Poetry and the Supernatural
This is my favourite essay by Maurice Bowra so far. Bowra starts out by giving his audience (for this was a series of lectures delivered at Harvard between 1948-1949) an account of how The Ancient Mariner came to be written:
Between the years 1797 and 1798, Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote three poems (Christabel, Kubla Khan, and The Ancient Mariner) which no one else could have written and which he himself was never again to equal or approach. Of all English Romantic masterpieces, Bowra thinks that they are the most unusual and the most romantic.
Coleridge at that time already composed good poetry, and had begun to take opium, although it was not yet a habit. His poetical outburst (flowering of his genius) could partially be attributed to his new acquaintance with the Wordsworths. The idea for this poem, first came from a Mr. John Cruikshank, who according to Wordsworth, had a dream about “a person suffering from a dire curse for the commission of some crime” and “a skeleton ship with figures in it.” Coleridge spoke to Wordsworth, who saw that it was a subject well suited to Coleridge’s genius and would fit into the part allotted to him in the plan of the Lyrical Ballads, in which Wordsworth was to take the subjects “chosen from ordinary life”, and Coleridge another class in which
the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.
On a walk in the Quantock Hills on November 20th, 1797, the plan of “The Ancient Mariner” was formed. Wordsworth contributed not only one or two phrases but the part played by the albatross and the navigation of the ship by dead men. The rest is the work of Coleridge, and on March 23rd, 1798, be brought the finished text to the Wordsworths at Alfoxden.
It should be added here that by taking the supernatural for his province, Coleridge is in a sense going against the tides of his time. For this was ‘the age of reason’, despite the prominence of “Gothick’ novels in England. Coleridge thus set himself up for a difficult task: To succeed he must do a great deal more than reproduce the familiar thrills of horrific literature: he must produce a poetry of the supernatural which should in its own way be has human and as compelling as Wordsworth’s poetry of every-day things. As Coleridge himself writes his Biographia Literaria (autobiography/literary discourse published in 1817):
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.
But how can these supernatural elements, strange, mysterious and unfamiliar to everyday experience, strike a chord with the readers and at the same time arrive at a so-called ‘dramatic truth’? This is precisely what Bowra seeks to answer.
Dream as a poetic device
According to Bowra, Coleridge uses the characteristics of dream, which is something the readers all knew and understood, to make familiar his unfamiliar theme. Dream is something that appeals to the readers, it is something that touches their hearts and imaginations, and through this, they could be led to appreciate the remoter mysteries which he keeps in reserve. Bowra writes:
dreams can have a curiously vivid quality which is often lacking in waking impressions. In them we have one experience at a time in a very concentrated form, and, since the critical self is not at work, the effect is more powerful and more haunting than most effects when we are awake. If we remember dreams at all, we remember them very clearly, even though by rational standards they are quite absurd and have no direct relation to our waking life. They have, too, a power of stirring elementary emotions, such as fear and desire, in a very direct way, though we do not at the time ask why this happens or understand it, but accept it without question as a fact. It is enough that the images of dreams are so penetrated with emotional significance that they make a single and absorbing impression. Coleridge was much attracted by their strange power. In “Christabel” he speaks of
such perplexity of mind
As dream too lively leave behind
and The Ancient Mariner bears the marks of such a liveliness. On the surface it shows many qualities of dream. It moves in abrupt stages, each of which has its own single, dominating character. Its visual impressions are remarkably brilliant and absorbing. Its emotional impacts change rapidly, but always come with an unusual force, as if the poet were haunted and obsessed by them. When it is all over, it clings to the memory with a peculiar tenacity, just as on waking it is difficult at first to disentangle ordinary experience from influences which still survive from sleep.
Realism in the Supernatural
In other words, Coleridge uses the atmosphere of dreams to accustom his readers to his special world, which enabled him to present in concrete shapes many feelings and apprehensions which were not less haunting because they were undefined, and to create freely within his chosen limits. This does not necessarily mean that the world he created was an imaginative world devoid of any form reality. Physical and emotional realism can be felt throughout the poem. This is achieved through the use of sensual experience, or what Coleridge calls “a faithful adherence to the truth of nature” which is characteristic of the Romantic movement. The Romantics knew how to use their senses, and Coleridge took great pains to see that his eerie subject is real both for the eye and for the emotions. In doing so, he is by no means photographic or descriptive, his eye for nature is for its more subtle charms and less obvious appeals. In his choice of details we see his affinity with Wordsworth, but there is much that is indisputably his own, especially in the richer and more luxurious pleasure which he takes in some natural things. (Example?)
In exercising imaginative realism, Coleridge created an imaginary world that offers an alternative to familiar existence which is at the same time an illuminating commentary on it. The Ancient Mariner is his greatest poem because he put most of himself into it and in it spoke most fully form his inner being. The brilliant reality which he gives to this invention of his imagination comes from his prophetic insight into himself. He was to suffer, as few poets have suffered, from the discordant contrast between reality and dream, between blissful confidence and bitter, broken hopes, between the warmth of human ties and the cold solitude of the haunted soul. It was from some foretaste or premonition of these contrasts and these struggles that he made his poem, and they provide its relation to life. Coleridge was too modest when he said that all he wished to secure was “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. His poem creates not a negative but a positive condition, a state of faith which is complete and satisfying because it is formed on realities in the living world and in the human heart.
Ps, I really like this phrase “Reduced to its lowest terms in the dry language of abstraction”