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Coleridge and the ‘space of writing’.

A Fortnightly Review of

Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics (Nineteenth Century Major Lives and Letters)
by J. C. C. Mays

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 | pp. 287 | £55.00 $85.00

By Alan Wall.

Coleridge's Experimental Poetics: JCC Mays.IT IS TOO  often forgotten that Coleridge was a remarkable poetic experimentalist. Not only did he re-invent the ballad form as a narrative and allegorical structure, he also rediscovered the old principle of stress-driven verse. And in ‘Kubla Khan’ he found a way of exploring the poetic imagination which no one has since quite matched.

This study, by J.C.C. Mays – the distinguished Coleridge editor who is also responsible for the Princeton Poetical Works of 2001 – begins with a fascinating account of the reception history, not only of Coleridge’s work, but of the figure of Coleridge the poet, Coleridge the theologian, and Coleridge the metaphysician, the trinity of enigmas that made up STC. The interweaving of these three personae has changed radically over the years. For many decades it was thought that the early poet of such vivid promise had largely lost himself in those abstruse musings to which he was altogether too prone. Even Byron, an admirer who facilitated the publication of ‘Kubla Khan’, still quipped at the opening of Don Juan that Coleridge had been:

Explaining Metaphysics to the nation –
I wish he would explain his Explanation.

So much for Biographia Literaria, then. There is also the question of fragmentariness. We have changed our tune on this one, and that alteration has permitted a shift in our perception of Coleridge’s achievement. It is no longer simply accepted that ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ were never finished because STC was a self-indulgent druggie, forever plannng schemes he never got around to  completing. We now tend to value the authentic fragment above the over-synchronised whole, and we no longer expect poetry to round itself out and trim its margins simply to fill out the full page of our expectations. Charles Lamb’s precocity here was extraordinary: ‘We know not whether the fragmental beauty that it now possesses can be advantageously exchanged for the wholeness of a finished narrative.’

This was in 1816, and is very well put. The fragmentariness of ‘Kubla Khan’ is now vastly more valued than the finish of Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the heroic personal quality of the latter perhaps no longer appears quite so conclusively superior to the vacillations and self-doubts of his balladeering companion. The very phrases Coleridge used to describe Wordsworth’s great endeavour – a philosophical poem ‘containing views of Man, Nature and Society’ – are now likely to fill the reader’s soul with a certain dread. The fragmentary we have come to accept as one of the parameters of authentic speech, the only possible mode, sometimes, of what Coleridge called ‘the lords of utterance’. The poet says precisely what can be said without compromising the vitality of the poem’s language, or inflating it with the spuriously holistic. There is a parallel in the visual arts: the edges of some of Rembrandt’s paintings appear either unfinished or half-abandoned, and it is impossible to say whether many of Cézanne’s watercolours are unfinished or, in the sense employed here, necessarily fragmentary. In either case we have come to regard those blank spaces as a token of genuine artistic endeavour, not a symptom of delinquency. Paul Celan’s poetry is almost entirely a poetry of the luminous fragment.

We have ended up (for the moment anyway) with three great Coleridgean texts: ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. For a long time ‘Love’, alternatively known as ‘Genevieve’, was said to form a quaternity with them. It was ‘Love’ that Millais illustrated in a popular painting, which was to become an even more popular Victorian woodcut. The poem shares a certain Gothic winsomeness with ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, but it seems now to show us a Coleridge in fancy-dress mode, where the much more unexpectedly Gothic quality of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ do something very different indeed. It is a tribute to the lasting power of Coleridge’s imagery that he has attracted so many illustrators of genius. Not only Doré, but Mervyn Peake and David Jones all produced sets of illustrations for ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and all are worth a great deal of attention. ‘Christabel’ has attracted much erotic speculation, both visual and otherwise, and we might recall that Sara Coleridge wouldn’t let her daughter Edith anywhere near her father’s verse, because it was ‘so sensuous and impassioned’. Her italics tremble here with their own quivering ambivalence.

John Everett Millais, 'Love' (1862). Image: V&A

John Everett Millais, ‘Love’ (1862). Image: V&A.

And ambivalence is a great resource of Coleridge, which is not to suggest that it was one he ever consciously employed. Fascination in this poet is often most pronounced for what is simultaneously hypnotic and forbidden. What, after all, is the Ancient Mariner so guilty about? Can it really have been shooting an albatross? That seems a little unlikely, if one reads how Joseph Banks on Captain Cook’s voyage shot every albatross that came within hailing distance of the ship. His fellow mariners did not shun him for his actions, but applauded him as a crack shot. The fresh avian flesh helped keep away the scurvy, after all, and made for a little dietary change before landfall. In moral terms ‘I shot the albatross’ in Coleridge’s day was about as blameworthy as ‘I caught the trout’, even though one of his subsequent marginal glosses did tell us that it had been a bird of good omen for the ship.

William Empson believed that the real crime lurking round the edges of Coleridge’s poem was slavery. This genuine obscenity, connected with maritime adventure, trade, and not least that busy port of Bristol where Coleridge spent so much time with his fellow Unitarian preachers, charged the poet’s imagination with a dark energy. The crime is one that cannot speak its name, and so displaces and condenses itself into the image of the albatross, wilfully killed on a mere whim. The imagery of life-in-death, dicing for survival on board a ship, the dark, plague-stricken ghost-vessel – all these make sense as a way of enunciating the horror of slavery, even if the crime is one which, in the poem itself, never actually gets to speak its name.

Coleridge had already linked up the killing of birds with human cruelty in his earlier poem ‘The Raven’, where the raven’s family die as a result of their nesting tree being cut down. The boat that is made from the timber of the raven tree is subsequently wrecked, with the loss of all lives on board, and the raven does not pretend that he is sorry for this immolation. In its last lines, the poem notices how close the word raven is to the word revenge. Dark creatures have had their homes wrecked by predatory men, all of whom appear to have white faces. This is slavery turned ornithological; history going back into the trees.

The crime at the centre of ‘Christabel’ is the exotic and alienating nature of desire; how could it ever cohabit with the wholesome hearth of domesticity and piety? This is an ambivalence Coleridge could hardly contemplate directly, without endangering his core beliefs; and so instead he turns it into poetry. He had tried so desperately in earlier poems such as ‘The Eolian Harp’ to pretend that life with Sara Frick was enough for him. But we know that it wasn’t, and soon enough he knows it too. Geraldine arrives in his imagination, and never entirely leaves. She is, in a quite literal sense, a lady of the night. In her, sexual force is inseparable from terror, just as it was in the figure of Astarte for the Mesopotamians. In these psychic regions, there is something murderous about desire; it kills the daily possibilities of settled order.

And then there is ‘Kubla Khan’, a doped-up jotting, we were told once, interrupted by the man from Porlock. A poem derided as the typical product of a laudanum addict – caverns measureless to man, indeed – is now considered one of the finest poems ever written; it is often spoken of as ‘the ultimate poem’, both in form and content. It has been foregrounded as a paradigm of what the unfettered poetic task entails.

Mays wishes to look at Coleridge as an experimentalist in verse, a poetic explorer of great courage and resource.

THIS IS THE material J. C. C. Mays takes on in his admirable, detailed and often very unexpected book. Unexpected because Mays wishes to look at Coleridge as an experimentalist in verse, and makes frequent reference to modern experimentalists, such as such as Charles Olson, Ed Dorn and George Oppen, working in the same medium. The poet of laudanum and dark dreams, of caverns measureless to man and nameless creatures slithering interminably over the surface of the sea, the quintessential exemplar of iterative unhappiness in love, the endlessly fecund source of schemes and projects, combined with a predictably breezy way regarding their completion, is here regarded as a poetic explorer of great courage and resource. Coleridge can in some ways be seen to represent the perfect vulgar notion of the poet, that Romantic figure of the archangel ruined. A man with a mind too big either for his body or his life to handle. The young Unitarian firebrand who gives up all his revolutionary hopes finally, accepts the way things are, and turns into an old Trinitarian, snuffling through his interminable anecdotes; that was pretty much Hazlitt’s verdict.

But Mays’s book presents us with an alternative verdict, one that this reader at least found exhilaratingly convincing. The Coleridge of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ created one of the most potent narratives of alienation in the language, employing an old form which he effectively re-invented in the process. The writer of ‘Christabel’ found depths of desire, and the concomitant estrangements of desire, which are so full of expressive life and disturbance that they perplex and baffle to this day. And the poet of ‘Kubla Khan’ produced a lyric of preternatural power, whose unworldly architecture can be read as the nearest any writer has ever come to describing the lineaments of poetry’s elusive structure. It partakes of opposites, air and water, caves and ice, and echoing through it always are those ancestral voices which are too sinister to offer any comfort, but which can never be ignored for long. Its key phrase is ‘mingled measure’. Out of earth, water, fire and air we make our monuments, but the structures remain finally creations of the human spirit.

A recent advocate, Ted Hughes, wrote two essays in which he tried to approach Coleridge’s great originality as a poet, but Mays is surely right to say that his evaluation was overwhelmed by the force of his own obsessions – and the same was true of his approach to Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Hughes was precisely to the point on the metrics of ‘Christabel’, where Coleridge says in his prefatory note that he has invented a new form in English verse, one in which stress takes plenipotentiary power over  any form of syllabic counting or metrical foot. Hughes pointed out that this was not a discovery of a new form, but the recovery of a very old one. The stress traditions going back to Anglo-Saxon traditions, and explored with great subtlety and brilliance by Gerard Manley Hopkins, are what lie behind the compelling rhythms of ‘Christabel’. Mays points out that the poem in fact achieves its metrical effects by maintaining a balance between syllabic count and accentual stress; so it is in fact another ‘mingled measure’.

HERE MAYS SPEAKS of ‘the space of writing’ that Coleridge entered, and it is a useful way to think of the matter. The notion of ‘the space of writing’ allows for traditions of formality and genre, and it also accepts that the space of your writing is not necessarily the space of your life. Coterminous they might be; cognate they are not. Indeed you might well enter the space of writing in order to escape the space of biography rather than amplify its domain; this was of course the burden of Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Paul Celan had little time for what he called ‘the low mimetic’, which is to say the kind of poetry which is obsessed with the superficial data of the writer’s life, and never seems to get much beyond them. If one values Coleridge’s three great poems properly then one must conclude that no writer has to stay tied to those particular specificities: Coleridge had never actually been to sea when he wrote his tale of the mariner, and he had certainly never been to Xanadu. If he had met Geraldine, then it was in an opium-oppressed dream. In ‘The Ancient Mariner’ he employs an old ballad form to rhapsodize a moral quest which is neither old nor new, but both at once. This is a different space of writing to that in one of his essays or lectures, or to those notable spaces in his notebooks where he asks himself (quite properly) many more questions than he ever answers. Coleridge was knowledgeable about contemporary science, and also remarkably shrewd in some of the queries he put to it. He wonders how Newton’s lifeless corpuscles could ever have produced life; and we are still wondering to this day.

So this is not the same space of writing in which he asks about desire or murder or how, beneath all the monuments of civilisation, there are always catacombs and crypts in which ancestral voices are prophesying war. Each space has its own formal requirements, and proffers its formal possibilities. Think of the poetic space of George Herbert’s The Temple. Despite moments of rebellion and spiritual madness, the Pindarics having to be reined back to their final due formality in ‘The Collar’, this is such a different space from Coleridge’s. We would have to go from the nave to the crypt, and then continue digging for some time, to find any of Coleridge’s hallucinatory scenes, which are frequently nearer to Fellini than they are to Herbert. Some have the vividness of Surrealism, and it is this unexpected vividness, indeed garishness, that is often so extraordinary. There is at times in Coleridge, as in Shakespeare, a proleptic cinematic quality. The canonisation of such verse can function like a shroud over a museum sculpture, to disguise what is in fact a potent weirdness.

A draft of 'Kubla Khan'.

A draft of ‘Kubla Khan’.

Mays quotes George Gilpin’s perceptive remark that Coleridge often seemed divided between the identities of Hamlet and Dionysius. We might cheekily elide a syllable here, and say that could also alternate between the dark self-quizzer and Dionysus, the agent of frenzied self-fulfilment. One notes that the two combine, insofar as they ever could, in the figure of the sacred maker at the end of ‘Kubla Khan’. And while they stay apart, which is most of the time, they open up two quite separate spaces of writing, and Coleridge spends a lot of time in both of them, brooding sometimes about Ophelia, at others longing for a dance with the Bacchae out on the hills at midnight. Each space of writing is of course also a space of reading, and Coleridge is one of our greatest readers, often forensically accurate about Shakespeare, deliriously inviting regarding The Arabian Nights.  This also explains why the low mimetic represents such inadequate furniture for the space of writing we call poetry: poetry is at least as often a search for the object of desire as it is a description of such an object actually discovered in this sublunar realm. All three of Coleridge’s masterpieces are imaginative journeys towards what is being sought, not retrospective accounts of an actual discovery, and certainly not in any of the spaces of writing which might be called biographical. The space of writing is heuristic as well as hermeneutic; it is not merely a place where evidence can be discovered and classified, but a principle of discovery in its own right, an integral mode of inquiry. Writing represents its own cognitive activity, which cannot be subsumed under another epistemological rubric. Here the formality of the activity dictates the architecture of the space, and in terms of poetry the dimensions of the stately pleasure dome that Kubla Khan decrees might be the nearest we are ever likely to get to its groundplan and its elevation. It is simultaneously specific and fantastical. It is rooted to the ground, and even the underground, at the same time that it floats on water and in air. It partakes of both Caliban and Ariel; its zone is the region of the intermingled. Impossible extremities sometimes represent the north and south of this poet’s space of writing, though one should remark that they played a significant enough part in his life too: the scheme of Pantisocracy, and the marriage dreamed into being alongside it, or his eloping into the armed forces, travelling under the acronymic exuberance of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.

Mays analyses with impressive specificity how Coleridge arrives at these particular places and spaces of imaginative activity.  He shows how significant were his dramatic writings, from the very beginning. One doesn’t normally think of Coleridge spending fifteen years (on and off) brooding on a play entitled The Spell; or, Laugh Till You Lose Him! Mays also finds more precursors for the later achievements in some of the earlier work than one might expect. He shows how Coleridge was building and adapting his poetic iconography from his earliest jottings, and engages in some rewarding pattern recognition, including analyses of poems often largely overlooked.

At the centre of the book is an analysis of Coleridge’s prosody which it is hard to see anyone bettering. The heart of the matter is the system of syllable-counting on the one side, and the vigorous programme of accentual stress on the other. The regular forms derive from classical sources, or at least nod respectfully towards them, and the accentual-stress schemas can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon roots. The two seem to present a perennial alternative to the poet writing in English. A great many poets for much of the time negotiate with varying degrees of freedom between the two poles, but one can normally tell by glancing at the layout of a page which pole is being leaned towards at any particular moment. Auden delighted in following strict syllabic forms. T. S. Eliot revealed in ‘The Music of Poetry’ that he had never been able to remember the names and nature of the different types of poetic foot, and had always simply had to trust his ear to get the lines right (a curious admission for someone calling himself ‘a classicist’). The form we call syllabics is effectively a parodic version of ancient metres, deliberately ignoring the natural stresses of the English language in order to fulfil an entirely arbitrary syllable-counting form in strict numeric patterns. In the hands of virtuosos like Marianne Moore and Thom Gunn the effect can be remarkable, but the form is as self-regardingly artificial as opera.

Coleridge, Mays says, started off being very orthodox here; he certainly knew all his metres, each type of foot and so on; he even wrote a brilliant mnemonic for children, which is still of use to many adults. Then he grew more and more intrigued by giving the accentual-stress side of things its head. This reaches its apogee in ‘Christabel’ but ‘Kubla Khan’ is written in a variety of metres; it  is both accentually adventuresome, and syntactically dense. Coleridge was a poet obsessed with the auditory qualities of verse, far more so than Wordsworth who wrote of his companion: ‘When he was intent on a new experiment in metre, the time and labour he bestowed were inconceivable.’ This is an experimentalist at work inside the space of writing; it is evident from Wordsworth’s tone here that his own practice was very different. But then Wordsworth’s space of writing normally remained closer to the biographical chamber; much more so than Coleridge’s, anyway.

Coleridge’s father John recommended reading ‘conjointly by quantity and accent’. That’s pretty much what Coleridge took to doing, even in ‘Christabel’ where the prefatory manifesto is actually more radical than the prosodic practice that follows. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins who really followed up on the expeditionary possibilities of accentual stress when it slipped its syllable-counting moorings, and made for open waters. The practice of Hopkins is still considerably more radical than that of most of his successors. We tend to forget that this freedom to oscillate between syllabic regularity and accentual thrust is not shared by all the poetic traditions in other languages. The prosodic norms in Russian, for instance, tend to be much more demandingly regular. No option to jump out of the designated metric pattern into a moment of accentual improvisation there, as many benighted translators into English have discovered to their cost.

THE CENTRAL ANALYSES of Coleridge’s poems here, while intensely technical, are also enormously rewarding. Mays is astute on parentheses in Coleridge, and how they indicate dialectical movements of his mind, the give-and-take, query and response rhythms that so often constitute the verse, whose movement is usually much more that of the contemplative butterfly than that of the discursive crow. Mays also shows us how frequently Coleridge is speaking to someone in his verse. Roman Jakobson has shown how the conative mode, the second-person address, is commoner in poetry and song than in most other types of writing. It is also noticeable that there is seldom a stable voice in Coleridge’s verse. The authoritative ‘I’ of Wordworth’s poetry is either absent or only intermittently present. Confirmed identity is something only fleetingly attained. ‘Kubla Khan’ starts in the third person, moves into the first, and ends with a kind of liturgical reported speech – the nearest we have to a Bacchic chorus in English poetry. All this is developed through a sequence of attentive readings, characterised by scrupulous and detailed argument and quotation.

There is a pleasing epigraph to one of the chapters here. It is by Elizabeth Sewell and it reads as follows:

Mallarmé and Rimbaud have suffered quite enough already by being interpreted. My own view is that to demand an interpretation of a poem is evidence of misunderstanding of the nature of poetry. All one can ask is admission to the world of the poem, and permission to explore.

Note once more the spatial metaphor: writing as a space into which one is admitted, a place one might explore, and one sighs in agreement with the exasperated sentiment. It is not interpretation as such which is to be deprecated, since it is unavoidable, even for the silently reading eye; it is a particular sort of interpretation which assumes that it always knows so much more about the poem than the poem could ever possibly know about itself. (If the poem is worth talking about at all then it should not be condescended to so breezily.) When Eliot gave a reading in Cambridge in 1930 he was asked by a student: ‘Mr Eliot, what does the line Lady, three white leopards sat under the juniper tree actually mean?’ Eliot responded, quite properly, ‘It means: Lady, three white leopards sat under the juniper tree.’ In a parallel manoeuvre, when Schumann had played a new piece of piano music, and was asked by one of his auditors what it meant, he simply sat down and played it again.

Mays is particularly good on insisting that we should never fatuously ‘explain’ the poem by reference to the life. We might find sources, allusions, even provocations there, but that is not explanation.

Mays is particularly good on insisting that we should never fatuously ‘explain’ the poem by reference to the life. We might find sources, allusions, even provocations there, but that is not explanation. Nothing ‘explains’ the form and content of any scene of writing except what is in the scene of writing itself, and how it is structured. All art forms, said Harry Levin, constitute their own history. Which is to say that is impermissible to translate them into a different set of historical parameters, as if to say, ‘Oh, so that’s what it really meant after all.’ So in speaking of the poem ‘Recollections of Love’ Mays says this: ‘Above all, the often sad, muddled, messy relation with the Sara Hutchinson of history must be kept out of the poem, which is about Sara as Asra.’ That is well put. There are no real people in poems; or rather, the reality of people in poems is not at all the same as the reality of people in biographies. If the realities were in truth cognate, then why should any poet bother writing the poem in the first place? The spaces of writing are different, consisting of different modes, differing formalities. When Jean-Luc Godard provided us with a history, or a set of histories, of cinema, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, he knew it could not be presented chronologically. That might have been a bookish way of telling the tale; but cinema constitutes its own history, and had to tell its own story, including flashbacks, dissolves, and all the other temporal devices which cinema has invented. Cinematic time is not the same as written time; cinematic narrative is as visual as it is aural.

This book can be highly recommended not only to Coleridge scholars, but to anyone with a serious, and precise, interest in what it is that serious poetry actually does – and precisely why we still need to value it so highly.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books. and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.


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