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.
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:
“Nobody in that quiet neighbourhood had a clue about the battle of good and evil that was about to take place in that quaint brick house.”
– Steve LaChance, Author of Confrontation with Evil: An In-Depth Review of the 1949 Possession That Inspired The Exorcist, Llewellyn, 2017
The following post contains language and situations that some readers may find offensive or troubling. Reader discretion is advised.
A Message from the Editor…
Some believe that, when we share words such as those shared here, other…things…travel along with those shared words—whether it be through a discussion, a letter, a phone call, a text message, or the Internet—things of a less beneficent nature than the sharer would have originally intended. This is most likely the very reason why a devoutly religious man, such as Father William Bowdern, chose not to comment very often, if at…
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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 and 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!”
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.