Monday, 21 February 2011


I was delighted when my daughter announced she would be reading some Coleridge for her English A level, then disappointed when it turned out to be just the "Ancient Mariner". Ah, well. But it reminded me that I have a special relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who sort of saved my life in 1976.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but back then I was in a dark despair about the point and purpose of my university studies. Why was I -- why was anyone -- doing this? What elevated the study of literature over any other harmless pastime? Where did literature's claim to cultural significance (over and beyond, say, playing and watching football or collecting stamps) come from? Was it simply a remnant of an outdated, aristocratic taste? I confided my doubts to my tutor, much like a trainee priest admitting to a crisis of faith, but his response could be summarised as, "Hmm... Oh, dear... Well..."

However, I was saved by choosing "Wordsworth and Coleridge" as a special paper. Saved by Wordsworth? Forget about it! If anyone could drive you deeper into despair, that would be Wordsworth ("an old half-witted sheep / Which bleats articulate monotony"). But in Coleridge I discovered the patron saint of underachievers with a taste for distraction and procrastination, and someone who had thought deeply about many of the issues that were depriving me of sleep. He was a true member of that sensational generation active at the turn of the 19th century, which (leaving poets to one side) included revolutionary minds like Humphry Davy, Joseph Banks, and Michael Faraday.

Many of Coleridge's poems are good, and a few are among my favourites. Primarily the so-called "conversation poems", a relaxed approach to poetry and poetic language which Coleridge seems to have invented. "Frost At Midnight", for example, pre-prepared me for sitting into the small hours next to my children's beds, getting them back to sleep. The tick of the cooling radiator, of course, had to make do for the fluttering fire. "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison", too, that reverse-Wordsworth of a poem, describing a country walk with friends and inspirational natural sights, not recollected in tranquillity but imagined during an enforced bout of immobility, all because Sarah, his wife, had "accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C. Lamb's stay." Ouch. Bathos elevated to the sublime.

But it's the "other stuff" that makes STC truly remarkable. The Oxford Authors edition of Coleridge is 4.25 cm thick. Of this, merely 1 cm contains the poems. The rest is the Biographia Literaria, the letters, the notebooks, the lectures on Shakespeare, even his "marginalia" (comments written in the margins of books). Coleridge was a pioneer of the fragmentary, the parenthetical, the allusively rambling, the authoritatively incomplete. He would have loved blogging, perhaps Twitter even more so.

If you don't know the Biographia Literaria, it's not the sort of thing I'd recommend to anyone as a "good read". It's heavy going in places, full of references to philosophers and writers one has heard of but never read; the book has no shape and no argument; it's just a long, random stroll through STC's "literary life and opinions". But to the right person at the right time, it's a revelation. Coleridge is that rare thing in English letters, a thinker -- a reader of German, classical and contemporary philosophy, blessed with an open yet systematic mind (given a good stir by a lifelong struggle with opium). Reading the Biographia is like reading a colleague's private diaries and notebooks, and discovering they're the work of a world-class genius.

But, for me, the association of Coleridge and exams also has a down side. Some universities still cling to the tradition of the "viva"; after sitting written papers, borderline candidates who seem to be leaning the right way are given the chance to talk themselves into the higher grade. It's quite sporting, really, but rather stressful. I know, as I was called for a viva myself -- twice, actually, which is "cruel and unusual".

At my first viva, in the morning, the chief examiner smiled. "You have written the best account of Coleridge's theory of the imagination I have ever read. Thank you". Holy crap, I thought, I'm going to get a "congratulatory first"... It was possibly the proudest moment of my life. Thanks, STC! "But," he then said, "The special paper is 'Wordsworth and Coleridge', and you've written nothing at all about Wordsworth -- perhaps you could tell us why?" Holy crap, I thought, I'm going to take a kicking here, not least because the man asking the questions was Jonathan Wordsworth, great-great-great nephew of the dullest poet this side of the planet Vogsphere, whence cometh the Vogons. "Um...", I said.

What then happened in my second, afternoon viva, after an unwise pint of Wadworth's 6X at lunchtime, is a story for another time.


Huw said...


There is (was?) a STC Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the British Library which I visited recently. Kubla Khan is the only poem of length I could recite from memory, so I have a soft spot for Samuel. And, like you, I can't bear Wordsworth apart from a few moments of genius.


PS Love the diptychs, especially the second one.

Martyn Cornell said...

I just came across a book that mentioned a conversation the author had with Gladstone, who recalled dining with Wordsworth (probably by then Poet Laureate). Over dinner Wordsworth "disparaged Tennyson and deplored such newspaper vulgarisms as 'lengthened'." Sorry, Bill, you lost both those.

Mike C. said...


I always think I really like "Tintern Abbey" until I sit down to read it, and wonder why it's so much longer than the last time. Parts of "The Prelude", of course, are amazing -- "To cut across the reflex of a star"...


He may have been right about Tennyson -- I had reason to re-read some recently, and was struck by how slight it really is. Even "In Memoriam" goes on a bit to no great purpose. Those Victorians really did struggle in the shadow of that Greatest Generation.

Whereas Browning just gets better and better...