At 250 Coleridge Makes Room for Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Stevie Nicks
By Stuart Mitchner
The real marriage of true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humour or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like interarching search-lights.
—Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
I had other plans for this column until I realized that Friday, October 21, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 250th birthday. On October 26, 1900, Henry James and Edith Wharton began a correspondence, a “marriage of true minds” that lasted until James’s death (“the distinguished thing”) on February 28, 1916. Having already set things in motion for a piece about Wharton and James, I had to make room — lots of room — for Coleridge.
All it took was a few clicks of the Microsoft mouse to confirm that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” not only stirred Wharton’s imagination in childhood, but returned full force during her mid-sixties in her account of a young writer’s moment of discovery:
“Oh, what beautiful, what incredible words! What did they mean? But what did it matter what they meant? Or whether they meant anything but their own unutterable music? …. It was a new music, a music utterly unknown to him, but to which the hidden chords of his soul at once vibrated. It was something for him — something that intimately belonged to him …. He sat with his head between his hands, reading on, passionately, absorbedly, his whole being swept away on that mighty current.”
The passage is from Hudson River Bracketed (1929), in which Wharton’s protagonist writes a novel reimagining the dreamscape of Coleridge’s Xanadu in the Hudson River Valley. I knew the same thrill of discovery the first time I read the poem, in my teens, excited to know more because the vision was unfinished, penned upon Coleridge’s waking from a laudanum dream. Much of the poem’s allure is that he presents it as “A Fragment,” with an introductory paragraph in which “the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair.”
One on One
The human in-the-moment image of a man asleep in his chair dreaming of Xanadu opens the window to a world beyond the poetry wherein Coleridge speaks to you one-on-one in notebooks and letters. The poet Elizabeth Bishop writes of staying up till two in the morning reading the letters “of that adorable man….His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches. I’d never realized how wonderful the letters could be in a book and how contemporary he sounds.”
Determined to track down the source of Bishop’s strikingly visceral remark, I found it in an October 7, 1956 letter to her fellow poet Randall Jarrell. Everything was as I’ve documented it, except that the reference to intestines and toothaches is borrowed from Alice James, who was referring to her brother Henry, a totally unexpected human connection: poet to poet, sister to brother, suddenly here’s Henry James in intestinal/toothache tandem with Coleridge, who sounds “contemporary” to Bishop because he’s so often physically, viscerally, humanly present. His notebooks in particular contain spontaneous, unguarded, deeply personal and frequently universal thoughts on practically all aspects of everyday existence, his own aches and pains, longings and frustrations. Besides being a poet, critic, and intrepid hiker, he was a biologist, botanist, diplomat, chemist, alchemist, linguist, political theorist, and preacher of sermons, as well as a popular lecturer on politics, religion, and literature — this ailing, embattled opium addict who sometimes signed his letters, “S.T.C., gentleman poet and philosopher in a mist.”
Coleridge’s thought process can mystify, surprise, and amuse, but seldom puts you at a distance from the instant of the writing, be it 1797 or 1827, whether he’s emptying his chamber pot out the window on a cold night in the Lake Country or picking up his infant son after a fall and running out of doors with him: “The Moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately — & his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!” Coleridge’s mind is all over the place, but wherever it flows, the breath of his life, the pulse of his thought, is always there.
No doubt about it, Coleridge puts everything in play. On the morning of his birthday, the ancient, towering, grey-bearded Sikh putting $20 worth of gas in my car became the Ancient Mariner of Sunoco, whose dark gaze followed me as I pulled away with Stevie Nicks on the stereo singing “I’m tired of knockin’ on doors when there’s nobody there.” The song, a magnificent lament called “Lady,” moves, with its bell-tolls-for-thee cadence, like a slow march to the precipice every time Nicks delivers herself of the all too human question, “What is to become of me?” With that admission of naked childlike aloneness (she was not far from her teens when she wrote the song, she’s now 74 and still performing), she’s singing to and for anyone in or out of literature who has ever experienced a what-is-to-become-of-me moment, from Coleridge to James, from Keats’s knight “alone and palely loitering” in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” to Edith Wharton’s remarkable creation Lily Bart in The House of Mirth drugging herself toward endless night in a dingy New York boarding house.
Lily’s Last Night
In a 1905 letter, James told Wharton he thought The House of Mirth was “carried off with a high, strong hand & an admirable touch, finding it altogether a superior thing … The book remains one that does you great honour – though it is better written than composed; it is indeed throughout extremely well written, & in places quite `consummately.’ “ He could have been referring to the closing chapters and the passage describing Lily’s last night:
“Sleep was what she wanted — she remembered that she had not closed her eyes for two nights. The little bottle was at her bed-side, waiting to lay its spell upon her …. She felt so profoundly tired that she thought she must fall asleep at once; but as soon as she had lain down every nerve started once more into separate wakefulness. It was as though a great blaze of electric light had been turned on in her head, and her poor little anguished self shrank and cowered in it, without knowing where to take refuge. She had not imagined that such a multiplication of wakefulness was possible: her whole past was reenacting itself at a hundred different points of consciousness. Where was the drug that could still this legion of insurgent nerves? …. She put out her hand, and measured the soothing drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt she must increase it. She knew she took a slight risk in doing so — she remembered the chemist’s warning. If sleep came at all, it might be a sleep without waking…”
Henry James’s Music
In the same 1905 letter, James added, “I wish we could talk of it in a motor car.” Apparently their friendship thrived during their many drives together, as Wharton put it: their “sense of humour or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like interarching search-lights.”
In one of Wharton’s memories of James quoted in Simon Nowell-Smith’s collection, The Legend of the Master (1947), she recounts how it was to hear him read aloud. She makes particular mention of his reading of Emily Brontë’s poem “Remembrance” (“his eyes filling, and some far-away emotion deepening his rich and flexible voice”): “I had never heard poetry read as he read it; and I never have since. He chanted it, and he was not afraid to chant it, as many good readers are …. His stammer ceased as if by magic as soon as he began to read; and his ear, so sensitive to the convolutions of an intricate prose style, never allowed him to falter.” James reading “was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul ….”
On another occasion, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass “was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from `The Song of Myself’ to `When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed’ (when he read `Lovely and soothing Death’ his voice filled the hushed room like an organ adagio), and thence let himself be lured on to the mysterious music of ‘Out of the Cradle,’ reading, or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold invocation to Death tolled out like the knocks in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony.” James’s “admiration of Whitman, his immediate response to that mighty appeal, was a new proof of the way in which, above a certain level, the most divergent intelligences walk together like gods.”
Coleridge and Halloween
Keats and Coleridge are among the patron saints of the Halloween season, Keats born October 31, Coleridge 10 days before. In his periodical The Friend, the “philosopher in a mist” writes, “I have long wished to devote an entire work to the subject of dreams, visions, ghosts, and witchcraft …. I might then explain in a more satisfactory way the mode in which our thoughts, in states of morbid slumber, become at times perfectly dramatic, (for in certain sorts of dreams the dullest wight becomes a Shakespeare) and by what law the form of the vision appears to talk to us its own thoughts in a voice as audible as the shape is visible.”
Readers of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the ghostly, unfinished “Christabel” will have a head start on Halloween. As Coleridge has said, “the greater part of ghost stories” may be traced to the fact that “nervous excitement is contagious.”
Simon Morrison’s biography of Stevie Nicks will be the subject of next week’s column. Weeks of reading the book and listening to her music, especially the 24 Karat Gold Collection, brought her here a week early. The Coleridge quotes are from Kathleen Coburn’s edition of The Notebooks (Princeton University Press) and Inquiring Spirit (Pantheon), her presentation of Coleridge from his published and unpublished writings. I always keep Richard Holmes’s biography Coleridge: Early Visions (shown here) near at hand.