In the fall, my thoughts turn to books written two hundred years ago. I even read them sometimes, revisiting books I read let’s say ten years ago, before Wuthering Expectations emerged from my forehead.
Goethe’s Italian Journey is an 1816 book about a trip taken in 1780s. Its appearance after thirty years must have been a surprise. The biggest surprise of the year, though, has to have been the appearance of a little book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge titled Christabel; Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep. The book contains exactly those three poems, something less than eight hundred lines, although the first two also have long prefaces. The “Kubla Khan” preface is longer than the poem, and more interesting. Not a knock – it must have been astonishing.
My understanding is that there had not been any new Coleridge poems, not in a book, since the 1798 Lyrical Ballads. And suddenly here are three great ones, including what are now two of the three most famous Coleridge poems. The joke is that “Kubla Khan” was written in 1797 or so, “Christabel” abandoned in 1801, and “The Pains of Sleep” written in 1803. Why the delay? I don’t know. Coleridge had a long rough patch in there. In 1816, he launched into one of his most productive periods as a writer.
Because “Christabel” is unfinished, the narrative abandoned when it has barely begun, I can never remember what it is about, even when I have just read it. Christabel meets the mysterious Geraldine in the woods. Geraldine is the victim of some obscure crime, or perhaps a fairy, or a demon, anyways trouble. The accentual meter – four accents per line, no matter the syllables – give the poem an antique feel – or no, like Coleridge has translated it from German:
A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds, and never seeks,
Makes such a vision to the sight
As fills a father’s eyes with light…
“Christabel” has room for sleep and visions, which link it to the opium dream of “Kubla Khan” and the “contrast,” the “dream of pain and disease” (“KK” preface) of “The Pains of Sleep.” I finally noticed the second vision in “Kubla Khan,” after the pleasure done and all that wild stuff, in the third stanza, where the poet yearns for the “symphony and song” of a “damsel with a dulcimer” who he saw in an earlier vision. It is that music that he needs to describe the “sunny dome” and “caves of ice” of the second vision. “And all who heard should see them there” – heard the music of the one vision to see the subject of the other. Then the poet could be safe, then he could imagine himself as having “drunk the milk of Paradise.”
Two stanzas of magnificent stuff, lines among the most famous in English, and then one stanza that is a lament that the poet has failed. What he really saw was much more wonderful. If he could only – something. He is left with his “[h]uge fragments.”
The poet can complete the visions of torment in “The Pains of Sleep,” though:
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child…
The poet feels that he is experiencing the sufferings of the guilty and remorseful, but what has he done? He does not know his sin.
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be beloved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.
Poor Coleridge. A rough patch.
Christabel &c. was the poetic event of 1816, setting aside some other candidates.