Thursday, 24 February 2022

On Westminster Bridge (1743, 1803)


Something a little different on this blog today: Wordsworth rather than Coleridge. But interesting, I think.

There, at the head of the post, is Canaletto's splendid painting ‘London: Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor's Day’ (1747). 

There were several projects to build a bridge across the river at Westminster in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries, all stymied by the Corporation of London, who wanted to preserve the rights and income of the barge- and ferrymen who worked the crossing. But eventually, in 1736, an Act of Parliament approved the project. Privately financed (including by a lottery), construction started in 1739 under the supervision of Swiss engineer Charles Labelye, who had invented a new technology, ‘caissons’ (sealed underwater structures supplied with air from above in which workman could dig the foundations for the bridge's piers into the riverbed). The bridge opened on 18 November 1750. 

It was on this structure that Wordsworth stood, early in the morning of September 3rd 1803. From that vantage he wrote this very famous sonnet:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
The date of composition is in the title of the poem. 

There's a nice piece of wordplay, a mode actually of irony, here. The poem is ‘On Westminster Bridge’, and the poet is actually standing, physically, on Westminster bridge. This doubled sense of on as meaning ‘positioned physically upon’ and ‘concerning, about’ reverts on (!) the poem itself which, famously, doesn't talk about the bridge at all: it's all the houses and temples of London, and the river passing through, gliding at its own sweet will—it is, really, ‘From Westminster Bridge’, not on it at all. Although by the same token, Wordsworth could hardly write the poem without the bridge supporting him. And, as we read the sonnet, we can hardly avoid being struck by its poised tensions of contradictions: the city, an urban space, described entirely in pastoral terms, as if it were a natural phenomenon. The city is somehow both clothed in a ‘garment’ and naked, ‘bare’: its ‘majesty’ is low-key touching, hardly the affective response usually provoked by the awe-inspiring sublime force of majesty. And that final image of a heart lying perfectly still takes calmness too far into death.

To be clear: I am not accusing the poem of being incoherent, or more precisely I am not pegging these incoherences as a failing or a problem. Rather they exist, as do the engineering forces that hold the arches of a bridge in place and support the road overhead, in a mode of creative tension. This is an affecting, beautiful poem: a description of transcendent calm that is also an evocation of such calm, and poem very particularly placed in place (this specific London bridge) and time (September 3rd 1803) that is also placeless and timeless, the city Zion, the time paradise's eternal sunrise. Heart means we're at the centre of the city, which, being London, is in turn at the centre of the world. Which is to say, this poem, which critics discuss as if it never so much as mentions the bridge, ends with a reference to it: ‘lying’ over the river, the vantage-point from which everything is written. It's all on the bridge, after all.

Anyway: lately I have been reading some of the neo-Latin poetry of Englishman Vincent Bourne (1695-1747). (Here is a different blog I wrote about one of Vinny's poems). The later eighteenth-century and Romantic poets read him and thought highly of him. In a letter to the Reverend John Newton (10 May 1781) William Cowper declared ‘I love the memory of Vinny Bourne. I think him a better Latin poet than Tibullus, Propertius, Ausonius, or any of the writers in his way except Ovid, and not at all inferior to him.’ Coleridge owned a copy of The Poetical Works of Vincent Bourne and Charles Lamb translated eight of Bourne’s Latin poems into English, recommending him to Wordsworth: ‘since I saw you,’ Lamb wrote to WW in 1815, ‘I have had a treat in the reading way, which comes not every day — the Latin poems of Vincent Bourne, which were quite new to me. What a heart that man had, all laid out upon town-scenes, a proper counterpart to some people’s extravagancies … what a sweet, unpretending, pretty-mannered, matterfull creature! Sucking from every flower, making a flower of everything. His diction all Latin, and his thoughts all English. Bless him!’ [Ainger (ed) The Letters of Charles Lamb (1904), 1:341].

With that in mind, it's likely Wordsworth, writing his poem ‘on’ Westminster Bridge, was aware of this Bourne poem from Poematia (1743), ‘Pons Westmonasteriensis’:
Tamisi, regales qui praeterlaberis arces,
quam se magnificum, suspice, tollit opus!
quanto cum saxis coalescunt pondere saxa!
quo nexu incumbens sustinet arcus onus!
ardua quam iusto pendet libramine moles      
qua partes haerent partibus harmonia!
quos, cerne, ad numeros, ab utrovis litore sensim
sunt supra acclives alterutrinque viae!
pontis aperturae quam distant legibus aequis,
exterior quae vis interiore minor!                   [10]
hunc artis splendorem inter nihil impedit undas
quove minus placidus vel taciturnus eas.
nil tibi descensum accelerat; non vorticis ullus
impetus in praeceps unde ferantur aquae,
fluxu idem, refluxu idem, lenissimus amnis     [15]
incolumem subtus sternis, ut ante, viam:
seris indicium saec'lis quo principe tanta
haec tibi surrexit gloria, liber eris.

Westminster Bridge

O Thames, as you flow past regal citadels,
see what a fine structure has raised itself here!
With what heft does stone connect with stone!
How well the curving arch sustains its weight!
With perfect balance the tall structure hangs,   [5]
its parts assembled with such harmony!
And see how, ranked upon either shore,
the rising paths each balance either side!
How equidistant are this bridge's arches,
the outer smaller than the inner ones!               [10]
Through this wondrous art the unimpeded
river glideth calmly, silent onwards.
Nothing hurries your motion; no inrushing
whirlpool tangles the headlong current:
It flows the same, reflows the same, gently      [15]
passing safely underneath the paved road.
Later generations will admire the prince
who erected so great a glory: you'll be free.
This looks, on its face, like a very different poem to Wordsworth's, concerned solidly with the bridge itself from start to finish. Bourne does not describe the view from the bridge: understandably, since the bridge wasn't opened until 1750, seven years in the future as the poem is composed (and, in the event, after Bourne himself died). The only lines that, perhaps, Wordsworth Englishes in his Westminster Bridge poem are 11-16, describing the calmly gliding unimpeded flow of the river (Wordsworth's line 12 perhaps owes something to this).

But I'd suggest a different reading. Bourne's poem is about the fabric of the bridge, about the balance, the harmony and the tension of that structure: about what holds it up, maintains it. And that means it is about the structural qualities of poetry as well. Any poem is a balance between the interruptions to flow occasioned by the form and sturcture (metre and prosody, line-breaks, zeugmas and figures, sometimes rhyme) and the flow of the poem's musicality and sense. Bourne signed this poem Milliaria: that is, ‘columns’, ‘pillars’. He is thinking about the architectonics both of his subject and of his verse.

Look again at Bourne's piece: it addresses not the bridge but the river. Its focus is on the bridgework from the point of view of the river: how it interrupts, or doesn't, the flow of the Thames. We intuit a poet's point-of-view on the river (in a boat, perhaps). But Wordsworth, in his sonnet, is also on the river: which is to say, he is on a bridge on the river. We're on.

On the surface Bourne's poem looks like a panegyric to Westminster's bridge's solidity: its rock-fitted-against-rock heft and permanence. And the main rhetorical device is the counterpunctual μέν ... δέ on the one hand/on the other hand: ‘fluxu idem, refluxu idem’ [15] and so on—appropriate to a bridge, we could say, since a bridge links two banks in one span made up of linking arches. Estelle Haan notes the poem's anaphoric balance: ‘the symmetry that lies at the heart of the poem is replicated in its own syntax and structure, most noticeably in the seven successive rhetorical exclamations upon which the whole is balanced: quam (2), quanto (3), quo (4), quam (5), qua (6), quos (7), quam (9). Such exuberant anaphora is for the most part matched by respective line endings proclaiming individual aspects of the bridge's physical structure: its opus (2), saxa (3), onus (4), moles (5), harmonia (6)’ [Haan, ‘Classical Romantic: Identity in the Latin Poetry of Vincent Bourne’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 97:1 (2007)101]

But Bourne's poem includes some similar ironies to Wordsworth's: the bridge's arches are aequis, equal, and yet some are bigger than others [10-11]; the bridge does not impede the flow of the river, and generates no whirlpools, and yet the poem very specifically describes the flow as a flux-reflux eddy.  

Most of all, the poem praises as finished and solidly secure a structure that was, in 1743, neither. On the contrary, the construction of the bridge was beset with reverses and controversy as Labelye went over-budget and over-deadline, struggling to get his new caisson technology to work, losing in total five boats over the course of the building with horrifying casualties among the workmen, and sourcing his stone from great distances with inevitable associated delays in shipping (much of it came from Swanage, and supplies were repeatedly interrupted when the navy pressed the cargo boat sailors for this or that military emergency). 

Nor was the finished bridge especially robust. It lasted a century, plagued with subsidence and requiring repeated and expensive remedial maintainance. Eventually the city decided it couldn't put up with it any longer, and commissioned Thomas Page to design a new bridge. Opened in 1862, this is the bridge currently standing, the lovely seven-arch, cast-iron structure linking Lambeth and Westminster that we all know and love.   

The controversy over the bridge was a live one in the 1740s, when Bourne was writing his poem. Here is the pamphlet published by London architect and designer Batty Langley in 1748: you can see from its title that he is not a fan.

A Survey of Westminster Bridge As Tis Now Sinking Into Ruin: this is two years before the bridge is even opened! Already sinking into ruin? Golly. Langley blames the design: the foundations inadequate to the weight of the whole. He would have designed it differently, he says, and he includes a diagram in which Labelye is shown, strikingly, hanging from a gibbet in the background.

Batty Langley was a fairly eccentric individual, but the opposition to the bridge came from many quarters. The Westminster Journal (2nd Sept 1742) published ‘A Lucubration on the Sinking of Westminster Bridge’.

This makes me wonder if we shouldn't read Bourne's poem as an ironic exercise? Is he praising for its solidity a structure everybody knew wasn't particularly solid? Irony is exactly the kind of structural or semiotic tension that is embodied by the stress-and-tension logic of the arch. Perhaps the ironies of Wordsworth's ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ are responding, in their way, to the ironies of Bourne's ‘Pons Westmonasteriensis’.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

‘Work Without Hope’ (1827): What Work?

 The first publication of ‘Work Without Hope’, in The Bijou (1828). Click to enlarge. 

Let’s have a look at this poem:

Work Without Hope
Lines Composed 21st February 1827

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair;
The Bees are stirring—birds are on the wing;
And Winter slumb’ring in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy Thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where Amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of Nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may—
For Me ye bloom not! Glide, rich Streams! away!
With lips unbrighten’d, wreathless Brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the Spells, that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
(This is the version of the poem printed in J.C.C. Mays' standard Poetical Works [Princeton 2001] 16:2, 1030).

One of Coleridge’s more famous later works, this: an inverted sonnet—the sestet coming first, hymning nature’s industriousness and lamenting the poet’s comparative non-productivity; then the octet, in which the poet confirms that he knows about a more-than-natural realm, where unfading flowers bloom and nectar flows, but that he is excluded from that place and its joy because he has no object upon which to fix his hopes, and without hope work is fruitless. It’s a fine poem, with a particularly well-turned final couplet. I have sometimes wondered if the image of ‘nectar in a sieve’ works through a kind of creative ambiguity: if the reference is to something like wine (often called ‘nectar’, especially in religious contexts) then the fluid will fall straight through the sieve as we try and scoop it. But I suppose most readers nowadays would think more botanically, of nectar as a honied syrup or thicker gloop, in which case the sieve will lose most but will retain some. I wonder if that makes the final image more poignant.

Anyway: there is an, as it were, standard reading of this poem, and I think that reading is wrong. I’ll explain why.

February 1827, the date specified by Coleridge’s subtitle, was a few weeks away from the end of ten years of him living with the Gillmans—James, a young doctor, and his wife Ann—in north London. The Gillmans took Coleridge into their home and family, looked after him (under James’s care STC was able to reduce, although never quite quit, his opium addiction) and hosted the many visitors who came to sit at the feet of, or dine with, the ‘sage of Highgate’. Coleridge even went on holiday with the family. He lived with the Gillmans from March 1816 right through to his death in July 1834. 

Now: it seems that Coleridge performed a sort-of chivalric amour, an I love you rigmarole, where Ann Gillman was concerned. Actual adultery was not on the table and we have to presume that both parties were aware of the effective fictionality of this romantic gubbins. Since separating from his wife two decades before, Coleridge had fallen for a number of women, an actress here, the wife of a friend there, a succession of inamoratas, some more and some less ‘in’ on the game of Coleridge's passion—the modern idiom “had a crush upon”, though anachronistic and a little infantilising, probably gets at the nature of old-man Coleridge’s moonings-after. Then again, there was an important sense, important for STC himself, in which these crushes were real love, intense and vital. 

Which brings us to this poem. Coleridge wrote it in his notebook, 21st February 1827—or to be more precise, he wrote a longer, 36-line poem, the first 14 lines of which were extracted and published, without Coleridge’s permission, in the illustrated annual The Bijou (1828). That first-published version is at the head of this post. I’ll come to the remaining section of the poem in a bit.

The notebook version of the poem comes with a lengthy prose introduction in which Coleridge reports he had imagined (‘a fancy—struck across the Eolian Harp of my Brain’) two mutually-reflecting mirrors: ‘two Looking-glasses fronting, each seeing the other in itself, and itself in the other.’ The note (you can read the whole of it below) ends by calling the poem a
Strain in the manner of G. HERBERT—: which might be entitled THE ALONE MOST DEAR: a Complaint of Jacob to Rachel as in the tenth year of his Service he saw in her or fancied he saw Symptoms of Alienation.
Then there is a deleted line: ‘N.B. The Thoughts and Images being modernized and turned into English’.

That's from J.C.C. Mays' Poetical Works [CC 16.2 606] and, as ever, you can click to embiggen and clarify.

In other words, Coleridge here refers the poem to the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 29—Jacob having travelled to Haran, and seeing Laban’s beautiful daughter Rachel, agreed to work for Haran for seven years to be worthy of marrying her. Here, Coleridge is Jacob, Ann Gillman is Rachel, and the ‘ten years’ being the decade he had spent in Highgate in the Gillman’s house. In the Biblical story, as I’m sure you know, Jacob was tricked: after his seven years, Haran fobbed him off with Rachel’s less-comely older sister Leah, and Jacob had to work another seven years before he finally obtained Rachel.

So we have a biographical reading of the poem, one preferred by all the critics, so far as I can see: having yearned after Ann Gillman for ten years, like Jacob labouring for Rachel, Coleridge now sees, or thinks he sees, her going off him (‘symptoms of alienation’) and so he writes this despairing poem. He can’t work (write poetry) because his love is hopeless, and hopelessness vitiates his productivity. He signs the poem JACOB HODIERNUS, which means ‘The Modern-Day Jacob’, ‘Today’s Jacob’. It’s an inverted sonnet (sestet then octave) because regular sonnets sing of love’s consummation and this poem does the opposite.

One added twist: Ann Gillman, who read this notebook entry, annotated it in pencil: next to ‘in the tenth year of his Service he saw her or fancied he saw Symptoms of Alienation’ she wrote ‘It was fancy’. So it wasn’t true that she was going off him! He misread her mood. Shucks! Heartbreaking, really.

Then again, there is a paradox in all this: because the fact that he has written this poem (about how he can’t work, about how he never produces anything) proves that he can work, and has produced something. And although Coleridge’s preface to ‘Work Without Hope’ tags, via the Jacob and Rachel reference, himself and Ann Gillman, there is nothing fundamentally trustworthy about Coleridge’s preface-writing—think of the famous note before ‘Kubla Khan’ for one. Is that really what the poem is about?

One final jigsaw-piece: in the notebook, Coleridge added a footnote to the word ‘Amaranths’, omitted in the Bijou version of the poem, but restored by Mays in his Collected Poems: ‘*Amaranths—*Literally rendered is Flower Fadeless, or never fading—from the Greek—a not and marainō to wither.’

This is right. What I mean is, the word does indeed derive from Ancient Greek, ἀμάραντος (amárantos, “eternal, undying, unfading, unwilting; amaranth; everlasting flower”) from ᾰ̓- + μαραίνω (“to shrivel, wither”). Why did Coleridge add this note? The editor of the Bijou, clearly, could see no good reason for it, and cut it. But I think the amaranth reference is key, and more to the point I think makes a Biblical reference, one obvious enough that it surprises me no critics seem to have noticed it. (Kathleen Coburn, in her edition of the Notebooks, speculates this ‘may be a recollection of the use of [amaranth] by Plotinus’ and then quotes a passage in which Luther describes the flower as one that grows in August and ‘is more stalk than flower’. I don’t think either of these is the proper intertext here, I must say.)

Look again at the poem. The opening sestet riffs on Herbert, as Coleridge notes (and generations of critics have recorded)—here’s Herbert’s ‘Employment 1’ (1674)
All things are busie; onely I
Neither bring hony with the bees,
Nor flowres to make that, nor the husbandrie
            To water these.

I am no link of thy great chain,
But all my companie is a weed.
Lord place me in thy consort; give one strain
           To my poore reed.
But I think generations of critics have misread the remaining eight lines of the poem. Who is the ‘thy’ addressed by Herbert, there? To what is the amaranth in Coleridge’s poem a reference?

It’s Biblical. Specifically, it refers to 1 Peter 5:4's καὶ φανερωθέντος τοῦ ἀρχιποίμενος κομιεῖσθε τὸν ἀμαράντινον τῆς δόξης στέφανον; ‘And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.’ ‘That faded not away’ is ἀμαράντινον, amaranthine. Another way of translating the Greek here would be: ‘ye shall receive a wreath of amaranths’. This is the one and only reference to amaranths in the Bible.

Nectar, here, is the drink of the gods (like amaranth, it means deathlessness: νέκταρ from Proto-Indo-European *neḱ- “to perish, disappear” + *-terh₂ “overcoming”; literally, “overcoming death”, and so called because it gave immortality.) Look again at the octave. The poet observing the fecundity of nature, laments that he cannot work. But he knows the bank where the immortal ‘Flower Fadeless’ grows, by which flow streams of immortal nectar (in the Septuagint, Moses’ “land flowing with milk and honey” flows with milk and νέκτᾰρ; and the same is true of Job 20:17’s heavenly ‘rivers, the floods, the brooks of honey and butter.’) The poet sees the Christian heaven, the wreaths of amaranth promised in 1 Peter, and yet he strolls on with ‘wreathless brow’

This is not a love poem, in the sense of sexual love. This is a poem about religious despair. The ‘work’ Coleridge is unable to do is not the poet’s work of writing poems, since he has here manifestly written a poem. It is the Christian’s laborare et [est] orare. Jacob is invoked not as the would-be lover of Rachel, but as the Jewish and therefore Christian patriarch. This is the man who wrestled with God: who, that is, struggled with his religious faith.

The remaining portion of the poem in its notebook form confirms this reading, I think:
I speak in figures, inward thoughts and woes
Interpreting by Shapes and Outward Shews:
Where daily nearer me with magic Ties,
What time and where, (wove close with magic Ties
Line over line, and thickning as they rise)
The World her spidery threads on all sides spun
Side answ’ring side with narrow interspace,
My Faith (say I; I and my Faith are one)
Hung, as a Mirror, there! And face to face
(For nothing else there was between or near)
One Sister Mirror hid the dreary Wall,
But that is broke! And with that bright compeer
I lost my object and my inmost all—
Faith in the Faith of THE ALONE MOST DEAR!
The alone most dear is God, not Anna Gillman—though we can imagine it was Anna, browsing STC’s notebooks, seeing this draft, and assuming it was about her, who had extracted the first fourteen lines (leaving this later passage behind) and sent it to The Bijou. In this second section, ‘Outward Shews’ is from Merchant of Venice 3:2:75 (‘So may the outward shews be least themselves’), but the doubled mirror is clearly the glass, through which STC peers darkly as per 1 Corinthians 13:12, and in which he sees not God as God, but himself reflected back infinitely in God’s glass.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Coleridge's Farting Nightingale

Coleridge's ‘conversation poem’ ‘The Nightingale’ first appeared in Lyrical Ballads (1798). It was a replacement piece: originally Wordsworth and Coleridge were going to include a different poem, Coleridge's ‘Lewti’. Indeed, some early proofs of the Lyrical Ballads volume have ‘Lewti’ set up in type and listed on the contents page. But there was a problem, or so Wordsworth thought. In April 1798 Coleridge had published ‘Lewti’ under his own name in the Morning Post. But Lyrical Ballads was to be an anonymous volume, no names on the title page, and this prior publication compromised that. People would surely, Wordsworth thought, put two and two together and link Coleridge's name with the book. So, late in the process of the publication, the two men agreed to substitute the hitherto unpublished ‘Nightingale’ instead. 

I'm not going to talk specifically about the poem itself in this post, although it's worth the talking: a very interesting poem, to which I'll surely come back. As Christopher Miller notes: ‘nothing could be more traditional than writing a poem about a nightingale; it was a perennial emblem of the poet pouring out beautiful music in the dark.’ But, as Miller says, Coleridge's treatment of this topic entails an ‘interplay of tradition and innovation’: on the one hand, the melancholy bird of Milton and the sorrowful Greek myth of Philomela, raped, silenced by having her tongue cut out and finally transformed into a nightingale; on the other, Coleridge enjoying a lovely night, with his best friend Wordsworth, a ‘gentle Maid’ (that is, Dorothy) and his own baby son Hartley. [Miller, ‘Coleridge and the English Poetic Tradition’, in Frederick Burwick (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (OUP 2009), 525] Like the nightingale, and like Philomela, Hartley is ‘capable of no articulate sound’, but unlike the traditional melancholy associations of those two, but like the actual nightingale father and son can hear singing under the stars, Hartley is full of joy: at the moon and stars, at the birdsong, at being with his Dad, a ‘tipsy Joy that reels with tossing head’.

My focus in this blog is not on the poem as such, but on a para-text of the poem, a sort of doggerel preface. When Coleridge first sent the piece to Wordsworth, he added this self-deprecating prelude:
In stale blank verse a subject stale
I send per post my Nightingale;
And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth,
You'll tell me what you think, my Bird's worth.
My own opinion's briefly this—
His bill he opens not amiss;
And when he has sung a stave or so,
His breast, & some small space below,
So throbs & swells, that you might swear
No vulgar music's working there.
So far, so good; but then, ’od rot him!
There's something falls off at his bottom.
Yet, sure, no wonder it should breed,
That my Bird's Tail's a tail indeed
And makes its own inglorious harmony
Æolio crepitû, non carmine.
This is clear enough: the ‘head’ of the poem, a description of a beautiful night and a quotation from Milton, is stately and beautiful; the ‘tail’ or (to use a word Coleridge would not, though that's the implication of the text here) ‘arse’ of the poem is about a giggling baby. Babies produce a quantity of stuff out of their bottoms, of course; as do birds. What about that Latin? Well, it's a sort of parody of Horace. Odes 4.3 addresses Melpomene, Muse of Lyric Poetry, and praises Rome as the true inspiration for the poet: sed quae Tibur aquae fertile praefluunt/et spissae nemorum comae/fingent Aeolio carmine nobilem; ‘... but the waters that flow through the fertilising Tiber, and the thick leaves of the groves, will ennoble [a poet] in his Aeolian verse.’ Aeolus was the Greek god of wind. Elsewhere in the Odes (3.30, since you ask) Horace claims that he was ‘the first to have adapted Aeolian verse to Italian tunes’; which is to say, the first Latin poet to rework the Greek forms (four-line alcaic and sapphic stanzas mostly) to Roman language and themes.

STC expects Wordsworth to recognise the reference to Aeolio carmine, and to laugh at the way he has changed it. Crepo means ‘to rattle, crack, creak, rustle, clatter, tinkle’ (it's the root of our English word crepitate) and also ‘to boast, to prattle, to chatter’. But Coleridge isn't using the word in either of those senses. Because there's a third meaning: crepo also means ‘to fart’. The Latin at the end of Coleridge's little verse-preface there can be Englished as: ‘Aeolian farting, rather than song’. Wind, you see.  

We think of neo-Latin as a serious, even ponderous idiom: all those scientific tomes, all that theological discussion! But a lot of neo-Latin was quite lighthearted, and some was thoroughly scatological. For instance: farting. Here's an old blog from this very site about a bit of John Milton's Latin on that subject. Or consider Spanish neo-Latin scholar Manuel Martí (1663-1737), famous for his Hellenism and classical scholarship, who also wrote a book called Pro crepitu ventris (Madrid, 1737), ‘In Celebration of the Winds of Farting’. Here is a page from one of those bibliographies of curious volumes, an entire library assembled by a French count on the subject of farting and other bottom-related matters: Catalogue des livres rares et précieux de la bibliothèque de feu M. le comte de Mac-Carthy Reagh (1815) [‘de feu’ means ‘of the late’ or ‘of the recently deceased’]. You can see Martí's volume in there: popular enough to have been reprinted in 1768.

Ah, those eighteenth-century French aristocrats! Nothing better to do with their time and wealth than assemble libraries of très singulièr et rares arse-themed volumes. No wonder there was a revolution and they all got guillotined.  

Still, I'd suggest that there is something more than mere low humour at work here. Coleridge was fascinated by all this stuff, and for him there was a serious—or, say rather (since serious doesn't capture what he finds so engaging and important about it) importance and eloquence in it all. Certainly, his notebooks are full of references to shitting, farting and other bowelly-scatological subjects. I'm going to conclude this blog with a lengthy quotation from the second half of the old post linked-to there.  

You see, I take all this in Coleridge as more than mere lavatorial humour, or occasional ribaldry; as something rather more notable; indeed, as touching on something quite profound and important in Coleridge's poetic and philosophical imagination. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My friend Alan Jacobs has coined the phrase “excresacramental” for a particular sort of art, a Swiftian cacography that articulates not only the expressivity but actually the holiness of the abject-physical. From the point of view of the Incarnation, God becoming man is not God becoming the bizarrely soap-washed, clean-linen, dazzling-bleached-smile icon of modern cleanliness that many images of Jesus peddle to modern-day believers, complete with cleaner-than-clean halo shine, like the gleam of newly rinsed glasses in the dishwasher. It is, rather, the non-material taking on flesh and all that flesh is heir to. It is God becoming dust, wet and foul-smelling as well as dry and smoky.

The point is, as Coleridge might say, that unless you can truly see that the hawk shitting its load into a sunbeam is as beautiful and holy an image as the white dove flying over blue waters beneath a new rainbow, then you haven't actually seen what beauty in the world fully means. The paraclete is also un(para)clean. For Coleridge, an apprehension of that place where religious transcendence, pure love, sexual desire (for instance, desire for a well shaped set of buttocks) and the healthy bowel-movement all express one another is not a satirical denigration of love: there's nothing of Swift's ‘Celia Celia Celia shits’ horror in STC's writing. Rather it is a strangely, unusually, wonderfully expressive epitome of the central mystery of a genuinely religious writer: the spiritualisation of matter, the materialisation of spirit. One end of the nightingale produces sublime, uplifting song, and the other end farts and shits, and both are integral to the whole sight of Coleridge's poetic vision. Samuel Taylor Kakaleridge.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

By Charles James Fox On His Deathbed


Click to embiggen and, indeed, clarify.

So: I've been reading Walter Scott's St Ronan's Well (1823), and came across the above-reproduced note. In Chapter 6 the love-interest in the novel, beautiful young Clara Mowbray, has yet to be introduced into the story, and the young hero Francie Tyrrel, who has returned to the Scottish spa-town of St Ronan's Well hoping to be reunited with her, hears her described by the fashionable ladies at dinner in Coleridgean terms:

“I own, madam,” [Tyrrel said], “I was a little surprised at seeing such a distinguished seat unoccupied, while the table is rather crowded.”

“O, confess more, sir! ... What if the Dark Ladye should glide in and occupy it?—would you have courage to stand the vision, Mr. Tyrrel?—I assure you the thing is not impossible.” ...

“Who is expected?” said Tyrrel, unable with the utmost exertion to suppress some signs of curiosity, though he suspected the whole to be merely some mystification of her ladyship.

“How delighted I am,” she said, “that I have found out where you are vulnerable!—Expected—did I say expected?—no, not expected.
She glides, like Night, from land to land,
She hath strange power of speech.
—But come, I have you at my mercy, and I will be generous and explain.—We call—that is, among ourselves, you understand—Miss Clara Mowbray, the sister of that gentleman that sits next to Miss Parker, the Dark Ladye, and that seat is left for her.—For she was expected—no, not expected—I forget again!—but it was thought possible she might honour us to-day, when our feast was so full and piquant.—Her brother is our Lord of the Manor—and so they pay her that sort of civility to regard her as a visitor—and neither Lady Binks nor I think of objecting—She is a singular young person, Clara Mowbray—she amuses me very much—I am always rather glad to see her.”

“She is not to come hither to-day,” said Tyrrel; “am I so to understand your ladyship?”

“Why, it is past her time—even her time,” said Lady Penelope. [St Ronan's Well, ch 6]

A footnote at this point directs the reader's attention to the endnote at the head of this post.

Two things interest me here. One is the reference to Coleridge's poem ‘The Ballad of the Dark Ladie’ (1799), a fragment of sixty lines that was intended to be a full-fledged ‘Gothic’ ballad of about one-hundred-and-ninety. It's an interesting if rather critically-neglected poem, this; and the function of the reference to it here in Scott's novel is ironic (the joke is that superannuated, affected Lady Penelope Penfeather sees everything through a ‘Romantic’ filter. When we finally meet Clara she is nothing like Coleridge's doomed Gothic maiden). It's tempting to read ‘The Ballad of the Dark Ladie’ as a dry-run for Coleridge's later Ancient Mariner, a gender-swapped version of a couplet from which is what Lady Penelope actually quotes in the above passage. (Is this a joke at the expense of her ignorance, maybe? Or is her fluency with Coleridge a sign of the depth of what nowadays we would call her fandom of STC?)

But there's another thing. When ‘Dark Ladie’ was first published [in the Morning Post, 21st Dec 1799] it was preceded by a 34-stanza ballad-form prologue. When ‘Dark Ladie’ was published in book-form (in the 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1801) Coleridge separated this prologue, trimmed seven stanzas from it top-and-tail and published it as a separate poem called ‘Love’. In his Princeton edition of Coleridge's Poems (2001; 16:605), J C C Mays says this:
The originally drafted ‘Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie’ and the later, pruned version, ‘Love’, were popular from the first, and were frequently reprinted in newspapers and anthologies in C's lifetime. Walter Scott told the actress Sarah Smith, ‘the verses on Love ... are among the most beautiful in the English language’ [Scott Letters III:400] and John Gibson Lockhart described the poem as ‘better known than any of its author's productions ... many hundreds of our readers have got it by heart long ago, without knowing by whom it was written’ [Blackwood's Magazine, Oct 1819]
I won't quote the whole poem (you can read it here, if you like), though it begins:
All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame.

Oft in my waking dreams do I
Live o'er again that happy hour,
When midway on the mount I lay,
Beside the ruined tower.

The moonshine, stealing o'er the scene
Had blended with the lights of eve;
And she was there, my hope, my joy,
My own dear Genevieve!
... and ends:
She half enclosed me with her arms,
She pressed me with a meek embrace;
And bending back her head, looked up,
And gazed upon my face.

'Twas partly love, and partly fear,
And partly 'twas a bashful art,
That I might rather feel, than see,
The swelling of her heart.

I calmed her fears, and she was calm,
And told her love with virgin pride;
And so I won my Genevieve,
My bright and beauteous Bride.
What intrigues me about Scott's note, at the top of this blogpost, is the suggestion that Whig politician Charles James Fox so loved this poem that he had it read to him on his deathbed. I've spent a while poking around in biographies and online resources to see if I can find any corroboration for this fact, but without success. Where did Scott (a deep-dyed Tory and no friend of the Whiggish-radical Fox) hear it? From the horse's mouth, perhaps—which is to say, not from Fox himself, but from someone present at his end? Or was it a common story? If so I can't track it down anywhere else.  

Is it true? (If so, why does nobody else talk of it?) Fox certainly loved poetry, although his real passion was for classical verse: he carried an edition of Horace in his pocket wherever he went. The 4-vol Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox (1857) is full of passages celebrating Greek and Latin classics, with the occasional praising note concerning his ‘great partiality to the Italian poets’, whilst at the same time deprecating Milton (‘there is a want of flow, of ease, in his blank verse which offends me more perhaps than it ought’). Fox does express a favourable opinion of Spenser, and there's plenty of flow and ease in Coleridge's ‘Love’, so it's not impossible that Fox rated it. And in 1806, when Fox died, Coleridge had begun, and had not yet completed, the process of crossing the political topography of left-and-right, radical-to-Tory. Young STC had been inspired by Fox's writing, and although slightly-older STC criticizes Fox's closeness to Napoleonic France in Essays on His Times, he does so respectfully enough. And we know that Wordsworth sent a copy of the 1801 Lyrical Ballads to Fox, so he would have known, or at least had the opportunity to read, the poem.

It would be nice to have some other confirmation, nonetheless.

And then, whilst poking around, I came across the following in a critical study of Crabbe:

The source here appears to be Crabbe himself, which opens the possibility that Scott heard the story that Fox read ‘Love’ on his deathbed from Coleridge himself (certainly possible). Did all the Romantic poets go around boasting that Charles James Fox selected one of their poems to read immediately before shuffling off his mortal coil?

[‘Comforts of a Bed of Roses’ (1806), in which Gillray depicts Death crawling out from under Fox's covers, entwined with a scroll inscribed ‘Intemperance, Dropsy, Dissolution’.]

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Buried Together

This is a notebook entry written some time between 1808 and 1810, when Coleridge was experiencing his most acute despairing-yearning for Sara Hutchinson, his ‘Asra’. The passage here folds in lots of STCs and plays on ΣΑΡΑ/AΣΡΑ in Greek, together with the Greek verb συνθάπτω, which means ‘to bury together’, ‘to bury more than one person in a grave’. Kathleen Coburn translates the lines:      

If that looks a little blurry, click on it and it will embiggen and clarify.

Coburn is broadly right, here (and the Σ'ΑΡΑ/ΣΑΡΑ pun at the end is important) except in one particular: this rather morbid conceit, of Coleridge and the woman he loved, but who didn't love him back, being buried in the same grave, does not proceed from a ‘Coleridgean compound for “persons buried in the same grave”.’ Which is to say, the compound is not Coleridgean. It's Biblical.

The verb συνθάπτω is used several times in the New Testament. It's used in Romans 6:4: ‘therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.’ It's also in Colossians 2:12: ‘Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.’ I'd submit that this puts a distinctly less morbid gloss on Coleridge's heart-broken yearning for Asra, here. It's not a kind of Blue Öyster Cult ‘Don't Fear The Reaper’ style suicide-pact; it's a yearning, more pathetic than creepy and not for the first time in STC's life cathecting his erotic and personal desire for Sara Hutchinson through religion, for a rebirth.

"Craving the Flesh of the Starling"

 In 1808 (maybe a little later, in 1809 or 1810) Coleridge copied this passage into his notebook.

This means ‘one who is accustomed always to eat partridge sometimes craves the flesh of the starling. It is surely impossible for the owl to imitate the nightingale.’

Where is it from? ‘Untraced’ is all Kathleen Coburn can give us. In fact it's from the dedication to Il malmantile racquistato colle note di Puccio Lamoni, di Lorenzo Lippi (1688). The deal here is that Lorenzo Lippi, very famous in his day as a painter of portraits and heroic subjects, came after his death to be better known for his Malmantile Racquistato, a racy mock-heroic poem written in Florentine dialect. Here's wikipedia:

[In 1660] he wrote his humorous poem named Malmantile Racquistato, which was published under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Perlone Zipoli. The Malmantile Racquistato is a mock-heroic romance, mostly compounded out of a variety of popular tales; its principal subject matter is an expedition for the recovery of a fortress and territory whose queen had been expelled by a female usurper. It is full of graceful or racy Florentine idioms, and is counted by Italians as a testo di lingua. Lippi is remembered more for this poem than by his paintings. It was published posthumously in 1688.
Presumably Coleridge had come across a copy of this 1688 edition. Lippi's point is that, after a career of paintings characterised by their serious artistic merit and gravity, he felt he could excuse himself where a more trivial and lighthearted production was concerned.

Friday, 12 March 2021

Coleridge's Latin Verse


I've briefly mentioned this short Latin poem, ‘Lines For A Second Emblem’, before on this blog. What I want to do in this post is dig a little deeper into it. My claim is not that this is a good poem, since it really isnt. It's a doodle, a notebook entry in which STC flexed his Latinist muscles but slightly, and that went no further. But I am interested in the process by which Coleridge, more or less desultorily, produced the text. I say desultory because he not only never published this, he didn't prefer it for its stated purpose: as a motto or legend appended to a pictoral emblem, engraved jewel or brooch [click the header images to embiggen them, and you can see J C C Mays explanation of the context]. He was manifestly doodling his thoughts, and did so in Latin on this occasion because Latin is the traditional language in which such mottoes are cast.

Eheu! dum me mea Psyche,
Dulce decus veris aprici,
Pulchra Comes et Zephyrorum,
Dum Psyche me fugit eheu!
Pallidulum me tua taeda
Quid juvat, o inamata Juno!

Alas when my Psyche (soul/butterfly) has (gone) from me
Sweet delight of sunny Spring
Lovely partner of the Zephyrs,
When Psyche has fled, alas!
Pale little me: your torch
What joy does it bring, unloved Juno!
The emblem in question is a butterfly. Juno's torch would accompany a wedding, and so is out of place in this mournful situation, when the speaker's butterfly-woman soulmate has abandoned him.

So the larger question is: how might an anglophone poet go about writing a poem in Latin? 

There are two main obstacles. One is the business of writing a poem in a language that is not one's mother-tongue. Two is, more specifically, the prosodic difficulty of composing metrically valid verse according to a system not (as in English) of ictus—patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables—but of arsis, or quantity (patterns of long and short vowels).

To take the question of fluency first. Plenty of writers and poets have managed to write well in a second or even a third language, of course, and some (Conrad, Nabokov, Achebe) have created great art that way. Latin, however, is not a living language. One cannot pick up conversational Latin by moving to Ancient Rome for a year or two. It is possible to become a reasonably accomplished Latin speaker by immersing oneself in the language, but only with unusual effort. When Latin was still living, or half-alive, as Europe's lingua franca (when it was still the language of the Catholic mass, and scientific and literary texts were still being published in it) such immersion was more achievable. Erasmus spoke Latin so well and so much that, reputedly, he forget how to speak Dutch. Montaigne, sent to school with a German teacher who spoke no French, was educated exclusively in Latin and became confidently expressive in that language. That Latin had not entirely lost its function as lingua franca into the 17th century certainly facilitated the career of Casimir (Polish poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski), famous across Europe as ‘the last Latin poet’ and Horationis par, ‘the equal of Horace’. His own ease with Latin owed much to the fact that he was a Jesuit priest, which made Latin a working as well as a classical language for him. There is nothing equivalent in Coleridge's life.

Indeed the comparison shows up one of the main fault-lines of neo-Latin discourse for a writer like Coleridge: viz., that writing in Latin actualises both the (for him, good!) heritage of classical, or more narrowly Augustan, Rome and the (bad!) associations of continental Roman Catholicism. Coleridge's engagement with neoLatin must undertake a ticklish navigation of this, for him, problematic territory. Not where Casimir is concerned, I should add (Coleridge often quotes, and indeed translates, Casimir's poetry), although Casimir's fame was such as to transcend his connection with Catholicism. But in other regards Coleridge's attitude was indicative of his era. In the words of A M Juster:
Nineteenth and early twentieth century British scholars largely defined the field, and they did so in their own image. Their worldview tended to incorporate strong emotional connections between the Roman Empire and their British Empire, which is why they focused on the perceived glory days of the Augustan era, downplayed the repulsive aspects of that era, only grudgingly studied the following century, and then largely ignored the empire’s literature after about 100 AD.

The dissolution of the Roman Empire was painful for British classicists not only because of the parallels to their own nation’s international decline, but because the literature became increasingly Catholic. Hatred of Catholicism was a standard failing of the British elite through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and classicists were no different. Most classicists of that period viewed Late Antique Latin poetry as degenerate, and simply did not study it or teach it.
Juster rightly notes ‘the strangeness of this bigoted cutoff for the study of a language’s literature’ (‘French departments do not stop teaching French literature after Moliere and Racine, Italian departments do not stop teaching Italian literature after Dante and Petrarch, so why do almost all classics departments feel they have no duty to study and teach Latin literature after Juvenal, Martial and Seneca?’). 

Two is the prosodic question. I will be honest here and confess that I find this actually quite difficult to judge. English-speakers (in my experience of teaching poetry) generally have a good ear for ictus, can pick which syllables in any given line of verse are stressed and which are unstressed. Couple this with the easily taught table of the four most common metrical patterns in stressed verse—the iambic (de DUM de DUM de DUM), the trochaic (DUM de DUM de DUM de), the anapestic (diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM) and the dactylic (DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy) and you've basically got it. There are other metrical patterns, obviously, and you may need the occasional DUM-DUM spondee to make your prosodic analysis work out, but that's basically it. Then it's a simple matter tracing the iambic pulse in a Shakespearian line, or contrasting the dactylic
Blow the wind southerly,
Southerly, southerly,
Blow the wind south o'er the
Bonny blue sea
with the famously anapestic
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
that used to be Byron's most memorised poem. All well and good. But this later European tradition of scanning verse by stressed and unstressed syllables is quite different to the tradition that obtained in ancient Greek and Latin verse. Their metrical feet are the same: iambs, anapests and so on. But in place of stress, the ancients heard length. Robert Graves described the difference of modern and ancient poetics as being that between the hammer and anvil of the blacksmith—ictus—and the long and short strokes of the boatsman's oar—classical prosody. Maybe that gives you a sense of the distinction.

Whether the Ancients also heard stress is a moot point, but their poets, and their grammarians, certainly analysed poetry in terms of the pattern of long and short syllables, not in terms of patterns of ictus. And that's a distinction we can understand too: we hear the difference between the long e (Greek η) in feel and the short e (Greek ε) in fell; between the omega (ω) in dole and the omicron (ο) in doll. But the fact that we can distinguish those sounds in individual words doesn't mean we can all hear the complex patterns of long and short syllables in passages of Homer or Vergil.

Here's my rather shaming confession: I studied this stuff as an undergraduate doing a Classics degree, and went into it in greater detail for my PhD (where it was really quite important), but I'm still not sure I can properly ‘hear’ the dactyls in Homer or Vergil as I read them aloud. Certainly not in the way I can ‘hear’ the stress patterns in English verse. I can see those patterns in Homer and Vergil, when the verse is written down, and can analyse it and so on; but I suppose ictus just strikes me as intuitive and common-sense in a way patterns of long and short vowels don't.

It doesn't help that there's no way of working out which vowels in Latin words are long and short. You just have to know. Which is to say, since nobody (realistically) is going to acquire that degree of expertise, you need a guidebook. For British schoolboys, and for those who persisted in the exacting and largely fruitless exercise after their schooldays, this meant the Gradus.

Gradus ad Parnassam, or ‘steps to Parnassus’, is a book listing Latin words in which the quantities of vowels are marked, to facilitate the slotting of the various words into the requisite metrical wire-frames of verse composition.
The first ‘step’ or lesson is contained in the title phrase itself, because gradus being a fourth-declension noun (a step), with a short ‘-us’ in the singular, becomes gradūs, with a lengthened ‘-ūs’, in the plural (steps). The difference in meaning teaches one to observe the difference in vowel quantity between two forms which look the same but have different grammatical properties, and so to pronounce the title of the dictionary correctly. Then ‘Parnassus’ is a poetic figure alluding to the Muse (of poetry): and the second function of the thesaurus is even so, to illustrate such figures. Therefore, the whole expression Gradus ad Parnassum is not just a title but an epitome of the work itself, combining declension, construction, scansion and figure. [Chisholm, Hugh, ‘Gradus’, Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.: Cambridge University Press 1911), 12:314]
There were several Gradus ad Parnassums published. The one with which Coleridge was familiar from his own schooldays was the English translation of Paul Aler's (the famous revision of this by John Carey wasn't published until 1818). The problem, of course, was that painstakingly assembling a poem out of these units, like a child fitting lego-blocks together to make a tower, negates the organic fluency of Coleridgean imaginative creation, and throws the writer back on mere ‘fancy’: derivative quasi-plagiaristical rote-work. Early on in the Biographia, Coleridge mocks a contemporary neo-Latin poet, and his reliance on the Gradus, in precisely such terms. First he makes the general point:
This style of poetry, which I have characterized above, as translations of prose thoughts into poetic language, had been kept up by, if it did not wholly arise from, the custom of writing Latin verses, and the great importance attached to these exercises, in our public schools. Whatever might have been the case in the fifteenth century, when the use of the Latin tongue was so general among learned men, that Erasmus is said to have forgotten his native language; yet in the present day it is not to be supposed, that a youth can think in Latin, or that he can have any other reliance on the force or fitness of his phrases, but the authority of the writer from whom he has adopted them. Consequently he must first prepare his thoughts, and then pick out, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, or perhaps more compendiously from his Gradus, halves and quarters of lines, in which to embody them. [Coleridge Biographia Literaria (1817), ch 1]
Then, in a footnote, the specific:
In the Nutricia of Politian, there occurs this line:
Pura coloratos interstrepit unda lapillos.
Casting my eye on a University prize poem, I met this line:
Lactea purpureos interstrepit unda lapillos.
Now look out in the Gradus for Purus, and you find, as the first synonime, lacteus; for coloratus, and the first synonime is purpureus. I mention this by way of elucidating one of the most ordinary processes in the ferrumination of these centos.
The line from Italian poet Poliziano means: ‘the pure stream goes murmuring over little coloured pebbles’. The synonymical line means: ‘the milky stream goes murmuring over the little purple pebbles’. Actually the quoted Latin is from Poliziano’s Rustica (1480s) not his Nutricia. The ‘University poem’ from which the second line is quoted is the Oxford Prize Poem of 1789, Iter Ad Meccam [‘The Pilgrimage to Mecca’] by George Canning (1770-1827)—the same Canning who went on to become Prime Minister. Coleridge had been ridiculed in Canning’s reactionary newspaper The Anti-Jacobin, and the young STC had attacked the whole of Pitt’s Napoleonic War cabinet (which had included Canning). But he had later been introduced to Canning by Frere, and seems to have mellowed towards him. The actual force of the note, in other words, is an obscure, if gentle, mockery of a prominent political figure. ‘Ferrumination’ seals the joke: it is an Anglicisation of the Latin ferrumino, which means ‘to cement, solder, glue, unite, bind, join’. ‘Soldering’ is, of course, the principle strategy involved in canning (Peter Durand’s patent on his new method for preserving food using tin cans had been granted in 1810).

Still: absent an Erasmian absolute fluency in Latin, what was the neo-Latin poet to do? I don't believe (though I can't prove) that Coleridge fumbled through an actual copy of his old schooldays Gradus when he composed in Latin, but there's no denying that much of his Latin verse is derivative, fanciful rather than imaginative. Indeed, some of it hugs the coast so closely that it approaches the plagiaristic.

I think his praxis, in writing such poetry, involved one or two approaches. Sometimes, as with ‘Ad Vilmum Axiologum’ (‘To William Wordsworth’ 1808), Coleridge actually sat with a specific Latin poem in front of him—in this case a Latin poem by Ariosto—and reworked it, writing-out and adapting the original. On other occasions, he drew on his internal reference library. STC read very widely, in Latin and neo-Latin literature, and possessed an unusually capacious literary memory. It is surely likely that, as he put pen to paper, the compositional wheels span in his head and he withdrew likely-sounding half-lines and lines from that storehouse. Which brings me back to the brief ‘Lines for a Second Emblem’:
Eheu! dum me mea Psyche
This is a version of a line of neo-Latin verse by Samuel Johnson. Nothing suspect or Catholic about him as a source! Coleridge has read, and remembered: ‘qualia dii! vidi dum me mea nympha secuta est’, a line from a poem co-authored by Johnson and Stephen Barrett, ‘Contributions to Poems by Others’ (1745) that means: ‘ah, what sights I saw, ye gods, when my nymph walked with me!’ Coleridge shrinks this to a tetrameter, lopping off ‘qualia, dii!’ and substituting the more conventional alas, eheu, which, since it is a trochee, can substitute metrically for the two long syllables of vidi. Then, because Sara Hutchinson is more than just any old nymph, but is in some crucial sense his soul (his inspiration, love and life) he changes the trochaic nympha for the spondaic psyche. That's OK, though, because by curtailing he is also prosodically adjusting the anapestic hexameter of Johnson's line, availing himself of the convention by which the two unstressed syllables of an anapest can be swapped for a single stressed syllable, as with a spondee.

I don't want to labour the point, but the whole poem is assembled this way. Dulce decus is Horatian (is, indeed, right from the beginning of that schoolroom essential author: it's Odes 1.1, line 2). Pulchra comes, ‘lovely companion’, is common in Latin verse (Johannes Silos ‘Epigram CCV’ [1673]; Hugo Grotius uses the phrase in his Latin translation of the Greek Anthology, CLXXX). Me fugit eheu is a standard Latin tag, most famous in relation to the phrase derived from Vergil and Horace tempus fugit eheu. Quid juvat is from Claudian. And so on.

What this means, arguably, is that we are better served if we ‘read’ Coleridge's Latin poems precisely in terms of their intertexts:—as, in other words, poems as much about their prototypes. or more precisely about the way their prototypes express or reflect latter-day concerns, as for their own sakes. This motto poem is not a very good example of that, except in the sense that it is indicative of Coleridge's strategy. The Ariosto poem, and Coleridge's anguished reworking of it (already discussed on this blog), is a better example, but even there where STC deviates from his working text, he does so via a series of props and stays, a walking-frame of familiar tags and phrases he already knows fit the rigours of Latin prosody. Still: not just the specifics of the choices Coleridge makes in composing his partly or wholly refried neoLatin texts, but the fact that he chooses to write in Latin at all is significant.

Kenneth Haynes suggests that writing in a language other than their mother-tongue ‘gives writers the option to choose a language in order to reach, or to elude, a particular audience.’ Coleridge does both of these things: sometimes aiming to connect with a certain scholarly or (as with this motto) formal-traditional mode, other times aiming to free himself from the restrictions of Emnglish propriety, or prudishness, or perhaps simple manners. Latin is teh key language here, as Haynes notes:
Latin, in particular, was available both to enlarge one's audience in one respect (as when religious controversialists like Luther, Calvin, Milton and many others chose the international language) and to restrict is in another (by excluding the Latin-less from discussions of sensitive matters) ... Latin literature offered writers new literary possibilities, from the magnificence of the high style to the urbanely bawdy. [Kenneth Haynes, English Literature and Ancient Languages (Oxford Univ Press 2003), 19-20]
This utility of Latin outweighs, for Coleridge, the limitations of writing in the language, the way it shifts him back towards Fancy and away from Imagination.