Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics: A Review

Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics, J. C. C. Mays, ISBN 9781137300713,

Publication 0429_MaysDate March 2013, Palgrave Macmillan.

It can, at times, appear that the sole function of literary criticism, especially of the academic variety, is to further the career of the critic. Indeed, this perception has tended to bring the craft of criticism into disrepute, particularly among the community of what might loosely be termed creative writers, an unfortunate circumstance that may lead many poets to ignore this book by default, to their great loss.

J.C.C. Mays is Professor Emeritus of English and American Literature at University College Dublin, Ireland. Amongst many other things, he is also the editor of the Poetical Works volumes in the Bollingen series The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This means he is almost certainly the greatest living expert on Coleridge’s verse. If you combine this expertise with his wider ability as a sensitive and intelligent reader of poetry, you might expect this book to be something a bit special, and you wouldn’t be disappointed.

To the general reader, Coleridge the poet is a character in an attractively simple narrative; early success, as exemplified in the ‘famous three’ (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Christabel) followed by a decline into drug abuse, depression, marital discord, dull philosophising and desertion of and by the Muse. Mays sets out to examine this convenient myth in the light of the full body of Coleridge’s poetic output and to bring to his readers a new understanding of his true ambitions and achievements as a poet.

As the book’s title suggests, Mays’ analysis focuses largely on the ‘how’ of Coleridge’s poetry rather than the autobiographical ‘what’, and this ‘how’ is mapped along two primary axes. On the one hand, he explores the poet’s commitment to finding a balance between metre and rhythm, between quantitative feet and accentual stress as means of patterning his verses. On the other, he foregrounds what he calls Coleridge’s ‘poetry of ever-renewed beginnings’, a poetry in which completeness is neither achieved nor sought. Coleridge does not look for what we have come to term ‘closure’ in his poems, as Mays explains. Rather, he constantly reworks a single plot, a structure of theme, counter-theme and a resolution that resolves nothing, citing as a foundational example, The Eolian Harp.

ColeridgeMays traces the development of this ‘two-part epiphany’ structure in parallel with Coleridge’s experimentation with metre and rhythm, particularly his use of the ballad line of three- or four-stressed lines, with variable numbers of unaccented syllables around the stresses. These experiments came to a head most obviously in the Rime, with its five-line stanzas, multiple viewpoints, marginal glosses and footnotes, and the first part of Christable, but also in Kubla Khan:

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

To simplify Mays’ argument hugely, the ‘famous three’ saw Coleridge working out his formal theories on broad canvases, but this does not mean that they represent the pinnacle of his achievement; rather they are the point at which the technical equipment he needed for the kind of poetry he had it in him to write became fully available to him, and the poetry he wrote from then on builds on this foundation. The key point here, Mays argues, is that the kind of poetry Coleridge had it in him to write was not the poetry of public statement, the grand Wordsworthian epic sweep. His was the poetry of the endless question, of that most modern of conditions, indeterminacy. Once he had learned how to do what he wanted to do, Mays says, Coleridge wrote primarily for himself to discover how he felt about things, and as his self-knowledge grew, the need to write diminished. Nevertheless, he continued to write poems almost up to his death

The 'Lakes' notebook
The ‘Lakes’ notebook

The question is, was this late poetry of a sufficient quality to sustain Mays’ claims for it? There is no question that Coledidge, like many of the most interesting poets, was a very uneven writer, and even the Rime is marred by lines like these:

The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

And the late poetry also has its moments of bathos. Nevertheless, on balance I think Mays is right. Indeed, many of the late lyrics seem, in my opinion, to stand with any poems of their kind written in English. Rather than try to explain why, I’d like to present a couple of examples of what I mean. The first is the inverted sonnet Work Without Hope, a poem that starts from a point of poetic dejection, and by its very existence undermines that position:

Work without Hope


Lines Composed 21st February 1825


All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

The second is a song from the 1815 play Zapolya, which, I’m tempted to say, could stand beside Shakespeare’s songs and hold its own:

Glycine’s Song


A SUNNY shaft did I behold,
From sky to earth it slanted:
And poised therein a bird so bold—
Sweet bird, thou wert enchanted!


He sank, he rose, he twinkled, he troll’d
Within that shaft of sunny mist;
His eyes of fire, his beak of gold,
All else of amethyst!


And thus he sang: ‘Adieu! adieu!
Love’s dreams prove seldom true.
The blossoms, they make no delay:
The sparking dew-drops will not stay.
Sweet month of May,
We must away;
Far, far away!
To-day! to-day!’

Mays concludes his book by tracing Coleridge’s relationship to succeeding generations of experimental poets, through the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne and the poets of the English 1890s, to Olson’s Projective Verse and British and Irish experimental poetry since the 1960s [in the name of full disclosure, I get a passing mention here]. As might be expected, this influence is less to do with imitation than with example. As Mays writes ’Coleridge the poet will not be understood unless the older understanding is recovered in which “the New School” meant a new verse – that is, for him, first and foremost a new metric – although, as one must expect in Coleridge’s case, all is old as well as new.’

This understanding precisely chimes with Pound’s Imagist manifesto ‘A Few Don’ts’ and Olson’s ‘to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot) has not been sufficiently observed or practiced’. By demanding that our understanding of the Romantic revolution be seen as having less to do with Wordsworth’s retrospective emphasis on diction and more on the ‘how’, on Coleridge’s experiments in metre, Mays places his subject firmly in the direct line of constant renewal and rediscovery that characterises all experimental poetry since.

It is the mark of all great literary criticism that it sends you back to the work it discusses with new eyes and ears, that it is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself. This is exactly what this book achieves. I cannot imagine that anyone would not have their understanding of Coleridge’s achievements as a poet both broadened and deepened by reading it. You might quibble with some of the details of what Mays has to say, you might even continue to prefer the ‘famous three’ to any of Coleridge’s other poems, but this book will provide the interested reader with a whole new insight into the range of his achievement as a poet over a full and long career. You can’t ask for more than that from a critic.


7 thoughts on “Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics: A Review

  1. “It is the mark of all great literary criticism that it sends you back to the work it discusses with new eyes and ears, that it is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.” ~ Excellent insight about lit crit!


  2. Thanks, Billy. Your quote sent me off on a search for “glycine”, – a French word for Chinese Wisteria. I’ve come across it a few times in English books, but curiously the online OED doesn’t seem to acknowledge that definition, it only talks about the amino acid.


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