By Fraser Hibbitt
There is something lovable in the cursory brain. I had read Virginia Woolf describing the poet, Coleridge, as ravenously talking for hours on end about anything his great intellect could divest itself of. Indeed, later, I read an account by a contemporary of his, Charles Lamb, a great essayist, speaking about how, when walking with Coleridge, he would bound up both sides of the track trying to take account of all he saw; closer still, I had read Coleridge’s private notebooks which were littered with notes and ideas for projects never to come to fruition. It strikes the reader with tones of desperation; some frantic impulse to engulf all he saw, all he read, yet it also points towards something familiar: The constant desire to know and understand the world.
Reading, then, Coleridge’s poetry, we are reminded of our inward self. Is not the nature of the mind cursory even if one’s personality is not? The physical man, Coleridge, seems to become a symbol of our minds. In a single day, the mind floats through sets of desires and needs, structures and daily regimes. The mind wanders through an array of meaningless thoughts without conclusion. It is easy enough to understand why one may become languid and unenthusiastic; there is nothing new under the sun. It is even so for the poet searching for inspiration, something to give life to. Coleridge’s sensitivity towards this fact of life lent him purpose and procedure. Looking at great poetry, it is easy to confuse the life of the inspired poet as one operating on an altogether different plane, unshackled from the confusion of the inconclusive day. Coleridge, however, was able to make beautiful poetry out of this very fact. No better is this sentiment exemplified than in his poem ‘Dejection: An Ode’. A poem about the precarious nature of creating, and the yearning of the mind trying to connect with the world outside of its own mechanical working: to feel you are a part of nature rather than apart from it. The speaker laments at the moon and stars:
‘I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are’
The speaker is yearning for a closer connection with all that surrounds, but his damp mood cuts him off from this beauty. The speaker lumbers on, walking alone, trying to recall the feeling that would unify his inner world with the external. The poem concludes with a blessing to this ‘friend’, the ‘simple spirit’, which accords all things. The speaker concluding in this hopeful way marks a change, a happier resolve; it is accepting that without the yearning and loss of connection we would not feel the connection when it comes.
The glory of nature stood, for Coleridge, as the manifestation of God. This sets him apart from the more antiquated religious poets in that we can read Coleridge speak of the ‘incomprehensible One’ and not feel alienated by his or our own beliefs. Coleridge’s appeal is that his God translates to moments that are familiar to the unbeliever; for example, the inexplicable beauty of the sunset covering a wide expanse in its dying light, and a thought does not arise to bother us. We can read Coleridge and mark him as a fellow admirer of those moments that impress us. His poems and prose keep alive the simple spirit inside us, and they comfort us with what they admit, motivating those who are looking to understand the world as it unfolds. In his poem ‘Work without Hope’, the speaker contemplates nature in its course against himself:
‘Slugs leave their lair –
The bees are stirring – birds are on the wing –
[…] And I the while, the sole unbusy thing’
The speaker walks on feeling at a loss, aimless. At the end of the poem, the speaker asks the reader to think on the words that drowse his mind:
‘Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve
And hope without an object cannot live.’
These words that occupy the speaker’s mind are a message to those feeling at a loss. One needs something outside the mind to work upon; being a bystander by the road of life is not enough.
What we can read in Coleridge’s poetry is his ability to meet and overcome the melancholy so often paired with desperation. Coleridge’s poetry still stands to a reader today as enlightening. In his poem, ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ (1797), we read the thoughts of a man left alone at his cottage. His friends were visiting but due to an injury he could not accompany them on a walk into the hills. The poet moves from self-pity to self-awareness by asking of nature to bring his friends’ a happy chance of scenery. The speaker is even brought to rejoice realising the moment he is in:
‘…have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage;’
which sparks the realisation:
‘No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty!’
Coleridge, then, awakens in the reader this sense of joy at one’s ability to connect with nature. He manages to expand from an individual experience of self-pity to this beautiful moment which can be universally recognized and received, understood and felt.
Poetry afforded Coleridge lucid moments to compose despite his cursory mind; to order and unify his thoughts and create something beautiful for, not only himself, but for the readers to come. I said that the cursory mind of Coleridge may strike the reader as pained, even desperate, yet it also strikes the reader as someone very much alive. An uninhibited being, unafraid in this search for beauty, truth and knowledge. I have only spoken on three poems by the man and have left out, consciously, those famous ones by which Coleridge is remembered: ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and ‘Christabel’. These poems possess beauty in verse and wonders in their imaginative power. I thought that, signalling the three in this essay, illuminated another equally important point to take away from Coleridge: one that affords the reader a connection with the poet on a human level.
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More on Coleridge at the Poetry Foundation.