Coleridge and the ‘space of writing’

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 nationI 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.

More here.


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