Shelley, however, had an alarming reaction to a reading of Coleridge’s supernatural poem, ‘Christabel’. The Shelleys were guests at Villa Diodati, Byron’s villa overlooking Lake Geneva (once occupied by Milton). It was late at night, the talk had turned ghostly, and his lordship decided to read some verses from ‘Christabel’. These included the description of the breasts of the lamia-like Geraldine. Shelley clutched his head, hallucinating, and ran shrieking from the room. He was having visions of a woman ‘who had eyes instead of nipples’. Many of Coleridge’s disturbing and symbolic images have entered literary and day-to-day use. The albatross is credited in the dictionary with a secondary meaning, ‘constant and inescapable burden or handicap’, and referenced to Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The figure of the ancient mariner has become a symbol for the outsider. There are extra-textual references to the poem in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (conceived during that visit to the Diodati). Like the mariner, Frankenstein’s monster is an alienated individual caught up in disturbances of the natural order, something of a ‘Romantic’ theme in the late 18th century, a time of general upheaval that included the French Revolution and birth of the Industrial Revolution. George Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’, as the name suggests, is another nod to the wandering outcast.
Coleridge’s poetry is a rich pot to pilfer. Harold Bloom observes that Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol becomes an embarrassment to read, directly one recognises that every lustre it exhibits is reflected from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’2 Angela Carter, in ‘Wolf-Alice’, one of her baroque re-workings of folk and fairy stories,3 also touches on this most famous of Coleridge’s poems: she describes her ducal ‘corpse-eater’ as being ‘white as leprosy’, a gender reversal from the ‘specter-woman’ that seizes the mariner’s soul: ‘Her skin was white as leprosy, / The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she, / Who thicks man’s blood with cold’. The name ‘Xanadu’ is as famous for being Kane’s mansion in Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane as it is for being the setting for Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree’. The allusion to the fragility of creative success, ‘it was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice’ became a suitable metaphor for Welles’s film, and indeed, for the creative talent of both Welles and Coleridge.
Wordsworth called Coleridge ‘the most wonderful man’ he had ever known. Their inspirational friendship is well documented, although it could be argued that Wordsworth, being the more focused of the two, got more out of the relationship than Coleridge. The biographer Richard Holmes argues that without Coleridge’s autobiographical ‘Conversation’ poems Wordsworth would have never developed ‘The Prelude’. Coleridge never acquired the dignified fame of Wordsworth, or the super-stardom of Byron, but he had a cult status as philosopher poet equal to none. Satirised by Thomas Love Peacock, (writer and friend of Shelley, also satirised) Coleridge appears in ‘Nightmare Abbey’ as Mr Flosky, transcendental philosopher, who takes ‘seven hundred pages of promise to elucidate’ the philosophical distinction between Fancy and Imagination. Coleridge was deeply interested in the working of the creative mind and in his poetry he tries to embody his theories by attempting to capture the perfect moment of imagination. Coleridge’s distinguishing theory between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’, and the further distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ imagination, are detailed in Biographia Literaria, subtitled ‘my literary life and opinions.’ Holmes describes the Biographia as being of ‘acute psychological interest, and its shape-shifting and paradoxes, its intimacy and disguises, its frankness and its fraudulence, make up a genuine literary self-portrait. Anything less complicated, less fascinating and less maddening, would really not be Coleridge at all.’ 4
It is now widely acknowledge that all literary criticism flows from Coleridge; he is a descriptive critic who has undergone a renaissance in the 20th century. T.S. Eliot, in his caption for the van Dyke portrait (above), writes that Coleridge was not only ‘the greatest literary critic, he was also the greatest intellectual force of his time’. James Wood describes Coleridge’s prose work as ‘a junction-box of inheritances, full of magical combinations: Lessing and Kant and Schlegel, Bacon and Hartley and Locke…It is a dragging and dense style, sometimes obscure, with voluminous sentences that stretch like library corridors.’ Wood also suggests that ‘it was probably Coleridge who gave the young poet [Keats] his idea of “negative capability”, for Keats, before writing his famous letter, had read the Biographia, with its similar advocacy of what Coleridge called the “negative faith” that free drama requests of us.’5 Coleridge’s ‘metrical experiments’ had their influence as well; Ted Hughes observes that in particular the ‘irregular’ metre of ‘Christabel’ anticipate the ‘sprung rhythm’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 6
Hughes describes Coleridge’s poetry as having ‘the demonic element of song’. This ‘demonic element’ was heightened by Coleridge’s opium habit, which took him, as De Quincey describes it, into ‘the abyss of divine enjoyment.’7 He paid the price for his visions. Molly Lefebure notes the effect of the drug: ‘Actuality is heightened and thereby distorted by imaginings of horror.’ 8 Coleridge’s great poem of loss, ‘Dejection – An Ode’ is, Lefebure writes, ‘an unparalleled example of the self-torturing, long-drawn-out howl of anguish and recrimination which the morphine-addict hurls at the world.’ However, ‘Dejection’ is also a poem of introspective analysis, a lament to poetic collapse, a heartbreaking love poem, and more. Coleridge offers such density of meaning that great screeds by hallowed writers have been written in an attempt to retrieve meaning from his innumerable origins and sources. This faculty will follow in their footsteps with due reverence and homage to this ‘wonderful man’, this spiritual voyager. Charles Lamb, his old school friend from Christ’s Hospital, said ‘Never saw I his likeness, nor probably the world can see again.’
1 Hazlitt, William. ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’, 1823.
2 Bloom, Harold, 1975. The Anxiety of Influence, Oxford University Press.
3 Carter, Angela, 1981. The Bloody Chamber, Penguin.
4 Holmes, Richard, 1998. Coleridge: Early Visions, HarperCollins.
5 Wood, James, 2004. The Irresponsible Self, Cape.
6 Hughes, Ted, 1995. Winter Pollen, Faber and Faber.
7 De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1821.
8 Lefebure, Molly, 1977. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium, London, Quartet.