Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Muse & the Albatross
Jenny Fabian, 2011
In 1800, when William Wordsworth rejected Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’ from the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, it precipitated a crisis of creativity for Coleridge. It would be another sixteen years before ‘Christabel’ was finally published in Sibylline Leaves, aptly-named, for Coleridge’s poetry is curiously prescient, particularly in his representation of women as portents of his own fear of failure.
This essay will examine how Coleridge’s imagination is driven by this fear of failure, the extent to which the women in his poetry are polarised, and the power they hold over speech, both to inspire and suppress. In ‘The Eolian Harp’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ I will examine the conflict between the earthly and the transcendental and the emergence of the Abyssinian maid as muse, with the idea that Coleridge sacrifices himself to her power. I will show how the fear of failure becomes represented as an inability to speak in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and how polarisation of women appears in the form of ‘Heaven’s Mother’ and ‘Life-in-Death’. Rituals of crime and punishment in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ illustrate the implicit symbolic violence of Coleridge’s imagination that exists beyond the threshold of consciousness.
The motif of thresholds is further explored in ‘Christabel’, which I will link with the Gothic symbolism that Coleridge employs to demonstrate the effects of evil on innocence; here Geraldine is the ultimate seducer in Coleridge’s pantheon of female representations, a lamia-like figure with hypnotic powers. Finally, in ‘Dejection: An Ode’, I will argue how, by acknowledging his loss of the transforming power of the imagination, this loss becomes transformed into a presence that enables Coleridge to explore his creative failure.
J.B. Beer, who describes Coleridge as a ‘visionary’, writes: ‘at times, he hoped to discover the ideal woman, who should be his inspiration; and at times the “Ideal woman” became, like Solomon’s Beloved, or the celestial bride of Jacob Boehme, the image of a psychological state – the recovery of Wisdom and the lost Shechinah’. (1) (Beer 1959, 270)
If Coleridge’s women represent a sense of divine knowledge, such as the sibyls of antiquity or the Abyssinian maid, they also represent the polar extreme of evil intention, like the intimidating Life-in-Death and the hypnotic Geraldine. Conflict between active and passive is intrinsic to the dynamics of Coleridge’s poetry and represents the competing desires for freedom and engulfment. Camille Paglia argues that ‘Coleridge’s protagonists are always sexually dual…The poet is feminine because passive to his own vision’. (Paglia 1991, 328-9) For the poet to abandon himself to his muse involves a form of active submission, and beneath the passive surface there is deep mental activity; consequently, the movement in Coleridge’s poetry oscillates between the doing and being done to, and it is hard to be sure who is ultimately in control.