The Interview — Imaginary Conversation with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
KM: I am Kevin McLaughlin, a man from the 21st century well acquainted with your verse and your prose, particularly the Biographia Literaria. I write for a magazine, and while we are together, I would like to interview you. You are an honored poet.
STC: (snorting) I am? Then I am truly damned, more so than that creature with his albatross. My verse will endure the ages, even longer than the ordure of my critics! I once responded to a critic by saying, “I admit every poet is a fool, but you yourself may show it, that every fool is not a poet.” Let me state: people of humor are always in some degree people of genius, poets or fools.
KM: Poetry frequently conveys happiness. Do you stay mindful of this trait when you write?
STC: Yes, at all times. The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions — the little, soon forgotten charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look or a heartfelt compliment.
KM: You are indeed a romantic. Let me ask about one poem in particular. “Kubla Khan” during my school years was one of the first poems embraced by my generation.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through curtains measureless to man
Down to the sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girded round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills.
Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
STC: Why “Kubla Khan?” I never considered it one of my better pieces.
KM: In the late 1960s, the younger people discovered whole families of mind-expanding drugs, both natural and chemically manufactured. Your imagery and narratives perfectly suited the times. (I explained the hallucinatory effects of these drugs, describing LSD experiences had by friends.) This movement embraced hallucinations and what you describe as phantoms. I have a few standard questions I’d like to pose.
STC: I am willing.
KM: We will later address the definition of poetry. But what of the reader? Do they share some responsibility in the transmission of a poem?
STC: The reader always has some responsibility, especially if the poem is infused with the sacred. Readers may be divided into four classes: 1. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it in the same state, only a little dirtied. 2. Sandglasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through time. 3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they have read. 4. Mogul Diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also. I write for the Mogul Diamonds.
KM: What is the poet’s mission?
STC: Let me answer that question like this: No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language. I believe that statement also addresses the definition of poetry.
The poet explains God to the people and their priests. He prayeth best who loveth best. And Poets are drawn to love in all its disguises. The poet explains, through Imagery, the physical world in a way that the scientist never will. What you call hallucinations, the poet calls phantoms, and they are just natural beings that cannot always be apprehended through the senses. Consider my “Fears in Solitude.”
When, through its half-transparent stalks, at eve,
The level sunshine glimmers with green light.
O, ’tis a quiet spirit healing nook!
Remembering thee, O green and silent dell!
And grateful that by nature’s quietness
And solitary musings, all my heart
Is softened, and made worthy to indulge
Love and the thoughts that yearn for human kind.
I could not have written those lines without indulging in my well-known appetite for laudanum and opium, made the livelier by vast quantities of wine. When I was in my cups, I truly believed in human perfectability. Ho, in 1794, I formed a group I named pantisocracy. Twelve young couples formed a group that envisioned philosophic emigration to America. When this idealistic notion failed, I fell into a deep depression that caused me to enlist in the army, a short-lived adventure.
KM: Oddly enough, even though you were one of the founders of the Romantic Poets, few are familiar with your core beliefs. Can you summarize a few of them so my readers can better interpret your poems?
STC: I believe in the transformative power of the imagination. I can cast my mind off into distant obscurities, travel the universe through the sheer power of my mind. I can summon Roman Emperors, philosopher from Aristotle’s day. I can see God in a haystack or in a river.
My poetry is predicated on the sacred interplay of philosophy and piety. There is but a thin veil between the physical and the spirit realms. I pass through this veil throughout the day, frequently bringing back poetry fragments and themes.
An understanding of Nature is the only way a man may develop. What do I mean by develop? I am referring to transcendence, rising above the pull of negativities, and glimpsing the divine. Being at one with God is the only worthy purpose of our existence. Otherwise, we are just animated corpses. This is the majority of humanity.
KM: Then you are a mystic?
STC: In my understanding of the word. It may have evolved into a different meaning throughout the centuries. Our world, including the definition of words, is characterized by impermanence. Impermanence is a tool of the poet.
KM: And what are your cherished causes?
STC: Ho, my 21st century friend. Here is where I am at odds with many. I relish a love of liberty, even if that liberty results in revolution. I encourage experiments in verse; poetry should never be static, I am a humanist who espouses simplicity of diction, and a fervent believer in what others call the Supernatural. Note how readily I accepted your manifesting at the quay.
KM: You are known for writing fragments, not complete poems.
STC: They are not fragments, as they were called by my critics. They are visions. Who would know me and my work need only read “Psyche.” Not one extraneous word, not one more word needed. I am well pleased you posed that subject. I believe, above all, in “Life Consciousness.” You will find that in “Psyche,” and in all my better works.
KM: I delight in asking this of poets. What is the definition of poetry? We debate that through to the 21st century.
STC: Poetry is the best words in the best order. The definition of poetry is ineffable. The poet’s work is naked in the daylight. The writer of fiction is well clothed and at a remove from his work. I applaud their use of the imagination, but all they are really doing is distracting the reader with story lines. And by the Rood, they expend thousands of printed words.
Let me digress. I am exceedingly fond of folktales and tales that have come down through the ages. Some call them fairy tales. I call them the truth.
by Kevin McLaughlin
Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1986 edition engraving by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
KM: And what is wisdom?
STC: Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom. This thread runs through all the ancient myths.
KM: This may be a bit of a digression. Nevertheless, I need to ask. In addition to Wordsworth, who were the other poets with whom you worked?
STC: Collectively, we were known as “the Lake Districts Poets.” This included Lamb, Southey, and Lloyd. I pray their work traveled along the time tunnel.
KM: I am familiar with Lamb and Southey. I do not know of Lloyd’s work. Are there any poems you’d recommend to future generation that might otherwise have been overlooked?
STC: Yes, “The Eolian Harp.”
My pensive Sara! Thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on my arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our cot, our cot o’ergrown
With white flower’d jasmine and the broad leaved Myrtle
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
I would like to be known for having written those simple, innocent lines. I have known love. And every true Poet is bettered by a Muse . . .
KM: I am personally troubled by your devotion, lifelong it was, to William Wordsworth. You toured the countryside with him and his sister, partaking in his famous walking tours. You were frequently their houseguest. Wordsworth seems to be your mentor. Yet, he never could rise to the level of your verse. He could not have written an epic such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
STC: Wordsworth . . . a prophet and a poet, the only man who ordered, and was ordered by, the natural world.
To William Wordsworth (Composed on the night after his recitation of a poem on the growth of an individual mind)
Friend of the wise! And Teacher of the Good!
Into my heart I have received that Lay
More than historic that prophetic Lay
Wherein (high theme by thee first sung aright)
Of the foundations and the building up
Of a Human Spirit thou hast dared to tell
What may be told, to the understanding mind
Revealable; and what within the mind
By vital breathings secret as the soul
Of vernal growth, oft quickens in the heart
Thoughts all too deep for words! —
KM: Thoughts too deep for words? I don’t believe this myself and am surprised to hear these words uttered by a classical poet.
STC: Some traits are ineffable. Poetic imagery can come close; but never phrase out the deepest mysteries of the universe or the ventricles of the human heart. Let me continue.
And when — O my friend! my comforter! My guide!
Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength! —
Yes, that is my description of the Angel Visitant that was William Wordsworth.
(At this point, Coleridge paused, and ordered us another round of whiskeys with pint sized stout chasers. I should add he’d been at the whiskey since we entered the public house. He paused some more.)
STC: Are you, yourself, a poet? Do you belong to one of the scurrilous Irish militias? What do you know of my life?
KM: I assure you I do not belong to the Irish Brotherhood; but had I belonged to your age, I would be actively involved in casting off England’s yoke (which will happen commencing in 1916). I am a poet; I write haiku. A form you will not know, but given a chance, would come to love.
I know much about you. I will not disclose the year of your death, but I will tell you the epitaph on your tombstone: “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he . . . found death in life, may here find life in death!”
You were born October 21, 1772. In 1791 you entered Jesus College, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. You married Sara Fricker in 1795. By 1797 you were traveling with the Wordsworths and had begun “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In 1799, you were in the Lake District. You traveled to Germany. Your son Derwent was born in 1800, your daughter Sara in 1802. You traveled extensively around Europe. Would you like to hear more?
STC: (Clearly amused.) No thank you!
KM: Do you have any life advice for my 21st century readers?
STC: There is one art of which people should be masters — the art of reflection.
(We began a lengthy discussion of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a narrative that could have been adapted into a fascinating novel. Just as we were identifying our favorite verses, I felt the tugging of gravity upon my body’s molecules. Too soon, I was being stretched, preparatory to my return through the wormhole, back to August 2022. I found myself in my kayak in the middle of the intracoastal waterway. I wondered how much modern time had elapsed while I was with Coleridge. I began to revere the man. Arriving home, I pulled my Portable Coleridge from a bookshelf.)
The poetry quotes and the biographical data/commentary are drawn from The Portable Coleridge, published by The Viking Press, edited by I. A. Richards.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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