Kilve Study Weekend
5th–7th September 2003
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp95-97)
The only person that I ever knew who answered to my idea of a man of genius’—thus Hazlitt on Coleridge. This year’s topic, Coleridge and the Book, explored some of the ways in which his genius was ‘brought to book’, as David Fairer put it; inevitably, some of the shortcomings which were later to alienate Hazlitt swiftly emerged.
David Fairer examined Coleridge’s first book, the Poems of 1796 written in the year following Coleridge’s marriage, ‘buds of hope’ as Coleridge described them. Not all were juvenilia. The volume opens with the Monody on the Death of Chatterton and closes with the ambitious Religious Musings. The poems between showed no easy progress towards maturity or sense of steadily developing powers, nor were they easily gathered for publication, despite Coleridge’s airy assurance that only ‘finger industry’ would be necessary to get them together. Coleridge’s resolutions were ‘too feebly supported after the first paroxysms of acceptance’, as his publisher Cottle wryly commented. Again and again the poems are concerned with a sense of moments fading, with voices which fascinate Coleridge when they find a register in which to speak out to a public, or with the ‘light in sound’ that would eventually be at the heart of The Aeolian Harp, but not in the 1796 version. David suggested that Coleridge was fighting against the necessity of trapping the evanescent by fixing his contemplative observations in print. There are moments of profundity, deep emotion, but this is a volume ‘calculatedly unsure of its feelings’.
Graham Davidson discussed the two established books which Coleridge never outgrew: the Bible and Nature, initially for him the ‘other great Bible of God’. Should Nature be received actively or passively? How should we read the Bible rightly? Coleridge’s idealist philosophy is the key to answering both questions. For him, Nature became ‘not God: she is the devil in a strait-waistcoat’, as he grew to believe that ideas are the foundation of reality, rather than being derived from it. When we read the Bible, we may need a strait-waistcoat ourselves. Graham’s analysis of Coleridge’s philosophical position was densely-packed and wholly engaging. If Coleridge felt that those who brought nothing to either the Bible or Nature could take nothing from them, many of us felt that we wanted to see Graham’s talk fixed in print, so that we might begin to take from it all that it had to offer. Here was a Coleridgean explosion of ideas.
Coleridge and explorer journals were examined by Tim Fulford. In 1797–98, the young Coleridge was despairing of the mass of his fellow-citizens, because of their total unwillingness to throw off the repressive government of Pitt. Was Pitt perhaps some kind of hypnotist whose ‘theatre of desire’, as
Mesmer’s treatment room was described by a contemporary, was the whole British nation? France: an Ode analyses the way in which Britain (and France) have been bewitched. Coleridge saw mesmerism as arising from psycho-social relationships, from superstition. Other manifestations of human enthralment move away from the political to the psychological, the inwardly terrifying. Travellers’ tales, accounts of obi witchcraft in the West Indies, are heavy with obsession with guilt which carries a sense of being accursed, dangerously on the border between life and death. They inspired the Somerset poem The Three Graves, and notably The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. The Mariner knows he has violated the crew’s taboo by killing the albatross, and so accepts the role of scapegoat. Christabel (with hints of incest since she has taken her mother’s place in the affections of her widowed father) is spellbound by contact with the raped Geraldine’s ‘dreadful’ body. The powerfully sexual elements in the poem recall the fears of sexual abuse generated when Mesmeric ‘magnetism’ appeared in London in the 1780s and 90s. Tim Fulford suggested that both these fine poems brought out what, for Coleridge, was the dark spirit of the age, revealing what it was taboo to declare: that society itself had been bred up to accept the domination of magnetic figures, through a kind of national masochism. Coleridge could diagnose the problem and set it out in compelling dramatic accounts, but he could see no way in which it could be resolved. The Mariner has to go on repeating his tale; Christabel could not be finished.
From early in 1798 until 1823 the Christabel project was always there. Again the light phrase, ‘By the Sea side I hope to finish my Christabel’. Paul Cheshire took us on a journey through its history, to publication (in 1816) and beyond, with wit and erudition. The early approval of the Wordsworths, agitation about whether the poem should be included in the Lyrical Ballads or be published separately, whether it should be illustrated or not, Coleridge imagining Sir George and Lady Beaumont reading it and discussing it and wanting it to be finished, Byron’s being delighted by it—‘surely a little effort would complete the poem’—whether it should be five books or four… one could not but feel affection for Coleridge’s enthusiasm, but exasperation that he could write so often about it yet not be able to face it squarely. The title of the talk quoted Coleridge on his ‘ostrich carelessness’ : ‘I lay too many eggs’; Paul dealt with his wayward author with imaginative sympathy for his human frailty and undiminished admiration for his prodigality. The extracts from the letters were beguiling. We felt regret that the story had no end, but we were captivated by the optimism of so many good resolutions.
Hazlitt’s 1825 verdict on Coleridge was rather different: ‘this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning, of humanity… has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier’. Duncan Wu dealt with the ‘ingeniously-constructed myth’ of My First Acquaintance with Poets, written 25 years after the first encounter it describes. He enumerated some of the things which were left out—any mention of Coleridge’s children, of Cottle, of The Recluse, already over a thousand lines long, of the fact that Coleridge’s first visit
lasted for more than three weeks—and the fundamental philosophical differences between Hazlitt and Coleridge and Wordsworth which shaped the essay. Hazlitt alone, of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s acquaintance, fully understood (and could dispute) their philosophy which put nature at the centre of the spiritual universe. He was essentially an atheist, and a passionate believer in the freedom of the will. My First Acquaintance was a revaluation of the self, emphasising the will and absolutely opposed to the ‘wise passiveness’ of Wordsworth, who emphatically ‘needs must feel’. Power and action lie at the heart of Hazlitt’s philosophy. The vacillation and self-deception which had emerged so clearly for us in the earlier talks during the weekend repelled him, despite his vivid sense of Coleridge as a man of genius.
The Kilve weekend keeps its special atmosphere, in which discussion flows with free enjoyment among established friends, and all newcomers are warmly welcomed and drawn in. The spirited performance by the Blake Players—much more than a dramatic reading—of Lamb’s farce Mr H, was a delicious sorbet at the feast. It failed at Drury Lane, but here it was splendidly appropriate: light, amusing, and giving extra savour to the weightier bill of fare we so much relished.