Friday, 29 January 2016

Religious Musings (1796)



To give it its full title: 'Religious Musings: A Desultory Poem, Written on the Christmas Eve of 1794'. This 419-line poem is Coleridge's first fully accomplished work, the first composition we might want to call 'major'. What it is, you'll be pleased to hear, is a blank verse meditation on God, faith, religion, oneness, contemporary politics and impending 'universal redemption'. This description may not be selling it to you. (No, really! It's great! You should read it! Give it a go: here's the whole thing!) At least it was respectfully and sometimes ecstatically received by contemporaries; but by 1972 William Empson was saying 'Religious Musings and The Destiny of Nations are hard for us to take seriously today', although he does at least concede that 'Charles Lamb thought the Musings the greatest religious poetry since Milton'. Still: taking it seriously is the key. Either we align our reading of this poem along the grain of its own earnest pontificating, or else it will almost inevitably strike us as windy and bloated and unengaging.

The poem opens, as the full title says, on Christmas Eve:
This is the time, when most divine to hear,
The voice of adoration rouses me,
As with a Cherub’s trump: and high upborne,
Yea, mingling with the Choir, I seem to view
The vision of the heavenly multitude,
Who hymned the song of Peace o’er Bethlehem’s fields! [1-8]
All those rolling polysyllables! A couple of them too long for the metre (heavenly, Bethlehem) and therefore liable to a slightly crushing compression. It's possible to miss that Coleridge's 'this is the time', marks the poem as jumping-off from Saint Augustine, and specifically from Augustine's commentary upon Psalm 100. That's the Psalm that begins (appropriately enough for Coleridge's poem) 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.' Augustine glosses: Ecce tempus misericordiae; Dei Filius ad hoc nos hortatur dicens ...Ostenderer Christus Jesu omnem longanimitatem; ecce ostendit se, erexit. This is the time of mercy; the voice of the son of god rouses me ... view Jesus Christ, all long-suffering, behold him as he shows himself, as he looked upwards. [Augustine Enarratio in Psalmum 100]. Coleridge's own opening-line version of ecce tempus introduces a poem that is a kind of psalm, which is only to say—the word psalm comes from the Hebrew tehillim which means 'praises'—that it distils into itself the 'voice of adoration'. Then again, Coleridge calls his poem not a psalm but 'A Desultory Poem'. By desultory he presumably means sketched, superficial, unmethodical; but etymology-geek Coleridge of course knew that the word derives from the Latin dēsiliō ‎(“jump down”), from ‎(“down”) + saliō ‎(“jump, leap”). His poem starts in a rather ostentatiously elevated place, with the speaker floating up in the sky 'high upborne' with the angels. But it does so in order to leap down.

And down we go. Coleridge later summarised the structure of the whole, such as it is, as follows: 'Introduction. Person of Christ. His Prayer on the Cross. The process of his Doctrines on the mind of the Individual. Character of the Elect. Superstition. Digression to the present War. Origin and Uses of Government and Property. The present State of Society. The French Revolution. Millennium. Universal Redemption. Conclusion.' Christ is invoked as 'Thou Man of Woes' (Isaiah 53:3's vir dolorum), whose true glory is rendered not actually but symbolically 'with a peculiar and surpassing light':
                    Fair the vernal Mead,
Fair the high Grove, the Sea, the Sun, the Stars;
True Impress each of their creating Sire!
Yet nor high Grove, nor many-coloured Mead
Nor the green Ocean with his thousand Isles,
Nor the starr'd Azure, nor the sovran Sun,
E'er with such majesty of portraiture
Imag'd the supreme beauty uncreate,
As thou, meek Saviour! at the fearful hour
When thy insulted Anguish wing'd the prayer
Harp'd by Archangels, when they sing of Mercy!
Vernal mead perhaps strikes a slightly hackneyed note; and indeed, the whole of this passage chimes the familiarity bell at several points, and with several examples of eighteenth-century pastoral. Compare, for instance, this from a 1790 poem by John Jortin, a writer we know Coleridge liked, from a book we know he read. 'Thee', here, is the human soul:
Survey th' expanse of earth, the starry sky,
The flowery fields, and ocean's waves Immense:
Nature for Thee unlocks the' earth's gay treasures,
For Thee suspends the twinkling lamps on high,
Leads on the crystal stream in mazy course,
And paints the vernal mead with purple flowers. [Jortin 'On the Nature of the Soul', Tracts, Philological, Critical, and Miscellaneous (2 vols 1790), 1:464]
There's your vernal mead. There, too, are high groves, ocean and the starry sky. Jortin's 'crystal river' gets picked up later in Coleridge's Musings ('the crystal river of life', 350); and 'mazy' gets transferred from the stream to the 'mazy surge' of serpent hair (176). There's more: the very next lines in Jortin poem, 'when fruitful earth, and circumambient air,/The ocean, and the ever-flowing streams/Receiv'd their first inhabitants', lead to:
Th' Almighty Power survey'd his fair creation
With looks that spoke ineffable delight.
To crown his works, he breath'd the plastic word;
And bade the soul exist. [Jortin, 1:464]
'Plastic' is a striking word there; not typical of many poets. Except Coleridge, coiner of the critical term 'esemplastic', and author of Religious Musings which uses it not once but twice: 'creative Deity! Ye of plastic power' [404-5]; God 'with plastic might/Moulding Confusion to such perfect forms' [246-7]. I'm starting to wonder whether Coleridge read Jortin's poem quite carefully before writing his own.

I don't mean to get bogged-down in desiccated source hunting. My point is broader: Coleridge is not trying to be 'original' in this poem. He is trying, in his modestly down-stepping way, to be true to his sense of faith, and to faith's working in the world. Reworking Augustine, or Jortin, is not plagiary, but the way musings work: one must, after all, start with something to muse upon. I think this is from whence STC's desultoriness steps-down: not God or anything so high, but other people's thoughts about God. At any rate, there are multiple examples of such indebtedness all the way through the poem. For example, 'Lovely was the death/Of Him whose life was Love!' [28-29] isn't Coleridge conjuring a metaphysical conceit out of the ingenuity of his brain; it's Coleridge's version of a theological commonplace (one instance among many: 'haec autem passionis Christi, ô passio desiderabilis, ô mors amabilis!' [Laurentius Justinianus, 'De incendio divini amoris tractatus nuper' 734]. A few lines later, 'God all in all!' is a version of the Vulgate 1 Corinthians 9:22 ('ut sit Deus omnia in omnibus'). And so on, throughout.

This adaptation of various different theological adages and sentiments from various sources gives the whole poem a rather bitty, mosaic feel: desultory, I suppose we could say. Looking to this poem for a coherent overall shape is, perhaps, a fool's errand. That said, reading through the work one single theme emerges unmissably: transcendent unity in God.
There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind,
Omnific. His most holy name is LOVE.
Truth of subliming import! with the which
Who feeds and saturates his constant soul,
He from his small particular orbit flies
With blest outstarting! [105-10]
There's a lot of this:
The last great Spirit lifting high in air
Shall swear by Him, the ever-living One,
Time is no more!
Believe thou, O my soul,
Life is a vision shadowy of Truth;
And vice, and anguish, and the wormy grave
Shapes of a dream ! The veiling clouds retire
And lo ! the Throne of the redeeming God
Forth flashing unimaginable day
Wraps in one blaze earth, heaven, and deepest hell. [394--401]
The poem ends with the speaker 'breathing the empyreal air/Of Love, omnific, omnipresent Love'. This is one of Coleridge's recurring themes, of course: apparent multiplicity is actual, if hidden, unity. Which is all very well and good, if it didn't also include a sense of inchoate contradiction. The essential point is something like: division is the nature of material reality only; spiritual reality is One. The fact of the Trinity doesn't falsify this, since the holy mystery of the three-in-one and one-in-three is the very central mystery of Christian faith. But what about other spirits? What if there are a multitude of those?

This is Empson's theory: he thinks the beliefs expressed in Religious Musings 'ought to interest a reader of The Ancient Mariner, because what they are saying (with merely polite expressions of uncertainty) is that spirits like those in The Ancient Mariner really exist, so that all the events in that poem might really happen.' Empson compares Yeats's A Vision, written (he says) so that Yeats might 'believe that all the incidents in his two Byzantium poems might really happen, so that to explain them away as Symbolism in misleading.' I find myself rather doubtful about this, delightful though the idea is. Although at least I have to concede that Coleridge does conclude with a sort of peroration to the sorts of daemonic, or eudaemonic, forces that interact with his mariner:
Contemplant Spirits! ye that hover o'er
With untired gaze the immeasurable fount
Ebullient with creative Deity!
And ye of plastic power, that interfused
Roll through the grosser and material mass
In organizing surge! Holies of God!
(And what if Monads of the infinite mind?)
I haply journeying my immortal course
Shall sometime join your mystic choir! Till then
I discipline my young and novice thought
In ministeries of heart-stirring song. [402-12]
That apologetic little parenthesis in the middle, with its tonally-wrongfooting Leibnitzianism, hardly defuses the explosive potential of this passage. God is spritually one, one only, wholly unified and indivisible; except for the myriad swarming spiritual beings, from angels down to contemplant spirits, the membership of whose society is so porous that Coleridge himself can plausibly hope to join them. That looks ... odd; or at least it looks odd in terms of overall consistency.

-------

Trivial postscript. I'm wondering whether Coleridge took his title from Thomas Hull's 1772 popular play, Henry the Second: Or, The Fall of Rosamond: a Tragedy.In that play, Clifford talks of
Much they avail: within these silent Walls
Chaste Contemplation dwells; this hallow'd Gloom
Inspires religious Musings, ardent Prayer,
Which, by their, fervid Impulse, waft the Soul
Of erring Man, above this Vale of Weakness,
And teach him to regain, by heavenly Aid,
What he had forfeited by human Frailty.
I can't find any evidence that Coleridge read Hull, an actor-manager who dabbled in writing and publication (his Henry the Second was actually the completion of an unfinished manuscript by Shenstone); but Hull was in his mid-eighteenth-century day something of a West Country celebrity, who had a house in Marpool. So it's possible.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Coleridge's Tribade Riddle (1809)



Quite a curio, this. Mays prints it in his Poetical Works (2001) as '446. Adelphan Greek Riddle', and, whilst he goes some way towards glossing its various terms ('Gynandrian', 'Tri-bad', 'Adelphan Greek') he mostly disavows interpretation: 'Coleridge has wrapped up his meaning so successfully that it would be foolhardy to attempt to disentangle it,' he says, adding: 'it is unclear whether the riddle describes incest; or a homosexual relationship, male or female; or a more complex intra- and extra-marital relationship.' He even wonders whether the whole thing might not be 'a skit on the second part of Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden (1789)'.

I think we can do better than that. The first thing to note is that though Coleridge writes here in Greek letters, the words themselves are not Greek. They are English ones transliterated into Greek, which makes it easy to decode:
Wife sister husband—husband sister wife
Gynandrian incest's union, nature's strife
Solution of the riddle thou to seek
Tri-bad is ... success, Adelphan Greek.
Tri-bad/That ne'er succeed!
That last line, I think, is a second go at line 4. It's not clear, since everything is crossed out, which of the two versions Coleridge preferred, but for reasons elaborated below I think line 5 should stand and line 4 be cut. Now one thing Mays says about these lines is clearly right: 'it should be emphasised that they were not written for other eyes than his own.' They were scribbled in his notebook, and then thoroughly crossed out. He never published them. Writing in Greek would not obscure their meaning from Wordsworth, should that individual ever stumble upon them, but might, I suppose, hide them from Wordsworth's wife Mary and her sister Sara Hutchinson, which might have been more on Coleridge's mind.

And in that trio of William, Mary and Sara is, surely, the 'key' to the riddle: yet another anguished, or angry, textual meditation on THE EPOCH of December 1806, when it seems Coleridge had stumbled in upon Sara Hutchinson naked in bed with her sister's husband, Wordsworth. Sometimes, in his Notebooks, STC tries to persuade himself that what he saw was only a phantasm, a projection of his envious and opium-addled mind. Then again, at other times he seems clear enough that he saw what he saw. In this 'ριδδελ', his punning wordplay mimics the oppressive intimacy of adulterous-incest that a Wordsworth-Sara affair would mean for him, hopelessly in love with Sara as he remained. 'Wife sister husband' is surely Mary, Sara and William, with Sara significantly 'coming between' wife and husband; as she does again when the trio is reversed 'husband sister wife'. By sleeping with his wife's sister William is in effect sleeping with his own sister. 'Gynandrous' is a hermaphroditism that frontloads the female element; the two women and the one man melding in Coleridge's imagination into a single, monstrous sexual entity.

As for the 'riddle' itself: well, we can work backwards to that. Its solution is 'Tri-bad is ... success', which we can read on several levels. One obvious one would be: this threesome is triply bad, or tri-bad. I'm not suggesting that STC was speculating that Mary and Sara were having sex with one another (although, obviously, who knows): my sense is the fact that William was sleeping with both sisters would be enough for Coleridge to taint the whole arrangement as adulterous-incestuous.

Then again, the word 'tribade' has a particular sexual meaning. It mainly, though not exclusively, refers to non-penetrative sexual frottage between two women, a term derived from the Ancient Greek τρίβω ‎(tríbō, “to rub”). Martial's poem about an aggressive lesbian called Philaenis (Martial 7:67; here's Gillian Spraggs's salty translation) opens: 'Philaenis the tribade buggers boys/And randier than any married man/she eats-out eleven girls a day.' Now, Martial is mocking Philaenis in this poem; he finds it cruelly hilarious that her butch lesbian aspirations, her filling her life with such masculine activities as lifting weights at the gym and wrestling, are all undermined by the fact that what she really likes doing is performing cunnilingus on women.

Anyway: the word 'tribade' usually refers to girl-on-girl non-penetrative sexual play. It's an indecent term, of course, associated with pornography (for example: 1797's La jolie tribade ou confessions d'une jeune fille, a splendid example of a scrofulous French novel) or satire, as when Ben Jonson mocks the Muses as the 'tribade trine', or Lesbian trio (Jonson The Forest (1616) section 10). The reference to 'Adelphan Greek' presumably picks up on the fact that, by marriage, Wordsworth was now Sara's brother (Greek: ἀδελφός, brother). But I think Coleridge tried this line, with its odd transliteration of success as συκσεϛ (shouldn't it be 'συκσεσϛ'? Compare the double-d of ριδδελ), saw that the play-on-words didn't quite work, and rewrote it. And then crossed everything out, ashamed at his own dirty mind.

In other words, I'm guessing the unspoken 'riddle' is something like: 'if Wordsworth and Sara are having sex, how is it that she has not fallen pregnant?' And the answer that Coleridge proposes, based either on his fevered imagination, or else conceivably on what he saw that morning on December 1806 when he stumbled in on the two of them in bed, is: because the sex they are having is not penetrative. It is tribadal, a matter of rubbing, frotting and cunnilingus; and when he says such sex 'can ne'er succeed' he means succeed in the sense of resulting in a baby. Now if we're mentioning cunnilingus, we might also say: 'perhaps fellatio too', and, who knows, perhaps that took place. But if Martial 7:67 is an intertext here, as it probably is, then fellatio is off the table. Martial's tribade Philaenis absolutely refuses to suck cocks, because she considers doing so to be unmanly: 'non fellat, putat hoc parum virile'. The next line, though, assures us that though she doesn't fellate men, she greedily devours the privates of young girls ('sed plane medias vorat puellas'). Might this be both the 'solution' to Coleridge's riddle and the point of the pun in its last line? Is it Wordsworth who is the 'Gynandrian', the 'woman-man', because he goes down on Sara, rather than the other way about?—their incest is defined as 'tribade' because, like Philaenis, these sorts of women are the sort 'that ne'er suck seed', or fellate men. Maybe that's why Coleridge deleted the final line's συκσεϛ and replaced it with the more double-entendre-ish συκσηδ.

I'd go further, and suggest that what we actually have here, obscured by the guilty-at-how-transgressive-a-poem-he-had-written mass crossing-out, is a draft that reads
Wife sister husband—husband sister wife
Gynandrian incest's union, nature's strife
Solution of the riddle thou to seek
Tri-bad is ... success,Adelphan Greek.
Tri-bad/That ne'er succeed!
and which in turn was on its way to a hypothetical finished form that might have looked something like this:
Wife sister husband—husband sister wife
Gynandrian incest's union, nature's strife
Solution of the riddle thou to read:
Tri-bad success, the sort that ne'er sucks-seed!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

'Constancy to an Ideal Object' (1828)



I say '1828', in the blogpost title there, because that's when Coleridge first published ''Constancy to an Ideal Object'. He wrote the poem earlier, though; perhaps much earlier. There's a reference to it in a letter of 1825 as 'those lines which a long time ago I sent to Mrs Green', and depending upon how long you think 'a long time' covers it could have been written any time in the preceding two decades. Since it is patently a poem about coming to terms, however painfully, with the impossibility of his love for Sara Hutchinson, I suppose it's likely to have been written in 1808-10. 'And art thou nothing?' is a pretty heartbreaking thing for a man to say to the woman he has loved for a decade as intensely as Coleridge loved 'Asra'.
Since all that beat about in Nature's range,
Or veer or vanish; why should'st thou remain
The only constant in a world of change,
O yearning Thought! that liv'st but in the brain?
Call to the Hours, that in the distance play,         [5]
The faery people of the future day—
Fond Thought! not one of all that shining swarm
Will breathe on thee with life-enkindling breath,
Till when, like strangers shelt'ring from a storm,
Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!   [10]
Yet still thou haunt'st me; and though well I see,
She is not thou, and only thou are she,
Still, still as though some dear embodied Good,
Some living Love before my eyes there stood
With answering look a ready ear to lend,            [15]
I mourn to thee and say—'Ah! loveliest friend!
That this the meed of all my toils might be,
To have a home, an English home, and thee!'
Vain repetition! Home and Thou are one.
The peacefull'st cot, the moon shall shine upon, [20]
Lulled by the thrush and wakened by the lark,
Without thee were but a becalméd bark,
Whose Helmsman on an ocean waste and wide
Sits mute and pale his mouldering helm beside.

And art thou nothing? Such thou art, as when     [25]
The woodman winding westward up the glen
At wintry dawn, where o'er the sheep-track's maze
The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist'ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head;                 [30]
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow, he pursues!
The phenomenon referred to in those last eight lines is now called the 'Brocken Spectre'. It even has its own Wikipedia page, which describes it as 'the apparently enormous and magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. The phenomenon can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank, even when seen from an aeroplane, but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, have created a local legend from which the phenomenon draws its name.' It often, as in the images illustrating this blogpost, involves a spectral 'glory' rainbowing around the shadowform head.



'Constancy to an Ideal Object' is a trickier-than-it-appears, coolly wrongfooting sort of poem, I think: expressive not of anger or even anguish, but a kind of scintillant despair. It is 'about' constancy, in one sense; but it construes that constancy as a pointless and meritless obsession, not because the object to which the speaker of the poem has been constant has proved herself unworthy, but because the object is revealed not to exist, or at any rate to exist only as a figment of the speaker's ideation. It is, in other words, a poem that plays constancy against change, parsing the good (constancy is good and change bad, since a true lover ought not to be flighty, ought to be true to his love and the declaration of that love) against the bad (constancy is bad and change good, since the former is a kind of obstinately persevered-with misunderstanding of the nature of things, and the latter is the idiom of growth, maturity and wisdom). It's handled with real nuance and subtlety. Look, for instance, at the rhyme scheme: the poem starts as a stanzaic piece, a repeating six-line pattern rhyming ababcc; but after only two such stanzas, at line 12
She is not thou, and only thou are she
the form changes to heroic couplets, as if the final two lines of the stanza pattern have jammed in the machinery of the poem, and can only repeat, can only repeat, as the lover's obstinate constancy can't stop repeating his hopeless love. She is not thou, and only thou are she is a beautifully modulated line, whose intimation of a paradoxical 'she is not thou and she is thou' resolves itself, when you look a little closer, into no paradox at all. 'Only thou are she' figures as a simple statement that Sara (let's say) is herself, an ordinary woman uninterested in the poet, unlike the phantasmic Asra Coleridge has projected from his own love and yearning and loneliness. The 'Only thou' captures that separateness whilst also intimating the poet's aloneness as a function of that separateness. Otherwise that rhyme-pattern circles through the first twelve lines and then is jarred by this realisation that Asra is not Sara and only Sara is Sara into a string of repeating couplets couplets couplets; which in turn match the way verbal repetition becomes the dominant feature of the second half of the first verse paragraph: 'Still, still'; 'some dear ... some Love'; the look 'answering' the look; 'a home, a home', all dismissed as 'Vain repetition!' The reduplicated pairs become unequal pairs: evening's thrush and dawn's lark; the house and the boat; companionship and isolation.

Another formal aspect of this poem is the way so many of its lines are built out of strings of monosyllabic words, or else are made out of one di- or (more rarely) trisyllabic word set in a line otherwise wholly monosyllabic: 'O yearning Thought! that liv'st but in the brain'; 'Call to the Hours, that in the distance play'; 'Fond Thought! not one of all that shining swarm'; 'Will breathe on thee with life enkindling breath'; 'Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!' immediately followed by the three lines:
Yet still thou haunt'st me; and though well I see,
She is not thou, and only thou are she,
Still, still as though some dear embodied Good,
and two steps later the four lines
I mourn to thee and say—'Ah! loveliest friend!
That this the meed of all my toils might be,
To have a home, an English home, and thee!'
Vain repetition! Home and Thou are one.
The effect of building the centre of the poem out of so many lines like these is, I think, to slow the poem down, to break up what might otherwise be a prosodic fluency and motion (something Coleridge is very well capable of creating, as many other poems show) into something more hesitant, slow-stepping, solitary. All those solitary one-syllable-words, like the solitary unloved poet himself! It works with the grain of the poem's symbolism, too. The idyllic cottage that switches in an eyeblink to a decaying boat far out at sea. Hope and Despair meeting in the porch of Death's house—are they going indoors, Hope and Despair? Or are they stepping out? From life to death is but a step.

'Constancy to an Ideal Object' builds to its splendid, beautiful final image, preparing the ground with references to a variety of spectral or magical creatures: the personified Horae 'that in the distance play', an as-yet-unborn future 'faery people' and 'Fond Thought', even though all are invoked to be dismissed ('not one of all that shining swarm/Will breathe on thee with life-enkindling breath'). This is by way of stressing the immateriality of the Ideal Object, of course; but also the impossibility of future-consummation. These unborn people are the fairy spectres (we might say) of the children Coleridge and Asra will never have. 'Shining swarms' may glance back at Psalm 148, which is the one that begins 'Praise ye the LORD. Praise ye the LORD from the heavens: praise him in the heights' and that concludes, significantly for this poem, 'Let them praise the name of the LORD: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven.' Glory, see. For 'shining swarms' we turn to Isaac Watts, his The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament:
Ye creeping ants and worms,
His various wisdom show,
And flies in all your shining swarms,
Praise him that drest you so. [Psalm 148]
Flies is a little odd, here, I'd say (the KJV version makes reference only to ' Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl'), not least because it, together with the lucifer-shine of the flyswarm, hints obliquely at the Lord of the Flies himself, Beelzebub. That, in other words, the shining one may not be what you think it is. But of course not! The Psalm is straightforwardly a hymn of praise to God, not to the devil. It would take perversity to flip it about and see the Devil in it. Wouldn't it?

Perversity is not the best word, here, though. What animates Coleridge's poem is its sense of how short a step it is between the idyllic cottage and the rotting bark, between Hope and Despair, between love and nothingness. How easily A flips about into null-A. So I suppose it is only fitting that the image in the final eight lines has been subject to so many diametrically opposed interpretations. Morton Paley summarises in his Coleridge's Later Poetry book (Clarendon 1996):
[The final eight lines] can be viewed very pessimistically, with the image of the glory regarded as 'the self-generated illusion of the rustic' [James T Boulger]. Or contrastingly the rustic's activity may be regarded positively: 'He pursues and by his own act of pursuit gives life to his ideal' [Stephen Prickett]. The pursuit may be seen as a correlative of the poetic enterprise: 'Through the "life-enkindling" power of the poet's imagination, his abstractions are reclaimed from pure thought and returned to the life that fostered them' [Edward Kessler]. Closer to my own view is that of Tilottama Rajan, for whom this poem recognizes both love's apparition and its evanishment, and achieves that difficult peace that eluded Coleridge in his poem of that name'; at the same time Rajan underscores 'the ironic element which continues to complicate the constitutive power of imagination even at the end.' [Paley, 103-04]
There's something in that; I mean, in Rajan's reading, but more importantly in the fact that the poem generates so many conflicting readings. It's the whole point. The poem exists not as a thing, out there in the world, but as a glory refracted off our own reading as the strong sunlight of Coleridge's imagination shines upon us.



[Coda: I have a theory that the title under which Coleridge published this poem (in 1828) was added shortly before it went to press, many years after the poem itself was written—that Coleridge was put in mind of it by something the critic Martin M'Dermot wrote in 1822 about the priority of 'sensible objects' over merely 'ideal objects'. Coleridge was almost certainly aware of M'Dermot: he was part of the Literary world of London in the 18-teens and 1820s; he published A Critical Dissertation on the Nature and Principles of Taste in 1822, and in the same year issued a series of 'Essays on the Genius of the British Poets' in the The European Magazine, and London Review. The third essay, on Milton's Paradise Lost, may well have caught Coleridge's eye; and if he read it he must surely have disagreed profoundly with what M'Dermot says:
The idea which a lover forms of his mistress, in her absence, is an idea of imagination; but this idea never conveys such rapturous emotions as he feels when she is present. The thoughts of her, it is true, make him happy, but how greatly is this happiness encreased the moment she appears in his presence. The presence of sensible objects affects us, therefore, more strongly than the images which imagination forms of them in their absence. ... A present object affects us so strongly, that we will not suffer ourselves to withdraw our attention from it; but an ideal object affects us so slightly, that we pass from it without difficulty, to contemplate another, and another. [The European Magazine, and London Review 81 (1822), 299]
We might take Coleridge's stress on his constancy to his ideal object to be a rebuttal to M'Dermot's airy an ideal object affects us so slightly, that we pass from it without difficulty. Coleridge's experience, mostly bitter, would have convinced him of the falsity of that position. Perhaps reading this essay in 1825 put him in mind of the poem he had earlier written, and he returned to it under a new MDermot-baiting title. I can't prove this theory, though.]

Friday, 8 January 2016

Magna Dabit (1812)



J.C.C. Mays prints the following, under the title 'Latin Distich on Giving and Receiving', as an original poem by Coleridge:
Magna dabit qui magna potest: Mihi parva potenti,
Parvaque poscenti, parva dedisse sat est.

[Mays (ed) Poetical Works (2001) 2:898]
It's not, though. These lines are from a late 15th-century edition of Saint Ambrose's Praeit Epistola Nuncupatoria, and are the publisher's or editor's dedication to a man called Faustus Petro Coardo Mecoenatus.


The last four lines, there, mean: 'to Fautus, a distich to be read on the offering of this little book: "he who has much may give handsomely; but for me, who has little, and who asks little, it is enough to have given little."'

I think it's unlikely that this is where Coleridge found the couplet (he wrote it in his Notebook (CB 3:4122), and later put it in letters and wrote it in books). I think it's more likely he found it in Cotton Mather, who quotes the lines in his Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702):



We know that Coleridge read Mather's Magnalia in detail (Marginalia 3:816-26); although most of that has to do with Mather's account of witchcraft trials. I'd say, though, that he read it for more than just that. This also dates the 'poem': because Coleridge, not having a copy of his own, read (and annotated) Southey's copy of the Magnalia when he was staying with his old friend in 1812. I can also note that it gives me geniune, academic-nerdy pleasure, to be able to write 'Magnalia Marginalia'.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Coleridge, 'Lines on Zephyrs' (1814)



Not those kinds of Zephyrs.

So: this six-line poem was written in one of Coleridge's notebooks, probably in May 1814:
Zephyrs that captive roam among these Boughs,
Strive ye in vain to thread the leafy maze?
Or have ye lim'd your wings with honey-dew?
Unfelt, ye murmur restless o'er my head,
And rock the feeding Drone, or bustling Bees
That blend their eager, earnest, happy Hum!
It wasn't published in any of the collections of poetry Coleridge issued during his lifetime; although it was included in Ernest Hartley Coleridge's Anima Poetae: From the Unpublished Note-Books of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1895). EHC glosses the poem, 'a bliss to be alive', but Kathleen Coburn disagrees: 'wide of the mark. One catches rather here the "I see, not feel, how beautiful they are" mood of Dejection.' [Coburn (ed), Notebooks, 4200]. Me, I think Coburn is wide of the mark, actually: this seems to me a lazy, loafing little thing. Nor would I deny that it is pretty marginal where the larger Coleridgean corpus is concerned (J C C Mays includes it in his edition of the Poetical Works (16:1.2, 911), but William Keach doesn't in his Samuel Taylor Coleridge: the Complete Poems).

Anyhow, I wonder (a little tentative, this) whether Coleridge wasn't loosely translating the poem 'In prato arboribus consito, viis, sedibusque diversis' ('The trees in the grassy garden, the paths, the many seats'), by Johannes Valentinus Andreae (1586-1654), one of the founding figures in the Rosicrucian movement. It may have been that Rosicrucianism and the Della-Crucian poets were on his mind at this time (Mays numbers this poem as 507; his 505 is a little Della-Crucian piss-taking squib called 'Maevius-Baevius Exemplum'). At any rate, there's this from Johannes Valentinus's poem:
Hic est grata quies, Zephyrus, flos, unda susurransa
Hic licet ambrosia commoditate frui.
Hincce redi; labyrinthus adest, nisi nubila tranans.
Daedalus, aut pennis Icarus esse velis.
Which means:
Here it is freely placid, Zephyr: flowers, the murmur of the stream,
Here honey dew is conveniently available for enjoyment.
And here you return to navigate the labyrinth, though the clouds float past.
Daedalus, wishing for the wings of Icarus.
There are no bees; although elsewhere in Andreae we find 'mella tegunt apes', covered in honeybees [3: nicked from Claudian, that phrase] and 'Hyblaeasque dabit lucus odorus apes', Hybla will donate an odorous grove to the bees [494]. Close enough, do we think?

Hmm. Maybe not.

It's a little odd that Coleridge's poem begins by addressing the Zephyr and ends by talking about bees. Maybe the bees come by a process of a kind of onomatopoeic back-formation. Lines on zephyrs has three lovely bee-like zzs in it ('lynz on zephyrz') and zephyrs that captive roam among these boughs has four ('zephyrz ... theez boughz'). The last typographic (whoreson) zed in the poem is the one in 'maze', and the last aural zeds are 'wingz' and 'Beez'; the later lines are mostly more wind-whiffling 's's. But maybe that's more than enough zz-ing to put STC in mind of buzzybees.

Friday, 1 January 2016

'Vulgarisms on Gin-Punch, by a Practical Philosopher' (1826)



This anonymous piece of bibulous light verse appeared in the Monthly Magazine for May 1826.




It's not going to win any prizes, poetry-wise. But stanza 7 is mildly interesting:
There's Coleridge, too, as nice a bard as ever stepped in leather,
Both he and poet Wordsworth love a social glass together,
And when they've drained a bowl or two, instead of Muses nine, oh,
They see eighteen; for my part, I would sooner see the rhino.
Rhino? Not the animal, of course; but slang for money (a usage, the OED tells me, goes back to the seventeenth-century: 1688 Shadwell, Sqr. Alsatia I:- 'Thou shalt be rhinocerical, my Lad.'; 1699 Dunton's conversation in Ireland, Life & Errors:- 'It was pretty to see the Squire choused out of so fair an estate with so little ready rhino.'). And who wouldn't rather have eighteen pounds than nine measly muses? Although I suppose this is a mild dig at Coleridge's financial precariousness, and his habit of turning to non-poetical enterprise such as journalism and lecturing to obtain it; and also I suppose to Wordsworth's Distributorship of Stamps for Westmorland. Maybe.