Among the defining conventions of Romanticism–the era of poetry that we, these days, might be seeing an end of–is the distinction between the symptomatic and the diagnostic: poems that are themselves symptomatic of flawed character, failures of judgment, and extremes of experience, but that, at the same time, possess a diagnostic self-awareness. The symptoms are made the subject of the poem; the form is complicit in both the expression of failure and the scrutiny of it. Think of Browning’s dramatic monologues, or Housman’s yearning for the end, or Eliot’s Waste Land. Such poetry provides a special critical challenge, in so far as it asks critics to gauge a poem’s self-awareness; it led to the introduction of “persona” as an occasionally valuable critical term.
To be fair, the distinction is older than Romanticism, as old as poetry itself; it is another way of saying that poets get the conditions of judgment into their poems. But with Romanticism, the terms of symptoms and diagnoses take on special salience and appeal, and nowhere more so than in the poetry of Coleridge.
Coleridge, susceptible to a range of bodily ailments and failings, lived in a thicket of symptoms and diagnoses, cures and palliatives, attaching to his body as well as his mind. Critics of Coleridge often speak of his idealism as fostering a tension between the external sensible world, sensually apprehended, and the internal mental world, imaginatively conceived, with the poetry mediating between the two. But the bridge between the two is persistently Coleridge’s bodily discomfort and ailment.
Neil Vickers has written a monograph on Coleridge’s relationship to Doctors during the early phase of his career as a poet; the opium Coleridge took to relieve his discomfort his subject to numerous critical examinations.
I am not interested in the medicinal realities of symptoms and diagnoses, illnesses and cures as Coleridge knew them, but in the way in which the physical realities are made, in Coleridge’s best poetry, to contain the grounds by which the diagnosis of poetic, imaginative excesses and failures may proceed. Put bluntly, Coleridge blames bodily limitations for imaginative limitations; diagnosing his own physical failings in the poetry becomes a means for diagnosing his imaginative failings. The limit on any dream of idealism is the stubbed toe of Dr. Johnson, refuting Berkeley; the limit on Coleridge’s imaginative idealism is the ailments he suffers. But that is only half the story: the other half is that the bodily ailments and failings are presented also as the grounds for poetic inspiration.
This is not to say that external reality ultimately frames the imagination; it is to say that in Coleridge’s poetry, inspiration is a felt phenomenon, and feeling an inspired capacity of self-consciousness, where “feeling” and “felt” occupy new ground, sensual and intellectual alike. The poetry is strongest and most memorable where the symptoms of bodily suffering are imaginative expression and where the diagnoses of imaginative expression proceeds by way of a return of the poems to a diagnosis of the body.
In the second chapter of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge asserts that “The men of the greatest genius, as far as we can judge from their own works or from accounts of their contemporaries, appear to have been of calm and tranquil temper, in all that related to themselves.” But he knows the facts of the past rub strongly against the claim:
I am well aware, that in advanced stages of literature, when there exist many and excellent models, a high degree of talent, combined with taste and judgment, and employed in works of imagination, will acquire for a man the name of a great genius; though even that analogon of genius, which, in certain states of society, may even render his writings more popular than the absolute reality could have done, would be sought for in vain in the mind and temper of the author himself. Yet even in instances of this kind, a close examination will often detect, that the irritability, which has been attributed to the author’s genius as its cause, did really originate in an ill conformation of body, obtuse pain, or constitutional defect of pleasurable sensation. What is charged to the author, belongs to the man, who would probably have been still more impatient, but for the humanizing influences of the very pursuit, which yet bears the blame of his irritability.
In the poetry he had written before he wrote these words, and in the poetry he would write after, Coleridge seeks to place something more genuine than the popularly conceived “mind and temper of the author” into his work (sometimes the verse; sometimes a prefatory note); it means admitting the “man” with all of his “irritability” and “ill conformation of body,” and, rather than separating out genius from the bodily experience of the man, closing the gap between the two, in a drama that is sometimes harmonious, sometimes at odds.
Saying so much is obvious, I suppose; but it establishes an imaginative convention that in Tennyson is called morbidity, and that allows, more than any theory of the imagination alone, for a valid comparison between Coleridge and Baudelaire. It helps to explain why the poems feel real as poems, and not just vehicles for Coleridge’s theories.
Hence some of the most moving lines in “Dejection: an Ode”:
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth,
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.
The pun on “patient” waits for the reader, and brings with it the thought that patients also must have been told to lie still; but the clinching word is “infects,” which is medicinal and bodily, as is potentially “habit,” which might refer to the habitual action or else to the corporeal gown that the soul wears.
So many of Coleridge’s poems proceed not only from self-diagnosis, but from the still and quiet that enables such a diagnosis to take place: as if he is looking inwards not, like Wordsworth, to recall, but to feel what it is that he feels: “to think of what I needs must feel.”
The body is not always ill in Coleridge’s poetry (though it often is), but it is subject to the self-scrutiny familiar to someone of a perpetually ill state, and that both enables the imagination to take flight and then in turn scrutinizes it as it does, returning it to the fact of lying still, and sometimes lying ill.
The self-diagnosing poise of mind turned onto body, and body liberating mind before reclaiming it from itself, is there in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” and also “The Eolian Harp,” where “this cot” is where, recumbent, he presents himself as composing the poem. But most of all, most movingly, it is in “Frost at Midnight,” the second half of which reaches something quite near perfect:
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 night-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.