1816 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Thomas Moore, Review of Coleridge, Christabel; Edinburgh Review 27 (September 1816) 58-67.



The advertisement by which this work was announced to the publick, carried in its front a recommendation from Lord Byron, — who, it seems, has somewhere praised Christabel, as "a wild and singularly original and beautiful poem." Great as the noble bard's merits undoubtedly are in poetry, some of his latest publications dispose us to distrust his authority, where the question is what ought to meet the public eye; and the works before us afford an additional proof, that his judgment on such matters is not absolutely to be relied on. Moreover, we are a little inclined to doubt the value of the praise which one poet lends another. It seems now-a-days to he the practice of that once irritable race to laud each other without bounds; and one can hardly avoid suspecting, that what is thus lavishly advanced may be laid out with a view to being repaid with interest. Mr. Coleridge, however, must be judged by his own merits.

It is remarked, by the writers upon the Bathos, that the true "profound" is surely known by one quality — its being wholly bottomless; insomuch, that when you think you have attained its utmost depth in the work of some of its great masters, another, or peradventure the same, astonishes you, immediately after, by a plunge so much more vigorous, as to outdo all his former out-doings. So it seems to be with the new school, or, as they may termed, the wild or lawless poets. After we had been admiring their extravagance for many years, and marvelling at the ease and rapidity with which one exceeded another in the unmeaning or infantine, until not an idea was left in the rhyme — or in the insane, until we had reached something that seemed the untamed effusion of an author whose thoughts were rather more free than his actions — forth steps Mr. Coleridge, like a giant refreshed with sleep, and as if to redeem his character after so long a silence, ("his poetic powers having been, he says, from 1808 till very lately, in a state of suspended animation," p. v.) and breaks out in these precise words—

'Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awaken'd the crowing cock;
Tu — whit! — Tu — whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,
Hath a toothless mastiff bitch;
From her kennel beneath the rock
She makes answer to the clock,
Pour for the quarters, and twelve for the hour;
Ever and aye, moonshine or shower,
Sixteen short howls, not over loud;
Some say she sees my lady's shroud.

Is the night chilly and dark
The night is chilly, but not dark. p. 3, 4.

It is probable that Lord Byron may have had this passage in his eye, when he called the poem "wild" and "original;" but how he discovered it to be "beautiful," is not quite so easy for us to imagine.

Much of the art of the wild writers consists in sudden transitions — opening eagerly upon some topic, and then flying from it immediately. This indeed is known to the medical men, who not unfrequently have the care of them, as an unerring symptom. Accordingly, here we take leave of the Mastiff Bitch, and lose sight of her entirely, upon the entrance of another personage of a higher degree,

The lovely Lady Christabel,
Whom her father loves so well—

And who, it seems, has been rambling about all night, having, the night before, had dreams about her lover, which "made her moan and leap." While kneeling, in the course of her rambles, at an old oak, she hears a noise on the other side of the stump, and going round, finds, to her great surprize, another fair damsel in white silk, but with her dress and hair in some disorder; at the mention of whom, the poet takes fright, not, as might be imagined, because of her disorder, but on account of her beauty and her fair attire—

I guess, 'twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly

Christabel naturally asks who she is, and is answered, at some length, that her name is Geraldine; that she was, on the morning before, seized by five warriors, who tied her on a white horse, and drove her on, they themselves following, also on white horses; and that they had rode all night. Her narrative now gets to be a little contradictory, which gives rise to unpleasant suspicions. She protests vehemently, and with oaths, that she has no idea who the men were; only that one of them, the tallest of the five, took her and placed her under the tree, and that they all went away, she knew not whither; but how long the had remained there she cannot tell—

Nor do I know how long it is,
For I have lain in fits, I wis;

—although she had previously kept a pretty exact account of the time. The two ladies then go home together, after this satisfactory explanation, which appears to have convoyed to the intelligent mind of Lady C. every requisite information. They arrive at the castle, and pass the night in the same bed-room; not to disturb Sir Leoline, who, it seems, was poorly at the time, and, of course, must have been called up to speak to the chambermaids, and have the sheets aired, if Lady G. had had a room to herself. They do not get to their bed, however, in the poem, quite so easily as we have carried them. They first cross the moat, and Lady C. "took the key that fitted well," and opened a little door, "all in the middle of the gate." Lady G. then sinks down "belike through pain;" but it should seem more probably from laziness; for her fair companion having lifted her up, and carried her a little way, she then walks on "as she were not in pain." Then they cross the court — but we must give this in the poet's words, for he seems so pleased with them, that he inserts them twice over in the space of ten lines.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court — right glad they were.

Lady C. is desirous of a little conversation on the way, but Lady G. will not indulge her Ladyship, saying, she is too much tired to speak. We now meet our old friend, the mastiff bitch, who is much too important a person to be slightly passed by

Outside her kennel, the mastiff old
Lay fast asleep, in moonshine cold.
The mastiff old did not awake.
Yet she an angry moan did make!
And what can ail the mastiff bitch?
Never till now she uttered yell
Beneath the eye of Christabel.
Perhaps it is the owlet's scritch:
For what can ail the mastiff bitch?

Whatever it may be that ails the bitch, the ladies pass forward, and take off their shoes, and tread softly all the way up stairs, as Christabel observes that her father is a bad sleeper. At last, however, they do arrive at the bed room, and comfort themselves with a dram of some home-made liquor, which proves to be very old; for it was made by Lady C.'s mother; and when her new friend asks if she thinks the old lady will take her part, she answers, that this is out of the question, in as much as she happened to die in childbed of her. The mention of the old lady, however, gives occasion to the following pathetic couplet. — Christabel says,

O mother dear, that thou wert here!
I would, said Geraldine, she were!

A very mysterious conversation next takes place between Lady Geraldine and the old gentlewoman's ghost, which proving extremely fatiguing to her, she again has recourse to the bottle — and with excellent effect, as appears by these lines.

Again the wild-flower wine she drank;
Her fair large eyes 'gan glitter bright,
And from the floor whereon she sank,
The lofty Lady stood upright:
She was most beautiful to see,
Like a Lady of a far countree.

—From which, we may gather among other points, the exceeding great beauty of all women who live in a distant place, no matter where. The effects of the cordial speedily begin to appear; as no one, we imagine, will doubt, that to its influence must be ascribed the following speech—

And thus the lofty lady spake—
All they, who live in the upper sky,
Do love you, holy Christabel!
And you love them — and for their sake
And for the good which me befel,
Even I in my degree will try,
Fair maiden, to requite you well.

Before going to bed, Lady G. kneels to pray, and desire her friend to undress, and lie down; which she does "in her loveliness;" but being curious, she leans "on her elbow," and looks towards the fair devotee, — where she sees something which the poet does not think fit to tell us very explicitly.

Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
And she is to sleep by Christabel.

She soon rises, however, from her knees; and as it was not is double-bedded room, she turns in to Lady Christabel, taking only "two paces and a stride." She then clasps her tight in her arms, and mutters a very dark spell, which we apprehend the poet manufactured by shaking words together at random; for it is impossible to fancy that he can annex any meaning whatever to it. This is the end of it.

But vainly thou warrest,
For this is alone in
Thy power to declare,
That in the dim forest
Thou heard'st a low moaning,
And found'st a bright lady, surpassingly fair:
And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity,
To shield her and shelter her from the damp air.

The consequence of this incantation is, that Lady Christabel has a strange dream — and when she awakes, her first exclamation is, "Sure I have sinn'd" — "Now heaven be praised if all be well!" Being still perplexed with the remembrance of her "too lively" dream — she then dresses herself, and modestly prays to be forgiven for "her sins unknown." The two companions now o to the Baron's parlour, and Geraldine tells her story to him. This, however, the poet judiciously leaves out, and only signifies that the Baron recognized in her the daughter of his old friend Sir Roland, with whom he had had a deadly quarrel, Now, however, he despatches his tame poet, or laureate, called Bard Bracy, to invite him and his family over, promising to forgive every thing, and even make an apology for what had passed. To understand what follows, we own, surpasses our comprehension. Mr. Bracy, the poet, recounts a strange dream he has just had, of a dove being almost strangled by a snake; whereupon the Lady Geraldine falls a hissing, and her eyes grow small, like a serpent's, — or at least so they seem to her friend; who begs her father to "send away that woman." Upon this the Baron falls into a passion, as if he had discovered that his daughter had been seduced; at least, we can understand him in no other sense, though no hint of such a kind is given — but, on the contrary, she is painted to the last moment as full of innocence and purity. — Nevertheless,

His heart was cleft with pain and rage,
His cheeks they quiver'd, his eyes were wild,
Dishonour'd thus in his old age;
Dishonour'd by his only child;
And all his hospitality
To th' insulted daughter of his friend,
By more than woman's jealousy,
Brought thus to a disgraceful end—

Nothing further is said to explain the mystery; but there follows incontinently, what is termed "The conclusion of Part the Second." And as we are pretty confident that Mr. Coleridge holds this passage in the highest estimation; that he prizes it more than any other part of "that wild, and singularly original and beautiful poem Christabel," excepting always the two passages touching the "toothless mastiff Bitch;" we shall extract it for the amazement of our readers — premising our own frank avowal that we are wholly unable to divine the meaning of any portion of it.

A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds and never seeks;
Makes such a vision to the sight
As fills a father's eyes with light;
And pleasures flow in so thick and fast
Upon his heart, that he at last
Must needs express his love's excess
With words of unmeant bitterness.
Perhaps 'tis pretty to force together
Thoughts so all unlike each other;
To mutter and mock a broken charm,
To daily with wrong that does no harm,
Perhaps 'tis tender too, and pretty,
At each wild word to feel within
A sweet recoil of love and pity.
And what if in a world of sin
(O sorrow and shame should this be true!)
Such giddiness of heart and brain
Comes seldom save from rage and pain,
So talks as it's most used to do.

Here endeth the Second Part, and, in truth, the "singular" poem itself; for the author has not yet written, or, as he phrases it, "embodied in verse," the "three parts yet to come;" — though he trusts he shall be able to do so "in the course of the present year."

One word as to the metre of Christabel, or, as Mr. Coleridge terms it, "the Christabel" — happily enough; for indeed we doubt if the peculiar force of the definite article was ever more strongly exemplified. He says, that though the reader may fancy there prevails a great irregularity in the metre, some lines being of four, others of twelve syllables, yet in reality it is quite regular; only that it is "founded on a new principle, namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables." We say nothing of the monstrous assurance of any man coming forward coolly at this time of day, and telling the readers of English poetry, whose ear has been tuned to the lays of Spenser, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, that he makes his metre "on a new principle!" but we utterly deny the truth of the assertion, and defy him to show us any principle upon which his lines can be conceived to tally. We give two or three specimens, to confound at once this miserable piece of coxcombry and shuffling. Let our "wild, and singularly original and beautiful" author, show us how these lines agree either in number of accents or of feet.

"Ah wel-a-day!—"
"For this is alone in—"
"And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity—"
"I pray you drink this cordial wine—
Sir Leoline"—
"And found a bright lady surpassingly fair"—
"Tu — whit! — Tu — whoo!"

Kubla Khan is given to the public, it seems, "at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity;" — but whether Lord Byron the praiser of "the Christabel," or the Laureate, the praiser of Princes, we are not informed. As far as Mr. Coleridge's "own opinions are concerned," it is published, "not upon the ground of any poetic merits," but "as a PSYCHOLOGICAL CURIOSITY!" In these opinions of the candid author, we entirely concur; but for this reason we hardly think it was necessary to the minute detail which the Preface contains, of the circumstances attending its composition. Had the question regarded "Paradise Lost," or "Dryden's Ode," we could not have had a more particular account of the circumstances in which it was composed. It was in the year 1797, and in the summer season. Mr. Coleridge was in bad health; — the particular disease is not given; but the careful reader will form his own conjectures. He lad retired very prudently to a lonely farm-house; and whoever would see the place which gave birth to the "psychological curiosity," may find his way thither without a guide; for it is situated on the confines of Somerset and Devonshire, and on the Exmoor part of the boundary; and it is, moreover, between Porlock and Linton. In that farm-house, he had a slight indisposition, and had taken an anodyne, which threw him into a deep sleep in his chair, (whether after dinner or not he omits to state), "at the moment that he was reading a sentence in Purchas's Pilgrims," relative to a palace of Kubla Khan. The effects of the anodyne, and the sentence together, were prodigious: They produced the "curiosity" now before us; for, during his three-hours sleep, Mr. Coleridge "has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines." On awaking, he "instantly and eagerly" wrote down the verses here published; when he was (he says, "unfortunately") called out by a "person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour;" and when he returned, the vision was gone. The lines here given smell strongly, it must be owned, of the anodyne; and, but that an under dose of a sedative produces contrary effects, we should inevitably have been lulled by them into forgetfulness of all things. Perhaps a dozen more such hues as the following would reduce the most irritable of critics to a state of inaction.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she play'd,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win
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. &c. &c.

There is a good deal more altogether as exquisite — and in particular a fine description of a wood, "ancient as the hills;" and "folding sunny spots of greenery!" But we suppose this specimen will be sufficient.

Persons in this poet's unhappy condition, generally feel the want of sleep as the worst of their evils; but there are instances, too, in the history of the disease, of sleep being attended with new agony, as if the waking thoughts, how wild and turbulent soever, had still been under some slight restraint, which sleep instantly removed. Mr. Coleridge appears to have experienced this symptom, if we may judge from the title of his third poem, "The Pains of Sleep;" and, in truth, from its composition — which is mere raving, without any thing more affecting than a number of incoherent words, expressive of extravagance and incongruity. — We need give no specimen of it.

Upon the whole, we look upon this publication as one of the most notable pieces of impertinence of which the press has lately been guilty; and one of the boldest experiments that has yet been made on the patience or understanding of the public. It is impossible, however, to dismiss it, without a remark or two. The other productions of the Lake School have generally exhibited talents thrown away upon subjects so mean, that no power of genius could ennoble them; or perverted and rendered useless by a false theory of poetical composition. But even in the worst of them, if we except the White Doe of Mr. Wordsworth and some of the laureate odes, there were always some gleams of feeling or of fancy. But the thing now before us, is utterly destitute of value. It exhibits from beginning to end not a ray of genius; and we defy any man to point out a passage of poetical merit in any of the three pieces which it contains, except, perhaps, the following lines in p. 32, and even these are not very brilliant; nor is the leading thought original—

Alas! they had been friends in youth
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain.

With this one exception, there is literally not one couplet in the publication before us which would be reckoned poetry, or even sense, were it found in the corner of a newspaper or upon the window of an inn. Must we then be doomed to hear such a mixture of raving and driv'ling, extolled as the work of a "wild and original" genius, simply because Mr. Coleridge has now and then written fine verses, and a brother poet chooses, in his milder mood, to laud him from courtesy or from interest? And are such panegyrics to be echoed by the mean tools of a political faction, because they relate to one whose daily prose is understood to be dedicated to the support of all that courtiers think should be supported? If it be true that the author has thus earned the patronage of those liberal dispensers of bounty, we can have no objection that they should give him proper proofs of their gratitude; but we cannot help wishing, for his sake, as well as our own, that they would pay in solid pudding instead of empty praise; and adhere, at least in this instance, to the good old system of rewarding their champions with places and pensions, instead of puffing their had poetry, and endeavouring to cram their nonsense down the throats of all the loyal and well affected.