Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Nature, Stepmother



Joseph Cottle records this letter by Coleridge to his friend Mr Wade in his Early Recollections;: Chiefly Relating to the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge [(2 vols 1837), 1:171]. It dates from 1796 and contains a little poem:
My dear friend,

* * * I succeeded very well here at Lichfield. Belcher, Bookseller, Birmingham; Sutton, Nottingham; Pritchard, Derby; and Thomson, Manchester, are the publishers. In every number of the Watchman, there will be printed these words, 'Published in Bristol, by the Author, S. T. Coleridge, and sold &c. &c.' I verily believe no poor fellow's idea-pot ever bubbled up so vehemently with fears, doubts and difficulties, as mine does at present. Heaven grant it may not boil over, and put out the fire! I am almost heartless! My past life seems to me like a dream, a feverish dream! all one gloomy huddle of strange actions, and dim-discovered motives! Friendships lost by indolence, and happiness murdered by mismanaged sensibility! The present hour I seem in a quickset hedge of embarrassments! For shame! I ought not to mistrust God! but indeed, to hope is far more difficult than to fear. Bulls have horns, Lions have talons.
The Fox, and Statesman subtile wiles ensure,
The Cit, and Polecat stink and are secure;
Toads with their venom, Doctors with their drug,
The Priest, and Hedgehog, in their robes are snug;
Oh, Nature! cruel step-mother, and hard,
To thy poor, naked, fenceless child the Bard!
No Horns but those by luckless Hymen worn,
And those, (alas! alas!) not Plenty's Horn!
With naked feelings, and with aching pride,
He bears th'unbroken blast on every side!
Vampire Booksellers drain him to the heart,
And Scorpion Critics cureless venom dart!
S. T. C.
This, though it looks like it, is not an original Coleridge poem. In fact it is a sort of compressed adaptation of a section from a longer poem by Robert Burns: 'The Poet's Progress' (1788) lines 17-36 of which read.
Foxes and statesmen subtle wiles ensure;
The cit and polecat stink, and are secure:
Toads with their poison, doctors with their drug,
The priest and hedgehog, in their robes, are snug:
E'en silly women have defensive arts,
Their eyes, their tongues-and nameless other parts.

But O thou cruel stepmother and hard,
To thy poor fenceless, naked child, the Bard!
A thing unteachable in worldly skill,
And half an idiot too, more helpless still:
No heels to bear him from the op'ning dun,
No claws to dig, his hated sight to shun:
No horns, but those by luckless Hymen worn,
And those, alas! not Amalthea's horn:
No nerves olfact'ry, true to Mammon's foot,
Or grunting, grub sagacious, evil's root:
The silly sheep that wanders wild astray,
Is not more friendless, is not more a prey;
Vampyre-booksellers drain him to the heart,
And viper-critics cureless venom dart.
Naughty Coleridge: it's this kind of thing that gets him a reputation for plagiary. Mind you, the alterations, small though they be, are pretty interesting. I suspect that Coleridge had been reading John Jortin (he quotes an anecdote from Jortin in the 1811-12 Lectures on Shakespeare). John Jortin's Tracts, Philological, Critical, and Miscellaneous (2 vols 1790) was recently out, and it is Jortin who ‘If there were no GOD, we should have no father but only a cruel step-mother, called Nature’ [2: 532]; Burns may have read the same passage, but Coleridge makes the allusion that much clearer.

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