Sunday, 18 September 2016

Swellfoot Samuel: 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' (1797)

'This Lamb-tree...' (see below)


It's a very famous poem. 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' is addressed to Coleridge's friend Charles Lamb, who had come to Somerset all the way from London. STC prefaces the poem with this note:
Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India-House, London. In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident which disabled him from walking during the whole of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.
The accident was, as he explained in a letter to Robert Southey, that his wife Sara had 'emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot' [Collected Letters 1:334]. Indeed, the first draft had an extra line, between the present lines 1 and 2, spelling this injury out: 'Lam'd by the scathe of fire, lonely & faint' (though this line was cut before the poem's first publication, in 1800). At any rate, the result was that poor, swellfoot-Samuel could only hobble around, and was not in a position to join the Wordsworths, (Dorothy and William) and Charles Lamb as they went rambling off over the Quantocks. Instead he sat in the garden, underneath the titular lime-tree, and wrote his poem. Its opening verse-paragraph is 20 lines (out of a total 76):
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann'd by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.
The exclamation-mark after 'prison' suggests light-heartedness, I suppose: a mood balanced between genuine disappointment that he can't go on the walk on the one hand, and the indolent satisfaction of being in a beautiful spot of nature without having to clamber up and down hill and dale on the other. Not to be too literal-minded, but we get it, that STC is being ironic when he calls the lovely bower a prison. His exaggeration of his physical disabilities is a similar strategy: the second exclamation-mark after 'blindness!' is there to let us know that he is not actually blind. But then again, irony is a slippery matter: he's in that grove of trees, swollen-footed and blind, but gifted with a visionary sight that accompanies his friends and they pass down, further down and deeper still, through a corresponding grove into a space 'o'erwooded, narrow, deep' whose residing tree is not the Linden but the Ash. He watches as they go into this underworld. Does he remind you of anyone?

I don't want to get ahead of myself. The three friends don't stay in this subterranean location; the very next line has them emerging once again 'beneath the wide wide Heaven' [21], having magically (or at least: in a manner undescribed in the poem) ascended to an eminence from which they can see 'the many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea' [22-23]. Coleridge then directly addresses his friend: 'gentle-hearted CHARLES!'
         for thou hast pined
And hunger'd after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! [28-32]
The poem imagines the descending sun making the heath gleam. The clouds burn now with sunset colours, although 'distant groves' are still bright and the sea still shines. The poem makes it clear Coleridge is imagining and then describing things Charles is observing, rather than his own (swollen-footed, blinded) perspective: 'So my friend/ Struck with deep joy may stand ... gazing round'. And what he sees are 'such hues/As cloathe the Almighty Spirit' [37-40]. So it's a poem about the divine as manifested in the material.

In all, the poem thrice addresses 'gentle-hearted CHARLES!' [28, 68, 75]. Interestingly, Lamb himself genuinely disliked being addressed in this manner. 'For God's sake (I was never more serious)', Lamb wrote to Coleridge on 6 August 1800, having read the first published version of the poem in Southey's Annual Anthology, 'don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print'. A week later he wrote again even more insistently, begging Coleridge to 'blot out gentle-hearted' in 'the next edition of the Anthology' and instead 'substitute drunken dog, ragged-head, seld-shaven, odd-ey'd, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the Gentleman in question' [Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb 1:217-224]. Coleridge didn't alter the phrase, although he did revise the poem in many other ways between this point and re-publication in 1817's Sybilline Leaves. STC didn't alter the detail because he couldn't alter it without damaging the poem, and we can see why that is if we pay attention to the first adjective used to describe the vista the three friends see when they ascend from the pagan-Nordic ash-tree underworld of the 'roaring dell': 'and view again/The many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea' [21-3]. Churches, churches, Christian churches. Lamb is in the poem because he was Coleridge's friend, and because he actually went on the walk that the poem describes; but Lamb is also in the poem as an, as it were, avatar or invocation of the Lamb of God, whose gentleness of heart is non-negotiable. Read this way the poem describes not so much a series of actual events as a spiritual vision of New Testament transcendence, forgiveness and beauty. Hence, also, the trinitarian three-times address to the gentle-heart.

'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' is very often taken as a more or less straightforward hymn of praise to nature and the poet's power of imaginatively engaging with it. So, for example, Donald Davie reads the poem simply enough as a panegyric to the Imagination, celebrating that which enables Coleridge to join his friends despite being prevented from doing so. This idea, Davies thinks,
refers back to the paradox which gives the poem its title. How can a bower of lime-trees be a prison? And, even as he begins to show how this can be, he proves that it cannot be, since the imagination cannot be imprisoned.’ [Donald Davie, Articulate Energy: an Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1955), 72].
The imagination cannot be imprisoned! has the confident ring of a proper Romantic slogan, something to be chanted as we march through the streets waving our poetry banners. But there are significant problems with Davies' reading, I think. One is that it doesn't really know what to do with the un- or even anti-panegyric elements; the passive-aggression of Coleridge's line, as the three disappear off to have fun without him, that these are 'Friends, whom I never more may meet again' [6]—what, are they all going to die, Sam?—or the sinister vibe of the descent-into-the-roaring-dell passage. Or, indeed, the poem's last image: an ominous solitary rook, 'creaking' its 'black wings' [70, 74] as it flies overhead. Plus, to be a pedant, it's sloppy to describe the poem's bower as exclusively composed of lime-trees. In fact the poem specifies that Coleridge's bower contains a lime-tree, a 'wallnut tree' [52] and some elms [55]. And, actually, do you know what? I'm going to suggest that it's not mere pedantry to note that.

Critics are fond of quoting elements from this poem as it they were ex cathedra pronouncements from the 'one love' nature-priest Coleridge: 'That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure' [61]; 'No sound is dissonant which tells of Life' [76] and so on. But it's not so simple. Take the rook with which it ends. It's true, the poem ends with Coleridge blessing the ominous black bird as it flies overhead, much as the cursed Ancient Mariner blesses the water-snakes and so sets in motion his redemption. But read more closely and we have to concede that, unlike the Mariner, Coleridge is not blessing the bird for his own redemptive sake.
My gentle-hearted CHARLES! when the last Rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross'd the mighty orb's dilated glory
While thou stood'st gazing; or when all was still
Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted CHARLES! to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life. [68-76]
It's Charles, not the speaker of this poem, who believes 'no sound is dissonant which tells of Life'; and it's for Charles's benefit that Coleridge blesses the bird. Indeed the whole poem is one of implicit dialogue between Samuel and Charles, between (we could say) Swellfoot and the Lamb.

There's no need to overplay the significance of 'Norse' elements of this poem. It's there, though: the Yggdrasilic Ash-tree possessing a structural role in the underside of the landscape ('the Ash from rock to rock/Flings arching like a bridge, that branchless ash/Unsunn'd' [12-14]). And we can hardly mention this rook without also noting that Odin himself uses ominous black birds of prey to spy out the land without having to travel through it himself. I'd suggest Odin's raven provides a darkly valuable corrective to the blander Daviesian floating Imagination as locus of holy beauty. Richard Holmes thinks the last nine lines sound 'a sacred note of evensong and homecoming' [Holmes, 307]. Which is fair enough, although saying so rather begs the question: sacred to whom? Odin's sacral vibe is rather different to Christ-the-Lamb's, after all. Ravens fly over the heaped-up battlefield dead because those slain in war belong to Odin. Grim but that's the way Norse godhood interacted with the world. 'Friends, whom I never more may meet again' indeed!


Let me take a step back before I grow too fanciful, and concede that the 'surface' reading of this poem can't simply be jettisoned. Coleridge's conscious mind, of course, gravitated towards the Christian piety of the 'many-steepled tract' as the main thrust of the poem (and isn't the word 'tract' nicely balanced, there, between a stretch of land and published work of theological speculation?) When we read the pseudo Biblical 'yea' and what follows it:
               yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence. [39-43]
...there's no mistaking the singular God being invoked; and He's the Christian one. That said, 'Lime-Tree Bower' is clearly a poem that encompasses both the sunlit tracts above, and the murky, unsunn'd underworld beneath: that is, encompasses both Christian consolation and a kind of hidden pagan potency. It is (again, to state the obvious) a poem about trees, as well as being a poem about vision. By 'vision' I mean seeing things that we cannot normally see; not just projecting yourself imaginatively to see what you think your distant friends might be seeing, but seeing something spiritual and visionary, 'such hues/As cloathe the Almighty Spirit' [41-2]. It makes deep sense to locate such shamanic vision in a copse of trees. Single trees—particularly the Edenic Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the cross on which Christ was crucified—are important to Christian thought, but groves of trees are a locus of pagan, rather than Christian, religious praxis. And the title makes clear that the poem is located not so much by a tree as within such a grove. The trees comprising Coleridge's poem's grove are: Lime, Walnut (which, in Coleridge's idiosyncratic spelling, 'Wallnut', suggests something mural, confining, the very walls of Coleridge's fancied prison) and Elms, these last heavily wrapped-about with Ivy. There's also an Ash in the poem, though that's not strictly part of the grove.

Let's unpack this a little, using the sort of frame of reference with which Coleridge himself was liable to be familiar. So the Lime, or Linden, tree is tilia in Latin (it grows in central and northern Europe, but not in the Holy Land; so it appears in classical and pagan writing, but not in the Bible). Ash is Fraxinus, and is closely associated, of course, with Norse mythology: the world-tree was an Ash, and it was upon it that Odin hung for nine-nights sacrificing himself to gain the (poetic) wisdom of runes. Walnut, or Iuglans, was a tree the Romans considered sacred to Jove: its Latin name is a shortening of Iovis glāns , “Jupiter's acorn”. Then there's the Elm ('those fronting elms' [55]), Ulmus in Latin, a tree associated by the Romans with death and false visions. So, for instance, one of the things Vergil's Aeneas sees when he goes down into the underworld is a great Elm tree whose boughs and ancient branches spread shadowy and huge ('in medio ramos annosaque bracchia pandit/ulmus opaca, ingens'); and Vergil relates the popular belief ('vulgo') that false or vain dreams grow under the leaves of this death-elm: 'quam sedem somnia vulgo/uana tenere ferunt, foliisque sub omnibus haerent' [Aeneid 6:282-5]. That, then, is Coleridge's grove. One needn't stray too far into 'mystic-symbolic alphabet of trees' territory to read 'Lime-Tree Bower' as a poem freighted with these more ancient significances of these arborēs.

It's possible Coleridge had at the back of his mind this famous arborial passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses:
Collis erat collemque super planissima campi
area, quam viridem faciebant graminis herbae.
Umbra loco deerat: qua postquam parte resedit
dis genitus vates et fila sonantia movit,
umbra loco venit. Non Chaonis afuit arbor.
non nemus Heliadum, non frondibus aesculus altis,
nec tiliae molles, nec fagus et innuba laurus,
et coryli fragiles et fraxinus utilis hastis...

Vos quoque, flexipedes hederae, venistis et una
pampineae vites et amictae vitibus ulmi.  [Metamorphoses 10:86-100]

There was a hill, and over the hill a plateau
of fields, green with a carpet of grass,
but without any kind of shade. That only came when
the heaven-born poet sat down and strummed his lyre.
Then shade came. Then Chaon's trees suddenly appeared:
the grove of the Sun's daughters, the high-leaved Oak,
smooth Lime-trees, Beech and virgin Laurel
and fragile Hazel, and Ash that is made into spears ...
and then you came, Ivy, zigzagging around trees,
vines tendrilling on their own, or covering the Elms.
The poet here is Orpheus, and here he magically summons (amongst others) Lime—'tiliae molles' means smooth or soft Lime-trees—Ash and Elm, and swathes the latter in Ivy.  In Coleridge's poem the poet summons, with the power of his visionary imagination, Lime, Ash and Elm, and swathes the latter in Ivy ('ivy, which usurps/Those fronting elms' [54-5]). Ovid's Lime-tree, here in Book 10, glances back to his story of Philemon and Baucis in Book 8: a virtuous old couple who entertain (unbeknownst) the gods in their hut, and are rewarded by being made guardians of the divine temple. At the moment of their death they are metamorphosed, Philemon into an oak, Baucis into a Lime-tree. It's a reward for their piety, but it's hard to read this process of an infirm body being transformed into an imprisoning tilia without, I think, a sense of claustrophobia:
                                                 both Philemon and Baucis
witnessed their partner sprouting leaves on their worn old limbs.
... The bark closed over their lips and concealed them forever. [Metamorphosis 8:719-22; this is David Raeburn's translation.]
Maybe Coleridge, in his bower, is figuring himself a kind of Orpheus, evoking a whole grove with his words alone. That is, after all, what a poem does. But actually there's another famous piece of Latin forest-grove poetry, by Seneca, that I think lies behind 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison'.

But what's at play here is more than a matter of verbal allusion to classical literature. As I say above: Coleridge, with a degree of conscious hyperbole, styles himself in this poem as lamed in the foot and blind. Doubly incapacitated. This may well make us think of Oedipus (Οἰδίπους ‎from οἰδάω, “to swell” + πούς, “foot”). Unable to accompany his friends, his disability nonetheless gifts him with a higher kind of vision. This vision, indeed, is really the whole point of the poem. He shares it in dialogue with an interlocutor whose name begins with 'C'.

So maybe we could try setting this poem alongside Seneca's Oedipus in which the title character—a much more introspective and troubled individual than Sophocles' proud and haughty hero—is puzzled about the curse that lies upon his land. Creon returns from the oracle at Delphi: the curse will only be lifted, it seems, if the murder of the previous king, Laius, be avenged. Of course we know that Oedipus himself is that murderer. Oedipus ironically curses the unknown killer, and then he and Creon call-in Tiresias to discover the murderer's identity. Tiresias says he will summon the spirit of dead Laius from the underworld to get the answers they seek. Creon accompanies Tiresias, and reports back. At this point in the play Creon and Oedipus are on stage together, and the former speaks a lengthy speech [530-658] which starts with this description of the sacred grove located 'far from the city'—including, of course, Lime-trees:
Est procul ab urbe lucus ilicibus niger,
Dircaea circa vallis inriguae loca.
cupressus altis exerens silvis caput
virente semper alligat trunco nemus,
curvosque tendit quercus et putres situ
annosa ramos: huius abrupit latus
edax vetustas; illa, iam fessa cadens
radice, fulta pendet aliena trabe,
amara bacas laurus et tiliae leves
et Paphia myrtus et per immensum mare
motura remos alnus et Phoebo obvia
enode Zephyris pinus opponens latus:
medio stat ingens arbor atque umbra gravi
silvas minores urguet et magno ambitu
diffusa ramos una defendit nemus,
tristis sub illa, lucis et Phoebi inscius,
restagnat umor frigore aeterno rigens;
limosa pigrum circumit fontem palus. [Seneca, Oedipus, 530-48]

Far from the city is a grove dusky with Ilex-trees near the well-watered vale of Dirce’s fount. A Cypress, lifting its head above the lofty wood, with mighty stem holds the whole grove in its evergreen embrace; and an ancient oak spreads its gnarled branches crumbling in decay. The side of one devouring time has torn away; the other, falling, its roots rent in twain, hangs propped against a neighbouring trunk. Here are the Laurel with bitter berries, slender Lime-trees, Paphian Myrtle, and the Alder, destined to sweep its oarage over the boundless sea; and here, mounting to meet the sun, a Pine-tree lifts its knotless bole to front the winds. Midmost stands a tree of mighty girth, and with its heavy shade overwhelms the lesser trees and, spreading its branches with mighty reach, it stands, the solitary guardian of the wood. Beneath this tree a gloomy spring o’erflows, that knows nor light nor sun, numb with perpetual chill; an oozy morass surrounds the sluggish pool. [This is Frank Justus Miller's old 1917 Loeb translation.]
Coleridge's poem also describes a grove far from the city (London, where Charles Lamb was 'pent'), a grove comprised of various trees including a Lime. But it's the parallel with Coleridge's imagined version of Dorothy, William and Charles 'winding down' to the 'still roaring dell' that is most striking, I think. They
        wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the Ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless Ash,
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann'd by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark-green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone. [8-20]
In Seneca's play the underworldly grove of trees and pools is the place from which the answer to the mystery is dragged, unwillingly and unhappily, into the light. Seneca's Oedipus feels guilty, in an obscure way, before he ever comes to understand why. In 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' Coleridge's Oedipal point-of-view is trying to solve a riddle, without ever quite articulating what that riddle even is, and our business as readers of the poem is to test it on our own pulses, to try and decide how we feel about it. My sense is that it has something to do with Coleridge's guilty despair at being excluded, which is to say: his intimation that he is being cut-off not only from his friends and their fun, but from all the good and wholesome spiritual things of the universe. The poem is saying, without ever quite spelling it out, that Coleridge's exile is more than an unlucky accident of boiling milk (maternal milk of all things!) spilled onto his foot. His exclusion is not adventitious. It relates to some deep-buried shameful secret, something of which he is himself only dimly aware, but which the journey of his friends will bring to light. Of course, for them this passage into the chthonic will be followed by an ascent into the broad sunlit uplands of a happy future; because it is once the secret is unearthed, and expiated, that the plague on Thebes can finally be lifted. But it's hardly good news for Oedipus, himself.

Reading the poem this way shines some light (though of course I'm only speaking personally here) on why I have always found its ostensible message of hope and joy undercut by something darker and unreconciled, the sense of something unspoken in the poem that is traded off somehow, some cost of expiation. Seneca's play closes with this speech by Oedipus himself, now blind:
Quicumque fessi corpore et morbo graves
semanima trahitis pectora, en fugio exeo:
relevate colla, mitior caeli status
posterga sequitur: quisquis exilem iacens,
animam retentat, vividos haustus levis
concipiat. ite, ferte depositis opem:
mortifera mecum vitia terrarum extraho.
violenta Fata et horridus Morbi tremor,
Maciesque et atra Pestis et rabidus Dolor,
mecum ite, mecum, ducibus his uti libet. [Seneca Oedipus, 1052-61]

All you who are exhausted in body and sinking with disease,
whose hearts are faint within you, look!, I fly, I'm going;
lift your heads. Mellower skies will come for you
after I have gone. Those who have been barely hanging on,
retaining just a bare life, may now freely breathe deep life-giving
breaths. Go, help those almost given up to death;
I carry away with me all this land's death-curse.
I say to you: Fate, and trembling fearful Disease,
Starvation, and black Plague, and mad Despair,
come you all along with me, come with me, be my sweet guides.
Coleridge blesses the atra avis at the end of 'Lime-Tree Bower' in something of this spirit. Because the secret guilt of Oedipus is the inescapable fact of Oedipus himself. He not only has, he is the incapacity that otherwise prevents the good people (the Williams and Dorothys and Charleses of the world) from enjoying their sunlit steepled plain in health and good-futurity. Indeed, I wonder whether there is a sense in which that initial faux-jolly irony of describing a lovely grove as a prison (or as the poem insists, 'prison!') doesn't become strangely inverted as the poem goes on. It is less that Coleridge is trapped inside the lime-tree bower, and more that the bower is, in a meaningful sense, trapped inside him. That's a riddle that re-riddles the less puzzling assertion that nature imprisons the poet—for, really, suggesting such a thing appears to run counter to the whole drift of the Wordswortho-Coleridgean valorisation of 'Nature'. But that's to look at things the wrong way. It looks like morbid self-analysis of a peculiarly Coleridgean sort to say that the poet imprisons nature inside himself. He is the atra pestis that afflicts the land, and only his removal can cure it. So, perhaps, the thing growing inside the grove that most closely represents Coleridge is the ivy. Let's say: Lamb is the Lime-tree (and how did I never notice that near-pun before?), Dorothy the 'wallnut tree' and tall, noble William the 'fronting elm'. If so, then Coleridge positions himself not as part of this impressive parade of fine-upstanding trees, but as a sort of dark parasite:
           a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient Ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight: [53-7]
Those italics are in the original (that is, 1800) version of the poem. What's particularly beautiful about that moment, if read the way I'm proposing, is the way it hints that Coleridge's sense of himself as a black-mass of ivy parasitic upon his more noble friends is also open to the possibility that the sunset's glory shines upon him too, that, however transiently, it makes something lovely out of him. There's a paradox here in the way the 'blackest mass' of ivy nonetheless makes the 'dark branches' of his friends' trees 'gleam a lighter hue' as the light around them all fades. But without wishing to over-reach that's also the paradox of Christ's redemptive atonement. Death is defeated by death; suffering by suffering; sin is eaten by the sin-eater; Oedipus carries the woes of Thebes with him as he leaves. Ivy in Latin is hedera, which means 'grasper, holder' (from the same root as the Ancient Greek name of the plant: χανδάνω , “to get, grasp”). It was sacred to Bacchus, and therefore wound around his thyrsis. Which is to say: it is both a poet's holy plant, as well as something grasping, enclosing, imprisoning. The Lamb-tree of Christian gentleness is imprisoned by something grasping and coal-black.

I wouldn't want to push this reading too far, of course. It's safer to say that 'Lime-Tree Bower' is a poem that both recognises and praises the Christian redemptive forces of natural beauty, fellowship and forgiveness, and that ends on a note of blessing, whilst also including within itself a space of chthonic mystery and darkness that eludes that sunlight. The blessing at the end reserves its charm not for Coleridge, but 'for thee, my gentle-hearted CHARLES', the Lamb who, in the logic of the poem, gestures towards the Lamb of God, the figure under whose Lamb-tree the halt and the blind came to be healed. After all, Ovid's 'tiliae molles' could perfectly properly be translated 'gentle Lime-trees'. Agnes mollis, 'gentle lamb', is a common tag in devotional poetry.  Of course Coleridge can't alter 'gentle-hearted' as his descriptor for the Lamb.

If the poem leaves open the question as to whether Coleridge will share in that miraculous grace or not, that says as much about Coleridge's state of mind as anything else.

I've gone on long enough in this post. Oedipus the poet ('Coleridgipus') is granted a vision that goes beyond mere material sight, and that vision encompasses both a sunlit future steepled with Christian churches, a land free of misery and sin, and also a dark underworld structured by the leafless Yggdrasil that cannot be wholly banished. The reciprocity of these two realms is part of the point of the whole: the oxymoronic coupling of beautiful nature as an open-ended space to be explored and beautiful nature as a closed-down grasping prison. If I wanted to expatiate further, I might invoke Jean-Joseph Goux's Oedipus, Philosopher (1993). Chapter 7 of that study, 'From Aspective to Perspective', positions Oedipus as a way of reading what Goux considers a profound change from a logic of 'mythos' to one of 'logos' during and before the fifth century B.C. The shift from mythos to logos could function as a thumbnail description not only of Coleridge's deeper fascinations in this poem, but in all his work. Interestingly for my purposes Goux takes the development of perspective or foreshortening in painting as a way of symbolizing a whole raft of social and cultural innovations, from coinage to drama, from democracy to a newly conceptualised individual 'subject'. He uses the term 'aspective' (art critics use this to talk about the absence of, or simple distortions of perspective in so-called primitive painting) to describe traditional, pre-Sophistic Greek society; the later traditions are perspectival. For our purposes here, we might want to explore the difference between the two spaces of the poem's central section, lines 8-44. First the aspective space of the chthonic 'roaring dell', where everything is confined into a kind of one-dimensional verticality ('down', 'narrow', 'deep', 'slim trunk', 'file of long lank weeds' and so on) and description applies itself to a kind of flat surface of visual effect ('speckled', 'arching', 'edge' and the like). Then the ostentatious use of perspective as the three friends
Beneath the wide wide Heaven, and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark perhaps whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two isles
Of purple shadow! ... Ah slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! [20-37]
This, as Goux might say, is mythos to logos visualised as the movement from aspective to perspective. And that is the poem in a (wall)nut-shell.

I do genuinely feel foolish for not clocking 'Lamb-tree' before. It's the sort of wordplay that, once noticed, never leaves the way you read the poem.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Orchards of Sam


Lately I've been re-reading Geoffrey Hill, a process which has proved frustrating and stimulating in roughly equal measure. I loved Hill as a teen:—there are poems from For the Unfallen (1958) and Mercian Hymns (1971) that I can still quote whole, from memory. But I went off him, somewhat, in the 1990s. He always was, of course, a Christian poet, and much of his poetry is about wrestling with his faith (or more specifically, wrestling with aspects of himself, with depression and despair specifically conceived in terms of sin), a set of beliefs and attitudes I did not share. He was also, I suppose, what we might call a politically 'conservative' writer (although actually I think Hill's politics were quite complicated and more idiosyncratic than the tag 'conservative' implies), and I was not, and am not. But then, Coleridge was also very much both a Christian writer and, in his later life, a political conservative, and there seems to me actual merit, quite apart from my personal enjoyment, in reading him against the grain from a position, like mine, that does not share many of those assumptions. I don't mean in order to critique those attitudes; on the contrary to try to read them in good faith. The important thing, I think, is that writers like Coleridge and Hill need to be rescued from readers who identify too strongly with the positions they are dramatising.

'Went off him' looks capricious of me, I know. The truth is that, back in the day I found Hill's sudden spurt of late productivity, after he went on the Lithium, very hard to love. So I've been trying to going back to it, to give it another go. In particular I've been trying and get my head around his sort-of-Dante trilogy of long-poems, The Triumph of Love (1999), Speech! Speech! (2000) and The Orchards of Syon (2002). I read these when they came out and bounced hard off them. Re-reading them recently has been slow and occasionally laborious, but also vastly more rewarding than I thought it would be. Long story short: I have fallen back in love with Hill's verse. Still, the subject of this blog is Coleridge, not Hill. So what am I doing?

The Sort-of-Dante trilogy takes elements from Hill's own life and times, and mixes them in with a small set of historical events (the First World War from a soldier's perspective, the Second from that of suffering civilians, martyrs from the 16th-century like Thomas More, but also the 20th-century like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Kreisau conspirators; as well as a good quantity of modern popular culture) in order to refract some very personal meditations on Hill's own state of mind, his pre-treatment depression, his faith in God and the difficulties of expressing that, especially in the specific church communities to which he has belonged. The poems are also very much about Hill's engagement with the natural world. This latter results in some of the most lucidly beautiful writing in all three books, and especially in the last. But there's also a huge amount of reading and quoting and intertextuality running throughout, a dense matrix of poets and theologians and other kinds of writers. If The Triumph of Love is the trilogy's Inferno, it is not because it dwells on actualised hells (though the two world wars certainly furnish the necessaries for that), but because it spends a lot of time on Hill's own childhood and youth, and on the miseries attendant on his mental states at that time. Its title, in other words, not only mimics the form of Shelley's 'The Triumph of Time', but syphons off some Shelleyan irony too (since 'The Triumph of Time', unfinished at Shelley's death, is the most potently despairing poem he ever wrote, a masterpiece of pessimism). In addition to a pervasive set of Dantean and Shelleyan allusions, Hill's poem is packed with specific name-dropping and quotations, including but not limited to: Petronius, Angelus Silesius, Thomas Bradwardine, Georges Roualt, Malebranche, Alan Turing, Milton, Gower, Rilke, Blake, Péguy, Michel Foucault and Manley Hopkins.

Speech! Speech! is, I would say, a more satirically focused engagement with the babble of contemporary cultural production, TV and rap-music and the rolling news and so on; although this Purgatorio is also darkly funny, full not only of wordplay but actual word-games anagrams and palindromes. I'd say that it does read like a poem working its way to something; and that something presumably comes into its own in The Orchards of Syon. This final volume is much more about Hill reacting to the beauty and serenity of the natural world; and Hill's Paradiso idea is concretized in, as the title suggests, orchards and woodland. Orchards are beautiful, after all. Then again, nothing is straightforward in Hill's work. Balanced against the beautiful orchard (Hopkins' 'Goldengrove' is repeatedly invoked) is the Wood of Suicides from Dante, the tree of good and evil from Eden, the cross on which God was tortured to death.

The literary matrix in which Orchards of Syon is embedded is as dense as you would expect from Hill, if a little less dense (perhaps) than Triumph of Love. More to the point, I think a rather different range of authors is brought into the text in Orchards than was the case in the earlier volumes. The two main continuities are Dante, whose shade presides (surely) over the entire trilogy, and Hopkins, who is quoted or else formally aped throughout the trilogy, as with Hill's slightly distracting tendency to add accents to cértain wórds to nudge his readers to the right émphasis when reading aloud (as per Hopkins's Springing, Falling, 'Márgarét, áre you gríeving'). Otherwise the presiding spirits of Orchards are: D H Lawrence's 'rainbow' (Hill specified that the cover-art should be Lawrence's own sketch, reproduced above; and the book opens with an epigraph from The Rainbow), André Frénaud, Mrs Beeton, Jefferies, Leopardi, Ronsard, Pavese, Connie Willis (remarkably enough) and—to bring matters back to the subject of this blog—Coleridge.

So what I thought I'd do in this post, to at least start to try and get my thoughts in order with respect to this great but difficult poem, is just pull the Coleridgean element out of the 72, 24-line stanzas that comprise the whole, and see what I think Hill is doing with it. (Why 72, 24-line cantos? Jeremy Noel-Tod wonders if Orchards is 'perhaps a Book of Days, as well as a version of the kabbalistic exercise of meditating on the 72 names of God'. Maybe). Before I do that, I'll jot down a few general observations about the poem, in order to situate what I say below a little. So: the first thing to note is that Hill's Paradiso is not about ascending through ever-more-blissful spheres. His understanding of heaven is not halos, white gowns and harps (of course, neither is Dante's; but you see what I mean). It is difficult, and in more than a 'I find this hard to wrap my head around' sense of that word.

Paradise, in The Orchards of Syon is 'about' trees, and it is 'about' music. With respect to the latter, Hill seems to consider the beauty and power of music to be, at least in part, a function of music's exemption from mankind's original sin ('music arguably/not implicated in the loss of Eden' is how he puts it [7]); and the poem returns over and again to Baroque 'glissandos', to Gospel choirs, to klesmer music and trumpet voluntaries, to Holst’s Jupiter and Parry's Jerusalem and Britten's Billy Budd, as well as to the extraordinary, fertile power of Bach ('The Art of Fugue resembles/water-springs in the Negev' [6]). The poem quotes the line 'la vida es sueño' many times, but I suspect the reference is less to Calderón's somnivital play than to Jonathan Dove's operatic version of the same work. Music is part of poetry itself, of course; instressed, as Hopkins might say, into it; and books are made of 'leaves' as trees are: Hill may well have Wordsworth's famous 'close up these barren leaves' pun in mind throughout. But we are entitled to ask: in what sense is heaven like a forest like music like poetry like a rainbow? I suppose we could say because it grows, because it 'homes' us; because it is about light and about shade and about the unspoken. And the rainbow is important because of its breathtaking natural beauty, and because Keats abjured its unweaving by modern science; because its beauty is that of the colours all folded into the lux of God's initial fiat lux. And also because, via Lawrence, it resonates with the north-midlands working class provenance of an individual like Hill himself. The specific passage that Hill quotes from Lawrence's The Rainbow as epigraph to the whole volume is this one, from that novel's chapter 5, 'the Wedding:
Tom Brangwen's mood of inspiration began to pass away. He forgot all about it, and was soon roaring and shouting with the rest. Outside the wake came, singing the carols. They were invited into the bursting house. They had two fiddles and a piccolo. Only the bride and bridegroom sat with shining eyes and strange, bright faces, and scarcely sang, or only with just moving lips.
The five men went out. The night was flashing with stars. Sirius blazed like a signal at the side of the hill, Orion, stately and magnificent, was sloping along. "It's a fine night," said Tom.
So maybe Orchards of Syon is also a kind of epithalamium, a weaving of mouthed but silent music and the sublimity of the night sky.

One other element, as I mention above, is that this poem is filled with often gorgeous poetry descriptive of natural landscapes. So far as I can see, these are phased, such that the poem as a whole cycles from autumn (which season is either named or else unambiguously evoked in stanzas 12, 13, reverting to high summer in 14, showers in 20, and colder autumnal weather again in 23, 24, 25 and 26), through winter (27, 28, 32, 33), to a barren land suddenly blazing through with flowers (41) and 'the great rainbow, as Bert/Lawrence saw it or summoned it' (48); and finally to summer ('the stooped pear-tree honours us with its shade', [59]; 'this heavy/blankness ... a mauve/tinted wipe-around grey. The Malverns gone in haze' [65]). All the other business of the poem—and it is a very busy, densely extended piece of writing—is framed by this natural cycle, which brings the negations with which stanza 1 opens ...
Now there is no due season. Do not
mourn unduly. You have sometimes said
that I project a show more
stressful than delightful. [1]
... through to, near the end, a kind of unguarded joy in the Edenic possibilities of its titular locus amoenus:
              the Orchards
of Syon, sway-backed with pear and apple,
the plum, in spring and autumn resplendent.
Syon! Syon! That which sustains us [70]
Throughout the poem, and despite (perhaps) what this quotation might suggest, Hill's apprehension of the beauty of the natural world is always particularised, never idealised or abstracted. It is real places that Hill knows and loves, not any sort of Platonic Arcadia. And because of that, nature is always interpenetrated with culture, a fact Hill treats without regret or deprecation. There is, for him, as much beauty in 'hawks over the dual carriageways' [17] as in any Theocritan pre-industrial pseudo-nostalgia. Indeed, that's one of the things I love about The Orchards of Syon.


Coleridge first comes into Orchards of Syon in the poem's twenty-fourth stanza, which I quote here in its entirety:
Too many times I wake on the wrong
side of the sudden doors, a cloud-
smoke sets the dawn moon into rough eclipse,
though why in the world thís light is not
revealed, even so, the paths plum-coloured,
slippery with bruised leaves; shrouded the clear
ponds below Kenwood; such recollection
no more absent from the sorrow-tread
than I from your phantom showings, Goldengrove.
I dreamed I had wakened before this
and not recognized the place, its forever
arbitrary boundaries re-sited,
re-circuited. In no time at all
there's neither duration nor eternity.
Look!—crowning the little rise, that bush,
copper-gold, trembles like a bee swarm.
COLERIDGE'S living powers, and other
sacrednesses whose asylum this was,
did not ordain the sun; but still it serves,
bringing on strongly now each flame-recognizance,
hermeneutics of autumn, time's
continuities tearing us apart
Make this do for a lifetime, I tell myself.
Rot we shall have for bearing either way. [24]
Lets say that the larger situation of this stanza is: waking up too early, but being unable to get back to sleep. The dawn moon is visible outside, though clouded, and something about the quality of the light reminds the narrator of an autumnal visit to Kenwood House, in Hampstead, below whose stately structure are (indeed) paths and ponds. In fact here is a painting by the excellent Mary Kuper of that very locale:

The season is 'flame-coloured'. The ground is strewn with leaves. Hill (in his bed? Shuffling around in a dressing gown?) looks outside and sees the coming-on dawn light strike a 'copper-gold' bush and make it shine. His state of mind, still haunted by dreams ('la vida es sueño' reoccurs throughout Orchards like a refrain) takes him back to memories of visiting Kenwood, which in turn provokes a kind of autumnal epiphany, a visionary state as much dreary as transcendent. So far as that goes, it's a Hillian expression of what is at the very heart of Wordsworth's 'spots of times'. What I mean is: such spots were uplifting spirit-soaring moments of affective intensity that were also quotidian, downbeat, tedious or wearing—'visionary dreariness' [Prelude 12:256] is, in many ways, the single key Wordsworthian phrase. It's why the 'this' in 'thís light' gets its Hopkinsian accent, I think: the specificity of 'thís light' is what matters. The compromised nature of paradise is no flaw, but rather the ground of its splendour: Goldengrove is beautiful not despite but because it is 'unleaving'; a flame is a mode of decay in exactly the way that rot is.

This doesn't seem to me Hill at his most difficult, and indeed the way the scene is visualised strikes me as powerful and affecting. Matthew Sperling's recent Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words (Oxford 2014) spends a whole chapter basically unpacking this one stanza by way of exploring the work's Coleridgean context, starting with this statement rescued from oblivion by the fact that, I presume, Sperling was actually in the Warwick University audience where Hill said it:
In public readings, Hill has named Coleridge as the ‘genius’ of the whole [of Orchards of Syon], and has described the poem as arising from one of those ‘strange visionary moments that seem to come in the midst of the most ordinary occasions’, while giving a note on its setting: ‘it’s not about but, in its allusive way, it is … Hampstead Heath and Highgate, and the fact that Coleridge lived his last rather sad years there.’ [Sperling, 73; ellipses in original]
Very interesting! Coleridge used the phrase 'living powers' in several works. It shorthands one of his most important notions, that, since the divine informs words (and therefore poetry), words (and therefore poetry) are shaping forces in the world, not passive tokens merely reflecting that world. Sperling traces the phrase to Aids to Reflection (1825) and summarises it as saying 'that linguistic forms precede and govern cognitive forms’ [Sperling, 88], which is fair enough. But we might go back earlier, to, for instance, the notes for Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare at the Surrey Institution in 1812:
The spirit of poetry, like all other living powers, must of necessity circumscribe itself by rules, were it only to unite power with beauty. It must embody in order to reveal itself; but a living body is of necessity an organized one—and what is organization but the connection of parts to a whole, so that each part is at once end and means!
I wonder if this isn't a more fertile way of approaching the importance of 'living powers' to Hill than the Aids to Reflection context. Extrapolating a little from the Shakespeare lectures passage, we might say the phrase works here to flag-up the organic form of Hill's poetic structures, as much as their esemplastic precedence over mere 'things'. Indeed, there is a tension between the mechanic and organic elements in structuring the poem as a whole. In Triumph of Love the stanzas vary in length, swelling or tightening as the expressive logic requires; but both Speech! Speech! and Orchards are made out of regular processions of set-length stanzas. For Jeremy Noel-Tod this is a bug, not a feature:
In fulfilling these structures, Hill has encountered the same problem Eliot did when he conceived of Four Quartets—a symmetrical crown for his life’s work modelled on one poem, ‘Burnt Norton’. The quality-control lapses in the three quartets that followed, especially ‘The Dry Salvages’, are the result of this new approach to composition, which required certain patterns to be strictly completed. The sections of The Triumph of Love—Hill’s ‘Burnt Norton’—expand and contract instinctively, leanly, providing necessary variety. The whole book is a beautifully balanced expression of Hill’s characteristic alternating rhythm. The repetitive stanza structures of Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, are more hospitable to dense, self-parodic filler. [Jeremy Noel-Tod, 'Awkward Bow', LRB 25:5 (2003), 27]
'Dense, self-parodic filler' is harsh, although you certainly see what Noel-Tod means. But we might want to argue that Hill was not only aware of precisely this 'Eliot problem', but that it expresses something crucial about his understanding of the way a Coleridgean 'living power' might give breath and life to verse. In those same Shakespearian lectures quoted above, STC gives us this definition:
The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.
If we take Hill's commitment to poetry as a living power seriously, then we might want to think about the tension between, say, the exquisitely expressive and the stiffly offputting as the point of the whole. Like Picasso with representational painting, Hill can write lucidly beautiful and moving poetry if he wants to. He just doesn't want to do this,or else doesn't want to do it all the time. The more 'mechanic' tics and features; the polysyllabic abstract nouns, the odd forays into textspeak ('yr' and 'y' instead of 'your' for example) and vertiginous shifts from elevated idioms to banality and coversational babble, all these wrongfooting moments are there to foreground exactly this tension. Hence, too, The Orchards of Syon rather than The Woods of Syon; since the former are both organically natural growths and mechanically ordered layings-out of territory in a way that is not true of the latter.

There's a lot that could be said about the way this stanza, and the poem as a whole, draws the cord taut by way of putting mechanical and organic in tension with one another; but I'll limit myself to one particular observation for now. Stanza 24 includes a strophic moment, a turn—'Look! in line 15. Structurally this echoes the sonnet form, something doubled-up by the fact that it immediately follows a 14-line section of verse. The result is a sort of elongated-octave, about untimeliness, waking too early, about memory and eternity, followed by a sort of elongated-sestet about the way meaning and beauty catch light in our souls. But can we say that the sonnet form is organic? Or is it a mechanic imposition on the way language expresses love and longing, although perhaps one with which repetition has made so familiar it seems organic? 'Look!'


There are many other Coleridgean references and quotations in Orchards, and I'm going to move quickly through the five most explicit. Stanza 30 opens:
Blurring sharpens: instance, my cold-tears make
flowerets, faceted clusters, out of clear brights,
headlights, eight, twelve, across, signal gantries
like emporium glitter. I'm not driving /
fortunately. How slowly it all goes
hurtling to oblivion. Line after line
solidly fractured without
effort and without discord
—COLERIDGE; the eye
of Imagination passive and a seer.
Think seer as you would stayer. [30]
The narrator is in a car, being driven at night, and his tear-filled eyes (grief? flu?) make patterns from the lights. These, by a process of association, make him think of two lines from Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis', Look! how a bright star shooteth from the sky;/So glides he in the night from Venus' eye (a detail Hill leaves us to intuit, rather than spelling it out) and thence to Coleridge's discussion of those same Shakespearian lines, from where 'without effort and without discord' is quoted. Here's the relevant passage as it appears in Coleridge's Literary Remains (the 'it', in the first line here, is Shakespeare's Imagination):

This structures and embodies Hill's experience in the car which he is not driving (fortunately, since he can't see properly): the beauty of the instant, the rapidity of the car's passage, the yearning, hopelessness and love. These paralleled movements, effortless and harmonious, in turn inform the way poetry moves 'line after line', the 'solid fracture' of discourse into poetry picked out by that little vertical bar separating the words 'driving' and 'fortunately'. In the opening lines of stanza 33 the narrator promises to 'pass myself through, as a backward/courier of vision: your Table Talk'. The 'eye' has become messenger in more than the simple physical fact that we read with our eyes. And stanza 36 ends:
Hell is empty; or The End will erase it
in its due place and order. Poets
leap over death
—was that COLERIDGE? If so,
Did anyone see him do it and live? [36]
That was Coleridge, of course; he jotted the thought in his notebook in 1802:
No one can leap over his own shadow/Poets leap over
Death. [Notebooks 1134 8.3]
Hill quite often moves the tone towards a tone of wry humour like this. Humour is not his strongest suit, but still.

There are two more specific evocations of Coleridge's name. First, in the middle of stanza 44, after the battling violence of the Normandy landings ('at the crossroads of Haut-Vents, machine-carbine'):
              Then immediately
peace brings The Armed Vision, a work of courage
and quick advantage. Who dares show himself
embusqué in this verdurous new terrain
to be fought through? Did HYMAN go to the wars?
Empson didn't, nor did I. Armed Vision is of course COLERIDGE.
The point of reference is to this book, published just after the war (1947, in point of fact):

It is an account of how criticism evolved from the intuitive expressions of amateurs like Aristotle and Coleridge into a more rigorously worked-through discourse whose four main influences are, Hyman thinks, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Frazer. From here Hyman delves into the state of modern criticism, arguing that 'each critic tends to have a master metaphor or series of metaphors in terms of which he sees the critical function ...this metaphor then shapes, informs, and sometimes limits his work.' The answer to Hill's question as to whether Hyman served in World War 2 is: no, he didn't (he was writing for The New Yorker in the early 1940s). But Hill is quite right that 'armed vision' is from Coleridge. Specifically it's from the seventh chapter of the Biographia Literaria, where STC ponders how interpretation can become over-interpretation, how harmony can become over-focused into disharmony if we attend too closely: 'The razor's edge becomes a saw to the armed vision,' he says, thinking of 'arming' sight with lenses and microscopes; 'and the delicious melodies of Purcell or Cimarosa might be disjointed stammerings to a hearer, whose partition of time should be a thousand times subtler than ours.' I've always thought this a particularly science-fictional concept, but Hill instead opts, Hymanishly, to focus on the military metaphor implicit in 'armed': fighting with machine-guns at a Normandy crossroads; courage and quick advantage extricating oneself from the 'embuscade' and so on.

There remains one last specific reference to Coleridge in the poem. This is in stanza 64, which, once again, I'll quote whole:
This is my shoelace. That is bobbled clover.
Here's a youngish man embarks on I
am an old man now
. Eximious 'STARRY' VERE,
lyric and futile. Sit here, Memory.
A trial playthrough: they could hardly tell
prelude from postlude, postlude from intermezzo.
You're right! Not clover; even more tenacious,
tight like plantar warts or splayed pseudopods
their gardeners gouge and burn from lawns. Let's think
around the nature of the impasse: metaphysics'
biochemical mystery. Wisdom
conspires with unwisdom, in a phrase
the genius of the maker—slog-and-slang.
Fancy's not truth even if truth's confined
to Imagination: STC's compunctions,
the last bit of the The Tempest, ancient prayers
of intercession that are said to work.
Melville's predisposition stood at bay
to public humours. Through stiff metaphrase
the sad man breaking in his stupent heart,
his stupent heart hog-tied on Southport sands
for Hawthorne to excogitate. I'll name
my own late fancies Dream Children if not—
just for the shine on it—Prospero's Farewell. [64]
We start with Hill actually staring at his own shoes (not for the first time in this trilogy, I wonder if Hill's love of music led him into the pop and rock of the most recent decades: was he aware what 'shoegazing' is? When he laments 'time's/continuities tearing us apart' [24] is he glancing at Joy Division?) At any rate, he is standing in a garden or park and looking down, and this, for some reason, makes him think of his youthful engagement with opera. 'Vere', of course, is Captain Vere from Britten's Billy Budd, whose opening aria consists of him looking back on his life, and his regrets, from the perspective of old age: 'There’s a land where she’ll anchor for ever. I am an old man now, and my mind can go back in peace …' (I assume the reference here is to Britten, not Melville, even though Melville is name-checked a few lines later, because the opera puts Vere at its centre in a way not true of the novella. I could be wrong). So this reference is 'lyric' in the strict sense of being sung to music; and futile because there's nothing 'Starry' Vere can do to bring Billy back, howsoever eximious he may be. Hill's companion, whoever he or she is, disagrees that they are looking at clover:

Hill's narrator agrees. They're looking at a different sort of weed: plantain.

I sympathise: I have plantain growing all through my lawn and they're a right bugger to shift. At this halfway point the stanza shifts to considering the nature of the 'maker', or poet (poetry from ‘ποίησις’ which means ‘a making, a creation, a production’). Said nature is 'slog-and-slang', which is a phrase that nicely combines two aspects of writing as craft (the effort involved and the command of idiom) in, I suppose, a sort-of jokily deflating echo of Sturm und Drang. Then we're given the Fancy/Imagination distinction, which is one of the central planks of the Biographia Literaria, and 'STC's compunctions' refers back to that, rather than identifying any problems he had with 'the last bit of The Tempest'. I'm not aware of anything Coleridge wrote or said about Prospero's famous 'Now my charms are all o'erthrown' speech. I suppose Hill considers Prospero's epilogue a mode of interceding with the audience ('I must be here confin'd by you,/Or sent to Naples') and a prayer for freedom that is 'said'—spoken aloud—to be effective. This then leads him back to Billy Budd, and the angelic man rendered 'stupent' by his stutter. 'Dream children' presumably glances at 'We are such stuff/As dreams are made on'; and, approaching as he is the end of Orchards of Syon, Hill toys with a Prosperine abandonment of the world of magic, and poetry, and sin:
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Vere had the power to pardon Billy Budd, but did not do it, to his later regret. Prayer (ancient or otherwise) is an imaginative, not a fanciful, activity. These two naval dramas, Billy Budd and The Tempest, work with the memory of a traumatic crime or sin in order to stage the performance of atonement and forgiveness. But what has this to do with gazing at your own shoes, and being struck by how weedy the lawn is?

I'm still pondering that last question.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein


This poem—one of Coleridge's more famous—began life as a section of a much longer, rather sprawling set of verses in one of STC's Notebooks [April/May 1811, actually]. The notebook text starts as a prose meditation, soon mutating into verse, on the varieties of wits typical of Coleridge's friends (including some impenetrable pseudonyms: 'Copioso' has a 'mercurial' wit; 'Tungtubig' has a 'hungry' wit and so on).

The prose having morphed into verse, Coleridge moves on to a sprightly, comic section reacting to 'Donne's first Poem' (he means 'The Flea'):
Be proud as Spaniards. Leap for pride ye Fleas!
Henceforth in Nature's Minim World Grandees. ...
Skip-jacks no more, nor civiller Skip-Johns;
Thrice-honored Fleas! I gre[e]t you all as Dons.
In Phoebus' Archives register'd are ye,
And this your Patent of Nobility!

A few more lines of this and it changes into a short poem about moles:
—They shrink in, as Moles
(Nature's mute monks, live mandrakes of the ground)
Creep back from Light—then listen for its sound:—
See but to dread, and dread they know not why—
The natural alien of their negative eye.
From here it's straight into the 28-lines that were printed in Henry Nelson Coleridge's posthumous Poetical Works (1834) as 'Limbo'

Now, there's a consensus among critics of STC that we need to attend to this wider context, to what Morton Paley calls the whole 'Limbo constellation', when we read the poem excerpted and published under the title 'Limbo'. Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano's 'Norton Critical Edition' of Coleridge's Poetry and Prose doesn't even print 'Limbo' as a separate text, and instead gives us only the whole, rather garbled (as you can see above) notebook entry. Ewan James Jones's Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form (Cambridge Univ. Press 2014) spends several dozen pages (pp.107-45) going through the larger 'constellation' in exhausting detail, tracing obvious and less-obvious wordplay from section to section. Paley thinks the poem incomprehensible outwith its 'constellation'.

In this post I'm not going to do that. Instead I'm going to look just at the 28-line 'Limbo' that came out of the posthumous editing of Coleridge's work. I do this in part because that later text, howsoever derived, strikes me as being just a better poem than the whole of the constellation, or the other elements and poems mined out of it. Indeed, this actually-published 'Limbo' strikes me as a poem of remarkable finish and poise (even if some of its formal poise is about the articulation of disarticulation); although to say so is to go against a tradition of critical judgment that goes back all the way to Coleridge himself. In this same notebook entry he annotated 'Limbo' as 'a Specimen of the Sublime dashed to pieces by cutting too close with her fiery Four in Hand round the corner of Nonsense—'. Paley puts great emphasis on the lack of authorial imprimatur, insisting that after drafting 'Limbo' in 1811 Coleridge 'made no effort to publish' until 'September 1828, when he revised part of it into a poem intended for his friend Alaric Watts's annual The Literary Souvenir, describing it to Watts as 'a pretended Fragment of Lee, the Tragic Poet, containing a description of Limbo, & according to my own fancy containing some of the most forcible Lines & with the most original imagery that my niggard Muse ever made me a present of?' (Letter dated 14 September 1828; CL 6: 758)'. Paley goes on:
The pseudo-ascription to Lee, who had been confined for insanity from 1684 to 1689, would have alerted Watts to the phantasmagoric nature of the poem. (Such an ascription may have been something of a convention) ... However, Watts did not receive the manuscript that Coleridge thought he had left at the editor's doorstep. [Paley, 'Coleridge's Limbo Constellation', Studies in Romanticism, 34:2 (1995), 190]
Paley thinks:
What all this demonstrates is that, although Coleridge may well have worked up a poem for Alaric Watts using the material in his Notebook, no such poem is now known to exist, and the only authoritative source for the text under discussion is Coleridge's Notebook draft. Any other rendition, from Henry Nelson Coleridge's on, lacks the authority of the poet. [Paley, 191]
I suppose I am less invested in 'the authority of the poet' than Paley; I prefer the authority of the poem. And the 28-line 'Limbo', whether a confection of Henry Nelson Coleridge or not, seems to me the one that has authority.


The first thing to say about 'Limbo' is that its 28 lines divide into a central 12-lines section flanked by two paired 8-line sections, the first a kind of introduction, the second a sort of summary. What the two outer passages frame is a central image of 'human Time' as an old, blind man staring at the moon. It is one of the most astonishing poetic images that Coleridge coined in four decades of writing:
But that is lovely—looks like human Time,—
An old man with a steady look sublime,
That stops his earthly task to watch the skies;
But he is blind—a statue hath such eyes;—
Yet having moon-ward turn'd his face by chance,
Gazes the orb with moon-like countenance,
With scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high,
He gazes still,—his eyeless Face all Eye;—
As 'twere an organ full of silent sight,
His whole Face seemeth to rejoice in light!
Lip touching lip, all moveless, bust and limb,
He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on him! [9-20]
The first oddity here is the 'lovely'. We might think the image that follows is very unlovely indeed: the blind old man, 'scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high', in the night staring unwittingly up at the moon, an image then pushed into surreality by the way the comparison of the face of the old man with the face of the moon ('gazes the orb with moon-like countenance') morphs, unexpectedly, into a comparison of the blind-man's face with a giant eye, 'his eyeless Face all Eye'. In what sense, then, lovely? In part it is simply the startling oxymoron of the passage that sticks it in the mind; but there's also something formal about the way the stumbles into its image, false-starting, all those em-dashes and isolate clauses, all the stuttering conjunctions 'But ... That ... But ... Yet ...' slowly giving way to a smoother and more onrolling versification through 'silent' and 'rejoice' and 'light' into the frank loveliness of that twentieth-line, spilling over the pentameter into a Spenserian alexandrine. It slows the verse to a steadily trodden stateliness that really enhances the still beauty of what's being described.

The effectiveness of that alexandrine is enhanced by the fact that line 20 is the first in this poem (the truncated line 27 being the only other) comprised entirely of monosyllables. Otherwise the studied circularity of this image, its seems-to-gaze-at-that-which-seems-to-gaze-on-himishness, is replicated formally and linguistically in the poem. Similar half-rhyming (skies/eyes; high/eye; sight/light) reinforce the sense of a lack of forward momentum. The final couplet rhyme limb/him is a half-rhyme glance back at the first couple rhyme time/sublime. 'Gazes' in line 14 and 'gazes' in line 16 are rehearsed by the 'gaze... gaze' of line 20; and 'moon-ward' [13] chimes with 'moon-like' [14] as 'lip touches lip [19]. Do we read that last image as the old man's upper lip touching his own lower lip? Or kissing somebody else's? Either way, I think, the phrase cannot escape the sense of erotic connection with the desired other.

So we can say: Coleridge's essence-of-Limbo is not, as it would be (has been) for so many others, a mode of sitting around, waiting for something to happen that does not happen. It's not En Attendant Godot. It's more like looking with unseeing eyes at something impossibly remote. And that blind looking is related in some oblique manner to the twin logics of writing whereby somethings are and others are like. So the old man's eyes are blind, and are like a statue's eyes; the old man's face is white and round and cratered and only is like the moon; and those two are/are-like balances revert cleverly back upon one another. What I mean by this latter is that the moon is a face-like stone artefact, which is to say, is a statue; except that insofar as a statue requires a sculptor the moon only is like a statue. It's the canny oblique asymmetry of this that works so well: when the blind man 'seems to gaze' at the moon it's because though he does have eyes they don't work, so his looking is a seeming-looking; but when the moon 'seems to gaze' at the man it's because it seems to have eyes (the face of the man in the moon) which, because of course they don't work, only seem to look at him.

I'll come back to this central white circle, this core image in the poem, in a moment. Now I want to look at the two eight-line framing passages, before and after. First:
Tis a strange place, this Limbo!—not a Place,
Yet name it so;—where Time & weary Space
Fettered from flight, with night-mare sense of fleeing,
Strive for their last crepuscular half-being;—
Lank Space, and scytheless Time with branny hands
Barren and soundless as the measuring sands,
Not mark'd by flit of Shades,—unmeaning they
As Moonlight on the dial of the day! [1-8]
I like the wrongfooting opening line: it's a place; it's not a place. And I like the way the words here blur into other words: 'lank space' is almost, but not quite, blank space; 'scytheless'  is haunted by 'sightless'; 'branny' seems to lead word-ladder-like into 'barren', 'flight' and 'flit' are the same word, except that the latter is filed down. This queasy slippage of meaning from word to word marks a poetic space in which meaning is no longer crisply demarcated, and Coleridge styles this as, in effect, a disease of time. Time appears as the first of the poem's personifications, and he's in a bad way. 'Branny hands' means hands covered in scabs (it's eighteenth-century medical discourse; dry and flaky scabs that tended to come loose from the skin were called 'bran' or 'branny'; see for example here, here and here). He's too sick and exhausted to do his job; time no longer registers. It's part of the larger logic of the poem that image leads associatively to image, and so the moonlit sundial in line 8 sets-up, as it were, the round white face of the blind man looking at the round white face of the moon.

The final eight lines pick up on the counter-intuitive notion that the blind-man and moon image in the central section is, in some sense, 'beautiful' or a 'sweet sight':
No such sweet sights doth Limbo Den immure,
Wall'd round, and made a Spirit-jail secure,
By the mere Horror of blank Naught-at-all,
Whose circumambience doth these Ghosts enthral.
A lurid thought is growthless, dull Privation,
Yet that is but a Purgatory curse;
Hell knows a fear far worse,
A fear—a future fate.—'Tis positive Negation! [21-28]
The circle in the centre of this circling poem has become a 'circumambience' prison-wall that imprisons ('immures', 'enthrals'). 'Lurid' here presumably means not shocking or horrifying, but something closer to its Latin root (lūridus, 'pale yellow, wan'). In his first draft Coleridge toyed with reversing the two crucial terms: 'A lurid thought is growthless, dull Negation ... A fear—a future fate.—'Tis positive Privation!' He was right to change his mind on this (it amazes me that Morton Paley sees no difference between them: 'the choice of Negation or Privation hardly mattered, since the two ideas were in this context the same' [Paley, Coleridge’s Later Poetry (OUP 1996), 54]). Privation means being deprived of something; as Time is of his scythe, or the moon-looking man is of his sight. Negation, though, is being negated, everted, refused, turned-away, as Coleridge in 1811 finally understands he is being by Asra. He is not deprived of Asra, because deprivation contains within itself the implication of reprieve, as the old model of Limbo as 'waiting' implies that one is waiting for something, or somebody, and that the period of time spent en attendant will eventually pay-out—Godot, as it were, will actually arrive. But that's not, Coleridge realises in 1811, where he stands or has ever stood with Asra; and that's not what this poem is saying. STC has been waiting for Asra to ... well, who knows? To see the error of her ways? To fall belatedly in love with Sam? But it's here, in this poem, that Coleridge comprehends that limbo is not a waiting room. It is a room absent the temporal dimension required by 'waiting' as such.

In other words, and as Dante has already told us: Limbo is not a portion of Purgatory. It is the antechamber to Hell. When Vergil shows Dante Limbo in Inferno's fourth canto, he is, in effect, showing off his own home. It is significant to Coleridge's poem, I think, that he describes it in terms of a perfectly hopeless desire: 'che sanza speme vivemo in disio' (Inferno 4.42: 'that without hope we live in desire'). And if that looks like an oxymoron—not love without hope, which is a romantic cliché, but desire without hope, which is almost a contradiction in terms—it is an oxymoron precisely in keeping with the tenor of Coleridge's 'Limbo'.  The man who gazes at the moon can never hope to embrace this white goddess; and it is the 'lip touching lip', and by the deliberate elision of the line, lip touching breast ('bust') and lip touching limb, that haunts the poem.

This brings me back to the poem's central image. One context for it (I'm genuinely surprised nobody seems to have argued this point before) is surely the famous description of the Achaean camp at night, under the moon, before the walls of Troy, in Iliad 8:
οἳ δὲ μέγα φρονέοντες ἐπὶ πτολέμοιο γεφύρας
εἴατο παννύχιοι, πυρὰ δέ σφισι καίετο πολλά.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν:
τόσσα μεσηγὺ νεῶν ἠδὲ Ξάνθοιο ῥοάων
Τρώων καιόντων πυρὰ φαίνετο Ἰλιόθι πρό.
χίλι᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν πεδίῳ πυρὰ καίετο, πὰρ δὲ ἑκάστῳ
εἴατο πεντήκοντα σέλᾳ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
ἵπποι δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας
ἑσταότες παρ᾽ ὄχεσφιν ἐΰθρονον Ἠῶ μίμνον. [Iliad 8:553-65]

'Thus full of the highest hopes they sat through the livelong night beside the pathways of the battlefield, and they lit a great many watchfires. As when the stars shine clear, and the moon is bright; not a breath of air moves, and every hilltop and glade and headland prominence stands out in the inexpressible light breaking down from the serene of heaven; the stars can all of them be counted and the heart of the shepherd is joyful— this was exactly how watchfires of the Trojans shone out before Ilion midway between the ships and the river Xanthos. A thousand camp-fires gleamed upon the plain, and in the glow of each fifty men sat, while the horses champed oats and wheat beside their chariots, waiting for the dawn.'
This was how Gilbert Wakefield, in his 1796 edition of Pope's Homer, glosses this passage; or rather glosses Pope's celebrated version of it ('As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night!/O’er heav’n’s clear azure spreads her sacred light'):

(Coleridge knew Wakefield personally, and certainly read this edition of Pope; indeed it would be nice to find evidence that the 'poetical friend' mentioned here was, as it could easily have been, Coleridge himself). But it gives us a new mode of glossing the old blind man, looking up at the sky. He is Blind Homer, whose home—Dante goes out of his way to tell us this—is Limbo: 'quelli è Omero, poeta sovrano' [Inferno, 4:88]. Indeed, here is Blake's illustration of precisely this moment, 'Hell Canto IV, Homer and the ancient poets':

It's hardly strange that Coleridge would find beauty and sweetness in the image of blind Homer staring unseeing at the unseeing moon, since out of precisely this circumstance were written some of the most resonantly lovely lines in all poetry.

Of course, we can't say the blind old man 'with a steady look sublime' staring as the refulgent lamp of night spreads her sacred light  o’er heav’n’s clear azure is Homer. Coleridge assuredly knew the passage from the Iliad, and conceivably had it somewhere in the backward and abysm of his extremely capacious imagination as he wrote these 'Limbo' lines; but if he invokes them (and if he invokes blind Homer gazing at the blind moon as the image behind their composition) then he does so not to deprive, but to negate. Because of course that luminous Homeric passage is freighted with a special kind of looking-forward; soldiers who know they will fight and may die when the dawn comes. It shares that special in-the-momentness also present in the 'little touch of Harry in the night' scene from Henry V, and is wholly oriented towards a determinate future. Coleridge's poem negates that. His Limbo is a place where possibility has been collapsed into actuality and thereby annihilated. Wirklichkeit has swallowed Möglichkeit and untime has superseded time. I feel I should apologise for bringing in Heidegger, except that Coleridge's poem provides a bracing contradiction to the later German. If for Heidegger, 'as long as Dasein is, a not-yet [ein Noch-nicht] belongs to it” [Being and Time, 225], then for Coleridge the da of being is a 'there' of Nicht-Sein: a place that is not a place but which we must still call by the name 'place'; a never-yet untime.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

'To W.J.H. While Playing on his Flute' (1796)

Also known as 'To the Rev W.J.H. While Teaching A Young Lady Some Song-Tunes on his Flute'. It was published in Poems (1796) and not republished by Coleridge in his lifetime, although Joseph Cottle's Early Recollections, chiefly relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1837) reprints it under the title at the head of his blogpost, and the posthumous Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1837-39) has it as, simply, 'To the Rev. W. J. Hort'. Hort was a Bristol schoolmaster as well a Unitarian minister, and the author of a great many works of pedagogy, epitomes of English history and the Bible, French grammars, English grammars, books on Geography and so on. Presumably the 'young lady' is Sara Fricker (or Sara Coleridge if the poem was written after 4th October 1795); and presumably the scene being painted is one in which Hort is teaching Sara to play the flute. 'Freedom's UNDIVIDED dell' mentioned in the third stanza is a reference to the Susquehannah, and the Pantisocratic plans Coleridge was making with Southey: the 'Monody on the Death of Chatterton' (1794) talks of Coleridge crossing the Atlantic to 'peaceful Freedom's UNDIVIDED dale' [129]. So in effect Coleridge is saying to his friend: when Sara and I are settled in the rude romantic glens of America she will play her flute the way you have taught her, and this will remind me of you, whereupon I will shed happy tears.

Hush! ye clamorous Cares! be mute!
Again, dear Harmonist! again,
Thro' the hollow of thy flute,
Breathe that passion-warbled strain:
Till MEMORY each form shall bring
The loveliest of her shadowy throng;
And HOPE that soars on sky-lark wing,
Carol wild her gladdest song!

O skill'd with magic spell to roll
The thrilling tones, that concentrate the soul!
Breathe through thy flute those tender notes again,
While near thee sits the chaste-eyed maiden mild;
And bid her raise the Poet's kindred strain
In soft impassion'd voice, correctly wild.

Where toil and health, with mellowed love shall dwell,
Far from folly, far from men,
In the rude romantic glen,
Up the cliff, and through the glade.
Wand'ring with the dear-loved maid,
I shall listen to the lay,
And ponder on thee far away!
Still, as she bids those thrilling notes aspire
(“Making my fond attuned heart her lyre”),
Thy honor'd form, my Friend! shall re-appear.
And I will thank thee with a raptur'd tear.
It's not Coleridge's best work, really; perhaps that's why he never reprinted it. But it has its moments, I think. The parenthetical third line from the end, there, is certainly quoting something; but no editor has been able to work out what.

J C C Mays is to the point:

I don't think this is a line of English poetry, and Google agrees with me. But I wonder if it might be a reference to that schoolmaster's favourite, Horace; specifically to Odes book 3: 9, 9-10:
me nunc Thressa Chloe regit,
dulcis docta modos et citharae sciens.
This means 'I am overpowered by Thracian Chloe's/sweet measure and her skill with the lyre', and a little less exactly means: 'Chloe's sweet attunement and skill with the lyre have overcome me', which is at least on the way to 'Chloe plays on my heart as her own fondly attuned lyre'. It's a pretty famous line, actually. Here, for example, is Edward John Poynter's Chloe, dulcis docta modos et citharae sciens (1893):

There's a wrinkle, though. Horace's poem is a dialogue between Horace and Lydia in which they remember how in love they used to be. Used to be, but not anymore. In turn each confesses that they've moved on to other people now: Horace to Chloe of the fond, attuned lyre; and Lydia to 'young Calais, son of Thurian Ornytus'. The poem ends with them reconciled and pledging to love one another and live together until they die, but the whole drift of the poem stresses their respective inconstancy, so you don't really believe it. That's a strange, or perhaps a strangely prescient, note to strike towards the end of this poem; after all, Coleridge's love for Sara Fricker didn't last. And indeed maybe it was that fact that meant older separated-from-his-wife Coleridge, looking to assemble his 1817 collected poems, decided to omit these 1795 verses.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Coleridge's Iliad Translation

This is yet another of Coleridge's planned-and-never-undertaken projects. It came out of a discussion with Joseph Cottle in the mid 1790s about translating Homer in such a way as to establish 'the occasion of the superiority of the Greek Poets to ourselves, from the privilege they had of improving the sound of their words by a poetic dialogue.' Coleridge's idea was to translate each individual Homeric hexameter line with a short rhymed quatrain. In his Notebook he jotted down one such stanza for Iliad 1.34 and another for Iliad 1.49, and that was as a far as he got. J C C Mays prints these two verses under the title 'Translations of Homer Iliad 1.34, 49':
Down along the Shore
Of the Sea of much roar
All malcontent
The poor Priest went.—

Ho! Phoebus for ever!
Dread was the clangor
As he strode in his anger
Of the Silver Quiver!—
The first of these translates 'βῆ δ’ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης'; 'he went out in silence along the shore of the much-resounding sea'. The malcontentedness and pitiableness of the priest is Coleridge's addition. The second renders: 'δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ’ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο'; 'terrible was the twang of the silver bow.' Clangor is κλαγγὴ, 'klangē', which is handy; Phoebus is implied in the line, since his is the silver bow, but is not actually mentioned. Clearly, STC's approach entails a degree of expansion and interpretation.

It's not a lot to go on, really; only two lines. Of the two quatrains the second is rather better than the first, I think. 'Down along the shore of the sea of much roar' is prosodically clumsy, 'sea of much roar' sounds daft and the rhyme is too jingle-jangle. The interesting question is whether STC's second quatrain, with its two sets of rhyme that are both in themselves half-rhymes (ever/quiver, clangor/anger) and that half-rhyme with each other, is intentional. If so, this might make for an interesting exercise in Homeric translation, actually. I wonder how it might look?
Sing the wrath, goddess,
Of mighty Achilleus
Great son of Peleus
Whose wrath destroys us.—

It brought dire scenes
Upon the Achaeans
Blood flowing in streams
And no end to their pains.—

Dispatching many souls
Of valiant heroes
Descending in woe
To Hades below.—

Turning their once grand
Bodies to mounds
Of carrion for hounds
On dusty ground.—

And birds of all kind;
And so the great plan
That Great Zeus began
Was brought to its end.
I wonder how long you could spin this sort of thing out before it became simply annoying?

[The image at the head of this post is 'Homer and His Guide' (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau]