Saturday, 23 January 2016

Coleridge's Tribade Riddle (1809)



Quite a curio, this. Mays prints it in his Poetical Works (2001) as '446. Adelphan Greek Riddle', and, whilst he goes some way towards glossing its various terms ('Gynandrian', 'Tri-bad', 'Adelphan Greek') he mostly disavows interpretation: 'Coleridge has wrapped up his meaning so successfully that it would be foolhardy to attempt to disentangle it,' he says, adding: 'it is unclear whether the riddle describes incest; or a homosexual relationship, male or female; or a more complex intra- and extra-marital relationship.' He even wonders whether the whole thing might not be 'a skit on the second part of Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden (1789)'.

I think we can do better than that. The first thing to note is that though Coleridge writes here in Greek letters, the words themselves are not Greek. They are English ones transliterated into Greek, which makes it easy to decode:
Wife sister husband—husband sister wife
Gynandrian incest's union, nature's strife
Solution of the riddle thou to seek
Tri-bad is ... success, Adelphan Greek.
Tri-bad/That ne'er succeed!
That last line, I think, is a second go at line 4. It's not clear, since everything is crossed out, which of the two versions Coleridge preferred, but for reasons elaborated below I think line 5 should stand and line 4 be cut. Now one thing Mays says about these lines is clearly right: 'it should be emphasised that they were not written for other eyes than his own.' They were scribbled in his notebook, and then thoroughly crossed out. He never published them. Writing in Greek would not obscure their meaning from Wordsworth, should that individual ever stumble upon them, but might, I suppose, hide them from Wordsworth's wife Mary and her sister Sara Hutchinson, which might have been more on Coleridge's mind.

And in that trio of William, Mary and Sara is, surely, the 'key' to the riddle: yet another anguished, or angry, textual meditation on THE EPOCH of December 1806, when it seems Coleridge had stumbled in upon Sara Hutchinson naked in bed with her sister's husband, Wordsworth. Sometimes, in his Notebooks, STC tries to persuade himself that what he saw was only a phantasm, a projection of his envious and opium-addled mind. Then again, at other times he seems clear enough that he saw what he saw. In this 'ριδδελ', his punning wordplay mimics the oppressive intimacy of adulterous-incest that a Wordsworth-Sara affair would mean for him, hopelessly in love with Sara as he remained. 'Wife sister husband' is surely Mary, Sara and William, with Sara significantly 'coming between' wife and husband; as she does again when the trio is reversed 'husband sister wife'. By sleeping with his wife's sister William is in effect sleeping with his own sister. 'Gynandrous' is a hermaphroditism that frontloads the female element; the two women and the one man melding in Coleridge's imagination into a single, monstrous sexual entity.

As for the 'riddle' itself: well, we can work backwards to that. Its solution is 'Tri-bad is ... success', which we can read on several levels. One obvious one would be: this threesome is triply bad, or tri-bad. I'm not suggesting that STC was speculating that Mary and Sara were having sex with one another (although, obviously, who knows): my sense is the fact that William was sleeping with both sisters would be enough for Coleridge to taint the whole arrangement as adulterous-incestuous.

Then again, the word 'tribade' has a particular sexual meaning. It mainly, though not exclusively, refers to non-penetrative sexual frottage between two women, a term derived from the Ancient Greek τρίβω ‎(tríbō, “to rub”). Martial's poem about an aggressive lesbian called Philaenis (Martial 7:67; here's Gillian Spraggs's salty translation) opens: 'Philaenis the tribade buggers boys/And randier than any married man/she eats-out eleven girls a day.' Now, Martial is mocking Philaenis in this poem; he finds it cruelly hilarious that her butch lesbian aspirations, her filling her life with such masculine activities as lifting weights at the gym and wrestling, are all undermined by the fact that what she really likes doing is performing cunnilingus on women.

Anyway: the word 'tribade' usually refers to girl-on-girl non-penetrative sexual play. It's an indecent term, of course, associated with pornography (for example: 1797's La jolie tribade ou confessions d'une jeune fille, a splendid example of a scrofulous French novel) or satire, as when Ben Jonson mocks the Muses as the 'tribade trine', or Lesbian trio (Jonson The Forest (1616) section 10). The reference to 'Adelphan Greek' presumably picks up on the fact that, by marriage, Wordsworth was now Sara's brother (Greek: ἀδελφός, brother). But I think Coleridge tried this line, with its odd transliteration of success as συκσεϛ (shouldn't it be 'συκσεσϛ'? Compare the double-d of ριδδελ), saw that the play-on-words didn't quite work, and rewrote it. And then crossed everything out, ashamed at his own dirty mind.

In other words, I'm guessing the unspoken 'riddle' is something like: 'if Wordsworth and Sara are having sex, how is it that she has not fallen pregnant?' And the answer that Coleridge proposes, based either on his fevered imagination, or else conceivably on what he saw that morning on December 1806 when he stumbled in on the two of them in bed, is: because the sex they are having is not penetrative. It is tribadal, a matter of rubbing, frotting and cunnilingus; and when he says such sex 'can ne'er succeed' he means succeed in the sense of resulting in a baby. Now if we're mentioning cunnilingus, we might also say: 'perhaps fellatio too', and, who knows, perhaps that took place. But if Martial 7:67 is an intertext here, as it probably is, then fellatio is off the table. Martial's tribade Philaenis absolutely refuses to suck cocks, because she considers doing so to be unmanly: 'non fellat, putat hoc parum virile'. The next line, though, assures us that though she doesn't fellate men, she greedily devours the privates of young girls ('sed plane medias vorat puellas'). Might this be both the 'solution' to Coleridge's riddle and the point of the pun in its last line? Is it Wordsworth who is the 'Gynandrian', the 'woman-man', because he goes down on Sara, rather than the other way about?—their incest is defined as 'tribade' because, like Philaenis, these sorts of women are the sort 'that ne'er suck seed', or fellate men. Maybe that's why Coleridge deleted the final line's συκσεϛ and replaced it with the more double-entendre-ish συκσηδ.

I'd go further, and suggest that what we actually have here, obscured by the guilty-at-how-transgressive-a-poem-he-had-written mass crossing-out, is a draft that reads
Wife sister husband—husband sister wife
Gynandrian incest's union, nature's strife
Solution of the riddle thou to seek
Tri-bad is ... success,Adelphan Greek.
Tri-bad/That ne'er succeed!
and which in turn was on its way to a hypothetical finished form that might have looked something like this:
Wife sister husband—husband sister wife
Gynandrian incest's union, nature's strife
Solution of the riddle thou to read:
Tri-bad success, the sort that ne'er sucks-seed!

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