Wednesday 3 January 2024

Coleridge on Cholera

 I believe this to be a previously unnoticed record of Coleridge's speaking. It's from an article by ‘L.M.C.’ called ‘Thoughts on the Poet Coleridge’ [The Metropolitan Magazine 11:42 (Oct 1834), 142-6]. Much of the piece is general praise of Coleridge's talents (‘As a great poet, and a still greater philosopher, the world has hardly yet done justice to the genius of Coleridge’ and so on), but there are some personal reminiscences too:
The last time I ever saw him, was at the period when the cholera was beginning to shed its baneful influence over this country. Coleridge was walking in the grove at Highgate, his frequent promenade, and opposite to the church where his ashes now repose. We stopped to salute him, and he held us some time in discourse. He entered upon the then all-engrossing subject of that fearful scourge, not with the partiality or prejudice, or narrow views of the mere physician, anxious only to establish his own theory, and to subvert every other, but with the candour and the comprehensiveness of the great philosopher, anxious only to elicit truth. He mentioned several interesting circumstances connected with the plague, which had fallen under his own observation, while he was resident at Malta; and, amongst others, that while the pestilence was raging, the common flies were found lying dead about the houses, and the small fly, called the blue fly of pestilence, appeared in their stead. The important question, as to whether the cholera was infectious, or merely contagious, he discussed with luminous eloquence; and showed the great probability that it might in fact be both. He explained how one form of the disease might, under certain circumstances, tend to produce the other; and again, with fearful and destructive energy, reproduce and multiply itself. I merely state the substance of his remarks; for I cannot venture to put words into the mouth of that sublime colloquist: yet I have a vivid recollection of his tone and manner, when, comparing the pestilence to the ‘destroying angel,’ he lifted up his hands and eyes to the blue summer sky, that shed its full sunlight upon his inspired face. At that moment, who that saw him, but must have been struck with the wonderful mastery of mind over matter? for the bent figure, the tremulous motion of the head, and the silver tresses, that indicated a premature old age, seemed in a moment to vanish, and the divine spirit was alone present and perceptible to sense.
Well, he was wrong about cholera: it's contagious, but not infectious. (In Frederick Burwick's Oxford Companion to Coleridge [(Oxford 2009), 299], Paul Cheshire reminds us of ‘a [Notebook] entry where Coleridge claimed that the cholera epidemic was the result of savage races neglecting to cultivate their higher functions.’ So I guess there are worse ways to be wrong about this particular disease). There's also this rather non-specific reminiscence of STC reading poetry, and opining on Shakespeare, which I'm afraid adds little the canon of Coleridgeana:
I remember Coleridge reading some passages from the old poets, with such a look and tone of enjoyment, that his whole soul seemed poured out in the flood of melody that fell from his lips. Nor was it surprising to find one of his most original turn giving the palm to those early writers, who, as he justly observed, were the parent streams of all those channels of thought, that diffuse themselves through modern poetry; which has chiefly the merit of dressing up old ideas in a new and more elegant costume, or, in other words, re-setting the jewels of antiquity in the filigree of the day. Talking of Shakspeare, he gave it as his opinion that both Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida, were the works of that mighty Archimage, and bore the impress of his genius too strongly, (despite their faults,) to give sanction to the idea entertained by some critics, that they were the compositions of an inferior hand.

Sunday 11 June 2023

Coleridge, George Buchanan and the Tribade Riddle


A follow-up to this post, which Blogger in its wisdom has placed behind a content-warning: on Coleridge's ‘Tribade Riddle’. I've been reading a bit of George Buchanan lately, and came across this quatrain of his. It's one of a series addressed to a woman called Leonora, roasting her for her indiscriminate promiscuity. She has sex, it seems, with all manner of monks, and cooks (the Latin, coquus, includes a double-entendre with ‘cock’ that is almost, but not quite, true of the English word), taking her pleasure with the ‘members of young men’ (nervi juvenum) as well as with the poet. This enrages and saddens him, though he can't break away from her. Here is ‘In Leonorum’:

Vive male, monachique, tui lixaeque coquique
Mater edax, illex filia, nigra tribas.
Ne tamen interea, vestri immemor arguar esse,
vos penes hoc nostri pignus amoris erit

Live wickedly, with your monks, your groupies and cooks
you greedy mother, seductress girl, black frigger.
Meantime, in case I’m accused of forgetting you,
you’ll soon possess this token of our love.
‘Groupies’ is, in the original, lixae. A lixa is a camp-follower, somebody who traipses after the army, either as a sutler or prostitute. I've assumed the latter meaning extends beyond just military usage, to mean any kind of person who follows others for sexual reasons, although obviously there's more than a touch of anachronism in my translation. I'm more interested in tribas: a word often turned into English as ‘lesbian’, but which more precisely refers to any practitioner of sexual frottage (the word comes from the Ancient Greek τρίβω tríbō, “to rub”). Martial's poem about an aggressive lesbian called Philaenis (Martial 7:67; I'm here quoting Gillian Spraggs's salty translation) opens: ‘Philaenis the tribade buggers boys/And randier than any married man/she eats-out eleven girls a day.’ Martial, here, is mocking Philaenis; he finds it cruelly hilarious that her butch lesbian aspirations, her filling her life with such masculine activities as lifting weights at the gym and wrestling, are all undermined by the fact that what she really likes doing is performing cunnilingus on women. Why Buchanan specifies a black tribade (‘nigra’) in his poem, is a puzzle. He might mean the word in the sense of wicked, evil, or, like Shakespeare's Dark Lady, it might be that Leonora is black-skinned. At any rate I wonder if Coleridge knew this poem. We know he read George Buchanan: he borrowed Buchanan's Poemata quae extant (Leyden, 1628) from Jesus College library, and he working through the 1790s on an, in the event, unrealised project to publish a collection of the best Neo-Latin verse with his own translations.

Sunday 12 February 2023

‘Alph, Quicksilver River’: Coleridge and Fracastoro

Coleridge doesn’t mention Girolamo Fracastoro in his Notebooks, and he’s not in the Marginalia, but we know he read him—or we know now, because I tracked down the source of this poem which, it may be, Coleridge tried to pass off as his own in a September 1802 letter to William Sotheby.

But it was always likely Coleridge read Fracastoro: he was one of the most celebrated and widely published of the Renaissance neo-Latin poets, and his mini-epic Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (‘Syphilis or The French Disease’; 1530) was highly regarded. It’s a strange work, in many ways: three books of Vergilian dactylic hexameters speculating on the origins and treatment of what was, in the early 1500s, a ‘new’ disease. We call this sickness ‘syphilis’ today because of Fracastoro’s poem. Its third book contains an inset-story, in Latin pastoral mode, in which a handsome shepherd called Syphilus angers the god of the Sun by refusing him sacrifices, and is punished with a terrible disease that gives him sores all over his body. From him the disease spreads through the land.

But that’s only a part of the whole, and Syphilus only one of several shepherds who are afflicted with the disease in Fracastoro's telling. Book One of the epic blames the coming of the disease on the French: for in 1494 Charles VIII of France had invaded northern Italy, and his army ravaged the country, sacking cities, killing and raping (the war went on until 1559). That a new disease happened to arrive at the same time led to the belief that the French had brought it with them. But although Fracastoro’s poem endorses this theory (as per its subtitle) it also knows that the theory isn’t true; that syphilis was just as unknown previously in France as it was in Italy. Book Two of the poem advances a different theory: that syphilis was brought back from the New World, after the first Europeans arrived there in the late 1400s. Opinion today is divided between those who think this is indeed where syphilis originated, and those who think the disease existed already in Europe, diagnosed as other illnesses (leprosy, elephantiasis, ‘saddle-nose’ and others) and that it mutated or increased in intensity around this time. I’m no expert, but it seems the problem with the latter theory is that untreated syphilis leaves its mark in the bones of those it kills, and although some pre-1500 European skeletons show these signs only very few do, where you’d expect (following its later epidemic spread) many more would do so. So perhaps it did come from America, as Fracastoro says.

As a physician, Fracastoro proposes two treatments for the disease, neither of any actual therapeutic merit (until the invention of antibiotics, four centuries later, there was no effective treatment for syphilis). One was injecting the patient with mercury: ‘quicksilver’. The other was Oil of Guaiac, derived from the Palo Santo tree (Bulnesia sarmientoi) which grows in the New World. Fracastoro’s poem sees divine providence in this latter fact: just as this horrible illness came from this newly discovered place, so God has placed there the cure. I got the poison, I got the remedy, as another poet put it.

Anyway, I’ve been reading Fracastoro’s Syphilis, which is full of interesting things. And since we know Coleridge was reading Fracastoro in 1802, it’s not unlikely that he was reading him in the 1790s too. And here I come to the point of my post.

In Book Two, Lipara—one of the daughters of the Hesperides (the Gardens of the West: she is introduced into the poem because the far west is where the New World is)—takes Ilceus, a young shepherd, like Syphilus suffering from this new disease, into an antrum opacum, a ‘dark cave’:
Sic ait, et se antro gradiens praemittit opaco.
Ille subit, magnos terrae miratus hiatus,
squallentesque situ aeterno, et sine lumine vastas
speluncas, terramque meantia flumina subter.
Tum Lipare: “Hoc quodcunque patet, quam maxima terra est:
hunc totum sine luce globum, loca subdita nocti,
dii habitant: imas retinet Proserpina sedes,
flumina supremas, quae sacris concita ab antris
in mare per latas abeunt resonantia terras.”

She spoke, and stepped ahead of him into the dark cave.
He followed, marvelling at the great chasms inside the earth,
Eternal sites of waste, of vast and lightless
caverns, and the rivers meandering through the earth below.
Then Lipara said: “This huge expanse, as wide as the earth herself,
this huge lightless globe and these regions subject to night,
are where gods dwell: Proserpina holds the lowest realm,
while higher up are rivers, which flow through the sacred caves
into the sea, passing noisily through the broad lands.” [Syphilis 2:371-79]
They move on: to the left they see Vulcan’s smithy, roaring, hissing and clanging, and on the right a ‘sacred river’, a sacer fluvius [2:402] that flows into a subterranean sea of quicksilver. This sunless sea of mercury is the expedition’s destination— Lipara bathes Ilceus in it, washing him ‘three times with her virginal hands’ (Ilceus, we are told, ‘marvelled that his ugly sores were gone, his body now free of the malign disease’ 2:415-16) and then returns him to the sunlight.

But doesn’t this strike a familiar note, to the reader of ‘Kubla Khan’? Alph, the sacred river, which runs through the opening lines of that great poem, is not a detail mentioned in Purchas, His Pilgrimes (1619), which (of course) Coleridge was reading, immediately before ‘falling asleep’ (that is, sinking into an opium daze) and dreaming the poem:
In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.
I wonder if Coleridge in 1797 was reading Fracastoro alongside Samuel Purchas. One of his projects (one of his many, unrealised projects) was an anthology of neo-Latin verse, and to that end he would definitely have read one of the most famous of all neo-Latin poets (‘As late as 1806 the Scottish poet and linguist John Black could say “Fracastoro and our Buchanan are generally supposed to dispute the sceptre of modern poetical latinity.”’ [James Gardner]. Coleridge knew Black, who edited the Morning Chronicle, a paper to which Coleridge contributed). Plus he was most definitely reading him in 1802, only five years later.
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.
Was Coleridge thinking of Fracastoro’s sacred river, that flows with argentum vivum [2:403] ‘living silver’/quicksilver, down to a sea that is dark (atra, 2:405], occupying one of the vast underworld's sunless sacred caverns (sacra antra sine lumine 2:378, 373)? I’m intrigued by the notion that ‘Alph the Sacred River’ might actually be a river of mercury.

One other detail: the cave into which the Hesperidean virgin leads Ilceus is located in the far east—in that place where ‘Dawn arises and ushers in the new day’ [2:344]. Somewhere near Xanadu, maybe?

Sunday 18 December 2022

Samuel Taylor Kακά-rich: ‘Ode on the Departing Year’ (1796)


The poem's title was originally ‘on the Departing Year’; ‘to’ was a revision for 1817's Sybilline Leaves.

 ODE on the Departing Year

Ἰοὺ ἰοὺ ὦ ὦ κακά.
Ὑπ' αν με δεινὸς ὀρθομαντείας πονός
Στροβει, ταράσσων φροιμίοις εφημίοις.
* * * * * *
Τὸ μέλλον ἥξει. Kαὶ σύ μην τάχει παρὼν
Αγαν γ' ἀληθόμαντιν μ' ἐρεις.
         ÆSCHYL. Agam. 1225.
The Ode commences with an Address to the Divine Providence, that regulates into one vast Harmony all the events of time however calamitous some of them may appear to mortals. The Second Strophe calls on men to suspend their private joys and sorrows, and devote them for awhile to the cause of human nature in general. The first Epode speaks of the Empress of Russia, who died of an Apoplexy on the 17th of November, 1796; having just concluded a subsidiary treaty with the Kings combined against France. The first and second Antistrophe describe the Image of the departing year, &c. as in a vision. The second Epode prophecies in anguish of spirit, the downfall of this Country.


SPIRIT, who sweepest the wild Harp of Time,
It is most hard with an untroubled Ear
Thy dark inwoven Harmonies to hear!
Yet, mine eye fixt on Heaven's unchanging clime,
Long had I listened, free from mortal fear,
With inward stillness, and a bowed mind:
When lo! far onwards waving on the wind
I saw the skirts of the DEPARTING YEAR!
Starting from my silent sadness
Then with no unholy madness, [10]
Ere yet the entered cloud forbade my sight,
I rais’d th’ impetuous song, and solemnized his flight.


Hither from the recent Tomb;
From the Prison's direr gloom;
From Poverty's heart-wasting languish;
From Distemper's midnight anguish:
Or where his two bright torches blending
Love illumines Manhood's maze;
Or where o'er cradled infants bending
Hope has fix'd her wishful gaze: [20]
Hither, in perplexed dance,
Ye WOES, and young-eyed JOYS, advance!
By Time's wild harp, and by the Hand
Whose indefatigable Sweep
Forbids its fateful strings to sleep,
I bid you haste, a mixt tumultuous band!
From every private bower,
And each domestic hearth,
Haste for one solemn hour;
And with a loud and yet a louder voice, [30]
O'er the sore travail of the common earth
Weep and rejoice!
Seiz’d in sore travail and portentous birth,
Let slip the storm and woke the brood of Hell:
(Her eye-balls flashing a pernicious glare)
Sick NATURE struggled! Hark—her pangs increase!
Her groans are horrible! But ô! most fair!
The promis’d Twins, she bears—EQUALITY and PEACE!

I mark'd Ambition in his war-array;
I heard the mailed Monarch's troublous cry—
“Ah whither does the Northern Conqueress stay? [40]
“Groans not her Chariot o'er its onward way?
Fly, mailed Monarch, fly!
Stunn'd by Death's “twice mortal” mace,
No more on MURDER's lurid face
Th’ insatiate Hag shall glote with drunken eye!
Manes of th’ unnumbered Slain!
Ye that gasp'd on WARSAW's plain!
Ye that erst at ISMAIL's tower,
When human Ruin chok'd the streams,
Fell in Conquest's glutted hour [50]
Mid Women's shrieks and Infants' screams;
Whose shrieks, whose screams were vain to stir
Loud-laughing, red-eyed Massacre!
Spirits of th’ uncoffin'd Slain,
Sudden blasts of Triumph swelling
Oft, at night, in misty train
Rush around her narrow Dwelling!
Th’ exterminating Fiend is fled—
(Foul her Life and dark her doom!)
Mighty Army of the Dead, [60]
Dance, like Death-fires, round her Tomb!
Then with prophetic song relate
Each some scepter'd Murderer's fate!
When shall scepter’d SLAUGHTER cease?
Awhile He crouch’d, O Victor France!
Beneath the light’ning of thy Lance,
With treacherous dalliance wooing PEACE.
But soon up-springing from his dastard trance
The boastful, bloody Son of Pride betray’d
His Hatred of the blest and blessing Maid. [70]
One cloud, O Freedom! cross’d thy orb of Light And sure he deem’d, that Orb was quench’d in night:
For still does MADNESS roam on GUILT’s bleak dizzy height!


DEPARTING YEAR! ‘twas on no earthly shore
My Soul beheld thy Vision. Where, alone,
Voiceless and stern, before the Cloudy Throne
Aye MEMORY sits; there, garmented with gore,
With many an unimaginable groan
Thou storiedst thy sad Hours! Silence ensued:
Deep silence o'er th' ethereal Multitude, [80]
Whose purple Locks with snow-white Glories shone.
Then, his eye wild ardors glancing,
From the choired Gods advancing,
The SPIRIT of the EARTH made reverence meet,
And stood up beautiful before the Cloudy Seat!


On every Harp, on every Tongue,
While the mute Enchantment hung;
Like Midnight from a thundercloud,
Spake the sudden SPIRIT loud—
“Thou in stormy Blackness throning [90]
“Love and uncreated Light,
“By the Earth's unsolac'd groaning
“Seize thy terrors, Arm of Might!
“By Belgium's corse-impeded flood!
“By Vendee steaming Brother's blood!
“By PEACE with proffer'd insult scar'd,
“Masked hate and envying scorn!
“By Years of Havoc yet unborn;
“And Hunger's bosom to the frost-winds bar'd!
“But chief by Afric’s wrongs [100]
“Strange, horrible and foul!
“To the deaf Senate, ‘full of gifts and lies!’
“By Wealth's insensate Laugh! By Torture's Howl!
“Avenger, rise!
“For ever shall the bloody Island scowl?
“For aye, unbroken, shall her cruel Bow
“Shoot Famine's arrows o'er thy ravag’d World?
“Hark! how wide NATURE joins her groans below—
“Rise, God of Nature, rise! Why sleep those bolts unhurl'd? [110]


The Voice had ceas'd, the Phantoms fled,
Yet still I gasp'd and reel'd with dread.
And ever when the dream of night
Renews the vision to my sight,
Cold sweat-damps gather on my limbs;
My Ears throb hot; my eye-balls start;
My Brain with horrid tumult swims;
Wild is the tempest of my Heart;
And my thick and struggling breath
Imitates the toil of Death! [120]
No uglier agony confounds
The Soldier on the war-field spread,
When all foredone with toil and wounds
Death-like he dozes among heaps of Dead!
(The strife is o'er, the day-light fled,
And the Night-wind clamours hoarse;
See! the startful Wretch's head
Lies pillow'd on a Brother's Corse!)
O doom'd to fall, enslav'd and vile,
ALBION! O my mother Isle! [130]
Thy valleys, fair as Eden's bowers,
Glitter green with sunny showers;
Thy grassy Uplands’ gentle swells
Echo to the Bleat of Flocks;
(Those grassy Hills, those glitt'ring Dells
Proudly ramparted with rocks)
And Ocean mid his uproar wild
Speaks safety to his Island-child.
Hence for many a fearless age
Has social Quiet lov'd thy shore; [140]
Nor ever sworded Foeman's rage
Or sack’d thy towers, or stain’d thy fields with gore.
Disclaim’d of Heaven! mad Av’rice at thy side,
At coward distance, yet with kindling pride—
Safe 'mid thy herds and corn fields thou hast stood,
And join'd the yell of Famine and of Blood.
All nations curse thee: and with eager wond’ring
Shall hear DESTRUCTION, like a vulture, scream!
Strange-eyed DESTRUCTION, who with many a dream
Of central flames thro’ nether seas upthund'ring [150]
Soothes her fierce solitude, yet (as she lies
Stretch’d on the marge of some fire-flashing fount
In the black chamber of a sulphur’d mount,)
If ever to her lidless dragon eyes,
ALBION! thy predestin’d ruins rise,
The Fiend-hag on her perilous couch doth leap,
Mutt'ring distemper'd triumph in her charmed sleep.

Away, my soul, away!
In vain, in vain, the birds of warning sing—
And hark! I hear the famin’d brood of prey [160]
Flap their lank pennons on the groaning wind!
Away, my Soul, away!
I unpartaking of the evil thing
With daily prayer, and daily toil
Soliciting my scant and blameless soil,
Have wail’d my country with a loud lament.
Now I recenter my immortal mind
In the long sabbath of high self-content;
Cleans’d from the fleshly Passions that bedim
God’s Image, Sister of the Seraphim. [170]

It’s surprising that ‘Ode on the Departing Year’ (1796) is not more widely discussed by critics and readers: it’s a very interesting poem, or so I think. I mean, I suppose I can see why it's so often overlooked. It's pretty long (170 lines) and much of it is written in that staid, formal ‘poeticised’ style that is conventional according to the conventions of 18th-century public versifying, dull and (often) inert (there's a lot of this in Coleridge's oeuvre frankly). Then again, sections of the poem break-through this into something more expressive, more sublime, more ‘Romantic’ stylistically—and 1796, the poem's topic, was a very interesting year. And overall the poem is doing something really quite striking, addressing a year of variegated public horrors and miseries, and trying to wrestle something more positive out of that. Very 2022, really. Plus he predicts that a gigantic dragon-vulture is about to devour England, so there's that. [Note: the only online versions of the poem I can find are later, altered and dismembered texts, so I'm not linking to those here. I quote the whole of the first version of the poem above.]

Coleridge is here following the success of Gray’s ‘Pindaric’ ode ‘The Bard’ (1757)—itself a revolutionary intervention, styled (as these things often are) as a reversion to origins, positioning itself against the tradition of 17th and 18th century polished neoclassical Horatian odes by going back further to Pindar. The Horatian ode tends to be balanced, meditative, controlled, closed, personal; Pindar's odes were public performances, outward-looking celebrations of sporting success and national identity, written in a less polished, sometimes more obscure style.  Gray’s resurrection of this enables a wilder proto-Romantic gnashing ruggedness and sublimity. He also captures something of Pindar’s grandiloquent obscurity, of style and allusion (concerning ‘The Bard’, Gray wrote to his friend William Mason: ‘nobody understands me, and I am perfectly satisfied.’)

Coleridge wrote his poem reflecting on the tumultuous year of 1796. His thoughts were particularly catalysed by the death of Catherine II of Russia (17th November 1796)— ‘I rejoice as at the disenshrining of a Demon!’ Coleridge wrote. ‘I rejoice as at the extinction of the evil principle impersonated!’ Catherine had, a few years earlier, partitioned Poland, put one of her many lovers, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of what remained of the country and then, when the Poles had risen up in 1794 she had crushed the rebellion with overwhelming military force and extreme brutality. After the Battle of Praga (Nov 1794) Cossacks looted and burned Warsaw, killing 20,000 civilians. Coleridge mentions her, as ‘the Northern Conqueress’ in line 40 of his ode, deploring her sanguinary career. The other main political referent of the ode is, of course, the continuing war with Revolutionary (soon to be Napoleonic) France: Coleridge is more outraged by ‘scepter’d SLAUGHTER’ (that is, the killings perpetrated by the monarchies surrounding and attacking France) than by anything Bonaparte is up to. Coleridge reserves particular contumely for William Pitt, Prime Minister (‘the boastful, bloody Son of Pride’ he calls him, a man marked by ‘betrayal’ and ‘hatred of the blest’). There was also the situation in the Vendée, the coastal portion of west France that had risen in opposition to la révolution française, and had accordingly become a killing field. 1796 was the year The Revolutionary government finally declared the war in the Vendée officially over, after seven years of suppressing this counter-revolution during which something like 1700,000 men, women and children in the region had been killed (out of a total population of 800,000). 

Critics don’t seem to have noticed it, but the poem also makes reference to a major earthquake that happened in Europe this year. ‘Sick NATURE struggled! Hark, her pangs increase!/Her groans are horrible!’ [lines 35-6]—a reference to the massive tremor that struck the Rhine Valley in 1796. This natural calamity was reported in the contemporary press; the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 had ignited interest in, and fear of, these phenomena, and this quake, in a place not known for earth tremors, at such a time, and of such magnitude, was taken as significant [‘The 1796 earthquake inflicted heavy damage in the Rhine Valley region’; Monika Gisler, ‘Two Significant Earthquakes In the Rhine Valley at the End of the 18th Century: The Events of December 6, 1795 and April 20, 1796’ Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae 96 (2003), 364]. Later in the poem the Spirit of the Earth refers back to it: ‘“Hark! how wide NATURE joins her groans below—/Rise, God of Nature, rise!”’ [109-110].

It’s worth noting that Coleridge does something quite odd with his odic structure. A classical ode goes strophe-antistrophe-epode, in that order, repeating this sequence as many times as the ode is long; I don’t know any examples that pile up two strophes, bung in an epode, add two antistrophes, and wrap up with another epode. Towards this end the poem shifts from the descriptive-vocative towards something more vatic: ‘you I am sure,’ Coleridge wrote to his friend Thomas Poole, Dec 26th 1796, ‘will not fail to recollect, that among the Ancients, the Bard and the Prophet were one and the same character.’ This poem certainly issues a pretty stark prophesy at its end: Albion, complacent behind its pelagic defences, will experience the same horrors of slaughter and violence currently blighting the Continent (‘although I prophesy curses,’ Coleridge told Poole, ‘I pray fervently for blessings’).

The convention, as Carl Woodring notes, was to write odes optimistically addressed ‘To The New Year’.
The subject matter of the ‘Ode’ is the present state of Europe, and particularly the role of England. The poem is, as Woodring suggests in Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge deliberately antithetical to the New Year's odes delivered annually by the Poet Laureate, James Henry Pye (p. 175). This is true not only of the sentiments expressed but also of the language. For example, in Pye's ‘Ode to the New Year’ for 1793 (London Chronicle for January 1-3, 1793) the Laureate contrasts France, “Where Anarchy's insatiate brood/Their horrid footsteps mark with blood,” to “shores where temperate freedom reigns/ . . . Where Britain's grateful sons rejoice in GEORGE's sway.” In his ‘Ode for the New Year 1795’, Pye hoped for Concord or, alternatively, “dismay to Gallia's scatter'd host” (London Chronicle, December 30, 1794). Inflated rhetoric, luridness of diction, and frequent personification seem endemic to the subgenre, and in these respects Coleridge was all too ready to outdo it. [Morton D. Paley, ‘Apocalypse and Millennium in the Poetry of ColeridgeThe Wordsworth Circle, 23:1 (1992), 28]
It’s not that Coleridge’s ‘Ode’ was an entirely radical departure; William Newton (the ‘Peak Minstrel’) published his ‘Sonnet to the Departing Year’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine [67 (1790), 79]:
Year! That hast seen my hopes and comforts fall
Huddled in dark’ning vest, like Night-hag old,
And breathing chill a baleful vapour cold,
On thee abhorr’d with banning voice I call.
(‘vest’ short for ‘vestments’, I suppose: rather than, you know: a string vest). Newton was not alone: ‘the clock proclaims in slow and solemn strains/A long farewell to the departing year:/One hours alone, one little hour remains’ wrote Amelia Pickering in 1788. So there was, we might say, a counter-tradition—although I don’t know of any specifically designated odes to the departing year before Coleridge’s.

It's a poem that went through a number of revisions. It first appeared in the Cambridge Intelligencer (a Liberal weekly newspaper that ran from 1793 to 1803 edited by Benjamin Flower) 21st December 1796, under the title ‘Ode for the Last Day of the Year, 1796’. Ten days later it appeared on its own, a slim quarto pamphlet published by Cottle, as ‘Ode on the Departing Year’. In Feb 1797 Coleridge wrote a letter to Cottle in which he listed a large number of alterations he wished made before the poem could be included in his collection Poems (1797), adding:
So much for an Ode: which some think superior to the Bard of Gray, & which others think a rant of turgid obscurity—& the latter are the more numerous class.—It is not obscure—my Religious Musings, I know, are—but not this. [Peter Mann, ‘Two Autograph Letters of S. T. ColeridgeReview of English Studies 25:99 (1974), 314]
J C C Mays, in his edition of the Poetical Works, notes that Coleridge was never entirely happy with the poem, and kept tinkering with it: ‘rewriting five lines at the end of the second strophe and omitting ten at the end of the epode for Poems (1797)’ where in Sibylline Leaves (1817) ‘he rewrote passages in the later half of the poem and further loosened the structure by replacing the headings (“STROPHE” etc) by numbers and dividing the second epode into numbered parts. The revision was never completely worked through, and C remained unhappy with it, as marginal notes testify’. [Mays, CC 16:1, 302] For this reason Mays prints the earliest version of the poem.


First-off, a couple of allusions, or references, that editors have not hitherto been able to track-down. Death’s “twice mortal” mace (line 43) was more than Mays could identify (‘source untraced’) although Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano usefully track it to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1745), which poem laments that once rationality has eroded sustaining religious faith, the prospect of dying becomes ‘tenfold’ more terrifying, ‘and dips in Venom his [that is, Death’s] twice-mortal Sting’ [4:765]. 

Coleridge’s lambasting the British Parliament (which was prosecuting the war, and had put-off abolishing slavery) as ‘the deaf Synod, “full of gifts and lies”’ in line 103 had remained unsourced. But Coleridge himself added a note to the Cambridge Intelligence version: ‘gifts used in Scripture for corruption’, so presumably the reference is to something like Ezekiel 20:31, when God rebukes the Israelites, ‘for when you offer your gifts you defile yourselves with all your idols, even to this day’—in verse 39 he instructs them: ‘profane My holy name no more with your gifts and your idols’ (there’s also Ecclesiasticus 34: ‘Lying omens are vanity … The most High approveth not the gifts of the wicked’).

Excellent though their edition is, Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano aren’t sure of the provenance of the poem’s final image:
Now I recenter my immortal mind
In the long sabbath of high self-content;
Cleans’d from the fleshly Passions that bedim
God’s Image, Sister of the Seraphim.
What does it mean? H., M. and M. note that the seraphim are ‘the highest order of angels’ and ‘represent love’, and quote a line from Crashaw’s ‘The Flaming Heart’ (1646) which refers to Saint Teresa as ‘fair sister of the SERAPHIM.’ But that’s not it, and actually it’s quite important that it isn’t.

In fact Coleridge is here quoting from one of Jeremy Taylor’s sermons (specifically, from Sermon IX Part 2 in XXVII Sermons): ‘if we consider what the soul is in its own capacity to happiness, we shall find it to be an excellency greater than the sun, of an angelical substance, sister to a cherubim, an image of the Divinity.’ We know this is where the image in the Ode comes from, because in his notebook Coleridge jotted it down: ‘God’s Image, Sister of the Cherubim’ [Notebooks 1:272]. So the final reference is not to a saintly woman, but to Coleridge’s own soul, styled as a ‘sister’ because the Latin for soul, anima, is a feminine noun. And that’s interesting, because the poem begins with a reference to the soul, too:
SPIRIT, who sweepest the wild Harp of Time,
It is most hard with an untroubled Ear
Thy dark inwoven Harmonies to hear!
The prose ‘argument’ Coleridge appended tells us this opening stanza constitutes ‘an Address to the Divine Providence, that regulates into one vast Harmony all the events of time however calamitous some of them may appear to mortals’; but we can take it that ‘Providence’ is the Departing Year itself, specifically addressed, and subsequently embodied in various providential forms: woes, young-eyed joys and so on. The ‘Spirit’, which animates the bard’s harp, is surely Coleridge’s own. He it is who is ‘sweeping’ the strings of poetry and generating the poem, after all; and the opening lines express the difficulty he has in understanding his own mind. He is the poet, and the vates, and this Ode is animated by his outrage—at Catherine II, at Pitt, at the fate of the Vendeans, at the African slave trade—as well as by his despair. The poem reflects both the outward horrors of 1796 as a year of Continental war and rapine, and the somatic horrors of Coleridge’s own 1796: illness, depression, persistent toothache so bad he started an opium habit that lasted, and rode, his entire life. The poem’s many ‘I’s evoke the ‘Departing Year’ (‘My Soul beheld thy Vision’; line 75) as a personalised experience. In Antistrophe II, we hear the Year’s harrowing words, but the next section of the poem reverts upon the poet’s own bodily circumstances:
The Voice had ceas'd, the Phantoms fled,
Yet still I gasp'd and reel'd with dread.
And ever when the dream of night
Renews the vision to my sight,
Cold sweat-damps gather on my limbs;
My Ears throb hot; my eye-balls start;
My Brain with horrid tumult swims;
Wild is the tempest of my Heart;
And my thick and struggling breath
Imitates the toil of Death!
No uglier agony confounds
The Soldier on the war-field spread,
When all foredone with toil and wounds
Death-like he dozes among heaps of Dead!
(The strife is o'er, the day-light fled,
And the Night-wind clamours hoarse;
See! the startful Wretch's head
Lies pillow'd on a Brother's Corse!) [113-28]
This description of (what sound like) withdrawal symptoms from heroin addiction leads Coleridge straight into the wider condition of England: ‘O doom'd to fall, enslav'd and vile,/O ALBION! O my mother Isle!’ It’s an almost Blakean superposition of land and individual: Coleridge himself suffers as the land suffers (or will suffer, says Cassandra); the land suffers (or will) as Coleridge suffers. The soldier ‘pillowed on his brother’s corpse’ is a reference to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Act 4, scene 2, where Caius Lucius discovers ‘Fidelius’ (actually Imogen in disguise) asleep, with a dead body as her pillow. Lucius is horrified:
For nature doth abhor to make his bed
With the defunct, or sleep upon the dead.
(I don’t know if Coleridge had read, or was aware of, Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Edgar Huntly, Or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799), whose hero kills an attacking Native American, and then collapses, sleeping through the night until, with the dawn, he understands where he had been reclining: ‘my head had reposed upon the breast of him whom I had shot in this part of his body. The blood had ceased to ooze from the wound, but my dishevelled locks were matted and steeped in that gore which had overflowed and choked up the orifice. I started from this detestable pillow, and regained my feet’ [ch. 19]).

This shift to collective from individual physical agony heralds the appearance of the ‘Vulture of DESTRUCTION’ that flaps on ‘lank pennons in the groaning wind’. Addressing his own country, Coleridge writes:
All nations curse thee: and with eager wond’ring
Shall hear DESTRUCTION, like a vulture, scream!
Strange-eyed DESTRUCTION … (as she lies
Stretch’d on the marge of some fire-flashing fount
In the black chamber of a sulphur’d mount,)
If ever to her lidless dragon eyes,
O ALBION! thy predestin’d ruins rise. [147-55]
Is there a relationship between this bird, and Vergil’s caucaseae volucres [Eclogues 6:42], the ‘Caucasus Vulture’, that tore out the liver of Prometheus? Two decades later Shelley would also utilize the Promethean myth to talk about the departing era of tyrannical oppression, and the coming epoch of revolutionary freedom. There is some ambiguity in the myth as to whether it was an eagle (aquila) or a vulture (vultur, voltur, volucer) that was sent by Zeus to torture Prometheus: vultur is derived from vellere, from vello ‘I tear, pluck, rend, pull out’, since this is how those birds eat. It’s eagles in Aeschylus, but vultures in Vergil, Seneca, Propertius, Valerius Flaccus and others.

We could say that an ode on the departing year is by definition an Epimethean, and an ode on the coming one a Promethean, exercise. This poem looks back over the upheavals of the 1790s, political and personal, but looks forward to ‘On the Prometheus of Aeschylus’ (1825)—the last public lecture that Coleridge gave and an expressive, summative essay on the working of Greek myth, and the Prometheus myth in particular (STC had been elected Royal Associate of the Royal Society of Literature in London, and delivered this talk on that occasion: his final public appearance). ‘On the Prometheus of Aeschylus’ styles Prometheus as Reason (Nous) and Zeus as Law (Nomos), positing the complex nature of their relationship to one another—it’s nothing so Hegelian as an actual dialectic, but it approaches it, with both terms presupposed rather than sublated by God: ‘God is the condition under which the Law of the Universe exists; or God is presupposed, not involved, in the Law (i.e. the existential Act) of the Universe.’ The final stanza of ‘Ode on the Departing Year’, invoking Coleridge’s own soul (not once but twice: ‘away, my Soul, away!’) and staging a retreat from the horrors of the external world into ‘the immortal mind, the long sabbath of high self-content’ is not Quietism, so much as an attempt to reframe the whole of the larger question. It is the poem starting to go beyond the despairing materialism of its opening vision, and opening a process of poesis by which the materialist miseries of 1796 and the spiritual, religious implications of ‘redemption’—of justice and redress, of release from suffering and the coming of something better.

Of course, the actual opening of the poem is not the address to the ‘anima’ of line 1; it is the Aeschylean epigraph—from the Agamemnon, not the Prometheus Bound. Coleridge was oddly picky about this, and wrote quickly when this epigraph was accidentally omitted in the poem’s proofs (‘The Motto—! where is the Motto? I would not have lost the MOTTO for a kingdom twas the best part of the ode’). On 30th December 1796 he wrote to his friend John Prior Estlin: ‘you know, I am at heart a mottophilist, and almost a motto-manist—I love an apt motto to my heart.’ This is performative over-reaction, we might say: funny, but serious at the same time. And ‘motto’ is an interesting word: etymologically deriving from the Latin muttum which means a mutter or grunt. Like Prometheus grunting in pain, perhaps, or Cassandra muttering words others (not us: but her contemporaries) find incomprehensible in their proleptic negativity.
Ἰοὺ ἰοὺ ὦ ὦ κακά.
Ὑπ' αν με δεινὸς ὀρθομαντείας πονός
Στροβει, ταράσσων φροιμίοις εφημίοις.
* * * * * *
Τὸ μέλλον ἥξει. Kαὶ σύ μην τάχει παρὼν
Αγαν γ' ἀληθόμαντιν μ' ἐρεις.

Uh! Uh! Oh! Oh! It’s all shit.
Those fucking prophetic agonies are on me again:
Dizzying, messing me up with their bloody presages.

The future's set: coming fast for all of you
Then you’ll know I was a fighting true-prophet.
In terms of translation you may prefer a more respectable, elevated idiom, such as the Loeb provides (‘Ha ha! Oh oh, the agony! Once more the dreadful throes of true prophecy whirl and distract me with their ill-boding onset … what is to come, will come. Soon though present here thyself shalt of thy pity pronounce me all to true a prophetess’). But κακά does mean shit (in Ancient, as in Modern, Greek) as well as evil (κακός, here plural); and ‘bloody presages’ was the translation Coleridge himself offered for φροιμίοις εφημίοις (in the letter to Estlin, quoted above). The ‘fucking’ is my interpolation; that’s not actually in the Greek. Although Cassandra is in distress, moaning and muttering, and there is a politeness idiom through which searing and disrespectful language is simply ‘not heard’. Cassandra has fore-sight (pro-metheus) and sees that it's all going to shit. Coleridge's ode articulates hind-sight (epi-metheus) and sees the same thing. But perhaps, in the final address to his own soul, echoing the poem's opening, Coleridge is looking to trace a path out of the kaka. 

Monday 14 November 2022



In the Biographia Literaria (1818), Coleridge talks, inter alia (inter multa alia) about — though he doesn’t call it this — ‘xenoglossy’: that is, the ability manifested by some people to speak in a language other than their own, despite never having learned that other language. The story goes like this: a few years before Coleridge arrived in Germany (in 1798) there was, ‘in a Roman Catholic town’ in the north of the country, a minor cause célèbre.

A young woman of four or five and twenty, who could neither read, nor write, was seized with a nervous fever; during which, according to the asseverations of all the priests and monks of the neighbourhood, she became possessed, and, as it appeared, by a very learned devil. She continued incessantly talking Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, in very pompous tones and with most distinct enunciation. This possession was rendered more probable by the known fact that she was or had been a heretic. … The case had attracted the particular attention of a young physician, and by his statement many eminent physiologists and psychologists visited the town, and cross-examined the case on the spot. Sheets full of her ravings were taken down from her own mouth, and were found to consist of sentences, coherent and intelligible each for itself, but with little or no connection with each other. Of the Hebrew, a small portion only could be traced to the Bible; the remainder seemed to be in the Rabbinical dialect. All trick or conspiracy was out of the question. Not only had the young woman ever been a harmless, simple creature; but she was evidently labouring under a nervous fever. In the town, in which she had been resident for many years as a servant in different families, no solution presented itself. [Biographia, ch 6]
I tried to track down further information about this case when I edited the Biographia for EUP, but without success. I presume it was a small-town matter, without any ensuing national or international fame; it didn't, I think, make it into any contemporary newspapers or books, and had Coleridge not heard about it first-hand it would probably have been forgotten.

It was, however, far from an isolated example. Indeed, ‘Xenoglossy’ is now an area of study in its own right, something I realised having come across Ian Stevenston’s Unlearned language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (University Press of Virginia, 1984). Stevenson was Carlson Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, so a respectable academic (this book is the sequel to an earlier volume of his called, just, Xenoglossy [1976], which I haven’t seen).

Now Xenoglossy — empirically, a real thing, which is to say, something that happens and is reported in the world — presents us with a problem of explanation that itself entails a different kind of problem: for one mode of explanation of the phenomenon leads us into the Land of Woo: of parascience, reincarnation, telepathy, angelic or demonic possession, and by extension, astrology, crystals, UFOs, belief in the England football team’s world-cup-winning prospects etc. These latter are not respectable academic discourses, although the otherwise-respectable Prof Stevenson found himself drawn magnetically into them, or at least into theorising reincarnation. This is a danger that, I suppose, keeps otherwise interested parties from investigating the phenomenon.

Stevenson’s Unlearned Language gives us two carefully evidenced and accredited case-studies, both from the later 20th-century. First is Dolores Jay, a middle-aged American woman married to a Methodist minister. One day her husband, who had studied hypnosis as part of his ‘ministry of healing’, hypnotised Dolores so as to relieve some backache from which she was suffering. Under hypnosis she began speaking German, a language she otherwise did not know, had never studied or spoken before. Intrigued, her husband hypnotised her repeatedly, and discovered not just that Dolores was speaking German, but [a] when speaking German she did not think she was called Dolores (‘Ich bin Gretchen’ she announced) and [b] that the kind of German she was speaking was not contemporary, but bore the traces of an older-fashioned and parochial style and idiom. Stevenson suggests she was speaking the German of about 1860, and of a sort that might be spoken ‘in an isolated rural community in Northern Germany’.

The second case study concerns Uttara Huddar, an Indian woman from Maharati, who taught at the University of Nagpur. Whilst hospitalised for a minor illness Huddar began practising meditation, and was surprised to discover that, in that state, she could speak Bengali, ‘a language that was previously unknown to her’ (her mother-tongue was Marathi). This Bengali-speaking version of Huddar claimed to be called Sharada, a early 19th-century Bengali woman. Huddar did not need to be hypnotised to unlock this language, and unlike Jay did not only speak in reaction to specific questions, but talked for long periods ‘apparently spontaneously’. There was no clear trigger for her Xenoglossy once it had been brought out by her initial meditation, though Stevenson speculates that her Bengali-speaking episodes were related to certain phases of the moon.

Stevenson goes into each case-study in much detail, and provides transcripts of the German and Bengali speechifying of the two women (their xenoglossy was recorded on tape machines) in the book’s appendices. Both women were of good character, without general predilection towards or specific motivation to lie. Both could converse fluently — that is, they did not rely on a few stock phrases, or make utterance merely as parrots do. Stevenson goes to some length to identify what he insists are lexical features that identify the speech as from the 1860s and 1820s respectively (he also quoted other analyses carried out by language experts that he claims support what he says).

How to explain it? One, materialist explanation would occam’s razor these cases by calling them mendacious: these two women were either lying to those around them — that is, they were fakes, who spoke perfectly good German and Bengali but were pretending not to — or else they were lying, as it were, to themselves. It’s possible they both genuinely believed themselves ignorant of these tongues when actually they did have some knowledge. We could speculate that their actions were resolved subconscious urges to which they did not have conscious access.

Stevenson isn’t having any of that. He proposes two explanations, one of which he dismisses. The dismissed one is telepathy: that some other parties, who could speak German and Bengali, were beaming that knowledge into the minds of Jay and Huddar. Stevenson doesn’t believe that’s possible. Which leaves him, he thinks, only one explanation: reincarnation. For Stevenson, the reason American Jay can speak German is that she is the reincarnation of German-speaking Gretchen from the 19th century. In his last chapter he speculates that violent, premature death may make such reincarnation more likely in itself, and more likely to result in a consciousness in which those earlier life-memories are merely dormant, rather than fully subsumed.

I don’t believe this for a moment, I must say. More, I’m not sure this book, though written in a scholarly manner, with citations for all claims and evidence laid out fairly, makes its case convincingly. I’m no Germanist, but even I can see that the Dolores Jay transcripts are mostly Dolores answering ‘ja’ or ‘nein’ to a set of questions, several of which are rather leading. As for Uttara Huddar, here’s William Frawley’s opinion, from his review of Stevenson’s book [in Language, 61:3 (1985), 739]:
With Dolores Jay, the data, given in an appendix [suggests] that the subject cannot carry on anything like German discourse: she is excellent at answering yes/no questions, but that is about all; the lexicon is extremely limited. The Bengali data, also in the appendix, are given in translation, so it is impossible to judge this subject’s ability in Bengali adequately. In each case, one must rely on testimony, with signed affidavits, by speakers of German and Bengali that the subjects can, indeed, speak the xenoglossically manifest languages … Stevenson underplays the fact that, in Case 2, the woman speaks Marathi (related to Bengali), has studied Sanskrit (from which both Marathi and Bengali derive), lives in a town where there are ten thousand Bengalis, and has very poor Bengali pronunciation (as testified by the experts). Could the subject be speaking some form of pidgin Bengali? Science has not been given its due here.
This doesn’t sound so nearly dazzling, I think.

The data still require explanation, of course, but we can perhaps provide one without resorting to theories of reincarnation. It is surely relevant that each woman is from a specific culture that, in the case of Jay, is glossolalian (the Pentecost is attested in the Bible after all, and ‘speaking in tongues’ has a high profile and status in many North American churches), and, in the case of Huddar, believes in reincarnation. In both cases we can imagine a motivation, perhaps occluded to the individual concerned, to do with asserting identity, or being heard and noticed, or being connected with the past (and therefore to do with continuity, and belonging), that gets filtered through the respective individual’s cultural priors. This need not be a conscious act of fakery.

Not that fakery can be ruled out, of course, in every case. Here’s one example — I would say— from Ernest Bozzano’s Polyglot Mediumship (1932). A séance was held in London on February 27th, 1924, attended by amongst others the Welsh writer and playwright Caradoc Evans. The medium, an American woman, calling herself ‘Valiantine’, insisted she spoke no Welsh. She addressed Caradoc Evans, in English, claiming to be the spirit of his dead father. Evans replied: ‘speak to me in your own language’, which the medium then did, answering questions about where Evans senior had died and giving a detailed description of the house in Carmarthen where he had lived. The conversation was, we are told, ‘cut short’, although it seems Evans was perfectly convinced he had been speaking to his father. The balance of probabilities here, especially given the widespread evidence of fraudulent practice by so many so-called mediums, is that ‘Valiantine’ actually spoke Welsh and was lying when she said she couldn’t — perhaps she was Welsh and was affecting an American identity for her commercial work — and that, moreover, she had done some research on her celebrated guest, knowing that he would be coming to her séance, being ready to ‘cut off’ all conversation, blaming some spiritualist loss-of-signal, once the questions moved her out of her comfort zone. As Derren Brown has shown over and over, people will do very much more than meet you halfway, and will fill-in a great many blanks with their own preconceptions, hopes and desires, if you are unscrupulous enough to pretend what you are not, and give them a wire-frame with which to work.

What about Coleridge? He was not a believer in reincarnation, and he’s not persuaded that this this case evinces demonic possession; but he does, in the Biographia, offer an explanation for the German housemaid’s surprising abilities in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. STC reports that a young doctor, called to examine the case, proved ‘determined to trace her past life step by step; for the patient herself was incapable of returning a rational answer’:
He at length succeeded in discovering the place, where her parents had lived: travelled thither, found them dead, but an uncle surviving; and from him learned, that the patient had been charitably taken by an old Protestant pastor at nine years old, and had remained with him some years, even till the old man’s death. Of this pastor the uncle knew nothing, but that he was a very good man. With great difficulty, and after much search, our young medical philosopher discovered a niece of the pastor’s, who had lived with him as his house-keeper, and had inherited his effects. She remembered the girl; related, that her venerable uncle had been too indulgent, and could not bear to hear the girl scolded; that she was willing to have kept her, but that, after her patron’s death, the girl herself refused to stay. Anxious inquiries were then, of course, made concerning the pastor’s habits; and the solution of the phenomenon was soon obtained. For it appeared, that it had been the old man’s custom, for years, to walk up and down a passage of his house into which the kitchen door opened, and to read to himself with a loud voice, out of his favourite books. A considerable number of these were still in the niece’s possession. She added, that he was a very learned man and a great Hebraist. Among the books were found a collection of Rabbinical writings, together with several of the Greek and Latin Fathers; and the physician succeeded in identifying so many passages with those taken down at the young woman’s bedside, that no doubt could remain in any rational mind concerning the true origin of the impressions made on her nervous system.
Just as Stevenson finds in his case studies evidence to support his prior belief in reincarnation, so Coleridge finds in this tale support for his prior belief — which was that the human memory is infinitely capacious, that we forget nothing and only suppress it to avoid being overwhelmed by the Niagara-gush of sensation and memory. Coleridge believed that when we die, and rejoin the infinite, absolutely all our life’s memories of absolutely everything, down to the most trivial, will be accessible to us again.

I don’t think our memories are infinite, as Coleridge did, but I’d have to assume that xenoglossy relates in some way to memory. I wonder if, given the well known linguistic plasticity and capaciousness of young brains (something we lose as we grow up), various languages other than the main one(s) spoken at home don’t get, to some extent, taken aboard, stored in some cached way, and are liable to reemerge to surprise even us. But I don’t know.

As for Stevenson, his belief in life-after-death and reincarnation led to some other psychiatrists and academics dismissing him as a crank, although he still has his followers in the parascientific world. Before he died he set-up a combination lock with a secret word or phrase and deposited it in a filing cabinet in his department. He told his colleagues that he would pass the code to them after his death, thereby proving his theories. He died in 2007. According to Wikipedia, his colleague Emily Williams Kelly told The New York Times: “Presumably, if someone had a vivid dream about him, in which there seemed to be a word or a phrase that kept being repeated — I don’t quite know how it would work — if it seemed promising enough, we would try to open it using the combination suggested.” So far the lock remains unopened.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

Coleridge's Hummel-Bee (1823)

Coleridge, on holiday in Ramsgate in 1823, saw (or heard) a bumblebee fly past his head, and wrote this in his notebook:

An Air, that whizzed δία ἐγκεϕάλου (right across the diameter of my Brain) exactly like a Hummel Bee, alias, Dombeldore, the gentleman with Rappee Spenser, with bands Red, and Orange Plush Breeches, close by my ear, at once sharp and burry, right over the Summit of Quantock, item of Skiddaw at earliest Dawn, just between the Nightingale that I had stopt to hear in the Copse at the Foot of Quantock, and the first Sky-Lark, that was a Song-Fountain, dashing up and sparkling to the Ear’s Eye, in full Column, or ornamented Shaft of Sound in the Order of Gothic Extravaganza, out of Sight, over the Corn-fields on the Descent of the Mountain, on the other side out of sight, tho’ twice I beheld its mute shoot downward in the sunshine like a falling Star of melted Silver— [CN 4:4994; PW 592; 1823]
The entry then shifts to verse:
Flowers are lovely; Love of is flower-like;
Friendship is a shelt’ring Tree;
O the joys, that came down shower-like,
Of Beauty, Truth, and Liberty—
When I was young, ere I was old—
O Youth that wert so glad, so bold,
What quaint Disguise hast thou put on.
Wouldn’t make believe, that thou art gone,
O Youth! Thy Vesper Bell has not toll’d
O Youth, so true, so fair, so free,
Thy Vesper Bell has not yet toll’d—
Thou always &c
Thou always were a Masker bold!—
To make believe, that thou art gone!
Ah! was it not enough that Thou
In they eternal Glory should’st outgo me?
Wouldst thou not Grief’s sad Victory allow?
Hope’s a Breeze that robs the Blossoms
Fancy feeds on murmurs the Bee
Coleridge later augmented and published this as ‘Youth and Age’ (it appeared in several annuals in the later 1820s, and was collected in STC’s Poetical Works in 1828). 

Verse, a breeze mid blossoms straying,
Where Hope clung feeding, like a bee—
Both were mine! Life went a maying
With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,
When I was young!

When I was young?—Ah, woful When!
Ah! for the change 'twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O'er aery cliffs and glittering sands,
How lightly then it flashed along;—
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in 't together.

Flowers are lovely; Love is flower-like;
Friendship is a sheltering tree;
O! the joys, that came down shower-like,
Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,
Ere I was old!

Ere I was old ? Ah woful Ere,
Which tells me, Youth's no longer here!
O Youth! for years so many and sweet,
'Tis known, that Thou and I were one,
I'll think it but a fond conceit—
It cannot be that Thou art gone!
Thy vesper-bell hath not yet toll'd: —
And thou wert aye a masker bold!
What strange disguise hast now put on,
To make believe, that thou art gone?
I see these locks in silvery slips,
This drooping gait, this altered size:
But Spring-tide blossoms on thy lips,
And tears take sunshine from thine eyes!
Life is but thought: so think I will
That Youth and I are house-mates still.
Let’s go back to the beginning: start with the bee (you can click these, to embiggen):
The Greek means “across my brain”, as STC's own parenthesis tells us. A “Rappee Spencer” is a type of jacket, named after the 2nd Earl Spencer, worn when taking snuff (and so generally covered in snuff dust): rappee is another word for snuff, from the French tabac râpé, “grated or powdered tobacco”; and a Spencer jacket was “pompadour”, which is to say, scarlet or bright pink cloth, cut short at the back and to a flaring pattern. It is from Earl Spencer that we get the idea that a smoking jacket should be red.
Finish the outfit off with red-orange velvet trousers. I must say, I love this gentleman bee! 

Perhaps we think orange and red an unusual coloration for a bumblebee—yellow and black is more conventional, after all—but I take it that Coleridge sees red as the darker of the two hues, and orange as running on a continuum from yellow, so not too far away. And actually, I think there’s a contemporary fashion note here. Around 1800 a new, bright orange dye was developed from chromate of lead and caustic lye, and for a while orange became a go-to colour for the fashionable dresser. Here's The Gentleman's Monthly Miscellany in 1802, reporting on the latest craze:

From this bee Coleridge’s associative writing goes to a memory of his younger days, in the Quantocks, hearing bees and also birds. The transition is abrupt to “right over the Summit of Quantock”, and time shifts in STC's memory back many years and back to the start of the day, “at earliest Dawn, just between the Nightingale that I had stopt to hear in the Copse ... and the first Sky-Lark.” This latter bird, so often the topic of Romantic poetry praising its liquid song, flies out of hearing, “tho’ twice I beheld its mute shoot downward in the sunshine like a falling Star of melted Silver—”

It is, in other words, the sound of the bee (sharp and burry), not his fashionable suit of clothes, that really engages Coleridge’s imagination. The buzz of the bee is contrasted with the ‘dashing up and sparkling’ songs of the Sky-Lark, striking what, in splendidly illogical zeugma, Coleridge calls ‘the ear’s eye’. Only a few years before, writing the Biographia, Coleridge had ridiculed Oliver Goldsmith’s couplet:
No more will I endure love's pleasing pain,
Or round my heart's leg tie his galling chain
… though it’s hard to see that this ‘ear’s eye’ is any less absurd. Of the Goldsmith line STC says, somewhat sternly: “our faulty elder poets sacrificed the passion and passionate flow of poetry to the subtleties of intellect and to the stars of wit; the moderns to the glare and glitter of a perpetual, yet broken and heterogeneous imagery, or rather to an amphibious something, made up, half of image, and half of abstract meaning.”

But here, only half a decade after the Biographia, STC's thoughts amphibiously move from seeing-ears to architecture, materialising the evanescent sonic beauty of the bird’s song into marmoreal figures of ‘full Column, or ornamented Shaft of Sound in the Order of Gothic Extravaganza’. These shafts rise up, and continue out of sight—Coleridge repeats the phrase twice, ‘out of Sight, over the Corn-fields on the Descent of the Mountain, on the other side out of sight’, as if his ear’s eye is searching for the pillar’d song, and not finding it. Finally, before he moves to poetry, he notes a soundlessness in the bird’s ‘mute’ plummet, ‘like a falling star of melted silver’. Red, orange, silver; buzz, birdsong, silence; a sound running δία ἐγκεϕάλου like an architectural spar, something solid (those occasions when Homer uses the phrase δία ἐγκεϕάλου the reference is always to an arrow or a spear physically bisecting the brainpan of a falling warrior) which is then offset by the upright pillars of birdsong.

The poem that follows this gorgeous paragraph, in either its first incomplete version or the version that was eventually published, is something of a let-down after such a brilliantly freewheeling associative section of poetic-prose. Something of the dynamic of the horizontal (bees buzzing from flower to flower) and vertical (those trees going straight up, those showers coming straight down) remains, and in the final version this is added to with the vertical-horizontal ‘aery cliffs and glittering sands’ Coleridge's youthful body (‘this breathing house not built with hands’) used to traverse with ease—but with this later draft, the bee is moved to the second line, and the poem soon leaves it behind. Now old age has come, a ‘masker’, to force a ‘strange disguise’ upon Coleridge’s sense of self: whence he works to his conclusion. ‘Life is but thought’, so Coleridge can use the power of his imagination to think himself young again. In a note on the MS, James Dyke Campbell wrote “from the German of Gleim”, ‘a source,’ says J C C Mays, ‘which has remained untraced’. This is, I suppose, Campbell’s guess, long after Coleridge’s death (although maybe he had inside information, from Coleridge himself). Mays thinks it refers only to the last two lines of the final version of the poem, the ‘Life is but thought’ idea, in which case it is presumably to Gleim’s ‘Das Leben ist ein Traum’, 1784. But it's possible Campbell's annotation refers to the entire poem, including the prose notes that function as the loam out of which the seed of the text sprouts, in which case I wonder if Coleridge wasn't thinking of this short poem by Gleim:
Die Gärtnerin und die Biene

Eine kleine Biene flog
Emsig hin und her, und sog
Süßigkeit aus allen Blumen.

“Bienchen,” spricht die Gärtnerin,
Die sie bei der Arbeit trifft,
“Manche Blume hat doch Gift,
Und du saugst aus allen Blumen?”

“Ja,” sagt' sie zur Gärtnerin,
“Ja, das Gift laß ich darin!”

A little bee flew
Busy back and forth, and drew
Sweets from all the flowers.

“Little Bee," says the Gardener,
whom she meets as she goes
"Many blooms are poisonous,
Yet you suck all the flowers?”

“Yes,” she tells the Gardener,
“Yes, I leave the poison inside, there!”
Maybe not.  But the bees are there in both versions of the poem, along with their flowers and their nectar, and sweet youth and poisonous old age are Coleridge's main theme: the contrasts that structure the poem, those verticals and horizontals, decrepit age and vigorous youth (Gleim's Süßigkeit and Gift). Dumbledore, now repurposed as the name of a fictional wizard, is an antique name for bumble-bee, and combines two elements: the bumbling, dumbling, mazy motion of the insect in flight, and the noise it makes: “dore” or “dor”, is the word for a buzzing insect (from Old English dora, “one that hums”), related to the Old English drān “drone”). The sound, the motion, although also implying the rich dorade colours, golden yellow, pompadour, velvet and by opposition the “falling Star of melted Silver” into which the bee transforms itself in the crucible of Coleridge's imaginative memory.

Sunday 2 October 2022

Coleridge’s “Church and State”: Thoughts

Here's a stab at getting my Church and State thoughts in order (my read through of chapters 1-4 is here, and chapters 5-12 here). I have previously wondered: can Coleridge have coined the phrase ‘clerisy’ without being aware on some level of the rhyme with ‘heresy’? Is that a distraction, or a cunning piece of ironic wordplay? 

Or another fossilised thought from when I first read this book lo these many years since: there’s something compelling about writing a book setting out to nail-down the Constitution of Church and State when at the heart of your point is that none of the three words in the title have clear unambiguous meanings. After all, famously, Britain does not have a written Constitution: just a ragbag of parliamentary statute and judicial precedents.

And Coleridge himself notes that the word ‘State’ means both the entirety of the entity we might call ‘Britain’ including the church, and those aspects of entity we might call ‘Britain’ except the church. You might think that the very title of STC’s book means he is pointing to the second these, but it’s not as simple as that—the Church is not an add-on or extra to be bolted onto the State in Coleridge’s vision: it’s integral to it, historically, morally and practically. And as for defining the term 'Church'—why: Coleridge defines not one but three separate meanings for this word. There's the actual church (to which Coleridge belonged, and with whose congregants he sometimes worshipped of a Sunday), the ‘Church of Christ’, an other-worldly divine ideal, and a sort of tertium quid church that his book is kind-of about.

Indeed, given that it’s something of a cliché of Church and State studies that this book is a complex and baffling text [‘the book is a perplexing mixture of political commentary, social theory, and historical analysis’; Peter Allen, ‘S. T. Coleridge's Church and State and the Idea of an Intellectual Establishment’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 46:1 (1985), 89] I was expecting to find my re-read a complexifying process. But actually it didn’t go down like that. This book is, I think, simpler than has been thought. The key, I think, is the ‘three churches’ idea. 

We should distinguish two aspects to religion; indeed, not grasping this was one of the flaws in the whole Dawkins/New Atheism movement earlier this century. So: there’s religious beliefs as a set of metaphysical propositions to which the believer assents (assents in the strong, Newman sense of that word)—there exists a God, I have an immortal soul, God cares what I do in the world and so on. This is the level at which Dawkins engages. By denying the truth of these beliefs he thinks he's done enough to pull-down the edifice of the Church. But as many people pointed out ‘religious people’ are not individuals who are defined merely by a set of beliefs in their heads. They are also defined by membership of a particular community, and engagement with a particular social praxis. This is the second aspect of contemporary religion, about which Dawkins has almost nothing to say: not only attending church, but helping run the church jumble sale, running soup kitchens, meeting with friends for coffee, belonging and trying to live the values of your religion in the world. Coleridge certainly understood that the Church was these two things together. But one of the novelties of the Church and State volume is the way it argues for a third sense of ‘Church’, extramural to the sorts of things seen as ‘Churchy’. 

There are two main things here: one that we would nowadays call ‘general taxation and the welfare state’; and two that falls under the heading of education (primary, secondary, tertiary and research). In the 21st-century these things are not seen as ‘churchy’, or at least they are not administered by the church (quite rightly not, it seems to me), not part of the usual duties of the church. Nor is STC saying that social workers, teachers and academics should be members of the church clergy. But he is saying that, even when they are not of the church, they are clergy-y. If you see what I mean. That there is something combined of a moulded church-ness and state-ness about this body of people he named ‘clerisy’.

This doesn’t bring us any closer to the most obvious question we surely want to pose of Coleridge’s Church and State: does it have anything to teach us today? Or is it merely a historical curio, of its time and now exploded, out-of-date?

We can break this question down a little more. One aspect is: was Coleridge right in arguing what he does in this book? And right or not, is what he says still viable today? Church and State makes a number of verifiable, or at least falsifiable, assertions and it is surely worth checking whether they are true or not. To pick out a couple: is his theory about the origin of the system of taxation as, essentially, religious tithes correct? (Short answer: no—taxation was a secular business in ancient Egypt and Persia; although titheing was also commonplace in the middle east). Does this have any bearing on the real point STC is making, though—that is, the advantages of disbursing tax income nationally in ways that are informed by a religious rather than secular rationale? I'm not sure it does.

What about the ‘clerisy’? Here matters get a little tangled. As I noted in the earlier post, one of the ways Coleridge’s clerisy idea developed is into the expansion of the university sector, not just to broaden educational opportunities for the citizenry but to furnish the nation with an intelligentsia. Given the glowing terms in which STC talks of ‘the clerisy’, it would be hard for any latter-day inheritor of the mantle—such as myself—to talk objectively about it. (People like me are of course liable to say: ‘naturally the State should pay for our upkeep—and pay us handsomely!’) But I don’t think Coleridge had, well, me in mind when he coined his term. It’s not just that I’m not religious, and that I’m part of a university system specifically set apart from the church. It’s that what we do is simply not disseminated into every corner of the realm.

This is one reason—a practical reason—why STC models the clerisy on the clergy. The clerisy’s job is to educate the nation, practically and morally; and to do that it needs to go into every village, even into every home. Priests already do that. My sense is that STC can’t imagine a secular organisation having that same access without it becoming a horrific secret-police-style invasion of privacy. (The 1820s, and the established of the Metropolitan Police Force, was a time when the French-style invasion of state apparatus of law, order and control into private life was fiercely debated and as fiercely opposed).

What about relevance? I want to limit this to the situation in the UK, simply to keep the discussion manageable; but that’s harder to do than it might otherwise be, since it is precisely globalisation that poses the biggest contemporary challenge to the argument Coleridge makes. Relevance becomes hard to assert.

It’s one thing to note how influential Coleridge proved on the traditions of 19th-century Liberal and even Conservative political thought; it’s another to make the case for his continuing relevance. Indeed, it could be argued that the political world has changed since 1830 in ways that render Coleridge besides the point. It’s not just that the question of whether Catholics should be treated equally under the law is a dead one, for surely nobody would deny that they should. It is more to the point that two of the key salients of Coleridge’s discussion no longer obtain: first, religion is not the force it was—it no longer really makes sense, some might say, to talk of the UK as ‘a Christian nation’, partly because it is a much more ethnically and religiously diverse nation than it used to be, but also because Atheism has made so many inroads into popular belief. And secondly ‘we’ don’t really believe nations should be run by monarchs any more. The popularity of the House of Windsor has waned and waxed over the last few decades, hitting a low point immediately after the death of Diana (currently, the death of Elizabeth II resulted in an outpouring of genuine grief and loyalty, but I'd be surprised if that good-feeling is carried over into the reign of Charles III); but nobody really thinks the Queen should be anything other than a figurehead. Coleridge proposes a checks-and-balances system of government of a particular kind, with the Upper House (‘tradition’) exactly balancing the powers of the lower (‘innovation’); but in the UK over the last century or so we have seen a steady erosion of the powers of the House of Lords, and an increasingly ‘Presidential’ style government by the Commons, which means the Cabinet, which means the P.M. This is not what STC would have wanted. It has been excerbated by the behaviour of the Tory PMs since Brexit—itself a bitter example of a country divided almost exactly down the middle, in which one side has forced an extreme version of their political vision on the whole country, disregarding and indeed mocking as ‘traitors’ and ‘remoaners’ the half that disagreed, without the mediating influence of a Coleridgean sovereign to ameliorate the extremism. Johnson's 2019 prorogation of Parliament was, in fact, him as PM defanging and dismissing the Houses of Commons and Lords to prevent them assuming precisely such a role. The consequences have been, over and above the economic catastrophe of Brexit itself, a polarisation and demeaning of the climate of the country as a whole: more violent and angry and partisan. A fully STC/Church and State set-up, we might think, would have avoiding this disaster.

This in turn leads to a question of how far the terms of the debate mounted in Coleridge's book can be ‘transposed’ into a modern idiom. STC's bugbear is Catholics. Today ‘we’ are more worried about—let us say—Muslims (for valences of we that don't include actual followers of Islam, of course). But the questions are very similar: do Muslims ‘really’ belong to the UK, or is their allegiance necessarily to a foreign power in Mecca? Can ‘they’ be trusted, or do they represent a sort of fifth-column within the state? Does ‘accepting’ them (whatever that means) weaken the identity of the UK as a Christian nation? The code-work here is 'radicalising'; which means (since it doesn't really mean, whatever UKIP think, literally 'turning-into-a-terrorist') 'un-Britishizing'. This in turn could lead to a particular reading of Church and State, or perhaps an argument as to its contemporary relevance, of the sort which I’m sure I can leave to the reader as an exercise. 

A modern-day Coleridgean might say: we need to rebalance the constitution, taking power away from the executive of the Commons—and the P.M. in particular—and rebooting the Upper Chamber in some way that actually empowers it; plus we need a third element (a President, perhaps, if the monarch no longer has any political credibility) to adjudicate the two. And indeed, in one big way such a transposition has a lot to recommend it. Brexit is only one iteration of a larger issue, which is that the political landscape today is polarised between ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ to a much greater degree than was the case in Britain in 1830, when ‘radical’ was (largely) a term of abuse, and liberalism was pretty much indistinguishable from old-school Toryism of the pre-Thatcher 1970s. In this world, where political commentators tend increasingly to pick a side and argue polemically from it, there might be something quite radical in the notion that a healthy body politic should have both these forces constitutionally balanced equally, with some notional arbiter (monarch, President, HAL-style computer, whatever) to ensure that the balance remains equal. I don’t know of any contemporary commentator who is arguing that, though.

There’s a very obvious objection to be made here. What Coleridge means by a Conservative is very different to what a voter in 2022 understands by the term. Indeed, the change wrought by the Thatcher-Reagan reconfiguration of ‘conservatism’ may be the biggest of all the socio-cultural changes between 1830 and now. For Coleridge a conservative is a landowner aristocrat who wants to conserve the old ways, and to resist any modification or amelioration of them. Theirs is an essential feudal view of the way society should operate. Coleridge opposes them to a set of merchants, financiers and professional classes who want to mobilise social change to maximize wealth-generation. This latter group sound very like modern-day Tories (and US Republicans). It’s hard to deny, in fact, that in the terms that Coleridge puts forward, the ‘Commons’ won—they swept the board in fact. They are the only game in town. This (my notional neoColeridgean might say) has proved a pretty mixed blessing; and there it would be to the good if we re-instituted some politically structural way of putting the breaks on unfettered ‘growth’. According to this reading, the contemporary relevance of Church and State would be a matter of replacing the ‘Barons’ of Coleridge’s original design with—let’s say—the Greens of today: a political force premised upon the notion that we have to rein-in change, ‘progress’ and unregulated capitalism in order to preserve something absolutely valuable, the land itself. The problem here, I think, is that the Greens, though certainly popular, are too marginal a force in contemporary politics.

But stop a moment. Is ‘transposition’ into contemporary terms of reference the way to talk about this text? Put it another way: are monarchism, anti-Catholicism and the church all so passé? Back in 2014 Juan Carlos I of Spain formally abdicated: he had been a monarch in exactly the sense that Coleridge would have understood the term, which is to say, he did exactly what Church and State says a monarch should do—after Franco’s death in 1975, he restrained the Falangist authoritarian party and brought the progressive democratic party back into the political arena. As for anti-Catholicism: this, it seems to me, is an immensely deep-rooted prejudice in British cultural life. It is not, of course, that active discrimination against Catholics is any longer a feature of the law of the land. But it’s pervasive in a way people looking from outside sometimes find hard to credit. Charles II converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in 1685: he was, actually, functionally a ‘Catholic’ in his private beliefs; but after the Restoration he kept that to himself, believing that the British people would simply not accept rule by a Catholic. His openly Catholic brother James succeeded him, and lasted barely 3 years before the Brits chased him out in a revolution still called ‘Glorious’, replacing him with a foreigner whose chief merit was his Protestantism. Does this have any contemporary relevance? Have we ever had a Catholic Prime Minister? Until very recently the answer to that question was: no. Indeed, no Catholic had ever so much been leader of the Conservative or Labour parties—though Jews have held both positions. Tony Blair was a Christian, who steered clear of religion in his political dealings—Alastair Campbell famously said ‘we don’t do God’—and was an Anglican communicant throughout his term as PM. His wife, though, is Catholic; and almost as soon as Blair stepped down from being Prime Minister he himself converted. You think that timing was coincidental? The exception that proves the rule: Boris Johnson, by my reckoning, the first UK P.M. to have beem a Catholic, although we might add (a) though he was baptised a Catholic he was actually confirmed into the Church of England and spent most of his career as a notional Protestant; his return to Catholicism, if that's what it was, only came to light when he married his third, or thirteenth (I forget) wife in a Catholic church, 29th May 2021. And (b) one short year later he was announcing his resignation. His replacement, Liz Truss, is an Anglican.

I don't mean to descend into mere conspiracy theorising: Johnson was forced out of office for several reasons, and being a Catholic was not one. But I do suggest that Coleridge's focus on Catholicism as the ‘Other’ was not mere personal or individual prejudice, but tapped-in to something deeper in the British collective psyche. 

So for example: to judge by their dominance of the categories of ‘historical fiction’ and ‘screen drama’, the three historical periods with which contemporary Brits are most fascinated, or perhaps obsessed, are: the Tudors (all those sexy woman in elaborate dresses running the risk of getting their elegant swan-white necks chopped by the axe-man); the Victorians—everything from neo-Dickensian tales of urchins and prostitutes, to Steampunk and its variants—and World War 2. Putting the last one on one side for a moment, what is it that links the previous two? They are both outwith living memory, but are nonetheless times of national ‘belief’ that hinge, in crucial though largely hidden ways, on the relationship between Englishness and Protestantism, in contra-distinction to Catholicism. Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England is the horizon of all those sexy Tudor stories. The emancipation of Catholics in 1829 is the context for (to return to the matter in hand) Coleridge’s Church and State.

‘Religion?’ you say. ‘No, no: class is the crucial thing, nowadays. Or ethnicity.’ I don’t know. Maybe you're right. The main focus for the question of Catholicism was Ireland; and Ireland is still a live political issue—even after the Good Friday agreement and the reduction (though not cessation) of hostilities. ‘The Troubles’ shaped my own upbringing, in London in the 1970s as the IRA planted bombs to kill people like me. And the key question here is: why was it Irish nationalists who did this? There have been equally earnest Welsh and Scottish nationalist movements—the latter may be about to engineer an independent Scotland. But the Tartan Army never mobilized the way the IRA did. What this says to me is that these movements were not about ‘celtic-ness’, or about mere hostility to ‘England’, in both of which Scotland and Wales were surely as energised as was Ireland. They are about religion: wholly Protestant Wales, largely Protestant Scotland.

Some 1830 context. The Jacobite rebellion of 1746 had been a sectarian as well as a Tory-political attempt to revolution; and Scotland suffered oppression in its aftermath, up to and including legislative strictures. But by the early 1900s Scotland was more-or-less re-assimilated into the UK, with the enormous success of Scott’s novels throwing a Romantic glamour over the land. The Irish equivalent would be the Irish Confederate Wars, a full century earlier (dragging on through the 17th-century until the Battle of the Boyne in 1690). A hundred years earlier! Yet the reaction from the mainland was both much more severe and long-lasting. Here’s a quick summary of the anti-Catholic ‘Penal Laws’ (mostly enacted after 1690’s Battle of the Boyne, although some predate that battle): exclusion of Catholics from most public offices; a ban on intermarriage with Protestants (repealed 1778); Catholics barred from owning guns or serving in the armed forces (repealed in the Militia Act of 1793); Catholics not permitted to be MPs (not repealed until 1829); Catholics excluded from voting (until 1793); not permitted to study at Trinity College Dublin (repealed 1793); Catholics excluded from the legal professions and the judiciary (repealed, respectively, 1793 and 1829); on a Catholic’s death his legatee could benefit by conversion to the Protestant Church of Ireland; a ban on converting from Protestantism to Catholicism ‘on pain of forfeiting all property estates and legacy to the monarch’ and ‘imprisonment at His Majesty’s Pleasure’; a ban on Catholics buying land under a lease of more than 31 years (repealed 1778); a ban on custody of orphans being granted to Catholics on pain of a £500 fine; a ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land; Roman Catholic lay priests permitted to preach only after registering to do so according to the terms of the Registration Act of 1704 (but seminary priests and Bishops could not do even this until 1778); when allowed, Catholic churches to be built only from wood, not stone, and away from main roads; ‘no person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm' upon pain of twenty pounds fine and three months in prison for every such offence’ (repealed in 1782). Is that enough context?

STC thinks that what holds societies together is always an idea. By this he means something halfway between the conventional sense of ideals or notions inside the heads of the many citizens (what a Marxist-influenced thinker might call ‘ideology’)—and a more specifically teleological truth: an idealised destination or aim or purpose. For him the crucial question is not whether laws can be framed to repeal these anti-Catholic oppressions; it is whether British Catholics can buy-in to the idea of being British, rather than French, Roman and whatever else. And his answer to that question is implicit in his three churches. The first of those three is different depending on whether one is a Protestant or a Catholic Church; the third of those three (presumably; for who can fathom divine Providence?) will see the erasure of all petty doctrinal differences over transubstantiation or whatever else. But it is the second, the medial church, that is the crucial battleground.