by Dharmachari Abhaya. This essay first appeared in Urthona Issue 10.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows…
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The American critic Harold Bloom suggests that the hero of Romantic poetry is the creative process itself and that any inhibitions of the poetic outflow experienced by the artist must necessarily be “the antagonists of the poetic quest”.1 A classic struggle between the creative urge and its antagonists is to be found in the life and work of Coleridge.
Ted Hughes’ fascinating exploration of this theme in the long introduction to his A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse 2 traces the poet’s tragic conflict to its roots, chiefly by way of his reading of Coleridge’s three great visionary poems: ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and ‘Christabel’. Essentially his essay is about the deep split in the poet’s psyche, what he calls Coleridge’s two selves – his Christian Self and his ‘unleavened Self’ (Coleridge’s own term).
These poems belong to the late 1790s when Coleridge was revelling in his daily contact with the Wordsworths (“We are three people but one soul.”) His creative energies were wrought to such a pitch that he was able to bring the two selves into dramatic conflict in the powerful psychodrama of the visionary poems, which Hughes sees as a tragic opera in three acts. After ‘Christabel’, Coleridge’s two selves became so polarised that his poetry never reached the same heights again.
The fact that it was religion that was at the root of Coleridge’s conflict is what chiefly interests me about the Hughes interpretation. One engaging feature of the Buddhist life, as I see it, is that it facilitates rather than hinders the integration of creative energy and spiritual vision through, amongst other practices, meditation, aesthetic appreciation, and the development of the imagination. Art is in no way antithetical to the spiritual life. Yet here was Coleridge, an orthodox practising Christian as well as a gifted poet, a veritable Prophet of the Imagination, unable, except in intense bursts, to bring these two sides of himself together, and driven, early on in his career, to opium addiction on account of it. Hughes does, briefly, in a postscript, put Coleridge’s dilemma into a wider religious context. He points out, for example, that in pagan religions the snake is nearly always a positive motif and contrasts the snake-as-evil symbolism in Coleridge’s visionary poems with the Hindu Kundalini, the Serpent Power. Hughes makes no mention of Buddhism, but his allusion to other religions got me thinking about Coleridge’s poetic imagination, in theory and practice, from a Western Buddhist perspective.
The Historical Background
The connection between the imagination and the spiritual life is made explicit in English literature in the work of William Blake. In the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, the imagination was not a term that had much prominence. Though Addison stimulated a certain amount of interest in it, Doctor Johnson considered the imagination a rather suspect faculty, which might well interfere with one’s clarity, or even one’s veracity. Later on in the eighteenth century the leading Romantic poets became champions of the imagination and theorised about it: Wordsworth in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge in his literary criticism and Biographia Literaria, Keats in his letters, and Shelley in A Defence of Poetry. But though Wordsworth’s best work has a mystical quality, and there is a religious ring to Coleridge’s definition of the Primary Imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”, for the Romantics generally, the imagination did not have any directly religious provenance. The poets did, however, to some extent, take the place of the priests and become the prophets of the age. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the imagination went underground again (see, for instance, Dickens’ Hard Times) and in our own day we are struggling, against the tide of Postmodernist relativism, to ‘reconstruct’ it.
For William Blake, the imagination is much more than a mental faculty. It is, he claimed, ‘the Human Existence Itself’, and ‘the Eternal Body of Man’. He was inspired by the idea of the seventeenth century German mystic, Jacob Boehme, that the imagination is divinely implanted, “the Son” being “the substantiality of the Father’s imagination”. In his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity, he came to identify the figure of Jesus with the imagination. In Blake we see the perfect integration of a highly developed creative imagination with spiritual vision. His poetic utterances are the expressions of that vision, and flow without stint or hindrance. He was able to speak, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “the language of the whole man”.
In the late twentieth century, the creative imagination of the artist as a spiritual faculty has been the dominant theme of a group of writers led by Kathleen Raine, poet and Blake scholar. In the nineteen eighties, she founded the Temenos Academy and brought out a series of periodicals called Temenos 3 which were devoted to articles and poems by writers who valued and sought to foster the connection between imagination and the spiritual life. These writers are strongly influenced by the French scholar Henri Corbin, expert on ancient Arabic and Persian religious texts in which the imagination – or the Imaginal, as he prefers to call it – is revered as a spiritual faculty.
This ideal fusion – so beautifully realised in Blake, and so tragically missed by Coleridge – of the imagination with spiritual vision, is also explored in the work of the contemporary Buddhist writer and teacher, Sangharakshita. In a passage in his memoirs,4 Sangharakshita writes about his own version of the two selves, which he calls – rather prosaically! – Sangharakshita I, the self who wants to meditate and study the Dharma (the Teaching of the Buddha), and Sangharakshita II, the self who longs to write poetry and immerse himself in great works of literature. His own split was finally healed when he realized, in the process of exploring in depth one of Shelley’s poems with a friend, that they were in fact talking about the Dharma. From there he went on to write about the connection between art and religion, in early essays such as The Religion of Art and Advice to a Young Poet,5 and later in a booklet on William Blake. In two more recent papers, The Journey to Il Convento and St Jerome Revisited,6 he adopts Corbin’s term ‘the Imaginal’ and, very much in the spirit of Blake, writes about the Imaginal faculty as “in reality, the man himself, because when one truly perceives an image one perceives it with the whole of oneself, or with one’s whole being”.
Coleridge’s Two Selves
I do not mean to suggest that, for those of us who see no essential conflict between the creative imagination and the spiritual life in theory, the two always work harmoniously together in practice. Tensions may arise simply on account of the need to make ends meet, and neglect of the creative faculty can lead to imbalance. But for Coleridge it was not a question of imbalance between complements, but of a deep split between ultimately irreconcilable forces.
Reading his critical writings, one gets the impression that he was in complete agreement with Blake in theory. “The poet”, he declares, “described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity”. But in his poetry, he was rarely able to do that; his sources of inspiration were nearly always painfully split off from his spiritual ideals. “Who”, he complains, “that thus lives with a continually divided Being can remain healthy?” Two years before the writing of ‘Kubla Khan’,7 there is one glaring, and much quoted, instance, towards the end of the conversation poem ‘The Eolian Harp’, where his Christian Self, speaking through the voice of his new bride (“Meek daughter in the family of Christ”) interferes with the unleavened Self and virtually kills the poetry. She condemns his inspired lyricising about the “one Life within us” as mere “shapes of the unregenerate mind”. At this point, ‘The Eolian Harp’, becomes, in the words of the American critic Camille Paglia, “nearly schizophrenic in its argument with itself”.
It is true that great art often arises from deep conflict, and one might argue that in Coleridge’s case it was the constant tension between the conflicting pull of his two selves that led to some of his greatest poetry. Without it, would we have ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and the rest? Possibly not! On the other hand, had he enjoyed on, the psychological and spiritual level, the integration that Blake did, the flow of his inspiration might have continued, for much longer, to water different, and even richer, pastures. As it was, he was only able to harness the energy of the conflicting forces for those two productive years of his prime; thereafter the reins began to slip from his grasp.
No doubt it is symptomatic of the tenuousness of his hold that two of the visionary poems were fragments, never to be completed. In ‘Kubla Khan’, the appearance of his Muse, the “damsel with a dulcimer”, is more of the nature of a flash of light than a prolonged visitation. Hence the yearning in the lines:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
The heart of the problem was that his Christian Self failed to take into consideration the irrational parts of the soul, and was prone to neglect the sunless sea which was the ultimate source for “that sunny dome, those caves of ice”; things of beauty that would bring him lasting joy. From the standpoint of his professed religion, all that was profane. It was not that he saw poetry itself, kept within safe bounds, as profane, for he continued to write it for the rest of his life; the profanity lay in some of the significant images that surfaced when he managed, as in the visionary poems, to circumnavigate the mechanism of self-censorship, and contact the deeper springs of inspiration.
Shrines of the Muse
At these deeper levels, it felt just as natural for him to worship at the shrines of the Muse as at the altar of the Unitarian chapels he preached in, and the situation which results is not so much the religious versus the profane, but rather one kind of religion against another. The Muse makes her dramatic entrances into the visionary poems, as a damsel with a dulcimer and in other guises, as we shall see; and later, when Coleridge’s efforts to revive within him her “symphony and song” began to flag, she haunted him in his dreams.
In ancient Greece, the Muses were the goddesses of springs and their holy places were the fountains around mount Olympus and mount Helicon. Devotees would often build their shrines to the Muses at water-sources. Coleridge loved thickly wooded chasms where water bubbled and dripped, and in his poetry the creative flow is often evoked through images of springs and fountains.
There is an interesting parallel here with the Buddhist view of meditative experience. In one of his lectures on Buddhist meditation, Sangharakshita refers to the second Dhyana, or stage of meditative absorption, as the stage of artistic inspiration, suggesting a confluence of experience between the artist deeply absorbed in his work, and the meditator in his meditation. The Buddha’s image for the second Dhyana is an underground spring that wells up continually from the depths of a calm lake; its unruffled surface is the concentrated mind and the underwater spring welling up is the current of pure energy contacted in deep meditation, a source to which, most of the time, one has no access.
In an essay in Coleridge’s magazine, The Friend, there is a passage in which he expresses the discovery of Truth as the bubbling of a spring:
Truth considered in itself and in the effects natural to it, may be conceived as a gentle spring or water source, warm from the genial earth, and breathing up into the snow drift that is piled over and around its outlet. It turns the obstacle into its own form and character, and as it makes its way increases its stream. And should it be arrested in its course by a chilling season, it suffers delay, not loss, and waits only for a change in the wind to awaken and again roll onwards.8
The same image is echoed in his love song to Sara:
This love which ever welling at my heart,
Now in its living fount doth heave and fall,
Now overflowing pours through every part
Of all my frame, and falls and changes all
Like vernal waters springing up through snow.
For Coleridge, the conduit that led him back to the sacred springs of his creative life was the imagination, particularly what he termed the Secondary Imagination. It was that which brought life to a dead world, generating images and symbols, which he could forge together into a totally new whole. To lose touch with this inspiration, having once experienced it, was the tragedy of his life. His ‘Ode to Dejection’, written some three years later than the peak of the visionary poems, is a lament at the loss of poetic inspiration. He feels smothered by the weight of the dull pain, the void left by the suspension of his gift, “My shaping spirit of Imagination”. Without it even the beautiful night sky he gazes at becomes lifeless, for it is imagination that “brings life to a dead world” and he cannot hope
…from outward forms to win
The passion and the life whose fountains are within.
Later in the same poem, he blames himself for resorting to the habit of what he calls “abstruse research”, predominantly abstract thinking, to compensate for the loss of contact with the imagination which he defines as “the union of deep feeling with profound thought”. We are reminded here of his famous maxim “no man was ever a great poet without at the same time being a profound philosopher”. Thought has to be integrated with emotion.
In Buddhism, this gradual integration of reason with emotion, of the head with the heart, is one of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of the spiritual life. Inevitably, we all experience dry periods, or chilling seasons, as Coleridge puts it, when the springs of inspiration are silted over, during which there is nothing for it but to continue practising, waiting for that change in the wind.
Unfortunately, Coleridge’s chilling seasons grew longer and in the end, the wind rarely changed, and never for very long. The springs, though they never completely dried up, were reduced to an intermittent trickle. But long before that, soon after that early orthodox censoring in ‘The Eolian Harp’, comes the daemonic eruption of the visionary poems, in which the dramatic conflict between the two selves is so urgently played out.
The Muse in Kubla Khan
In ‘Kubla Khan’ the image from The Friend undergoes a violent transformation. Gone is the quietly assured tone of the gentle spring breathing up into the snow drift, together with any lingering associations with the underwater spring bubbling away in the second Dhyana. If there is any connection with meditation to be made at all, it is with the experience of ‘priti’, loosely termed ‘emotional release’ which can sometimes be experienced, in a state of meditative absorption, as eruptions of long repressed energy bursting through all barriers to the level of the conscious mind, sometimes so powerfully that one can feel quite overwhelmed. Similarly, the surges of inspiration in the second movement of ‘Kubla Khan’ burst through all Coleridge’s fears of his own imaginative impulses:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river –
The river, that is, of poetry, of sacred utterance, whose source is guarded by the Muses. The Muse appears here, as we have seen, as the damsel with the dulcimer:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Hughes provides a helpful gloss on ‘Abora’. The first two letters are the first two of the alphabet, followed by ‘ora’, the imperative form of the Latin word for pray (from the root ‘os’ meaning mouth). The combination thus yields a kind of shortened version of ‘O Mountain of the Word, pray for us’. Again, at this level of poetic inspiration, Coleridge’s split is not between the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the mundane, but between two religions, his orthodox Christianity and worship of the gods of inspiration. According to Plato, the poet, like the angel, was the intermediary, the appointed messenger of the gods. Poetry is the divine madness that gives voice to the prophet.
Blake seems to have been blessed with the ability to move, smoothly and at will, between the archetypal world and the world of ordinary sense consciousness, much to the perplexity of his readers! But most artists cannot prolong their stay in the archetypal world beyond the intense period of composition and must return to the in-between periods of ‘normal’ consciousness. As he grew older, and such periods became longer and longer, Coleridge had no choice but to revert to the level of conflict between his two selves.
If only the two could have been brought together! Kathleen Raine remarks sadly that had Coleridge perceived, as Blake did, that his “living power and prime agent” (that is, the imagination) is indeed the eternal Jesus, the lifelong conflict between the poet and the Christian in Coleridge might have found a perfect resolution and harmony. But Coleridge, unlike Blake, was strictly orthodox, and it was to be war rather than harmony, a war which he, the poet, eventually lost. An ominous note, premonition of the ensuing battle, is heard earlier in ‘Kubla Khan’, amid the stirring chords of the gigantic spring, in the lines
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
Deep as the conflict went, the spiritual yearning for wholeness, the recognition that one “who lives constantly divided” can never really be happy, could not be ignored. In the absence of wholeness, the divided soul, in desperation, vainly strives, on the conscious level of the ego, for an exclusive identification with one or other self. In Coleridge’s case it was with the persona of theologian and Christian philosopher that he struggled to identify. It is hardly surprising that in consequence, the repressed energy of the unleavened Self should turn so dark and daemonic.
An ongoing feature of regular meditation practice is, for many people, the sudden or gradual integration of formerly split off aspects of the psyche. This is often (though not necessarily) aided, in the course of practice, by the spontaneous appearance of archetypal symbols. The goal of the Buddhist Path, true and lasting Insight into the nature of reality, can only be achieved on the basis of this integration of the various aspects of the individual psycho-spiritual system. In the absence of meditation, or of any artistic outlet, the split-off selves manifest in dreams or even in waking visions, either spontaneous or drug-induced.
When Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination was functioning and he managed to cast the repressed contents of his psyche into the furnace of his creative effort the resulting work was rather dreamlike. Much of the drama of the visionary poems takes place in a kind of shadowy world, the world of those deep chasms where sunlight barely enters, underground caverns and sunless seas, transformed into what Richard Holmes has called Coleridge’s dream topography. Even when the scene is apparently daylight, one doesn’t get the feel of ordinary daylight. It is dream light, sometimes nightmare light! The form of Kubla Khan is the fragment of a dream, because it faded like dreams which, when we try to recapture them with our waking consciousness, quickly fade into oblivion. The now notorious Person from Porlock, who, Coleridge claimed, interrupted his flow, could well be the personification of normal waking consciousness obliterating the dream.
The dark and daemonic quality of the visions is at the same time fascinating – fascinating, that is, in the literal sense. Modern usage has reduced the meaning of the word to something like ‘very interesting’. The sense of being spellbound or mesmerised, of being unable to get away even if you want to – riveted to the spot like the bird by the snake, has been lost. But this is how the unleavened Self actually affects the Christian Self when the poetic urge erupts; it casts its spell, it mesmerises and enthrals. The resisting, conscious self is seduced, in a powerful rite of fascination. There is a strong element of this in all three visionary poems.
‘Kubla Khan’ ends with the Shaman-like image of the crazed, inspired poet-sage with flashing eyes and floating hair, the figure that would appear if only the poet were able to revive within him “that symphony and song”, that is, if he were able to produce the supreme poetry. Then the Bard would have to be circumscribed within the confines of a magic circle, to keep him within safe limits – that is, the unleavened Self, with all its daemonic energy would have to be ritually contained. And why? Because the poet is mad, crazy, beyond the pail:
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The poet’s tresses are spread out in waves either side of him, lifted by the divine wind of inspiration. The source of this image is Plato’s Ion, in which Socrates explains that “the poets do not compose in their right minds, but when they step to the mode and the rhythm, they are filled with Bacchic frenzy and possessed, as Bacchants are possessed when they draw honey and milk from the rivers. Lyric poets do this too. For the poets tell us that they carry honey to us from every quarter like bees, and they fly as bees do, sipping from honey-flowing fountains in (the) glens and gardens of the Muses”. The poets were nothing other than intermediaries, like angels, messengers of the gods; each possessed by one of the gods. When those ‘profane’ gods speak to us, we ignore them at our peril, as Coleridge was to learn to his cost.
The Ancient Mariner and the Muse
But he does not ignore them just yet. The crazed poet, emanation of the alienated unleavened Self, not to be contained, reappears right at the beginning of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, to cast his spell of fascination. The archetypal breaks into the everyday world like an overpowering vision as the Mariner waylays the Wedding Guest outside the Bridegroom’s door.
He holds him with his glittering eye –
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
As at the end of ‘Kubla Khan’, the psychodrama that is played out is between the two ‘religious’ modes, the orthodox Christian and the divinely inspired poet in the world of the Imaginal. These take more definite shape in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in the persons of the Wedding Guest and the Mariner himself. As the doomed ship enters the world of ice and snow, the intermediary between the two worlds appears as an albatross, a pure white sea bird sailing out of the fog on its beautiful wide wing span. It flies with the ship day after day until, for no apparent reason, the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow – an extreme way of dealing with the unleavened Self! The consequences are dire. The fair breeze that helps them across the Equator suddenly drops and the ship is becalmed. The mariners are surrounded by water:
Water water everywhere
But not a drop to drink
The Equatorial waters of the third and fourth parts of the ballad are not those of the mundane world, but of an archetypal dream world in which Coleridge again meets his Muse.
There is something vaguely Tantric about Coleridge’s imagery in these visionary poems. In the meditation-cum-devotional practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the practitioner visualises Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and wrathful Protector Deities, thousands of colourful figures that have now taken their place beside the historical Buddha in the traditional Buddhist pantheon. Some of the most fascinating figures are those known as Dakinis. The Dakini is a naked female figure who dances in the sky before the advanced yogi, blazing with wild, untrammelled energy. She often appears in cemeteries dressed only in ornaments of human bone and drinking human blood from a skull cup. To the uninitiated she is a fearful flesh eating ogress, to the yogin a manifestation of the supreme freedom of enlightenment.
These powerful forms, of Dakinis and other Tantric deities, appear in what is known in Buddhist cosmology, as the ‘rupaloka’, literally the world of Form, a world which is intermediary between the mundane world and the Transcendental. This realm has parallels with the intermediate realm in Persian sacred texts, which Henri Corbin calls the ‘Mundus Imaginalis’. Sangharakshita’s preferred translation of ‘rupaloka’ is ‘the world of archetypal form’.
The Muse figures that play a leading role in Coleridge’s visionary poems, like the Dakinis, do not come from the world of ordinary sense perception (though they may well be transformations of sensuous impressions). They come from, or appear in, the world of Archetypal form, which is just as real, and therefore just as important, from a Buddhist point of view, as the world of the waking senses. While they may not be Dakinis in the specifically Tantric sense of being agents of the utterly unconditioned freedom of the Mind of enlightenment, they are certainly reminiscent of the wrathful female figures that appear in a typical Tantric ritual drama. They are embodiments of psychic forces that have an urgent message for the visionary, in this case the poet.
In ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ the wrathful aspect of Coleridge’s poetic soul blazes out from the page as the Muse figure who dices with Death for his soul:
Her lips were red, her locks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
Like the Dakini, she means business! The incantatory rhythm of the ballad verse form, so supremely well controlled by Coleridge, has a ritualistic, mantra-like tone to it.
The Muse wins the gamble for the Mariner’s soul, the Unleavened Self is recontacted, and he experiences a spiritual healing. His doors of perception cleansed, he is awake again to Beauty. The water snakes which he had formerly seen as horrid forms writhing on the surface of the ocean become, according to Coleridge’s prose gloss to the verses, “God’s creatures of the great calm”, moving shapes of different colours – “blue, glossy green and velvet black” leaving behind them “tracks of golden fire”. With the return of inspiration, “A spring of love gushed from my heart”, and the curse is lifted:
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
Even though the ship eventually returns to his “home countrie”, to terra firma and so-called normality, and even though, at the end of the poem, the rescued adventurer speaks of his relief in orthodox Christian terms, the image we are left with is strongly reminiscent of the mad poet at the end of ‘Kubla Khan’, he of the “flashing eyes and floating hair”. The crazed visionary reappears as the battered Mariner who needs must roam the world telling his tale to whoever is constrained to hear it.
Seduction by the Daemonic Imagination
In meditation we bring together, through developing one-pointed concentration, the conflicting energies of our divided selves, effecting an integration which may last well beyond the duration of the meditation session. Through repeated practice, inner tensions are gradually resolved and higher and higher levels of psycho-spiritual integration are achieved. Symbols and archetypal figures may play their part in this process – it depends on the individual. Some meditators have a wealth of visions, others hardly any. One way that literature achieves this integration is by way of dramatic conflict of imagined characters that are embodiments of the unconscious, conflicting forces of the psyche. In ‘Christabel’ Part I, the conflict between the two selves is most explicit, the drama played out is that of the tension, as Paglia puts it, between imagination and morality.
This time the Muse moves centre stage and stays there throughout the drama, in conflict with the personification of the Christian Self, the virgin Christabel. It has even been suggested – and I don’t think this is too far-fetched – that the character of Christabel is Coleridge himself, the orthodox Christian being seduced and overpowered by his daemonic imagination, embodied in the figure of the enchantress.
The theme, then, in this final act, is enthralment. Geraldine, the enchantress figure, is a variation of the femme fatale figures, both the Lamia, the woman-snake creature, and ‘la Belle Dame Sans Merci’ later to be immortalised by Keats (and possibly influenced by Coleridge’s enchantress); she is a Siren-like female who in some way destroys those she allures.
In the middle of the night, Christabel leaves the confines of her father’s castle, to pray in the woods for the return of her betrothed knight. Under the spreading branches of a huge oak (a symbol of spiritual strength for Coleridge) she encounters the mysterious woman:
There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandal’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
Geraldine persuades the maid by a ruse to give her shelter for the night, in the home of the other self. The wild woman of the daemonic wilderness thus gains entry to “the symbolic castle of domestic civilisation”.9 Once there, she ravishes her victim. As she takes the maid into her arms, she delivers her incantation:
And in her arms the maid she took,
And with low voice and doleful look
These words did say:
“In the touch of his bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!”
In the end it is the poetic Self, lord of utterance, who holds sway. In Part II, when Geraldine sets about winning the support of Christabel’s father (Sir Leoline), the poetic Self, which has seduced the Christian Self, takes the form of a snake. The knight commissions his servant, the Bard Bracy, to act as ambassador to Geraldine’s father, but the Bard demurs, on account of a troubling dream he’s had the previous night. In the dream, he discovers a dove fluttering in the grass, which he immediately identifies as Christabel. When he looks closely, he discovers a green snake coiling itself round the maiden’s neck! In his research into his theory of the two selves, Ted Hughes discovers a fascinating echo of this passage in ‘Christabel’ in one of Coleridge’s notebooks. Harking back to his childhood, he speaks of “a cold hollow spot, an aching in the heart” when he said his prayers:
…as if a snake had wreathed around my heart and at this one spot its mouth touched at & inbreathed a weak incapability of willing it away….that spot in my heart [is] even my remaining and unleavened Self – all else the Love of Christ in and thro’ Christ’s love of me.10
As Sir Leoline vows that “thy sire and I will crush this snake!”, Geraldine looks askance at Christabel (“Jesu, Maria, shield her well!”) and Christabel, horrified by what she sees, begs her father to send the woman away:
A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy;
And the lady’s eyes they shrunk in her head,
Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,
And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,
At Christabel she looked askance! –
In orthodox Christianity, the snake is the embodiment of evil. In his tempting of Eve, Satan himself takes the form of the serpent. In other religions, as Hughes notes later, the snake, far from being an embodiment of evil is, on the contrary, a manifestation of previously dormant spiritual energy at last awakening. In the Hindu system, the serpent Kundalini represents the ascent of that energy, awakening the chakras or psychic centres as it winds its way up the central nervous system. In Buddhism we have a version of the snake as a beneficent force in the legend of the serpent Mucalinda. As the Buddha sits in meditation after his Enlightenment, the serpent wraps its coils gently round the Enlightened One and with the canopy of its hooded head, protects Him from the ravages of the storm. An image of perfect integration!
Freudians would no doubt have plenty to say about the sexual imagery in ‘Christabel’ and about the erupting springs in ‘Kubla Khan’. Coleridge’s life story yields plenty of evidence of sexual frustration and there is truth in Hughes’s judgement that “Coleridge was besotted with women”. But that is far from the whole story; it is also a dramatisation, played out in archetypal images, of Coleridge’s conflicting selves. In the end, soon, in fact, after Wordsworth’s gross error of judgement in rejecting ‘Christabel’ from the second edition of The Lyrical Ballads, and in the absence of support from his chosen religion, Coleridge lost heart in the battle for the full retrieval of his unleavened Self. He was left with no choice but to push the snake and the femme fatale figures back into the nether regions of his psyche.
In sad, reflective mood in a sonnet he wrote in his later life, when he no longer considered himself a poet, he looks back on his poetic achievement, reverting to the mood of his earlier ‘Dejection: An Ode’. The sonnet was sparked off by the unusually mild February of 1825. From his study window in Highgate he witnessed the whole of nature at work, as if it were already spring: slugs leaving their lair, bees stirring, birds on the wing,
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
Only he himself is idle, although, ironically, he’s writing this rather good poem about not being able to write poems any more! He bemoans his lack of fulfilment using the image of amaranths, the mythical flowers that grow eternally in the Elysian Fields, symbols of artistic achievement:
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide rich streams, away.
Poor Coleridge! But he was not to know, when he wrote those lines, that ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were to survive as two of the best and best known poems in English literature, still in full bloom two hundred years after he wrote them. We, the poetry lovers, can be grateful to have inherited that nectar flowing from the early years of Coleridge’s poetic output, before the streams began, so sadly, to drift away.
Dharmacari Abhaya lives and works in Birmingham, England. He has been studying and thinking about English literature in the context of Buddhist practice since he became a follower of the Buddhadharma in the 60s. He is at present spending much of his time drawing, painting, and sculpting (in wood and clay), principally as means of practising ‘active imagination’.
(1) Romanticism and Consciousness, Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom. Naughton and Co., 1970. (return to text)
(2) A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse edited and introduced by Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber 1996. (return to text)
(3) Recently revived under the new title Temenos Review, first issue July 1998. (return to text)
(4) From The Rainbow Road, Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications. (return to text)
(5) The Religion of Art, Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications 1988. (return to text)
(6) The Priceless Jewel, Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications 1993. (return to text)
(7) This and all following references to Coleridge’s poems are to A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse (op.cit.) (return to text)
(8) Quoted by Richard Holmes in Coleridge, OUP 1982 (Past Masters series) p.46 (return to text)
(9) Quoted by Hughes op.cit. (return to text)
(10) Quoted by Hughes op.cit. p.6 (return to text)