Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Coleridge, Digresser

To bring this blog back to its main purpose.

The anonymous satirical poem Sortes Horatianae: a Poetical Review of Poetical Talent, with notes (London: T, Hamilton, 1814), written by somebody who calls Byron his 'patron', includes some lively mockery of the Lake school. The relevant passage opens with general chaff about the Pantisocratic scheme of American emigration:
Three English Bards, with hacknied logic smit,
Their native shore resolved for aye to quit;
To stem the fury of the winds and waves,
For wild Columbia's lakes, and gloomy caves.
There breathed, they said, on every hill and plain,
The Mountain-Goddess and her free-born train;
And there they'd dwell beneath the sacred tree
Of ever youthful, blooming Liberty!
In sooth, 't were pity, ere the bubble burst,
By minds diseas'd and brains disorder'd nurst,
They had not flown, and kindly with them ta'en
Each silly smatt'rer of the Muse's train:
The "SHIPPE OF FOOLLES" had borne them o'er the floods,
To awful wilds, and never ending woods;
And there, when morn had deck'd the radiant sky,
Each, as his Genius prompted him, might fly,
In all the charms of Solitude, to rove
The wide Savannah, or the shady grove.
[Sortes Horatianae (1814), 705-22]
The three, of course, are Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge; although in fact only the latter two ever planned to relocate to the banks of the Susquehanna River. Then there's a six-line dig at Southey, followed by this:
Coleridge* should mount some rock's o'erjutting height,
And tell his tale in accents of delight;
Fancy his seat "Apollo's forked hill,"
The high tribunal of poetic skill;
Or Surrey's chair, in which he toil'd in vain,
While tittering students mocked the tragic strain;
And think the winds that round would gently blow
Teem'd with the praises of the crowd below. [729-36]
The poem goes on to the third ('Wordsworth should stray adown the fragrant vale,/And breathe soft nonsense to the balmy gale'), but I'm going to pause at the thumbnail of Coleridge. The 'Apollo's hill' reference is to Pope (the Epistle to Arbuthnot, where the toadlike Bufo is 'Proud as Apollo on his forked hill') and the 'Surrey's chair' is a reference to Coleridge's London lectures. Here is the appended footnote:
*Mr. Coleridge is well known as having produced, at divers times, a dainty volume of Poetics, and a Play, which will be honorably mentioned hereafter.——He is also a Lecturer, at the Surrey Institution, on Poetry and "les Belles Lettres." With no very prominent talents, either natural or acquired, for a public Speaker, he endeavours to supply the absence of propriety with pathos, but seldom succeeds in interesting the feelings of his auditors, till he has completely overwhelmed his own; as the following anecdote will prove:

In the course of his lecture, one evening, he had wandered from the subject matter to the story of two lovers—in the moon! So completely absorbed was he in their imaginary distresses, that he failed to observe its effect upon his hearers, until bending from his desk to make a last appeal, he saw, as well as he could through eyes suffused with tears, that they were literally laughing at him.

Constitit et lacrymans.
The Latin is from the Aeneid, and describes what happened when Aeneas retold the story of the fall of Troy: 'he stopped, and began weeping'.

This, though, is fascinating stuff. In fact, Coleridge's 1808 lectures were delivered at the Royal Institution, not the Surrey Institution (though the latter was modelled on the former); unless the author of the Sortes is thinking of Coleridge's 1811-12 Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton, which were delivered at the London Philosophical Society (again, not the Surrey Institution). It would be good to know, actually; since it's otherwise hard to pin-down at which point in which lecture Coleridge might have wandered from his brief to a tear-jerking discussion of two lovers in the moon.

Still, though it's presented to us here to mock its subject, I'd say there's genuine pathos in the picture of Coleridge, moved to tears by his own extempore lecturing, suddenly realising that his audience was literally laughing at him. I don't believe anybody else has noticed this little biographical nugget.

To be clear: there's plenty of evidence that Coleridge was a digressive lecturer. Most accounts of his lecturing, though, imply that his digressions were brilliant and successful, and that Coleridge was received by his audiences as a great and profound speaker. This from the intro to R A Foake's standard edition of the Lectures on Literature (2 vols, Princeton Univ. Press 1987):
[Crabb Robinson reported the lectures] quite dazzling ... 'Coleridge's digressions are not the worst part of his lectures' ... another who attended one lecture was delighted by Coleridge's eloquence ... what Mary Russell Mitford called the 'electric power of [his] genius ... James Gillman said of them 'in his lectures he was brilliant, fluent and rapid; his words seemed to flow as from a person repeating with grace and energy some delightful poem.
Foakes records that some people found some of the lectures a bit dull; but not that on occasion STC's audience literally laughed at him and that he, in response, burst into tears. That last thing is the new bit, I think.

Monday, 28 September 2015

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', [in 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, 27 September 2015

William Cox Bennett, 'Coleridge' (1851)

Bennet (1820-95) was a minor Victorian poet. He was clearly too young to have known STC personally, and I can't determine if he knew Hartley. That didn't stop him writing in familiar mode about them both. In fact, his Verdicts (1852) contains rather flaccid verse celebrations of Moore, Campbell, Canning, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Walter Scott, Rogers, ‘Barry Cornwall’, Croker, Hood, Keats, Southey, Crabbe, William and Mary Howitt, Coleridge, Gifford, Wordsworth, Mitford, Shelley, Robert Montgomery, Wilson, Byron and Landor. Here is his panegyric on Coleridge, and also on Hartley Coleridge, who had died in 1849:
Stand forth, you as great with your tongue as your pen,
You finest of talkers and dreamers 'mongst men;
From your lips, while your eyes with lit genius glow'd,
What poems and prose which was poetry flow'd!
Where are all those sweet words—all those fancies so fair—
Where those thick-coming thoughts, fine-brained Coleridge, where?
Alas! not on paper, but vanished in air!
That 'tis so, who that knew him, alas! can but sigh!
O had but some all-hearing Boswell been by
To give them the life of print never to die!
No—genius is not lent for such a poor fate;
'Tis not only to make him who's blest with it great;
Not for his own delight does the pale possess'd swell,
But high guidance for ever to mortals to tell;
Who to dazzle for instants, the fine frenzy wins,
But mocks the God in him and fearfully sins.
How much genius wants, wanting vigour of will!
Power to plan must be link'd to power plans to fulfil;
What do fast-streaming fancies and grand thoughts avail,
If, unacting, to fix them for ever we fail?
How many thus, second in genius to none,
Have died men but feeling what they might have done!
So two Coleridges passed—father first, and then son;
Nature holds some dark secrets we vainly explore;
Than the dooms of such lost lives none puzzle us more;
Where existence at once drains the two cups of fate,
Its rarest of blessings—its fellest of hate,
Where 'tis hard to tell whether it likes or loathes best,
If it most meant the being to be curst or blest.
Thank Heaven! though Coleridge knew each extreme,
Still his life was not merely, like Hartley's, a dream;
Thank Heaven! His existence, though chequer'd and cross'd,
Yet had many a bright dream that cannot be lost;
Had he penn'd all he dream'd, 0 what fancy can tell
To what heights he had soar'd, who so soar'd and so fell!
Well, well, we've his honied "Love" and "Christabel,"
And those so few poems, all perfect, among
The much half-perfection, he prosed and he sung
Sweet as any that ever flow'd from human tongue:
Alas! and alack! they are but some half-score.
Poets' poems; O that he had left volumes more!
So while we grieve o'er all of which fate bereft us,
Let us bless bounteous Heaven for all He has left us;
Let us reverence him deeply, and blind us almost
To his stuff in my favourite journal, the Post.
Isn't this weak verse, though? Prosodically inept and slack.

Saturday, 26 September 2015


This is an extract and symbol key from the celebrated alchemical text by Kenelm Digby, A Choice Collection of Rare Secrets (1682). I bung it up, here, because I'm thinking about 'The Ancient Mariner', and I discover that the alchemical symbol for copper is the same as for 'Venus', there. So after passing through the iron-grey land of ice and snow the mariner's craft enters the Pacific [107-14]:
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
I've always taken the copper sky as merely descriptive of colour, and perhaps of smoothness and apparent hardness; but maybe there's an alchemical gloss here: the ship has moved from the martial, cold, vigorously windy, iron-coloured masculine Atlantic into the feminine, hot, lassitudinously windless, venusian female space of the Pacific; from Death to Nightmare-Life-in-Death.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Poetry, Prose

One of Coleridge's most famous definitions this; though whence and why the fame I'm not so sure.
I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is: prose = words in their best order; —poetry = the best words in the best order.’ [12 July 1827; from Table Talk (1874), 48]
It never fails to amaze me how often this wrongheaded statement gets repeated, by critics who really ought to know better. I’d have more respect for Coleridge (in terms not only of poetry generally, but more specifically his own practice) if he’d said: ‘Prose = words in their best order; poetry = —stranger words in a more disorienting order.’

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Coleridge, Urinator

One of Coleridge's notebook entries reads: ‘what a beautiful Thing urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous, the Image, diamond shaped of the Candle in it, especially, as it now appeared, I have emptied the Snuffers into it, & the Snuff floating about, painting all-shaped Shadows on the Bottom.’ [Seamus Perry (ed) Coleridge’s Notebooks: a Selection (OUP 2002), 52]

Which is all very nice, if a trifle self-regarding (of course his high opinion depends on the fact that it's his urine; he wouldn't like a pot of my piss so much, I'd wager). And so, by a simple process of critical elaboration, I could write a whole lengthy blogpost about Coleridge's intense self-absorption. But what really strikes me here is the sense of Latin punnery, conscious or otherwise. Urine in Latin is urina; pot in Latin urna; burnt-colour (brown, yellow) uro; 'to plunge into water', like a diver (or like an old snuffer) is urino. And shadow (umbra) isn't that far away. Coleridge seems to be piddling about in the 'U's.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Coleridge, Lecturer.

Rather than clog-up my other blog with scattered Coleridgeana, I thought I might as well start a new one. Nothing worse than a clogged blog.

My current research project entails the making of a new edition of Coleridge's 'Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton' (1811-12) and his 'Lectures on Shakespeare' (1818-19) for Edinburgh University Press, a companion volume to this EUP edition of the Biographia Literaria. Copies of the latter are still available, incidentally, for the low-low price of £150. Buy one today!

Coleridge's work on Shakespeare is one of his major achievements as a critic. Indeed, of the three great pre-20th-century Shakespeareans—Johnson, Schlegel and our man—he is arguably the one whose work has proved the most influential. (Latterly there's been a critical impetus to add Hazlitt's name to that triumverate, even from some quarters the insistence that Hazlitt is a better critic that Coleridge. Maybe he was, though I don't think so; but he was demonstrably less influential than Coleridge). The odd thing is that during his life Coleridge never published, or even so much as wrote-up, his lectures. This means that making a workable readers' edition of his lectures involves a rather unique set of editorial challenges.

The closest we have is a book published by John Payne Collier in 1856 called Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton. As a young man Collier had attended the 1811-12 lecture series, and made copious shorthand notes of what Coleridge said. Decades later he discovered these notes when moving house (or so he said), transcribed them and published the result. The problem is that Collier is not what one might call a trustworthy individual. In addition to various other literary-critical endeavours, he claimed to have a rare 1632 Folio of Shakespeare that included 117 marginal annotations and emendations by an actor from the Bard's own troop, which he published. It turns out that these marginalia are all in Collier's own handwriting. Oops! Still, there is good reason to believe that his shorthand actually does provide a pretty fair record of what Coleridge said.

The standard edition of Coleridge's Shakespeare Lectures is by the eminent Coleridgean F A Foakes. His monumental two volume set Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature is volume 5 of the the Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Foakes collates newspaper reports, prints what few scrappy notes for his own lectures Coleridge himself made (he did not write-out and recite his lectures, but extemporized broadly from brief notes, and by no means all these latter have survived) and reproduces Collier's own notes. He doesn't print Collier's own smoother-to-read prose renditions of these, since he considers them untrustworthy. But my job is to make not a compendium of notes but rather a reading edition; and so, with all the necessary lector-caveats in place, I am working from the 1856 volume and revising it as and when.

Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman have written a lengthy study, John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century (Yale University Press, 2004).