He looked at his own Soul
with a telescope. What seemed
all irregular, he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notebooks
It’s his birthday today.
I’ll start with a personal anecdote because Coleridge entered my life early.
When I was 9, 10 years old, I loved a book called The Boyhood of Grace Jones, by Jane Langton (Langton wrote one of my favorite books ever called The Diamond in the Window). The Boyhood of Grace Jones takes place in 1939, and tells the story of a young girl named Grace Jones about to start middle school who has taken to wearing her father’s Navy middy blouse. She cuts her hair short, and decides to behave like a boy. I cannot tell you how much I related to this as a child. I dressed “like a boy” too. Grace is obsessed with all things sea-worthy, and has a couple of imaginary sailor friends, Captain Nancy and Captain John.
Entering middle school, though, changes everything. The sexes separate, drastically. The girls are all in a state of apoplexy over Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind premiered), and Grace refuses to buy into ANY of it, much to the consternation of her mother and some of her teachers. Why does she dress like a boy? Why does she swagger through the hallways shouting, “Ahoy there, matey?” Why doesn’t she have a crush on Clark Gable?
I was in love with Grace. She follows her obsessions to extremes. I knew a little something about that. Everything changes, again, for Grace, when, in English class, the teacher assigns a poem. It is “Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
And something happens to Grace Jones when she reads it.
Dizzy with incantation, intoxicated with rhythm, Grace almost fell out of the tree. She had discovered poetry and nature in one fell swoop. “Beware,” she whispered to herself, “Beware! Beware! Weave a circle round him thrice …” Then her eyes raced back to the beginning of the poem, and she started to read the whole thing aloud once more, mumbling and whispering at first, then ranting and shouting …
By the time Grace noticed her dog Whitey at the bottom of the tree, sniffling and whining a doggy greeting, the two mimeographed pages in her hand were a damp smudge of purple ink. She never discovered the questions Mrs. Humminger had typed up on the second page, but she wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway, they were so blurred by now. But she knew the whole poem by heart. She slipped and fumbled down the tree, fondled Whitey, staggered home, burst into the kitchen door, struck a pose, and cried, “Beware! Beware! My flashing eyes! My floating hair!”
This was a heroine I could recognize. I did that kind of stuff too. I would read something and get so excited that I immediately needed to play make-believe with it. I had never heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was 10 years old. The Boyhood of Grace Jones introduced me to him.
Grace’s obsession goes through the roof when the class is assigned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
The Ancient Mariner was even more staggering than Kubla Khan. There wasn’t the slightest breeze moving in the top of the white pine tree, but Grace had to hang on with both arms to the branches on either side of her to keep from losing her balance, as Coleridge’s verses reeled and throbbed, ebbed and flowed across the pages of the book wedged open in her lap. The ancient mariner had shot a lucky bird, an albatross, with his crossbow, and ever since then his ship has been doomed with a curse. And what a curse! All the other sailors died, one by one, and after that he was alone.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
There was something about the rhythm. It burned and froze. It beat and pulsed. It surged and dragged. It made Grace want to laugh and cry …
I mean, this is in a book for kids. Amazing.
Grace began to learn this poem by heart too. It was easy. The verses beat themselves into her brain like hammerblows, leaving deep dents in her memory. By the time she was ready to climb down from the top of the tree and stumble home, stiff with cold, the dry grass of the field, like a dull mirror, was giving back the tawny color of the sunset sky. She had memorized forty-two stanzas. And that night at home she learned forty more while she was eating her supper and washing the dishes.
Later that night, Grace is so worked up about the Ancient Mariner that she can’t sleep.
She lay looking up at the cold moon, which was sailing high in the night sky, sucking the summer warmth from the ground, casting a cold, bald light on the floor beside the bed. The radiator hissed and knocked. The powerful rhythms of The Ancient Mariner were still tumbling and racing through her head. She couldn’t stop them. After the third time through all of the eighty-four stanzas she had learned that day she sat up warily, turning away from the window, and stared wide-eyed at the darkest corner of her room, where the open door into the hall cast a dense shadow. What if an angel should appear there, writing in a book of gold? Was it true that someone was keeping track? Watching her? Writing it all down on the good or bad side of the page? That would be terrible. It would be much worse to have an angel watching her than Captain Nancy or Captain John, because Nancy and John were her friends, after all, and they weren’t writing it all down like that and holding a lot of things against her forever after.
Grace kept her eyes pricked open, staring as hard as she could at the dark corner, trying by sheer force of will to materialize an angel writing in a book of gold. But she couldn’t do it, and she slumped back under the covers.
Was it true? Were angels true? Was God true? Grace wondered about God for the thousandth time. Her father didn’t believe in religion. He scoffed at the Sunday morning preachers on the radio. He always said the word “God” sarcastically, so that it came out “Gawd“. But Grace didn’t know whether he was right or not. What if he were wrong? Somebody in the family should take some responsibility about religion. Just in case it was true. Somebody, somebody, should pray for everybody. Grace shut her eyes and put her folded hands under her chin, and prayed for them all (just in case), ending up with a line from The Ancient Mariner, “‘O, shrive me, shrive me, holy man! Amen.”
BANG! exploded the radiator. Bubblety-gurglety-poppety-BANG!
Jane Langton is a great writer.
In the back of this magic book the entirety of the texts of the two Coleridge poems referenced printed, Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner. And so I, a child, caught up in Grace’s enthusiasm, read them over and over and over again until I, too, had them memorized. Grace’s obsessions are free-range. All she wants is to be inspired. Over the course of the book, things shift. It is the beginning of adolescence, and she finds herself caught up in the Gone With the Wind mania. Clark Gable competes with Coleridge. It’s such a wonderful book. I highly recommend it!
This was my introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it was almost like a master-class in HOW to read him. We read “Kubla Khan” in high school, and all I could think about was Grace Jones!
Coleridge described the famous “person from Porlock” incident – the knock on the door that interrupted the composing of the poem “Kubla Khan” – in an introduction to the published poem of “Kubla Khan.” Coleridge writes of himself in the third person:
On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!
This whole anecdote is a wonderful metaphor for the elusive nature of creativity, as well as the delusional dream-palace erected in our heads of the perfect work of art, fully realized. Everything falls short of that imagined paradise. (Scroll down for Stevie Smith’s poem on the “person from Porlock.”)
Coleridge started taking opium because of a toothache, and it became a lifelong addiction. He went to Cambridge. He was not particularly ambitious. He didn’t get a degree. He got swept up by the French Revolution, like all of his generation did, and fostered all kinds of idealistic Utopian plans/hopes. Like many, he somehow missed the ensuing Terror and its implications. He started publishing poems, his marriage was bad, he met Wordsworth, one of the most important friendships of his life. They collaborated, and the publication of their Lyrical Ballads marks the beginning of the Romantic era. The collaboration pushed Coleridge to produce more.
He was invigorated, despite his other circumstances (opium, terrible marriage, a melancholy disposition). He wrote a lot and Wordsworth was his main audience. He traveled to Germany, and was swept away by the philosophical revolution occurring there. When he returned, he settled down near Wordsworth, and began a life of hardship and opium addiction. He struggled mightily. He was always on the brink of disaster. Real disaster came when he and Wordsworth quarreled in 1810. The friendship was never quite the same again and the loss hit Coleridge hard. His gigantic prose book, Biographia Literaria, came out in 1817. As important as he was as a poet, he is equally important as a literary critic. I have always found his observations indispensable. He died in 1834.
One more personal anecdote. When I was in high school, Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the airwaves. “Relax” was, of course, the big hit. I bought the album, and there was another song included called “Welcome To the Pleasure-Dome”, which also eventually got radio play. I felt like the smartest person in the world because I immediately knew it referenced Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.
The poem had, by that point, entered into my personal lexicon because of Grace Jones. So often when you read literature, especially as a kid, it stays outside of you. It may make an impression but it doesn’t enter into your experience and your language and your thought process. But Coleridge did. And the things that imprint on you when you’re a kid stay imprinted.
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
That one phrase alone starts off a series of images in my mind … it never gets stale, I’m not USED to it at ALL. Picturing the “measureless” caverns brings a shiver of dread and awe (like, I beg you, please … measure them.) and then there’s the “sunless sea”, a terrifying mental picture. A sea deep beneath the earth. Untouched by sun. There are also complex and specific language elements here, the alliteration which gives those lines a sibilant sound, adding to the creepiness. The creepinesssssssssss.
And so, let’s read the whole thing, once more, in honor of the Birthday Boy.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
I have no idea if anyone ever reads all these compiled quotes which I append to most of these literary posts, but I sure love doing them. I used to keep notebooks full of cool or memorable quotes – not so much anymore – but quotations – a commonplace book, if you will – is one of the ways I help make sense of the world. (This is one of the reasons I found Walter Benjamin’s work so fascinating. His view on quotations is just … way WAY out there, and one of the more in-depth explorations of what removing quotes from their initial context does, and signifies). I also think all of this reading and note-taking and list-making on my part has been – unconsciously – a way to educate myself. I didn’t study literature in college. My “required reading” stopped when I left high school and studied acting. So … all of this “canon” stuff, I basically read on my own time, powered by my own steam. No teacher told me how to interpret things. There is almost no academia in my approach. So I’ve had to put together timelines on my own, put together “movements” and how one person influenced another, and yadda yadda. It’s an ongoing process. One can never learn enough, you know. A lifetime is way too short. I knew and loved Coleridge dating back to Grace Jones – but never really dug in further. Finally, last year (or the year before?) I read his magnum opus Biographia Literaria – which was an experience and a HALF. I’ll probably never read it again but I took COPIOUS notes. Every page was overflowing with insight. In terms of quote-gathering: Coleridge is such an influential man – during his lifetime and on into now – that everyone talks about him. Still. He was gossiped about during his lifetime, and people still gossip now. This is just a smidgeon of what is out there. I used to keep obsessive lists of … basically the category was: “What Writers Say About Other Writers”. I still love that category. So most of this comes from that kind of endeavor. Coleridge, like Byron, sure gets people talking.
So here’s a little bit of what they say.
Regimental Muster Roll (when Coleridge enlisted he gave a fake name):
Discharged S.T. Comberbache, Insane; 10 April 1794.
Rudyard Kipling on John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
These are the pure Magic. These are the clear vision. The rest is only poetry.
Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:
Coleridge’s life is one of the saddest in English poetry.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to a friend:
I remember, that at eight years old I walked with [my father] one winter evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery–& he told me the names of the stars–and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world–and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them–& when I came home, he shewed me how they rolled round… my mind had been habituated to the Vast–& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief.
He began to live a kind of double life at Cambridge, his wild expenditure on books, drinking, violin lessons, theatre and whoring (he later described this as the time of his “unchastities”) alternating with fits of suicidal gloom and remorse…By the end of October  his “Embarrassments” buzzed round him “like a Nest of Hornets”, and in November he gave up all attempts to get his affairs under control. Instead he abandoned himself to a whirl of drunken socializing, alternating with grim solitary resolutions to shoot himself as the final solution to bad debts, unrequited love, and academic disgrace.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
The pith of my system is to make the senses out of the mind – not the mind out of the senses, as Locke did.
William Hazlitt, friend to Coleridge, wrote:
Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his voice met with no collateral interruption.
Coleridge on Edmund Spenser’s “Prothalamion”:
Mark the swanlike movement of his exquisite “Prothalamion”. His attention to metre and rhythm is sometimes so extremely minute as to be painful even to my ear, and you know how highly I prize good versification.
[Coleridge] believes in words, they have a compelling reality for him: he believes in naming more than in the objects named. He takes delight in thinking: it is a sensuous experience for him, and talk itself is one of his intenser pleasures.
Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, on “Kubla Khan”:
The fifty-four line text of “Kubla Khan” is therefore to be understood, according to the subtitle, as a “fragment”. Was Coleridge’s defense strategy aimed at shadowy carpers or at his own festering doubts? The poem certainly does not feel incomplete to us, whose looser standards of form descend from the radical innovations of Romanticism and nineteenth-century realism. We no longer expect perfection, symmetry, or sharp closure in works of art. Indeed, modernist plays and dance pieces can end so ambiguously that raised house-lights must signal the end of a performance. “Kubla Khan” anticipates the fractures and fragmentation in Western culture that would be registered in collage, the jigsaw medium invented by Picasso on the eve of World War I and applied by T.S. Eliot to the shards of literature shifted from rubble in The Waste Land (1922).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge on William Hazlitt, letter to a friend, September 16, 1803:
His manners are 99 in a 100 singularly repulsive.
Thomas De Quincey, one-time fan, and fellow opium addict:
The poor opium-martyr…His lips were baked with a feverish heat, and often black in colour … in spite of the water which he continued drinking.
He first defines what Romanticism is and does: organic forms, intuitive formulation. From these follows the essential “suspension of disbelief”: we judge a poem first by asking what it sets out to do, then by appraising how well it does it, and only then do we ask whether it was worth doing.
Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, December 2nd, 1956:
I’m glad it came along now because for several weeks I’ve been completely absorbed in Coleridge’s Letters–that new edition…And I read Coleridge, and read him, & read him–just couldn’t stop–until he and the waterfall roaring under the windows, and ten times its usual size, were indistinguishable to my ears. By the time he’d had “flying irregular gout,” got himself drenched once more, was in debt, hating his wife, etc., I couldn’t believe that I really existed, or not what you’d call life, compared to that: dry, no symptoms of any sort, fairly solvent, on good terms with all my friends (as far as I know). I want very much to write some sort of piece, mostly about C., but bringing in Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” Dylan T., H .Crane, etc., but don’t know whether I know enough or have enough material at hand.
From Coleridge’s notebooks:
From my earliest recollection I have had a consciousness of Power without Strength–a perception, an experience, of more than ordinary power with an inward sense of weakness.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
[I have a] feeble, unmanly face. The exceeding weakness, strengthlessness, in my face, was ever painful to me.
His cardinal sin is that he wants will. He has no resolution.
John Keats, letter to George and Tom Keats, December 1817:
Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—-I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:
Coleridge destroys Wordsworth’s Rousseauist world of feminine tenderness. Christabel is one of the most misread poems in literature. Critics have projected a Christian moralism upon it. Coleridge himself could not bear what he had written, and he tried to revise and reinterpret long afterward. Christabel is a splendid case study of the tension between imagination and morality. Through it, we follow a great poet into his excess of daemonic vision and then out again into the social realm of humane good wishes, where the visionary is beset by doubt, anxiety, and guilt. Christabel shows the birth of poetry in evil, hostility, and crime.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Wordsworth’s The Recluse:
I think Wordsworth possessed more of the genius of a great philosophic poet than any man I ever knew, or, as I believe, has existed in England since Milton; but it seems to me that he ought never to have abandoned the contemplative position which is peculiarly – perhaps I might say exclusively – fitted for him. His proper title is Spectator ab extra.
William Hazlitt, on going to hear Coleridge speak in 1798:
A poet and a philosopher getting up into a Unitarian pulpit to preach the Gospel was a romance in these degenerate days, a sort of revival of the primitive spirit of Christianity, which was not to be resisted … When I got there, the organ was playing the 100th psalm, and, when it was done, Mr Coleridge rose and gave out his text. ‘And he went up into the mountain to pray HIMSELF, ALONE.’ As he gave out his text, his voice ‘rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes,’ and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind … There was to me a strange wilderness in his aspect, a dusky obscurity, and I thought him pitted with the smallpox. His forehead was broad and high, light as if built of ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre … His mouth was gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent; his chin good-humoured and round; but his nose, the rudder of his face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing — like what he has done.
Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “Kubla Khan”:
Coleridge’s turbulent subterranean realm prefigures Freud’s irrational id, where dreams and art are born.
Thomas Carlyle, on hearing Coleridge speak:
I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatever to any individual of his hearers, — certain of whom I for one, still kept eagerly listening in hope, the most had long before given up, and formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of their own. He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps did at last get under way,– but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by the glance of some radiant new game on this hand or that, into new courses, and ever into new; and before long into all the Universe, where it was uncertain what game you would catch, or whether any.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to his brother, 1794:
I laugh almost like an insane person when I cast my eye backward on the prospect of my past two years–What a gloomy Huddle of eccentric Actions, and dim-discovered motives! To real Happiness I bade adieu from the moment, I received my first Tutor’s Bill–since that time since that period my Mind has been irradiated by Bursts only of Sunshine–at all other times gloomy with clouds, or turbulent with tempests. Instead of manfully disclosing the disease, I concealed it with a shameful Cowardice of sensibility, till it cankered my very Heart…How many and how many hours have I stolen from the bitterness of Truth in those soul-enervating Reveries–in building magnificent Edifices of Happiness on some fleeting Shadow of Reality! My Affairs became more and more involved–I fled to Debauchery–fled from silent and solitary Anguish to all the uproar of senseless Mirth!
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, on Coleridge vs. Wordsworth:
Coleridge is a wind-harp vibrating to someone else’s music. Wordsworth speaks for nature and crushes Coleridge by the enormity of his achievement…Wordsworth and Coleridge were locked in a sadomasochistic marriage of minds, where Wordsworth kept the hierarchical advantage and Coleridge surrendered himself to ritualistic self-abasement…Coleridge did his best work under Wordsworth’s influence. After they separated, Coleridge languished poetically and never matched his early achievements. The nature of their collaboration was this: Wordsworth was a father/lover who absorbed Coleridge’s self-punishing superego and allowed his turbulent dream life to spill directly into his poetry. The supreme irony, as we shall see, is that everything that is great in Coleridge is a negation of Wordsworth. This is the son’s ultimate revenge upon the father. Wordsworth’s leading moral idea of nature’s benevolence is annihilated in Coleridge.
From Anne Fadiman’s essay about reading a biography of Coleridge, included in her book At Large and At Small. Here is an excerpt.:
I half-woke one morning recently with an obscure sense of dread, nagged by the feeling that someone close to me was in trouble. I knew that soon I would be sufficiently alert to remember who it was and to start making plans to help him, plans that I feared would be difficult and complex and likely to swallow up my day. I turned over in bed and saw volume 2 of Coleridge on my bedside table. It was open to page 240. When I had left him at midnight, Coleridge was lying in a sweat-soaked bed at the Grey Hound Inn in Bath, in December 1813, having argued with two housemates and fled into the night. He was nearly penniless; had missed the last stagecoach and walked five miles in a rainstorm, dragging a bag of books and old clothes; had a terrible cold; and was hallucinating from an opium overdose.
I was relieved. The runaway was someone else’s responsibility. Nevertheless, I was unable to settle down to work until I had read far enough ahead to assure myself that Coleridge would be properly taken care of.
Coleridge on The Faerie Queene:
The marvellous independence and true imaginative absence of all particular space or time in The Fairie Queene. It is in the domain neither of history nor geography; it is ignorant of all artificial boundary, all material obstacles, it is truly in land of Faery; that is, of mental space.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:
It is pagan Coleridge, not Protestant Wordsworth, who is the begetter of nineteenth-century archetypal vision.
William Wordsworth on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
[It has] great defects…first, that the principal person has no distinct character…secondly that he does not act, but is continually acted upon.
His mind was clothed with wings.
Along with Doctor Johnson, Coleridge is the great critical intelligence among English poets, but a very different kind of intelligence from the Doctor’s. His interests extend beyond poetry to society, philosophy and religion, but poetry is the heart of wider concerns with language and the power of imagination and ideas. Unlike Johnson, he had no settled opinions; he was a man in search of truth, perplexed by personal, philosophical, political and aesthetic indecisions. We find consistency of principle, uncertainty of application. His mature political thought is lucid, but he cannot – for example in On the Constitution of Church and State – bridge the gap between idea and implementation in practical, institutional forms. Yet Hazlitt is wrong: Coleridge does not indulge in casuistry to get out of an intellectual corner.
Uncertainty has aesthetic consequences. Unlike other Romantic poets, he never establishes a personal mode. He writes Augustan verse of little distinction, discursive poems, then the handful of meditations and nature poems in which he is most himself, and finally three great poems that defy classification: “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Of these poems, two are ostensibly unfinished. Throughout his work there are fragments, including “The Destiny of Nations”. Other poems he worked on for years and remained dissatisfied. His “Dejection: An Ode” adopts a fragmentary form, juxtaposing verse paragraphs that are thematically but not logically sequential. Formal fragmentation reflects the theme: like a modernist, he breaks it to make it whole. He did not complete his vast projected philosophical work. His attempt to schematize transcendental philosophy distorted the ideas imagination could apply but analysis unraveled.
George Whalley on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
The Mariner’s passivity is Coleridge’s own.
Coleridge on Edmund Spenser:
In Spenser … we trace a mind constitutionally tender … I had almost said effeminate.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:
“Christabel” is a pornographic parable of western sex and power. It is the English Faust.
Jorge Luis Borges:
If you take a great critic, let’s say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel that he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think – at least I always feel – that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another….After reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet had been created for you…
Edward E. Bostetter:
[“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”] is the morbidly self-obsessed account of a man who through his act has become the center of universal attention.
Coleridge on “Imagination”:
A mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and place, blended with and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word ‘choice.’
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:
“The Ancient Mariner” is one of the greatest poems in English, yet what it achieves is almost in defiance of language. Vision and execution often wildly diverge. Coleridge’s “conversational poems” are in better taste; but they are minor works in literary history, belonging to the age of sensibility, and would never have made the poet’s fame.
Coleridge on “Imagination”:
This power … reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects, a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement.
Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” achieves what no other literary ballad of the period did: the tone of folk ballad. In an impersonal ballad singer’s voice, Coleridge explores in dramatic ways a theme developed in the discursive poems. The Mariner chooses one of three young men bound for a wedding feast. He tells his story: his ship, ice-bound near the pole, the albatross of good omen, his gratuitous act of slaying it, the punishment wrought on the whole crew; his individual penance and regeneration when in his heart he blessed the creatures about the becalmed ship. Released, he travels the world teaching reverence, love of God and his creatures. For six hundred and twenty-five lines Coleridge touches our deepest interests. The poem works on us like a dream: questions of belief or disbelief never arise: we attend. Passages have entered common language; the images draw back to consciousness folk elements and hermetic symbolism. Wordsworth wrote privately to the publisher urging that the poem be dropped from future editions of Lyrical Ballads as being out of key with the other poems in the book. He was uncomfortable with its dimensions and themes: Did he sense, too, how much more powerful, durable and inevitable it was than the other poems in the book?
Coleridge on Donne:
The vividness of the descriptions or declamations in Donne, or Dryden, is as much and as often derived from the forced fervour of the describer as from the reflections, forms or incidents which constitute their subject and materials. The wheels take fire from the mere rapidity of their motion.
On Donne’s Poetry
BY Samuel Taylor Coleridge
With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots,
Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots;
Rhyme’s sturdy cripple, fancy’s maze and clue,
Wit’s forge and fire-blast, meaning’s press and screw.
Coleridge on John Dryden:
Dryden’s genius was of that sort which catches fire by its own motion; his chariot wheels get hot by driving fast.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
I thought the albatross a superficial appendage, a kind of pin the tail on the donkey, and I found the stress on it by teachers and critics unconvincing and moralistic. Long afterward, I learned it was Wordsworth who suggested the idea of the albatross to Coleridge, which proves my point. This albatross is the biggest red herring in poetry. Its only significance is as a vehicle of transgression.
If Mr Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor, and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler.
Michael Schmidt on “Kubla Khan”:
What the poem means is inseparable from the words and rhythms it uses. Paraphrase hardly gets a toehold. It is not until the second half of the poem that the “I” appears: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw …” … The first half of the poem evokes the “stately pleasure dome”. In the second half the “I” wishes to retrieve it. Could he hear the music he once heard in a vision, he could re-create in air “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” He would be like Kubla Khan, himself sacred and exalted. The dulcimer recalls the harps we hear elsewhere in Coleridge’s work, instruments that harmonize the world of ideas and the world of the senses, and liberate imagination from the constraints of literal vision. In “Kubla Khan” the poetry achieves an intensity unprecedented in the discursive poems. The dulcimer’s sound would recreate not things perceived but imagined. Contemplation authenticates it; it can even transform and generate objects of contemplation, as in “Frost at Midnight”. “Could I revive within me”: it is a conditional clause. In fact he cannot. He cannot even “complete” the poem. If he could, he could complete himself, become one with “flashing eye” and “floating hair”. Yet from its partial disclosure we can infer the vision. The poem is about desire, not the failure of desire. In this thwarted hope resides its power.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Coleridge is overcome by anxiety and surrenders to Wordsworth and to Christianity. Love and prayer are a ludicrously inadequate response to the chthonian horror that Coleridge has summoned from the dark heart of existence. The roiling sea-snakes are the barbaric energy of matter, the undulating spiral of birth and death. What is the proper response to this ecstatic hallucination? Coleridge is hemmed in.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
I have loved with enthusiastic self-oblivion those who have been well pleased that I should, year after year, flow with a hundred nameless rills into their main stream.
William Hazlitt on the Lake Poets:
But the poets, the creatures of sympathy, could not stand the frowns both of king and people. They did not like to be shut out when places and pensions, when the critic’s praises, and the laurel-wreath were about to be distributed. They did not stomach being sent to Coventry, and Mr Coleridge sounded a retreat for them by the help of casuistry, and a musical voice.
–I walked with [Coleridge] at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two Miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things– let me see if I can give you a list–Nightingales, Poetry–on Poetical sensation–Metaphysics–Different genres and species of Dreams–Nightmare–a dream accompanied by a sense of touch–single and double touch–A dream related–First and second consciousness–Monsters–the Kraken–Mermaids–southey believes in them–southeys belief too much diluted–A Ghost story–Good morning–I heard his voice as he came towards me–I heard it as he moved away–I had heard it all the interval–if it may be called so.
Coleridge on The Ancient Mariner:
The only or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader.
from “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”
By Lord Byron
Shall gentle Coleridge pass unnotic’d here,
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear?
Though themes of innocence amuse him best,
Yet still obscurity’s a welcome guest.
If Inspiration should her aid refuse
To him who takes a pixey for a muse,
Yet none in lofty numbers can surpass
The bard who soars to elegize an ass.
So well the subject suits his noble mind,
He brays the laureat of the long-ear’d kind.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to a friend about his laudanum use:
The longer I abstained, the higher my spirits were, the keener my enjoyments–till the moment, the direful moment, arrived, when my pulse began to fluctuate, my Heart to palpitate, & such a dreadful falling-abroad, as it were, of my whole frame, such intolerable Restlessness & incipient Bewilderment, that in the last of my several attempts to abandon the dire poison, I exclaimed in agony, what I now repeat in seriousness & solemnity–“I am too poor to hazard this! Had I but a few hundred Pounds, but 200£, half to send to Mrs. Coleridge, & half to place myself in a private madhouse, where I could procure nothing but what a Physician thought proper, & where a medical attendant could be constantly with me for two or three months (in less than that time Life or Death would be determined) then there might be Hope. Now there is none!” –O God! how willingly would I place myself under Dr. Fox in his Establishment–for my Case is a species of madness, only that it is a derangement, an utter impotence of the Volition, & not of the intellectual Faculties–You bid me rouse myself–go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, & that will cure him. Alas! (he would reply) that I cannot move my arms is my Complaint & my misery.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, on Christabel:
Its two parts were written in 1797 and 1800. Coleridge withheld it from publication, but it circulated privately in manuscript. Its release in 1816 was at the urging of Byron, who loved it and called it the source of all of Sir Walter Scott’s verse tales. Coleridge never regarded Christabel as done and claimed plans for three more parts. His mind returned fretfully to the poem for years, and his inability to finish it was an abiding disappointment. For a century critics have advanced various theories to account for this. The corpus of commentary on Christabel is very small. Probably no poem in literary history has been so abused by moralistic Christian readings. Its blatant lesbian pornography has been ignored or blandly argued away.
Coleridge, on late-stage John Milton:
My mind is not capable of forming a more august conception than arises from the contemplation of this greatest man in his latter days: poor, sick, old, blind, slandered, persecuted: ‘Darkness before and danger’s voice behind,’ in an age in which he was as little understood by the party for whom, as by that against whom, he had contended, and among men before whom he strode so far as to dwarf himself by the distance; yet still listening to the music of his own thoughts, or, if additionally cheered, yet cheered only by the prophetic faith of two or three solitary individuals, he did nevertheless
… argue not
Against Heaven’s hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bore up and steer’d
He busied himself for a year or two with vibrations and vibratiuncles and the great law of association that binds all things in its mystic chain, and the doctrine of Necessity (the mild teacher of Charity) and the Millenium, anticipative of a life to come – and he plunged deep into the controversy of Matter and Spirit, and, as an escape from Dr Priestley’s Materialism, where he felt himself imprisoned by the logician’s spell, like Ariel in the cloven pine-tree, he became suddenly enamoured of Bishop Berkeley’s fairy-world, and used in all companies to build the universe, like a brave poetical fiction, of fine words … But poetry redeemed him from this spectral philosophy, and he bathed his heart in beauty. Alas! ‘Frailty, thy name is Genius!’ –What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning, and humanity? It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier. — Such, and so little is the mind of man!
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, on Christabel:
Coleridge, like Blake, senses the decadent perversity in Spenser. Christabel‘s rape theme comes from the rape-infested Faerie Queen. But virginity has lost its Christian militancy. No armour defends Coleridge’s heroine against sexual predators. Christabel’s simple femininity is her undoing. Daemonic rapacity surges into her and obliterates her maidenhood. She is no match for hermaphrodite aggression. There is no longer a working Christian scheme to divert lust into sublimation. The Spenserian bower where Christabel is lost is her own.
The theme of fascination in Coleridge’s “Mystery Poems” is that of an ambivalent power. He giveds us, as it were, a poetic thesaurus dictionary of terms ranging from thoroughly “good” fascination to thoroughly “bad” fascination.”
Coleridge, Biographia Literaria:
It has been observed before that images, however beautiful, though faithfully copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterise the poet. They become proof of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or when they have the effect of reducing multitude to unity, or succession to an instant; or lastly, when a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet’s own spirit.
[Seamus] Heaney is a Wordsworth man and I’m a Coleridge man. I love the poetry, and the trajectory of his life has always fascinated me. His Biographia is a complete mess, but is still full of the most wonderful stuff.
A.S. Byatt on Ford Madox Ford and Coleridge:
In fact Ford’s literary “character” is not unlike that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also his own worst enemy. Both were men with a passion for exact thought and exact use of words who nevertheless had justified reputations as appalling liars. Both wrote major works o art, and a considerable body of writing by any standard (Ford wrote eighty-one books). Yet both were felt not to have fulfilled their promise: to have wasted their talents. Both boasted, and both devoted themselves, with tact, humility and, most important, appropriate and adequate intelligence, to the furthering of the work, and the understanding of the work of writers they felt were greater than themselves. Both were grandiose and incompetent, journalistic entrepreneurs, whose periodicals are nevertheless literary landmarks. Both rewrote, to our benefit, literary history. Both were not insular – Ford knew French, German, Italian, Provencal literature, and used it, as Coleridge knew German, French and Italian. Perhaps this last is another reason why Ford found his best reception, and his sharpest critics, among the Americans. He wrote about, and claimed that he was, the English gentleman: he was in fact a polyglot, half-German, brought up amongst the aesthetes and Bohemians who frequented the house of his grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown.
Coleridge on James Thomson:
The love of nature seems to have led Thomson to a cheerful religion; and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. The one would carry his fellowmen along with him into nature; the other flies to nature from his fellow-men. In chastity of diction, however, and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson immeasurably below him; yet still I feel the latter to have been a born poet.
Wordsworth, with Coleridge now beside, and now beyond him – extended the language and thematic range of Rnglish poetry into the new century.
From Coleridge’s notebooks:
…a most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it out–I caught hold of her arm fast–a horrid feel–Wordsworth cried out aloud to me hearing my scream–
I was followed up & down by a frightful pale woman who, I thought, wanted to kiss me & had the property of giving me a shameful Disease by breathing in the face.
& again I dreamt that a fighre of a woman of a gigantic Height, dim & indefinite & smokelike appeared–& that I was forced to run up towards it–
Thoughts about the Person from Porlock
By Stevie Smith
Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?
He could have hid in the house.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.
He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
It was not right, it was wrong,
But often we all do wrong.
May we inquire the name of the Person from Porlock?
Why, Porson, didn’t you know?
He lived at the bottom of Porlock Hill
So had a long way to go,
He wasn’t much in the social sense
Though his grandmother was a Warlock,
One of the Rutlandshire ones I fancy
And nothing to do with Porlock,
And he lived at the bottom of the hill as I said
And had a cat named Flo,
And had a cat named Flo.
I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,
Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them
And they need not stay.
Why do they grumble so much?
He comes like a benison
They should be glad he has not forgotten them
They might have had to go on.
These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.
William Hazlitt on Coleridge:
All that he has done of moment, he had done twenty years ago: since then he may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, has a logic of its own as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more and more fugitive causes. In the truly great poets, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word.