Two hundred years ago, in July 1817, a somewhat eccentric, chaotic and occasionally brilliant collection of poems was published under the Delphic title, Sibylline Leaves. Its eccentric, chaotic and frequently brilliant author S.T. Coleridge, wrote, in the preface to the work, that it “contains the whole of [my] poetical compositions from 1793 to the present date”. The poems were, he explains, gathered from three sources: first, The Lyrical Ballads (the 1798 joint enterprise with Wordsworth); secondly, poems published at different times in “various obscure or perishable journals…many imperfect, all incorrect”; and thirdly, manuscript poems.
Coleridge explains that the title, Sibylline Leaves, is as an “allusion to the fragmentary and widely scattered state in which [the poems] have been long suffered to remain”. This title requires some explanation in our post-classical age. The Sibyls, "frenzied women from whose lips the god speaks", had the power of prophecy and would write their predictions on leaves (specifically oak leaves in the case of the Cumaean Sibyl whom Aeneas consulted before descending to the underworld to visit his father Anchises, and who is said to have foretold the birth of Christ). The inscribed leaves would then be left by the Sibyl at the mouth of the cave where she dwelt. If they were not quickly collected by the person who had consulted her, the wind would scatter the leaves and their meaning, already obscure and open to multiple interpretations, would be impossible to decipher and reconstruct.
There appears, then, to be more than a touch of self-deprecation in Coleridge’s title and, indeed, it left the collection of poems open to criticism. According to The Literary Gazette, “The Sibyl wrote her prophecies on leaves; so does Mr Coleridge his verses – the prophecies of the Sibyl became incomprehensible, if not instantly gathered; so does the sense of Mr Coleridge’s poetry”. This is harsh but we can and should, I think, defend Coleridge and explain why and how Sibylline Leaves looks and reads as it does.
The immediate circumstances surrounding its publication were unhappy and difficult. Coleridge’s original intention had been to publish the poems together with a short introductory work, Biographia Literaria. These would have been a single work in two volumes. The poems were printed in Bristol in 1814-15 and were ready for publication. Coleridge’s publisher, an old friend, John Gutch, thought that the Biographia itself would run to two volumes but he had miscalculated and there was not enough material (too much for one volume, insufficient for two). Coleridge therefore quickly and haphazardly produced further chapters of memoir, criticism, philosophy and theology, which is why this fascinating book (A.J.Symons called it “the greatest book of criticism in English, and one of the most annoying books in any language”) feels as though it has been, as Leslie Stephen said, “put together with a pitchfork”. Sibylline Leaves was, therefore, held back, printed but unpublished, for two years while these problems were resolved. During this period Coleridge also took his business away from his friend Gutch and entrusted the work to his London publishers Rest Fenner. When Sibylline Leaves was published, the original printed pages were used which is why the first edition bears the register “VOL II”.
In addition to the professional difficulties surrounding the publication of Sibylline Leaves, Coleridge’s personal and emotional life had reached something of a nadir. His depression and addiction had led to estrangement from his family and so, in April 1816, he went to live under the care of Dr James Gillman in Highgate. Gillman treated Coleridge with some success and the poet remained in North London for the rest of his life producing a huge amount of work until his death in 1834.
One might see the disorganised qualities of the Biographia and the Sibylline Leaves as deriving from these various complications. But I think this would be wrong, too reductive and biographical an analysis. Instead, we should see the “recondite enigmas” (The Literary Gazette again) of Coleridge’s work as a function of his idiosyncratic and all-encompassing genius for, like a later, American poet who wrote under his influence, Coleridge was large and contained multitudes.
How large and multitudinous can be seen if we consider a single, celebrated line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This great poem had first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. In that edition, Coleridge used deliberately archaic forms of spelling which resulted in a bemused response from critics. Even Wordsworth recognised that his friend’s most significant contribution to this important collection was not a success: “the old words”, he wrote, “and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on”.
When Coleridge began to gather his Sibylline Leaves, he rewrote parts of the Ancient Mariner, modernising the language (not least the title which had been The Rime of Ancyent Marinere), adding the prose “glosses” designed to clarify and interpret the verse, and removing some of the obscurities. One phrase he altered was this, which everyone remembers from their childhood lessons on alliteration:
“The breezes blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow follow’d free”.
In the Sibylline Leaves edition of the poem Coleridge changed the second line to read: “The furrow stream’d off free”. This is much weaker, lacking the poetic force of the original. In a footnote to this 1817 version, Coleridge explains that the earlier “furrow follow’d free” was not an accurate description of a ship’s wake as seen by someone on board. Instead, “From the ship itself, the Wake appears like a brook flowing off from the stern”. Coleridge had abandoned poetic effect for scientific and observational accuracy.
At about the same time that Coleridge was trying to find the right way to describe water running in the wake of a ship, he was conceiving and developing the notion of “the suspension of disbelief”. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge recalls that when he and Wordsworth were discussing their respective contributions to Lyrical Ballads, "... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”.
The theory of “suspension of disbelief”, which Coleridge encouraged his readers to exercise, was, in its original formulation, a way of introducing fantasy and the supernatural in a convincing manner in an age when, on the whole, people knew that these were false. But if readers are willing to suspend disbelief in the face of “The Night-Mair Life in Death”, then why not with the description of the wake from a ship? Does “poetic force” not override the need for the precise description of something as mundane as this? Well, the answer is, broadly, “yes” as the earlier “furrow follow’d free” is used in most versions of the poem (but not all: David Jones’s wonderful illustrations accompanied the 1817 version).
But Coleridge did, in this instance at least, sacrifice beauty for truth when he was elsewhere arguing for the opposite. Is this inconsistent? Is this a contradiction? I am not sure. I think he is trying to show that everything and anything is possible in the realm of the creative imagination, that we should see each thing as a part of a wider whole in order to make connections between apparently distinct intellectual constructs. There will be occasions when we have to suspend and not suspend disbelief simultaneously.
This collapsing of the disparate is what Coleridge is doing in Sibylline Leaves. Taken as a whole, it is, like the oak leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl herself, a work of mystery and disembodied imagination; not always clear, not always correct and consistent but pushing at the gloomy boundaries of what is possible and comprehensible. There may be “no twilight within the courts of the Sun” but there is twilight in Coleridge’s poetic imagination. If we, as readers, allow ourselves to dwell in these Coleridgean shadows then perhaps we can gather enough disjecta membra to discern the poet’s submerged meanings.
Andrew Taylor xii.vii.xvii