Wednesday, 29 June 2016

'The Taste of the Times' (1807): not by Coleridge


J C C Mays prints this eight line political squib as Coleridge's (it's #384 in the Poetical Works, 2:794). In his headnote he says 'the only known text of the poem is a transcript by JTC [John Taylor Coleridge] in his Commonplace Book, subscribed "S.T.C." It is likely that the poem was copied from a contemporary newspaper which has not been traced.' Mays adds: 'there is no reason to doubt C.'s authorship, unless JTC merely guessed at it.' There is one reason to doubt C.'s authorship, though: and that's that the poem was actually written by James Sayers. It appears in his All the Talents' Garland: Or, A Few Rockets Let Off at a Celebrated Ministry (1807), a collection of political satires lampooning Grenville's shortlived 'Ministry of All the Talents'.



The poem appears on p.49; that's Sayers' version, at the top of this post. It's odd that Mays doesn't clock this, since he discusses at length whether two further satirical epigrams, 'Two Epigrams on Pitt and Fox' (#389) are by Coleridge, noting that the second of them
Britannia's boast, her glory and her pride,
Pitt in his Country's Service liv'd and died.
At length resolv'd, what Pitt had done, to do;
For once to serve his Country, Fox died too.
'was published in James Sayers's satirical anthology All the Talents' Garland' and 'appears in JTC's Commonplace Book' [Poetical Works 2:800]. Presumably he happened not to notice that 'The Taste of the Times' is in All the Talents' Garland too.

The preface to All the Talents' Garland makes it clear that the poems in the volume are all original, and written by 'Polypus' (the preface also makes it plain that this is James Sayers), excepting only those few that 'are taken from that excellent newspaper, the Morning Post' and 'now and then' from 'the able columns of the Evening Courier':


'He', there, is Sayers. As Mays notes, Coleridge 'was connected at this time not with the Morning Post but with The Courier' [Poetical Works, 2:801]; and although the 'Britannia's boast' quatrain had previously appeared in the Post (31 March 1807), the 'Taste of the Times' was not previously published in either the Post or the Courier.

So why did Coleridge's nephew copy the poem into his Commonplace book ascribed to 'S.T.C.'? It's hard to say. It could, simply, be a mistake. John Coleridge first met his uncle in 1811, when he himself had just turned twenty-one, and came to London for a visit (he was to graduate from Corpus Christi, Oxford, the following year). It could be that STC told young John that some of the poems in Sayers's anthology were by him, and conceivably even pointed a few out, which JTC then copied into his Commonplace book; but if so, it's also possible that STC misremembered, or JTC misunderstood.

This in turn raises the intriguing possibility that there are, in amongst the 110-pages of Sayers's volume, other STC-composed verses. One day, when I've the time, I'll go through and check each against prior publication in the Post or Courier, and possibly add hitherto unnoticed original compositions to the Coleridge corpus.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

'Lewti, or the Circassian Love-Chant' (1798)


The image, there, is an 1850 print by George Baxter, based on an original painting by Wingael: 'Circassian Lady at the Bath'.

Nobody knows why Coleridge called this poem 'Lewti'. We do know that it started life as an unfinished poem by William Wordsworth called 'Beauty and Midnight: an Ode', and that Coleridge took it, revised and expanded it, and then published it in the Morning Post, April 1798. 'Lewti', the name, is entirely Coleridge's invention, and doesn't seem to have any antecedents. He later (in the words of J C C Mays) 'came to associate the poem with Sara Hutchinson and to think of it as his own', reprinting it in Sybilline Leaves (1817). Mays, incidentally, thinks 'Lewti' is Coleridge's Scots-ballad-esque version of the word loyalty 'which happens to rhyme with beauty' [Mays (ed) Poems 1:457]. I don't think that's right; but I'll come on to what I think 'Lewti' means in a bit. First, the poem:
At midnight by the stream I roved,
To forget the form I loved.
Image of Lewti! from my mind
Depart; for Lewti is not kind.

The Moon was high, the moonlight gleam  [5]
And the shadow of a star
Heaved upon Tamaha's stream;
But the rock shone brighter far,
The rock half sheltered from my view
By pendent boughs of tressy yew.—      [10]
So shines my Lewti's forehead fair,
Gleaming through her sable hair,
Image of Lewti! from my mind
Depart; for Lewti is not kind.

I saw a cloud of palest hue,                  [15]
Onward to the Moon it passed;
Still brighter and more bright it grew,
With floating colours not a few,
Till it reach'd the Moon at last:
Then the cloud was wholly bright,        [20]
With a rich and amber light!
And so with many a hope I seek
And with such joy I find my Lewti;
And even so my pale wan cheek
Drinks in as deep a flush of beauty!      [25]
Nay, treacherous image! leave my mind,
If Lewti never will be kind.

The little cloud—it floats away,
Away it goes; away so soon?
Alas! it has no power to stay:               [30]
Its hues are dim, its hues are grey—
Away it passes from the Moon!
How mournfully it seems to fly,
Ever fading more and more,
To joyless regions of the sky—               [35]

As white as my poor cheek will be,
When, Lewti! on my couch I lie,
A dying man for love of thee.
Nay, treacherous image! leave my mind— [40]
And yet, thou didst not look unkind.

I saw a vapour in the sky,
Thin, and white, and very high;
I ne'er beheld so thin a cloud:
Perhaps the breezes that can fly            [45]
Now below and now above,
Have snatched aloft the lawny shroud
Of Lady fair—that died for love.
For maids, as well as youths, have perish'd
From fruitless love too fondly cherish'd. [50]
Nay, treacherous image! leave my mind—
For Lewti never will be kind.

Hush! my heedless feet from under
Slip the crumbling banks for ever:
Like echoes to a distant thunder,          [55]
They plunge into the gentle river.
The river-swans have heard my tread,
And startle from their reedy bed.
O beauteous Birds! methinks ye measure
Your movements to some heavenly tune! [60]
O beauteous Birds! 'tis such a pleasure
To see you move beneath the Moon,
I would it were your true delight
To sleep by day and wake all night.
I know the place where Lewti lies        [65]
When silent night has closed her eyes—
It is a breezy jasmine-bower,
The Nightingale sings o'er her head:
VOICE of the Night! had I the power
That leafy labyrinth to thread,              [70]
And creep, like thee, with soundless tread,
I then might view her bosom white
Heaving lovely to my sight,
As these two swans together heave
On the gently-swelling wave.               [75]

Oh! that she saw me in a dream,
And dreamt that I had died for care!
All pale and wasted I would seem
Yet fair withal, as spirits are!
I'd die indeed, if I might see                 [80]
Her bosom heave, and heave for me!
Soothe, gentle image! soothe my mind!
To-morrow Lewti may be kind.
So: a love poem, or rather a poem of hopeless love. Circassia is a region south of Russia on the eastern littoral of the Black Sea; and its people (who call themselves the Adyghe) were renowned throughout the Classical and later Arab World for the beauty of their women. Said beauty was reputed to reside in particular in (a) the fairness of their skin, (b) the blackness of their hair and (c) the shapeliness of their figures. (When Lawrence of Arabia passed as an Arab, he explained his own fair skin to the Turks he met in terms of a supposed Circassian heritage). The contrast between pale white skin and very black hair was a particular feature of the Circassian 'look', and one nineteenth-century ladies were keen to copy:


So the salient, in this 'Circassian' love poem, is paleness of skin, of the sort Coleridge's epoch especially valorised as beautiful in a woman. And that's certainly what the poem zeroes-in on: the repeated references to the pallor of the moonlight gleam and 'the shadow of a star' [6]; Lewti's white forehead contrasted with her 'sable hair' [11-12]; the 'cloud of palest hue' [15]; the narrator's 'pale wan cheek' [24]; and 'white, poor cheek' [37]; the 'vapour in the sky,/Thin, and white' [42-3] the (white, of course) Jasmin flowers [67] and finally the white river-swans that 'move beneath the Moon', to which Lewti's breasts are, rather lubriciously, compared:
I then might view her bosom white
Heaving lovely to my sight,
As these two swans together heave
... All pale and wasted I would seem
Yet fair withal, as spirits are!
I'd die indeed, if I might see
Her bosom heave, and heave for me! [72-81]
All of which brings me to my theory as to what Coleridge is getting at with his invented name 'Lewti'. I think this is an anglicised version of the Greek, λευ τι, an abbreviated form of λευκός τι, 'how white', 'so very white!' If I had to press the case, I'd suggest that Coleridge preferred the spelling 'Lewti' to 'Leuti' in order, in part, to disguise the fact that one reason the name is introduced into the poem is precisely as a rhyme word for 'beauty'. All in all, a very white sort of poem.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Luther's Guitar: 'The Eolian Harp' (1796)



:1:
Later augmented and reissued under the title by which it is best known, Coleridge published the first version of this in Poems on Various Subjects (1796), as 'Effusion XXXV Composed August 20th 1795, at Clevedon, Somersetshire'. That date pegs the writing to just before Coleridge's marriage to Sara Fricker (on October 4th that year), which in turn positions it as a courtship rather than a honeymoon poem. This in turn connects with the sense I've always had that there's something just off about it, as a love poem. Coleridge himself didn't think so. He often spoke of it as his most accomplished piece, the poem with which he was most pleased (when he wrote to John Thelwall in December 1796 he called it ‘my favourite of my poems’ [Collected Letters, 1:295]). Still: for a poem that is built around the conceit of linking the embrace of two young lovers to a breeze shaking music out of an eolian harp, it is as stiffly chaste and unerotic as anything Coleridge wrote. We probably don't want to be too dirty-minded in the way we read this symbol; although, we do have to concede that it is a poem about a beguiling aperture into which Coleridge is keen to insert his probing imagination and which he specifically links with his wife-to-be. Not that the poem suggests Coleridge is going to get lucky with his Sara any time soon. That's evident, really, from the get-go, and the coy artificiality of the opening lines:
My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our cot, our cot o'ergrown
With white-flower'd Jasmin, and the broad-leav'd Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite!  [1-9]
This is all sibilant 's's and clotting 'c's. If the former are there to onomatopoeize the soft breeze, then I have to say I think they evoke less a pleasant shushing and more a goosey hissing, which in turn connects with the scolding tone with which Sara's voice ends the poem. And the introduction of the harp itself leads Coleridge into a territory which (to do him justice) he very rarely entered as a writer: outright tweeness.
          And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing! [17-25]
I think the ghastly 'cootchie-coo' quality of this would clang less catastrophically if it weren't set-up with pretentious latinisms like 'sequacious'. Still, I don't mean to sneer; baby names and fairy gooey-ness of course are part of courtship for many, and it would be ill-mannered to mock all that (even that tough-guy Paul Weller really likes it when his lover speaks like a child). Nonetheless, something happens to the poem—it lifts off the ground and really flies—when it leaves this courtship specificity behind for the 'one life' passage. You can feel it first of all in the prosody: the slightly squeeze-box regularity of the iambs up to this point get a kinetic flourish of deftly clustering unstressed syllables:
O the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument. [26-33]
It's not a coincidence that this passage isn't in the 'Effusion XXXV' first version of this poem; Coleridge added it much later for the 1817 'Eolian Harp' version, and I think you can tell. It stands out from the rest of the poem in terms of depth of expression and command of versification. In the original, though, we go straight to:
And thus, my love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-closed eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject lute! [34-43]
We get ahead of ourselves, I suppose, if we argue this introduces a physical correlative to the emotional and erotic estrangement growing between the lovers. Although we do all know how Samuel and Sara's marriage turned out. They were not well-matched, and did not make one another happy, and much of that presumably had to do with their sexual incompatibility. The impression Coleridge gives in his notebooks where his wife is concerned is one of sexual frigidity (of course, we're only getting his side of the picture): in one Notebook entry he laments that when the two of them get naked together 'all [is] as cold & calm as a deep Frost' adding that she 'is uncommonly cold in her feelings of animal Love' [Notebooks 1:979]. As 'The Eolian Harp' is being written this is all yet to transpire, of course; but the poem more or less knows it anyway. Poetry and prophesy are connected terms in Coleridge's aesthetic, after all. From resting her head on his arm, Sara is now on the other side of the valley from Coleridge, and he's lying on the hillside entertaining 'flitting phantasies'. Like what? Well (the poem says) like this:
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all? [44-48]
We might think this inoffensive-enough as speculation goes. But something about it really annoys Sara Fricker, in one of those sudden manifestations of anger that (Freud might say) are indices of some latent passion unconnected with the ostensible, manifest provocation.
But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O belovéd woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallowed dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God.
Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!
Well hast thou said and holily dispraised
These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.
For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible ! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healéd me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wildered and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this cot, and thee, heart-honour'd Maid! [49-64]
The swerve at the very end, in a short line-and-a-half, from misery to the placid happiness of the poem's opening, has never convinced me. To recap: the speaker of this poem has gone in forty-five lines from intimacy and happiness with the woman he is about to marry, via an interlude lying by himself on a hillside, to a character tormented by a self-doubt so intense ('unregenerate', 'never guiltless', 'a sinful and most miserable man/Wildered and dark') as to amount to self-loathing. This latter state has been provoked, the logic of the poem seems to say, by a specific rebuke from his beloved. This strikes me as located upon the very antipodes of the sort of psychologically and spiritually healthy and reciprocal partnership of equals that provides the bedrock for a long and happy marriage. The progression goes something like this:
HE: I'm so happy that we're getting married, darling!
SHE: So you should be! Lucky to have me, big slobbery daydreamer that you are. And you harbour all manner of pantheist degenerate ideas where God is concerned, too! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
HE: Oh! You're surely right, my darling, I'm ... I'm [bursting into tears] I'm a miserable slob and doubtless a heretic too and you deserve so much better, so very much better, which [looking up hopefully] only makes me all the more grateful that you've agreed to marry me.
One word that all that: no. If there's anything less psychologically healthy than a relationship that starts (starts, mind you!) with one party so cross and controlling, it's one in which the other party makes a public show of obeisance to their partner's anger whilst actually, passive-aggressively, flouting them. Because to take seriously Sara's 'well-said' reproof and holy dispraise of these shapings of the unregenerate mind would be to stuff said shapings in a drawer somewhere: not to publish them for the world to see. The gap between Sara's sense—specifically recorded in the poem!—that all this stuff is reprehensible, ungodly bubbles from vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring that ought to be suppressed, and Coleridge's sense (recorded in his letters and marginalia) that 'this I think is [is] the most perfect Poem I ever wrote', is a wide one.

To return to the point I made at the beginning of this post, one way of framing that gap would be to see the poem as articulating clash between erotic and religious devotion. The poem starts, fairly unambiguously, by stating the former; it ends up prioritizing the latter. To those religious believers who insist that there is no necessary contradiction between sexual love for one's spouse and spiritual love of God I would say: I believe you! This poem, however, doesn't.

Maybe my characterising of the Eolian harp as a kind of aperture, into which Coleridge yearns to insert his shaping plastic imagination, but which his wife-to-be firmly closes off, strikes you as too crudely Freudian-symbolic. And maybe it is. By way of respecting such reservations I shall hold off from pointing to the various scatological references with which the poem is supplied, from the masculine ejaculatory 'bubbles' of Coleridge's 'effusion' (the Latin here is scatō or scateō, 'to bubble up', 'to gush out or spring forth', and one of Latin's many words for male orgasm), to the various indications of female organs of generation in the poem, including the thrice-invoked 'cot' (a variant of 'cut' or 'cunt'), the several references to 'Venus' (in lines 4 and 7 for instance) which word is itself a euphemism for this part of the body—cf 'venereal'—to the fact that the Ancient Greek for vagina is itself a 'sara' word: σάραβος. Instead of adverting to any of that, I will only note that, in Greek mythology, Aeolus is famous for being fantastically randy and having sired more children than all the other gods put together (in the Aeneid, Juno wins him over and gets him to release his winds and batter Aeneas' fleet by offering him one of her nymphs, Deiopea, described in the poem as praestanti corpore, which is to say, having a really sexy body). These legends associated with Aeolus connect with the old Greek ideas about promiscuity of the wind as such: they used to believe for instance that if mares stood with their hind-quarters to the prevailing wind they would become pregnant. But it has a consequence for the way we read Coleridge's poem, I think.

So far from being a tender love poem, 'The Eolian Harp' strikes me as a poem of buried erotic frustration and anguish. But I'm going to argue that what it's buried under, as it were, is the real focus of this poem.


:2:
First, a statement of the obvious: Eolian harps make music. Coleridge's poem is therefore a poem about music. Eolian harps still exist, of course, although nowadays the equivalent referent might be 'wind chimes'. I know from teaching the poem that students often have something wind-chimey in mind as they try and visualize what Coleridge is talking about here. But where wind chimes strike a pleasant, tinkly or harmoniously resonant sound, Eolian Harps make a softer, eerier sort of humming noise. Thomas Warton's 1785 edition of John Milton's Poems contains a variety of different kinds of annotation, including this one on line 62 of 'Il Penseroso', 'most musical, most melancholy':



Pausing only to note what an odd thing that is to put into the notes of an edition of Milton's Poems, I offer it as evidence that the kind of music Coleridge is talking about in this poem marks a mood of sadness. (Indeed, since Coleridge owned Warton's edition of Milton, and since the poem he wrote immediately before 'Eolian Harp', Sept 1795's 'To A Nightingale' actually quotes Milton's 'most musical, most melancholy' line, it's possible that seeing this very footnote put the idea in Coleridge's head to write about the instrument). As far as the actual harp is concerned, there are a couple of designs, but the most common eighteenth-century one looks like this:


The lid goes on top, to create a sort of horizontal chimney that encourages the wind to move more rapidly and so agitate the strings. The best places for these devices are by windows opened just wide enough to enhance that same effect.


But if it is sad music that God plays upon our Eolian-Harp-esque souls as conciousness, spirit, love and art, then what does that say about us? Or about God? Less Pslam 98 (you know it: Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: break forth and sing for joy), more sunt lachrimae rerum.

The classical allusion is not a mere throwaway. If we trace the line of influence behind this poem back far enough, I think we end up with Vergil's fifth Eclogue, where Menalcus promises the in-no-way-a-Beatrix-Potter-character Mopsus beautiful music, to be played by Damoetas and Lyctian Aegon before four altars, two of which are dedicated to Daphne and two to Phoebus ('ecce duas tibi, Daphni, duas altaria Phoebo' Eclogue 5:65). Mopsus is excited at the prospect, because such a song will far surpass the ugly music Nature produces on its own:
MOPSUS. Quae tibi, quae tali reddam pro carmine dona?
nam neque me tantum venientis sibilus Austri
nec percussa iuvant fluctu tam litora nec quae
saxosas inter decurrunt flumina valles. [Eclogue 5:81-4]

['What could I ever give to you in return for such a gift? There is nothing like such beauty to be found in the rustling of the south wind, or the drumming of the surge upon the beach, or streams clattering down over rocky glens.']
Nature's music, Vergil says, is mere cacophony; it takes a human musician to bring beauty to the sound. Coleridge's 'Eolian Harp' inverts that almost to the point where Coleridge is writing a sort of anti-Eclogue 5. In the 1796 poem the human contribution, Coleridge's own, is vapid, bubbling, blasphemous and crass. It is Nature itself that provides the beauty. Not to go too far down this rabbit hole, but I'll add one more thing: in reply to Mopsus, Menalcas compliments him on his long fluffy ears gives him a pipe on which to blow and so make this beautiful music. The word Vergil uses here is cicuta ('Hac te nos fragili donabimus ante cicuta'; 'here, first let me give you this fragile pipe'). Now cicuta certainly does have the secondary meaning of 'a musical pipe or flute', but the word's primary meaning is: hemlock; which is to say, poison; which is to say the means by which the state executed people (the musical meaning comes about because flutes were often made from the stalks or stems of the hemlock, which seems like a rather dangerous practice to me, but what do I know). There are other Latin words for pipe, and other reeds from which flutes and recorders and so on can be made; but Vergil goes with the poisonous one. What this means, I think, is that Eclogue 5 ends on one of those moments of uniquely Vergilian mellow irony: the music of the natural world is harsh but vital: all those clashing streams, all that drum-beating surf. The music of man, played in sacred spaces, is more harmonious, but also, by implication, deathly. That's not such a paradox, when you think about it.


:3:
Which brings me to the specific religious context out of which Coleridge wrote this poem. I'm particularly interested in the religious context, here, because so much of the criticism of the poem looks exclusively at the biographical context of Coleridge's wooing of Sara. But the poem is patently as much about Coleridge's faith as about his love for his fiancé. If we trust the compositional date (and there's no reason not to), then Coleridge wrote the poem in the immediate aftermath of his series of 'Six Lectures on Revealed Religion' delivered in the Assembly Coffeehouse, Bristol Quay, May-June 1795 (collected in this volume). One major life-event interposed between the delivery of those lectures and the composition of 'The Eolian Harp', and that was the quarrel between Coleridge and Southey that attended the final abandonment of the Pantisocratic scheme. That's quite a breach, I know.

It's conventional to describe the 1790s as the decade when Coleridge moved away from the Anglicanism into which he had been born towards a more radical Unitarianism, even a Pantheism. The truth is both more complex (in the sense that Coleridge's theological struggles mill very fine indeed, intellectually and emotionally) and rather simpler than that—simpler, because Coleridge never really gave up being an Anglican. It's true he was friendly with, and strongly influenced by, some of the country's most prominent Unitarians during this period. Nonetheless, to read the 'Revealed Religion' lectures is to be struck by how wholly that influence fed into Coleridge's politics, and how little into his (for want of a better word) metaphysics. He certainly wasn't a 'Trinitarian', and the lectures include several sharp criticisms of prominent trinitarian theologians, like John Hey. But although it doesn't exactly misrepresent STC to call him a Unitarian at this time, it also oversimplifies his position. In a letter of 1800, written to his friend the Rev. John Prior Estlin, Coleridge says that his 'confessio fidei ... as far as regards the Doctrine of the Trinity' was one of 'negative Unitarianism, a non liquet concerning the nature & being of Christ'. There was never a time in the whole of Coleridge's evolving religious life when he considered Christ to be nothing more than a particularly moral and excellent man and teacher, as Unitarians tend to. Coleridge never let go of his sense that, in some mysterious way, Christ was indeed God.

My point here is not to dilate upon Coleridge's religious beliefs in the round, but to dig down into the intersection between religion and music. So: there are lots of different kinds of musical instrument in the Bible, but for 'harps' (our present concern) we need to distinguish between two, the ψαλτήριον ‎(psaltḗrion, “stringed instrument, psaltery, harp”) and the κιθάρα ‎(kithára, which means 'harp, lyre, lute, guitar'). It seems that the main difference between them is that the former was plucked or struck, and made therefore a more percussive, staccato noise, where the latter was bowed, stroked or perhaps even made of pipes and blown, and therefore made a softer sort of music. Here's what McClintock and Strong's nineteenth-century Biblical Cyclopedia has to say:
Harp is the rendering in the Authorised Version of the following terms in the original: usually כַּנּוֹר, kinnor' (whence the Greek κινύρα), the lyre or cythara (invariably rendered "harp"), N. Test. κιθάρα (1 Co 14:7; Re 5:8; Re 14:2; Re 15:2), whence the verb κιθαρίζω (1 Co 14:7; Re 14:2), and the compound noun κιθαεῳδός ("harper," Re 14:2; Re 18:22) ... The "harp" was David's favorite instrument, on which he was a proficient. Gesenius (Thes. Heb. p. 215) considers cithara as the same with harp; but Luther translates κιθάραις by mit Pfeifen, "with pipes."
The key thing, in other words, is not the strings, but the quality of sound produced. Indeed, Luther's mit Pfeifen is a pretty handy description not only of pipe-organs but of human beings too. And so we return to Coleridge's 'organic Harps diversly fram'd'.

Coleridge's deeper engagement with Luther would not really happen until he went to Germany two years later; but it may be relevant to consider this poem, Coleridge's Cithara Aeolus, in the context of the following widely-reprinted edition of Lutheran hymns: 1571's Cithara Lutheri:

'Cithara' is etymologically close-behind our modern word 'guitar'; and that means this collection of the Psalms of David really is called Luther's Guitar. Which I think is rather wonderful.

I'm suggesting, then, that Coleridge's Cithara Aeolus has a pedigree that goes back through the Cithara Lutheri to the Cithara David, and that this context casts light on the rather conflicted articulation of the musical theology of the poem. The danger, from this point on, is in flattening and over-simplifying a tremendously complex issue (oh but look how long his post has already grown!). Still, to speak broadly, the question of what musical instruments are appropriate when it comes to the worship of God has been one of the ways believers have marked themselves out as different to those who have come before. Early Christians repudiated musical instruments as too pagan (Saint Augustine, a lover of music in other contexts, insisted that 'the pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus')—or else as too Jewish: Aquinas declared that worship should avoid the use of 'harps and psalteries' when praising God, 'lest our Church should seem to Judaize.' Later, Protestants tended to use music as a stick to beat Catholicism: organs, harps, lyres, pipes and so on became seen as Popish and sensual and to be repudiated. For many nonconformists, then as now, plainsong alone was appropriate when it came to worship; and, then as now, one index of how 'High' any given Anglican communion may be judged is the type of musical accompaniment it permits (interestingly, the 20th-century evangelical movement, in some senses an offshoot of this nonconformist tradition, has generally embraced all sorts of musical instruments, organs and electrical guitars and drum-kits and so on; but that's a different story).

Johnathan Willis' Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities (Routledge 2010) gives a good sense of how complex the discourse of music was in the cultures of Reformation and post-Reformation Europe. The problem was that music was both a sanctioned mode of worship and mode of apprehending the divine, and a recognised vector of sensuality and wickedness in the world. Willis quotes Philip Stubbes' 1583 diatribe The Anatomie of Abuses, which describes music as both ‘very il’ and ‘very laudable’, ‘a cup of poyson’ and ‘a good gift of GOD’ which both ‘stireth up filthie lust, womannisheth the minde … enflameth concupisence, and bringeth in uncleannes’ but also ‘reviveth the spirits, comforteth the hart, and maketh it redyer to serve GOD’. As Willis notes, Stubbes' intention to write how music ‘allureth to vanitie’ is undermined by the degree to which 'his rhetoric was confused and contradictory, heaping praise upon his subject matter in equal degree to opprobrium' [Willis, 11]. Music, it seems, is holy, except when it is very very unholy indeed. Luther himself, the man whose name adorned the many thousand copies of that widely used hymnal Luther's Cithara, described the use of musical instrumentation in church services as 'the insignia of Baal ... The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Jews'.

Something of this contradiction informs the rather tangled theological content of Coleridge's poem. I've a hunch, which I can't prove, that one of the specific impulses to his writing of 'The Eolian Harp' was old goldenmouth himself, Chrysostom. This is what he wrote:
‘Here there is no need for the cithara, nor taut strings, nor the plectrum and technique, nor any sort of instrument; but, if you wish, make of yourself a cithara, by mortifying the limbs of the flesh and creating full harmony between body and soul. For when the flesh does not lust against the spirit, but yields to its commands, and perseveres along the path that is noble and admirable, you thus produce a spiritual melody.’ [Chrysostom In psalmum xli 2; PG LV, 158; in James W. McKinnon (ed), Music in Early Christian Literature (CUP 1987), 81]
This brings me back to the question of the melancholy tone of Coleridge's Eolian Harp. Say he has turned himself into a cithara, as Chrysostom commanded. What kind of music is he making? Does he pipe a tune as clean and wide and beautiful as the sunlit sea? Or something moved by filthie lust and uncleannes? It is one of the great puzzles of Coleridge's life that, having agreed to marry Southey's sister-in-law Sara Fricker in order to facilitate the great Pantisocratic adventure, Coleridge still went through with the marriage even after that adventure had fallen apart, and despite the fact that—as he wrote repeatedly to Southey—he knew he didn't love her. He had an intense experience of spiritual and physical attraction to Mary Evans, when meeting her again (though she was by now engaged to Fryer Todd, and married him in October 1795), so he knew what was missing in his relationship with Sara. And after the quarrel with Southey it was clear to him that he wasn't going pantisocratizing any time soon, and therefore had no pressing need for a wife. He still married Sara, though. It may be worth considering whether he did so precisely because he knew there was no sexual spark between them, as a kind of (I would have to say, profoundly misguided) atonement.

So what sort of music did Coleridge consider himself capable of? Well, he was capable of the flatulent kind, as we all are. His comical, or comico-serious, 'Essay on Fasts' (in the second issue of The Watchman, published the same year 'Eolian Harp' came out) takes as its text Isaiah 'Wherefore my Bowles shall sound like a Harp'. Richard Holmes notes that this essay 'caused much offence among his more conservative readers' [Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 111]. But STC tended to regard himself in less amused mode. When he wrote to William Godwin [Jan 22nd 1802], he described himself as follows:
Partly from ill-health, & partly from an unhealthy & reverie-like vividness of Thoughts, & (pardon the pedantry of the phrase) a diminished Impressibility from Things, my ideas, wishes, & feelings are to a diseased degree disconnected from motion & action. In plain & natural English, I am a dreaming & therefore an indolent man——. I am a Starling self-incaged, & always in the Moult, & my whole Note is, Tomorrow, & tomorrow, & tomorrow. The same causes, that have robbed me to so great a degree of the self-impelling self-directing Principle, have deprived me too of the due powers of Resistances to Impulses from without. If I might so say, I am, as an acting man, a creature of mere Impact. 'I will' & 'I will not' are phrases, both of them equally, of rare occurrence in my dictionary.—This is the Truth—I regret it, & in the consciousness of this Truth I lose a larger portion of Self-estimation than those, who know me imperfectly, would easily believe—/ I evade the sentence of my own Conscience by no quibbles of self-adulation; I ask for Mercy indeed on the score of my ill-health; but I confess, that this very ill-health is as much an effect as a cause of this want of steadiness & self-command; and it is for mercy that I ask, not for justice.—To apply all this to the present case. [Letters, 1:781-2]
What interests me here is the extent to which that chirping bird, the starling self-incaged, reduced to tweeting Macbeth's heartbreaking soliloquy is invoked in the midst of an account of how far Coleridge's problems proceed from a fatal passivity. But of course, what is the vision of 'all of animated nature' as 'organic Harps' trembling into thought as some divine Jimmy Hendrix sweeps his powerful hand over our strings, except a kind of apotheosis of the ultimate and divinely sanctioned passivity of all life?

There's a lot more to say about music and Coleridge, although I think this post has bloated far enough. But, by way of a coda: I was struck by something Jeremy Denk said in his review of Paul Elie's Reinventing Bach (2012) for the New Republic: 'the only two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex. And yet in our era—so consumed with both—Bach has not lost his appeal.' It is, of course, true that modern popular music is much more expressive of sex, and in some of its iterations of randomness, than Johann Sebastian ever was; but it also speaks to this poem. A warm summer's day, your lover in your arms, a breeze coming through the casement window; it could so easily be sexy. And music made by the passage of that breeze over a harp designed to express it would, to most people, be the very epitome of randomness, however pleasant. But for Coleridge it is very particularly not random, and for reasons connected with that fact the situation in which he finds himself, with his 'pensive Sara' is not erotic (pensive really isn't a very sexy word). The result is a poem more Bach-like than is often the case with Coleridge, even in 'Conversation Poem' mode; and perhaps that's why he himself considered it among his most perfect. But Bach-like perfection is not what we go to Coleridge for. He's really not such a well-tempered clavier, and that's why he is so remarkable and so important a poet.

Friday, 10 June 2016

'And words, mast-high, came floating by ...'



I'll be returning to this blog in a day or two with a piece on 'The Eolian Harp' (1796); but in the meantime, I was struck by this rather lovely little artefact of the Google Books scanning process. It's from an online version of Douglas Kneale's Romantic Aversions: Aftermaths of Classicism in Wordsworth and Coleridge (1999). For myself, I think more academic monographs should be enlivened with random elongations of font-size.