A Visionary Landscape

Malcolm Guite

From Chapter Five

Though we generally read the great works of the past somewhere comfortably indoors, in a library or a living room, we must not imagine the conversations which inspired Lyrical Ballads, and the whole Romantic Movement in literature which took root from that book, as having taken place in such quiet and studious surroundings. Wordsworth and Coleridge were inveterate walkers, indeed Coleridge has been credited with inventing the pastime of fell walking. We must imagine them not as two poetical theorists concocting a new school in some entirely intellectual way but as men of both heart and head, newly awakened by the revolutionary hopes that stirred the age they lived in, and turning to one another and to the world around them in a three-way conversation through which new meanings were constantly being uncovered.

Chapter Five of Mariner brings us to the end of Part 1, featuring three formative poems representing the convergence of forces which shaped The Rime; This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison written in July 1797, Kubla Khan in October 1797, and Frost at Midnight, written in the February of 1798.   We will examine each of these this week.  Coleridge and Wordsworth composed much of their creative work while walking, as William Hazlitt described in an essay written many years later:

There is a chaunt in the recitation both of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which acts as a spell upon the hearer, and disarms the judgment. Perhaps they have deceived themselves by making habitual use of this more ambiguous accompaniment. Coleridge’s manner is more full, animated, and varied; Wordsworth’s more equable, sustained, and internal. The one might be termed more dramatic, the other more lyrical. Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.

Malcolm Guite’s comments on both the walks and Hazlitt’s essay are important for context:

Hazlitt is a useful witness to these formative months, though it should be remembered that much of what he wrote was written a long time afterward when he felt that these two idols of his youth had betrayed the radical cause and become part of an establishment he despised. We always hear two voices in Hazlitt’s accounts of Coleridge: that of the ardent hero-worshiper and that of the bitter cynic. The two voices unite in a word like spell or enchant, the one delighting in the spell and the other renouncing it as a deception, so here “chaunt” acts as a spell on the hearer, but the phrase “disarms the judgment” and the further comment “perhaps they have deceived themselves” suggest that the spell was a delusion and not great poetry. Hazlitt refers to the “chaunt” in recitation as “an ambiguous accompaniment”—but the real ambiguity is in Hazlitt’s own commentary.

Under what circumstances is your writing most productive?


JOHN 1:1




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