Crisis of Creativity: “Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Muse & the Albatross”, an Essay by Jenny Fabian

michael whelan_fantasy_the mad poet (1)

“The Mad Poet” by Michael Whelan, 1992.

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.


Facsimilie title page from the 1816 edition.

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.


A beautiful antique cloth-bound edition of a selection of Coleridge’s work, ed. by Andrew Lang. The illustrations in this edition were astounding. 

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Why I Blog

I see a lot of posts about bucket lists and goals…I’ve always been an odd one out in these areas. You can imagine the challenges for me in the workplace and in raising a family…hell, Life for that matter.

I don’t really have a bucket list. I never have. I don’t want one. It makes me too anxious. Planning and goals are negatives for me. They make me feel trapped. I don’t know if there is a phobia named for this weird thinking/fear. Maybe a stray vein of claustrophobia…or agoraphobia.

I am the opposite of competitive. Games don’t matter to me. Neither do power plays or politics or bureaucracies. Rules, fences, boundaries…not really considered the right way to go to my temperament…which is fueled by fringes/margins/rebellions.

I do have daily things I like to get done, though. Reading projects. (Reading is not entertainment for me.) A feeling of productivity is good, and creativity, but only in small doses for me.

Having a big mountain to climb is not my thing. I don’t care about summits. I like journeys. Impromptu things found “along the way”. I use my blogs to write at least 1000 words a day on any number of topics. Sometimes it’s fiction; other times poetry; and sometimes it’s just essay work or miscellany. This keeps me sane.

The blogs are my “daily journals” my “morning pages” (ref. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way). This blog is the primary one I write on, though…

Links to my other blogs are here:

Read the Actual 1949 Diary of the Priest Who Inspired the 1973 William Peter Blatty Film: The Exorcist!

We Came Back Haunted: An Essay on the Ghostly by Ernest Rhys (1921)

We Came Back Haunted

Ernest Rhys, 1921


In my recent Ghost Book (The Haunters and the Haunted,1921), M. Larigot, himself a writer of supernatural tales, collected a remarkable batch of documents, fictive or real, describing the one human experience that is hardest to make good. Perhaps the very difficulty of it has rendered it more tempting to the writers who have dealt with the subject. His collection, notably varied and artfully chosen as it is, yet by no means exhausts the literature, which fills a place apart with its own recognised classics, magic masters, and dealers in the occult. Their testimony serves to show that the forms by which men and women are haunted are far more diverse and subtle than we knew. So much so, that one begins to wonder at last if every person is not liable to be “possessed.” For, lurking under the seeming identity of these visitations, the dramatic differences of their entrances and appearances, night and day, are so marked as to suggest that the experience is, given the fit temperament and occasion, inevitable.

One would even be disposed, accepting this idea, to bring into the account, as valid, stories and pieces of literature not usually accounted part of the ghostly canon. There are the novels and tales whose argument is the tragedy of a haunted mind. Such are Dickens’ Haunted Man, in which the ghost is memory; Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which the ghost is cruel conscience; and Balzac’s Quest of the Absolute, in which the old Flemish house of Balthasar Claes, in the Rue de Paris at Douai, is haunted by a dæmon more potent than that of Canidia. One might add some of Balzac’s shorter stories, among them “The Elixir”; and some of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, including “Edward Randolph’s Portrait.” On the French side we might note too that terrible graveyard tale of Guy de Maupassant, La Morte, in which the lover who has lost his beloved keeps vigil at her grave by night in his despair, and sees—dreadful resurrection—“que toutes les tombes étaient ouvertes, et tous les cadavres en étaient sortis.” And why? That they might efface the lying legends inscribed on their tombs, and replace them with the actual truth. Villiers de l’Isle Adam has in his Contes Cruels given us the strange story of Véra, which may be read as a companion study to La Morte, with another recall from the dead to end a lover’s obsession. Nature and supernature cross in de l’Isle Adam’s mystical drama Axël—a play which will never hold the stage, masterly attempt as it is to dramatise the inexplainable mystery.

Among later tales ought to be reckoned Edith Wharton’s Tales of Men GHSTSGRBXN1937and Ghosts, and Henry James’s The Two Magics, whose “Turn of the Screw” gives us new instances of the evil genii that haunt mortals, in this case two innocent children. One remembers sundry folk-tales with the same motive—of children bewitched or forespoken—inspiring them. And an old charm in Orkney which used to run:

“Father, Son, Holy Ghost!
Bitten sall they be,
Bairn, wha have bitten thee!
Care to their black vein,
Till thou hast thy health again!
Mend thou in God’s name!”

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“The Fascination of the Ghost Story” by Arthur B. Reeve, 1919


The Fascination of the Ghost Story

An Essay by Arthur B. Reeve, 1919

What is the fascination we feel for the mystery of the ghost story?

Is it of the same nature as the fascination which we feel for the mystery of the detective story?

Of the latter fascination, the late Paul Armstrong used to say that it was because we are all as full of crime as Sing Sing–only we don’t dare.

Thus, may I ask, are we not fascinated by the ghost story because, no matter what may be the scientific or skeptical bent of our minds, in our inmost souls, secretly perhaps, we are as full of superstition as an obeah man–only we don’t let it loose?

Who shall say that he is able to fling off lightly the inheritance of countless ages of superstition? Is there not a streak of superstition in us all? We laugh at the voodoo worshiper–then create our own hoodooes, our pet obsessions.

It has been said that man is incurably religious, that if all religions were blotted out, man would create a new religion.

Man is incurably fascinated by the mysterious. If all the ghost stories of the ages were blotted out, man would invent new ones.

For, do we not all stand in awe of that which we cannot explain, of that which, if it be not in our own experience, is certainly recorded in the experience of others, of that of which we know and can know nothing?

Although one may be of the occult, he must needs be interested in things that others believe to be objective–that certainly are subjectively very real to them.

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‘She was a 245-foot Canadian steamer built in Scotland in 1893. After crossing the Atlantic, the “Bannockburn” began work as a lakeboat for the Montreal Transportation Company. For almost a decade, she navigated the tumultuous waters of Lake Superior.


Above: Bannockburn in drydock in Kingston, Ontario

The final voyage of the Bannockburn began on November 20, 1902. She left from Thunder Bay, carrying 85,000 bushels of wheat, headed for the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, then on to the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. The oldest man aboard was 37-year-old Captain George R. Wood, his crew was young. The wheelsman, Arthur Callaghan, was only 16.

Before reaching open water, the Bannockburn grounded on some submerged rocks but sustained little damage. Speaking with first mate Alex Graham and second William Shockley, Captain Woods gained a consensus to press on. The next day, the Bannockburn sailed into the open lake with 21 souls on board. The weather was snowy, and as night fell, a powerful winter storm raked across Lake Superior.

Around 11:00 pm, the night watch crew of the passenger steamer Huronic, reported seeing lights on a ship they passed in the storm, which they believed were those of the Bannockburn.

Captain James McMaugh of the steamer Algonquin, also saw the ship. While captaining his own vessel through the choppy waters, McMaugh said he spotted the Bannockburn about seven miles south of him, running on the same course. Captain McMaugh turned his head to mention the Bannockburn’s progress to his first mate, when he looked back again, the Bannockburn had vanished.

The next day, the Bannockburn was reported missing at the Soo Locks. Immediately, rumored sightings of the ship began to crop up. She was reported to be ashore on Michipicoten Island, then the Canadian passenger steamer Germanic, sent news that she was seen along the mainland shore north of Michipicoten. On November 25, another steamer, the John D. Rockefeller, reported sighting a debris-field floating in mid-Lake Superior.

The first authentic evidence of a wreck came weeks later, when a patrolling surf man from the lifesaving station at Grand Mariais, Michigan came upon a battered life jacket from the Bannockburn. Eighteen months later, another finding was reported:

“A wandering trapper in the northern Michigan wilderness discovered an oar among the driftwood of the beach. Around the oar was wrapped a piece of tarpaulin, and when this was taken off a number of rude letters were revealed scrapped into the wood. They spelled the word B-A-N-N-O-C-K-B-U-R-N. For fear that the letters might not be noticed, the one who had cut them had filled the cut with human blood, and after this had frozen stiff, had wrapped the tarpaulin about it. From that day to this nothing more of the Bannockburn has been found.” – The Brooklyn Daily Eagle – Oct 29, 1905

Although she was never found, many sailors of the Great Lakes believed that the Bannockburn never stopped trying to reach its destination. Legends of its ghostly profile, coated in ice, silently gliding by other vessels, circulated through the ports and harbors of Lake Superior. Sighting of the ship were especially common during the winter months, usually during bad weather. In 1909, James Oliver Curwood wrote the following about the spectral ship:

“And now, by certain superstitious sailors, the Bannockburn is supposed to be the Flying Dutchman of the Inland Seas and there are those who will tell you in all earnestness that on icy nights, when the heaven above and the sea below were joined in one black pall, they have descried the missing Bannockburn—a ghostly apparition of ice, scudding through the gloom.”

One such story came from the iron ore freighter, Walter A. Hutchison. Shortly after World War II, the Walter A. Hutchison was headed to the Soo Locks in a storm. Eleven hours out of Thunder Bay, the crew knew they were close to shore, but could not tell how close because ice had crippled their electronics. With the wind blowing out of the northwest, they knew they were being pushed dangerously close. The captain wanted to steer a course more to the north, but this would put the seas on the side of the ship, and could cause the cargo to shift and capsize the ship. So, the captain continued on his course, preferring to risk possibly running aground to a likely capsizing.

The crew was shocked when a ghostly ship, coated in ice, loomed out of the darkness alongside them, taking a parallel course. The strange vessel vanished, but not before it was identified as the Bannockburn. The crew of the Walter A. Hutchison was just breathing a sigh of relief, when suddenly a rocket exploded in the night. By the light of its flare, the crew saw the Bannockburn a hundred yards off bearing down on them. The captain ordered the rudder brought over hard to port, bringing the bow around to the northeast. The Walter A Hutchison wallowed in the high waves trying to put distance between itself and the Bannockburn.

At the last moment, the Bannockburn passed safely astern of the Walter A. Hutchison. The crew continued to watch as the Bannockburn then ran aground on a group of rocks hidden by the waves and began to rip apart at the seams. Then, the Bannockburn simply disappeared. If the Walter A. Hutchison had not changed course, she would have been the ship impaled on the rocks. The ghost ship had led them to safety.


Some experiences hold their place in your memory through the sheer force of physical sensation. I spent five years of my childhood in Minnesota, and one memory from that time of my life stands clearly defined in my mind, carved into my neural pathways by the unforgiving claws of the northern cold. I can feel that cold when I read the story of the Bannockburn.

We were ice fishing. A fellow member of our church congregation had invited my dad, my brothers and me to come with him. He was an old, crusty outdoorsman of the north-woods, a throwback from a bygone era. I remember him spinning tales of panning for gold in Alaska, and hunting moose in the Boundary Waters “way up nort.” He snacked on frozen minnows from the bait bucket while coaching us on how to drill holes in the ice with an auger.

The weather was so cold, that the air burned when you breathed it. We boiled hot chocolate over a small fire and watched in amazement as the top of it froze over immediately when we poured it in our blue and white enameled mugs. Underneath the ice, the liquid was still hot enough to scald our tongues.

We pulled in a few perch, and threw them on the ice beside the hole where they slapped up and down for a few seconds before solidifying into statues of yellow and black, bodies curled in mid flop. The temperature continued to plummet, causing the ice beneath our feet to groan like a dying whale as it expanded.

On our way back to shore a blizzard blew in. The world around us turned a solid white, the vicious wind stung my eyes, drawing tears which froze my lashes together. Strange lights passed us in the swirling snow, as fishermen equipped with snowmobiles left the lake. I lost all sense of direction and distance, trudging blindly behind our friend and guide.

After what seemed like and eternity, we stopped. I realized we were standing beneath a pine tree, which meant we must be on shore. Our friend turned around, a wide grin on his wind-reddened face, his glasses frosted like a mug of root beer. He looked down at my brothers and me, “Boys, I think it’s getting a little chilly out here, dontcha know.”

(Source: The Weekly Holler/Tumblr)