Saturday, 29 September 2018

Untraced Quotation from Coleridge Notebooks, 1797

Notebooks 1:303 is a bit of Latin:
ingenium ei esse oppido magnum sed contumacius quam ut arte regi posset; dictionem ingenio parem, animosam, et imamoenam tragice que ferulem.
Kathleen Coburn translates this, although she doesn't quite get it right: ‘[that] town has a great genius, but more insolent than could be commanded by art—a style equal to genius, proud, gloomy, and tragically dangerous.’ In fact, for reasons that will become clear, oppidum can't mean town here, but must be a way of saying something like ‘edifice, construction’, or more likely ‘assemblage, collection’. I offer my translation of the Latin at the end of this blogpost.

Coburn can't identify where it's from. In fact it is Famiano Strada, a seventeenth-century Roman Jesuit, and he's talking not about any city but about the poet Lucan and his epic poem of Roman civil war the Pharsalia. The Latin is originally from Strada's Eloquentia bipartita (1655), [p.368 in fact] but that's not where Coleridge came across it. We can be sure of this because Strada actually wrote not ‘animosam, et imamoenam’ but ‘animosam, peracutam, eruditam et imamoenam’. The specific phrasing that Coleridge wrote down in his Notebook evidently derives from the Critical Review for 1797 (p.462) and a review of The Rural Lyre; a Volume of Poems (1796) by Ann Yearsley, a former Bristol milk-maid who had found fame as a poet. This is how the review opens:

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it means we can be sure Coleridge read this volume of the Critical Review. Another is that Coleridge perhaps knew, and certainly knew of, fellow-Bristolian Yearsley: her poems were quite famous. at least for a while; Coleridge's friend the Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle gave Yearsley money to save her from bankruptcy, and several decades after her death (in 1831) Robert Southey wrote her biography.

But my hunch is that Coleridge pulled this Latin out of the journal he was reading less because of what it says about Yearsley and more because it struck him as a description of his own poetry. As he notes in the opening chapter of the Biographia, critics had accused his first book Poems on Various Subjects (1796) of ‘obscurity’ and ‘a general turgidness of diction’. Strada could have been talking about STC's own work: ‘a collection of a more inflexible temper than can be managed by its artistry, where the style matches its author's genius: spirited, but tragically obscure and stiff.’

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

"Antiquus Marium": Ancientness in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner"

I've covered most of Coleridge's major works on this blog (and I've written posts about all manner of his minor, abstruse and unknown works) but I've never yet addressed The Ancient Mariner. It's so central to my sense of what makes Coleridge a genuinely great poet, and there's so much to it, that I've been putting off approaching it. But it can't be put off forever.

Last week I posted a small post wondering whether STC's eye had been caught by his former fellow university acquaintance Christopher Bethel's use of the phrase ‘nauta senex’ in a poem. Today I'm following up with something more substantial, or if not substantial then at least—well: longer. The jumping-off point is the question I asked at the beginning of that earlier post: is the Ancient Mariner only ancient as he tells his story to the wedding guest? Or was he ancient back when he was an active sailor? In other words, was he a young sailor who has, since his strange voyage, been pounding the highways and byways, compulsively retelling his adventures, for such a long time that he has grown old? Or was he a greybeard back when he took to the sea?


We're not given his actual name, so let's start with his nonnomial moniker. He's ‘ancient’ at which point in the story—when he's speaking to the wedding guest, or when he was actually at sea? A related question: why ‘mariner’? There are more straightforward English terms that could have been used: sailor, shipman, tar, bluejacket, boatswain. ‘Sailor’, say, connects the agent with the ship on which he works, and more specifically the mode of propulsion; it’s a word that lifts up its semantic field to the sky and the winds. ‘Mariner’ signifies in the other direction: directs our attention downwards to the mare, the sea. And that's right, of course: since STC’s Rime is a poem more interested in the undertow, the hidden forces beneath—indeed, rather than by sails this sailor’s craft is propelled by a submarine force or power, by the mare itself.

Another way of putting this, of course, would be to peg sailor as an English vernacular and mariner as a Latinate, more antiquated term; but antiquated brings us to ancient, a Latinate and antiquated term easily replaced with the English vernacular old. Since Rime is a piece of nomenclature that, in its spelling as much as its usage, evidences Coleridge ostentatiously performing northern-Europe ballad ruggedness, we might think it pulls a rather different direction to Ancient and Mariner. This is not a poem in hexameters or hendecesyllabics after all; it is a poem that pointedly eschews neoclassical polish and subject-matter: all metrical gnarliness and ‘northern european’ Gothicism and fairy-tale supernatural narrative curlicues. (Classical sailors stayed close within the Mediterranean; it was modern, and by the eighteenth-century largely northern European mariners who ranged over the globe, into seas of ice and snow and so on).

Given that, why does the title The Rime of the Old Sailor feel so wrong? It can’t be just that we’re merely used to the other title. Ancient might make us think about the (Latinate) French word ancien, which in its 1790s context would evoke that which the Revolution had overturned, the hidden forces of popular revolt—that thing which in Conciones ad Populo STC had descried as a rising up from the depths: ‘Revolutions are sudden to the unthinking only. Political Disturbances happen not without their warning Harbingers. Strange Rumblings and confused Noises still precede these earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World.’ As he was writing this very poem, Revolution in France had risen from the depths and brought its deathly neck-dragging gull, its gull- or guillotine, to bear on the ancien regime.

Gull-otine? No? (Revolutionaries have to worry about these things, you know. Juan Pellicer wonders How revolutionary was the Lyrical Ballads? That he phrases the question that way suggests that there's been a critical consensus for a long time that the volume was pretty revolutionary.)
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Why shrink, though? Wooden boards swell, rather than shrink, when saturated in water—indeed, wooden ships depend upon this feature to improve the watertightness of their roughly timbered and fixed together components. Shrink, we might say, stands to set-up the rhyme with drink, and to imply the quailing, flinching away from the plenitude of inhospitality that the ocean represents—a sort of pathetic fallacy by which the parched mariner, shrivelling up with thirst, projects his sufferings onto his ship. The ship is the vehicle in two senses: his actual means of transportation, and the means by which the metaphoricity of the poem translates itself into our experience. Were the Mariner’s thirst merely somatic, as it is in the in-text logic of the poem, the poem presumably wouldn’t have resonated as widely as it has. Presumably this superfluity of non-potable water, this agonizing thirst, these shrinking structural components—these three things in particular—signify more widely. So perhaps the question becomes: what do we thirst for? We poetic revolutionaries, we mariners, we readers?


Ice, of course, is not a shrinkage, but an expansion.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald. [51-54]
That's spelled ‘emerauld’ in the 1798 version (for its archaic flavour, and also to position the word as a full-rhyme with cold) but the more conventional ‘emerald’ in the 1817 and 1834 versions. The obvious problem here (so obvious that critics don't seem to talk about it, as if it's merely a naïf or point-missing observation) is that sea-ice is not green. Coleridge had never seen sea-ice in person so, conceivably, he thought it was green. I mean, there's a Sir-Bedevere-from-Monty-Python's-Holy-Grail syllogism here, isn't there? The sea is green; icebergs are made out of the sea; ergo icebergs are green. But actually icebergs are white, all pre-1798 reports of icebergs describe them as white, and surely Coleridge knew that.

Why, then, green ice? Let's take, for starters, the first 80 lines (or in the 1817/34 edition, the first 82 lines) of the poem, bracketed by Coleridge as his ‘Part 1’. I'm thinking, again, of the differences between, on the one hand, a northern-european anglo-saxon or Percy's Reliques poetic, and on the other a southern-european, mediterranean, classical and neo-classical one. In the former (something I learned from my esteemed coleague and Anglo-Saxonist Jenny Neville) colour is a matter less of hue than it is of brightness: there are lots of bright things and dull things in Old English poetry, where there is much less specific redness blueness or yellowness. But in the sunnier and better illuminated traditions of Mediterranean culture there are lots of actual colours. If I'm arguing that Ancient Mariner straddles these traditions, in form as well as context, then I need to be prepared to look at it in those terms. The poem opens with dullness and brightness, the Mariner's ‘grey beard’ and his ‘glittering eye’ [3], ‘grey-beard loon! ... he holds him with his glittering eye’ [11-13], ‘the bright-eyed Mariner’ [20]. What colour are the Mariner's eyes? We can't say: blue, green, hazel, who knows. The colour doesn't signify—what matters is that they are bright. But then, across this grey-bright two tone canvas, three striking colours are laid. First:
The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she; [33-34]
Blushing red, we presume (not her dress—that must be white). Red, in other words, for flesh. What's next? After, that is, another reference to ‘the bright-eyed Mariner’ [40]? Why, those surreally bright-green icebergs, ‘as green as emerald’ [54]. And then the entry of the bird itself, the albatross. Alba, as I don't need to tell you, is Latin for white (the ‘-tross’ part is a holdover from the ending of the Spanish alcatraz, “pelican”, since the albatross was, wrongly, believed to be a relative of the other bird). For our purposes, and for a poetical imagination like Coleridge's marinaded in Latin, the albatross enters the drama as the White Bird—white for purity and innocence, white for death, the colour the icebergs ought to have been—and it is white that becomes the key colour from this moment: ‘fog-smoke white’ [77]; ‘the white moon-shine’ [78]; ‘the white foam flew’ [103], and a little later ‘the steersman's face by his lamp gleamed white’ [207] as the white ‘horned moon’ rises. White is the colour of the holy bird, and also is the colour associated with the water snakes who, when the mariner blesses them unawares, free him from his curse:
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes. [273-6]
This doesn't, yet, get us closer to why the icebergs are emerald-coloured; but we can at least note that this particular vivid colour scheme, early invoked—bright red, bright green and shining white—comes, with the green mutating into yellow, back into the poem's colourfield at two crucial subsequent moments: first when the ship is supernaturally becalmed and encounter the deathship carrying Nightmare-Life-in-Death:
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white [127-30]

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold. [190-94]
The Greek word for green χλωρός (from whence chlorophyll) is also one of the Greek words for yellow (from whence chlorine, that yellow-green gas). The two hues are connected. Red enters the poem a second time when the zombie sailors, having brought the mariner home, are finally released from their grisly servitude.
And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same,
Full many shapes, that shadows were,
In crimson colours came.

A little distance from the prow
Those crimson shadows were:
I turned my eyes upon the deck—
Oh, Christ! what saw I there!

Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat,
And, by the holy rood!
A man all light, a seraph-man,
On every corse there stood. [480-91]
That's the 1817/34 version. In the original 1798 there was an even greater emphasis upon the crimson: ‘those dark red shadows ... I saw that my own flesh/was red as in a glare’; ‘their stony eye-balls flitter'd on/In the red and smoky light’; ‘full many shapes, that shadows were,/In crimson colour came’ [1798: 486-8, 497-8, 509-10; all these were cut in the later editions though].

So: this is red as: the colour of blood. Red as an angry, martial, the fitting (as it were) Gothic lighting rig for a drama of death and uncanny posthumous action. Black, white, yellow and red: it's intuitively the right sort of colour scheme for the more Grand Guignol aspects of this poem, isn't it. This, though, still hasn't addressed the question of those emerald icebergs.

One possibility involves a leap to the sort of reading in which, of course (of course!) Coleridge often indulged: the Bible. Here's the vision of Revelation 4:
1. After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

2. And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

3. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
What are those precious stones? Well, the ‘sardine stone’ is sardius or carnelian, described as a flesh-colored gem (hence carnelian, from the Latin carneus, ‘fleshly’). The other two are emerald, which is of course green, and jasper—a gem which can come in various colours, but which the Romans thought of as green (Lewis and Short: ‘ĭaspis: a green-colored precious stone, jasper, Plin. 37, 8, 37, § 115; Mart. 5, 11, 1; 9, 60, 20’—the Greek word St John uses here, ἴασπις, is the same gem). So the vision is of a jewel-like man the colour of flesh and green, and ringed by an emerald rainbow: the colour of vegetation and rebirth, of viriditas. The Greek Knight, the green man, the seagreen Mariner whose red (adamic) flesh passes through the fate that flesh is heir to, dies, and returns. The iceberg becomes, as it were, a gem on a hypertrophic scale, a jewel-like ἴασπις. It is, in its own rough-edged border-ballad way, a glory of the new apocalypse.

Does this help us work out whether the mariner, as working-sailor is ancient or not? Perhaps we might say: he is evergreen.


He is senex, but is he pater? We're not told of any children, and his habit of hanging out with hermits and sailors does not lead our thoughts in the direction of family life. Maybe that's one of the points of the poem, written (after all) soon after Coleridge himself became a father. Because, as the OED notes, ‘ancient’ also means ‘patriarch’, which is to say: father. ‘3. An old or aged man (or animal); a patriarch’. The citations include Cowper's 1791 translation of the Odyssey [2.4.517], which renders Proteus, father of the sea, thus: ‘Then, hero, loose the ancient of the deep’—which, since Coleridge almost certainly read this poem, is quite interesting. (The citations also include a couple more idiomatic usages of ancient for father: ‘a venerable ancient, by his side/A comely matron’ from Southey's Roderick, and Dickens's Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers (1837): ‘“My father, Sir,” replied Mr. Weller. “How are you, my ancient?”’). So: how far might we push the reading of the Rime as being about, in effect, the Father Mariner?

In the marginal prose glosses Coleridge added to the poem, the white-bird albatross is described as ‘the pious bird of good omen’. Pietas is a particular Roman virtue associated not just with duty, righteousness and obedience to divine command, but with duty to one's family in particular. It's not just a piety but a filial piety. Might it be that killing the pious bird is impious in a specifically familial sense?

The Romans had several sacred birds, including eagles and doves, but the specific phrase pious bird, pia avis refers specifically to the Stork and crosses over from Roman use to Christian (Saint Ambrose thought the stork embodied pietas) because of its supposed devotion to its young: ‘ad pedes Ciconia apparet, quia preces fundit publicas & privatas; vel ob piétatem erga parentes: quam ob causam hanc avem piam vocant Romani’ [Eucharius Gottlieb Rink, De veteris numismatis potentia et qualitate lucubratio (1701), 171].
In all countries where the Stork breeds it is protected; boxes are provided on the tops of the houses; and he considers himself a fortunate man whose roof the Stork selects. There is a well authenticated account of the devotion of a Stork, which, at the burning of the town of Delft, after repeated and unsuccessful attempts to carry off her young, chose rather to remain and perish with them than leave them to their fate. Well might the Romans call it pia avis! [Henry Baker Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible (1867) 248]
The stork's association with childbirth survives into popular belief even today. Conceivably, the Mariner's killing of this pia avis is a cutting-off of his own potential as a father and progenitor.


There's another ‘ancient’ that's surely relevant here (odd that critics don't make more of it, really): the Biblical ‘Ancient of Days’ [Daniel, 7:9, 13, 22], which is to say, God—another dazzling-eyed, long bearded fellow whose word has the surprising power to stop people in their day-to-day and turn them into evangelists dedicated to passing that word along. The Mariner appears at a wedding feast, and marriage is a sacrament, after all. In the Septuagint the phrase is παλαιὸς ἡμερῶν, from πάλαι (pálai, ‘long ago’): God, in other words, comes as-it-were from days long, long before ours. In the Vulgate, it is antiquus dierum. By a similar logic, the Mariner could be called antiquus marium, the Ancient of Seas.

This may look a little fanciful, but bear with me. Because ‘Ancient’ as a descriptor of God touches on a particular problematic: since God, existing prior to and not constrained by time, cannot be old, a consequence of time. Time, like space, constrains material beings, but God is not a material being. So the word ancient hovers between two mutually incompatible meanings: ravaged by time, and absolutely free of time.

But this brings us back to one of the central fascinations of Coleridge's poem: the intermediary creatures, the ‘spirits’ as the later glosses (rather misleadingly) call them, that populate the mariner's world, intervening between mortals such as himself, his crewmates (the wedding guest and the hermit) in the one hand, and the divine on the other. Indeed there's one way in which the poem is quite strikingly question-begging: the albatross itself. Is it a regular bird? Or is it a daemon?

Other entities in the poem are unambiguously pegged as supernatural: the Nine-Fathom Deep force that first becalms the ship and later drives it on with unnatural rapidity is one: Coleridge's later prose glosses describes this as ‘a spirit’ that was ‘one of the inhabitants of the planet neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted.’ Two interesting contexts (Psellus was his nickname, since it is Greek for ‘stammerer’). ‘These spirits are very numerous,’ Coleridge adds, ‘and there is no climate or element without one or more’ [Mariner, 131-4]. Then there is the encounter with the capitalised ‘DEATH’ the ‘mate’ (shipmate? sexual partner? I've never been sure) of ‘Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH’ (‘she/Who thicks man's blood with cold’). What manner of beings are these? Not mortals, clearly; but then again, not demigods—not in the Christian (Catholic, or Unitarian, depending on your view: ask the hermit) universe of this poem. The Christian God suffers no demigods to inhabit His universe. The ‘water-snakes’ of line 273 we can take to be forms of natural marine life, but the ‘spirits’ that reanimate the Mariner's dead crewmates are specified as angels, where the voices the Mariner hears belong to ‘the Polar Spirit's fellow demons, the invisible inhabitants of the element.’

This supernatural superstructure (super!) of the poem's worldbuilding is one thing that has been pretty extensively studied by Coleridgeans, and I don't propose to get into all that here. My interest is in the ancientness, and its strategic ambiguity between (divine) timelessness and (mortal) decrepitude-towards-death, of these entities. Here's a chunk of William Empson:
C.S. Lewis, in the first chapter of his survey of English 16th-century literature (1954), said that earlier writers had treated magic as fanciful and remote, but in this period they felt it might be going on in the next street; and one reason was a thing they surprisingly called ‘Platonism’: ‘the doctrine that the region between the earth and the moon is crowded with airy creatures who are capable of fertile union with our own species.’ Another reason for feeling at home with the spirits was the doctrine ‘that the invisible population of the universe includes a whole crowd of beings who might also be called theologically neutral’. That is, they die like the beasts, and never come before the Judgment Seat; they are ‘far from Heaven, and safe from Hell’. They are not morally neutral, being a mixture of good and bad like ourselves: but they are not angels or devils, permanently engaged in a Manichean battle, wearing the uniform either of God or Satan. Clearly, this makes them likely to be useful to us, perhaps even to tell the secrets of Nature, if we have something to offer in return.

Lewis used his dubious phrase about neutrality to introduce the idea, I think, because the full doctrine is seldom stated. It would be considered heretical, and would anyhow be shocking: but the feeling of it, or an approach to it, is widespread in the period. One of the chief reasons for wanting some kind of belief in Middle Spirits was the reverence felt for the newly recovered classics, together with the belief, often expressed, that it would be impudent to deny experiences which had once been generally attested. Apollo could not have been nothing, and it was very disagreeable to believe him a devil. It was clear that he had lasted a long time, say two thousand years, and pretty certain that he was now dead; to believe he had been a Middle Spirit fitted very well. It would be unfitting if he were summoned to the Day of Judgment, so the educated tended to assume that this would not happen.
There's a fair amount to unpack here, but I want to pull out two things. The first is Empson's intriguing (original to him, I think) suggestion that the rationale for belief in these intermediary spirits was a nostalgic disinclination to dispense with, or to out-and-out demonize, Classical mythology. Milton wasn't so sentimental, and dispatches all pagan gods to his Hell. But Coleridge, devout though he was, had a more emotional and imaginative attachment to the classical past. The second thing is that Medieval and Renaissance thinkers thought of these beings as material (although made of a more ‘subtle’ matter than us) and therefore mortal: ‘Paracelsus [says] that Middle Spirits are not spirits at all, having bodies made of more subtle kinds of matter than ours. However, all creatures with material bodies will eventually die, so if we find them around they must be capable of breeding, though not often as they are long lived: whereas the angels and fallen angels, being real spirits and totally immortal, must be totally incapable of breeding, or they would clutter the place up.’

Clutter the place up. You have to agree, he has a point.

Empson's interest in all this is, basically, Shakespearian: The Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest specifically; but that's germane to Coleridge's Mariner too—The Tempest in particular, we might think. What does it mean to talk of these enormously powerful supernatural entities being mortal? Empson is fascinated by Puck and by Ariel above all others, and of the latter he notes: ‘Ariel is so much a nature-spirit that he positively wants to dissolve into the more handsome parts of Nature, and renounce all contact with mankind.’ Since these intermediary spirits lack souls, they cannot enter heaven, or hell; and indeed, Empson thinks ‘Middle Spirits are indignant at being rejected from Heaven, and want to go there, and Paracelsus agrees that it is very queer of God to have allowed humans to enter Heaven, but not these greatly superior beings’. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that they can't go to heaven, the idea that these powerful entities would simply snuff out into nothingness is simply too much to believe. This Arielesque dissolving into nature, leaving the natural phenomenon infused with the essence of the spirit, is the compromise between absolute immortality and absolute extinction-at-death. It's not coincidental that this middle-spirit diffusion into Nature is so often invoked in Romantic poetry; for example Wordsworth's ‘She neither hears nor sees/Rolled round in earth's diurnal course/With rocks, and stones, and trees’, where Lucy (if that poem is about Lucy) has neither gone straight to heaven, nor blipped out of existence altogether.

This takes us at once to the end and therefore the beginning of The Ancient Mariner. Coleridge is quite clear as to the phantasmechanics of his poem's universe: if things happen contrary to the regular laws of nature, like dead men getting up and crewing the ship, or boats travelling preternaturally fast, it is because magical entities have gotten inside those corpses, or are gripping the keel of your ship and pushing it on. Which leads us to ask: how is it that the Mariner has his strange power of compelling listeners? What makes his eye glitter, and moves his feet over the land will-he or nil-he?

The comparison that critics often make is with the Wandering Jew, a figure patently in Coleridge's mind as he wrote this poem. But the Wandering Jew blasphemed against the black cross on which Christ died; where the Mariner blasphemed (is that too heavy-handed a way of putting it) against the alba ‘white’ cross. And the Wandering Jew is fated to walk forever, until the last judgment, unable either to die or, properly, to live. How long will the Mariner be compelled to go about buttonholing wedding guests and the like? Surely not until the last trump? And happens to the Mariner when his supernatural compulsion is lifted? Does he die and go to heaven? (Will the Wandering Jew do likewise?)

You know what? I don't think the poem knows, because I don't think Coleridge knows. I can't prove it, and I can't even really get into it without many thousands of words of analysis and discussion, for which there is not space, or readerly patience, here: but I think Coleridge was in some way suspicious of the notion of personal immortality even as he, publicly, insisted on a Christian afterlife (although even then he did so in a strangely ambiguous manner: see, for example, ‘Human Life. On the Denial of Immortality’). He can neither give up nor endorse the notion that humans survive death, I think because he anticipates Feuerbach's characterisation of such belief as actually, if counter-intuitively, a kind of blasphemy. In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach says that in other aspects of life and belief, we make our existence dependent on God, but that when it comes to the question of immortality we make God dependent on us, because (he says) we in effect declare ‘if there is no immortality, there is no God,’ which is actually a way of saying: ‘if I am not immortal, then there is no God.’ Thus ‘heaven’, as Feuerbach puts it, ‘becomes the true God of man: as man conceiveth his heaven, so he conceiveth his God.’ I wonder if Coleridge, intimating something along these lines, finds his imagination trailing out into these supernatural liminalities of extended existence that are not quite material and not quite eternal-spirit either.

And perhaps it's that valence of ancient that is most relevant here. Ancient means drawn out through age and towards the asymptote of a never-yet-arrived-at death. Ancient means coming from before and existing outside time altogether as eternal spirit. Threading between the two is a path that avoids us having to commit to a belief wither in absolute immortality or in personal extinction. But this enduring has its nightmare side: death provides no rest to the zombified mariners; DEATH travels in the company of his grim antidote, Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH—as if death cannot simply be, on its (his) own terms, because he still has a nightmarish kind of life inside it (him). The ancientness of the Mariner is that sort of old-age, a life burning inside death, neither youth nor death.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Nauta senex

A question: is the Ancient Mariner only ancient as he tells his story to the wedding guest? Or was he ancient back when he was an active sailor? In other words, was he a young sailor who has, since his strange voyage, been pounding the highways and byways, compulsively retelling his adventures, for such a long time that he has grown old? Or was he a greybeard back when he took to the sea?

Here's a 1790 poem by Christopher Bethell, who was at Cambridge the same time and in the same college as Coleridge, and with whom he competed for college prizes in writing verse in Latin and Greek. Bethell went on to become a distinguised churchman, and ended his days Bishop of Bangor, but in his youth he wrote things like this, an exercise in which he is tasked to explain the surprising health of an old horse:

It was published in the second volume of Musae Etonensis (1795), a collection of neo-Latin versifying edited by William Herbert whilst we was still a pupil at Eton, hence the name. Several increasingly expanded editions were issued through the nineteenth-century (I notice there's a copy of the 1795 edition on sale on eBay right now for the lowlow price of £394). The bit that I want to concentrate on for a moment are these lines:
Labitur ut leni vento ratis, arripe portum,
Nauta senex; dubio nec male fide mari:
Мох fera tempestas turbatis saeviat undis;
At tibi jam clavo est et sine fune ratis.
Felix, qui post cuneta maris discrimina, tandem
Ex alto incolumis litore cernit aquas!
Tunc alus cursum monstrat, quae flamina captent;
Quà saxa, et syrtes, quà vada caeca latent. [13-20]
Which means:
When the ancient mariner, soft wind moving his ship,
finally slips into harbour, leaving behind the dubious sea,
the wild and savage tempest, the turbulent waves,
and finally now makes fast the ship's ropes;
he is happy to be safely beyond the sea's hazards,
high up the beach, removed from the water!
pondering might-have-been voyages, forced on by gales
to where rocks and sandbanks and unknown shoals hide.
Bethell's ‘ancient mariner’ is a representative figure for any man who has reached a calm old age and can look back with equanimity on the previous dangers of his life (the next section of the poem does something similar with a senex castra, an ancient soldier; and the poem's last line is ‘hic meritus senium nobile cinxit honor’; we must honour the nobility that old age has gathered to itself). But I wonder if Coleridge's eye settled on that nauta senex, that ancient mariner looking back on his life, and began wondering about the dangers of his might-have-been voyage. It's not much, but it might be something.

"Conciones ad populum" (1795)

That title means ‘addresses to the populace’, or alternatively ‘sermons for the public’ (the Latin concionor means ‘I preach’ or ‘I harangue’). In 1795, Coleridge sold 1/- tickets to public lectures in an attempt to raise funds for the Pantoisoctratic scheme he and his friend Robert Southey were planning. His first address was delivered, probably in January 1795, in the schoolroom of the Corn Market in Bristol under the title ‘A Moral and Political Lecture’. Worth a shilling of anyone's money, surely! Soon after (probably in February 1795) this was published as a pamphlet by Joseph Cottle.

The lecture is critical of Pitt's government, and styles the Revolutionary upheaval in France as ‘a warning to Britain’: ‘Revolutions are sudden to the unthinking only. Political Disturbances happen not without their warning Harbingers. Strange Rumblings and confused Noises still precede these earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World.’ This elision of the political and the moral is the key thing: Coleridge is not just saying that government needs to be less oppressive, that bread needs to be cheaper and so on (although he is saying that); he is arguing that we need to reorient politics by moral principles.

Coleridge gave other political lectures in Bristol in 1795 (perhaps as many as eleven) and wrote, it seems, many of the historical lectures Robert Southey contemporaneously orated—much of this material has been lost. Conciones ad populum (1795) reprinted a revised version of the ‘Moral and Political Lecture’ (dialling down some of the anti-Government rhetoric a little; people got sent to prison for sedition in the 1790s) and added to it a second lecture ‘On the Present War’, attacking ‘this unjust because unnecessary’ conflict with France, and the suspension of Habeus Corpus which Pitt's government had effected, using the war as pretext.

Coleridge is hot against the government:
War ruins our Manufactures; the ruin of our Manufactures throws Thousands out of employ; men cannot starve: they must either pick their countrymen's Pockets—or cut the throats of their fellow-creatures, because they are Jacobins. If they chuse the latter, the chances are that their own lives are facrificed: if the former, they are hung or transported to Botany Bay. And here we cannot but admire the deep and comprehensive Views of Ministers, who having starved the wretch into into Vice fend him to the barren shores of new Holland to be starved back again into Virtue. [CC 1:68-9]
He's equally hot against the established church:
It is recorded in the shuddering hearts of Christians, that while Europe is reeking with Blood, and smoaking with unextinguished Fires, in a contest of unexampled crimes and unexampled calamities, every Bishop but one voted for the continuance of the War. They deemed the fate of their Religion to be involved in the contest!—Not the Religion of Peace, my Brethren, not the Religion of the meek and lowly Jesus, which forbids to his Disciples all alliance with the powers of this World—but the Religion of Mitres and Myfteries, the Religion of Pluralities and Persecution, the Eighteen-Thousand-Pound-a-Year Religion of Episcopacy. [CC 1:66-67]
There's a lot of classical allusion in this volume, unsurprisingly enough (one of the ideas Coleridge had for raising Pantisocractic funds was a book called Imitations from the Modern Latin Poets—a shame this came to nothing, really). You can see, above, that the second part of the two-part Conciones opens with an epigraph from Statius's Thebiad. In what was, really, quite a daring move, Coleridge has blanked the last, key word in that quotation under a little row of asterisks. He's inviting us to check the original and see what he has done.

What had he done? Well: the first bit, about the ‘bellum infandum’, the unspeakable [or unnatural] war, is from Thebiad 3:71-77, and means ‘you have brought unnutterable war upon us, you murderer! No omens approve your actions. A desolate multitude of ruined houses and thousands upon thousands of dead souls, hovering night and day, will haunt you with the worst terrors.’ The second bit is from a different, earlier bit of the Thebiad [2:458-60] and, in the way Coleridge has positioned it, identifies the ‘murderer’, the man responsible for the war, in its last asterisked word:
Tu merito; ast horum miseret, quos sanguine viles
coniugibus natisque infanda ad proelia raptos
proicis excidio, bone ***!
‘You will deserve this fate, for the pitiable many whose lives you dispose of so cheaply, they and their wives and children, taken and tossed to death in gahstly butchery, good ***’. Turn to Statius and you'll find the missing word: rex, king. It's a straightforward attack on George III. People were imprisoned and transported for less.

Why Statius? All Roman epic exists in the shadow of Vergil. Of the many that were written in the first century only four have survived into modern times: Lucan, Valerius, Silius and Statius; and of those, Statius's Thebiad is probably the best (Lucan's Pharsalia is full of fine stuff, but remains unfinished, truncated by the fact that, in AD 65, its author was hounded into suicide by the tyrant Nero). And there's a particular breach between Vergil and Statius. The Aeneid exists, inter alia, to praise Augustus, and remains a monument to the divinely wise political and military authority of its hero. The Thebiad, written a century later, came into being in a very different political situation: ‘a gulf divides Vergil from Statius; between them lay the decline of the principate into an undisguised and unfettered autocracy: Augustus was betrayed by his successors’ [David Vessey, Statius and the Thebaid (Cambridge Univ. Press 1973), 5-6]. Under the violent rule of Domitian (a figure Statius publicly and repeatedly praised, as writers who prefer not to be executed will tend to do when they live under tyranny) ‘Statius turned to the dramatization of the often trivial activities of his friends and patrons and to the mythological epic’. No De Bello Civili-style contemporary relevance for Statius, but instead a retreat to distant Greek myth, in which explicit praise for the dominus et deus that was Domitian is balanced by an unflinching representation of the horrors of war and coded critique of secular authority of reges.

[A PS. There are some other classical quotations too, not all of which have been identified. When the first lecture was reprinted in the Conciones (not, that is, in its original pamphlet form) it is retitled ‘Introductory Address’ and opens with a Greek epigraph:

That means: ‘always, then, have I been a lover of Liberty; but in many who call themselves Liberty-lovers there is much that is destructive and hateful’. It's Coleridge's own concoction: he found the word φιλελεύθερος, lover-of-freedom, democrat in Polybius 4:30.5; but the rest of this quotation simply fits STC's own argument in the Conciones too well.]