FANTASY IN COLERIDGE’S POETRY

According to the critic, Tzvetan Todorov, in Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms, “fantastic literature … [is] deliberately designed by the author to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty whether the events are to be explained by reference to natural or to supernatural causes.” (Abrams, 1993, pp. 168-9)  M. Saxby, in his article ‘Fantasy: Beyond the Rim of Reality’, states that:

[f]antasy … reflects reality through unreality, life
through illusion …. makes visible the invisible and
illuminates the darkness.  It brings the wished for

and the imagined into the rational world …. [and]
arises from the human desire to penetrate the
unknown and to venture beyond the here and now.
(Saxby, 1997, pp. 231-2)

Both definitions apply to Coleridge’s poetry.  His use of the supernatural is deliberate; a breaking away from his collaborator, Wordsworth’s use of Nature as the force that rewards and punishes mankind.  Fantasy fills an important function in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – not only as an expression of his theoretical individuality, but as a vehicle for the expression of dream-vision and the deliverance of a moral lesson.

In Coleridge, fantasy is driven by the imagination rather than by fancy.  According to Coleridge, fancy, relying on memory, is mere technique, for example metaphor and simile, to create links between disparate objects or ideas.  Imagination is so much more – it is the seamless incorporation of these objects and ideas, their blending to form a new complete subject.  While fancy reorders images, reassembles fixities, imagination creates by unification of the fixities.

The faculty of imagination … assimilates and synthesizes the most disparate elements into an organic whole – that is, a newly generated  unity, constituted by a living interdepen-dence of parts whose identity cannot survive their removal from the whole. (Abrams, 1993, p. 64)

Thus, while fantasy is the expression of the super-real, of dream-vision material, of the uncanny and spiritual, where it is necessary for the reader to suspend their disbelief of the subject in order to immerse themselves in the narrative, in Coleridge’s works it is governed by his theory on imagination.

Yet this theory was not clearly formulated until his Biographia Literaria late in his life. As the difference between his views and Wordsworth’s became gradually more apparent to him, Coleridge increasingly mulled over the notions of his theory.  Consequently, his poetry reflected his developing theory, with the break with Wordsworth occurring with the writing of the Preface to their joint venture Lyrical Ballads, and Wordsworth’s with-drawal from the composition of the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.  This may have been as much to do with “the voluble facility of an inspired Coleridge in the white heat of creativity” (Hill, 1983, p. 126) as with their difference of opinion where “Words-worth’s objection is that Coleridge ignored the morally curative power of Nature and ‘took to the supernatural’ instead.” (ibid, p.126)

Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’, the transcription of a dream-vision, allegedly unfinished due to interruption, created much controversy and plural interpretations. This however, did not bother Coleridge who stated in an unpublished notebook that poetry “gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood” (Coleridge, E.H.,1895, p.5)  The poem has been interpreted as a ‘musical composition’; ‘romantic inspiration’; ‘pure lyricism’; ‘a poem about poetry’; ‘an unconscious revelation of personal fantasies and repressed, usually erotic, urges’; ‘a landscape-poem and a poetical daydream’; ‘a political statement’; and a ‘theological’ exploration. (ibid, pp. 94-102)

The interpretations can be Mythical; Sexual, with phallic, and womb symbols; Allegorical re the Imagination, where caverns equal the mind, river/water/Milk of Paradise equals the imagination; Tangential with Stream of Consciousness;  and Contradictory with the use of contraries – for example the stately pleasure dome/ ice caves as culture/nature. A man of contraries, Kubla Khan is powerful and dangerous, yet capable of building an exquisitely beautiful palace and gardens.  The supernatural qualities of the content create an ethereal fantasy – it is, as Hill states, “so provokingly enigmatic …. [with] mystery and ambiguity, verisimilitude and teasing suggestiveness [its] … essential ingredients.” (ibid, p. 98 & 102)

My interpretation of ‘Kubla Khan’ (Norton, 1983, pp. 564-5) aligns with the ‘landscape-poem and poetical daydream’, but guided by the intent of the poet.  I believe that he deliberately laid the poem out as he did, with four alternately descriptive and ruminative stanzas.  In the first stanza Coleridge imaginatively describes Xanadu, evoking an enchantment with language that blends the natural with the man-made.  The pleasure dome, the walls and the towers “were girdled round” (ibid, p. 565, line 7), that is enwrapped by beautiful gardens “where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree”.(ibid, p. 565, line 9)  As if wreathed by the magical incense from the gardens, the man-made elements took on their same super-natural quality.  Fantasy, driven by the Imagination and its blending of man-made and natural elements to form a believable cohesive unity called Xanadu, was deliberately created.

Although he was recording the contents of a dream as a result of opium-induced inspiration, nevertheless Coleridge was still the author, in control of the words he wrote, the images he used, the atmosphere he created.  He continued this physical blending of the binary opposites – man-made / nature – in the third stanza, summing up Xanadu, the outcome of the blending, with the lines:

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!
(ibid, p. 565, lines 35-6)

I believe this is a blatant acknowledgement of Coleridge’s deliberate control of his fantasy – the vehicle for the expression of his dream-vision and an expression of his theoretical individuality.

The second and fourth stanzas, however, could be described as tangential, or ruminative.  It is as though having laid down his physical atmospheric description of Xanadu, Coleridge felt compelled to elaborate, to expand the texts of the first and third stanzas in order to add to their verisimilitude.  Having created a ‘supernatural’ place, that the reader can enter by suspending their disbelief, it was necessary to him to back up his creation, make it more credible with extra information.  But the second and fourth stanzas remain an echo of the first and third.  For example, the lines 25-28 are an expansion of lines 3-5 – both describing the river Alph on its journey through the caverns to the “sunless sea” / “lifeless ocean” (ibid, p. 565, lines 5 & 28)  Similarly, the “caves of ice” (ibid, p. 565, lines 36 & 47) feature in both the third and fourth stanzas, with “the shadow of the dome” / “That sunny dome” (ibid, p. 565, lines 31 & 47) creating a sense of contrariness from which in both stanzas the noise of pleasure, the music is heard across the water.

Once again I believe the ruminative tangents, with their mythical tangents – for example, “Abyssinian maid” and “Mount Abora” (ibid, p. 565, lines 39 & 41) – were a deliberate device used by Coleridge to heighten the sense of the supernatural, the unreality of his
creation,  the function of its fantasy.

* * *

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Norton, 1983, pp. 567 – 81) the fantasy is inter-woven within the narrative, an inextricable part of the organic whole.  Once again Imagination is the unifying power for the narrative, although Coleridge used devices of Fancy within his imagery – for example, “the sails did sigh like sedge” (ibid, p. 575, line 319).  It was a working example of his as yet unformulated theory.  Vital to the creation of his fantasy-narrative was the introduction of the supernatural, which was

not separate from the natural, but the inner essence of it; and the Mariner’s experiences, at once physical and meta- physical, constitute an imaginative exploration of the links between the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural. (Hill, 1983, p. 159)

Another Coleridge poem evincing a plurality of critical analyses – poetical, psycho-logical, political, theological, philosophical, autobiographical, and as “a spiritual allegory depicting human life as a sort of Pilgim’s Progress on the sea” (ibid, p. 155) – as a narrative it explores the notions of crime and punishment, guilt, terror, despair, loneliness, retribution and redemption.  Framed by the real world of the wedding feast and its guest, the narrative submerges the reader in mystical events with “daemons and phantoms whom the Mariner encounters [as] projections from the unconscious depths of [Coleridge’s] own troubled mind.” (ibid, p. 128)

Another device used by Coleridge in the construction of his fantasy, that contributes to its function as a vehicle for deliverance of a moral lesson, is that of a gloss.  With its style that of an imaginary medieval narrative poem, the gloss, written in more modern language, “strengthen[s] the poem’s moral theme of crime and punishment and … give[s] Coleridge an opportunity to explain certain obscure or ambiguous incidents”. (ibid, p. 121)  The gloss acts as a marker, a series of bookmarks to assist the reader to locate various events within the narrative.  Then, if the symbolic imagery is  beyond comprehension, the gloss acts as interpreter.

Coleridge opens the poem with a Latin quotation from the 17th century English theologian, T Burnet, concerning the possibility of there being supernatural spirits in our world, their effect on us, and our relation to them.  This sets the scene, directs the readers to the fact that they are about to encounter the supernatural, and that the narrative may be truth or fiction.  By the fourth stanza in Part I the introduction of the uncanny occurs, as the Wedding Guest stands still, compelled by the Mariner’s “glittering eye” to “listen like a three year’s child” (Norton, 1983, p. 568, lines 13 & 15) The Albatross, a good omen, seems to assist the Mariner’s ship, blown off course to the South Pole by a storm, to return to warmer waters.  Part I ends with the deliberate shock of the killing of the Albatross by the Mariner.  Up to this point the narrative mostly lies within the natural world.

In Part II the crew, after blaming the Mariner for killing “the bird that made the breeze to blow” (ibid, p. 569, lines 93-4), change their minds when the sun disperses the fog linked by them with the bird.  As a result of their complicity the ship is becalmed – coincidence or supernatural forces?  The introduction of hallucination due to thirst is coupled with the introduction of the Spirit of the avenging Albatross – the moral lesson of
accountability is begun – “a crime against Nature is a crime against God” (Hill, 1983, p. 156) .  Part II ends with the corpse of the Albatross being hung around the Mariner’s neck as an act of penance.

With each consecutive supernatural event, creature, miracle and personification that enter and effect the Mariner and his crew in their natural world, this fantasy function escalates.  According to Edward Bostetter:

the spiritual forces at work in the Mariner’s authoritarian universe are despotic and unpredictable.  It is a nightmare world of inconsequence, terror and meaningless suffering … governed by chance, where caprice is the decisive factor – as the dice-game between Death and Life-in-Death for the Mariner and his ship-mates makes clear. (ibid, p. 156)

After the appearance of the skeleton ship and its eerie crew, the Spectre-Woman and her Deathmate, Part III ends with the death of his crew.  When in Part IV the Mariner blesses the beauty of the sea-creatures, the spell is broken:

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
(Norton, 1983, p. 574, lines 288-91)

Coleridge makes visible the invisible and brings the wished for and the imagined into the rational world with his creation of the ghostly crew, a Polar spirit, “a troop of spirits blest” (ibid, p. 575, line 349) and a Hermit.  These emphasise the power of retributive supernatural forces, and assist the Mariner to return to his home-land “as a deeply shaken man possessed of a profound and simple truth which he is charged to impart to others”. (Hill, 1983, p. 157)  This truth is:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast. ….
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
(Norton, 1983, p. 581, lines 612-3,616-7)

Thus Coleridge’s function for his narrative, through the medium of Fantasy, driven by the unifying Imagination, and incorporating the metaphor, simile and metonymy of Fancy, conveys to his readers the moral lesson.

(C) Copyright Jud House 15/09/98

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:
Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (REFERRED TO AS NORTON)

Brett, R.L. & Jones, A.R. (Editors)(1991)  Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads.  London:  Routledge.

Coleridge, E.H. (Editor) (1895) Anima Poetae, from the Unpublished Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  London

Hill, J.S. (1985)  A Coleridge Companion.  London:  The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Raine, K. (1957)  Coleridge – Poems and Prose.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

Roper, D. (Editor) (1968)  Wordsworth & Coleridge/ Lyrical Ballads.  London:  Collins Publishers.

Saxby, M. (1997) ‘Fantasy: Beyond the Rim of Reality’, in Books in the Life of a Child: Bridges to Literature and Learning  (231-247), Melbourne: MacMillan.

Watson, G. (Editor) (1965)  Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Biographia Literaria.  London:
J M Dent & Sons Ltd.

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