Friday, 11 December 2015

Coleridge, 'Verecundia: To William Wordsworth' (?1807-10)



Here's a pendant to my earlier 'EPOCH'al post, once again concerned with a Latin poem Coleridge addressed to William Wordsworth. In the previous example, 'Ad Vilmum Axiologum', STC wrote in Latin because he was adapting a Latin poem by Ariosto, about a girl's sexual infidelity and how the wronged man ought to deal with it. In this case we are dealing, I think, with an original poem by Coleridge, written in Latin not to veil its meaning (since Wordsworth read Latin too, it wouldn't hide anything from him) but rather because it is in part about the peculiarly Roman virtue identified in its first word. Coleridge wrote the poem in his notebook [CN 2:2750] and did not publish it in his lifetime.
Verecundia? imo, tyrannis hoc est!
Quod cuivis adulor, negabis ipse;
Nec non quod sapiam, haud negabis, Ergo
Mores, et Sophiam, sacrasque Musas
Uno nomine (dumque vivis ipse)
Dicturum, Gulielme,—quaeso, cur me,
Et quo Jure tuum “Veto” coercet?
Te vatem, atque Sophum, meumque Regem
Agnovi, usque lubens! At haud Tribunum.
The notebook entry includes a Coleridgean footnote on 'Regem', in line 8, there: 'Rex Meus for the most honored Friend/ Vide Martial V 22 et passim'. He means rex is not there to suggest that Wordsworth is in any sense Coleridge's king or ruler, but after the usage of Martial to imply that he's the best of friends. The Martial epigram specified makes an interesting intertext, actually: in it, the poet complains that, having travelled long and hard to see Paulus, his friend (or, as translators more usually render 'rex', his patron) he is told that Paulus is not at home. The final lines of Martial 5.22 are 'Semper inhumanos habet officiosus amicos:/Rex, nisi dormieris, non potes esse meus'; 'It's always the most attentive client who's most neglected by his friends. Sleep-in longer, or you can't be my rex' (usually this is rendered '... or you can't be my patron'). I suppose the last line means: please sleep in, don't leave your house too early, such that you've gone by the time I turn up. I'm not sure. Anyway: here’s an English version of Coleridge's hendecasyllabics:
'Knowing my place'? Not so! This is tyranny!
You must admit yourself I'm no-one's toady.
Nor do I lack of wisdom, you'll say; and so
By all that's moral, wise, by the sacred Muses
Under one name (as long as you yourself live)
What you said, William,—I ask, why me?
And what force does your "Veto" even have?
As prophet, as wise one and as my Chief Friend
I've gladly known you! But not as my Tribune.
There were two kinds of tribune in Ancient Rome: the military tribune and the tribunus plebis or tribune of the people. The latter was a kind of sacrosanct popular magistrate who could veto the commandments of the Senate and other officers of law if they felt such laws were disadvantageous for the plebs. They also had the power to call a popular meeting known as the concilium plebis that could enact legislation, and otherwise pass down judgement. Translating 'tribunus' as 'judge' as Kathleen Coburn (in her edition of the Notebooks) and J C C Mays (in his edition of the Poems) both do rather misses the point that the main power of the Tribunes of the Plebs was that of veto, which in turn drains the force from Coleridge's reference in line 6.

So: Wordsworth has rebuked Coleridge over some aspect of his behaviour, and threatened to impose some manner of veto upon him. But what kind of veto could Wordsworth, plausibly, have imposed on Coleridge? It's a little hard to imagine. He could not, for instance, stop him from publishing something if he wished to publish, or prevent him from (for example) lecturing in London, writing for the newspapers, living with the Morgans or anything of that kind. No, presumably the veto must have related to something in Wordsworth's power, which is to say: in Wordsworth's house. If the threat was one of banishing Coleridge from Coleorton (let's say), then veto would surely not have been the word used. It's more likely that Wordsworth proposed to veto some mode of Coleridge's interaction with Sara Hutchinson.

What of verecundia? This is a particular Roman virtue, relating to modes of behaviour that are not specifically determined by law or custom; behaviour that is mindful, fitting, tactful, socially conscious, aware of your place and your duties and responsibilities to others. Translating this as ‘deference’ (as J.C.C.Mays does) or ‘modest respect’ (as Kathleen Coburn does) really doesn't get at what's going on in the poem. Robert A. Kaster discusses 'verecundia' at length, beginning with the observation that 'the epitaph of the Republican poet Pacuvius is preserved by the scholar and litterateur Aulus Gellius, who presents it to us as “verecundus and pure in the highest degree and worthy of [the poet’s] superbly discriminating dignity (elegantissima)”. Kaster goes on:
Verecundia animates the art of knowing your proper place in every social transaction and basing your behaviour on your knowledge; by guiding behaviour in this way verecundia establishes or affirms the social bond between you and others, all of whom (ideally) play complimentary roles. Most fully, this means that you will each gauge your standing relative to the others; you will each present yourself in a way that at least will not give offence—for example, by confrontation or importunity—and that preferably will signal your full awareness of the others’ face, the character they wear in the transaction and the respect that that character is due—not obliterate your own face, the character you are wearing and the respect that it is due. This is the script, the sequence of interlocking motives and moves, that someone experiencing verecundia—a verecundus person—enacts; by enacting that script, the verecundus person draws a line for the self to observe, in settings where no such line is drawn by formal or external authority, where he or she must improvise a performance as a well-socialized person. [Robert A. Kaster, ‘Between Respect and Shame: Verecundia and the Art of Social Worry’, in Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford University Press 2005), 13-15]
Coleridge may have been thinking of virtue in a Roman sense, or may be remembering a specific discussion with Wordsworth on that topic. But there is also a Christian context. Some Christian writers were suspicious of verecundia, precisely because it locates the individual's moral and social compass in their own tact and judgement, rather than in obedience to external authority and divine commandment. For example, Jesuit theologian Diego de Baeza argues that 'ubi verecundia nimia, potentissima diaboli tyrannis?' Where there is excessive verecundia, is there not the devil’s most potent tyranny? [Diego de Baeza, Commentariorum moralium in evangelican historiam (1644), 394]. I’ve no idea if Coleridge read this (he wasn’t really in the habit of browsing Jesuitical theology); but he was surely aware that Thomas Aquinas defends a proper verecundia as a key Christian virtue: he devotes two whole sections of the Summa Theologica to demonstrating that ‘verecundia est virtus’. Here, a couple of decades after Coleridge wrote his poem, is the Quarterly Review's definition of the word:
Verecundia ... comprises many distinct sensibilities. It implies regard for the opinion of others, the fear of injuring them, bashfulness, emulation, respect for superior power, humility, personal affection: it is, in short, in morals, what faith is in religion—the grapple by which men, during the process of education and instruction, are retained under the moral influence of others, until the love of virtue, for its own sake, has been infused into their mind. ['Tyler on Oaths', Quarterly Review 61 (1834), 394]
It is in morals, what faith is in religion. If this was the ground of Wordsworth's specific rebuke to his friend, no wonder it stung.

There's another context, though, which may be relevant here; and that is the close relation between verecundia and pudicitia, the word for a woman’s proper modesty and sexual chastity. Kate Wilkinson’s recent Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Univ. Press 2015) discusses this:
After pudicitia, the most common term indicating a woman’s modesty in the late ancient era was verecundiaVerecundia for men is the delicate feeling of restraint which guards one from slighting the reputation of another man while still maintaining one’s own reputation. It is the gatekeeper for social ‘face’ in a competitive and hierarchical setting. Women’s verecundia keeps them out of masculine public spaces like the forum or the courtroom, encourages proper respect for their husband’s superior social status, and protects puditicia. While puditicia often refers to the behaviour protecting sexual purity as well as the physical state of purity, verecundia is that shyness, bashfulness or restraint which maintains … “their face as chaste persons”. [Wilkinson, 16]
So, for example, Pelagius’s treatise on the chastity of the Virgin Mary praises the mother of God specifically for her stupenda verecundia and her pudoris verecundia, her ‘stupendous reserve’ and the ‘bashfulness of her chastity’.

Perhaps this is a poem actually about the oppressive aspect of the public face of sexual chastity. STC is being pressured into a mode of bashful timidity that he deems tyrannical. It could well be that whatever rebuke Wordsworth dished-out, and whatever veto he threatened to impose, it had to do with the pudor of Sara Hutchinson, and the sexual impropriety of Coleridge's behaviour, which in turn Coleridge repudiates in this poem. Wordsworth may be a Vates, and the embodiment of that kind of wisdom best called Sophia, and he may be Coleridge's Chief of Friends, but in sexual matters he has no right to impose strict behavioural standards on STC. He is no Tribunus sexualis.

1 comment:

  1. Here, for comparison, is Mays's translation: 'Deference? No, indeed, this is tyranny! You will yourself deny that I toady to anyone; moreover you will not deny that I am sound of mind. Therefore, William, I ask you, is your veto (as long as you yourself live) going to pronounce in one name jointly on Morals, Philosophy, and the sacred Muses, and why and by what right does it constraint me? I have come to recognise you, fully and willingly, as poet, sage and my most honoured Friend, but not as Judge.'

    ReplyDelete