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Reviewed by:
  • Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics by J. C. C. Mays, and: Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner by J. C. C. Mays, and: Coleridge’s Dejection Ode by J. C. C. Mays
  • Charles Mahoney (bio)
J. C. C. Mays. Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. Pp. 287. $49.99 paper.
J. C. C. Mays. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016. Pp. 267. $49.99 paper.
J. C. C. Mays. Coleridge’s Dejection Ode. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019. Pp. 281. $69.99.

Three monographs on Coleridge’s poetry? Surely this is excessive. How much is there actually to say about his poetry? The canon is so limited. Perhaps a dozen important poems, with particular emphasis on the three supernatural poems (“The Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Christabel”), on all of which there has surely been more than enough criticism. With the completion of the Bollingen edition of the Collected Coleridge, ought we not concentrate instead on the critical writings in order to recognize Coleridge for what he essentially was—namely, a failed poet who succumbed to drug addiction and retreated into increasingly impenetrable prose when he wasn’t idling away his time scribbling marginalia? Coleridge himself acknowledged his poetic dereliction, declaring to Godwin in 1801 that “the Poet is dead in me” to such a degree that “I have forgotten how to make a rhyme,” and going so far as to instruct Godwin to say of him after his death that “ ‘Wordsworth descended on him, like the Gnōthi Seauton [Know Thyself] from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet’ ” (Collected Letters, ed. E. L. Griggs, 2, 714; hereafter CL). There it is: Coleridge wasn’t really a poet. And to the degree that Coleridge the prose writer really concerns us, it is presumably as Wordsworth’s critical adjunct, the one contemporary able to elucidate the greater poet’s “true” poetry.

This is one version of the “encircling, stifling myth” that J. C. C. Mays attacks—indeed, relentlessly explodes—in his remarkable trilogy on Coleridge’s long, varied, and distinguished career as a poet. No English writer’s reputation, according to Mays, “has been stuck in such a rut for so long” [End Page 271] (Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, 156; hereafter CAM). And the contours of the rut are as deep as they are unimaginative, contributing to the now archetypal Romantic myth of the “poet with three poems to his name, otherwise destroyed by metaphysics and drugs” (CAM, 155), the “young genius who went off the rails” (Coleridge’s Dejection Ode, 205; hereafter CDO). In the course of disentangling the persistent, unproductive conflation of the biography with the poetry, Mays radically rewrites the narrative arc of Coleridge’s life as a poet. Instead of the premise of early success disintegrating into decades of failure and disappointment, Mays positions the famous three as “the poems [Coleridge] wrote on the way to discovering how he wanted to write” (Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics, 12; hereafter CEP) and, in a related register, reads Coleridge’s attribution of grand poetic ambitions to Wordsworth not as an abdication of his own, but as the catalyst for him, alternatively, to “use verse to explore his own emotional states regardless of the need to create and hold a public audience” (CAM, 94). Mays’s Coleridge is a poet who wrote verse at every opportunity, whose later poetry was every bit as vital and as intellectual as his earlier work, and whose versifying was experimental to the end. The challenge for Coleridge’s twenty-first-century readers is twofold. First, to learn how to read other poetical works of Coleridge beyond the expectation that they should look and (at least as importantly) sound like the canonical poems: “the dozen better known poems on which his reputation rests are only the half of it; and yet what they share with the remainder is immediately recognizable when you listen for it, and carries into remote and unfamiliar places” (CEP, 12; emphasis added). Second, to reread the more famous poems in new contexts: to remember, for example, that “The Ancient Mariner” began as a parody...


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pp. 271-280
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