Sunday, May 3, 2009

Coleridgean Poetic Failure

The following is a portion of an essay I'm writing about aporetic modes in the poetry of Coleridge. The first (smaller) part is my attempt to provide a declaration of Coleridgean poetic failure. In the second part, I'm looking at C's "Dejection: An Ode." I know. Not very accessible or contemporary, but so much of what Coleridge accomplished in the early nineteenth century is still being attempted today. "Castor Oil" by Charles Bernstein is a perfect example.

Here's a link to Coleridge's "Dejection"



The poetic failure of Coleridge exists when one or more of the following are fulfilled: the speaker of the poem 1) admits that poetic language fails to provide emotional or spiritual catharsis, 2) paradoxically acknowledges the failure of language within a system of language, 3) is made aware of the unbridgeable différance between perceived and perceiver, signified and signifier, 4) apprehends that observations of external realities cannot alter, alleviate or modify internal states, 5) asserts that observations of external realities allow no obtainable truth concerning those realities, such observations are only capable of producing a realization of the processes of observation, 6) explicitly acknowledges the failure of the poem within the poem.

“Dejection: An Ode”

The first five of these principles are especially applicable to “Dejection: An Ode” which begins with the speaker’s notice of the weather conditions and his hope for a storm that “might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live” (l. 20). Coleridge’s use of the subjunctive signifier “might” in the line and its parallel in the line immediately previous initiate the poem’s hypothetical and aporetic mode. In the second stanza, the speaker identifies the particular melancholy he experiences as:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled drowsy, unimpassion’d grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear— (l. 21-24)

It is an extraordinary grief especially because it is explicitly irresolvable. The speaker’s acknowledgement that the “word” cannot offer “outlet” or “relief” creates the inherent metapoetic paradox of the ode which is written to alleviate emotional trauma yet admits to the impossibility of such an alleviation, a paradox which is immediately and intrinsically related to the “self-undermining” processes identified by Ayon and Coleridge’s own assertion “that a man can know one thing and believe the opposite” (Biographia Literaria 395). In the remainder of the stanza, the speaker briefly introduces a “Lady” who he apostrophizes throughout the ode but turns quickly and comprehensively to descriptions of the act and processes of an instance of observation-the object being the “western sky” and the moon and stars which fill it:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel how beautiful they are! (l. 30, 37-38)

The distinction between visual observation and emotional perception made in the final line is indicative of Coleridge’s attempts to identify the essential separateness of the external sphere and the impossibility of an authentic perception of this sphere by the seer, who may observe beauty but fails to understand it. In the third stanza, the speaker again confesses to feelings morose and melancholic while expounding on internal and external différance: “I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within” (l. 45-46). For the speaker of “Dejection,” observations of outward forms cannot alleviate internal states of emotional anxiety. In stanza four, the speaker again apostrophizes the “Lady” and asserts that the only obtainable epistemological systems are those which come from within, “O Lady! we receive but what we give, / and in our life alone does nature live” (l. 47-48). Nothing may be obtained from observations of the external object but the processes of this observation. This is further expounded in stanza five as the speaker realizes that even this obtainment is not certain—but dependent upon the perceiver’s emotional state:

Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—
We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light. (l. 71-75)

In stanza six, the speaker reminisces on his happy past which enabled him a poetic ability and laments his current emotional state which “suspends what nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (l. 85-86). Such contemplations motivate the speaker to shift his gaze from inward to outward in the seventh stanza, as he attempts to provide a description of the wind “which long has [raved] [unnoticed]” (l. 97). This shift demonstrates the paradox of the poem yet again as Coleridge maintains the futility of external observation as he practices such observation. Furthermore, because of such a paradoxical and dual mode, it must be assumed that Coleridge’s textual representations of “wind” represent nothing in the external sphere. Instead, these representations betray their compositional processes. His personification of wind, therefore, must also be viewed as a personification of his own identity. Coleridge himself is the “Mad Lutanist,” the “Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds,” the “Mighty Poet, [even] to frenzy bold!” (l. 104, 108, 109).

In the final stanza, the speaker again returns to concerns for his “lady” friend, and wishes her joy and sleep, two accommodations which he does not allow himself. Ultimately, the speaker’s sadness is irresolvable and unalleviated. Whether or not the woman is Sarah Hutchinson, an unrequited love of Coleridge’s, is irrelevant. What is significant is the tension created by her resolved state and the speaker’s unalleviated sadness, a tension which remains unmitigated and, it might be assumed, unbearable. Eddins makes a similar conclusion in “Darkness Audible” as he asserts that Coleridge’s final apostrophe to the Lady represents a hypothetical allusion which provides no relief for the poetic failure of the poem. However, Eddins’s analysis departs from my own in another significant way. Eddins recognizes a conflux of failure in the “metapoem that is at once a lament for vision’s loss and a prayer for its return” (409). The latter aspect emerges as the poem’s central redemptive (aesthetic) quality. This redemption is symbolized in the poem as the approaching storm, which characterizes the possibility of the re-attainment of voice and vision. A similar interpretation is made by Thomas M. Greene in “Coleridge and the Energy of Asking.” Employing one of Coleridge’s many notebook fragments as an access point to the body of the poet’s work, Greene identifies the dominant symbol of “privation” within this fragment and asserts that “the suggestion that all imaginative writing derives from a certain experience of privation needs to be considered seriously” (908). Greene further contends that Coleridge’s creative confrontation of privation is redemptive, even in a poem of negative capability such as “Dejection: An Ode,” which Greene identifies as Coleridge’s discovery of the “metaphoric generativity of the storm” (927). What both of these critics fail to consider is that the metaphor of the storm is fully realized. The transference of tenor and vehicle occurs within the aporetic progression of the poem and the speaker’s personification of himself (discussed above) as the “Mad Lutanist,” the “Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds,” the “Mighty Poet, [even] to frenzy bold!” (l. 104, 108, 109). To identify the possibility of aesthetic redemption within the storm metaphor is to neglect the narrative of the poem. This transference, (this possible redemption) has already occurred in the poem and has already failed. In Coleridge’s words, “This, however, transfers, rather than removes, the difficulty” (BL 404).

Eddins, Dwight. “Darkness Audible: The Poem of Poetic Failure.” Style 34 (Fall 2000): 402. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Camden-Carroll Library, Morehead State University. 28 Mar. 2009.

Greene, Thomas M. “Coleridge and the Energy of Asking.” ELH 62 (Winter 1995): 907-931. Project Muse. Camden-Carroll Library, Morehead State University.
12 April 2009.

Halmi, Nicholas, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 2004.

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