During university, I spend an almost inappropriate time investigating on a paper on Gray and Tennyson. – Which was rad, because my work on Gray was the foundation on which this page is built. Now, I recently mentioned one of Gray’s more famous odes, “The Bard”, and how I humbly theorize that “Kubla Khan” could have being a thematically similar – maybe equally prophetic – poem, probably even comparable to Walter Scott’s later The Vision of Don Roderick.
Now, what did Coleridge himself think of “The Bard”, given how we usually simplify that Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s generation of poets is said to have rejected Gray’s work?
This quote by Mr C himself might serve to give a first understanding of what Coleridge’s real thoughts were, especially when juxtaposed with another, more generalizing statement by later English critic George Saintsbury.
“An Author is obscure, when his conceptions are dim and imperfect, and his language incorrect, or unappropriate, or involved. A poem that abounds in allusions, like the Bard of Gray, or one that impersonates high and abstract truths, like Collins’s Ode on the poetical character, claims not to be popular — but should be acquitted of obscurity. The deficiency is in the Reader. But this is a charge which every poet, whose imagination is warm and rapid, must expect from his contemporaries. Milton did not escape it; and it was adduced with virulence against Gray and Collins. We now hear no more of it; not that their poems are better understood at present, than they were at their first publication; but their fame is established; and a critic would accuse himself of frigidity or inattention, who should profess not to understand them…”
George Saintsbury, 1911.
“In a letter to West, when the writer was about six-and-twenty, we find it stated with equal dogmatism, truth, and independence of authority that ‘the language of the age is never the language of poetry except among the French, whose verse, where the thought or image does not support it, differs nothing from prose,’ with a long and valuable citation, illustrating this defence of ‘poetic diction,’ and no doubt thereby arousing the wrath of Wordsworth. Less developed, but equally important and equally original, is the subsequent description of our language as not being ‘a settled thing’ like the French. Gray, indeed, makes this with explicit reference only to the revival of archaisms, which he defends; but, as we see from other places as well as by natural deduction, it extends to reasonable neologisms also. In this respect Gray is with all the best original writers, from Chaucer and Langland downwards, but against a respectably mistaken body of critics who would fain not merely introduce the caste system into English, but, like Sir Boyle Roche, make it hereditary in this caste not to have any children…”
I think it’s Saintsbury’s phrase, because it’s so quotable, that has led people to generally assume there was more contrast between the poetic generations that I have really perceived. I wonder how I will think about the connection between Coleridge and Gray when I am more into the matter…
Quotes taken from The Spenserian Archive.
I am not going to re-post the entire poem, but here, my favorite lines from it: The beginning verses, indeed!
“The Bard”, by Thomas Gray.“Ruin seize thee, ruthless King! Confusion on thy banners wait, Tho’ fann’d by Conquest’s crimson wing They mock the air with idle state. Helm, nor hauberk’s twisted mail, Nor even thy virtues, tyrant, shall avail To save thy secret soul from nightly fears, From Cambria’s curse, from Cambria’s tears!” Such were the sounds, that o’er the crested pride Of the first Edward scatter’d wild dismay, As down the steep of Snowdon’s shaggy side He wound with toilsome march his long array. Stout Glo’ster stood aghast in speechless trance; To arms! cried Mortimer, and couch’d his quiv’ring lance. On a rock, whose haughty brow Frowns o’er old Conway’s foaming flood, Rob’d in the sable garb of woe, With haggard eyes the poet stood; (Loose his beard, and hoary hair Stream’d, like a meteor, to the troubled air) And with a master’s hand, and prophet’s fire, Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre; “Hark, how each giant-oak, and desert cave, Sighs to the torrent’s awful voice beneath! O’er thee, O King! their hundred arms they wave, Revenge on thee in hoarser murmurs breathe; Vocal no more, since Cambria’s fatal day, To high-born Hoel’s harp, or soft Llewellyn’s lay. “Cold is Cadwallo’s tongue, That hush’d the stormy main; Brave Urien sleeps upon his craggy bed: Mountains, ye mourn in vain Modred, whose magic song Made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topp’d head. On dreary Arvon’s shore they lie, Smear’d with gore, and ghastly pale: Far, far aloof th’ affrighted ravens sail; The famish’d eagle screams, and passes by. Dear lost companions of my tuneful art, Dear, as the light that visits these sad eyes, Dear, as the ruddy drops that warm my heart, Ye died amidst your dying country’s cries— No more I weep. They do not sleep. On yonder cliffs, a griesly band, I see them sit, they linger yet, Avengers of their native land…”
A few months ago I complained about one of the most misplaced recitals of 19th century poetry in James Bond’s Skyfall. The movie itself, pretty good, but the Tennyson quote – worse than when they hammered Thomas Gray into Bull Durham.
Now, one of the very few examples in modern movie culture when quoting such a text actually fits is The Mentalist, a rather lighthearted sleuth series with a rather sinister core. Red John, the faceless and diabolic antagonist of the story, has a trademark line:
Creepy, huh? – As it should be.
The Mentalist hasn’t concluded yet, so we have yet to see how the writers further use the motif. (I know that Blake again pops up over the course of the series, but I will not comment on that yet, in order to evade spoilers.)
However, the premise looks promising so far; on a personal note, I like this duality in The Mentalist – at the same time, we have a fine comedy, and then, moments of almost Poe-ish madness. Let’s hope the series does not, no pun intended, burn out, but preserves this symmetrical approach up to its eventual conclusion.