S. T. Coleridge as A Romantic Poet

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      Along with Wordsworth, Coleridge is the co-founder of the Romantic Movement by virtue of his contribution to the writing of the Lyrical Ballads published in 1798, the official date of the commencement of Romantic Movement. Coleridge's poems are few in number but show Romantic features at their best.

      Humanitarianism and Love of Liberty. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge too has dreams of the political regeneration of mankind and has a great enthusiasm for the French Revolution through its cruelty later on repelled him. His love for humanity is expressed in Reflection on Having Left a Place of Retirement where he bids farewell to his cottage in order to go to the city and work for relieving people of their distress. He condemns those theoretical lovers of mankind who do nothing practical for humanity. In the Ode to France, he regrets the failure of the French to live up to their revolutionary ideals. Fears in Solitude expresses his love for mankind and his abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity.

      Importance of Imagination. The quality which distinguishes the poetry of the beginning of the 19th century, the poetry which we can roughly group together as the Romantic poetry, is the quality of its imagination and this quality is seen as a kind of atmosphere, which adds strangeness to beauty. Watls-Dunton uses a phrase which has become famous, "Renaissance of Wonder" for "that great revived movement of the soul of man, after a long period of prosaic acceptance in all things, including literature and art." It means a reawakening to a sense of beauty and strangeness in natural things, and in all the impulses of the mind and the senses. Poetry is realized as a personal confession, or as an evocation, or as "an instant made eternity." At countless points, the universe of sense and thought acquires a new potency of response and appeals to man, a new power of ministering to and mingling with, his richest and in tensest life. Glory of lake and mountain, graces of childhood, dignity of the untaught peasant, mystery of the Gothic castle, radiance of Attic marble all these springs of the poet's inspiration and the artist's joy begins to flow. Wordsworth is the poet of a peculiar mystic idealism who discloses, in the rapt communion with nature, an undreamed of access to the "life of things.'' Coleridge is allured to rare and remoter tracks of humanity, lurking places of strange dreams and fantastic anomalies of belief. Shelley and Keats find the world controlled not by laws of nature, but of beauty. In Byron the artist's self-assertion takes a more defiant and lawless form, even to the abnegation of art. What all these poets aimes at is the emancipation of the world and of the mind and of the vehicle of poetry from the bondage of fact, opinion, formality and tradition and the right to look through:

Charmed magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

      Two great movements of European thought stands in an intimate but complex intellectual relation to Romanticism the revolutionary naturalism of Rousseau and the transcendental movement in Germany from Kant to Hegel. Rousseau the apostle of the French Revolution, preaches the worth and dignity of man as man, and the power of natural scenery to respond to his needs. Kant and his successors is exalted the mind as mind. The ideal is more and more explicitly identified with the real; to will goodness, or to imagine beauty, is alone to live truly. Art is thus not merely a heightening of the actual, but an escape from it. It insists on the power and autocracy of the imagination which alone gives a varied, subtle, intimate interpretation of the world of "external nature" and of that other world of wonder and romance which the familiar comradeship of Nature generates in the mind of man.

      Supernatural Rendered Real through Imagination. Coleridge is always peculiarly engaged with the inquiry into the quality by which poetic imagination gives an air of reality to the marvelous. It is his critical ingenuity which conceives the design of "a series of poems of two sorts; the one, of common subjects such as will be found in every village" is poetically treated, the other, of subjects mainly "supernatural, but is made real by the dramatic truth of such emotions, supposing them real." He is peculiarly fascinated by the "interception" of the spiritual world, the straggling branches of marvel which startle and waylay the observer. He looks into the void and found it peopled with presence. His is the uncommon eye that beheld the unseen. With rare felicity of phrase and imagery, he makes the supernatural natural, giving to the unreal, weird and mysterious phenomena of this world a sense of actuality and substance.

      In Christabel, the element of the marvelous is not obtruded, but slowly distills into the air. The first part is a masterpiece in the art of suggesting enchantment by purely natural means. The castle, the wood, the mastiff, the tree with its jagged shadows are drawn with a quivering intensity of touch which conveys the very atmosphere of foreboding and suspense:

Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,
Hath a toothless mastiff bitch;
From her kennel beneath the rock
She maketh answer to the clock
Four for the quarters, twelve for the hour,
Ever and aye, by shine and shower,
Sixteen short howls, not over loud
Some say she sees my lady's shroud.

      The marvelous, too, when we come to it — the serpent-nature of Geraldine — is of a subtle weirdness, for no prodigies of the external world touch the imagination so nearly as distortions of human personality.

      The Ancient Mariner abinds in this supernatural element. All nature is pillaged to supply the mysterious atmosphere he creates. The sun is flecked with bars:

Heaven's mother send us grace!
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face

      Nothing can exceed the terror and horror, is suggested by the appearance of the phantom ship and its inmates:

And is that woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that woman's mate?

      And we have the weird ship moving zig-zag across the water when there is absolute calm and no wind to push it along.

      Dreamy Quality. The mystery, the strangeness, the weirdness of the supernatural cast a peculiar spell on the dreamy imagination of Coleridge. In Kubla Khan, we have an instance of dream-poetry at its finest. According to Saintsbury, the nineteen lines "But oh! war" (L. 12-30) reach the highest point of English verse-music. And the three lines —

A savage place, as holy and enchanted
As e'ver beneath a waning moon was haunted
By a woman wailing for her demon-lover!

       Represent the very summit of romantic poetry, condensing within themselves the whole world of romantic imagination in the same manner as the famous lines of Keats:

Charmed magic-casement, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

      There is in The Ancient Mariner the abrupt movement of stages, exactly like what happens in a dream. Its visual impressions are brilliant and its emotional impacts change rapidly. The poem clings to the memory with the peculiar tenacity of a dream.

      Medievalism. Coleridge thus took upon himself the treat of the supernatural in such a manner as to give it "a semblance of truth" and "to procure for it a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." To accomplish this, Coleridge often goes back to Middle Ages to create the necessary background for his supernatural characters and incidents. The romanticism in Coleridge consists among other things, in his introduction of medieval elements in his poetry, which enables him to call up all the magic and enchantment of the distant past. In the Ancient Mariner, several references give a medieval touch-such as mention of the cross-bow, vesper-bell, the shriving hermit, the prayer to Mary Queen. The very idea of penance for a wrong done has a Catholic overtone and is medieval in spirit. Christabel of course, has a palpably medieval atmosphere — moated castle, feudal lords, bards, pages and chivalry. The ballad form used in The Ancient Mariner and in Love is also an influence of the Medieval literary tradition.

      Nature: Minute Description and Pantheism. Closely connects with this quality is the power of observing and depicting the subtle aspects of nature, richly and faithfully. In The Song of the Pixies, he paints the russet suites landscape of the eighteenth century idyllists from the rich and varied palette which we are accustomed to call Celtic. The beauties of nature, the clouds, the furze, the dew, are drawn with delicate feeling, full of half-lights and elusive suggestion. Stopford Brook praised "the perfect pictorial skill and truth of his descriptions." Takes the description of the ice in The Ancient Mariner:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold,
And ice, mast high, came floating by
As green as emerald.

      and of the night in Christabel:

The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin grey cloud is spread on high.
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is grey:
Tis the month before the month of May,
And the spring comes slowly up this way.

      or this, which has a touch of "romantic" weirdness:

Nought was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest mistletoe:

      The Ancient Mariner is full of word pictures. When there is no breeze and the ship is motionless, it is "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean". We have several natural pictures like the moving moon going up the sky and a star or two beside, the slimy things crawling upon the slimy sea, the ice crackling and growling and roaring and howling. The distinctive note of Coleridge's nature pictures is that, he dwells upon the uncommon and rare phenomena of nature. In The Ancient Mariner, for instance, he refers to "a copper sky" "the bloody sun" and the death-fires dancing at night and the water burning green and blue and white like a witch's oils. Coleridge is a great lover of colour: the ice is as green as emerald, the water-snakes moves in tracks shining white and they are blue, glossy green and velvet black.

      The lines reveals a minute realism, an imaginative apprehension of the silent and unseen processes of nature and the vivid aspects of external nature which is characteristic of a singular watchfulness for the minute fact and expression of natural scenery and a closeness to her exact physiognomy. As he himself says:

That outward forms, the loftiest, still receive
Their finer influence front the world within;
Fair ciphers of vague import, where the eye
Traces no spot, in which the heart may read
History and prophecy...

      In Frost at Midnight we see evidence of Wordsworth's influence in the lines is addressed by Coleridge to his baby. Coleridge refers to a Divine Spirit behind nature and to the moral and shaping influence which she exercises over those who seek her company. Later on he modifies his attitude to Nature and believes that we interpret the moods of Nature according to our own moods. In other words, if we are happy, Nature looks to us happy too and if we are dejected, Nature also looks dejected. Nature therefore, has no moods and feelings of her own. We receive from Nature only that which we give to her. This belief finds expression in his Dejection: An Ode. His love for Nature makes him give us beautiful pictures of it. He has a preference for the uncommon and rare phenomena of nature and this preference is illustrated in The Ancient Mariner.

      Insight into Human Mind and Psyche. No poet, except Shakespeare, has shown such a profound insight into the working of the human soul or has expressed it with finer accuracy as Coleridge in his poems. Subtle-souled psychologist Shelley called him. He is as familiar with the avenues of the soul as Wordsworth with the dales of his much loved country. He can translate soul hieroglyphics as accurately as his fellow pot can portray the landscape and the flower. He can descend to the depths of our consciousness and discover the secret springs of action; it is only in questioning ourselves that we can unravel the universe; the true, the only events are those of the soul and the special domain of Coleridge's poetry is this inner theatre. He can describe vividly the feeling of fear:

We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!

      or the distraction of an agonize soul:

I looked to Heaven, and tried to pray,
But ere ever a prayer had gusht
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;

      or in Christabel:

Her limbs relax, her countenance
Grows sad and soft; the smooth thin lids
Close o'ver her eyes; and tears she sheds-
Large tears that leave the lashes bright!
And oft the while she seems to smile
As infants at a sudden light!

      Lyricism: The Music of His Poetry. Coleridge is a great musician. His best poems are marked by a delightful melody. He has been called an epicure in sounds (i.e., a lover of melody). The Ancient Mariner illustrates the witchery of his music:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

      The alliteration and the simplicity of the words is used to add the melody of the lines, and suggests the very swift movement of the ship:

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down
"Twas as sad as sad could be.

      Here the artistic repetition of words is noteworthy. It immediately suggests the stillness of the atmosphere. Indeed, in this poem Coleridge has attained the highest level of verbal music ever reached by an English poet. And this he did by the use of the simplest words possible. The poem is perfect in rhythm, sound and cadence and magical in its metrical felicities. He is really a 'master of harmony'. Love also illustrates this.

      Coleridge and Nineteenth-Century Romanticism. Coleridge bridges the gulf between Wordsworth and the younger romantics. He sings of the beneficent effects of nature on the human mind in the manner of Wordsworth, glorifies childhood as the period of peace and innocence and of communion with God and in his earlier phase, he welcomes the French Revolution as the new dawn for humanity. But more than Wordsworth, he lets in a new aestheticism in English poetry through his worship of the beauty of women, he revives interest in Gothic art and medieval legends, he starts the cult of Spenser, the great favourite of Keats, he dreams of faery lands which have no location in time and place, he treats the supernatural with unsurpassed mastery. He gives new imagery to Shelley, a new medievalism to Keats, Laudanum and the Gothic to the Pre-Raphaelites, religious fervour to the Oxford Movement and 'patriotism', and worship of all things English to Lord Tennyson. Across the whole length of the nineteenth century falls the shadow of Coleridge. With him we enter the world of Romanticism proper.

      The Cult of the Middle Ages. The romantic movement draws the attention of the poet to the Middle Ages. The name Lyrical Ballads suggests the blending of new lyricism with the ballad poetry of the past. Dr. Johnson has ridiculed the ode and sonnet school but these becomes the favourite metrical forms for the new poetry. The new poets has turned to ballads not only for the variety of the stanza as being opposed to the heroic couplet but also for the flavour of old romantic tales and their dramatic appeal. They are resuscitated the superstitious beliefs of the people which has found less sympathy in a more sophisticated age. They, of course, has ignored the barbarism and cruelty of feudal society, the hypocrisy and corruption of the church, the denial of all those human values in life which has made the Renaissance a great period of creative literature quite different from the soulless scholasticism of the Middle Ages. This aspect is partly stressed by Morris and Swinburne in their earlier work. To Coleridge and Keats, the medieval world is one of pure romance where even witches put on such lovely forms that the doom of their victim has become a pleasurable experience to the poet.

      Christabel is the first expression of the medieval spirit in the new poetry. The hall, the moat, the bard, the friar, the rushes, the carving, the brands all together by subtle suggestion create the indefinable thing, the atmosphere. Keats is more lavish in his detail; he makes things too palpable to have that ethereal suggestive quality which is characteristic of Coleridge. He is also less correct in his details as in the too many inconsistent pictures, in Bertha's manuscript in the Eve of St. Mark and notorious carpets in the Eve of St. Agues Coleridge is more careful and is a master in achieving utmost-poetic effect through minimum of detail. Yet the medievalism of Christabel is not the chief feature in that poem. The primary thing is the hypnotic effect of the superior will power of Geraldine on Christabel.

      Anticipates Keats and Shelley in Mis Nature-poetry. Much of Coleridge's nature poetry hears the obvious imprint of Wordsworth's thought. No doubt, Wordsworth himself is indebted to Coleridge for much of his idealism. While in the 'Christmas Eve' Coleridge echoes his friend's pantheism:

Tis the sublime of man,
Our noontide majesty, La know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole

      In Dejection: And Oite: he says that Beauty is within us and not outside in nature. This conforms more to his Platonism and is opposed to the attitude of Wordsworth:

O lady we receive but what we give
And in our life alone does nature live.

      Coleridge is a poet of moods and nature generally accords with his own dominating feeling. He can give truthful pictures of natural scenes when he chooses and there is often that love of detail, and what is more, a stress on individual details, which later characterised the Pre-Raphaelites. Wordsworth is seldom interested in details for their own sake as Coleridge is, for example, in the picture:

How solemnly the pendent ivy-mass
Swings in its window; all the air is calm.
The smoke from cottage chimneys, tinged with light.
Rises in columns.

      Coleridge has often picked such sense not in the mountains but in the plains. For mountain scenery, he generally prefers Switzerland and the Alps or the bleak and dismal mountains of the English of north. Like Shelley, he rejoices in the torrents and the avalanches of the snow-covered mountains. He also associates with them the emotional upsurge in the human heart and as in Prometheus Unbound, he makes nature rejoice in the happy millennium of humanity. It is new kind of poetry he has given to his generation when he has written in the Chamouni Hymn:

God! let the torrents, like a shout of nations,
Answer! and let the ice-plains echo, God!
God! sing ye nieadow-strecims with gladsome voice!
Ye pine-groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds!

      Like Shelley, he has a tendency to etherealise nature; beneath the external form, he seems to penetrate to its changing non-material substance. Thus he asks to the solid Mont Blanc to:

Rise like a cloud of incense, from the Earth!

      This will naturally draw his attention rather to the more dynamic aspects of nature, to movement and to change, than to objects that are static and in repose. It is not given to Wordsworth to sing of the constant shiftings of huge masses of snow on the high mountains, where:

.....the avalanche, unheard,
Shoots downward, glittering through the pure serene
Into the depth of clouds.

      Shelley alone probed into these mysteries of nature. But Coleridge will not be himself if this were the sole or even dominating characteristic of his nature poetry. He is more like a newly emancipated spirit that is interested in tasting as many forbidden fruits as possible. He also describes objects in repose and in sharp relief in the manner of Keats and Rossetti. The solitary leaf in Christabel — to which his attention is drawn by Dorothy — is an example of his stress on solitary detail.

      Eye for Colour and Exotic Details. Keats glories in colours; he luxuriates in the deep golden colour of autumnal sunsets but Coleridge observes the subtler shades and nuances has been brought about by shifting light like an impressionist. Even the pre-Raphaelites are not so concerned with these fleeting effects in nature. In the Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Coleridge watches the pale colour of the transparent foliage, observes a broad and sunny leaf and its shadow, the richly tinge walnut tree and the deep radiance on the ancient ivy, and because of the black mass of ivy, the dark branches of the elm trees

.....gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight.

      His love of exotic scenes and dream-nature distinguishes him from Wordsworth. The imagery of Kubla Khan is as exotic and suggestive as the palm trees beneath which the Indian maiden is discovered in Endymion. His exoticism is best seen in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The sense of guilt and pursuit through distant lands forms the subject of The Ancient Mariner. He relates his story to a Wedding-Guest and curiously enough holds him with "his glittering eye". It is, however, not the guest who falls a victim to hypnotic and superior will-power; the Mariner holds him only to tell him how he has been guilty of shooting the Albatross for apparent reason. The Mariner and his friends are punished for this sin with a terrible nightmare. They see strange colours on the water at night-time:

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The waters, like a witch's oils'
Burnt green, and blue, and white.

      The fascinating character of this horror cannot be missed. The sea is rotting and the crew are going to die, yet the Mariner can hardly take his eyes off these colours. To know what lay behind the story of the Mariner, compare with the above stanza the following:

But yesternight I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
And whom I scorned, those only strong... (Pains of Sleep)

      Coleridge is describing the pains of sleep as he has endured them in his real life. Like the Mariner and Christabel, he has a strange and inexplicable sense of shame and horror:

Deeds to be hid which were not hid.

      In his prose passage on the Wanderings of Cain he describes the same agonizing experience again. "He pursueth my soul like the wind", says Cain, "like sand-blast he passeth through me; he is around me even as the air; that I might be utterly no more; I desire to die. For the torrent that roareth far off hath a voice; and the clouds in heaven look terribly on me; the mighty one who is against me speaketh in the wind of the cedar grove; and in silence am I dried up." This can describe very well the feelings of the Mariner; he has the same sense of unutterable guilt of fear. The reason of this paralysis of the will-power, this sense of guilt and shame and the nightmare of being ever pursued through space is, as in the case of De Quincey, opium.

      Opium and the Supernatural. The supernatural is intimately connected with opium in the poetry of Coleridge. This may appear to be fantastic at first sight and example of poets can readily be given who write of the supernatural without in the least being addicted to that fatal drug. But Coleridge's treatment of the supernatural is not the same as that of other poets. Without going into a detail comparison of their different treatments, one can readily see that in Coleridge, the supernatural means the pursuit of the victim, the complete collapse of his will power and the intense pain resulting from a fascination, not horror exercised by the supernatural being. Coleridge's Geraldine is the prototype of Keats' Lamia, the serpent-woman who can assume a fascinating form and works the ruin of her lover. The serpent-eye of Geraldine are noticed by Christabel only when she is completely within her power. Sir Leoline does not see any sign of the witch in her. She is exceedingly beautiful like a lady of a far off country and to make her alluring, Coleridge lets his look linger on her for a little while as she is undressing. Keats may be say to have enlarged on the following lines in his description of the undressing of Madeline:

She unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast;
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold her bosom and half her side-
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

      The Fatal Woman and Her Victims. The fatal woman usually has a male lover and she is not interested in tormenting female victims. But Coleridge's purpose is not to write a poem of love and beauty like the later nineteenth-century poets. The theme is haunting his mind is the paralysis of human will and this he could depict very well with the aid of a female character. She is in a dizzy trance when she goes to meet her father and her fearful dreams have given her a sense of guilt. The Ancient Mariner has killed the Albatross; the dreams of Christabel have wrought such a change in her that the poet asks, "Can this be she? The lady who knelt at the old oak tree?" and "Sure, have I sinned", says Christabel to herself. Coleridge did not complete the poem and we do not know if Christabel have been shriven by a priest like the Ancient Mariner. There is also a faint suggestion in the prolonged embrace of Geraldine that she wants to catch not only the daughter but also the father in her snare.

      The last line, suggests the fatal character of her beauty but is not meant to evoke a feeling of horror. He has already told the reader that she is a sight to dream of. She is the first of that long line of fatal women who enchant their lovers in proportion to their power of evil. They become an obsession with Swinburne, Pater, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Decadents.

      Love of Liberty and Abhorrence of Tyranny. Coleridge is a firm believer in human dignity and liberty. He fiercely denounces:

Statesman blood-stained and priests idolatrous.

      The blood of Christ, he says, has been bartered away for war; and state and religion make widows groan and orphans weep for bread. In his sonnet on Burke, he laments the fact that a wise statesman like him shall make "Oppression's hireling crew rejoice". Lafayette, whom Burke calls an "unspeakable ruffian", is lauded in another sonnet as heralding a new dawn in the long night of winter. It is not, however, in the expression of bright hopes for future that Coleridge is at his best, he is most effective in his denunciation of tyrants and in such passages, he is the direct predecessor of Shelley.

      Conclusion. Coleridge may be called the most romantic of the poets of the Romantic revival. His poetry, more than even that of Wordsworth, shows the unfolding of the process of the Romantic revival. His early poems are more or less experimental, but they show his ardent delight in natural beauty and his self-consciousness as an artist. His feeling for the beauties of the physical world and his spiritual interpretation of the universe may be traced in some of his early verse, like — The Song of the Pixies (1793), Lines on an Antennal Evening (1794), The Eolian Harp (1795) and Religions Musings (1796). His revolutionary ardour and his subsequent feeling of despair and indignation break out in the Odes to the Departing Year (1796) and To France (1797); these poems are full of fire and passion, and displays a poetic eloquence hitherto lacking in his work. His emotional response to the beauties and glories of nature is poetically expressed in practically all his poems. Coleridge has planted his supernaturalism on the truth of human emotions and so made the supernatural appear to be natural. The three great poems of Coleridge — The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan — all contain supernatural elements (the last one having just a touch of it) — and they are his most romantic poems.

      Coleridge has started his career as a poet of love and nature; he has brought it to a climax by his treatment of the supernatural; and then it comes to an abrupt end with the complete deadening of his imagination. He has touched lightly on all those keys which are to give new melodies to the next generation, though he can not create symphonies of his own. His early intellectual death matches the early physical death of Keats and Shelley who, however, has lived a fuller life than Coleridge.

      Thus, all the features of the Romantic revival are fully manifested in the poetry of Coleridge. In his poetry, there is bold adventure, joy of discovery, romance of action. There is the glamour of untravelled regions, elements of mystery and marvel. There is Nature in a variety of moods: familiar, weird, tender, tumultuous, gay, desolate, soothing or horrifying. All these features are linked into a vital unity with a psychological insight. Truly, in Coleridge's poetry, romanticism — attained a fullness of complexity.

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