Friday, 30 October 2015

Coleridge's 'Recollections of Love': the Dream Within the Dream



This sad little love-poem was first published in Sybilline Leaves (1817). Scholars have had trouble piecing together when it was written. The first four stanzas were drafted as metrical experiments in Coleridge's notebook: in October 1804 according to Kathleen Coburn; in 1807 according to the Norton editors, Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano (J C Maas's Princeton edition of the poem helpfully dates it: 'Oct 1804? 1806-7?'). The Norton editors also note that 'a later draft of stanza 3 is in an 1810 notebook and headed "Questions and Answers in the court of Love", and speculate that 'the final stanzas may have been written when Coleridge was preparing copy for Sybilline Leaves in 1814-15' [Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano (eds), Coleridge's Poetry and Prose (Norton 2004), 193]. What I offer in this blogpost is some evidence to support this latter speculation, and indeed to push the composition of the last two stanzas even later than the Norton editors do. At any rate, here's the poem:
I.
How warm this woodland wild Recess!
LOVE surely hath been breathing here;
And this sweet bed of heath, my dear!
Swells up, then sinks with faint caress,
As if to have you yet more near.

II.
Eight springs have flown, since last I lay
On sea-ward Quantock's heathy hills,
Where quiet sounds from hidden rills
Float here and there, like things astray,
And high o'er head the sky-lark shrills.

III.
No voice as yet had made the air
Be music with your name; yet why
That asking look? that yearning sigh?
That sense of promise every where?
Belov├ęd! flew your spirit by?

IV.
As when a mother doth explore
The rose-mark on her long-lost child,
I met, I loved you, maiden mild!
As whom I long had loved before—
So deeply had I been beguiled.

V.
You stood before me like a thought,
A dream remembered in a dream.
But when those meek eyes first did seem
To tell me, Love within you wrought—
O Greta, dear domestic stream!

VI.
Has not, since then, Love's prompture deep,
Has not Love's whisper evermore
Been ceaseless, as thy gentle roar?
Sole voice, when other voices sleep,
Dear under-song in clamor's hour.
It's a poem about returning to the Quantocks after a period away. It's also, with a topographic oddness that recalls dream logic, also somehow about the north west. 'Greta' in stanza V is the river that runs behind Greta Hall, in the Lake District, into which Coleridge moved in July 1800. ‘The river Greta flows behind our house,’ he wrote to Josiah Wedgwood in November 1800, ‘roaring like an untamed Son of the Hills, then winds round & glides away in the front—so that we live in a peninsula [CL 1 644]. That's Greta Hall, and the river, at the top of the post (drawn by W. Westall and engraved by E. Francis in 1829); the house is now a posh B&B, with a 'Coleridge Wing' that is, apparently, 'perfect for a family holiday'. Quite tempting, that.

This is also a poem about meeting again the woman with whom the poet has long been in love. The gently sexually-suggestive 'breathing love', 'sweet bed' and 'caress' of stanza 1, start to go 'astray' in stanza 2, and then the poem fragments into the rather desperate questions of stanza 3. The poet's love had not been reciprocated, and meeting her again has failed to rekindle, or indeed kindle, it. The poem then reiterates how deeply 'beguiled' the poet has been by the woman, and the last stanzas compare his love for her to the sound of the river, always audible as an undercurrent, or 'under-song', behind the day-to-day clamour of life. Easy enough to picture here Coleridge and his hopeless passion for Sara Hutchinson.

It makes for a pleasant, bittersweet sort of poem, elevated from the run-of-the-Coleridgean-mill by two (it seems to me) more striking images, or moments. The first is Stanza IV's image of the mother exploring 'the rose-mark on her long lost child'. This, when you come to think of it, is a pretty strange way of talking about the physical intimacy of a lover's caress. So: Coleridge is comparing re-encountering the woman he (hopelessly) loves, and reassuring himself that he still loves her, to a mother who has lost her child, who recovers him (her?) and reassures herself that she has the right child by running fingers over a birth-mark. There's a jolting turn to the quasi-incestuous in this, not inappropriately so for a man who wants to relate to the woman he loves and cannot have as both a pure sister and a secret erotic focus (and there's fair amount of anxiety about incest in Coleridge over this decade: his 1811 lecture on Romeo and Juliet segues disconcertingly from discussing the erotic passion of Shakespeare's two lovers into an earnest meditation on the incest taboo). But it's surely rather odd to conceptualise this kind of love according to a parent-child vector. Is Coleridge the mother, imaginatively caressing the 'rose-mark' of Sara Hutchinson? That's potentially quite rude. Or is Sara Hutchinson the mother, and Coleridge is imaginatively projecting himself into an infantile state of perfect intimacy with her? That's even odder.

The second striking moment in the poem occupied the final two stanzas, and brings me back to the matter of dating.
V.
You stood before me like a thought,
A dream remembered in a dream.
But when those meek eyes first did seem
To tell me, Love within you wrought—
O Greta, dear domestic stream!

VI.
Has not, since then, Love's prompture deep,
Has not Love's whisper evermore
Been ceaseless, as thy gentle roar?
Sole voice, when other voices sleep,
Dear under-song in clamor's hour.
The syntax is quite interesting here. The dash after 'Love within you wrought' reads as though a sentence has been abruptly broken off: wrought what? Or if the sense is 'your meek eyes told me that love was being wrought within you' then ... what? The 'But when' calls out for an answering clause, instead of which the poem shifts to the description of the stream. I suppose the '... has not' might be thought as completing the unit of sense; but there's a mismatch between the two elements that wrongfoots the reader. Perhaps it is supposed to do precisely that.

The best two lines in the whole poem seem to me
You stood before me like a thought,
A dream remembered in a dream
A beautifully poised acknowledgement of the emotional and psychological distance opening up between the two individuals. If Coleridge's love for Sara was only a dream eight years ago, now it is only the dream of a dream. From the physical immediacy and intimacy of the poem's early stanzas, to this etiolated 'thought' of love.

The dream of a dream. We know that Coleridge owned and annotated a copy of Rachel Baker's Devotional Somnium (1815), although sadly the copy has now been lost. It's a strange pamphlet. Baker was a New York woman who created something of a local sensation in the early 18teens by falling asleep and preaching the gospel in that state; her sermons were then collected and published by 'Several Medical Gentlemen', together with various related accounts of unusual somnolence, sleep-walking and the like. It's the kind of thing well-fitted to Coleridge's peculiar interests, and it's likely he read it closely. What did he write in those margins, I wonder? More to the point, I wonder if this passage snagged his interest:
But the most curious circumstance of the mind in the state of dream is, the power it has to become the agent of every person, character, and thing, of which it dreams. It carries on conversation with several, asks questions, hears answers, gives and receives information, and it acts all these parts itself. But though the imagination cannot supply the place of real memory, it has the wild faculty of counterfeiting memory. It dreams of persons it never knew, and talks to them as if it remembered them as old acquaintance. It relates circumstances that never happened, and tells them as if they had happened. It goes to places that never existed, and knows where all the streets and houses are, as if we had been there before. The scenes it creates are often as scenes remembered. It will sometimes act a dream within a dream, and, in the delusion of dreaming, tell a dream it never dreamed, and tell it as if it was from memory. [Baker, 'Devotional Somnium', Collection of Prayers and Exhortations (1815), 173]
This is not by Baker herself, but is from 'An Interesting Essay on Dreams' that the editors of Baker's sermons include in the volume (it was, we are told, 'conceived by a vigorous mind, and written by an able hand' and is 'inserted in the present publication', on account of its 'profound sagacity and intrinsic merit ... deserv[ing] the consideration of all those who study the mind and its operations'.)

This has two implications. One is that, if this passage is behind the last two stanzas here, then they may been written 1815-16, and not earlier. And the second is that it throws over the whole poem a rather more desolating cast than might be otherwise the case. 'Recollections of Love' becomes about the uncertainty of recollection itself, or more specifically, it becomes a (deeply Coleridgean) meditation of the ways imagination and desire tangle with memory, and a love-object retreats to the position of being a 'dream within a dream'. This is certainly the Devotional Somnium take on the imagination: 'it will sometimes act a dream within a dream, and, in the delusion of dreaming, tell a dream it never dreamed, and tell it as if it was from memory.'

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