Monday, 22 April 2019

Some Untraced Allusions in Coleridge’s Letters




These are all marked as ‘Source Untraced’ in the Collected Letters (ed Earl Leslie Griggs; 6 vols Oxford 1956-71; reprinted 2000).

1. To Robert Southey, Friday 13 Nov 1795. Coleridge's attempts to rebut Southey’s accusations that he let-down their joint Pantisocratic plans. The letter's tenth paragraph begins: ‘Thus far had I written when the necessities of literary Occupation crowded upon me—and I met you in Red Cliff, and unsaluted and unsaluting pass'd by the man to whom for almost a year I had told my last thoughts when I closed my eyes, and when I first awoke! But “Ere this I have felt Sorrow![”]——I shall proceed to answer your Letters—and first excriminate myself, and then examine your conduct.’ The quotation is from the following William Lisle Bowles's sonnet (it first appeared in 1789's Fourteen Sonnets, a volume very dear to both Coleridge and Wordsworth, and praised extravagantly in the Biographia Literaria):
How blest with thee the path could I have trod
Of quiet life, above cold want’s hard fate,
(And little wishing more,) nor of the great
Envious, or their proud name! but it pleased God
To take thee to his mercy: thou didst go
In youth and beauty, go to thy death-bed;
E’en whilst on dreams of bliss we fondly fed,
Of years to come of comfort—Be it so.
Ere this I have felt sorrow; and e'en now
(Though sometimes the unbidden thought must start,
And half unman the miserable heart)
The cold dew I shall wipe from my sad brow,
And say, since hopes of bliss on earth are vain,
“Best friend, farewell, till we do meet again?”

2. To Thomas Poole, March 1797. Coleridge provides Poole with an account of his parents and siblings. He notes that his parents' seventh child, a son called Luke, and eighth child, a daughter called Anne, both died:
My sixth Brother, Luke (indeed the seventh, for one Brother, the second, died in his Infancy, & I had forgot to mention him) was bred as a medical Man—he married Miss Sara Hart: and died at the age of 22, leaving one child, a lovely Boy, still alive. My Brother Luke was a man of uncommon Genius,—a severe student, & a good man.——The 8th Child was a Sister, Anne—she died a little after my Brother Luke—aged 21.
Rest, gentle, Shade! & wait thy Maker's will;
Then rise unchang'd, and be an Angel still!
Coleridge found this couplet in Gilbert Wakefield's autobiography, Memoirs of the Life of Gilbert Wakefield (1792), which records an epitaph from St Mary's Church Nottingham. In this very ancient church of St. Mary, of which mention is made in Doomsday Book, on the western end of the south wall, is a marble mural monument, erected by a fond husband to the memory of his wife. After a short account of her family, her age, and the day of her death, follow these two lines, in my opinion exquisitely beautiful, and most happily allusive to that grand consolatory declaration in St. Luke xx. 36:—“Neither can they die any more; for they are equal to the angels, and are children of God, being children of the resurrection;”
“Rest, gentle shade! and wait thy Maker's will:
Then rise unchang'd, and be an angel still.” [Memoirs of Gilbert Wakefield, 7]

3. To Joseph Cottle, April 1797. Coleridge writes to his publisher and friend, regretting Southey’s decision to publish his Poems (1797):
I, who in the sincerity of my heart am jealous for Robert Southey's fame, regret the publication of that volume. Wordsworth complains, with justice, that Southey writes too much at his eases—that he seldom ‘feels his burthened breast
Heaving beneath th’ incumbent Deity.’
He certainly will make literature more profitable to him from the fluency with which he writes, and the facility with which he pleases himself, But I fear, that to posterity his wreath will look unseemly.
This is a reference to Lucan's first-century AD epic of Roman civil war, Pharsalia, which opens with praise for the eventual victor, Julius Caesar, from whom Lucan's patron, Nero, derived his imperial authority. Lucan worries (or ostentatiously performs the flattering pretend-worry) that the weight of the now-divine Caesar will be too much for his humble poem to bear:
Aetheris immensi partem si presseris unam,
Sentiet axis onus. Librati pondera coeli
Orbe tene medio: pars aetheris illa sereni
Tota vacet, nullaeque obstent a Caesare nubes. [Pharsalia, 1:56-59]
The standard translation of Lucan in Coleridge's day was Nicholas Rowe’s (1718), which renders the quoted lines thus:
Hard were the task thy weight divine to bear;
Soon would the axis feel th’unusual load,
And groaning bend beneath th'incumbent god:
O'er the mid orb more equal shalt thou rise,
And with a juster balance fix the skies.
The line-and-a-half Coleridge quotes in his letter is, interestingly enough, halfway between a distorted memory of Rowe's verse and STC's own translation of the Lucan.

4. To Thomas Poole, 18 April 1801. ‘A nation where the Plough is always in the Hand of the owner, or (better still) where the Plough, the Horse, and the Ox have no existence, may be a great & a happy nation; and may be called so, relatively to others less happy, if it has only a manifest direction & tendency towards this “best Hope of the World”.’ This last phrase is presumably Coleridge quoting the Biblical Book of Wisdom, and its account of how God guided Noah: ‘sed et ab initio cum perirent superbi gigantes, spes orbis terrarum ad ratem confugiens remisit saeculo semen nativitatis quae manu tua erat gubernata.’ ‘For even in the beginning, when giants perished in their pride, the best hope of the world took refuge on a raft, and guided by your hand left the seed of a new generation to the world.’ [Wisdom 14:6]

5. To Thomas Allsop, 8 April 1820. ‘It had been my wish to commence with the Theological Letters: one, and not the least, is the strong desire I have to put you and Hartley and Derwent Coleridge in full possession of my whole Christian creed, with the grounds of reason and authority on which it rests; but especially to unfold the true “glorious liberty of the Gospel,” by showing the distinction between doctrinal faith and its sources and historical belief, with their reciprocal action on each other.’ I suspect this quotation has only gone unsourced because STC's closing quotation-marks have shifted three words too far to the right: the reference is to Romans 8:21: ‘the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ [KJV]