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Tabula Rasa

Rare Device

The Poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

by David Carroll. Illustrated by Jason Towers

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995

SLAUGHTER: Letters four do form his name --
And who sent you?
BOTH: The same! The same!
SLAUGHTER: He came by stealth, and unlocked my den
And I have drunk the blood since then
Of thrice three hundred thousand men
FAMINE: I stood in a swampy field of battle
With bones and skulls I made a rattle
To frighten the wolf and carrion crow
And the homeless dog -- but they would not go.
So off I flew: for how could I bear
To see them gorge their dainty fare?
Fire, Famine and Slaughter
What the Gothic horrors were doing to the popular press of Britain in the late Eighteenth Century, Romanticism was doing to the hallowed halls of poetry. It was a movement that is not in any way unfamiliar to those in the latter stages of the Twentieth Century, rising on a sudden distrust of rationality and science, an embrace of experience over knowledge, wonder over facts, a return to the natural world -- and the supernatural -- in preference to man's constricted realm.

Charles Lamb, William Blake, Lord Byron, John Keats, Sir Walter Scott and poor old Percy Shelley can be counted in the number of Romanticists, and the movement was in some ways an expansion into popularity of the so-called 'graveyard poets' earlier in the century -- A Night-Piece on Death, by Thomas Parnell in 1714, The Grave by Robert Blair in 1743 and The Pleasures of Melancholy by Thomas Warton in 1747 being prime examples. But Romanticism itself was heralded by the anthology Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 as a collaboration between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, friends whose earlier work blossomed into maturity upon their meeting.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Jason Towers

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Jason Towers

But first... Samuel Taylor was born on October 21st, 1772, youngest son of a large family sired by the Vicar of Ottery and master of the Grammar School, John Coleridge. He spent a year in the army at the age of twenty-one, but was otherwise well-groomed for his academic career. He studied, and wrote about, theology, morals and politics, psychology and art and music, but his love was for literature. Old and new, the classics of Greece and Rome, the works of many of the European countries, and the contemporary novels of his period and friends. He read voraciously, and quite separate from his status as poet, he is considered one of the greatest of English critics, particularly in his 'rediscovery' of Shakespeare in the original form. Just as a point of interest, he was also the one who coined the phrase 'the suspension of disbelief'.

The young scholar met Wordsworth in 1795 and in 1797 the other poet moved to Coleridge's town of Alfoxdon so the two could work together. The next two years saw Coleridge's greatest period of intensity and genius.

His memory for the modern audience is sustained by two of the works of this era, the first being The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. From humble origins -- the poem had been started as a collaboration between the two so as to earn the money needed for a trip to Linton -- sprung a work of vast power, detailing two journeys, that of a ship cursed by the narrator's killing of an albatross, and that of the Mariner himself, as with his long grey beard and glittering eye he walks the world, telling his story. Perhaps with an ending that comes close to being trite to modern ears (the conclusion of the saga with 'be nice to animals' has always jarred for me) the story nevertheless does full justice both to the plight of the sailor and the power of the supernatural being's his unthinking act provokes, including the pair Death and Life-in-Death, that dice for the Mariner's soul. While the description of the latter is justifiably famous, the equivalent for the former was only found in early drafts:

His bones were black with many a crack,
     All black and bare, I ween,
Jet-black and bare, save where with rust
Of mouldy damps and charnel crust
     They're patch'd with purple and green.
The second work is Kubla Khan.

There is certain medical and written evidence to suggest that it is best not to take the story of the poem's writing -- as the interrupted transcript of an opium dream -- at strictly face value, but the work nonetheless retains great force in its verses. It was inspired by a passage in the book Purchas's Pilgrimage, and it should be said that the second half makes a lot more sense if you read it as the author trying to recapture the images that he wrote of in the first.

Less well known but of great interest to us is Christobel, unfinished but published in 1816, a purely Gothic story of the seduction of Christobel away from her father's wishes by one Geraldine. Complete with castles, forests and a sensuous monster (though it is never clear what manner of creature Geraldine is, a Lamia or vampire is the best bet), the story goes that Coleridge never finished it because he wasn't sure he liked what the poem was saying about himself. Christobel was read among Coleridge's friends, and was finally published at Lord Byron's request. And of course there is many other works by the man, from Dejection: An Ode, The Devil's Thoughts [1], Frost at Midnight or the dreaded This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison [2].

The Romanticism movement that Coleridge helped found was based on a rejection of the scientific ideals of its age, but nonetheless the work of the poet, and Coleridge in particular, is an exacting process in itself. As well as his care and experimentation with the structure of the words themselves (as he explains about Christobel, he used a variable number of syllables but always four accents per line) he strove for accuracy in his descriptions and fine detail in his images. His ambitions were also incredible -- and it is perhaps there he had his greatest failing.

Procrastination and laziness hampered his work and the plans he 'spawned like a herring', remorse and despair dogged him throughout life, and he spent many years fighting his opium addiction. He died in 1834. Sir Edmund Chambers said of him: 'So Coleridge passed, leaving a handful of golden poems, an emptiness in the heart of a few friends, and a will-o'-the-wisp light for bemused thinkers' [quoted in 152]. And albatross jokes.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


[152] Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems and Prose, second edition enlarged, edited by Elisabeth Schneider, Rinehart Editions.

[47] The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Jack Sullivan (ed), Viking Penguin Inc, New York, 1986.


[1]  Satiric verse co-written with Robert Southey. I can't resist but quote this stanza, though it is actually Southey's work:

And how then was the Devil drest?
Oh! he was in his Sunday's best:
His jacket was red and his breeches were blue
And there was a hole where the tail came through.
[2] Maybe that was just my English class.

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