Thursday, October 21, 2010

`To You I Gave My Whole Weak Wishing Heart'

Late in the summer of 1806, the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge had grown even more chaotic than usual, and his customary dope-addled careening among misbegotten intentions wasn’t the only explanation. On Sept. 27 he published in the Courier a sonnet with a Cole Porter-like title, “Farewell to Love”:

“Farewell, sweet Love! Yet blame you not my truth;
More fondly ne’er did mother eye her child
Than I your form: yours were my hopes of youth,
And as you shaped my thoughts I sighed or smiled.

“While most were wooing wealth, or gaily swerving
To pleasure’s secret haunts, and some apart
Stood strong in pride, self-conscious of deserving,
To you I gave my whole weak wishing heart.

“And when I met the maid that realised
Your fair creations, and had won her kindness,
Say, but for her if aught on earth I prized!
Your dreams alone I dreamt, and caught your blindness.

“O grief!--but farewell, Love! I will go play me
With thoughts that please me less, and less betray me.”

This is “romantic” poetry, I suppose, in the queasy sense (in particular, the mother-child business). The italics and proliferation of exclamation points give it away. A few phrases are pleasing – “wooing wealth,” the closing couplet – but an arthritic reader could wring the self-pity (“yours were my hopes from youth”) out of these lines. (Donne and Drayton wrote very different poems titled “Farewell to Love.”) Let his peerless biographer, Richard Holmes (Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834), gloss the chaos:

“But to whom was it addressed – to which Sara? To Asra or to Mrs Coleridge?”

The poem is less a poem than a poetic gesture, so there’s no definitive answer to Holmes’ question unless you accept “love trouble.” Holmes likes the sonnet and drops an intriguing tidbit, calling it “a beautiful adaptation of a piece by Fulke Greville.” Eight pages later Holmes writes:

“During the day he walked uneasily with Southey, and sank himself in the works of Fulke Greville, upon which he made copious notes. In the evenings he returned to the fray, and then made himself incoherent with opium.”

I wish I knew the Greville poem Coleridge was adapting (this, perhaps?). His admiration for the great Elizabethan, whose work went largely unpublished until after his death and whose reputation was resuscitated only in the twentieth century, is daring and admirable. Perhaps Charles Lamb, a dedicated antiquarian, commended Greville to his childhood friend. During Poetry Month it’s gratifying to link Greville with Coleridge, who was born on this day in 1772.

Coleridge ascended to greatness in “Frost on Midnight,” “Dejection: An Ode” and a few other poems but his voluminous prose – Biographia Literaria, the notebooks, letters, conversation and marginalia – and his life as limned in Holmes’ two-volume biography, are the reasons I’ve never said farewell to my love for STC, laudanum and all. Like Dr. Johnson he embodies contradiction, which makes him quintessentially human, like us. Too bad he died one hundred seventy years too soon. Coleridge had the lungs and learning to have been a great blogger.


Eric Thomson said...

According to Earnest Hartley Coleridge’s edition of the Collected Poetical Works, Farewell to Love was modelled on Sonnet LXXIV of Coelica and ‘was inscribed on the margin of Charles Lamb's copy of Certain Learned and Elegant Works of the Right Honourable Fulke Lord Brooke . . . 1633, p. 284.’ (This may be a mistake for p. 234, where sonnet LXXIV is printed).

'Cælica'. Sonnet LXXIV.
Farewell sweet Boy, complaine not of my truth;
Thy Mother lov'd thee not with more devotion;
For to thy Boyes play I gave all my youth
Yong Master, I did hope for your promotion.
While some sought Honours, Princes thoughts observing,
Many woo'd Fame, the child of paine and anguish,
Others judg'd inward good a chiefe deserving,
I in thy wanton Visions joy'd to languish.
I bow'd not to thy image for succession,
Nor bound thy bow to shoot reformed kindnesse,
The playes of hope and feare were my confession
The spectacles to my life was thy blindnesse:
But Cupid now farewell, I will goe play me,
With thoughts that please me lesse, and lesse betray me.

Coleridge is likely to have come across Greville early, if not at Christ’s Hospital then certainly at Cambridge, where he would have been aware that Greville had attended the same college (Jesus) two hundred years before him. ‘Library cormorant’ that he was, he wouldn't have had far to travel to feed on a copy of ‘Certain Learned and Elegant Works ...’

William A. Sigler said...

The differences in approach of the four English poets to which you’ve linked here demonstrates the difference sufficiently between Romantic and pre-Romantic love poetry. For all their philosophizing, Donne, Drayton and Greville are responding to the behavior of an actual person. Coleridge by contrast at least makes an effort to separate out the concept of love from his own physical experiences. In so doing, he creates in the reader an understanding of Ideal (or Sublime) Love – not earthly lust but the life force that drives us and makes the universe tick. To do this he finds a vibrational frequency ever-so-slightly higher than the war of dogma Donne engages in, the rich shock of Greville that his formerly attentive lover has moved her attentions elsewhere, and the pitiful plaint of the victim Drayton assumes. The farewell gesture of Coleridge, similarly, is not to an actual lover but to the illusion that one can, in the intimacies of flesh and heart, know this higher love. For all the feelings of union, it stays just a hemi-quaver beyond. As with Kubla Khan, his imaginary paradise he had to leave unfinished, Coleridge steps right up to the good stuff, the aerie pinnacle that maketh flesh disrobe, but his work is ultimately about the threshold – the mind balking before the totalizing presence of the higher truth.

Anonymous said...

It's a diverting exercise, wondering which writers would have made good bloggers. Byron, i think, would have been superb, if you've ever read his letters.

Jordanian Joe said...

Montaigne would have quickly established himself as king of the blogosphere. Another diverting exercise is to wonder which writer would post the best comments.