The Romantics |2| Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Junkie)
As an academic, the process of summarizing the works of one of the Established Cannon’s greatest contributors is often seen as a regressive, if not wholly reductive one. Surely any evidence of perceived greatness is tied entirely into the formalist approach and, further still, surely to try and manipulate or distort the form, the poetry, the work, of the Great Romantic Poets into a digestible paraphrase is to skew the intentions of the artist. These then are the concerns and preoccupations of the writer here; to maintain artistic vision and to be true to the form in question. With these issues in mind let me present to you my main thesis concerning the mantra which spurred the creative genius of the Great William Wordsworth in writing. To use his own words:
Flowers, man. Bitches love flowers. – William Wordsworth, 1692
And there ends the academic endeavour concerning William Wordsworth. In researching for this article (yes, I do research… of a kind) I found out several facts about the poet. They follow;
- He is so boring.
- His poetry isn’t great.
- He is so boring (with a capital Snooze-ya-later).
- This one time he wrote about daffodils and everyone went ape-shit for it.
Here’s a little biographical information about Wordsworth for the sake of objectivity; William’s father basically got lost somewhere in the Lake District and had to spend the night in a bush of hawthorn. He arrived home the next day and promptly popped his clogs; what an insipid little bastard (although with a name like John I can’t say I didn’t see it coming.) William carried on his father’s penchant for being a really boring pain in the ass. He wrote some letters, he liked democracy. Some people like his letters, other people like democracy. When the revolution comes they will be the first to be taken round behind the chemical sheds and shot.
Let’s cut to the chase here; in 1795 Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Coleridge is the fucking man. While Wordsworth would go on to be recognised as poet Laureate of the Galactic Empire of Merry Old Engerland, Coleridge was a depressive, self-loathing, junkie who stumbled through the Lake District and life in a hallucinogenic vapour of his own imagining. Taking up residence near each other the two buds basically founded the romantic movement. High five!
In 1798 Wordsworth published a collection called Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems. Real nice title William. Titles aside this collection is considered to be the beginning of the Romantic Movement in England. The collection is considered to be of literary import due to its use of conversational and vernacular language, its choice of the peasant/simpleton/farmer as a subject, and its theme of returning to nature/lost innocence/goodness, all of these things being considered highly experimental at the time. Thankfully Wordsworth wasn’t the only poet who contributed to the collection. Coleridge gave Wordsworth a few rhymes (a total of five out of a collection of nearly sixty) and managed to share the byline with old Wordsy. What a player. In recently discovered primary sources I’ve actually been able to examine the exchange which took place between the two poets which led to the collaboration (I have transcribed it below);
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Yo! Willy my man. Gimme some ‘dem sweet pages for the sick rhymes I been pimpin’ wit fool?!”
William Wordsworth – “I shall oblige you Samuel.”
Coleridge and Wordsworth more oft than not could be found strolling through the English countryside pondering upon the beauty of the natural world and marvelling at man’s (just men mind you) place within it. With the insipid health of a 19th century orphan child born of a loveless marriage (I’m looking at you Heathcliff Jr.) Coleridge made the serious decision early on to dedicate his life to the consumption of opiates to ease his ails. His poison of choice was laudanum dissolved in a solution of fine brandy which can be defined more accurately as ‘a straight up pimpin’ brew’. During this period, while sauntering with Wordsworth through the hedgerows of provincial England and knocking back his own special mix of brandy-sour, Coleridge would go on to write his most famous/my favourite poems and while undoubtedly his writing was influenced by Wordsworth I will now wholly attribute the literary innovation of his poetry to his crippling addiction to opiates. Boo-yaaaah!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Junkie
Coleridge’s best known poems are concerned with the fantastic and supernatural but, and here’s that romantic twist, these events are conveyed in a realistic and convincing language. Coleridge wanted to describe the imaginary, trixy, faery maiden strewn underneath the branches of the oak tree as if there actually was a trixy, faery maiden strewn underneath the branches of the oak tree. Case in point; Christabelle.
In Christabelle we see Coleridge telling the tale of faery lovers, barons, bards, and knights and while the subject matter is fanciful with moonlight, glitter, and magic spells his language is always direct occupying the register of direct speech;
Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind, and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is gray:
‘Tis a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.
Christabelle’s length is helped along by the meter which carries throughout as well as the striking visual imagery which Coleridge employs to give the poem its sultry and supernatural air;
“There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.”
It’s all just very sexy. The visual element in Coleridge’s writing would become one his most identifiable features especially for modern audiences although his contemporaries weren’t entirely keen on it. At the time of publication Coleridge’s now most celebrated poem Kubla Khan received unanimous disdain which surly proves that everyone in the past is a big dope. Thought upon more as a psychological curiosity than anything else Coleridge only published it because Lord Byron (that dirty dog) insisted he do so and even taking Byron’s (that filthy scoundrel) advice he published it as a supplement alongside the more substantial Christabelle. Still, it’s probably Coleridge’s most well-known work, helped in part by the story surrounding its composition.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon Coleridge packed himself a little picnic basket made up entirely of opiates and went for a quick jaunt in the local scenery. Twenty five minutes later, except for a pair of steadfast hiking books, a large wooden stick, the picnic basket upon his head and the blanket tied round his neck, Coleridge was bollock naked and foaming at the mouth. Eventually he found his way out of the moors and into a barn where he collapsed into a raging, drug fuelled, fever dream. He wrote down the resulting vision and boom; Kubla Khan. I like to think that Coleridge included a little description of himself at the time of composition in the closing lines;
“His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
For further reading please check out Coleridge’s Guide to Electric Picnic which obviously doesn’t exist.
You see the same kind of striking visuals in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which Coleridge published in the collection Lyrical Ballads, with a few Other Poems. The poems details the journey of a mariner who shoots an albatross out of the sky, inadvertently curses himself and his shipmates (who all die), the personation of death playing craps for the sailors lives, angels, a wedding, and a necklace made from the dead albatross. All of this crazy, hot, mess is conveyed in the direct speech and tone which would come to characterize the Romantic Movement. So monumental is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that many of its lines have transition from stuffy literature to spoken idioms like the lines “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” which everyone uses every day in modern speech.
Having written so extensively about why Coleridge was a great poet as well as someone who I would really like to party with the man himself had zero faith in his abilities. Hopefully when we discover time travel I can post this article back in time to Coleridge who gave up on poetry when he was thirty years old. That and backhand some sense into Wordsworth. Regardless of his own personal demons in the time that Coleridge allotted to the pursuit of poetry he helped to revolutionise the literary landscape and undoubtedly influenced the younger Romantics who would follow in his poetic footsteps as well as carry on his penchant for absolute debauch.