Gothic Coleridge – part the second

Posted by Tom Duggett on August 09, 2012 in Tom Duggett tagged with

Instead of the cross, the Albatross

This post is the second part of my write-up of the Coleridge Summer Conference. Vying in dilatoriness with the man himself, this will now be part two of three – my excuse, a 21st century Porlock syndrome in the form of jetlag from a (literal) flight to China. So:

Day three – Wednesday – the most papery day of the conference, began with excellent papers by Michael Raiger on Coleridge and Newman, and Lisa Lappin on Coleridge and Poe. Influence was the keynote here. Raiger made claims for Coleridge’s far-reaching influence on Newman, especially the temporal link between his turn to Coleridge and his conversion to Catholicism, while Lappin read Coleridge as the albatross of influence – both inhibiting and enabling – for Poe. David Ruderman spoke next on ‘The “Becoming Animal”’ in Coleridge and Sara Coleridge, with particularly interesting reflections on the development of personeity and the slide in animality and humanity between Sara’s use of the epithets ‘baby’ and ‘darling’ for her children. He was followed by Joshua King, who spoke about Coleridge and the clerisy, arguing for Coleridge’s attempt to reinvent the press as a reconciling and redemptive force in national life.

After the break, drawn by the lure of what Greg Leadbetter calls Coleridge’s ‘mystery poems’, I attended the full session of Eric Wasilewski and Cynthia Whissell. (Angela Walther’s paper on physiology and physics in Coleridge and Moorhouse was presented by itself in the other session.) Eric’s paper drew correspondences between ‘Kubla Khan’ and Masonic ideas and themes. Cynthia’s paper was a fascinating linguistic analysis of the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, plotting the poem’s narrative arc(s) through its uses of ‘pleasant’ and ‘active’ sounds. While the methodology behind Cynthia’s findings required some poetic faith, her graphic plotting of the narrative strongly suggests (what Charles Mahoney has argued) that the poem divides into two narratives. With ‘pleasant’ and ‘active’ sounds tracing similar curves –with significant exceptions, as when the sailors suck their own blood – and with an overall rise in pleasant sounds and fall in active sounds, Cynthia’s graph provides a putative linguistic basis for religiously redemptive readings of the poem.

Paired papers on Coleridge and music followed in the next panel, with Olivia Reilly discussing the translation of ‘strong music in the soul’ into the sublime dynamics of silent reading, and Joseph Donovan outlining how Coleridge’s creative ignorance of harmonic theory led into his theory of the Imagination. The next panel grouped Philip Aherne, Charles Mahoney, and Alan Vardy. Philip Aherne reminded us of Coleridge’s intellectual legacy, the store of creativity in the ‘concentric plurality of his fragmentary style’, exemplified in his evocative description of The Friend as ‘not the plan of the palace but a manual of the rules of architecture’. Charles Mahoney’s paper first trailed his much-needed one-volume collection of all Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare, Coleridge on Shakespeare, and then went on to argue that Coleridge reinvented himself (in the crisis year of 1812) in reinventing Shakespeare for the Romantics. With the ‘smack’ of Hamlet, Coleridge became ‘Coleridge.’ Alan Vardy then gave a fantastic paper on spatial transfer under imaginative pressure. Coleridge’s descent of Broad Stand in the Lakes – written into letters and notes as he went – was persuasively positioned as the pre-aesthetic material ‘translated’ in the Alpine ‘Hymn Before Sun-Rise’.

Alan Bewell’s plenary on Coleridge and communication followed. Drawing on work for his forthcoming book, Romanticism and Mobility, Bewell developed a semi-ironic account of Coleridge as Berkleyan theorist of NSL, or nature as a second language. The following is a summary based on my notes of the lecture. Bewell drew a link between Coleridge and McLuhan in the ’60s, and his idea that sense ratios alter within cultures – the vague or obscure becomes transparent, and vice versa. For Coleridge in the 1790s, the time was right to perceive how beings were brought together through the divinely organized communication network called nature. It was an acute issue for Coleridge, simultaneously the period’s greatest transmitter and worst communicator. Bewell reminded us of Coleridge’s bad eminence as conversationalist, with his one-way torrent of words – citing Hazlitt’s description of Coleridge broaching a thousand things in a two mile walk, and De Quincey’s view of his conversation as some great river that sweeps up all things into an eloquent dissertation. The anecdote of Wordsworth comprehending ‘not one syllable’ of a two-hour talk heard with rapt attention, suggested to me a darkly ironic sidelight on the account of ‘healthful’ and ‘ameliorating’ connectedness of communication in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (PW I, 146); a sort of turing-test for hyperlinked, cloud-seeded, ‘Siri’ Coleridge.

Bewell suggested that the two visions of communication always coexist for Coleridge; the Somerset poetry is always about the failure of communication, and Stc’s feeling of not being wired correctly to decode the divine broadcast. In 1796, Coleridge became a disciple of Berkley’s philosophy, and its reinvention of the medieval idea of nature as the book of God, whereby nature in not book but living speech. Hearing you talk, as Bewell summarized the point, is the best evidence of your existence. Berkley has a modern idea of language as arbitrary, organized into patterns, and sublimely insufficient: signs whose meaning lay beyond themselves are the only means by which such meaning could be communicated. ‘The Eolian Harp’ is a double honeymoon – with Sara and with Berkley; the poem’s revisions a transcript of the changes in Coleridge’s ideas about communication. Before-Berkley, the poem is about intimate physical connection which extends out to nature, and in which nature speaks only allegorically. After-Berkley, Nature is a vast collection of intellectual receivers of God consistently transmitted through nature. Coleridge then seeks to convince auditors that nature leads to love in the ‘conversation poems’. The poems explore the idea that understanding the language of nature provides a revitalized basis for human society. But they are always shadowed by the fact that Nature does not speak; the lines of communication are permanently down. What do you need to know to get nature to speak to you? What, Bewell asked suggestively, does the Ancient Mariner come to know? He receives fully a message whose meaning he does not grasp, which eludes his attempt to narrate it – but which, perhaps, emerges indirectly in the poem’s dramatic penumbra.

Alan’s plenary was followed by a book launch, mostly of new titles from Palgrave – my own included, of which Tim Fulford memorably quipped that it had won the MLA prize for a first book on the subject of Gothic Romanticism… I took the opportunity (and do so again) to plug the paperback second edition of the book, which will be available from November, at $27 or £17. A delicious Somerset supper of local foods and wines followed, and the evening was then spent in the Rose and Crown.

part 1
part 3

other posts
Gothic (Political) Imagination

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