Monday, 30 November 2015

The Name Game: Coleridge's Epitaph (1833)

Coleridge wrote his own epitaph, probably in 1833. It is, amongst other things, a poem knottily tangled up in the initials of Coleridge's name.
Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!
One of the games here involves STC asking passers-by to stop, to stand, such that the poem interpellates a reader who has stood. Coleridge several times referred to the cross-linguistic whimsy that his initials 'S.T.C.' actualised the Greek, ἐστηση, which means 'he has stood'. Then again, the whole of this little elegy plays with the s, the t and the c, as well as with the 'st': STop Christian; STop Child; pray for S.T.C.; do thou the Same Through Christ. Why does the poem request the passer-by read with his or her 'gentle breast' rather than with eyes (we don't normally read with our breasts, do we?) unless it is that the st at the end of the word has a greater claim on the poem than mere logic of content? The S of Samuel turns God to its rhyme-word, the corruptible Sod. 'Once seemed he' not only rhymes STC but jumbles up our nominal letters (onCe SeemTee).

Initials aside, the actual name 'Coleridge' does not appear in the poem, presumably because the author's earnest hope is that death will mean this C-name becomes wholly subsumed in another C-name, Christ. But the Samuel and the Taylor flicker around the middest points, I think.
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
The whole of STCs life is summed up in that first line: laborious to the point of wheeziness, a life broken by disease and centered on toil—that is to say: Samuel Toiler Coleridge. Then again, we might want to read 'toil of breath' not as physical exhaustion and asthma so much as a straightforward description of the occupation of poet: s/he works at producing poems to be read aloud, breathed to the world. Maybe that's what 'read by the breast' means: spoken aloud. Intoned. It occurs to me that, after  the initial double stop, all the actions listed in the elegy either directly or else via double-meanings relate to things the breath does when it comes out of the mouth: read; lie; pray; praise; forgive; ask; hope. And there is an appositeness in this, since what else is an elegy but a motion of breath recording the moment when all breath stops?

There is, of course, a slightly spooky braiding together of life in death and death in life in any elegy and STC foregrounds that with his hope that he who 'found death in life, may here find life in death'. This is, I suppose, liable to make us think of Coleridge's most famous poem, 'The Ancient Mariner', and I daresay it was meant to. But there's another resonance here, surely: Samuel. It is but a vowel-tweak from stop to step: and the Biblical book of Samuel encapsulates, amongst many other things, the meat of this lyric: 'as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death' [1 Samuel 20:3].

The death of Samuel entails one of the more curious episodes in a Bible not under-supplied with curious episodes. 'Now,' we are told, 'Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city' [1 Samuel 28:3]. But Sam's successor, Saul, is in trouble with the Philistines, and seeks Samuel's post-mortem wisdom; so he disguises himself and approaches the Witch of Endor, a sorceress who has the power to raise Samuel's ghost. This she does, although Saul does not like the news he receives.
13 And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

14 And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.

15 And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.

16 Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy?

17 And the LORD hath done to him, as he spake by me: for the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thine hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David:

18 Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the LORD, nor executedst his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the LORD done this thing unto thee this day.

19 Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.

20 Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel: and there was no strength in him.
The Night-mare Life-in-Death draws on this Witch, I think, as well as on other things.

Saul stops, right there, in the road, just as the first line of STC's epitaph commands. Here is a (quite long) blogpost that touches on the fact that Coleridge took 'Amalek' as a way of talking about his inner sinfulness, sloth and moral delinquency, rather than an external threat. This Biblical context, in other words, touches on the uncanny and unholy element in giving speech to the dead: and Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? Might the S, in play throughout this little poem, be more Saul than Samuel? The 'c' in Coleridge is hard, like a k; but sometimes 'c' in English is soft, like an 's', which would give us 'Saul-eridge'. How confident is STC in this elegy thet he has obeyedst the voice of the Lord, and executedst His fierce wrath upon Coleridge's inner Amalek? Not wholly, I think. He asks, he hopes, he invokes mercy and forgiveness. But 'a poet lies' has, in this context and more broadly, two possible meanings, and that ambiguity is not a comfortable one for STC.

Better call Saul.

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