Tuesday, 19 July 2016

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein


This poem—one of Coleridge's more famous—began life as a section of a much longer, rather sprawling set of verses in one of STC's Notebooks [April/May 1811, actually]. The notebook text starts as a prose meditation, soon mutating into verse, on the varieties of wits typical of Coleridge's friends (including some impenetrable pseudonyms: 'Copioso' has a 'mercurial' wit; 'Tungtubig' has a 'hungry' wit and so on).

The prose having morphed into verse, Coleridge moves on to a sprightly, comic section reacting to 'Donne's first Poem' (he means 'The Flea'):
Be proud as Spaniards. Leap for pride ye Fleas!
Henceforth in Nature's Minim World Grandees. ...
Skip-jacks no more, nor civiller Skip-Johns;
Thrice-honored Fleas! I gre[e]t you all as Dons.
In Phoebus' Archives register'd are ye,
And this your Patent of Nobility!

A few more lines of this and it changes into a short poem about moles:
—They shrink in, as Moles
(Nature's mute monks, live mandrakes of the ground)
Creep back from Light—then listen for its sound:—
See but to dread, and dread they know not why—
The natural alien of their negative eye.
From here it's straight into the 28-lines that were printed in Henry Nelson Coleridge's posthumous Poetical Works (1834) as 'Limbo'

Now, there's a consensus among critics of STC that we need to attend to this wider context, to what Morton Paley calls the whole 'Limbo constellation', when we read the poem excerpted and published under the title 'Limbo'. Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano's 'Norton Critical Edition' of Coleridge's Poetry and Prose doesn't even print 'Limbo' as a separate text, and instead gives us only the whole, rather garbled (as you can see above) notebook entry. Ewan James Jones's Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form (Cambridge Univ. Press 2014) spends several dozen pages (pp.107-45) going through the larger 'constellation' in exhausting detail, tracing obvious and less-obvious wordplay from section to section. Paley thinks the poem incomprehensible outwith its 'constellation'.

In this post I'm not going to do that. Instead I'm going to look just at the 28-line 'Limbo' that came out of the posthumous editing of Coleridge's work. I do this in part because that later text, howsoever derived, strikes me as being just a better poem than the whole of the constellation, or the other elements and poems mined out of it. Indeed, this actually-published 'Limbo' strikes me as a poem of remarkable finish and poise (even if some of its formal poise is about the articulation of disarticulation); although to say so is to go against a tradition of critical judgment that goes back all the way to Coleridge himself. In this same notebook entry he annotated 'Limbo' as 'a Specimen of the Sublime dashed to pieces by cutting too close with her fiery Four in Hand round the corner of Nonsense—'. Paley puts great emphasis on the lack of authorial imprimatur, insisting that after drafting 'Limbo' in 1811 Coleridge 'made no effort to publish' until 'September 1828, when he revised part of it into a poem intended for his friend Alaric Watts's annual The Literary Souvenir, describing it to Watts as 'a pretended Fragment of Lee, the Tragic Poet, containing a description of Limbo, & according to my own fancy containing some of the most forcible Lines & with the most original imagery that my niggard Muse ever made me a present of?' (Letter dated 14 September 1828; CL 6: 758)'. Paley goes on:
The pseudo-ascription to Lee, who had been confined for insanity from 1684 to 1689, would have alerted Watts to the phantasmagoric nature of the poem. (Such an ascription may have been something of a convention) ... However, Watts did not receive the manuscript that Coleridge thought he had left at the editor's doorstep. [Paley, 'Coleridge's Limbo Constellation', Studies in Romanticism, 34:2 (1995), 190]
Paley thinks:
What all this demonstrates is that, although Coleridge may well have worked up a poem for Alaric Watts using the material in his Notebook, no such poem is now known to exist, and the only authoritative source for the text under discussion is Coleridge's Notebook draft. Any other rendition, from Henry Nelson Coleridge's on, lacks the authority of the poet. [Paley, 191]
I suppose I am less invested in 'the authority of the poet' than Paley; I prefer the authority of the poem. And the 28-line 'Limbo', whether a confection of Henry Nelson Coleridge or not, seems to me the one that has authority.


The first thing to say about 'Limbo' is that its 28 lines divide into a central 12-lines section flanked by two paired 8-line sections, the first a kind of introduction, the second a sort of summary. What the two outer passages frame is a central image of 'human Time' as an old, blind man staring at the moon. It is one of the most astonishing poetic images that Coleridge coined in four decades of writing:
But that is lovely—looks like human Time,—
An old man with a steady look sublime,
That stops his earthly task to watch the skies;
But he is blind—a statue hath such eyes;—
Yet having moon-ward turn'd his face by chance,
Gazes the orb with moon-like countenance,
With scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high,
He gazes still,—his eyeless Face all Eye;—
As 'twere an organ full of silent sight,
His whole Face seemeth to rejoice in light!
Lip touching lip, all moveless, bust and limb,
He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on him! [9-20]
The first oddity here is the 'lovely'. We might think the image that follows is very unlovely indeed: the blind old man, 'scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high', in the night staring unwittingly up at the moon, an image then pushed into surreality by the way the comparison of the face of the old man with the face of the moon ('gazes the orb with moon-like countenance') morphs, unexpectedly, into a comparison of the blind-man's face with a giant eye, 'his eyeless Face all Eye'. In what sense, then, lovely? In part it is simply the startling oxymoron of the passage that sticks it in the mind; but there's also something formal about the way the stumbles into its image, false-starting, all those em-dashes and isolate clauses, all the stuttering conjunctions 'But ... That ... But ... Yet ...' slowly giving way to a smoother and more onrolling versification through 'silent' and 'rejoice' and 'light' into the frank loveliness of that twentieth-line, spilling over the pentameter into a Spenserian alexandrine. It slows the verse to a steadily trodden stateliness that really enhances the still beauty of what's being described.

The effectiveness of that alexandrine is enhanced by the fact that line 20 is the first in this poem (the truncated line 27 being the only other) comprised entirely of monosyllables. Otherwise the studied circularity of this image, its seems-to-gaze-at-that-which-seems-to-gaze-on-himishness, is replicated formally and linguistically in the poem. Similar half-rhyming (skies/eyes; high/eye; sight/light) reinforce the sense of a lack of forward momentum. The final couplet rhyme limb/him is a half-rhyme glance back at the first couple rhyme time/sublime. 'Gazes' in line 14 and 'gazes' in line 16 are rehearsed by the 'gaze... gaze' of line 20; and 'moon-ward' [13] chimes with 'moon-like' [14] as 'lip touches lip [19]. Do we read that last image as the old man's upper lip touching his own lower lip? Or kissing somebody else's? Either way, I think, the phrase cannot escape the sense of erotic connection with the desired other.

So we can say: Coleridge's essence-of-Limbo is not, as it would be (has been) for so many others, a mode of sitting around, waiting for something to happen that does not happen. It's not En Attendant Godot. It's more like looking with unseeing eyes at something impossibly remote. And that blind looking is related in some oblique manner to the twin logics of writing whereby somethings are and others are like. So the old man's eyes are blind, and are like a statue's eyes; the old man's face is white and round and cratered and only is like the moon; and those two are/are-like balances revert cleverly back upon one another. What I mean by this latter is that the moon is a face-like stone artefact, which is to say, is a statue; except that insofar as a statue requires a sculptor the moon only is like a statue. It's the canny oblique asymmetry of this that works so well: when the blind man 'seems to gaze' at the moon it's because though he does have eyes they don't work, so his looking is a seeming-looking; but when the moon 'seems to gaze' at the man it's because it seems to have eyes (the face of the man in the moon) which, because of course they don't work, only seem to look at him.

I'll come back to this central white circle, this core image in the poem, in a moment. Now I want to look at the two eight-line framing passages, before and after. First:
Tis a strange place, this Limbo!—not a Place,
Yet name it so;—where Time & weary Space
Fettered from flight, with night-mare sense of fleeing,
Strive for their last crepuscular half-being;—
Lank Space, and scytheless Time with branny hands
Barren and soundless as the measuring sands,
Not mark'd by flit of Shades,—unmeaning they
As Moonlight on the dial of the day! [1-8]
I like the wrongfooting opening line: it's a place; it's not a place. And I like the way the words here blur into other words: 'lank space' is almost, but not quite, blank space; 'scytheless'  is haunted by 'sightless'; 'branny' seems to lead word-ladder-like into 'barren', 'flight' and 'flit' are the same word, except that the latter is filed down. This queasy slippage of meaning from word to word marks a poetic space in which meaning is no longer crisply demarcated, and Coleridge styles this as, in effect, a disease of time. Time appears as the first of the poem's personifications, and he's in a bad way. 'Branny hands' means hands covered in scabs (it's eighteenth-century medical discourse; dry and flaky scabs that tended to come loose from the skin were called 'bran' or 'branny'; see for example here, here and here). He's too sick and exhausted to do his job; time no longer registers. It's part of the larger logic of the poem that image leads associatively to image, and so the moonlit sundial in line 8 sets-up, as it were, the round white face of the blind man looking at the round white face of the moon.

The final eight lines pick up on the counter-intuitive notion that the blind-man and moon image in the central section is, in some sense, 'beautiful' or a 'sweet sight':
No such sweet sights doth Limbo Den immure,
Wall'd round, and made a Spirit-jail secure,
By the mere Horror of blank Naught-at-all,
Whose circumambience doth these Ghosts enthral.
A lurid thought is growthless, dull Privation,
Yet that is but a Purgatory curse;
Hell knows a fear far worse,
A fear—a future fate.—'Tis positive Negation! [21-28]
The circle in the centre of this circling poem has become a 'circumambience' prison-wall that imprisons ('immures', 'enthrals'). 'Lurid' here presumably means not shocking or horrifying, but something closer to its Latin root (lūridus, 'pale yellow, wan'). In his first draft Coleridge toyed with reversing the two crucial terms: 'A lurid thought is growthless, dull Negation ... A fear—a future fate.—'Tis positive Privation!' He was right to change his mind on this (it amazes me that Morton Paley sees no difference between them: 'the choice of Negation or Privation hardly mattered, since the two ideas were in this context the same' [Paley, Coleridge’s Later Poetry (OUP 1996), 54]). Privation means being deprived of something; as Time is of his scythe, or the moon-looking man is of his sight. Negation, though, is being negated, everted, refused, turned-away, as Coleridge in 1811 finally understands he is being by Asra. He is not deprived of Asra, because deprivation contains within itself the implication of reprieve, as the old model of Limbo as 'waiting' implies that one is waiting for something, or somebody, and that the period of time spent en attendant will eventually pay-out—Godot, as it were, will actually arrive. But that's not, Coleridge realises in 1811, where he stands or has ever stood with Asra; and that's not what this poem is saying. STC has been waiting for Asra to ... well, who knows? To see the error of her ways? To fall belatedly in love with Sam? But it's here, in this poem, that Coleridge comprehends that limbo is not a waiting room. It is a room absent the temporal dimension required by 'waiting' as such.

In other words, and as Dante has already told us: Limbo is not a portion of Purgatory. It is the antechamber to Hell. When Vergil shows Dante Limbo in Inferno's fourth canto, he is, in effect, showing off his own home. It is significant to Coleridge's poem, I think, that he describes it in terms of a perfectly hopeless desire: 'che sanza speme vivemo in disio' (Inferno 4.42: 'that without hope we live in desire'). And if that looks like an oxymoron—not love without hope, which is a romantic cliché, but desire without hope, which is almost a contradiction in terms—it is an oxymoron precisely in keeping with the tenor of Coleridge's 'Limbo'.  The man who gazes at the moon can never hope to embrace this white goddess; and it is the 'lip touching lip', and by the deliberate elision of the line, lip touching breast ('bust') and lip touching limb, that haunts the poem.

This brings me back to the poem's central image. One context for it (I'm genuinely surprised nobody seems to have argued this point before) is surely the famous description of the Achaean camp at night, under the moon, before the walls of Troy, in Iliad 8:
οἳ δὲ μέγα φρονέοντες ἐπὶ πτολέμοιο γεφύρας
εἴατο παννύχιοι, πυρὰ δέ σφισι καίετο πολλά.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν:
τόσσα μεσηγὺ νεῶν ἠδὲ Ξάνθοιο ῥοάων
Τρώων καιόντων πυρὰ φαίνετο Ἰλιόθι πρό.
χίλι᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν πεδίῳ πυρὰ καίετο, πὰρ δὲ ἑκάστῳ
εἴατο πεντήκοντα σέλᾳ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
ἵπποι δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας
ἑσταότες παρ᾽ ὄχεσφιν ἐΰθρονον Ἠῶ μίμνον. [Iliad 8:553-65]

'Thus full of the highest hopes they sat through the livelong night beside the pathways of the battlefield, and they lit a great many watchfires. As when the stars shine clear, and the moon is bright; not a breath of air moves, and every hilltop and glade and headland prominence stands out in the inexpressible light breaking down from the serene of heaven; the stars can all of them be counted and the heart of the shepherd is joyful— this was exactly how watchfires of the Trojans shone out before Ilion midway between the ships and the river Xanthos. A thousand camp-fires gleamed upon the plain, and in the glow of each fifty men sat, while the horses champed oats and wheat beside their chariots, waiting for the dawn.'
This was how Gilbert Wakefield, in his 1796 edition of Pope's Homer, glosses this passage; or rather glosses Pope's celebrated version of it ('As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night!/O’er heav’n’s clear azure spreads her sacred light'):

(Coleridge knew Wakefield personally, and certainly read this edition of Pope; indeed it would be nice to find evidence that the 'poetical friend' mentioned here was, as it could easily have been, Coleridge himself). But it gives us a new mode of glossing the old blind man, looking up at the sky. He is Blind Homer, whose home—Dante goes out of his way to tell us this—is Limbo: 'quelli è Omero, poeta sovrano' [Inferno, 4:88]. Indeed, here is Blake's illustration of precisely this moment, 'Hell Canto IV, Homer and the ancient poets':

It's hardly strange that Coleridge would find beauty and sweetness in the image of blind Homer staring unseeing at the unseeing moon, since out of precisely this circumstance were written some of the most resonantly lovely lines in all poetry.

Of course, we can't say the blind old man 'with a steady look sublime' staring as the refulgent lamp of night spreads her sacred light  o’er heav’n’s clear azure is Homer. Coleridge assuredly knew the passage from the Iliad, and conceivably had it somewhere in the backward and abysm of his extremely capacious imagination as he wrote these 'Limbo' lines; but if he invokes them (and if he invokes blind Homer gazing at the blind moon as the image behind their composition) then he does so not to deprive, but to negate. Because of course that luminous Homeric passage is freighted with a special kind of looking-forward; soldiers who know they will fight and may die when the dawn comes. It shares that special in-the-momentness also present in the 'little touch of Harry in the night' scene from Henry V, and is wholly oriented towards a determinate future. Coleridge's poem negates that. His Limbo is a place where possibility has been collapsed into actuality and thereby annihilated. Wirklichkeit has swallowed Möglichkeit and untime has superseded time. I feel I should apologise for bringing in Heidegger, except that Coleridge's poem provides a bracing contradiction to the later German. If for Heidegger, 'as long as Dasein is, a not-yet [ein Noch-nicht] belongs to it” [Being and Time, 225], then for Coleridge the da of being is a 'there' of Nicht-Sein: a place that is not a place but which we must still call by the name 'place'; a never-yet untime.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

'To W.J.H. While Playing on his Flute' (1796)

Also known as 'To the Rev W.J.H. While Teaching A Young Lady Some Song-Tunes on his Flute'. It was published in Poems (1796) and not republished by Coleridge in his lifetime, although Joseph Cottle's Early Recollections, chiefly relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1837) reprints it under the title at the head of his blogpost, and the posthumous Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1837-39) has it as, simply, 'To the Rev. W. J. Hort'. Hort was a Bristol schoolmaster as well a Unitarian minister, and the author of a great many works of pedagogy, epitomes of English history and the Bible, French grammars, English grammars, books on Geography and so on. Presumably the 'young lady' is Sara Fricker (or Sara Coleridge if the poem was written after 4th October 1795); and presumably the scene being painted is one in which Hort is teaching Sara to play the flute. 'Freedom's UNDIVIDED dell' mentioned in the third stanza is a reference to the Susquehannah, and the Pantisocratic plans Coleridge was making with Southey: the 'Monody on the Death of Chatterton' (1794) talks of Coleridge crossing the Atlantic to 'peaceful Freedom's UNDIVIDED dale' [129]. So in effect Coleridge is saying to his friend: when Sara and I are settled in the rude romantic glens of America she will play her flute the way you have taught her, and this will remind me of you, whereupon I will shed happy tears.

Hush! ye clamorous Cares! be mute!
Again, dear Harmonist! again,
Thro' the hollow of thy flute,
Breathe that passion-warbled strain:
Till MEMORY each form shall bring
The loveliest of her shadowy throng;
And HOPE that soars on sky-lark wing,
Carol wild her gladdest song!

O skill'd with magic spell to roll
The thrilling tones, that concentrate the soul!
Breathe through thy flute those tender notes again,
While near thee sits the chaste-eyed maiden mild;
And bid her raise the Poet's kindred strain
In soft impassion'd voice, correctly wild.

Where toil and health, with mellowed love shall dwell,
Far from folly, far from men,
In the rude romantic glen,
Up the cliff, and through the glade.
Wand'ring with the dear-loved maid,
I shall listen to the lay,
And ponder on thee far away!
Still, as she bids those thrilling notes aspire
(“Making my fond attuned heart her lyre”),
Thy honor'd form, my Friend! shall re-appear.
And I will thank thee with a raptur'd tear.
It's not Coleridge's best work, really; perhaps that's why he never reprinted it. But it has its moments, I think. The parenthetical third line from the end, there, is certainly quoting something; but no editor has been able to work out what.

J C C Mays is to the point:

I don't think this is a line of English poetry, and Google agrees with me. But I wonder if it might be a reference to that schoolmaster's favourite, Horace; specifically to Odes book 3: 9, 9-10:
me nunc Thressa Chloe regit,
dulcis docta modos et citharae sciens.
This means 'I am overpowered by Thracian Chloe's/sweet measure and her skill with the lyre', and a little less exactly means: 'Chloe's sweet attunement and skill with the lyre have overcome me', which is at least on the way to 'Chloe plays on my heart as her own fondly attuned lyre'. It's a pretty famous line, actually. Here, for example, is Edward John Poynter's Chloe, dulcis docta modos et citharae sciens (1893):

There's a wrinkle, though. Horace's poem is a dialogue between Horace and Lydia in which they remember how in love they used to be. Used to be, but not anymore. In turn each confesses that they've moved on to other people now: Horace to Chloe of the fond, attuned lyre; and Lydia to 'young Calais, son of Thurian Ornytus'. The poem ends with them reconciled and pledging to love one another and live together until they die, but the whole drift of the poem stresses their respective inconstancy, so you don't really believe it. That's a strange, or perhaps a strangely prescient, note to strike towards the end of this poem; after all, Coleridge's love for Sara Fricker didn't last. And indeed maybe it was that fact that meant older separated-from-his-wife Coleridge, looking to assemble his 1817 collected poems, decided to omit these 1795 verses.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Coleridge's Iliad Translation

This is yet another of Coleridge's planned-and-never-undertaken projects. It came out of a discussion with Joseph Cottle in the mid 1790s about translating Homer in such a way as to establish 'the occasion of the superiority of the Greek Poets to ourselves, from the privilege they had of improving the sound of their words by a poetic dialogue.' Coleridge's idea was to translate each individual Homeric hexameter line with a short rhymed quatrain. In his Notebook he jotted down one such stanza for Iliad 1.34 and another for Iliad 1.49, and that was as a far as he got. J C C Mays prints these two verses under the title 'Translations of Homer Iliad 1.34, 49':
Down along the Shore
Of the Sea of much roar
All malcontent
The poor Priest went.—

Ho! Phoebus for ever!
Dread was the clangor
As he strode in his anger
Of the Silver Quiver!—
The first of these translates 'βῆ δ’ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης'; 'he went out in silence along the shore of the much-resounding sea'. The malcontentedness and pitiableness of the priest is Coleridge's addition. The second renders: 'δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ’ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο'; 'terrible was the twang of the silver bow.' Clangor is κλαγγὴ, 'klangē', which is handy; Phoebus is implied in the line, since his is the silver bow, but is not actually mentioned. Clearly, STC's approach entails a degree of expansion and interpretation.

It's not a lot to go on, really; only two lines. Of the two quatrains the second is rather better than the first, I think. 'Down along the shore of the sea of much roar' is prosodically clumsy, 'sea of much roar' sounds daft and the rhyme is too jingle-jangle. The interesting question is whether STC's second quatrain, with its two sets of rhyme that are both in themselves half-rhymes (ever/quiver, clangor/anger) and that half-rhyme with each other, is intentional. If so, this might make for an interesting exercise in Homeric translation, actually. I wonder how it might look?
Sing the wrath, goddess,
Of mighty Achilleus
Great son of Peleus
Whose wrath destroys us.—

It brought dire scenes
Upon the Achaeans
Blood flowing in streams
And no end to their pains.—

Dispatching many souls
Of valiant heroes
Descending in woe
To Hades below.—

Turning their once grand
Bodies to mounds
Of carrion for hounds
On dusty ground.—

And birds of all kind;
And so the great plan
That Great Zeus began
Was brought to its end.
I wonder how long you could spin this sort of thing out before it became simply annoying?

[The image at the head of this post is 'Homer and His Guide' (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau]

Friday, 1 July 2016

Prickett's "Words and The Word" (1986) and Coleridge

Stephen Prickett's Words and "The Word": Language, Poetics and Biblical Interpretation (1986) is about more than Coleridge; far more than I can touch on here. But I wanted, in a slight departure for this blog, to review what he does say about Coleridge. It's a pretty famous work, of course; at least among those who explore the intersections between scripture and literature, although it probably gets cited more often by theologians than literary critics.


Words and The Word is an unusually wide-ranging work of literary and theological scholarship, very dense (or, if you prefer, rich) and as such it really does resist easy summary. In a nutshell, Prickett goes back to the eighteenth-century to trace the intricate lines of thought that sought to establish how we should read the Bible, and by extension what mode is the best one in which to approach the divine. He argues that nowadays there is a wall (a 'glacial moraine', he calls it, following Hermann Usener: gletscherwall) separating biblical studies and the study of literature. He traces this back to the influence of Germany had on the establishment of universities in the later 19th-century, but notes that, for a short time, things looked different in England:
The work of Robert Lowth had made possible a new aesthetic appreciation of biblical poetry, and the fact that the first generation of English Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, so far from rejecting Christianity like Humboldt were devout Christians of one kind or another, helped them to find in the Bible far more powerful sources of inspiration than their German contemporaries or their immediate predecessors of the Enlightenment. [1-2]
Nonetheless, Prickett thinks, by the end of the 19th-century, and for various reasons, 'the same wall that divided German scholarship had been successfully transplanted into English institutions and thought'. The consequence of this, he argues, has been a prolonged crisis not just in biblical hermeneutics, but literature as well ('in particular, poetry') which he thinks 'has also suffered a crisis of meaning in the twentieth century' [2]. The book as a whole is a superbly fine-grained, sometimes rather labyrinthine, discussion of the best way of apprehending the biblical 'word': science, hermeneutics, cultural contextualisation, 'the religious and the poetic', paradox, prophesy and metaphor.

According to Prickett Robert Lowth plays a key role in this larger story, on account of his 1754 treatise Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, later translated into English by George Gregory as Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1787), and very often reprinted. 'Epoch making', Prickett calls this volume [41]. Now, one of the things Lowth argues is that a prose translation of the Hebrew songs can capture perfectly well many of the poetic qualities of the original. Prickett thinks this directly informed Wordsworth’s thesis, so important in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, that poetry and prose are not opposites, and that more than mere metrical regularity defines the former—dignity, passion, authenticity and so on. Coleridge discusses precisely this in the Biographia, including some of his own prose-poetic Biblical translations. It’s a cliché to note (though that doesn’t stop it being true) that Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ was one of modern era's single most influential interventions into poetics; and for Prickett this has implications for how we read the Bible as much as it has for how poetry gets written. So for example, in his discussion of Manley Hopkins, Prickett notes that ‘for Hopkins the rediscovery of the Bible as “poetry” did not mean the progressive rediscovery of formal distinctions between verse and prose so much as a rediscovery of the meaning behind the traditional constructs.’ [Prickett, 119]. For Lowth, the calm and rational mind expresses itself in a way we might nowadays call 'scientific'—'the language of reason is cool, temperate, rather humble than elevated, well-arranged and perspicuous'—where where the passionate and agitated mind falls naturally into poetry:
The language of the passions is totally different:—the conceptions burst out in a turbid stream, expressive in a manner of the internal conflict; the more vehement break out in hasty confusion; they catch (without search or study) whatever is impetuous, vivid, or energetic. In a word, reason speaks literally, the passions poetically. The mind, with whatever passion it be agitated, remains fixed upon the object that excited it; and while it is earnest to display it, is not satisfied with a plain and exact description; but adopts one agreeable to its own sensations, splendid or gloomy, jocund or unpleasant. For the passions are naturally inclined to amplification; they wonderfully magnify and exaggerate whatever dwells upon the mind, and labour to express it in animated, bold, and magnificent terms. This they commonly effect by two different methods; partly by illustrating the subject with splendid imagery, and partly by employing new and extraordinary forms of expression, which are indeed possessed of great force and efficacy. [Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, 140]
One idea that runs through the work of many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers is that 'poetry is the natural language of religion', and that 'the Bible was to be treated as belonging to a higher, more sublime order of discourse than prose', which latter was 'an inferior and late medium fit only for describing the mundane and practical world of everyday affairs' [Prickett, 40]. The business of translating Hebrew and Greek into English becomes more than a series of practical textual difficulties; it stands for a chasm between divine revelation and mundane existence that is, in a strict sense of the term, sublime. Samuel Tongue summarises:
However, as Prickett claims, ‘…the idea of a language of primal of original participation in this sense is only possible to an age that no longer possesses it.’ A sense of the ‘original text’ in an ‘original language’ becomes a major project of discovery and animating absence for both types of Bible. The historical critics attempt an archaeology of biblical linguistics to excavate the authority of the ‘original’; poets and writers go on to attempt a new sense of the ‘originality; of religious-poetic genius in the sublime aesthetic authority of the poetic Bible. [Samuel Tongue, Between Biblical Criticism and Poetic Rewriting: Interpretative Struggles over Genesis 32:22-32 (Leiden: Brill 2014), 41; quoting Prickett, 86]
'Animating absence' is a well-chosen phrase. This necessary belatedness, this (Prickett doesn't use this term, but there was a lot of this sort of stuff about in 1986) aporia, is in an important sense constitutive of Christianity. Words and The Word doesn't discuss the Qu'ran—if Prickett wrote the book nowadays, I wonder if he would have done this—but the contrast is a fascinating one. Muslims are required to apprehend their holy book in its original Arabic, a feature of the core Islamic belief in the Qu'ran's 'inimitability' or I'jaz. There's really nothing like this in contemporary Christianity. Even self-professed literalists in as-it-might-be the US Bible Belt rest their claims that scripture must be interpreted literally on translations of scripture, rather than on the original Hebrew or Greek, languages very few of them are inclined to acquire. Islam is not like this; and one of the things I take Prickett to be arguing (in his roundabout way) is that in a sense it is this very non-inimitability that has proved constitutive of the modern development of Christianity. Not in the sense that Romantics like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey felt licensed to disregard the 'original' in their poetic recreations (on the contrary, Prickett is clear that 'the most noticeable feature of the English "poetic" theological tradition leading from Lowth to the Romantics is its essential conservatism' [124]); but in the sense that a poetic apprehension of religion opens up rather than closes down 'meaning', that it is about animating absences, or opacities, as much as semantic presences.

Indeed, when considering this question Prickett can get very, well, prickly. He has a particular dislike for both the New English Bible and the Good News Bible, both of which he considers not only manifestly inferior to the King James Version, but based on a fundamental misunderstanding, viz. that it is possible to 'write out the meaning plainly' of the Bible.
This belief that religious experience, and the historic record of mankind's deepest questionings and insights can only be adequately described today in the slack, verbose and cliché-ridden language of international communication would be disconcerting if it were not ... so evidently self-defeating. How far is it possible, in the words of the Good News Bible's Preface, 'to use language that is natural, clear, simple and unambiguous', when the Bible is not about things that are natural, clear, simple and unambiguous? or for the linguistically-enfeebled modern theologians struggling on the New English Bible to 'write out the meaning plainly' of what to the taut and concise translators of the seventeenth-century was essentially ambiguous and obscure? [Prickett, 10]
Ouch. This is a little unfair, I think: neither the NEB nor the GNB present themselves as the only works capable of 'adequately' describing the Bible; and the belief that the bible is intrinsically complex, elusive and opaque, whilst flattering the kind of person (like me, I confess; like Prickett, I assume) who tends to valorise difficulty and density, surely doesn't really describes the bible as such, many portions of which are perfectly clear and intelligible. There's clearly merit in making scripture more accessible to the sort of people who would be turned away by the difficulty of the KJV. But you take his point, and there's something rather stirring in his desire to realign the Bible and poetry, or more modestly the Bible and literary criticism, in order ‘to restore a wholeness of approach that has been disastrously fragmented over the past hundred and fifty years’ [197].


What, in this larger context, does Prickett have to say about Coleridge? Words and The Word returns to my man several times, and could have done a lot more with him. He doesn't, for instance, discuss STC's close friendship with Hyman Hurwitz, the preeminent Hebraicist of his era in Britain, a friendship that included Coleridge editing and correcting the English of Hurwitz's Vindiciae Hebraicae, being a Defence of the Hebrew Scriptures as a Vehicle of Revealed Religion (1820) and translating Hurwitz's lengthy Hebrew lament 'On the Death of the Princess Charlotte' (1817). But Prickett does note how Coleridge located a wholeness of expressive poetic symbolicism in scripture, and quotes the famous passage from The Statesman's Manual to the effect that
the histories and political economy of the present and preceding century partake in the general contagion of its mechanic philosophy, and are the product of an unenlivened generalizing understanding. In the Scriptures they are the living educts of the imagination; of that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the reason in images of the sense, and organizing (as it were) the flux of the senses by the permanence and self-circling energies of the reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths of which they are the conductors. [LS, 29]
Prickett discusses this passage, but I think misses a nuance. In his own copy of The Statesman's Manual, Coleridge scratched out 'educts' and wrote-in 'Produce', and then added this marginalium: 'Or perhaps these μóρφωματα of the mechanic Understanding as distinguished from the 'ποίησεις' of the imaginative Reason might be named Products in antithesis to Produce—or Growths.' The distinction between the two Greek terms, also developed in the Biographia, is elaborated in the headnote to this blog.

I take it that Coleridge sees no functional difference between an educt, or a force that draws something out of us, and a ποίησεις or 'making', a force that 'produces' something in us. Coming out and going in are, he thinks, the same in this case. Or to be more precise, where the sacred 'myths' (in a non-judgmental sense of the word) of scripture are concerned these actions are indistinguishable. Prickett doesn't go into any of that, and when he says 'Biblical narrative ... lives as extensions from the creative or "poetic" imagination' [44] he's only sort-of right: I think Coleridge has in mind a more reciprocal arrangement than is implied by 'extension'. But Prickett is surely right that Coleridge sees the poetic symbol as essentially 'bi-focal', 'always partaking' (to quote The Statesman's Manual again) 'of the Reality which it renders intelligible' and 'abid[ing] itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative'.
A symbol is thus the opposite of a generalization. The latter is a kind of lowest common denominator, deduced by the understanding from outward events according to the dead arrangement of a mechanical philosophy. In contrast, to describe a symbol, he uses the metaphor of a lens: it is 'translucent'—focusing the universal generality through the concreteness of a particular example. [Prickett, 44]
'There is more [in it] that finds me,' was how Coleridge described the Bible 'than in all other books put together.' This is a beautifully reciprocal way of putting it: you go into your Bible, and your Bible goes into you. You look for things in the Bible; the Bible finds things in you.

In the 'Book of Nature' chapter Prickett brings Coleridge back in. There's a good account of his reading of Horne Tooke's linguistic system: 'Tooke believed that he had shown the stable and unchangeable nature of words. Coleridge fell delight upon his "proof" and rapidly deduced the opposite: the flux and constant change of language. Hartley had assumed a fixed relationship between words and ideas; in attempting to prune back all words to their roots, Tooke had shown Coleridge the astonishing diversity and luxury of the undergrowth that had sprung up' [Prickett, 136-37]. Prickett quotes one of STC's letters:
Are not words etc parts and germinations of the plant? And what is the Law of the Growth?—In something of this order I would endeavour to destroy the old antithesis of Words and Things, elevating, as it were, words into Things, and living Things too.
This is another iteration of Coleridge attachment to the word-made-flesh Logos as the cornerstone of his religious and literary life. There's some stuff on desynonymy, from the 1819 'Philosophical Lectures' (which concept Paul Hamilton, in Coleridge's Poetics (1983) applies as the key to unlock the whole of Coleridge's thought, although not entirely convincingly), but just as things get going we read this:
One could say much more about Coleridge's theories of language. It is a fascinating subject and one that has by no means been fully explored. [138]
And off we go elsewhere. A shame! Instead Prickett argues that most of Coleridge's attempts at desynonymising have failed to catch on. They 'proved over-subtle and too complex to have passed into the language':
His distinction between 'types' and 'symbols' has not survived; his attempt to anglicize the Kantian polarity of 'Reason' and 'understanding' survives only in relation to Idealist philosophy rather than in standard usage; and the carefully elaborated bnaries of Church and State such as 'opposite' and 'contrary' have not passed even into the technical vocabulary of dialectics whose terms are more often from Germany and France. [Prickett, 141]
This is broadly right I think (although 'opposite' and 'contrary' do figure as distinctions in the Greimas square; and that's proved quite influential. Fredric Jameson seems to build all his books around them, for instance. Greimas, as a literature specialist, presumably knew about Coleridge). Aha, you're thinking: what about the distinction between 'imagination' and 'fancy', one of Coleridge's most influential ideas? Surely that piece of desynonymising has passed into popular currency? But Prickett's not having that:
This distinction has suffered a curious and possibly unique fate in the history of semantic separations. On the one hand it has become famous—every student of literature in the English-speaking world finds himself supposed to have heard of it; on the other, it is scarcely ever used, and never in common speech. [Prickett, 141]
I'm not sure that's correct, actually; but it's hard to know how the assertion could be proved, one way or the other. Prickett thinks the imagination/fancy distinction actually folds three separate concepts into its dyad, which is correct (I think); and makes the case that the fusing of the two modes of imagination is actually what Coleridge intended (which I'm not so sure about). Prickett ties his discussion together with the logos ('the subordinate logos of nature is a repetition in the finite human mind of God's eternal act of creation' is how he puts it, which is tricky), and quotes The Statesman's Manual one last time:
The great book of Nature has been the music of gentle and pious minds in all ages, it is the poetry of all human nature.
This leads into a kind of Prickettian peroration:
We are here very close to what Abrams has designtaed 'apocalypse by cognition'. Behind the continual Romantic reiteration of the 'poetic' as a metaphor for religious experience lies what we have seen is the very ancient association of poetry with divinity, but here the 'peculiar language of heaven' has been translated into a typology of psychological and spiritual states. As in Dante, poetry is a kind of imaginative psychopomp leading the soul towards a mystical and otherwise inexpressible bliss, or 'apocalypse', in which the partaker is caught up in the divine vision. But just as Schiller's 'third kingdom' of aesthetic liberation ... is not merely an internal state, but also a social one, so Coleridge's poetic 'apocalypse' is at once individual and communal. The difference is that Coleridge's mature theory of language and his later Trinitarian Anglicanism (as always in his thought, all elements are connected) no longer involves seeing this transformation as part of a future ideal state, but, in true New Testament style, proclaims that it is already here. [Prickett, 144]
In other news: 'Imaginative Psychopomp of Bliss' is the name of my next band.