Sunday, 28 October 2018

"Non Sphinx sed Sphincter"



In April-May 1802 was Coleridge revolving, among other things, a Miltonic something. In late April he jotted in his notebook an idea for a new poem: ‘Milton, a Monody in the metres of Samson's Choruses—only with more rhymes/—poetical influences—political—moral—Dr Johnson/’ [Notebooks 1:1155]. This particular poem never got itself written, but a few days later a grumpy, or perhaps wryly scatological, Coleridge jotted down the following:
Unintelligible? As well as call a Fart unintelligible / it tells you at once what it is—it is nonsense—enigmata quia non Sphinx sed Sphincter anus. [Notebooks 1:1184]
Kathleen Coburn translates the Latin (‘riddles not from the Sphinx but the sphincter’ is her version, omitting the entry's terminal word) but doesn't realise it's a quotation, and so speculates about his point: ‘abuse need not be intelligible in itself; it requires only to be recognized as abuse.’

In fact the Latin is taken from Milton's sixth Prolusion ¶ 3, where an individual is ridiculed for uttering ‘aenigmata quaedam nolens effutiat sua non Sphinx sed sphincter anus, quae medicis interpretanda non Oedipo’, ‘riddles merely farted out, issuing not from the Sphinx but the anal sphincter, more fitting for doctors to interpret than Oedipus’. This wasn't exactly typical Miltonic Latin, although, as Anna Beer points out, neither was it wholly uncharacterstic. Beer notes that in Milton’s day ‘performing in Latin was a cornerstone of the Cambridge experience’ and that whilst most of Milton’s surviving Latin speeches are ‘dull’ (for instance: ‘Prolusion 1’ on the question of whether day or night is better, or ‘Prolusion 2’ on the music of the spheres) Prolusion 6 is considerably saucier.

In May 1628 Milton ‘was approached to be “Father” during a “salting”, a traditional feast of misrule, which focused on the initiation of young men into the college.’ Initiates might find themselves having to drink salted ale, but in addition to literal salt, there was metaphorical salt: ‘the occasion was full of sales, salty, sexual wit, redolent of licenced indecorum … Milton’s role in the Cambridge salting was as master of ceremonies. He was “Father” for the day, elevated above his “brothers” in this licensed folly.’ He started things off with a speech full of rudery (in Latin of course). Beer notes how tempting was the ‘opportunity for humour, particularly for a chaste figure like the nineteen-year-old John’. [Anna Beer, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot (London: Bloomsbury 2011), 75]. The Latin was first published in Joannis Miltonii Angli, Epistolarum familiarium liber unus quibus accesserunt, ejusdem, jam olim in collegio adolescentis, prolusiones quaedam Oratoriae (1674).

It's quite cool to be able to track this allusion down, actually, not least because it suggests Coleridge wasn't necessarily jotting something down out of pique because he had been called ‘unintelligible’ (and indeed it's a little hard to make sense of the entry on those terms). Rather he's using the apparent dignity of Miltonic Latin to suggest that everything means, even if it only ‘means’ on the level of performing itself as non-meaning. And given that whatever prompted this notebook entry put STC in mind of this particular Miltonic prolusion, conceivably he was thinking about laughter as such: a sort of utterance that is, on the level of semantic content, merely unintelligble noises, but which nonetheless signifies, richly.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Hartley Coleridge: Clockwork Boy



Coleridge's son Hartley was christened 8th November 1803. The run-up to this event clearly preyed, in some small way, on Coleridge's mind, for on the morning of the 28th October 1803 he recorded the following dream in his notebook.
Frid. Morn. 5 oclock—Dosing, dreamt of Hartley as at his Christening—how as he was asked who redeemed him, & was to say, God the Son/he went on, humming and hawing, in one hum & haw, like a boy who knows a thing & will not make the effort to recollect it—so as to irritate me greatly. Awakening «gradually I found I was able compleatly to detect, that» it was the Ticking of my Watch which lay in the Pen Place in my Desk on the round Table close by my Ear, & which in the nervous diseased State of my Nerves had fretted on my Ears—I caught the fact while it Hartley’s Face & moving Lips were yet before my Eyes, & his Hum & Ha, & the Ticking of the Watch were each the other, as often happens in the passing off of Sleep—that curious modification of Ideas by each other, which is the Element of Bulls.—I arose instantly, & wrote it down—it is now 10 minutes past 5. [Notebooks, 1:1620]
There's something wonderful about this, I think, in part because of its familiarity. It speaks to an experience we have, surely, all had: where sense data from the wideawake world seep into our half- or quarter-conscious dreaming mind. An Irish bull is a ludicrous, incongruent or comically absurd line, designated ‘Irish’ either because of the longstanding and racist belief held by some Englishpeople that the Irish are prone to speaking foolish nonsense, or else because of the Irish MP Sir Boyle Roche, sometimes called ‘the father of the Irish Bull’, who once asked Parliament ‘Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?’ Coleridge was fascinated by ‘bulls’ (there's quite a lot of discussion of them in the Biographia Literaria) And whilst we're on the subject, isn't ‘dosing’ an interesting spelling of the word ‘dozing’ for a man who so notoriously had the habit of dosing himself with a tincture of heroin in alcohol? Not least because, as famously was the case with ‘Kubla Khan’ such dosing often led directly to dozing.

But the heart of this entry is its charmingly steampunk iteration of Hartley as a clockwork boy, his gears whirring hum and ha. Evidently Coleridge's imagination was preoccupied on some level by the difference between a proper human being and a complicated automaton, a Dennettian machine-being of interconnected inputs and reactions, or ‘associations’ and ‘vibrations’, of the sort David Hartley (1705–57) hypothesised was the secret truth of homo sapiens. That same Hartley that Coleridge named his son after. Then again, it's worth stressing that Hartley was no more an ur-Dennettian atheist-materialist than was Coleridge himself. Alhough volume one of Hartley's 1749 Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations elaborated his mechanistic, associationist theory of human existence, volume two was devoted to pious Christian observations, something Hartley considered compatible with the rest of his theory because (in a nutshell) God can do anything. Still, Coleridge did eventually grow out of his Hartleyan affiliation, a spiritual as much as an intellectual evolution he related at some length in the Biographia. What's the problem with this fundamentally mechanistic theory of the human animal? Coleridge thinks something is missing from it, and that the missing thing is precisely: a Christian soul, that very thing that is sacramentally affirmed during baptism.

But hold on a moment. Describing this dream as being about a clockwork boy is me letting my sciencefictional imagination run away with me. If I look at it again I can see it's not at all about that. The boy in the dream is the real, living-breathing Hartley. We can tell that dream-Hartley is not a machine because he manifests precisely those qualities of which a machine is incapable: indolence, or perhaps willed repugnance to command: a boy ‘who knows a thing & will not make the effort to recollect it—so as to irritate me greatly’. Kids, however much we love them, can indeed be irritating; but as Spielberg's Kubrickian project A.I. shows it is in their resistance that they prove themselves actually alive and therefore worthy of love; a perfectly compliant child would be a kind of elaborate toy, and, unlike an actual child, would be liable to being discarded once we'd finished our game—which is what happens to the mecha David in the A.I. movie. Soul means that we can move in ways that an automaton or (Coleridge's own example, from the Biographia, this) a weathercock cannot: by our own volition.

Jonathan Rée notes that ‘Descartes had a special fondness for clockwork’:
He possessed a fine wall-clock of his own. He greatly admired the ornate clock at Strasbourg with its automatic crowing cockerel, and when he explored the hypothesis that ‘the body is nothing but a statue or an earthenware machine’ in his early manuscript On Man, his main conclusion was that human actions are, from a physical point of view, no more mysterious than the workings of an intricate clock. He saw no reason, as he put it in the Discourse on Method in 1637, to think that the human body had any powers beyond those of the marvellous ‘self-moving machines or automata that can be made by human ingenuity’. The late treatise on the Passions rests entirely on the assumption that the body is a ‘machine’. Even the truculent hero of the Meditations will emerge from his week of arduous self-examination as a convert to the idea that a healthy human body functions like a ‘well-made clock’. The main point of all this business about clockwork and physiology was to shake up the practice of medicine by suggesting that there is no disease of the human body that cannot be fixed by timely mechanical repair.
Coleridge was no Descartian, and one, little noticed, sense in which that was true is the way he repeatedly conceptualised his own many illnesses, from rheumatic fevers and neuralgic pains, through frequent bouts of constipation (and occasional diarrheoa) up to and including his lifelong addiction to opium, not as malfunctions in the machinery of his body but as diseases of his will. It occurs up again and again in the notebooks—you can see it in the entry above when ‘nervous’ is struck through as STC is writing and replaced by ‘diseased State of my Nerve’. It always carries the same self-lacerating implication: if only I had stronger willpower I wouldn't be ill.

We tend not to think of illness that way nowadays of course, and indeed the pendulum has swung away from diseases of the will even where matters like drug-addiction and alcoholism are concerned. Willpower may be a fine thing, but it on its own deters neither germs nor viruses. But saying so I'm struck by another aspect to the dream STC reports. He dreams his boy (his boy) humming and haing, refusing irritatingly to do what he is told to do—which is, in a nutshell, to sign up to eternal life. Then he wakes to find the humming and haing was the whirring of his watch. The child has become a timepiece, and the metamorphosis has the rightness of a well-chosen poetic image. Because, of course, that's what kids are. In a very large sense that is the point of kids. We have them to supersede us. No worse fate imaginable than our children predeceasing us. This is also a problem, though, and the problem is the brute fact that our children will be living, laughing and drinking wine in the sunshine when we ourselves are cold and dead in the ground. That's both a consumation devoutly to be wished and a profoundly unheimlich Halloween story. A little child is the very rebus of life, but he or she means, amongst other things, that we who are old are dying. The tick and tock of our children's existence measures out our own pilgrimage towards our inevitable deaths. Hum and haw indeed.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Coleridge and Plato's Luminous Gloom


Coleridge wrote this luminously gloomy line not once but twice in his Notebooks: first in November 1799 [1:528] and then again, almost identically save for the capitalisation of ‘Gloom’ (and an extra comma) in October 1803 [1:1558]. Critics have been, by and large, rather struck by it. Elliott B. Gose, Jr. [‘Coleridge and the Luminous Gloom: An Analysis of the “Symbolical Language” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, PMLA 75:3 (1960), 238-44] thinks the phrase unlocks the mysteries of the Rime. More proportionately, James Vigus, in his powerful study Platonic Coleridge (Leeds: LEGENDA 2009), sees the line as indicative of ‘Coleridge’s characterization of Plato as a mystic’:
The polarity of nonsense and truth, ‘dark with excessive bright’ is reflected in the [luminous gloom] image, which was so adhesive to Coleridge’s mind that he uses identical expressions in Notebook entries separated by years. [Vigus, 21]
Vigus stresses that if STC thought Plato wrote ‘nonsense’ it was at least ‘dear gorgeous nonsense, worth unravelling’; and he points out that the November 1799 notebook entry is followed by the following bit of drafted (unpublished) Coleridgean verse:
Mist as from a volcano—
Waterfall rolled after long looking at like a segment of a Wheel
—the rock gleaming thro’ it—
Amid the roar a noise as of innumerable grasshoppers or of spinning wheels [Notebooks 1:529]
Vigus goes on to pick out several related images from Coleridge's writing: a description of the religious mystic Jacob Boehme as one who ‘contemplated Truth and the forms of Nature thro’ a luminous Mist, the vaporous darkness rising from his Ignorance and accidental peculiarities of fancy and sensation, but the Light streaming into it from his inmost Soul’ and the ‘fair luminous mist’ of Dejection; an Ode. [Vigus, 22], amongst others. We could add many other examples. In 1802, for instance, he records in that Statius's nec caret umbra Deo (Thebiad 4:425) is ‘obscure indeed, but certainly profound’. The Latin means: ‘nor even the shadows lack Divinity’ [Notebooks 1:1179].

It seems nobody has noted that ‘luminous gloom’ is not Coleridge's coinage. He is quoting Dionysius the Areopagite, or as scholars now insist on calling him, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (a much cooler name, I think: as if he wasn't a human being who happened to be called Dionysius like various other famous men, but was some kind of synthetic man or android). Anyway: Dionysius's Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας (‘On Mystical Theology’, which probably dates to the early 6th century, but which Coleridge may have thought was a 1st-century work) ponders how we can view God, since God Himself is ‘viewless’, or invisible. The work argues that we approach God's brilliance and light through a mystic darkness, and that the mystery of the Trinity abides in a ὑπέρ-φωτον γνόφον, a ‘hyper-luminous gloom’. This little phrase is a famous bit of pseudo-Dionysius's work, actually (it occurs at the beginning of the opening prayer of the On Mystical Theology) and fairly widely known.

It's possible that Coleridge wasn't actually reading an edition of Dionysius at this time, but he was certainly reading the ninth-century theological writer John Scotus Erigena (in July 1803 STC wrote to Southey telling him ‘I have received great delight & instruction from Scotus Erigena’, and he often copied out bits of Scotus's Latin into his notebooks at this time) and Scotus very often quotes Dionysius—indeed, Scotus's contemporary fame, in an age when few scholars knew Greek, derived from the fact that he translated Dionysius and wrote a commentary upon him. The key thing is that Scotus used Dionysius to revive a neo-Platonic mode of Christian theology that was to go on to have a vast influence across medieval Europe. An 1803 Coleridgean notebook entry quotes Jonannes Scotus quoting Dionysius:
ipse omnium essentia est qui solus vere est, ut ait Dionysius Ariopagita. Esse, inquit, omnium superesse Divinitatis. ‘[He] who alone is the essence of things, truly is, as Dionysius the Areopagite put it: Being, he says, in all things [comes from] the over-being Divinity’ [Notebooks 1:1369]
Here's my working theory, for which I need a little more (or, you know: any, at all) evidence: over the years 1799-1803 Coleridge was planning a poem, perhaps to be called ‘On Mystical Theology’, in which he versified and explored some of these Dionysian and Scotus-Ergenan neo-Platonic ideas in poetry. The line at the head of this post, provided we take luminous as a disyllable (‘lum’nous’), is a feminine-ending pentameter, after all. So, it might be that the concrete imagery of a poem like 1802's ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’ (partly plagiarised from German poets though that poem was) might have provided the launch-point for some Neo-Platonic philosophical-poetizing. What is Mont Blanc, in that poem, if not luminously gloomy?
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
It's the divine inversion of Milton's ‘Darkness Visible’—‘Visibility Engloomed’ perhaps. Vigus quotes Ernst Cassirer (‘to poeticize philosophy and to philosophize poetry—such was the highest aim of all romantic thinkers’) before qualifying:
Those English and German Romantics who pursued this aim, including Coleridge, often looked naturally to Plato as a precedent or model. Nevertheless, a contrary model loomed larger still: Kant, who in an essay of 1796 attacked contemporary poetic, Platonizing philosophers as merely decking out their presumptuous, ungrounded assertion. ‘Philosophy is fundamentally prosaic,’ insisted Kant, who pointed to Plato as this vain tendency in philosophical writing. [Vigus, 6]
‘This censure,’ Vigus adds, ‘is consistent with the restriction Kant places on speculative Reason. Unlike Coleridge (and much of Plato) Kant denies that human Reason can have access to the noumenal realm.’ Coleridge, in point of fact, was caught between his desire to see poetry's luminous gloom shine darkly through the noumenal truths of God, and his belief that he might, if he tried to capture this, do nothing more than throw chaff in the readers' eyes. Hence, perhaps, his repeated badgering of Wordsworth to write the great philosophical poem of the age: simultaneously an expression of his belief that such a poem could be written, and an admission that he didn't believe he could write such a poem. It's even possible he considered using this the sunny mist, the lum'nous gloom of Plato line as part of ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’, which is certainly a poem as much about the mystic interpenetration of light and shadow, or blindness and vision, of materiality and spirit, as it is about anything. It might explain why that poem breaks off so abruptly.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Coleridge's ‘Imagination’ and Hooker



I write this in a mood somewhere between bogglement and sheepishness. After all: I've been working on Coleridge for many years, have published scholarly work on the man and blogged extensively about him. More I am currently in what I hope are the latter stages of writing a bloody monograph on the geezer. It's late in the day to realise, for the first time, something that strikes me as so central to my author's imaginative and intellectual praxis, something that means one of his most famous and influential ideas suddenly slots into a new focus (as an optician clicks down lens after lens into the ungainly face-worn frame until suddenly, bingo, there's the chart in all its clarity). Long story short: I should have known this long before. It is but small exculpation to note that nobody else seems to have noticed it either. Unless they have and I've missed that? Or unless nobody has because there's nothing there and I've lost my mind? That's possible too, I suppose.

It has to do with Coleridge's concept of the imagination, surely his most famous idea, and something he wrote about in various places, but which he most famously elaborated in the Biographia Literaria (1817). There Coleridge makes the distinction between ‘imagination’, which is genuinely creative, and ‘fancy’ which is merely imitative:—a process of pastiche of more imaginative writers, the shuffling around of pre-existing counters rather than the poetic or artistic bodying-forth of something new and meaningful. Towards the end of chapter 4 of the Biographia, Coleridge says:
Repeated meditations led me first to suspect,—(and a more intimate analysis of the human faculties, their appropriate marks, functions, and effects matured my conjecture into full conviction,)—that Fancy and Imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties, instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, or, at furthest, the lower and higher degree of one and the same power. ... Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind. If therefore I should succeed in establishing the actual existence of two faculties generally different, the nomenclature would be at once determined. To the faculty by which I had characterized Milton, we should confine the term imagination; while the other would be contra-distinguished as fancy. [The] division is no less grounded in nature than that of delirium from mania, or Otway's
Lutes, laurels, seas of milk, and ships of amber,
from Shakespeare's
What! have his daughters brought him to this pass?
Otway thinks, fancifully, the way to capture madness is to have his character babble random things because madness is a kind of randomness, or a sort of babble. Shakespeare knows better, that madness is actually that which bends sanity around the lines of force of its obsession. Fair enough. Then, in what now strikes me as a dead giveaway, and by way of concluding chapter 4, Coleridge goes from this passage to a lengthy quotation from Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity—I mean, it really is right there. The thing is that then, in characteristic Coleridgean style, he gets distracted and instead of developing this idea he embarks on a massive metaphysical and theological detour, one which occupies the whole of chapters 6-13. Finally, right at the end of his long thirteenth chapter, Coleridge returns to imagination and fancy with this often-cited, rarely-understood definition:
The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.
So, [1] God makes the world, including our souls; [2] the true artist makes a little world in his/her art, in a finite imitation of the infinite primary creativity of God, and [3] the crappy artist merely copies-and-pastes (we can compare Tolkien's subcreation, and its relationship to divine creation). With that, Vol 1 of the Biographia ends. Vol 2 starts an entirely new enterprise, largely pursuing practical criticism of Wordsworth's poetry, amongst others. There's one more wrinkle: according to his daughter, Coleridge crossed out ‘as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’ in his own copy of the Biographia.

I knew of course that Coleridge read the celebrated Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker—that's him, at the top of this post, with a seagull on his loaf—in detail and with sympathy. It's something all Coleridgeans know. Volume 2 of the Bollingen Marginalia prints forty, count ’em, pages of close-written marginal annotations Coleridge scribbled on his edition of Hooker's complete works (these actually date from 1824-26, which is too late for my purposes here—though Coleridge was reading Hooker all his life).





Of course, some scholars have engaged with this vector of influence, usually in the service of unpacking Coleridge's religious and political thought: Nicholas Sagovsky (2014) on Coleridge's ideas of Church and State for instance, or Luke Wright's patchy but interesting Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church (Notre Dame, 2010). But nobody, so far as I know, has ever made the point I'm about to make in the remainder of this blogpost, even though it does seem to me, occuring to me late in the day though it do, both a vital gloss on Coleridge's theory of the imagination and also just, well, obvious when it's pointed out.

It comes about because, even though I knew how important Hooker was to Coleridge, I was content to let my knowledge of the eminent theologian rest at second hand. I had the sense of Hooker as a famous prose stylist who argued against the excesses of the Puritans and defended the legitimacy of the Anglican church; which is, kind-of, what he was (although he nowhere uses the phrase Anglican, it turns out). But then I read some Hooker. And then I slapped the palm of my hand to my brow, Wallace-and-Gromit style.

Because it turns out the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is about rather more than just refuting Puritain opposition to the established church. It is a comprehensive attempt to establish the idea of polity, the legal establishment of social and religious law, authority and order, from first principles. Hooker's proximate objective is indeed to make a particular case, contra Puritanism, about the polity of the Church, but his larger aim is to describe the structure of polity as such: what the law is, under what circumstances it might be changed to meet changing circumstances, and why we should all follow it. Hooker chooses the word polity deliberately: he might have written about Ecclesiastical Discipline or Ecclesiastical Government, but the former term had been too effectively colonised by the Puritans, and the latter he thought people would associate with ‘the exercise of superiority peculiar unto Rulers and Guides of others’ [LEP, 3.1.4]. Polity, he thinks, is the best expression of the collective assent to Law as such, grounded (as he sees it) in God. So the first book of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity sets out to define Law as such, and to that end Hooker insists that there are two Laws, which we can call primary and secondary. The primary is the ‘First Eternal Law’ [1.3.1]; ‘that Law which giveth life unto all the rest’ [1.1.3], ‘that order which God before all ages hath set down with Himself to Himself to do all things’ [1.2.6]. Himself to Himself, or I AM THAT I AM—this latter one of Coleridge's favourite Biblical moments, of course. Of this Primary Law, Hooker says:
The Being of God is a kind of Law to His Working: for that Perfection which God is, giveth Perfection to that He doth. [LEP, 1.2.2]
But Hooker also posits a secondary Law, ‘the Second Eternal Law’ which he defines as ‘that order with which Himself God hath set down as expedient to be kept by all His Creatures, according to the several conditions wherewith He hath endued them’ [1.3.1]. This is, if you like, the iteration of the infinite divine Law in the finite realm, and manifests in, for instance, what we would today call the laws of physics, as well as in the law that governs angels and so on. But Hooker's focus, as you'd expect, is on ‘the Law of Men, a Law of continual progress to that Perfection which is in God alone’ [5.1.2.]. The eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity explore many facets of this, from questions of duty and ethics to the ‘Law Politic’, and especially the linked categories ‘Laws made by a Body Politic which is civilly united’ and ‘Laws made by a Body Politic which is spiritually joined, and makes such a Body as we call the Church’ [1.10.11]. And the important thing for my purposes is that Hooker insists that this secondary law manifests in two distinct ways: ‘within each’ of the disciplines of human law ‘there is a distinction between Primary and Secondary Laws; the one grounded upon sincere, the other built upon depraved, Nature’ [1.10.13]

Now, in the Biographia Coleridge devotes a good deal of space not just to explicating Kant's ideas but to stressing the impact reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason had upon his younger self: Kant ‘took possession of me as with a giant's hand’ is how he phrases it. But although the Biographia does quote Hooker, there's no equivalent passage describing Hooker's giant hand on Coleridge's shoulder, perhaps because STC never got around to it, or perhaps because it seemed to him so much more obvious (nobody was reading Kant in Britain in the early 19th-century because he hadn't been translated into English; but everyone knew about Hooker, one of the greats of English prose—so maybe Coleridge figured Kant needed to be explained in a way that he assumed wasn't true of Hooker). Anyway, it came home to me with sudden force that this is what Coleridge was doing in the Biographia, or at least this is what he set out to do before his work diverticulated to such an extent that he ends-up promising he'll explain the real meat of his argument in his forthcoming Logosophia.

What is he doing? I think he's setting his own fundamentally aesthetic-psychological theory of the imagination calculatedly alongside the theories of those two other great thinkers: one, Kant's distinction between Understanding and Reason—which Coleridge interpreted in his own, particular way, identifying a human but also a divine Reason and associating the latter with the Logos—and two, Hooker's distinction between divine Law, human-primary Law and human-secondary Law. In other words: the Biographia Literaria presents a coherent theory of aesthetic creation and appreciation that posits human poetry (in the broadest, ποίησις sense of the word) as something with a pure and an impure form, the former mimicking the primary creative-imaginative ποίησις of God Himself; and Coleridge does so in order to parallel this with the Kantian distinction between Divine Reason, Human Reason and Human Understanding on the one hand, and the Hooker-ian distinction between the First Eternal Law of God, the Second Law of (sincere) Men and the lesser Law of (depraved) men on the other. That, to be plain, Coleridge sees all three of these as versions of the same thing, rooted in the same Divine origin and sanction, and expressing in the three overlapping realms, art, mind and law, the same fundamental logic. It would be a very Coleridgean thing to argue, and it makes such sense of the Coleridgean distinctions of the primary imagination/secondary imagination/fancy thing that I'm sheepishly boggled that, until this weekend, it had honestly never occurred to me.

‘Blest in the Happy Marriage of Sweet Words’



I know a lot of these source-hunting posts are pretty dry and indigestible, but this one's a fraction more interesting than usual (or else I'm finally going Stockholm Syndrome on all this dryasdust pedantry). Anyway. In the early 1800s Coleridge, estranged from his wife, fell deeply in love with Sara Hutchinson, the unmarried sister of Wordsworth's wife Mary, who lived with the Wordsworths at Grasmere. Sara H., though a good friend to Coleridge in many ways, rejected his advances, leading to a deal of anguished scribbling in his notebooks and a number of heartbroken poems addressed to Sara under the paper-thin pseudonym ‘Asra’. Then something traumatic happened—something he referred to in his Notebook as the ‘EPOCH’. We can't be sure exactly what this was, although it brought Coleridge close to breakdown. Probably what happened was that, in December 1806, Coleridge discovered Wordsworth in bed with Sara Hutchinson. He was devastated by this, although Wordsworth tried to convince him the whole thing was just a hallucination he had experienced. Indeed Coleridge seems to have come to believe this, or at least seems to have wanted to believe it (not the same thing, of course). At any rate he continued staying with the Wordsworths, and therefore with Sara Hutchinson, after the December 1806 events of the EPOCH, only finally leaving for London in April 1807.

He spent the rest of that year in London, Bristol and a few other places and then in February 1808 he wrote to Sara Hutchinson, making her a present of some books, including a copy of Chapman's Odyssey, together with a covering letter. Henry Nelson Coleridge, assembling the Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge for posthumous publication (it came out 1836), thought the sentiments in this letter interesting enough to include, although to evade even the whiff of indecency he pretended it had been sent to Wordsworth rather than to Sara H.
Chapman I have sent in order that you might read the Odyssey/ the Iliad is fine, but less equal in the Translation, as well as less interesting in itself. What is stupidly said of Shakspeare, is really true & appropriate of Chapman—“mighty faults counterpoised by mighty Beauties.” Excepting his quaint epithets which he affects to render literally from the Greek, a language above all others “blest in the happy marriage of sweet words”, and which in our language are mere Printer's compound Epithets—such as—quaff’d divine Joy-in-the-heart-of-man-infusing Wine/ the undermark’d is to be one word, because one sweet mellifluous Word expresses it in Homer—excepting this, it has no look, no air, of a translation. It is as truly an original poem as the Faery Queen—it will give you small idea of Homer, tho’ yet a far truer one than from Pope's Epigrams, or Cowper's cumbersome most anti-homeric Miltoniad—for Chapman writes & feels a Poet,—as Homer might have written had he lived in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth/ In short, it is an exquisite poem, spite of its frequent & perverse quaintnesses and harshnesses, which are however amply repaid by almost unexampled sweetness & beauty of language, all over spirit & feeling, in the main/ it is an English Heroic Poem, the tale of which is borrowed from the Greek—& I anticipate pleasure in your enjoyment of it. [Marginalia 2:1120]
The phrasing is interesting there, I think: I anticipate pleasure in your enjoyment of it presumably means ‘I anticipate that you will derive pleasure from it and enjoy it’; but what Coleridge has actually written is: ‘I look forward to me deriving pleasure from the fact that you will enjoy this’. A very different sentiment! And the choice of gift looks rather freighted, don't you think? A poem about a storm-tossed hero, forced to weary peregrinations, but always hoping to return to his true love, in her Ithaca. Like an 1808 version of giving a mix-tape to a girl you have a crush on.

The single Homeric word that gets translated, in STC's letter, by that English multiply-hyphenated monster is μελίφρονα [eg Odyssey 7:182; it actually occurs a dozen times in the poem], which means ‘sweet-to-the-mind’, via the Greek μέλι, ‘honey’: Chapman calls this ‘one sweet mellifluous word’ and actually translates it as ‘honey-sweet-to-the-mind’. The shift from that to Coleridge's misremembering ‘joy-in-the-heart-of-man-infusing’ is the distance between a broader somatic pleasure to the yearning of a man who still, in his emotionally bruised and hopeless way, yearns for one particular woman to fuse her heart with his. It was a hope destined to remain unfulfilled. Although Coleridge returned to the Wordsworths in Sept 1808, and enjoyed physical propinquity with Sara H as she acted as his amanuensis on The Friend through 1809, at the beginning of 1810 she left Grasmere to live with her brothers on a farm in Wales. Coleridge felt personally betrayed by this departure, unreasonably enough. Penelope, after all, is supposed to wait patiently at home for her Odysseus to work his way, eventually, back to her.

What of that quoted phrase, the one that says Greek is ‘blest in the happy marriage of sweet words’? George Whalley appends the following footnote:



Hard to blame Whalley for not tracking this down, since it's another creative misrememberquoting by Coleridge. In fact it is from the allegorical play Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority (published anonymously in 1607, scholars now generally attribute it to Thomas Tomkis). In the play, the beautiful young woman Lingua, the personification of language, offers a prize for the worthiest of man's five senses: Auditus (hearing); Visus (sight); Olfactus, Gustus, and Tactus): ‘He of the five that proves himself the best,/Shall have his temples with this coronet blest’. The five bicker and fight over who should win—eventually Visus does—and Lingua's demands to be received as the sixth sense are rejected. The relevant passage, in which Lingua berates Audita, is here:
LINGUA: O, horrible ingratitude! that thou,
That thou of all the rest should'st threaten me:
Who by my meanes conceiv'st as many tongues,
As Neptune closeth lands betwixt his armes:
The ancient Hebrew, clad with mysteries,
The learned Greeke, rich in fit epithites,
Blest in the lovely marriage of pure words,
The Caldy [ie Chaldean] wise, the Arabian physicall,
The Romane eloquent, the Tuscane grave,
The braving Spanish, and the smooth-tong'd French,
These precious jewels that adorne thine eares,
All from my mouthe's rich cabinet are stolne:
How oft hast thou beene chain'd writo my tongue?
Hang'd at my lips, and ravisht with my words,
So that a speech, faire feather'd, could not flie,
But thy eares' pit-fall caught it instantly.
But now, O, heavens! [Lingua, 1.1.55-70]
The subtle subconscuous pressures that lead to Coleridge inadvertently correcting ‘pure’ to the μελίφρον-ic ‘sweet’ (for who would want a pure love-match when you can have the more intimate consummation of a sweet one?) is the same force that slides the original lovely to STC's wished-for happy.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Weiblich τετραγραμματον



So: Notebooks 1:555. In September and October 1799 Coleridge, not long back from Germany, went off for a walking tour of the Lake District with Wordsworth. During the course of this the two of them visited Thomas Clarkson at Eusemere in Cumbria (I note without comment that ten years ago this house sold for £3 million), and there Coleridge jotted the above in his notebook.

The meaning is clear-enough, though it's a little, uh (not to clutch my pearls too tightly) surprisingly phrased. STC sees a hill shaped like half an arse (a ‘fat backside’). Reflected in the mirror-like clarity of lake this becomes a full arse, and the road running up between the two prominences resembles an ‘opening’—crossed out for being too suggestive—a ‘suture’ and finally the ‘Weiblich τετραγράμματον’. The adjective weiblich means ‘female’, and the Greek tetragrámmaton means ‘word comprised of four letters’. We don't need to know which particular word Coleridge had in mind (‘slit’? ‘cunt’?) to see what he's getting at.

What's odd here is that, although τετραγράμματον can mean any four-letter word, the Tetragrammaton refers to the four Hebrew letters יהוה‎ (in transliteration, YHWH or JHVH) used as the ineffable name of God in the Hebrew Bible, variously transliterated as Yahweh or Jehovah. Does it seem strange to you that a man as religiously devout as Coleridge would trifle with a piece of terminology so holy? Is he demeaning the holy name of God, or is he, in the privacy of his private notebook, elevating the vagina to Biblical ineffability? ‘I never saw so sweet an Image!!’ he says. Well, quite.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Several Thousand Words of German Copied into Coleridge's 1799 Notebook



This is ‘Notebook 3’ which, as Coburn speculates, was probably bought in Germany and which is about one-third full of German-related jottings, including this very lengthy passage of German prose—I'd estimate about 4000 words—printed in the Bollingen edition over several entries: 1:434-439. It's all copied out in what Coburn calls ‘a German hand’ (not Coleridge's) and the first three chunks of this new hand relate to the topography of the Harz region, in which is located the Brocken, which Coleridge visited. Entry 434 begins ‘Alle Gebürge des Harzes, die meistens Ganggebürge sind, werden durch einen hohen vom kleinen Brocken herab, gegen Abend ziehenden Bergrücken, den Bruchberg, fast nach einem rechten Winkel mit der Mittagslinie, in zwey ziemlich gleiche Theile abgesondert ...’ (‘All the mountains of the Harz, most of which are iron-ore mountains, are divided into two roughly equal parts by a fairly high mountain ridge, the Bruchbergh, which runs westwards down from the little Brocken almost at right angles to the meridian ...’) and continues to discuss the landscape and the susceptibility of the forests of the Harz to dry-rot. Two further entries prefer (438) direct to indirect religious revelation and discuss (439) the potential of new processes for deriving sugar from beet. With respect to this material Coburn notes: ‘the source has not been found’ although she does record that she has searched—one can almost smell her weary frustration—through long runs of the Jahrbücher der Preussischen Monarchie, the Denkwürdigkeiten der Mark Brandenburg ‘and other journals’. From this she concludes that ‘in the spring of 1799 a controversy was raging on the “important new discovery” of the sugar beet.’ Beet, it seems, was it. They told her don't you ever come around here/don't want to see your face, you better disappear. The feuer's in their eyes and their Wörter are really clear, so ...

Not to get distracted. It turns out that 435, 436 and 437 are from Christoph Wilhelm Jakob Gatterers' guidebook to the Harz region, Anleitung den Harz und andere Bergwerke mit Nuzen zu bereisen (2 vols 1786) 2:106f.


The text itself, or the start of it, is screenshotted at the head of this post.

1:437, beginning ‘Der Verf. will von mittelbarer Offenbarung nichts wissen und glaubt, was uns nicht so scheint, daß man diese nur darum angenommen habe ...’ (‘The author will have no truck wth indirect revelation and believes, though it is a belief we do not share, that it has been accepted because certain objections against direct revelation could not be answered ...’) is from Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen, Volume 1 (1799) 1:823 [dated 25th March 1799]



Finally 1:438, the entry on sugar-beet, beginning ‘Der Anbau der Runkel-Rüben, Beta vulgaris Linn. oder nach Beckmann Beta altessima, und daß solche gewöhnlich ...’ (‘The manner of cultivating sugar-beet, Beta vulgaris Linn, or according to Beckmann Beta altessima, is well-known ...’) is from the Salzburger Intelligenzblatt for the 15th June 1799.



So there you have it.

German Epigrams in Coleridge's Notebooks



Notebooks 1:432 is long, multi-item text. In Coburn's words, ‘most of the entries in this item are adaptations, or notes for adaptations, of epigrams from German authors.’ There are thirty entries in all. Coburn identifies the sources of most of these but three she couldn't trace are noted below.

1:
No mortal spirit yet had clomb so high
As Kepler, and his Country let saw him die
For very want! The Souls minds alone he fed
And so the Bodies left him without bread!
Coburn marks this as ‘Source not found’. In fact it's an epigram by German mathematician and astronomer Abraham Gotthelf Kästner (1719–1800):
So hoch war noch Kein sterblicher gestiegen,
Als Kepler stieg—und starb in Hungersnoth!
Er wusste nur die geister zu vergnügen,
Drum liessen ihn die Körper ohne brodt.
It was widely reprinted and quoted in the 18th-century, so there's no way of being sure where Coleridge found it.

3:
On Lucas Cranach's Grave-stone he is called Pictor celerrimus—a mistake of the Stone-cutter for celeberrimus. With some of our Poets the Public makes just the contrary blunder—& puts celeberrimus where celerrimus only is the Truth.
‘Source not found’ says Coburn. Well, it is indeed true that Cranach's monument does indeed describe him as ‘Pictor celerrimus’, ‘the fastest painter’, which most art-historians think merely reflects his reputation as a rapid craftsman. The idea that this was actually whatever-the-stone-cutter-equivalent-is-of-a-typo is something Coleridge saw in Christian Wilhelm Schneider's Samlungen zu der Geschichte Thüringens (1771) 1:121: ‘Denn obgleich “Lucas Cranach” auch “Pictor celerrimus” gewesen:—so sieht man doch gar wohl, daß er hier “celeberrimus” hat sollen genennt werden’. Coleridge's application of the notional blunder to poetic reputation seems to be his own addition.


17:
Ein jeder sieht mit Lust diess schöne Bildniss an—
Ich nicht: weil ich nur noch diess Bildniss sehen kann
This is actually the last two lines of a quatrain by Andreas Gryphius entitled ‘Über das Bildniss der Hippolyta’, ‘On a Portrait of Hippolyta’:
So schien Hippolyta, der Ausbund ihrer Zeit,
Der Tugend Ebenbild, die holde Freundlichkeit.
Ein jeder sieht mit Lust diess schöne Bildniss an;
Ich nicht: weil ich nur noch diess Bildniss sehen kann.
‘So Hippolyta: the epitome of her time/the picture of kindness, the grace of kindness/Everyone looks upon her picture with pleasure/But I don't—because it is only a picture!’ [Christian Wernikens Überschriften: nebst Opitzens, Tschernings, Andreas Gryphius und Adam Olearius Epigrammatischen Gedichten (1780), 397]

Monday, 8 October 2018

'A New Augustus'




Here's the Coleridge Notebook entry Coburn numbers as 1:413:
Fluctibus extollens novum salutat Augustum
from the Album in the Brocken, a dante Hexameter—
It's something of a puzzle. The Latin means ‘Rising from the waves, he salutes the new Augustus’, and the rest of the entry can really only mean one thing: somebody had written the line down in a visitor's album in the inn at the Brocken, where Coleridge was staying in May 1799, as a curiosity, and Coleridge copied it into his notebook—the curiosity being that though this phrase occurs in a piece of Dantean prose it happens to be a Latin hexameter. It's the kind of thing that happens. Robert Graves used to go through the Times leaders underlining all the occasions when the prose slipped into iambic pentameter; he said sometimes the incidence was as high as 30%.

The problem is I can't find out where it originally came from. If it is an authentic piece of Dantean Latin, it must be about Henry VII of Luxembourg, whom Dante several times hailed as the new Augustus come to reunite Italy under a new holy Empire (he discusses Henry in these terms in the Monarchia, and wrote many letters on the topic: in Epistola 2.7.5 he even addresses Henry as ‘tu, Cesaris et Augusti successor’).

Henry crossed the Alps with his army in 1310, subdued most of Northern Italy, had himself crowned Emperor (the image at the head of this blogpost) and then, inconveniently for Dante's hopes, promptly died of malaria in 1313 at the age of forty. Several times in Purgatorio Henry is praised as the saviour come to redeem Italy and end secular control of the church, and in Paradiso 30:137 Dante sees the high seat of honour waiting for Henry in heaven: one who ‘came to reform Italy before she was ready for it’. So it's very possible that, at some point in his Latin prose, Dante imagines (let's say) Tiber rising from his bed to hail the new Augustus. But if he does so then I can't find it: it's not in the De Monarchia, and not in the Epistolae either. Maybe it's somewhere else? Or perhaps somebody wrote the phrase in the Brocken Album for some other reason and Coleridge jumped to conclusions. Hmm.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Coleridge on Metrical Invention: an Untraced Quotation from the 1799 Notebook



Notebooks 1:387 is a short quotation in German marked ‘source not traced’ by Coburn.
Was im eigentlichsten und schärfsten Verstande erfunden wird, ist für die menschliche Gesellschaft nur selten wirklich nützlich.
In its day, this small thing generated a deal of bad-tempered heat in the narrow world of Coleridgean scholarship. Coburn's account of the entry notes that ‘without context it is not absolutely certain whether Verstand here means understanding, intelligence in the Kantian use of it, or simply sense (ie meaning)’. Accordingly she proposes two possible translations: ‘whatever is invented by the pure, and most acute, intelligence is but rarely of real use to human society’ and ‘whatever is invented in the most literal and exact sense [of the word invented] is but rarely of real use to human society’. Then she adds the following:
Since the above was written, a sharp controversy involving four correspondents and four translations of Coleridge's quotation has raged in the Listener, 2 April-7 May 1953. The argument turned partly on the two interpretations above: whether the word Verstand means a mental power, or the sense or meaning of a word; but it also turned on whether erfunden means invented, or discovered. As none of the controversialists identified the source of the quotation we are not much better off. The main point—Coleridge's reason for being interested in the passage, and whether he was impressed by it or noted it to refute it—remains obscure. If it be read according to (1) above, it reflects a position familiar to readers of Coleridge's later prose, and the quotation becomes a reference in support of his view of the limited use of conceptual understanding. But in the light of other entries in these early notebooks, and in view of eighteenth-century interest in the nature of erfinden and Erfindungen, reading (2) seems the more likely one, and the reading of erfunden as discovered suggested by correspondents to the Listener, unlikely. [Coburn (ed) Notebooks 1.ii: 386]
It is illuminating, then, to be able finally to locate the source of this quotation. It's by the German grammarian and philologist Johann Christoph Adelung and comes from Magazin für die deutsche Sprache, Volume 1 (1783), p. 147. It is, in fact, not a Kantian speculation on the nature of Understanding versus Intelligence, but speculation about the origin of poetic metre.

The sentence occurs in an essay titled ‘Noch ettwas über Deutsche sprache und Litteratur auf Veranlassung der Berlinischen Monathsschrift’; ‘Another reply to the Berlin Monthly on the topic of German language and literature’. The Berlinische Monatsschrift was a monthly magazine published by Johann Erich Biester and Friedrich Gedike, most famous nowadays because it published Immanuel Kant’s celebrated ‘What is Enlightenment?’ essay. The immediate context for the passage Coleridge copied into his notebook is some speculation about the provenance of German poetic metres: ‘Ob unsere Litteratur eine Einheit hat,’ Adelung wonders ‘wenn bald morgenländische, bald Laplädische Schwünge des Geistes, bald fremde Sylbenmaße ...’: whether our Literature possesses a unity, [and if so] when Eastern influences became apparent, when a Lapland spirit first animated it, when foreign metres first appeared. At this point Adelung adds a lengthy footnote that begins:
“Attiker,” sagt Herr Biester, “erfanden neue Sylbenmaße,aber Rammler soll das nicht!” Ich antworte: 1. Erfunden wird in der menschlichen Gesellschaft eigentlich nichton sondern herrschen, kurz wenn unsere schönen Schriftsteller angegeben hatten, mit klarent Bewußtseyn heraus gehoben, und der Absicht bequemer und angemessener gemacht. Was im eigentlichsten und schärfsten Verstande erfunden wird, ist für die menschliche Gesellschaft nur selten wirklich nützlich. 2. Weder Pindar noch Attiker haben wohl in diesem schärfsten Verstande Sylbenmaße erfunden, sondern was schon in der Sprache, dem Tone, den Tonmaße conventionellen Begriffe des Wohlklanges dunkel lag, herausgehoben näher bestimmt, und mit Bestimmtheit angewandt.

“Attic,” says Mr. Biester, “invented new metres—but Rammler should not!” I answer: 1. In human society, such invention is not actually inventing but a process of codifying, in brief, taking that which our most beautiful writers have expressed and extracting metre from the clarity of their poetic awareness with the intention of making a more convenient and suitable account. What is actually and literally invented is seldom of real use to human society. 2. Surely neither Pindar nor any Attic speaker invented metres in this narrow sense, but rather took what was already hidden in the language, the tone, the measures of  lovely-sounding conventional terms, and emphasized these more precisely, and applied them with more sureness.
Here's the bottom of p.146:


... and here's the top of p.147.



‘Rammler’ is the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler, and ‘Biester’ the Berlin Professor Johann Erich Biester. In other words, the reason this sentence caught Coleridge's eye is precisely because it insists that what is called invention is actually discovery (except in a few, artificial and unimportant cases). But the specific context of this quotation had to do not with Kantian thought or human consciousness more generally but the narrower question of poetic metre. Which is pretty interesting, actually.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Coleridge's Longaevi




:1:

This is a pendant to my previous post on the ‘Antiquus Marium’. My larger aim in that piece was to spin-out some thoughts on the double nature of the word ancient, as per the title of Coleridge's most famous poem. It's a word that can mean either that one is old, declined into the vale of years, heading towards death; or, as in the Biblical phrase Ancient of Days, it can mean that one stands outside time altogether, that one is wholly untouched by age, death and mortality—ancient in the sense of preceding time altogether, as seems to be the Biblical meaning. Two quite different things! In my previous post I was trying to pull the argument together that the Rime orchestrates itself, as one of the most enduring examples of Romantic mythography, in relation to this strange tension, and that it does so because STC has an ambiguous relationship to the concept of personal survival after death. The Rime is, in one sense, clearly a poem ‘about’ death, so I wondered what its fascination with creatures who are neither conventional mortals not yet immortals, beings liuek djinns and demons, Greek gods or strange monsters, has to say about that. You can read the post for yourself, but the answer I propose is that, so far as I can see: Coleridge was conflicted about the church doctrine of individual eternal afterlife: that he couldn't quite believe it and couldn't bear to disbelieve it either. This left him in a strange position, not so much theologically (where he could trust to faith) but intellectually and more important imaginatively.

Now: in that post I quote William Empson quoting C S Lewis concerning the sorts of intermediary creatures, neither immortal spirits (like God and His angels) nor ordinary mortals like thee and me, that populate the worlds of medieval romance, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, as well as of the Rime: daemons, Nine-Fathoms-Deep monsters, Nightmares-Life-in-Deaths and so on, and suggest that. Like the Greek gods Empson thinks they memorialise, these entities exist as neither-mortal-nor-quite-immortal rebuses for that Coleridgean uncertainty about individual survival after death.

Then my friend Alan Jacobs emailed me to point out that Empson was actually being (as he often was) cavalier with the Lewisian truth. ‘Lewis,’ Alan notes, ‘has a lot to say, in various places, about the “intermediary” creatures that Empson quotes him on—and quotes him out of context and therefore inaccurately—but his lengthiest treatment is probably in The Discarded Image, where the sources he cites seem (to me anyway) to call into question Empson’s claim that they arise as a way to ensure what Seznec called “the survival of the pagan gods.”’ Here's the echt Lewis:
I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chapter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the [Medieval] Model does not assign, as it were, an official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous. I take for them the name Longaevi from Martianus Capella, who mentions ‘dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns … Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs …’ . Bernardus Silvestris, without using the word Longaevi, describes similar creatures—‘Silvans, Pans, and Nerei’—as having ‘a longer life’ (than ours), though they are not immortal.




Alan adds: ‘Lewis was not just grudgingly acknowledging their “neutrality,” he thought that the most fascinating thing about them. They were simply not involved in the drama of human sin and redemption — they were, rather, as Lewis has a character in That Hideous Strength say, “going about their own business.” (Though the same character insists that at some point they will be required to declare their allegiance, as we all will).’ That seemed to me very interesting from a Coleridgean point of view, because STC, whilst mired psychologically and poetically to an unusual degree in ‘the drama of human sin and redemption’, so rarely found a way from the first of those two key terms to the second (psychologically, or poetically).

So perhaps it is the fact that the longaevi stand outside the drama that makes them so appealing, imaginatively speaking, an appeal that has the added savour of that ominous ‘not yet’-ness of that at some point they will be required to declare their allegiance.

This then led to me asking myself: what did Coleridge believe about the afterlife? I was startled to realise I wasn't entirely sure. If pressed, I would probably have muttered something about how he doubted more forcefully during his quasi-Unitarian 1790s, but that he moved back towards Anglican orthodoxy on the topic through the eighteen-teens and twenties (when he was revising the Rime). The thing is: though he was a prolific author on all kinds of theological matters, he wrote relatively little on the subject of the afterlife. The trinity? Yes. Will? Yes. The day-to-day practice of faith? Very much so, especially as it intersected with questions not only of individual but of social morality and politics. But the afterlife?


:2:

So I've been nosing around this question a little bit. As, perhaps, is the case with young people generally, young Coleridge seems to have had little interest in what might happen after he died, because his focus was elsewhere. As he aged—and, again I'm sure this is common enough—he began to think more about death, and about the possibility of personal or individual survival afterwards. A useful article on this topic is Anthony John Harding's ‘Coleridge, the Afterlife, and the Meaning of “Hades”’ [Studies in Philology, 96:2 (1999), 204-223], which I find myself uninhibited from quoting, at some length:
Coleridge's questioning of the belief in an afterlife became particularly intense after he passed the age of fifty. He certainly did not question it in the sense of doubting whether there was an afterlife, as his friend Charles Lamb evidently did. Indeed, Coleridge thought that belief in an afterlife was one of the two essential ‘Constituents of all true Religion’ [Aids to Reflection, 356]. All the passions, fears, thoughts, hopes, ideas, and longings that fill a person's mind and soul in this life could not simply vanish, and become as nothing, when the last breath is drawn. Expressing this conviction in a note of February or March 1829, Coleridge asserts that immortality is ‘The inevitable Rebound of the I am.’ He continues: ‘the moment that the Soul affirms, I am, it asserts, I cannot cease to be.’

In the 1828 draft essay ‘On the Passions,’ Coleridge asks the question Plato asks in the Phaedrus: ‘Think'st thou that thou canst understand (the nature of) the Soul without an insight into the Soul of Nature?’ Mystical as this may sound to us now, Coleridge means the question entirely seriously, and in a sense that owes less to Plato than to some of the scientific enquiries of his own time. This way of putting the question has all the force of Coleridge's major intellectual effort in his Highgate years, which was to work out a credible, informed, critical, and personally satisfying position on the two questions of deepest interest to most philosophers, scientists, and religious believers at the time: how far human consciousness was dependent on, or even defined by, organic life, and whether consciousness implied an afterlife. [Harding, 205-06]
The answer Coleridge offered to that second question was basically: probably yes, but there's no way of knowing if it entails the survival of a personalised, individual consciousness. The following Notebook entry from those years, on the subject of Jewish ideas of death, sums up STC's late view:
That the Body relapsed into its original Dust, and the Spirit returned to its Origin, viz. to the God who had inbreathed it, was common to all, in all periods of the Hebrew Nation. / This, however, goes but a little way towards the Belief of a Future State: for it leaves the main question undecided / whether the Individuality was inherent in the Spirit, or whether it was the continual (quasi-functional) product of the combination of the Spirit with the Substance of the Body.... I must content myself for the present in having laid the simple foundation—namely, that the Soul may & probably must survive the Body; but in what state and condition is another question depending on the state of the Soul itself—Shall its Life meet with Life? or shall it be Life in Death and in a World of Death? (Notebook 37 [BM Add. MS 375321, ff 28^r 28^v, 3]
‘Life in Death’ is a curious and interesting phrase, don't you think? Especially in relation to the Rime. I'll come back to that in a moment.

But interesting though the Highgate years are, I'm more interested here in the young Coleridge, the Coleridge who was writing the Ancient Mariner. And so far as that's concerned I wonder if Coleridge's later position—in effect ‘we will probably survive our deaths, but what survives may well not be a we in the sense that we recognise ourselves now’—is inherent in the symbolic imaginary of this poem. The poem is saying that death, which truncates mortal life so cruelly, lacks the power to destroy it entirely, or that it has not yet acquired that power; but that the forces or the beings that are not subject to ordinary death are strange to the point of uncanny inhumanity.

Coleridge's longaevi, in other words, are his way of articulating, and perhaps of attempting imaginatively actually to derive, his sense of his own personal extinction as at once an inevitability and an impossibility.

Indeed, reading the Rime in this light throws up some (I think) interesting things, both in terms of Coleridge and more broadly. According to one reading the Mariner is himself a longaevus, cursed to wander he land telling his tale like the Wandering Jew. But every reader agrees that the poem is full of longaevi: the Nine-fathom-deep Spirit, living in the ocean; ‘DEATH’ and his ‘mate’ (perhaps shipmate, perhaps sexual partner) ‘Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH’ (‘she/Who thicks man's blood with cold’); the ‘water-snakes’ who, placated by the Mariner's blessing, release the albatross from his neck (if that's what happens); and the ‘seraph-band’, each member of which is a figure like ‘a man all light’, which reanimates the corpses of the other sailors, and finally the voices the Mariner hears in the latter portion of the poem, which belong, according to STC's own gloss, to ‘the Polar Spirit's fellow demons, the invisible inhabitants of the element.’ That's enough to be longaevi to be getting on with for the moment, but before I address them I'm going to take a little detour by mentioning another crucial element in the poem: water.


:3:

Water, water, everywhere in this poem (everywhere except the wedding feast with which it starts and closes, of course). A couple of Notebook entries that date, almost certainly, from 1797—which is say, immediately before or perhaps actually whilst he was drafting the Rime—pick out passages to do with the Greek conception of water that interested Coleridge. In one he copies out Homer's line from Iliad:
Ὠκεανόν τε θεῶν γένεσιν καὶ μητέρα Τηθύν.

‘Ocean is the father of all gods, and their mother is Tēthys.’ [Notebooks 1:245]
Homer actually uses this line twice in the Iliad, once at 14:201 and again at 14:302. In another entry, with the heading ‘Water’, STC copies out the following passage from Aristotle's Metaphysics:
Ὠκεανόν τε γὰρ καὶ Τηθὺν ἐποίησαν τῆς γενέσεως πατέρας, καὶ τὸν ὅρκον τῶν θεῶν ὕδωρ, τὴν καλουμένην ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν Στύγα τῶν ποιητῶν: τιμιώτατον μὲν γὰρ τὸ πρεσβύτατον, ὅρκος δὲ τὸ τιμιώτατόν ἐστιν. [1:983b in modern editions]

‘[Some think] Ocean and Tēthys the parents of creation, and because of this the oath that the gods swear is by water—Styx, as they call it. For what is most ancient is most revered, and what is most revered is what we swear by.’ [Notebooks 1:246]
Father and mother, the oceanic parents of us all (if you're interested, part 3 of this post discusses the place of fathers in the Rime). Coleridge found both these passages quoted in Cudworth's True Intellectual System, which he was reading at the time; but I suspect they float free of Cudworth's Christian Platonism where Coleridge's imaginative response is concerned. Ocean, STC was reminding himself, was also a longaevus—a Titan, like Tēthys his wife, a creature more than mortal without, quite, being a god.

What is water, in Coleridge's poem? The desert Ocean, vast and hostile to life, salt and drear, death in endless motion? Or perhaps: the ocean, teeming with life (like the water-snakes that moved in tracks of shining white, the blessing of whom frees the Mariner), the pathway to adventure, empire and freedom, the sublime and beautiful waters? In Genesis the deep predates the cosmos, and Coleridge's own God broods over it before speaking the universe into being.

What about Tēthys? She's an intriguing figure. According to Hesiod she was the daughter of the Sky and the Earth (that is, Οὐρανός [Ouranos] and Γαῖα, [Gaia]), although according to other traditions she was herself the mother of all the Titans and all the gods, as per the two passages Coleridge copied into his Notebook, quoted above. But beyond that we know very little about her. There are no specific mythic stories or cycles associated with her and no descriptions of her in the surviving classical corpus. Indeed, so removed is she from the usual Greek mythic cycle that some critics (M. L. West is one such) posit a lost narrative in which she separated from her husband Ocean in order to represent the divergence of the ‘lower’ oceanic and the ‘upper’ atmospheric waters (also something that happens in Genesis, of course). That sort of speculation postdates Coleridge's time, but he was likely well-read enough in eighteenth-century comparative mythography to know that Tēthys has an etymological and conceptual relationship with the Babylonian goddess of oceanic chaos and creation Tiamat, both names deriving ultimately from the Akkadian word for sea, tâmtu, the word also behind Θαλάττη, and (if Walter Burkett is to be believed) a word cognate with the Hebrew tehom (תהום) (the deeps) mentioned in Genesis 1:2. I don't want to get lost too far down this particular rabbithole except to note two things relevant, I think, to the imaginative underpinning of Coleridge's Rime. One is that as he was planning, or perhaps writing, the poem he jotted down two passages identifying both a sacred male marine ancient-ness—Oceanus—and a sacred female marine ancient-ness: Tēthys. The Rime opens and closes at a marriage feast, where a male and a female principle are sacramentally joined; although of course the poem's main story concerns separation, isolation and death.

Which brings me to the second Tēthys-related relevance. We know almost nothing about her from ancient literature (we don't know, for instance, whether her lips were red, her locks were yellow as gold or skin was as white as leprosy), but there's one myth where she sort-of appears, and that's the transformation of Aesacus or Aisakos (Αἴσακος in the Greek) from a bereaved lover into a great white-gold seabird. You'll find the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, 11.749-759. Aesacus is a Trojan prince, the brother of Hector, who falls in love with the nymph Hesperia, daughter of the river Cebren. Aesacus chasing after her, but she is bitten on the foot by a snake as she flees and dies on the spot. Aesacus, overwhelmed by grief, leaps from a sea-cliff hoping to commit suicide, but his wishes are thwarted by Tethys, who transforms him into a seabird. Here's an illustration from Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation of the Metamorphoses.


In the foreground there you can see Aesacus running along, and the nymph Hesperia dead on the ground; and in the background you can see Aesacus about to jump off the cliff, and watery Tēthys, in her royal robe and crown, ready to receive him. I can't discover if Coleridge read Golding's Ovid, but the ways the Elizabeth translated the lines are certainly interesting in the context of the Rime. For example: Ovid frames his retelling of the tale by having two old men (senes) observing seabirds, and one telling the other the story behind a particular kind of bird. Golding calls this speaker ‘an auncient father’ and specifies the type of bird (in the Latin it's a mergus) as ‘the wydegoawld Cormorant’. The adjective looks like ‘white-gold’ but actually, if you refer back to the Latin, it must be ‘wide-gulled’. In Golding's version ‘Eperie’ runs and Aesacus pursues, until ‘an Adder lurking in the grasse’ did ‘byght her foote with hooked tooth’ causing her to ‘cease her flyght and soodein fell downe dead’. Aesacus bewails his loss (‘Alas it irketh mee, it irkes mee of this chace!’) and resolves to kill himself. This, though, Thetys will not let him do:
                                                               With that at last
Downe from a rocke (the which the waves had undermynde) he cast
Himself into the sea. Howbee't dame Tethys pitying him,
Receyvd him softly, and as he uppon the waves did swim,
Shee covered him with fethers. And though fayne he would have dyde,
Shee would not let him. Wroth was he that death was him denyde,
And that his soule compelld should bee ageinst his will to byde
Within his wretched body still, from which it would depart,
And that he was constreynd to live perforce ageinst his hart.
And so as a charmed, wide-gulled ‘Cormorant’ he lives, unwillingly, to this day. Is this the kind of bird (if not the selfsame, then some kind of mythic coavian) that the Mariner finally slays? Or put it another way: is the mysterious love the Nine-fathom oceanic spirit has for the Albatross a parallel of the mysterious love the oceanic Titaness Tethys has for her Aesacusian Cormorant? Coleridge liked to describe himself as a library cormorant. L'oiseau c'est moi, as Louis Quatorze never said.

In order to wrap this up and tie a little bow upon it I'd need some hard evidence that Coleridge read Golding's Ovid, or indeed any concrete evidence at all beyond a few contemporaneous Notebook entries that he was thinking about Oceanus and Tēthys as he drafted his poem. I don't have that, though. (One, perhaps overtenuous, thing to note is that Golding's rhymed fourteener couplets are, metrically, the same as Coleridge's ballad quatrains, save only for the formatting). But that's not what I've been doing here, really. This section has been an excursus from the main argument of this blogpost, to which I now return, and into which it feeds only one salient: that the ocean of Coleridge's Rime is not a mere expanse of material water, but an entity in its own right, a supermortal creature. It is primeval chaos and structured form, female and male, life and death, Tethys and Ocean. True, it is not personified in the poem, but it is surely alive without being (as Ocean and Tethys are doomed Titans, not immortal gods; or as the pagan gods are doomed longaevi, not Christian angelic or divine eternals) immortal.

If it seems odd to you that I'm describing the sea itself as a longaevus, in the sense that Lewis uses the term, then I'll reiterate that what I'm suggesting is that the sea of the Rime is not the large quantity of brine sloshing around the declivities of our material planet that science studies. It is something mysterious and magical, something in a sense alive, not mortal in the way that we are, but neither immortal—because there will come a time when the Wandering Jew is finally relieved of his curse, when the Mariner can finally unburden himself of his tale once and for all and when the whole world will be rolled up as a scroll, at the Final Judgement.


:4:

A few notes on the other longaevi in the poem, starting with the spirit who takes offence at the Mariner killing the albatross. As to why this water spirit lives at nine-fathom deep ... well's that's a question that doesn't admit of any definite answer. But I'm going to make one suggestion. It relates to Purchas, his Pilgrimage (1614), a book we know Coleridge was reading in the summer of 1797, and out of which (of course) he confected ‘Kubla Khan’. Now Purchase, his Pilgrimage is full of mariners' tales. Chapter 13, for instance, tells of the voyage of the Globe in 1610, commissioned by the newly mandated East India Company, under the command of Anthony Hippon. Hippon rounded Cape of Good Hope, made it to India, discovered that the Portuguese had anticipated him at the Coromandel Coast (his initial destination) and so sailed on to the Bay of Bengal where he not only initiated trade but established factories (‘to Captain Hippon, therefore,’ says Charles Rathbone Low in his History of the Indian Navy 1613-1863 [1877] ‘belongs the honour of having been the founder of those factories in the Bay of Bengal which developed into magnificent trading establishments, and ultimately gave our Presidency the cities of Calcutta and Madras’). Purchas's account doesn't cover this after-history of course, but Coleridge would surely have known about it.


Now: something interesting happens before the (strikingly allegorically-named, don't you think?) Globe gets to India:
We weighed from the Black-well in the good shippe called the Globe, being bound for the East-Indies, the third of January 1610. The one-and-twentieth of May [we] sailed not farre from Mosambique and Comoro ... The fourth of August we stood in three houres, and then sounded, being about three leagues off the shore, and had nine fathome, and the land then bore West-North-West to the Northwards. At three o'clock we cast about and stood. ... The sixt[h], in the morning, we perceived our selves to be in a great Current by the rippling, and We sent off our Pinnasse to come to an anchor, and we found the Current to let North by West, and we made our way from foure of the clocke in the after-noone, the fift[h] till noone, the sixt[h]: North North-well, and ran seventeene leagues, and then We were in the latitude of ten degrees, and one and thirtie minutes, and from noone till two of the clocke wee steered away North. [Purchase His Pilgrimage, 3:13]
We can assume Coleridge read this, and there's nothing stopping us speculating that it stuck in his mind: the world-boat becalmed in nine fathoms of water and afterwards being swept away northward in a great current. The Rime tells just this story. The point about the nine fathoms is that it isn't all that deep: eight leagues further out from the coast the Globes takes another sounding and find themselves in twenty-fathoms, and the open water is hundreds of fathoms (the Marianas Trench is over 6000 fathoms deep). So we can deduce: the Nine-fathom Spirit doesn't stray too far from land.

What of the water-snakes? The Latin for such creatures is natrix (plural natrices), and usually when Classical authors talk of them it is as a venomous and terrible scourge (natrix was also the name of a kind of whip used for public flogging). The ninth book of Lucan's Pharsalia (specifically 9:619ff) includes a long list of the terrible serpents, both land- and water-based, that derive from the monstrous Libyan Medusa and now infest the world. One of those is the ‘natrix violator aquae’ [Lucan 9, 720], 'the sea-snake, defiler of waters’. The way Coleridge takes these creatures, and reimagines them as beautiful and spiritually wholesome is one of the most striking moves in the Rime.

And here we find ourselves upon a critical pathway that is very well trodden indeed: because, following Coleridge's own often reiterated assertion that poetry is intrinsically serpentine, critics have hurried to churn out analyses of Coleridge's creative praxis in those terms, readings of the various snakes in his oeuvre as self-referential embodiments of poetry as such (so that's why the Mariner's blessing the water-snakes has such efficacy!). Whole books have been written on Coleridge and metaphorical snakes. ‘The common end of all narrative, nay of all Poems,’ Coleridge wrote, ‘is to convert a series into a Whole: to make those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a circular motion—the snake with its Tail in its Mouth’ [Letters, 4:545]. In the Biographia he says ‘the reader should be carried forward by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power’ [Biographia 2:11]. It's so characteristically Coleridgean a conceit, this, that his friend Hazlitt made mild fun of him for it: ‘The principle of the imagination,’ is how he pastiches the Coleridgean position ‘resembles the emblem of the serpent ... with undulating folds for ever flowing into itself,—circular, and without beginning or end.’ [Hazlitt, ‘The Drama: XI’ (Dec. 1820), in P P Howe (ed) Hazlitt Complete Works, 18:371]. Does this strike you as a little ... pat, maybe? A touch over-easy? Is this how the natrices in the Rime figure, though? Might we see these snakes as less about poetry, and more as ancients in the sense that I'm talking about there: rebuses of mutability (shedding their skin) and of eternity (the Ouroborus with its tail in its mouth)?
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware. [272-85]
The focus here is surely not their quasi-poetic expressivity so much as their longaevitas: their hoary (‘white or gray with age’; ‘remote in time past’), elfish light—elves being prototypical longaevī on the sense that Lewis discusses. Their attire: blue, ‘glossy green’ (so silk or satin?) and velvet (silk again), like ambassadors from the court of the Fairy Queen.

Then there are the reanimated corpses of the mariners (I'm sorry to be being so plodding over all this: I'll come to my main point shortly, I promise). The 1817/1834 marginal glosses explain what happens to these unlucky sailors thuswise: ‘the bodies of the ship's crew are inspirited [in 1834 this was changed to inspired], and the ship moves on. But not by the souls of the men, nor by demons of earth or middle air, but by a blessed troop of angelic spirits, sent down by the invocation of the guardian saint’. If this looks like an attempt at retconning the 1798 poem to fit it into a more orthodox frame, and avoid the sense that the poem is engaging in blasphemous mockery of Christ's resurrection, it shouldn't. The angelic nature of this reanimation is evident from the original text:
The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
We, since we know our Bible, will recognise that God ‘maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire’ [Psalm 104:4]; ‘the flame went up toward heaven from off the altar, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar’ [Judges 13:20].



(A snatch of John Barnett's 1867 Cantata based on the Rime, there). But though the angels are immortal, and the now departed souls of the sailors are immortal, the bodies working the ship are neither mortal (because they are still working after death) nor immortal—which is to say, they are longaevi. Which brings us to this fine couple:


(Image is by Carole Humphreys). Death and his mate Nightmare-Life-in-Death. I've always been struck by the woman's name. It's not Nightmare Death-in-Life: not, that is, the nightmare that we die, that our lives are inevitably ended by death—but on the contrary the nightmare that death might not end our lives, that we might continue after death in some ghastly neither-alive-nor-properly-dead state. That's a very striking thing. And it explains the Nightmare dame's appearance: skin white as leprosy, not just bone-white (like her mate) but white like a peculiarly horrible wasting disease in which the body rots—like a corpse—but we are still alive. She is beautiful, which is to say alluring, because none of us want to die. But she is a Nightmare because the prospect of posthumous survival is, when we think about it, nightmarish.

Death and his Nightmare partner play dice for the mariner's, or perhaps mariners' (I think it's genuinely ambiguous) soul(s), and she wins. So the ship and crew are doomed to the nightmare of living even though they are dead. That may seem plenty Gothic, and there's no shortage of neo-Gothic types, from zombies to vampires, to testify to our continuing fascination with this horrible notion. But it's a classical idea too, dating back at least to Odysseus's encounter with the dead-not-wholly-dead Achilles in the Odyssey:
μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, φαίδιμ᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ.
βουλοίμην κ᾽ ἐπάρουρος ἐὼν θητευέμεν ἄλλῳ,
ἀνδρὶ παρ᾽ ἀκλήρῳ, ᾧ μὴ βίοτος πολὺς εἴη,
ἢ πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσειν. [Odyssey 11:488-91]

Don't sweet-talk me about death, Odysseus:
I'd rather be the slave of the poorest peasant
if it meant I could be alive on Earth again
than be king over all the perished souls of the dead.
Being dead, in the sense of being dead-dead, would be by definition nothing, and however vertiginous the tumble from life to that state might seem to us now, being dead in the sense of being not-quite-dead would be worse. I wonder if this isn't the key to the whole poem. ‘What's it like being dead?’ one character asks another in a recent novel. ‘It's like being alive,’ the ghost replies. ‘But less so.’


:5:

This has become a long post, and indeed too long, and I'm still going, so it's worth pausing for a moment to ask: does this have anything to do with anything, beyond the particular complex of prompts and images and fascinations and anxieties out of which one particular Romantic poet wrote one poem? Are the longaevi what their seclusion by C W Lewis to a chapter apart within the structure of The Discarded Image suggests they are: an interesting anomaly in a larger system that provides a coherent vision of the cosmos. Quaint hangovers from a bygone age, curiosities that divert us but aren't the main show. There's a side of Coleridge that would have agreed with this; the side that thought his ‘Conversation Poems’ and prose his most important work and was apologetic about, or vaguely embarrassed on behalf of, or else simply nonplussed by his ‘Kubla Khan’s and ‘Christabel’s and ‘Ancient Mariner’s. But we know better. We know that these poems are the core of what makes Coleridge a writer of genius, and that the longaevi are not embellishments, but the beating heart of our art.

We could come at this question another way by asking why it is that poets, or at least some poets, are moved to write poems about the gods and demigods of an exploded and believerless pantheon. Why does Keats keep returning to his Endymions and Hyperions? Wordsworth didn't, and indeed in the 1800 ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads he dismisses all that sort of thing as an exhausted set of mere literary conventions. Don't, he exhorts us, say reddening Phœbus lifts his golden fire; say the sun rises. It's more poetic, says William, because it's simpler, because it's closer to the language really used by men and also because it doesn't alienate readers who lack a classical education. True to his word, Wordsworth went on to spend his career writing poems about shepherds and leech-gatherers and ordinary people walking over the Alps, and very pointedly not to write poems about gods and monsters.

Coleridge, influenced by his friend though he undoubtedly was, is a trickier case. The Biographia opens by recalling how James Bowyer, his teacher at Christ's Hospital, drove classical allusion out of the young poet by force of mockery: ‘Lute, harp, and lyre, Muse, Muses, and inspirations, Pegasus, Parnassus, and Hippocrene were all an abomination to him. In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming “Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? Your nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose!”’ And Coleridge the poet certainly avoided excessive classical allusion, like Wordsworth, and put his poetic energies into poems about lime-trees and midnight frost and inventing practical criticism and so on—except—except that sometimes he forgot himself, and his Muse put her terrifyingly lovely, leprosy-white, red-lipped face in at the window of his imagination and he wrote about lesbian vampires and ships crewed by the undead sailing holy-snake-infested waters and so on. (Southey went at it a different way, by writing epics based not on Greek and Roman myths but South American and Indian ones instead).

And influential though the Preface to Lyrical Ballads undeniably was, it certainly didn't unseat the old gods from poetry, as the entire career of Keats and Shelley, Arnold and Browning and Swinburne and Yeats (and so on, and on) showed. So the question becomes: in what does this weird persistence inhere? This persistence, precisely of the weird? Classical allusion is vulnerable to the charge of mere elitism, building your art around allusions to the sorts of things with which your readers will only be familiar if they have had an expensive public-school education. But the history of the democratization of literature, which we have all been living through since the massive expansion of public literacy at the end of the nineteenth-century, has not seen the adoption of a solidly relatable proletarian Wordsworthian aesthetic coming to dominance. On the contrary, Fantasy, in the broadest sense, is more popular now than it has ever been. From some angles it really starts to look as though Fantasy is the only cultural game in town, at the moment.

So instead of the elite/commoner distinction, how about a quotidian/uncanny one? When he insists that poetry should be written about ordinary things in ordinary language only a little dignified in diction and metre, Wordsworth was amongst other things excluding the fantastical from the proper domain of poetry. But over the subsequent two centuries the Fantastical has grappled with the Wordsworthian mundane-sublime, like a Balrog first burning and then strangling its Gandalf, until the latter scrambles up the endless stair to burst (to switch literary allusions) into mimesis's desolate attic, whilst the latter lived on, subterraneously haunting the cultural subconscious. I grow fanciful. It's been a long blogpost, and I am as aweary as Mariana.

Put it this way: the larger cultural agon of the last two centuries has seen le naturalisme of prose and poetry enshrined as a quasi-official embodiment of ‘literature as such’ whilst the much larger beast of popular culture has spread its tentacles in the attempt to grasp a new narrative vocabulary of longaevi. As the Greek gods become increasingly a minority interest, the northern-European and Norse mythology rose up, through Wagner, fictionalised in Tolkien into such figures as contemporary Fantasy and Marvel Comics Universe's Thor. The fey medieval longaevi personae of elves and fairies, gnomes and brownies, leprechauns and trolls, gremlins and cobalos and dvergr were shuffled-through by Fantasy Writers, like bargain hunters as a boot fair, and some of them have been elevated out of tweeness into a renovated status of uncanny and unsettling dignity. Elves are the key example. Tolkien's invented legendarium is really an elvish set of stories (although the mortals and hobbit bit-part-players loom larger in the more popular iterations of it) and elves are longaevi in exactly the sense that Lewis uses the term: immortal beings who are somehow also mortal beings—for they can be killed in battle, or even die of a broken heart—who live much longer than mortal men and women and yet whose immortality is a mode of diminishment, and retreat into the west (whatever that means). Tolkien was the world's biggest Fantasy for a time; then it was probably superseded by Star wars before the Peter Jackson movies put it back up top, and then both franchises were overtaken by Harry Potter—texts addresses much more directly the neo-Gothic ghastliness and horror of Voldemort's longaevi unkillability. So where are we now? Well, I suppose we're in the middle of the Reign of the MCU, when every third movie at the cinema seems to be about a superhero. And what is a superhero? A figure who looks like a man, and yet has super-human and super-mortal powers. Of course, I know, not all superheroes are technically super: as Batman and Iron Man show, they don't all have ‘powers’—‘you can,’ in the immortal words of kid Syndrome from The Incredibles, ‘be super without them.’ But they mostly have powers, and the point of those powers is that they make these beings more than mortal. Stronger, more skilled, more morally wise, functionally immortal except for those time when (‘the best-selling graphic novel of all time!’)—they aren't.



Thor may a god; but can Chris Hemsworth really live forever? Surely not: I mean, he's muscly, but surely not that muscly. What happens, exactly, when a Jedi is killed? I mean, do they die like mere mortals, or do they rather vanish into air only to reappear in ghostly, attenuated form? The Doctor keeps dying and keeps coming back to life with a new face: does that sound like an entirely comfortable fate to you? Vampires don't die, except when they do; but then they're never really alive in the first place (except when they have access to the sorts of intensity of sexual intensity we mortals can only dream about). But really, at the moment, I am struck by the prodigious popularity of our present day dominant longaevi pantheon, comic-book superheroes. Tom Shippey follows Richard Firth Green in believing that scholars tend to ‘privilege le merveilleux savant over le merveilleux populaire’ when in fact ‘the [repressive] clerical authorities were not as in control of things’ as they liked to make out. Popular culture, of the genuinely ground-up sort, like comic books, teen vampire romances, pulp science fiction, have a more immediate access to the cultural reservoirs that feed the continuing irrigation of our collective imaginations with the longaevi. Here's Shippey on Shakey:
Shakespeare, whose most original plays are his fairy ones, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, neither of which has a clear plot source, knew more about fairies than has been noticed. When Titania says, at the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that ‘this same progeny of evils’ in the human world comes from the ‘dissension’ between her and Oberon, she repeats a belief recorded much earlier by the Irish Franciscan Thomas O’Quinn: that trouble in the fairy world brought trouble for humans as well – or for us ‘muggles’, as J.K. Rowling has it. In 1610 Simon Forman, watching Macbeth, was quite sure that the ‘witches’ (as we would label them) were ‘feiries or Nimphes’ and perhaps others thought so too. In Henry V Mistress Quickly of the Boar’s Head Tavern, lamenting the death of Falstaff, cries that the old sinner can’t be in Hell: ‘He’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom!’ She meant ‘Abraham’s bosom’. Or did she? Avalon may have seemed a better bet to the groundlings than wherever the old patriarchs were supposed to have ended up.
This blogpost returns, like a snake biting its tail, to its starting point: the image at the top, one ‘bbbeto’ on deviantart.com has adapted Sir Joseph Noel Paton's 1849 canvas ‘The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania’ as ‘The Quarrel of Superman and Wonder Woman’. It works as well as it does because these are our longaevi now.



In other words, I'm suggesting that ‘we’ (that dangerous generalisation) have much of the same conflicted uncertainty with respect to death, and the possibility of our surviving it, as did Coleridge. Some of us, I daresay, believe that death is the utter end, a blank, the cessation of all ego in the individual forever. But many people don't, or can't, think so uncomfortable and, from the point of view of our immersively conscious now, counter-intuitive a future. The thought that death is the actual end is hard to inhabit. Indeed, as Oscar Wilde might have said, the only thing harder to think than that our deaths will be the absolute ends is—to think that it won't be. Our choices are between DEATH, or Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH, a fate at once worse (because Nightmarish) and better (because beautiful and alluring, in a chilly, white-skinned way). I think our culture keeps returning to these longaevi because they emblematise this weird doubled-ancientness, and so dramatise and act-out our collective anxieties. I could be wrong.

At any rate, and to finish (at least) on the poem, I think it's this, or something to do with this, that reverts metatextually back upon the textuality of this text. It's not that the sea-snakes ‘symbolise’ poetry as such, or that the mariner's curse is some kind of author's mania, or anything like that. It is that this is a poem that deliciously and evocatively baffles our understanding, that it always outflanks attempts, such as this very blogpost, to comprehend its strangeness. We don't even know the Mariner's name! Life wants to know, but Death wants the opposite—I've always liked Adam Phillips's one-line epitome of the Freudian Death Drive as ‘that part of ourselves that determinedly wishes not to know’ (it's in Darwin's Worms, I think). That this poem has endured so vigorously speaks to its resistance to being explained away, or even explained, by critics like me. The Rime is a death that just won't die.