Friday, June 27, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 2

Poets writing about their children, needless to say, is a common theme in literature.  After all, the birth of new life is perhaps the most enriching and emotionally moving experience any parents have the privilege of having.  The last poem I presented to you was one by our very own James Joyce.  Now, I would like to take you back a couple of centuries to the English Romantic poets, the poets of the Lake District especially, and to the the wonderful Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) in particular.  I have written much about STC in these pages before as he remains my favourite Romantic poet, because of his sheer humanity, his times of sheer excess, his brilliance and vulnerability so intertwined, his love of languages and philosophy and his genuineness and honesty.  See the following link for my previous comments: Samuel Taylor  

Today, I wish to refer to his wonderful poem "Frost a Midnight," which was written at a table in his little Nether Stowey cottage with his wee son Hartley, only 18 months old, by his side. This poem, short enough by Romantic standards, somewhat longish for us today, is suffused with tenderness for his little innocent son and weighed down a little with his own personal problems.  I have read that STC was called a "Damaged Archangel" by one scholar. Although, it was evident that Coleridge was a prodigy, he did not do well at a young age because he lost himself in women, drugs, and alcohol. He turned to the army, but this too fell through for him because his family was furious and anyway, he was a terrible soldier who could not even ride a horse properly - strange this,  because he was in a cavalry division if my memory serves me.  Then his brother had him released for reasons of insanity. He immediately brought him back to Cambridge. It was here that he met William Wordsworth, and as the cliché has it, the rest is history.  However, if you read the two volumes of Richard Holmes's biography, you will grow to love this wounded and oh-so-human genius.  This poem I am appending below, Frost at Midnight, is at once a beautiful poem for his innocent son and a desperate attempt for the writer to find hope in life.  Samuel Taylor had been very attached to his own father, but unfortunately this man died when he was only seven. Poor Sam was almost immediately sent away to boarding school.  With our modern understanding of how grief affects the human being, especially at a young age, we can say that Coleridge sought to express that grief as best he could through his life's work. 

I think, I've said enough.  Now read the poem.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud, -and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing
Methinks its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birthplace, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:

Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My playmate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Needless to say, any of the underlining above is my doing as these are the words that jump out at me from the text.  This is always the way I read poems letting such phrases jump out and catch me at the throat as it were.  I love the idea of the father sitting at his table, with his "babe" sleeping by his side looking out on the star-filled night sky.  Also what a marvellous phrase is the twice repeated one - at the opening and at the end - "The Frost performs its secret ministry."  For a romantic at heart, nature is the utmost and essential communicator of the divine as it were, or of a deep spirit of life.  Also, I love how delicate frost is anyway.  The child is delicate, the frost is delicate - it will die away and so will we.  Immediately, we are launched into the mystery of life through the ministry or good services of the frost that falls.  It is typical of a highly romantic poem that sounds and lack of sounds should fill it - "that solitude," "extreme silentness" and "this deep calm" and so on over against the sounds of nature - "the owlet's cry."  Then the wonderful fire in the grate behind them makes its mystical presence felt:

the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing

"Film" at the time referred to a piece of soot fluttering in the grate - such films were believed to herald the arrival of a guest or of a a stranger. This adds to the magic and wonder and mystery of the poem which altogether is presided over by the minister of the occasion, namely, the frost.  It also provides a lovely link with his life as a schoolboy looking at the films of soot through the bars of the grate in which the fire lay.  Then his youthful mind wished that some stranger would come, someone from his faraway home town, a visitor from his youth.  Poor lonely young boy!  We all know, or think we know at least, this longing heart of loneliness.

I have said many times before in these posts that the human personality reminds me of an onion, because I believe that each successive year adds another layer to it.  Let me explain.  At the core of the human person lies the little embryo before birth = core; then we have birth = trauma and excitement of life; childhood; adolescence; adulthood; middle age and then old age; finally death.  Those who believe in any god or even in the transpersonal and spiritual nature of the person this consciousness lives on.  At least that's my theory.  I give this psychological aside here because the poet is at once reliving his young life, the loss of his father as it was this caring father who brought him out to view the night sky - hence the reference to stars above; his sense of abandonment in a boarding school - looking through the bars of the grate at night; daydreaming in class - how often I used do it myself at school; how he had only his daydreams to inspire him in the boarding school in the city:

For I was reared
In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars

Throughout life, Coleridge idealized his father as pious and innocent, while his relationship with his mother was more problematic. His childhood was characterized by attention-seeking, which has been linked to his dependent personality (alcohol, opium through it's laudanum form, his uneasy dependence on women and indeed on all his friends) as an adult. He was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family at such a turbulent time proved emotionally damaging. This is all seen quite easily in all his poems.  That's what endears Coleridge to me and always has.  I never tire reading any of his poems or essays.  I'd love to meet him and hug him.

In short, I think this is a wonderful poem. I had better stop writing as I shall only go on and on, and probably then around in circles.  When we human beings deal with any experience we bring all our remembered experiences as well as the unremembered and unconscious ones, all of them, yes all of them, into play.  That's what's happening here with Samuel.  Excuse the length of this entry.  I got carried away as I always do with Sam.  I'll finish with Sam's gentle epitaph:

Stop, Christian passer-by : Stop, child of God,
And read, with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he--
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.--
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death.

P.S. A Note On Hartley Coleridge: Hartley was very like his father and became a poet and writer, but did not achieve the fame that Samuel did. Hartley was born in 1796 and died in 1849 at the age of 53. He never married. Another son of Samuel Taylor's was Derwent who became an Anglican Minister like his grandfather, married and had a family and lived into ripe old age.

Above I have placed a portrait picture of the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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