Tag Archives: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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“Desire” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame,
That takes the meaning from the nobler part,
And but translates the language of the heart.

This is a very short yet very moving poem. Coleridge is essentially comparing and contrasting Love and Desire. For Coleridge, Love comes from the soul. It is a spiritual connection with another human being that transcends this earthly plane. And since Love, like all things spiritual, is impossible to express through normal means, it must be expressed through symbols, and Desire is the symbol by which a person can express Love. Desire is the physical expression of spiritual Love.

There is really not much else I have to share about this poem. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Cheers!

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“Work Without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

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.

I read this sonnet a few times, because I was having difficulty deciphering its meaning.

In the first half, Coleridge is comparing himself to the natural world around him, observing how everything seems to be busy doing what is their natural wont while he sits, dejected, unable to find motivation to create.

In the second half of the poem, he seems to reflect on his past work, when he was in touch with his muse, but now the streams of inspiration are not flowing his way.

It is the last couplet that caused me the most trouble. While he appears to envy the creatures who work without hope, he acknowledges that everything they do is temporary, “nectar in a sieve,” leaving nothing for future generations. Is he implying that man’s creations are also temporary, and that his poetry will disappear just as the unused nectar? Or is he suggesting that what makes human artistic creations lasting is that we instill our work with Hope, with the desire that it transcend our existence, that we can convey some eternal truth that will help future generations?

I suspect I will be ruminating on this poem for a while. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them. Please feel free to share your interpretations in the comments section below.

Thanks, and do creative work!

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 4 – The Sacred Work

PrometheusUnbound

Although I feel as if I could write forever about this play, I will stop at four (a nice symbolic number). In Act IV, there are two passages sung by the Chorus of Spirits which resonated deepest for me on this reading. They are somewhat lengthy, but need to be included in their entirety.

We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk, and obscene, and blind,
Now ’tis an ocean
Of clear emotion,
A heaven of serene and mighty motion

From that deep abyss
Of wonder and bliss,
Whose caverns are crystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!

From the dim recesses
Of woven caresses,
Where lovers catch ye by your loose tresses
From the azure isles,
Where sweet Wisdom smiles,
Delaying your ships with her siren wiles.

From the temples high
Of Man’s ear and eye,
Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy;
From the murmurings
Of the unsealed springs
Where Science bedews her Dædal wings.

Years after years,
Through blood, and tears,
And a thick hell of hatreds, and hopes, and fears;
We waded and flew,
And the islets were few
Where the bud-blighted flowers of happiness grew.

Our feet now, every palm,
Are sandalled with calm,
And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
And, beyond our eyes,
The human love lies
Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

The first thing that struck me about this section were the references to Coleridge’s masterpiece, Kubla Khan. The image of the caverns as “crystal palaces” conjures images of the “caves of ice” in Coleridge’s poem. And of course, the image of Paradise.

Like Coleridge, Shelley is expressing the creative power of the human consciousness, particularly those deeper realms of the subconscious represented by the caverns. All great art is an expression of this deep subconscious. But what Shelley implies, which I think is so poignant, is that it is the emotion of love which allows us to glimpse into the deeper areas of our souls, to “gaze on Paradise,” and thereby create art which captures the true divine essence of our beings.

In the next passage sung by the Chorus of Spirits, Shelley connects the creative power of the human mind with the myth of Prometheus.

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round.

We’ll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize:
Death, Chaos, and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest’s might.

And Earth, Air, and Light,
And the Spirit of Might,
Which drives round the stars in their fiery flight;
And Love, Thought, and Breath,
The powers that quell Death,
Wherever we soar shall assemble beneath.

And our singing shall build
In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

The first thing that struck me about this section is the contrast between what I’ll call the trinity and anti-trinity. While there must always be a balance in nature, and therefore a balance within ourselves, we must turn to the positive trinity if we want to create art that is spiritual and conveys the beauty of the divine. Shelley expresses the trinity that fosters creative expression as “Love, Thought, and Breath,” and the anti-trinity, which clouds the creative ability of humanity, is “Death, Chaos, and Night.”

When Shelley states that “our singing shall build / In the void’s loose field / A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield,” he is asserting that it is through artistic expression, particularly poetry, that humanity will be able to elevate itself to the level of divinity.

Finally, “our work shall be called the Promethean.” Prometheus was the god who defied authority and gave light to humanity. This then becomes the task of the poet. The poet and the artist must challenge the established authority and bring the concepts of love, spirituality, and enlightenment to all humanity. The work of the artist is the work of Prometheus. It is the only through the Love, Thought, and Breath of the poet that our civilization can overcome the powers of Death, Chaos, and Night.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are now inspired to take on the Promethean work.


 

Other Posts on Prometheus Unbound:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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“The Witch’s Boy” by Kelly Barnhill: The Mystical Power of Words

WitchsBoy

This book was suggested by a close friend of mine who is a science fiction writer and someone whose taste in books I respect. I have to say that this is one of the best young-adult novels I have ever read. The writing and storyline are fairly basic and accessible to readers of all levels, and the tale itself is engaging, but the really amazing aspect of this book is the wealth of mystical, spiritual, and psychological symbolism that is woven into this rich tale. For the sake of brevity, I will focus this post on how words are presented as objects of mystical power.

Early in the book, Barnhill clearly states that words are objects of power that are the essence of creation.

A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed.

(p. 29)

One of the main characters in the book is Ned, who is the witch’s boy. Ned’s mother is tasked with protecting the last bit of magic that remains in the world. While attempting to protect the magic in his mother’s absence, the magic enters into Ned and becomes a part of him. At this point, the magic appears as words which flow across his skin, almost as if the boy has become a living book.

His sleeve hiked over his elbow and Ned stared at his skin in amazement. His hands were covered with words. And his arms. And his shoulders and belly and legs and chest. His back and face too, by the feel of it. Moving words. Words that scribbled and looped, crossed one another out, and scripted furiously forward. The words encircled each finger, blotched on his knuckles, tore across his wrists, and swirled over his arms.

(p. 94)

As I read this, I thought a lot about how the things we read and the stories we hear become a part of who we are. I have always believed that I am the culmination of my life’s experiences, and reading has been an integral part of my life and my personal development. So as I pictured the words swirling over Ned’s skin, I thought of all the stories and poems I have read, swirling through my own being and affecting who I am.

Something that has always fascinated me is the mystical power of words in the act of creation. That is why I have felt a connection to writers like Coleridge. I found definite allusions to this idea in this book, particularly regarding the importance of words for harnessing and directing the creative energy that surrounds us all.

Without words, the magic was uncontained. Without words, it was deadly.

(p. 149)

Finally, in one of my favorite passages in this book, Barnhill expresses what I consider a universal truth in a brilliantly clear and simple manner: the idea that words are mystical symbols that express the archetypal essence of everything that exists.

Ned stood and stepped away from the wolf. He removed his remaining glove and looked at the magic on his skin. Its strange letters. Its otherness. Each symbol was a word—though no more familiar to him than the words of his own language.

And yet.

A word is a magic thing. It holds the essence of an object or an idea and pins it to the world. A word can set a universe in motion. And Ned had.

(pp. 254 – 255)

There are many other symbols and ideas incorporated into this impressive book: the triple goddess; the sea as a symbol for the soul and consciousness; the forest representing the primal and dangerous aspect of the human psyche; the corrupting influence of power (in a Faustian manner); and myriad others. As I said, the sheer amount of allusion woven into the easy-to-read story is nothing short of amazing.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Feel free to share your thoughts here after reading it. Cheers!

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“Phantom” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

All look and likeness caught from earth
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own ;—
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

According to the editor’s note in my book, this short poem is one of Coleridge’s attempts at describing Sara Hutchinson as she appeared to him in a dream. But as is often the case with Coleridge’s work, there is more meaning hidden below the surface.

As one who was fascinated by the supernatural and metaphysics, we can assume that Coleridge believed that the human body is inhabited by a soul that continues to exist after a person has died. When a person enters into an altered state of consciousness—whether through sleep/dreams or psychotropic substances or meditation—that person becomes more open to perceiving non-corporeal entities. Coleridge makes it clear in this poem that he believes the spirit is the true essence of a person and not the physical form. Based upon the way he describes his interaction with Sara, I suspect that Coleridge believed he actually crossed a threshold while in the dream state and met with the spirit of Sara Hutchinson.

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“Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Paganism, Vampires, and the Supernatural

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Those of you who know me know how much I love the romantic writers, and Coleridge is among my favorites. Although this is considered an “unfinished” poem, it is still too long to include in this post. But for those who need, here is a link to an online version. I recommend you read it if you are not familiar with the poem.

Poetry Foundation: Christabel

This poem is, in my opinion, one of the great literary expressions of the supernatural. Basically, it tells the story of a young maiden, Christabel, who meets a woman, Geraldine, who turns out to be a vampire. It is the subtlety of the imagery and the beauty of Coleridge’s verse that make this such a great poem.

Coleridge opens the poem by establishing the time, which appears to be just past midnight.

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Christabel, a virgin maiden, goes off into the woods alone. She engages in a pagan ritual. She prays at an ancient oak tree, draped with moss and mistletoe.

She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

As she is praying, she becomes aware of someone on the other side of the tree. When she looks to see who is there, she encounters a mysterious woman who is described as enchantingly beautiful.

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

The woman tells Christabel her name is Geraldine and convinces her that she was the victim of rape. Christabel takes pity on her and invites her back to the hall where she lives with her father. When they arrive there, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold. This could be because vampires are unable to enter a home without invitation from the master, or there may be some protective spell guarding against evil. It is only after Christabel helps her across the threshold that she regains her strength.

They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.

Once inside, Christabel offers prayers to the Virgin Mary. She encourages Geraldine to do the same, be she refuses.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.

When Geraldine enters Christabel’s bedchamber, she senses a guardian spirit watching over her. The spirit appears to be that of Christabel’s deceased mother. Geraldine banishes the protective spirit, claiming her right to the maid.

But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.’
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.’

As Geraldine undresses, Christabel sees the mark of the vampire upon her breast.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

It is then implied that Geraldine drank some of Christabel’s blood. Later, when Christabel awakens, she notices the change in Geraldine, who is now fed and strong.

And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side—
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.

When Christabel brings Geraldine to meet her father, Sir Leoline, he becomes entranced by her. She convinces him that she is the daughter of one of Leoline’s old friend, Roland, with whom he had a falling out. Leoline vows to avenge her for the sexual assault, and thereby reestablish the lost friendship with Roland.

Leoline asks Barcy the Bard to convey his message to Roland, but Barcy is reluctant to do so. He had a prophetic dream which led him to believe that there was evil in the hall. This is a long passage, but for me it was the most important in the poem, so I am including it here.

And Bracy replied, with faltering voice,
His gracious Hail on all bestowing!—
‘Thy words, thou sire of Christabel,
Are sweeter than my harp can tell;
Yet might I gain a boon of thee,
This day my journey should not be,
So strange a dream hath come to me,
That I had vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest.
Warned by a vision in my rest!
For in my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call’st by thy own daughter’s name—
Sir Leoline! I saw the same
Fluttering, and uttering fearful moan,
Among the green herbs in the forest alone.
Which when I saw and when I heard,
I wonder’d what might ail the bird;
For nothing near it could I see
Save the grass and green herbs underneath the old tree.

‘And in my dream methought I went
To search out what might there be found;
And what the sweet bird’s trouble meant,
That thus lay fluttering on the ground.
I went and peered, and could descry
No cause for her distressful cry;
But yet for her dear lady’s sake
I stooped, methought, the dove to take,
When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove’s its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!
I woke; it was the midnight hour,
The clock was echoing in the tower;
But though my slumber was gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—
It seems to live upon my eye!
And thence I vowed this self-same day
With music strong and saintly song
To wander through the forest bare,
Lest aught unholy loiter there.’

What strikes me about this passage is that the bard recognizes the mystical power of poetry. He offers to stay because he knows that the power of his spoken word can banish evil.

Although this is an unfinished poem, I think it ends well and the open ending allows the reader to project his or her own interpretation on what the outcome will be. Christabel, realizing Geraldine’s evil nature, entreats her father to banish her from the home. He turns on her, probably from a combination of pride and enchantment. He stubbornly insists on sending Barcy forth, and then departs with Geraldine.

He rolled his eye with stern regard
Upon the gentle minstrel bard,
And said in tones abrupt, austere—
‘Why, Bracy! Dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!

I couldn’t help seeing Leoline as an incarnation of King Lear. He turns away from the true, loving child and falls prey to the wicked. It is also the weakness of men to fall for the archetypal temptress. He has done what many a man has done before and since.

Coleridge, like his romantic contemporaries, was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural. He definitely draws on those influences in this poem. While it is an “unfinished” piece, it is still very good.

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