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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

Flashing Eyes and Floating Hair

Harold Bloom, writing about Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan' in 1961, observed that “Behind Coleridge’s poem [are] the dark fates of Collins, the young Chatterton, Smart, and other doomed poets of sensibility. These are the rich-haired youths of Morn, Apollo sacrifices who precede Coleridge in his appearance with flashing eyes and floating hair”. Coleridge had written his own ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ as a young poet still wedded to the style of the late eighteenth century:
O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive!
Sure thou would'st spread the canvas to the gale,
And love, with us, the tinkling team to drive
O'er peaceful freedom's undivided dale;
And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,
Hanging, enraptured, on thy stately song
And greet with smiles the young-eyed poesy
All deftly mask'd, as hoar antiquity.
Chatterton had, like Coleridge, blossomed early as a poet after attending a charity school because his father had died and his mother had no other means of support.  His facility for original verse went with a talent for reconstructing the works of earlier practitioners. Like Iolo Morganwg,  who came after him, and others of his age, he used this talent for antiquarian reconstruction to create imitations of medieval texts. He composed a series of ‘Rowley poems’ to this end. Initially he was taken up by Horace Walpole , the author of The Castle of Otranto , who at first thought he recognized a kindred spirit when Chatterton sent him some of his work, but subsequently dropped him when he realized that he was a poor apprentice. Chatterton remained unrecognized, in spite of attracting the interest of some publishers in London, and eventually committed suicide in 1770, still in his teens. Al Alvarez, in his study of literary suicides, observed that “Later the Romantics transformed him into a symbol of the doomed poet. In fact, he was a victim of Grub Street and snobbery.” Coleridge himself was more fortunate and lived well on into middle age in spite of his opium addiction. It was left to others who succeeded him as Romantic poets, to fulfil the stereotype and die young.

Although he felt he had squandered his talent as a poet “in abstruse musings”, Coleridge’s status as a sage in his later years makes him, in retrospect, a rather unlikely candidate for the title “doomed bard of sensibility”. His Biographia Literaria offered the distinction between ‘Imagination’ and ‘Fancy’ as the way of distinguishing the true poetic facility from the merely clever. And it might be said that, in living the imaginative life to the full, and in the often catastrophic circumstances of his life, he did in fact carry the role of doomed bard into his later years. Whatever the consequences, and however many times he stopped – like his Ancient Mariner – an initially unwilling listener, the bright-eyed youth never lost the ability to convince his audience that "he on honey-dew had fed and drunk the milk of Paradise”.


  1. If I could make a belated comment about this post..

    The short-lived untapped potential of Chatterton paired with Coleridge's own critical self-assessment regarding a potential of his that was compromised by "abstruse musings," echoes Coleridge's emphasis on what he called "critical opinion" in the early chapters of Biographia Literaria. It seems, S.T.C. prized the common sense naturality which imbued youth and imagination. Chatterton represents a kind of death for STC himself, in the imaginative sense. Chatterton can also be a representative antidote against the new school of thought of skepticism and dispute during Coleridge's day. In chapter 1 of Biographia Literaria, he argues:

    “There are indeed modes of teaching which have produced, and are producing, youths of a very different stamp; modes of teaching, in comparison with which we have been called on to despise our great public schools, and universities… modes, by which children are to be metamorphosed into prodigies. And prodigies with a vengeance have I known thus produced; prodigies of self-conceit, shallowness, arrogance, and infidelity! Instead of storing the memory, during the period when the memory is the predominant faculty… these nurslings of improved pedagogy are taught to dispute and decide; to suspect all but their own and their lecturer's wisdom; and to hold nothing sacred from their contempt, but their own contemptible arrogance”

    The pedagogy of said "prodigies" had a hand in the actual death of Chatterton, and a hand in the death of Coleridge's own talent.

    What of today? Now that we are in an uncomfortable interim or transition of epoch - a mix of Modernity and Postmodernity - it seems Coleridgean theory of the poetic language, one that pervades all discourse, ranging from the poet's poem to the politician's bill, has the opportunity to be back on the table. Is this an accurate assumption? -- Can we table the idea that poetic discourse, or symbolic language, is what defines our primary and secondary imaginations?

    Isn't it due time we resurrect Coleridge (metaphorically speaking, of course)?

  2. Certainly it's time to resurrect Coleridge's view of poetic language (his actual status as a poet does seem still to be secure).

    As far as the language of 'the politician's bill' is concerned I suppose that is pretty much a desert and unlikely to be anything else for the foreseeable future.Poetry probably needs, first, to put its own house in order.

    The encouragement of natural talent as part of the education system is no further advanced since Coleridge's day, though much lip service is paid to the idea.

  3. Yes, unfortunately schools teach to the test; standardization will rue the day.

    ...And performance of pedogogy is replaced by stodgy, plugging-along methods of teaching. I see it everyday. What if we dared to see that Shakespearian stage extending into the classroom, furnishing it with energy and improv amid the basic text? That isn't, I think, so otherwordly..

    But we leave those dangerous ideas to the confines of Hollywood; I am thinking of the teacher in Dead Poets Society, played brilliantly by Robin Williams. I guess it is just the stuff of movies...


What do you think?