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 So, late in the process of the publication, the two men agreed to substitute the hitherto unpublished ‘Nightingale’ instead.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.