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Coleridge as a Romantic Poet
by Ehsan Ehsan
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Chief characteristics of Coleridge as a Romantic Poet
“Lyrical Ballads” published in 1798 is a joint venture of Wordsworth and Coleridge which is a key to understand all the poetry of the Romantic Age including that of Coleridge.
This joint adventure was taken by Wordsworth and Coleridge to find out a balance between the two extremes; the tendency to realism and the tendency to romance in their extreme forms. These two poets felt that English poetry needed first that romance should be saved and ennobled by the presence and the power of truth-truth moral and psychological, and secondly that naturalism (realism) without losing any of its fidelity to fact, should be saved and ennobled by the presence and power of imagination _ the light that never was, on sea or land.
In this respect both the poets agreed to present two different kinds of poems. Coleridge chose such series of poems in which the incidents and agents were to be, in part at supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interest of affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturall accompany such situations, supposing them real. For the second kinds of poems that were mainly to be presented by Wordsworth were such poems in which the subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life. The characters and the incidents were to be such as will be found in every village and vicinity where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves. In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballada’. In this plan it was agreed that Coleridge’s endeavors should be directed to persons and charaters supernatural or at least romantic. However, such supernatural element should not be void of human interest and inward nature of man. It must contain the semblance of truth sufficient to procure of these shadows imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitute poetic faith. Wordswoth, on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give charm of novelty to things of everyday, and to excite a feeling similar to the supernatural by awakening the mind’s jattention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us. of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.
In the light of the above plan of both the poets, and in the light of Coleridge’s poetry itself, we find the following chief characteristics in Coleridge’s poetry. These characteristics are; supernaturalism, element of mystery, fertile imagination, dream quality, medievalism, love of Nature, meditative note, humanitarianism, music and narrative skill which distinguish Coleridge’s poetry as the most complete representative of the English Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century.
Let us take these characteristics of Coleridge poetry one by one:
Supernaturalism: Supernaturalism is something that is above and beyond what is natural; events which cannot be directly explained by known laws and observations. Exploration of the occult (supposedly supernatural or magic) and of infinity, mysticism, and numerology (study of the supposed influence of number) are some other manifestation of the intense desire of man to know what exists or lies beyond the finite mind. Imaginative and inventive fiction and poetry have been created upon this appeal. This element of supernaturalism is found in the three major works of Coleridge, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel”. The outstanding quality of Coleridge’s supernaturalism, however, is that his writings do not excite one’s senses to a feverish pitch and do not remain remote from human reality. He is capable of creating the still, sad music of humanity. In his supernaturalism we do not find any kind of crudeness as is found in other poets Horace and Monk Lewis. He replaced the crudeness with suggestiveness. He did not portray horror, he suggested it. Both in the cases of the Night-mare Life-in-Death and the serpent woman Geraldine, he resists the temptation of depicting their hideous monstrosity. He conveys the gruesomeness (horrification) of Life-in-Death in a few suggestive lines.
Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was white as leprosy
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she
Who thicks Man’s blood with cold.
Or through the Mariner’s response to her
Fear at my heart, as at a cup
My life-blood seemed to sip.
In the same manner the repulsiveness (unpleasantness) of Geraldine’s ugly bosom is conveyed through a clever suggestion,
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!
Coleridge has successfully kept the reality of supernatural phenomena by avoiding the descriptions of details. He deepens his effect by mystery surrounding it. Along with this Coleridge’s supernaturalism has essentially psychological truth in it. The supernatural touches in ‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘The Ancient Mariner’ are so managed that they are in perfect harmony with the mental and emotional moulds of the characters as well as the readers. The ancestral voices heard by Kubla Khan prophesy war. The poet in his poetic frenzy is capable of building supernatural awe in the minds of the readers when the people coming see his castle see his flashing eyes and waving hair and draw a circle around him thrice to keep them safe from this man who has been fed on honey and dew and drank the milk of paradise. The supernatural drama of the ‘The Ancient Mariner’ catches hold of the readers’ sub-conscious mind. This is, however, noteworthy that Coleridge like Homer and Shakespeare makes the element of supernaturalism the part of a wider scheme which is intimately related to living human experience. The central idea of the need of human love and compassion with man, bird and beast and the entire creation of God and the painful experience caused by their absence is so intensely human that even the supernatural character of the events cannot becloud its truthfulness.
Element of Mystery or Mysteriousness; Mysteriousness is that condition in which some character, event or situation remains hidden and is not revealed to the usual vision or common understanding. It is not completely known but makes its presence feel to the people. Coleridge possesses an unusual gift of evoking the mystery of things. The Ancient Mariner is made a mysterious character just by the mention of the glittering eyes long grey beard and skinny hands. Geraldine’s sudden appearance in an unexpected circumstance makes her mysterious. Her being beautiful exceedingly also makes her mysterious. But Coleridge uses this faculty most effectively by keeping alive the ordinary natural phenomena in tact. The blowing of the winds and the twinkling of stars assume a mysterious character. Mast-high ice sending a dismal sheen and making cracking and growling sound is bound to appear mysterious. Similarly mysterious is found in the death fires dancing in red and rout and water burning green, blue and white like a witch’s oils. The romantic chasm in ‘Kubla Khan’ is given a touch of mystery by the mention of the ‘woman wailing for her demon love.’
Fertile and Rich imagination
Imagination is a mental faculty of framing images of external objects which are not present to the five senses. It is a process of using all the faculties so as to realize with intensity what is not perceived, and to do this in a way that integrates and orders every thing present to the mind so that reality is enhanced thereby. Coleridge in his ‘Biographia Literaria’ writes of imagination thus; ‘The power reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite and discordant qualities of sameness, with the differences of the general; with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order. We see that Coleridge’s imagination has all these qualities to a superb order.
Coleridge is gifted with the most fertile and vigorous imagination among all the Romantic Poets. It is by this rich and fertile imagination that he is able to create his perplexing mystery. In this respect he goes ahead of Wordsworth who was too conscientious to describe or present those things that were not seen personally by him. Coleridge, on the other hand, was able to describe and present those things which he came across during his vast study through his faculty of imagination. He had the faculty of presenting such unseen and inexperienced things so vividly as if those had been literally present before his eyes. He presents the place of Kubla Khan’s palace as he was practically present there,‘here Kubla Khan commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden there unto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground was enclosed with a wall,’ set imagination on fire and we can have vivid picture of Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome. According to the great Greek critic Longinus, a great writer is that one who has the capability of transporting the reader to his own imaginative world. Coleridge, no doubt, was bestowed with this quality. Not only this, he had the rare skill to create an imaginary world, changed it into imaginative and then transformed it to a make-belief condition. The world created by Coleridge in his whole poem of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is the best example of this faculty of Coleridge. J.L. Lowes’ book ‘The Road to Xanadu’ amply illustrates how Coleridge’s imagination could transform simple facts collected during his reading into something mysterious and wonderful.
Dream Quality: Dream quality is a quality of imagining while asleep. It is a process of or a sequence of images that appear involuntarily to the mind of a sleeping person, often a mixture of real and imaginary characters, places and events. The major poems of Coleridge have a strange dream like atmosphere about them. Dreams with him are no shadows. They are the very substance of his life. He fed on his dreams and vitalized him in his poems. ‘Kubla Khan’ is essentially a dream poem recounting in a poetic form what he saw in a vision. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ displays a dream- like movement. C.M Bowra in the ‘Romantic Imagination’ illustrates the affinity of ‘The ancient Mariner’ with a dream. ‘On the surface it shows many qualities of a dream,’ he says. ‘It moves in abrupt stages each of which has its own single dominating character. Its visual impressions are remarkably brilliant and absorbing. Its emotional impacts change rapidly but always come with unusual force as if the poet were hunted and obsessed by them. When it is all over, to cling to the memory with a peculiar tenacity (tending to stick firmly)just as on waking it is difficult at first to disentangle (get freed) ordinary experience from influences which still survive from sleep.’ The dramatic texture (structure) of Coleridge’s poems gives them a kind of twilight vagueness intensifying their mystery.
Medievalism: Medievalism means devotion to the Middle Ages, a devotion to the spirit of beliefs of the Middle Ages. Coleridge’s love for supernatural led him to the exploration of Middle Ages. He was fascinated by the romance and legends associated with them. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ ‘Christable’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ are all wrought with the glamours of Middle Ages. But it should be kept in mind that Medievalism does not form the substance of his poems. It gives them the much needed sense of remoteness and offers a fit setting for the marvelous which is Coleridge’s purpose to hint at or openly display.
Love of Nature: Nature means a physical world including all natural phenomena and living things. It also means a force that is represented before man in the form of beautiful scenes. Wordsworth is stated to be communicating new order of experience for which Nature serves us a point of departure and there was not such an experience in English poetry before his time. Coleridge shows for Nature the same loving devotion as we find in Wordsworth. But Bowra rightly points out that his eye for Nature is for its more charms and less obvious appeals and he takes richer and more luxurious pleasure in those aspects of Nature that can present a dramatic and mysterious look. Whether his descriptions are based on his personal experiences or on what he has read, he never fails to give them a semblance of truth. The bergs around the skiff or the single sudden stride of a tropical night are scenes that he could not have seen, but they look a lively and realistic as the fire wild torrents actually seen by him rushing down the sides of the hoary, majestic sky. He can evoke the richness of colour as well as the magical associations of sound much better than any other poet. And he is equally successful both in giving graphic descriptions and in achieving broad generalized effects. In his earlier attitude towards Nature, he had a pantheistic view and also accepts it as a moral teacher, but later he comes to believe that it is we who invest Nature with life and it simply reflects our own moods. This later stage of his attitude towards Nature is the stage when he says in ‘Dejection: An Ode.’
O Lady! We receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
Meditative Note: Meditative thinking is the result of reflective and speculative temper. It is a philosophic bent of mind. Coleridge was amply gifted with this quality. This tendency of mind was present even in his early age which made him to do serious reading. He was specially impressed by the German philosophers Kant and Schiller. ‘Dejection: An Ode’ is also written in a meditative mood in which he deplores the loss of imaginative power because of the metaphysical strain in his thinking. The verses in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (which also hint at the theme of the poem) clearly reflects his meditative mind when he says;
‘He prayth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.’
He prayth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.;
Humanitarianism: Humanitarianism means the love of humanity and a commitment to improving the lives of others. We find humanitarianism in Coleridge’s poetry. Both he and Wordsworth strongly supported the French Revolution in the hope that it would free the masses from the tyranny of the dictators. But they were miserably disappointed in their hope. When Coleridge discovered that the revolutionists were perverting or violating the very principles they had stood for, he did not hesitate to denounce them in his, ;Franch:An Ode’. His love of humanity is expressed in different poems and also in the moral of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ when he says
‘He prayth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast’
Music: Music is the art of arranging sounds, the art of arranging or making sound, usually those of musical instruments or voices, in groups and patterns that create a pleasing or stimulating effect. It can be presented in the written form indicating pitch, duration, rhythm, and tone of notes to be played. ‘Coleridge is always a singer’, says H.D. Traill. Court Hope also agrees that there is a tendency to approximate the art of poetry to the art of music. Coleridge’s musical genius can best be seen in such poems as ‘The Ancient Mariner’, ‘Christable’, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Youth and Age’. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ has woven cunning sound patterns with the help of internal rhyme or of clever use of alliteration
The ice was here, the ice was there
The ice was all around
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled
Like noises in the swound!
The internal rhyme and the alliterative effect in the following lines is note worthy
‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew
The furrow followed free
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.’
The musical quality in ‘Christable’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ puts the reader into a hypnotic spell.
Narrative skill is the art of telling a story or giving an account of a sequence of events in the order in which they happened. Coleridge is superb in the art of story telling. He knows how to create suspense or to evoke interest in the narrative. In ‘The Ancient Mariner’ he invests the Mariner with a hypnotic power in order to raise our curiosity in his story. And he introduces his events very dramatically. By bringing the specter –ship gradually closer to view, a hush of expectancy is created before death and Life-in-Death are dramatically brought on the scene to determine the fate of the Mariner. The dropping down of his two hundred sailor companions one by one after the killing of Albatross and their souls going out making a whiz sound of the cross bow produces a very dramatic effect. The wedding guest’s interruptions are used to high light the climatic moments. All these devices give the poem an incomparable narrative beauty.
The above are the characteristics that distinguish Coleridge from other romantic poets and make him the most complete representative of the English Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century.
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He's such a great artist. I love reading his words. Amazing!
I enjoyed your article on "Coleridge as a Romantic Poet". It was very thorough and informative. I had only read his "Rime of an Ancient Mariner", but I learned enough to make me want to read the other two you mentioned. Thanks for sharing this impressive exposition.