Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Tintern Abbey" And "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison": Wordsworth And Coleridge’s Theories Of The Imagination

The ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales

The great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, back when he believed in human progress and political liberalism

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, laundanum aficionado and visionary: is it teatime yet?

"Tintern Abbey" And "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison": Wordsworth And Coleridge’s Theories Of The Imagination

Back when I was a junior at Princeton in December 1975, Professor E.D. H. (Dudley) Johnson, an internationally-recognized authority on British Romantic and Victorian poetry (and an amazing collector of British Victorian painting, which was quite out of vogue at the time) praised this college English paper highly and deemed my interpretation “strikingly original.” Check out his illustrated anthology The Poetry of Earth (1966), the definitive collection of British nature poetry, illustrated with British nature art; it’s stunning.

While this essay lacks some of the sweeping apocalyptic power of some of my earlier essays, such as my pieces on Heart of Darkness, Captain Ahab, Huck Finn, the American apocalypse, the Idylls of the King, Bartleby the Scrivener, and Dr. Benway, it still takes it pleasure in quiet things, and it might even shed a slim sliver of light on how the consciousness of two revolutionary sensibilities operated at the birth of the modern era, during the French Revolution and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

For your convenience, I’m including the complete text of both poems before my essay begins, in case you’d like to read the poems themselves and see what I’m talking about.

For those of you who aren’t very familiar with British Romantic poetry, Wordsworth bestrode the age like a colossus, and he was considered the Godfather of the Romantics, because he was the first and because of his extraordinary power and transcendental worldview; as a nature poet, and as a poet in general, he clearly had a huge effect on Walt Whitman, and Emerson could only gnash his teeth in envy, because there was no way in the world he could ever match Wordsworth’s creative talent.

Wordsworth toward the end of his life, after he had lost faith in the future

But there was another side to Wordsworth. He began his career as an outspoken liberal and advocate of the French Revolution; but he quickly became a rock-ribbed conservative and turned on all the ideas of progressive social change that had formerly inspired him. Think John Dos Passos or Jack Kerouac, or (gulp) David Horowitz. (Or Dennis Hopper and Jon Voight in our own day: ex-hippies who now lovingly embrace Bush.) Byron considered Wordsworth a traitor to the liberal cause—and Byron should have known, because he was practically the coolest man in the world back then. James Bond is a Byronic hero.

Coleridge—well, Sam liked to get high. (Like Norman Mailer, Andre Malraux, William Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, William Brammer, and Robert Stone in his younger years.) For many years he was an opium addict—God bless him, the poor devil—laudanum was his thing, as prescription drug abuse is for many people today (laudanum, or tincture of opium, was widely prescribed back then) . But he used it to fuel his wild imagination, as seen in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kublai Khan,” and as a fantiasist, there’s no question he had a profound influence on Poe, the father of the modern horror story; and maybe through Poe, his influence even reached into Rimbaud and The Flowers of Evil and the other French Symbolists and Decadents.

The great American supernatural writer H.P. Lovecraft: a remarkable child prodigy who recited poetry at age two and wrote complete poems by six, he was cursed by a terrible inferiority complex--because of his lantern jaw, he thought he was as hideous as any of his fantastic creations

Strangely enough, there’s a direct link between Coleridge and Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. As you’ll see when you read my essay, Coleridge’s poem is solely about his friendship with the poet Charles Lamb—and Lovecraft uses an amazing quote from Lamb as an epigraph to his great horror story The Dunwich Horror (1925)—arguably the greatest single work of supernatural literature in the twentieth century. Read this quote from Lamb, think of the uses of the imagination (at which Lovecraft was a master), and then please tell me if the hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand up in awe and terror. Jung couldn’t have put it better:

Gorgons and Hydras, and Chimaerasdire stories of Celaeno and the Harpies may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstitionbut they were there before. They are transcripts, typesthe archtypes are in us, and eternal. How else should the recital of that which we know in a waking sense to be false come to affect us all? Is it that we naturally conceive terror from such objects, considered in their capacity of being able to inflict upon us bodily injury? O, least of all! These terrors are of older standing. They date beyond bodyor without the body, they would have been the same... That the kind of fear here treated is purely spiritualthat it is strong in proportion as it is objectless on earth, that it predominates in the period of our sinless infancyare difficulties the solution of which might afford some probable insight into our ante-mundane condition, and a peep at least into the shadowland of pre-existence.

- Charles Lamb: Witches and Other Night-Fears

Wilbur Whateley, the Dunwich Horror: his twin brother looked even more like their father

By the way, since we’re on the subject of Lovecraft and The Dunwich Horror, I’d like to take the liberty of sharing with you the brilliant first five paragraphs of The Dunwich Horror—and after you read them, please tell if you don’t agree with me that this is writing that, in terms of mood and technical mastery, can stand up against any short story by a major American writer in the 1920s:

When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.

The ground gets higher, and the brier-bordered stone walls press closer and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road. The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, and the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions. At the same time the planted fields appear singularly few and barren; while the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of age, squalor, and dilapidation.

As the demented Wizard Whateley, talented character actor Sam Jaffe was the only great thing about the dismal 1970 AIP film adaptation of The Dunwich Horror: when he cries out, "Let me tell ye suthin—some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!”, the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and it's real Lovecraft

Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on the sloping, rock-strewn meadows. Those figures are so silent and furtive that one feels somehow confronted by forbidden things, with which it would be better to have nothing to do. When a rise in the road brings the mountains in view above the deep woods, the feeling of strange uneasiness is increased. The summits are too rounded and symmetrical to give a sense of comfort and naturalness, and sometimes the sky silhouettes with especial clearness the queer circles of tall stone pillars with which most of them are crowned.

The magnificent fantasy artist Virgil Finlay, one of the greatest American illustrators of the twentieth century (and an unsung genius who died in poverty) captured the spirit of the man he admired, whose work he so often illustrated in Weird Tales: Lovecraft' secret self, the 18th-century aristocrat and man of letters

Gorges and ravines of problematical depth intersect the way, and the crude wooden bridges always seem of dubious safety. When the road dips again there are stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes, and indeed almost fears at evening when unseen whippoorwills chatter and the fireflies come out in abnormal profusion to dance to the raucous, creepily insistent rhythms of stridently piping bull-frogs. The thin, shining line of the Miskatonic's upper reaches has an oddly serpent-like suggestion as it winds close to the feet of the domed hills among which it rises.

As the hills draw nearer, one heeds their wooded sides more than their stone-crowned tops. Those sides loom up so darkly and precipitously that one wishes they would keep their distance, but there is no road by which to escape them. Across a covered bridge one sees a small village huddled between the stream and the vertical slope of Round Mountain, and wonders at the cluster of rotting gambrel roofs bespeaking an earlier architectural period than that of the neighbouring region. It is not reassuring to see, on a closer glance, that most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin, and that the broken-steepled church now harbours the one slovenly mercantile establishment of the hamlet. One dreads to trust the tenebrous tunnel of the bridge, yet there is no way to avoid it. Once across, it is hard to prevent the impression of a faint, malign odour about the village street, as of the massed mould and decay of centuries. It is always a relief to get clear of the place, and to follow the narrow road around the base of the hills and across the level country beyond till it rejoins the Aylesbury pike. Afterwards one sometimes learns that one has been through Dunwich.

The acclaimed 2005 silent film adaptation of Lovecraft's classic short story, "The Call of Cthulhu"

* * * * *

"Tintern Abbey" by William Wordsworth (1798)

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. -- Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: -- that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, --
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

If this

Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft --
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart --
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all. -- I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. -- That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, -- both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Nor perchance,

If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance --
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence -- wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love -- oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

By William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

[Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,

On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye

During A Tour. July 13, 1798.]

This Lime Tree Bower My Prison - Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797) clr gif

Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.
Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight: and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

* * * * *

"Tintern Abbey" And "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison": Wordsworth And Coleridge’s Theories Of The Imagination

An old photo of Tintern Abbey

In their poems "Tintern Abbey" (1778) and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" (1797), William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, respectively, revealed the theories of the imagination they held at that time. In light of the similarities and differences between the two poems, it is certainly interesting that they were composed a year apart, but it is not in the scope of this paper to judge what amount of cross-fertilization, if any, occurred between the minds of the two poets. However, the two poems do compare and contrast, and the points of divergence and intersection that become discernable shed light on the revolution of perception (the Imagination) that the Romantic sensibility was helping to engender after the French Revolution.

Both poets use nature as a substitute for God to satisfy their individual emotional needs and to adjust to the treacheries of life, Wordsworth to reconcile himself with the loss of his boyhood innocence; Coleridge uses it as a vehicle for his empathy with Charles Lamb, in order to heal the tensions that will later supply his tragic view of life. In the process, both men expose much of their personalities.

The greatest similarity between the two poems is the method of their construction. Both poets composed their poems to place us inside their minds while they were undergoing the experiences they describe. In each, as the poems unfold, the poet provides us with clues that indicate the psychological process through which his emotions led into each other. These mental triggers, comprised of sophisticated images, create a chain reaction that culminates in the total emotional and intellectual realization that the poet experienced.

The most striking difference between the two poems is their style. Both poets tailor their language to suit their artistic needs. Wordsworth, immersed in his subjective world, speaks entirely in abstract concepts, in order to communicate the moods and thoughts dominating his mind. Coleridge accumulates details to crystallize the powerful emotions moving him.

"Tintern Abbey" deals with the relationship of time, space, and mind. Wordsworth sets the tone at the outset with the words, "Five years have passed..." The description of the famed ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales that follows is deceptive. Ostensibly the poem is an account of the visit Wordsworth paid there with his sister, but in reality it is about how, despite the fact the place has remained the same, the narrator has changed in the interval, and the poem is about his dawning awareness of and solution to that change.

An aerial view of the spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey

At first glance, the pastoral scene he paints in the first stanza is an Edenic paradise. Images of peace—"a soft inland murmur" in line 4, "deep seclusion" in line 7, "the quiet of the sky" in line 8, and the "repose" of line 9—accumulate until disconcerting images begin to creep in. "Here, under this dark sycamore" (l. 10), he sees trees with "unripe fruits," a symbol of his young, unfulfilled life, and he senses "some Hermit's cave, where by his fire/The Hermit sits alone" (ll. 21-2), adding a note of human isolation in the midst of nature and suggesting Wordsworth's own loneliness.

Wordsworth's death mask

The second stanza suggests the source of his depression. Referring to the images that comprise his description of the Abbey, he says:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
in hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
with tranquil restoration--….
(ll. 24-30)

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Home of William Wordworth

Clearly he has incorporated his visceral memories of pastoral beauty into his consciousness with such desperation because of the shock he received migrating from the country to London. (In large part, this facet of his art may account for his popularity in the midst of Industrial Revolution, when many rural boys like himself were deeply unsettled by their exposure to large cities.) Later in the poem, he elaborates on the aspects of urban life that disturbed him so, asserting to his sister that nature will protect them from these evils:

evil tongues,
Rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men.
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life....
(ll. 128-131)

With these realities, he associates images

In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
(ll. 51-54)

For consolation, he turns to his happy memories of Tintern Abbey, and the natural world it represents. He was able to bear London because his memories imparted the transcendent peace through which, he says, "We see into the life of things” (l. 4o). The third stanza is a reiteration of his dependence in London on his memories of pastoral peace.

Dove Cottage

In the fourth stanza, his mind moves him to enlarge upon the implications of his state of mind as presented in the second stanza, and here he introduces the theme to which he will devote "Ode to Intimations of Immortality." He mourns the loss of his unself-conscious boyhood embrace of nature, but in his maturity, he discovers recompense in having found acceptance of the cosmic unity of existence, shown in this world in nature, and of his place in it. No longer is he living in the halycon days

when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led
. (ll. 67-70)

"I cannot paint/What then I was" (11. 67-70), he laments. Now he is

more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved.
(ll. 70-72)

So, unable to accept human society, he has come to Tintern Abbey. However, with the end of youthful joy, he has gained an adult awareness. In the following passage, his inkling of the tragic possibilities of human life leads him into perceiving a guiding force that not only manipulates these possibilities but that also molds all of existence by virtue of its universal permeation. In other words, he has what is almost a religious vision.

A watercolor of Tintern Abbey

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh or grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused....
(ll. 88-96)

From there, his images slowly expand to include the continuum of all matter and all sense perception, until his contact with this transcendental entity supplies him with the rationale of his existence, when he is

well pleased to recognize
in nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and the soul
Of all my moral being.
(11. 108-111)

In the fifth and last stanza, almost as an afterthought, for the first time Wordsworth mentions his sister, whom we learn has been accompanying him all this time. Initially he claims the mystical experience he has just undergone is inconsequential because she is with him, which rings false, due to the overwhelming power of the revelation he has just related; he is making the claim out of a sense of guilt, because under the influence of the ecstatic epiphany, he has totally forgotten her presence.

But what then follows does sound sincere. In her, he can see his past self, and through empathy, he shares her joy and looks forward to the day when she reaches his level of understanding. And he hopes that after his death, she will remember their moment of shared happiness at Tintern Abbey and recall how the emotional impact of her presence enriched his vision. Thus will the quintessential experience of his life be passed on, and his immortality will be assured.

Coleridge, in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," shares many of the same concerns. Like Wordsworth he uses the permanence and beauty of nature as a consolation; but since Mary Lamb's insanity and homicide are infinitely more painful and terrible than Wordsworth's depression, Coleridge mobilizes empathy—for her brother Charles Lamb, a dear friend and fellow poet—as a much more powerful tool than Wordsworth's epiphany. For Wordsworth it was enough to receive a mystical experience passively to cure his discontent, but Coleridge understands that to salve Charles Lamb's wounds a much more active force is necessary. That force is love.

A portrait of the young Coleridge, around the time he wrote "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"

The first stanza finds Coleridge confined to his home because of an accident, while Charles Lamb and other visiting friends roam the countryside without him. Coleridge experiences deep regret because he is unable to accompany Lamb and so provide the comfort he needs, owing to his sister Mary's mad murder of their mother. His frustration is intense:

I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to ray remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never mere may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness....
(ll. 2-8)

Unlike Wordsworth. Coleridge cannot ramble through nature in order to garner pleasant memories (in this case, a precious emotional experience rather than observation) for future reference. As the poem progresses, we notice he is unlike Wordsworth in another respect. Where Wordsworth forgot his sister until almost the last moment, so wrapped up was he in his experience, Coleridge's constant and primary concern is the happiness of his close friend Lamb.

Mary and Charles Lamb

Coleridge finds a solution to his predicament by joining Lamb on his jaunt in spirit. Through his imagination, Coleridge is able to be with his friend, and the extent to which he accomplishes this feat is proven by the rich detail he uses to describe the imaginary walk. He reinforces this poetic construct with an image that represents himself, the poet as Aeolian harp:

that branchless ash,
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann'd by the water-fall!
(ll. 13-16)

The image suggests that even though Coleridge, like the ash, is too strong to be shaken by the great upheavals of life (the gale), he is still sensitive enough to be affected by Lamb's plight (the waterfall).

Coleridge's supernatural masterpiece, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

In the second stanza, Coleridge continues his psychic journey with his friends, so vividly that he mentions each detail to the viewer as it would directly occur. The "wide wide Heaven" (l. 21) conveys the impression of an expansive vault of sky the beholder must crane his neck to see. Then in line 26, Coleridge introduces the reason for his empathy, the "evil and pain/And strange calamity!" (ll. 31-2) that Mary Lamb caused. On its heels comes the image of the sunset.

Here Coleridge feels so deeply for Lamb that, in his poetry at least, he seeks to orchestrate nature for his friend’s benefit. He makes the command,

Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams 0f the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean!
(ll. 32-37)

The image of the sunset is of great importance, for it stresses appreciation of the beauty of the fading day; metaphorically Coleridge is asking Lamb to find joy somewhere in the midst of his sorrow.

In the lines that follow, Coleridge explains the object of his directive to nature; he wants the sunset to occur

So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing around
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
(ll. 37-43)

By invoking a transcendental God. he is struggling to induce, in Lamb as well as himself, a mystical sense of union to eradicate the tragedy that befell Lamb. But his attempt is nowhere as stirring as Wordsworth's amazing evocation at the end of the fourth stanza of "Tintern Abbey." Yet Coleridge's failure is noble; apparently visions of Wordsworth's kind, for which Coleridge is striving, can only occur in tranquillty. As a result, the response that Coleridge produces with his enveloping image of transcendence is intellectual rather than emotional.

Welsh poet and literary figure Charles Lamb

Coleridge opens the third and last stanza with an exclamation of pleasure, believing that in the revelation described in the preceding lines, he has established a spiritual connection with Lamb. Then he turns from the subjective world of interpretation inhabiting his head to the objective world surrounding him, namely the lime-tree bower of his front yard. "Pale beneath the blaze/Hung the transparent foliage," he says in lines 47-8 ; for him the foliage is transparent because he can see Lamb straight through it. The physical world presents no barrier to his imagination. In lines 53-6 he mentions

the ancient ivy, which usurps
These fronting elms. and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight

Here the ivy is the screen of his imagination; through it, the darkness of Lamb's tragedy is filtered into a lighter shade in the quiet of his garden: "Yet still the solitary bumble-bee/Sings in the bean-flower!" (11. 58-9). Coleridge the poet clearly identifies with the singing bee.

As a consequence of these phenomena that Coleridge witnesses in his garden, which lead him to think that nature is sympathetic with Lamb’s sorrow, he believes that

Henceforward shall I know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! And sometimes
'Tis well to be bereft of promised good,
That we may lilt the soul, and contemplate
with lively joy the joys we cannot share.
(ll. 59-67)

To us cynical twentieth-century post-Romantics, this passage may smack of rationalization; but Coleridge is simply making use of what spiritual materials he has at hand. Without belief in an omnipotent God who knows what He is doing, Coleridge must draw on the best substitute he has, namely omnipresent nature. He must see nature as a source of consolation in the face of tragedy because he cannot reconcile himself to a brutal unjust universe, which is just as well. If he could, he might not bother trying to console Lamb.

With his final image, Coleridge drives home the impact of his love and empathy for Lamb with tremendous force. Spotting a rook flying overhead, he imbues it with his love, and with his imagination, he sends it on its way to Lamb, hoping that his friend, when he sights it, will recognize it as a symbol of the life that must go on, the life that Coleridge and Lamb treasure so dearly. As Coleridge says so beautifully,

My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beats its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross'd the mighty Orb's dilated glory,
while thou stood'st gazing; or, when all was still.
Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of life.
(ll. 68-75)

A reader finishes "Tintern Abbey" with the startling power of Wordsworth’s mystical experience and his guarantee of life everlasting ringing in his or her head. The same reader comes away from "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" impressed with Coleridge's generous warmth and powerful love. It is unfair to accuse Wordsworth of practising "the egotistical sublime" as Keats did. It is equally unfair to criticize Coleridge either for his failure to reproduce Wordsworth's epiphany or his strained attempt to account for how a benevolent nature (or God) can produce horrors, without that force being organically flawed in some sense. Both men were born into a spiritual lurch of groping uncertainty, and much of the power of their poems is derived from that tension.

They responded to the situation in which they found themselves to the best of their abilities, in accordance with the individual personalities. Wordsworth, who let himself be guided "Wherever Nature led," acted upon by psychological forces following his adolescent move to London, couched his state of mind in purely conceptual terms, and as a result of his passivity and sensitiviy, a revelation struck him, Coleridge, placed in a situation where Lamb needed his active help, and frustrated by his immobility, exercised his imagination to practise a form of poetic astral projection, and he invested the natural world with the profound moral significance of his choosing. The greatness of their poems originates in the fidelity with which they recorded their struggles. They lived at the beginning of what we now recognize as the modern age, of which we are the inheritors.

Can we formulate better answers than they did?

* * * * *


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "This Lime-Tree Bower Thy Prison.” English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins. New York, 1967.

Wordsworth, William. "Tintern Abbey." English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins. New York, 1967.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tanaka Tanuki Tonighto!

A scene from Pom Poko (1994)

A tanuki kicking back--of course!


In my apartment in Forest Hills, NY, I have a Japanese roommate. He stands about twelve inches tall and has a potbelly, he’s always carrying around a sake bottle with a mischievous grin, and he wears a perpetually stoned look in his eyes, as if maybe he attended one Grateful Dead concert too many.

His name is Tanaka-san (“Mr. Tanaka” in Japanese—I call him Tanaka Tanuki), and he is a Shigaraki-yaki tanuki. An ornamental ceramic Japanese tanuki, or raccoon dog, manufactured in the village of Shigaraki outside Kyoto, whose main industry is, well, mass-producing ceramic tanukis for an eager Japanese market. No kidding.

That's one big tanuki

(You may have noticed that tanuki statuettes are often deployed in front of Japanese restaurants and bars, welcoming customers and promising a good time. Under one arm they always keep a book of their IOUs—bar bills they never intend to pay. Ceramic tanukis are very common Japanese front-porch or lawn ornaments. Forget gnomes.)

A very cute tanuki family

I purchased Tanaka-san on my second day in Himeji in August 1995, right after starting work as a high school English teacher under the JET Program, at the local Juntendo hardware store, to the amazement of the Japanese teacher I was with, my so-called go-between. (Why would a gaijin—a foreigner—be interested in owning a tanuki?) After I installed Tanaka-san in my study, he was very popular with visitors, especially pretty Japanese girls. Sometimes I'd come home and find the place littered with empty Sapporo bottles, the radio blasting out J-Pop (usually Chisato Moritaka or Yuki Uchida), and there would be Tanaka-san, dancing with pretty girls and kicking up a storm. Sometimes the neighbors complained.

A sexy female tanuki. Furries, beware!

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi as Princess Tanuki (2005)

My love affair with tanukis began a few years previously, in New York’s Kinokuniya bookstore, where I picked up a beautiful art book called Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural by Stephen Addiss (George Brazillier, New York, 1985). This magical book, which I cannot recommend highly enough, has a chapter entitled "The Trickster in Japan: Tanuki and Kitsune."

Tanukis look like raccoons or badgers, but they’re not. Biologically, tanukis are the oldest existing members of the genus canis; they’re not raccoons, they’re actually very primitive dogs. (Wikipedia has an excellent entry on tanukis, and I’m indebted to it for many details.) They only inhabit Japan, Korea, and Siberia. In Japanese folklore, tanukis are the most prominent trickster figures.

A tanuki climbing a tree

Tanukis are mischievous, jolly, and warm-hearted, adept at disguise and shape-shifting. They’re also gullible and easily deceived. There’s a famous folktale about a tanuki that was sneaking around a temple one dark might, looking to steal some food. When he heard the priest approach, the tanuki instantly turned itself into a tea kettle.

But then the unsuspecting priest placed the tanuki/tea kettle over the hot wood fire, and suddenly the tanuki screamed, changing shape immediately before the startled priest, flinging its arms out and kicking wildly, and the out-tricked tanuki howled off, scorched, into the darkness. Such is the power of this single folktale that tea kettles shaped like tanukis are very popular in Japan. Everyone loves to see a trickster get his comeuppance.

A netsuke tanuki, carved of ivory--and none too happy looking

Tanukis also have huge balls. Testicles, that is. In real life, tanukis have prominent testicles. But in Japanese folklore, tanukis have gigantic testicles, inflatable at will, that can be used conveniently as drums, swinging weapons, or picnic blankets. The comic possibilities are endless. It’s rude rural humor.

And you thought I was kidding

As soon as I learned about tanukis, I thought it was so wonderful that Japanese folklore could produce a creature that was so ridiculous, lovable, mischievous, and cute—in other words, so human. Tanukis are (round-faced) warmhearted practical jokers and inveterate liars who will always confess to the truth, if pressed hard enough; unlike (long-faced) kitsunes (foxes), who will never admit the truth and who honestly enjoy hurting people.

Bill Clinton is a tanuki. George W. Bush is a kitsune. Therein lies the difference between them.

Heartless kitsune! Unforgivable!

A cold-blooded killer sheds crocodile tears: our nation will never recover

A very, very naughty tanuki!

(There is still a popular school of thought in Japan that classifies you either as tanuki-faced or a kitsune-faced. Either you’re round-faced or long-faced, and that’s supposed to determine your personality. It’s kind of like the widespread Japanese belief that your blood type dictates your personality and destiny. People get married according to blood type in Japan. Really. And of course, if you happen to have a particularly unpopular blood type…)

A stuffed tanuki (dear me)

Origami tanukis

There’s an old joke in Japan. One day a tanuki and a kitsune got together, and they ended up tricking each other!

A kitsune shrine

A wicked kitsune tempting a young girl

A carved wooden tanuki, using his belly as a drum

While living in Japan, I used to tell Japanese proudly that I was often compared to a tanuki. I meant that I was easy-going, fun-loving, and a kidder. Little did I realize that when you call someone a tanuki in Japan, you’re calling them a liar—and here I was, proudly announcing to everyone that I was a pathological liar! No wonder they regarded me warily sometimes. A classic case of unintentional cultural misunderstanding.

Mt. Fuji reflected in beautiful Lake Tanuki, Shizuoka prefecture

In the United States, the trickster figure is the rabbit. West African slaves brought trickster stories about Brother Rabbit to America. In the 1880s, a white Southern writer named Joel Chandler Harris recorded slave folktales he'd heard as a youth as the Uncle Remus stories, the most famous of which is the tale of Br'er (Brother) Rabbit and the Tar Baby.

Later, with the advent of Hollywood in the 1930s, Br'er Rabbit became Bugs Bunny, who is now the reigning American trickster.

Tricksters love disguises--that's how you can tell them

But American folklore has no trickster as warm and lovable as the tanuki. The funniest Shigaraki-yaki tanuki I ever saw was on sale in a tourist shop in Matsuyama, just outside Dogo Onsen. It was a karaoke tanuki, and it had to be seen to be believed: a roly-poly tanuki, mouth frozen open, howling into a microphone, with the same slightly astonished eyes (after drinking too much sake, of course) agog. What else would a Japanese tanuki be doing but hanging out in a karaoke shop, drinking sake, and belting out enka (traditional Japanese blues)? It was the clearest indication I'd ever seen that tanukis are comic self-portraits that the Japanese people paint of themselves.

Inveterate counterfeiters, tanukis love to pass off leaves to unsuspecting humans as paper money

You’ll be glad to hear that that remarkable karaoke tanuki is presently in my possession. I’ve also heard of a jazz tanuki—a hipster tanuki wearing shades and blowing a saxophone, like the young Bill Clinton on The Tonight Show in 1992.

A fishing tanuki

I used to date a Japanese girl whose grandfather was the Buddhist priest of Shigaraki—yes, the ultimate tanuki town, the town whose sole purpose is manufacturing tanukis for an insatiable Japanese market. She once told me a surreal story of how, in the Fifties, Emperor Hirohito came to visit Shigaraki for the first time after the war. Now Shigaraki is a very small village, and there weren’t enough townspeople to line the parade route for this historic occasion, so what did the town fathers do? They lined the parade route with an endless processesion of Shigaraki-yaki tanukis holding tiny Japanese flags.

The ideal Japanese public: quiet, obedient, uncomplaining--but they're tanukis!

I can only imagine how Hirohito felt when he arrived and was treated to the hallucinatory spectacle of being greeted on either side of the parade route by an unending line of flag-waving Shigaraki-yaki tanukis. That’s the problem with tanukis. Outwardly they can seem like quiet, loyal, obedient subjects—but how do you know they’re not laughing at you behind your back?

Sure, they look innocent, but at night they change

Once I saw a real tanuki, in the inaka (countryside). At 5:30 AM one morning in June 1996, I was climbing a mountain by my house on my way to a shrine when I startled an animal with a long, brown, plume-like tail.

Looks like a fox at first, right?

At first I took it for a fox, but when it swung around and I saw the pointed face and the eyes, I realized I had come across a rare, authentic tanuki. We watched each other for about five minutes (some people say it must have been the shock of recognition, since I'm often accused of being a tanuki), and then the tanuki darted into the underbrush. I followed cautiously, then leaned down and called, in Japanese: "Tanaka-san? Tanaka-san irraishimaiska?" (“Mr. Tanaka? Mr. Tanaka, is that you?”)

That's what I saw

And I swear to God, the tanuki answered back with a sharp high-pitched bark (almost like a yelp), as if he were replying, "Hai!" (“Yes!”)

At that point I realized I’d better get out of there. This could easily be a mother tanuki, and that cute little bark could easily be its warning shot—keep away from my kids! And folks, take it from me, you never want to mess with a feral animal, especially a threatened mother. They possess a ferocity you never want to witness.

In 1994, Studio Ghibli, the powerhouse Japanese anime studio, released its charming feature Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko. Since Heisei refers to the reign of the current Japanese emperor, Akihito (Hirohito’s reign was the Showa era), the title translated means, Heisei-Era Tanuki War Pompoko, better known in the U.S. as Pom Poko.

The cartoon is a charming environmentalist fable about a tribe of magical tanukis who are threatened by the encroaching suburban sprawl gobbling up all the mountainous countryside around Tokyo, stripping mountains bare of vegetation and creating monotonous gray “New Towns” for commuters.

(The story is based on the creation of the massive Tama Town development west of Tokyo in 1967, which now includes the city of Hachioji west of Mitaka.)

The tanukis decide to use their ancient magical and shape-shifting powers to scare away the construction crews and greedy land developers, and what ensues is a hilarious farce that pulls out the stops when it comes up to drawing on ancient Japanese folklore to startle and scare the bejeezus out of modern audiences.

A beautiful, phantasmagorical painting by Katsushika Hokusai

The tanukis are lovable, too, and that’s an adjective I don’t use too often.

Pom Poko was the number one domestic film in Japan in 1994 and the first animated feature to be submitted for an Oscar for Foreign Language Film. The U.S. rights to the film were purchased by Disney, which then sat on them, fearing that American kids might get freaked out by the sight of warring badgers by swinging their gigantic testicles like medieval morning-glory stars and slamming each other over their head.

But between 1994 and 2005, abject Roman vulgarity made its steady, relentless advance over American culture, like the Nazis bombing Rotterdam after first promising to spare it. First Austin Powers gleefully downed a diarrhea milkshake (remember that scene? Jesus, I was fucking horrified), and then Bruce Willis amputated psycho killer Elijah Wood’s legs and fed them to ravening wolves while the victim watched smiling. (I think Sin City is a genuinely sick and evil movie, and I’m somebody who likes Rolling Thunder [1977]. If popular American culture can go that low, then maybe there’s no hope for us. Even Weimar never coughed up anything that decadent and knowingly fallen. Obscene Roman comedies and ancient Roman bloody revenge dramas, they pale in comparison.)

Quentin Tarantino comes out of the closet

Meet John McCain: as an Air Force POW shot down in 1967 while napalming Vietnamese civilians, Rolling Thunder's Major Charles Rane (William Devane) is the America that has to pay for its war crimes committted in Vietnam; here, after coming home, he's having his hand ground off in a garbage disposal by Tex-Mex border rats hunting for his strongbox of silver dollars, one of the greatest shockers of American cinema--but no blood is ever shown

Our post-Vietnam Captain Ahab: the wound that becomes a weapon (see Philoctetes)

After that assault on common decency, manic raccoon dogs smacking each other with their giant testes like hurling beanbags seemed charmingly old-fashioned, and by August 2005, Disney felt that it was safe to unleash the rural ribaldry of Pom Poko on an unsuspecting American public.

In October 1999, I attended a multimedia exhibition by noted Japanese anime artist Yoshitaka Amano, creator of Final Fantasy, when he unveiled his new character Hero at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York City. I met Amano and commented on his striking sketches of cunning, wicked-looking tanukis and kitsunes cavorting with each other while slinking around Buddhist temples and, well, obviously trying to trick each other. Clearly the cult of Tanaka-san reaches far and wide.

American jazz musician Lew Tabackin releases an album of swinging tanuki music

A pop group called the Tanukis

How omnipresent are tanukis in Japanese culture? There’s even a popular noodle dish in Japan known as tanuki udon.

It’s a hot noodle soup with deep-fried batter (tempura) sprinkled on top. Kitsune udon, on the other hand, is distinguished by sweetened deep-fried tofu pockets.

When I first went online, in late 1998, one of the first things I did was to research tanukis, and to my amazement and delight, I discovered a site that was nothing but live tanuki cam, all the time. A Japanese couple had discovered a family of tanukis living in their backyard (I think they were in suburban Yokohama), and they set up a live online camera to capture their friends’ nocturnal frolics. It was utterly charming and quite educational, as it illustrated tanuki family dynamics and many other aspects of the tanuki lifestyle, but I’m damned if I can uncover the site today.

While living in Japan, I collected everything tanuki I could lay my hands on. Not only do I have two tanuki tea kettles, but I have ceramic tanuki sake warmer, a tanuki teacup (the cone-shaped tanuki’s hat serves as a lid), a tanuki sake beaker with tanuki sake cups, and a tanuki keychain.

Of course, there’s just one thing missing from my life: a real-life tanuki. Would I like one? On a Platonic level, to be sure; but in real life, a tanuki in your house would be hell on wheels.

Don't mess with this tanuki

A tanuki fur coat--oh my goodness!

A tanuki tail (gulp)

In the mid-Fifties, my sister used to keep, as a pet, a raccoon with broken leg that she rescued in the woods and semi-tamed; it was a one-woman raccoon, as my mother used to say. Suffice it to say that a feral raccoon let loose in our Tudor house in Arden, Delaware, wreaked total havoc. My mother got rid of the raccoon just before I was born, knowing the beast would probably claw me to death in my cradle (no kidding). We donated the raccoon to the Philadelphia Zoo in 1955, and it appeared on a Philadelphia Saturday morning children’s TV show about the Zoo and enjoyed a brief period of media superstardom.

A highway tanuki crossing sign: don't hit the tanuki! I once saw one of these signs on a mountain road in Hyogo prefecture, and it blew my ever-lovin' mind

A pet tanuki? As John Carradine said in The Howling (1981), playing a leering old werewolf: “Wild things ain’t meant to be tamed.”

* * * * *

Beatrix Potter's exquisite rabbit drawings show just how universal anthropomorphism is in human culture