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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Today’s session is devoted to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 to 1834) one of the major Romantic poets of the First Generation alongside William Wordsworth. Some of the poems which will be part of our discussion include: “Dejection: An Ode”, “Kubla Khan” and “The Eolian Harp”. Coleridge was deeply influenced by psychology, philosophy and much of his work is informed by his reading in these areas. The influence of his readings in these areas are traceable even in his prose work such as in the Biographia Literaria. Coleridge differs from Wordsworth in that he chooses to see emotion and imagination as merged with philosophical meditations on emotions and imagination. He sought to build a theory of emotion and imagination. Much of his theoretical contributions which we have discussed in previous sessions such as his definitions of fancy and imagination and the difference between primary and secondary imagination comes from the influence of philosophy and psychology. Coleridge explored the blurring of conscious and unconscious states, mixed reason and passion and even faith at certain points as in “The Ancient Mariner”. He adopted the language of the senses very effectively as Kerry McSweeney’s book notes. Coleridge unlike Wordsworth is interested in the psychology of emotions. He has both sets, feeling and thought, as David Vallins explains it; emotions, intuitions, sensations and also “intellectual or imaginative creativity which they describe as involving an active interpretation or reorganization of the materials of perception and sensation”. Coleridge wished to unify sentiment, the intuitive and feeling with the rational. In his Notebooks, he would write, “of every sense, each thought & each sensation/ Lived in my eye, transfigured not suppresst". The keyword here is “transfigured”: it is not simply imitating, it is the ability to modify those perceptions and sensations to make them your own. Our first theme in Coleridge is Art, Feeling and Imagination. In “Kubla Khan”, one of Coleridge’s most famous poems, Xanadu could be a fortress to prevent invasions from the outside or perhaps a prison for those who reside within. The Dome is a dream vision. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round; And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover! And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced: Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail: And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever It flung up momently the sacred river. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, Then reached the caverns measureless to man, And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean; And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war! These are the first sections of the poem, starting with the famous, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree”. This is followed by the description of the walls, the gardens, the thrashing and panting river. The sequence features violent imagery with some very strong verbs: seething, forced, burst, flung up, etc. After that, there is a parallel vision that emerges in the poet’s mind. Let us look at it: A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ’twould win me, That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! Whether the vision of the Abyssinian maid emerges from the tumult of the second stanza is a moot point. The third stanza is more pleasant, dreamed by the poet singer. The sensual effects of this newly created Paradise are far more aural than visual. The sounds that emanate from the dulcimer are softer and different from the sounds of the fountain. Critics have argued that the poem is divided between the pagan half and the Christian half, resembling Coleridge’s own intellectual and philosophical ambivalence. The woman wailing for her demon lover personifies the “daemonic” aspects of Coleridge’s imagination. This woman is in sharp contrast to the idealised figure of the Abyssinian maid. Coleridge modifies the ability of art to recreate the world. He introduces the conditional “could” in the crucial section of the poem. Let us look at that section again. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ’twould win me, That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, “Could I revive within me her symphony and her song?” He is not saying “I will”, he is wondering “could I”? He seems to be saying, “If I can revive the song, I can build a dome. If I can recall the memory of the song, I can build a dome.” What he is saying is, that it is art and imagination which could revive the world. It is not the rule or order from the Emperor Kubla Khan. Art and imagination can revive the world but this depends, suggests Coleridge, on memory. The languages of the senses and sentiments are clearly central to Coleridge as well and that is our next theme. “The Eolian Harp” dedicated to Sara Coleridge opens with the following lines: My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle, (Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!) And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light, Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve Serenely brilliant (such would Wisdom be) Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed! The stilly murmur of the distant Sea Tells us of silence. And that simplest Lute, Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark! How by the desultory breeze caressed, Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover, It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes Over delicious surges sink and rise, Such a soft floating witchery of sound As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land, Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers, Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise, Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing! O! the one Life within us and abroad, Which meets all motion and becomes its soul, A light in sound, a sound-like power in light, Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere— Methinks, it should have been impossible Not to love all things in a world so filled; Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air Is Music slumbering on her instrument. And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon, Whilst through my half-closed eyelids I behold The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main, And tranquil muse upon tranquility: Full many a thought uncalled and undetained, And many idle flitting phantasies, Traverse my indolent and passive brain, As wild and various as the random gales That swell and flutter on this subject Lute! Coleridge moves from the visual to the aural, from limited views and perceptions to expanding ones here. By the time, this section ends, he has moved on to something much vaster. The speaker becomes aware of silence through the one exception to it: “the stilly murmur of the distant sea”. Stillness, silence and soft aural interruptions continue throughout the poem. But what is important is the expansion of consciousness in the poem. In Stanza 1, the speaker refers to “world so hushed!”. Later this becomes “a world so filled;” Something animates the consciousness and limbs of the speaker: And what if all of animated nature Be but organic Harps diversely framed, That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, At once the Soul of each, and God of all? The poem, one can argue, expands and contracts from Sara and the cottage to the cosmos and back again. There is a desire to seek something more universal, but it keeps returning to Sara as well. The Aeolian harp was an image for the human mind as a receptive instrument moulded, moved, affected by external forces, primarily nature. However, in his later work, Coleridge was not unhappy with it because he began to believe that in the Aeolian harp image, the mind is waits passively for something to affect it. He wanted to present the mind as active and dynamic. But in this particular poem, of course, the poem is about the expansion of sense perception, of becoming at one with the world. But Coleridge was also troubled by something else, what happens when our sense perceptions diminish? In the “Dejection An Ode”, another famous Coleridge poem, this will be the central question: What happens when the sense perceptions diminish? Let us turn to some excerpts from “Dejection: An Ode”, a poem that mourns the loss of imagination. All this long eve, so balmy and serene, Have I been gazing on the western sky, And its peculiar tint of yellow green; And still I gaze – and with how blank an eye! I saw them all so excellently fair, I see, not feel how beautiful they are! My genial spirits fail; And what can these avail To lift the smothering weight from off my breast? Remember what we just said. Coleridge proposed in “The Eolian Harp” that the mind is like a harp and the external stimuli that fall on the mind cause the mind to ignite and become active. But he was unhappy with it because it assumed that the mind is unresponsive and passive. Coleridge wanted to represent the mind as something more active, something more dynamic. In this particular poem, he writes about failure of the imagination as something caused not by the failure of nature to present things but the failure of his mind to perceive them. Then he realizes: I may not hope from outward forms to win The passion and the life, whose fountains are within. We need to find imagination within ourselves. Even though there is visible beauty present, even though there are great and grand sights, there is no emotion, no heart connected with the appearance of nature. That is, the visible language in nature has no communicative force, no passion, no life. Here, Coleridge links perception with both sensorial and reflective abilities: to see and to feel. Despondent at the loss of imagination, he wonders what happens when these fail. The absence of feeling is also then the absence of thought, in Coleridge’s poem. Unlike in Wordsworth, there is no transcendence of the setting. He requires external stimulus (outward forms), but is unable to obtain these. But when he claims the fountains are within, he has acquired an answer. If feeling and perception have failed, then the only option is reflection. Creativity may yet come through philosophical reflection. new Earth and new Heaven, Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud – Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud – We in ourselves rejoice! Scholars have claimed that “the creative power of the mind depends… on a deep underlying state which Coleridge calls Joy” (Dorothy Emett, cited in Vallins). Turning into oneself is a key moment – for it returns to the power of the mind to be able to reflect. The fountains refer to intellectual activity. In other words, Coleridge returns not only to pure imagination but to intellectual activity. In a state where the outward organic perceptions simply do not provide access to the vital forces, the mind may construct a false sense of reality. The well-known critic, Paul Magnuson writes: Coleridge’s turn from the figure of the passive poet as nature’s instrument to one of the active imaginative being is not merely a matter of dejection and severe self- criticism. It reflects, rather, a shift in his thinking from a materialism he associated with David Harley to a philosophy in which mind constructs the world. Coleridge, as critics note, vacillates between various readings of nature and inspiration. David Ward writes: On the one hand, ‘Nature’ is the generous parent responding to the child by giving ‘Joy’ as a dower. On the other hand we are the source of life in ‘Nature’: we receive from her, but in the first place we give her life. The active ‘Soul’ is the creator, equally, of ‘Nature’ and of ‘Joy’. Coleridge does not give primacy to imagination as the be-all and end-all of the poetic mind, he insists on intellectual activity. So where he first, argued about nature as inspiring, later he will argue in “Kubla Khan”, that art and imagination are the key factors in our recreation of the world. That is, the world including nature is partially the product of an active mind. We receive from nature but we also have to give to nature. In “Dejection: An Ode” Coleridge would famously write, “Oh lady, we receive but what we give”. This is Coleridge’s major contribution: the shift from the passive acquisition of things by the mind to transforming the mind into a cauldron of imaginative thinking. Reflection is central therefore to Coleridge’s idea to poetry itself.