Attempts at Sublimity:

Young Coleridge and The Ancient Mariner [1]


Seamus Perry


(The Coleridge Bulletin  New Series No 6 (Autumn 1995), (pp 20-49)



This essay is less about The Ancient Mariner than around it; but we will touch the poem at points along the way and join up with it again at the end.


L.C.Knights once remarked that ‘[i]n the Coleridgean world everything is connected with everything else’;  [2]   and in this piece I am trying to draw out connections between the young Coleridge who wrote the poem and an older Coleridge who wrote and lectured on literary criticism. I think one could even extend connections to a still older Coleridge, who wrote about God and the Logos, but enough is enough. The great attraction this kind of approach has for me is that it discourages the broken-backed notion of Coleridge’s career (which one still finds current) as a deluded stumble about in English empiricism before encountering, around the turn of the century, the startling liberation of dynamic idealism in the philosophical Germans: to be sure, the new discoveries excited him terrifically; but this was because he was finding-or thought he was finding- thinkers who systematised insights and notions which had occurred to him in less formal ways already. (Indeed, why else might they have appealed to him? Almost none of his contemporaries found them very enticing.) Of course, conversely, the great danger in this kind of approach is an over-detailed ‘reading back’ from Coleridge in his later prose works, like the Lay Sermons and the Biographia, to the young man writing The Ancient Mariner in that exciting Wordsworthian Autumn of 1797: this, I should say, is the main trouble with Robert Penn Warren’s great essay on the poem.  [3]  I don’t argue here that the mature critic’s opinions are anticipated in their minutiae by the poetic thinking behind the poem; but I do believe there is a pattern of beliefs and artistic aspirations in common: almost all his most extraordinary poetry had been written by the time he was being a critic, but it would not be odd to feel that his




critical wisdom gathered its primary power from the recollection of his own greatest poetic successes.




My argument here is that we best read The Ancient Mariner if we appreciate that it is incomprehensible. I add at once that it is the kind of poem that gives incomprehensibility a good name; and it pulls off its incomprehensibility triumphantly in the face of the very severest threats of coherence: I’m not being entirely whimsical, though I do mean ‘incomprehensible’ in a particular sense, to which I shall return. Traditionally, I suppose, incomprehensibility is not held a literary virtue; but there is, I think, a good prima facie case for my position: everyone agrees that there is something very puzzling about the poem. Along with the intrinsically gripping story, this must be one of the reasons for its continuing popularity; and I think an account of the poem might well begin with this puzzling quality which makes it so hard to sort out.


Anyway, Coleridge is generally famous for being incomprehensible, even to those intimates most indebted to him, as an anecdote from Samuel Rogers nicely illustrates. Late in Coleridge’s life, Rogers and Wordsworth dropped in to see him; the episode is recorded in Rogers’s diary:


He[Coleridge] talked uninterruptedly for about two hours, during which Wordsworth listened to him with profound attention, every now and then nodding his head as if in assent. On quitting the lodging, I said to Wordsworth, ‘Well, for my part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge’s oration: pray, did you understand it?’

‘Not one syllable of it,’ was Wordsworth’s reply.  [4] 


This is the figure unkindly portrayed by Max Beerbohm and




Thomas Carlyle; but Coleridge often outsteps his satirists, as he does his critics, by anticipating them, and he was aware, ruefully and otherwise, of the way his thinking - how can one put it?— exploited the rich resources of incomprehensibility. The astronomer Sir William Rowan Hamilton called on the great man in 1832, and later recollected: ‘I said to Coleridge[…] that I had read most of his published works: but, by way of being very honest, I added But, sir, I am not sure that I understand them all. “The question is, sir,” said he,” whether I understand them all myself”.’  [5]  And if this seems merely the old sage being charming or cryptic, remember the scurrilous little rhyme poking fun at The Ancient Mariner which, he self-deprecatingly claims in Biographia Literaria, circulated literary London in the early nineteenth century - but which in fact Coleridge wrote himself, about someone else’s poem, and which was only associated with the Mariner, retrospectively, by him:




Your poem must eternal be,

Dear sir! it cannot fail,

For ‘tis incomprehensible

And without head or tail.  [6] 


This little rhyme, I remind you, features as one of the epigraphs to John Beer’s Coleridge the Visionary;  [7]   so we have some distinguished precedent for taking its terms seriously.


Of course, there is incomprehensibility and incomprehensibility. The real effect of incomprehensibility depends on an invitation, tacit or otherwise, from the author for us to try and comprehend: the kind of intellectual or poetic obscurity which is simply gibberish, like Jabberwocky, at length no doubt a very dull business, hardly merits the




word; nor does the merely difficult text, like a poem by William Empson or Finnegans Wake, which requires a lot or work done by the reader, even research, but if it defeats us has simply been uncomprehended, like an unsolved detective story. Coleridge certainly knew the rhetorical effectiveness of leaving things mysterious (‘Behold! her bosom and half her side –/ A sight to dream of, not to tell!’); but there seems more to the obscurity of The Ancient Mariner than this rhetorical sleight of hand. Nor is the poem at all obscure in the way that, say, Religious Musings often is: thickly Miltonic in a knottily argumentative way about late eighteenth-century issues in the philosophy of mind and so forth; quite the contrary, The Ancient Mariner deploys a poetic voice of apparently innocent lucidity, even naïveté, even occasional quaintness, and any philosophical implications around seem left wholly implicit.


Of course, Coleridge told Mrs Barbauld (or said he did) that the failing of the poem was its over–emphatic moralism, which would seem set to make it all very comprehensible indeed;  [8]  but, oddly in that case, there seems precious little agreement about what this over-emphasised moral might actually be. William Empson summarised the overt lesson of the last stanzas sharply enough: ‘Don’t pull poor Pussy’s tail, because God loves all his creatures’, and unexpectedly profound this ethical injunction can prove to be as well;  [9]  but despite its manifest justice, this probably doesn’t take us very far as an account of the work as a whole.


The sense of a puzzle stems, I think, from a kind of inspired mismatch between the poetic voice, purporting to narrate with balladic ingenuousness a story with a redemptively cosmic structure, and the recalcitrance of the religious, psychological, and emotional raw material this traditionalist voice gets to work on. If the poem is hard to comprehend this is in large part because it seems to offer us something like a running, authoritative interpretation of




itself— one already remarkable in the 1798 text and heavily emphasised by the marginal notes added in 1817, in what is surely a persona of a pious eighteenth-century editor of ballads.


We know that, about the time of writing The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was strongly drawn to a notion of God’s presence in the universe which comes to be known as the ‘One Life’, a great divine presence in all objects of nature and in all men which unites them into an enormous, mutually implicated family and, at its most radical, denies actual autonomy to any one of its component members - like, say, a tree or an albatross or you - because all is subsumed within the perfect energies of God who ‘made and loveth all’: energy cannot come from anywhere else. So, critics have been keen to see the poem as a kind of One Life allegory: a sin against nature, in the form of the albatross, punishment, atonement, redemption; and the poem certainly seems to encourage us to see a crime—repentance—restoration plot. The trouble is that it doesn’t fit: of all the men on board, the Mariner, who actually shot the bird, is the one who doesn’t die; once the bird is shot, the weather actually improves for a time; things don’t seem noticeably to improve much after the snakes are blessed; redemption seems hardly complete; and so forth. The poem seems positively to gesture towards kinds of resolution and allegorical universality while including within itself dozens of particulars which stubbornly refuse to be assimilated into the coherent ‘reading’ its ostensibly atoning, ‘One Life’ vision appears to promise. But if we ask who it is who most wants to believe this ill-fitting scheme, the answer must be the person who, mostly but (crucially) not only, tells and shapes the story: that is, the Mariner; the Wedding Guest for one seems hardly convinced by the new message of religious optimism. The question is whether the Mariner is, as it were, the right man for his story, or whether he is somehow ill-equipped to interpret authoritatively the experiences he has been through.




Now, the ‘recalcitrance’ of the poem towards its apparent meaning, as we might call it, is, presumably, down to more than inadvertence or slackness: I am interested here in this sense of a puzzle or mismatch in the poem, one recalcitrantly forbidding an easy comprehension, because I think it can be seen to anticipate in an extraordinarily vivid way some centrally important concerns of Coleridge’s more mature thinking about poetic imagination. And I want to approach this sense of a division or mismatch by an apparently wayward route.




Robert Southey wrote to William Taylor in September 1798, asking if he’d seen a newly published book, Lyrical Ballads: ‘They are by Coleridge and Wordsworth,’ he explained,’ but their names are not affixed. Coleridge’s ballad of “The Ancient Mariner” is, I think, the clumsiest attempt at German sublimity I ever saw.’  [10]   To his reputation’s everlasting damage, Southey decided to go on and publish a review of the book, in the Critical Review for October 1798; and of the several notices the Ballads received his must have been the most galling for the authors. The volume was anonymous, but, as we have seen, Southey knew perfectly well who it was by; I suppose the best that could be said for him is that he didn’t allow his acquaintance to temper his critical faculties. An irritated Wordsworth wrote to their publisher, Cottle: ‘If he could not conscientiously have spoken differently of the volume, he ought to have declined the task of reviewing it’, and fell to a customary self-defence against critics: ‘I care little for the praise of any professional critic, but as it may help me to pudding’. [11]


Jack Simmons points out in his biography of Southey that the essay is perhaps ‘ less unfavourable and unjust than has often been supposed’;  [12]  and in fact, the piece is not uniformly ungenerous: although certainly unkind to




Wordsworth’s ballads, Southey was extremely effusive about ‘Tintern ;Abbey’. It was The Ancient Mariner that took the real drubbing, and Wordsworth himself soon came to think of the poem as a weak opener for the book; indeed, Southey’s dominant response, nastily expressed though it be, is mostly one of simple incomprehension, and one might almost say that this is a normal, even the proper, reaction. Southey writes in his review:


This piece appears to us perfectly original in style as well as in story [that is, an unsuccessful imitation of the elder poets]. Many of the stanzas are laboriously beautiful; but in connection they are absurd or unintelligible [...] We do not sufficiently understand the story to analyse it. It is a Dutch attempt at German sublimity. Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit.  [13] 


Southey’s tone here seems to have been mainly prompted by an exasperation and pain greater even than those which habitually accompanied intimacy with Coleridge: relations had never really recovered since the terrible bust-up in November 1795, which nadir had been marked by Coleridge writing a letter to him of over five thousand words discussing Southey’s manifold failings. Some rapprochement had occurred after Southey’s return from Portugal in the Autumn of 1796, apparently at Southey’s own initiative, but there was always a resentment; and it seems to have bubbled out in the review. (It should be said that it was not really characteristic of an otherwise good and even heroic man - who, for example, was to spend several decades of his life looking after the wife and children whom Coleridge had practically abandoned.)


However, undignified as the whole business undoubtedly was, the venom may have been informed: Southey had known Coleridge intimately and had collaborated with him and the




two men must often have talked about poetry. Searching for something wounding to say, Southey would happily have seized on the kind of inside information he had picked up about Coleridge’s poetic ambitions and turned it on him: so, quite conceivably, within the terms of this famously hostile response to The Ancient Mariner we may find some clues about Coleridge’s interests and frame of mind. The phrase that stands out, rather incongruously perhaps in the general run of the argument, is, of course, that great tag ‘ a Dutch attempt at German sublimity’, the origin of this essay’s title. It is an improvement on the earlier letter, you will notice, which had only managed ‘the clumsiest attempt at German sublimity’; and this improvement, I think, is because he is sharpening his nastiness for Coleridge’s benefit.


I shall return to the Dutch improvement in a few minutes; but first I’ll say a few words about the implications of ‘German’ in this period, and why Southey was writing to Taylor in particular about it, and then about some of the late eighteenth century connotations of that great catchword, ‘sublimity’.




William Taylor was a relatively new acquaintance of Southey’s, an important figure in that end-of-the-century non-conformist intellectual flourishing based around Norwich which Southey had come across in the early Summer of 1798, while visiting his erstwhile fellow Pantisocrat, George Burnett, now a Unitarian minister. But Taylor’s name was known to Southey already, as to everyone else, because of his magazine translations of Gottfried Bürger, chilling ballad tales of supernatural shocks; there were other translators, and some lavish editions, but Taylor seems to have been the favourite of the Coleridge circle. As an example of Taylor’s Bürger, this is the end of ‘Lenora’ (which appeared in the Monthly Magazine for March 1796). ‘Lenora’ is the tale of a




headstrong girl who, ignoring parental advice and, as Taylor rather unnecessarily emphasises, going ‘Against the Providence of Heaven’, pines hopelessly for her dead lover William, killed in the crusades; by a stroke of luck, she happens to meet the ghost of William riding on horseback, and she chooses to elope with him — with this macabre result:


They pass, and ‘twas on graves they trode;

“‘Tis hither we are bounde:”

And many a tombestone gostlie white

Lay in the moonshyne round.



And when hee from his steede alytte,

His armour, black as cinder,

Did moulder, moulder all awaye,

As were it made of tinder.



His head became a naked scull;

Nor haire nor eyen had he:

His body grew a skeleton,

Whilome so blythe of blee.



And att his drye and boney heele

Nor spur was left to be;

And inn his witherde hande you might

The scythe and houre-glass see.



And lo! his steede did thin to smoke,

And charnel fires outbreath;

And pal’d and bleach’d, then vanish’d quite

The mayde from underneathe.




And hollow howlings hung in aire,

And shrekes from vaults arose.

Then knew the mayde she mighte no more

Her living eyes unclose.



But onwards to the judgment seat,

Thro’ myste and moonlighte dreare,

The gostlie crewe their flyghte persewe,

And hollow inn her eare: —



“Be patient: tho’ thyne herte should breke,

Arrayne not heven’s decree;

Thou nowe art of thie bodie refte,

Thie soule forgiven bee!”  [14] 


‘Lenora’ seems ridiculous to us, I suppose, though it has a certain rhythmic life; but the German example of Bürger plays a perhaps unexpected part in the formation of both Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s literary thought. As a matter of more general literary history too, it is important, for the ballads were a great hit in the mid-1790s: Scott, for example, found ‘Lenora’ ‘a temptation [...] difficult to resist’ and began to write ballads himself under its inspiration. ‘The wild character of the tale was such as struck the imagination of all who read it,’ he recalled;  [15]  certainly, Charles Lamb was thrilled to bits: ‘ Have you read the Ballad called “Leonora”[sic], in the second number of the “Monthly Magazine”?,’ he wrote breathlessly to Coleridge, ‘If you have!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’.  [16]  Lamb is serio-comically lost for words: appropriately, for Bürger’s appeal seems almost entirely a visceral thrill of language. Polished elegance and refinement are resigned in favour of power and robust energy: a certain excited artlessness is part of the punch, and this seems at least part of the cultural connotation carried by the term ‘German’.




The similarities between a Bürger ballad like’Lenora’ and The Ancient Mariner are not hard to spot: the strong rhythmical balladic form, the energetic use of language, the use of supernatural grotesquerie, the hideous transformations, the archaic atmosphere, the rapid pace of events, even the rather tame moral tie-up to the whole, stressing the good sense of obeying God’s wishes. When Southey writes to Taylor before publishing his review, what we can see is him flattering his new friend by declaring the poem to be insufficiently Bürgerish: his dismissal of The Ancient Mariner implies that Coleridge’s is just a clumsy attempt at the sort of thing Bürger had already perfected and holds the copyright on — Bürger, Taylor’s man, obviously offers echt German sublimity. Similarly, while Southey’s review judged Coleridge’s medievalisms in the 1798 Mariner to be simply ill-advised froth, Taylor’s own thickly pseudo-Medieval spelling apparently adds splendidly to a genuinely Gothic effect.


And indeed, if we invoke Bürgerian criteria, Coleridge’s poem does look somewhat hamfisted: in this sense, Southey’s review has a miserable kind of justice. The crisis point (shooting the albatross) happens very quickly, what seems like it’s meant to represent the restoration of the Mariner to God (blessing the snakes) occurs before the poem is halfway through, and the last half of the poem seems to move with an odd reluctance to achieve conclusiveness; so the whole rather lacks the quickening, inevitable crescendo plot of a good Bürger effort like’Lenora’. Then again, the moral conclusion we finally do reach in the Mariner seems rather arbitrarily jumped upon and somewhat incongruous in its immediate context of the Mariner’s account of periodic agony: Bürger’s piety may be trite, but its moral always fits. And then again, as Southey nastily but shrewdly points out, the forward narrative rush of The Ancient Mariner encounters a series of obstacles to its connecting chain of events by moments of strangely retarding, self-sufficing detail, or




apparently redundant minuteness: ‘The hornéd Moon, with one bright star / Within the nether tip’, ‘The silly buckets on the deck,/ That had so long remained’, or ‘Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,/ They coiled and swam; and every track/ Was a flash of golden fire’; or else the spooky dash gets retarded by extended similes which seem to gather an imaginative interest to themselves in excess of their illustrative function: ‘A noise like of a hidden brook “ In the leafy month of June,/ That to the sleeping woods all night / Singeth a quiet tune’, or (best of all) ‘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’.


Coleridge was not immune to Bürger-fever: ‘Bürger of all the German Poets pleases me the most, as yet,’ he wrote to his wife in November 1798, nor to the appeals of Gothic sensationalism more generally. [17] ‘Ah Bard tremendous in sublimity!’ he swooned at Schiller in a sonnet ‘To the Author of “The Robbers”’; and for Thomas Love Peacock, writing Nightmare Abbey in 1818, Coleridge’s penchant for a German kind of horror-sublimity is a great joke: Mr Flosky, his satirical portrait of Coleridge, had, he tells us, a


very fine sense of the grim and the tearful. No one could relate a dismal story with so many minutiae of supererogatory wretchedness. No one could call up a raw-head and bloody bones with so many adjuncts and circumstances of ghastliness.  [18] 


Nevertheless, Coleridge was hardly an unquestioning enthusiast for what Southey had called ‘German sublimity’ either; and, since The Ancient Mariner is a product of what we might aptly call Coleridge’s Wordsworthian period, it is not surprising that Wordsworth is also sceptical, indeed much more wary of the German mode than even Coleridge. We can




see this in his critical terminology: Southey seems to use the epithet `:German’ as at least simply descriptive of a kind of writing, and more probably, writing to Taylor, as a positive honorific - Coleridge’s inability to pull the trick off is the criticism he’s making, not the kind of thing he’s attempting. For Wordsworth, on the other hand, ‘German’ seems more nearly pejorative as a literary term — one thinks of the reference in the Lyrical Ballads ‘Preface’ to ‘sickly and stupid German tragedies’- and, incidentally, this hostile use is, according to Rosemary Ashton’s excellent book The German Idea, apparently rather more unusual for late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century England. [19]


Coleridge’s mature literary thinking is shaped and worked out, I believe almost entirely, in response to his experience of Wordsworth, a poet he recognised very early, and surely rightly, as the greatest of his age. While in Germany, Coleridge and Wordsworth wrote to each other discussing Bürger and what Bürger represented, as we know from a letter Coleridge wrote to Taylor himself at the beginning of 1800. There was, on the face of it, a good deal in common between Wordsworth’s position and Bürger’s, at least as expounded by Taylor; ‘Bürger is every where distinguished,’ Taylor had explained in an appreciative essay,’ for manly sentiment and force of style. His extraordinary powers of language are founded on a rejection of the conventional phraseology of regular poetry, in favour of popular forms of expression, caught by the listening artist from the voice of agitated nature’.  [20]  As Mary Jacobus points out, this clearly anticipates not only the sentiment but the very wording of Wordsworth’s complaints in the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ about ‘the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers’ as well as the turn in the 1800 ‘Preface’ towards ‘the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’.  [21] 


Nevertheless, despite the similarity between the plain and passionate aesthetic of Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ and this




account of Bürger’s charms, the gist of his correspondence with Coleridge through that German winter seems to have been his growing disenchantment with the German writer’s practice, and Coleridge’s qualified defence of his merits. It is an important time for both writers, but perhaps especially for Wordsworth; and one can see in the letters (from which Coleridge quotes in the Taylor letter) how crucial a negative role Bürger seems to have played in the working out of their arguments in the 1800 ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads - and, indeed, how more generally formative in the attitude towards action in poetry Wordsworth comes to assume in his mature thinking, attitudes already bearing fruit at about this time (late 1798) in the spectacular non-events which form the remembered narratives in the growing Prelude.


Bürger[wrote Wordsworth] is one of those poets whose book I like to have in my hand, but when I have laid the book down I do not think about him. I remember a hurry of pleasure, but I have few distinct or minute feelings which he has either communicated to me, or taught me to recognise. I do not perceive the presence of character in his personages. I see everywhere the character of Bürger himself; and even this, I agree with you, is no mean merit. But yet I wish him sometimes at least to make me forget himself in his creations. It seems to me, that in poems descriptive of human nature, however short they may be, character is absolutely necessary, &c.: incidents are among the lowest allurements of poetry. Take from Bürger’s poems the incidents, which are seldom or ever of his own invention, and still much will remain; there will remain a manner of relating which is almost always spirited and lively, and stamped and particularised with genius. Still I do not find those higher poetic beauties which can entitle him to the name of a great poet.  [22] 




The argument moves away here from the agreed matter of vivid or unpolished language. Wordsworth associates Bürger with a kind of egotistical swamping of the poetry, and a consequent incapacity for that proper, true dramatisation of human nature which the English tradition tends to associate with Shakespeare: ‘ I wish him ... to make me forget himself in his creations’. Wordsworth’s second point is rather different, and may sound contradictory: that Bürger’s poetry, even though swamped by Bürger’s presence, relies on a train of startling, ‘external’ narrative turns to the detriment, presumably, of a poetry of consciousness; but the contradiction is more apparent than real, perhaps, since if Bürger had been possessed of a high kind of self-exploratory consciousness he would hardly have bothered with the spooky gimmicks in the first place.


Both Bürger’s failings - the inability truly to evoke the quality of real humanity, and a vainly compensatory over-reliance on frenetic sequences of scares and shocks - represent betrayals of nature or reality: in this way, Bürger comes to concentrate for Wordsworth the possible failings of poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, when, in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth rather outrageously decides to supply a note detailing some of the many faults of The Ancient Mariner, they seem distinctly Bürgerish failings. One prominently listed is that the ‘principal person has no distinct character’, in other words, the Mariner’s dramatic realisation is inadequate for he has no life of his own: as Johnson had said of Paradise Lost, the want of human interest is always felt. Wordsworth’s other complaints are that the sequence of events in the poem is too simply arbitrary and that, according to Wordsworth anyway, the Mariner ‘ does not act’ (though as Empson pointed out, Wordsworth’ should have tried biting his arm for blood so his parched throat could shout for help): these seem complaints about the inept contrivance of the shocking incidents of the poem.  [23]  He says some nicer things about the poem too, but basically




Coleridge seems stuck in a cleft stick rather, since his poem is at once not enough about the internal experience of human nature and yet insufficiently well-done as Gothic thriller to gain many points there either: at once too Bürgerish and not Bürgerish enough; but then, as the noble Lamb had retorted to Southey after his review, maybe Coleridge was trying to do something else apart from German sublimity, even to ‘ dethrone’ it with a ‘right English’ sublimity of his own.  [24]




The sickliness and stupidity of German tragedy, as Wordsworth found it, lay in its lack of truthfulness to nature, an unhealthy self-absorbed imaginative egotism which rendered a poet like Bürger unable ‘to make me forget himself in his creations’, and a breathless kind of frantic sensationalism. This amounts to what we could think of as a meretricious or false sublime, if we bear in mind Burke’s description of the genuine sublime as the experience of a reader when ‘[t]he mind is hurried out of itself, by a croud of great and confused images; which affect because they are crouded and confused’. One of Burke’s examples from Milton is the great description of Death:


The other shape,

If shape it might be called that shape had none

Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb:

Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,

For each seemed either.


‘[A]ll is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree,’ Burke comments;  [25]  and one can see the way this kind of prescription affected, say, Southey’s practice in his fantastic epics of superb mock-sublimity, like The Curse of Kehama or Thalaba the Destroyer.


Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry is into the origin of our ideas




of the sublime and the beautiful, and it finds the originating cause of sublimity in rugged mountains and things similarly obscure; but the phenomenon of sublimity remains ideal, that is to say, inside the head. The defining example from Milton may provide a good metaphor for the way sublimity is experienced as an affair of the mind rather than a property of the objects of nature themselves: in the internal rapture of the sublime, you no longer know what is substance and what is shadow (‘For each seemed either’), reality and illusion, the concrete and the fictive get irrevocably mixed up. Something like this radically internalised conception of the sublime, as it happens, also comes to be associated with the idea of Germanness: Kant, of course, also wrote a long dissertation on the sublime and the beautiful -it’s in the Critique of Judgment, a work Coleridge thought the most astonishing of all his three Critiques— which also makes the independent mind the site and source of sublime feeling, as indeed of experience more generally.


That solid Englishman Peacock was less easily impressed, and, after linking Mr Flosky with blood and gore, finds no difficulty in attributing to him also that other notorious piece of German nonsense, Kantian metaphysics, and the dreaming self-absorption it reputedly gives rise to. Flosky, he tells us, ‘plunged into the central opacity of Kantian metaphysics’, where he ‘lay perdu for several years in transcendental darkness, till the daylight of common sense became intolerable to his eyes’.




lived in the midst of that visionary world in which nothing is but what is not. He dreamed with his eyes open, and saw ghosts dancing round him at noontide. [26] 


This passage rather neatly conflates the sublime passage from




Milton which famously confused what was and what was not (‘if substance might be called that shadow seemed,/ For each seemed either’) and an incident from The Ancient Mariner (‘The upper air bursts into life!/ And a hundred fire-flags sheen,/ To and fro they were hurried about’). Along with the ridiculousness of German sublimity, apparently, goes the lunacy of German idealism.


Kant and Kantianism, and ultimately the ‘German’, become generally notorious in early nineteenth-century culture, as Rosemary Ashton and, before her, René Wellek have shown, for legendary obscurity and self-imploding metaphysical solipsism, a reputation, it should be said, stemming mostly from spectacular British ignorance of Kant’s writings. The ‘new Kantian S[ystem]’ is first mentioned in Coleridge’s surviving letters in 1796, though whether this could have been a connotation of the word ‘German’ in ‘the late 1790s when Southey is writing his review is not clear to me; but certainly the implications of a dreamily self-absorbed involution, which German idealism would soon be widely supposed to recommend, is already associated with the idea of sublimity. Probably, the connection of ‘German’ with ‘sublime’ just helps to establish the connection of ‘German’ with disabling, Hamlet-style withdrawals into the inscrutable self.


Of’ course, not only German literature like Bürger’s but also, and indeed preeminently, Milton was associated with sublimity; but if Bürger represented a kind of false sublime, then Milton was the real thing — or at least, a positive way of looking at very nearly the same thing. Bürger’s failing, in Wordsworth’s eyes, was the way his characters remained entirely part of Bürger’s own literary self; but analogously, the true sublimity of Milton, Coleridge was to remark, was the way all the characters in Paradise Lost were really aspects of John Milton, the effect being an intense egotism which amounted to a revelation of spirit. (I suppose that




Bürger’s spirit was hardly worth revealing.) And of course Coleridge himself becomes positively famous in the sublimely removed, ideal realm of his own consciousness, quite out of touch with reality, not only in Peacock’s satire but in almost everyone else’s account as well, including, it should be said, his own: Hamlet, he told one of his lecture audiences, had a morbid aversion to externals; and, he later table-talked, ‘ I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so’.  [27]  (This ‘German’ Hamlet, so to say, had been featured in much the same way in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.) Coleridge had a sort of dreaminess which would not let him see things as they were, Wordsworth once remarked to Crabb Robinson: it is a kind of failure of the reality principle, an inability to render justice to the external world of nature, which Wordsworth was liable to consider something like a disease, that sickliness, perhaps, which the older, more classically minded Goethe characterised as ‘romanticism’.  [28] 




‘ Wordsworth too, ironically enough, comes to be celebrated as a poet of what Keats called ‘the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’; and, strangely echoing Wordsworth himself on Bürger, Coleridge complains in Biographia about the impropriety of Wordsworth adopting the dramatic form, since his kind of Miltonic imagination had no capacity for dramatic empathy. But as we have seen, another side of Wordsworth’s personality - shall we loosely say, the Lyrical Ballads side? — strove for precisely the opposite of such sublimity: suspicious of a Coleridgean self-involution, he sought, in his words, to keep his eye steadily on the subject. Here we finally return to our tag, ‘a Dutch attempt at German sublimity’: for the side of Wordsworth which distrusts or declines the undramatic egotism of Bürger’s febrile monodramas advocates instead a poetic theory of pellucid realism, poetry so finely attuned to what it is representing that, ideally, it would scarcely seem to warrant the name of




art at all; and this is the kind of aesthetic which becomes associated with the idea of ‘Dutch’.


The defence of poetry is usually a variation on, ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’; Wordsworth’s addition to the ‘Preface’ in the 1802 Lyrical Ballads takes his own realist counter-principle to a very odd extreme: ‘there cannot be a doubt but that the language which [the poetic faculty] will suggest to [the poet] must, in liveliness and truth, fall far short of that which is uttered by men in real life’. The solution to this, as Wordsworth ingenuously puts it, is for ‘the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time, perhaps, to slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs’: within the limits of pleasure and decency, ‘ he will feel,’ in Wordsworth’s grand words,


That there is no necessity to trick out or to elevate nature: and, the more industriously he applies this principle, the deeper will be his faith that no words, which his fancy or imagination can suggest, will be to be compared to those which are the emanations of reality and truth.  [29] 


Wordsworth’s terrific statement of poetic realism aligns this side of his literary intelligence with that kind of aesthetic theory which his late-eighteenth century compatriots tended to sneer at as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Flemish’: the implication being that it amounted to a mindlessly faithful copying of minutiae, human or natural, which wasn’t worth the laboriousness of its execution. There are positive uses of the term too: Scott praised Austen’s Emma for having ‘all the merits of the Flemish school’; and, later in the century, George Eliot, that eminent and self-declared Wordsworthian, was to devote much of chapter seventeen of Adam Bede to a defence of that ‘rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight [in] in




many Dutch-paintings, which lofty-minded people despise’. However, Southey’s use seems more typical of the later eighteenth century: in his review of Lyrical Ballads, he wrote contemptuously of The Idiot Boy, that ‘[n]o tale less deserved the labour that appears to have been bestowed upon this. It resembles a Flemish picture in the worthlessness of its design and the excellence of its execution’. The thrust of his gibe at The Ancient Mariner, a few lines later, becomes clear: Coleridge is a poet stuck on the level of realism and minutiae, trying fatuously to pull off the great, mind-chasing sublime; and the effect is ludicrous. One sense, perhaps, a certain disgruntlement on Southey’s part as Coleridge comes under the sway of his new friend; might there be an implication that Coleridge has been caught up by his partner’s Dutch orientation in a way which is fatal to his properly sublime ambitions?




But Wordsworth was misrepresenting Coleridge by simplifying him, as many others did and still do: he is never as tidy a thinker as some would like; and he is nothing like as wholly or simply committed to the dreamy spaces of idealism or to the lofty irreality of sublimity as he is popularly made out. His early enthusiasm for the conversational style of Cowper, a poet whom he praised as ‘always natural’, and for the sonnets of Bowles, indeed his own innovation in the conversation poems, all imply a strong commitment to kinds of realist aesthetic. Indeed, as John Churton Collins, a Victorian critic of Tennyson pointed out, it is precisely the odd mixture of high imagination and minutely literal detail which might almost be Coleridge’s hallmark in poetry ( one from which Tennyson was to learn): ‘Coleridge was, so far as I know, the first English poet who discovered the strange effect produced by a flash of prosaic definiteness of detail in the midst of vague and dreamy pomp’.  [30]  He gives as an example,’ Five miles meandering with a mazy




motion’; but we can see the same meeting of natural description and idealised vision in ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’, ‘Frost at Midnight’, and elsewhere.  [31] 


The realist aspect of Coleridge, the side of his intellect which set itself against German sublimity, is represented in his own critical mythology by the gigantic figure of Shakespeare. Coleridge certainly made rude noises himself about Dutch art, especially in his lectures on Shakespeare; so mindlessly realistic in their copying, as he once said, that if one looked through a microscope at one celebrated example of the genre, a portrait of an old crone, one saw tiny painted whiskers. But that spectacular engagement with the notion of such super-realism, even if jocularly done, is telling; because it is precisely the example of Shakespeare which most tests Coleridge’s otherwise stalwart and celebrated commitment to the ideal. Shakespeare, he tells us, along with everyone else, is the poet of nature: indeed, in Coleridge’s critical system, Shakespeare becomes the very antitype of Milton. If Milton represents a perfect, sublime ideality, then Shakespeare represents the absolute perfection of precisely that kind of empathetic, effortlessly dramatic realism Wordsworth had written of in the Lyrical Ballads ‘Preface’-that side of Wordsworth’s mind, in other words, which Southey had so scornfully labelled ‘Dutch’.


Shakespeare, Coleridge scribbled in his notebook in preparation for one lecture, has ‘that sublime faculty, by which a great mind becomes that which it meditates on’  [32]  - but this is a new notion of the sublime, a sublime not of Miltonic or Germanic egotism, but of Shakespearean ‘self-oblivion’, to use a Coleridgean coining. Coleridge is rude about Dutch art usually, not because it is too mindlessly realistic, but because, when compared to the full life of Shakespeare’s plays, it is not real enough — painting can only be a painfully inadequate analogy for Shakespearean genius: as he lectured, ‘ the vital writer in a moment transports




himself into the very being of each character and instead of making artificial puppets he brings the real being before you’;  [33]  and elsewhere, when wondering how Shakespeare imagined Othello’s speech so magnificently, suggested, ‘He became Othello, and spoke therefore as Othello would have spoken’.  [34]  Against that kind of realism, the ‘Dutch’ paled into worthlessness. The complications of Coleridge’s art, I suggest, can be seen as coming from a kind of competition between imaginative orientations which he will later theorise as alternative notions of the sublime: the more usual sublime of the sheer, autonomous mind and the idiosyncratic sublime of the Shakespeareanly realistic.


And so, with all that in mind, back to The Ancient Mariner. Might Southey’s hostile remarks be a report, distorted into caricature by malice, of a genuine Coleridgean ambition, one already being spoken of, in admittedly less complex terms, as far back as the late 1790s?



The Mariner is the most profound piece of self-portraiture Coleridge ever produced, no doubt because its covert nature allowed the full complications of his various character to gain expression without his ever-anxious super-ego trying to tidy things up too much. Indeed, in a terrible way, it is precisely Coleridge’s needy, emotional desire to tidy things into inclusive unity which the Mariner dramatises so brilliantly: the dramatic structure of the work insists to us that the Mariner is not simply coterminous with his poem, and that the authority the poem has need not be the authority of the Mariner’s personal conviction of the meaning of his tale. For the Mariner embodies not only Coleridge’s anxious compulsion towards unity but also his awareness of the permanent threat of that desire’s frustration. Coleridge stressed that the man was young when the events happened:  [35]  we are hearing a retrospective account, the result of years of retelling and




reinvention. Is there not in the poem a noisy subtext saying that the Mariner’s constant returns to the shooting of the albatross are merely compulsive, less the key to the truth than a falsely unifying, consuming obsession — like the monomaniacal pumping engine which Coleridge saw with the Wordsworths on their Scottish tour and which he likened to ‘a giant with one idea’. [36]


The element of self-portraiture is nearly uncanny: we can almost see the Mariner experiencing, by a weird kind of prolepsis, the central conflicts of Coleridge’s own career; this would certainly explain why he returned to the poem so compulsively. The conflicts are raised, by the permission of its Gothic genre, to a high pitch of agony: indeed, the possibility of such German intensity maybe even gave their expression a kind of sanction, in the same way that the throwaway quality of a ‘poem which affects not to be poetry’ or a ‘conversational poem’ or a ‘psychological curiosity’ allowed inadmissible things to be nearly admitted, or to be admitted without demanding (so to say) Coleridge owning up to them in public.  [37] 


‘Comprehension’, the word I began with, literally means (to indulge in a bit of Coleridgean glossing) a grasping or seizing together, completely, and into union or one: and if we had to choose a particular feature of Coleridge’s entire intellectual and indeed emotional life as especially formative, it would be his deep desire, on all levels, for the achievement of unity and oneness. As he transcribed in his notebook, around the end of 1800, from Jeremy Taylor:’ He to whom all things are one, who draweth all things to one, and seeth all things in one, may enjoy true peace and rest of spirit’.  [38]   Yet his own experience as often quite different from this happy peace:’My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great —something one and indivisible,’ as he lamented to John Thelwall.  [39] 




This is the great appeal of Miltonic, or indeed Kantian, sublimity: that in it the mind is essentially unifying. Milton unifies the whole spread of his enormous epic into the revelation of his single consciousness — ‘All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton,’ as Biographia impressively has it. This sublime unity is such that it ‘more than gratifies us,’ as Coleridge told one of his audiences,’ for the loss of individuality of what he represents’; this is the individuality caught divinely by Shakespeare, who, the opposite of Milton, ‘becomes all things’.  [40]  But the very fact that we feel the need for such a compensatory gratification from Milton suggests that the realist aesthetic — the aesthetic that Southey scorned as ‘Dutch’— might have a necessary role to play in a complete genius.


In fact,we know that there was one genius on hand to whom Coleridge looked very quickly to reconcile precisely the alternative claims of ideal Miltonic unity and diverse Shakespearean realism: Wordsworth, whose Coleridge-commissioned epic The Recluse was meant to show how, in the complete mind, realism perfected itself in idealism and idealism revealed itself as realism.  [41]  Not surprisingly, this work, which would presumably have combined the capacities of Shakespeare and Milton within one pair of —admittedly widely spaced — hard covers, never materialised:  [42]  but the balance of genius it should have been would certainly have animated young Coleridge’s own poetic ambitions too; and those split ambitions most striking early production, I should say, is our poem.


Coleridge’s system, which he calls a ‘system of balanced opposites’,  [43]  looks for a perfect poetry which achieves the ‘balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities’, including ‘sameness, with difference’, ‘the general, with the concrete’, ‘the idea, with the image’, and so forth, as he tells us in chapter 14 of Biographia .  [44]  In the




context I have tried to sketch out, Southey’s garbled terms ‘Dutch’ and ‘German’ are just such opposing qualities, seeds of poetic orientations which will later bear their full Coleridgean fruit in the brilliant mythologisations of Shakespeare and Milton which feature in his lectures and Biographia , in the alternative imaginative modes which he persuaded Wordsworth to fulfil, and which continued to shape the whole pattern of Victorian and even modernist poetic theory. He is drawn to such balancings of ultimately irreconcilable opposites, not through some undiscriminating desire to get the best of everything, but because the alternate claims of reality and ideality, in life as in art, are too strong for either to be dismissed honestly. If the joy of sublimity is the mind’s unifying authority, its danger is the erasure of differences and individualities; if the verisimilitude of Shakespearean drama is a freshly awakened look at the world, lifting the veil of familiarity from our perceptions, it threatens for all that to sink into the unstructured, disunified happenstance of the world it recreates.


What we see in the poem, I suggest, is the Mariner striving to make sense of, to comprehend in this full sense, his experiences, whether they were actually real or his own guilty imaginings or a mixture of both, seeking a sense and a coherence in it, drawing on a topos of the religious life he would naturally have known (sin, repentance, forgiveness) and seizing on the utterly inadequate moral he ends with like a drowning man on a bit of driftwood. By a brilliant piece of Coleridgean conceptual play, the Mariner’s search for resolution and sense is a search, too, in his own religious terms, for atonement — or, as Coleridge glossed it some years later, for at-one-ment, a making-one, a unifying.  [45]  But the poem has given us too much, it is too full, too much won’t fit in, for us effortlessly to accept the conclusion needily drawn by the Mariner himself.


In this sense, the Mariner’s account is wishfully




comprehensive but, in its inadequacy, can only be uncomprehending: for the poem as a whole is magnificently incomprehensible. It doesn’t pull itself together into a totality as, say, a Bürger ballad does; and in this it is, perhaps, an archetypically modern poem, a poem of the mind, as Wallace Stevens put it, in the act of finding what might suffice: though Stevens’s urbanely sanguine air is a different as can be.  [46]  In this modernity it is entirely Coleridgean too - for it shows us both the consuming spiritual need we have for things to resolve themselves into unified coherence, and yet shows too the actual, real world’s tenacity in keeping its diverse complication to itself and resisting the mind’s attempts to make order: even though, or perhaps especially when, that diversity comes in the form of horror and suffering. And it is, I think, in this balance—though hardly reconciliation—of an idealising, unifying sublime and a realising, particular sublime, that the poem’s unsteady genius lies.

[1] This is a lightly revised version of a lecture given at the Friends of Coleridge study weekend at Kilve, 8-10 September 1995. I am extremely grateful to Reggie Watters for honouring me with the invitation to speak to this splendid gathering of Coleridgeans, and extend too my great thanks to both Reggie and Shirley for running the whole affair with such unfailing care and energy. Once again, it seems, Coleridge demonstrates his mysterious ability to secure devoted friends—worthy peers indeed of Poole, the Morgans, the Gillmans, and all that selfless, noble company.

[2] L.C.Knights, 'A Tract for the Times' [review of Coleridge,The Friend, ed. Barbara Rooke], New York Review of Books 16:7 (22 April,1971),55.

[3] 'A Poem of Pure Imagination. An Experiment in Reading'; in Robert Penn Warren Selected Essays (N.Y., 1958).

[4] Included in R.W.Armour & R.F.Howe (eds.), Coleridge the Talker (Ithaca, N.Y., 1940),336.

[5] Coleridge the Talker, 235.

[6] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), ed. James Engel! & W.J.Bate (2 vols, London/Princeton,1983), I: 28.

[7] John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (London, 1959).

[8] S.T.Coleridge, Table Talk, ed. Carl Woodring (2 vols.; London/Princeton, 1990), I: 272.

[9] W. Empson, 'Introduction'; to W. Empson & D.Pirie (eds.) S.T.C., Selected Poems (1972; repr., Manchester,1989) , 78.

[10] Quoted in Jack Simmons, Southey (London,1945), 76.

[11] E. de Selincourt (ed.) Letters of W. and D. Wordsworth, rev. C.L.Shaver (Oxford,1967), 268.

[12] Simmons, Southey, 76

[13] Included in J. Jackson (ed.), Coleridge. The Critical Heritage (London, 1970),53.

[14] Included most conveniently as an appendix to Mary Jacobus, Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1798) (Oxford, 1976), 277-83.

[15] 'Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad'; quoted in Jacobus, Tradition and Experiment, 218.

[16] E. W. Marrs (ed.), The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb (3 vols published; Ithaca, N.Y., 1975-), I: 41.

[17] Griggs, I: 438.

[18] T.L.Peacock, Nightmare Abbey. Crochet Castle, ed. R. Wright (Harmondsworth, 1969), 44.

[19] Rosemary Ashton, The German Idea. Four English Writers and the Reception of German Thought 1800-1860 (Cambridge, 1980).

[20] In the Monthly Magazine, March, 1796; quoted in Jacobus, Tradition and Experiment, 218.

[21] Tradition and Experiment, 218.

[22] Quoted in Coleridge's letter to Taylor: Griggs, I: 566.

[23] The note is reproduced in Michael Mason (ed.), Lyrical Ballads (London, Longman Annotated Texts, 1993), 39-40.

[24] Marrs, I: 142.

[25] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), ed J.T.Boulton (1957; repr., Oxford, 1990),59.

[26] Peacock, Nightmare Abbey, 44.

[27] Table Talk, II: 61.

[28] See Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, trans. J. Oxenford [Everyman Library] (1930; repr. London, 1946), 305.

[29] 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads' (1850), with 1802 variants adopted; in W.Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W.J.B.Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (3 vols.; Oxford, 1974), I: 138-9.

[30] John Churton Collins, Illustrations of Tennyson (London, 1891), 34n.

[31] As pointed out by Edward Larrissy, Reading Twentieth-Century [sic] Poetry. The Language of Gender and Objects (Oxford, 1990), 17.

[32] Kathleen Coburn ed., The Notebooks of S.T.C. III: 3290.

[33] S.T.Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 on Literature, ed. R.A.Foakes (2 vols.; London/Princeton, 1987), I: 359.

[34] S.T.C., Lectures on Literature, I: 310.

[35] Table Talk, I: 273-4. He was commenting on the 'enormous blunder' made by David Scott in his illustrations of the poem, which portrayed the Mariner as already an old man while on the ship.

[36] The anecdote is recalled by Mrs Davy and included in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. A.B.Grosart (3 vols.; London, 1976), III: 445.

[37] Subtitles given, at some stage, to 'Reflections upon Leaving a Place of Retirement' and 'The Nightingale', and Coleridge's apology for publishing 'Kubla Khan', retrospectively.

[38] Notebooks, I: 876.

[39] Griggs, I: 349.

[40] Biographia, II: 27-8.

[41] Griggs IV 575.

[42] The best account of Wordsworth's increasingly poignant attempts to write The Recluse is in Jonathan Wordsworth, William Wordsworth, The Borders of Vision (Oxford, 1982), 340-377.

[43] Notebooks, III: 3400.

[44] Biographia II 16-17

[45] 'Appendix A( to 'The Statesman's Manual'; in S.T.Coleridge, Lay Sermons , ed. R.J.White (London/ Princeton, 1976), 55.

[46] 'Of Modern Poetry': in Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (London, 1951), 239-240.