Coleridge’s supernaturalism is supreme among all the Romantic poets. In fact, he made an epoch in the poetry of the supernatural. In the words of H. D. Trail:
“Coleridge’s imagination seems to acquire poetic distinction in the region of the fantastic and the supernatural.”
And to quote Walter Horatio Pater:
“It is delicacy, the dreamy grace in the presentation of the marvelous which makes Coleridge’s work so remarkable. The too palpable intruders from a spiritual world in almost all ghost literature, in Scott and Shakespeare even, have a kind of coarseness or crudeness. Coleridge’s power is in the very fineness with which, as with some really ghostly finger, he brings home to our inmost sense in his inventions, daring as they are.”
- Analysis of Samuel Taylor Coleridge As A Poet
- Kubla Khan by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Poem Analysis
- Frost at Midnight by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis
1. The History of Supernaturalism
Supernaturalism is a belief in an otherworldly realm or reality, often connected with all types of religion in one way or another. The term ‘supernatural’ refers to events and beings which are above nature’s order and out or beyond the ordinary laws of cause and effect in the human world. The medieval and the primitive people were the strong believers of the supernatural and always looked at the phenomena of nature with wonder and awe. In addition, the mystic experiences of Christian saints and the Catholic legends sought to present the supernatural as holy truths.
The literature of the Middle Ages—the romances and ballads—freely exploits the supernatural or the marvelous. Ghosts, witches, fairies, and monsters appear quite frequently in medieval literature. But the supernatural in medieval literature is crude, sensational, hair-raising, and palpable.
With the Renaissance, the writers and artists began to present the supernatural in all allegorical and symbolic cover. They made several efforts to make it more natural and convincing. Despite their efforts, it’s merely sensational as we can see in William Shakespeare’s plays.
Then, supernaturalism was handled by the 18th century Gothic writers, such as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Monk Lewis and others. All these writers presented various supernatural characters and scenes in their novels. But these novelists of the school of horror used to present them in a horrible and gruesome manner. They usually tried to produce an atmosphere of mystery and horror by various artificial methods, such as ghostly figures, strange noise and thunder.
Furthermore, they depicted these ghosts and witches as playing with the lives of innocent people. Their aim was to cause horror by means of supernatural machinery. Therefore, devils appeared either tearing human bodies or chasing the innocent people. Thus, their supernaturalism, according to general assumption, is dull and unconvincing.
2. Coleridge As A Poet of Supernaturalism: His Novelty and the Romantic Concept of the Supernatural
However, S. T. Coleridge, in his poetry, avoids such tarrying and gruesome machinery of supernaturalism. He rejected objective representations of these aspects in favor of a subjective approach in which readers interpret the supernatural based on their own intuition and beliefs. It implies that he dealt with the supernatural in a psychological way. He also depicted the human characters’ impact. As a result, he devised a nuanced human and psychological therapeutic strategy. He not only succeeds in making the supernatural appear natural and so plausible, but he also deals with the supernatural in a way he has never dealt with before.
Summing up his intentions, Coleridge said in Biographia Literaria that, whereas Wordsworth would deal with the natural, he would deal with supernatural, or at the very least romantic, persons and characters, in order ‘to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith.’
3. Major Characteristics of Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
Here are some major characteristics of Coleridge’s supernaturalism:
3.1. Refinement and Subjectivity of Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
Coleridge’s poems feature refined and subjective supernaturalism. It lacks the objective palpability and crudeness of the marvelous found in almost all pre-Coleridgean ghost literature. Coleridge was a pioneer in making the supernatural a psychic phenomena. Critics describe his supernaturalism as “the spot on the brain that will show itself out”. Its pleasure is not evident to the human eye; instead, the mind interprets it as anxiety or fear. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the horror of the Mariner’s face is expressed by the fear it inspires in the thoughts of the beholder:
“I moved my lips, the pilot shrieked
And fell down in a fit.”
In Christabel, there is nothing that is visibly terrifying, yet the mind continually feels a sensation of terror. The wicked ghost that inhabits Geraldine’s body and wants to ruin Christabel’s innocent delight is in the traditional vampire tradition, and Coleridge instills an inexplicable dread in her. We see an incarnation of evil powers from another realm in her, and we understand how powerless ordinary people are against them. The poet presents the woman’s serpent nature through the terror she inspires in Christabel’s psyche. Christabel can only make a ‘hissing sound’ while hypnotized by her eerie eye’s strange, fitful glances. Her venomous nature emanates from her eyes, permeating her entire body, and the “mastiff bitch” immediately detects it.
“The mastiff old did not awake,
Yet she an angry moan did make.”
Moreover, Geraldine’s terrified scream indicates the presence of the dead mother’s ghost:
“Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.”
3.2. Suggestiveness of Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
Coleridge’s supernaturalism is enigmatic, delicate, intuitive, and personal. It is up to the reader to deduce what he or she means by a supernatural agency or element. It distills into the air gradually, rather than all at once.
3.3. Vagueness in Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
In Coleridge’s poetry, the supernatural is shrouded in mystery and surrounded by it. Nothing is extremely obvious and clear; everything is vague and dim. Coleridge doesn’t lay all of his cards on the table; he keeps a lot of information hidden for the sake of mystery and suspense. Thus, the poet arouses interest but does not satisfy it. What was it that Christabel noticed on Geraldine’s bosom? Was it a wound, a serpent’s mark, or some other hideous disfigurement? The poet preserves his secret, never satisfying the readers’ curiosity.
Similarly, we aren’t sure if the bitch’s enraged moans and the tongue of flame were omens or just coincidences. Everything is mysterious, leaving the readers guessing.
3.4. Indefiniteness of Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
The supernatural has no distinct or fixed nature in Coleridge’s poetry. It’s hard to tell how much of it is genuine and how much is just a subjective illusion. The boundary between subjective and objective reality frequently gets blurry. It’s not always easy to tell how much of an experience is objective and how much is pure delusion.
Thus, we don’t know how much of the mariner’s experience was a hallucination of the wedding-guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Similarly, in Christabel, we don’t know whether Christabel observed something weird on Geraldine’s bosom or whether she merely had a hallucination.
Likewise, the dream-like nature of Kubla Khan turns the poem into an indefinite vision of an imagined castle, i.e. an open picture overloaded with fertile spectacular imaginary nature. The “woman wailing for her demon lover,” the “ancestral voices prophesying war,” and when the poet appears to transcend humankind and transform into a wild spirit of song are all examples of this. They’re all supernatural indeterminate fragments, and we have to speculate on what they might have been.
3.5. Use of Occult Forces in Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
In his poems, Coleridge conveys supernaturalism in a most natural and believable manner, allowing the reader for a willing suspension of disbelief. It is a dream-like quality of his supernatural that makes suspension of disbelief easily possible. In addition to these devices, Coleridge also employs occult forces.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the wedding-guest is captivated by the ancient Mariner’s dazzling eyes and is driven to listen to his tale. Geraldine’s spell in Christabel, on the other hand, prevents Christabel from speaking and she can only make a ‘hissing sound.’
Moreover, in Kubla Khan, if the speaker could catch the exquisite melody of the Abyssinian girl, he would become a brilliant musician because, then, he would be overwhelmed with such heavenly inspiration that could enable him to compose a powerful description of the glories of Kubla Khan’s palace. Because he has the potential to be a powerful magician, his readers will see his fragment descriptions as natural and acceptable.
Similarly, in a minor poem of Coleridge, The Three Graves, it is the curse of the mother that dominates the lives of the married couple. Such forces create delusion and we can’t judge things by normal standards. Everything seems to be mysterious, unaccountable. This compels the readers to accept the supernatural as something natural.
3.6. The Convincing and Realistic Nature of Coleridge’s Supernaturalism
Coleridge humanizes his supernaturalism in order to make it more realistic and persuasive. It appears in his writings, not in the conventional bloodcurdling and hair-raising form, but as an ordinary human personality.
Thus, Geraldine, though a ‘demoniac sublime’, is a beautiful girl, attractive and charming. She also has common human weaknesses. For instance, she suffers from shame and misery. So do the ancient Mariner and Christabel have a human element. The supernatural incidents in Coleridge’s poems convey a moral useful for normal everyday life of humans.
3.7. The Fusion of the Natural and the Supernatural in Coleridge’s Poems
Coleridge successfully grants the supernatural in his poems a sense of realism by skillfully integrating it with the natural. His surroundings are stunningly realistic. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the moon and the sun follow their natural courses across the sky. Similarly, in Christabel, says Herford, “The castle, the wood, the mastiff, the tree with its jagged shadows, are drawn with a quivering intensity of touch which conveys the very atmosphere of foreboding and suspense.”
Indeed, the two are so inextricably linked with one another that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Who can say for sure if the bloody sun, no bigger than the moon, standing right up the mast in a scorching and copper sky, the death-fires dancing at night, and the water flaming green, blue, and white like a witch’s oil in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are natural or supernatural phenomena? Is Christabel hissing out of womanly jealousy, or because, under Geraldine’s influence, she has come to embody part of the evil Geraldine represents? Similarly, the huge fountain in Kubla Khan is obviously filled with supernatural energy when it is momentarily forced, yet the similes used to describe it are so familiar that we accept the fountain as very normal:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
3.8. Coleridge’s Creation of Proper Atmosphere
Coleridge’s art triumphs in the formation of a proper atmosphere. He ensures the willing suspension of disbelief in the most amazing way possible. That is, he expertly creates the ideal environment for the appearance of the supernatural. For example:
1. Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
2. The thin gray cloud is spread on high
It covers but not hides the sky.
Here, the realistic aspects of description indicate queerness and grotesqueness, all adding up to a whole picture of something enchanted all around us. Even unnatural phenomena, as C. M. Bowra points out, are made up of natural ingredients, and that is why we believe in them.
4. Coleridge’s Treatment of the Supernatural in his Major Poems
Samuel Taylor Coleridge ushered forth a new era in supernatural poetry. In the realms of the bizarre and supernatural, his imagination appears to have poetic distinctiveness. He doesn’t make up miracles; instead, he portrays the supernatural as nuanced mental processes. He became interested in the fantastic not for the pleasure or excitement it provides, but for the feeling of mystery it instills in the mind. Geraldine has nothing obviously ominous or enigmatic about her, but the effect is more successful because it is psychological.
Not only does Coleridge treat the supernatural as a psychic phenomenon; to him it is also a symbol of the mystery of life (i.e., the spiritual reality or indwelling soul) in man and the world around him; a symbol of love which binds man, bird and beast, and which is the reality underlying all creation. This idea forms the core of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The terrible experience through which the Mariner had to pass was a result of the violation of this law when he shot the albatross. It is this idea which gives significance to the conclusion of the tale or the powerful communication of moral truth in the poem.
In Coleridge’s treatment of the supernatural, we can detect three modes:
4.1. Coleridge’s Treatment of the Supernatural in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge does not avoid the marvels but makes full use of such devices as:
- the dead albatross hanging around the Mariner’s neck;
- the phantom ship sailing without a wind; and
- the dead mariners sailing the ship back to England.
The shooting of the albatross and the sailors’ apprehensions about such an act provided the raw material for Coleridge’s masterpiece. But in spinning the yarn, the poet continuously keeps to the fore the universal and ingrained sense of sin and suffering, and of pain and forgiveness.
The scenery, atmosphere, coloring of phrase and rhythm, all combine to give the magical world the unity of a possible experience; our ideas of sin and its sequel are not unreal in actual life. In sheer vividness of imagery and descriptive power, the poem remains unsurpassed. The eye never seems to wander from the canvas; and scene after scene becomes alive in two or three strokes of the brush. Thus, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a masterpiece of “enchantment made real,” with its simple meter language and weird mood.
Furthermore, Coleridge’s supernaturalism in the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an atmosphere pervading the whole poem; there is a delicate creation of a deeper horror. Therefore, the poem achieves a perfect union of dream-work and brain-work, created out of the stuff that dreams are made on. We cannot even be certain that the weird scenes which the Mariner describes are actual occurrences or products of his heated or overwrought imagination.
4.2. Coleridge’s Treatment of Supernaturalism in ‘Christabel’
In Christabel, the supernatural is treated differently. Here, the purely physical marvels are in the background, and merely presented rather through suggestion than direct assertion. Although romantic machinery—an ancient castle, a wood at night, moonlight, silence, the owl—is present. But the source of terror is not in these material circumstances. The element of marvel is not obtrude, but slowly distilled into the atmosphere.
Coleridge has drawn the castle, the old mastiff, the tree with its jagged shadows with such a delicacy that produces an impression of foreboding and suspense. The suggestion begins with the toothless mastiff of Sir Leoline (lines 8-13 of Christabel). A subtle stroke further accentuates he serpent nature of the elf-woman; for no marvels of the external world have such an effect on imagination as deformation of human personality.
Thus, the purely marvelous element which Coleridge allowed on the surface of The Ancient Mariner is here driven behind the scene. The incidents in Christabel, in themselves, are not outside the natural order of things, as they are in The Ancient Mariner. It is only through constant hints and suggestions that we become aware of the supernatural forces that lie on every side. The poet has created the remote horror of the scenes through suggestions only. The readers can indirectly feel oppressive silence and loneliness; there is no attempt to make the flesh creep. Thus, Coleridge never pushes the supernatural beyond the border of psychology.
It is on the delicate suggestiveness of Christabel that the beauty of the poem lies. If the hints were made more definite and explicit, the whole significance would be destroyed and the peculiar spell of the poem would be broken.
4.3. Coleridge’s Treatment of the Supernatural in ‘The Three Graves’
The third mode of treatment of the marvelous can be seen in the The Three Graves, where Coleridge has again used the suggestive method. In this ballad, neither the persons (as in Christabel) nor the incidents (as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) have anything in themselves marvelous. It appears solely in the withering blight brought by a mother’s curse upon the lives of three innocent persons—her daughter Mary, Mary’s friend, Ellen, and the lover of Edward.
4.4. Coleridge’s Treatment of the Supernatural in ‘Kubla Khan’
In Kubla Khan, the dome of pleasure, which Kubla Khan ordered to be built, is the source of numerous mystical visions. It would be erected where Alph, which may refer to ‘alpha’, the first letter in Greek, as well as a symbol of the Christian origin of life, went through caves unfathomable to man down to a sunless sea. Each supernatural builds on the previous one or necessitates the presence of the others in order to complete the image. The magical natural and supernatural images of fertile land, girdled with walls and towers, are pregnant with enchanted natural and supernatural images:
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Afterwards, we are unconsciously drawn to the supernatural picture of the woman sobbing for her demon-lover by the description of the up-normal beauty of that spot, which had a magical haunting. That lovely spot is as enchanting as what lies beneath a fading moon, haunted by a lady lamenting her demon-lover.
Coleridge then proceeds to the dead ocean, where Kubla Khan hears voices from afar, implying an afterlife prophesying the arrival of war, and therefore the downfall of the pleasure-dome and the loss of life. Because it was a blend of a summer and a winter palace; ice coupled with sunshine, that pleasure-dome was truly unique and magical. There were ice caves and it was bright.
4.4.1. Coleridge’s Unique Construction of Environment for the Supernatural in Kubla Khan
In Kubla Khan, Coleridge has skillfully constructed another environment for the supernatural towards the end of the poem when he purported to witness an Abyssinian maid playing on an old stringed instrument singing about Mount Abora in a vision. He believed that if he were given the task of reviving the damsel’s heavenly symphony, he would create an aerial fabric akin to Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome with his song. As a result, he would transcend human limitations and develop a magical nature. Then, in awe of his inspired look, his listeners would form a magical circle around him to keep him from reaching them in that condition of magnificent frenzy.
Here, the supernatural nature he would acquire, such as the glistening eyes and swaying hair, created a new supernatural. That is, his audience would believe that he had been given honey-dew and paradise milk. Honey-dew is short for “manna-dew,” which refers to drips of manna, a mystery type of food that Jehovah is claimed to have given the Israelites on their trip to Canaan. So, here it represents ambrosia of the celestial inspiration:
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Thus, in Kubla Khan, the poet presents himself as a supernatural being.
5. Coleridge’s Religious Philosophy and His Poetry of the Supernatural
There is another aspect in which Coleridge’s poetry is said to mark an epoch in the poetry of the supernatural. He introduced into it a concept which was unknown in English poetry; the domination of an innocent and non healing mind by a superior will-power or by an idea implanted on it by such a will.
According to Coleridge’s religious philosophy, the mind has the power to go out of its individual, personal self; this is called mental initiative or an a priori activity of mind which is a prerequisite to all experiments and investigations.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, this concept is illustrated by the Wedding-guest being held by the eye of the Mariner and listening to his tale. Again and again, the Wedding-Guest thinks of the wedding and tries to break the spell; but Mariner’s eyes keep him bound. The Mariner himself with his glittering eyes, his gray beard, his mesmeric power, his arresting voice and his irresistible urge to tell his tale represents the power of the mysterious i.e. the unseen soul.
In Christabel, the same concept takes the form of the spell which holds the speech of Christabel. When Sir Leoline questions his daughter, she can’t tell anything. Even when she sees in a flash vision that Geraldine is a serpent woman, she cannot tell what she knows, mastered by the mighty spell.”
Still another form of the idea of a superior will-power spell is seen in The Three Graves wherein the blithe young people are held by the mother’s curse.
Sources of this Article:
- Bowra, C.M.: The Romantic Imagination, 1950.
- Herford, C. H.: The Age of Wordsworth, 1919.
- House, Humphry: Coleridge, 1953 (Clark Lectures, 1951-52)
- Pater, Walter H.: Appreciations, 1889
- Trail, H. D.: Coleridge, 1884.
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