Christopher Rubinstein reads
A Study of Coleridge’s Three Great Poems: Christabel, Kubla Khan and
The Rime of The Ancient Mariner
by Warren Stevenson (The Edward Mellen Press, 2001)
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 91-94)
This book is an update of the author’s 1983 Nimbus of Glory A Study and provides an unusual and highly rewarding insight into the labyrinth of the vast and serial mindsets of STC during the composition of his three greatest poems. This is intrinsically an exceedingly difficult field of enquiry as STC himself, seemingly partly deliberately, confirms in the last paragraphs of Ch XIV, and in much of Ch XV, of the later Biographia Literaria. There is a multiplicity of factors to be taken into account and if all these can be discerned and assembled (a big if) then their weighing presents yet a further set of hard problems to solve. It may be assumed there will never be any final judgement to be attained. There is the consolation that the study of STC and his works ought to survive into the distant future.
The Preface of enthusiasm from James C. McKusick, a disposition which I share, summarises the approach of WS. An initially serviceable though incomplete abridgment of this may be that WS relies on personal relationships of STC mostly during the critical period 1797-1798 and his extensive knowledge of the significantly organised erudition of STC. Here are invaluable strands for the twine of guidance which entry into a labyrinth necessitates.
Characterising part of the essence of Christabel as a result of, and its content as typifying, the ambivalence and symbiosis of the developing and complicated relationship between STC and William Wordsworth is a bold step for WS to take. (A headline: ‘Christabel’ as a symbol of the Wordsworth—Coleridge symbiosis’.) He skillfully and elaborately develops this vast theme in the context of the poem as a story of, among other personae, the devout Christabel, her absent male lover and Geraldine. WS elaborates this interpretation which many may consider persuasive.
STC according to WS identifies himself (by projection) with Christabel herself and also with the distinctly shaky Sir Leoline, virtually casts Charles Lamb as the admirable Bard Bracey and, more controversially Charles Lloyd as Bracey’s personal assistant, probably admirable for Lamb, though hardly for STC. Here is sophisticated fun, yet it may be difficult to challenge this insight. WS lists attributes of WW, common ground one may assume, which STC finds objectionable: materialism, egotism and unbelief. Should one, I add, sum up
the gist of STC’s detestation of this seamy side of the – to him – great WW as his protest against Rousseauism, the ideology of the officially declared public enemy, the Jacobins, as personified by the forceful, triumphant and malevolent Geraldine? I have inevitably simplified WS’s interesting and carefully considered reflections in Ch. 1 ‘Christabel’ A reinterpretation.’ The enlightenment and stimulus which WS offers in his critique are a source of admiration. Long admired are the methods of STC which avoid in both parts of the poem farce or burlesque, though many readers at the time of first publication did largely misunderstand or disparage the poem in this way.
In his analysis of Kubla Khan WS’s copious knowledge both of sources in literature utilised by STC and previous interpretations of the poem takes the reader into new exciting fields of enquiry. The poet’s twofold aim is to elucidate the process of poetic composition and also ‘the nature of divine creativity’ (29). The title of Chapter 2 is ‘The Symbolic Unity of Kubla Khan’ referring to the bonding of its apparent contradictions, particularly in the first 36 lines. He suggests the dynamic may have been inspired by Milton’s conception of heaven in Paradise Lost prior to the expulsion of the rebellious angels and the later fall, upheavals of revolutionary dimensions. Is it worth considering that with poetic licence the French Revolution could also have figured?
WS claims that the paradise envisaged by STC is genuine though subject to loss in the course of time, and is not the false paradise robustly advocated by John Beer in his Coleridge the Visionary. In support, WS draws on his studies of the literature and the multidisciplinary learning of his time on which STC apparently relied. Here there is worthwhile intellectual controversy in which the opposition case is treated fairly. Arguably less persuasive, I suggest, are claims that STC’s own disparagement of ‘Kubla Khan’ as primarily ‘a psychological curiosity’ represents a ‘defensive tone (which) has to do with (his) constitutional diffidence’ (25), that the unquestionably appealing final eighteen lines of ‘Kubla Khan’ are to be given an unqualified encouraging and benign interpretation, and that the seemingly intentionally cryptic ‘prefatory note’ for ‘Kubla Khan’ may be ‘largely discounted’ (25). I suggest a close study of the preface may give clues leading towards a fuller explanation of the motivation for the most unusual imaginative energy of which ‘Kubla Khan’ is the product. I ask: did STC wish to conceal a situation, apparently dangerous and discreditable, at the material time of composition of his ‘A vision in a dream.’? The presence of the labyrinth where the critic faces multiple choices of what STC is likely to have had most in mind when initially and finally composing ‘Kubla Khan’—over what extensive period of time now seems impossible to ascertain—is perhaps here at its most forbidding. Yet WS certainly presents an exceptionally valuable case towards a fuller explanation of ‘Kubla Khan’.
The mystery or should one say mysteries of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner receives attention in four of the eight chapters and partly in the final
‘Coleridge’s Divine Duplicity….’ and ‘Conclusion’. WS finds primarily as I understand it a near theological base for building understanding—a reasonable view of a point of departure for STC. The legend of the Wandering Jew (WJ), the originally pagan and elaborate concept of ‘The Great Mother’ (GM)—the moon as emblematic—the Christian hegemony of the Europe of the Middle Ages, the doctrine of the atonement with Christ as the redeemer and mediator, themes of European maritime expansion, the contemporary institutionalised slave trade and slavery and possibly the likely personal emotional involvements of STC, duly feature..
Here is another powerful statement from WS which in its detailed exposition does not shy away from problematics. The minimum achieved must be a due recognition of the creative ability of STC and multifactoral content of the ‘The Ancient Mariner’. The maximum may be an attainment of an explanation of how STC controls and shapes the complexities of the data which he has assembled to create the singularity and magnitude of the verbal art form of the ‘The Ancient Mariner’. At this point the prism of one’s own judgement about conjecturing the priorities in the mindsets of STC at material times is relevant
WS is inclined to give pride of place to the WJ (perhaps essentially WW) for which claim he gives ample reasons, particularly the collaboration of STC and WW for The Wanderings of Cain, the related ‘sin, guilt, expiation and wandering’ (57) and some of WW’s The Borderers much admired by STC. The culmination of WS’s interpretation is the ‘telos’ of the WJ, the inspiration he gives ‘mankind’ towards the accomplishment of ‘the brotherhood of man’.
The shooting of the albatross is seen as emblematic of ‘The Crime against the Great Mother’ (the title of Ch 4). The argument presented by WS is detailed. The pagan elements identified are in the ‘The Ancient Mariner’ finally absorbed by Christianity. Notable inter alia in this context is the Hermit who ‘shrives’ the Mariner (75).
Ch 5 treats the ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as an ‘ Epic Symbol.’ Ch 6 offers enquires into the apparent absence of a captain of the subject ship. WS refers to ‘The oddly anarchic lack of a clearly defined power structure’ on board as interestingly sharply contrasting with those both of the Pilot’s boat and the feast—and sacrament—of the wedding. I suggest that perhaps there is a hint here of the Mariner’s elaborate and moving story within the poem as fantasised by the Mariner himself. I have related elsewhere the hypothesis of the Mariner as guilt-ridden as in the slightly later poem of Southey’s The Sailor Who Served In The Slave Trade, a remarkably passionate composition but without a power of imagination comparable to that of the ‘The Ancient Mariner’. If so, all that WS explains regarding the visions of the Mariner (as created by STC) may be all the more exciting and telling. I wonder if also possibly related is the observation in Table Talk of 25 July 1832 ‘ When a man mistakes his thoughts for persons and things he is mad. A madman is properly so defined.’ According to the mores of the times some of the persons who are implied by
STC to have been compelled to listen to the Mariner would have thought him mad, and many then readers of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ disdained it as a mad composition.
In his two final sections the titles of which have already been indicated, WS perfects his edifice of critique relating to the three great subject poems. Some of the principal themes have been mentioned already, and to add to the clarity it is worthwhile stating the full title of Ch 7 ‘Coleridge’s Divine Duplicity: Being a Concatenation of his Surrogates, Succedaneums and Doppelgangers.’ WS points to STC’s belief ‘that an idea can be presented only as a symbol… language…a sweet succedaneum …for ultimate reality’ (103). STC couples his application of this basic with the doctrine of Atonement, and WS cites further well-known poems of STC in this connection. Identities of personae overlap and duplicate each other, the WJ featuring among others. In ‘Kubla Khan’, STC partly sees himself as the Emperor initially all-commanding, and WS interestingly conjectures an identifiable presence of Christ in ‘Kubla Khan’.
We may enquire to what extent STC planned in his verse the significance of the theme of Atonement and assumptions of vicarious identity. WS believes this to be so and gives cogent reasons for this view. One ultimate conclusion is that STC’s ‘idea of self-actualization through another …is one that should continue to furnish aid and comfort to most lovers of literature’.
WS’s short ‘Conclusion’ posits the interesting hypothesis that ‘Put simply…We all die daily (i.e). in order that others might live’ is characteristic of STC. He displays wholehearted admiration and enthusiasm for the three great poems and others of STC. If, as is highly probable, further consideration of the meanings of the subject poetry implies further identification of specific exigencies and crises of STC’s life, arising from contentious and deeply felt political issues and legal entanglements, the existence of some of which some may query, nonetheless the achievements of WS in the labyrinth of enquiry and ascertainment are outstanding. It looks as if future exploration may be substantially in the perspectives of WS’s entrancing study of the exceedingly complex mindsets of STC.