Sunday, 14 July 2019

"Siege of Jerusalem by Titus"



Four charméd Spirits of Vengeance here
   Impatient wait
By hour, by day, by month, by year—
   They watch yon gate
No measure of time so small as to relax
   Their Ward,
Nor long enough t'exhaust or weary out
   Their guard.

In 1802 Coleridge wrote to Tom Wedgwood:
Dear sir, indulge me with looking still further on in my literary life. I have, since my twentieth year, meditated an heroic poem on the ‘Siege of Jerusalem’ by Titus. This is the pride and the stronghold of my hope, but I never think of it except in my best moods. The work to which I dedicate the ensuing years of my life is one which highly pleased Leslie, in prospective. [20 Oct 1802; CL 2:876]
This epic never got itself written, of course, despite STCs earnest dedication here. ‘Leslie’ is the Edinburgh scientist and professor John Leslie (the first man to produce artificial water ice by using an air pump to freeze water) who had been Tom Wedgwood's tutor at the family home, 1791-2, and with whom Coleridge had, evidently, been in communication, although no letters between the two men—if any were written—survive.

This idea kept returning to Coleridge through his writing life, although in increasingly ubi sunt mode. In 1820 he wrote to Thomas Allsop: ‘alas! for the proud times when I planned, when I had present to my mind the materials as well as the Scheme of ... the Epic Poem on what still appears to me the one only fit subject remaining for an Epic Poem, Jerusalem beseiged & destroyed by Titus’ [20 Mar 1820; CL 4:28]. And here he is near the end of his life:
The destruction of Jerusalem is the only subject now remaining for an Epic Poem—a subject which should interest all Christendom, as the Fall of Man, or as the War of Troy did all Greece. There would be difficulties—as there are in all subjects—and they must be mitigated, palliated and thrown into the shade, as Milton has done with the numerous ones in the Paradise Lost; but there would be a greater assemblage of grandeur and splendor than can now be found in any other theme. As for the old Mythology—incredulus odi; and yet there must be a mythology for an epic poem; here there would be the completion of the prophecies—the termination of the first revealed national religion under the violence of Paganism as the immediate forerunner and condition of the spread of a revealed mundane religion; the character of the Roman and the Jew, the awfulness, the completeness, the justice. No materials would be wanted beyond the Bible, Josephus, Philo-Judaeus and the Zelotae. I schemed it at twenty-five—but alas! it was a scheme only for me! Venturum expectat. [Table Talk 24 April 1832; CC 14:289]
I suppose ‘it was a scheme only for me’ means ‘a scheme is all it ever was, for me’: it never got beyond the stage of my scheme to become an actual poem. Venturum expectat means ‘it awaits one who is yet to come’. The following year he was less sanguine:
I have already told you that in my opinion the Destruction of Jerusalem is the only subject for an Epic poem now left—yet with all its great capabilities, it has this one insurmountable defect—that whereas a poem, to be epic, must have a personal interest, in this subject no skill or genius could possibly preserve the interest for a hero from being merged in the interest for the Event. The fact is, the Event is too sublime and overwhelming. [Table Talk 2 Sept 1833; CC 14:441]
What interests me is this: what might this poem have looked like, if it had ever been written?

There are hints as to how Coleridge might have developed this idea. One we can glean from his reading of, and marginalia upon, a commentary upon the Revelation of St John by the German theologian Johann Gottfried Eichhorn: Commentarius in apocalypsin Joannis (1791). Eichhorn's is a work which reads Revelation as (in George Whalley's words) ‘a poetic and obscurely symbolic representation of the triumph of Christianity over Judaism: ACT 1, the Fall of Jerusalem; ACT II, the fall of Rome or the victory of the Christians over the Gentiles; ACT III the Heavenly Jerusalem.’ Coleridge's annotations date from some time between 1817 and 1822. So, Eichhorn glosses the following passage (as a for-instance) as being a poetical version of Titus's sacking of Rome:
13 And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God,
14 Saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates.
15 And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.
16 And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.
17 And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.
18 By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths.
19 For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt. [Revelation 9:13-19]
Coleridge follows him down this peculiar rabbit hole. Why do these horses have mouths in their heads and their tails?
It appears, I own, somewhat fanciful; but I cannot frown away the suggestion that the power being in the Mouths, and even the Tails having Mouths, is meant to express the fact that the great superiority of the Roman Armies over the Zelotae and other Fanatics of Judaea & Jersualem (the Scorpion-Locusts) consisted not in Courage or Warlike Skill; but in admirable Officering even of the lowest portions of the Forces brought by Vespasian & Titus—
It was the Discipline—the Voice—the Word of Command—
Hmm. A little earlier, Coleridge scribbles a gloss upon Eichhorn's gloss of  the Johannine ‘four angels were loosed which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year’.
Most poetic & vivid they are—. See Ode on the Departing Year, and the Personification of Destruction, with lidless dragon eyes Dreaming on the marge of a Volcano of the predestined prey—the Fiend-hag on her perilous Couch doth leap Muttering distempered Triumph in her charmed Sleep. So here—the four Spirits of Vengeance
     Impatient waiting with unsleeping
to By hour, by day, by month, by year—

No measure of time so small as to relax their Ward, None long enough to exhaust & weary out/  [Marginalia, CC 12.2 515]
This looks to me like STC starting to block out poetry for Titus's Siege of Jerusalem: as it might be
Four charméd Spirits of Vengeance here
   Impatient wait
By hour, by day, by month, by year—
   They watch yon gate
No measure of time so small as to relax
   Their Ward,
Nor long enough t'exhaust or weary out
   Their guard.
and so on. The bit of his own ‘Ode on the Departing Year’ (1791) to which he is here referring is this one (lines 140-48):
The nations curse thee. They with eager wondering
Shall hear Destruction, like a vulture, scream!
Strange-eyed Destruction! who with many a dream
Of central fires through neither seas upthundering
Soothes her fierce solitude; yet as she lies
By livid fount, or red volcanic stream,
If ever to her lidless dragon-eyes,
O Albion! thy predestined ruins rise,
The fiend-hag on her perilous couch doth leap,
Muttering distempered triumph in her charmed sleep. 
What about the detail that the the four angels, or Spirits of Vengeance are ‘bound in the great river Euphrates’ [Rev 9:14]? Eichhorn comments:
Qui carceris locus soli debetur poetae ingenio, nullamque patitur ex historia excidii Hierosolymitani interpretationem. Poesis enim prophetica postulat, ut singula in carmine declaranda ad loca certa personasque certas. revocentur. Quid? quod nee Romanus exercitus, ad Judaos coercendos ab Euphrate progressos dici poterat; is enim ex Achaia profectus Alexandriam petiit et legionibus Ptolemaidis et Caesreae auctus in Judeam irrupit, vid. Josephus de bello Judaico lib 3. C. 1. 3.
This location for imprisonment is merely the fancy of the poet; it permits no interpretation that relates to the actual destruction of Jerusalem. For indeed, poetic prophesy is premised on the idea that each thing mentioned in the poem must relate to specific places and specific people. What follows? The Roman army might be said to have advanced on and surrounded the Jews from the Euphrates; after all, it had set off from Achaia, travelled to Alexandria, and reinforced by the legions of Ptolemais and of Caesara, had invaded Judea (See Josephus Jewish War, 3:1.3.) [Eichhorn
Commentarius in apocalypsin Joannis (1791), 2:35]
Coleridge is unimpressed by this Eichhornian literalism.
P.35. I wonder at this assertion from so acute and ingenious a Man as Eichhorn. First, as I have noted—if Rome was to be symbolized as Babylon, the River must be the Euphrates. But that the four mighty Destroyers were bound up [in] the great River—‘up a great River, great as any Sea’ [Osorio IV:232] is according to the code of popular Beliefs—the bad Spirits are sent bound to the bottom of the Red SEA—. But a Sea would not have been appropriate or designative of the Roman Power—while the Tyber was a perfect Synonime of Rome, and the trite poetic Exponent of the Roman Power—Now the Tyber could not but be changed into the Euphrates ... Four giant Daemons could not be imagined bound or chained up in a vast City—this would have been too indefinite—But neither in any Dungeon or Tower in the Babylon—this would have been as much too narrow, & besides too gross an outrage to probability, & above all too little ghostliness/—With great Judgement therefore the sublime Seer transfers their prison to the River but amplifies the River into all the magnificence of a Sea for the Imagination of the Readers. Only read the Greek words aloud [‘τοὺς τέσσαρας ἀγγέλους τοὺς δεδεμένους ἐπὶ τῷ ποταμῷ τῷ μεγάλῳ Εὐφράτῃ’] ore rotundo and you will feel the effect—Add to all this the Hebrew Associations with the Euphrates—Captivity after bloody Wars, and the Seige, Sack and utter Destruction of their Chief City & Temple! Is it not, I say again, striking that Eichhorn should overlook all these so striking and exquisite properties in a “soli debetur poetae ingenio”!!—
[Marginalia, CC 12.2 512]
In his ‘Kubla Khan’ and the Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature (Cambridge 1975), E. S. Shaffer quotes this passage ‘as characteristic of the symbolism of Kubla’.
First, the three great sacred cities—Jerusalem, Babylon and Rome—are blended; the symbolism is not sequential, as in Eichhorn’s scheme, but simultaneous. Because Rome too must fall, and the city of wickedness is Babylon, the captive demons in Jerusalem may be imprisoned in ‘the Euphrates’ … the references are interchangeable, they flow in and out of each other. Geographical mobility is uncannily combined with exact location, timelessness with precise and known history. The superimposition and blending of meaning is perfect. Especially characteristic of Kubla is the way the river expands at a touch into a sea—size as immaterial as place and time—while retaining all the connotations of that particular named river and acquiring all those of the sea.’ [Shaffer, 101]
This would be more convincing if it weren't so anachronistic, shifting comments STC wrote 1817-22 back in time so they can inform the writing of ‘Kubla Khan’. Although having said that, and as I argued in this earlier post, I can well believe (though Shaffer doesn't say anything about this) that STC was reading Josephus with enough attention for this passage describing the old Temple at Jerusalem as both a sunlit golden eminence and a mountain of snow to have stuck in his poetic inspiration, and to have informed his automatic-writing account of Kubla's Xanadian pleasure dome (‘that sunny dome! those caves of ice!’):
Τὸ δ' ἔξωθεν αὐτοῦ πρόσωπον οὐδὲν οὔτ' εἰς ψυχῆς οὔτ' εἰς ὀμμάτων ἔκπληξιν ἀπέλειπεν: πλαξὶ γὰρ χρυσοῦ στιβαραῖς κεκαλυμμένος πάντοθεν ὑπὸ τὰς πρώτας ἀνατολὰς πυρωδεστάτην ἀπέπαλλεν αὐγὴν καὶ τῶν βιαζομένων ἰδεῖν τὰς ὄψεις ὥσπερ ἡλιακαῖς ἀκτῖσιν ἀπέστρεφεν. τοῖς γε μὴν ἀφικνουμένοις ξένοις πόῤῥωθεν ὅμοιος ὄρει χιόνος πλήρει κατεφαίνετο: καὶ γὰρ καθὰ μὴ κεχρύσωτο λευκότατος ἦν.

Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. [Josephus, Jewish War, 5.5.6]
So we might want to argue that, amongst the many other things we can say of ‘Kubla Khan’, it's a kind of dry-run for Coleridge's Siege of Jerusalem by Titus.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Josephus and "Kubla Khan"



When, on a day in September 1797, Coleridge put down his copy of Purchas His Pilgrimes to drift off into another one of his opium sleeps, the passage he had been reading was this one:
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.
On waking from his sleep, he started writing:
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.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
...and so on, until the visitor from Porlock interrupted him and the rest of the epic was lost. So far, so famous.

What do we know about this ‘dome’? It sits above a hidden river called Alph (for Alphabet, according to Ted Hughes) that flows underground and then bursts out in sublime magnificence (‘from this chasm/A mighty fountain momently was forced/Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst/It flung up momently the sacred river’). The dome itself sits inside a walled area; and marks a remarkable kind of material oxymoron in which warm, golden sunlight and freezing white ice combine:
It was a miracle of rare device,
⁠A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
That couplet is the hinge point in the poem. After those lines we move on to the Abyssinian damsel with her dulcimer singing of a magical mountain called Abora (A + B for the alphabet; ora, calling us to prayer, according to Ted Hughes), which brings us back to the poem's core oxymoron: ‘that sunny dome! those caves of ice!’

I'm talking, here, about sources for this poem. But even John Livingstone Lowes' eloquent and wide-ranging source-study The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955) can't do much more with ‘Kubla Khan’ than this, since STC lays it all out for us so thoroughly. On the other hand, Lowes is interested in the fact that Josephus crops up in another masterpiece from this era, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Josephus? The same. Bear with me.

In Mariner the oxymoron of hot sun and frozen ice is unpicked by being narrativized, with the mariner passing from the latter zone to the former. At exactly the moment of transition (‘And some in dreams assurèd were/Of the Spirit that plagued us so;/Nine fathom deep he had followed us/From the land of mist and snow’) Coleridge adds this gloss:
A Spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more.
Here's Dorothy Bilik:
In discussing the gloss to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Livingstone Lowes asks, ‘but what is the learned Jew, Josephus, doing in that galley?’ Josephus (c. C.E. 37-100), unlike the Neoplatonist Michael Psellus with whom he is coupled, is not an authority on demonology. However, Lowes points out that Josephus and others wrote about Cain; and Cain, together with the Wandering Jew, combined with Wordsworth's suggestions and other influences, culminated, because of Coleridgean magic, in the haunting figure of the ancient Mariner. Coleridge's notebook entries for 1796 include excerpts, in Greek, from Josephus' Antiquities; in an 1802 entry Coleridge refers to Josephus' The Jewish Wars. [Bilik, ‘Josephus, Mosollamus, and the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Philology, 86:1 (1989), 87]
I don't think the reference to Josephus has anything to do with Cain, as it happens. But I do think it's significant, and not just for the Mariner.

We know Coleridge was reading Josephus at this time, because Josephus's Jewish War is the main source for our knowledge of Titus's seige and sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. For a long time, Coleridge planned an ambitious epic on that subject. In 1802 he wrote to Tom Wedgwood:
I have, since my twentieth year, meditated an heroic poem on the ‘Siege of Jerusalem’ by Titus. This is the pride and the stronghold of my hope, but I never think of it except in my best moods. The work to which I dedicate the ensuing years of my life. [20 Oct 1802; CL 2:876]
When Titus finally captured Jerusalem he destroyed the city and its temple, and the Jewish people went from being a nation centred on a temple, run by a High Priest, to a diasporic congeries of peoples, carrying their synagogues with them wherever they went, and guided not by priests but rabbis.

There's Jerusalem, at the head of this post: a territory of twice five cubits walled around, and most notable now for the golden dome of its mosque. This most holy of Judaeo-Christian cities is now the site of (what Coleridge would have regarded as) a pagan, oriental dome, a structure which, however magnificent, is built on a hidden tumult which vocalises as ancestral voices prophesying war (which ancestors? The Jews, as the precursors of Christianity. Which war? The recapture of Jerusalem).


Coleridge had been reading Josephus's account of Titus's capture of Jerusalem closely, planning and revolving the great epic he hoped to write, ostentatiously dedicating the remainder of his life as a poet to the project. It came to nothing, of course. Instead Coleridge wrote, in a kind of trance, a strange epic opening, the suggestive ruin of an epic, like a single wall of an uncomplete temple. A poem about a dome bathed in golden sunlight that is also, impossibly, a kind of concavity of ice, the dialectic of antithetical shapes and temperatures subliming into beauty (the most beautiful poem Coleridge ever composed, certainly). And here is Josephus's description the Great Temple of Jerusalem, before its destruction:
Τὸ δ' ἔξωθεν αὐτοῦ πρόσωπον οὐδὲν οὔτ' εἰς ψυχῆς οὔτ' εἰς ὀμμάτων ἔκπληξιν ἀπέλειπεν: πλαξὶ γὰρ χρυσοῦ στιβαραῖς κεκαλυμμένος πάντοθεν ὑπὸ τὰς πρώτας ἀνατολὰς πυρωδεστάτην ἀπέπαλλεν αὐγὴν καὶ τῶν βιαζομένων ἰδεῖν τὰς ὄψεις ὥσπερ ἡλιακαῖς ἀκτῖσιν ἀπέστρεφεν. τοῖς γε μὴν ἀφικνουμένοις ξένοις πόῤῥωθεν ὅμοιος ὄρει χιόνος πλήρει κατεφαίνετο: καὶ γὰρ καθὰ μὴ κεχρύσωτο λευκότατος ἦν.

Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. [Josephus, Jewish War, 5.5.6]
You may try and tell me that this passage wasn't in Coleridge's poetic subconscious when he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’. You may try it, but I won't believe you.

The thing is, if we see this as one of the shaping influences that went into the poem, it alters the way we read the whole work, I think. It means that, in an oblique way, Xanadu becomes a kind of convex upside-down iteration of the concavity of Titus's hollowing-out of Jerusalem; a strange symbolic reinscription of that historical drama. The river becomes the flow of Christian faith, underground during the era of the Jews, but bursting into the sunlight in sublime wonder and terror with Christ's crucifixion (at Jerusalem, of course). The subterranean cave of ice becomes the glorious snowy mountain of Abora, which is also, in Coleridge's potent concision of imagery, the golden mountain-dome of Xanadu itself.

Jerusalem; Heirusalem; Xarusalem. Enough! Or—too much?


Saturday, 6 July 2019

"The Eo-nauts" (1813)


A curio, this: a pamphlet published in 1813 as by ‘Lemuel Gulliver’, supposedly a descendent of Swift's celebrated traveller, although in fact this was written by Elizabeth Susanna Graham (1764-1844, née Davenport, wife to and then widow of Thomas Graham, of Edmond Castle, Cumberland, and Lincoln's Inn [not to be confused with this Thomas Graham]). It's a poem written, so far as I can tell, in order to mock the East India Company Act of 1813, also known as the Charter Act 1813, which licensed the British East India Company's ongoing exploitation of India. Graham, fictionalising India as ‘Laputa’, appears to have regarded the whole enterprise as a reprise of the South Sea Bubble, from a century earlier. This is how the poem opens:
Impatient, on his oozy bed,
Where Fate so long had bound him
Rouz’d Speculation rears his head,
And wildly glares around him.

His bosom boils, his seething brains
With countless Visions teem;
His mind such wefted schemes contains
As wove the South Sea dream.

With Eastern treasures stor’d, he fills,
Or seems to fill his coffer,
And thinks to find the golden hills
And long lost mines of Ophir.

Of north-east passage without squalls,
He’s raving—sine fine-—
And veining Panama with CANALS,
For shorter cuts to China.

’Tis done! —the deed’s accomplish’d now—
The East’s wide trade is free;
And every bold adventurer’s prow
Darkens th’afrighted sea.

From Michael’s Mount to farthest North,
See bustle and confusion,
O’er whom, with wild shrieks, sallies forth
The Spirit of Delusion.
So why am I blogging about this obscure little tidbit on my Coleridge blog? Well, the whole poem is larded with sarcastic footnotes, containing many quotations, all made up by Graham but all attributed either to notable names or else to generic figures. As it might be:



There are loads of these, including pseudo-scholarly tables showing India to be so poor only a fool would think a fortune could be won there:



Anyway, late in the poem Graham includes a dig at Coleridge. This quatrain:
There Speculation’s sons may dash,
Where trade no bound restrains,
Which asks nor capital of cash,
Nor capital of brains.
—has the following note appended:



No such person as ‘Mr Wiske’ and no such play as China Hoy, although there certainly was a person called ‘Mr Coleridge’ of course. Still, 1813 seems to me late in the day to be twitting Coleridge for his Pantisocratic scheme, given that its failure was two decades in the past—if that is indeed what Graham is doing here. Perhaps Coleridge is invoked merely as the author of a well-known poem about a crazy sea-voyage. The archaic English is perhaps a dig at the olde-worlde Lyrical Ballads version of Ancient Mariner, and ‘Mr Wiske’ a jab at Wordsworth (although—why ‘whisk’? Why ‘China ahoy’? It can't be a ‘Kubla Khan’ thing since that poem, though written in 1797, wasn't published until 1816; and Graham didn't know or have any interactions with Coleridge. I remain puzzled.)

Friday, 31 May 2019

Coleridge's Ostrich



In November 1808, conscious that he hadn't gathered together his best work out of its various journal and newspaper appearances to publish it in book-form, Coleridge wrote to Francis Jeffrey (critic and editor of the Edinburgh Review):
Hitherto, I have laid my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness and Ostrich Oblivion—the greater part indeed have been crush[ed under] foot; but some have crawled into light to furnish Feath[ers] for other men's Caps, and not a few to plume the shaf[ts] in the Quivers of my Calumnators. I cannot flatter myself that the whole Structure of my Philosophy, speculative and moral, will be deemed of legitimate Architecture by you; but to a man of robust and active Intellect there is a charm in that Diversity of Opinion with unity of purpose, which constitute the Discordia Concors of the literary World. ‘Ad isthaec (says one of my great Favorites, Giordano Bruno) quaeso vos, qualiacunque primo videantur aspectu, attendite, ut qui vobis forsan insanire videar, saltem quibus insaniam rationibus, cognoscatis.’ [Letters 3:718.]
The Latin is from Bruno's De immenso et innumerabilibus [(1591) 1:2] and means ‘I ask you to pay close attention to these things, no matter how they appear at first sight; for then, though your initial thought might be that I'm mad, you may at least discover my madness has rational principles behind it.’ Coleridge had high hopes that his new venture, The Friend, would establish his status and earn him money, and was already thinking ahead to what would become (although not until 1817) his de facto ‘Collected Poems’, Sybilline Leaves. He writes to Jeffrey with these things in mind.

This image of STC as an ostrich, burying his eggs in the sand and forgetting them, has become quite a famous one. Coleridge himself was certainly fond of it. A few weeks later in December 1808, still in Grasmere, he wrote to his brother George:
Hitherto, I have laid my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness and Ostrich oblivion—most of them indeed have been crushed under—yet some have crawled into Light to furnish Feathers for Caps of others, and not a Few to plume the shafts in the quivers of the Slanderers. I conjecture, that my opinions will not recede from your's in proportion as they draw near to our elder Divines & Moralists—At all events I ask with the Philosopher Nolan, Giordano Bruno—‘Ad isthaec quaeso vos, qualiacunque primo videantur aspectu, attendite, ut qui vobis forsan insanire videar, saltem quibus insaniam rationibus, cognoscatis.’ [Letters 3:722]
A familiar ring to that, no? A few days after that, STC wrote to Sir George Beaumont.
Hitherto I have laid my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness, and Ostrich like Oblivion. The greater part have been crushed under foot; but some have crawled into light to furnish Feathers for other men's Caps—and not a few to plume the shafts in the quivers of calumny. Henceforward
Et nos tela, pater, ferrumque haud debile dextra
Spargimus: et nostro sequitur de vulnere sanguis.
If this appear to you a Confidence too near to Presumption, yet blame it not too severely, first because it is an exception to my ordinary and habitual Tone of Self-appreciation, and because it is scarcely possible to succeed in such a work without a quickening and a throb in the pulse of hope. [Letters 3:730-31]
This, though, is a rather different kind of Latin quotation from the other instances. It's Aeneid 12:50-51, and means ‘I too, father, can hurl steel darts with my right hand, and not weakly neither; for after I throw, blood flows’. That looks rather like boasting, which I suppose explains Coleridge's deliberately deflating follow-on gloss, although that sentence doesn't deflate STC's presumption all that much: ‘self-appreciation’ is something like a Freudian slip for ‘self-deprecation’ and that quickening throb of prideful hope doesn't sound like somebody doing himself down, exactly. The pater, by implication, is the older, aristocratic Beaumont; and Coleridge's gesture is simultaneously deferential and cocky.

Then again, perhaps not so cocky as all that. The lines STC quotes here are Turnus's hubristic boast to King Latinus that he will defeat the Trojans and kill Aeneas—of course, he does neither and ends the poem dying pitiably. Indeed the lines immediately before the two Coleridge quotes are Latinus trying to discourage Turnus from continuing his futile war, advising him to return to his own realm, to give up Lavinia and take another bride (‘other unwed maids there are in Latium and Laurentum's fields, and of no ignoble birth’). But this pacifing advice only infuriates Turnus further:
Haudquaquam dictis violentia Turni
flectitur: exsuperat magis aegrescitque medendo.
Ut primum fari potuit, sic institit ore: [Aeneid 12: 46-48]
‘By no means do these words defuse the rage of Turnus; on the contrary, it shoots up even higher, its fever-flames fed by what was supposed to heal them. As soon as he was able to speak, he said:’—and we're into his vain bombast that when he throws his javelin, Aeneas will surely bleed. In this context Coleridge's apparent hubris looks rather more dubious.

But let's not forget the ostrich. Coleridge certainly didn't: a decade later he's still using this image. This is how the second chapter of the Biographia Literaria (1817) ends:
I have laid too many eggs in the hot sands of this wilderness, the world, with ostrich carelessness and ostrich oblivion. The greater part indeed have been trod under foot, and are forgotten; but yet no small number have crept forth into life, some to furnish feathers for the caps of others, and still more to plume the shafts in the quivers of my enemies, of them that unprovoked have lain in wait against my soul.
Sic vos, non vobis, mellificatis, apes!
That Latin means ‘so it is, you bees, that you make honey, but not for yourselves.’ Vergil again, though this time not from the Aeneid. The story goes that Vergil had pinned the following anonymous verses, in praise of the emperor Augustus, to the imperial palace gate:
Node pluit tola, redeunt spectacula mane:
Divisum imperium cum Jove Caesar habet.
[‘It rains all night; the morning restores the splendors; so it is that Caesar and Jupiter divide their imperial rule between them.’]
When a lesser poet called Bathyllus claimed to be the author and was rewarded by Augustus, Vergil posted a new line on the gate (Hos ego versiculos foci, tutit alter honores, I made these verses, that another timidly claims), together with the beginning of another line:
Sic vos non
repeated three times. Augustus declared the true author should be able to complete the three lines; and when Bathyllus was unable to do so his imposture was discovered. Finally Vergil stepped forward and wrote:
Sic vos non vobis nidificatis aves;
Sic vos non vobis vellera fertis ovea;
Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes:
[‘So it is that you birds make nests, but not for yourselves/So it is that you sheep make wool, but not for yourselves/So it is that you bees make honey, but not for yourselves’]
This is rather more self-aggrandizing, since the point of quoting this Latin here is to solicit comparison between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Publius Vergilius Maro, which is no small example of self-puffery. But again, we're straying from the birds to the bees; when in fact Vergil's three lines contain both. Back to the ostrich.

The 1808 letter to Francis Jeffries quoted at the head of this post, is not the first to include Coleridge's comparison of himself to an ostrich. Four years earlier, in October 1804, he wrote to his friend Thomas Poole:
I lay too many Eggs, in the hot Sands with Ostrich Carelessness & Ostrich Oblivion—And tho’many are luckily trod on & smashed; as many crawl forth into life, some to furnish Feathers for the Caps of others, and more alas! to plume the Shafts in the Quivers of my Enemies and of them ‘that lie in wait against my Soul’. [Letters 2:524.]
No Latin this time, but instead a Bible verse (Psalms 59:3, ‘For, lo, they lie in wait for my soul: the mighty are gathered against me; not my transgression, nor my sin, O LORD.’). The note of self-pity is stronger here than in the later-written letters: not just the ‘alas!’ but also the detail that most of his eggs are ‘luckily’ trod underfoot, as though their destruction spares the world their abjectness. And earlier still, perhaps October 1803, Coleridge wrote in his notebook:
I lay too many Eggs (in the hot Sands of this Wilderness, the World!) with Ostrich Carelessness & Ostrich Oblivion. The great number part, I trust, are trod underfoot & smashed; but yet no small number crawl forth into Life, some to furnish Feathers for the Caps of others, and still more to plume the Shafts in the Quivers of my Enemies and of them that lie in wait against my Soul. [Notebooks 1:1248.]
This, so far as I can tell, is Ostrich Ground Zero where Coleridge is concerned.

Where does this image come from? From the Bible. At the end of the Book of Job, God rebukes Job's complaining:
Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?
Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust,
And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them.
She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not her's: her labour is in vain without fear;
Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding. [Job 39:13-17]
Kathleen Coburn, in her note on Coleridge's notebook entry, doesn't mention the Biblical source, instead pointing out that only three entries earlier (Notebooks 1:1245) Coleridge had jotted down a selection of bits and pieces from George Sandys' The Relation of a Journey begun an. Dom. 1610, in four books (1615), including several curious and exotic details about the deserts Sandys traversed in Turkey, the Holy Land and Egypt. Sandys also mentions (although Coleridge didn't copy this bit out) the ‘ostridge’, describing it as ‘the simplest of fowles and symbols of folly ... where they have laid their egges ... they leauve them, unmindful where.’ Coburn thinks that's behind the ostrich image.


But Coleridge's ostrich egg analogy is clearly Biblical in provenance. Notebook enry 1245 does transcribe Sandys it's true, but between it and entry 1248 (quoted above) are two religious entries that have nothing to do with deserts: 1246 about ‘the stedfast rainbow’ as an image of God, and 1247 about the ‘miracle’ of transubstantiation. Quite apart from anything else, the specifics of STC's ostrich egg are Job-ian: not just the eggs themselves, but the fact that feet may break them, and that some will survive to become young ones alienated from their parent, ‘as though they were not her's’.

In other words, what's not stressed enough, in all the critical discussion of this ostrich image, is that by using it (and reusing it so often) Coleridge is styling himself as a kind of Job. It's self-pity, if you like. He is saying that God has afflicted him with the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century equivalents of losing his family and children (his separation from his wife, perhaps) and an affliction of boils (his opium addiction and manifold illnesses, perhaps). When, after Job's various complaints of cosmic injustice, and after Elihu's rebuke of him, God Himself speaks, it is to stress how little Job knows: ‘Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.’ That presumably sarcastic last touch is a way of saying that, of course, Job does not have understanding of these profound things. He lacks wisdom. He is unknowing.

But there's a kind of meta-point here, too, I think: because God's intervention into this narrative stresses His priority and power, and because Job's unwisdom is itself part of God's larger, mysterious plan. We might say that Job's children died from mere bad luck, or because God and Satan made a wager; but the retrospective insight of God's speech here suggests that Job's children died because he wasn't wise enough about them. Who among us are wise about our children, let alone to the sort of sufficiency that comprehends the miraculousness of them being given to us at all? So, I think, one of the ways the ostrich functions in the Book of Job is as a rebus for Job himself, and therefore for all of us (I daresay all the animals in this Biblical book work this way, to one extent or another; just as all the larger-scale sublime stuff, stars and flowing oceans, are rebuses of Jahweh). Like the ostrich, Job is unwise because God hath deprived him of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to him understanding. Like the ostrich, Job has brought children into a wilderness where feet will crush them. We all do, I suppose.

I don't mean to stray too far from Coleridgean specifics. And we might note that, for all the odour of self-deprecation about STC's ostrich-carelessness analogy, ostrich eggs are very big. Coleridge might be careless, but at least he's producing Significant Work. No chicken-feed for him! And the fact that his enemies deem Coleridge's feathers worthy of appropriating speaks to their beauty and splendour. Heidi Thomson argues that, though the image is ‘usually read as a statement of self-deprecation’, it could be read as saying ‘ostrich carelessness is a sign of great genius which cannot be bothered with bringing a project fully to fruition’ [Coleridge and the Romantic Newspaper (Palgrave 2016), 237]. The Job-ian point is not that Coleridge is useless, or petty, or contemptible; Job, after all, was an important man, no mere goatsherd or beggar. The point is that Coleridge is put-upon, that he suffers, that the cosmos has its metaphorical foot on his neck. As with the various Latin passages that he added, in the letters quoted above, to gloss the repeated reuse of this ostrich-egg passage, the self-deprecation turns out, on a little closer investigation, actually to be a strange kind of boasting. This shouldn't surprise us. Self-deprecation almost always is, after all.

There's one more thing that strikes me about Coleridge's (I would suggest) rather complex self-identification with the Biblical ostrich. It has to do with thwarted affection: here, in Job, but also elsewhere in the Bible. Consider Lamentations 4:3, ‘the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness’. For the Old Testament ostriches represent not just parental carelessness but a kind of heartlessness. This, in 1803 and 1804, perhaps connects the trope with Coleridge's bitterness that Asra was become cruel in witholding her affection from him. But then again, the want of affection is his too: his unfeelingness for his wedded wife, his self-distance whereby he separated himself, emotionally and practically, from his human family, as he did for his textual offspring.

And I think there's another reason, a wordplay reason, why Coleridge saw himself in the ostrich. That bird's name in Latin (as it appears in the Vulgate, for instance) is: struthiocamelus, itself derived from the Ancient Greek στρουθιοκάμηλος (στρουθός, strouthós, “sparrow” + κάμηλος, kámēlos, “camel”). Our own word comes down to us from this root in a slightly roundabout way: via the Vulgar Latin austruthio, a combination of avis (“bird”) and strūthiō (“ostrich”). But if I know Coleridge at all, I think he'd be incapable of seeing the word struthio/camelus without the st of the first portion and the c of the second leaping out at him. STC: STruthioCamelus.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Waterfalls and Silence




On the 31st December 1803 Coleridge wrote in his notebook:
The waterfall at the head of the Vale, (the circular mountain walled vale) white, stedfast, silent from Distance /—the River belonging to it, smooth, full, silent—the Lake into which it empties itself silent / yet the noise of waters every where / — and the pillar of smoke / the smooth winter fields — the indistinct Shadows in the lake are all eloquent of Silence. [Notebooks, 1:1784]
The eloquence of silence is a nice seeming-paradox, and very Coleridgean. Because this waterfall is somehow simultaneously silent and noisy (‘yet the noise of waters every where’), as if its very clamour somehow generates its silence. In ‘The Eolian Harp’ Coleridge says ‘the stilly murmur of the distant sea / Tells us of silence’ (11-12). ‘“Tells us of silence” is no mere word game,' says G S Morris. ‘In the world of the conversation poems, in which there is no such thing as true silence, the sound of the sea focuses the poet's mind and allows him to see the sound in silence.’

This entry has something to do with the end of the year, and the ending of other things more generally. Two weeks after writing it, on January 14th 1804, Coleridge walked away from Grasmere. By the 26th January he was in London, and from there he travelled to Malta. He was trying to restart his life, to escape the dead end of his inacitivity, his ill-health and addictions and his hopeless love for Asra. He was, in point of fact, trying to escape himself.

Seamus Perry [Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Clarendon 1999)] notes how earnestly and consistently Coleridge yearned for a dissolution of self, an eradication or annihilation of identity as such, a yearning that was at once mystical and practical, another manifestation for his desire to escape. It had its political aspect: Pantisocracy, for Coleridge, was the dream of abandoning the self into selfless serving of others, to ‘throw aside the panoply of artificial and personal distinction and feel a common identity with mankind at large.’
The splenetic letter that followed Southey’s resignation from the scheme complained, ‘I returned to Cambridge hot in the anticipation of that happy Season, when we should remove the selfish principle from ourselves’ only to find Southey relapsing into the language of ‘“I and I” and “will and will”—sentences of gloomy and self-centering Resolves’: ‘Why do you say, I—I—I—will do so and so?’ [Letters 1:163, 164, 150] … prominent among Southey’s failings, as Coleridge enunciated them to his notebook, was that, whatever his political theory, ‘HE IS NOT self-oblivious or self-diffused.’ [Notebooks 1:1815] [Perry, 157]
That last complaint about Southey was written five days after the silent waterfall passage. Perry goes on:
Coleridge exclaims to the notebook ‘O! how quiet it is to the Eye, & to the Heart when it will entrance itself in the present vision, & know nothing, feel nothing, but the Abiding Things of Nature, great, calm, majestic, and one’; and a few days before speculates how obstructive it would be to know that a tree you were contemplating was planted by Shakespeare: ‘the constant association of Shakespeare’s having planted it [would be] an intrusion that prevented me wholly & as a whole man losing myself in the flexures of its Branches & interweaving of its Roots [Notebooks 2:2026]. Such ‘silent aweful idealess Watching’ [Letters 2:1008] is precisely the being ‘lost and scattered in sensible Objects’ that he elsewhere belittled when compared to the Platonic appeal ‘to the fact within, to the mind’s Consciousness’ [Notebooks, 3:3935]. He writes in a late notebook: ‘it is an instinct of my Nature to pass out of myself, and to exist in the form of others.’ [Perry, 158]
Go back to the 1804 notebook entry. It's him, I suppose: this cold fall surrounded by its ridge, the ‘waterfall at the head of the Vale, (the circular mountain walled vale)’—STC knows that, etymologically, the words wall and vale are linked (Latin vallum, ‘wall, rampart, entrenchment, palisade’ and vallis ‘valley, vale, hollow’, since the one defines the other). The problem is that this silent isolation flips about so easily into a kind of frozen egoism: ‘white, stedfast, silent from Distance’. This notebook entry is saying that the point is not this walled separation, but the fact that—as in Xanadu—a river flows out of it, ‘belonging to it’, the externalisation of fluidity and plenitude (‘smooth, full’) in contrast to the icicle-jaggedness of the walled vale, a river also ‘silent’, just as ‘the Lake into which it empties itself’ is silent. The poetry this cold subjectivity produces is only eloquent insofar as it says nothing and makes no sound, although it is at the same time endlessly saying and sounding-off.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

A Flash of Lightning



Here's Coleridge's Notebook entry for 22 June 1806 [CN 2:2866], written in Pisa, where he was taking a break on his long journey back to England. He'd left for Malta in 1804 hoping, amongst other things, to recuperate his health and energies, and get over his hopeless, desperate and unreciprocated passion for Sara Hutchinson; but he was returning home in a worse physical and mental condition than he left. As a storm raged thunder and lightning outside his hotel, he wrote:
The concrete in nature nearest to the abstract of Death is Death by a Flash of Lightning. Repeatedly during this night’s storm have I desired that I might be taken off, not knowing when or where/but a few moments past a vivid flash passed across me, my nerves thrilled, and I earnestly wished, so help me God! like a Love-longing, that it would pass through me!—Death without pain, without degrees, without the possibility of cowardly wishes, or recreant changes of resolve/Death without deformity, or assassin-like self-disorganization/Death, in which the mind by its own wish might seem to have caused its own purpose to be performed, as instantaneously and by an instrument almost as spiritual as the Wish itself!/—

Come, come, thou bleak December Wind,
And blow the dry Leaves from the Tree!
Flash, like a Love-thought, thro’ me, Death
And take a Life, that wearies me.
It's a rather lovely quatrain, that. Ernst Hartley Coleridge included it in his edition of Coleridge's Poetical Works (1912), adding a footnote remarking its similarity to this stanza from an old ballad:
Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow
And shake the green leaves off the tree?
O gentle Death, when will thou come?
For of my life I am wearie.
That verse was clearly somewhere in STC's memory when he jotted his four lines down, although Coleridge's poem is about the very opposite of gentleness where its death is concerned. Bleak December wind is, perhaps, more directly from Robert Burns's ‘To A Mouse’ (1785: in that famous poem, the mouse's nest has been blasted by ‘bleak December's winds ensuing/Both snell [bitter] and keen’).

But what's distinctive here is the idea that this deadly lightning strikes ‘like love’. Coleridge implores the lightning bolt to ‘flash, like a Love-thought, thro’ me.’ Is STC thinking, in part, of this bit from Ovid's Amores?
In manibus nimbos et cum Iove fulmen habebam,
Quod bene pro caelo mitteret ille suo—
Clausit amica fores! ego cum Iove fulmen omisi;
Excidit ingenio Iuppiter ipse meo.
Iuppiter, ignoscas! nil me tua tela iuvabant;
Clausa tuo maius ianua fulmen habet
. [Amores, 2:1, 15-20]
‘I held in my hands the clouds and Jove's own lightning-bolt, the same one he shot down so expertly to defend his heavens—but then the woman I loved shut her door on me. Both Jupiter and his lightning fell from me; Jupiter went clean out of my mind. Forgive me: your weapons are useless to me now; that shut door is more of a lightning-strike than yours.’ Marlowe's version of those lines:
Jove and Joves thunderbolts I had in hand
Which for his heauen fell on the Gyants band.
My wench her dore shut, Joves affares I left,
Even Jove himselfe out off my wit was reft.
Pardon me Jove, thy weapons ayde me nought,
Her shut gates greater lightning then thyne brought.
If so, I wonder if this moves the (as it were) centre of gravity of this Notebook passage away from the sheerly existential, or abruptly suicidal, and towards a more characteristically Coleridgean agonising over love. He's on his way back to England after all, which is where Asra lives. A few pages earlier in this very notebook Coleridge tries to swear-off Sara Hutchinson [CN 2:2860]. A couple of years earlier, when he was travelling in Germany and his passion for Asra was new on him, Coleridge sent earnest letters back to Sara in Britain (‘my dearest love’ one began). He recalled crossing the North Sea, at the moment he lost sight of land, when ‘the heavens all around me rested upon the waters, my dear Babies came upon me like a flash of lightning—I saw their faces so distinctly!’ [Letter to Sara Hutchinson, 18th Sept 1798; Collected Letters 1:254]. A love-flash, not a death-flash, then. A few weeks before recording the thunder-and-lightning at Pisa, and his desire it would shock through him like love, Coleridge wrote the following German in his notebook: ‘Ein Blitz der Seligkeit von Gottes Throne durch mein Wesen, als ich sie wiedersah’ [Notebooks 2:2790]. This seems to be Coleridge's own (it's not quoted from anywhere, I think) and means ‘A lightning-flash from God’s throne through my being when I saw her again.’ No prizes for guessing whom he meant by her.

A few years later, in 1808, another notebook entry considers the extent to which ‘falling in love’ is ever able to satisfy one’s moral yearnings. The lightning-flash image reappears: ‘if,’ Coleridge says, ‘this innermost & holiest Instinct have discovered its Object, as by a flash of lightning, or the Strike of a Horse’s Shoe, on a Flint, in utter darkness—if on after knowledge & tender affection one look of the eyes, one vision of the countenance, seen only by the Being on whom it worked, & by him only to be seen—’ at which point the notebook entry shifts to verse:
All Look or Likeness caught from Earth,
All accident of Kin or Birth,
Had pass’d away: there was no trace
Of aught upon her brighten’d face,
Uprais’d beneath that rifted Stone
But of one image—all her own!
She, She alone, and only She
Shone thro’ her body visibly. [Notebooks, 3:3291]
John Beer [Coleridge’s Play of Mind (OUP 2010), 110] glosses: ‘under the impact of that recalled momentary vision, swift as a flash of lightning, he has not only fallen in love with Sara, but done so with an absoluteness that (to cite another of his favourite formulations) replaced the feeling of positiveness with the sense of certainty.’

An quia fulmen Amoris lingua amabiles facilè flammas proximü iaculatur ad cor’, wrote Giulio Gabrielli in 1622; how like a lightning-bolt comes the language of love flaming as it bursts through the heart. Gabrielli means the spiritual love of God, but then, in his way, so does Coleridge. It's all tangled up for him, and in him, and he yearns for some exterior force to cut the Gordian knot that he himself has become.