An informal Times feature on literary classics, published recently, included a list drawn up by a director of Penguin Classics: ‘The 50 Greatest Classics (pre-1900).’ Such lists can be dispiriting, and it could be said of this one that it had too little Shakespeare and no short poems at all (in such contexts, ‘great’ means ‘long’). But though there were omissions, there were no silly inclusions; Homer and Virgil and Chaucer accompanied Stendhal and Jane Austen, Dickens and Tolstoy and Henry James; and near the end was one poem that certainly might, in its intensity, be described as ‘short’ – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
This almost token poem, a magnificent simple affair that most of us did at school, is the world’s most perfect Desert Island Disc. To name it a classic may be beside the point. It is more like a myth or symbol that has got under the skin and into the secret memory of an astonishing number of readers and (above all) writers. Along with, say, Hamlet, the Ancient Mariner may be the most widely disseminated work we have, and it can seem to have half-invented modern literary consciousness. A wide reader gets used to casual, perhaps barely conscious echoes and inheritances: like that piercing moment in Moby-Dick when the wind brings (or seems to bring) to the fated men far out at sea the smell of harvesting in a distant land, surely recalling Coleridge’s salty memory of a ‘hidden brook/In the leafy month of June’. In a comic Indian Army yarn by Kipling, the nightmare approach of the skeleton-ship in Coleridge is suddenly and strangely echoed when a skeleton-ridden gun-horse slowly approaches out of the sunset. But there is also an extraordinary wealth of actual quotation and direct allusion in modern texts in themselves very different from each other. Primo Levi prints a phrase from the poem as an epigraph; in one of his fables, Borges uses the poem as an instance of primary importance to a fictitious, quintessentially modern writer; a stanza in a recent volume by Carol Ann Duffy makes good use of an albatross and a crossbow. The final lines of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity leave its sympathetic narrator and his murderous female accomplice just about to dive, far out at sea, into the jaws of a helpful shark, the white-faced red-clad woman looking ‘like what came aboard the ship to shoot dice in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The extreme diffusion of the Ancient Mariner in modern culture helps to show how very odd a classic Coleridge’s poem is: we tend not to be haunted in quite this way by The Faerie Queene, for instance, or the Aeneid, or Goethe’s Faust (all of them earning a place on the Times list).
If a great company of modern writers ‘have always known’ (as Freud said approvingly of poets) something about the Ancient Mariner, then a thriving vanguard of Eng. Lit. academics have not. Over the last twenty or thirty years the subject has been ruled by a majority much absorbed by power politics, with whom Coleridge’s standing as a poet has been doubtful or negligible. This is a position firmly summarised in Marilyn Butler’s handbook, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (1981). She argues that the only Coleridge to pause over is the man whose ‘really significant or at least influential career was as a moulder of opinion’ – that is, as a political journalist. His ‘best years’, she suggests (meaning those between 1815 and 1818, nearly twenty years after the best poems), ‘were those of universal political controversy’. Giving to the prose an entirely public function, she thinks of verse as private and therefore inconsiderable, grouping Coleridge with Lamb (in many ways the best literary critic of his age) as a pair of malingerers: ‘Like Coleridge in “Kubla Khan” . . . Lamb values literature as fantasy, otherness; in some sense magical. It is the mal du siècle.’ In poetry, she remarks, Coleridge ‘produced relatively little, and that little lacks the commonly recognised characteristic of major status – a distinctive philosophy expressed in a distinctive manner.’
In the most recent collection of Helen Simpson’s sophisticated stories about housebound wives, teenage girls and (above all) babies, a schoolgirl one spring day meditates on the poet: ‘Coleridge was a minefield. Just when you thought he’d said something really brilliant, he went raving off full steam ahead into nothingness. He was a nightmare to write about.’ Part of Simpson’s charm is to bring formidable truths out of the mouths of babes. Her slightly lethal heroine here is thinking of exams, but Coleridge is in a larger sense, as Butler demonstrates, a nightmare to write about. As poet and critic, philosopher and moralist and metaphysician, he to some extent invented those new, difficult and radical criteria by which we have learned to judge work like his own. Moreover, his originalities were sometimes difficult even for him to master completely and fruitfully: one of the most absorbingly intelligent men in English letters, he was almost unable to write, or at least to finish, a readable book, and became an alluring but dangerous generator of unfinished theses about his unfinished poems.
There are, it has to be said, first-rate scholars and critics at work on him: they in fact perhaps constitute a revival. The recent Cambridge Companion to Coleridge has a remarkable essay by Seamus Perry on ‘The Talker’, which in itself would serve as an excellent general introduction to the writer in both literary and philosophical terms. He has also edited a well-judged and helpfully annotated selection from Coleridge’s Notebooks that is eminently possessible even if not, in bulk, precisely readable. It was Coleridge’s wholly sympathetic friend, Lamb, who invented the category of ‘biblia abiblia’, books that are not books, not readable: the Notebooks are packed with superb observations and ideas, some of the most rewarding included here, but they remain notebooks, reminders of the importance the fragment and the ruin had in Romantic aesthetics. Both Perry’s new contributions to Coleridge studies deal, not merely with prose rather than verse, but with prose that is ‘talk’, ‘notes’: in direct communication with daily existence, and aesthetically on the margins of what is categorisable. An expertise of this order may have something to do with the present moment in our culture, that at its best responds gratefully to the factual, the lived, leaving more formal literary arts to be felt as élitist. This is an age of biography, not of poetry. Judgments of the poetry have followed this tendency: it is not rare now for critics like, for instance, Richard Holmes in his agreeable volumes of biography, to find Coleridge’s crown as a poet among the ‘Conversation Poems’ – quietly meditative post-Cowper colloquial writing such as ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, and ‘Frost at Midnight’.
Excellent as these are, even ‘Frost at Midnight’, an imaginatively luminous and semi-Symbolist poem, hasn’t got into the bloodstream as the Ancient Mariner has, or ‘Kubla Khan’, or ‘Christabel’. The evident difficulty in specifying the best of Coleridge, even in saying what we expect a Coleridge poem to be, is not merely a function of the current ethos: the problems of judgment answer to something vital and difficult in Coleridge himself. Most critics now tend to think of Coleridge as conservative, even reactionary – a stalwart defender of Church and State. But in many respects he was the most original and indeed radical liberal of his generation: the reaching beyond contemporary politics for something new, the passionate hostility to the slave trade, the compassion for animals. Coleridge was the only writer of his time who both understood and praised Blake; he later encouraged and greatly helped professionally a Jewish scholar whom he befriended. Both in practice and in theory he moved always towards new interconnections between body and soul, life and art, morality and psychology. All these new directions are often bold enough to seem alluringly modern, to hold and dazzle the attention; but, just as often, the effect is only momentary, before obscurity sets in again. Partly because of his extreme reach (often metaphysical or philosophical in formulation), partly because of his lack of a Wordsworthian or Hazlittian egoism, his permanent and self-knotting tentativeness, something in the work will baulk or turn aside any reader. Hence the quality of the incomplete and the defeating that characterises Coleridge’s enormous body of work.
Editing Coleridge is a heroic way of life. Until now, there has been no large and really full edition of his poems – nothing, for instance, like the Keats or Tennyson volumes in the Longman series. This has undoubtedly made it harder to think clearly about the poems. There is something to celebrate in the fact that J.C.C. Mays has added these final volumes, given over to the poems and plays, to the monumental Princeton University Press Coleridge. Coleridge’s verse can now be read in full, and in a form worthy of his best writing. The poems are beautifully presented; the brief preliminary introduction to each is sensible, as is the annotation at the foot of the page, and the bibliographical commentary that closes the volumes. This is in most ordinary ways a wonderful collection of Coleridge’s poems, and the two books of plays are a thoroughly useful addition.
Beyond this, there are problems. Many are intrinsic to the nature of the materials, which tend to the extensive, fragmentary and variable. But this fine edition is also touched by a different kind of problem, one perhaps endemic to fine editions: the scholarly dominates the critical; there is sometimes a faint editorial failure in the sense of a reader to be written for, and sometimes a faulty sense of the writer written about. Fine as Mays’s scholarship is, there are still moments when it is possible to wish that the result had had more of the critical or literary in it. In the ‘Reading Text’, he offers three lines from an album as perhaps Coleridgean, on grounds of ‘style’:
Those eyes of deep & most expressive blue
Came between him & his midnight dreams
Oftener than any other eyes he ever knew.
When Coleridge wants to be original in terms of metre, as in ‘Christabel’, the fact is obvious and the effect sustained. His ‘style’ is a remarkable technical facility mastered by individual purposes. But the second and third lines here lamentably fail to scan, with an effect very different from the fluency maintained elsewhere through upwards of 1100 pages; Mays makes no reference to this fact in his annotation. The lines are surely not Coleridge’s. Something comparable happens in the four lines Mays prints based on Paracelsus:
Ills from without extrinsic Balms may heal,
Oft cur’d and wounded by the self-same Steel –
But us what remedy can heal or cure,
Whose very nature is our worst disease.
This epigram is not improved by its failure to rhyme in the third and fourth lines. (‘You might have rhymed,’ as Horatio says to Hamlet. Coleridge, a natural rhymer, is surely not Hamlet in this instance.) It is possible to suspect that at some stage a copyist or editor misread ‘ease’ as ‘cure’ (easy to do, in fact, in Coleridge’s hand).
These are trivial matters. They are worth alluding to only because they give some sense of how technical or literary matters may affect larger editorial decisions in a major edition like this one. They support, that is to say, some discomfort with one or two of Mays’s leading arguments in his always interesting introduction – an essay the length of a shortish book. Mays’s chief argument turns on questions of value; he is protectively prefacing an edition that attempts the complete. The body of work in the two books of the ‘Reading Text’ makes plain that Coleridge was in some sense a very strange poet. The usual account of this strangeness, until fairly recently, was to say as William Empson did in the introduction to the selection of Coleridge’s poems he edited with David Pirie: ‘Coleridge wrote only a few very good poems.’ Debate has turned essentially on the question of which those poems were. Defending the edition he was by then at work on, Mays outlined in a 1996 lecture what he meant by his title, ‘Coleridge’s New Poetry’. By ‘new’ – as Mays makes clear both in that lecture and in his edition’s introduction – he is not referring merely to the ‘hundreds of new texts’ the edition adds. He hopes, rather, to offer a new sense of Coleridge as a poet. In the introduction he simultaneously outlines a changed and up-to-date definition of the writer, and takes up arms against the older and (to his mind) limiting image: he argues that the effect of completeness is ‘to discredit the notion that Coleridge wrote just a handful of significant poems, all of a “poetic” in the sense of “literary” nature’. He hopes to reshape the older understanding of the poet’s career – that, as Eliot put it, Coleridge was a ‘ruined man’. Mays’s definition is very different: ‘The notion that Coleridge’s poetic career was fractured – interrupted and discontinuous – is similarly false.’ If we feel otherwise, it is because we are gripped by ‘a half-baked notion of what is poetic’, held in a ‘stranglehold of simply literary attention’. Mays argues that Coleridge wrote verse steadily all his life; that if he himself thought that he had failed or broken down, writing almost nothing first-rate after 1800, then he was wrong, and we are wrong to concur; that our concept of the literary, which leads us to believe these things, is shallow and unsatisfactory, and our categories, too, of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ should be dropped, as failing to meet the fact that what is written falls into many different kinds, each with its own value: ‘Success is not to be measured by one kind at the expense of others.’
In general, this Collected Poems serves its editor’s wish: we see a fuller Coleridge. The man saluted by the devoted Lamb as ‘Poet, Metaphysician, Bard!’ appears here as something more everyday, more humane: as a literary type, as a writer, who worked steadily and sometimes comically or coarsely despite all his formidable gifts – his exceptional intelligence and sensibility and breadth of information, his exquisite eye and ear. To see Coleridge as the astringent Henry James caught him in ‘The Coxon Fund’, as a fallible and hard-up working writer, whose very difficulties made him leave behind this huge fragmentary body of work, is a helpful way of renewing and refreshing our sense of a perhaps over familiar 19th-century literary figure.
This doesn’t, however, stop a reader also renewing and refreshing the simple recognition communicated by this complete picture: after all, the career was a very odd one. Coleridge wrote verse from perhaps as early as 1782, when he was ten, until 1834, when he died. What Mays calls sardonically ‘the half-dozen or even two dozen best-known poems’ occur mainly within the two years 1797 and 1798. And these poems cover not much more than fifty pages out of 1100. Much of the earlier writing is political rhetoric; much of the later is album verse. Mays does not see it as his task to explain this career, particularly given that he feels himself to have disproved it in the course of his introduction. There are simply different ways of writing verse. If we don’t believe in ‘literature’ and ‘poetry’, in ‘better’ and ‘worse’, in ‘major’ and ‘minor’, we may seem not to have anything left to explain.
I found these 1100 pages of verse interesting mainly because they were by Coleridge; and this doesn’t resolve the problem that many good readers mean by ‘Coleridge’ the man who wrote the Ancient Mariner. It isn’t easy to imagine many modern readers haunted by the lines based on Paracelsus. Therefore we are in need of good working definitions or explanations, ideally avoiding some of the older terms of judgment. Without talking about poems being more ‘literary’ than others, ‘major’ or ‘minor’, ‘better’ or ‘worse’, it would be good to come to some conclusion as to why some are, after all, so much more memorable than others.
In this huge body of work, there are no extreme distinctions. The reader is enabled, rather, to see something like the minute gradations of colour in light; so that it is genuinely hard to say with truth that Coleridge is the master of three or four or five poems, and of no others. But light does sometimes achieve full day. Any good reader will recognise that there is a strange intensity, a seminal inventiveness, in just a few poems, the ones that people remember most – the Ancient Mariner, ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘Christabel’, for a start – which it is merely belittling to speak of in terms of ‘fantasy’, ‘magic’, ‘pure enchantment’. Considering the size of the collection, the awed reader wants to ask, rather, how on earth Coleridge managed it, where these surprising classics came from.
In his work Coleridge sometimes achieved what we might call a ‘Xanadu’: a place in which human creativity justified itself, and was at home, at least for the length of a poem. In order to make Xanadu, it is vital to know that we do not live in it: it is the not-knowing that produces bad or Gothic art, ‘magic’ or ‘fantasy’. Coleridge’s most memorable poems relate deeply to his own existence. I want to propose that in the later 1790s he experienced a few years of what demands to be called creative despair. This extremely able but unhappy, unlucky and probably neurotic man experienced grinding misery for a good deal of his life, but when he began to be fully adult, in his middle to late twenties, something special happened. He was old enough to take a breath and look at his life, at how it was and how it was probably going to stay; but also young enough, particularly when surrounded by the bustling confident egoism of the Wordsworth household, to do what Yeats called taking ‘a great kick at human misery’, making it fertile, understanding it and mastering it.
As early as 1797, everything in Coleridge’s existence was unpromising. In 1795 he had, under nagging and self-interested pressure from the egregious Southey, married a woman who, though probably not lacking practical abilities, was as unsuited to him as he was to her. He later said: ‘I played the fool, and cut the throat of my happiness, of my genius, of my utility.’ Both the marriage and the separation (the need for which must have become clear after a year or so) loaded Coleridge with guilt and shame, and prevented him from marrying the woman he came later to love, even had she wanted such a marriage, which she possibly didn’t.
The larger public scene was, for political radicals like the poet, hardly more hopeful. In the years between 1782 and 1834, during which Coleridge wrote his poems, radical and liberal feeling was desperately needed but largely unempowered, and often betrayed: the story that Wordsworth’s Prelude tells. The two great revolutionary cultures of the time were the American and the French (when news of Washington’s death reached Europe, Napoleon bowed his head). The Revolutionary Wars of the 1770s and 1780s made America Britain’s enemy. In France, Napoleon’s imperialist ambitions were guessable-at as early as 1800; he was planning to invade England by 1801, the year a French expeditionary force landed at Santo Domingo to crush the native revolt led by Toussaint l’Ouverture (who was to die in prison, subject of a superb sonnet by Wordsworth assuring him that he had ‘great allies . . . exaltations, agonies,/And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind’: but it was not precisely love that powered England’s great heroes, Nelson and Wellington, and they were not radicals).
Plato remarks in the Republic that the great liberator is also the great enslaver: and this was the hard political text learned by Romantic poets through most of Coleridge’s lifetime. Yet probably political defeat disheartened him less than the condition of his Church in the later 1790s: politics being in his case (as for many artists and intellectuals) only one functional aspect, at best, of a deeper moral and religious life. But this was a period in history that explains the poet’s urgent sentence, ‘For God’s sake, Southey! enter not into the church’, when the always fairly worldly Southey briefly considered Anglican priesthood. In his brilliant essay on the Ancient Mariner, William Empson sees the Coleridge of this phase as a man who ‘could not sleep because his God was so horrible’, and who put his hatred of God into the poem. This is a simplification that misses the complex trap of the poet’s real situation. He was the son of a learned country clergyman whom he strikingly resembled, and himself the father of a daughter both beautiful and very gifted who regretted that her gender prevented her from being what she would truly have liked: a learned country clergyman. Coleridge was an ‘anima naturaliter Christiana’, a mind born Christian, who said that the ‘strongest argument’ for Christianity is that it ‘fits the human heart’. It fitted his, at any rate.
This was a period of religious crisis. After a generation or two, the visionary German painter Caspar David Friedrich set his possibly empty crosses high up in an unpeopled mountain landscape; the Danish pastor Søren Kierkegaard turned on his Church with loathing and contempt. Coleridge never managed to be alienated to this degree: he loved the idea of the Church as communion and community, just as, when a wretched husband and an unloved lover, he believed that ‘when he loved, he loved indeed.’ He even tried a few years as a Unitarian before 1800 (and Unitarianism is not Christian, as he pointed out himself, though individual members might be).
In his Notebooks Coleridge twice set down, in almost identical terms (one version is in Perry’s selection), an opaque statement of his despair at both the Established Church and the chapels of Dissent: ‘Socinianism moonlight – Methodism a Stove! O for some Sun to unite heat & Light!’ By the ‘moonlight’ of ‘Socinianism’ he means what he found in Anglican churches: the rationalist or nearly deistic Christianity of late Augustans, believers in ‘Evidences’, whose heartless God set going the Universe as a watchmaker would a watch. By the ‘Methodism’ that is ‘a stove’, he means the revolutionary fervour set going in the people by two Anglican brothers, the Wesleys, fathers of Methodism: a prayer-and-preaching faith that ignited the heart more than the mind.
Though ‘deficient in worldliness’ as Mays justly calls him, Coleridge was probably in many ways unnaturally prescient of the world he failed to belong to: he foresaw, with his moonlit stove, what was going to happen to public religion in the 19th century. Historians of the Church are agreed that the first forty years of the 19th century were dominated by the Evangelical movement, a new Christianity at once Puritanical and intensely this-worldly. In Evangelicalism there met (and perhaps, up to a point, there still do) both the organisational and formalistic powers of the 18th-century Church and the new, irrational ardour of the Methodism of the fields and hillsides. Pervading both the Established Church and the world of Dissent, it gave itself to Jesus with a thoroughgoing system and practicality: it enforced literal belief in the Bible, extreme Sunday observance, and the primacy of missionary work, both at home and abroad.
The reign of Evangelicalism was marked by practical piety and charity. The movement founded schools, improved prisons, built libraries, decisively challenged the slave trade. But work of this order took off from a base of peculiar narrowness: a hostility to civilised manifestations of art and intellect, and a linked withdrawal from many other kinds of commitment to this world. In A Gathered Church (1978), a work that has considerable respect for Puritan movements both Established and Dissenting, Donald Davie admitted in Evangelicalism an ‘openly repressive Toryism’, and added, ‘of the philistinism of the Evangelicals there can be no doubt’. It was seemingly this illib-eral philistinism that made Wordsworth, Southey, Scott, de Quincey, Byron and Shelley all oppose the movement. Jane Austen – who was female and gentrified and self-accusing enough to waver – said that she thought that the title of Hannah More’s Evangelical novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, showed ‘pedantry and affectation’; added more largely, ‘I do not like the Evangelic-als’; and finally questioned the usefulness of ‘books of a moral stamp’. The sheer utilitarianism of many Evangelicals could exasperate more thoughtful and imaginative Christians: as when in 1830 Coleridge stamped on Mrs Barbauld’s objection that the Ancient Mariner ‘was improbable and had no moral’ by retorting that it had, if anything, too much. The rage of embattled artists did not stop when, in the mid-19th century, Evangelicalism began to lose its power. There is a line to be traced from Coleridge through writers as different as Charlotte Brontë, whose cold missionary St John Rivers is plainly Evangelical; through Dickens’s Chadband, insisting on telling the ‘Terewth’; through Samuel Butler’s Pontifex and right up to the present moment, where David Hare’s Racing Demon (a tragedy of the Church) has two Judases, one a treacherous and formalistic bishop, the other a power-hungry Evangelical curate. With them, we are back to Coleridge’s ‘moonlight . . . a Stove’.
A good many readers who love the Ancient Mariner may have, it is easy to suspect, an oddly truncated memory of it. The poem begins as the Mariner stops the Wedding-Guest, is swiftly out at sea and into ‘the land of ice’, sees the shooting of the albatross and the becalming of the ship under a ‘hot and copper sky’, describes the arrival of the spectral ship and the death of the crew, and then continues as the Mariner blesses the water-snakes ‘unaware’ and feels the albatross fall from him. This is, of course, only the end of Part IV, and there are three more parts to follow, always curiously hard to remember in sequence. Wordsworth himself went so far, in one of his unamiable moods, as to speak (in the Lyrical Ballads of 1800) of the ‘great defects’ of his friend’s poem, by which he meant chiefly narrative weak-nesses: the lack of ‘distinct character’ in the Mariner, his passive role in the action, and the fact that the action itself is not as plain as it might be. At all events, readers remember Parts I to IV. It may be worth noticing that the chief poetic events in this section of the poem are the amazing evocations of a territory of great cold (‘And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/As green as emerald’) and of a region of terrible heat (‘Day after day, day after day,/We stuck, nor breath nor motion’). It is worth wondering whether there is any connection between these unforgettable scenes and the kinds of spiritual disturbance Coleridge was haunted by in the sense of a betrayal in his Church.
No one would want to be so foolish as to suggest that this poem is an allegory of trouble in the Church. I wouldn’t want myself even to go as far as seeing Christian myths in this handful of hallucinatory poems. But, like most anxious or gentle or inhibited people, the poet could be released into utterance by rage or hopelessness. The three extraordinary poems of 1797-98 (their dating is not altogether clear, nor is their sequence) may have begun under pressure of the need to express in verse what a pietistic, moralistic and philistine new form of Christianity could not. The Church is in the experience and the experience is in the words. The art of words, the art of language that only a true poet can handle, is in these poems conscious, calm and almost arrogant in its apparently effortless grace and force. One of the most astonishing moments in all poetry occurs in Part IV, when the Mariner’s sickness and corruption is starting to leave him, and as with a man recovering from a long illness there comes the quiet and wholly autonomous presence of a high natural world:
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside –
And after this there is an explosion of life and colour, like an openness to life coming back to the ill person, as the sea-creatures dance in the black water. The ‘moving Moon’ lines could not more lack dogma or churchiness. They are not even pantheistic. Their natural images are ritualised into a sense of blessing and being blessed that is quite beyond the power of will and self. This communication of a silent tenderness is carried out by technical means. Most readers will find the lines affecting crucially because of the weight of that ‘Softly’ in an empty sky; an expected stress, at the beginning of this third line, is reversed, like a breath taken – a reversal that emanates surprise, freedom and autonomy.
In her study of French Romantic painting, Romanticism and Its Discontents, Anita Brookner reminds us how vital to the period are principled acts of negation: ‘Romanticism is essentially about dissidence, about rejection, about protest, about breaking the old rules but only incidentally establishing new ones.’ There is no space here for a real examination of the laws of Coleridge’s finest poems; but it can be briefly said that reversal plays an important part in all of them. And this shows itself, sometimes in important or substantial ways, but sometimes in the minute technical or literary means that Evangelical Christianity despised. The opening of ‘Kubla Khan’ works, it may be, by a kind of children’s game critics have probably thought too trivial to occur in such a solemn poem:
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.
This is a poem (or a fragment of one) that ends by quoting Plato but begins with child’s play. Every reader surely says ‘Zanadu’, not ‘Exanadu’. The poem’s alphabet begins with ‘z’ and goes backwards to alpha, taking in, as a halfway point, a stammering double ‘k’. Coleridge loved the idea of rapacious, utilitarian energy checked and held (a haunting Notebook entry describes ‘Sabbath day – from the/Miller’s mossy wheel/the water drops dripp’d/leisurely’). ‘Kubla Khan’ begins with the ‘flow’ of alphabet checked and reversed on the way down to that contemp-lative origin that is a sunless sea. And, should this alphabet game seem irrelevant to Kubla Khan, whose name was, as Mays says in his prefacing note, ‘a byword for cruelty and oppression’, it is interesting that the Notebooks contain an entry for Novem-ber 1802 that gives us casually a surprising piece of information: ‘Kublaikhan ordered letters to be invented for his people.’ Kubla’s name may have been ‘a byword for cruelty and oppression’, but Coleridge sustained also – indeed, by vocation as a writer had to sustain – a belief in the saving power of the truly civilised, the civilised as an ideal; so that he could use ‘alphabeted’ as a word almost meaning ‘saved’. When he made one of his infrequent and unhappy visits back to the village where he was born, he was enraged to find Ottery people ‘Bigots, unalphabeted in the first Feelings of Liberality!’ The word is an insistence that people need to be civilised to be in some real sense good – generous, open-minded, capable of learning from experience, capable of blessing unaware. The ‘stately pleasure-dome’ that Kubla erects is perhaps an attempt to believe that civilisation itself might save us; but the savage place in which it stands is loud with demonic lust, chaotic with energy, violent with hostility; and the person who hopes to fulfil this dream may be as mad as Plato’s poet.
Coleridge is a true professional, in that moments of intense insight may be communicated by means that are technical and precise. ‘Christabel’ can seem to be discovering Symbolist and post-Symbolist methods by means of which the reader is so drawn in as to ‘become’ the poem; the narrational love between persons and the bond of writer and reader become one and the same – an absorption at once romantic and alarming. And this is carried out in terms of an extraordinarily original rhythm and metre, that turn verse into thought:
Is the Night chilly and dark?
The Night is chilly, but not dark . . .
when the Lady pass’d, there came
A Tongue of Light, a Fit of Flame,
And Christabel saw the Lady’s Eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby.
The poet is here using the speech of thought, and casting it into the colloquialism of a dialect (‘And Spring comes slowly up this way’: this is a recall of Cumberland utterance). This original verse-and-speech mode he achieves by (again) a kind of reversal or reversion, by a return to primitive pre-medieval, pre-syllabic speech rhythms and verse stresses: such as Hopkins would construct in sprung verse half a century later, or – much later again – Auden in his Anglo-Saxonics.
Coleridge is a ‘dissident’ in that we can watch him setting up to be broken or reversed forms that were held great in his time: the ‘dome’ of an Augustan Established Christianity that turns into a floating shadow, an idea – ‘a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’; or the safe domestic medieval ‘Castle’ that Christabel begins her poem by leaving to pray ‘in silence’, leaving behind for ever the unambiguous virgin forms of her simple uncorrupt self. But it is the Ancient Mariner that has the most complete, most objective and narrational of these reversals. In the poem, Coleridge takes that ancient image of human purpose, the triumphant journey to master a world, and reverses it, turns it inside out.
Tucked away in the Notebooks (November 1803) and unnoticed, it seems, by critics, is a curious sentence that crystallises, perhaps, all the reading and thinking from which emerged the poet’s single completed masterpiece: ‘The prodigious effect of the Love of Spices on the human Race/the cause of the E[ast] India Voyages, [?] of Columbus, &c &c &c –.’ The Ancient Mariner takes some of its power from a deeply known historical and political background: a knowledge of which went further even than that great scholarly voyage, Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu (1927), suggested. This kind of background need not of course be most readily available to the specialist with merely historical or political interests. Thus Richard Holmes describes the Ancient Mariner as involving a ‘17th-century sea-voyage’. True, Coleridge added to a later edition glosses written in an exquisite pastiche of 17th-century prose, an effect deepening the sense of a historical nest of boxes; and this sheer expertise confirms Mays’s portrait of an accomplished literary man. But a simple literalism of dating will not do. The narrator and his fellows are ‘the first that ever burst/Into that silent Sea’ – the sea in question being, as an annotation tells us, the Pacific. The poem’s voyage must precede the rounding of Cape Horn in 1519-20 by the ship of the heroic traveller Magellan. In fact, all the suddenness, the startling speed and economy of the openings of Parts I and II, as the voyagers swirl first south then west, wonderfully evoke what they must allude to: that great phase of discovery and exploration, mainly Portuguese and Spanish (though England played a part), that stretched, very roughly, from 1400 to 1600.
Empson touched on these ‘adventurers’ in his fine essay on the poem; but he sees this aspect of the poem as a ‘celebration’. The subject seems to me more troubled. Magellan was, of course, searching for a westward trade route to India. These centuries of magnificent if often tragic searches (Magellan like many others died before he was justified) were essentially motivated by the hunger for profit. Undislodged by the Crusades, Islam held the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, through which there poured a rich stream of commodities from the Orient: spices, silks, tapestries, porcelain. The Muslims controlled all East-West trade. Hence the centuries-long struggle by Christians to find a route, southerly or northerly, to the East from the West: a struggle that of course discovered the Americas where the Indies were thought to be. As it happens, during this whole great period of search and discovery, the Muslim East – after the Mongol conquest of 1240 – was ruled by Khans; and of them, Kubla (who welcomed and found work for Marco Polo and his family) was the greatest, and probably best known in the West. It might be said that Coleridge discovered his Mariner while en route for Kubla Khan, or vice versa.
The New World was discovered, as the poet jotted down in his Notebooks, for ‘love of Spices’: from greed, love of money, love of power, need to survive. Even Calvinistic Evangelicals should have found a degree of complexity here. But their sense of evil, their belief in a universe totally corrupted, had some justification too, in the knowledge that the world, since it was first made new by God, has never stopped destroying its innocent creatures. It is still often asked why the Mariner shoots the albatross. The only answer is that Mariners did: these heroic New World discoverers killed and culled everywhere they went. Stories of the opening up of territories over the last millennium would be unrecognisable without their bloodshed; and it is hard to read without pain and shame accounts by zoologists and collectors of how, in unvisited places, animals come up friendlily because they don’t yet know what guns are for. Coleridge could not have failed to flinch at the massacres of men and beasts (a 1794 poem is addressed with great compassion to ‘a Young Ass’). The Mariner does not explain because he does not need to.
What he does need to do is something for which the Christian term is ‘expiate’: and all three of these great and desperate poems are up to a point works of expiation. This process of regret and redress can be carried out by a writer only as an act of communication, of sharing, an opening up of sympathy. A poet may not open up continents but he can make readers join in his solitude and shame, bringing about a kind of church, or ‘pleasure-dome’, of sympathetic conjunct attention. It is from this expiatory element, probably, that the darkness of these poems comes. The Wedding-Guest, though ‘wiser’, is ‘sadder’ too. ‘Kubla Khan’s images of meeting, of loving, of communicating, of creating, are all splendid but feverish. Its dome is vertiginously poised over caverns; passion is a ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’ (surely not in lament, as one critic has suggested, but in plain desire); the woman playing music is an obscure memory, the creator she might (or might not) inspire would be drunk on the dream of Paradise. ‘Christabel’ may take further this shadow lying over the expiation of the civilised. Like absorbed readers of a story, like lovers who are both reader and writer, Christabel and Geraldine may, at a guess, be going to turn into each other, as the Wedding-Guest becomes a ‘sadder and a wiser man’.
If the lonely artist is to take over from a mistaken Church the work of spiritual education, carrying out what ‘Frost at Midnight’ calls a ‘secret ministry,/Unhelped’, then the task might well prove, for a given individual, heavy enough to be not long sustainable. It remains remarkable that Coleridge did so much in not more than two years. He was served by the impersonality of narrative. More conversational poems lay him open to self-consciousness and a faltering tone; but the narratives work by a world of images, the Antarctic and the Equator, stony eyes and aerial voices, the sunny dome and the caves of ice, a ‘Tongue of Light, a Fit of Flame’ and the small eye of a snake. These luminous contradictions are the soul of the verse, and they are all related to the ‘Love of Spices’ that has found a rich and lethal New World. Renaissance lyric poetry has made the idea of ‘spices’, especially as an erotic trope, sound alluring. But the actual reason Eastern spices were so much valued for so long was that their hot flavours concealed the taste of rottenness in the meat they were cooked with. There is a taste of rottenness, a dead albatross, underneath the history of discovery. This rottenness touches the poems in memorable places: the leprous white Life-in-Death who comes with the spectre ship, and all the suffering that follows; the political misery packed into the word ‘stately’ in ‘Kubla Khan’, and the mere wistfulness of love and art that close the poem; above all, the corrupt purity of Geraldine in ‘Christabel’, an object of compassion who has something vilely wrong with ‘her Bosom and half her Side’. The euphemism of the word ‘side’ is suspect: in Comus, Psyche bears children from ‘her fair unspotted side’; and Geraldine probably embodies a sexuality that is sterile and hideous.
Coleridge created his Xanadu by locating his poems in the true, at many levels, and working towards a kind of exorcism and expiation. In this he is to be decisively contrasted with the whole world of Gothic fiction, in which even a Frankenstein depends on its flight from the real. If a few poems by Coleridge have an extraordinary grasp on our memory, it is through their own honest inability to forget what was real and disastrous in the poet’s own life, both private and public. He was helped by the early stages of a marriage not yet entirely hopeless, and – even more – by the life and confidence of Wordsworth’s household. To be guided towards narrative was an immense assistance too. Its temporal perspective imposes order on what is chaotic; a narrative derived from the historical can be made to possess that ‘absolute Impersonality’ that the poet, writing to a Quaker, once defined as the attribute of ‘Deity’ ‘nearest to my heart’. And, if Coleridge went on all his life making changes to his poem, it was in the direction of this ‘absolute Impersonality’. Thus, the 17th-century prose glosses help to release the Ancient Mariner from the sometimes clumsy archaisms of the unnecessarily time-based first version. With the addition of the glosses to a medievalising ballad (ballads being all but undatable anyway) the poem becomes a past within a past within the memory of the self.
This is perhaps the central reason the poem haunts so many writers and readers. The three poems all share a degree of dreamy consciousness that makes them startlingly foreshadow the modern. If they lodge like an arrow in the creative memory, it is because they hint at some archaic work of Modernism, in which a writer writes himself or herself, a reader reads herself or himself. Even the ‘absolute Impersonality of the Deity’, spoken by a writer, gives some faint fore-echo of James Joyce. It is through a transformed art of narrative – a narrative within which, as Wordsworth scornfully complained, nothing coherent happens – that Coleridge found a remembered pastness, a use of history, entirely his own. And it made him one of the great progenitors not merely of 19th and 20th-century verse, but of fiction too.
A great part of the poet’s bequest moves through Edgar Allan Poe into genre fiction, the fiction of suspense and crime that is now often more brilliant than straight novel-writing. But the novel too carries a debt to him. It is always Scott who is celebrated as the initiator of 19th-century fiction (his influence was fantastically large and wide, in other countries as well as in other media; it runs as far as Georges Simenon saying ‘he invented us all,’ ‘he began it all’). But Coleridge ‘began’ Scott. The issue has long been suspected, and is fully dealt with in John Sutherland’s Life of Scott. ‘Christabel’ was known long before it was published: according to the Wordsworths, Scott knew the poem by heart as early as 1805. His Lay of the Last Minstrel, published with vast success in 1805, derives heavily from ‘Christabel’. Sutherland describes what he calls Scott’s ‘liberating discovery of Coleridge’ mainly in terms of a new colloquial looseness of metre. But he took a vision too. In the same year as the publication of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott began a historical novel, wrote eight chapters and set it aside, lacking nerve; he finished and published it in 1814. The success of Waverley made it what its Penguin editor calls perhaps ‘the most significant novel of the 19th century’.
But the ‘significance’ was largely Coleridge’s. Scott took from him, first in the Lay and then more richly and thoughtfully in Waverley, an art of transforming the history of a culture into the troubled experience of an individual, caught between past and future. The borrowing flowered in Scott’s mind and gave him a career – gave him also gigantic fame, money and honour. He never thanked Coleridge or apologised. As it happens, Byron too realised that he had thoughtlessly stolen a style in the same way from the less successful poet’s ‘Christabel’: he apologised to Coleridge, thanked him, and brought about the publication of the unfinished ‘Kubla Khan’. Scott always insisted that he had taken ideas, if at all, from the colloquial and dialect historical narrative of Maria Edgworth, a good minor writer who was less of a threat than Coleridge. In 1818 he attacked Coleridge savagely in Blackwood’s Magazine, edited by his son-in-law. One thing may be added to this sad history. It is now very rare indeed to find anyone quoting anything from any novel of Scott’s. This has to be some kind of justice granted to the great writer whom Lamb forbade friends to refer to as ‘poor Coleridge’.