6. Coleridge and the Art of Conversation
Like T.S. Eliot in the 20th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a master of poetry and prose. Like Samuel Johnson, the great English critic in the century before him, Coleridge had a voracious and far-ranging mind, as well adapted to philosophy and high-abstraction, journalism and politics, religion and theological speculation, as to the composition of poetry itself.
Like Johnson and Eliot, he clarified the aesthetics, the taste of an age. Whereas Johnson speaks on behalf of the Augustan neo-Classical virtues of commonsense, reasonableness and clarity, and where Eliot develops what we might call the 20th century’s fondness for arcane symbolism, Coleridge wrote on behalf of the great Romantic power, the imagination, whose workings he defined in his prose, and exemplified in his verse.
Coleridge was an all-purpose intellectual, whose mind contained multitudes, and his own darting intellect could never stay contented for too long with any single idea. He was the youngest of 14 children, as his father had married twice, born in Devonshire in 1772. The father was a country preacher, a learned man whom his son later compared to the unworldly parson Adams in Henry Fielding’s novel, Joseph Andrews. Young Sam was the Benjamin of the family, the favorite of his father and a precocious boy from the very start. Like many youngest children, he was cobbled and neglected in equal measure. He was a voracious reader and a dreamer.
In a series of autobiographical letters, written in 1797 to his friend Thomas Pool, whose voracity we have no reason to doubt, Coleridge gives an honest appraisal of himself as a youngster. Three details stand out, and first of all, Coleridge reports via his mother, that his first words sometime in his second year, were uttered when he accidentally pulled a live coal from the fire, and while his hand was being dressed by the physician he exclaimed, “Nasty Dr. Young!”
It’s interesting that his first words were a relatively complete sentence. No goo-goo or mama for him! Also, they were occasioned by pain and suffering. Coleridge was to remain in various states of physical and mental anguish for most of his life.
The second detail is Coleridge’s recollection of becoming an early reader. His father disapproved of the Arabian Nights and Robinson Caruso, which his son had been reading, so he burned them! Consequently, says Coleridge:
“I became a dreamer and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity. I was fretful and inordinately passionate. Since I could not play at anything and was slothful, I was despised and hated by the boys. Yet because I could read and spell and had, I may truly say, a memory and understanding forced into almost an unnatural rightness, I was flattered and wondered at by all the old women, so I became very vain and despised most of the boys that were at all near my own age. Before I was 8 years old, I was a character. Sensibility, imagination, vanity, sloth, and feelings of deep and bitter content of all who traversed the orbit of my understanding, were even then prominent and manifest.”
As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined. Coleridge was this way throughout much of his life, always berating himself for laziness. Like Dr. Johnson, another monster of so-called lethargy and indolence, but like Johnson as well, Coleridge’s collected works would put the work of any of us who claimed to be industrious, to shame.
The third symbolic memory of his letters, deals with a mock or actual struggle between Coleridge and his brother Frank, who in order to force the youngster, crumbled a piece of cheese which Mrs. Coleridge was going to toast for young Sam. The boy threw himself at his older brother, who then pretended to be seriously hurt. Guilt-ridden, young Sam was frightened, until Frank leaped up and gave him a severe blow to the face, at which point Sam seized a knife. But his mother came in and he, expecting a beating, ran off and his in the woods, hoping to scare the family to death.
What do we have here, other than a little Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau tale of sibling rivalry, or a tale of victim and victimizer, crime and punishment, action and betrayal, guilt and redemption, in which it is difficult to assign any clear-cut blame?
The victim becomes in turn, a victimizer, and this sense of crime was to manifest itself years later in Coleridge’s greatest work, especially the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
When his father died in 1781, Coleridge was sent to Christ Hospital in London, where on of his first and closest friends was Charles Lamb. From there he went to Jesus College in Cambridge, where his undergraduate years were neither happy nor productive. At one point he thought to run off and join the army, but fortunately for him and the army he was rescued by his brothers and brought back. He left university without a degree.
Having met the radical poet Robert Salley, and joining with him in various schemes, Coleridge began to plan a utopian socialist community to be called a pantisocracy, in which members would hold property in common. He and Salley, with their wives, Edith and Sarah Fricker, who were milliners daughters from Bristol, would move, according to this plan, to the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Fortunately the plan fell flat on its face. They may well have not known quite where this location was, in fact!
The marriage to Sarah Fricker was an unhappy one, almost from the beginning. She was no intellectual match for her husband, and he was anything but a good provider, or a protective husband, or father as the children began to arise. Meanwhile he had met Wordsworth, with whom he began planning not only the work that became Lyrical Ballads, but also the great philosophical poem that would become the Prelude. On a personal level, he attached himself to William and Dorothy, and also to William’s soon to be sister in law, Sarah Hutchinson, with whom he fell helplessly in love.
Coleridge began taking laudanum, a liquid form of opium, and a very common over the counter drug around 1800, for the various physical pains that were to plague him for the rest of his life. Much has been written about his opium addiction and its effects, as well as Coleridge’s relationship to later writers also under the spell of alcohol and drugs.
However much he was undone by the opium or by his constant feelings of indolence, we can all only wonder at how much he actually accomplished. He went to Malta in 1805, in hope of finding some relief from his pains, returning to England in 1806. In 1808 he began a series of lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution in London, and became a kind of freelance public intellectual, and he began writing journalism.
By 1810 he had become estranged from the Wordsworth’s, who were, as you might well-imagine, finally tired-out by his passive aggressive neediness. From 1816 until his death in 1834, he settled into Highgate in London, with an apothecary named James Gillman, who helped him control his laudanum addiction. He continued writing both poetry, and especially prose.
His greatest work is pretty much agreed as the Biographia Literaria, an eccentric compilation of literary speculation, practical criticism, translations, or outright plagiarism from German philosophy, remarks on literary journalism, and not coincidentally the first and many people would say, the most salient evaluation of Wordsworth as a poet, of his excellences and faults, the best ever to be written.
Coleridge was a man full of ideas and plans, only a portion of which ever reached fruition. Might not the same be said of everyone? What all of his friends noticed about him, was that whether in good health or bad, he was a great and famous talker. Like Oscar Wilde at the end of the 19th century, he seems to have had a gift of gab that left his listeners mesmerized!
One of those was the impressionable and young poet John Keats, who ran into Coleridge in the spring of 1819, when Keats was 23. On a Sunday stroll in Hampstead Heath, Keats saw Coleridge with one of his medical professors. He joined the pair and walked with them for two miles at a slow pace, for perhaps an hour. Keats says:
“In those two miles, he broached a thousand things. Let’s see if we can give you a list:
Different genera and species of dreams
Dream accompanied by a sense of touch
First and second consciousness
‘Good Morning,’ I heard his voice as he came toward me. I heard it as he moved away. I had heard it all in the interval.”
He had heard the voice. For his part, Coleridge recalled that the conversation lasted only a minute or two, which tells us something of his own abstractedness of mind and the speed at which it worked, as well as the veneration of the younger for the older man. Yet it is the idea, as well as the fact of conversation to which we now turn, in our reading of Coleridge’s poetry.
Those who listened to the previous course, will recall a special genre of poems called the Romantic nature lyric, which we may attribute the collaboration of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey and Coleridge’s masterful Frost at Midnight are both examples of the genre, and we spoke of them briefly in that course.
The genre attempts to reproduce a moment in time, beginning with a specific scene, taking cognizance with the physical and human surroundings, meandering, speculating, and weaving a path of meditation and inwardness until returning at the end, to the place, the spot or the time, where the poem began.
The poems are usually composed in Miltonic blank verse, iambic pentameter, with a conversational flow. Coleridge applied the label “a conversation poem” to the Nightingale, a 1798 poem that found its way into the Lyrical Ballads, and to another early poem called Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement, he affixed a slightly misquoted phrase from the Latin poet Horace “sermoni propiora” (suitable for conversation), in order to signal a kind of middle style between high poetry, the ambitions of odes and epics, and lower kinds of speech.
Like Wordsworth, in other words, he’s conscious of trying to return poetry to a base in the spoken language, or to an imagined, fictional version of what speech may be like. Two of these conversation poems bear looking into more closely, both for their style and for what they suggest about what the figure Coleridge himself cuts as a poet in his own work.
The first is called The Eolian Harp, written by the 23 year old Coleridge, recently married and addressed to his wife. It sets the stage for Coleridge’s intellectual and philosophical musings throughout the rest of his life. Whatever else we might say of Coleridge, one thing is clear. He knew himself. This poem shows how at the age of 23, he was constantly playing with ideas and was troubled by the very fact of doing so.
Interestingly his first child was named Hartley, in honor of the philosopher named David Hartley, and his second, Berkeley, after the English idealist philosopher. He was susceptible to thought and to thinkers. In a remark quoted in his table talk, Coleridge once brilliantly observed of Hamlet:
“Hamlet’s character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit, over the particular. He does not want courage, skill, will, or opportunity. Yet every incident sets him thinking, and it is curious and at the same time strictly natural, that Hamlet, whom all the play sees reason itself should be impelled at last by mere accident to affect his object.”
Willard has a smack of Hamlet himself, if he may say so! In this poem, Coleridge paints a picture of himself and wife, sitting in a pastoral scene by their cottage, watching the clouds around the setting sun, catching the scents from the nearby bean fields, and enjoying a moment of idyllic stillness. In their window is braced an Aeolian Harp, and 8 or 10 stringed instrument on a piece of wood, named for Aeolis, the Greek god of the winds, which picks up sounds the way a Japanese wind chime does.
It became a favorite image of Coleridge and other Romantic poets, for the operations of the human mind, which is responsive to and echoing the sounds of the natural world. Yet listen to how Coleridge describes the lute:
“And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caress’d,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover, I
t pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers.
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam’d wing!”
What’s Coleridgean about this description is first of all, the fact that he compares the relation of harp to wind, to a sexual one, the harp being a coy maiden gradually seduced and played upon by the act of wind.
Next, that although there is something magical and fairyland-like in the subsequent images of elves and birds of paradise, there’s also something potentially criminal and suspect in the way the lute tempts the winds to repeat the wrong.
Wordsworth would never associate such harmonies with criminality or wrongdoing, but apparently Coleridge does. Their follows a section that Coleridge added some 20 years after the original poem was finished, a kind of intrusive second thought. This draws out the parallel between the harp and the window, an organic philosophy of life that makes of the universe a harmonious whole. Coleridge exclaims:
“0! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.”
In other words, a perfect reciprocity exists between outer and inner, between the phenomena of light and sound, between man and nature. Even the wonderful verb “meets” suggests both a going out and a reciprocal exchange.
Yet Coleridge cannot leave well-enough alone. He now compares his own state and mind to the harp, but his diction in the following lines, continues the sense that he is not altogether comfortable. He says:
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!”
Words like uncalled, idle, flitting, and above all, indolent, suggest that Coleridge feels a bit nervous or nudgy with the very idea of lolling about and receiving intellectual transmissions from the natural world. He now asks:
“if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?”
Yet he cannot be satisfied. This is because he ends the poem with his wife, a thoroughly conventional woman, as we know, who darts him a glance of mild reprove and says, although he never quotes her, something like “Come off it Sam, get back to work, get back to reality, just believe in Christianity.” Now he refers to his own former thoughts as:
“These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring.”
The poem ends with Coleridge hearing his wife express, or projecting into his wife, upon his wife, his own doubts about his enterprise. His mind is active and creative, “plastic,” to use his technical word. Yet it is also, if viewed more negatively, flitting, idle, indolent, and certainly unorthodox. So for those unorthodoxies, Coleridge was to remain profoundly ambivalent his entire life.
Coleridge composed a far greater conversation poem two years later, called This Lime Tree Bower My Prison (1797), whose very title suggests the ways the mind might combine disparate images and values. A bower, like a prison, is a place of enclosure. Yet a bower is natural, nurturing, and protective, while a prison is suffocating and punitive.
The poet felt the need to attach an explanatory note to the poem, saying that in June of 1797, he was visited by friends. Yet he suffered an accident and was prevented on going with him on an evening walk. In fact, the friend was Charles Lamb, his old school chum, and the accident involved a pan of boiling milk that his wife accidentally spilled on him.
Yet the opening lines certainly sounds more desperate and self-pitying in their expostulation of abandonment, than the facts of the case might allow. Here’s how the poem begins:
“Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison!”
It’s a nice detail, that Coleridge is the only poet to Willard’s knowledge to have begun now only one, but two poems with that idiomatic English word “well.” His Dejection Ode, similarly begins with resignation:
“Well, if the bard was weather wise who made the grand old ballad of Sir Patrick…”
Talk of conversation, this poet had it down pat. Well well! Well, the poet’s response to missing the afternoon walk, seems far in excess of the situation, feeling he is abandoned forever. Methinks the poet dost protest too much in the following lines, saying:
“I have lost Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge—that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall!”
This is a wonderful piece of natural description. Coleridge and Wordsworth agreed that a natural landscape with people in it, like one of those landscape pictures by Claude Lorrain or Nicolas Poussin, was the way to represent humanity’s relationship to the external world. In this vicarious travel log, Coleridge uses natural details in emblematic ways. Notice the walkers are making a descent down into darkness, as if almost a natural version of an epic march to an underworld. There they see the single pathetic tree, trapped in a landscape.
Trapped like whom, we wonder? Well, like Coleridge himself, who is trapped in his own bower. The solitary ash tree is a projection of Coleridge, the trapped poet. Yet now as Coleridge is reliving the walk of his friends, which he has been prevented in taking in the flesh, he sees them rise up to a mountaintop and begins to identify and rejoice with his friend Charles Lamb, who is pent-up prison-like city of London.
An aside is that coincidentally, Lamb had just dealt with a horrible incident involving his sister Mary, who in a fit of insanity had killed their mother, rather than remand her to prison, Lamb volunteered to tend to his sister at home. So he had his own problems as well.
Lamb is another reflection of his old school pal, a stand-in, so to speak, who is witnessing the natural beauties that Coleridge can only recite, but cannot see. Coleridge envisions for his friend, a rapt, ecstatic, almost mystical feeling of oneness with his nature, transcendent and organic, in ways that befit a poet’s Romantic explorations. He says:
“So my friend Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.”
Coleridge is not yet a conventional Christian, but the lines here certainly have a religious note. Lamb seems to have been afforded a vision of God, not directly but indirectly, through a veil. This is of course the way literary symbolism also works, giving us an indirect vision of something transcendent, something we cannot see face to face. Already in 1797, we’re witnessing Coleridge’s move to new kinds of literary techniques, literary principles, and also to the theological speculations that will concern him in the second half of his life.
Having gotten out of himself, so to speak, by imagining what Charles and the others are seeing, Coleridge has miraculously cheered himself up. In the last verse paragraph of the poem, he seems to take a new look, or rather to look for the first time, at his own surroundings and realize that the foliage, the shade, the richly tinned walnut tree, the combination of light and darkness that a painter would call chiaroscuro, the sounds of the bat and the sounds of the solitary bumble bee, singing in the bee flower, have all soothed him, indeed comforted him. The poem has been a journey to a sense of consolation and self-rationalization. It ends with something like a logical note of conciliation and contentment. He says:
“Henceforth I shall know That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;”
(He begins implying that he realizes that people desert people, but nature never does)
“Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.
These lines combine charity and generosity with self-pity and what Emerson would later term “the law of compensation.” Vicariously experiencing his friend’s happiness, allows Coleridge to become happy himself. His very act of blessing the last crow, the last rook, is a semi-religious act that will be repeated as we’ll see in the next lecture, by the Ancient Mariner’s blessing of the water snakes.
This poem dramatizes many of the principles of the Eolian Harp. It shows how life is connected and how human lives may intersect through the intervening force of human perception, imagination, and empathy. The one life within us and abroad, requires a shared communication among people, and also between people and outward circumstances. Notice how a single item, a bird, acts as a single point of communication between Coleridge and Lamb. It’s almost like a formula from trigonometry. Coleridge makes a connection with Lamb, knowing that each of them is looking at the same bird in the sky. The bird has become a piece of connective tissue.
We do well to remember that the very word metaphor means to carry across, or over,
and that the Romantic poet’s use of such images as this one, is one of their legacies to the modern age. They have, not always, not all of them, turned their backs on old fashioned allegories, or more abstract means of making their images resonate. Instead they are relying more apparently on, we suppose, more natural items, such as the way an ash tree may seem almost human, flinging itself across a dell. Also, the way a bird can be a point of contact between two human observers, who looking at it, are put in touch with on another.
For all the Romantics, such connections were crucial. When Wordsworth said that we have all of us, one human heart, and when Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria, claims that:
“All organs of sense are framed for a correspondent world of sense, and we have it. All organs of spirit are framed for a correspondent world of spirit, and the later organs are not developed in all alike.”
When they say that, Wordsworth and Coleridge are both getting at deeper truths concerning the connectedness that exist between people, and between individuals, in the physical as well as the spiritual worlds. Correspondence is the key term here. All of the Romantic’s efforts were focused on reproducing and conveying the ways in which one world or person or thing, may be said to correspond to another.
In the case of Coleridge, this sense of correspondence and the occasional failure of people to recognize or honor it, was to result in his most popular and enduring poem, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, about mysterious crimes and penance, and about what happens to a man that does not honor the fact that we all have, even birds, one similar heart, which marks our participation in the one life within us and abroad.
In the next lecture we shall look at the pseudo-medieval ballad, and examine its place in Romantic literature