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Coleridge's Medievalism
by Ehsan Ehsan
09/30/08
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Medievalism in Coleridge

Ans. 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.
The scene set in distant times and remote places. The three important poems in which Coleridge has made use of the supernatural are ‘The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and KublaKhn. It is significant that in all the three poems, Coleridge takes us to distant times and remote places. The remoteness of scene in all the three poems is quite deliberate. Medieval times are associated with magic and witchcraft. The appearance of an evil spirit in Sir Leoline’s castle does not strike us as improbable nor do we feel any inappropriateness in Kubla Khan’s hearing ancestral voices prophesying war amidst the tumultuous noises heard from the fountain as well as the cavers measureless to man. The moment the poet effects temporal and spatial remoteness, the rigorous logic governing the familiar world of reality is suspended and the poet feels free to create a new logic in a comparatively new world.

There is much of medievalism in the works of almost all the romantic poets, with the exception of Wordsworth. There romantic inclined them towards the distant and the remote in prefere4nfe to the homely and familiar. Coleridge who mainly dealt with supernatural subjects was all the more attracted by the legends and romances of the Medieval times. Then people were superstitious and they had a real faith in the supernatural. The Middle Ages, thus, provided Coleridge not only with his themes but also offered appropriate setting and atmosphere for the enactment of those themes. All the important poems of his, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ ‘Christable,’ ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Love’ are wrought with the glamour of the Middle Ages.

‘The Ancient Mariner’ does not employ the medieval atmosphere as completely as ‘Christabel,’ where we have moat-castles, (castles having ditches around it) feudal lords, serpent6 women, and bards and pages. Still whosoever will read ‘The ancient Mariner’ a little careful reader will not fail to notice the medieval touches generously given to it. The very opening line, ‘It is an Ancient Mariner’ strikes the key-not of the poem. The word ‘ancient’ not only refer to the old age of the Mariner but immediately distinguishes him as belonging to the olden times. The reader is thus warned at the outset to be ready to be wafted to distant times. The reader is thus warned at the outset to be ready to be wafted (floated gently) to distant times. The ceremonials and rituals hinted at in the beginning are connected with the medieval church. The ‘loud bassoon’, the ‘merry minstrelsy’ and ‘the blushing bride, suggest a medieval wedding, when measures were danced and wine flowed in rounds, and songs and ballads were sung with great enthusiasm and joy. Moreover, the ship, the masts, the oars, the sails, the Pilot and the Pilot’s boy, and the lighthouse – all point to the past. The sailors, like people in the Middle Ages, are a superstitious set. The believe in portent (omen) and omens. They take the Albatross to be a bird of good omen, and condemn the Mariner for having killed it. The moral theme of the poem consisting in the catholic idea of redemption through penance or expiation is also medieval in spirit. The cross-bow with which the Mariner shoots the Albatross was also used in the Middle Ages.
Coleridge Medievalism also includes the following elements which are closed connected to one another. Those are Supernaturalism, Dream-like Quality, Love of Nature, Fertile and rich Imagination the element of Mystery and Mysteriousness and a very effective and impressive Narative Skill.


Supernaturalism: Coleridge’s romanticism in the sense of his artistic rendering of the supernatural phenomena. Although it has not the same level of supernaturalism as is found in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, or ‘Christable; yet the supernatural in the poem stand out quite conspicuously, (easily availably). The woman wailing for her demon lover and the ancestral voices prophesying war; are obviously supernatural occurrences. The poetic frenzy of an inspired poet borders on the supernatural. The tumultuous rise of the river Alph from a deep romantic chasm is also given an unmistakable supernatural touch. But what is remarkable about ‘Kubla Khan’ is the convincing presentation of the supernatural elements. The description of the landscape is so vivid and precise; the similes used for the mighty fountain so homely (plain) and familiar that it does not occur to the reader that anything incredible is being described. The psychological truth hidden behind Kubla Khan’s hearing ancestral voices prophesying war or the representation of the poet as a super human being make these facts acceptable.

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.
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.




The poem ‘Christable’ is also replete with Medievalism’. In the poem the moat-castles, feudal lords, serpent women, and the bards and pages are all the elements of the Middle Ages.

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.
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

Narrative skill

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.


We can say that Coleridge’s Medievalism does not take us only to remote and distant places and men but has within it the other qualities of the poet’s art like supernatural, fertile imagination, dream-quality, an effective and impressive narrative skill and his love of Nature.



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