Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

Page 1

by Rebekah Owens

 

These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of the Rime appeared, Coleridge was commissioned by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the manager of Drury Lane Theatre to write a play. He began writing Osorio, an Elizabethan-style drama that eventually became Remorse. It was going to be published with Wordsworth’s drama The Borderers to raise money for a German tour. When that project failed, some of Osorio made it into Lyrical Ballads (‘The Dungeon’ and ‘The Foster Mother’s Tale’).

 

Given he was working on a drama that was to be presented (so he hoped) at an actual theatre, the stage and its various practices were not far from Coleridge’s mind as he began writing the Rime. He would have been mindful, for example, of how a story could be presented not just through the spoken word, but by the mechanics of stage effects. And those effects appear in the poem. The Rime is a series of ‘set pieces.’ It consists of visually arresting descriptions reminiscent of the decorative backdrops to performances at the contemporary theatre, such as the description of the Mariner’s ship which, when becalmed, becomes part of a scene painting: ‘As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’. Images such as these are why Gustav Doré could produce powerful illustrations of the Rime in 1876 and why his work perfectly complements the poem. Because the whole tale is a series of tableaux, of vividly realised pictures against which the Mariner’s tale is set, it is easy to imagine his ship emerging into view upstage as painted flats of the ‘Ice mast high’ slide apart in front of it; or to envisage the hulk of the ‘Spectre-ship’ ship emerging from the wings, gliding on grooves past the doomed Mariner and his crew.

 

Such images in the poem are also, as in a theatre, mediated through light to mute or enhance colours to create the right ambience. The ‘dismal sheen’ of the surrounding ice, that subdued light that the Mariner describes is reminiscent of how atmospheric effects were created in the contemporary theatre when coloured silks or transparencies were dropped down in front of a scene and lit from behind. That feature would not just show the muted light of the ice cliff, but Coleridge describes the effect of these transparencies when he has the Mariner talk of the moon that shines through the fog as the albatross perches ‘on mast or shroud:’ ‘thro fog smoke-white / Glimmer’d the white moon-shine.’ That same effect, a gauze or silk hanging, would create the ethereal whites in the poem, such as when the moon ‘bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread’ and the light is diffused throughout the harbour that is ‘white with silent light’.

 

Coloured silks could create the ominous reds – that ‘moonlight bay’ so ‘white all o’er’ is punctuated by ‘dark-red shadows’ and there is the ‘still and awful red’ of the ‘charmèd water’. The same technique could produce the spectral greens that Coleridge describes – that wall of ice is ‘green as Emerauld’, and there is a ‘Burnt green’ that the Mariner sees dancing on the water’s surface as well as the ‘glossy green’ of the water snakes. Contemporary stage lighting could also reproduce some of the colour effects of the poem. The presence of all those greens is reminiscent of the oil lamps used on the stage in the days before limelight, lamps which produced a green-tinged light. There is even a suggestion of the iridescence that arises from a film of oil floating on water in the phrase: ‘The water, like a witch’s oils / Burnt green and blue and white.’ Perhaps, too, there is a hint of the notorious propensity of those lamps to smoke in the brief description of the ship’s crew whose ‘stony eyeballs glitter’d on / In the red and smoky light.’

 

 

There I might be stretching a point. But, even if subconscious, that the Rime had a certain staginess was obvious to one contemporary. William Wordsworth specifically criticised the poem for its performative and pictorial qualities. He described it as a series of happenings decorated with ‘too laboriously accumulated’ imagery. He considered it to be at odds with the philosophy of what was by now his Lyrical Ballads, that of creating poetry centred around emotions recollected in tranquillity in which he advocated a verse form that thinned out such pictorial, stagy mediation, in favour of a more direct connection with poet and reader. To that end, he placed Coleridge’s poem at the end of the first volume of the 1800 edition of the Ballads. He moved it upstage, if you like. In the middle, at the back where it could not properly be seen.

 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

Page 1

by Peter Fiennes
 
It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing is just the fading memory of someone sitting in a favourite chair, or leaning against the table they once spent so much time laying and clearing. The discarded photograph only slowly bleaches to white. But anyone who has ever visited the fields and trenches of the Somme has felt the loss and desolation in the air. So much trauma and death, they say, has seeped into the landscape that the texture of the world has been changed. In Simon Schama’s extraordinary book Landscape and Memory, he suggests that it is ‘our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape’. In other words, it’s us that make the difference, and it’s our culture-bound minds that shape what we see and feel in the world – although, as Schama roams through the Polish forests where his ancestors once worked as loggers, he does leave behind a little sliver of doubt.
 
I have less rigour – or more credulity – which is why I’m standing at the head of an obscure wooded valley in north Devon, not far from the village of Porlock, trying to pick up the ghostly presence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was here – or it was probably here – in a farmhouse just above this wood, that Coleridge fell into a drugged sleep after a long day’s walking, and woke to find that he had a poem fully formed in his mind, just waiting to be poured onto the page. The poem – the fragment of a poem – was ‘Kubla Khan’ and there would have been even more of it – it would, I am sure, have answered every question we have ever had about life, death, art, love and nature – but just as Coleridge was poised to reveal the secrets of the world ‘a person on business from Porlock’ came knocking, and Coleridge lingered too long at the door, and when he rushed back to his room to finish it, the poem had evaporated. Or so he tells us. And it’s certainly a more original excuse than ‘the dog ate it, Miss’. But imagine being the owners of this lonely farmhouse, just above –

 that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

 Fiennes post trees
Imagine having this man turn up at your home one night, exhausted but raving about demon lovers and the waning moon, high on opiates, crashing late and then lurching from his bed to answer your door, scaring the life out of your cousin from Porlock, scattering fragments of genius from his torn notebooks. Imagine trying to tell him, gently, that they’re not ‘cedars’ in the woods, but ‘woaks, Sir, woaks’. You’d be pleased to see the back of him, although for several months, through the years 1797 and 1798, Coleridge haunted these lonely woods, hills and slippery coastal paths. He walked for miles, for days, unable to settle at home (which was twenty-five miles from here in Nether Stowey); restlessly seeking out his neighbour, Wordsworth, and shaking him with a thrashy torrent of ideas and poetry; plunging through ‘wood and dale’ and ‘forests ancient as the hills’. ‘Kubla Khan’ is an explosion; it’s about creativity, or sex, or what it means to have bipolar disorder – we don’t know, except that it contains wild truths. And Coleridge, like Kipling, understood that all true magic must come in threes:
 

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 
Well, we’ve heard it before, but it still packs a punch – and even more so if you are standing at the head of the valley, looking down at the wooded coombe just below the isolated farmhouse, where Coleridge first conjured this magic. It is May Day, traditionally the first day of spring, when the sun returns to a frost-ravaged land, and if I were a young maiden I should be wading through the dew at the foot of the hawthorn tree that is blossoming fretfully to my left, alone in a field of hungry young sheep. At my back is a dark line of pine trees (what else?), looming over the valley and being slapped around by a strong wind, but ahead and down the steep hill to the coombe is a more ancient land, a quieter spot, with a mass of broadleaf trees hazed in their first outpourings of green and, beyond them, a gratifyingly sunless sea.
Hawthorn_Blossom
 
The first day of spring is always a hard date to agree. Is it the vernal equinox, in most years falling on 21 March? Or is it, as the old tradition had it, on 1 May? Our ancestors lived in colder times, when the River Thames would freeze and the winters were bleak. To complicate matters, what is now 1 May was, until 1752, 19 April; and what is now 11 May was the old May Day. This is when the British calendar ‘lost’ eleven days, when the ‘Julian’ Calendar was replaced by the new-fangled ‘Gregorian’ one, and there were riots in the fields and the churches. Mrs J.H. Philpot in her 1897 book The Sacred Tree or The Tree, Religion and Myth has this story about the changing calendar and its effect on an offshoot of the Glastonbury Thorn that had survived in Quainton, Buckinghamshire:

 “[It] suddenly sprang into fame again when the new style was introduced into the Calendar in 1752, and the people, resenting the loss of their eleven days, appealed from the decision of their rulers to the higher wisdom of the miraculous tree. According to the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1753, about two thousand people on the night of 24th December 1752 came with lanthorns and candles to view the thorn-tree, ‘which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the Glastonbury thorn.’ As the tree remained bare the people agreed that 25th December, N.S., could not be the true Christmas-day, and refused to celebrate it as such. Their excitement was intensified when on 5th January the tree was found to be in full bloom, and to pacify them the authorities were driven to decree that the old Christmas-day should be celebrated as well as the new.”

Glastonbury_thorn

 
These days, the levels of consumption required to feed two Christmases every year would probably spell the end of the planet, but I mention Mrs Philpot’s exciting story because it doesn’t feel quite like spring yet, here on the hill above Coleridge’s coombe, with only that lonely hawthorn and a straggle of gorse in bloom (and when is the gorse ever not?).
 
The edges of woods are not simple places and it is sometimes not easy to pass from the open land into the close, skyless company of trees. I am walking down a flinty path, flanked by ragged hedgerows and curious lambs, with the sun now tentatively shining on the valley. Maybe it’s this sudden soft bath of sunshine, but there is an invisible barrier between the sunny fields and the dark wood, and it does take something – not courage, exactly, but a conscious effort – to step from the light into the shade. Once through the gate, though, I am home in the trees’ familiar embrace. Or, as John Clare would say:

 And this old gate that claps against the tree
The entrance of spring’s paradise should be.

‘Wood Pictures in Spring’

 
It is right, I think, to pause and lean on a gate at the edge of a wood, before passing through. In any case, there is a man coming up the woodland path, twisting through the trees, and just as he reaches me a cuckoo calls from higher up the valley, the first I’ve heard for years. ‘That was nice, wasn’t it?’ says the man, his face hidden under a broad-brimmed hat, ‘a cuckoo on 1st May’.
cuckoo
 
May Day should be a day of magic. The cuckoo is a sign of a happy marriage, or of imminent adultery, although it is hard to see how it can be both. Always carry elder twigs (they will help you quell the urge to commit adultery)… or sew them into your lover’s pockets. The cuckoo’s calls follow me down into the coombe, past light drifts of bluebells, fat young clumps of nettle and crowds of low-growing holly bushes, now fading back into the woods with the greening of spring. There are violets by the side of the path, their soft lilac faces marked by ‘honey guides’, the pale white tracks that have evolved to steer insects into their pollen-rich hearts. They’re rather like a runway’s landing lights, set up to bring the aircraft safely home; and I’m thinking that this coombe, with its infallible path, could be my own personal honey guide, drawing me in, looking for something out of the ordinary. Honey-dew, perhaps. That would… well, that would make it all worthwhile.
 
I pass a very grand holly tree, growing wild and jagged around its battered old trunk. I can hear the river now as it hastens towards the sea, and then I can see it, a tight-runnelled, restless stream, hustling past bracken and moss-drenched rocks, throwing up sprays of icy light. Coleridge must have walked this way, not so very long ago, and watched the river leap and tumble. And he will have known this oak tree, its great trunk and branches hung about with spring ferns, its young, lime-green leaves tinged with a fading red. There’s a tiny, sunken church here, in a tenuous clearing in the woods, and I sit and watch the river race by.
Culbonechurch
 
The sea is very close, although it is quiet and hidden from view. There are no cars, no people, just birdsong – and sunlight and lichen mottling the ancient church walls. There are sycamores all around, but I am thinking of lime trees, and their slow retreat from the woods, and of Coleridge writing in his prison bower, and of the time I came walking over the South Downs, scrambling down wild rabbit paths, through overgrown woods of ash and chestnut, and then, dropping down the banks of a dizzying gulley, I slipped and sprawled into the last remnants of a lime tree copse, about ten immense trees hidden in fountains of green from the grip of the modern world. They cannot have been coppiced or cut for centuries. These woods must have been here when the Saxons carved their farms from the Sussex Weald, or even earlier, when the Romans drove the British tribes from their hilltops and forests and marched them into slavery. I kneel and crane to look up at the limes’ scoured trunks, their fragile summer leaves, the beech trees all around, crowding in, and then, under a half-fallen elder tree, pushing through last year’s leaves, I find a very young lime sapling. It is heartbreaking, the sight of this slender thread with its five green leaves and blood-red buds, hiding in the last refuge of a long-vanished forest. I don’t know why, but staring at this sapling, with the holy warmth of these lost limes at my back, fills me with grief and joy.
 
In fact, I think there’s only one thing I do know, as I sit in the shadow of Coleridge, waiting for magic to emerge from the woods on this first day in May. If you go looking, it won’t be there.
 
 
 
© Copyright Peter Fiennes 2018. All rights reserved.
 
This is an edited extract from ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn: the ancient woods and new forests of Britain by Peter Fiennes (Oneworld Publications). The book explores our long relationship with the woods – their history, folklore and conservation – and the sad and violent story of how so many have been lost. 
Peter Fiennes
Peter Fiennes was the publisher of Time Out Guides – and is also the author of To War with God, an account of his grandfather’s time as a chaplain at the front in World War I.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

Revisiting Coleridge's poem, 'When Absent Soon To Meet Again'

Page 1

by Adam Roberts
NotebookFragment1810
This may be stating the obvious, but the opening prose section of this Coleridge March 1810 Notebook entry (much scribbled over and crossed out in the original) is actually a run-on draft of a poem. Now, lines 5-20 of the set-as-verse section of this, the passage beginning ‘I have experienc’d/The worst, the World can wreak on me’, was published after Coleridge’s death, in Ernest Hartley Coleridge’s Poetical Works (1912), as ‘Fragment 35’. But what of the earlier lines?
 
A little judicious reconstruction gives us:

When absent soon to meet again
That morning, and that last Employ
Had only so much certain Pain
As fears of Hope detract from Joy.
And now—O then I’m least opprest
When with the cleansing stream I mix
My tears, and oft I’d fain neglect
Myself, as anguish sinking down
Comes o’er me—yet I cannot own
The love-enchanted spirit fixed.
For not death, absence nor demerit—
Can free the love-enchanted spirit;
And I seem always in her eyen,
And she’ll no more appear to mine.

The first quatrain is clear enough; the later lines are open to a variety of possible reconstructions from the muddle of STC’s initial thoughts, and I’m not sure this is the best of them. You can see where his pre-revision poet’s imagination shifts gear, from rhymed octosyllabic self-pity into decasyllables (‘Such anguish and such sinking down of heart’ and so on) that in turn shift him towards a blank verse expression of more public misery. ‘Comes o’er me, yet never can I’ lacks a two-syllable top-off: ‘escape’ maybe; and then we’re into the next four lines, laid out as verse.
 
I think, then, that this is two poems: one an embryonic tetrameter lyric, the other (lines 5-20) a more finished blank verse meditation. Now, one argument against my ‘reconstruction’ of the first of these is that Coleridge was not a poet who particularly favoured half-rhymes like ‘opprest/neglect’ and ‘mix/fixed’ (plus I freely concede that ‘eyen’/‘mine’ is a stretch on my part). Me, I like half-rhymes—though, of course, I’m no Coleridge. But let’s say we give ourselves even more latitude and try to second-guess how STC might have shifted things about to preserve a fuller rhyme-scheme:

When absent soon to meet again
That morning, and that last Employ
Had only so much certain Pain
As fears of Hope detract from Joy.
But now—O then I’m least opprest
When with the cleansing stream I mix
My tears, and oft I’d fain transfix
Myself, as anguish sinking down
Comes o’er me—yet I cannot drown
My grief or ever bring it rest.
For not death, absence nor demerit—
Can free the love-enchanted spirit;
And I seem always in her eye,
And she’ll ne’er more appear to mine.

I’m not sure if the first ‘love-enchanted spirit’ line needs altering to avoid its repetition (as I have done in this more speculative second version), or whether the repetition is itself a good poetic effect.
 
Kathleen Coburn, in her edition of the Notebooks, suggests that this self-pitying piece of writing was provoked by Sara Hutchinson’s decision (in March 1810) to leave the Wordsworths’ house and go live with her brother Tom and cousin John Monkhouse in Wales: keeping house for the two men whilst they farmed. This she did, and seems to have enjoyed it, although it took her out of the ambit where Coleridge was likely to meet her (and indeed, he never visited her in Wales). Hence: anguish. Hence, also perhaps, a bitter recall, here, of ‘the EPOCH’, from three-and-a-bit years previously.
 
It’s tempting to read the ‘that morning’ of line 2 as a reference to the morning of Saturday 27th December 1806. The first four lines are ‘then’; the latter ten ‘now’, and the difference between the two sections is that Coleridge believes he’s never going to see the woman he loves again.
 
There’s a degree of artificiality (a less sympathetic reader might say: of bodge-job) about this reconstructed poem, of course; but I quite like it nonetheless. It’s like a sort of anti-sonnet. Not entirely un-maudlin, it’s true; but it holds its ‘I’ll never see her again, so I shall go drown myself in the river’ psychological melodrama at enough of an arm’s-length to squeeze real pathos out of its sorrow.
 
 
This post was originally written for Adam’s Coleridge blog – http://samueltaylorbloggeridge.blogspot.co.uk
Adam Roberts is Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Landor’s Cleanness Adam_Roberts(OUP 2014) and recently published a new edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (Edinburgh Univ. Press 2014). He is presently preparing an edition of Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare, also for Edinburgh
 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

Wordsworth’'s poem 'The Primrose of the Rock': From Pythagoras and Pantheism to Christianity

Page 1

by Fred Blick
 
Wordsworth’s contemplation of the primrose, as seen in ‘The Primrose of the Rock’ of 1831/5, illustrates the development of his spiritual beliefs concerning death and renewal. The poem reveals a change from a playing with the idea of continuity by Pythagorean transmigration of the soul to a conventional belief in orthodox, Christian Resurrection; from Pantheism to Christianity. The result was, as can be seen from the link below, one of the most touching of his ‘spots of time’ poems. This ‘spot’ was recorded in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal for 24 April 1802 only a few days after she had memorialised the daffodils of Ullswater.
 
In a subsequent, unfinished poem, the doom-laden ‘The Tuft of Primroses’ of May-autumn 1808, Wordsworth clearly associates the primrose with illness and death, but also with relief in the thought of survival and renewal (see ll. 1- 20). Mary Wordsworth sister, Sara Hutchinson had become terribly ill in May 1808. Her illness is referred to in lines 37- 48 as ‘a Friend’ to whom ‘ … came danger with disease’. Worse, Wordsworth’s brother John had died in a shipwreck in 1805. His death is also referred to in the poem – ‘how much is gone’ (ll. 72-4), ‘Of best Friends dead or other deep heart’s loss’ (l. 74), ‘ How many mute memorials pass’d away’ (l. 77). Of the primrose itself the speaker takes some consolation in its survival,  ‘That little flower remains, and has survived’ (l. 79). Up to this period in his life Wordsworth seems to have seen continuity in the natural process of renewal and in the continuity of perceived phenomena, such as in a child’s uplifting sense of immortality as associated with the Rainbow; not primarily in a belief in Christian Resurrection. Like St. Basil in the later part of ‘The Tuft … ’ who chooses a hermit’s life, he seeks relief in solitude and then in recollection (as in ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’). ‘The Tuft …’ poem is an elegy for the inspired days of the ‘happy Band’ of Dove Cottage (Coleridge’s ‘Gang’ of ‘A Soliloquy of The Full The Moon’, 1802).
 
By the end of 1812, the anguish arising from the deaths of two of his children had produced a profound, compensatory, religious effect upon him which coincided with the family’s move from the smoky Allan Bank at Grasmere to the elevated Rydal Mount in the following year.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount


 
Wordsworth’s early vagueness about Christianity had been a source of uneasiness on the part of his friend and collaborator, Coleridge, who was an outspoken and convinced Unitarian. Coleridge wrote of Wordsworth to John Thelwall on 13 May 1796, ‘ … this man is a Republican and at least a semi-atheist’. Then he wrote to the Revd. J.P. Estlin on 18 May 1798, ‘He loves and venerates Christ & Christianity – I wish he did more’. The truth was that up to about 1808 Wordsworth was a tepid Anglican Christian who did not agree with all Christian dogma. He certainly displayed Pythagoreanism and Pantheism and found Deity in Nature as part of an interpretation of ‘the one life’. In contrast, Coleridge saw ‘the one life’ as part of Unitarian Christianity.
 
In his ‘Immortality Ode’, fifth stanza, Wordsworth contemplates Pythagorean transmigration:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,

However, like Coleridge’s, Wordsworth’s ‘one life’ is associated with Harmony. Both of them owed much to the Pythagorean concept of a harmonious universe based on the ‘music of the spheres’ – a harmony (in the Greek meaning of ‘a fitting together’) running through all things and constituting a finely tuned ‘One’ and, consequently, initiating ‘the one life’.
 
Inspired by the sound of the wind-harp wedged in a window, Coleridge wrote in his ‘The Eolian Harp’ (the 1817 version),

O the one life within us and abroad
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where – …

Wordsworth was undoubtedly interested in the music of the spheres and in universal Pythagorean harmony. He was clearly aware of Shakespeare’s references to it in his plays and he knew, therefore, that Lorenzo was alluding to it when he addressed Jessica in the famous star-lit scene towards the end of The Merchant of Venice (Act V. scene i. 58-63). This evidenced when in The Prelude, Book First (1805, 351-55) Wordsworth writes:

The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath
And harmony of music.
There is a dark Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society.’

Wordsworth is speaking here of ‘the one life’ and of the macrocosm/microcosm equation which prevailed in Renaissance aesthetics and also of concordia discors, the harmony of discord, a concept derived from Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BC) and emphasised as ‘unity of opposites’, by Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC). This is also evident in Wordsworth’s 1828 preliminary ‘Argument’ for ‘On The Power of Sound’ which commences ‘Thy functions are ethereal’. There he summarizes the theme of its Stanza 12 as ‘The Pythagorean theory of numbers and music, with their supposed power over the motions of the universe.’ The stanza reads,

By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled,
As sages taught, where faith was found to merit
Initiation in that mystery old.

The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still
As they themselves appear to be,
Innumerable voices fill
With everlasting harmony.  (lines 177-184).

 
This display of Pythagoreanism appeared long after he had committed himself more fully to Christianity; but it looks as if it was planned much earlier. He was very proud of it. In a letter to Alexander Dyce dated 23 December 1837 he held it ‘… equal to anything I have produced’.
 
In a much simpler but sensitive vein, Dorothy wrote in her Journal for 24 April 1802,

Saturday 24th. A very wet day. William called me out to see a waterfall behind the Barberry tree. ― We walked in the evening to Rydale ― Coleridge and I lingered behind ― C stopped up the little runner by the Road to make a lake. We all stood to look at Glowworm Rock ― a primrose that grew there & just looked out on the Road from its own sheltered bower. The clouds moved as William observed in one regular body like a multitude in motion a sky all clouds over, not one cloud. On our return it broke a little out & we saw here & there a star. One appeared but for a moment in a lake pale blue sky’.  (Journals, Woof ed., p. 91).

Glowworm Rock 1890s

Glowworm Rock 1890s


 
The particular occasion; a wet day; possible apprehension at the waterfall; Coleridge’s deliberate stopping of the stream’s flow on the walk as if to stop the flow of time (so that the occasion would become one of Wordsworth’s inspirational ‘spots of time’); the ‘primrose’ clinging to the solid ‘Glowworm Rock’; the ‘multitude’ of ‘clouds’ and the ‘star’ seen ‘but for a moment’ – must have been an especially memorable combination. The record of how ‘We all stood to look at Glowworm Rock ― a primrose that grew there & just looked out …’ has the flavour of a solemn ceremony, the participants intent on memorializing a special occasion. Dorothy’s words fit the scene most beautifully and poetically, but they are loaded with an appreciation of the Pantheistic, animal vitality of natural phenomena as found in Greek Myths and Ovid.
 
Almost thirty years after that record, in 1831, Wordsworth finished ‘The Primrose of the Rock’. Its composition had begun in 1829 when Dorothy first became seriously ill and it was published in 1835, the year after Coleridge’s death after long illness. Like ‘The Barberry-Tree’ of Spring 1802, which commences ‘Late on breezy vernal eve’ (l. 1), the poem recalls that occasion of 1802, fanned by ‘the vernal breeze’ (l. 6). In 1831. Wordsworth was aged sixty-one and he knew too well that Dorothy’s health had failed. Coleridge was also extremely ill. In the poem Wordsworth recalled the rock where the ‘glow-worms hang their lamps’ (l. 3). And, as in ‘The Tuft of Primroses’, his theme was the persistence of the primrose flower and of the ‘Rock itself to which it ‘adheres’ as ‘A lasting link in Nature’s chain’ (ll.11 and 17). The love (including its sexual elements) symbolized by the light of the glow-worm (see Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Glow-worm’) had by 1829 been transmuted by age (‘That love which changed’, l. 37), into ‘God’s redeeming love’ (l. 36) with the certain prospect of a ‘rise’ to an ‘eternal summer’ (i.e. to Christian Resurrection, ll. 46-7). He could have composed no more moving souvenir of that happy, distant and contemplative occasion. Since that time he had merged his Darwinian Pantheism with Faith in the God of Christianity. Natural renewal had been replaced by Resurrection. Or perhaps he had simply clarified his ideas and had never really seen any conflict between different aspects of Deity.
 
The full poem can be read here. You can see it as a song in two parts, the first meditating on life’s changes through time and celebrating the first seeing of the persistent primrose of the ‘living rock’; and the second a Christian song in Recollection of that occasion, but embracing all ‘Deity’ (l. 54).
 
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in Romanticism journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.
 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

Sara Hutchinson, Coleridge's 'Asra'

Page 1

by Adam Roberts
‘Asra’ was Coleridge’s private name for Sara Hutchinson (1775-1835). There she is, in the image below (from Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1998); on the left Wordsworth’s own silhouette of her, and on the right a figure from Ciro Ferri’s ‘The Marriage of Boas and Ruth’, that Coleridge saw in Bolton Abbey in 1810, and which he claimed reminded him of Sara.
Asra ar
She was the younger sister of Mary Hutchinson, who married Wordsworth in 1802; Sara lived with her sister and new brother-in-law for many years. By most accounts she was an attractive woman, lively, diminutive and curvaceous; although some disliked her (some members of the Wordsworth circle, having failed to fall under her spell, called her large-chinned and -nosed, dumpy and tiresome. Harsh!). Coleridge, however, fell deeply in love with her after meeting her in 1799. Nothing came of this. Sara seems to have been fond of Coleridge, and was in many ways a good friend to him, going so far as to act as amanuensis during the long composition of The Friend, 1809-10. But she doesn’t seem to have desired him physically, or loved him, certainly not with the intensity that he desired and loved her; and when we factor-in her respectability (agreed upon by all), and already-married Coleridge’s own deeply-held religious scruples where adultery and divorce were concerned, we can be pretty sure the ‘affair’, such as it was, was unconsummated. But that doesn’t negate the intensity of Coleridge’s despairing longing; quite the reverse, of course. His notebooks and many of his poems return obsessively to ‘Asra’, to his love and desire and despair about her. Some of his finest poems, indeed, were inspired by her, although, as Richard Holmes notes in his thumbnail portrait (from his Penguin Coleridge: Selected Poetry, 1996):

… she was not a conventionally romantic, dreamy Muse. She was cheerful and outgoing, a small energetic figure with a mass of auburn hair, quick and neat in the house, and daring and eager on country walks. Many of Coleridge’s tenderest memories of her are in the snug, firelit farmhouse kitchen.

So why ‘Asra’? As anagrams go, it’s a pretty flimsy code for ‘Sara’; although since Coleridge’s wife was also called Sara it at least helps critics and biographers to distinguish between them. The impression Coleridge gives in his notebooks where his wife is concerned is one of sexual frigidity (of course, we’re only getting his side of the picture)—in one entry he laments that when the two of them get naked together ‘all [is] as cold & calm as a deep Frost’ adding that she ‘is uncommonly cold in her feelings of animal Love’ [Notebooks 1:979]. By contrast, ‘Asra’ is characterised in his notes in terms of warmth: firelight, warm climates, exoticism.
The first intimation of the ‘Asra’ nickname is in a present Coleridge gave Sara Hutchinson for Christmas 1800: an edition of Anna Seward’s Original Sonnets(1799), which he inscribed: ‘to Asahara, the Moorish Maid’. Presumably this records some private joke that the auburn-haired Sara had an oriental look about her: I suppose that ‘Asahara’ filters the Arabic ‘Ashura’ or maybe the Assyrian deity ‘Ashur’ via the letters of ‘Sara’. Conceivably it also picks up on the female-personified ‘orient’ IMAGINATION which Seward writes about, and who adorns the frontispiece to the Original Sonnets. ‘Come, bright IMAGINATION come relume/Thy orient lamp’ says the legend under the picture, quoting from Seward’s first sonnet. Did Coleridge fancy a resemblance between Sara Hutchinson and this figure? Did he make a joke of it with her, and so orientalise her name? Did he secretly yearn that she would come and *coughs* relume his orient lamp? I’m guessing: yes. Yes he did.
Asra ar3
Coleridge’s physical desire for Sara was inextricably tangled not only with its own impossibility, but with his deep reservoirs of self-disgust. This in turn leads me to believe that Coleridge had in mind ἀσαρα (‘ἀσ’ρα’): a shortened form of the Ancient Greek ἀσαραός, sometimes spelled ἀσηραός, which means (to quote Liddell and Scott) ‘causing nausea’, or ‘feeling disgust or disdainful of a woman’. L&S cite Sappho 78 for this latter meaning. Perhaps this seemingly simple anagram encodes physical disgust. He was presumably also aware that the Ancient Greek for the vagina (what L&S primly call ‘pudenda muliebria’) is a ‘sara’ word: σάραβος.
 
 

This post was originally written for Adam’s Coleridge blog http://samueltaylorbloggeridge.blogspot.co.uk
Adam Roberts is Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Landor’s Cleanness (OUP 2014) and recently published a new edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (Edinburgh Univ. Press 2014). He is presently preparing an edition of Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare, also for Edinburgh. Adam_Roberts

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

'The Albatross': From Rime to opera

Page 1

by Sinéad O’Neill
Melville was right when he wrote, of the Albatross, ‘that white phantom sails in all imaginations.’ It sailed then, and it sails still. Coleridge’s poem on the same subject also haunts the collective imagination. It has certainly caught my fancy, enough to make me want to create an opera. Even people unfamiliar with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner get a certain sort of chill down the spine when it’s mentioned, along with a feeling that it somehow deals with fate, wildness, the merciless emptiness of wide seas, and the terrible, haunting burden of one’s former actions. This eerie atmosphere that coalesces around the poem makes it perfect for operatic treatment. Like Poe’s The Raven (which I also made into an opera) the Rime has a life of its own. We don’t need to bring the poem to our audience; we can play (and sing!) into the place it already occupies in the audience’s imagination.
The albatross
For a start, we don’t have to begin by trying to set the whole text to music. To my mind, that would miss the point: the Rime already has a textual life. A stage, though, is made out of space, not words. An opera is made out of music, singing, and movement; yes, there might be words too (there usually are!), but an essential feature of live opera – and what differentiates the form from an audio recording, a radio performance, a book, a film, a photograph – is that it uses movement through space as an expressive tool.
 
To make an opera out of Coleridge’s poem, then, I started by thinking about spatial imagery. The poem is full of it. The masts dropping down and down; the direction of sunrise and sunset; relentless southward progression; the impersonal, driving winds; ice dwarfing the ship; the vastness of the lonely oceans; the individual imprisoned on his tiny vessel; sea-going creatures swarming in savage freedom. Distance and closeness, changing perspectives, speed and stillness all imbue the poem with a constant feeling of movement. The mariner is at the mercy of the forces that move him, right up until the moment he grabs the oars of the pilot’s boat and rows like the devil for land.
The albatross, of course, is completely free and at home in this shifting landscape of sea and air. The winds that coldly command the mariner’s course are freely ridden by the albatross, which can come and go as it chooses. The ocean-treading wanderer is as thoroughly at home in this wilderness as the sailor is at sea.
Movement, then, is the first kernel at the heart of this new opera. How does the sea move? How does the ship ride the sea? How does the bird use the air?
Wanderer Angus Wilson
Artists, scientists and seafarers throughout the ages have found their souls struck by the shocking strangeness and beauty of these great birds striding free in their element: ‘I now belong to that higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross’ wrote Robert Cushman Murphy, in Logbook for Grace. Thus, I imagine, the mariner. The moment of encounter is surely key in his journey, as much as it was for ‘Ishmael’ in Moby Dick: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw… Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets that took hold of God.’
Here is the second kernel: the moment of encounter. Imagine that first eye-contact between the strange, black eyes of the albatross and those keen, glittering eyes that so entranced the Wedding Guest. It’s the stuff of dreams, which makes it the stuff of opera. The encounter will furnish a ‘memory’ aria: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw…’ It’s a memory that haunts the mariner; part of what compels him to tell and retell his tale.
Albatross photo
I’m about to delve into these ideas during two days of workshops and exploration with composer Kim Ashton, countertenor Christopher Ainslie, actor Jofre Carabén van der Meer, and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki. We will also have the following: some sheets of paper, some fine wooden batons, and some wire. Our task during the two days is to develop stage images that will use movement and music to evoke my ‘kernels’ in the minds of the audience.
Alb music
On 11 August, at RADA Studios in Central London, we’ll show these images to the public as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival. That is the first step; then we move on to the meat of the writing and composition process, building up to a finished opera in about a year’s time. I’ll keep you posted…!
There will be a work-in-progress performance on 11 August 2017 at RADA Studios, London, as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival.
 
Sinéad O’Neill is Founder and Director of Cambridge City Opera, which she created to commission and produce new opera. As well as The Albatross, she is currently developing The Barrington Hippo (Kate Whitley) a piece for children about a fossilised hippo from the Cambridgeshire countryside. Cambridge City Opera’s first work was On the Axis of this World (Matt Rogers) a meditation on Antarctic Sineadexploration developed with the Scott Polar Research Institute. In 2016, Sinéad directed And London Burned (Matt Rogers), a new opera about the Great Fire of London commissioned by the Temple Music Foundation. In Autumn 2017, Sinéad will direct the revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Glyndebourne Tour.
 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

Romantic but hardly romantic: Sarah Fricker'’s life as Coleridge’'s wife

Page 1

by Pamela Davenport
On a recent visit to Somerset, I rediscovered the beautiful Quantock Hills, which are characterised by deeply wooded combes and wonderful heathland covered with heather, and are truly deserving of their designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Visiting Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey made me think again about Coleridge as both man and poet, and about his relationship with Sarah Fricker, his wife.
stowey
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that most women in the 18th and 19th centuries were defined by the men in their lives, and in many ways Sara Coleridge was no different, dropping the “H” from her first name to please her husband, giving him constant support as his addiction spiralled out of control, and putting up with his various infatuations with other women. There must have been times when Sara thought there were three people in her marriage, most infamously another ‘Sarah’ – Sarah Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, an enduring object of Coleridge’s unrequited passion and the ‘Asra’ of some of his finest poems. But Sara Coleridge’s inner strength and resilience sustained her as she struggled to bring up her children virtually single-handed, and often on the edge of poverty.
 
Born in 1770, Sarah was the eldest of the three Fricker sisters. They were city girls – elegant, educated and emancipated. Byron sarcastically referred to her and her sister Edith as “two milliners from Bath” – ‘milliner’ was contemporary shorthand for an immoral woman. It was also a rather patronising reference to the fact that both girls had been forced to earn their living as seamstresses when their father’s business failed.
Sara Fricker
Soon after Coleridge first met Sarah he wrote to Robert Southey (who was already engaged to Edith) saying of Sarah, ” Yes – Southey –  you are right….  I certainly love her. I think of her incessantly and with unspeakable tenderness…” Not long afterwards he  wrote ‘The Kiss’ for her:

Too well those lovely lips disclose
The triumphs of the opening rose,
O fair! O graceful! I bid them prove
As passive to the breath of Love….

In October 1795, after his wedding, Coleridge wrote, “On Sunday I was married…united to the woman whom I love best of all created Beings …Mrs Coleridge – MRS. COLERIDGE – I like to write the name”.
 
But by 1804 they were separated, and when Coleridge wrote to his brother he laid all the blame on Sara: “The few friends who have been Witnesses of my domestic life have long advised separation as the necessary condition of everything desirable for me – nor does Mrs Coleridge herself state or pretend to any objection on the score of attachment to me; that will not look respectable for her, is the sum into which all her objections resolve themselves”.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drawn by George Dance, 21st March 1804, The Wordsworth Trust

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drawn by George Dance, 21st March 1804, The Wordsworth Trust


Despite the opinions of Coleridge’s ‘Witnesses’, Sara herself may well have had a different view. During the 40 years of their marriage, Coleridge never made enough money to support his growing family. The relationship was, at best, an off-and-on one, and Coleridge only lived with Sara for less than six of those 40 years. Even when they were together, he was constantly complaining of various illnesses, consuming ever-increasing quantities of opium, and spending a lot of time in bed. When they first arrived at Nether Stowey, Coleridge wrote to his friend Tom Poole, that “ I mean to work very hard – as cook, butler, scullion, shoe cleaner, occasional nurse, gardener, hind pig protector, chaplain, secretary, poet review…I shall keep no servant, and shall cultivate my land acre and my wise-acres as well as I can….” But though this period at Stowey was to produce some of Coleridge’s finest poetry, the dream of domestic bliss soon died, and it was Sara who ended up doing most of the drudgery.
 
As time went on, Coleridge spent more time with Wordsworth and his family than with his own. As well as taking care of a damp and vermin-infested cottage, an often bedridden husband, and a new baby, Sara now had a lodger as well, Charles Lloyd. While Coleridge indulged in long walks on the Quantocks and all-night discussions with other notable radicals, Sara was left to cope with the demands of everyday living and a growing number of children. The water required for cooking, cleaning and washing had to be drawn from the well in the yard and heated over the open fire, where stews, pottage and boiled puddings were also cooked. Sara made light meals, like Coleridge’ favourite toasted cheese, over the fire in the second parlour, but with no cooking range, Sara had to take pies and meat for roasting to the local baker to be cooked.
Life did become a little easier for Sara in January 1798, when the Wedgwood brothers offered Coleridge an annuity for life of £150 a year. At least the tradesmen’s bills could now be paid. But by May that year, the Quantocks idyll was beginning to unravel: the Wordsworths decided to return to the Lake District and Coleridge began to realise that he would never make his fortune in rural Nether Stowey. He began to plan a walking tour with the Wordsworths to Germany to widen his knowledge of philosophy and theology. The initial intention was that Sara would join the tour, but this idea was shelved after the birth of her second son, Berkeley, rendered it impractical. Coleridge certainly seems to have missed his wife during this prolonged absence:

Good night my dear dear Sara – every night when I go to bed & every morning when I rise I will think of you with a yearning love, & of my blessed Babies! – Once more my dear Sara! Good night.

When he received the news that baby Berkeley had died in February 1799, Coleridge was distraught, but it was Sara who’d had to cope alone. “I am his mother, and have carried him in my arms and have fed him at my bosom, and have watched over him day and night for nine months: I have seen him twice at the brink of the grave but he has returned, and recovered and smiled upon me like an angel – and now I am lamenting that he is gone”. But Coleridge did not hurry home as Sara had hoped- it was July before Coleridge returned to England, and even then he went to London rather than to his wife.
 
When he did finally return to Stowey, Coleridge found it cramped and unappealing: “Our little Hovel is almost afloat – poor Sara tired off her legs with servanting – the house stinks of Sulphur … I however, sunk in Spinoza, remain as undisturbed as a Toad in a Rock”. He soon decided to share a house with Robert Southey and his wife, Sara’s sister, and one motive for the move may have been to salvage his own marriage. Sara packed up their possessions and the family moved to Greta Hall near Keswick, near to Grasmere where the Wordsworths lived. But Coleridge’s opium habit was soon taking over his life, and even his friendship with Wordsworth became strained.
 
In 1804, Coleridge accepted the post of secretary to the Governor of Malta, believing the warm weather would improve his health, and he left England and Sara for what turned out to be a two-year absence. He and Sara finally separated in 1808, and Sara was forced to move in with her sister and brother-in-law, an arrangement which endured for 29 years. She finally achieved some degree of independence, living first with her son Derwent when he took orders, then permanently with her daughter Sara, after she delivered her first child in 1820.
 
After years without any communications – or financial support – Sara renewed her contact with Coleridge in the last years of his life. He died in 1833, aged 61, having lived for the previous 17 years with the surgeon and apothecary James Gillman, who tried to control his opium habit. Sara died in London, in 1845.
 
Pamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings including the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Pamela Dsocial Care Values in Practice, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
 
 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

'Most musical, most melancholy' : Nightingales in Milton, Coleridge and Keats

Page 1

by Jeffrey Peters
 
In 1973, Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence described the struggle of the Romantic poets to find a voice in a world dominated by Paradise Lost, but he did little to discuss the legacy of John Milton’s lesser poems. Just as the sun overwhelms the twinkle of distant stars, so too did the mighty epic dominate its kindred. That masterpiece, rivalled by few others in the whole of literature, has instilled in our collective memory images well-known even to those who have never attempted to read it. Yet Milton’s influence goes far beyond our dramatic Fall.
Romanticism, especially British Romanticism, emphasizes the role of contemplating nature, and it is with no surprise that the Romantic Poets would seize upon Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’. Written sometime after Milton left Cambridge, yet not published until the middle of his career, the poem is a melancholic reflection on poetry, art, and inspiration.

Il Penseroso, by Thomas Cole

Il Penseroso, by Thomas Cole


Central to Milton’s poem is the image of Philomela, one of Ovid’s many tragic females who was brutally raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus, and whose tongue was cut out to keep her silent.
Philomela
However, Philomela was able to notify her sister, which led to the sisters seeking revenge and Tereus, in return, trying to murder them. Subsequently, the sisters prayed to the gods for protection, and the gods answered by transforming them into birds. Although some sources disagree on who was transformed into what, Ovid’s Philomela became the nightingale, and her sorrowful tale has since been linked with evening’s approach.
 
But the nightingale is not just a simple image of melancholy. Like all of Ovid’s tales in the Metamorphoses, Philomela’s is a metaphor for art, and, as she is in the works of so many other Greco-Roman authors, including Virgil and Aristophanes, the nightingale inspires melancholic and self-reflecting poetry.
It is inevitable that the contemplative spirit of Milton would wander into the sorrowful strain of the nightingale. And so he describes how “the Cherub Contemplation” and “the mute Silence” come quietly as not to wake Philomela, the spirit of melancholy, who would then:

daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o’re th’ accustom’d Oke;
Sweet Bird that shunn’st the noise of folly,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav’ns wide pathles way; (56-70)

He knows that he could easily become enraptured by the nightingale’s song, but he is also eager to avoid becoming lost in it. He is deeply conflicted and dwells on her beauty far longer than one who is immune to her temptation. It’s only by luck that he misses her song , but he is able to admire her counterpart, the moon.
Although Milton is torn at the possibility at becoming lost in nature, the Romantic Poets did not share his cautious nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s beautiful, yet overlooked, ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’, takes on Milton’s assessment:

Most musical, most melancholy’ bird!
A melancholy bird! Oh! idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man, whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain. (13–22)

This is quite a different bird! She is the embodiment of the evening, of peace, and of contemplation most rich. She is the herald of nature that allows man to focus on the beauty around him. Yet man, in his ignorance or selfishness, attributes his own sorrow to nature.
Gone is the horror of Philomela, the rape and destruction. Instead, we are told of children who are lost in societal pleasures and who lament the coming of the evening, and it is they who tarnish the reputation of a sweet bird. She is made twice a victim by an ignorant culture, but Coleridge ensures that she and her admirers can find peace:

My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
A different lore: we may not thus profane
Nature’s sweet voices, always full of love
And joyance! ‘Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music! (39–48)

It soon becomes clear that Coleridge enjoys the tranquility of the evening and how this period allows him to connect with nature in a way that society hinders. As the poem concludes, he takes his young son Hartley out with him to look upon the moon, and he hopes:

It is a father’s tale: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy.—Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell. (106–110)

He has rewritten the tale to inspire his son to pursue nature. It is optimistic in its fullest.
Microcerculus_philomela_1902
‘The Nightingale’ also completes a rejection of Philomela and the “melancholic” nightingale started in Coleridge’s ‘To a Nightingale’. In the earlier poem, the narrator seeks comfort in his wife:

How many wretched Bards address thy name,
And hers, the full-orb’d Queen that shines above.
But I do hear thee, and the high bough mark,
Within whose mild moon-mellow’d foliage hid
Thou warblest sad thy pity-pleading strains.
O! I have listen’d, till my working soul,
Waked by those strains to thousand phantasies,
Absorb’d hath ceas’d to listen! Therefore oft,
I hymn thy name: and with a proud delight
Oft will I tell thee, Minstrel of the Moon!
‘Most musical, most melancholy’ Bird!
That all thy soft diversities of tone,
Tho’ sweeter far than the delicious airs
That vibrate from a white-arm’d Lady’s harp,
What time the languishment of lonely love
Melts in her eye, and heaves her breast of snow,
Are not so sweet as is the voice of her,
My Sara – best beloved of human kind! (7-24)

It seems from this earlier work that Coleridge was that “night-wandering man,” and he transforms the story of the nightingale completely to overcome his own deep seated feelings about nature. Yet the nightingale is still able to draw out the thoughts of the listener, which is a sweeter type of melancholy.
Although Coleridge’s nightingale poems were often over looked by modern audiences, they were known by his contemporaries. As Coleridge biographer Rosemary Ashton explains, the use of the nightingale to frame a meditation on nature inspired John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. This was not a coincidence; the pre-eminent scholar Walter Jackson Bate, in his biography of Coleridge, describes a meeting that took place between the two poets on 11th April 1819 in which the two briefly discussed nightingales and poetry, among other topics. It was only a few weeks later that Keats composed ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem that both embraced and rejected aspects of Milton’s and Coleridge’s claims. Gone are all references to Philomela, and it seems that the nightingale’s tune is a source of pain, because the narrator longs to experience the tranquility expressed in its song:

Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. (5–10)

That tune seems to obliterate his ability to think, producing the opposite effect of Milton’s inspirational song. Yet, the narrator is drawn into a meditation on nature itself, and it is through this emptying of the self that the narrator is soon filled with the poetry necessary to join the bird:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! (31–35)

This new realm is a contradictory state that is akin to death yet full of life, similar to the vibrant paralysis described in Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. His senses transform as darkness overwhelms him and the imagination creates a new paradise. He yearns to join with nature, to unite with the bird, but he cannot because he is mortal.
Keats embraces Coleridge’s separation of Philomela and the nightingale, and he seems to denounce the Ovidian possibility of mankind ever becoming an immortal part of nature. It is that realization that draws him back to reality. The nightingale is like a siren, leading the sensitive to their doom in the realm of imagination, but the narrator is able to pull back before he has gone too far:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades (71–75)

Keats warns in Lamia, “Real are the dreams of Gods”, which implies that only the gods can experience the realm of dreams as if it were real. Mortals are bound by the needs of life, and we cannot dwell in a land of imagination forever. Yet there is a part of us that desires more.
The nightingale is nature’s temptress, the enrapturing beauty that can be experienced in this world. However, it is a melancholic bird because we know that we can never join it in its immortal song. The pain we feel is the pain of our own immortality. We see the magnificent beauty of nature surround us, yet we, humans, are forever kept apart from it. Milton, Coleridge, and Keats all speak in regard to poetry, imagination, nature, and melancholy, yet each reveals his own anxieties: to Milton, the nightingale represents the temptation to dwell too strongly on melancholy; to Coleridge, the nightingale is blamed for humanity’s failings and is superior to us; and to Keats, the nightingale represents the desire to abandon this life and embrace nature most fully.
These three great poets, along with many others, took up the subject of the nightingale to discuss the heart of their poetic practice. For all of their similarities, their individual rejection of the Philomela myth couldn’t be more different. They recognize that there is great beauty to be found in great suffering, but they also know the consuming destruction that must come as a result. Ironically, Milton, Coleridge, and Keats obtained a form of immortality, but it was through their mastery of poetry instead of a union with nature. In the end, their song is still heard by many, just like that sweet, sorrowful tune of the nightingale that once enraptured them.
 
Jeffrey Peters is a columnist, writer, and researcher based out of Jeff PetersAnnapolis, Maryland. He has a Master’s in Western Classics and is finishing his PhD in English Literature, specializing in the British Romantics, at Catholic University of America. 
 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

In the footsteps of Coleridge in the Quantocks

Page 1

by Tiffany Francis
 
We had gorged on sticky ginger loaf until, feeling plump, we stepped out into the garden to admire the garlic mustard and bluebells drooped in the April air. Through the tall grasses we followed a pathway to the back of the garden where Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself sat reluctantly beneath that lime-tree bower, his prison. Here we perched too, immobilised not by an injured foot, as his poor wife Sara had burnt him with spilled milk, but by contented bellies filled with coffee and cake. But while Coleridge was forced to stay behind as his friends wandered the Quantock Hills nearby, today we had other plans.

TF 4

Tiffany in the lime tree bower


 
Easter has never been a biblical time for me; I have a mild interest in religious stories, but find infinitely more thrills in spiced buns and simnel cake. For the Easter weekend we decided to make use of the bank holiday and slip away to Somerset, where we had already completed our rounds of the cheese and cider shops in Cheddar. That morning, after a bristling wild swim in the Kings Sedgemoor river, we headed west to Nether Stowey and Coleridge Cottage, a National Trust property in which Coleridge lived for three years and wrote some of his finest works, including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. It is also the gateway to the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile walk across the Quantocks and Exmoor that was a favourite rambling route for Coleridge and Wordsworth; they walked extensively through the district and composed many of their ‘Lyrical Ballads’ while reflecting on the surrounding landscape.
TF 1
 
We couldn’t quite manage the 51-mile route before work on Tuesday morning, so instead chose a circular section that within three hours would lead us back to the warm campervan and kettle. We crept out of Nether Stowey and made our way westward through tangled conifers whose clawing branches blocked out the world above us; after a while the track plateaued onto a vast hilltop, carpeted with thick heather and gorse. No flowers bloomed here; the gorse had been burnt as part of a heathland conservation scheme, and now stood dark and twisted against a slate sky. To the north we watched gulls drift over the Bristol Channel.
TF 3
It is thought that in a marshy copse near our walking place, Coleridge, William and Dorothy Wordsworth took a nocturnal ramble that inspired Coleridge’s poem ‘The Nightingale’:

’Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music!

 
While nightingales may have been abundant a century or so ago, they are now marked on the Red List of endangered British birds; their vibrant song, like beads of rain falling onto a lake, has become a rare and precious voice in our landscape. Throughout May the RSPB held a Nightingale Festival across the country to raise awareness of their plight and enable visitors to listen to that same song that once hypnotised Coleridge over two hundred years ago. You can find out more about these events here.
 
Our route ascended once more to the summit of a barren peak, where we discovered a heap of ashen stones piled together by passing travellers; we dropped down into deciduous woodland and stopped suddenly on the path. Before us, a herd of thirty roe deer crossed cautiously between the trees, alarmed by our footsteps and seeking safer ground. We stood mesmerised as they slipped away into the woods, and continued our journey through until we reached the road that would take us back to the campervan, past thickets of wild garlic and a sleepy herd of cows who licked my hand as we passed. On the road I found a rusted horseshoe, which now rests in the sunlight by our kitchen window.
 
While landscapes shape and reshape themselves over the centuries, there is something comforting in knowing the paths we walk were once crossed by Coleridge and the Wordsworths two hundred years ago. This corner of Somerset is wild but quiet; the perfect escape from modern life’s drudgery.
 
 
Tiffany is a writer from Petersfield, where she works at Butser Ancient Farm and writes a monthly wildlife column for Hampshire Life. Her first book Food You Can Forage will be published next spring by Bloomsbury, her second best achievement after winning third prize at the Singleton Rare Breeds Show with her goat Sorrel.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

Wordsworth in Leicestershire

Page 1

by Jeanne Rae
Coleorton is an unremarkable village in North West Leicestershire, where the landscape was defined for almost 500 years by a coal industry that’s long since gone. The old colliery site has been planted over by the National Forest and Coleorton Hall, a Grade II listed building that once hosted a buzzing hive of Coal Board offices, is now an apartment complex. Rewind a couple of centuries, however, and Coleorton had a very different story to tell.

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823


 
In 1804, Sir George Beaumont was busy building a new hall in grounds that had been owned by his family since the 1400s. Beaumont was an important patron of the arts and many of the creative celebrities of the day visited Coleorton Hall, such as Southey, Reynolds, Mrs Siddons and Lord Byron. Scott began Ivanhoe there, and Constable drew in the grounds. Although opposed to new trends in art, Beaumont’s delight in poetry was forward looking. He was a friend to the Lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth, whom he saw as a kindred spirit. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also a visitor but Beaumont didn’t establish the same rapport with him. Wordsworth, however, remained a lifelong friend.
 
Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence

Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence


 
In1806, when their home at Dove Cottage proved too crowded, Beaumont invited Wordsworth, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy, and their family, to stay at Hall Farm, part of his estate. Creating the new gardens at Coleorton Hall, Beaumont felt that the large number of mine works in the area spoiled his view of Charnwood. Therefore he had his gardener plant trees in strategic places in order to hide the mines. Lady Beaumont invited Wordsworth to help with the planning of a winter garden within the grounds, and William wrote poetry inspired by it. In a letter to Lady Beaumont he set out extensive plans for the new garden, which incorporated an old quarry, recently used as a builder’s dump. Features included a grotto with shell work by Dorothy Wordsworth and an early 19th-century pedimented ashlar monument incorporating a verse by Wordsworth.
 
Wordsworth’s brother John, a ship’s captain, had recently drowned after his ship ran aground and sank off Weymouth Sands, and the family was still deeply affected by his loss. On Christmas Eve, Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined them in Coleorton, bringing with him his own demons, most of them caused by his addiction to opium.
 
Writer and Director of Mantle Arts, Matthew Pegg, was drawn to this fascinating period in Leicestershire history.

What interested me was the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were friends for much of their lives but in many ways very dissimilar characters. Wordsworth led a very domestic life, supported by family: his wife, her sister, his children and Dorothy. Coleridge had an unhappy marriage, from which he tried to escape, and was prone to addiction, relying heavily on drink and opium. My radio play focussed on the two men, their friendship, and the tensions between them. Coleridge envied Wordsworth’s family and fell in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson. Paul Conneally, a Leicestershire poet, told us a scurrilous story about a vision of Sarah that Coleridge had in a pub at Thringstone. That incident also found its way into the play. The other theme in the script was the way Wordsworth reacted to the death of his brother, and the idea that, in creating the winter garden at Coleorton, he was working through his grief. In the script he calls it ‘a place to walk in winter,’ and Coleridge says ‘A walk for melancholy times. Yet when we emerge, it will be spring.’ By the end of the play he is able to say goodbye to his brother, though the experience has changed his poetry forever. We were very lucky to get project funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make this forgotten piece of North West Leicestershire history more widely known.

 
Using Matthew’s script, Mantle Arts created a community audio drama with a cast drawn from Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the nearest town to Coleorton Hall, and the surrounding areas of Leicestershire. Ashby Museum supported the project offering access to books and material from their archives as well as donating crucial rehearsal space. The play was directed by East Midlands-based director Julian Hanby. After a public rehearsed reading at the Venture Theatre in Ashby, accompanied by an illustrated talk on the background to the play from local poet and Wordsworth expert, Paul Conneally, it was recorded over two weekends at Aspect Studios in Loughborough, with the recording process directed by Martin Berry. The final recording is available on CD from Ashby Museum and can be streamed or downloaded from http://www.red-lighthouse.org.uk/events-and-projects/wordsworth-in-leicestershire/
If you would like a copy of the CD please visit http://www.ashbymuseum.org.uk/shop. You can also read more about the play and listen to some clips here
 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

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02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

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23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

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10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

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19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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