Treasure of the pleasure dome

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Alan Brownjohn appraises two new selections of Coleridge's poetry

A CHOICE OF COLERIDGE'S VERSE. Edited and introduced by Ted Hughes, Faber Pounds 7.99

COLERIDGE SELECTED POEMS. Edited by Richard Holmes, HarperCollins Pounds 20

Posterity has been content to credit Coleridge the poet with hardly more than three mysterious works: Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Cristabel. They were all written during a miraculously productive few months between October 1797 and March 1798 and derived from disturbed or drugged states of mind. His reputation has been allowed to rest not on his verse but on the vividness of his insights into poetry and the creative process, and his philosophical writings. He was, by this judgment, a great metaphysician but only a metaphysician.

In 1800 and 1801 he was disillusioned enough to declare, "As to Poetry, I have altogether abandoned it . . . I mistook a strong desire for original power, " and suggests that any likely biographer remember the daunting example of his great friend: "Wordsworth descended on him [Coleridge] . . . by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know that he himself was no poet."

After his death, editors and readers tended to endorse this self-deprecation. Selections have been a difficult proposition. The stark choice is apparent in the contrasting approaches of Ted Hughes and Richard Holmes. You can place, with Hughes, the three most famous, early poems at the centre of Coleridge's achievement, as examples of "an alternative world of visionary poetry [which] became too terrible to face". This confines the best of Coleridge's verse, at the very most, to 16 substantial poems and 12 lesser ones, absorbingly commended in a long introduction drawing widely on myth and mysticism in Hughes's best style.

Or you can seek to demonstrate "the intellectual scope, the beauty and the fine workmanship of Coleridge's poetry over his whole lifetime". The second method is preferred - but he is the first editor to prefer it - by Holmes, who is also Coleridge's latest biographer. His venturesomeness commends just over 100 poems to readers, without any resort to extracts from the poet's verse dramas.

Over the past half-century, critics have gradually managed to extend the frontier of appreciation into Coleridge's "domestic" or "conversation" poems, so the work was already begun. It was seen that poems such as "This Lime-tree bower my Prison" and "Frost at Midnight" did not simply take up from where poets such as William Cowper, or admired lesser talents such as the forgotten William Lisle Bowles, left off; or copy Wordsworth's preoccupation with the poetry of humble living. They were unique products of Coleridge's genius, examples of the fine shaping spirit (his own phrase in the "Dejection" ode) of his imagination. How much farther does Holmes take this process of advocacy and recovery?

He sets out the poems not chronologically but thematically, in sections such as "Hill-Walking Poems", "Confessional Poems" and "Visionary Fragments", which lack only a precise dating, on the page itself, of individual pieces to strengthen his argument that there is a "startling coherence" (rather than the more conventional "development") in Coleridge's achievement; and the thematic arrangement provides "an entirely fresh and enlarged sense of Coleridge's powers". Generous spacing - this is a handsomely-printed volume - allows for comfortable reading of, for example, Holmes's choice of 21 of the poet's 42 sonnets.

Some sonnets still seem makeweight, others look stronger for this method, notably "Work without Hope" - All Nature seems at work . . .

And I the while, the sole unbusy thing, Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing - anticipating Gerard Manley Hopkins's treatment of the theme in one of his "terrible" sonnets.

The group of six "Ballads" includes the Ancient Mariner and Cristabel, also the haunting Love (with its ambivalent Lady Genevieve) and the little-noticed Alice du Clos, oddly omitted from Hughes's choice, which could pass for a mid-Victorian verse horror-tale.

The collection of "Visionary Fragments" is dominated by Kubla Khan and Wanderings of Cain, which stand at the head of a series of unsuitable brevities like the parodic squib "On Donne's Poetry".

Visionary? This appears to confirm Hughes's view that the vision vanished after Cristabel. But separating out from the body of Coleridge's work the less "visionary" "Confessional Poems" and, especially, the "Asra" pieces addressed to his beloved Sara Hutchinson, substantiates Holmes's case for taking a closer look at some poignant and unjustly neglected work.

Ted Hughes invites readers of his introduction to concentrate on the famous three poems, seeing each as "a total symbol . . . a vessel for interpretations: the reader fills it and drinks".

Richard Holmes's lucidly helpful annotation of a wider range of work for which he feels a comparable (though very different) passion suggests students thereby fill out their knowledge of a poet who has sat for too long as a metaphysical adjunct to the major Romantics. It is a bold enterprise; and it substantially succeeds.

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