Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Lure of Coleridge

Next week sees the Coleridge Conference (23-27 July) – a biennial, international gathering of over 70 scholars and readers of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) (pictured above in 1799). Coleridge’s writings are at the heart of my own research scholarship. This year I have helped to organise the Conference, together with Paul Cheshire, Dr Felicity James, Peter Larkin, and the Conference Director, Professor Tim Fulford. I’m also a Trustee of the Friends of Coleridge – the society that aims to foster interest in the life and works of Coleridge and his circle. I’m sometimes asked: why Coleridge? This seems like a good time to say a little on the subject.

As these things often do, it all started in my teens. Although aware of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before, I only really found my way into Coleridge when studying him for A-Level, when I was seventeen. Then something explosive happened – something revolutionary, in personal terms. Reading in particular his mystery poems – Kubla Khan, Christabel and the Ancient Mariner – and the blank-verse meditations often referred to as the conversation poems, something within myself was suddenly articulated and brought into brilliant focus. For a while, it was a little overwhelming. Kubla Khan, especially, blazed across my consciousness (as it still does). I read two of the classic critical works on Coleridge, Coleridge the Visionary (1959), by John Beer, and The Road to Xanadu (1930) by John Livingston Lowes – both of which led me into the maze of Coleridge’s reading and imagining. But it is the title of another of Beer’s books – Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence (1977) – which sums up what fascinated me: a poetic intelligence, calling potential realities into being. By the time a close friend gave me Early Visions, the first volume of Richard Holmes’ superb biography of Coleridge, for my eighteenth birthday, I was already inwardly committed to the path I’m on today.

The chemical reaction begun with that first encounter with Coleridge’s language, and the trace of his being, remains at the glowing core of my interest in him. But of course, time spent with Coleridge brings other pleasures. To study Coleridge’s works is to inhabit an endlessly ramifying intellectual ecosystem – and for me, at least, to become a fellow-adventurer in the biggest questions we can ask: poetical, political, and metaphysical. You don’t always have to agree with him, either, to feel your own powers kindle in the presence of his words.

The poetic intelligence is open-ended - always finding as it makes, and making as it finds - and Coleridge is one of its greatest exemplars. ‘The End is in the Means’, Coleridge wrote to his son Hartley, in 1820: ‘Southey once said to me: You are nosing every nettle along the Hedge, while the Greyhound (meaning himself, I presume) wants only to get sight of the Hare, & FLASH! – strait as a line! – he has it in his mouth! […] But the fact is – I do not care twopence for the Hare; but I value most highly the excellencies of scent, patience, discrimination, free Activity; and find a Hare in every Nettle, I make myself acquainted with.’

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