Sunday, 3 September 2017


It seems to me that Coleridge is a major poet. That probably doesn't look like a very radical thing to claim, but it is, I think, harder than it might otherwise be to ground. In the introduction to his 1966 anthology, 19th-Century British Minor Poets, Auden proposed four tests for being a ‘major poet’: write a lot; show a wide range of subject matter; exhibit an originality of style and vision; and manifest a style and vision that mature over the course of a career. Of those four, Coleridge is really only described accurately by the third. He did write a lot, but by bulk the overwhelming majority of his output is either derivative, manifestly minor, or else unfinished flotsam and jetsam, oddments and doodles and fragments. His choice of subject matter was not wide, and we can only talk of his style ‘maturing’ if basically giving up writing finished verse counts as maturing. I'm only speaking for myself, of course, but STC's poetic oeuvre divides into a large tranche of stuff I'd be happy discarding, a smaller tranche of stuff that's interesting, or suggestive, or worth persevering with—as opposed to actually good—and a thin sliver of output that stands with the best poetry I have read, in any language. A couple of the Conversation poems, and some shorter pieces for which I have deep affection, are inarguably very good writing. I know it speaks profoundly to some, but I've always had a take-it-or-leave-it relationship with Christabel, though it certainly has its moments. But Ancient Mariner is a masterpiece by any standard, and ‘Kubla Khan’ is simply one of the greatest short poems ever written. Tom Stoppard once said that when he read Eliot's ‘Prufrock’ he felt as he imagined the diabetic patient did as the insulin went in. ‘Kubla Khan’ has that effect on me. It's as close to flawless as any poem I know.

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine, who happens to be a Professor of Drama, about the relative merits of Shaw and Wilde. I suggested that Shaw was the better playwright, because he wrote so widely, and did so many interesting things with the form of the play. My friend pooh-poohed me: Shaw was good, he said, but Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, and that, he said, is perfect. But isn't that, I countered, like saying that The La's are a better band than The Beatles because ‘There She Goes’ is so perfect a pop song? He wasn't convinced. And now I find myself arguing the counter case. Am I really justified in claiming Coleridge as a major poet on the strength of a few really good, one great longer and one perfect short poem?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Cameron's Christabel (1866)

This is Julia Margaret Cameron's famous photograph (more precisely: it's an albumen silver print from a glass negative) of Coleridge's 'Christabel'. The model is Cameron's own niece, May Prinsep, who quite a bit later became Alfred Tennyson's son Hallam's second wife. The image is from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has, rather sportingly, made 325,000 of its artworks and images available online free of copyright, for anybody to download, reproduce, remix and share. The Met reckons the image is supposed to show Christabel before her 'corruption' by Geraldine. I have my doubts about that. Eye of the beholder, I suppose.

Things I like about this image include: its straightforwardness, the blankness of Prinsep's expression, the aesthetic balance of its lit top-left and shadowy bottom-right, the way this pulls into sharper focus the triangular shape formed by the hair, framing the face. It is a reticent image, which suits its source text, since whatever else it is, 'Christabel' is a poem that refuses to disclose the secret in its heart, and has managed to keep that secret for two centuries now. Cameron's photo makes a rather refreshing change from the more outré images that latter day sensibilities have tended to supply when illustrating what people like to call 'the Prototypical Lesbian Vampire Story'. I mean this sort of thing:

I don't mean to hate-on that image, but it seems to me to misunderstand something crucial about sexual allure—to miss, that is, the way desire tends to fasten on what is withheld rather than what is conspicuously proffered. The way desire is always, to an extent, perverse, in the sense that it grounds itself in the hidden and taboo and strange. This image, we might say, understands that desire is perverse, but wears the semiotics of its transgression all on the surface, almost as if it wants to placate perversity, to get it out of the way, so that we can get on with the clean healthy fucking. Coleridge's poem doesn't present desire that way.

Prinsep, in Cameron's photo, looks young because she was young: she had just turned thirteen when the image was taken. And if her expression is, shall we say, unforthcoming then that is part of the logic of (to use an anachronistic term) teenagerdom. But it works beautifully for this image. I'm not denying that 'Christabel' is a poem about awakening sexuality and same-sex desire and transgression and all that; and I have no problem with Queer appropriation of the text as a ground for the uninhibited performance and display of gay identity. But the poem itself is much more ambiguous than this, and not only because it is unfinished. It is a work that says: sex, especially when we first become aware of it as a force in our lives, is as much a secret inwardness as a mode of outward being-in-the-world. Sex is something structurally 'about' connecting with other people, of course, but it comes into our adolescent existence in the first case as something that seals us away from other people, something difficult, balanced between thrilling and alarming, a mode of possibility that is also a mode of guilty frustration. Sexual desire, at the beginning, is a mode of truancy from family and society.

Coleridge's poem dramatises that through Christabel's secrecy and its flavours of shame, deceit and disguise: creeping around outside after dark, bringing Geraldine back to her bed without her father knowing and so on. Cameron's photo, I think, internalises that drama (for many adolescents, because sex starts as fantasy unanchored to experience, such fantasy tends to veer into unrealistic directions, more melodramatic and wild and Goth than 'real life'), and Prinsep's expression, her lack of affective engagement with the camera, neatly captures a sense of something occluded. Compare, for example, this image from 1870, again by Cameron. Here Prinsep is seventeen, but she is now inhabiting her sense of own physical allure, and it generates a completely different vibe.

Or, from four years later, 'Elaine the Lily maid of Astolat' (from Tennyson's Idylls, of course), where a killing wistfulness and posed conventionalised longing has entered the composition:

Better by far is the cool blankness of the thirteen-year-old Prinsep's gaze. That gets at something really crucial in Coleridge's text.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Lyrical Ballads: Reunion Tour

A pendant to yesterday's post from the pen of the mighty @keatsandchapman, reproduced here by kind permission. It may be the greatest work of art of the modern age. I particularly like the expression on Sam's face. And the 'Eddie' T-shirt is a masterstroke. On the constitution of ROCK! and ROLL! according to the idea of each.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

"It is an Ancient Mariner/And he ROCK!-eth one of three ..."

At over thirteen minutes this was, until recently, the longest song in Iron Maiden's repertoire. I'll confess I was never as big a Maiden fan as some of my schoolfriends (Powerslave was released in 1984 man! nineteen eighty four! over thirty years ago!), but there was no escaping them during my adolescence. And on this track they do the proper Sam 'Metal' Coleridge thing.

It's splendid, in its way:—I mean, as an example of its type. I can hardly say that without it sounding condescending, but I don't mean it like that. There are, of course, very evident differences between Coleridge's poem and this song, and not just in the trivial sense that 'the rock song' is a different mode to 'the poem'. Some rock songs capture the sense of a given poem pretty well, after all. This one, though, mismatches Coleridge's original almost completely. It is rapid (it is long, but it is still rapid), urgent, kinetic, driven. Like all Maiden's music it aspires to the condition of violence: noisy, punchy, thrashy, always plunging into the fray. Coleridge's poem is none of these things, with the possible exception of 'violent', and where that is concerned its mode of violence is radically different to Steve Harris's aesthetic understanding of the term. Coleridge is more interested in the obstacles to the mariner than in the mariner's progress; Maiden are more interested in the full-tilt hurtling on-and-on-and-on than in anything that might try to get in its way. Even the song's second section, its tempo slowed almost to languidness, is underlaid by an insistent march of guitar arpeggio triplets. We could put it this way: Iron Maiden, like all rock bands, work to the beat of the hammer on the anvil; Coleridge's poem works like the pull and draw of the oar in the water.

I'm not suggesting the Maiden version is prosodically simple. Actually, it's not. For one thing, this song is in four sections each marked by a different time signature: 4/4, 12/8, 16/8 and 2/4 (the song also varies markedly in tempo from section to section). And the time signature is only half the story. Take, for instance, the opening lines. Coleridge's original is an essentially iambic ballad meter modified with occasional extra unstressed syllables, for that 'Percy's Reliques' authentic roughness:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?' [1-4]
The doubled-unstressed ending to 'mariner' in line 1 makes for an effective dying fall; where the doubled-unstressed 'and he' starting the next line is like somebody inserting an extra step in their stride to catch-up a more rapidly walking companion. Both together neatly, and understatedly, generate a sense of marine ebb and swell, something perfectly matching the larger logic of the poem. These oaring iambs run steadily through the whole poem, such that when Coleridge varies them, for instance by swapping out iambs for trochees ...
Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sail'd softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew. [461-4]
... he reverts directly back to a standard iambic trimeter in the alternating lines (twice, here) to anchor the divergence from the norm. Coleridge's metrical variations, in other words, are there not only to create the ambiance of an old English ballad, but also to generate a vibe of prosodic flow and eddy.

Iron Maiden's version of the same story is much more prosodically programmatic, driven by Nicko McBrain's bang-CRASH!-bang-CRASH! drumming. I notate the first section 4/4, but it could equally well be notated 2/4: a long string of short, rapid, repeated rhythmic elements aggregating into a solid piece of musical momentum. What's interesting is the way the melody and the lead guitar work against the grain of this base-four rhythm with a series of triplet guitar fills and a vocal line that re-casts Coleridge's original text into anapests:
Hear the rime of the ancient mariner
See his eye as he stops one of three
Mesmerises one of the wedding guests
Stay here and listen to the nightmares of the sea.

And the music plays on, as the bride passes by
Caught by his spell and the mariner tells his tale.

Driven south to the land of the snow and ice
To a place where nobody's been ...
and so on. It's a teachable moment, actually, prosodically-speaking. That first line, for instance, swaps out a spondee for one of its anapests, after the venerable Classical rules that permit such exchanges: 'Hĕar thĕ ríme // ŏf thĕ án // ciént má // ĭnĕr [X] // Sĕe hĭs éye // ăs hĕ stóps // ŏne ŏf thrée ...'  Looking at it written down, we might expect the first word, 'Hear', to be a stressed syllable; but when you listen you realise that's not the way Dickinson actually sings it. All this is underscored by the duh-duh-DUM-duh-duh-DUM galloping-anapestic rhythm laid down by Adrian Smith's Jackson Dinky.

What this does is counterpoint a basically (and rapidly) triadic melodic and musical pattern against a basically foresquare underlying beat, which in turn makes for a wealth of interesting rhythmic creative tensions and localised moments. Add in the positively albatrossic soaring-swooping Dave Murray solo (it begins at 9:15), and the various charming-ungainly grace-notes, such as Dickinson pronouncing 'shrives' wrong ('And the hermit shreeves the mariner of his sins') and we have a winner:
And the wedding guest's a sad and wiser man
And the tale goes on and on and on.
And on, and on.

If there's a more serious point in amongst all this (and why can't we take rock and roll as serious, anyway?) it would be the larger contrast, something which points to two quite different aesthetics. We might put it this way: Coleridge's poetry, as poetry, is more death-drive, always looking for excuses to stop itself; Maiden's music, like all rock, is much more libido, always looking for excuses to keep thundering on. And on. And on.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

'Nonsense' (1806?)

This six-line poem was written in one of Coleridge's notebooks from the 1806-07 period; that is, after his return from Malta, and during the renewal of his hopeless passion for 'Asra', Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth's unmarried sister-in-law. It's possible, though not provable, that the 'holy Place' mentioned in line 2 is Coleorton Hall and its beautiful grounds, where Coleridge stayed for a time. The owner of the hall, Sir George Beaumont, was a friend and patron of Wordsworth, and had invited the poet to live there (in fact Wordsworth, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy and Sara stayed at Coleorton Hall Farm, half a mile or so to the west of the house itself). Coleridge and his young son Hartley joined the party for Christmas and New Year, 1806-07. If that's when this little notebook-jotting was written, then it dates from the same period of the 'EPOCH' that shook Coleridge so profoundly, and about which you can read here (though presumably, given its content, this poem was written before the 'EPOCH' itself). Here's the poem:
O Sara! never rashly let me go
Beyond the precincts of this holy Place,
Where streams as pure as in Elysium flow
And flowrets view reflected Grace,
What tho in vain the melted Metals glow,
We die, and dying own a more than mortal love.
Richard Holmes is certain this poem is 'about his physical desire for Asra'. 'The image of pure "streams",' he says, rather bafflingly, 'contrasted with "melted Metals" has an evident sexual connotation'. [Holmes (ed) Coleridge: Selected Poetry (Penguin 1996), 323]. Is 'pure stream' really a sexual symbol? Is 'molten metal'? We might be on surer ground picking out the implied intimate embrace of 'never let me go' in line 1, or discoursing on the double-entendre of to die from line 6. Then again, STC did write in his notebook that, during the visit to Coleorton, his love for Asra was 'like a Volcano beneath a sea always burning, tho' in silence' [Notebooks 2:2984]. Striking image, that, and perhaps related.

We can certainly construe, with minimal effort, a more-or-less conventional love-poem out of all this: the speaker begs his lover never to permit him to leave this Eden, where flowers growing beside a crystal stream view her image reflected in it: Sara's face as she gazes at her own reflection: Grace itself. The 'melted metals' are a little harder to fit into this reading (something to do with the volcanic heat of the speaker's passion, maybe, a contaminant or scorching danger) which leads to the piety of the last line. Maybe.

Coleridge gave this little poem a title: 'Nonsense'. It was one of a series of several dozen notebook poems grouped together by Mays as 'metrical experiments', many of which are accompanied by the notebook by schemes of scansion and discussions of metres. So maybe a better way to read this poem is to concentrate less on its content and more on its wordplay and palindromic form. Take the first line: "O Sara! never rashly let me go" starts and ends with 'O'; 'Sara nev[a] Ras-' balances Sara's name forward and backward in a kind of sonic palindrome. The line could almost be written out as a rhyming poem in its own rhyming abbcca:
Let me
Word leads into word: 'flow' becomes 'flowrets'; the 'ret' element of the latter word expands into 'reflected'; 'melted' becomes its near-anagram 'metals'; 'die and' slips into 'dying', 'more than' leads to 'mortal'. In other words, this is a poem in which words melt into other words, sound flowing on and something, palindromically, flowing back. Hence: streams, reflections, 'melted metals'. Hence all the rhymes, both in their conventional places at the end of the lines but also all along the lines too. The neat thing about this is that the poem ends when the rhyme-patterning is broken for the first time, by that most freighted of words, 'love', which rhymes with nothing. Words and names melt and flow under the volcanic heat of unsatisfied desire. Sense, common and marital, melts and burns into the non-sense of this impossible love. And this reading, if I'm right about the place of composition, provides us a possible germ for the whole thing: Coleridge at Coleorton.