Coleridge’s demonic poems

Many interpretations have been given to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry, especially to his so called ‘demonic’ or ‘daemonic’ poems. Notorious for their ambiguous themes and morals, these have received critical readings varying from the social-historical to psychological and have had critics arguing over the significance of some or such symbol, be it the Albatross of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Geraldine from ‘Christabel’ or ‘Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. It is this work’s aim to read these poems and the problems they generate under a psychological and religious light. This is a reading that is certainly not new; however it is also my intention to demonstrate how both, religion and psychology are inextricably linked in all these poems and in the mind of the author himself.

‘There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind/  Omnific. His most holy name is LOVE’ (1-2)

These first lines from ‘Religious Musings’ show us some of Coleridge’s religious beliefs; he was a Unitarian, a believer in the one God as opposed to the Trinity of most Christian traditions. He was also, like his friend Wordsworth, a Pantheist, in other words, he believed God to reside in all things natural, (and) this ideology can be illustrated with some of the lines of ‘The Eolian Harp’, one of his so called Conversational Poems,

‘Oh the one life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,’ (26-7)

And also,

                        ‘And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps,

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the soul of each, and God of all?’ (36-40)

It is interesting to see how Coleridge represents his God as ‘one Mind’ and ‘one intellectual breeze’, the ‘One Life’, as most critics now call Coleridge’s idea on the divine. This is a very interesting concept, since for Coleridge we connect to God, the infinite I AM of his Biographia Literaria (1817), through our imagination, that is from Him derived. A closer look into his aforementioned ‘demonic’ poems should help illustrate the point.

‘Kubla Khan’ was called a fragment by its own author, who alleged it in his preface to the poem to be inspired in a reverie induced by opium that was taken to treat some health problem, probably dysentery, and was interrupted when writing it by a man from Porlock. Since its publication in 1816 it has, as befitting good poetry, caused its critics no shortage of headaches. The contemporaries called it “nonsense” (Hazlitt, 1816) and or meaningless music, and even now, a good one hundred and ninety three years after the poem’s publishing, critics still argue on whether it is or not a fragment (Bahti, 1981, p. 1035), as Coleridge claims it to be. There is one more claim that Coleridge makes in his introduction to the poem that is interesting to consider: the one in which he says that he is publishing ‘Kubla Khan’ ‘rather as a psychological curiosity’ (my italics). Many modern critics seem to have picked up on that statement, for there is a tendency to regard the scenery of Xanadu, with its ‘caverns measureless to man’ ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills’ ‘forests as old as the hills’ ‘mighty fountain’ and ‘sacred river’, to represent the human consciousness (Patterson, 1974:1033). Albeit there is still some discussion as on what represents what exactly, Milne in his 1986 essay argues against Chayes’ (1967, p.7) interpretation of the river as imagination, since according to him it is the character of Kubla that represents it (p. 21).

The landscape of the poem had been a preoccupation of Coleridge long before he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’.  It appears in his very early sonnet ‘Life’ (1784), among others, where Kubla’s sacred river Alph is replaced by Coleridge’s ‘native Otter’. It continued to be an obsession of his even after he allegedly wrote it, as it can be seen in his Lake District notebooks (Pearce, 1981, p. 567). All this goes to show how important the landscape, which is fantastically described to us in the first stanzas of the poem, was to Coleridge.

The seductive Xanadu is ‘A savage place, holy and enchanted’ that is inhabited by a woman wailing for her demon-lover, ‘dancing rocks’, a sacred river, Kubla Khan and ‘A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’. It is a place of extremes, for Coleridge though imagination is our mean to understand our world around us and it is a gift from God. It is a very powerful tool that can be used, or misused as a matter of fact, for either good or evil. The poem is an ode to that creative power of the poet (Milne, 1986, p. 27) which Coleridge was always afraid of losing (Pearce, 1981, p. 579). The poet is both holy and dreaded for he can create things from the very air, he can drink ‘the milk of paradise’, he can experience both this world and beyond through the power of his imagination and he can make others experience it as well through his art. It is not important whether Coleridge intended to write more, but was interrupted by the man from Porlock; the poem is complete in its incompleteness.  Furthermore, it derives its greatness from the very fragmentary quality that some condemn, for it encourages one to induce one’s own meaning and interpretation and imagine one’s very own Xanadu, completing the imagery with one’s own imaginative powers. It is as man is, but a part of the ‘One Life’ and whole for it.

 ‘Christabel’ is another of Coleridge’s ‘incomplete’ poems; he was notorious even to his contemporaries for not finishing his works. It was supposed to have been included in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads but, partly due to the fact it was not complete, it was dropped by Wordsworth, who then transposed part of its theme to his own poem ‘Michael’ (Taylor, 2002, p.722); namely, the theme of having one’s identity/place taken by an intruder and into losing one’s own identity, taking in characteristics of the intruder itself. This can be seen on ‘Christabel’ on the following lines,

‘But Christabel, in dizzy trance/ Stumbling on the steady ground, / Shuddered aloud with a hissing sound;’ (577-9)

Here Christabel takes on the serpent aspects that are identified with the ‘monstrous’ Geraldine, who suppressed the ‘lovely lady’s personality and speech through an evil seal in her bosom. It is the character of Geraldine that has incited many different readings of Christabel, Henderson (1990, p. 883) believes her to represent the revolutionary ‘novelty’, since Coleridge was a supporter of the French Revolution but became disheartened with its bloody outcome, while the Baron Leoline, Christabel’s father, in his ironed’ castle, ‘toothless bitch’ and ‘murky niches’ represents the nobility. Some even go as far as suggesting that she is the alter ego of Christabel (Taylor, 2002, p. 712) which is an admittedly strained but possible reading. However, most critics would agree that Geraldine represents the Other, be it internal or external.  Coleridge begins the poem in a very childish manner, with onomatopoeias for the ‘crowing cock’ and lines such as

‘Is the night chilly and dark?/ The night is chilly but not dark.’ (14-5)

As well as being a play with the readers’ Gothic expectations, these lines accentuate the child like aspect of Christabel who, we are told, goes outside her father’s castle to pray for her ‘betrothed knight’ with whom she had ‘Dreams that made her moan and leap.’ She is, therefore, a child curious about the adult world, a teenager if you will. It is outside her father’s protective walls, on the other side of huge oak tree, that she meets the character Geraldine. Geraldine is first described to us as a ‘damsel bright’ with a voice ‘faint and sweet’, she then describes her kidnapping, and possible rape, by the five warriors to Christabel.  She is at the same like and unlike Christabel, for at this point she represents the idealised Other. Already their selves start to merge as Christabel takes her back to the castle, and her own room, for they start to share descriptions such as ‘sweet’ and ‘fair’. Also of note is the fact that Christabel, bares her own feet acting herself in her transformation into Geraldine, who, we are told, has her neck, feet and arms bare.

One could put it into Blakean terms, with Christabel being ‘innocence’ and Geraldine a subverted ‘experience’; however, Geraldine, unlike Blake’s experienced characters, has a powerful imagination. She is capable of linking with her victims in a subconscious level and act upon it, presenting herself as what the other wishes to see and that is what makes her so evil, for she uses this ‘divine’ power of imagination not to empathise, understand and help the other, but to control them becoming thus a force of destruction. Interestingly in the published 1816 text the moment in which Christabel is ensorcelled by Geraldine’s touch is transcribed thus,

 ‘Behold! Her bosom and half her side –/ A sight to dream of, not to tell!/ And she is to sleep by Christabel. (246-8)

In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell/ Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel! / Thou knowest tonight, and wilt know tomorrow, /This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow;’ (255-8)

Her ‘seal of sorrow’ if a thing of dreams, she acts her evil through the persons consciousness and imagination and she is all the more demonic for it. She takes the role of Christabel’s mother and of Christabel herself, destroying the ‘fair maid’s relationship with her father and forcing her to become the Other (Taylor, 2002, p. 718).

‘Christabel’, as a poem, also speaks volumes about Coleridge’s own empathic abilities. Its female protagonist, whose voice is robbed and is oppressed by her father and those around her, shows us Coleridge’s own ability to sympathise with the repressed Other and attempt to speak for it. Another testament for Coleridge’s imaginative powers is the poem that opened the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, and arguably his most famous and influential work, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The version I am using here however is the 1817 Sybilline Leaves, version which is famous, if not infamous, for its glosses.

‘The Rime of the Ancient mariner’ is among the ‘demonic’ poems the one with the most religious overtones. We are introduced to the Wedding Guest and to the Ancient Mariner, who holds him with his glittering eye and forces him to hear his tale right outside a church. Moreover, the mariner shoots the albatross, which was hailed as a Christian Soul by the crew, with a crossbow, and the Mariner constantly cries to God and the Holy Mary, thus identifying himself as a Catholic. All this and the Mariner’s concluding moral lesson to his mesmerized captive,

‘He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small, /  For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.’ (614-7)

It is tempting to simply take the ‘bright eyed’ Mariner’s tale as a simple religious moral tale. However, the text itself undermines such a reading, not only by identifying the Mariner as a Catholic, who Coleridge generally regarded as superstitious, but also through several other instances that are clearly not conventionally Christian. Not least of all that the punishment that the Mariner and his Crew endure far outweighs the crimes attributed to them, but also the fact that the punishing natural spirits that punish the Mariner for killing are outside of traditional Christian strata, and finally that the fates of the Mariner and his crew are decided by Death and Life-in-Death by means of a game of chance, namely in a game of dice.

Due to these and many other factors, such as the different layers of narrative which I will speak of later, there are many varied readings of ‘The Rime’. For instance, Fulford (2006, p. 50) and Lee (1998, p. 677) both attribute the theme of the poem as being that of the social guilt of the British Empire for the slave trade. Kitson (1989, p. 206) also sees the theme as being of guilt, namely as the personal and collective guilt Coleridge felt towards the French Revolution. All these and more are all valid readings of the text, as Mcgann (1981, p. 66) rightly puts it, ‘A poem like the “Rime” encourages, therefore, the most diverse readings and interpretations.’ One of the ways it does so is through its narrative structure, for we have a tale told by a bard, the telling of a story told by an Ancient Mariner to a Wedding Guest, and this is in turn is commented on by a mid -17th Century unorthodox Christian, identifiable by his diction and unconventional view on spirits, in the form of glosses.

Being thus, one cannot but understand why there are so many diverging readings of the poem, for the poem itself leads the reader in different directions, complicating a simple one-way reading. Gose (1960, pp. 238-44) on his essay reads the poem under a solely religious view and Williams (1993, pp.1114-27) takes Coleridge up on his claim that ‘The Rime’ is ‘a poem of pure imagination’ (Table Talk 273) considering, as Mcgann (1981) before her, that the religious symbols are only there to generate social, historical and psychological interpretations. However, I would like to argue that, as I have stated before, both psychological and religious are linked. ‘The Rime’ may very well be ‘a poem of pure imagination,’ however that does not exclude its religious, or even social, undertones.

Coleridge states in his Biographia Literaria (1817) chapter 14 that his part in the Lyrical Ballads, where the ‘The Rime’ was first published,

should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic – yet so as to transfer, from our inward nature, a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. (pp. 19-22)

And that he did.  The fantastic imagery, with its mist and snow background with ice ‘As green as emerald’, ‘bloody sun’, its ocean that, ‘like a witch’s oils/ Burnt green and blue and white’, and the skeleton ship with Death and Life-in Death as the only passengers, make for a surreal scenery that draws the reader in. The descriptions are so dream-like that in fact they make one wonder whether or not the ‘bright eyed’ Mariner is not delirious (Fulford, 2006, p. 52).

That would make sense if one reads the imagination as the link between God and man: if imagination is the tool for mankind to engage with the divine, it would only make sense for the opposite to be true. The Mariner is punished through his own imagination and superstition, much like Harry Gill of Wordsworth’s ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill: A true Story’. Such a reading would also explain the Mariner’s compulsion to actively relive his nightmare through the constant retelling of it, as can be seen on his following lines,

‘Since then, at an uncertain hour, / That agony returns,/  And till my ghastly tale is told, / The heart within me burns.’ (582-5)

The often hazy and confused account of his return from the Pole, is like an awakening from a profound dream. Thus, it could be said that for Coleridge, in a similar but ultimately different manner from Blake, heaven, salvation and damnation are states of mind.

The Mariner’s crime – killing an albatross – may seem at first as petty crime for such grand a punishment; however that is not the case if one is to take Coleridge’s pantheistic views in mind. The Albatross is hailed as a ‘Christian soul’ by the Crew and Mariner; it represents, at the same time, part of the ‘One Life’ and the different Other. The Crew then impose their superstitions unto the bird, robbing it of its own identity and transforming it into something it most likely is not, an omen, and based on his own self-imposed view of the Albatross the Mariner then sees it fit to kill it. The killing of the Albatross thus represents the Mariner’s failure to engage with the other and his crime, although decidedly lesser, is similar to Geraldine and, arguably, Leoline’s towards Christabel.

It was my premise to approach these great poems under a psychological and religious guiding light and also to interpret the often symbolical events depicted in them, approaching the problems they generate. I have taken into consideration Coleridge’s obscure description of imagination and the ‘Infinite I AM’, his idea of ‘One Life’ and the ‘intellectual breeze’ to argue that in Coleridge, as in – some would say – Blake, the psychological and the religious walk hand in hand. By approaching the text with such a point of view many ideas have been unearthed, such as Coleridge’s view on the double power of imagination for creation, realization and pleasure as well as for oppression, subversion and destruction, as it can be seen on the all three poems.  His views on the very composition of one’s identity as dependent on the Other, also come to the fore, as it is shown in ‘Christabel’ and to some degree ‘The Rime’. Yet what strikes through the most is the power of Coleridge’s own imagination and rhetoric, for his poems work on so many different levels of meaning and consciousness that one can not hope but stand in  awe and ‘holy dread’ of this great poet.


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