Gothic Coleridge – the Third

Posted by Tom Duggett on August 13, 2012 in Tom Duggett tagged with

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The Olympics have been and gone, so time to conclude …

The fourth day of the conference, Thursday, was its final full day, and divided equally between papers in the morning and the Kubla Khan walk in the afternoon, followed by dinner at Halsway Manor. The first panel of Kerri Andrews and Emily Stanback raised themes of Romantic sociability, with Kerri looking at Yearsley’s anti-georgic poetry and her social and intertextual links to the radical Bristolian circle of Southey and Cottle, and Emily giving us a sense of Wedgwood’s mental radicalism and his and Coleridge’s shared penchant for creative ‘metaphysicking’. Kerri’s paper contained intriguing claims about Yearsley’s ‘To Mira’ and her attempt to articulate a female place within the public sphere – especially through her uses of the debatable Romantic-period concept of ‘retirement’:

Whilst man to man oppos’d wou’d shake the world,
And see vast systems into chaos hurl’d …
Let us, whose sweet employ the Gods admire,
Serenely blest, to softer joys retire! …
We are not made for Mars; we ne’er could bear
His pond’rous helmet and his burning spear; …
No: whilst our heroes from their homes retire,
We’ll nurse the infant and lament the sire. (ll. 5-18)

‘[We] to softer joys retire’; ‘our heroes from their homes retire’. The first use of the term is conventional, the second (dependently) antithetical: the male ‘heroes’ retire not to but from home. (The lines hold up an uncomfortable mirror to any parent today relishing the return of the working week.) Activity and retirement change places – though probably not in any stable way, the replacement of ‘to’ with ‘from’ being an act of (pre)positioning rather than transformation of received categories. The same sort of reversal happens with the self-evidently undoing claim that child-nursing women ‘ne’er could bear’; mention of ‘pond’rous helmets’ and ‘spears’ lending graphics to the procreative pun. My question at the end was about the novelty and progressiveness/proto-feminism, or otherwise, of this reversal of the categories of publicly-valuable work, inasmuch as it relies upon the qualification of motherhood and, perhaps, a patrilineal ethos. Against this, I wondered how much Yearsley’s language consciously echoes Paradise Lost, and whether this would suggest an artistic act of (feminist) self-creation in what might otherwise look like facile reversals of received images and ideas.

Monika Class and Timo Pfaff then spoke on Coleridge’s intellectual influences, with papers on Kant and Hartley. Timo’s paper gave a clear account of what Coleridge got from Hartley. Monika’s paper argued against ‘influence’-based approaches to Coleridge and Kant, but she suggested that Coleridge’s self-construction in Chapters 5 to 13 of the Biographia Literaria has ‘striking affinities’ with Kant’s concept of genius in his lectures of 1770 – which Coleridge knew in highly condensed lecture-note form. I don’t have Class’s handout to hand, but what intrigued me here was the ‘affinity’ between Kant’s claim that the passage of the truly original genius (unlike the work of, say, Newton) erases its own steps, and Coleridge’s non-narrative presentation of his conclusions on the Imagination in chapter 13. This is figured with the chapter as a sudden transportation from one of ‘our light airy modern chapels of ease’ to a solitary station in an ‘old ruined tower’ in ‘one of our largest Gothic cathedrals in a gusty moonlight night of autumn’. Arriving, as Class memorably put it, in the Gothic cathedral, and in an instant moment, Coleridge gives his fragmentary on the Imagination in both definition and proof of the faculty. Read this way, Coleridge is also continuing his dialogue with Wordsworth, whose Excursion had just recently proposed an image of his genius and the very-much-not-instantaneous Recluse that Coleridge had tasked him with writing back in 1797/8 – as a ‘gothic Church’ under construction. Coleridge’s chapter 13 thus proves his original genius by Kantian lights even as the chapter’s epistolary maguffin and the dark narrative corridors of the whole work, with its Otranto-like narrative of being seized by Kant’s giant hand, actually reveal such originality as an illusion. Recursion: Coleridge shows he’s original by borrowing Kant’s concept of originality, which undermines Kant’s concept of originality, and so – proves Coleridge’s relative originality.

After a break, Jeffrey Barbeau spoke on Sara Coleridge and religious education, picking up themes in various papers, including mine – as Jeffrey generously pointed out. Jeffrey’s paper was exemplary in its use of visual aids, and communicative mode of delivery. Sara’s concern to develop the ‘personhood’ of her children came alive for me, as Jeffrey triangulated her position amongst and between such educational theorists as her father and his fellow Lake poets, as well as Bell, Lancaster, Edgeworth, Barbauld, and Wesley. Ewan Jones then gave a ferociously intelligent paper on Coleridge and Hebrew poetics, arguing that Coleridge’s interest in Hebrew grammar and its ‘absolute, or “tautological” infinitive’ casts a new light upon Coleridge’s use of repetition and tautology in his poetry, the obliquities of his prose style, and his enterprise of desynonymization. Andrea Timar followed Ewan with a paper reading Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poems of education and reform, Peter Bell and the Rime, through the essay on ‘The Appeal to Law’ in The Friend. For Andrea, the Rime, unlike Wordsworth’s poem, is at odds with Coleridge’s political-aesthetic ‘project of subject formation and nation building’. Its failure of personhood (as Wordsworth charged) makes the Rime a sort of counter-text to the discourse of education that Coleridge (perhaps despite himself) felt compelled to articulate in his later writings.

A quick costume-change and lunch-collection later, the conference divided in half: one party going to Fairfield House (scene, as Tom Mayberry had put it on Monday, of an almost absurd millennium of Somerset continuity), and the other taking the Kubla Khan walk from Porlock to Culbone and back.

I was part of the second party, set for hill climbing and high thinking. The walk was hugely enjoyable, wooded at first, with walls and the ‘towers’ – of, well, Culbone, the smallest church in England – and the mazy motion of a stream. From Culbone, we followed Peter Larkin to the summit of the hill – an ever-receding prospect, especially in the blue-skied heat. The summit revealed the coastline and the still, if not lifeless, ocean. A long shallow descent then took us, with many a meander, back down to Porlock, where alcoholic reveries were disturbed – appropriately enough – by a certain person who closely resembled Professor Fulford marshalling us onto the bus for Halsway Manor. During the walk, I had the pleasure of conversations with Emily Stanback, Julia Carlson, Aimee Raile Barbeau, and Michael Gamer, among others. Emily told me about Tom Wedgwood, Julia about her work and new book on Wordsworth (of which more below), Aimee about nationalism (of which more above), and Michael about Gothic (of which see pretty much everything I have written about Gothic Romanticism, all indebted to him and his wonderful book, Romanticism and the Gothic).

At Halsway, we made a quick change – the male delegates instantly converting a nice guest room in this lovely Elizabethan pile into a fetid locker-room – selected drinks (a great bottled ice-cold cider in my case) and then went through to dinner. The meal was excellent, and, relaxing after the exertions of the walk, so was the atmosphere. We heard about J.C.C. Mays’s new book on Coleridge’s Father. Tim Fulford led us in a resounding toast to John Beer. Some time around desert or cheese, a rumour went around the room of unspeakable rites taking place outside … of a nighttime maypole dance under the inspired leadership of Jeff Strabone and Alan Vardy. I spare to speak of what ensued. It was, as Paul Cheshire so aptly put it on a facebook post, ‘a sight to dream of’. But you can see it for yourself via the link on the conference homepage.

The maypole dance finished, we returned by coach to Cannington – and those of us who didn’t go straight to bed after the day’s excitements were at a bit of a loose end. With the ruins of some wine and not much else, the night threatened to go out on a whimper. But then Paul Cheshire remembered the unused flaming torches from the Christabel walk. So a group of us set off to the small field near our accommodation – and there by torchlight we read aloud the whole of Christabel – Felicity James reading with particular clarity and witchery – several shorter pieces, and then, as our torches burned down and went out until only one kept its flame, Natalie Tal Harries read ‘Frost at Midnight’. (Someone was videoing it, and it’s on the facebook group, too.) With the poem’s famous rondo, the day seemed resolved, and at that we called it a night.

I had to leave early on Friday morning, and so I missed some of the most interesting papers and plenaries: Karen Swann’s plenary on ‘Coleridge the talker’, Murray J. Evans and Frederick Burwick on Coleridge’s prose and his drama, John Beer on ‘Kubla Khan’ and Stuart Andrews on Southey and Coleridge in Lisbon and Malta. The conference’s other blogs (see the conference homepage) may fill in these gaps. The paper I did get to see before I had to brave the roads back to London and my waiting wife and child, was Julia Carlson’s paper on The Prelude – the ‘poem to Coleridge’ – and its punctuation.

In modernizing the punctuation (orthography, etc.) of the unpublished 1805 version of the poem, Julia argued, editors construct a sort of historical stargate, fetching the old manuscript poem into the present in contrast to the poem as published in 1850, altered by repeated revisions and revisitings and conforming to Victorian conventions of book-making. Julia spoke evocatively of the 1850 poem as being thus mired in history. But this historical encrustation is precisely what has been removed from the 1805 text as editors have remade it for us, and Julia focused in on the lost history (including cultural, geographical, and social contexts) in the expunged exclamation marks in the poem’s manuscripts. If the exclamation mark carries what Theodor Adorno calls ‘emphasis external to the matter itself’, then it is paradoxically precisely where it appears that we should look for (as a good new historicist might put it) the historical matter excluded from the text. And, as I suggested briefly to Julia in the Thursday walk, it might be possible to imagine the exclamation mark in Romantic writing as a sort of residual, sublimely blank, footnote – something like the index to tears shed etc. in later editions of sentimental novels such as The Man of Feeling – but pointing to a purely implicit response based on either extra- or super-textual affinity between writer and reader. ‘Friend!’ in the Goslar letters, early manuscripts, and versified replies, Julia suggested, functions as a spectral hand of friendship reaching through the written page. In the 5-book Prelude of 1804 that Coleridge took to Malta, it is a ‘wished-for point of affective solidarity outside of space and time’. And in ‘To William Wordsworth’, Coleridge’s response to hearing Wordsworth’s reading of the completed 1805 poem, the exclamation mark interestingly breaks out when touching on directly incommunicable topics – such as the French Revolution and (a significant pairing, perhaps), Wordsworthian feelings for nature. They also crowd in thick and fast whenever Coleridge reflects on his own failings (‘manhood come in vain’), and his relationship to Wordsworth. They’re teardrop portals to thoughts that lie too deep.

Julia’s paper was followed by a discussion more absorbing and inventive than ever – an aspect of the conference that this write-up, relying on memory, has failed properly to register (!). But here there was a valuable discussion about the implications of Julia’s paper for editing. What stuck with me most, though, was Fred Burwick’s question about Wordsworth’s diffidence around punctuation, and why he sought De Quincey’s help with a ‘system of punctuation’ for his tract on The Convention of Cintra. One answer that occurs to me – arising from a new piece that I’m writing on Cintra – relates to the tract’s style, often labeled difficult, Burkean, ornate, etc. In fact, it is not so very hard to follow as the long sentences suggests. Simple, startling phrases precipitate out at the end of complex, multiply subordinated sentences. But this works only if the prose (much of it taken from dictation) is read as speech. For the grammar to be clear, in other words, the pausation and syncopation had to be right. If, as Fred Burwick pointed out, there were two main approaches to punctuation in the period: for logic and for performance, the risk was that the tract would fall between the two stalls, and so fail to communicate. De Quincey’s task, on this view, was to punctuate towards a prompt-book for performance, without offending the expectations of silent readers of its prose. I hang this out there for anyone with better information.

But to return to the conference … this was when I had to leave. In the break between papers, I said brief goodbyes to everyone free, and then, with a head full of thoughts and plans, took to the roads and the way back to London and my waiting wife and child. The conference was special to me, for all the new friends I made, and all the things I learned, and for bringing me closer to Coleridge himself, a presence rarely seen directly on my Wordsworthian road. Reading back my account, sensing the music of our blended conversations, but not able to simplify it down to any rule, I can’t see any better way to close than with the end of that poem of friendship and rebirth picked out by Julia. Read plurals for singulars; read the exclamation marks as you will. Hanging still upon this wonderful week – Until the next conference in 2014:

And when – O Friend! My comforter and guide!
Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength! –
Thy long sustained Song finally closed,
And thy deep voice had ceased – yet thou thyself
Wert still before my eyes, and round us both
That happy vision of beloved faces –
Scarce conscious, and yet conscious of its close
I sate, my being blended in one thought
(Thought was it? Or aspiration? Or resolve?)
Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound –
And when I rose, I found myself in prayer.

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Gothic (Political) Imagination

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