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QI Poets and Poetry

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4178.  Sun Jan 11, 2004 9:37 pm Reply with quote

One particularly interesting poet is Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary, Devonshire, the youngest of ten children of a clergyman. He was often bullied by his older brother, Frank, and when he was seven he ran away from home, although a neighbour found him and brought him back the next day.

After his father died in 1781, he was sent to London to be educated at Christ’s Hospital, London, which was a charity school for the children of clergymen. He said that he was an oddity, temperamental, bad at sports but an avid reader who was usually at the top of his class. Later he wrote about how much he valued what he had learned from his teacher there.

(Source: Coleridge Biographia Literaria)
At home

At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarll - and then I found the Arabian Nights' entertainments - one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings) that I was haunted by spectres whenever I was in the dark - and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay - and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask, and read.

At school

I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master* ...At the same time that we were studying the Greek Tragic Poets, he made us read Shakspeare and Milton as lessons: and they were the lessons too, which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. In the truly great poets, he would say, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word; and I well remember, that ... he made us attempt to show, with regard to each, why it would not have answered the same purpose; and wherein consisted the peculiar fitness of the word in the original text.

In our own English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words... In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming ‘Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? your Nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose!’ ...

Be this as it may, there was one custom of our master's, which I cannot pass over in silence, because I think it ... worthy of imitation. He would often permit our theme exercises, ... to accumulate, till each lad had four or five to be looked over. Then placing the whole number abreast on his desk, he would ask the writer, why this or that sentence might not have found as appropriate a place under this or that other thesis: and if no satisfying answer could be returned, and two faults of the same kind were found in one exercise, the irrevocable verdict followed, the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day.
The reader will, I trust, excuse this tribute of recollection to a man, whose severities, even now, not seldom furnish the dreams, ... but neither lessen nor dim the deep sense of my moral and intellectual obligations. He sent us to the University excellent Latin and Greek scholars, and tolerable Hebraists. Yet our classical knowledge was the least of the good gifts, which we derived from his zealous and conscientious tutorage. He is now gone to his final reward, full of years, and full of honours, even of those honours, which were dearest to his heart, as gratefully bestowed by that school, and still binding him to the interests of that school, in which he had been himself educated, and to which during his whole life he was a dedicated thing.

* The Rev. James Bowyer, who was for many years Head Master of the Grammar-School, Christ Hospital.

In 1791 he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, but got into debt and in order to escape from it joined the army under a false name. His family bought him out of that mistake – his brother George claimed that he was insane - and he returned to Cambridge but left in 1794 without taking his degree.

4179.  Sun Jan 11, 2004 9:42 pm Reply with quote

By the time Coleridge left Cambridge, he had met and befriended Robert Southey, who later became the Poet Laureate. They planned to create an ideal community, like a modern kibbutz, which they called a ‘Pantisocracy’, in Pennsylvania. After the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, many people looked to America as the likeliest place to create an ideal society (see also the work of William Blake). The Pantisocracy was to be consist of twelve young men and their wives, but the marriage of Coleridge and Southey to two sisters, Edith and Sara Fricker, in 1795 was the only practical outcome. Southey left for Portugal, and Coleridge remained in England to write and lecture.

In 1796, Coleridge published Poems on Various Subjects. The following year he met William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, who lived nearby. A great friendship grew up. Although Coleridge had a family by then - his eldest son, Hartley, had been born in 1796 - Coleridge and Wordsworth went on long walks and visits, and even travelled to Germany together, to study the language and philosophy. Coleridge was then at the height of his poetic powers. At this time, he wrote among other works his Conversation Poems Frost at Midnight and The Nightingale, and his long narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These were published with some of Wordsworth’s poems in their 1798 volume Lyrical Ballads, which is generally considered the first major work of the English Romantic movement.

One particularly striking poem written during this period was Kubla Khan. Coleridge was a martyr to various ills, and he had taken to using laudanum, a liquid form of opium, for relieving pain from rheumatism and other ailments. By 1802 he was so convinced he would die soon that after his youngest child, his daughter Sara, was born, he took out a life-insurance policy. Eventually he became addicted to laudanum, and this became a curse he struggled against for the rest of his life.

Coleridge's own preface to Kubla Khan gives an account of the drug-induced dream that inspired him to turn a sentence in a history book into a mystical poem, and how an interruption caused him to forget the ending:

The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage : ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.’ The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Then all the charm
Is broken - all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
And each mis-shape the other. Stay awile,
Poor youth! who scarcely dar'st lift up thine eyes-
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! And lo, he stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.

Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him. Sameron adion aso [in Greek]: but the to-morrow is yet to come...

In another note on a manuscript copy of the poem, Coleridge wrote:

This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium taken to check a dysentery, at a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church, in the fall of the year, 1797

4180.  Sun Jan 11, 2004 9:47 pm Reply with quote

Coleridge never settled into steady work. Friends and family supported him while he lived in the Lake District for a while, and then he went to Malta as the governor’s secretary. He wrote articles for newspapers, wrote and lectured on literary criticism, politics, philosophy and theology, and of course continued to write poetry. His literary criticism and his theories of poetry had a great influence on later writers and critics. He summed up much of what he thought in his Biographia Literaria, or Literary Biography.

Some of Coleridge's income came from his reviews of the best-selling thrillers of his day. Books like Polidori’s The Vampire, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, and Matthew Lewis’s The Mad Monk were deeply fashionable, and thrilled a thousand young women (who were often strictly forbidden to read such stuff) at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. Jane Austen satirised the style mercilessly in Northanger Abbey.

Coleridge wrote reviews of Mrs Radcliffe’s books and of The Mad Monk among others. He comments in his reviews:

Situations of torment, and images of naked horror, are easily conceived; and a writer in whose works they abound, deserves our gratitude almost equally with him who should drag us by way of sport through a military hospital, or force us to sit at the dissecting-table of a natural philosopher. To trace the nice boundaries, beyond which terror and sympathy are deserted by the pleasurable emotions, - to reach those limits, yet never to pass them, hic labor, hic opus est (this is the craft that produces the [literary] work)


The horrible and the preternatural have usually seized on the popular taste, at the rise and decline of literature. Most powerful stimulants, they can never be required except by the torpor of an unawakened, or the languor of an exhausted, appetite... We trust, however, that satiety will banish what good sense should have prevented; and that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured.

However, the mysterious and demonic elements in poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan influenced other poets and writers of the time. Poems like this both drew inspiration from and helped to inflame the craze for Gothic romance. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was published in 1798. Christabel and Kubla Khan were not published until 1816, but were known in manuscript form among people in the literary world before then.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein mentions The Rime of the Ancient Mariner twice directly and there are descriptions in the story which echo it indirectly. Mary Shelley knew Coleridge well. Although William Godwin, her father, disagreed with Coleridge on some important issues, he respected his opinions and Coleridge often visited the Godwins. Mary Shelley later recalled hiding behind the sofa and hearing his voice chanting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

4181.  Sun Jan 11, 2004 9:51 pm Reply with quote

Although they had been happy at first, Coleridge separated from his wife in 1806. Although they never lost touch completely and he loved his children dearly, at one point he went for eight years without seeing them.

In 1816, with his health wrecked by opium, Coleridge went to live at the house of Dr James Gillman, a doctor who lived in Highgate and admired his work. Gillman’s care improved his health, and Coleridge spent the rest of his life there, receiving many visits from friends and from young writers who came to hear him deliver long and learned monologues on literature. He was a well-known figure in the area, sometimes considered odd but very well-loved by his friends.

In a letter written by John Keats to his brother George and George’s wife Georgianna he writes:

April 15, 1819
Last Sunday I took a Walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield's park I met Mr Green our Demonstrator at Guy's in conversation with Coleridge - I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable - I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things - let me see if I can give you a list - Nightingales, Poetry - on Poetical sensation - Metaphysics - Different genera and species of Dreams - Nightmare - a dream accompanied by a sense of touch - single and double touch - A dream related - First and second consciousness - the difference explained between will and Volition - so many metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness - Monsters - the Kraken - Mermaids - Southey believes in them – Southey’s belief too much diluted - A Ghost story - Good morning - I heard his voice as he came towards me - I heard it as he moved away - I had heard it all the interval - if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate.

Sounds like the sort of person who would be quite at home on QI, doesn't he?

4182.  Sun Jan 11, 2004 9:53 pm Reply with quote

Coleridge continued to write and publish until his death, and was thought to be the best literary critic of his day, though he never made much money out of his work. In his Biographia Literaria, he has some advice for young people who want to be writers:

With no other privilege than that of sympathy and sincere good wishes, I would address an affectionate exhortation to the youthful literati, grounded on my own experience... NEVER PURSUE LITERATURE AS A TRADE.

Coleridge was one of the most gifted and learned men of his time. He was prone to make grand forecasts about his work that were never quite fulfilled, a failure which he put down to his ‘constitutional indolence’. Many great poems, such as Christabel, were left unfinished. However, whatever he said about his own idleness, the volume and depth of his writings on various subjects, and the lyricism of his poetry, would be beyond the reach of most people.

The dreamlike imagery of his poetry, nightmarish in places in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, blends the natural and the supernatural with profound concepts derived from his reading of philosophy and mysticism. At the same time he can write of his delight in his child and capture in precise and sensuous language his own thoughts, feelings and reactions to the natural world. This is particularly well shown in Frost at Midnight, where he depicts himself awake and gazing into the flickering fire on a frosty night when everybody else in the house is asleep, and reflects on his solitude, on memories of his childhood, and on his joy in and hopes for the son who lies asleep in the cradle next to him.

4183.  Sun Jan 11, 2004 9:57 pm Reply with quote

Apart from Kubla Khan, this is one of my favourite poems by Coleridge, particularly the last stanza.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud - and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

4203.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 1:07 pm Reply with quote

Coleridge had never actually met Gillman before the latter agreed to take him on as a house guest. The surgeon did so at the request of physician Joseph Adams who wrote to him on behalf " of a very learned, but in one respect an unfortunate gentleman " who " has for several years been in the habit of taking large quantities of opium ".
s: STE 31.08.03

4206.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 1:17 pm Reply with quote

Coleridge's son Hartley was found dead in a ditch on his way back from a pub in the Lake District.
His grandson, Herbert, was the second editor of the OED, dying a year after he took on the job. His last words, " I must begin Sanskrit tomorrow ", have been, sadly, declared apochryphal.

4207.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 1:20 pm Reply with quote

I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers…..He suffered no interruption, however reverent, hastily putting aside all foreign additions, annotations, or most ingenius desires for elucidation, as well-meant superfluities which would never do.


4209.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 2:20 pm Reply with quote

How many poets have been declared to be insane? Coleridge's family said that he was insane when they bought him out of the army as a youth. Wordsworth and Southey (and others) said that William Blake was insane although I would certainly disagree and say that he was more sane than most, visions or no. John Clare was committed to an asylum in Northamptonshire, and Ezra Pound was committed to Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Sylvia Plath notoriously struggled with mental illness before committing suicide. Those are the ones I can bring to mind immediately, but there must be more. After all, as Dryden (a very sane poet) said: Great wits are oft to madness near allied.

There were some poets who might be thought unworldly - like Vaughan for example, or Gray, or even Herbert. There were some who might be thought unstable in some way - Marlowe for example. There were some, like Hopkins or Tennyson, who suffered terribly from fits of depression.

But diagnosed as insane - that's a different matter. Anybody else bring any other poet to mind?

4210.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 2:25 pm Reply with quote

Googling around, I also came up with Christopher Smart, William Collins, William Cowper and Theodore Roethke so far.

4219.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 3:15 pm Reply with quote

I may have posted this somewhere else but it's Auden's advice on the raising of poets:
….as much neurosis as the child can bear....

4231.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 3:37 pm Reply with quote

Sounds very true, hardie. Perhaps it would be more to the point to ask how many *good* poets were totally sane...

Actually, quite a few I can think of would qualify on the saneness front - Herrick is a lovely example, though possibly not in the front rank of Eng Lit. Pope always comes over as a totally rational being, as does Dryden. How many really great poets weren't at least neurotic to some degree though?

It's a bitter blow to those of us who (a) write poetry and (b) like to at least think of ourselves as sane and rational beings.

Frederick The Monk
4233.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 4:21 pm Reply with quote

I'm glad John Clare (1794 - 1863) has been mentioned - he's an old favourite of mine and I'd thoroughly recommend Jonathon Bate's biography of him.

The nature and cause of Clare's 'madness' has never been satifactorily explained, but has variously been put down to depression brought on by the collapse of the poetry market after the death of Byron, alienation from his fellow villagers brought about by his fame or (by his own doctor) as being due to too much 'poetic prosing'.

After being admitted to Essex asylum at the request of his family his symptoms worstened however and psychosis was diagnosed. After four years in the asylum - surely enough to drive anyone mad - he absconded and ran off to Epping Forest where he began liberally distributing volumes of his poetry. When he'd run out of copies he decided to walk the 100 miles home to Northamptonshire. As he had no money for food he survived by eating grass from the road verges which he said tastes as good to him as bread.

A few miles from home, a woman leapt down from a cart and tried to persuade him to get in with her. He thought she was mad and ran away. In fact, she was his wife.

Clare was returned to another asylum, where he spent the next twenty five years musing on the 'the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems'.

Here's an example of his wonderful work:

I AM (1846)

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest - that I loved the best-
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.

s: John Clare: a Biography - Jonathon Bate

4235.  Mon Jan 12, 2004 4:49 pm Reply with quote

Another explanation I've seen for Clare's depression and subsequent lapse into psychosis is that he was torn between the two worlds of literary London and his often illiterate neighbours. Also, when The Village Minstrel, Clare’s second book of poems, appeared in 1821, it was less successful than the first book. Financial pressures were growing on him as his parents became ill and needed support, and he and his wife had more and more children. Despite his critical success, he could not earn enough money from writing to support his growing family and had to continue with casual labouring work, so he was also torn between the need to write poetry and the need for money to feed and clothe his children.

He began to plan a long poem called The Shepherd’s Calendar, but made the fatal mistake of arguing with his publisher before it was published in 1827, particularly about their desire to tidy up his spelling and punctuation, which delayed publication. Nowadays his poems are most often printed with his original spelling and punctuation (or lack of it).

His health began to suffer, and he had bouts of severe depression, which became worse after his sixth child was born in 1830 and his poetry sold less well. His friends and his London patrons clubbed together to move the family in 1832 to a larger cottage with a smallholding in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpstone, thinking that would help him. However, this only made him feel more alienated, and although The Rural Muse was published in 1835, his mental state declined.

Another hypothesis I've seen for the decline in Clare's mental state is the rapidity of cultural and societal changes at the time. The Industrial Revolution blackened urban areas, and many former agricultural workers went to work in factories because of the rural poverty caused by the war with France, which kept wages down but forced prices up. The Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the nearby fens drained and the common land enclosed. This destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed Clare deeply.


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