8. Rivals and Friends
In the last lecture we looked at Coleridge’s three most mysterious poems, one of which is unfinished, one claims to be unfinished but is actually a complete fragment, and a third of which might go on forever like its title character, repeating his tale. One reason why Coleridge seems like a perpetually sympathetic figure, is that the failings he describes and enacts in his poems, are those that all of us can relate to. These are aspirations unmatched by achievement, will undone by indolence, mental resolve undermined by physical debility, heroic energies deflated by the need to make money, and so forth.
Like Samuel Johnson, as we said, Coleridge was a monster of lethargy, whose output makes everyone else look like a non-starter. Unlike Dr. Johnson, Coleridge had to confront not only his inner-demons, but also his external representation of everything he wished to be, the man who seemed to have it all, on both personal and professional fronts, Wordsworth.
Without the example of Frost at Midnight and This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, Tintern Abbey might not have been written, at least in the form we have. Yet then something not unusual happened, and the student surpassed the master. Wordsworth went, regardless of his own inner-doubts, from strength to strength. He had a happy home life, living at the center of a small village where he kept something of an aristocratic profile. After the death of Coleridge, Wordsworth was made the poet laureate, a position that Coleridge would never have been considered for, if for no other reason than the unconventionality of his domestic arrangements.
The two men clearly loved each other, but after Wordsworth could no longer deal with Coleridge’s difficulties, a breach ensued that was never fully healed. Wordsworth stayed in the north, and Coleridge in London. Regardless of their occasional visits, the intimacies of the late 90s were never reestablished. In this lecture, we’ll consider Coleridge’s great poems of failure, and think of them in the sense of Wordsworth’s greatness and to his own potential failure to live up to his friend’s example.
It may seem odd or paradoxical to call Coleridge a success at failure. By that we mean that he wrote beautiful but untroubling poems about his fears and uncertainties, his imaginative impotence, and the inability to find proper words to express his emotions, Now these are not new subjects, of course, with the great Romantic poets. All great poets from the Renaissance onward have had doubts and have had to find the proper aesthetic form to contain their fears and anxieties. Coleridge however was something of a genius of dejection! His despair had many causes:
some stemming from early childhood,
some from the myriad-mindedness of his intellect,
some from his unhappy marriage,
some from his unreciprocated love for Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson, some from his ongoing physical pains and his efforts to solve them, which sometimes merely worsened them.
Part of his dilemma was part of the nagging sense that he was not moving to the achievement that he had always wished to accomplish. His magnum opus, a vast prose work, over which he toiled for years, remained unfinished. He said that an epic poem would require of him 20 years of labor, 10 for reading, 5 for writing, and 5 for revision. Yet those 20 years were never given to him for so singular a task.
His lectures in London were sometimes wildly popular, depending on his physical and emotional well-being at their time of composition and delivery. Yet sometimes they were failures. All the time as he looked around them, there was Wordsworth. We referred earlier to his literary criticism of his partner in the Biographia Literaria, and it would be helpful merely to list the things that Coleridge noticed in Wordsworth’s work, in order to prove the clear sightedness of his own perceptions.
Wordsworth and Coleridge had agreed on two cardinal points about poetry, the first being what he called the truth of nature, while the second was the modifying powers of the imagination. For Coleridge a poem is a work of literature whose primary object is pleasure. The whole must be compatible with its parts.
Wordsworth maintained that simple, rustic folk, had greater connection with eternal truth, and he said he chose them as subjects in Lyrical Ballads because they spoke the real language of people, who have been unaffected by fashion.
For Coleridge, this is all nonsense! He says that a rustic doesn’t talk any better than, or any differently from anyone else. In fact, a rustic is more likely to be linguistically less equipped than an educated person. As for Wordsworth’s claim that poetry should represent a state of excitement, Coleridge is hardheaded and commonsensical. People in a state of excitement, seldom speak cogently, and never in rhyme and meter. The very idea of real language, says Coleridge, is a fiction.
So far, so good. Coleridge is looking at Wordsworth’s principle with an eye to proving them wrong, because he wants to show that a poem is not a piece of natural anything, but a confected or concocted work of art, honed and shaped by the imagination of its maker.
When he gets down to Wordsworth’s achievement, Coleridge again sets the standards for an evaluation of his friend’s work. He finds the following defects:
An inconstancy of style, by which he means wild alternation between high and low effects.
A wonderful new term in English, “matter of factness,” which he uses for Wordsworth’s tendency to innumerate the banal and belabor the obvious.
Next, he berates Wordsworth for the incongruity of dramatic form. That is, Wordsworth is pretending to be speaking through someone else’s voice in poems, when it is clearly his own voice that is coming to us.
Last of all, the whopper pair of objections. Wordsworth suffers from wordiness or prolixity, and from mental bombast! The lines in the Intimations Ode, calling a child the best philosopher, drove Coleridge nuts! These are bad, because they are simply wrong! Wordsworth is providing thoughts and images too great for the subject at hand. A child is not, no matter how you slice it, a philosopher.
Yet Coleridge is also fair-minded, and extols the purity of Wordsworth’s language, the sane fresh thoughts that come from direct observation of the world, the felicity of his diction and phrasing, the truthfulness of nature and his descriptions, and his meditative pathos and human sympathy, such as arise at the end of the Intimations Ode. Then above all, he praises the imagination, which Coleridge calls the vision and faculty divine, the imagination that everywhere informs Wordsworth’s poetry.
In one of the most touching and complicated tribute ever paid by one poet to another, Coleridge calls Wordsworth friend of the wise, and teacher of the good. This is from an 1807 poem entitled To Wordsworth, which bears the subtitle, Composed After the Night of His Recitation of a Poem on the Growth of an Individual Mind.
Now it’s inconceivable that Wordsworth sat down and read the entire Prelude to Coleridge over several nights, let alone over a single one. Certainly no one could sit through a rendition of those tens of thousands of lines, without strong drugs to keep them awake! Yet let us suppose there was a performance of at least part of the poem.
Coleridge praises his friend’s efforts, energies, and the story that he tells of one exemplary life, starting with hope, then moving to the breakdown of hope and intellect, and finally, succeeded by the reintegration of faculties, and the new confidence that Wordsworth celebrates at the end of his long epic epistle.
At the midpoint of his poem, Coleridge turns from Wordsworth to his true subject, himself. He has acknowledged that Wordsworth is now one of the immortals, one of the great bards. What is the effect of this acknowledgment on him? It’s to remind him of his own inadequacies. He says:
“Ah! as I listened with a heart forlorn,
The pulses of my being beat anew:
And even as Life returns upon the drowned,
Life’s joy rekindling roused a throng of pains
Keen pangs of Love, awakening as a babe
Turbulent, with an outcry in the heart;
And fears self-willed, that shunned the eye of Hope;
And Hope that scarce would know itself from Fear;
Sense of past Youth, and Manhood come in vain,
And Genius given, and Knowledge won in vain;
And all which I had culled in wood-walks wild,
And all which patient toil had reared, and all,
Commune with thee had opened out but flowers
Strewed on my corse, and borne upon my bier
In the same coffin, for the self-same grave.”
This is a remarkable and pathetic confession. It begins with a suggestion of a rebirth, but as Coleridge warms to his subject and begins to re-list with heavily repeated allegorical phrases all the things that have dragged him down in life, it appears that re-birth is the least-likely possibility of Wordsworth’s effect on him.
His pains and pangs are like those of a baby. His birthright, genius, has been given in vain. Hope, knowledge, genius, manhood, patient toil, they all disintegrate like flowers cast upon a corpse. By the end of the passage, Coleridge has essentially buried himself
beneath he fears of his own anxiety.
Although he tries to shake himself loose from such morbid thoughts, and although he returns to praise his friend, we know what his real response to Wordsworth has been.
At the end of the poem, which marks the end of Wordsworth’s recitation to his own poem, Coleridge says he was scarce conscious! God, who could be conscious after listening to the whole poem! Yet he says:
“I sat, my being blended in one thought
(Thought was it? or aspiration? or resolve?)
Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound
And when I rose, I found myself in prayer.”
Exactly what does that prayer at the end of the poem mean? Is he grateful that the whole thing is over? Well, certainly in part. Is he giving a prayer in thanks to the gift Wordsworth has made, by reading and dedicating his masterwork to him? Certainly, yes.
Yet above all, the prayer that Coleridge makes is, we suggest, a kind of question, one that his earlier miserable feelings of inadequacy have prepared him and us, for. That question is, but where is my great epic poem?
Coleridge was able, in all generosity of spirit, to praise his friend’s achievement, yet he could also not achieve it, without also acknowledging his own incompetence. Such tension between friends, causes frustration and self-recrimination. To these feelings, Coleridge was never immune.
We’ll now move back several years, to Coleridge’s masterpiece of failure, an ambitious and dense poem entitled simple, Dejection, An Ode. Its relationship to Wordsworth is even more intimate than that of the homage paid in To William Wordsworth.
As you recall, Wordsworth had finished the first four stanzas of what was to become his Intimations Ode, in early 1802, when he reached a roadblock. Having posed his fundamental questions, whither is fled the visionary gleam, where is it now, the glory and the dream? He could offer no answers.
In steps Coleridge and picks up the thread of the argument, so to speak, offering his won articulation of a problem that is by no means unique to artists. Athens this point in his Coleridge is in the throws of his love for Wordsworth’s sister in law, Sarah Hutchinson, and in a long, meandering verse epistle to her, he began to articulate his anxieties.
That poem was refined and reduced, and became at last, the Dejection Ode. Along the way, it lost much, but not all, of its self-pity. It got readdressed to Wordsworth before becoming in its final version, addressed to Sarah herself. It also engaged the Wordsworthian question of loss and hope, in a distinctly Coleridgean manner. It begins, like This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, with an offhanded start:
“Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence…”
For 20 lines it describes in lurid detail, the calm before the storm, Coleridge is anxiously awaiting for something, anything, to electrify him, to send him out of the torpor, which he finally identifies in the last lines of the stanza. What he wants is to be literally and figuratively, shaken-up. He would be grateful for a storm, he says, because it:
“Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!”
A dull pain is a chronic condition. Coleridge would prefer the shock of real and intense pain. He’s in a state of what we would call today, depression, a muffled state. In his day it might be called anomy, lethargy, melancholy, or apathy (literally non-feeling). Interesting the Middle Ages it was known as “acedia” or “accidie,” a spiritual dryness that leaves one open to assaults from demons and Satan.
Now, mental disease has in fact, its own history, as one generation makes diagnoses and prognoses differently from the one before it. Coleridge associates his ill health and indolence, specifically with too much thinking. Recall he’d compared himself to Hamlet. He says at one point in a letter:
“I am a dreaming and therefore an indolent man. I’m a starling self-encaged, and always in the molt. My whole note is tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
Although this letter to William Godwin was written in January 1802, and although MacBeth, rather than Hamlet, seems to hover over Coleridge’s mind, in tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, it is the relationship of dreaming to indolence that is central and reminds us as well of Coleridge’s characterization of himself as a child.
The horrible epithet of self-encaged, is really the key note to the sentence. He’s locked within the confines of his own soul or ego, and there seems to be no ready means of escape.
As he begins the second stanza, Coleridge finally begins a definition of what ails him. It’s significant, Willard thinks, that it’s a definition almost entirely negative:
“A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear
O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky.”
His grief is characterized by lack. It has no pang. It is a void, it’s stifled, unimpassioned. It is bottled-up in him, as he can’t find a natural outlet for it. Yet he is also in it, in a yon and heartless mood. He is, in other words, entirely self-encaged in a disease partly of his own making.
He looks at the green light that lingers in the sky, like J. Gatsby looking towards Daisy Buchanan’s house, and Fitzgerald was both a keen reader of Coleridge and Keats. Coleridge acknowledges he can see the beauties of the evening, but he can no longer feel them. Even his own genius, he says, is of little use:
“My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.”
In the Intimations Ode, Wordsworth said he saw as a child, a halo or glory that appareled all the sights of the world with a celestial light. That light is vanished for him, and he must struggle to carry on in a different situation.
Yet Coleridge goes Wordsworth one step father. The true celestial light doesn’t exist on the outside, but only within. It is within himself that Coleridge feels the greatest lost, saying:
“From the soul itself must issue forth a light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud.”
He’s taken Wordsworth’s language and his dilemma and put a distinctive Coleridgean spin on them. Then he proceeds to give a new word to this light and glory, this inner condition is in fact, joy, an almost religious gift, given only to the pure from whom he seemingly excludes himself. It is joy that offers a promise of a new heaven and a new earth, that predisposes us to a sensitivity to all-natural beauty. It is also joy, as Coleridge said in one of his philosophical lectures, that is necessary for the creative powers of genius. He says that joy breaks down the puny boundaries of isolated consciousness:
“All genius exists in a participation of a common spirit. In joy, individuality is lost, and therefore is liveliest in youth. Before the circumstances that have forced a man in upon his little unthinking contemptible self, hath lessoned his power of existing universally.”
Joy is the inner power the unites the living self to the natural world. It would be tempting, but easy and reductive, to say that Coleridge suffers from a bad self image, as population-psychologists might say today. Coleridge keeps claiming that he’s paralyzed, frozen, encaged, hopeless. He claims his genius us in vain.
Yet he’s written a poem that proves in fact, that his powers of creativity are as strong as they ever were. In the 6th stanza he looks back over his earlier life, to a time that he thought his misfortunes might be merely temporary ones, when hope and even small bits of joy, vied in his soul with distress and unhappiness. In manhood now, he says, things are far worse.
In the most difficult lines of the poem, difficult for us to read, because they are difficult for Coleridge to write, he explains:
“But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.”
It seems there are two ways of understanding these crucial lines. Coleridge wishes to deaden pain, or to compensate for his lack of feeling. Either his defense mechanism has become an infection, or he now lacks all genuine feeling. All he can do now is to remain still and patient.
Earlier he thought that deep thinking, metaphysical reaching, what he calls abstruse research, would help him out, would somehow change his nature by removing it from him. Now he realizes alas, that one part of him, has affected the whole of him. His language is that of disease and addiction. A part affects the whole. His thinking has become for him, a habit, which is of course what his drug problem has also become.
Coleridge is able to write brilliantly about his own failures of imagination. We measure his achievement, both poetic and personal, against that of Wordsworth. In the intimations Ode, Wordsworth finds strength in what remains behind. For him, the years bring the philosophical mind as compensation for the inevitable losses of childhood.
As the glory of our first years fades, it is replaced with a deepened, humane understanding of our common plight, the lat lines of the Intimations Ode, we will remind you of them:
“The clouds that gather round the setting sun, and do take a sober coloring from an eye that hath kept watch for man’s mortality”
In other words, the knowledge of human frailty has increased Wordsworth’s understanding of human life, has helped him to develop a gift of metaphor and has made him into a better poet. For Coleridge, no such hope is possible. His consolation comes differently. In the last two stanzas of the Ode, in comes gradually to forget about himself and his own dilemma. His miniature autobiography, literally at the center of the poem, is bound on either side by the external scene. In stanzas I and II he’s waiting for a storm to break. In stanza VII he announces that it already has.
While I have been going on about myself, he essentially says, the storm has been raving without. It is jarred the Eolian Harp on the window. The very wind, he calls a mad lutenist, a kind of hyper-kinetic performer, making foul and terrific noises, who put Coleridge the listener in mind of other poems by other poets. He becomes not so much the subject of the poem, as the audience, for the performance of wind and storm and weather and Eolian Harp.
Then in the 8th stanza he turns his attentions solely to Sarah Hutchinson. He remains insomniac while she sleeps, and he blesses her, asking that joy may life her spirit, joy attune her voice.
It is as though he as accepted the fact that the has been permanently cut off from contentedness, and must now accept the modified, almost secondary gratification that comes from vicariously seeing another person happy. This is an act of poetic and even Christian charity.
Wordsworth was able to finish his Ode, only after seeing Coleridge’s. The Dejection Ode evidently allowed him to forge his own responses to a common problem. Wordsworth ends his poem with himself:
To me, the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
Coleridge ends his poem with someone else, just as he ended his great Frost at Midnight, discussed in the previous course, with a blessing tohis sleeping infant son Hartley. In both Frost at Midnight, and Dejection: An Ode, Coleridge proves that empathy is not only a great human virtue, but a hallmark also, of the Romantic imagination. In his case, it comes from his own feelings of isolation and alienation, but it’s also the mark of his greatness.
Let’s end with a late poem, a masterful summing-up of Coleridge’s achievement. It’s a sonnet, a form he didn’t work in very much after his earliest years, and it’s a very sobering account of feelings of worthlessness. Written in February of 1825 during an early spring, when he was 57, its entitled Work Without Hope.
“All Nature seems at work.
Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the font whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, 0 ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.”
While all nature is active, Coleridge is idle. We notice again how so much of his diction is negative, unbusy, unbrightened, wreathless, and that series of nors, nor this, nor that,
nor the other.
Coleridge can tell us about himself only through deprivation, through only what he lacks, and what the does not do. He knows where the eternal amaranths bloom, but they are not blooming for him.
He sounds almost like T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who a century later could hear the mermaids singing each to each, but who suspected that they would not sing to him. Drawing nectar in a sieve is a brilliant image to describe the fertility of labor. It’s like Sisyphus rolling a stone up the hill, only to have it roll down again.
Coleridge’s metaphor, however, is not an apt one for his own life and achievement. Despite his own sense of failure, and the incompletion of so many of his projected works, he exerted an incomparable influence on English literature throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. His religious writings affected the work of Edward Pusey, John Keble, and John Henry Newman.
He’s the only real opponent to the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in the field of ethics. As a literary critic he produced not only the most important Shakespearean analyses in his century, but he also paved the way, especially through the Biographia Literaria, for the major movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries, namely symbolism, as in the writings of Yeats and others whom we’ll discuss in lecture 24, and the principles known as the New Criticism, which insisted on the wholeness, the integrity, and almost religious purity of a single work of art. One founder of that great movement, the English critic I.A. Richards, once called the Biographia Literaria:
“that lumber room of intellected wisdom, which contains more hints towards a theory of poetry than all the rest ever written about the subject.”
In its strange form, a hodgepodge or miscellaneous chapters, remarks, or pilferings from the German, this book is a fair representation of its author, various, far-ranging, inconclusive, suggestive, moving, and above all brilliant!
When Coleridge died in 1834, Charles Lamb, practically his oldest friend, had this to say:
“When I heard of the death of Coleridge, I was without grief. Seemed to me he had long been on the confines of the next world, that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved that I could not grieve. Yet since I feel how great a part he was of me, his great and dear spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism of men and books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations, never saw I his likeness, not probably can the world see it again.”
Wordsworth, for his part, virtually forgot all their rivalries and disagreements from a quarter century earlier. He told a friend that this was the most wonderful man he had ever known. We must not discredit his opinion.