Friday, 31 May 2019

Coleridge's Ostrich



In November 1808, conscious that he hadn't gathered together his best work out of its various journal and newspaper appearances to publish it in book-form, Coleridge wrote to Francis Jeffrey (critic and editor of the Edinburgh Review):
Hitherto, I have laid my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness and Ostrich Oblivion—the greater part indeed have been crush[ed under] foot; but some have crawled into light to furnish Feath[ers] for other men's Caps, and not a few to plume the shaf[ts] in the Quivers of my Calumnators. I cannot flatter myself that the whole Structure of my Philosophy, speculative and moral, will be deemed of legitimate Architecture by you; but to a man of robust and active Intellect there is a charm in that Diversity of Opinion with unity of purpose, which constitute the Discordia Concors of the literary World. ‘Ad isthaec (says one of my great Favorites, Giordano Bruno) quaeso vos, qualiacunque primo videantur aspectu, attendite, ut qui vobis forsan insanire videar, saltem quibus insaniam rationibus, cognoscatis.’ [Letters 3:718.]
The Latin is from Bruno's De immenso et innumerabilibus [(1591) 1:2] and means ‘I ask you to pay close attention to these things, no matter how they appear at first sight; for then, though your initial thought might be that I'm mad, you may at least discover my madness has rational principles behind it.’ Coleridge had high hopes that his new venture, The Friend, would establish his status and earn him money, and was already thinking ahead to what would become (although not until 1817) his de facto ‘Collected Poems’, Sybilline Leaves. He writes to Jeffrey with these things in mind.

This image of STC as an ostrich, burying his eggs in the sand and forgetting them, has become quite a famous one. Coleridge himself was certainly fond of it. A few weeks later in December 1808, still in Grasmere, he wrote to his brother George:
Hitherto, I have laid my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness and Ostrich oblivion—most of them indeed have been crushed under—yet some have crawled into Light to furnish Feathers for Caps of others, and not a Few to plume the shafts in the quivers of the Slanderers. I conjecture, that my opinions will not recede from your's in proportion as they draw near to our elder Divines & Moralists—At all events I ask with the Philosopher Nolan, Giordano Bruno—‘Ad isthaec quaeso vos, qualiacunque primo videantur aspectu, attendite, ut qui vobis forsan insanire videar, saltem quibus insaniam rationibus, cognoscatis.’ [Letters 3:722]
A familiar ring to that, no? A few days after that, STC wrote to Sir George Beaumont.
Hitherto I have laid my Eggs with Ostrich Carelessness, and Ostrich like Oblivion. The greater part have been crushed under foot; but some have crawled into light to furnish Feathers for other men's Caps—and not a few to plume the shafts in the quivers of calumny. Henceforward
Et nos tela, pater, ferrumque haud debile dextra
Spargimus: et nostro sequitur de vulnere sanguis.
If this appear to you a Confidence too near to Presumption, yet blame it not too severely, first because it is an exception to my ordinary and habitual Tone of Self-appreciation, and because it is scarcely possible to succeed in such a work without a quickening and a throb in the pulse of hope. [Letters 3:730-31]
This, though, is a rather different kind of Latin quotation from the other instances. It's Aeneid 12:50-51, and means ‘I too, father, can hurl steel darts with my right hand, and not weakly neither; for after I throw, blood flows’. That looks rather like boasting, which I suppose explains Coleridge's deliberately deflating follow-on gloss, although that sentence doesn't deflate STC's presumption all that much: ‘self-appreciation’ is something like a Freudian slip for ‘self-deprecation’ and that quickening throb of prideful hope doesn't sound like somebody doing himself down, exactly. The pater, by implication, is the older, aristocratic Beaumont; and Coleridge's gesture is simultaneously deferential and cocky.

Then again, perhaps not so cocky as all that. The lines STC quotes here are Turnus's hubristic boast to King Latinus that he will defeat the Trojans and kill Aeneas—of course, he does neither and ends the poem dying pitiably. Indeed the lines immediately before the two Coleridge quotes are Latinus trying to discourage Turnus from continuing his futile war, advising him to return to his own realm, to give up Lavinia and take another bride (‘other unwed maids there are in Latium and Laurentum's fields, and of no ignoble birth’). But this pacifing advice only infuriates Turnus further:
Haudquaquam dictis violentia Turni
flectitur: exsuperat magis aegrescitque medendo.
Ut primum fari potuit, sic institit ore: [Aeneid 12: 46-48]
‘By no means do these words defuse the rage of Turnus; on the contrary, it shoots up even higher, its fever-flames fed by what was supposed to heal them. As soon as he was able to speak, he said:’—and we're into his vain bombast that when he throws his javelin, Aeneas will surely bleed. In this context Coleridge's apparent hubris looks rather more dubious.

But let's not forget the ostrich. Coleridge certainly didn't: a decade later he's still using this image. This is how the second chapter of the Biographia Literaria (1817) ends:
I have laid too many eggs in the hot sands of this wilderness, the world, with ostrich carelessness and ostrich oblivion. The greater part indeed have been trod under foot, and are forgotten; but yet no small number have crept forth into life, some to furnish feathers for the caps of others, and still more to plume the shafts in the quivers of my enemies, of them that unprovoked have lain in wait against my soul.
Sic vos, non vobis, mellificatis, apes!
That Latin means ‘so it is, you bees, that you make honey, but not for yourselves.’ Vergil again, though this time not from the Aeneid. The story goes that Vergil had pinned the following anonymous verses, in praise of the emperor Augustus, to the imperial palace gate:
Node pluit tola, redeunt spectacula mane:
Divisum imperium cum Jove Caesar habet.
[‘It rains all night; the morning restores the splendors; so it is that Caesar and Jupiter divide their imperial rule between them.’]
When a lesser poet called Bathyllus claimed to be the author and was rewarded by Augustus, Vergil posted a new line on the gate (Hos ego versiculos foci, tutit alter honores, I made these verses, that another timidly claims), together with the beginning of another line:
Sic vos non
repeated three times. Augustus declared the true author should be able to complete the three lines; and when Bathyllus was unable to do so his imposture was discovered. Finally Vergil stepped forward and wrote:
Sic vos non vobis nidificatis aves;
Sic vos non vobis vellera fertis ovea;
Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes:
[‘So it is that you birds make nests, but not for yourselves/So it is that you sheep make wool, but not for yourselves/So it is that you bees make honey, but not for yourselves’]
This is rather more self-aggrandizing, since the point of quoting this Latin here is to solicit comparison between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Publius Vergilius Maro, which is no small example of self-puffery. But again, we're straying from the birds to the bees; when in fact Vergil's three lines contain both. Back to the ostrich.

The 1808 letter to Francis Jeffries quoted at the head of this post, is not the first to include Coleridge's comparison of himself to an ostrich. Four years earlier, in October 1804, he wrote to his friend Thomas Poole:
I lay too many Eggs, in the hot Sands with Ostrich Carelessness & Ostrich Oblivion—And tho’many are luckily trod on & smashed; as many crawl forth into life, some to furnish Feathers for the Caps of others, and more alas! to plume the Shafts in the Quivers of my Enemies and of them ‘that lie in wait against my Soul’. [Letters 2:524.]
No Latin this time, but instead a Bible verse (Psalms 59:3, ‘For, lo, they lie in wait for my soul: the mighty are gathered against me; not my transgression, nor my sin, O LORD.’). The note of self-pity is stronger here than in the later-written letters: not just the ‘alas!’ but also the detail that most of his eggs are ‘luckily’ trod underfoot, as though their destruction spares the world their abjectness. And earlier still, perhaps October 1803, Coleridge wrote in his notebook:
I lay too many Eggs (in the hot Sands of this Wilderness, the World!) with Ostrich Carelessness & Ostrich Oblivion. The great number part, I trust, are trod underfoot & smashed; but yet no small number crawl forth into Life, some to furnish Feathers for the Caps of others, and still more to plume the Shafts in the Quivers of my Enemies and of them that lie in wait against my Soul. [Notebooks 1:1248.]
This, so far as I can tell, is Ostrich Ground Zero where Coleridge is concerned.

Where does this image come from? From the Bible. At the end of the Book of Job, God rebukes Job's complaining:
Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?
Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust,
And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them.
She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not her's: her labour is in vain without fear;
Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding. [Job 39:13-17]
Kathleen Coburn, in her note on Coleridge's notebook entry, doesn't mention the Biblical source, instead pointing out that only three entries earlier (Notebooks 1:1245) Coleridge had jotted down a selection of bits and pieces from George Sandys' The Relation of a Journey begun an. Dom. 1610, in four books (1615), including several curious and exotic details about the deserts Sandys traversed in Turkey, the Holy Land and Egypt. Sandys also mentions (although Coleridge didn't copy this bit out) the ‘ostridge’, describing it as ‘the simplest of fowles and symbols of folly ... where they have laid their egges ... they leauve them, unmindful where.’ Coburn thinks that's behind the ostrich image.


But Coleridge's ostrich egg analogy is clearly Biblical in provenance. Notebook enry 1245 does transcribe Sandys it's true, but between it and entry 1248 (quoted above) are two religious entries that have nothing to do with deserts: 1246 about ‘the stedfast rainbow’ as an image of God, and 1247 about the ‘miracle’ of transubstantiation. Quite apart from anything else, the specifics of STC's ostrich egg are Job-ian: not just the eggs themselves, but the fact that feet may break them, and that some will survive to become young ones alienated from their parent, ‘as though they were not her's’.

In other words, what's not stressed enough, in all the critical discussion of this ostrich image, is that by using it (and reusing it so often) Coleridge is styling himself as a kind of Job. It's self-pity, if you like. He is saying that God has afflicted him with the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century equivalents of losing his family and children (his separation from his wife, perhaps) and an affliction of boils (his opium addiction and manifold illnesses, perhaps). When, after Job's various complaints of cosmic injustice, and after Elihu's rebuke of him, God Himself speaks, it is to stress how little Job knows: ‘Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.’ That presumably sarcastic last touch is a way of saying that, of course, Job does not have understanding of these profound things. He lacks wisdom. He is unknowing.

But there's a kind of meta-point here, too, I think: because God's intervention into this narrative stresses His priority and power, and because Job's unwisdom is itself part of God's larger, mysterious plan. We might say that Job's children died from mere bad luck, or because God and Satan made a wager; but the retrospective insight of God's speech here suggests that Job's children died because he wasn't wise enough about them. Who among us are wise about our children, let alone to the sort of sufficiency that comprehends the miraculousness of them being given to us at all? So, I think, one of the ways the ostrich functions in the Book of Job is as a rebus for Job himself, and therefore for all of us (I daresay all the animals in this Biblical book work this way, to one extent or another; just as all the larger-scale sublime stuff, stars and flowing oceans, are rebuses of Jahweh). Like the ostrich, Job is unwise because God hath deprived him of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to him understanding. Like the ostrich, Job has brought children into a wilderness where feet will crush them. We all do, I suppose.

I don't mean to stray too far from Coleridgean specifics. And we might note that, for all the odour of self-deprecation about STC's ostrich-carelessness analogy, ostrich eggs are very big. Coleridge might be careless, but at least he's producing Significant Work. No chicken-feed for him! And the fact that his enemies deem Coleridge's feathers worthy of appropriating speaks to their beauty and splendour. Heidi Thomson argues that, though the image is ‘usually read as a statement of self-deprecation’, it could be read as saying ‘ostrich carelessness is a sign of great genius which cannot be bothered with bringing a project fully to fruition’ [Coleridge and the Romantic Newspaper (Palgrave 2016), 237]. The Job-ian point is not that Coleridge is useless, or petty, or contemptible; Job, after all, was an important man, no mere goatsherd or beggar. The point is that Coleridge is put-upon, that he suffers, that the cosmos has its metaphorical foot on his neck. As with the various Latin passages that he added, in the letters quoted above, to gloss the repeated reuse of this ostrich-egg passage, the self-deprecation turns out, on a little closer investigation, actually to be a strange kind of boasting. This shouldn't surprise us. Self-deprecation almost always is, after all.

There's one more thing that strikes me about Coleridge's (I would suggest) rather complex self-identification with the Biblical ostrich. It has to do with thwarted affection: here, in Job, but also elsewhere in the Bible. Consider Lamentations 4:3, ‘the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness’. For the Old Testament ostriches represent not just parental carelessness but a kind of heartlessness. This, in 1803 and 1804, perhaps connects the trope with Coleridge's bitterness that Asra was become cruel in witholding her affection from him. But then again, the want of affection is his too: his unfeelingness for his wedded wife, his self-distance whereby he separated himself, emotionally and practically, from his human family, as he did for his textual offspring.

And I think there's another reason, a wordplay reason, why Coleridge saw himself in the ostrich. That bird's name in Latin (as it appears in the Vulgate, for instance) is: struthiocamelus, itself derived from the Ancient Greek στρουθιοκάμηλος (στρουθός, strouthós, “sparrow” + κάμηλος, kámēlos, “camel”). Our own word comes down to us from this root in a slightly roundabout way: via the Vulgar Latin austruthio, a combination of avis (“bird”) and strūthiō (“ostrich”). But if I know Coleridge at all, I think he'd be incapable of seeing the word struthio/camelus without the st of the first portion and the c of the second leaping out at him. STC: STruthioCamelus.

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