7. Hell to Heaven via Purgatory
Coleridge had a strong belief in what he called the “esemplastic” imagination, which makes different things into one, and in the power of the artist not merely to reflect the world around him, but to also create a new one, especially through symbols that are harmonious in themselves, and connectors to the world. He believed that art should represent multeity in unity, or the one via the many. He said that imagination:
“reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation 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.”
Yet either in spite or because of his very inflated notions of what the human imagination does, or what the artist ought to do, Coleridge had a whole lot of trouble finishing things. He had a whole lot of trouble with endings in general. As we’ve already said, the Romantic Age is filled with giant works and position papers on the importance of organic unity and integrity in works of art.
It’s also filled with incomplete fragments. Of these, none is more suggestive and representative than the two poems that constitute 2/3 of the mysterious trilogy of gothic high Romantic poem he wrote between 1797-1800, and worked on intermittently afterward. Christabel and and Kubla Khan are both fragments, and even The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has a strong conclusion, is about events that have no ending, and about a man fated like the wandering Jew or Wagner’s Flying Dutchman to live forever and repeat the events of his life.
Attempts to explain why one cannot finish a work are at best, left to psychiatrists. Coleridge was obsessed with mysterious crimes, the nature of punishment, retribution and penance, and with the possibility that telling a tale or repeating it, might be in itself a form of retribution and salvation.
All three of these poems differ from those conversation poems we looked at in the last lecture. Whereas the conversation poems are realistic, these are gothic. Whereas the conversation poems place Coleridge and friends and family in a localized landscape that has its own symbolic dimensions, these seems to take place in a never-neverland or far off place. These are Romantic poems in the old sense, they’re from the world of romance, with a strong medieval and foreign tinge. They have little to do with England in 1800.
Yet this was after all, part of what Wordsworth and Coleridge attempted to do in Lyrical Ballads. Their wish, as we have heard, was to combine the far off and exotic with the commonplace and the domestic. Sometimes they could do this by lending a Romantic cast to seemingly ordinary events, as Wordsworth did in the Lucy poems.
Yet now, in this trio of poems, Coleridge wants to harness the mysterious and gothic, and bring them down to us, showing us their immoral and imaginative relevance. The genre called the gothic novel, was wildly popular in England in the 1790s and came replete with castles, prisons, mysterious forces, gloomy landscapes, and sexual perversions. It’s a genre that titillates, terrifies, and puts us in touch with the darker underpinnings of our own psyches, those libidinal and destructive forces that Freud in his own way, would examine at the end of the 19th century.
Coleridge loves gothic fiction. From the early age, he read everything associated with romance, with the far off and the unusual. In a letter to Thomas Pool he said:
“From my early reading of fairy tales and genies, etc. my mind had been habituated to the vast, and I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions, not by my sight, even at that age. Should children be permitted to read romances and relations of giants and magicians and genies? I know all that has been said against it, but I have formed my faith in the affirmative. I know no other way of giving my mind a love of the great and the whole. Those who have been lead to the same truths, step by step, through the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess. The contemplate nothing but parts, and all parts are necessarily little, and the universe to them is bit a mass of little things.”
Reading fantastic literature, fairy tales, science fiction, gothic romances, in other words, puts one in touch with the vastness of the universe, allows one to make intuitive, imaginative leaps, to learn things, not through the limited access of the senses, but through giant steps of feeling. There’s something dangerous and forbidding here, and for this reason Coleridge was both attracted to both the realm of the sublime, and also sacred of it.
It also explains why, as in the Aeolian Harp, he was deeply sensitive to the relationship between mental activity, especially on orthodox imaginings and crime and punishment. Coleridge was scared by his own unconventional mind! He wanted to write an epic poem on the origin of evil. After completing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he wrote to his brother:
“I believe most steadfastly in original, that from our mother’s wombs, our understandings are darkened. Even when our understandings are in the light, that our organization is depraved, and our volitions imperfect. Here’s a thoroughly conventional Christian sentiment indeed, and it’s this religious side of Coleridge that comes out, at least partially, in Christabel and the Rime and the Ancient Mariner.
These poems, and Kubla Kahn still more, represent Coleridge’s voracious reading. They are literary poems in the highest sense. The first of them is a stylistic tour de force, written in a slightly irregular form that gives us four beats to a line, without counting the syllables therein, and which relies mostly on rhyming couplets, while also varying them with others sound effects.
The poem deals with the seduction of its titular heroine, by a mysterious snake woman or witch or vampire, or some other supernaturally disguised being, named Geraldine, whom Christabel brings home to her father’s castle, where she throws both father and daughter in a mysterious trance. Christabel herself has a name that combines those of two primal victims, Christ and Abel. Yet it’s only through her help that the evil Geraldine can cross the threshold of the castle. Coleridge wished to make the poem a demonstration of how:
“the virtuous of this world, saved the wicked”
So ultimately there would be atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the unfinished story. Here’s what the poem sounds like however. We’ll read some lines from the end of part I, when Geraldine has persuaded Christabel to take her into her womb and spend the night with her.
“Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound,
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest, Then
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
0 shield her! shield sweet Christabel!
Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly, as one defied,
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden’s side!
And in her arms the maid she took,
Geraldine seems partly to regret what she’s about to do! Yet she them proceeds to snare the innocent Christabel, whatever that might mean. The following day in part II, she persuasively convinces Christabel’s father Sir Leoline, that she is a seduced and abandoned maiden, desperate to be saved. For his part, Sir Leoline takes the side of Geraldine, against his own daughter, and the tale ends, incomplete.
Speculation is vain of course, as to why Coleridge was unwilling or unable to finish the tale. Yet what is striking, in addition to the impassioned versification and melody and slightly archaic verse, is the very fact that Coleridge should choose a tale of guilt and victimization as his subject, as if he himself lacked any freewill in his selection.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the poem that leads off the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, but that Coleridge fussed with for another 20 years, at least we have completion and purpose. Like the Romantic nature lyrics and contemplation poems we’ve already discussed, this poem has a circular shape. That Mariner must go though the world, repeating his story to any listener who he identifies. Yet like Christabel, that also has an archaic flavor in its spelling its settings, and above all, in its marginal prose gloss that Coleridge provided years after the first publication.
Coleridge kept working at it, adding a Latin epigraph that urges us to be mindful in our dealings with supernatural events, less we confuse certain and uncertain ones. Then also writing the beautiful gloss, which is itself a kind of literary criticism, a commentary upon the poetic tale which its readers are experiencing at the same time.
Let’s begin at the end. The Mariner preaches a moral of the same Sunday school sort we’ve heard in Wordsworth’s concluding admonition in Nutting. There, it was “don’t walk on the grass.” Now it’s “don’t shoot the animals,” with overtones of SPCA, or people for the ethical treatment of animal sentiments.
” He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
It’s an easy moral, capable of being understood by a small child. Right from the beginning, the poem seemed to bewilder its readers. Anna Barbauld, a writer whom Coleridge knew, said that she admired the poem, yet also told him there were two faults in it. It was improbable, and had no moral. Coleridge responds:
“As for the probability, I owns that this might admit some question, but as to want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgment, the poem had too much.”
It’s an interesting conflict of points of view. Mr’s Barbauld could hear the morals certainly, yet obviously it struck her as insufficient to the tale. Coleridge penned the moral, but obviously thought that it failed to do justice to the enormity of the experience the Mariner has just gone through.
Let’s return to the beginning. Why has Coleridge fashioned this tale of voyaging, killing, and repentance, within the form of a framed narrative? The opening and closing of the poem, as well as one long interruption in the middle, present this tale not just as a story, which might have been rendered as an old fashioned ballad with an anonymous narrator merely telling what somebody did to an albatross, but as a story to a specific person, an audience, a wedding-guest, who has been picked out by the Mariner, who obviously both recognizes something in him that will both prompt the Mariner to repeat his tale, and grant the listener the lesson he needs to learn.
Why is it a wedding-guest? It’s for the simple reason that Coleridge intends to place his adventure in the south seas amid polar coldness, amid the larger frame of ordinary life.
A wedding is a civil and religious union, a bringing together, much like the rook that brought Coleridge together with Charles Lamb at the end of This Lime Tree Bower My Prison. Yet this scene from ordinary human life is shattered. The wedding-guest never gets to the ceremony, and remains an outsider, listening to the music while forever remaining outside the hall.
He resembles in this the Mariner, who remains on the periphery of ordinary social life, for the rest of his days. One outsider taps another man, thereby making him also an outsider. The Mariner holds him:
With his glistening eye. The wedding-guest stood still and listens like a three-years child. The mariner hath his will.”
These lines, like the suggestion that the Mariner should kill the albatross, came from none other than Wordsworth, who helped Coleridge in the planning and execution of the poem, much in the same way that Coleridge helped him with his own verse.
Having captured the wedding-guest’s attention, the Mariner proceeds to tell the story of his trip to the mysterious misty land of ice and snow, into which arrives unheralded an albatross.
“Through the fog it came,
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed in God’s name.”
The bird is like a human being. It seems to be a talisman of good luck, bringing in its wake, a good south wind. For food or play it came to the Mariner’s hello. Part I ends with the poem’s major event:
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.
God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
O Why look’st thou so?”
With my cross-bow I shot the ALBATROSS….
No act in Romantic literature, seems as random and unmotivated as this one. In fact, the killing of the bird is more like something from French existentialism, what Albert Camus would call an acte gratuit, a free gratuitous action that proves that its perpetrator is not constrained by ordinary morality or indeed by any psychological necessity.
Why the Mariner kills the bird, has of course provoked much commentary, but it all comes to this. There is absolutely no reason, either explicit or implicit, to explain the act. Even to compare it to the taking of the apple by Adam and Eve:
“The fruit of that forbidden tree whose taste brought death into the world and all our woe.”
as Milton puts it, won’t do. We’re never told that there was a Godly prohibition against shooting Albatrosses. No, the Mariner performs the act, because he performs the act. It’s from this gratuitous insult to the one life within us and abroad, that the remaining action of the poem succeeds.
Recall Coleridge’s belief in original sin. If the Mariner is merely demonstrating the imperfect nature of the human soul, then we should not be surprised that evil unleashes a dire sequence of events.
Yet notice this as well. The announcement of the killing is the first time in the poem, and only at line 81, that the ordinary I is used:
“With my cross-bow I shot the ALBATROSS….”
The Mariner separates himself from his shipmates. He’s no longer part of a “we.” He is unequivocally alone. He is a solitary individual. Bear him in mind when we turn in subsequent lectures to the Byronic hero, ashamed and brooding. The Mariner commits a seemingly irrational act from which he can never fully recover, even with Christian penance.
All readers sense that the poem’s five central sections, detail the gothic effects of this singular crime. The waters are stilled, the very deep did rot, and every tongue is withered at its root until the end of part II when the Albatross is hung around the Mariner’s neck, a version of the cross. Yet is the Mariner a Christ figure, or has he murdered a Christ figure? We don’t know.
Then enters a phantom ship, man by death and his first mate, the nightmare life and death, at sight of which, all of the Mariner’s shipmates give up the ghost and die. Some 200 men have now suffered the consequences of his murder, yet he lives on. Then right in the middle of the poem’s seven sections, a climax of sorts occurs.
“…Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony…”
The Mariner tries to pray, but he finds his heart is dry as dust. Instead he watches the moving moon go up the sky, sending her light down beside the shadow of the ship. In this shadow the Mainer sees the glimmering electric water snakes, garish, unappealing creatures which nevertheless prompted him an unconscious irrational aesthetic response:
“Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
0 happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
The Mariner blesses them unaware, almost in the same way he instantly, and without motivation, shot the bird at the beginning of the poem. Coleridge is dramatizing the inexplicability of human behavior. Crime is mysterious, blessing is equally mysterious. Yet punishment is apparently forever. The Mariner returns home and hears spiritual voices declare that although he has done penance, he will continue to do penance. There is no end to his suffering. He goes home to be greeted by a pilot, and the pilot’s boy and a hermit. What is his effect on them? Well, he says:
“the Pilot shrieked
And fell down in a fit;
The holy Hermit raised his eyes,
I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now Both crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while…”
His eyes went to and fro, and the Hermit can only ask him what manner of man art thou? The question provokes a response. So we have, in other words, a kind of conversation poem. It began with the sailors stopping a wedding guest and holding him with his eyes, in order to recount his story. It ends with the first of such recounting. The hermit’s question who are you, what are you? The Mariner responds with something like an epileptic fit. He says:
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
This is not a case of heartburn. It’s what Freud would call repetition compulsion. The Mariner must constantly confess. It is as though by repeating his tale endlessly, he might be able to find solace.
At the same time there is something strange and secret in his selection of an audience, or might we say, of a victim. He does not tell his tale indiscriminantly to anyone. Instead, as he passes from land to land with his strange powers of speech, he says:
“That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.”
Neither the Mariner nor the wedding-guest, ever gets to the church. They’ve been excluded, and the Mariner disappears while the wedding-guest is irrevocably affected:
“He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn.
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”
Somehow the tale of the Ancient Mariner is a lesson in the reception of tragic stories. Only a select few can truly learn from them, and they have the not so distinguished fate to be singled out for a lesson that will make them wise but sad.
The sense of exclusivity is rounded out in Coleridge’s finest fragment, Kubla Khan. Like Christabel and This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, it was published with an explanatory note, this one the most famous self-defense in all of English literature. It is probably entirely made-up!
Coleridge says he awoke from an opium-induced dream, in which he was thinking about his reading in Kubla Kahn. Upon awaking, he sat down, he says, to compose the whole dream, yet then he was interrupted by a person on business from Porlock, and was unable to regain his memory when he sat down again.
Scholars have long-disputed almost every facet of this excuse. In other words, the fragment is itself complete, and its rationalization is merely that, a kind of rational lie. It’s virtually impossible to hear even the first lines of the poem, at least for Willard, without thinking of Charles Foster Kane and Orson Wells, those other two megalomaniacs. Here are the first two stanzas of the fragment:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where AIph, 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!
These lines surely represent an act of creation among many other things. As God declares let there be light, so Kubla decrees a stately pleasure dome in the land constructed around motifs of beginnings and endings, even alphabetically this is true. The K of Kubla comes between the A of the Alph and the X of Xanadu.
The Alph comes from underground, then comes up and goes down into a sunless sea. In the limited time and space of human life, Kubla has managed to contain, to girdle a cosmos, a miniaturized garden of Eden, a place of light and shadow in which civilized life and its savage underside exist together.
There’s something orgasmic in the way the Alph bursts forth, although Willard cannot quite agree with a student of his, who once suggested that the phrase “fast thick pants” refers to trousers! The sacred river is thrown up in a geyser of action, and then it sinks back down, meandering mazily until it retreats back underground for a return to a lifeless ocean and darkness.
Yet now the poem seems to begin again, with an entirely different vision or story. The third stanza read thus:
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.”
Here we have a female artist, who like Kubla, has associations with places often likened to the garden of Eden. Coleridge has established a chain of creations. He seems to be saying that if he could revive her, he would become so delighted that he too would become a musician and repeat Kubla’s original commands. He could rebuild his dome, and even those icy caves. He could become a potent figure.
Are the people at the end, circling the poet because they want to worship him, or because they want to contain him. Is he so strong that they fear him, his flashing eyes and floating hair, make him into a figure of the inspired, slightly mad, visionary bard. The Mariner too, had a wild eye which held the wedding-guest.
Here is Coleridge’s finest statement about the powers of the artist. Yet it is a statement alas, contained within a poem that everywhere enacts the failure of the artist, to make good on his own promises. It is the sense of failure, rather than the heightened dreams of success, that ultimately came to overtake Coleridge as a poet. This explains in part his decision to write more prose than poetry in the second half of his life.
In the next lecture we’ll look at some of his most successful poems, which are paradoxically poems that treat the very subject of failure, and we shall do so with regard to Coleridge’s own very complicated feelings about his friend and role model, we might even say his competitor, William Wordsworth.