A Moral Idiocy, an Imbecility of the Will, a Haunting, an Emptiness, a Posthumous State, a Writing Block

Susan Eilenberg

  • The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Rosemary Ashton
    Blackwell, 480 pp, £25.00, December 1996, ISBN 0 631 18746 4
  • Coleridge: Selected Poems edited by Richard Holmes
    HarperCollins, 358 pp, £20.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 00 255579 4
  • Coleridge’s Later Poetry by Morton Paley
    Oxford, 147 pp, £25.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 818372 0
  • A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse edited by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 232 pp, £7.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 571 17604 6

He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to do.

Fond readers who dream of the poems Keats might have written had he lived past 25 and speculate about what works died with Shelley at 29, humane readers who deplore tuberculosis and drowning (together with rheumatic fever, arsenic and other wasters of Romantic genius), entertain a different and darker regret when they turn their attention to Coleridge, wishing, not that he had lived longer, but that he had died sooner. While no one will admit to a wish for any particular form of death – drowning, say, on the way to Malta, or an intestinal catastrophe still more catastrophic than the ones which figured in the psychosomatic melodrama of his life – there is a widespread feeling that it would have been better for all concerned, better even for Coleridge himself, had he simply ceased to exist during the first years of the 19th century.

In certain respects it is as if he had. After the first glorious days of his friendship with Wordsworth, Coleridge set about – or perhaps only resumed – a course of procrastination and ruin from which it seemed decent to avert one’s eyes. His life grew complicated and his poetry sparse, and his achievement took forms that required sometimes unreasonable effort to value.

A judiciously abridged Coleridge, one whose exasperatingly shaggy life had been reformed along the cleaner lines of tragedy, would have been a subject more readily adapted to admiration and sympathy (or at least pity and terror) than the one his embarrassed biographers give us. Had Coleridge expired out of sight in Malta in 1805, as he and Wordsworth both expected he might, he would have avoided much of the ugly deterioration, so dismaying to his admirers, of his integrity, his personal relations, his appearance and his poetic abilities. This is not to say he would have gone out in a blaze of glory. Already his health was destroyed, his dependence on opium crippling, his marriage all to pieces, his love for Sara Hutchinson frustrated, his collaboration with Wordsworth curdling into a matter of jealous resentment, the poetry for which we chiefly remember him all in the past, his hopes and his reasons for hope decayed. He was not yet at the worst, however. His tears could still evoke answering tears, and his declarations of accomplishment and serious intent had not yet lost their credibility. The devastating hallucination in which he saw Sara Hutchinson in bed with Wordsworth was still to come; nor had he yet learned that Wordsworth, disgusted by his habitual drunkenness and lying, had begun warning friends against him. He had not yet officially given in to his tendency to domestic parasitism, or discovered that his beloved son Hartley had inherited all his own worst moral weaknesses and that his daughter Sara had followed him into hypochondria and drug addiction.

As Rosemary Ashton, Richard Holmes and Morton Paley remind us, Coleridge did survive the long years of estrangement, both from Wordsworth and from all he had ceded to Wordsworth; he did begin to return to himself. When the current of critical opinion reversed, he found himself the object of loud praise, the domesticated sage of Highgate whose eccentric and adenoidal monologues drew auditors from as far away as the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. Yet despite the successes of his later life – indeed, despite the extraordinary fecundity evident in the still lengthening shelf of his Collected Works – he felt his achievement to be precarious. Anticipations of his own poetic end arrive almost at once with the mature poetry. Hardly had ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ been published than its author announced (in May 1799) his intention ‘to dedicate in silence the prime of my life’ to metaphysics, a turn made necessary, as he said a year later, by his sense that his ‘faculties’ were ‘dwindling’, or at least that they would not bear comparison with Wordsworth’s: ‘He is a great, a true Poet – I am only a kind of Metaphysician.’ In September 1800 he wrote: ‘I abandon Poetry altogether – I leave the higher – deeper kinds to Wordsworth, the delightful, popular–simply dignified to Southey; – reserve for myself the honorable attempt to make others feel and understand their writings, as they deserve to be felt – understood.’ In December he recognised that ‘I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, – that I mistook a strong desire for original power.’ By March 1801, Coleridge had decided it was all over: ‘The Poet is dead in me.’

Poetry was largely crowded out by illnesses – neuralgias, mysterious swellings of the scrotum and the eye, nightmares, elaborate bowel complaints. At least some of this had to do with the opium he took and with the opium he denied himself, but some of it predated his addiction. Perhaps the pathology of 1834 was incapable of detecting the disease that accounted for Coleridge’s distresses, or perhaps, as recent critics and biographers have suggested, the pathologists should have looked into the poet’s relations with his mother, his brothers, his wife and his beloved instead of into his body. Coleridge, the inventor of the word ‘psychosomatic’, had wanted to believe that what he suffered from was an authentic organic disease and hoped that an autopsy might – retrospectively – establish the validity of his complaints and excuses. It did not do so.

Until very recently, not even Coleridge’s sympathisers made much of an effort to rescue him from the appearance of failure. Although few went as far as Norman Fruman in condemning Coleridge as an impotent fraud and plagiarist, many reluctantly agreed with Thomas McFarland when he declared: ‘Coleridge’s ruin, in both life and work, is ... the true human fact; the academic classic and the conventional achievement the illusion.’ It may be that in the protracted aftermath to the much insisted on death of the author, the death of a particular author – or, rather, the dissolution of his authority and the abstraction of his agency – registers as no very terrible event, and vicariousness, marginality, diasparactivity, failures of centrality or identity or unity seem not so much defects as marks of the literary condition. Accordingly, we have had Coleridge the perpetual usher, the marginal man, the abject whose writing is simultaneously a mutilation, a mourning and a suicide. But although the fragments, the quasi-Bakhtinian dialogics, the recursive metalanguages he produced might almost have been made for Post-Modernist appreciation, Coleridge would not willingly have accepted redemption on those terms. Ambivalent towards his own labile genius, craving the apparently organic authenticity he saw in other writers, he loathed himself as a prodigy of ruin and, in his worst moments, would have traded all his tormentingly prodigal imagination for Southey’s dully regular industry.

The referred torments and hysterical agonies that prevented Coleridge from writing the sorts of poem he wanted to write functioned as the psychic, literary and physical equivalent of an auto-immune disease, a morbid self-misrecognition or mutant Socratism in which self-knowledge is disabling and identification toxic. ‘In exact proportion to the importance and urgency of any Duty was it, as of a fatal necessity, sure to be neglected ... In exact proportion, as I loved any person or persons more than others, – would have sacrificed my Life for them, were they sure to be the most barbarously mistreated by silence, absence, or breach of promise,’ Coleridge wrote. It was true. Kind to other men’s children, he neglected Hartley, Derwent and Sara; he would wear himself out seeing Wordsworth’s poems through the press but was incapable of making any but the slightest exertions on behalf of his own. All his life he got into awkward situations over men (and sometimes women) whose identities he could only imperfectly distinguish from his own: his plagiarisms may stem from this, as may his chronic suspicion that others were plagiarising him or those around him. His loathing of Sir James Mackintosh (’the great Dung-fly’) and of William Pitt are the clearest expressions of self-contempt; his troubles with Charles Lloyd and Thomas de Quincey stem from a mutual or compound confusion of identities; and he inspired the same bitter disillusionment in his quondam admirers (most spectacularly William Hazlitt) that he felt towards his own fallen idols.

He felt the disease of his selfhood as a moral idiocy, an imbecility of the will, a haunting, an emptiness or poverty or unreality, a lack of solidity, an incurable loneliness, a posthumous state, a writing block. His purposes had to be borrowed, or else got up for the occasion; so did his funds and his domestic arrangements. His life, shaped by his accommodation of the unreal, required a suspension of disbelief from even its chief inhabitant, who habitually regarded his reflection with the absorption one might accord a play, treated his birthdate as a revisable fiction, and was persuaded (temporarily) to believe or act as though he believed that he loved a woman from whom all his instincts urged him to flee. An intellectual understanding of the pathological nature of his need to borrow reality from others did nothing to mitigate that need; he remained vulnerable to men of stronger will than himself, whose self-assurance or self-righteousness he interpreted at least initially as spiritual superiority. Everyone sneers at Mrs Coleridge, jealous of Wordsworth’s influence, trying to snatch her husband out of his orbit, but her dismay was shared by Coleridge’s friends, many of whom felt his idolatry to be a pernicious thing. And Coleridgeans, following their subject, blame Wordsworth for his exploitation of Coleridge’s devotion. But the idolatry and the exploitation would have happened even without Wordsworth; the same thing had happened a few years before, with Southey, as it had happened and would go on happening all Coleridge’s life. Imaginative death, literary failure and increasing numbers of non-believers required miracles of revival, redemption and conversion – required, it seemed, messianic beings like Wordsworth, by whose side Coleridge considered himself impaired.

Coleridge portrayed himself as a victim, but in many respects he was responsible for creating what injured him. In particular, he was responsible for creating the expectations of achievement by which we now measure his failure – one that might not register as failure on another scale. Naming and offering details of the works he was just about to begin or just about to complete, he converts innocent and abstract white space into the site of humiliatingly specific failure: ‘The Origin of Evil, an Epic Poem’ does not exist; neither does the Logosophia, nor the eight-volume history of English poetry and poets (together with metaphysics, theology, surgery, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, navigation, exploration and law – common, canon and Roman). Surely no one would blame him for having neglected to solve the mysteries of cosmic order and human consciousness had he not pretended to have ‘completely extricated the notions of Time and Space’ and to have been on the verge of being able ‘to evolve all the five senses, that is, to deduce them from one sense – to state their growth, – the causes of their difference – – in this evolvement solve the process of Life – Consciousness’. And his claims to have worked out Goethe’s theory of colours before Goethe himself did, and to have anticipated Kant, succeed only in forcing us to strip him of his borrowed glory. It is the same story with the works he did write. Representing the results of his careful and prolonged labour as products of accident or prodigy or spontaneity or derangement, he slandered them (and himself) for the sake of exemption from critical evaluation. Thus he presented ‘Kubla Khan’ as a fragment of a much greater piece destroyed by amnesiac distraction, perhaps in order to glorify the unrecoverable, perhaps imaginary, and certainly unjudgeable original, perhaps in order merely to confound detractors, themselves in part figments of a preveniently guilty imagination.

The most self-destructive (though gorgeous) of Coleridge’s strategically ambiguous metafictions is his poetic theory. The author of fragments, collaborative experiments, extratextual conversations and overgrown marginalia – works that notoriously decline to remain within their proper boundaries – insists that ‘nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise,’ that ‘the definition of a legitimate poem’ is that ‘it must be one, the parts of which mutually support and explain each other’, and that the purpose of all poems is ‘to convert a series into a Whole’. So oddly does the critical language of unity and organicism sort with the poetry of uncanny disruption that you wonder whether the incongruity can have been accidental. The criticism is to the poetry as requirement is to failure – not a mere antithesis but a typically Coleridgean idealisation of the negative of his achievement, an attempt at self-transcendence fallen into self-condemnation.

The space of that fall is the space of Coleridge’s poetry. Sometimes, as in ‘Dejection: An Ode’, Coleridge represented the fall as a failure of his ‘genial spirits’ at the grim recognition of the provenance of the hope that ‘grew round me, like the twining vine,/And fruits, and foliage [that], not my own, seemed mine’ – a recognition that moved him to a confused attempt at rescue, wishing ‘haply by abstruse research to steal/From my own nature all the natural man’. But the chronology of anagnorisis and catastrophe in ‘Dejection’ fails to account for the intimations of failure present from the beginning, without which even the greatest of Coleridge’s poems could not have come into being. The self-doubt, the surrender of hope explicit in ‘Dejection’ and ‘To William Wordsworth’ were implicit in the moving but otherwise mysterious generosity of the so-called conversation poems, including ‘Frost at Midnight’ and ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’, in which the poet wishes that others may find joy where he himself must not; despair is veiled only by the conventions of fiction in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’, all tales about loss of imaginative and linguistic control. Peripeteia occurs not only between the early poetry and the later but also within the poems themselves, both early and late.

This is not to say that all Coleridge’s failures are really successes in disguise. By the standards of his greatest work, most of his verse is of minor value, either too much in the mode of what Harold Bloom called ‘whooping’ or else mere occasional verse, poetastry. But many of even the least ambitious poems, as Holmes and Paley show, are fresh and sharp and witty, and within the shadow of the much anthologised pieces a reader can find poems which, though lacking the stunning power to engage that Coleridge’s best work commands, exert a kindred fascination. These second-rank poems, unlike the masses of newspaper verse and trifles written to amuse acquaintances, inhabit an emotional desolation or devastation at once more immediate and more abstract than anything one encounters elsewhere in Coleridge. Loneliness and despair remain naked, untransfigured. Preoccupied, like consciously and uneasily posthumous things, with the work of agglomeration and decay, they often inhabit provisional forms and provisional titles, so that despite their strongly autobiographical cast, they behave with the irresponsibility and sometimes the freedom of anonymous texts.

One of these, already familiar to many readers, is the emblem originally published under the title ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’:

On the wide level of a mountain’s head,
(I knew not where, but ‘twas some faery place)
Their pennons, ostrich-like, for sails outspread,
Two lovely children run an endless race,
      A sister and a brother!
      This far outstripp’d the other;
Yet ever runs she with reverted Face,
And looks and listens for the boy behind:
      For he, alas! is blind!
O’er rough and smooth with even step he passed,
And knows not whether he is first or last.

In the longer version of this, ‘Hope and Time’, the poet identifies the sister with Hope, the brother with Time. These identifications have puzzled critics, who note the oddity of Hope’s backward gaze and the impossibility of aligning either Hope or Time with either real time or imaginary time. Paley, working carefully through the text, its variants and its contexts, doubts the emblem’s solubility. It probably is insoluble, for the poem behaves as if it expressed, not so much the relationship of Hope to Time, or of time real to time imaginary, as the poet’s unhappy sense of self-division. The blind innocence is his own, or was; so is the pity and yearning after the self that ran along in brave ignorance; so is the ironic knowledge that this anxious remorseful nostalgic self-love blinds its subject to all but the loss that it doubles. Here as elsewhere in Coleridge, hope is inextricable from pathos because a function of retrospection.

The imputation of a blindness that disrupts a symmetry of gazes had been present since almost the beginning of Coleridge’s poetic career. In the great conversation poems it seems an index of the power of sympathy, which can overcome even unconsciousness or inanimacy. The ‘silent icicles,/Quietly shining to the quiet Moon’, the child’s tears that ‘Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam’, figure the serene ideal that begins to dim in Coleridge’s surrender before Wordsworth’s greater powers:

In silence listening, like a devout child,
My soul lay passive, by thy various strain
Driven as in surges now beneath the stars,
With momentary stars of my own birth,
Fair constellated foam, still darting off
Into the darkness; now a tranquil sea,
Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the moon.

After ‘To William Wordsworth’, the image comes to seem more unnerving than affectionate, an uncanny resurrection of sympathy in the form of intolerable indifference. There is the transmogrification in ‘Limbo’ of the ‘unmeaning’ of ‘moonlight on the dial of the day’ into moonlight on the eye of the blind man who

stops his earthly task to watch the skies;
But he is blind – a statue hath such eyes; –
Yet having moonward turn’d his face by chance,
Gazes the orb with moon-like countenance,
With scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high,
He gazes still, – his eyeless face all eye; –
As ‘twere an organ full of silent light,
His whole face seemeth to rejoice in light! –
Lip touching lip, all moveless, bust and limb –
He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on him!

Blindness – a sublime blindness with Wordsworthian overtones – becomes (in such poems as ‘The World that Spidery Witch’) blankness, a reflexivity that repels finally even the abstract otherness that is its own image:

I speak in figures, inward thoughts and woes
Interpreting by Shapes and outward shews:
Where daily nearer me with magic Ties,
What time and where, (wove close with magic Ties
Line over line, and thickning as they rise)
The World her spidery threads on all sides spin[s]
Side answ’ring side with narrow interspace,
My Faith (say I; I and my Faith are one)
Hung, as a Mirror, there! And face to face
(For nothing else there was between or near)
One Sister Mirror hid the dreary Wall,
But that is broke! And with that bright compeer
I lost my object and my inmost all –
Faith in the Faith of THE ALONE MOST DEAR!

‘What no one with us shares,’ Coleridge had written in ‘The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree’, ‘seems scarce our own’ – ‘What then avail those songs, which sweet of yore/Were only sweet for their sweet echo’s sake?’ Bereft of his sociable voices (echoes or not), Coleridge was diminished as a man and as a poet; and, as Michael Macovski has suggested, the absence of conversation affected him as a terrifying internal silence. Even after the conversations for which we chiefly remember him, however, his poems kept up a murmuring, an internal monologue that at times approaches the kind of conversation his earlier poems were wont to have with Wordsworth’s.

The violent division between Coleridge the success and Coleridge the failure has made for both convenience and embarrassment The obvious superiority of his best work simplifies and justifies, even naturalises, the work of the anthologist. In the presence of any half-dozen of Coleridge’s strongest poems, merit seems a matter of simple self-evidence. (The same cannot be said of all great poems: look at Wordsworth’s, for instance.) But the simplicity has a troubling aspect, for Coleridge’s anthology pieces are not, as we expect such pieces to be, fully representative; hapax legomena, false synecdoches, they are too few to be other than suggestive singularities. In any case, it is no longer done to rejoice in the plums at the expense of the pudding.

These four new volumes from Rosemary Ashton, Richard Holmes, Morton Paley and Ted Hughes work to restore the plums to their proper context. Ashton’s biography reminds us how thoroughly and often unhappily the poet was also the son, the brother, the orphan, the husband and the father; she weighs neurotic disability against freedom and comes up with a figure much battered, deeply fractured, but not a helpless victim. Holmes, whose own earlier half-life of the poet anticipated Ashton’s in its balance of sympathy and informed scepticism, now offers a selection of poems well-known and unknown, neatly annotated and presented under new headings designed to remind us of how many more contexts the real Coleridge occupied than his myth ever seemed to. Some of the same poems make an appearance in Morton Paley’s admirable study of Coleridge’s ‘later’ poetry, which, Paley argues, declares its difference and independence from the poetry Coleridge invented with Wordsworth and returns to Coleridge’s native, pre-Wordsworthian sensibility. This poetry, which Paley concedes to be less ambitious than what preceded it but which he believes is valuable nonetheless, he reads with miraculous care, insisting that the poems can ‘be fully discussed only in relation to their textual matrices’. These matrices vibrate, like intelligent concordances, to the merest echoes of texts themselves often fragmentary or ephemeral or remote – the most ethereal of puddings.

The oddest of these volumes is Ted Hughes’s collection of poems drawn together to support hit contention, set forth in an exceedingly long introductory essay, that Coleridge’s greatest poems (and a fair number of his lesser poems as well) allegorise the poetically lethal contest between Coleridge’s repressive Protestant intellect and his passionate pagan imagination, his ‘Unleavened Self’. This Unleavened Self was devoted to the Great Female who was the mythic form of Coleridge’s unresponsive mother and who sometimes appeared as a bellowing maternal alligator and sometimes as an albatross. In this reading all the female characters turn out to be the same female character, and all the poems that matter turn out to be the same poem. It is a little difficult to understand just what this poem (‘a single Tragic Opera’) is about, but it has something to do with oaks (not with birches), and the moral of it seems to be that Coleridge should have had the courage to follow the wailing woman down the alligator hole.

Coleridge does give the appearance of one appalled by his perilous altitude and his perilous descent. Courage might have helped. Yet how easy for us to say that, who have only to witness the plummet and, as we choose, retrieve and pronounce on the fragments. What, however, to save? What to sacrifice? At what cost does this writer survive his own apparent extinction, and what is his survival worth?

Coleridge feels more real, rounder, both more connected and more lonely as a result of Ashton, Holmes and Paley’s work of retrieval and appreciation. It is clear that he was more robust and wrote more good poetry than most of us suspected. But the ratio of sublimity to mere pleasure or worse, always in Coleridge’s case somewhat hard to calculate, has dropped a little below the point at which ardent Coleridgeans had hoped it might be set. Certainly ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is no less wonderful for having been followed by ‘To Two Sisters’ and ‘Lines Composed in a Concert-Room’. But now it is the brilliance that seems the aberration, and not its dimming.