Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Cameron's Christabel (1866)

This is Julia Margaret Cameron's famous photograph (more precisely: it's an albumen silver print from a glass negative) of Coleridge's 'Christabel'. The model is Cameron's own niece, May Prinsep, who quite a bit later became Alfred Tennyson's son Hallam's second wife. The image is from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has, rather sportingly, made something like 325,000 of its artworks and images available online free of copyright, for anybody to download, reproduce, remix and share. The Met reckons the image is supposed to show Christabel before her 'corruption' by Geraldine. I have my doubts about that. Eye of the beholder, I suppose.

Things I like about this image include: its straightforwardness, the blankness of Prinsep's expression, the aesthetic balance of its lit top-left and shadowy bottom-right, the way this pulls into sharper focus the triangular shape formed by the hair, framing the face. It is a reticent image, which suits its source text, since whatever else it is, 'Christabel' is a poem that refuses to disclose the secret in its heart, and has moreover managed to keep that secret for two centuries now. Cameron's photo makes a rather refreshing change from the more outré images that latter day sensibilities have tended to supply when illustrating what people like to call 'the Prototypical Lesbian Vampire Story'. I mean this sort of thing:

I don't mean to hate-on that image, but it seems to me to misunderstand something crucial about sexual allure—to miss, that is, the way desire tends to fasten on what is withheld rather than what is conspicuously proffered. The way desire is always, to an extent, perverse, in the sense that it grounds itself in the hidden and taboo and strange. This image, we might say, understands that desire is perverse, but wears the semiotics of its transgression all on the surface, almost as if it wants to placate perversity, to get it out of the way, so that we can get on with the clean healthy fucking. Coleridge's poem doesn't present desire that way.

Prinsep, in Cameron's photo, looks young because she was young: she had just turned thirteen when the image was taken. And if her expression is, shall we say, unforthcoming then that is part of the logic of (to use an anachronistic term) teenagerdom. But it works beautifully for this image. I'm not denying that 'Christabel' is a poem about awakening sexuality and same-sex desire and transgression and all that; and I have no problem with Queer appropriation of the text as a ground for the uninhibited performance and display of gay identity. But the poem itself is much more ambiguous than this, and not only because it is unfinished. It is a work that says: sex, especially when we first become aware of it as a force in our lives, is as much a secret inwardness as a mode of outward being-in-the-world. Sex is something structurally 'about' connecting with other people, of course, but it comes into our adolescent existence in the first case as something that seals us away from other people, something difficult, balanced between thrilling and alarming, a mode of possibility that is also a mode of guilty frustration. Sexual desire, at the beginning, is a mode of truancy from family and society.

Coleridge's poem dramatises that through Christabel's secrecy and its flavours of shame, deceit and disguise: creeping around outside after dark, bringing Geraldine back to her bed without her father knowing and so on. Cameron's photo, I think, internalises that drama (for many adolescents, because sex starts as fantasy unanchored to experience, such fantasy can veer melodramatic and wild and even Goth), and Prinsep's expression, her lack of affective engagement with the camera, neatly captures a sense of something occluded. Compare, for example, this image from 1870, again by Cameron. Here Prinsep is seventeen, but she is now inhabiting her sense of own physical allure, and it generates a completely different vibe.

Or, from four years later, 'Elaine the Lily maid of Astolat' (from Tennyson's Idylls, of course), where a killing wistfulness and posed conventionalised longing has entered the composition:

Better by far is the cool blankness of the thirteen-year-old Prinsep's gaze. That gets at something really crucial in Coleridge's text.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Lyrical Ballads: Reunion Tour

A pendant to yesterday's post from the pen of the mighty @keatsandchapman, reproduced here by kind permission. It may be the greatest work of art of the modern age. I particularly like the expression on Sam's face. And the 'Eddie' T-shirt is a masterstroke. On the constitution of ROCK! and ROLL! according to the idea of each.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

"It is an Ancient Mariner/And he ROCK!-eth one of three ..."

At over thirteen minutes this was, until recently, the longest song in Iron Maiden's repertoire. I'll confess I was never as big a Maiden fan as some of my schoolfriends (Powerslave was released in 1984 man! nineteen eighty four! over thirty years ago!), but there was no escaping them during my adolescence. And on this track they do the proper Sam 'Metal' Coleridge thing.

It's splendid, in its way:—I mean, as an example of its type. I can hardly say that without it sounding condescending, but I don't mean it like that. There are, of course, very evident differences between Coleridge's poem and this song, and not just in the trivial sense that 'the rock song' is a different mode to 'the poem'. Some rock songs capture the sense of a given poem pretty well, after all. This one, though, mismatches Coleridge's original almost completely. It is rapid (it is long, but it is still rapid), urgent, kinetic, driven. Like all Maiden's music it aspires to the condition of violence: noisy, punchy, thrashy, always plunging into the fray. Coleridge's poem is none of these things, with the possible exception of 'violent', and where that is concerned its mode of violence is radically different to Steve Harris's aesthetic understanding of the term. Coleridge is more interested in the obstacles to the mariner than in the mariner's progress; Maiden are more interested in the full-tilt hurtling on-and-on-and-on than in anything that might try to get in its way. Even the song's second section, its tempo slowed almost to languidness, is underlaid by an insistent march of guitar arpeggio triplets. We could put it this way: Iron Maiden, like all rock bands, work to the beat of the hammer on the anvil; Coleridge's poem works like the pull and draw of the oar in the water.

I'm not suggesting the Maiden version is prosodically simple. Actually, it's not. For one thing, this song is in four sections each marked by a different time signature: 4/4, 12/8, 16/8 and 2/4 (the song also varies markedly in tempo from section to section). And the time signature is only half the story. Take, for instance, the opening lines. Coleridge's original is an essentially iambic ballad meter modified with occasional extra unstressed syllables, for that 'Percy's Reliques' authentic roughness:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?' [1-4]
The doubled-unstressed ending to 'mariner' in line 1 makes for an effective dying fall; where the doubled-unstressed 'and he' starting the next line is like somebody inserting an extra step in their stride to catch-up a more rapidly walking companion. Both together neatly, and understatedly, generate a sense of marine ebb and swell, something perfectly matching the larger logic of the poem. These oaring iambs run steadily through the whole poem, such that when Coleridge varies them, for instance by swapping out iambs for trochees ...
Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sail'd softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew. [461-4]
... he reverts directly back to a standard iambic trimeter in the alternating lines (twice, here) to anchor the divergence from the norm. Coleridge's metrical variations, in other words, are there not only to create the ambiance of an old English ballad, but also to generate a vibe of prosodic flow and eddy.

Iron Maiden's version of the same story is much more prosodically programmatic, driven by Nicko McBrain's bang-CRASH!-bang-CRASH! drumming. I notate the first section 4/4, but it could equally well be notated 2/4: a long string of short, rapid, repeated rhythmic elements aggregating into a solid piece of musical momentum. What's interesting is the way the melody and the lead guitar work against the grain of this base-four rhythm with a series of triplet guitar fills and a vocal line that re-casts Coleridge's original text into anapests:
Hear the rime of the ancient mariner
See his eye as he stops one of three
Mesmerises one of the wedding guests
Stay here and listen to the nightmares of the sea.

And the music plays on, as the bride passes by
Caught by his spell and the mariner tells his tale.

Driven south to the land of the snow and ice
To a place where nobody's been ...
and so on. It's a teachable moment, actually, prosodically-speaking. That first line, for instance, swaps out a spondee for one of its anapests, after the venerable Classical rules that permit such exchanges: 'Hĕar thĕ ríme // ŏf thĕ án // ciént má // ĭnĕr [X] // Sĕe hĭs éye // ăs hĕ stóps // ŏne ŏf thrée ...'  Looking at it written down, we might expect the first word, 'Hear', to be a stressed syllable; but when you listen you realise that's not the way Dickinson actually sings it. All this is underscored by the duh-duh-DUM-duh-duh-DUM galloping-anapestic rhythm laid down by Adrian Smith's Jackson Dinky.

What this does is counterpoint a basically (and rapidly) triadic melodic and musical pattern against a basically foresquare underlying beat, which in turn makes for a wealth of interesting rhythmic creative tensions and localised moments. Add in the positively albatrossic soaring-swooping Dave Murray solo (it begins at 9:15), and the various charming-ungainly grace-notes, such as Dickinson pronouncing 'shrives' wrong ('And the hermit shreeves the mariner of his sins') and we have a winner:
And the wedding guest's a sad and wiser man
And the tale goes on and on and on.
And on, and on.

If there's a more serious point in amongst all this (and why can't we take rock and roll as serious, anyway?) it would be the larger contrast, something which points to two quite different aesthetics. We might put it this way: Coleridge's poetry, as poetry, is more death-drive, always looking for excuses to stop itself; Maiden's music, like all rock, is much more libido, always looking for excuses to keep thundering on. And on. And on.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

'Nonsense' (1806?)

This six-line poem was written in one of Coleridge's notebooks from the 1806-07 period; that is, after his return from Malta, and during the renewal of his hopeless passion for 'Asra', Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth's unmarried sister-in-law. It's possible, though not provable, that the 'holy Place' mentioned in line 2 is Coleorton Hall and its beautiful grounds, where Coleridge stayed for a time. The owner of the hall, Sir George Beaumont, was a friend and patron of Wordsworth, and had invited the poet to live there (in fact Wordsworth, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy and Sara stayed at Coleorton Hall Farm, half a mile or so to the west of the house itself). Coleridge and his young son Hartley joined the party for Christmas and New Year, 1806-07. If that's when this little notebook-jotting was written, then it dates from the same period of the 'EPOCH' that shook Coleridge so profoundly, and about which you can read here (though presumably, given its content, this poem was written before the 'EPOCH' itself). Here's the poem:
O Sara! never rashly let me go
Beyond the precincts of this holy Place,
Where streams as pure as in Elysium flow
And flowrets view reflected Grace,
What tho in vain the melted Metals glow,
We die, and dying own a more than mortal love.
Richard Holmes is certain this poem is 'about his physical desire for Asra'. 'The image of pure "streams",' he says, rather bafflingly, 'contrasted with "melted Metals" has an evident sexual connotation'. [Holmes (ed) Coleridge: Selected Poetry (Penguin 1996), 323]. Is 'pure stream' really a sexual symbol? Is 'molten metal'? We might be on surer ground picking out the implied intimate embrace of 'never let me go' in line 1, or discoursing on the double-entendre of to die from line 6. Then again, STC did write in his notebook that, during the visit to Coleorton, his love for Asra was 'like a Volcano beneath a sea always burning, tho' in silence' [Notebooks 2:2984]. Striking image, that, and perhaps related.

We can certainly construe, with minimal effort, a more-or-less conventional love-poem out of all this: the speaker begs his lover never to permit him to leave this Eden, where flowers growing beside a crystal stream view her image reflected in it: Sara's face as she gazes at her own reflection: Grace itself. The 'melted metals' are a little harder to fit into this reading (something to do with the volcanic heat of the speaker's passion, maybe, a contaminant or scorching danger) which leads to the piety of the last line. Maybe.

Coleridge gave this little poem a title: 'Nonsense'. It was one of a series of several dozen notebook poems grouped together by Mays as 'metrical experiments', many of which are accompanied by the notebook by schemes of scansion and discussions of metres. So maybe a better way to read this poem is to concentrate less on its content and more on its wordplay and palindromic form. Take the first line: "O Sara! never rashly let me go" starts and ends with 'O'; 'Sara nev[a] Ras-' balances Sara's name forward and backward in a kind of sonic palindrome. The line could almost be written out as a rhyming poem in its own rhyming abbcca:
Let me
Word leads into word: 'flow' becomes 'flowrets'; the 'ret' element of the latter word expands into 'reflected'; 'melted' becomes its near-anagram 'metals'; 'die and' slips into 'dying', 'more than' leads to 'mortal'. In other words, this is a poem in which words melt into other words, sound flowing on and something, palindromically, flowing back. Hence: streams, reflections, 'melted metals'. Hence all the rhymes, both in their conventional places at the end of the lines but also all along the lines too. The neat thing about this is that the poem ends when the rhyme-patterning is broken for the first time, by that most freighted of words, 'love', which rhymes with nothing. Words and names melt and flow under the volcanic heat of unsatisfied desire. Sense, common and marital, melts and burns into the non-sense of this impossible love. And this reading, if I'm right about the place of composition, provides us a possible germ for the whole thing: Coleridge at Coleorton.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Swellfoot Samuel: 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' (1797)

'This Lamb-tree...' (see below)


It's a very famous poem. 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' is addressed to Coleridge's friend Charles Lamb, who had come to Somerset all the way from London. STC prefaces the poem with this note:
Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India-House, London. In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident which disabled him from walking during the whole of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.
The accident was, as he explained in a letter to Robert Southey, that his wife Sara had 'emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot' [Collected Letters 1:334]. Indeed, the first draft had an extra line, between the present lines 1 and 2, spelling this injury out: 'Lam'd by the scathe of fire, lonely & faint' (though this line was cut before the poem's first publication, in 1800). At any rate, the result was that poor, swellfoot-Samuel could only hobble around, and was not in a position to join the Wordsworths, (Dorothy and William) and Charles Lamb as they went rambling off over the Quantocks. Instead he sat in the garden, underneath the titular lime-tree, and wrote his poem. Its opening verse-paragraph is 20 lines (out of a total 76):
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
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 water-fall! 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.
The exclamation-mark after 'prison' suggests light-heartedness, I suppose: a mood balanced between genuine disappointment that he can't go on the walk on the one hand, and the indolent satisfaction of being in a beautiful spot of nature without having to clamber up and down hill and dale on the other. Not to be too literal-minded, but we get it, that STC is being ironic when he calls the lovely bower a prison. His exaggeration of his physical disabilities is a similar strategy: the second exclamation-mark after 'blindness!' is there to let us know that he is not actually blind. But then again, irony is a slippery matter: he's in that grove of trees, swollen-footed and blind, but gifted with a visionary sight that accompanies his friends and they pass down, further down and deeper still, through a corresponding grove into a space 'o'erwooded, narrow, deep' whose residing tree is not the Linden but the Ash. He watches as they go into this underworld. Does he remind you of anyone?

I don't want to get ahead of myself. The three friends don't stay in this subterranean location; the very next line has them emerging once again 'beneath the wide wide Heaven' [21], having magically (or at least: in a manner undescribed in the poem) ascended to an eminence from which they can see 'the many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea' [22-23]. Coleridge then directly addresses his friend: 'gentle-hearted CHARLES!'
         for thou hast pined
And hunger'd after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! [28-32]
The poem imagines the descending sun making the heath gleam. The clouds burn now with sunset colours, although 'distant groves' are still bright and the sea still shines. The poem makes it clear Coleridge is imagining and then describing things Charles is observing, rather than his own (swollen-footed, blinded) perspective: 'So my friend/ Struck with deep joy may stand ... gazing round'. And what he sees are 'such hues/As cloathe the Almighty Spirit' [37-40]. So it's a poem about the divine as manifested in the material.

In all, the poem thrice addresses 'gentle-hearted CHARLES!' [28, 68, 75]. Interestingly, Lamb himself genuinely disliked being addressed in this manner. 'For God's sake (I was never more serious)', Lamb wrote to Coleridge on 6 August 1800, having read the first published version of the poem in Southey's Annual Anthology, 'don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print'. A week later he wrote again even more insistently, begging Coleridge to 'blot out gentle-hearted' in 'the next edition of the Anthology' and instead 'substitute drunken dog, ragged-head, seld-shaven, odd-ey'd, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the Gentleman in question' [Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb 1:217-224]. Coleridge didn't alter the phrase, although he did revise the poem in many other ways between this point and re-publication in 1817's Sybilline Leaves. STC didn't alter the detail because he couldn't alter it without damaging the poem, and we can see why that is if we pay attention to the first adjective used to describe the vista the three friends see when they ascend from the pagan-Nordic ash-tree underworld of the 'roaring dell': 'and view again/The many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea' [21-3]. Churches, churches, Christian churches. Lamb is in the poem because he was Coleridge's friend, and because he actually went on the walk that the poem describes; but Lamb is also in the poem as an, as it were, avatar or invocation of the Lamb of God, whose gentleness of heart is non-negotiable. Read this way the poem describes not so much a series of actual events as a spiritual vision of New Testament transcendence, forgiveness and beauty. Hence, also, the trinitarian three-times address to the gentle-heart.

'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' is very often taken as a more or less straightforward hymn of praise to nature and the poet's power of imaginatively engaging with it. So, for example, Donald Davie reads the poem simply enough as a panegyric to the Imagination, celebrating that which enables Coleridge to join his friends despite being prevented from doing so. This idea, Davies thinks,
refers back to the paradox which gives the poem its title. How can a bower of lime-trees be a prison? And, even as he begins to show how this can be, he proves that it cannot be, since the imagination cannot be imprisoned.’ [Donald Davie, Articulate Energy: an Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1955), 72].
The imagination cannot be imprisoned! has the confident ring of a proper Romantic slogan, something to be chanted as we march through the streets waving our poetry banners. But there are significant problems with Davies' reading, I think. One is that it doesn't really know what to do with the un- or even anti-panegyric elements; the passive-aggression of Coleridge's line, as the three disappear off to have fun without him, that these are 'Friends, whom I never more may meet again' [6]—what, are they all going to die, Sam?—or the sinister vibe of the descent-into-the-roaring-dell passage. Or, indeed, the poem's last image: an ominous solitary rook, 'creaking' its 'black wings' [70, 74] as it flies overhead. Plus, to be a pedant, it's sloppy to describe the poem's bower as exclusively composed of lime-trees. In fact the poem specifies that Coleridge's bower contains a lime-tree, a 'wallnut tree' [52] and some elms [55]. And, actually, do you know what? I'm going to suggest that it's not mere pedantry to note that.

Critics are fond of quoting elements from this poem as it they were ex cathedra pronouncements from the 'one love' nature-priest Coleridge: 'That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure' [61]; 'No sound is dissonant which tells of Life' [76] and so on. But it's not so simple. Take the rook with which it ends. It's true, the poem ends with Coleridge blessing the ominous black bird as it flies overhead, much as the cursed Ancient Mariner blesses the water-snakes and so sets in motion his redemption. But read more closely and we have to concede that, unlike the Mariner, Coleridge is not blessing the bird for his own redemptive sake.
My gentle-hearted CHARLES! when the last Rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross'd the mighty orb's dilated glory
While thou stood'st gazing; or when all was still
Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted CHARLES! to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life. [68-76]
It's Charles, not the speaker of this poem, who believes 'no sound is dissonant which tells of Life'; and it's for Charles's benefit that Coleridge blesses the bird. Indeed the whole poem is one of implicit dialogue between Samuel and Charles, between (we could say) Swellfoot and the Lamb.

There's no need to overplay the significance of 'Norse' elements of this poem. It's there, though: the Yggdrasilic Ash-tree possessing a structural role in the underside of the landscape ('the Ash from rock to rock/Flings arching like a bridge, that branchless ash/Unsunn'd' [12-14]). And we can hardly mention this rook without also noting that Odin himself uses ominous black birds of prey to spy out the land without having to travel through it himself. I'd suggest Odin's raven provides a darkly valuable corrective to the blander Daviesian floating Imagination as locus of holy beauty. Richard Holmes thinks the last nine lines sound 'a sacred note of evensong and homecoming' [Holmes, 307]. Which is fair enough, although saying so rather begs the question: sacred to whom? Odin's sacral vibe is rather different to Christ-the-Lamb's, after all. Ravens fly over the heaped-up battlefield dead because those slain in war belong to Odin. Grim but that's the way Norse godhood interacted with the world. 'Friends, whom I never more may meet again' indeed!


Let me take a step back before I grow too fanciful, and concede that the 'surface' reading of this poem can't simply be jettisoned. Coleridge's conscious mind, of course, gravitated towards the Christian piety of the 'many-steepled tract' as the main thrust of the poem (and isn't the word 'tract' nicely balanced, there, between a stretch of land and published work of theological speculation?) When we read the pseudo Biblical 'yea' and what follows it:
               yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence. [39-43]
...there's no mistaking the singular God being invoked; and He's the Christian one. That said, 'Lime-Tree Bower' is clearly a poem that encompasses both the sunlit tracts above, and the murky, unsunn'd underworld beneath: that is, encompasses both Christian consolation and a kind of hidden pagan potency. It is (again, to state the obvious) a poem about trees, as well as being a poem about vision. By 'vision' I mean seeing things that we cannot normally see; not just projecting yourself imaginatively to see what you think your distant friends might be seeing, but seeing something spiritual and visionary, 'such hues/As cloathe the Almighty Spirit' [41-2]. It makes deep sense to locate such shamanic vision in a copse of trees. Single trees—particularly the Edenic Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the cross on which Christ was crucified—are important to Christian thought, but groves of trees are a locus of pagan, rather than Christian, religious praxis. And the title makes clear that the poem is located not so much by a tree as within such a grove. The trees comprising Coleridge's poem's grove are: Lime, Walnut (which, in Coleridge's idiosyncratic spelling, 'Wallnut', suggests something mural, confining, the very walls of Coleridge's fancied prison) and Elms, these last heavily wrapped-about with Ivy. There's also an Ash in the poem, though that's not strictly part of the grove.

Let's unpack this a little, using the sort of frame of reference with which Coleridge himself was liable to be familiar. So the Lime, or Linden, tree is tilia in Latin (it grows in central and northern Europe, but not in the Holy Land; so it appears in classical and pagan writing, but not in the Bible). Ash is Fraxinus, and is closely associated, of course, with Norse mythology: the world-tree was an Ash, and it was upon it that Odin hung for nine-nights sacrificing himself to gain the (poetic) wisdom of runes. Walnut, or Iuglans, was a tree the Romans considered sacred to Jove: its Latin name is a shortening of Iovis glāns , “Jupiter's acorn”. Then there's the Elm ('those fronting elms' [55]), Ulmus in Latin, a tree associated by the Romans with death and false visions. So, for instance, one of the things Vergil's Aeneas sees when he goes down into the underworld is a great Elm tree whose boughs and ancient branches spread shadowy and huge ('in medio ramos annosaque bracchia pandit/ulmus opaca, ingens'); and Vergil relates the popular belief ('vulgo') that false or vain dreams grow under the leaves of this death-elm: 'quam sedem somnia vulgo/uana tenere ferunt, foliisque sub omnibus haerent' [Aeneid 6:282-5]. That, then, is Coleridge's grove. One needn't stray too far into 'mystic-symbolic alphabet of trees' territory to read 'Lime-Tree Bower' as a poem freighted with these more ancient significances of these arborēs.

It's possible Coleridge had at the back of his mind this famous arborial passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses:
Collis erat collemque super planissima campi
area, quam viridem faciebant graminis herbae.
Umbra loco deerat: qua postquam parte resedit
dis genitus vates et fila sonantia movit,
umbra loco venit. Non Chaonis afuit arbor.
non nemus Heliadum, non frondibus aesculus altis,
nec tiliae molles, nec fagus et innuba laurus,
et coryli fragiles et fraxinus utilis hastis...

Vos quoque, flexipedes hederae, venistis et una
pampineae vites et amictae vitibus ulmi.  [Metamorphoses 10:86-100]

There was a hill, and over the hill a plateau
of fields, green with a carpet of grass,
but without any kind of shade. That only came when
the heaven-born poet sat down and strummed his lyre.
Then shade came. Then Chaon's trees suddenly appeared:
the grove of the Sun's daughters, the high-leaved Oak,
smooth Lime-trees, Beech and virgin Laurel
and fragile Hazel, and Ash that is made into spears ...
and then you came, Ivy, zigzagging around trees,
vines tendrilling on their own, or covering the Elms.
The poet here is Orpheus, and here he magically summons (amongst others) Lime—'tiliae molles' means smooth or soft Lime-trees—Ash and Elm, and swathes the latter in Ivy.  In Coleridge's poem the poet summons, with the power of his visionary imagination, Lime, Ash and Elm, and swathes the latter in Ivy ('ivy, which usurps/Those fronting elms' [54-5]). Ovid's Lime-tree, here in Book 10, glances back to his story of Philemon and Baucis in Book 8: a virtuous old couple who entertain (unbeknownst) the gods in their hut, and are rewarded by being made guardians of the divine temple. At the moment of their death they are metamorphosed, Philemon into an oak, Baucis into a Lime-tree. It's a reward for their piety, but it's hard to read this process of an infirm body being transformed into an imprisoning tilia without, I think, a sense of claustrophobia:
                                                 both Philemon and Baucis
witnessed their partner sprouting leaves on their worn old limbs.
... The bark closed over their lips and concealed them forever. [Metamorphosis 8:719-22; this is David Raeburn's translation.]
Maybe Coleridge, in his bower, is figuring himself a kind of Orpheus, evoking a whole grove with his words alone. That is, after all, what a poem does. But actually there's another famous piece of Latin forest-grove poetry, by Seneca, that I think lies behind 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison'.

But what's at play here is more than a matter of verbal allusion to classical literature. As I say above: Coleridge, with a degree of conscious hyperbole, styles himself in this poem as lamed in the foot and blind. Doubly incapacitated. This may well make us think of Oedipus (Οἰδίπους ‎from οἰδάω, “to swell” + πούς, “foot”). Unable to accompany his friends, his disability nonetheless gifts him with a higher kind of vision. This vision, indeed, is really the whole point of the poem. He shares it in dialogue with an interlocutor whose name begins with 'C'.

So maybe we could try setting this poem alongside Seneca's Oedipus in which the title character—a much more introspective and troubled individual than Sophocles' proud and haughty hero—is puzzled about the curse that lies upon his land. Creon returns from the oracle at Delphi: the curse will only be lifted, it seems, if the murder of the previous king, Laius, be avenged. Of course we know that Oedipus himself is that murderer. Oedipus ironically curses the unknown killer, and then he and Creon call-in Tiresias to discover the murderer's identity. Tiresias says he will summon the spirit of dead Laius from the underworld to get the answers they seek. Creon accompanies Tiresias, and reports back. At this point in the play Creon and Oedipus are on stage together, and the former speaks a lengthy speech [530-658] which starts with this description of the sacred grove located 'far from the city'—including, of course, Lime-trees:
Est procul ab urbe lucus ilicibus niger,
Dircaea circa vallis inriguae loca.
cupressus altis exerens silvis caput
virente semper alligat trunco nemus,
curvosque tendit quercus et putres situ
annosa ramos: huius abrupit latus
edax vetustas; illa, iam fessa cadens
radice, fulta pendet aliena trabe,
amara bacas laurus et tiliae leves
et Paphia myrtus et per immensum mare
motura remos alnus et Phoebo obvia
enode Zephyris pinus opponens latus:
medio stat ingens arbor atque umbra gravi
silvas minores urguet et magno ambitu
diffusa ramos una defendit nemus,
tristis sub illa, lucis et Phoebi inscius,
restagnat umor frigore aeterno rigens;
limosa pigrum circumit fontem palus. [Seneca, Oedipus, 530-48]

Far from the city is a grove dusky with Ilex-trees near the well-watered vale of Dirce’s fount. A Cypress, lifting its head above the lofty wood, with mighty stem holds the whole grove in its evergreen embrace; and an ancient oak spreads its gnarled branches crumbling in decay. The side of one devouring time has torn away; the other, falling, its roots rent in twain, hangs propped against a neighbouring trunk. Here are the Laurel with bitter berries, slender Lime-trees, Paphian Myrtle, and the Alder, destined to sweep its oarage over the boundless sea; and here, mounting to meet the sun, a Pine-tree lifts its knotless bole to front the winds. Midmost stands a tree of mighty girth, and with its heavy shade overwhelms the lesser trees and, spreading its branches with mighty reach, it stands, the solitary guardian of the wood. Beneath this tree a gloomy spring o’erflows, that knows nor light nor sun, numb with perpetual chill; an oozy morass surrounds the sluggish pool. [This is Frank Justus Miller's old 1917 Loeb translation.]
Coleridge's poem also describes a grove far from the city (London, where Charles Lamb was 'pent'), a grove comprised of various trees including a Lime. But it's the parallel with Coleridge's imagined version of Dorothy, William and Charles 'winding down' to the 'still roaring dell' that is most striking, I think. They
        wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
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 water-fall! 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. [8-20]
In Seneca's play the underworldly grove of trees and pools is the place from which the answer to the mystery is dragged, unwillingly and unhappily, into the light. Seneca's Oedipus feels guilty, in an obscure way, before he ever comes to understand why. In 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' Coleridge's Oedipal point-of-view is trying to solve a riddle, without ever quite articulating what that riddle even is, and our business as readers of the poem is to test it on our own pulses, to try and decide how we feel about it. My sense is that it has something to do with Coleridge's guilty despair at being excluded, which is to say: his intimation that he is being cut-off not only from his friends and their fun, but from all the good and wholesome spiritual things of the universe. The poem is saying, without ever quite spelling it out, that Coleridge's exile is more than an unlucky accident of boiling milk (maternal milk of all things!) spilled onto his foot. His exclusion is not adventitious. It relates to some deep-buried shameful secret, something of which he is himself only dimly aware, but which the journey of his friends will bring to light. Of course, for them this passage into the chthonic will be followed by an ascent into the broad sunlit uplands of a happy future; because it is once the secret is unearthed, and expiated, that the plague on Thebes can finally be lifted. But it's hardly good news for Oedipus, himself.

Reading the poem this way shines some light (though of course I'm only speaking personally here) on why I have always found its ostensible message of hope and joy undercut by something darker and unreconciled, the sense of something unspoken in the poem that is traded off somehow, some cost of expiation. Seneca's play closes with this speech by Oedipus himself, now blind:
Quicumque fessi corpore et morbo graves
semanima trahitis pectora, en fugio exeo:
relevate colla, mitior caeli status
posterga sequitur: quisquis exilem iacens,
animam retentat, vividos haustus levis
concipiat. ite, ferte depositis opem:
mortifera mecum vitia terrarum extraho.
violenta Fata et horridus Morbi tremor,
Maciesque et atra Pestis et rabidus Dolor,
mecum ite, mecum, ducibus his uti libet. [Seneca Oedipus, 1052-61]

All you who are exhausted in body and sinking with disease,
whose hearts are faint within you, look!, I fly, I'm going;
lift your heads. Mellower skies will come for you
after I have gone. Those who have been barely hanging on,
retaining just a bare life, may now freely breathe deep life-giving
breaths. Go, help those almost given up to death;
I carry away with me all this land's death-curse.
I say to you: Fate, and trembling fearful Disease,
Starvation, and black Plague, and mad Despair,
come you all along with me, come with me, be my sweet guides.
Coleridge blesses the atra avis at the end of 'Lime-Tree Bower' in something of this spirit. Because the secret guilt of Oedipus is the inescapable fact of Oedipus himself. He not only has, he is the incapacity that otherwise prevents the good people (the Williams and Dorothys and Charleses of the world) from enjoying their sunlit steepled plain in health and good-futurity. Indeed, I wonder whether there is a sense in which that initial faux-jolly irony of describing a lovely grove as a prison (or as the poem insists, 'prison!') doesn't become strangely inverted as the poem goes on. It is less that Coleridge is trapped inside the lime-tree bower, and more that the bower is, in a meaningful sense, trapped inside him. That's a riddle that re-riddles the less puzzling assertion that nature imprisons the poet—for, really, suggesting such a thing appears to run counter to the whole drift of the Wordswortho-Coleridgean valorisation of 'Nature'. But that's to look at things the wrong way. It looks like morbid self-analysis of a peculiarly Coleridgean sort to say that the poet imprisons nature inside himself. He is the atra pestis that afflicts the land, and only his removal can cure it. So, perhaps, the thing growing inside the grove that most closely represents Coleridge is the ivy. Let's say: Lamb is the Lime-tree (and how did I never notice that near-pun before?), Dorothy the 'wallnut tree' and tall, noble William the 'fronting elm'. If so, then Coleridge positions himself not as part of this impressive parade of fine-upstanding trees, but as a sort of dark parasite:
           a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient Ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight: [53-7]
Those italics are in the original (that is, 1800) version of the poem. What's particularly beautiful about that moment, if read the way I'm proposing, is the way it hints that Coleridge's sense of himself as a black-mass of ivy parasitic upon his more noble friends is also open to the possibility that the sunset's glory shines upon him too, that, however transiently, it makes something lovely out of him. There's a paradox here in the way the 'blackest mass' of ivy nonetheless makes the 'dark branches' of his friends' trees 'gleam a lighter hue' as the light around them all fades. But without wishing to over-reach that's also the paradox of Christ's redemptive atonement. Death is defeated by death; suffering by suffering; sin is eaten by the sin-eater; Oedipus carries the woes of Thebes with him as he leaves. Ivy in Latin is hedera, which means 'grasper, holder' (from the same root as the Ancient Greek name of the plant: χανδάνω , “to get, grasp”). It was sacred to Bacchus, and therefore wound around his thyrsis. Which is to say: it is both a poet's holy plant, as well as something grasping, enclosing, imprisoning. The Lamb-tree of Christian gentleness is imprisoned by something grasping and coal-black.

I wouldn't want to push this reading too far, of course. It's safer to say that 'Lime-Tree Bower' is a poem that both recognises and praises the Christian redemptive forces of natural beauty, fellowship and forgiveness, and that ends on a note of blessing, whilst also including within itself a space of chthonic mystery and darkness that eludes that sunlight. The blessing at the end reserves its charm not for Coleridge, but 'for thee, my gentle-hearted CHARLES', the Lamb who, in the logic of the poem, gestures towards the Lamb of God, the figure under whose Lamb-tree the halt and the blind came to be healed. After all, Ovid's 'tiliae molles' could perfectly properly be translated 'gentle Lime-trees'. Agnes mollis, 'gentle lamb', is a common tag in devotional poetry.  Of course Coleridge can't alter 'gentle-hearted' as his descriptor for the Lamb.

If the poem leaves open the question as to whether Coleridge will share in that miraculous grace or not, that says as much about Coleridge's state of mind as anything else.

I've gone on long enough in this post. Oedipus the poet ('Coleridgipus') is granted a vision that goes beyond mere material sight, and that vision encompasses both a sunlit future steepled with Christian churches, a land free of misery and sin, and also a dark underworld structured by the leafless Yggdrasil that cannot be wholly banished. The reciprocity of these two realms is part of the point of the whole: the oxymoronic coupling of beautiful nature as an open-ended space to be explored and beautiful nature as a closed-down grasping prison. If I wanted to expatiate further, I might invoke Jean-Joseph Goux's Oedipus, Philosopher (1993). Chapter 7 of that study, 'From Aspective to Perspective', positions Oedipus as a way of reading what Goux considers a profound change from a logic of 'mythos' to one of 'logos' during and before the fifth century B.C. The shift from mythos to logos could function as a thumbnail description not only of Coleridge's deeper fascinations in this poem, but in all his work. Interestingly for my purposes Goux takes the development of perspective or foreshortening in painting as a way of symbolizing a whole raft of social and cultural innovations, from coinage to drama, from democracy to a newly conceptualised individual 'subject'. He uses the term 'aspective' (art critics use this to talk about the absence of, or simple distortions of perspective in so-called primitive painting) to describe traditional, pre-Sophistic Greek society; the later traditions are perspectival. For our purposes here, we might want to explore the difference between the two spaces of the poem's central section, lines 8-44. First the aspective space of the chthonic 'roaring dell', where everything is confined into a kind of one-dimensional verticality ('down', 'narrow', 'deep', 'slim trunk', 'file of long lank weeds' and so on) and description applies itself to a kind of flat surface of visual effect ('speckled', 'arching', 'edge' and the like). Then the ostentatious use of perspective as the three friends
Beneath the wide wide Heaven, and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark perhaps whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two isles
Of purple shadow! ... Ah slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! [20-37]
This, as Goux might say, is mythos to logos visualised as the movement from aspective to perspective. And that is the poem in a (wall)nut-shell.

I do genuinely feel foolish for not clocking 'Lamb-tree' before. It's the sort of wordplay that, once noticed, never leaves the way you read the poem.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Orchards of Sam


Lately I've been re-reading Geoffrey Hill, a process which has proved frustrating and stimulating in roughly equal measure. I loved Hill as a teen:—there are poems from For the Unfallen (1958) and Mercian Hymns (1971) that I can still quote whole, from memory. But I went off him, somewhat, in the 1990s. He always was, of course, a Christian poet, and much of his poetry is about wrestling with his faith (or more specifically, wrestling with aspects of himself, with depression and despair specifically conceived in terms of sin), a set of beliefs and attitudes I did not share. He was also, I suppose, what we might call a politically 'conservative' writer (although actually I think Hill's politics were quite complicated and more idiosyncratic than the tag 'conservative' implies), and I was not, and am not. But then, Coleridge was also very much both a Christian writer and, in his later life, a political conservative, and there seems to me actual merit, quite apart from my personal enjoyment, in reading him against the grain from a position, like mine, that does not share many of those assumptions. I don't mean in order to critique those attitudes; on the contrary to try to read them in good faith. The important thing, I think, is that writers like Coleridge and Hill need to be rescued from readers who identify too strongly with the positions they are dramatising.

'Went off him' looks capricious of me, I know. The truth is that, back in the day I found Hill's sudden spurt of late productivity, after he went on the Lithium, very hard to love. So I've been trying to going back to it, to give it another go. In particular I've been trying and get my head around his sort-of-Dante trilogy of long-poems, The Triumph of Love (1999), Speech! Speech! (2000) and The Orchards of Syon (2002). I read these when they came out and bounced hard off them. Re-reading them recently has been slow and occasionally laborious, but also vastly more rewarding than I thought it would be. Long story short: I have fallen back in love with Hill's verse. Still, the subject of this blog is Coleridge, not Hill. So what am I doing?

The Sort-of-Dante trilogy takes elements from Hill's own life and times, and mixes them in with a small set of historical events (the First World War from a soldier's perspective, the Second from that of suffering civilians, martyrs from the 16th-century like Thomas More, but also the 20th-century like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Kreisau conspirators; as well as a good quantity of modern popular culture) in order to refract some very personal meditations on Hill's own state of mind, his pre-treatment depression, his faith in God and the difficulties of expressing that, especially in the specific church communities to which he has belonged. The poems are also very much about Hill's engagement with the natural world. This latter results in some of the most lucidly beautiful writing in all three books, and especially in the last. But there's also a huge amount of reading and quoting and intertextuality running throughout, a dense matrix of poets and theologians and other kinds of writers. If The Triumph of Love is the trilogy's Inferno, it is not because it dwells on actualised hells (though the two world wars certainly furnish the necessaries for that), but because it spends a lot of time on Hill's own childhood and youth, and on the miseries attendant on his mental states at that time. Its title, in other words, not only mimics the form of Shelley's 'The Triumph of Time', but syphons off some Shelleyan irony too (since 'The Triumph of Time', unfinished at Shelley's death, is the most potently despairing poem he ever wrote, a masterpiece of pessimism). In addition to a pervasive set of Dantean and Shelleyan allusions, Hill's poem is packed with specific name-dropping and quotations, including but not limited to: Petronius, Angelus Silesius, Thomas Bradwardine, Georges Roualt, Malebranche, Alan Turing, Milton, Gower, Rilke, Blake, Péguy, Michel Foucault and Manley Hopkins.

Speech! Speech! is, I would say, a more satirically focused engagement with the babble of contemporary cultural production, TV and rap-music and the rolling news and so on; although this Purgatorio is also darkly funny, full not only of wordplay but actual word-games anagrams and palindromes. I'd say that it does read like a poem working its way to something; and that something presumably comes into its own in The Orchards of Syon. This final volume is much more about Hill reacting to the beauty and serenity of the natural world; and Hill's Paradiso idea is concretized in, as the title suggests, orchards and woodland. Orchards are beautiful, after all. Then again, nothing is straightforward in Hill's work. Balanced against the beautiful orchard (Hopkins' 'Goldengrove' is repeatedly invoked) is the Wood of Suicides from Dante, the tree of good and evil from Eden, the cross on which God was tortured to death.

The literary matrix in which Orchards of Syon is embedded is as dense as you would expect from Hill, if a little less dense (perhaps) than Triumph of Love. More to the point, I think a rather different range of authors is brought into the text in Orchards than was the case in the earlier volumes. The two main continuities are Dante, whose shade presides (surely) over the entire trilogy, and Hopkins, who is quoted or else formally aped throughout the trilogy, as with Hill's slightly distracting tendency to add accents to cértain wórds to nudge his readers to the right émphasis when reading aloud (as per Hopkins's Springing, Falling, 'Márgarét, áre you gríeving'). Otherwise the presiding spirits of Orchards are: D H Lawrence's 'rainbow' (Hill specified that the cover-art should be Lawrence's own sketch, reproduced above; and the book opens with an epigraph from The Rainbow), André Frénaud, Mrs Beeton, Jefferies, Leopardi, Ronsard, Pavese, Connie Willis (remarkably enough) and—to bring matters back to the subject of this blog—Coleridge.

So what I thought I'd do in this post, to at least start to try and get my thoughts in order with respect to this great but difficult poem, is just pull the Coleridgean element out of the 72, 24-line stanzas that comprise the whole, and see what I think Hill is doing with it. (Why 72, 24-line cantos? Jeremy Noel-Tod wonders if Orchards is 'perhaps a Book of Days, as well as a version of the kabbalistic exercise of meditating on the 72 names of God'. Maybe). Before I do that, I'll jot down a few general observations about the poem, in order to situate what I say below a little. So: the first thing to note is that Hill's Paradiso is not about ascending through ever-more-blissful spheres. His understanding of heaven is not halos, white gowns and harps (of course, neither is Dante's; but you see what I mean). It is difficult, and in more than a 'I find this hard to wrap my head around' sense of that word.

Paradise, in The Orchards of Syon is 'about' trees, and it is 'about' music. With respect to the latter, Hill seems to consider the beauty and power of music to be, at least in part, a function of music's exemption from mankind's original sin ('music arguably/not implicated in the loss of Eden' is how he puts it [7]); and the poem returns over and again to Baroque 'glissandos', to Gospel choirs, to klesmer music and trumpet voluntaries, to Holst’s Jupiter and Parry's Jerusalem and Britten's Billy Budd, as well as to the extraordinary, fertile power of Bach ('The Art of Fugue resembles/water-springs in the Negev' [6]). The poem quotes the line 'la vida es sueño' many times, but I suspect the reference is less to Calderón's somnivital play than to Jonathan Dove's operatic version of the same work. Music is part of poetry itself, of course; instressed, as Hopkins might say, into it; and books are made of 'leaves' as trees are: Hill may well have Wordsworth's famous 'close up these barren leaves' pun in mind throughout. But we are entitled to ask: in what sense is heaven like a forest like music like poetry like a rainbow? I suppose we could say because it grows, because it 'homes' us; because it is about light and about shade and about the unspoken. And the rainbow is important because of its breathtaking natural beauty, and because Keats abjured its unweaving by modern science; because its beauty is that of the colours all folded into the lux of God's initial fiat lux. And also because, via Lawrence, it resonates with the north-midlands working class provenance of an individual like Hill himself. The specific passage that Hill quotes from Lawrence's The Rainbow as epigraph to the whole volume is this one, from that novel's chapter 5, 'the Wedding:
Tom Brangwen's mood of inspiration began to pass away. He forgot all about it, and was soon roaring and shouting with the rest. Outside the wake came, singing the carols. They were invited into the bursting house. They had two fiddles and a piccolo. Only the bride and bridegroom sat with shining eyes and strange, bright faces, and scarcely sang, or only with just moving lips.
The five men went out. The night was flashing with stars. Sirius blazed like a signal at the side of the hill, Orion, stately and magnificent, was sloping along. "It's a fine night," said Tom.
So maybe Orchards of Syon is also a kind of epithalamium, a weaving of mouthed but silent music and the sublimity of the night sky.

One other element, as I mention above, is that this poem is filled with often gorgeous poetry descriptive of natural landscapes. So far as I can see, these are phased, such that the poem as a whole cycles from autumn (which season is either named or else unambiguously evoked in stanzas 12, 13, reverting to high summer in 14, showers in 20, and colder autumnal weather again in 23, 24, 25 and 26), through winter (27, 28, 32, 33), to a barren land suddenly blazing through with flowers (41) and 'the great rainbow, as Bert/Lawrence saw it or summoned it' (48); and finally to summer ('the stooped pear-tree honours us with its shade', [59]; 'this heavy/blankness ... a mauve/tinted wipe-around grey. The Malverns gone in haze' [65]). All the other business of the poem—and it is a very busy, densely extended piece of writing—is framed by this natural cycle, which brings the negations with which stanza 1 opens ...
Now there is no due season. Do not
mourn unduly. You have sometimes said
that I project a show more
stressful than delightful. [1]
... through to, near the end, a kind of unguarded joy in the Edenic possibilities of its titular locus amoenus:
              the Orchards
of Syon, sway-backed with pear and apple,
the plum, in spring and autumn resplendent.
Syon! Syon! That which sustains us [70]
Throughout the poem, and despite (perhaps) what this quotation might suggest, Hill's apprehension of the beauty of the natural world is always particularised, never idealised or abstracted. It is real places that Hill knows and loves, not any sort of Platonic Arcadia. And because of that, nature is always interpenetrated with culture, a fact Hill treats without regret or deprecation. There is, for him, as much beauty in 'hawks over the dual carriageways' [17] as in any Theocritan pre-industrial pseudo-nostalgia. Indeed, that's one of the things I love about The Orchards of Syon.


Coleridge first comes into Orchards of Syon in the poem's twenty-fourth stanza, which I quote here in its entirety:
Too many times I wake on the wrong
side of the sudden doors, a cloud-
smoke sets the dawn moon into rough eclipse,
though why in the world thís light is not
revealed, even so, the paths plum-coloured,
slippery with bruised leaves; shrouded the clear
ponds below Kenwood; such recollection
no more absent from the sorrow-tread
than I from your phantom showings, Goldengrove.
I dreamed I had wakened before this
and not recognized the place, its forever
arbitrary boundaries re-sited,
re-circuited. In no time at all
there's neither duration nor eternity.
Look!—crowning the little rise, that bush,
copper-gold, trembles like a bee swarm.
COLERIDGE'S living powers, and other
sacrednesses whose asylum this was,
did not ordain the sun; but still it serves,
bringing on strongly now each flame-recognizance,
hermeneutics of autumn, time's
continuities tearing us apart
Make this do for a lifetime, I tell myself.
Rot we shall have for bearing either way. [24]
Lets say that the larger situation of this stanza is: waking up too early, but being unable to get back to sleep. The dawn moon is visible outside, though clouded, and something about the quality of the light reminds the narrator of an autumnal visit to Kenwood House, in Hampstead, below whose stately structure are (indeed) paths and ponds. In fact here is a painting by the excellent Mary Kuper of that very locale:

The season is 'flame-coloured'. The ground is strewn with leaves. Hill (in his bed? Shuffling around in a dressing gown?) looks outside and sees the coming-on dawn light strike a 'copper-gold' bush and make it shine. His state of mind, still haunted by dreams ('la vida es sueño' reoccurs throughout Orchards like a refrain) takes him back to memories of visiting Kenwood, which in turn provokes a kind of autumnal epiphany, a visionary state as much dreary as transcendent. So far as that goes, it's a Hillian expression of what is at the very heart of Wordsworth's 'spots of times'. What I mean is: such spots were uplifting spirit-soaring moments of affective intensity that were also quotidian, downbeat, tedious or wearing—'visionary dreariness' [Prelude 12:256] is, in many ways, the single key Wordsworthian phrase. It's why the 'this' in 'thís light' gets its Hopkinsian accent, I think: the specificity of 'thís light' is what matters. The compromised nature of paradise is no flaw, but rather the ground of its splendour: Goldengrove is beautiful not despite but because it is 'unleaving'; a flame is a mode of decay in exactly the way that rot is.

This doesn't seem to me Hill at his most difficult, and indeed the way the scene is visualised strikes me as powerful and affecting. Matthew Sperling's recent Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words (Oxford 2014) spends a whole chapter basically unpacking this one stanza by way of exploring the work's Coleridgean context, starting with this statement rescued from oblivion by the fact that, I presume, Sperling was actually in the Warwick University audience where Hill said it:
In public readings, Hill has named Coleridge as the ‘genius’ of the whole [of Orchards of Syon], and has described the poem as arising from one of those ‘strange visionary moments that seem to come in the midst of the most ordinary occasions’, while giving a note on its setting: ‘it’s not about but, in its allusive way, it is … Hampstead Heath and Highgate, and the fact that Coleridge lived his last rather sad years there.’ [Sperling, 73; ellipses in original]
Very interesting! Coleridge used the phrase 'living powers' in several works. It shorthands one of his most important notions, that, since the divine informs words (and therefore poetry), words (and therefore poetry) are shaping forces in the world, not passive tokens merely reflecting that world. Sperling traces the phrase to Aids to Reflection (1825) and summarises it as saying 'that linguistic forms precede and govern cognitive forms’ [Sperling, 88], which is fair enough. But we might go back earlier, to, for instance, the notes for Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare at the Surrey Institution in 1812:
The spirit of poetry, like all other living powers, must of necessity circumscribe itself by rules, were it only to unite power with beauty. It must embody in order to reveal itself; but a living body is of necessity an organized one—and what is organization but the connection of parts to a whole, so that each part is at once end and means!
I wonder if this isn't a more fertile way of approaching the importance of 'living powers' to Hill than the Aids to Reflection context. Extrapolating a little from the Shakespeare lectures passage, we might say the phrase works here to flag-up the organic form of Hill's poetic structures, as much as their esemplastic precedence over mere 'things'. Indeed, there is a tension between the mechanic and organic elements in structuring the poem as a whole. In Triumph of Love the stanzas vary in length, swelling or tightening as the expressive logic requires; but both Speech! Speech! and Orchards are made out of regular processions of set-length stanzas. For Jeremy Noel-Tod this is a bug, not a feature:
In fulfilling these structures, Hill has encountered the same problem Eliot did when he conceived of Four Quartets—a symmetrical crown for his life’s work modelled on one poem, ‘Burnt Norton’. The quality-control lapses in the three quartets that followed, especially ‘The Dry Salvages’, are the result of this new approach to composition, which required certain patterns to be strictly completed. The sections of The Triumph of Love—Hill’s ‘Burnt Norton’—expand and contract instinctively, leanly, providing necessary variety. The whole book is a beautifully balanced expression of Hill’s characteristic alternating rhythm. The repetitive stanza structures of Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, are more hospitable to dense, self-parodic filler. [Jeremy Noel-Tod, 'Awkward Bow', LRB 25:5 (2003), 27]
'Dense, self-parodic filler' is harsh, although you certainly see what Noel-Tod means. But we might want to argue that Hill was not only aware of precisely this 'Eliot problem', but that it expresses something crucial about his understanding of the way a Coleridgean 'living power' might give breath and life to verse. In those same Shakespearian lectures quoted above, STC gives us this definition:
The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.
If we take Hill's commitment to poetry as a living power seriously, then we might want to think about the tension between, say, the exquisitely expressive and the stiffly offputting as the point of the whole. Like Picasso with representational painting, Hill can write lucidly beautiful and moving poetry if he wants to. He just doesn't want to do this,or else doesn't want to do it all the time. The more 'mechanic' tics and features; the polysyllabic abstract nouns, the odd forays into textspeak ('yr' and 'y' instead of 'your' for example) and vertiginous shifts from elevated idioms to banality and coversational babble, all these wrongfooting moments are there to foreground exactly this tension. Hence, too, The Orchards of Syon rather than The Woods of Syon; since the former are both organically natural growths and mechanically ordered layings-out of territory in a way that is not true of the latter.

There's a lot that could be said about the way this stanza, and the poem as a whole, draws the cord taut by way of putting mechanical and organic in tension with one another; but I'll limit myself to one particular observation for now. Stanza 24 includes a strophic moment, a turn—'Look! in line 15. Structurally this echoes the sonnet form, something doubled-up by the fact that it immediately follows a 14-line section of verse. The result is a sort of elongated-octave, about untimeliness, waking too early, about memory and eternity, followed by a sort of elongated-sestet about the way meaning and beauty catch light in our souls. But can we say that the sonnet form is organic? Or is it a mechanic imposition on the way language expresses love and longing, although perhaps one with which repetition has made so familiar it seems organic? 'Look!'


There are many other Coleridgean references and quotations in Orchards, and I'm going to move quickly through the five most explicit. Stanza 30 opens:
Blurring sharpens: instance, my cold-tears make
flowerets, faceted clusters, out of clear brights,
headlights, eight, twelve, across, signal gantries
like emporium glitter. I'm not driving /
fortunately. How slowly it all goes
hurtling to oblivion. Line after line
solidly fractured without
effort and without discord
—COLERIDGE; the eye
of Imagination passive and a seer.
Think seer as you would stayer. [30]
The narrator is in a car, being driven at night, and his tear-filled eyes (grief? flu?) make patterns from the lights. These, by a process of association, make him think of two lines from Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis', Look! how a bright star shooteth from the sky;/So glides he in the night from Venus' eye (a detail Hill leaves us to intuit, rather than spelling it out) and thence to Coleridge's discussion of those same Shakespearian lines, from where 'without effort and without discord' is quoted. Here's the relevant passage as it appears in Coleridge's Literary Remains (the 'it', in the first line here, is Shakespeare's Imagination):

This structures and embodies Hill's experience in the car which he is not driving (fortunately, since he can't see properly): the beauty of the instant, the rapidity of the car's passage, the yearning, hopelessness and love. These paralleled movements, effortless and harmonious, in turn inform the way poetry moves 'line after line', the 'solid fracture' of discourse into poetry picked out by that little vertical bar separating the words 'driving' and 'fortunately'. In the opening lines of stanza 33 the narrator promises to 'pass myself through, as a backward/courier of vision: your Table Talk'. The 'eye' has become messenger in more than the simple physical fact that we read with our eyes. And stanza 36 ends:
Hell is empty; or The End will erase it
in its due place and order. Poets
leap over death
—was that COLERIDGE? If so,
Did anyone see him do it and live? [36]
That was Coleridge, of course; he jotted the thought in his notebook in 1802:
No one can leap over his own shadow/Poets leap over
Death. [Notebooks 1134 8.3]
Hill quite often moves the tone towards a tone of wry humour like this. Humour is not his strongest suit, but still.

There are two more specific evocations of Coleridge's name. First, in the middle of stanza 44, after the battling violence of the Normandy landings ('at the crossroads of Haut-Vents, machine-carbine'):
              Then immediately
peace brings The Armed Vision, a work of courage
and quick advantage. Who dares show himself
embusqué in this verdurous new terrain
to be fought through? Did HYMAN go to the wars?
Empson didn't, nor did I. Armed Vision is of course COLERIDGE.
The point of reference is to this book, published just after the war (1947, in point of fact):

It is an account of how criticism evolved from the intuitive expressions of amateurs like Aristotle and Coleridge into a more rigorously worked-through discourse whose four main influences are, Hyman thinks, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Frazer. From here Hyman delves into the state of modern criticism, arguing that 'each critic tends to have a master metaphor or series of metaphors in terms of which he sees the critical function ...this metaphor then shapes, informs, and sometimes limits his work.' The answer to Hill's question as to whether Hyman served in World War 2 is: no, he didn't (he was writing for The New Yorker in the early 1940s). But Hill is quite right that 'armed vision' is from Coleridge. Specifically it's from the seventh chapter of the Biographia Literaria, where STC ponders how interpretation can become over-interpretation, how harmony can become over-focused into disharmony if we attend too closely: 'The razor's edge becomes a saw to the armed vision,' he says, thinking of 'arming' sight with lenses and microscopes; 'and the delicious melodies of Purcell or Cimarosa might be disjointed stammerings to a hearer, whose partition of time should be a thousand times subtler than ours.' I've always thought this a particularly science-fictional concept, but Hill instead opts, Hymanishly, to focus on the military metaphor implicit in 'armed': fighting with machine-guns at a Normandy crossroads; courage and quick advantage extricating oneself from the 'embuscade' and so on.

There remains one last specific reference to Coleridge in the poem. This is in stanza 64, which, once again, I'll quote whole:
This is my shoelace. That is bobbled clover.
Here's a youngish man embarks on I
am an old man now
. Eximious 'STARRY' VERE,
lyric and futile. Sit here, Memory.
A trial playthrough: they could hardly tell
prelude from postlude, postlude from intermezzo.
You're right! Not clover; even more tenacious,
tight like plantar warts or splayed pseudopods
their gardeners gouge and burn from lawns. Let's think
around the nature of the impasse: metaphysics'
biochemical mystery. Wisdom
conspires with unwisdom, in a phrase
the genius of the maker—slog-and-slang.
Fancy's not truth even if truth's confined
to Imagination: STC's compunctions,
the last bit of the The Tempest, ancient prayers
of intercession that are said to work.
Melville's predisposition stood at bay
to public humours. Through stiff metaphrase
the sad man breaking in his stupent heart,
his stupent heart hog-tied on Southport sands
for Hawthorne to excogitate. I'll name
my own late fancies Dream Children if not—
just for the shine on it—Prospero's Farewell. [64]
We start with Hill actually staring at his own shoes (not for the first time in this trilogy, I wonder if Hill's love of music led him into the pop and rock of the most recent decades: was he aware what 'shoegazing' is? When he laments 'time's/continuities tearing us apart' [24] is he glancing at Joy Division?) At any rate, he is standing in a garden or park and looking down, and this, for some reason, makes him think of his youthful engagement with opera. 'Vere', of course, is Captain Vere from Britten's Billy Budd, whose opening aria consists of him looking back on his life, and his regrets, from the perspective of old age: 'There’s a land where she’ll anchor for ever. I am an old man now, and my mind can go back in peace …' (I assume the reference here is to Britten, not Melville, even though Melville is name-checked a few lines later, because the opera puts Vere at its centre in a way not true of the novella. I could be wrong). So this reference is 'lyric' in the strict sense of being sung to music; and futile because there's nothing 'Starry' Vere can do to bring Billy back, howsoever eximious he may be. Hill's companion, whoever he or she is, disagrees that they are looking at clover:

Hill's narrator agrees. They're looking at a different sort of weed: plantain.

I sympathise: I have plantain growing all through my lawn and they're a right bugger to shift. At this halfway point the stanza shifts to considering the nature of the 'maker', or poet (poetry from ‘ποίησις’ which means ‘a making, a creation, a production’). Said nature is 'slog-and-slang', which is a phrase that nicely combines two aspects of writing as craft (the effort involved and the command of idiom) in, I suppose, a sort-of jokily deflating echo of Sturm und Drang. Then we're given the Fancy/Imagination distinction, which is one of the central planks of the Biographia Literaria, and 'STC's compunctions' refers back to that, rather than identifying any problems he had with 'the last bit of The Tempest'. I'm not aware of anything Coleridge wrote or said about Prospero's famous 'Now my charms are all o'erthrown' speech. I suppose Hill considers Prospero's epilogue a mode of interceding with the audience ('I must be here confin'd by you,/Or sent to Naples') and a prayer for freedom that is 'said'—spoken aloud—to be effective. This then leads him back to Billy Budd, and the angelic man rendered 'stupent' by his stutter. 'Dream children' presumably glances at 'We are such stuff/As dreams are made on'; and, approaching as he is the end of Orchards of Syon, Hill toys with a Prosperine abandonment of the world of magic, and poetry, and sin:
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Vere had the power to pardon Billy Budd, but did not do it, to his later regret. Prayer (ancient or otherwise) is an imaginative, not a fanciful, activity. These two naval dramas, Billy Budd and The Tempest, work with the memory of a traumatic crime or sin in order to stage the performance of atonement and forgiveness. But what has this to do with gazing at your own shoes, and being struck by how weedy the lawn is?

I'm still pondering that last question.