COLERIDGE, POETIC FORM AND NATIONHOOD
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 5, Spring 1995, pp 2-24)
'Southey certainly has no pretensions to vie with you in the Sublime of poetry, but he tells a plain tale better than you.' Lamb on The Destiny of Nations, in a letter to Coleridge.
What I would like to suggest straight away, and while we still have in mind Lamb's distinction between plain story telling and sublime poetry, is that there are two principal kinds of Romantic creativity. There is that kind from which the Romantics received their name – the Romances, inspired by the recovery of medieval English metrical Romances, which Stuart Curran describes as ' one of the great scholarly achievements of the Enlightenment' and which were published in the latter half of the eighteenth century. However the Romances of the Romantics are not closely associated with Romanticism in our mind because by and large they were written by second line Romantics – Southey, Scott and Moore. Curran characterizes Scott's and Southey's productions as lacking an internality, and comments on Southey's introduction of the marvellous (or the supernatural) that he both used it to excess in liberating himself and other poets from rational, didactic and realistic constraints and that he used it quite separately from psychological impulse or satisfaction. In Curran's opinion this disjunction was fatal. Southey's plain tales, though well told, seem inconsequential and are tedious to most modern readers.
The other mode of Romantic creativity is highly internalized, symbolic and psychological, and is associated with the first order of Romantic poets. It may be exemplified in very different kinds of work by the same poet – Wordsworth's Borderers and Tintern Abbey; Coleridge's Kubla Khan and Christabel; Keats' Hyperion and Ode to a Nightingale. In all these works the emphasis falls not on
outward events, but on states of consciousness, and I would suggest that this kind of Romantic poetry frequently comes to a crisis of consciousness, to a spot of time, a transcendent moment, which, to use a phrase from The Wasteland, seems to be ' the heart of light'.
Keats' sonnet On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again may be read as an illustration of the tension between these two poles of romantic creativity. The first five lines bid adieu to the dreamy wandering romance that had held Keats' attention for some years. The first lines of the poem speak of the qualities of Romance: it is metrically serene and soothing– 'golden–tongued'– a quality which is also a form of temptation –'Fair–plumed Syren'– and is distant from some as yet unstated reality –'Queen of far away'. However that reality is immediately announced:
'Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay
Must I burn through,,,'
Here is an entirely different order of consciousness: nothing serene or soothing, no reference to metre, nothing distant or dreamy, but an immediate, violent reality – a dispute in the soul of man, a dispute which the poet will, by reading King Lear, know and share himself, a dispute which he must 'burn through'– a matter of inward consciousness and not a wandering in another world. The contrast that Keats establishes between the gentle courteous wanderings of romance and the crucial battle between human and spiritual forces is what I would like you to keep in mind. They represent two different forms of poetic genius. It is as if Keats' reading of Lear, to use Prufrock's terms, has squeezed the universe into a ball, and rolled it towards the overwhelming question, whereas 'golden–tongued Romance' wanders on endlessly without crux or crisis, without any point
of concentration. (Cf. Curran p.129) And in the last four lines of the poem, Keats repeats the contrast:
'When through the old
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new
The danger of romance, from Keats' point of view, is that it might easily be barren, its syren song tempting the poet away from man's truth and destiny; it is distant from and contains no challenge to that self the romantics were beginning to discover. But King Lear faces us with a reality which is immediate, vital, crucial and consuming: it represents an immolation of the self which will empower a resurrected self 'to fly at' the poet's desire - that goal unspecified, but quite probably the first version of Hyperion, begun later in that year, and which had apparently been shaping itself in his mind even while writing Endymion, and which attempts to incorporate that burning, transforming experience spoken of in this sonnet, and which is found in a modified form in his major Odes.
The concept that I think best describes this mode of Romantic apprehension was much discussed in the latter half of the eighteenth century – the sublime. I want to suggest two things: firstly that this concept released a psychological and poetic power in the major Romantic poets which broke the bounds of form, causing a division between the narrative development and the apprehension of self-consciousness, and so of course was ultimately recognized as residing not in the image or object, but in the self or subject; and secondly, that not resting there, Coleridge in particular made an enormous intellectual effort to find a form adequate to this concept or energy– a form not accidental or occasional or ad hoc, as it is even in the best romantic poems, but substantial, objective and capable of universal apprehension. What I resist is the
notion that the Romantics were, by contrast with the 18th Century, wholly centred on the subjective, and that it is our business and pleasure to pursue this 'endless subjective expansion': some such phrase was used in discussion after this paper was first given. There is no doubt, of course, that the source of their poetic energies was located more in the subject than the object, but without reference to an object discourse is impossible. And of all the Romantic writers, Coleridge was the most conscious, I think, of the need for a coherent object – of that which exists in its own right, but which is the adequate expression of the life of the subject. It seems to me barely disputable that young and old he saw Christ as ' the sublime of man', and the nation as the adequate object of this sublimity. I shall try to show, very briefly, that The Destiny of Nations has analogies with his supernatural poems, and may also be seen as prefiguring his mature thought in respect of the idea of nationhood.
One might say that the history of the sublime in English
poetry began with the publication of Cowley's Pindarique Odes. However, between
Cowley's introduction of a distinct English form and the appearance of the
first Romantic odes, some 150 years intervene, and during that time the concept
of the sublime changed fundamentally in
(Maclean 415) So the Great Ode is 'great in its objects, and great in its ultimate intention of celebrating the divine...'. We need only remember the Immortality Ode's 'trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home', or Wordsworth's experiences in the Alps or on Snowdon to understand firstly, how little Addison's definition of the function of the sublime had changed, and secondly how dependent the Romantic poets were on objects to catalyse their experience of the sublime - and this despite their gradual realization that the power came from them: that, as Coleridge put it, 'In our life alone does nature live.'
And it is, I suggest, no mere literary accident that many of the greatest achievements of the Romantics are in the form of an ode – though not always called such. If we look for just one more or less perfect work from at least four of the six great names, we are likely to think of the Immortality Ode, the Ode to a Nightingale, the Ode to the West Wind, and, less certainly, the Dejection Ode. But Coleridge is an exception, as always: even if we describe Kubla Khan as an Ode to Genius, his two greatest works, the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, are narratives. And of those, the Rhyme seems to lose its way in the last two sections and Christabel is unfinished. These bare facts may serve to present us with what I think is a major Romantic problem: how to unite moments of heightened or enlivened consciousness with narrative development. (cf. Curran 175)
This is a very evident problem in The Prelude. Our experience, as well as that of several generations of readers, is that the narrative, designed to knit the parts into a whole, fails, and though we are convinced of the truth and beauty of some of the parts, the journey purposed – to describe, generally, the growth of the poet's mind, and specifically that of his imagination – does no such thing: we are given examples of it, certainly, unique and beautiful moments in
our literature, but we finish the poem without achieving the overall sense of having begun from one position and arrived at another, though that intention is deducible from the text, and established in other related poems such as Tintern Abbey – which, by the way, Wordsworth described as an ode, allowing us to think, perhaps, that The Prelude is but a super–extended ode.
The obvious comparison of The Prelude must be with Paradise
Lost, where the complex, non–linear narrative moves from the unfallen to
the fallen state, from inside the garden to exile in
Milton and Shelley shared the same textual models – Greek tragedy in general and Aeschylus in particular, though Shelley took exception to the narrative line he presumed in Aeschylus' lost play, because, as he put it, he was ' averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind'(p.206) – something, he might have noted, that Milton never does. My experience of reading Prometheus Unbound is that the form does not bear out the intention, that we follow the redemptive pattern with immense difficulty, buried as it is under what Shelley called the ' peculiar style of intense and comprehensive imagery which distinguishes the modern literature of England.'(p.206) Shelley may be right, and Wordsworth's 'fair trains of imagery' from the Preface to The Excursion, his belief that a poem must be allowed to find its own form, and the general romantic support for the organic rather than the constructed, (so obviously at odds with eighteenth century practice), are just a few of the many instances that might be called in to support that contention. But, as a consequence,
Prometheus Unbound is nearly a thousand lines longer than Samson Agonistes, and though Shelley may have enjoyed writing them, I confess to struggling with my concentration in order to get through them, and only intermittently enjoying what I am reading. But this is not my experience with Milton's poem: my concentration may lapse, or I may be distracted by the numerous causes coincident with urban and family life, but if I do concentrate my concentration is rewarded by a profound sense of unity– of a single known but unstated intention drawing the words and actions of the various speakers to one ultimate and perfect resolution, and feeling that this is not merely an old tale well told, but the workings of a great spirit and a powerful mind, making his peace with his life and his God.
The word that governs this kind of response, and makes my
rough distinction between Shelley's achievement and that of
A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; (BL 11 13 )
He then goes on to distinguish poetry from other forms of literature– whose primary object is also pleasure – by stating that only poetry proposes ' to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.' This is a very distinct kind of pleasure, and in Coleridge's mind derives from the essential features of man's humanity. In a long and complex note, the basis of this passage from the Biographia, Coleridge first defines poetry as that which ' calls into action and gratifies the largest number of the human Faculties in Harmony with each other' and then feels the need to enumerate these faculties under the heading of ' the primary faculties of man, as. Reason, unified per Ideas.' (CN III 3827) We should note the connection thus delineated between pleasure and Reason, that Reason which,
as he said in A Lay Sermon, is first manifested in man 'by the tendency to the comprehension of all as one.' (LS p.60)
Having begun with a seemingly slight, eighteenth century word, Coleridge has produced a definition of poetry which penetrates to the core of our humanity. Pleasure, Reason and form are intimately bound together.
My suggestion is, that whatever else the Romantics achieved, this kind of form by and large eluded them. There is either a failure to integrate the most intense insights into a narrative order, as in The Prelude, or an insurmountable hiatus as in Hyperion, or a willingness to write without adequate discipline, as in Prometheus Unbound – and as in almost any of Byron's works, who of all the first line Romantics seems to have had least consciousness of the sublime, and many of whose productions are self-evidently romances. On the other hand there are the productions of the second line Romantics concentrating largely on a series of events, and which seem to lack an inwardness, a focus or point of concentration. How Coleridge attempted to solve this problem will I hope become clearer when we progress through The Destiny of Nations itself.
But the last thing I must do before we finally consider that poem is to give you a couple of indications as to how Coleridge, in his maturer days, presented his ideas of human history and human social organization: they can be summed up, I believe, in one phrase: that their common purpose is to realize the person of Christ. Thus of human society, he writes
'Man is truly altered by the existence of other men; his faculties cannot be developed in himself alone, and only by himself. Therefore the human race not by a bold metaphor, but in a sublime reality,approach to, and might become one body whose Head is Christ.' (CL II 1197)
One might easily pass over the phrase 'in a sublime reality' as a piece of rhetoric: but as often when reading Coleridge, that would be to miss an aspect of his insight – the reality he is speaking of is sublime both in Addison's traditional sense of God as the reality sufficient for individual consciousness, but also, and this is Coleridge's addition, as the ideal and proper end of the human race; or rather, the individual can only approach this consciousness through his relations with other individuals; and this consciousness is not God in a general sense, but God specifically as Christ. Coleridge was too aware of his own weaknesses and failures, and of the political conditions of his time, to think that such a realization was imminent; but he also knew that we cannot act aright unless our relations with each other have an object which is not merely local, immediate and temporary. His idea of history, which incorporates his idea of the destiny of nations, must be read with similar caution:
'The history of all historical nations must in some sense be [the history of Christianity] – in other words, all history must be providential, and this a providence, a preparation, and a looking forward to Christ.' (Shedd V 579)
At first glance the notion that all nations whether they've heard of Christ or not, follow a Christian pattern of development is barely credible. But we should wonder why Coleridge felt able to permit himself such a bold statement; and principally it is because he believed that our humanity was epitomized in Christ. He held that the doctrines of Christianity ' must converge to one point; and with them all the essential faculties and excellencies of the human being – so that Christ in the Man, and the Man in Christ, will be one in one.' (CN III 3803) And we must join to this his understanding that nations developed rather like individuals, that is, morally and spiritually, and that their ultimate end would be the realization of a fully humanized person: a
sublime vision indeed. Just as he saw Judeo–Christian history as the archetype of all national histories so also it is 'the very Tap–root and Trunk of the Moral and therein of the physical and political History of the whole Planet – of all Human Progression', (N 43 p31) the end of which is the realization of the person of Christ, the 'Shiloh, the Desire of Nations', and therefore the fullest possible expression of our being. In the relation Coleridge wants to establish between the person of Christ as subject and nation as object, we can see how he is seeking a universal form for the sublime.
The Destiny of Nations is apparently an incomplete and certainly a composite poem. Apparently incomplete because in the middle of line 277 Coleridge interrupts the tutelary spirit– who is addressing Joan of Arc in terms reminiscent of those of Gabriel to Mary– with,'The following fragments were intended to form part of the poem when finished'. In fact the soi-disant fragments that follow are virtually coherent and develop Coleridge's ideas on the causes of war and oppression – which conclude with the tutelary spirit's divine command to Joan, 'Save thy Country!' So the poem is complete in the terms of its subtitle – the vision is fully realized – and in that it is not essentially fragmentary.
It is composite because it began life as material for
Southey's Joan of Arc: some 250 lines
were written for and included in Book II of that poem. Southey argued that in
the fifteenth century the English warred against the visionary Maid of Orleans
because their society was corrupt and now, in 1795, were warring against the
with five variant titles, the two most significant being, The Progress of Liberty and The Vision of the Patriot Maiden.
There are various ingredients in this paradigm of a poem which we must savour if we are to get the best out of it. Firstly, as I have already suggested, we must keep the title in mind: The Destiny of Nations. It may be a poem which suggests the sources of motivation for an historical figure, but the moral and intellectual context in which Coleridge sets the known facts indicate that he believes that he is describing the methods by and the ends to which nations are destined to progress. Consider the subtitle: A VISION , in capital letters. All except one of the five variant titles of the unpublished poem contain the word 'vision'; and though I will come back to the nature of Joan's vision in a moment, I have just one thing to say about it now: it is from God and for Joan: it is of a kind with, if not modelled on, the visions given by God to the Old Testament prophets in order to bring the erring Israelites into line with the revealed destiny of that nation. And the one title that does not contain the word 'vision' – 'The Progress of Liberty'– introduces two other words important to Coleridge's mature ideas of history – that it is a progress, towards every individual's realization of God, and that it can only be carried on under the aegis of moral and intellectual freedom. And it is worth remembering that 'freedom' – from the limitations of time, space and sense - was a concept vital to the supernatural poems, and the heart of both depend upon the realization of a vision. Nor should we forget the word 'patriot' in the fifth variant title 'The Vision of the Patriot Maiden' - quite possibly we shouldn't forget the word 'maiden' either. But ' patriot' for us is a loaded, dangerous word, speaking perhaps of potential bigotry and moral blindness. Not for Coleridge. Because he came to see the nation as an objectification of the idea of Christ, a patriot was to him a dedicated being who had put off private and lesser benefits to achieve the greater good – he would
have described Isaiah and Ezekiel as patriots – just as he described Benjamin Franklin as the 'Patriot Sage'. So before reading even the first line of the poem we have a nexus of significant words; nation, destiny, progress, patriot, liberty and vision, each speaking of an aspect of Coleridge's thought.
The poem begins with a command to hush all meaner song until 'the deep preluding strain' of the opening invocation to God is complete. This invocation of the sublime is typically, and despite its serious subject, almost comically Coleridgean in that it is marked much more by intellectual ebullience than spiritual modesty. The last two lines run "To the Will Absolute, the One, the Good!/ The I AM, the Word, the Life, the Living God!" However it is also typically true of Coleridge that each of these words will have its proper and profound place in his mature thought. And Lamb thought that these °deep preluding strains are fitted to initiate the mind... into the sublimest mysteries... concerning man's nature and his noblest destination...' (Marrs I 101 )
After this opening Coleridge considers the idea of freedom, and is unequivocal in declaring its primary purpose:
For what is Freedom, but the unfettered use
Of all the powers which God for use had given?
But chiefly this, him First, him Last to view
Through meaner powers and secondary things
Effulgent, as through clouds that veil his blaze.
Our powers, though 'meaner', are of a kind with those of God. Knowing ourselves will enable us to know God, the supreme reality: we can distinguish ' the substance from the shadow' as he puts it a few lines further on. (Compare this with Pope's 'Know then thyself: presume not God to scan,/The proper study of mankind is man.') In later life Coleridge will be more cautious and insist that we can only know God
through Christ, but here he assumes that because the world is 'one almighty alphabet/ For infant minds' it can provide us with an immediate language for the experience and the expression of the sublime.
That is the proper use of freedom - but there are those who
use their freedom to deny God - and Coleridge then has a go at some of the
assumptions and conclusions of scientific enquiry in his time - drawn from
and themselves they cheat
With noisy emptiness of learned phrase,
Their subtle fluids, impacts, essences,
Self-working tools, uncaused effects, and all
Those blind Omniscients, those Almighty Slaves,
Untenanting creation of its God.'
To untenant creation of its God is of course that which would completely destroy Coleridge's metaphysics, his hope and belief in the unity of life, and the final object both of his poetic and intellectual ambitions. What Coleridge seeks to do is to discern how there may be a free spiritual activity in a world that appears to cohere and progress without continuous divine intervention, and he uses the opposition's argument to advance his own. Just as atoms are held together in matter by an unknown force 'So by a strange and dim similitude' each self-conscious mind might be an atom in 'one all-conscious Spirit' - and I think he assumes that the unknown force of coherence may be one and the same both in matter and spirit. Certainly he then assumes that particles of energy, or monads, from this spirit will act in nature, nursing 'the infant diamond in the mine', rolling ' the genial juices through the oak', driving ' the mutinous clouds to clash in air', while
others 'more wild,/ With complex
interests weaving human fates,/ Duteous or proud, alike obedient all,/ Evolve
the process of eternal good.' Thus neatly, if not convincingly, Coleridge
unites the forces of nature and history. These monads, like
For Fancy is the power
That first unsensualizes the dark mind,
Giving it new delights; and bids it swell
With wild activity; and peopling air,
By obscure fears of Beings invisible,
Emancipates it from the grosser thrall
Of present impulse, teaching Self–control,
Till Superstition with unconscious hand
Seat Reason on her throne.'
Although Coleridge was probably not quite twenty four when he wrote this poem, we should not suppose that by Reason he simply means cold logic. In 1816 he declared 'God is Reason', and undertones of that later declaration are already present in these lines. After another passage of mythology, he sums up Miltonically:
Wild phantasies! yet wise,
Of the victorious goodness of high God
Teaching reliance, and medicinal hope,
Till from Bathrobe northward, heavenly Truth
With gradual steps, winning her difficult way,
Transfer their rude Faith perfected and pure.'
That is Coleridge's Causabon–like key to all mythologies.
They seat Reason on her throne and preach the goodness of high God. But how his summary of the relations between natural philosophy and primitive mythology substantiates Joan of Arc's vision is not perfectly clear to me (nor was it to Lamb), though it revolves around the notion of spiritual freedom. However, Coleridge himself believes he is in a position to develop his main subject – and his introduction is startling in its finality of tone:
If there be Beings of higher class than Man,
I deem no nobler province they possess,
Than by disposal of apt circumstance
To rear up kingdoms...'
To rear up kingdoms seems to us a dangerous and even a devilish occupation. But to Coleridge, throughout his life, it was an activity of the highest kind, and his ultimate method of objectifying the sublime or visionary experience. Joan of Arc's fight for freedom is to rear up a kingdom that has been crushed by oppression, and her vision provides her with both the energy and the object. But hers is not a common–place act: it has to be substantiated and authorized by a vision given to a person of peculiar purity and dedication.
So Coleridge's first task is to describe the circumstances of Joan's growing up and the qualities of the mature, twenty year old woman. She was the daughter of an inn–keeper, though Coleridge keeps that bare fact in the background – bowing somewhat perhaps to Lamb's disgust at being given the life–story of a pot-girl. What she learnt in this role was, according to Coleridge,'more than Schools could teach: Man's shifting mind/ His vices and his sorrow! And full oft/ At tales of cruel wrong and strange distress/ Had wept and shivered.' This pot–girl's attitude to her clientele is clearly exceptional and Coleridge concludes this section by making the nature of this relationship specific:
To the tottering Eld
Still as a daughter would she run: she placed
His cold limbs at the sunny door, and loved
To hear him story, in his garrulous sort,
Of his eventful years, all come and gone.
She acts as a daughter to a father because, we might say, she is a 'meek Daughter in the family of Christ.' Taking in and caring for the unfortunate and dispossessed seems to have had a particular significance for Coleridge: in a poem entitled 'Pity', he imagines himself taking in a frozen old man in tattered clothes, for Sara to tend like a child, and who would then 'talk, in our fireside recess/ Of purple Pride, that scowls on wretchedness –'. Apart from the interesting parallels between a domestic poem and the early acts of an heroic figure (who would have thought of Sara Fricker as a model for Joan of Arc?) we should note that the sonnet associates this kind of deed with that of Jesus – 'the Galilean mild/ Who met the Lazars turn'd from rich men's doors/ And called them Friends and heal'd their noisome sores.' So 'pity' was clearly a powerful word for Coleridge, reaching very near the heart of Christian ethics. In the poem 'Genevieve', which he claimed he wrote as a boy, but was more likely to have been inspired by Mary Evans, and coming immediately after 'Pity' in John Beer's chronological edition, Coleridge declares that though Genevieve has beauty, the voice of a seraph and an eye like the evening star (all good eighteenth century qualities) these are not the causes of his love; but because on Genevieve's hearing a tale of woe, the poet saw her breast 'with pity heave' he goes on to declare '...therefore love I you, sweet Genevieve.' The emphasis is his. It is not surprising, therefore, that a few lines later Coleridge summarizes Joan's appearance in these words: '... and all her face/ Was moulded to such features as declared/ That Pity there had oft and strongly worked,/ And sometimes Indignation'.
'Guilt' being ' a thing impossible in her', and having 'lived/ In this bad World, as in a place of Tombs/ And touched not the pollutions of the Dead', it is clear that she is being fitted up for a vision. But despite Joan's general suitability, she is made to witness a particular instance of suffering before her vision is given - that is, there is a particular catalyst to her vision - and this is a story of some seventy lines about a husbandman and his family whose hamlet had been fired by the English, and who, within the unlikely time-span of twenty-four hours, and despite having a waggon to shelter in, all die of 'Fright and Cold and Hunger'. This story is very carefully told, and comes as a respite after all the philosophical verse of the first part of the poem. (Not that Lamb saw it that way: he thought it ' a cock and bull story of Joan's the publican's daughter of Neufchatel, with the lamentable episode of a waggoner, his wife and six children' (Marrs I 94) - though I think it does illustrate that Coleridge could tell a plain tale quite well.) But this section has another level of comparative interest; the general structure has parallels with The Ancient Mariner: there is a period of great and carefully detailed suffering prior to the vision, which provides immediate relief and points the way forward. Certainly Joan's vision seems to put behind her the suffering of those she saw suffer. Of course, in the Rime the suffering and the vision are incorporated in the same person, and so the relation between the two is much more closely knit.
As the vision is about to come upon Joan, we are given a picture of her physical appearance, and though I don't think I can point to any precise verbal parallels, I would suggest that the trance-like state that comes upon her has something in common with all Coleridge's major visionary figures - particularly perhaps with Christabel and Bard Bracy's dream of her as a dove enfolded by a snake whom we are sure is Geraldine:
Ah! suffering to the height of what was suffered,
Stung with too keen a sympathy, the Maid
Brooded with moving lips, startful, dark!
And now her flushed tumultuous features shot
Such strange vivacity, as fires the eye
Of Misery fancy–crazed!... She sate
Ghastly as broad–eyed Slumber! a dim anguish
Breathed from her look ! and still with pant and sob,
Inly she toiled to flee, and still subdued,
Felt an inevitable Presence hear.'#
That is Coleridge's description, but note also his summing up of her condition – '... she toiled in troublous ecstasy'. She is undergoing a subjective version of the sublime experience, and on cue the Presence or tutelary spirit begins to speak to her - only to be interrupted almost immediately by Coleridge declaring that the rest of the poem is a collection of fragments.
Such continuity as is lost to the poem itself can be
recovered from E.H. Coleridge's notes in the
The connection between what Joan has just suffered as a witness and the fact of evil or chaos is immediately made: this extract begins straight after the author's interruption:
'Maid beloved of heaven!
(To her the tutelary Power exclaimed)
Of Chaos the adventurous progeny
Thou seest; foul missionaries of foul sire,
Fierce to regain the losses of that hour
When Love rose glittering, and his gorgeous wings
Over the abyss fluttered with such glad noise,
As what time after long and pestful calms
With slimy shapes and miscreated life
Poisoning the vast Pacific, the fresh breeze
Wakens the merchant sail uprising.'
Of this passage, Coleridge wrote, 'These are very fine lines, tho' I say it, that should not; but, hang me, if I know or ever did know the meaning of them, tho' my own composition.' Coleridge was probably responding to what we respond in them: reverberations from Milton's description of the fallen angels, of the Holy Ghost brooding over the vast abyss, and the recognition of 'the slimy shapes and miscreated life' as a vision of the Mariner's poisoned soul, which recover their proper form when he is able to pray and the fresh breeze begins to move him penitently homewards. Here Coleridge conceives of evil as Night personified leading rebellious monads who heard her ' dark behest' and rushed on earth:
Since that sad hour,in Camps and Courts adored,
Rebels from God,and Tyrants o'er Mankind!
of which the corrupt English are immediate examples. Coleridge has thus established a connection between what has happened to the husbandman and his family, and 'a fall of some kind' (CL IV 575), an explanation of the origin of evil. This is of course important to him,because it is a chief function of a nation,integral to its destiny, to follow a course which is redemptive, or generative of Christ as he later put it, and which therefore enables true patriots to follow the same course.
In a section taken from Book II of Joan of Arc but omitted from this poem, Coleridge then has the tutelary spirit ask Joan whether she dare ' encounter such fell shapes,... the fiends that o'er thy native land/ Spread Guilt and Horror', even to the point of death. Her answer is apparently addressed directly to God:
"Father of Heaven! I will not fear" she said,
"My arm is weak, but mighty is thy sword."
That last phrase 'thy sword' is appropriate to the situation of course, but I find it strange coming from Coleridge: perhaps it is the language of a Unitarian who has yet to see the significance of the Word: certainly one can hardly imagine Coleridge even a few years later writing 'sword' instead of 'word'. But here it suits both the action and the Old Testament character of Joan's initiation.
Joan, having vowed herself to the liberation of France, now invokes the 'Spirits of God' and hears a 'faint melody' which rises into that song which ' with harp and mingled voice/ The white–robed multitude of slaughtered saints/ At heaven's wide–open portals gratulant/ Receive some martyred patriot' – lines which are of course prophetic of Joan's destiny. She sleeps, briefly, in confused ecstasy, and wakes to a very different landscape, which begs the question as to whether the visions of justice and freedom which follow aren't something of a vision in a dream. She sees Justice stepping over ancient battlefields, 'repairing all she might', and leaving flowers in her footprints. But war breaks out again, blood–drops fall from heaven, and Justice leaves the field, to hide in ' a ruined Sepulchre'. Joan laments Justice's retreat, and receives an explanation of the re–appearance of war from the tutelary spirit:
When Luxury and Lust's exhausted stores
No more can rouse the appetite of kings;
When the low flattery of their reptile lords
Falls flat and heavy on the accustomed ear;
When eunuchs sing, and fools buffoonery make,
And dancers writhe their harlot–limbs in vain;
Then War and all its dread vicissitudes
Pleasingly agitate their stagnant hearts;
Its hopes, its fears, its victories, its defeats
Insipid Royalty's keen condiment!
Because the stress is on the moral causes of war and tyranny, the connection with the original monadic rebellion is re–asserted. Still gazing over this visionary landscape, Joan sees ' a brighter cloud' arise from which emerges Freedom, ' A dazzling form, broad bosomed, bold of eye,/ And wild of hair'– who scourges Ambition and all the terrors of war – the martial plain attempts to retaliate, sending up 'its foulest fogs to meet the morn' and Coleridge concludes this part of the poem with the stirring line, 'The Sun that rose on Freedom, rose in Blood!'
The maid then receives her instruction –'Save thy Country' and both the tutelary spirit and the vision disappear. The poem, and whether this is the voice of Coleridge or Joan is not clear, then breaks into a final and concluding apostrophe to God, pantheistic in tone, defended by Coleridge in a footnote, but reminding us of the opening invocation, and so bringing us full circle – 'him First, him Last to view'. All Joan has now to do is to go off, fight the English and be martyred – a narration which probably interested Coleridge much less than the motives of her action, but which in any case had presumably been undertaken by Southey.
I have tried to mark out some of the areas of interest in this poem - I am not suggesting that it is likely to satisfy
Coleridge's own criterion and give us immediate pleasure. But I have tried to show how it contains some of the seeds of his intellectual development, and by way of a conclusion I would like to make a brief summary of the most important.
I think that we can see that some of the structural features of the poem have something in common with his two major supernatural poems. A period of sinful or mistaken action leads to a crisis of consciousness, from which the right spiritual attitude and a new course of action develop. And the attempt in this poem to explain the origin of evil underpins the tacit metaphysical seriousness of The Rime and Christabel. The vision given here to Joan is explicitly associated with her purity and her powers of compassion or pity. Both the Mariner and Christabel suffer impurities of consciousness, but their visions will enable a cleansing of their souls, and the development of a new order of consciousness and sympathy –'He prayeth well who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast.'
This poem, unlike most other Romantic poems tackling the sublime, is a narrative. A narrative assumes a certain objectivity, a world in which the protagonist can act, but the majority of Romantic narratives are merely objective, little more than plain tales well told; or, if attempting the sublime, they falter and are often unfinished. Coleridge has here set his vision in an historical context, and then set that particular moment in the context of a universal history – in the philosophy of a first cause and a final end. He has adopted a form or object which can be known in its own right, but which must be validated through a visionary, subjective experience.
The final business of history, as of nature, is to enable the individual's realization of Cod, or the person of Christ as he would say later. Within the context of universal history,
Coleridge believes that this is achieved by the growth of individual nations or kingdoms, which will all have certain forms of development in common, and which all point towards ' the essential faculties of the human being - Christ in the Man, and the Man in Christ.' These kingdoms, ideally conceived, therefore provide both the moral and intellectual freedom to enable this activity, and as consequence of their development in time, also provide an objective history, a narrative which told of any one nation will reveal the destiny of all nations.
(based upon a paper
BL: Biographia Literaria, ed. Engell & Bate, 2 vols 1983 (Collected Coleridge:No 7)
CL: Collected Letters ed. Griggs, 6 vols(OUP1956-71 )
CN: Notebooks ed.K.Coburn 4 vols (Princeton/RKP1957-)
LS: Lay Sermons, ed. R.J.White, 1972 (C.C.:No 6)
N: Coleridge's manuscript notebooks Add. Mss 47496-47550 in the B.M.
Poems: ed. J. Beer, Everyman edition, 1993
Complete Poetical Works of STC , ed. E.H. Coleridge, 2 vols. (1912)
Shedd W.G.T. ed., The Collected Works of STC, 7 vols., (NY, 1853)
Curran, Stuart: Poetic form & British Romanticism (OUP 1986)
Lamb, Charles: Letters of C & M Lamb , ed. E.W.Marrs 3 vols (Cornell, 1975)
Shelley, P.B: Poetical Works ( Oxford S.A.,1967)