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

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.

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

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
 

Sara Hutchinson, Coleridge's 'Asra'

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

'The Albatross': From Rime to opera

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.
 

In the footsteps of Coleridge in the Quantocks

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.

'Flashes upon the inward eye’ : Wordsworth, Coleridge and ‘Flashing Flowers’

by Fred Blick
Few readers will be aware of the ‘Elizabeth Linnaeus phenomenon’ today; yet over a span of almost two hundred years botanists, gardeners and scientists speculated about it. Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of the famous botanist, Carl Linné, known as Linnaeus.
Elizabeth Linneaus
One evening in the early 1760s, she was enjoying her father’s summer garden at Hammarby, near Uppsala, Sweden. She noticed how the “yellow … brilliant” flowers of the nasturtium appeared to gleam unexpectedly brightly in the half-light: so much so that they appeared to be emitting flashes or sparks.  So confident was she in her repeated observations that she shared them with her learned, botanist father and other philosophers and in particular with the celebrated electrical expert, Johan Wilcke. The latter concluded that the scintillations could be “related to ubiquitous Electric materials”. Although she was only nineteen, Elizabeth published her findings in an article entitled “Om Indianska Krassens Blickande” (“On the twinkling of Indian Cress”). This was recorded in the Acts of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for 1762.
 
In 1783, a Natural History lecturer, Lars Haggren, conducted further experiments and confirmed the phenomenon of ‘flashing’ flowers. He found that the marigold of “orange or flame colour” flashed light on dry, dusky evenings, as well as the “yellow … brilliant” nasturtium which had been seen by Elizabeth.  He also confirmed that  “…it might be conjectured, there is something of electricity in this phaenomenon”.  British journals also published the discovery and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) published his version of the findings in April 1789 in his The Botanic Garden. Many of these poems explore light, heat and electricity, their effects on plants and other living things:

On wings of flame, ETHEREAL VIRGINS! sweep
O’er Earth’s fair bosom, and complacent deep;
Where dwell my vegetative realms benumb’d,
In buds imprison’d, or in bulbs intomb’d,
Pervade, PELLUCID FORMS! their cold retreat,
Ray from bright urns your viewless floods of heat;
From earth’s deep wastes electric torrents pour,
Or shed from heaven the scintillating shower;
Pierce the dull root, relax its fibre-trains,
Thaw the thick blood, which lingers in its veins;
Melt with warm breath the fragrant gums, that bind
The expanding foliage in its scaly rind;
And as in air the laughing leaflets play,
And turn their shining bosoms to the ray,
NYMPHS! with sweet smile each opening flower invite,
And on its damask eyelids pour the light.

In the footnotes to this stanza, Darwin explains the scientific basis (as he saw it) of the influences of heat, “scintillating” light and electricity upon “vegetative realms”. This was directly influenced by Elizabeth Linnaeus and her ‘flashing flowers’.
 
In the autumn of 1793, Darwin’s poems and William Wordsworth’s newly published ‘An Evening Walk’ and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ were the subject of “a good deal of literary & critical conversation” between Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s brother Christopher Wordsworth, and their university friends at Cambridge. It was thus by means of Darwin’s poems that Elizabeth Linnaeus’ observations reached the pioneers of English Romanticism. Botany and Natural History had both a scientific and homely appeal to Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they could be enjoyed by all – men, women and children alike. Yellow and gold flowers would never seem quite the same again, having acquired mysterious qualities of vitality, light and electricity. Likewise light was now associated with electricity and took on a special significance for them, sometimes symbolic of Love, as in Wordsworth’s ‘Among all lovely things my love had been’ (also called ‘The Glow-worm’) of 1802 and Coleridge’s ‘A Day Dream’, stanza 3, of the same year.
 
Only two years after leaving Cambridge, Coleridge wrote ‘Lines Written At Shurton Bars, Near Bridgewater, September, 1795, In Answer To A Letter From Bristol’. It was a love poem for his future wife, Sarah Fricker, and was published in 1796 in his Poems on Various Subjects. In it, Coleridge combined passionate, sexual love with the influences of both light and electricity:

‘Tis said, in Summer’s evening hour
Flashes the golden-colour’d flower
A fair electric flame:
And so shall flash my love-charged eye
When all the heart’s big ecstasy
Shoots rapid thro’ the frame!

Coleridge appended an end note to the poem which he reproduced substantially from Darwin’s Supplement to The Loves about the flashing flower. Clearly, Coleridge was drawing on the electric effect described in Elizabeth Linnaeus’ article of 1762.
Poems on various subjects
 
By the late 1790s, light, electricity and electro-chemical processes were popular topics, thanks in part to the experiments of Galvani, Volta, and Humphry Davy. In September 1801, when he was staying with Coleridge in Keswick, Robert Southey wrote:

I miss the sun in heaven, having been on a short allowance of sunbeams these last ten days; and if the nervous fluid be the galvanic fluid, and the galvanic fluid the electric fluid, and the electric fluid condensed light, zounds! What an effect must these vile, dark, rainy clouds have on a poor nervous fellow, whose brain has been in a state of high illumination for the last fifteen months!

 
Over many years Wordsworth composed poems about golden or yellow flowers. One example which most readers will recall is the daffodils of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ of 1804, which was inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal record of daffodils at Ullswater on 15 April 1802. Though he described the daffodils twice as “dancing” in the printing of 1807, he changed the first “dancing” to “golden” in the 1815 version. Further, and crucially in this context, he accepted, his wife Mary’s suggestion of the lines,

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

Not only did the flowers “flash” but “Out-did the sparkling waves in glee”. These golden, flashing and dancing flowers, recorded also as “ever glancing” in Dorothy’s journal entry, appear to have been derived directly from Elizabeth Linnaeus’s description of her “yellow … brilliant” nasturtiums as “blickande” (glancing or twinkling) and possibly affected by electricity.
Flashing flowers
 
Elizabeth Linnaeus also “consider[ed] for a while that this [flash] might derive from a positioning of the eyes” rather than from electricity within the plant. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge came to the conclusion that the flashing effect was indeed in the eye, and not the flower. They became persuaded that the phenomenon was in the nature of an “Ocular Spectrum” or “After Image”. In 1810, the poet and scientist J.W. von Goethe had also questioned whether the flashing seen in flowers was actually in the flower or in the eye.
 
Wordsworth later added a note of explanation about the “flash” to his ‘Daffodils’ poem in the 1815 printing: “The subject of these Stanzas is rather an elementary feeling and simple expression (approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum) upon the imaginative faculty, rather than an exertion of it.” Coleridge later acknowledged grudgingly in his Literaria Biographia of 1817 that the concept of “visual spectrum” was indeed “a well known fact”, but at the same time he criticised Wordsworth’s lines about the “flash” as being “mental bombast”, inappropriate for describing the “joy of retrospection”.
 
So what does modern science make of the phenomenon? In 1914, Professor F.A.W. Thomas wrote in the scientific journal, Nature, as that the “Flashing Flowers” (or “Elizabeth Linnaeus phenomenon”) really did exist, and that it was caused by an image of red light moving across the retina of the eye. In 1937, Professor M. Minnaert classified the same phenomenon as an “After Image”. In other words, it has been established that Elizabeth’s “flashing” was an effect within the eye, exactly as Wordsworth and Coleridge eventually came to believe.
 
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.

Diets of the Romantic poets

by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield

The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
Christ's_Entry_into_Jerusalem
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.
Andy Stott

Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Literary Festival: Walking with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Thelwall

by Elsa Hammond

‘What has Coleridge got to do with Wales?’ This was the question most frequently posed by interested audience members, participants, walkers, and passers-by during the Coleridge in Wales events at the Hay Literary Festival this year.
In June 1794 Coleridge departed Cambridge to spend the summer on a walking tour of Wales. He stopped off in Oxford, and left buoyed after three weeks with his new friend Robert Southey, hatching Pantisocratic plans and dreaming of a new, just society together. Covering more than 600 miles in under two months, Coleridge and his walking companion, Joseph Hucks, climbed mountains, drank and discussed politics with the locals. Coleridge wrote poetry, notebook entries and letters along the way, and Hucks published an account of the journey in A Pedestrian Tour through North Wales in a Series of Letters the next year. Coleridge would “dart into Wales” again in 1798, to visit John Thelwall with Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, he was particularly struck by this first uninterrupted experience of the Welsh landscape in 1794, and, as Richard Holmes observes in his biography, “for the first time [he] showed his passionate response to wild nature”.
Coleridge in Wales is an ambitious, exciting project, involving an 80-day journey around Wales and an extensive (and growing) programme of talks, events, conferences, collaborations, performances, readings, walks and swims. Inspired by Coleridge’s own travels through Wales and masterminded by classical singer and facilitator Richard Parry, it is a celebration of community, landscape and culture, and an ongoing conversation about Coleridge’s life and works. I joined the project as a journey-maker and travel writer with a personal and academic interest in Coleridge, and arrived in Pandy (16 miles from Hay-on-Wye on the English-Welsh border) to speak about my own experiences of solitude at sea in relation to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to co-lead a walk over Hay Bluff as part of the Hay Festival.

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

After a rich evening of stories, discussion, poetry and song in Pandy, the morning of the walk saw an eclectic group – including a clockmaker, singers, poets, students, academics and Cardiff Metropolitan University artists Chris Glynn and Dan Peterson meet to hike the 16 miles to Hay along the Offa’s Dyke Path. One of the UK national trails, Offa’s Dyke path is 177 miles long, named after the dyke ordered by King Offa in the 8th century, and thought to have been built to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms.
It was a hazy day, sunny but not too bright, and just right for walking. After crossing a rough field we had a steepish ascent up a small road, then a trackway, before arriving at the top of the ridge, which we stayed with throughout the day. The heather was not yet in bloom, but at one point we saw a red kite, and a little later a skylark sang loudly above us. In true Coleridgean diversity, conversation ranged from mountain navigation, to art, to ornithology, to humanitarian crises.
Foolishly, I had not taken quite as much water with me as I ended up needing (the day being particularly dry), but I reminded myself that Coleridge himself had encountered the same problem more than once during his tour of Wales. One of these episodes apparently inspired the gruesome moment of quenching intense thirst in Part III of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after the ship has become becalmed in the doldrums:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in.
As they were drinking all.

Years later, in 1830, Coleridge would recall the incident: “I took the thought of ‘grinning for joy’ in that poem from a friend’s remark to me, when we had climbed to the top of Plinlimmon [Penmaenmawr] and were nearly dead with thirst. We could not speak from the constriction, till we found a little puddle under a stone”. Earlier in the tour, he had written of a similar instance (in a letter to Southey on July 13, 1794): “From Llanvunnog we walked over the mountains to Bala – most sublimely terrible! It was scorchingly hot – I applied my mouth ever and anon to the side of the Rocks and sucked in drafts of Water cold as Ice”. Rather more prosaically, I accepted some extra water from kindly walking companions.
Coming down from Hay Bluff (677m) we followed the path through a few more miles of farmland, negotiating groups of cows with young calves, and wading through fields full of buttercups, which covered my boots with a yellowish-green veneer. It had been a long day, and we only just made it to the festival in time for the Coleridge in Wales talk; without stopping, we walked into Hay village, along the road to the festival site and onto the stage, with all the sweat and dust of the mountain to add an authentic element to the event.

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

The second day of Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival saw Richard Parry and eighteenth-century historian Penelope Corfield (Royal Holloway, London University) lead a walk from Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, to Llyswen in the steps of Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Thelwall. After visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset in the summer of 1797, Thelwall went in search of his own simple retreat, finally settling at Ty Mawr in Llyswen where he lived, farmed and wrote between 1797 and 1801. He was visited there by Coleridge and the Wordsworths in 1798.
A mile or so into the walk our small band of writers, artists and academics were treated to an impromptu reading of Thelwall’s ‘The Phenomena of the Wye during the Winter of 1797-8’ by Steve Poole, Professor of History and Heritage at the University of the West of England.

 Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Thelwall had written this essay for the Monthly Magazine in March 1798, reflecting on his first winter at Llyswen and on the beauty of the Wye: “you might even fell every tree, and exterminate every shrub, without destroying the sublimity, or even the beauty of the scene; for the river and the mountains would still remain, the solid features of the landscape would be yet unaltered”.

The Wye (Steve Poole)

The Wye (Steve Poole)

Sitting on the banks of the Wye amid the green lushness of May, we found it difficult to imagine the landscape stripped of all vegetation. Richard decided to follow the reading with a powerful rendition of ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ from Haydn’s Creation, which describes the emergence of rocks and mountains on the earth before the existence of any flora.
On our arrival at Ty Mawr Penelope described how the house had been changed and extended since Thelwall had lived there. The current occupant kindly allowed us all to tramp through the old timber front door, which, despite having been moved from the other side of the house, was the door that would have been used by Thelwall, as well as by Coleridge and the Wordsworths when they visited.
The owner of Ty Mawr had also told Coleridge in Wales that this was the best place on the Wye for swimming, so I thought that it would be a shame not to test it out. Refreshing and not too cold (I estimated it to be around 12 degrees), we could swim to the shingle beach on the other side and look back at the steep bank and up towards the house. Two of us swam, and others dipped their feet in the fresh but cloudy water, which had been stirred up by a dramatic thunderstorm the night before. After swimming we were even treated to a shower in (the extended part of) Thelwall’s house, before heading back to the village hall for lunch and drinks (generously sponsored by the John Thelwall Society).

The swim (Steve Poole)

The swim (Steve Poole)

Over the remains of our picnic, we heard poetry declaimed in character by ‘Coleridge’ (Richard Parry), ‘Thelwall’ (Steve Poole), and ‘Wordsworth’ (Penelope Corfield), which complemented the conversations that we had been having. At the end of the event, Richard left on his bicycle to continue with Day 16 of the Coleridge in Wales journey and the rest of us headed back to Hay before dispersing back to normality.
Although the ostensible reason that walk participants might have chosen to get involved with Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival was to find more about Coleridge and to experience the type of landscape through which he travelled when visiting Wales, it also provided space for wide-ranging discussion. It was a fascinating event to be part of, and I look forward to the further collaborative events, research and writing that are likely to grow out of the connections that were established in the fields and rivers of Wales.

You can follow a good deal of the walk by following the relevant parts of the Offa’s Dyke Path here
Elsa HammondElsa Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, working on breath and death in the poetry of Coleridge, Tennyson and Hardy. She also writes poetry and is an award-winning travel writer, and journey-maker. She tweets about literature, nature, education and adventure @ElsaAHammond

Among the poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson meets Wordsworth and Coleridge

By Chris Townsend
In 1832, the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was at something of a crossroads in his life. For one thing, he was not yet either philosopher nor poet. He was cut with grief after suffering the loss of his young wife the previous year, and was spending his days in perpetual dejection. His work as a pastor in a prominent Boston church suffered: his sermons became increasingly dour, and his own faith in God and religion had been irrevocably shaken by his loss. Disillusioned, he could no longer find the strength or conviction to continue with his pastoral commitments, and found himself temporarily resigned from both work and faith. He was fast approaching his thirtieth birthday, and had not yet embarked on the life of letters and lectures for which we now remember him. Emerson was without love, employment, religious conviction, or a true sense of purpose. In need of distraction, and finding no good reason to remain rooted in New England, Emerson spontaneously turned his attention to Old England: his bags packed, he boarded a ship on Christmas day, 1832, and embarked on his first journey to Europe.*

As he stared out over the dark, wintry Atlantic Ocean, Emerson may well have had The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in mind. Emerson’s confessed aim was, after all, to meet face-to-face with a number of his intellectual heroes, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Already he had taken a great interest in poetry and philosophy, though at that point he had written little of great merit. But his interests had guided him to Europe and to British Romanticism, to Wordsworth and to Coleridge. By early 1833, the year in which Emerson arrived in England, Wordsworth and Coleridge were already well established as poets and thinkers, and were celebrated members of the British literary scene. The two had lived in close company over thirty years prior, first as neighbours in Nether Stowey in Somerset, next in neighbouring villages in the Lake District. It was in Somerset that they had collaborated on their great joint work, the Lyrical Ballads of 1798.

That work was a collection of the two men’s poetry, which aimed to “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men” (as Wordsworth put it in his famous ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads). Its influence was — and still is — enormous; its emphasis on religious encounters with nature, its attempts to sketch and to capture fleeting moments of vivid feeling, and its choice of an ‘ordinary’ language over elevated poetic diction helped to set into motion the literary and artistic notions that add up to our modern invention of ‘Romanticism’. We cannot imagine a Romantic canon without Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, or Wordsworth’s sombre reflections in ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’. It established the two young poets as serious artists and thinkers, and signifies one of the happier, more harmonious, and most productive moments in both men’s lives.

But, by 1833, Wordsworth and Coleridge were changed men. They had all but fallen out of contact, and the idyllic life of a poet amongst nature was over for Coleridge, who had long since moved to London. After the early days with Wordsworth, he had suffered ongoing battles with opium addiction, weight gain and loss, unhappy marriage, unrequited love, the death of a child, and near-intolerable depression. He was publishing much, though his work was met with tepid reviews, and he would never fully recapture the glory of the 1790 period. He had lived in London for much of his life after the early years of the nineteenth century, which was when his relationship with Wordsworth had first begun to sour. Coleridge was in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, but he had his own wife and children to think about and to care for. The Wordsworths felt Coleridge was neglecting his responsibilities as husband and father, and saw that he was growing increasingly selfish. His ongoing relationship with opium made him difficult company, but it was not until 1810 that the bitterest blow was dealt to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship. Coleridge caught wind of rumours that Wordsworth had been describing him, amongst other things, as an unreliable “drunkard”; humiliated, Coleridge returned to London and temporarily cut off contact with the Lakes. Though they would be reconciled some years later and would go on to speak of each other with some affection, their friendship never regained its former profound closeness.

Wordsworth, though, was still living amongst the Lakes when Emerson came to call, but his life was also very different to the productive younger years. By the time he met Emerson, he had already written, with something like despair, that “The Muse has forsaken me” — he felt all too keenly that his finest verse was behind him, and was increasingly coming to realize that he would never finish his planned epic poem, The Excursion. Forced by the need to provide for his family, he was now working as the distributor of stamps for the Penrith area of the Lakes. This was a government position that would find him derided by the later Romantic poet Shelley in ‘To Wordsworth’:

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,—
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

Shelley’s criticism, essentially that Wordsworth was a ‘sellout’, was unkind, but not entirely untrue. Both poets were, by 1830s, tamer beasts than their younger, wilder selves. Their political radicalism was behind them, their experiments in poetic language displaced by more formal voices, their mystical relationship with divinity replaced by an orthodox adherence to Christianity. In short, they had become Victorian poets.

Emerson, seasick and sorrowful aboard his creaking vessel, arrived in Valetta in Malta with some relief, in early February, 1833. Immediately he began to feel the removal of a weight from his spirit, as things brightened for him in the southern European climes. From Malta he wound slowly on to Sicily, up through mainland Italy, and on through France. He journeyed slowly, savouring the delights and delicacies of the continent, but always kept on the horizon the idea of Great Britain. It was not until August that year that Emerson arrived in London, disdainfully calling it “immense city, very dull city”. His only real reason for staying in the city was to visit Coleridge, which he wasted no time in doing. On the 5th of August he arrived at the Grove, Highgate, and made arrangements to meet with the great poet.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Though Coleridge was apparently enjoying a day spent in bed, he agreed to be up and dressed by one o’clock, and Emerson was duly welcomed into his apartment at the appointed hour. Hauling himself up to the second floor, Emerson entered and found Coleridge in a cramped apartment, overflowing with papers and books, and littered with letters and manuscripts. There was a single window that overlooked Hampstead Heath, a framed version of the wild and endless landscape that had coloured his youthful writings. Emerson remembers seeing “a short, thick old man, with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion”. And, like Coleridge’s famous ‘Wedding Guest’, Emerson was quickly caught up in a barrage of typically one-sided Coleridgean conversation. Emerson reports a lengthy and roaming discussion of the Unitarian faith by his host, but details quickly become scant. Emerson was finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to the disparate threads of conversation offered by Coleridge, who all the while was wildly gesticulating and animatedly expounding his views. Coleridge talks, and then talks some more, and, when Emerson rises to leave, he begins to recite some lines of his verse, before once again talking. All the while, Emerson tells us, Coleridge is “freely” taking snuff. In doing so, he liberally powders his clothing and apparently spoils a good cravat, generating a cloud of the stuff about himself like pepper around the cook in Alice in Wonderland, like a cloud of his own thick and obfuscatory conversation.

Emerson reflects: “I was in his company for about an hour, but find it impossible to recall the largest part of his discourse”. Overwhelmed by the rapid pace and digressional nature of Coleridge’s speech, Emerson compares it to “so many printed paragraphs in his books” — referring to the abstruse, convoluted, and often esoteric arguments that baffle modern readers of Coleridge’s prose works. The poet Keats, who similarly met Coleridge on just the one occasion, most famously remarked on the older poet’s effusive verbosity: “I heard his voice as he came towards me — I heard it as he moved away — I heard it all the interval”. This seems true of the Coleridge that Emerson met. Stepping back out into the cool London afternoon, sooner than he might have hoped, he finds himself a little disappointed. He’d barely managed to get in a word in exchange for Coleridge’s verbal generosity, and thinks to himself that the poet “was old and preoccupied, and could not bend to a new companion and think with him”. He was regretting the fact that he’d left little impression on the poet. “As I might have foreseen”, he concludes, “the visit was a spectacle rather than a conversation, of no use beyond the satisfaction of my curiosity”.

His encounter with Wordsworth would prove a little more satisfying, beyond mere curiosity, and it apparently spanned several hours. It was a few weeks after he’d met Coleridge, and in the meantime Emerson had travelled up to Scotland to meet Thomas Carlyle and to indulge in the beauty of the northern landscape. From Scotland, Emerson travelled south once again towards Rydal Mount in the Lake District, where Wordsworth had been living with his family for more than twenty years. The family unit there comprised Wordsworth’s wife Mary, his sister Dorothy, and three of his surviving children: John, Dora, and William (though it is often forgotten that another child survived, a daughter from a youthful fling in France to whom Wordsworth was still sending a yearly allowance). He walked along rural tracks and across windswept fields before Rydal Mount became visible on the horizon, nestled into the thickly forested hillside. He walked up the path and knocked, unannounced. Emerson refers to meeting Wordsworth’s ‘daughters’, but he must have been mistaken — Catherine Wordsworth had died the same year as Wordsworth’s other son, Thomas, leaving Dora as the sole surviving daughter. Emerson then sees Wordsworth for the first time: “a plain, elderly, white-haired man, not prepossessing, and disfigured by green goggles”. These ‘goggles’ were a pair of the tinted spectacles Wordsworth took to wearing in later life, out of concern that he was losing his vision. They are missing from our common image of the poet, and from the numerous portraits of him, and it is strange to think of the eye that so famously saw “into the life of things” hidden behind an ungainly set of corrective lenses.

Wordsworth in 1840, by Henry William Pickersgill, Wordsworth Trust

Wordsworth in 1840, by Henry William Pickersgill, Wordsworth Trust

Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth speaks “with great simplicity”. Indeed, Coleridge’s own spoken and written manner is briefly discussed, with Wordsworth sighing that he “had always wished Coleridge would write more to be understood”. Emerson gives the impression of a kindly and serene Wordsworth, unhurried, generous with his time, a quietly engaging interlocutor. The pair sit in one of the warm, fire-lit, low-ceilinged rooms of Rydal, and discuss a variety of topics — with equal input and respect for one another. Education quickly arises in discussion, and Wordsworth is just as quick to dismiss it: “he thinks more of the education of circumstances than of tuition”, Emerson would remember. How fitting, from a poet who had once written the following lines, in ‘The Tables Turned’:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

The discussion of education leads into a discussion of American society, and Wordsworth moves freely and brusquely through his opinions on the matter. “There may be in America”, he tells Emerson, “some vulgarity of manner, but that’s not important”. What is important, he thinks, is that Americans have got their priorities all wrong: “I fear they are too much given to the making of money, and secondly, to politics; that they make political distinction the end and not the means”. We can only wonder what Wordsworth would make of the modern Western world. We cannot be sure, either, how the young American in front of him received these remarks concerning his home nation.

As the conversation moves on, Wordsworth suggests a brief walk, and leads Emerson out the backdoor of his house. The pair pass through the gardens of Rydal, and crunch their way out along a gravel path which cuts across the hillside. Emerson silently notices that Wordsworth’s eyes, behind his thick glasses, do indeed appear to be inflamed and sore. Wordsworth turns to the younger man and tells him that he has composed thousands of lines of verse along this very path, which leads Emerson to recall that the poet is renowned for his ability to hold hundreds of lines of verse in mind before so much as committing them to paper. Modern scholars are fascinated by this point, and arguments frequently erupt over whether or not this was ever possible — memorizing hundreds of lines of verse is one thing, but composing them and holding them in their rigidly-organized place with the mind alone is quite another. On that August day, looking out over the verdant woodland that leads down to the glittering surface of Rydal water, Emerson was to experience first hand the sharpness of Wordsworth’s memory. Earlier that year Wordsworth and his sister had gone on a walking tour around Scotland, and Wordsworth had, the day Emerson arrived, been mentally composing a few sonnets to commemorate his highland excursion. Suddenly — so suddenly that Emerson nearly bursts into surprised laughter — Wordsworth begins a solemn recitation:

 Ye shadowy Beings, that have rights and claims
In every cell of Fingal’s mystic grot,
Where are ye? Driven or venturing to the spot,
Our fathers glimpses caught of your thin frames,
And, by your mien and bearing, knew your names;
And they could hear his ghostly song who trod
Earth, till the flesh lay on him like a load,
While he struck his desolate harp without hopes or aims.
Vanished ye are, but subject to recall;
Why keep we else the instincts whose dread law
Ruled here of yore, till what men felt they saw,
Not by black arts but magic natural!
If eyes be still sworn vassals of belief,
Yon light shapes forth a bard, that shade a chief.

The sonnets on the Cave of Staffa are perhaps not amongst his finest sonnets, and are rarely discussed today, but the fact that he recites three such sonnets in a row, each freshly composed and as yet unwritten, is deeply impressive in its own right, especially when we consider the careful and unforgiving structure of that delicately measured form. But Emerson still cannot help but see him in part as “like a school-boy declaiming”. He barely manages to contain his mirth, despite reminding himself that he came across the Atlantic to meet a poet, and a poet he has met. As they saunter on, the recitations continue, punctuating their conversation — which is now almost entirely dedicated to Wordsworth’s verse — with Wordsworth’s words echoing gently down the Rydal valley. Eventually, after much discussion, Emerson decides it is time he took leave of Wordsworth, but the poet encourages him to take a last turn around the Rydal Mount garden. When Emerson does set off, Wordsworth tells him there is a more suitable and direct route away than that which he’d planned to take. Wordsworth genially walks “a good part of a mile” along the path with Emerson, leaving him with one or two last lines of recited verse, before parting ‘with great kindness’ and disappearing back across a field and into the trees.

Emerson made the long, arduous crossing back to America in October of that year, in many respects a changed man. By November, he had given a philosophical lecture composed of his recently percolated thoughts — it was to be the first of nearly 1,500 such lectures, the backbone of a life’s work. Within three years of this, he was happily married for the second time, and had published his landmark philosophical work Nature, in which he sketched a new religious understanding of the universe based on Romantic ideals:

“Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul.”

Emerson in 1846. By Eastman Johnson, Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA

Emerson in 1846. By Eastman Johnson, Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA

Had his experience of the poets helped him through his crisis? Perhaps, or perhaps he’d learnt, like Wordsworth, the therapeutic pleasures of frequent travel by foot, and exercise for both the mind and body at once. Either way, consonant with our modern notion of the ‘gap year’, Emerson went to Europe to find not his poetic heroes but himself, and that is precisely what he found. Of the few things we can gauge of Emerson’s character from his own descriptions of his travels is that he remained unintimidated and certain of himself even when addressing his heroes. We share in the sense of disappointment that follows his meeting with Coleridge, who talks all over him and seldom acknowledges the younger man’s views. But, when Coleridge begins lambasting the Unitarian faith, Emerson is quick to point out to him that he himself was brought up a Unitarian, unafraid of the conflict of views. Likewise, when the ageing Wordsworth begins moralizing against the content of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister — apparently, “full of all manner of fornication” — Emerson has none of it. He speaks in favour of Goethe’s writings, leaving Wordsworth to “courteously promise to look at it again”. It is difficult to imagine how we might feel, finding ourselves in the homes and company of the great writers of our age, but it is clear that Emerson is far from daunted. His strength of character and his resolve reaffirmed his views, helped him to shape his writing, and initiated the processes of thought that led to his greatest philosophical essays and his finest poetic works. In Emerson was met the self-assurance of Coleridge and the gentle, kind simplicity of Wordsworth. And in his verse we find traces of both.

And what do we learn about Wordsworth and Coleridge from Emerson’s encounters? We learn that the two men had indeed grown apart, that their serious intellectual engagement in the 1790s and early-1800s was indeed limited to those decades. But it is also irresistible to conclude that landscape impressed itself upon the poets in ways which even they had not seen. Here is Wordsworth, serene amongst nature, walking the hills and shores of the Lake District, with mind both composed and composing, and wandering, as much as is possible, like the clouds in his poetry. And here is Coleridge, in a London apartment cluttered with books and papers, overactive in mind and body, spending his days in bed secluded from the world, and away from friends and family. He had for the most part kicked the opium, but was separated from his wife, Sara, and infrequently saw his children. Though both poets felt, perhaps with some justification, that they had left behind them their finest works, Wordsworth had come a little closer to carving out a good thing for his ageing self in this world, ‘the place where, in the end, we find our happiness, or not at all!’. Wordsworth would live until 1850, to the ripe old age of 80, and enjoyed a brief but unproductive spell as Poet Laureate, finally dying after a spontaneous woodland walk in too-cold weather. Coleridge, though, died only a year after Emerson’s visit. Emerson’s encounters with the poets might ultimately say less to us about how to write or how to think than they tell us about happiness or contentment, and about how to live. Wordsworth never finished The Excursion, and Coleridge never brought to publication his projected Opus Maximum, but Wordsworth, hoarding lines in his head and, according to Emerson, “never […] in a haste to publish”, seemed to better understand poetry as, to borrow his phrase, “the end and not the means”.
*Emerson’s reflections on this tour I mainly draw from his book English Traits.
This post appeared originally on the King’s Review website,

Chris Townsend is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the Chris TUniversity of Cambridge. He works on the philosopher George Berkeley and his influence on the Romantic-era poets William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. Outside of academia, he writes about literature, art, and popular culture, and he also blogs about professional cycling. His Twitter ID is @marmeladrome

Romanticism in painting

by Simon Court

What is it that distinguishes the Romantic view of the world from others? It is the importance which is placed on individuals who, inspired by the emotive power of imagination, perceive and order the world through their own senses. In doing so they reach an understanding of both nature and themselves. Whether it is manifested in the harmonies of the ‘child in nature’, the solitude in the mountains, or the destructive forces of a sea-storm, it is the Romantics’ feelings towards nature which determines their experience of it.
For the Romantic, the role of the artist is always active, never passive. As the German painter Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.” It is not that the Romantic denies the existence of an independent, objective reality: rather, it is that such reality can only be described through the subjective experience of the individual.
Whether grounded in the philosophical arguments of British empiricism or Kantian idealism, the conclusion drawn by the Romantic is the same: the world is only known to us through our imaginative responses to it, and artists, with their heightened receptiveness to feelings, are best placed to reveal it. Such emotions, however, must always be tempered by reason. As the Spanish artist Goya puts it in the subtitle to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1798), “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origins of their marvels”.
In seeking to express the world through imagination the Romantics looked beyond the confined and ordered interiors of royal palaces and stately homes towards the wildness and wonder of the landscape. As the German painter Philipp Otto Runge exclaimed in 1802, it is the landscape as “romantic field…..where man and nature dominate equally, each giving meaning and interest to the other”. For it is in contemplation of nature that man achieves his most emotional experiences and profound instances of self-awareness. The empiricist Edmund Burke provided an analysis of (and a vocabulary to describe) this sensation, and the revelation of the ‘sublime’ in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757).
Burke’s contribution to the Romantic understanding is his observation that what constitutes the greatest experience of the sublime is that which most disturbs and horrifies us – that which is not within our control or comprehension, but is hidden and beyond us. Further, two attributes of the sublime in nature – vastness and infinity – can only be understood in obscurity. For, Burke says, nothing can obtain to greatness if we can “see an object distinctly” and “perceive its bounds”. As such, “a clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” This view is confirmed by Friedrich: “when a landscape is covered in fog, it appears larger more sublime, and heightens the strength of the imagination and excites expectation…..The eye and fantasy feel themselves more attracted to the hazy distance than to that which lies near and distinct before us”.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

Unsurprisingly, then, we find the vastness and excesses of landscapes and natural disasters (especially shipwrecks) are a common inspiration for Romantic painters such as Friedrich and Turner. It is in this world of space, scale and motion where the artistic imagination is most excited: a world where, as William Hazlitt puts it, objects “hover on the brink of nothingness”.
But before confronting the extreme terrors of the sublime, we should note that there is a gentler (although no less radical) ‘pastoral’ form of painting developed within the Romantic tradition, notably by the English painter Samuel Palmer, who will be the subject of a later post. This relates to the idea of the ‘child in nature’. As Simon Schama observes in The Face Of Britain, “it was an article of Romantic faith that childhood was unsullied nature, adulthood all contrivance, commerce and artifice”. This faith led Coleridge, in ‘Frost at Midnight ‘(1798) to address his sixteen-month-old son Hartley:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,…
… so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters…

For Philipp Otto Runge (as for Coleridge), this faith in the unspoilt innocence of childhood, where feelings remain spontaneous and unspoilt, was quite literal: Runge was deeply Christian and believed that nature was the manifestation of the Divine, and viewed his painting as communicating the “sensation of our kinship with the whole universe”, where “everything harmonises in one great chord”.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1809

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1808, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Child in the Meadow (1809) Runge has placed a naked infant alone in nature, on its back and staring boldly up to the sky. It is dawn and the child is illuminated in golden, warming light. It looks like Jesus in a Nativity scene, but this it is not a specifically Christian image. Rather, as Tom Lubbock says in Great Works, “it’s a universal symbol of the miracle of birth….a divine baby, taken out of Christian theology, and laid in nature”. As the infant basks in the glow of the morning light, it responds, like a flower, opening its arms in welcome, its fingers stretching up and out like the plants beside it. The baby has apparently sprung from nowhere (or fallen from the sky); and although it is alone it is fearless and at one with nature, emphatically part of its landscape. Mankind and nature are in perfect harmony through the divine miracle of life.
We look at The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Friedrich, and see a man with his back to us, standing alone amidst a mountainous landscape, looking across the foggy vastness below. His stance suggests confidence, or at least defiance in the face of the elements, but we cannot see his face, and are therefore unable to fully gauge his feelings. Is he exhilarated, triumphant and all- conquering, or hesitant, uncertain of his next step into the hazy unknown? We want to be able to analyse his feelings and thereby understand the meaning of the painting, but we cannot do so.
Friedrich often employed the ‘Rückenfigur’ – a person seen from behind – in his landscapes and, as Lubbock points out (when discussing in Great Works a similar composition Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise (1817)), this conceit is crucial. The figures in our way and impose their own consciousness on us, but their feelings are closed to us. As Lubbock says, “The landscape experience is blocked and trapped in these rival viewers with their unfathomable minds.”
So if a total explanation of the Wanderer is impossible, can we at least seek a partial one? We may think that it leaves a contradictory impression, suggesting that man has mastered the landscape whilst remaining insignificant within it. We may be bolder and think that it portrays a single moment of man’s yearning for the infinite, whilst remaining always separate from it. But we cannot know for sure.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Sea of Ice (1823-4) there is no Ruckenfigur to interrupt our experience of what we see. We are witnessing directly a horrific site in a desolate world. A ship lies amongst the grinding slabs of sea-ice which has, in its relentless and powerful motion, ruined the ship and, presumably, all life on it is lost. The jagged ice-berg in the foreground is mimicked by another in the distance, both mountainous in shape. Are we seeing human aspiration crushed – like the frail bark of the ship – by a glacial indifference’? The impression is that whilst nature can destroy humanity, it remains permanent, and ultimately impenetrable to man.
In both the Wanderer and The Sea of Ice Friedrich is showing us an instant of sublimity as we contemplate nature, either directly or indirectly. But in doing so, have we understood, or do we realise that we can never fully understand, the world? That ambiguity is a Romantic achievement, and a Romantic condition of life.

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

We stare, confused, at this chaotic scene: then, refocussing, details rise up and objects become visible. We start to pick out hands flailing in the turbulent waters, see a leg being devoured by monster-fish. The scene remains incomprehensible, but the horror of it has caught up with us.  In The Slave Ship (originally entitled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on) (1840), the English artist J.M.W. Turner depicts the moment in 1783 when the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard so as to be ‘lost at sea’ and thereby be able to collect for their loss on insurance. Here, the tragic impact of human moral irresponsibility is central to this natural carnage, in that the evil actions of the captain has started the causal sequence of the hellish drama.
Turner’s use of colour, and the frenzied brushstrokes which deliberately obscure the distinctness of the shapes, enhance the sense of nature overwhelming, and condemning, man. The violent reds and oranges, with the gold of the declining sun, makes the sky angry and sets the sea aflame. As the art critic John Ruskin observed, the ‘fearful hue’ of the sea frames the ‘guilty ship…its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood’, tossing helpless in the sea. The painting betrays both a morbidity and an impression of futility.

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

In Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843) Turner extends the dimensions of a human disaster to Biblical proportions. The aftermath of the great flood is represented as a whirlpool of colour: a darker outer rim with blurred figures swimming in blinding yellows creating a swirling circle of energy in which the eye strains to form any clear image. This vortex expresses the forces of nature drawing man down into its mass. The human figures are encased in earth-bubbles, whose transitory fragility reflects man’s own predicament. As Turner makes clear in his own verse (taken from The Fallacies Of Hope and published in the Royal Academy catalogue entry for the picture), the scene shows:

Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly,
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.

Turner has taken the Romantic landscape beyond the mountains and the seas into a cosmic vision. In doing so he has stretched out the sublime into pure abstraction: a visual impression of the powerlessness and ultimate insignificance of man in an indifferent universe.
So where has the imagination of the Romantic painters taken us? Are we living in glorious harmony in God’s earth, as Runge’s ‘child in nature’? Or staring out at the world continually seeking answers, like Friedrich’s wanderer? Or are we resigned, fatalistically, to our own powerlessness in the face of Friedrich’s sea of ice or Turner’s swelling waters? That is the distinctly Romantic dilemma.

Further reading:
William Vaughan: Romanticism and Art (Thames & Hudson, 1978)

A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and SimonRomanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club

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