Monday, 23 November 2015

'When Absent Soon To Meet Again' (1810)



This may be stating the obvious, but the opening prose section of this Coleridge March 1810 Notebook entry (much scribbled over and crossed out in the original) is actually a run-on draft of a poem. Now, lines 5-20 of the set-as-verse section of this, the passage beginning 'I have experienc'd/The worst, the World can wreak on me', was published after Coleridge's death, in Ernest Hartley Coleridge's Poetical Works (1912), as 'Fragment 35'. But what of the earlier lines?

A little judicious reconstruction gives us:
When absent soon to meet again
That morning, and that last Employ
Had only so much certain Pain
As fears of Hope detract from Joy.
And now—O then I'm least opprest
When with the cleansing stream I mix
My tears, and oft I'd fain neglect
Myself, as anguish sinking down
Comes o'er me—yet I cannot own
The love-enchanted spirit fixed.
For not death, absence nor demerit—
Can free the love-enchanted spirit;
And I seem always in her eyen,
And she'll no more appear to mine.
The first quatrain is clear enough; the later lines are open to a variety of possible reconstructions from the muddle of STC's initial thoughts, and I'm not sure this is the best of them. You can see where his pre-revision poet's imagination shifts gear, from rhymed octosyllabic self-pity into decasyllables ('Such anguish and such sinking down of heart' and so on) that in turn shift him towards a blank verse expression of more public misery.  'Comes o'er me, yet never can I' lacks a two-syllable top-off: 'escape' maybe; and then we're into the next four lines, laid out as verse.

I think, then, that this is two poems: one an embryonic tetrameter lyric, the other (lines 5-20) a more finished blank verse meditation. Now, one argument against my 'reconstruction' of the first of these is that Coleridge was not a poet who particularly favoured half-rhymes like 'opprest/neglect' and 'mix/fixed' (plus I freely concede that 'eyen'/'mine' is a stretch on my part). Me, I like half-rhymes. But let's say we give ourselves even more latitude and try to second-guess how STC might have shifted things about to preserve a fuller rhyme-scheme:
When absent soon to meet again
That morning, and that last Employ
Had only so much certain Pain
As fears of Hope detract from Joy.
But now—O then I'm least opprest
When with the cleansing stream I mix
My tears, and oft I'd fain transfix
Myself, as anguish sinking down
Comes o'er me—yet I cannot drown
My grief or ever bring it rest.
For not death, absence nor demerit—
Can free the love-enchanted spirit;
And I seem always in her eye,
And she'll ne'er more appear to mine.
Not sure if the first 'love-enchanted spirit' line needs altering to avoid its repetition (as I have done in this more speculative second version), or whether the repetition is itself a good poetic effect.

Kathleen Coburn, in her edition of the Notebooks, suggests that this self-pitying piece of writing was provoked by Sara Hutchinson's decision (in March 1810) to leave the Wordsworths' house and go live with her brother Tom and cousin John Monkhouse in Wales: keeping house for the two men whilst they farmed. This she did, and seems to have enjoyed it, although it took her out of the ambit where Coleridge was likely to meet her (and indeed, he never visited her in Wales). Hence: anguish. Hence, also perhaps, a bitter recall, here, of 'the EPOCH', from three-and-a-bit years previously. It's tempting to read the 'that morning' of line 2 as a reference to the morning of Saturday 27th December 1806. The first four lines are 'then'; the latter ten 'now', and the difference between the two sections is that Coleridge believes he's never going to see the woman he loves again.

There's a degree of artificiality (a less sympathetic reader might say: of bodge-job) about this reconstructed poem, of course; but I quite like it nonetheless. It's like a sort of anti-sonnet. Not entirely un-maudlin, it's true; but it holds its 'I'll never see her again, so I shall go drown myself in the river' psychological melodrama at enough of an arm's-length to squeeze real pathos out of its sorrow.

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