Thursday, August 13, 2009

Whine of the Ancient Grad Student Part II: 4 Things I Hate About Coleridge

I finished Coleridge's Biographia Literaria last night. As to its quality, I'll admit that it's a long way from the most interesting thing I've done after 2 am. In order to see how much of this large, bounteous book I've actually retained, I'm going to do this post without actually consulting the book. I'm off to a good start, since this is the first time I've gotten the title right without having to look it up.

When I looked at my comp list, this is one of the works I was not really looking forward to. I have numbered reasons:
1. Pettiness. So far, since August started, I've been averaging a book on the list per day. When the books are 48 pages and written in large, 17th century font, this is not particularly difficult. But Biographia Literaria clocks in at 289 pages of teeny, tiny font, which makes it the first, though certainly not the last, of my longer comp readings. It's slowing me down, and I don't care for that.

2. The drugs. Coleridge had a long standing opium addiction that played both a part in his writing and a part in his death. This may be the puritanical streak in me, or at the very least, the streak in me that doesn't like poetry very much, but I honestly think that taking drugs then writing poetry is cheating. It's like taking steroids, then going on to be MVP. All writing should be done with a clear, pure mind. (Anyone who says I've ever posted after drinking is an utter, utter liar. Very utter.)

3. And then I woke up. If you've ever taught Coleridge to first year undergraduates, then you've probably taught Kubla Kahn. It's a good poem for teaching vivid imagery, rhyme scheme, rhythm, and a few other poetic devices. It's also got the infamous note, in which Coleridge tells us the poem came to him in a dream, after he'd taken drugs (see point 2). He sat down to write it, but was distracted by a visit by the infamous Person from Porlock, and when he returned, he found that he could not remember how the poem ended. Given what I now know about Coleridge, there's a high chance that this anecdote is really an allegory for how reality interposes itself on creative genius and dream. Even the name "Porlock" can be seen as a thinly disguised version of "Poor Luck." Coleridge certainly wasn't above inventing such incidents if they served his purpose. In that sense, it makes an interesting complementary with his comments on the nature of genius, the use of fancy, and how to integrate a life and family with being a poet. Either way, we've got two options: the dream story is a highly artificial construct or this poem is the result of a fever dream. And either option kind of rubs me the wrong way.

4. Chivalry. Coleridge was famously friends with William Wordsworth, and, just as famously, they felt out over a number of issues, including Coleridge's drug habit and, more than likely, the Biographia Literaria itself. (More on that later.) I'm far more familiar with Wordsworth's poetry over Coleridge's; in the last year of my undergraduate, I took a seminar course on 19th century ecocriticism in which poems such as Wordsworth's "Michael" featured predominantly. We also had to read the collected journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, Wordsworth's sister. Dorothy is... how do I say this kindly... a simple soul. (Okay, so much for kindness.) She is, in fact, pretty boring, and while Wordsworth was traipsing around England, she was confined to their estate, as was the 19th century role for society's middle class unmarried women. Reading her journals was like watching a race between grass growing and paint drying, but... without ever actually seeing the movie or reading the book, I think of Dorothy as bland version of Bridget Jones. Yes, she's embarrassing and annoying and any compliment you give her involves the words, "in spite of herself," but... well, in spite of herself, you can't help but like Dorothy, because NOT liking her is like picking on a kid whose parents just got divorced. You could do it, but what's the point? Aren't things already bad enough for them? I mean, she's afraid of cows, for God's sake. Cows. This woman is clearly not a threat to anyone but herself. Anyway, from the journals, she clearly had a soft spot for Coleridge. Thus, in leaving Wordsworth, Coleridge was hurting Dorothy. And that, the romantic in me holds against him.
I'm quite ignoring certain facts here, like Coleridge was either married and interested in other women for most of the time he was close to the Wordsworths, and Dorothy herself was far, far more interested in her brother than any other man--which is a long story. A long, kind of creepy story. But a part of me still believes that Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge should have gotten married, which would have led to Coleridge beating his addiction, he and Wordworth would have been BFFs and, most likely, both would have written even more poetry than they already did, which I would have had to learn and... and now that I think about it, why did I want them to get together again? (Seriously, though, it would have been a good thing. Really. "Michael" is a good poem.)

So that's why I went into the book not liking Coleridge. The reasons, I acknowledge, are both long and irrational. But as unkind critics would tell you, a spirit of long irrationality is the perfect beginning for a study of the Bibliographica Literaria.

It's actually not that bad, and I can definitely see why it deserves a place on the comp list, although certain chapters are more useful than others. But this list went on for longer than I intended, so I'll finish up the Ancient Grad Student series tomorrow with a quick sketch of the book.

Later Days.

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