Sunday, 4 March 2018

Notebook Scatology


One of the (many) things Coleridge used his notebooks for was jotting down obscenity. He loved playing with ruderies of various kinds, and was fascinated by ribald, off-colour, scatological or sexual observations. Or at least, he was fascinated with these things in the decent privacy of writing never intended for publication. In public, his respectable morality shaded into something more like actual prudishness. Read, for example, the ‘Critique of Bertram’ included as Chapter 23 of the Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he clutches his pearls at the way Maturin's play portrays adultery not as deplorable moral turpitude but rather in terms of a tragically-doomed and heroic love affair: ‘O! the mingled horror and disgust with which I witnessed it’, he gasps. ‘The very fact then present to our senses, that a British audience could remain passive under such an insult to common decency, nay, receive with a thunder of applause, a human being supposed to have come reeking from the consummation of this complex foulness and baseness, these and the like reflections so pressed as with the weight of lead upon my heart...’ And so on. In the private textual spaces of his notebooks, though, he permitted himself much more licence.

What follows is not a comprehensive survey of such moments: that would take a very long time. But it is a more or less representative sample, assembled in order, in part 2 of this blogpost, to make a larger and, I think, important point about Coleridge's imagination.

I've already blogged about the four-line poem Coleridge wrote in 1809 on the topic of tribadism, or sexual frottage, which (I speculate) was provoked by his jealous suspicion that Wordsworth was, in addition to his wife, also sleeping with his wife's sister Sara Hutchinson, whom Coleridge himself loved with a desperate, unreciprocated love. My take was that Coleridge doodled some rather bitter verse about his hurt feelings, speculating that Wordsworth and Sara were engaged in mutual sexual rubbing and cunnilingus (to avoid the risk of pregnancy), writing in English but using the Greek alphabet to disguise what he was doing:
Oυῑφ σιστηρ ὕσβανδ—ὕσβανδ σιστηρ oυῑφ
Γυνανδριαν ἰνσεστ ὕνιον, νατυρς στρεῑφ.
Σολυτιον ὀφ θέ ριδδελ θοῦ το σηκ
Tρι-βαδ ἰς συκσες … θάτ νῆρ συκσηδ!

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!
(The reason my transliteration differs in minor ways from the Greek is explained at the link to the original post) In this case, Coleridge hides an English poem behind the obscurity of the Greek alphabet. In other cases, he cloaked his rudery in Latin. In both cases the assumption is that a person who has acquired enough Classical education to be able to understand the obscenity would have sufficient character not to be corrupted by it: a belief, howsoever odd, common enough in the nineteenth-century, marinated as that era was in both classism and sexism. The Loeb Greek library used to have a policy where editors would translate everything into facing-page English except for material deemed obscene, which would be translated into Latin. And talking of Latin, here's a four line poem of Coleridge's own, from 1811 or 1812:
Infelix, ah plusquam infelicissimus Ille,
Semivir in thalamum qui duxit Sesqui-puellam,
Mutumque ossitiens, tantique voraginem hiatüs
Vix rigidi tubuli lacrymoso röre lacessit! [Notebooks 4108]

Unlucky, ah more than unlucky he,
That half-man who beds a woman half-as-much again,
And into her silent, thirsty, wide-open cavern
Weeps a little dew from his tiny, rigid tube.
Kathleen Coburn thinks this is about John Morgan, the diminutive friend with whom Coleridge lived for several years in the eighteen-teens and who sometimes acted as amanuensis. Did Morgan (married, but perhaps not faithful to his rather dominating wife) confess sexual incapacity, perhaps aspermia or premature ejaculation or maybe a less specific erotic inadequacy, with a larger, enthusiastic but unsatisfied woman? Coburn speculates whether ‘the relationship’ between Morgan and Coleridge ‘was a more sympathetic and important one than our ignorance of John Morgan's life has allowed us to surmise’. Maybe so.

Here are two jokes about bodily functions that amused Coleridge enough in 1810 for him to jot them down.
The one advantage of p—— one's breeches.
   The two Judges on Horseback in a hard rain—Nares proposed to dismount, micturus—the other told him—to keep his seat &c—You can't be wetter, and you may be warmer.—
   The crooked Lady whose crepitus had all the effect of a french horn—the same that swallowed a nail, & it came out a cork-screw. [Notebooks, 3942]
Nares is George Nares, a once-famous judge. The old joke about the crooked lady has lasted into the modern age. Field Marshall Gerald Templer once told Lord Mountbatten, ‘Dickie, you're so crooked that if you ate a nail you'd shit a corkscrew’.

Talking of shitting, here's a four-line poem about flies and merde:
Sit alba, sit fusca
(Ni res est absurda)
Quod fuit Merda in Muscă
Jacet Merda in Merdà
Tricky to translate and preserve the joke. The notebook entry of which this poem is a part [Notebooks 4:4710] includes jocular speculation on what it calls the ‘grave’ problem of whether the uptake of excrement by shit-eating flies is equalled by the shit those same flies excrete—we might translate: ‘whether white or black-dye/(Unless it's absurd)/What was shit in the fly/Lies as turd in-turd’. And here is a little doodle from 1817.

The Greek means ‘old woman who collects things’; as does the Latin. It was a usage noted by Heyschius and other grammarians, and is cited, with its Latin equivalent, in lots of places, so we can't be sure where Coleridge chanced upon it. Here it is, for example, in the notes to a contemporary (to Coleridge) edition of Aulus Gellius:

Coburn thinks that little doodle is a broom (I suppose she's thinking of an old woman sweeping lots of things into one heap). I don't think it's a broom. My imagination lives more in the gutter than Coburn's, evidently. You see, whilst anus does mean old woman, it also means ... well, anus. And I think Coleridge was tickled at the idea of a collecting, rather than emitting, arsehole, which he has sketched there at the end of that little crease.

And here, from August 1811, is a bit of fake Homer on the topic of Achilles taking a dump.
Achillis cӕna hesterna,
distichon nunc primo a MSS. omnium Codicum homericarum aperte vetustissimo

Πώγον υποκτείνων πετρας ἀπο σκληροκιρυγδοῦς
שλιששλoשιται Aχιλεύς φλoשβoש ἐπί ρωoριμoίo  [Notebooks, 4102]
The first bit in Latin, there, means ‘Achilles's Yesterday's Meal: a distich, now first printed from what is evidently the oldest of all Homeric codices’. πώγων, the first word of the Greek, means ‘beard’, but was also used, for instance by Aristophanes, to refer to the hairy pubic area—here, it clearly means arse. Also: the second line of the Greek incorporates the Hebrew letter shin, a ‘sh’ sound, into two of its words. This gives us:
Extending his arse beyond the hard rock
Achilles hurriedly shlishshlosh-es over the floshbosh
[I'm not sure about ρωoριμoίo, but presume its a variant of ῥώoμαί, ‘to move with speed’; Coburn's transcription has ρωαριμoίo, which so far as I can see isn't any kind of word, and which I'm assuming is a slip]. What I find particularly interesting here is the way the excremental expresses what is, surely, a grammatological point of entry: because the Greek alphabet has no sh sound, which makes it hard to write suitably onomatopoeic verse in Greek about shitting into rivers. Conceivably Coleridge is even toying with the idea that very early Greek, Graecus primus, had such a letter, perhaps akin to the Hebrew ש, but that like the digamma it disappeared. What gives this an interesting extra layer is that ש was one Coleridge's ciphers for Sarah Hutchinson, his Asra (SH, you see). And that's not an arbitrary reference either, I think.


At this point, in a manner more or less, and I daresay less, likely to convince you, I aim to turn this blogpost around. Because the more of these examples I pile up from the notebooks (and there are very many more), the less I see it as merely lavatorial humour, or occasional ribaldry, and the more I find myself thinking we're touching on something quite profound and important to Coleridge's poetic and philosophical imagination. That looks unlikely, I concede; but bear with me for a moment and I'll try to argue the case.

I'm going to segue into my larger point with two more notebook entries, neither of them merely jokey. Here is Coleridge considering a bowl of piss:
What a beautiful Thing Urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous, the Image, diamond shaped of the of the [sic] Candle in it, especially, as it now appeared, I having emptied the Snuffers into it, & the Snuff floating about, & painting all-shaped Shadows on the Bottom. [Dec. 1803, Notebooks 1:1766]
This is the very essence of the Coleridgean notebooks, and one of the things aficionados love about them (Seamus Perry calls the notebooks ‘the unacknowledged prose masterpiece of the age ... a work, by turns, of philosophical profundity, descriptive beauty, verbal brilliance and human comedy—and sometimes tragicomedy, and sometimes tragedy’, and I agree with him). That STC could spin such a beautifully vivid and expressive paragraph about something so apparently unpromising as the contents of his pisspot seems to me a marvellous thing. It might have been merely pretentious, but somehow it isn't: rather it reverts our attention back onto something we have been acculturated to consider abject and untouchable to bring out its aureate loveliness.

Transpicuous means transparent, but Coleridge is surely thinking of Milton (‘that light/Sent from her through the wide transpicuous air,/To the terrestrial Moon to be as a star’, Paradise Lost 8:140-142), which positions the piss less as a fluid and more as a medium, as, indeed, a kind of lens through which we see certain things more clearly. It is a candlelit colour, warm and precious, and those little slips of the pen (‘the of the’) run the risk of distracting us from how exquisitely this little section of prose plays with language. At the risk of sounding like Malvolio pulling the cs, us and ts from his lady's letter: look at how prolific this passage is with ‘p’s and ‘i’s and ‘s’s of piss: pot, appeared, painting, is-in-in-it-it-I-into-it, transspicuous shaped especially as snuffers snuff shaped shadows. Or again, look how rapidly Coleridge's imagination skips from association to association in what amounts to a chain of Latin punnery, consciously framed as such or otherwise: urine in Latin is urina; pot in Latin urna; burnt-colour (brown, yellow) uro; ‘to plunge into water’, like a diver (or like an dicarded snuffer) is urino. And shadow (umbra) isn't that far away. Coleridge isn't piddling around here: he is shaping a verbal text that captures beauty in the unmentionable, the discarded, the impolite.

And finally here is a notebook entry from a few years later, about a hawk in flight: unpublished in Coleridge's lifetime, but to me a piece worthy to stand with Shelley's ‘To A Skylark’:
The soil that fell from the Hawk poised at the extreme boundary of Sight thro' a column of sunshine—a falling star, a gem, the fixation, & chrystal, of substantial Light, again dissolving & elongating like a liquid Drop—how altogether lovely this is to the Eye, and to the Mind too while it remained its own self, all & only its very Self—. What a wretched Frenchman would not he be, who could shout out—charming Hawk's Turd!—[Sept 1808; Notebooks, 3:3401]
This seems to me gorgeous writing, but I have to concede those critics who have deigned to notice it haven't taken it so seriously as I do. John Worthen, for instance, notes the ‘rapturous’ tone of the paragraph, but swiftly qualifies his judgement: Coleridge, he says, ‘also knew such language teetered on the edge of absurdity’ [Worthen, The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Cambridge Univ Press 2010), 76]. I'm not sure he did know that, because I'm not sure that such language does, actually. 'Frenchman' is a generic insult, of course; but the entry is saying: don't be that Frenchman. Delight in the hawk's turd! It is, in its own specific way, a miracle of flight (turdus in Latin is a variety of bird—it means thrush, of course); and as such becomes a rebus for the spiritually transcendent beauty of all created things, poetry not the least. This particular notebook entry continues:
O many, many are the seeings, hearings & tactual Impressions of pure Love, that have a Being of their own—& to call them by the names of things unsouled and debased below even their own lowest nature by Associations accidental, and of vicious accidents, is blasphemy—What seest thou yonder? X.—The lovely countenance of a lovely Maiden, fervid yet awe-suffering, with devotion—her face resigned to Bliss or Bale, &c &c.—Y. A Bit of Flesh.
That which cannot be seen unless by him whose very seeing is more than an act of mere sight. ... The Polyclete that created the Ἀφροδίτη Καλλίπυγος thought in acts, not words—energy divinely languageless—(ο λογος εκ θεῳ και συν θεῳ θεος)—δια τον Λογον, oυ συν επεσι—thro' the word, not with words.
The Greek glosses the famous Johannine phrase, and means ‘the word from God and with God, God—via the Word not with words’. Nor is it irrelevant that it is the famous sculpture ‘Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks’ (‘Aphrodite Cute-Arse’) that enters into Coleridge's thought as an embodiment of the expression of non-verbal beauty: this sexualised bottom balances the implied functional shitting bottom, as a way of dignifying sexual desire and bodily functions, rather than dragging classical sculpture into the gutter. This is not the edge of any absurdity, unless we want to expand that word to encompass the leap of faith as such. It is Coleridge saying that the dropping turd of the hawk in flight is beautiful, as the backside of Aphrodite is beautiful: transcendentally so. To treat it as vulgar, either for comic or lustful purposes, is actually blasphemous. This, to appropriate Blake's famous phrase, is Coleridge seeing Heaven in a grain of shit.

Coleridge's notional interlocutors, X and Y, do not see the same thing when they see a woman. For the latter she is only flesh to be lusted over; but the former really sees her, sees her for what she is, and that means he sees that something spiritually fine has been erected out of a universally excremental material. Dickens, a generation later, makes a similar play with the word dust: the ‘dust-heaps’ that are the source of the Boffins' fortune in Our Mutual Friend are collections of all the rubbish of London, and contain waste matter wet as well as dry, faecal as well as functional (indeed, the ‘night soil’ men of London made good money repurposing human and animal shit as fertilizer; for though not every crop can be safely grown in the former waste, some, like tomatoes, can). Behind the social reportage of an actual feature of 19th-century London life is a spiritual insight, as is often the case with Dickens. In this case, the whole novel is haunted by one of the most famous of Biblical verse: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. We may sanitize this mortal verse (Genesis 3:19) by thinking of something powdery and dry, but human corruption is rather wetter than drier, rather more excremental than powdery—and so, after all, is human conception. We don't produce a clean dry pollen like the plants of the field, after all. Indeed, whilst I'm no connoisseur of modern porn (I know: they all say that ...) I've often been struck that one of the most pathological aspects of that ubiquitous form of contemporary cultural production is now weirdly clean it all is: how washed and buffed, how depilated and teeth-bleached and plastic the players all are; how all human dirtiness and shoddiness and ordinary inadequacy has been banished from the whole performance. In that, Coleridge's X and Y mini-conversation seems to me still to have real relevance.

I don't want to stray from the Coleridgean point, for I do think these sorts of questions genuinely engaged him. Read his autobiography, and you can't help but be struck by how much grief his own bowels gave him. Severe constipation is one of the side-effects of opium (that is, heroin) addiction, and STC often had to endure what he understandably enough saw as the demeaning indignity of repeated enemas: clyster pipes inserted into his anus by an old female nurse (it would take a more disciplined critic than I to hold back from mentioning the anus collectrix here) for the purpose of forcably irrigating out his compacted shit.

For STC constipation was more than a mere physical inconvenience. He took it as symptomatic of a more *clears throat* fundamental spiritual problem: a blockage of the soul, an inability to work through and move healthfully on in his life and his work that Coleridge autodiagnosed as a pathology of the will. Being helpless in the grip of opium addiction will tend to do that to a person, I suppose. Nowadays we are less inclined to blame addicts. But Coleridge certainly blamed himself, vehemently and often self-laceratingly. In July 1808, prompted by stabbing stomach pains from a prolonged constipated episode so severe that he actually thought he might die, he wrote in his notebook: ‘O misery! when the occasion of premature Death is that which makes Death terrible! Savage Stab! that transpierces at once Health and Conscience! Body and Spirit!—ΩΠΜ’ [Notebooks, 3:3352] Those last three Greek letters, that Oh, Pee, Em, indicate the root of the issue. A drug like heroin takes away the shittiness of the world, and therein lies precisely its problem. That it takes away the actual, normal passage of excrement is almost too apposite.

Here, I think, we touch upon one of the great, if almost entirely overlooked, themes of Coleridge's intellectual and imaginative life. A book like Edward Kessler's Coleridge's Metaphor's of Being (Princeton Univ. Press 1979) does solid critical work isolating a series of focus-points for Coleridge's core poetic ideas: what Kessler calls ‘the Eddy-Rose’ (a sort of composite metaphor that combines eddies, whirlpools and the like with the patterns of petals of a beautiful flower); phantom life; Limbo and so on. But Kessler doesn't talk about the turd, in part because respectable published-in-his-lifetime Coleridge, critic and poet, doesn't bring turds into his work very often. But the notebooks are full of it, and as metaphors of being go it is, I think, hugely important. I understand why critics have generally avoided writing about it; but it does seem to me distorting.

The whole process of eating, drawing sustenance, and shitting out waste is an organic through-line that iterates the dream of health, both physical and more importantly spiritual, as far as Coleridge is concerned. His greatest poetic achievements are potent dramatisations of the breakdown of that healthful flow. The subterranean river in ‘Kubla Khan’ flows not out into the open ocean, but round and down in a turbid eddy that loses itself somewhere hidden and sunless. The Ancient Mariner's cursed, blocked voyage replicates a whole string of nightmare-death-in-life constipations (until, at least, a mystic Christian blessedness and forgiveness intervene: but even there the Mariner is caught in a recurring cycle of obsessive-compulsive retellings of his tale). ‘Christabel’ can't even (if you'll excuse me) shit out its own ending, so trapped it is in its recirculation of blocked and morbid desire. For Coleridge, shit, like the beauteous airborne turd of the flying falcon, is a symbol of health, of through-flow and freedom.

American critic Alan Jacobs has coined the phrase “excresacramental” for a particular sort of art, a Swiftian cacography that articulates not only the expressivity but actually the holiness of the abject-physical. From the point of view of the Incarnation, God becoming man is not God becoming the bizarrely soap-washed, clean-linen, dazzling-bleached-smile icon of modern cleanliness that many images of Jesus peddle to modern-day believers, complete with cleaner-than-clean halo shine, like the gleam of newly rinsed glasses in the dishwasher. It is, rather, the non-material taking on flesh and all that flesh is heir to. It is God becoming dust, wet and foul-smelling as well as dry and smoky. The point is, as Coleridge might say, that unless you can truly see that the hawk shitting its load into a sunbeam is as beautiful and holy an image as the white dove flying over blue waters beneath a new rainbow, then you haven't actually seen what beauty in the world fully means. The paraclete is also un(para)clean. For Coleridge, an apprehension of that place where religious transcendence, pure love, sexual desire (for instance, desire for a well shaped set of buttocks) and the healthy bowel-movement all express one another is not a satirical denigration of love: there's nothing of Swift's ‘Celia Celia Celia shits’ horror in STC's writing. Rather it is a strangely, unusually, wonderfully expressive epitome of the central mystery of a genuinely religious writer: the spiritualisation of matter, the materialisation of spirit. Samuel Taylor Kakaleridge.


  1. Alternatives to "American" as adjectival to me:

    - Anglican
    - Texan
    - Brilliant
    - Excremental
    - Soi-disant
    - Perichoretic
    - Big-ass

  2. "What a wretched Frenchman would not be be" - shouldn't that read "What a wretched Frenchman would not be he"?

    1. Good catch! Yes, thanks: amended now.