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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: The Ecstasy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Adam Neikirk provides a personal account of his work on poetical biographies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Seamus Perry, author of Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford English Monographs, 1999) once commented to me that his task of writing his contribution for the Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford UP, 2009), on ‘Coleridge’s Literary Influence’, felt “a bit like trying to describe an alp”. “The achievement is so various,” writes Perry at the beginning of the article, and the literary influence so diverse, that no generalization here can be useful: there is no single distinctive ‘Coleridgean’ idiom or manner for later poets to appropriate or reject … Neither are the lines of influence always clearly defined: no subsequent ballad can hope to escape the example of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ … (661).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke, 1795

Perry’s alp remark, while more compact, is perhaps even more illuminating of our general attitude to STC: there is something vast and yet indistinct which we attempt to reckon; so much so, that sometimes it is tidier to compare him (or his literary achievements) to an inanimate object, even if it be a stream or what Coleridge himself once called a “spring with the little tiny cone of loose sand ever rising and sinking at the bottom, but its surface without a wrinkle” (CN I, 980).

Virginia Woolf famously did this in her enraptured essay “The Man at the Gate,” in which she described “an immense mass of quivering matter” (getting right at the protean source), a “great swarm” of words, and “pendent drops” which roll down across a pane smeared by weakness, emblematic of the clarity of Coleridge’s mind struggling with its capaciousness to settle upon just one subject, to articulate just one idea. Whenever anyone, be they a critic,[1] another poet,[2] or prose writer,[3] has tried to do more than paint a mere caricature of Coleridge, there is almost always an attendant metaphysical confusion, as if by thinking hard about him, we summon up some kind of meddling or muddling arch-spirit to haunt the willed homology of our thoughts.

We seem to innately turn to poetry or to the possible beginnings of poetry (“describe an alp”) in order to imagine what we consider to be his full fullness. STC is almost himself a kind of writing prompt (“write about the edge of the universe; now write about Coleridge standing at the edge of the universe, scribbling away at what he sees”). My dissertation takes this tendency to veer into the poetic more literally by purporting to offer a “poetical biography” of Coleridge (that is, a series of poems which, taken as a whole, will give the reader the same sense of his life and person as a prose biography). Thus, I have found that Coleridge himself seems to have a poeticizing influence that cannot be ignored and, in fact, should probably be explored. The challenge lies in asking how we can write about Coleridge without reducing him to an image, either of our own values, or to some other set of interlinked values which we think we recognize (we might be tempted to do the same thing with the Alps or some other ‘natural’ object); in other words: how can we articulate him in such a way that he can evolve beyond what he has been seen as, as this or that apostate or champion, and become more like a process of inquiry, “[thriving] on the dynamic of contraries and contradictions, never finding any one church, political party, social theory, or philosophical creed to satisfy his sense of the subtleties of the human condition” (Richards 1962, xviii).

Although this quote is taken from I.A. Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination, it is Kathleen Coburn’s conviction that shines through, an image of a pluralistic Coleridge and a kind of intellectual world citizen who is also a wanderer. It is my conviction that, try as some have, it is not possible to communicate the whole of Coleridge from a critical position only, due to the fact that by the very act of assessing Coleridge, we must occupy a position outside of his life and work and his times, and render our judgment (as he often says) ab extra. Of course, I do not believe in time travel or telepathy, exactly; but believe there is more involved in the uses of poetry as a form of writing than merely versification (and there is a lot to versification as well). This is where the notion of ecstasy as ‘standing outside oneself’ derives from: in reimagining Coleridge through verse, we not only must in some measure put ourselves aside, and step out of ourselves and our times, but we also open ourselves up to Coleridge’s world. His world is the virtual space that is connected to all his writings, as well as to all of the writings about him. It is like the mansion in Bleak House, filled with chambers and twisting hallways, a bit of narcissism in this one, a German hexameter here, a travelogue here, the Lowesian origins[4] of Kubla Khan in a chandelier, the legacy of the “Opus Maximum”[5] leaking into the kitchen sink. The goal is to take the poetic tendencies of prose writings about Coleridge—which I have argued are always there in force—to their logical conclusion: the esemplastic power of poetry itself.

Works Cited:
Beer, John. Coleridge’s Play of Mind. Oxford UP, 2010.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Notebooks I. Princeton UP, 1957.
Perry, Seamus. Coleridge and the Uses of Division. Oxford English Monographs, 1999.
Richards, I.A. Coleridge on Imagination. Routledge & Paul, 1962.
Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Heritage Books, 2019.
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Longman, 1815.

Footnotes:
[1] John Beer said of Coleridge (in response to Thomas Carlyle’s description of him as “a mass of richest spices putrefied into a dunghill”) that he was the embodiment of “an aporia, a deadlock between equally demanding, yet essentially irreconcilable, forces”—in the case of Coleridge, these forces are the competing discourses of science and the humanities. See John Beer, Coleridge’s Play of Mind, Chapter 16 (“Questioning Closure”).
[2] Wordsworth’s “Castle of Indolence” stanzas come to mind, wherein STC is described simultaneously as an overgrown child, and as a kind of sage to whom “many did … repair” because “he had inventions rare” (ln. 53-54).
[3] Aside from Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Henry James (both cited in Woolf’s essay) also attempted portraits of Coleridge in Bleak House and the short story “The Coxon Fund” respectively.
[4] John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1930).
[5] See, for example, Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum (2006).

Adam Neikirk is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. His dissertation is entitled “Your Very Own Ecstasy.”

 

2 Responses to Romantic Reimaginings: The Ecstasy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  1. First of alⅼ I want to sɑү superb blog! I had a quick queѕtіon in which I’d like toο
    aask if yοu ԁo not mind. I wwas interested to know how you center yourѕеlf аnd
    cpear ʏour thoughts before writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts oսt.
    I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems lije the fiгst 10
    to 15 minutes are generally wasted juѕt tryung to figure out how to begіn. Any ideas or hіnts?
    Kudos!

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    • Hi bandarq!

      Thanks for your question. I suppose the answer is that I wake up thinking about writing because I do it at the same time every day. But I don’t write immediately. First I have breakfast, then walk up to a store to buy coffee, then I walk to the library and go up to the fifth floor. I do generally the exact same sequence of things every day that I am going to write, and while I know that I am going to soon to and sit down to write poetry, I do not really think very hard about what I am going to say. I think this allows your unconscious mind to have an opportunity to work on the writing in tranquility without you constantly interrupting it with your conscious thoughts. So my suggestion would be, make writing a ritual part of your life in whatever way you can, but also don’t fret about it when you’re doing other things, even if those things are ritually linked to the activity of writing. Finally, don’t be afraid to spend a few minutes staring at the blank page. Just don’t stare too long; it can be paralyzing!

      Cheers,

      Adam

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