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.

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