Supernatural Elements in S. T. Coleridge Poetry

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      Introduction. Though Coleridge's poetic achievement is small and sometimes fragmentary, yet he remains unequaled in one sphere of poetry — that of the supernatural. While planning a new volume of poems to be jointly written by Wordsworth and Coleridge, Coleridge undertakes to deal with the supernatural. He has written in, Biographia Literaria: "It was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith." It is with this idea in his mind that he has composed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The two other poems dealing with the supernatural element are both left incomplete — Christabel and Kubla Khan.

      Break with Existing Cult of Supernaturalism. Before Coleridge, the supernatural element has entered into English Literature (apart from drama) in a rather gross and crude form. It has appeared in the works of Horace Walpole. Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis has introduced the supernatural element in a crude form in their romances. They have tried to produce an atmosphere of mystery and horror by artificial devices like sudden transformation; noise and thunder mysterious whisperings and awful appearances. Coleridge totally has discarded such grotesque and ludicrous grossness. He has given an inward quality to his conception of the supernatural; he brings supernaturalism into intimate relation with individual experience and gives a new psychological interest to it. The difference between Coleridge on one side and Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe on the other is the difference between the maker of horror and the maker of horrors. Coleridge creates the atmosphere of mystery by indefiniteness and by subtle suggestion while the other two employ crude description and pile horrors in order to send a cold shiver down the reader's spine and to curdle the reader's blood.

      The treatment of supernatural by the earlier writers is of the objective kind. Coleridge's treatment is of a fine kind; the supernatural is brought in line with subjective experience. Coleridge himself wrote in reference to the supernatural class of poems in the Lyrical Ballads...."the incidents and agents are to be in part at least supernatural; and the excellence aims at, is to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as will naturally accompany such emotions, supposing them real" Thus Coleridge, even before he writes The Ancient Mariner lays stress upon three essential features of the poems of the supernatural class; (i) psychological interest, (ii) dramatic truth, and (iii) "reality" of the supernatural.

      Exploration of Human Psyche through Supernaturalism. Supernaturalism in Coleridge is neither a presentation of sorrow by external devices, nor as mere exhibition of the effects of the supernatural on human conduct and behaviour, but it is an exploration of what Pater calls, 'soul-love'; the deepest emotions of the soul are explored by the experience of the supernatural. Secondly, the incidents and emotions arising from them are so full of human interest that they acquire a dramatic truth and produces a 'suspension of disbelief' which constitutes poetic faith. It is the dramatic truth of the Mariner's emotions in The Ancient Mariner that gives an air of reality to his weird experiences. Thirdly the supernatural in Coleridge appears to be real-not objectively but psychologically real. 'Reality does not consist merely in the external appearances of things perceptible to the senses, but also in the deeper passions and experiences of the soul. The supernatural experiences of the Ancient Mariner are in this sense as real as his sailing in the ship or his meeting with the Wedding—Guest.

      The three poems, The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan, are the best examples of Coleridge's use of the supernatural. The poet does not employ any crude device to produce the sense of the supernatural. "It is delicacy," says Pater, "the dreamy grace in the presentation of the marvellous which makes Coleridge's work so remarkable. The palpable intruders from a spiritual world in almost all ghost literature, in Scott and Shakespeare even, have a kind of coarseness or crudeness. Coleridge's power is in the very fineness with which as with some really ghostly finger, he brings home to our inmost sense; his inventions, daring as they are." The secret of Coleridge's unique success works on the mind and not merely on the external objects. He knows with his psychological insight that the mysterious world of the supernatural must remain a mystery, and that subtle suggestion only can produce this sense of mystery, not crude description. It is with delicate touches of suggestions, combines with psychological insight, he brings out all the shadowy mysteries of the unseen world. The art with which Coleridge excites supernatural wonder and curiosity produces an atmosphere of what Aristotle calls "the higher illusion of reality". It is the human note in his poems dealing with the supernatural that helps to create this sense of reality. When the Mariner recovers from his spell and returns to his normal self, a natural human interest emerges in his weary words.

O wedding guest ! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide, wide sea
So lonely it was, that God himself
Scarce there seemed to be
O sweeter than the marriage-feast
'Tis sweeter far to one
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company

      And in this chastened and humanised mood, he derives the simple moral:

He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

      Towards the end of Kubla Khan, the poet is presented as a supernatural being:

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew bath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.

      The description is psychologically accurate, for a poet in the frenzy of creative inspiration may achieve the level of a supernatural reality.

      Imaginative Use Inducing a Sense of Reality. Coleridge has aroused the sense of supernatural mystery by taking the imagination to some distant unknown place as in The Ancient Mariner or to some distant past, as in Christabel. A known place, or the living present has no wonder or mystery; it is distance that is romantic and produces a sense of mystery and wonder. In Christabel, the poet takes us back to the old medieval days, which bring to our mind the associations of magic, superstition, and witchery. In The Ancient Mariner, he takes us away from the busy haunts of men to the distant seas, where the Mariner is left alone,

Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!

      At such a place and in such a situation, the Mariner with a consciousness of guilt, may very well have a supernatural experience. The poet thus creates what is called 'dramatic probability' and produces 'that willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith.'

      Coleridge produces the sense of horror, not by describing the spectre-woman and her death—mate or other external phenomena at length, but by portraying the effect of these external things on the Mariner's mind. Coleridge's method is psychological. For instance, at one point in the poem, the poet wishes to tell us how horrifying the Mariner's face appeared. He does not describe the face itself, he simply describes the effect of the face upon the pilot.

I moved my lips-the pilot shrieked
And fell down in a fit.

      In Kubla Khan, the mighty fountain being forced out of the earth is definitely vested with a supernatural energy, but describing it Coleridge employs familiar and natural similes.

      Feeling of Wonder Evoked in the Use of Supernatural: The Romantic Feature. The Romantic Revival has been otherwise called the Renaissance of Wonder. Apart from the fact that the romanticism of the early nineteenth century is a revolt against the classical tradition of eighteenth century, it is marked by certain positive trends, the most important of which is the awakening of the feeling of wonder. Wordsworth takes upon himself to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday and to excite a feeling of wonder by directing the mind to the glory and loveliness of the world before us. Coleridge, on the other hand, undertakes to awaken the feeling of wonder by depicting the supernatural and the mysterious. The pervading sense of mystery is the key to Coleridge's supernaturalism; it is that species of supernaturalism whose essence is psychological. If Wordsworth has given the charm of novelty to common things of life and nature, Coleridge has made the supernatural appear to be natural by a hundred delicate touches and subtle suggestion. "It is this finer, more delicately marvellous supernaturalism, fruit of his own more delicate psychology," says Pater, "that Coleridge infuses into romantic adventure, which itself was then a new or revived thing in English language."

      While giving us the history of the composition of the Lyrical Ballads and his own share in it, Coleridge writes in his Biographia Literaria. "My endeavours were directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitute of poetic faith". Coleridge with an artistic mastery achieves a blend of the supernatural and the natural to fulfill his role in the contribution to the Lyrical Ballads. His technique is successful in rendering the supernatural real enough to the reader, not only while reading the poem, but even afterwards; for he conveys a sense of a whole reality in which the supernatural exists without difficulty.

      Truthful Nature Pictures. With a view to giving his stories an air of plausibility, Coleridge gives accurate descriptions of his nature pictures. Scenery is generally kept true to nature. In The Ancient Mariner every phase of landscape, seascape and cloudscape is touched upon, from the quiet scenery of an English woodland to the vibrant scenery of the tropics, The poet touches with equal power and beauty every phase of life at sea. And yet there is no false note struck anywhere. Even the best geographer cannot spot any defect in the poet's geography. What better and lovelier description can there be of the coming night in the Tropics:

The sun's rim dips: the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark.

      Things are seen at a distances look very small and vague. As they come nearer, they look bigger and clearer. What more scientifically accurate description of the phantom ship (as it appears to the Mariner) can there he then in the lines quoted below:

At first it seemed a little speck
And then it seemed a mist,
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

      For the purpose of creating an atmosphere of realism the poet sometimes personifies the Forces of Nature and invests them with human qualities: the Sun, the Moon, the Storm blast have all been personified.

      Blend of the Natural and Supernatural Element. Coleridge has blended the natural and supernatural phenomena so skillfully and successfully that no reader can draw a line of demarcation between the two, saying that here the natural ends and the supernatural begins. His way of describing natural scenes is such that they appear to be supernatural. At the same time, the poet presents his supernatural phenomena so that the supernatural world becomes a reality. The poet invests his tales with 'a human interest' and 'a semblance of truth' and, consequently, produces 'willing suspension of disbelief' for the moment, in the reader's mind. The fantastic and the real, the human and the supernatural, the probable and the improbable, are so well dove—tailed that the effect is one of realism. The transition from the natural to the supernatural and vice versa is so well and so dextrously managed that the reader is hardly conscious of it. The Ancient Mariner is a masterpiece of vivid description. However, it is most remarkable for the way in which the transition from the detailed, matter-of-fact and accurate description of the voyage towards and from the South Pole to the equally matter-of-fact description of the avowedly supernatural manifestation of the phantom ship is managed with so little change of tone that in a rapid reading, we fail to realise that the transition has been made. There is no question of an incursion, a border raid, of the supernatural on the natural; both are parts of a whole. Christabel abounds in supernatural touches - the dying fire leaps in a fit of flame; Geraldine sees the spirit of the dead mother of Christabel and speaks to her with altered voice; the serpent women casts an evil spell upon the innocent Christabel so that she cannot disclose the real nature of the sorceress to anyone, not even to her dear father. But the total effect is one united impression of realism. In Kubla Khan, we have the description of the sacred river being "flung up momently". The lines certainly have a supernatural aura but the similes employed are familiar and natural:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst,
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

      Touches of Human Interest. Coleridge's poems have a psychological background. They are invested with human interest. The poet never loses touch with nature and human life and with man's spiritual possibilities. He is a master of human psychology and knows well how man will react under given conditions. He imagines the dramatic situation in which he places his characters. But the emotional reactions of these characters are convincing and true. In The Ancient Mariner, the poet portrays the Mariner's state of mind and makes us share the feelings and thoughts that arise in his mind as a result of the various happenings in the story. When he catches sight of the skeleton-ship:

Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seems to sip!

      Again, the Mariner's reaction to the experience he has at the time when the two hundred crew has died and has cursed him, is described in the following lines:

I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.

      Now any man under similar circumstances will have reacted exactly in the same manner in which the Mariner did.

      Suggestiveness. One of the most effective methods used by the poet to make his stories look real is that of infinite suggestiveness. He deliberately leaves many things in his supernatural tales vague and indefinite. He gives the picture in broad outlines so that the details may be filled in by the reader himself according to his own temperament. The path he pursues so as to create horror in his readers is indirect. While describing the first vision of Christabel, the poet says:

With open eyes-ah woe is me!
Asleep, and dreaming, fearfully
Fearfully, dreaming, yet I wis,
Dreaming that alone, which is.

      Now every reader has to conjure up before his mind's eye the exact picture of the horror Christabel see in her vision, and this picture will differ with different readers according to their temperament. He writes first:

Behold ! her bosom and half her side
Are lean and old and foul of hue

      Surprising, no doubt, and repellent, but direct. This is the technique of The Ancient Mariner and this, Coleridge feel will not do. So he rewrite it with a suggestive quality:

Behold I her bosom and half her side
A sight to dream of, not to tell.

      And we "either shiver deliciously or turn away the too patent garden path according to temperament, as one critic puts it.

      Gradual Introduction of Supernatural. In none of Coleridge's poem is the supernatural element brought in abruptly. Coleridge first takes his readers around familiar places and wins their confidence through vivid portrayal of minute details. Them minor hints of the supernatural are introduced, finally the entire scene takes on a supernatural look. Thus the reader readily accepts it. The atmosphere is built up in this way in The Ancient Mariner as well as Christabel.

      Supernatural Just a Different Level of Reality. Unfortunately, the oft-quoted passage about Coleridge's role in the collaboration with Wordsworth in the composition of the Lyrical Ballads has encouraged critics to over-simplify Coleridge's contribution. Up to a limit it is true that Coleridge directs himself to purpose and characters supernatural, that he deals with those poems in which "the incidents and agents are to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at is to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believe himself under supernatural agency. However, Coleridge, in his modesty, is a little less than just to the raison d'etre of his supernaturalism.

      There is not merely the willing suspension of disbelief in reading his supernatural poems; they deal equally with reality — only, it is a different level of reality from Wordsworth's. Coleridge, as Professor Otto and Aldous Huxley point out, is not so much a poet of the supernatural as the super sensible. His poetry is a record of the numinous' experiences which are common to both savage and mystic. In Coleridge's world the so-called supernatural events are not disconnected from the natural world; they are parts of one complete system is governed by a principle which is neither subject nor object exclusively, but which is the identity of both which can be conceived neither as infinite nor as finite exclusively, but as the most original union of the two. After all, if only we could see far enough, we shall see that the distinction between natural and supernatural is one created by man in his ignorance. What he thinks he can understand, lie is pleased to call natural; what wholly baffles him, he calls supernatural. The Ancient Mariner is not an elaborate fairy tale or a piece of literary patch work, its trance is not that of sleep but of intense vision. My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels. The highest powers of the mind work in harmony with energies normally unconscious. The distinction between poetic reality and human reality is very often merely conventional. All beauty draws itself from the existence of the ideal within the real; even in the bodily statement can converse with the ideal beauty.

      Conclusion. The supernaturalism of Coleridge's poems is no matter of "stage-lighting as with Monk Lewis; of hysterical declaration as with Mrs. Radcliffe; of stage accessories as with Scott; it is an atmosphere that suffuses the entire tale; the outcome of a hundred delicate touches and subtle hints makes convincing to the reader by the profound psychological insight of the poet" Coleridge lays the scenery of such poems as The Ancient Mariner and Christabel in the midst of untravelled seas and the deep forests of romance. It is supernatural, but of the ancient, common, simple kind which belongs to all mankind. We find nothing unnatural in the supernatural dread conveyed in the lines -

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread

University Questions

What are the features that render Coleridge's treatment of the supernatural unique?
"The very center of Coleridge's art lies in his beauty of evoking the mystery of things, and making it actual, widespread and obsessing" Discuss.
Discuss Coleridge's treatment of the supernatural in the light of the statement that he endeavored to "procure for the shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith."
How does Coleridge make the supernatural look natural?
What devices are employed by Coleridge to make the supernatural appear natural?
Coleridge superbly surmounts the difficulty of making the supernatural credible. How does he achieve this artistic triumph?

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