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.

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