that he had grown to 'love fields & woods & mounta(ins) with almost a visionary fondness'. This had developed benevolence in him by showing him 'the beauty of the inanimate impregnated, as with a living soul, by the presence of Life'. It is this beauty which restores the mariner to such peace as is possible in this world. The mariner commits a spiritual and symbolic sin when he shoots the benevolent albatross. He is punished for this by physical agony and by loneliness. He becomes totally alienated from the natural order:

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

It is only when the mariner recognizes the beauty of what had previously disgusted him that his own restoration begins:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The mariner's imagination now perceives the water snakes as beautiful and his sympathy with them leads to love of God. The curse is lifted. It is an act of grace that enables the mariner to begin the long process of restoration ('Sure my kind saint', and 'blessed them unaware'). Following this the mariner is refreshed spiritually and physically by the fall of rain.

Thus 'The Ancient Mariner' shows the progress from motiveless sin to individual redemption achieved through the agency of natural forces 'impregnated' with the divine. The millenarianism of 'Religious Musings' which envisaged the collective regeneration of mankind through political action has been reduced to the process of individual and internal redemption. Collective national guilt is conflated with inherent, individual depravity and given a representative form in the mariner himself. The French Revolution is not present in the poem, but it throws its gigantic shadow across it. No longer does Coleridge have faith in the possibility of improvement by political action which the Revolution promised, but the contribution of that event to Coleridge's new faith in the restorative qualities of the imaginative perception of nature is substantial. In a sense the Revolution has been both naturalized and internalized. The millennium takes place in the mind of man and paradise becomes not a place on earth but a state of mind, 'the paradise within' of Paradise Lost. 'The Ancient Mariner' shows us the moral revolution, the necessity for which Coleridge has consistently pleaded for since his Conciones ad Populum. Without the experience of the French Revolution, 'The Ancient Mariner' would not be the poem it is.

Paul Magnuson (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Politics of 'Frost at Midnight'," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 3-11.

[Magnuson is an American educator, critic, and editor. In the following essay, adapted from a lecture delivered at the 1990 Coleridge Summer Conference at Cannington College, he examines "Frost at Midnight" in the context of the political climate and public discourse current at the time it was written.]

I would like to begin with a quotation, which I take to be representative of common opinion on Coleridge's Conversation Poems and his mystery poems. In his Clark Lectures, published in 1953, Humphry House remarked:

It has been observed by Dr. Tillyard how very unpolitical "The Ancient Mariner" is. "Frost at Midnight" (dated February 1798—that is, while the "Mariner" was being written) is, if possible, less political still.

House argues that at the time that these poems were being written Coleridge began to divide his poetical interests, writing some poems with explicit political content and others that do not contain a word of politics. In other words, the comparison of either "Frost at Midnight" or "The Ancient Mariner" with other poems written or published at the same time, "The Visions of the Maid of Orleans" or "Fears in Solitude" for examples, demonstrates that Coleridge was liberating his genius from the mundane impediments of topical literature.

I will elaborate an argument that "Frost at Midnight" is a political poem if it is read in the dialogic and public context of Coleridge's other poems and the political debates of the 1790's. A comparison of "Frost at Midnight" with other Coleridge poems yields a conclusion contrary to House's. But before I ask about the significance of a Romantic lyric, I want to ask about its location: Where is it? and Who conspired to put it there? The method that I will follow argues that a lyric's location determines its significance, and to change a poem's location is to change its dialogic significance, sometimes radically. "Frost at Midnight" was written in late February 1798. It is commonly read as an intensely subjective, meditative lyric written in isolated retirement and reflecting the isolated consciousness of its author; or it is read in the context of Coleridge's other Conversation Poems such as "The Eolian Harp" and "This Lime-Tree Bower," and it echoes the themes of those poems with which it was grouped as "Meditative Poems in Blank Verse" in Sibylline Leaves (1817); or it is read in the context of Wordsworth's lyrics, particularly "Tintern Abbey." But it was first published in the fall of 1798 as the final poem in a quarto volume that began with two explicitly political poems: "Fears in Solitude" and "France: An Ode." These two poems were also written early in 1798, and "France: An Ode" was published in the Morning Post, April 16. The quarto was published by Joseph Johnson, the radical bookseller, in the early fall after Coleridge met him in late August or early September while he was on his way to Germany with Wordsworth.

I propose to locate "Frost at Midnight" in the context of the other poems in the volume and to locate the volume in the context of the political debates conducted in the popular press. My more general interest is in the ways in which context determines dialogic significance, and I certainly do not intend to argue that "Frost at Midnight" must be read in these contexts or that the reading that I will suggest is the only, or even the best, reading. In a reading of a poem as an isolated, integral, and individual poem, the process of interpretation relies only upon the poem itself; in the variety of dialogic reading that I am offering, the meaning of a poem depends upon the meanings of its themes and figures that exist in the public discourse before the poem is written. I will be comparing Coleridge's poems with other written material that is not often considered in a traditional explication; I draw upon the political pamphlets and political journalism, which implies that a Romantic lyric participates in the ordinary language of the day. For this contexual reading there is no distinction between an aesthetic language that is unique and separate from ordinary language. And in dealing with the dialogic relations of lyric poetry and political journalism, my dialogic method differs from the theory of Bakhtin, who [in The Dialogic Imagination] places primary emphasis upon the multiplicity of voices within a single work.

To put all this in a simpler way: I will be looking at the public Coleridge and the public location of the poem. Our reconstructions of Coleridge in this century are based upon the publication of his notebooks and letters, by our knowledge of the scholarship that has traced his reading, and by our knowledge of his later career. None of these were available to his contemporaries, whose comments make the history of the reception of the poem and whose debates constitute the context of its publication. The story of its public context and reception, I think, is a particularly complex instance of tendentious interpretation and deliberate misrepresentation. To conduct an inquiry into the publication and reception of the poem is not necessarily to develop a clear meaning for it. Significance remains as slippery as it is for other critical approaches. It partakes, in other words, of the rhetoric of public debate rather than the rhetoric of symbolism and allegory by which it is usually discussed.

For a reading of "Frost at Midnight" in the public dialogue, the crucial dates are those of the composition of the volume in late August or early September 1798, when Coleridge first met Joseph Johnson. The dates of the writing of the poem are relatively insignificant, because the purposes of publication are more important than Coleridge's original intentions in drafting the individual poems. To publish, in the 1790's, was inevitably to enter a public debate. In August, when the volume was composed, both author and publisher were under attack from the press and the government. Joseph Johnson, whose name appeared boldly on the title page, had been placed on trial in the Court of the King's Bench and convicted on July 17 for selling Gilbert Wakefield's A Reply to Some Parts of the Bishop of Llandaff's Address to the People of Great Britain. His indictment reads in part: "Joseph Johnson late of London bookseller being a malicious seditious and ill-disposed person and being greatly disaffected to our said Lord the King … wickedly and seditiously did publish and cause to be published a certain scandalous malicious and seditious libel…." Although he had been found guilty, sentencing was postponed for many months for obvious reasons. At the hearing on his sentence, he would have to produce evidence of his good behavior in any plea for leniency. His sworn statement at the hearing claimed "that where he could take the liberty of doing it, he has uniformly recommended the Circulation of such publications as had a tendency to promote good morals instead of such as were calculated to mislead and inflame the Common people" [quoted in Gerald P. Tyson, Joseph Johnson: A Liberal Publisher, 1979].

Since the end of 1797, Coleridge himself had been under attack in the Anti-Jacobin, which began publication as a weekly in November to attack the opposition press. It published on July 9, 1798 a satirical poem called "New Morality, or the promised Installation of the High Priest of the Theophilanthropists," in which Coleridge was ridiculed along with Southey, Charles Lloyd, and Charles Lamb for being both Jacobins and atheists, followers of the French deist La Réveillère Lépeaux, a member of the Directory, who proposed replacing Christianity with a form of Deism called Theophilanthropy.

On August first James Gillray published an elaborate caricature of the worshippers of Lépeaux based on the poem. At one side is the figure of Lépeaux, standing on a footstool preaching to a group of votaries which includes three dwarfs holding copies of the Morning Post, the Courier, and the Morning Chronicle. Behind Lépeaux are three allegorical figures of starving Justice with a raised dagger, Philanthropy squeezing the earth with a deathly embrace, and Sensibility with what appears to be a bleeding heart. Facing Lépeaux is a Cornucopia of Ignorance, from which flows a torrent of pamphlets and journals, two of which are being read by asses and carry the titles "Southey's Saphics" and "Coleridge's Dactylics." Lamb and Lloyd appear in a corner as a frog and toad croaking from a volume called "Blank Verse by Toad and Frog" (I do not know who is toad and who is frog). It is clear from both text and caricature that Southey and Coleridge were the most important Jacobin poets. Wordsworth and Blake were, of course, nowhere to be seen. Thus a volume apparently presenting simultaneously the author and publisher of "Fears in Solitude" as both patriots and Christians would tend to take the heat off both. The volume would be a public defense against attacks upon both that had been made merely weeks before the volume was composed.

The public debate that the volume entered was composed of a rhetoric of purposeful duplicity, distortion, and personal attack, and Coleridge was constantly in the sights of the Anti-Jacobin, which contains many attacks on him although often Coleridge is not mentioned by name. One of its major aims was to expose the errors in the liberal press, which it ranged under three categories: lies, misrepresentations and mistakes. Its Prospectus promised to present "Lies of the Week: the downright, direct, unblushing falsehoods, which have no colour or foundation whatever, and which at the very moment of their being written, have been known to the writer to be wholly destitute of truth." Yet its own rhetoric was that of parody and distortion. The early numbers contained essays on Jacobin poetry, whose major targets were Southey and Coleridge. In its number for December 18 it included a parody of Southey's "The Soldier's Wife: Dactylics." First, Southey's poem printed from his Poems of 1797.

Weary way-wanderer languid and sick at heart,
Travelling painfully over the rugged road,
Wild-visag'd Wanderer! ah for thy heavy chance!

Sorely thy little one drags by thee bare-footed,
Cold is the baby that hangs at thy bending back,
Meagre and livid and screaming its wretchedness.

*Woe-begone mother, half anger, half agony,
As over thy shoulder thou lookest to hush the babe,
Bleakly the blinding snow beats in thy hagged face.

*This stanza was supplied by S. T. Coleridge.

The Anti-Jacobin's parody is prefaced by the following comment: "Being the quintessence of all the Dactylics that ever were, or ever will be written."

Wearisome Sonnetteer, feeble and querulous,
Painfully dragging out thy demo-cratic lays—
Moon-stricken Sonnetteer, "ah! for thy heavy chance!"

Sorely thy Dactylics lag on uneven feet:
Slow is the Syllable which thou wouldst urge to speed,

Lame and o'erburthen'd and "screaming its wretchedness!"

The next stanza, indicated only by a lines of asterisks, is omitted with the following note: "My worthy friend, the Bellman, had promised to supply an additional Stanza but the business of assisting the Lamp-lighter, Chimneysweeper, &c with Complimentary Verses for their worthy Masters and Mistresses, pressing on him at this Season, he was obliged to decline it." The Bellman is, of course, Coleridge, who had published The Watchman, and the reference to the lamp-lighter may be an allusion to the practice of the French Revolutionaries of hanging their victims on lamp posts.

Not only was Coleridge's poetry parodied in the Anti-Jacobin, but his journalism was ridiculed as well. An article in the Morning Post for February 24, recently identified as Coleridge's by David Erdman in his edition of Essays on His Times, was quoted in the Anti-Jacobin on March 5. Coleridge had written that "The insensibility with which we now hear of the most extraordinary Revolutions is a very remarkable symptom of the public temper, and no unambiguous indication of the state of the times. We now read with listless unconcern of events which, but a very few years ago, would have filled all Europe with astonishment." The Anti-Jacobin quoted this passage with some errors and commented: "Where he found this 'insensibility,' we know not unless among the Patriots of the Corresponding Society;—for our parts, we have a very lively feeling of the transaction [the entry of the French armies into Rome], which for perfidy and inhumanity, surpasses whatever we have yet seen or heard of." Later in his article Coleridge had written "In the midst of these stupendous revolutions, the Nobility, Gentry, and Proprietors of England, make no efforts to avert that ruin from their own heads, which they daily see falling on the same classes of men in neighbouring countries." The Anti-Jacobin sniffed in response to this: "Never, probably, in any period, in any Country, were such efforts made, by the very descriptions of men this worthy tool of Jacobinism has pointed out as making no exertions."

In March and April 1798 government pressure upon dissent forced the radical press to become more circumspect and duplicitous in its rhetoric. When Coleridge published "France: An Ode" as "The Recantation" in the Morning Post, Daniel Stuart's editorial policy had been shifting against French militarism. Coleridge's ode was prefaced by this note: "The following excellent Ode will be in unison with the feelings of every friend to Liberty and foe to Oppression; of all, who admiring the French Revolution, detest and deplore the conduct of France toward Switzerland." As David Erdman says in his introduction to Essays on His Times, "Both editor and poet, in their different ways, recanted while saying that they did not, and oscillated more than they recanted." One week after Coleridge's "Recantation" was published, the Anti-Jacobin gloated that the Morning Post "has wisely shrunk from our severity, reformed its Principles in some material points, and in more than one of its last columns, held language which the Whig Club and Corresponding Society will not soon forgive" and concluded "If we could but cure this Paper of its inveterate habits of Lying and Swearing, and give it a few notions of meum and tuum, we should not despair of seeing it one day an English Opposition Paper."

The Anti-Jacobin, however, could claim only some of the credit for the changes of the Morning Post. The government had turned up the heat on the paper. The occasion of the government pressure, and the occasion of Coleridge's "Fears in Solitude," as Erdman recounts it, was the arrest on March 1 of John Binns, of the London Corresponding Society and two members of the United Irishmen. They were apparently in possession of papers proposing a French invasion of Ireland. Within a week the Morning Post printed accounts of the arrest, and Daniel Stuart was summoned before the ministers to reveal his sources of information. Stuart's editorial policy became more cautious. In these instances the dialogue into which Coleridge's poems enter is conducted by the affirmations and denials, the accusations and defenses, and the distortions and misrepresentations in the continuing battle between the liberal papers and the Anti-Jacobin. The early attacks against Coleridge did not mention him by name. Some readers, of course, would have recognized that Coleridge was the Bellman in the parody of Southey's "The Soldier's Wife." It would have been more obvious that the Morning Post was responding to various pressures in the shift of its editorial policy and, since Coleridge signed "France: An Ode" with his own name, that he was a part of the shift. But the shift was not his alone.

"Fears in Solitude," which was written at the same time as this exchange between the Morning Post and the Anti-Jacobin, returns the accusations about the rhetoric of public discourse. "Lying and Swearing" were not confined to the liberal press. While Coleridge's poem attacks Britain for slavery, greed, and war fever, its major theme is the violation of the ninth commandment against bearing false witness, which he called "one scheme of perjury." In the Sixth Lecture on Revealed Religion, Coleridge had anticipated these complaints by arguing of government itself that

There is scarcely a Vice which Government does not teach us—criminal prodigality and an unholy Splendor surrounds it—disregard of solemn Promises marks its conduct—and more than half of the business of Ministers is to find inducements to Perjury! Nay of late it has become the fashion to keep wicked and needy men in regular Pay, who without scruple take the most awful oaths in order to gain the confidence which it is their Trade to betray.

Coleridge's immediate target of criticism here is the abuse of the system of government spies, from which he was later to suffer himself, and the bribery of witnesses in criminal cases, but his complaints are resonant of the agitation against the Test Acts which predates the Revolution. Thus both Coleridge and the Anti-Jacobin agreed that political dialogue was conducted by duplicity. The truth of duplicity was adopted by both parties.

Perhaps the cruelest attack upon Coleridge came in 1799 when the satirical poems from the Anti-Jacobin were republished with a note that Coleridge has "left his country, become a citizen of the world, left his little ones fatherless, and his wife destitute." Most likely, this is an intentional echo of the accusations made against Rousseau, who ignored and disavowed his natural children. In The Friend for June 8, 1809 Coleridge answers these accusations:

Again, will any man, who loves his Children and his Country, be slow to pardon me, if not in the spirit of vanity but of natural self-defence against yearly and monthly attacks on the very vitals of my character as an honest man and a loyal Subject, I prove the utter falsity of the charges by the only public means in my power, a citation from the last work published by me, in the close of the year 1798, and anterior to all the calumnies published to my dishonor.

Coleridge then includes a lengthy quotation from "Fears in Solitude." Since he cited the "Fears in Solitude" volume in his defense in 1809, it seems reasonable to me to think that he thought of it in the same way in 1798. If, indeed, Coleridge's self-defense began in 1798 and not later when he had changed his political allegiances, his later self-defense must be regarded in a different light. His self-defense in 1798 was not, as it later appeared, an effort to change the record to cover up his youthful radicalism, to rewrite his youth, but rather it was a necessary self-defense, done at the moment of pressure from both the press and the government, and done in concert with others who themselves were under similar pressure.

That Coleridge's volume was designed to answer criticisms of himself and Johnson is confirmed by the first notices printed in the Analytic Review (Dec. 1798), which was published by Johnson: "Mr. C, in common with many others of the purest patriotism, has been slandered with the appellation of an enemy to his country. The following passage [from 'Fears in Solitude'], we presume, will be sufficient to wipe away the injurious stigma, and show that an adherence to the measures of the administration is not the necessary consequence of an ardent love for the constitution." Of "Frost at Midnight" the reviewer said that the poem does "great honour to the poet's feelings, as the husband of an affectionate wife, and as the father of a cradled infant." The review might almost be considered the official publisher's interpretation of the volume, like the puffs we all conspire to write today. The publisher reads the author as a patriot, who can prove that he is a patriot because he is not an atheist. "Fears in Solitude" calls upon his country-men to rise and defeat the impious French. "France: An Ode" deplores French aggression while retaining admiration for the Revolution. And "Frost at Midnight" concludes with six lines that were later deleted. The "silent icicles" will shine to the moon

Like those, my babe! which, ere to-morrow's warmth
Have capp'd their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,
Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty
Suspend thy little soul: then make thee shout,
And stretch and flutter from thy mother's arms
As thou would'st fly for very eagerness.

The public and dialogic significance of "Frost at Midnight" in the fall of 1798 was that it presented a patriotic poet, whose patriotism rested on the love of his country and his domestic affections. Coleridge specifically instructed Johnson to send a copy of the volume to his brother, the Reverend George Coleridge. As the reviewer in the Monthly Review (May 1799) put it, "Frost at Midnight" displays "a pleasing picture of virtue and content in a cottage," hardly a penetrating critical comment of interest to us in these days of deconstruction and hermeneutics, until one recognizes that the word "content" implies the negation of its opposite. Coleridge is not discontent, not ill-disposed to the existing state of society; he is not, therefore, seditious.

Considering the political intentions of the volume, intentions that were present in 1798 and not constructed later to hide a youthful radicalism, is it possible to draw conclusions about Coleridge's political principles and ideology as they appeared in the public discourse in 1798? Isn't the public dialogue that "Frost at Midnight" enters full of duplicity? Does not the volume intend to present Coleridge both as a loyal patriot who loves his country and as a devoutly religious man, on the one hand, and on the other as one who continues to support the ideals of liberty that he has always held? The evidence of the volume along with the letter that Coleridge sent to his brother George in March that he had "snapped [his] squeaking baby-trumpet of Sedition" suggest that the invasion of Switzerland and government pressure upon Stuart had forced him to change his views. In this private letter he announces that

I deprecate the moral & intellectual habits of those men both in England & France, who have modestly assumed to themselves the exclusive title of Philosophers & Friends of Freedom. I think them at least as distant from greatness as from goodness. If I know my own opinions, they are utterly untainted with French Metaphysics, French Politics, French Ethics, & French Theology.

Considering Coleridge's 1795 Lectures, this comment is less of an apology or an announcement of new views as it is a confirmation of his original positions. In the same letter he comments upon his public persona:

I am prepared to suffer without discontent the consequences of my follies & mistakes—: and unable to conceive how that which I am, of Good could have been without that which I have been of Evil, it is withheld from me to regret any thing: I therefore consent to be deemed a Democrat & a Seditionist. A man's character follows him long after he has ceased to deserve it …

At the same time that Coleridge claims to have converted to being a loyalist, he admits willingness to be considered a democrat and seditionist. In part, the volume Fears in Solitude wants to have it both ways. Its author as a public figure is both a friend of liberty and a loyal patriot.

At the same time that he seemed to recant his former praise of the French Revolution, he continued to publish poems in the Morning Post expressing some sympathy with France. For instance on July 30 he published "A Tale," the story of the mad ox, which as a note explains, represents the French Revolution:

The ox is chased through the town:

The poem concludes with the admission that now the beast of the Revolution is indeed mad and must be controlled, as does "France: An Ode," but the attitude toward the Revolution is quite different. "France: An Ode" had portrayed the Revolution rising like the allegorical figure of wrath, not the animal gladness of the ox:

The picture of the ox liberated in gladness and goaded to madness displays both a greater sympathy with France and a liberal attitude which, as Carl Woodring points out, [in his Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge, 1961] Whigs and Friends of Freedom had held for some time. One wonders at the degree of recantation that has has actually gone on.

The language of politics in Coleridge's dialogue with the reactionary press is tempered to suit the intentions of those who use and abuse it. If Coleridge seems to oscillate and to move easily from side to side, it is in part because his writing was entering a public discourse of duplicity, one in which his works were certain to be misread and mistaken. While the conservatives who attacked him and the other radicals could parade without ambiguity their principles and ideology, the radicals including Coleridge were forced to be more cautious. Coleridge's oscillations could be reread as the acrobatic feat of remaining in the public debates, when other radical voices had been silenced or exiled.

At any given moment and with any given utterance in the public debates, its terms are complex and even contradictory. And because of the surrounding context, each utterance is unique in the complexity of its dialogic significance. For an obvious example, the word "patriotism" is about as ambiguous as one could want. "Fears in Solitude" was reviewed in the Analytic as displaying the "purest patriotism." And the Monthly Review (May 1799) echoed the evaluation: "Of his country he speaks with a patriotic enthusiasm, and he exhorts to virtue with a Christian's ardor … no one can be more desirous of promoting all that is important to its security and felicity." But what does "patriot" mean? In the first edition of his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined a patriot as "one whose ruling passion is the love of his country," but in the fourth edition he added a contrary definition: "a factious disturber of the government." A correspondent to the Anti Jacobin, who signed himself "A Batchelor" had his own definition: "By pretty long habit of observation, I have at length arrived at the skill of concluding from a man's politics the nature of his domestic troubles" (Jan. 1, 1798). The inflamed passions and gloomy dispositions of those who are discontent are caused by sexual frustration. The Batchelor concludes that "A Patriot is, generally speaking, a man who has been either a Dupe, a Spendthrift, or a Cuckhold, and, not unfrequently, all-together." Clearly the Batchelor has been reading Swift's Tale of A Tub and thinks of a patriot as someone whose height of felicity is being a "fool among knaves" and whose acquisitions include the perpetual "possession of being well deceived," and whose great achievements in new systems and conquests can easily be traced to sexual frustration. Curiously enough, in a somewhat different and Miltonic key, Coleridge agrees with the Batchelor's analysis. In "Fears in Solitude," he accused both radicals and conservatives: "We have been too long / Dupes of a deep delusion." Among those deceived Coleridge includes the radical iconoclasts as well as the conservative idolaters, who demand total submission to the present system of government. The volume thus presents Coleridge as a patriot but what kind of patriot? Both of course, depending which of Coleridge's readers is doing the reading.

Another related, and more complex, set of political keywords surrounds the domestic affections in "Frost at Midnight." Does the love of landscape and family form the basis of a patriotism similar to Burke's or does it lead to a love of all mankind that is characteristic of radical writing? The question of the value of patriotism of this sort enters the public discourse on the French Revolution with Dr. Richard Price's sermon "A Discourse on the Love of our Country, Delivered on November 4, 1789" before the society to "commemorate the Revolution in Great Britain." Price's thesis argues that the love of one's country is not based on "the soil or the spot of earth on which we happen to be born … but that community of which we are members … who are associated with us under the same constitution of government." He argues that any love of one's own country "does not imply any conviction of the suprior value of it to other countries, or any particular preference of its laws and constitution of government." Finally he concludes that "in pursuing particularly the interest of our country, we ought to carry our views beyond it. We should love it ardently, but not exclusively. We ought to seek its good, by all the means that our different circumstances and abilities will allow; but at the same time we ought to consider ourselves as citizens of the world, and take care to maintain a just regard to the rights of other countries…. " In response to Dr. Price, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France countered that the inheritance of monarchy went hand in hand with the inheritance of property, and that the love of one's country and government is bound to the love of one's family:

By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives…. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.

[Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy, edited by Marilyn Batler, 1984]

In Coleridge's 1795 Introductory Address, he, like Burke, grounds benevolence and patriotism in the domestic affections, but his definition of benevolence as universal is precisely the opposite of Burke's:

The searcher after Truth must love and be beloved, for general Benevolence is a necessary motive to constancy of pursuit; and this general Benevolence is begotten and rendered permanent by social and domestic affections. Let us beware of that proud Philosophy, which affects to inculcate Philanthropy while it denounces every home-born feeling, by which it is produced and nurtured. The paternal and filial duties discipline the heart and prepare it for the love of all mankind. The intensity of private attachments encourages, not prevents, universal Benevolence.

The thought is repeated in Lecture Three, where it introduces a criticism of Godwin:

Jesus knew our Nature—and that expands like the circles of a Lake—the Love of our Friends, parents, and neighbors lead[s] to a love of our Country to the love of all mankind. The intensity of private attachments encourages, not prevents, universal philanthropy—the nearer we approach to the Sun the more intense his Rays—yet what corner of the System does he not cheer and vivify.

Coleridge's immediate criticism in these passages is not of Burke, but of Godwin's "proud philosophy" and his indifference to personal and domestic affections. In the next paragraph he ridicules the "Stoical Morality which disclaims all the duties of Gratitude and domestic Affection" and addresses Godwinians (like Thelwall, to whom he used the same words in a private letter): "Severe Moralist! that teaches us that filial Love is a Folly, Gratitude criminal, Marriage Injustice, and a promiscuous Intercourse of the Sexes our wisdom and our duty. In this System a man may gain his self-esteem with little Trouble, he first adopts Principles so lax as to legalize the most impure gratification and then prides himself on acting to his Principles." Coleridge's consistent rejection of materialism, atheism, and the libertinism in liberty separates him from Godwin, Thelwall and other radicals, but that does not mean that his invocation of the domestic affections places him in Burke's camp. For Burke the domestic affections form the basis of the British Constitution, a decidedly national allegiance, while Coleridge views them as the basis of a universal benevolence and a love of all mankind. The Anti-Jacobin, not surprisingly, takes Burke's and not Coleridge's position. In "New Morality" Coleridge's image of the sun for the love of mankind is turned against him. The "universal man"

In the eyes of the defenders of tradition and prejudice, Coleridge then should stand in the ranks with Dr. Price and his followers who ask

What has the love of their country hitherto been among mankind? What has it been but a love of domination; a desire of conquest, and a thirst for grandeur and glory, by extending territory, and enslaving surrounding countries? What has it been but a blind and narrow principle, producing in every country a contempt of other countries, and forming men into combinations and factions against their common rights and liberties …?

Finally, in the first of the series on Jacobin poetry, the Anti-Jacobin ticks off its characteristics:

The Poet of other times has been an enthusiast in the love of his native soil.

The Jacobin Poet rejects all restriction in his feelings. His love is enlarged and expanded so as to comprehend all human kind.

The Old Poet was a Warrior, at least in imagination; and sung the actions of the Heroes of his Country, in strains that 'made Ambition Virtue,' and which overwhelmed the horrors of War in its glory.

The Jacobin Poet would have no objection to sing battles too—but he would make a distinction. The prow-ess of Buonaparte indeed he might chaunt in his loftiest strain of exultation. There we should find nothing but trophies, and triumphs, and branches of laurel and olive, phalanxes of Republicans shouting Victory, satellites of Despotism biting the ground and geniuses of Liberty planting standards on mountain-tops.

"Frost at Midnight" as a portrait of the domestic affections enters this debate in 1798, but how was it possible for a reader in 1798 to know whether what the Monthly Review called this "pleasing picture of virtue and content in a cottage" reflects the ideology of Price, or Burke, or Coleridge, or Lépeaux, or Paine, or Priestley, or Bishop Berkeley? Is the public Coleridge the Watchman, the Bellman, or the lamp-lighter, the patriot or the Jacobin, a Christian or a theophilanthropist? Coleridge's and Johnson's friends would have read the "content in a cottage" as portraying the domestic affections as the ground for universal benevolence. Coleridge clearly hoped that his brother would have read it in an opposite way, as a rejection of sedition and atheism. The Critical Review (Aug. 1799) wouldn't buy it at all: "But those who conceive that Mr. Coleridge has, in these poems, recanted his former principles, should consider the general tenor of them. The following passage is not written in conformity with the fashionable opinions of the day," and then the reviewer quotes from "Fears in Solitude." The Anti-Jacobin may have read the references in "Frost at Midnight" to the "eternal language, which thy God / Utters" as an allusion to Paine's Age of Reason: "The Word of God is the creation we behold: And it is this word … that God speaketh universally to man." In 1799, when the Anti-Jacobin republished "New Morality" it included a footnote that described Coleridge as "an avowed Deist," which to their Church-and-King crowd meant that Coleridge was an atheist and a follower of Paine. Combined with their ungenerous note about his going to Germany and leaving his family destitute, the note interprets Coleridge as a Jacobin in the camp of Rousseau, Godwin, and Paine.

These issues of patriotism, content, and domestic affections have little to do with the facts of biography. They are parts of a crucial political struggle, keywords in an ideological debate. Their various meanings existed long before Coleridge wrote "Frost at Midnight," and when he did write it, he was certainly aware of their meanings, because he himself had contributed to the debate as early as 1795. To put it another way, Coleridge's references to the domestic affections had nothing to do with his own domestic affections and everything to do with the public discourse. The language of "Frost at Midnight" in 1798 is the creation of that public discourse, not the creation of private circumstances or private meditation. "Frost at Midnight" is a private poem with public meanings because it has a public location. Its language is defined by the rhetoric of public oratory, not the rhetoric of symbolism and allegory, a language that takes its significance from the allusiveness of the dialogue, not from the referentiality of its figures. Since it was placed in 1798 in the public dialogue, it cannot represent rural retirement as an evasion of political issues, although it is certainly evasive. Nor does it represent a desire to escape from history. Rather, by becoming public, it enters history because it enters the debates that constitute history and that motivate action. It is not the private meditation of an isolated consciousness, but the testimony of a public figure. "Frost at Midnight" is a poem that is changed by its public context.

How would "Frost at Midnight" be read with this context in mind? In traditional symbolic readings the images and figures are explicated, first of all, by reference to other figures in the poem itself and perhaps by reference to Coleridge's other poems or philosophical writings. In the form of dialogic reading that I am suggesting, the images are glossed by their meanings within the public discourse and its political language. If this method is to have any value, it should have a practical effect on the readings of poems, yet all I can do here is to suggest some significantly different readings of portions of the poem that the context provides. The reference to "abstruser musings" becomes a problem. In a symbolic reading Coleridge is alone in his cottage in the silence of the night quite removed from the intrusive presence of sensible activity and permitted to think philosophically about the activity of nature, the ministry of frost and its ultimate cause and purpose. Yet in the public context "abstruse" thinking sounds suspiciously like the kind of abstraction and metaphysics that Burke saw as part of the origin of the Revolution: "I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction." What after all could Coleridge be thinking about so abstrusely?

He is vexed and disturbed with the extreme calm, a calm that indicates its opposite, activity and audible language. In a symbolic reading of the poem, the language of nature troubles him, and he wishes to be able to read that language symbolically, but his phrase "the numberless goings on of life" signifies that the vitality of natural and human life is indistinct. But "Frost at Midnight" is preceded by two political poems that worry specifically about war and invasion. In the context of those poems, how could the phrase mean anything else but the present political anxieties. Within the poem itself the "numberless goings on of life" are asserted to be present in "Sea, hill and wood"—the elements of nature; but in the context of the first two poems, the potential invasion by sea changes the reference of the phrase.

Why is not the relation between the calm and the vexation in "Frost at Midnight" the same as it is at the beginning of "Fears in Solitude" when calm and retired solitude turns abruptly to thoughts of war: "it is a melancholy thing / For such a man, who would full fain preserve / His soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel / For all his brethren." "Fears in Solitude" concludes with a return to calm that provides a location for continued thoughts of human sympathy:

If one reads the entire volume of "Fears in Solitude" as a single composition, why are not the "abstruser musings" of "Frost at Midnight" precisely the same as the "solitary musings" that conclude "Fears in Solitude"? If the two are the same, and if the thoughts of humanity and universal benevolence at the end of "Fears in Solitude" remain with Coleridge throughout the volume, then the "abstruser musings" of "Frost at Midnight" may well be precisely the kind of thinking that Burke feared.

Let me select one more example of an important phrase that becomes richer because of the context. Toward the end of the poem Coleridge hopes that Hartley will be able to "see and hear / The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language, which thy God / Utters…. " God is the "Great Universal Teacher." But whose universality are we talking about? My preferred traditional answer is that Coleridge is alluding to the divine visible language of nature that Bishop Berkeley writes about in Alciphron and to which Coleridge himself alludes in a note to "This Lime-Tree Bower" when he explains to Southey that "I am a Berkleyan":

the great Mover and Author of nature constantly explaineth Himself to the eyes of men by the sensible intervention of arbitrary signs, which have no similitude or connexion with the things signified; so as, by compounding and disposing them, to suggest and exhibit an endless variety of objects differing in nature, time, and place; thereby informing and directing men how to act with respect to things distant and future, as well as near and present. In consequence, I say, of your own sentiments and concessions you have as much reason to think the Universal Agent or God speaks to your eyes, as you can have for thinking any particular person speaks to your ears.

For the purposes of my contrast, it is a matter of some indifference whether other traditional readers might wish to quote Spinoza or Priestley as the source of Coleridge's lines. If the poem is located within a political context, universality becomes a problem. What is the universal teacher teaching? The works of Tom Paine or the works of Edmund Burke?

In his review of the Biographia, Hazlitt said of Coleridge's political writings: "His style, in general, admits of a convenient latitude of interpretation" ["Coleridge's Literary Life," The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, edited by P. P. Howe, 1930-34]. With some modification Hazlitt's words can be used to conclude. Coleridge's latitude wasn't merely convenient; it was necessary. If Coleridge was dodging, it was because the heat was on him, and his associates Stuart and Johnson, from the government and the hostile press. As we know, it is common for those who try to maintain opposition in times of repression to speak in a kind of double talk; it is the nature of public discourse. The latitude that Hazlitt observed does more than measure the poles of his political oscillations. It also describes a field of possible contexts in which his poetic and political utterances were received and read, the contexts that determined how they would be read, and the context that determined the dialogic significance of "Frost at Midnight" in 1798.

Susan Luther (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "The Lost Garden of Coleridge," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Luther analyzes the ways in which "The Garden of Boccaccio" moves beyond the painting that is its ostensible subject to become a celebration of the creative process.]

In The Dark Night of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1960) Marshall Suther praises "The Garden of Boccaccio" as "Coleridge's version of 'Sailing to Byzantium'"; and in Visions of Xanadu (1965) Suther goes so far as to call it "the last real poem [Coleridge] wrote." George Watson even more resoundingly asserts that the poem "ought to be better known; it ought, in fact, to be the poem first turned to, after the conversation poems, the 'Mariner', 'Kubla Khan' and 'Christabel', to confirm the stature of [Coleridge's] poetic art" (Coleridge the Poet [1966]). Yet "The Garden of Boccaccio" has still been virtually erased from most surveys of the Coleridgean landscape. The Everyman edition of Poems selected and introduced by John Beer (1974, 1986) is the only readily available reading text I know of which includes it, and Jerome Christensen's sensitive interpretation of "The Garden of Boccaccio" in a discussion of "The Associationist Precedent for Coleridge's Late Poems" is the only recent, detailed critical analysis of which I am aware ("Philosophy/Literature," in Philosophical Approaches to Literature, ed. William Cain [1984]).

Written in 1828, the poem was first published in The Keepsake for 1828, an annual "Gaudy Book," as Coleridge called it in a letter to Alaric Watts (Collected Letters, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols. [1956-1971]). A poem-about-a-picture, "The Garden of Boccaccio" at first sight appears to be little more than an appreciation of its companion illustration, an engraving of Thomas Stothard's depiction of the garden to which Neifile leads her companions on the Third Day of the Decameron. Given its self-proclaimed allegiance to "fancy," its heroic couplets, its occasionally coy, archaic diction and its tincture of "romance," "The Garden of Boccaccio" does in a way seem precious, no more than an "exquisite design" or topiary-piece straight out of the land of "faery" evoked by the volume in which it first appeared (see ll. 17, 103, 96, 14, 15).

Coleridge himself expressed the rather modest hope that readers such as Watts might find it "a vigorous Copy of Verses." One presumes that Coleridge meant "set" of verses, "modeled after" Stothard's drawing; but the term "Copy" hints at the poem's place in a larger, reproductive design. It appears again in the collective editions of 1829 and 1834, where it immediately follows "The Improvisatore," there titled "New Thoughts on Old Subjects." And "The Garden of Boccaccio" itself, as George Whalley and George Ridenour some time ago pointed out, is a late response to, or elaboration of, themes central in canonical poems, especially "Dejection: An Ode" [Whalley, '"Late Autumn's Amaranth': Coleridge's Late Poems," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 2, 1964; Ridenour, "Source and Allusion in Some Poems of Coleridge," Studies in Philology 60, 1963]. Not simply imitative, echoic or allusive, the poem contains an element of self-parody, enacting what Linda Hutcheon calls "a stylistic confrontation, a modern recoding which establishes difference at the heart of similarity" (A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms [1985]).

This "difference at the heart of similarity" appears in the poem's first lines, when the poet-narrator explains that,

Of late, in one of those most weary hours,
When life seems emptied of all genial powers,
A dreary mood, which he who ne'er has known
May bless his happy lot, I sate alone;
And, from the numbing spell to win relief,
Call'd on the PAST for thought of glee or grief.
In vain! bereft alike of grief and glee,
I sate and cow'r'd o'er my own vacancy!
And as I watch'd the dull continuous ache,
Which, all else slumb'ring, seem'd alone to wake;
O Friend! long wont to notice yet conceal,
And soothe by silence what words cannot heal,
I but half saw that quiet hand of thine
Place on my desk this exquisite design,
Boccaccio's Garden and its faery,
The love, the joyaunce, and the gallantry!
An IDYLL, with Boccaccio's spirit warm,
Framed in the silent poesy of form.
(11. 1-18)

His "dreary mood" recalls the "wan and heartless mood" of "Dejection," while the "dull continuous ache" points backward to the "dull pain" and its avatar, the "dull sobbing draft" which sounds the strings of the aeolian harp ("Dejection," 11. 25, 20, 6). In "The Garden of Boccaccio" the narrator describes one of those times when "life seems emptied of all genial powers"; in "Dejection" the speaker's "genial spirits fail" (1. 39). Further, the appeal to "joyaunce" in "The Garden of Boccaccio" evokes not only the many references to "joy" and (though fewer) to "joyance" throughout Coleridge's poems, but the impassioned paean to Joy in strophe V of the ode. Both works describe a lack of animation, a state of spiritual and emotional "vacancy," a "void" ("Dejection," 1. 21) which "relief" cannot enter, proscribed by the "numbing spell." "The Garden of Boccaccio"'s transformation of the ode's failing "genial spirits" into "genial powers" which seem to have been "emptied" from the vessel of life brings to the surface the connection with "genius" latent, as Paul Magnuson points out, in the earlier phrase (Lyrical Dialogue), making it clear that here, too, anima, the poet's "shaping spirit," not simply lack of "mirth," is at stake ("Dejection," 11. 86, 83). In a further absorption of the personal elements of the earlier poem (and the verse-letter which preceded it) into the topos of vocation, "The Garden of Boccaccio" dissolves the earlier addressees into multiples of the Muse: "Sara" and the "Lady" of verse-letter and ode become a non-gendered "Friend" (Anne Gillman, though the text does not identify her) and the muse-maidens of picture and "mazy page." "Edmund," the addressee of the first published version of "Dejection," a name substituted for "Wordsworth," divides into the "gentle artist" Stothard and Boccaccio himself. But the elaborative shrinking of Joy into "joyaunce" (the only instance of this spelling in Coleridge's poems) indicates how far "The Garden of Boccaccio" has come from its predecessor's dark intensity of feeling as well as of generic ambition. The insertion of the u into a term which already marks itself as belonging to myth and "romance" underscores the poem's artificiality, its remoteness from "life" and its identity as a made thing rather than a serious, straightforward outpouring of "the passion and the life, whose fountains are within" ("Dejection," 1. 46).

This change in emphasis does not simply represent an icefall, however. The poem's substitution of the figure of form—"the silent poesy of form"—for the figure of voice resolves in muta poesis the split "voice" of "Dejection" and critiques the naive egotism of the trope, or myth, of self-originating voice. That is, the trope of form undercuts some of the pretensions of the ode as form. Paul Fry suggests that "the aim of the ode is to recover and usurp the voice to which hymns defer: not merely to participate in the presence of voice but to be the voice" (The Poet's Calling in the English Ode [1980]). The poem-about-a-picture, or ekphrasis, on the other hand, is more modest in its usurpations. It unabashedly eschews originality and singularity to explore the originary power of elaboration, of secondariness.

The ode, as Fry suggests, must maintain the fiction of self-birth even in its diction; but the deliberately echoic rhetoric of "The Garden of Boccaccio" suggests that an alternate wisdom lies in the seventh strophe of "Dejection." There, in mannered diction, the poet's self-projections become what Fry calls "an anthology of others' sympathy," the voices of Wordsworthian and other texts, furnishing a model for the process of composition that—relieved of the trope of voice—becomes the central premise of "The Garden of Boccaccio." Its parodic verbal structure, heroic couplets, trite poeticisms, and preciously archaic diction implicitly take a sidelong glance at the uniquely Coleridgean, conversational rhetoric which matches the trope of voice in "Dejection." Formal preciousness not only comments ironically on the seriousness of the present narrator's predicament; it doubts the "heroism" of the previous speaker's gloom.

By appealing to the subjective forms of art, the "silent poesy of form" or muta poesis, then, rather than the "outward forms" of nature as forms (and figures) of renewal, "The Garden of Boccaccio" resolves the figurative contradiction implicit in "Dejection." It also takes to heart its precursor poem's subtextual attitude toward mediation. The speaker of "Dejection" presents Joy as a collective possession: Joy's "sweet voice" weds "Nature to us"; when lost in Joy's "luminous cloud," "we in ourselves rejoice!" (ll. 68, 71-72; my italics). His projection of the voice of poesy into the storm wind further acknowledges the communal character of poetry as a "voice" of history and culture, suggesting the multiplicity of "voices" that speak in any text. "The Garden of Boccaccio" openly celebrates this communality: it affirms the mediated and mediating character of all art, and extols art (including poetry) as "the Mediatress, the reconciliator of Man and Nature" (Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes, 2 vols. [1987]).

This changed attitude toward mediation is inherent in the poet-narrator's initial call to the past rather than to nature as a source of animation. His plea recalls the Wordsworthian speaker's assurance in strophe IX of the "Immortality" ode that "The thought of our past years in me doth breed / Perpetual benediction" (ll. 137-38; I quote from the Oxford Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest De Selincourt [1904; rpt. 1950]). The temporary failure recorded by Coleridge's speaker in "The Garden of Boccaccio" does not, however, seem analogous to the counterturn in "Dejection," whose speaker denies his voice the "timely utterance" claimed by his Wordsworthian compatriot. Rather, this failure seems to portend the countertext to come, in which the poet will celebrate "Delight and liberty," that "simple creed of Childhood" which the Wordsworthian speaker says is not his present object (ll. 140-41; see ll. 133-64). Immediately remedied by the intervention of the poet's "Friend," the opening failure of the "PAST" seems also to imply a move against the suppression of mediation, against the insistence on originality and solitude, against "resolution and independence" as the best curatives for dejection and poetic lassitude.

Coleridge's diction and subject matter implicitly invoke occasions, or a space, in which "once we have [and he has] been strong" (Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1850). But this space does not correspond to "spots" in memory which have reference to natural objects or childhood traumas. As Jerome Christensen suggests,

the recollection of the past that appears within and that may be said both to begin and have begun the poem has in itself no temporal priority…. Trains of ideas, juxtaposed in mutual indefinite implication, are identified as past or present because of more or less vivid imagery … and marked as such by arbitrary spacing or the visible signs of tense. Past and present are both there in the design as differentials of contiguous ideas.

If, as an implicit response to "Dejection" (and in its own use of narrative's forward movement) this text is not so completely innocent of temporality as the foregoing might suggest, the poetic "I" nevertheless re-collects a Coleridgean past that merges with other pasts in the fiction of an arcadian atemporality, the atemporality of "joyaunce," of "poesy."

For the "spirits of power" that appear out of the past of "selfless boyhood" and "earnest … / … manhood" are all images of "poesy" in the form of verse: "Wild strain of Scalds," "fateful hymn," "minstrel lay," "rhyme of city pomp," and "many a verse," remembers the narrator, "which to myself I sang, / That woke the tear yet stole away the pang, / Of hopes which in lamenting I renew'd" (ll. 28-45). What returns is an aesthetic past, the past of Poesy and of Coleridge's youthful poetry, of Coleridgean romance and poetic inspiration. Terms such as "sate" recall not only Spenser and some moods of Milton but the diction of "The Ancient Mariner" of 1798 and "Alice Du Clos" (as well as "To William Wordsworth"), while "joyaunce" echoes the "joyance" of "The Eolian Harp," "Lines on an Autumnal Evening" …, "To Robert Southey," and "The Nightingale." In a motion similar to that of the "melodies" which "steal o'er [the] ear" of Robert Southey's appreciator (Poetical Works), the "picture stole" upon the mature poet's "inward sight," he explains, "Like flocks adown a newly-bathed steep / Emerging from a mist: or like a stream / Of music soft" (see ll. 19-24). These images are tributary to what John Beer calls "a whole imagery of fluency and stasis," one which figures "fluency as a fact of human nature," as the associative stream of "Influence and Confluence" ["Coleridge and Wordsworth: Influence and Confluence," in New Approaches to Coleridge, ed. Donald Sultana, 1981]. The "mist" recalls "the fair luminous mist" of Joy in "Dejection" (l. 62), and instead of a "smothering weight" ("Dejection," l. 41), the narrator now feels "o'er [his] chest" a "tremulous warmth" like that of such poems as "The Day Dream" (included in Stephen Maxfield Parrish's edition of Coleridge's DEJECTION: The Earliest Manuscripts and the Earliest Printings [1988])—a sensation "As though an infant's finger touch'd [his] breast" (ll. 25-26). As Kathleen Coburn puts it [in "The Interpenetration of man and Nature," in Proceedings of the British Academy 49, 1963]:

There is a sense in which at this moment in the poem these three experiences of sight, sound, and touch become one experience all focusing on the one point, the releasing of the self out of the vortex of isolation into the larger world of nature, art, and human kind—in short, into the world of creative possibilities.

On the Third Day of the Decameron "tales are told of those who by their wits obtained something they greatly desired or regained something they had lost" (trans. Richard Aldington [1939]); and, "gazed by an idle eye with silent might," Stothard's picture mediates a similar recovery—the recovery of poetic "deep delight" ("Kubla Khan" 1. 44); including what Gene Ruoff terms "the erotic center" of the verse-letter, "laid aside" in the ode, "but not destroyed" [Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Making of the Major Lyrics 1802-1804, 1989]. The picturesque "joyanunce" of Stothard's drawing and the scenes from the Decameron which inspired it model this Garden's playful, less demanding, warmer version of domestic, (pro)creative "Joy": when the procession of animating "spirits" is complete (and almost immediately after its literal, mathematical center), the poem arrives at a recuperated locus amoenus, one of what Lore Metzger characterizes as "pastoral spots of time," an oasis "that focus[es] the speaker's change in mood from elegiac nostalgia to idyllic vision" (One Foot in Eden [1986]). Painting himself back in to a retextualized "Garden," the poet-narrator restores feeling and sight to the recuperated "blank … eye" and "gaze" of "Dejection" (l. 30): "Thanks, gentle artist!," the narrator cries to the "spirit" whose intercession has called forth the awakening "genial powers":

Pastoral, comedic "love-echoing" recognizes that "mirth" is after all contiguous with "Joy"; the lines embrace not libidinal suffering but the conscious pleasures of sublimation, of artful construction. Reinvisioning the "fountains … within" the ode, the poet gazes at the image of a literary landscape whose shapes are already distanced, "less gross than bodily"; in a manner rather different from that of his counterpart in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," he looks into "form" and there discovers "spirit," the life of imagination. The pastoral "Eden" of the drawing and the Decameron becomes a generic scene of inspiration, a selective painting-over whose rhetorical omissions (for a reader who does not have Stothard's picture at hand) implicitly transfer the maid's gaze from the score she holds to the poet's own "mastering eye." Fountain, lute, nymph, high tower, the trope of possession, the garden itself: all are traditional figures of inspiration "echoing" with vocational meaning and specifically Coleridgean resonance. The trope of inspired mimesis—the "air like life" or pure oxygen of art which the poet "breathes"—recuperates within the trope of "silent poesy" the conceit of poetry as melody, the "unheard melody" of Keats's urn and of the "air" or tune which the poet returns to the atmosphere in the shape of his own composition, figured as an accompaniment to the Muse's song. In numbers which are "liquid" (l. 92) rather than "loud and long" ("Kubla Khan," l. 45) the poet modulates the apparently random cacophony of the aeolian harp's screams into the grace notes of "tinkling bells" and the harmonious sounds of a lute whose tonality recalls the "delicious surges" of the wind in "The Eolian Harp"—yet requires a human "hand" to call its music into being. Inspiration once more becomes the property of the "shaping spirit" and its artifacts, rather than the forms of nature: the allusive interplay of figures and genres reaffirms the instrumentality of the poet's craft, while as a kind of pastoral competition the friendly contest accords priority to "Boccaccio's spirit," to the linguistic over the pictorial Muse. Transformed by her (and his) arrival, the re-animated "vacancy" becomes the potentiality of form, awaiting the Muse's eternal return. No longer what Thomas McFarland refers to in his discussion of Romantic pastoral as the Wertherian "Lücke," the "void, dark, and drear" of "Dejection," the "vacancy" of "The Garden of Boccaccio" presents the white space of possibility, the page or canvas upon which the ekphrastic poet makes the mute picture "speak."

The reinvisioned locus amoenus, the space of Poesy in which the poem situates itself, is the landscape not of Nature but of mediated Nature, into which the painterly poet invites those who gaze upon his own text. After his personal recontre with the Muse, he opens the poem's enclosure to the general locale of The Decameron itself, apostrophizing not simply the literal landscape of Florence and Tuscany, but the "once free, / And always fair, rare land of courtesy" (ll. 73-100). This "storied" place where "Nature makes her happy home with man" discloses "Fair cities, gallant mansions, castles old," multiple fountains and gardens, and forests wherein a boar reminiscent of the quarry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight "whets his tusks against the gnarled thorn." "All delights, and every muse" animate this extended and extensive Eden, "And more than all, the embrace and interwine / Of all with all in gay and twinkling dance!"

This crescendo of movement brings the dance of the Muses to the poem's anterior paradise, Boccaccio's imagination made visible: "Mid gods of Greece and warriors of romance," the reader is directed to "See!" where "Boccace sits, unfolding on his knees / The new-found roll of old Maeonides"; in his mantle, "near the heart," is that "Holy Book," the Ars Amatoria. The text discovers its master, depicted as a reader reading his masters. The figure assimilates epic to romance and evokes the chain of the Muse's votaries extolled in Plato's Ion, a figure of linkage which (like the ekphrastic text in which it is embodied) also denies self-birth, defers origins indefinitely and yet presumes originary power. The trope implicitly extends the prospect or "maze" of Muse-inhabited arbors to claim the contiguity of all artists and their readers, including the Coleridgean "eye of fancy" (l. 103) and those asked to "See!" its presentations. The community of artists and readers becomes the text's ideal pastoral community: in its multiple, collective identifications, its choric, "mute" colloquy and kaleidoscope of textual delights, "The Garden of Boccaccio" recovers the hymnic motive which Paul Fry sees as the anomalous undersong of the ode's seventh strophe, representing an art it finds "proper for all readers to look upon "Dejection"'s implicit move away from a Wordsworthian insistence on individuality and originality, on external nature and personal memory as sources of spiritual and poetic sustenance has become an explicit celebration of the book of art rather than the book of nature, a paean to the experience of being one-withthe-many who wander in the Muse's garden.

The "scene itself," writes Jerome Christensen, "belongs to no one, not Stothard, Boccaccio, Ovid, or, least of all, Coleridge"; it remains "capably deaf to the puritanical admonitions of ancestral voices." But the poem is, perhaps, in some ways too "capable"; and it does not finally escape "ancestral voices" or the desire which makes "fancy" contiguous with " Imagination." The "eye of fancy" is after all not simply a collective faculty, a common possession, but the emblem of a singular, "mastering I," the Designer who wishes to make his presence visible in, and take control of, the design. Insofar as "The Garden of Boccaccio" preserves the tone, mode and iconography of Stothard's drawing, it maintains fidelity to the "spirit" of its pretext, whose programmatic, stylized images (like the "sly" gestures of arcadian "gallantry" in the Decameron) suggest both the mood of self-parody and the typological disposition to which the drawing surrenders its individuality. In subsequent reprintings, however, the poem appears without its companion illustration, and the ekphrastic motive becomes an unobtrusive obbligato. Though the poet-narrator clearly refers to an "exquisite design," a "picture" or "fair creation" which has been placed on his desk, the only "gentle artist" named is Boccaccio, and the text itself does not specify whether this "picture" is a detached print or painting, an engraving in an illustrated edition of the Decameron, or even, perhaps, a piece of needlework—nor is it possible to visualize the scene as Stothard has presented it.

The "silent … form" is never clearly identified, never clearly distinguished from the linguistic text with which it is contiguous. It simply stands as a kind of metonymic emblem of that text and, in turn, of the paradise of imagination, of reading, writing and being read, represented by "Boccaccio's Garden." This loss of identity accords with the poem's celebration of design and process, of the creative "dance" rather than the individual dancer, and with the quest for self-loss of a narrator languishing under the exhausted ego's "numbing spell." The "dull pain," "Reality's dark dream," has been, if not vexed, then cajoled to slumber; but the narrator's awakening into the sensuous, animating powers of imagination (perhaps inevitably) involves mastery, not surrender. What the beleaguered "I" loses himself in is not simply the appreciation of another's, but the exercise of his own interpretive art. This exercise reconstructs the transcendent, generic lyric "I" who figures Everyreader; yet this construction does not escape the artistic ambitions of its author, whose "Garden" has its own designs on the reader, as well as the subject of interpretation. As John Hollander points out, the ekphrastic text "has frequent recourse to the interrogative mode" (Melodious Guile [1988]). But "The Garden of Boccaccio" does not ask; it tells. Even the obviously ekphrastic poem as printed in The Keepsake hardly "addresses" Stothard's picture at all. Descriptive nouns such as "faery" and "Idyll" designate rather than interrogate. "Idyll" does reproduce the drawing's typology, as "faery" nominates the fabulous character of the tales in the Decameron; but Stothard's pretext is no longer available in the same sense that the painter's artifact can still be "seen" when, for example, William Carlos Williams describes and re-creates (rather than queries) Pictures from Breughel. The poem strives to "see no longer," to move beyond the immediate, concrete visual stimulus altogether, in order to "See!" through it with imagination's "I." The few lines which actually describe the drawing leave out all details not relevant to its presentation as a scene of inspiration which involves only the narrator and his muses. Of the twelve human figures pictured, only the "I" who projects himself into the scene, the "serviceable nymph" at the fountain and the singing maid appear: the picture is not so much a "maze" or puzzle to be elucidated (or elaborated upon) as it is the signature of the power of white magic, the "mazy page" which centers the narrator's own positive self-constructions.

The solitary, questing "I" becomes after all the singular guest at the muses' "banquet," the sole possessor of the significance of the occasion, fully possessed by the "soul" of the master artist. Nor is this re-inscription of traditional laureate mythology the only way in which the text manifests its author's vocational ambitions. "Boccace," visualized after the lyric "I" appears in the center of the omphalos, metonymically figures S. T. Coleridge, the present ideal, great reader who "unfolds" the text. Further marking the presence of this Author, the poem (in a characteristic, 'Coleridgean' gesture) calls into itself a textual "form" outside the usual space of verse—particularly album verse. Footnotes to lines 98 and 100 (the second of which was to have been considerably longer than it is) crowd the poetic text. Separated from it only by a blank space slightly smaller than that which differentiates verse paragraphs, this scholarly prose visibly invades the poetic text. Taking command of interpretation, S. T. Coleridge asserts the priority of the instrumental Author over his sources and his production, instructing his readers regarding both and inviting them to admire his readerly and intellectual expertise.

Most telling, however, is the figure whose description immediately precedes and seems to condition the poem's central, ekphrastic consummation. "Last" in the train of those stirring "spirits of power" comes Philosophy-neé-Poesy,

After her appearance, the narration continues directly into the reinvisioned Garden, switching from past to present tense. This change in tense implies that, within the text itself, the remanifested "faery child"—a Muse who displaces Wordsworth's "six years' Darling" as the figure of pastoral "innocence" and "heaven-born freedom"—recovers the aesthetic joys of "selfless boyhood" (see "Intimations" Ode, ll. 86, 126). But the Muse of "earnest … manhood," of texts outside the present one, is none other than Poesy grown conscious of herself, an authoritative "matron," the Wisdom that shines "with no earthly sheen."

Thus the poet-philosopher recuperates Wordsworth's "best Philosopher" and the "Fancy" of "Dejection," no longer a being like Keats's "deceiving elf," but Joy embodied in its "purest hour" ("Dejection," l. 65), before adult consciousness turns Joy into "joyaunce." At the same time, the figure revalues, and validates, the endeavors earlier identified as "abstruse research," converting "vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring" ("The Eolian Harp," l. 57) into the "passion and the life, whose fountains are within." The rhyme-scheme seeks to intensify the couplets' pairings and further bind Poesy to Philosophy by repeating the sounds which link them ("mien," "sheen," "Philosophy," "pardie," "Poesy," "glee," "knee"): but the last three end-words, "stone," "known," and "alone," have the opposite effect, placing Poesy in her own separate, solitary space. The lines seemingly justify the apparent change in vocation and textual production of the Author who was, as Thomas McFarland notes, citing this passage, "always a poet and always a philosopher" (Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition [1969]). Yet the couplet figures doubling as well as coupling; and Philosophy-neé-Poesy reintroduces the ineluctable split between Fancy and Imagination implicit in "Dejection"'s parsing of the Muse into the opposed (rather than alternate or, as in Keats's "Ode on Melancholy," mutually self-containing) voices of "Dejection" and "Joy." In the "Garden" which becomes Coleridge's "summing-up," [states Lawrence Lipking in The Life of the Poet, 1981], the cleft figure marks an interdependency, but it also means to affirm that he who did not himself produce the "FIRST GENUINE PHILOSOPHIC POEM" nevertheless brought to all of his texts a doubled inspiration, a "force and grandeur of… mind" not unlike that of the genius for whom he "challenge[d] … the gift of IMAGINATION in the highest and strictest sense of the word" (Biographia Literaria, ed. Engell and Bate [1983], vol. 2). The lines finally appeal to a similarity, not difference, of inspiration, implying the poet's devotion to a canonical "greater Muse": Fancy's authority depends upon her contiguity with an Imagination which must nevertheless always be distinguished (not merely differentiated) from her, which supersedes rather than merely contains her, and to which she must always defer. Idoloclastes Satyrane, breaker of idols, valiant pursuer of Wisdom, asserts his identity as Sage of Highgate and producer of other works whose importance as an ouvre far surpasses that of the present jeu d'esprit. In thus reaserting the primacy of the "strong reader" and the collectivity of his "strong texts," "The Garden of Boccacio" performs a kind of self-erasure, perhaps ironically prefiguring its absence from many Coleridgean maps.

Its attempts to control interpretation, however, become part of the poem's resistance to interpretation, its "maze;" and the verse-text of the "Garden" concludes nothing, remaining, as Christensen suggests, in the liminal space of "half "concealment. There, as Pan-like poet-reader and lover of the Muse, the "sly," subversive narrator figures himself both in and outside the frame, pronouncing a punning supplication for himself and all others who are disposed to turn over the "leaves." The verse hovers over its conditioning "vacancy," the suspended moment of "evanishment" and consummation, as, viewing "Fauns, nymphs, and winged saints," he prays to the "sage" he has discovered:

Still in thy garden let me watch their pranks,
And see in Dian's vest between the ranks
Of the trim vines, some maid that half believes
The vestal fires, of which her lover grieves,
With that sly satyr peeping through the leaves!
(ll. 105-109)

The triple rhyme "believes-grieves-leaves" marks the repluralized, contradictory identifications of the "eye of fancy," the "me," "lover," and "sly satyr" who values a plurality of texts and inspiring moods, who invites his readers to ask of this "Garden" the questions it refuses to pose to Stothard's illustration- and who, despite his consciousness of mortality, still hopes for as long as it is possible to keep at least "'one foot in Eden.'"

Jeanie Watson (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: '"The Raven: A Christmas Poem': Coleridge and the Fairy Tale Controversy," in Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, edited by James Holt McGavran, Jr., The University of Georgia Press, 1991, pp. 14-35.

[In the following excerpt, Watson examines "The Raven: A Christmas Tale" as "a tongue-in-cheek, yet serious argument on Coleridge's side of the debate " over the value of fairy tales.]

The Other World of fairy tale was familiar ground for Samuel Taylor Coleridge throughout his life. The intense fascination surrounding his earliest childhood reading of The Arabian Nights (which he read in secret dread and delight) finds adult play in his most complex theological and philosophical writing. Despite the general strictures of the time against fairy tales, the genre is central to "Christabel" and also makes a strong contribution to Coleridge's other well-known poems of mystery, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." The touch of faery marks lesser-known poems as well. Coleridge uses elements of the genre, or elements of what he calls "Faery," in his poetry from beginning to end, a fact which helps make his work appealing to children as well as adults. In addition, his adherence to a belief in the importance of Faery makes him pivotal in what has been called the "battle" over fairy tales, or what might more accurately be described as the larger issue of the value to children, and grownups, of imaginative literature.

Coleridge's advocacy of fairy tales as appropriate children's reading matter was counter to the prevailing rationalistic atmosphere of the late eighteenth century. Moral tales, stories which were overtly didactic, overly simplistic, and—to Coleridge's mind—thoroughly unappealing, were the approved childhood reading for a "rational education" in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For Coleridge, in contrast, fairy tales have value because they are capable of intensely engaging the imagination. Coleridge suggestively calls the "Land of Faery" a "mental space" (Notebooks); thus, Faery is a state of mind, a place of imagination, a condition of existence and awareness. Tales or parts of tales that give entrance to Faery—that are about that mental space—are, to the extent and for the time they do so, tales of Faery. Further, through the action of the symbolic imagination, on the part of both the author and the reader, tales of Faery become for Coleridge symbolic tales; that is, they simultaneously show forth and partake of the world of Spirit.

Whatever doubts or psychological/emotional tensions existed for Coleridge in his conceptualization of the world, both physical and metaphysical, the one fundamental constant was his belief in the consubstantiality of being. Thus, the coherency for which he always strived in philosophical, political, educational, or critical theory-making found its nexus in the profoundly spiritual reality of a consubstantial world. This fact does not negate the very real influence on Coleridge of various arenas of societal and theoretical movements and endeavors—Coleridge was, after all, caught up in the active issues of his day; but it does place those historical events within an appropriate Coleridgean framework. As J. Robert Barth puts it [in his Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 1969]: "The 'consubstantiality of all being' … is rarely discussed by Coleridge but is everywhere present by implication or indirection." The consubstantial world is a symbolic world in which spirit manifests its being as the ongoing reconciliation of polarities in the things of this world, and the things of this world—whether the process and forms of nature or the human soul or the creative imagination—simultaneously represent and participate in the One Life that is Spirit. The realm of Faery becomes a symbolic metaphor for Spirit/God/the One Life, and the tale of Faery shows forth that Reality. Within this context, the tale of Faery may be more profoundly "moral" than the moral tale because it leads to the spiritual truths upon which morality is based. In this essay, then, I want first to trace some of the history of the fairy tale controversy which reached its peak during Coleridge's youth, as a context for discussing Coleridge's response to it and the rationale for his advocacy of fairy tales. Finally, I want to look in some detail not at one of the poems of mystery but at an occasional poem, "The Raven: A Christmas Tale," which serves as a tongue-in-cheek, yet serious, argument on Coleridge's side of the "debate."

Born in 1772, Coleridge grew up at a time when fairies and fairy stories in general were under suspicion. Although literary fairy tales, in the form of French tales, had begun entering the English market as early as 1699 and were extremely popular in the early and mid-eighteenth century, these, as well as local superstitious tales of fairies and goblins, were increasingly thought to be, at the least, "prejudicial nonsense" or, at the worst—following the lead of John Locke's theories of human development and education—extremely harmful, especially to children. As Samuel Pickering explains [in his John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England, 1981], Locke, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Some Thoughts Concerning Education,

warned parents particularly against letting servants frighten children with "Notions of Spirits and Goblings" "of Raw-Head and Bloody Bones," the matter of old wives' and fairy tales. Once such "Bug-bear Thoughts … got into the tender Minds of Children," he stated, they sank deep and fastened "themselves so as not easily, if ever, to be got out again." Not only did they "haunt" children with "Strange Visions," but they made them "afraid of their Shadows and Darkness all their Lives after." Even worse was the effect such stories had on religion. "Coming abroad into the World," young adults whose "tender Minds" had received "early Impres-sions of Goblins, Spectres, and Apparitions" who had suffered "fearful Apprehensions, Weakness, and Superstition" as a result, often grew "weary and asham'd." In order to make "a thorough Cure, and ease themselves of a load, which has sate so heavy on them," Locke wrote, they threw "away the thoughts of all Spirits together" and ran "into the other but worse extream [sic]."

So influential were Locke's ideas that in 1803, Lucy Aikin could write in the preface to her Poetry for Children that fairy tales were no longer a danger to children, since the "'wand of reason' had banished 'dragons and fairies, giants and witches' from the nursery."

Banishment of the fairies had been attempted long before the end of the eighteenth century and with as little ultimate success. Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath said that in King Arthur's day, Britain was full of fairy folk, now driven away by the friars. The fairies, however, knew how to bide their time, live with country people, and wait for their re-emergence in the English Renaissance at the hands and in the lands of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, Michael Drayton's Nymphidia, and a host of other, lesser works. The Renaissance world of fairies was a crowded one, filled with "bull beggars, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, fauns, sylens, pit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphs, changlings, incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom Thombe, hob goblin, Tom tumbler, boneless, and other such bugs," to give only Reginald Scot's list of creatures used at the time to frighten children and to people superstitious stories [The Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584]. This motley tribe originated as part of the oral tradition, and lived partly in legend and romance (Christian, Arthurian, or otherwise), partly in prose, partly in ballad; it fed on simple superstition and existed in common faith and communal story; it inhabited the imaginative world of the fabulous. It was never truly banished; instead, in the rationalistic seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it stepped sideways, out of the mainstream of legitimate, suitable moral literature and into the "Other World" of the chapbook, in the process becoming universally available.

Chapbook literature encompassed everything. It was, as F. J. Harvey Darton says, a "pedlar's pack": "In short, the chapbook, from 1700 to 1840 or thereabouts, contained all the popular literature of four centuries in a reduced and degenerate form: most of it in a form rudely adapted for use by children and poorly educated country folk" [Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life, 1932]. It should be noted that included as major components of this extremely popular chapbook literature were the fairy tales—both native English tales like Jack the Giant-Killer and the French tales like Beauty and the Beast, medieval and Arthurian romance, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

Vital and flourishing as the chapbook tradition was—with its strong component of fairy and other imaginative stories—it was, nonetheless, outside the mainstream of acceptable children's literature. One of the most vocal and influential proponents of Locke's views concerning the danger to children of imaginative literature in general, and fairy tales in particular, was Sarah Trimmer. Born in 1741 and herself the successful author of many books, including An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and Reading the Holy Scriptures: Adapted to the Capacities of Children (1780), Fabulous Histories; or, The Robins (1786), and treatises on education, Mrs. Trimmer established a review, The Guardian of Education (1802-6). With The Guardian as her forum, she wrote articles, reviewed children's books, and answered correspondence from readers—all in an attempt to preserve the innocence and promote the morals of youthful readers. The philosophical basis of the late eighteenth century's distrust of imaginative literature can be seen in Mrs. Trimmer's review of Bible Stories, memorable Acts of the Ancient Patriarchs, Judges, and Kings, extracted from their original Historians, for the Use of Children, by William Scolfield (Guardian of Education 1), a review which grows into a discussion of the highly dubious desirability of encouraging the faculty of imagination in children. Ironically, Mrs. Trimmer's extended quotations from Scolfield, which she evidently thought would bolster her own position, actually tend to function in a contrary way.

Scolfield's preface laments the fact that books for children are no longer written to engage the imagination of children. In contrast with the products of the present day, he says, the old books "did not stop at every turn to moralize in language which no child's understanding can comprehend, and no child's temper relish. The old books described the real temper and passions of human beings. Their scenes were supernatural and impossible, but their personages were of our own species"—at which point, Mrs. Trimmer asks: "Are giants, dragons, and fairies then of our own species?" "The modern books, on the other hand," continues Scolfield, "abound in real scenes, but impossible personages. They would not for the world astonish the child's mind with a giant, a dragon, or a fairy; but their young people are all so good, and their old people so sober, so demure, so rational, that no genuine interest can be felt for their adventures…. The modern improvers have left out of their system that most essential branch of human nature, the IMAGINATION." Then, in a manner that Coleridge would have approved and in language that anticipates William Wordsworth's denunciation of contemporary pedagogy in book 5 of The Prelude, Scolfield concludes:

Our youth, according to the most recent systems of education, will be excellent geographers, natural historians, and mechanics; they will tell you from what part of the globe you receive every article of your furniture, and will explain the process in manufacturing a carpet, converting metals into the utensils of life, and clay into the cups of your tea-table, and the ornaments of your chimney; in a word, they are exactly informed about all those things, which, if a man or woman were to live and die without knowing, neither man or woman would be an atom the worse. Everything is studied and attended to, except those things, which open the heart, which insensibly initiate the learner, in the relations and gene-rous offices of society, and enable him to put himself in imagination in the place of his neighbor, to feel his feelings, and to wish his wishes.

Mrs. Trimmer summarily dismisses Scolfield's concerns, citing God as her authority: "How the heart is to be cultivated by the force of imagination only, is to us inconceivable?—We are told by GOD himself, that the imagination of the heart of man is evil from his youth, and we are persuaded that this will be fully exemplified in those who have been accustomed in their earliest days to be led by it." Further, she dismisses Scolfield's book as a "mutilation" and warns parents: "What ideas children will form from their own imagination of the Patriarchs, or of JEHOVAH their GOD, from these lessons we cannot conceive—but they must necessarily be very erroneous ones."

Given her frame of reference, Mrs. Trimmer's approbation and denunciation of specific books for children are predictable. Of The Faithful Contrast, or Virtue and Vice accurately delineated in a Series of Moral and Instructive Tales, Mrs. Trimmer approves: "It is both improving and amusing: and let us add, that Satan has found no entrance here!" (Guardian 4). Her review of Elizabeth Sommerville's Flora; or, The deserted Child [Guardian 2] reads as follows:

In this little volume, "the author's view, (as she informs the public in her preface) has been to recommend gratitude, humanity, and universal good will; to discourage pride, cruelty, and gluttony; and to exemplify, that there is no creature so mean, but it may become in the hand of Providence, the instrument to effect that the greatest and most powerful might in vain struggle to accomplish." Important lessons! which the tale of Flora is well calculated to teach; and we can venture to promise young readers great pleasure in the perusal of it, and improvement also, if they pay attention to the moral instruction it conveys. A few improbabilities will be excused, in a work of imagination, when there is nothing to lead the mind astray from the path of duty.

Unfortunately, other works are rife with harmful improbabilities.

Mrs. Trimmer's tone is almost regretful as she discusses Mother Bunch's Fairy Tales: "Partial as we confess ourselves to be, to most of the books of the old school, we cannot approve of those which are only fit to fill the heads of children with confused notions of wonderful and supernatural events, brought about by the agency of imaginary beings. Mother Bunch's Tales are of this description" [Guardian 2]. In the next review of this same issue, on Histories and Tales of Past Times, told by Mother Goose, the musing tone initiates the discussion, but the stance is firm by the end:

Though we well remember the interest with which, in our childish days, when books of amusement for children were scarce, we read, or listened to the history of "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Blue Beard," &c. we do not wish to have such sensations awakened in the hearts of our grandchildren, by the same means; for the terrific images, which tales of this nature present to the imagination, usually make deep impressions, and injure the tender minds of children, by exciting unreasonable and groundless fears. Neither do the generality of tales of this kind supply any moral instruction level to the infantine capacity.

The regretful tone is gone entirely by 1804 when Mrs. Trimmer once again takes on fairy tales, this time published as Nursery Tales, Cinderella, Blue Beard, and Little Red Riding Hood:

These tales are announced to the public as new translations, but in what respect this term applies we are at a loss to say, for, on the perusal of them we recognized the identical Mother Goose's Tales, with all their vulgarities of expression, which were in circulation when those who are now grandmothers, were themselves children, and we doubt not but that many besides ourselves can recollect, their horrors of imagination on reading that of Blue Beard, and the terrific impressions it left on their minds. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood are, perhaps merely absurd. But it is not on account of their subjects and language only that these Tales, (Blue Beard at least) are exceptionable, another objection to them arises from the nature of their embellishments, consisting of coloured prints, in which the most striking incidents in the stories are placed before the eyes of the little readers in glaring colours, representations we believe of play-house scenes, (for the figures are in theatrical dresses). In Blue Beard for instance, the second plate represents the opening of the forbidden closet, in which appears, not what the story describes, (which surely is terrific enough!) "a floor clotted with blood, in which the bodies of several women were lying (the wives whom Blue Beard had married and murdered)," but the Flames of Hell were Devils in frightful shapes, threatening the unhappy lady who had given way to her curiosity! The concluding print is, Blue Beard holding his terrified wife by the hair, and lifting up his sabre to cut off her head. We expected in Little Red Riding Hood, to have found a picture of the wolf tearing the poor innocent dutiful child to pieces, but happily the number of prints was complete without it. A moment's consideration will surely be sufficient to convince people of the least reflection, of the danger, as well as the impropriety, of putting such books as these into the hands of little children, whose minds are susceptible of every impression; and who from the liveliness of their imaginations are apt to convert into realities whatever forcibly strikes their fancy.

[Guardian 4]

Fairy tales being such dangerous fare for children, the prescribed antidote was a flood of moral tales. Mrs. Trimmer herself writes a goodly number, for example, Instructive Tales, collected from the Family Magazine, which was reviewed by the British Critic (October 1810) as tales "intended to counteract the poison of those profane and immoral books, which were at that period industriously, and too successfully, circulated among the lower classes of people." A host of others also add their moral tale contributions: Lucy Peacock, Lucy Cameron, Mrs. Barbauld, Mrs. Pinchard, Mary Pilkington, and Mrs. Sherwood, to name only a few. However, some of these "profane and immoral books" were too thoroughly a part of the popular bloodstream to eradicate altogether, so the cure was effected by surgery instead. Two examples of earlier popular works which are later "revised" by the moralists are illustrative: James Ridley's The Tales of the Genii and Sarah Fielding's The Governess.

James Ridley's The Tales of the Genii; or, The Delightful Lessons of Horam, the Son of Asmar—a close kin of the extremely popular and influential The Arabian Nights—was first published in 1764 and reprinted again and again in the next century. The work is dedicated to George, prince of Wales, with the claim that "this Work is designed to promote the cause of morality." In 1800, Elizabeth Somerville takes it upon herself to insure the moral character of the work by publishing The Tales of the Genii; or, Moral Lessons: Abridged and Adapted to Amusement and Instruction of Youth. The advertisement reads: "Conscious of the boldness of an attempt to abridge the Tales of the Genii, the compiler has only to plead, that in their original state, however replete with beauties, they are in many parts improper for the perusal of children. All that relates to a love of duty, religion, humanity, truth, and honour, she has carefully preserved, as proper to excite emulation, omitting only such descriptions as tend rather to inflame than benefit the mind."

The Tales of the Genii are indeed abridged, omitting, for example, in the Second Adventure of Abudah in the Groves of Shadaski, the ten beauties who lead Abudah through the "fragrant avenues"; through the "grand hall," filled with statues of nymphs, "some representing the lovely wood nymphs; some the naked beauties of the flood; others pursuing lovers; others the coyly willing virgins; who seemed, even in the ivory in which they were carved, to shew a soft reluctance"; omitting, too, the "inner apartment, adorned with the softest sofas, whose walls were one entire mirror, which reflected the ten beauties to the amorous Abudah ten thousand ways; while smiles and soft languishing looks darting from on all sides at once upon him, ravished his senses beyond the power of description." Elizabeth Somerville also chooses to omit Abudah's bath, during which "the ten put off their own superfluous garments," as well as the banquet given by the queen of pleasures. Ridley and Somerville both draw the moral lesson against the "vanities and intemperance of this filthy grove"; but the readers of the original know in great and lavish detail the vanities they are to abjure; the readers of Somerville's tale are left to their own "imagination." Ridley ends with a vision of "pagan blindness" exchanged for "Christian verities," but the rich tales themselves are the reason for the telling. With Somerville, the final message is all.

The case of Sarah Fielding's The Governess, published in 1749, is more curious, since even a modern reader of The Tales of the Genii must admit that the tales sometime run to a sensuality inappropriate for children. The major culprit in Fielding's collection of linked stories told at Mrs. Teachum's school, however, would seem to be innocuous fairy tales. In 1820, Mrs. Sherwood—without mentioning Sarah Fielding on the title page and referring to her only as "a sister of the celebrated Fielding" in the Introduction—rewrites The Governess, keeping the same title but omitting Fielding's fairy tales. In her rationale, Mrs. Sherwood notes that The Governess "is remarkable as having been one of the first books of the kind prepared purposefully for children: and in this view it may, perhaps, be found not uninteresting to the present generation of children, since it not only contains an exact and lively picture of their Grandmothers and Great-grandmothers, but was probably the favorite companion of their youthful days." Mrs. Sherwood omits the fairy tales:

Several Fairy-tales were incidentally introduced into the original work; and as it is not unlikely that such compositions formed, at that period, one of the chief amusements of the infant mind, a single tale of this description is admitted into the present edition. But since fanciful productions of this sort can never be rendered generally useful, it has been thought proper to suppress the rest, substituting in their place such appropriate relations as seemed more likely to conduce to female edification.

While one hopes the fairy tales did not contribute too substantially to the moral degeneration of all those Grandmothers and Great-grandmothers, it is even more interesting to note that the stories Mrs. Sherwood writes to replace Sarah Fielding's fairy tales might themselves be classified as fairy tales.

Fortunately for Coleridge, and subsequently for all of us, the banishment of the fairies from his particular nursery did not take place until he had read and absorbed many a fairy tale. Of the years October 1775 to October 1778, he says: "These three years [ages three to six] I continued at the reading-school—because I was too little to be trusted among my Father's School-boys—…. I took no pleasure in boyish sports—but read in cessantly." Coleridge's reading list includes the most popular chapbooks available—"all the gilt-covered little books that could be had at that time"—fairy tales, The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and all the rest. These stories then became the subject of imaginative play for the young boy: "I used to lie by the wall, and mope—and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly, & in a flood—& then I was accustomed to run up and down the church-yard, and act over all I had been reading on the docks, the nettles, and the rankgrass." "One tale," he adds, "made so deep an impression" that he was "haunted by spectres" when he was in the dark, and his father finally burnt the books to keep him from reading them [Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Earl Leslie Griggs, 1956-71]. The effect of the reading was obviously as imaginatively intense as Mrs. Trimmer had suspected it would be. In The Friend, Coleridge explains: "Among my earliest impressions I still distinctly remember that of my first entrance into the mansion of a neighboring Baronet, awfully known to me by the name of THE GREAT HOUSE, its exterior having been long connected in my childish imagination with the feeling and fancies stirred up in me by the perusal of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments." And in a note, Coleridge elaborates:

As I had read one volume of these tales over and over again before my fifth birthday, it may be readily conjectured of what sort these fancies and feelings must have been. The book, I well remember, used to lie in a corner of the parlour window at my dear Father's Vicarage-house: and I can never forget with what a strange mixture of obscure dread and intense desire I used to look at the volume and watch it, till the morning sunshine had reached and nearly covered it, when, and not before, I felt the courage given me to seize the precious treasure and hurry off with it to some sunny corner in our playground.

The book becomes a "precious treasure" precisely because the child's emotional, imaginative response, a "mixture of obscure dread and intense desire," is so strong. And although the reading contains no strictures on the proper behavior of children, it is hardly lacking in moral or spiritual instruction. In fact, just the opposite was the case.

Of the two years from October 1779 to October 1781, Coleridge declares, "I read every book that came in my way without distinction"; but as he reflects on these years, he makes a precise connection between his reading of fairy tales and his ability to accept with delight, unmixed with "incredulity," the vastness of the story of the stars. On a winter's evening walk, the eight-year-old boy listens as his father talks about the planets and constellations: "I heard him with a profound delight & admiration; but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii &c &c—my mind had been habituated to the Vast—& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions not by my sights—even at that age." Then, going in the face of a century of Lockean philosophy and strictures against fairy tales, Cole-ridge confidently continues:

Should children be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii?—I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative.—I know no other way of giving the mind a love of 'the Great', & 'the Whole'.—Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro' the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess—They contemplate nothing but parts and all are necessarily little—and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things.—It is true, that the mind may become credulous & prone to super-stition by the former method—but are not the Experi-mentalists credulous even to madness in believing any absurdity, rather than believe the grandest truths, if they have not the testimony of their own senses in their favor?—I have known some who have been rationally educated, as it is styled. They were marked by a micro-scopic acuteness; but when they looked at great things, all became a blank & they saw nothing—and denied (very logically) that any thing could be seen: and uniformly put the negation of a power for the posses-sion of a power—& called the want of imagination Judgment, & the never being moved to Rapture Philosophy.

Coleridge's sense of the unity of being, which formed his understanding of the relationship between physical and spiritual realities as a young boy, never leaves him. Seeming opposites are reconciled, and the human spirit, through the creative imagination, acknowledges its participation in Spirit. It is precisely this imaginative comprehension of "'the Great', & 'the Whole'"—the comprehension of the world of Spirit—that consumes Coleridge's entire intellectual and practical life and that he tries to pass on to his children, using the same means that functioned so effectively for him: fairy tales.

Coleridge's son Hartley was reading or being read fairy tales by the age of six, as is evident from a letter to Coleridge from Charles Lamb who, with his sister Mary, had been selecting books for Hartley. Lamb was convinced that "wild tales" (a popular name for fairy tales and other imaginative stories), which encouraged the imagination, were better for children than the currently prolific moral tales, epitomized by the writing of Mrs. Barbauld, Mrs. Trimmer, et al. On October 23, 1802, Lamb writes to Coleridge, complaining:

"Goody Two Shoes" is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld's stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery; and the shopman at Newbery's hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary asked for them. Mrs. B.'s and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. B.'s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt that a Horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a Horse, and such like; instead of that beautiful Interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to Poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with Tales and old wives' fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history?

Still fuming, Lamb concludes: "Damn them! I mean the cursed Barbauld Crew, those Blights and Blasts of all that is Human in man and child" [The Letters of Charles Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas, 1935].

Coleridge's daughter, Sara Coleridge—who, as Carl Woodring comments [in his "Sara fille: Fairy Child," in Reading Coleridge: Approaches and Applications, ed. Walter B. Crawford, 1979], "on the eve of Christmas Eve, 1802, was born a child of nature and of faerie"—also listened to the fairy tales of her father and others. Eventually, she wrote her own fairy tale for children, Phantasmion, published in 1837. It is evident, however, that, even at that date, fairy tales had not gained unqualified acceptance. In a letter to Arabella Brooke of July 29, 1837, Sara writes: "In these days, to print a Fairy Tale is the very way to be not read, but shoved aside with contempt. I wish, however, I were only as sure that my fairy tale is worth printing, as I am that works of this class are wholesome food, by way of variety, for the childish mind. It is curious that on this point Sir Walter Scott and Charles Lamb, my father, My Uncle Southey, and Mr. Wordsworth were all agreed" [Memoir and Letters of Sara Colendge, ed. Edith Coleridge, 1873].

Fairy tales are wholesome food for the child's spirit, and the effect that Coleridge identifies with a child's fairy tale experience—that of the imaginative comprehension of the wholeness and unity of Spirit—is evident in his daughter as well as himself. Coleridge's life occupation was that of "traveller through the heavenly country" (Sara Coleridge), and Faery and fairy tale elements are important and integral parts of his travel stories.

Although Coleridge's use of Faery as symbolic metaphor is more metaphysically significant than for most other writers, there is also a real sense in which his choice is simply a natural reaction against the extreme rationalistic nature of the time, a choice which places him in good company with Scott, Lamb, Southey, and Wordsworth—as his daughter noted. Simultaneously, it is related to an emerging interest in oral literature—in verse and prose, ballad and tale—occurring in Britain and Germany, and to concomitant interests in common folk and their lives and story traditions. Mrs. Trimmer's voice, loud as it was, was not the only voice to be heard in the land; by the turn of the century, the voice of imagination could whisper in a child's ear.

Meanwhile, Coleridge's tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless serious, "revenge" on Mrs. Barbauld and Crew and their moral tales comes in a small, now obscure, poem called "The Raven." "The Raven" was first published as a piece of nonsense in The Morning Post, March 10, 1798, without title or headnote. As such, the poem is a bit of a "doggerel," as Coleridge himself calls it, with a surprise twist at the end. The speaker is assumed to be an adult, stringing together chronological but unconnected events in an ad hoc sort of way. When the poem was included in the 1817 Sibylline Leaves, however, Coleridge made several additions which focused the impact of the poem and made it a satiric commentary on moral tales and "rational education." The 1817 poem follows:

The changes Coleridge makes are significant. First, he adds the title, "The Raven," naming the poem after the central character. The events, which to any objective observer seem random and unrelated, are thus now more clearly seen to be connected by the perspective of the Raven. The swine, as swine will do, eat the mast (the nuts accumulated on the ground and used as food for swine) and then run away. That they eat all the acorns save one is a fact that the Raven, who next happens on the scene, thinks "folly." He buries it beside a river and flies away. During the "many Autumns, many Springs" of the Raven's wanderings, the acorn grows into an oak tree to which—almost as though he has been waiting for it to mature—the Raven returns with a "She." They build a nest in what has now been claimed as the "Raven's own oak." The Woodman who comes, merely fulfilling his function as a woodman, is seen through the Raven's eyes as a malicious evildoer with a sinister, sloping brow. Ominously silent, he chops down the tree. Her young ones cruelly murdered by the Woodman, the Mother Raven dies of a broken heart, and the Raven watches as the Woodman and his "accomplices" saw the tree into planks, strip the bark, and build a ship. When the storm comes and the ship is wrecked, the Raven's caws of delight match the "last shriek of the perishing souls." The Raven has had his revenge.

As adult readers, we might comment, "But the Woodman was only doing his job and didn't see the nest at the top of the tree." Or "Those people didn't deserve to die; they didn't even know about the Raven." Similarly, the pigs were only being pigs when they ate the mast, and the Raven was simply fulfilling his natural role as a male raven when he and his mate built a nest in the oak tree. Clearly, it is the Raven and the poem's narrator who are interpreting the objective and value-free facts of the case. Even more to the point, there are other, more expected, interpretations available, if one is inclined to interpret at all. For example, shouldn't the poem—with its acorn growing into a tree which is then made into a ship—really be about growth and the process of life? Or shouldn't it be about the acceptance of life's tragic events or about forgiving those who have wronged you? The poem's narrative provides for several conventional—and anticipated—morals, and we expect an acceptable, didactic, moral ending. What we get instead is an utterly unrepentant Raven who is "right glad" about the death of all those souls and who again and again thanks Death for the wonderful "treat" of the drowning. There is no remorse in the last line: "REVENGE IT WAS SWEET!"

Coleridge has taken a standard, rather contrived and silly moral tale narrative and turned it inside out. To make the point even clearer, he adds the headnote telling us that this is "a Christmas Tale, Told by a School-boy to His Little Brothers and Sisters." Rather than having a parent or other adult figure telling the moral tale with the appropriate, expected ending, we have a child, a schoolboy, instructing his younger brothers and sisters. Here is our "rationally educated" child who, home from school during the season of love and forgiveness, provides the lesson that "revenge is sweet!" His moral education seems to have gone awry. The Raven can reasonably be seen as a projection of the schoolboy narrator himself who sees himself as the center of the universe, with all events being personally related to him—a distorted view, but one that is psychologically right as a child's perspective. In addition, Coleridge knows that no matter what moral injunctions about forgiveness a child is given, he or she enjoys getting revenge for the "injustices" that seem to abound in the world of childhood. At one level, through the story, the schoolboy is telling his siblings, "Don't mess with me, or you'll be sorry!"

Though the Raven's story is one of revenge, it is a story; and the act of telling it is an emotionally positive one for the schoolboy, a way of harmlessly externalizing emotional felt-realities, as well as "playing out" a desire for retribution. Since the Raven belongs to the witch Melancholy, he is "magical"—his feathers don't get wet in the rain! Further, the Raven exults that at his need, he can even command Death to ride in on a cloud to help him get even with those who have wronged him. The Raven and, by extension, the child feel personally invulnerable. The Raven and the boy have a right to their angry feelings over life's injustices. The feelings are natural, and the expression of them is healthy. The child's ability to conceive of himself as magical and to project his feelings of aggression and injustice into a story in which he can safely identify himself with the witch Melancholy and with Death gives him a psychologically constructive outlet for his feelings. As the schoolboy tells the story, he may even begin to recognize the egocentric extremism of the Raven's response. Thus, the story may serve as, in Lamb's words, a "wild" tale which makes "the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child."

In the 1817 printing, two lines (which are later removed) are tacked onto the poem: "We must not think so; but forget and forgive, / And what Heaven gives life to, we'll still let it live." Coleridge's note to the two lines speaks for itself: "Added thro' cowardly fear of the Goody! What a Hollow, where the Heart of Faith ought to be, does it not betray? this alarm concerning Christian morality, that will not permit even a Raven to be a Raven, nor a Fox a Fox, but demands conventicular justice to be inflicted on their unchristian conduct, or at least an antidote to be annexed." Surely ravens and foxes—and even, sometimes, schoolboys—can be excused from omnipresent "Christian morality." Didactic morals have little sense of humor, and, worse, they betray a lack of faith in the essential goodness of human nature. The witch Melancholy; the personified Death, who rides the stormclouds; and, of course, the talking Raven all live in the world of Faery. Through story, they give substance to subjective reality and promote growth and maturity. Coleridge, through his schoolboy narrator, addresses the children in his audience as he acknowledges and validates their feelings.

Central to both Coleridge and his schoolboy narrator is the question of the role of anger and the desire for revenge. As a natural, inevitable human emotion, what place does anger have in the scheme of the One Life? How can judgment and justice be reconciled with love and forgiveness? Anya Taylor rightly points out [in her Coleridge's Defense of the Human, 1986] that the voice of vengeance in "The Raven" echoes also, for example, in "The Rime" and " The Three Grayes," written during the same time period. She notes that these voices reflect Coleridge's interest in "the invisible life of the spirit" and deal with the issue of whether or not the effuxes and effluences of "Attraction and Repulsion" cause "men and women [to] lose and gain power by virtue of interchanges of forces that are invisibly working through the vibrations of 'animated nature.'" Of Coleridge's footnote to the moral, Taylor comments: "He criticizes his own lack of faith that must offset the energies of nature with pious phrasing, ironically acknowledging that he has feared the dangerous feelings set loose in the earlier words. He is surprised at his own moralisms, fearing the natural rage of elemental beings." Perhaps the eventual removal of the moral tag indicates Coleridge's own coming to terms with his "fear," as well as a more comfortable tolerance for the schoolboy and the Raven's emotional interpretation of events.

As a simple narrative, the Raven's story is one that children can understand and with which they can identify. In addition, at a psychological level, it allows adults a moment of self-indulgent identification, too. Who, after all, doesn't have fleeting moments of desiring revenge? But the moment of identification for the adult is tempered with objectivity and a sense of fair play. Coleridge conveys the message to his adult audience that, both psychologically and spiritually, heavyhanded didacticism is unnecessary and probably counterproductive for children's moral and spiritual growth. A child allowed imaginative play will eventually become an emotionally balanced, responsible adult, one with a perspective broad enough to encompass the Wholeness of the Universe.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge World Literature Analysis