October 30, 2013

A View With a Room: Dreaming of Bristol in Coleridge Country

book revIn Bristol it all happened. I fell apart and found my own little pieces and put them together again …. It is the most beautiful city in Great Britain.

—Peter O’Toole

On Redland Hill in the city Peter O’Toole fell in love with while cutting his teeth as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, there is a room with a view I keep returning to, as I did again last week. O’Toole also said that Bristol was such a fixation with him (“the city haunted me”) that he would make spur-of-the-moment drives there from London in the dead of night. I know the feeling. My wife and I bonded with Bristol when we lived there for a couple of years in the 1970s, and we’ve been haunted by it ever since.

The View in question deserves a capital letter. Simply reverse the title of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and you’ve got an idea of the priorities. The room is serviceable but the View is where you live. Great vistas abound in Bristol, most famously the dizzy-making spectacle of the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the rocky depths of the Avon Gorge, but this is something vast and brilliant and ever-changing that you can walk your mind around in, meditate on, memorize, and revel in from sunrise to sunset to midnight and beyond.

In the near distance, beyond the trees of the back garden, you behold a pleasing jumble of tile-roofs and chimney pots, housetops, and housefronts, rising to the middle distance and the Gothic tower of Bristol University, beyond it to the west the telecommunication masts that I saw as ships in the harbor, even though the docks were way down below. No matter, because one of the great appeals of Bristol is its history of playing fast and loose with reality. In addition to the schoolboy-genius-as-Medieval poet Thomas Chatterton, who pulled off the most accomplished of literary hoaxes, not to mention the laughing gas parties hosted by Sir Humphrey Davy where Robert Southey (“Davy has invented a new pleasure for which language has no name”) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame”) larked about, you have the part Bristol played as the apparition witnessed from the Brooks Range in Alaska by a party of climbers. Thousands of pictures of the phantom metropolis called The Silent City were sold by a crafty old prospector named Willoughby at the San Francisco International Exposition of 1894. It was eventually discovered that the incorrigible Willoughby had manufactured this lucrative vision from a photographic plate containing a view of Bristol taken from Brandon Hill.

My view sweeps Bristol from east to west, rising in terraced stages to the green hills of Somerset some ten miles distant. At night I can see the lights of cars driving along those hills, and one day last week when I asked my friend Roger what we would find were we to drive out there — “into the depths of the view” — he said Bath and Wells and some 20 or 25 miles farther on, the town of Nether Stowey, where Coleridge lived in 1897-1898 with his wife of two years and their infant son and wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Long ago we’d hiked around the Lake Country searching out the sites S.T.C. had described in his notebooks, and since the next day was Monday, October 21, Coleridge’s 241st birthday, we knew where we were going — over those hills to Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey and the Devon coast and the rocky beach of Watchet, where he and Wordsworth are said to have walked while brainstorming The Lyrical Ballads, one of the gateways to the Romantic Movement.

“The Ruined Man”

Of all the countries tourists have flocked to over the centuries the one most distinctly synonymous with great literature is surely England, home of Dickens and Shakespeare, “men who need no introduction.” When, however, Roger asked the young woman who works at his neighborhood market if she knew who Coleridge was, she admitted never having heard of him, or of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Next time Roger saw her she admitted to having “looked ’im up online,” interested to see he’d lived here in Bristol as a young man “way back in the ancient times.” Married at St. Mary Redcliffe, bad marriage. Oh, and he was an opium addict. Made a mess of his life. A glorious mess. Thomas Carlyle once patronized him as “a man of great and useless genius” and T.S. Eliot presumed to call one of the great minds of the 19th century “a ruined man,” before wisely adding that “Sometimes, however, to be a ‘ruined man’ is itself a vocation.”

Probably there should be a pub somewhere in Coleridge country called The Ruined Man. In Nether Stowey, there is, no surprise, a pub called The Ancient Mariner. After arriving at the Coleridge cottage and garden on a misty murky morning that would have chilled, warmed, or at least enlarged the Mariner’s embattled heart, we found that the place had been thoroughly arranged, decorated, and curated by the National Trust. Roger wasted no time making himself at home by the red glow of the hearth in the front room whilst expounding on his theory that the site of the Mariner’s “own countree,” the harbor where his weird adventure began and ended (“Below the kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top”) was not and could never have been Lynmouth or Minehead or even Watchet, ten miles away, but had to be Uphill, on the Bristol Channel. The fiftyish National Trust guide nodded politely though it was clearly in his best interests that the Mariner’s port be Watchet.

When we remarked on the fact that today was Coleridge’s birthday the man overseeing Coleridge’s cottage was taken aback. “Is it really?” he said, understandably wary of information divulged by a couple of former hitchhikers with more than a weather-beaten touch of Ancient Mariner about them. (Later, we heard him enthusing to his staff, “It actually is his birthday! Perhaps we should do something!”)

Wouldn’t you think the people at Coleridge’s house would have drawn a circle around October 21 on the calendar? The whole place was brilliantly, thoughtfully set up, even to the point of putting a cradle by the hearth in that front room. Those with knowledge of S.T.C.’s poetry will recognize the image from “Frost at Midnight,” which was written in that place (whose “inmates … all at rest,/Have left me to that solitude, which suits/Abstruser musings”) and where “my cradled infant slumbers peacefully.” The mood of the moment — a man alone at night, transfixed by the way the “thin blue flame” lies “on the low-burnt fire” — is the essence of the person I’ve visited so often over the years in his letters and diaries and marginalia (published magnificently by Princeton University Press), outside the formal constructs he customarily ignored. And our hosts had actually replicated the thin blue flame. I mean, the place was brimming with Coleridgiana, his writing desk, his quill pen, a lock of his hair, a number of painted portraits, manuscripts, the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads, wherein the “Rime” first appeared, and think of it, if two amateur readers, a grey-bearded Yank and a busking Brit, hadn’t walked in the door, the significance of the day would have been lost to the folks in charge of Coleridge’s cottage.

From Nether Stowey we drove to Watchet. Though the harbor there is clearly not the model for the one described in the “Rime,” the esplanade features a suitably grim, twisted statue of the Ancient Mariner by Scottish sculptor Alan B. Herriot. Earlier, we’d walked on the stony shore along the bleak, brackish Severn estuary where Coleridge and Wordsworth talked out the Lyrical Ballads.

Getting to Know S.T.C.

When I discovered Coleridge in my mid-teens, the note that prefaced “Kubla Khan,” one of the only poems I ever voluntarily memorized, said that after consuming the opium brandy otherwise known as laudanum, the poet had nodded off dreaming of Xanadu and a “stately pleasure dome … where Alph the sacred river ran, down through caverns measureless to man.” Upon waking, he’d begun writing the poem, only to be interrupted by the now infamous Person from Porlock.

Me, right now I’m dreaming of the View and the Silent City. No opium required. I prefer to dismiss the hoax theory. Just travel online to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena: “One of the attractions of Alaska is that its local sky is peculiarly receptive to images of the city of Bristol in England.”

What a thought. A receptive sky. A sky as haunted by Bristol as I am.

In New Lands (1923) Charles Fort quotes a report in the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 27-158: “That every year between June 21 and July 10, a ‘phantom city’ appears in the sky, over a glacier in Alaska; that features of it had been recognized as buildings in the city of Bristol, England.”

Painting of Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge, is by Claude Buckle. The Peter O’Toole quotes are from Conversations, a book of interviews by Roy Newquist (Rand McNally 1967)