Coleridge as a Bird: a Flight of Fancy


Francis à Court


(The Coleridge Bulletin  New Series No 8, Autumn 1996, pp 67-71)


In his Poet’s Corner Max Beerbohm shows us “Walt Whitman inciting the bird of freedom to soar”. We see a manic poet and a very dour American eagle, not soaring a bit. Although birds and poets often go together, they do not always make happy travelling companions.

The richness of Coleridge’s aviary has been noted by several biographers. [1]  It is larger than most and, as one would expect, contains both sublime and absurd specimens. Much of their interest, of course, lies in the self-identification which the poet feels, or says he feels, and a review of these would have to exclude the many nightingales, doves, vultures, and other birds which appear only, as it were, in the third person in his writings.




It seems safe to enlist the Albatross among those with which Coleridge at least partly identified himself, and this magnificent and tragic bird must certainly head any company. (Molly Lefebure points to an echo of its murder in the notebook account of an exhausted hawk shot by sailors during the voyage to Malta.  [2]   Given the fate of the Mariner and his shipmates this crew showed a certain foolhardiness in repeating that crime in the very presence of the author of the poem.)

In November 1794 the poet describes himself to his brother George as a creature escaping from the “bird-limed thorn-bush of his follies” but, two years later, he is writing: “I am, and have ever been, a great reader- and have read almost ‘everything — a library cormorant— I am deep in all out of the way books”. [3]  Such a confident image is unfortunately rare. The cormorant is much out-numbered by ostriches. The most famous of these is to be found in the Literary Life: “I have laid too many eggs in the hot sands of this wilderness the world, with ostrich carelessness and ostrich oblivion. The greater part indeed have been trodden under foot, and forgotten: but yet no small number have crept forth into life, some to furnish feathers for the caps of others, and still more to plume the shafts in the quivers of my enemies, of them that unprovoked have lain in wait against my soul”.  [4] That he was justly pleased with this passage is shown by the fact that it reappears in three letters between 1803 and 1808 and, of course, in the notebooks. On another occasion he wrote: “I know myself so far a poet as to feel assured that I can understand and interpret a poem in the spirit of poetry....Like an ostrich, I cannot fly, yet have the wings that give me the feeling of flight....”  [5]  Just as we may doubt the sincerity of this self-deprecation, perhaps we may also wonder about the value of the encouragement which he gave to Matilda Betham:




Be bold, meek woman! But be wisely bold!

Fly, ostrich-like, firm land beneath thy feet,

Yet hurried onward by the wings of fancy

Swift as the whirlwind, singing in their quills. [6]


Scarcely more aerodynamic than the ostrich is the “metaphysical Bustard, urging its slow, heavy, laborious earth-skimming Flight, over dreary and level Wastes.” This is in contrast to the “poetic Partridges with whirring wings of music, or wild Ducks shaping their rapid flight in forms almost regular....”   [7]

Starlings appear in the earlier notebooks as visions of freedom and gladness:


My Spirit with a fixed yet leisurely gaze

Following its ever quietly changing Clusters of Thoughts,

As the outward Eye of a happy Traveller a flock of Starlings. [8]


But: “I am a Starling self-encaged, and always in the Moult and my whole note is Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. (This from a letter to Godwin in 1802.)  [9]

Six years later he seems to see possible consolation in confinement for a bird, but contrasts it with his own worse condition:


O that sweet bird! Where is it?... It is in Prison— all its instincts ungratified—yet it feels the Influence of Spring—& calls with unceasing Melody to the Loves, that dwell in Fields & Greenwood bowers... O are they the Songs of a happy enduring Day-dream? has the Bird Hope? Or does it abandon itself to the Joy of its Frame—a living Harp of Eolus? O that I could do so!—  [10]


The year before this he had told Poole:


Let Eagle bid the Tortoise sunward soar,

As vainly Strength speaks to the broken mind.  [11]


In a notebook entry Coleridge does become an eagle, but to little advantage:


I have never loved Evil for its own sake: no! nor ever sought pleasure for its own sake, but as a means of escaping the pains that coiled around my mental powers,




as a serpent around the body and wings of an eagle!  [12]


While among things aquiline we might remember Hazlitt’s description of STC preaching: “... launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind”. [13] Shelley, on the other hand, saw Coleridge as “a hooded eagle amongst blinking owls”.  [14]  (Byron had used the same image in his Dedication to Don Juan.) “Kubla Khan is an Owl that won’t bear daylight”, writes Charles Lamb, and he continues even more famously: (the poet’s) “face, when he repeats his verses, hath its ancient glory: an archangel a little damaged...”  [15]

An archangel is, if not a bird, at least winged and partly feathered, and brings this recitation to a close.

[1] E.g. Richard Holmes: Coleridge, Early Visions, p 80n, or W.J.Bate: Coleridge p 111

[2] Molly Lefebure: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a bondage of opium and CNB 2090 15.56

[3] Letter to John Thelwall 19 November 1796

[4] Biographia Literaria 1 Cap 2; Letters to Poole Oct 14, ‘1803, and to Sir G. Beaumont 17 Dec 1808; CNB 1248

[5] Annotation on a flyleaf quoted in the Bate & Engell edition of the Biographia p xlvii, n

[6] ‘To Matilda Betham from a Stranger’, 1802

[7] Letter to Sotheby quoted in W.J.Bate: Coleridge p111

[8] CNB 1779, see also CNB 1589

[9] 22 January 1802

[10] CNB 3314

[11] Mrs Sandford:Thomas Poole and his friends,1888, II p195

[12] Quoted by J.B.Beer Coleridge the Visionary p192 (CNB 21.120)

[13] W.Hazlitt:My first acquaintance with poets

[14] P.B.Shelley:”Letter to Maria Gisborne”,1820. But then Shelley had also used the Image of Byron: “The sense that he was greater than his kind/Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind/By gazing on its own exceeding light” (Julian and Maddalo,50-53). One might think that the Italian sky was black with blind eagles.

[15] C.Lamb to W.Wordsworth, 26 April 1816. See also CN2054, 2064 & 3266, where birds are to be found who were, in Kathleen Coburn’s judgement, self referential.

True Friends of Coleridge would perhaps wish to pass very lightly over the evasive “A Bird, who for his other sins/Had llv’d amongst the Jacobins...” etc. (1825).