Following his track - Dennis Hamley

          In my last blog, I suggested that it was time I stopped faffing around and got on with some proper writing.  So I’ve done just that and have now passed (I hope) the point of no return with The Second Man From Porlock,  my latest attempt  to  get the  old, failed novel about Samuel Taylor Coleridge right at last and out of my system.  
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
STC.  The man himself

          Trying to write novels centred round real people presents many difficulties.  They aren’t biographies: conversely, they can’t be pure fiction.  It takes a braver writer than I am to dare even to think of writing a book like Milton in America, Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful ‘What if?’ novel, which turns what might well have been Milton’s fate into something which actually happens.   This makes for a stunning piece of literary and historical understanding, not to mention  empathy with the poet himself. 
          It takes craft of a high order to write Stevenson Under The Palm Trees, Alberto Manguele’s fascinating novella about RLS’s last days, psychologically intriguing, with the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon manifesting itself in RLS himself and involving a seemingly actual event which I can’t find recorded anywhere but which is crucial to the story.   Ackroyd’s Chatterton and The Lambs of London  dramatise and interpret mainly known fact.  So did my earlier STC effort, though with one mighty elephant in the drawing room which was, though not pure fantasy, a very unlikely supposition which I might have got away with if there hadn’t been so much intervening (and unnecessary) faction.  Instead, I made a seven-legged monster out of it and rightly paid the penalty.
          Well, I’ve thought a lot about it since. The problem is: how to meld the stuff of fiction into a huge structure of known fact in such a way as to make a convincing novel where we can legitimately ask ‘What happens next?’ without upsetting either the undeniable progress of STC’s life or the probabilities of his reasonably well-understood psychology.  Or, to put it simply, I don't want anyone telling me it's rubbish.
          There’s a central image in my mind - and real life - from which everything springs.  Coleridge is in Sicily, walking up the green lane lined with poplar trees which leads to the opera house in Siracusa, his heart pounding and his mind aflame with emotion composed of anticipation, lust, fear and guilt in equal parts. And this could, as TS Eliot said,  ‘lead us to an overwhelming question.’  
          To get to grips with the past you have to follow it round a bit.  Kathleen Jones knows this better than anyone in Authors Electric.  To follow STC’s track, you have to move from Ottery St Mary to London and the old Christ's Hospital, to Cambridge, then Bristol, Nether Stowey and the Quantocks, Germany, the Lake District, Sicily, Highgate and plenty of places in between.  Well, I know Cambridge well enough and have followed him round Bristol as well as I can.  Sadly, where Coleridge went in Germany is a region which I don't know, but it doesn't matter too much for this story because its only significance is that he should have come home a lot sooner. I’ve been to Nether Stowey but not enough yet and I need to get to Culbone Combe:

… that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er under a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
  • View down the coombe in which Culbone Church resides
Looking down Culbone Combe over the Bristol Channel.

          But I have stayed in Greta Hall, his house in Keswick, in the Coleridge wing itself.  It's now a guest house run by Jeronime Palmer and her partner.  It's brilliant.  They have a real feel for the Lake poets, their families and their history, even going so far as to hunt down and eventually find in Kent a magnificent fireplace which Robert Southey installed but which had long been removed.  It was wonderful to stand in STC's study, see through his windows 'a whole camp of giant's tents' and agree with him that there could not be a room in England 'which commands a view of Mountains and lakes and Woods superior to that', across which 'mists & Clouds, & Sunshine make endless combinations, as if heaven and Earth were talking to each other.'
          But Greta Hall was not good to STC.  It's often very hard to sympathise with him because he brought most of his troubles on himself through invincible self-centredness, quite a lot of which he showed while he was in Keswick. Here he became estranged from Sara, his wife, and embarked on his platonic passion for another Sara, Hutchinson, sister of Wordsworth's wife-to-be.  Here his health worsened, even though he still ran up and down mountains. The opium took hold even more than before and, to try to break his habit, worried friends rallied round to send him to Malta and better weather than the English Lakes provided. He reached Malta and, after some unexpected hard work, he took a holiday in Sicily.  And here he had a big adventure.

Greta Hall
Greta Hall.  STC's wing is on the other side.  Robert Southey commandeered, cuckoo-like, the main house for his own family. 

          He came home in a worse state than he went.  Years later, he arrived in Highgate for the last chapter of his life.  He found lodgings with the pioneering Dr Gilman and thus became the first drug addict to enter rehab.   
          In April we set off for Pond Square and The Grove, overlooking Hampstead Heath and close to Highgate cemetery.  This was wonderful.  Although the pond in Pond Square has disappeared long ago, the atmosphere is still redolent of STC, Keats just over the Heath and their long, talkative walks together, and the scores of literary friends who visited the great man. The Jaguars, Range Rovers and Mercs parked outside the houses hardly matter and 'The Flask' is still a lovely pub which serves great beer. STC was living before my eyes.

Moreton House in Highgate, STC's first lodging in Highgate.
Dr Gilman had to move to a bigger house down the road because STC had so many people coming to see him.

          Then, a week later came our long-awaited trip to Sicily. This was unforgettable.  Agrigento and the Valley of Temples, Palermo. Monreale (and a lovely long lunch with my one Italian fan, his girlfriend and brother), Taormino, a little adventure on Etna and, for me the centrepiece, Siracusa, the heart of my novel.  The image of the green lane and the resinous poplars on blue, limpid evenings has stayed with me powerfully for so many years.  But this green lane only seems to exist in books about STC. I've often tried to place it on maps.  There's an opera house in Ortygia, the old town crowded higgledy-piggledy on its tiny island, but there's definitely never been space for a green lane there.  Nor is there a trace of an opera house on plans of the new town and I've found absolutely no reference to it in anything I've read about Siracusa. So when we entered Siracusa I half-feared that the green lane was about as real as 'Kubla Khan': the opium must have got the better of him again. Which would not have been surprising - the fields round Siracusa were covered in poppies. Sicily then was smothered in narcotics for the English trade, so it was hardly Coleridge's ideal destination.
          But Siracusa is a wonderful city - the Archaeological Park, with its Greek theatre, Roman amphitheatre and the Ear of Dionysius, is unique and Ortygia is superb.  We went by boat all round the island, taking in the Arethusa Font and the Castello Maniace and then started the tour of Ortygia.
          We had a wonderful guide, Renato, a professor of literature with, I found later, a love for and huge knowledge of the English Romantics.  He was knowledgeable, eloquent and dramatic, as every guide should be.  And when I asked him afterwards where the Siracusa Opera House with the green lane was, his unexpected answer was, 'Not in Siracusa.'
          He told me it was demolished in the nineteenth century.  But yes, it was indeed approached by a green lane with all the space it needed because it was in the Archaelogical Park close to the Greek theatre - which figures because STC was staying at the Villa Timoleon, just next to the park, the home of Leckie, the British Resident in Siracusa.  So he wouldn't have far to walk and wouldn't have to force his way through the chaotic little streets of the Old Town.  He could savour his emotions without distraction.
          It's incredible just how much that little piece of information has altered my whole conception of STC's visit, the atmosphere and the image.  It means that I've got such a better feel for the event.  I know now how this beguiling city could have affected him and how many possibilities spring out of it. I can write the whole episode with confidence, without feeling my tongue bursting through my cheek. The novel's heart has changed.
          So I'd better get on with it.  

Renato tells me the opera house was somewhere near here, in the Archaeological Park.  I wish it still was.

          I'm going to end with a draft of chapter 1.  It introduces a completely fictitious character who will have a decisive role to play without interrupting STC's known chronology.  The defacement of 'Kubla Khan' which he finds is real enough.  I've seen it for myself.  I first knew of it through a passing mention  in Freddy Brittain's book It's a Don's Life, published in 1972 by Heinemann.  'Written in a contemporary hand,' says Freddy.  Freddy, a classics Fellow, was a man for whom the adjective 'donnish' could have been invented and knew everything knowable about Jesus College.   I followed up the defacement from there and the more I think of it, the more I'm sure it's more than the gripe of a dissatisfied reader.  So for me it's become a central image as important as the green lane in Siracusa.  But which STC contemporary wrote it, eh?
          I hope you enjoy the little taster which follows.

                   The Second Man from Porlock

The Discovery

In an inauspicious hour I left the friendly cloisters and happy grove of quiet, ever-honoured Jesus College Cambridge.

From Biographia Literaria
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Old Library of Jesus College, Cambridge is a place of secrets.   To enter it is to walk straight into the distant past.  Handsome bookstacks are connected to the roofbeams by wooden balusters.   The stacks are arranged in bays, each illuminated by a stained glass window.  Each window bears a scroll proclaiming in Latin the subject of the books housed in each bay – Physic, Canon Law, Civil Law, Theology.  The earliest cataloguing system.
       As now, so then, when this was the only library in the college.   On a dark, cold  evening in February 1822, shortly before Evensong in the chapel and dinner in Hall, shivering readers huddled over the tables in flickering candlelight.   A library clerk, Scrivener by name, was browsing the shelves.  He had come up to Jesus College from the grammar school in Hertford and was forced to work to eke out the meagre money which kept him at Cambridge.   Curiously, he took out a thin, green volume, a recent addition to the stock, and opened it carefully.  The pages had been recently cut, the paper was crisp and white and the book had the exciting smell of newness which he had come to love. The book contained three poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Scrivener knew about Coleridge.  He had been an undergraduate at the college thirty years before.  His career there courted notoriety rather than glory, but as a poor scholar he too had worked as a library clerk.
Scrivener skimmed through the poems, vowing to read them more attentively later.   “Christabel”,  “The Pains of Sleep”, “Kubla Khan.”  Of course, he knew the poems Mr Coleridge had published with Mr Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads: who did not?   But these were new to him.   “Christabel” – a wild, romantic story and, he noticed, unfinished.   “The Pains of Sleep” – he shivered as he read, for it spoke of agonies and horrors in the loneliest hours of the night, surely the work of a tortured soul.  And “Kubla Khan” - a fragment, a dream, hypnotic: he almost swayed to its subtle rhythms.
      Then he stopped short.   His eyes widened, first in surprise, then horror, then surpassing interest.   Underneath “Kubla Khan” was a comment  pencilled in an angular hand.   
The writer of the above had much better keep his sleeping thoughts to himself, for they are, if anything, worse than his waking ones.
         His first thought was that of the conscientious library clerk.  This is a disgrace.   The second was of the embryo critic.  What an elegant sentence, expressing a trenchant thought memorably. The third was that of the earnest scholar.  What does it mean?  The fourth was the obvious one.  Who wrote it?
        The college librarian was at his desk reading a much older, bulkier book.  Scrivener scurried up the library holding the poetry collection open at the page.   “Dr Vavasour, sir,” he whispered urgently.   “See here.”
          Dr Vavasour took the book and looked at the pencilled scrawl.    His mouth pursed with anger.   “This is a new book, hardly on the shelves six months.  Who has dared to deface it?”
         Scrivener felt the guilt of the insecure person who fears he will be unjustly blamed.    But Dr Vavasour knew his library clerk better than that.  
“Surely no undergraduate would write such words,” he said, with unaccustomed forcefulness.  Scrivener wondered if his anger was altogether in proportion to the crime.  “Mr Coleridge is too much admired by the young.  He is one of the moderns.”  Modernity was obviously anathema to him.
         “Though I admire Mr Coleridge, I prefer Lord Byron and Mr Shelley,” said Scrivener.
        Dr Vavasour looked at him over his spectacles.  “As for poetry, Mr Scrivener, you would do well to confine yourself to Ovid and Virgil.”
         “But sir, who would cast such a slur on one whose works are so fine?” 
        Dr Vavasour peered at the handwriting.   If not an undergraduate, then who?   The College Fellows were fond of writing tetchy memoranda to each other: he knew their hands well.  This belonged to none of them. Yet some still remembered Mr Coleridge and the disgraceful scene he made in the Senate House during the trial for sedition of William Frend, sometime Fellow of the college.  And how he fled from Cambridge and his debts and enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoon Guards under an assumed name, only released because the army thought he was insane and his brother paid them a great deal of money.  And how drink and opium, together with a talent for laziness approaching genius, ruined a promising mind and sent him down without a degree.
        Yes, several colleagues were well capable of writing such a comment.
        But the handwriting was stiff, angular, almost unnatural.  Suddenly Dr Vavasour had an inspiration .  Disguised.  Who by? Why?
“Leave it with me, Mr Scrivener,” he said.  “I will not stand for spoliation of my books, even if I agree with the sentiment expressed.  I shall get to the bottom of this." 
But though his enquiries were exhaustive, he never did.

*       *       *       *

Scrivener’s rooms were on First Court, opposite the  gatehouse and the library.  He did not then know that they were directly above where Coleridge had lived. After dinner in Hall he returned to them, lit candles, stoked up the fire and then sat at his small desk to think.            
    He knew he was no genius.  Back in Hertford he was regarded as a brilliant young fellow.  But Cambridge was an extraordinary place where he had found out what real brilliance was.   He had also found extremes of stupidity, drunkenness and sheer bloody-mindedness which he had never dreamed of. Sometimes, he was puzzled to note, all four co-existed seamlessly within the same person.
     Could Mr Coleridge have been like that?  Surely not.  Everyone knew that his friend Mr Wordsworth, at Cambridge some years before Mr Coleridge, certainly wasn’t. People at St John’s College regarded Mr Wordsworth as one of their brightest stars.   Most at Jesus seemed to have nothing good to say about Mr Coleridge.   Except, grudgingly, that he was a fine poet.  Even then, some dismissed him as a plunderer of other people's best thoughts: a mere copy-cat.
      Still, Mr Coleridge did have debts at Cambridge, he did drink too much, took opium and, it was whispered, sometimes went with whores.  Scrivener shuddered to think what they would say back in Hertford if he were guilty of such practices. 
     He knew that Mr Coleridge had written poetry at Cambridge and won the prize for Greek verse.  He felt a twinge of shame at the ineptitude of his own recent efforts to win the same prize.  Yet he wanted so much to be a poet.  He had been working on a poem only that morning.  Perhaps he should carry on with it.   He found the sheet of scrawled-on and liberally crossed-out paper and reread what he had written.

Lines Written  on Jesus Green

As in the dusky silence of the groves,
Through tiny valleys and past green retreats,          
With easeful ripple flows the shining stream
Along its hidden course,         

So flows my life, unnoticed in the throng

Of chattering seekers-out of worldly fame.
Always the observer, never the observed,
And thus...

      And thus - what?   The question made him want to throw the paper on the desk and cover it with books so nobody should see it.   The encounter in the library had unsettled him.   He looked at his unfinished poem.  Always the observer, never the observed.  Yes, that was his trouble.  He must not let this place overwhelm him.  He must be positive in all he did.   For a start, he must burn this lame verse and never write such self-pitying rubbish again.  And then he would …
Yes, what would he do?   His mind was a foggy blank.  The pencilled comments on “Kubla Khan” seemed somehow to have possessed it completely.  
The writer of the above had much better keep his sleeping thoughts to himself, for they are, if anything, worse than his waking ones.
He carefully wrote down the intrusive sentence underneath his failed verse.   How terse.  How economical.  How precise.  How silly it made his poem look.  With a sudden shock, he realized that he could be the first person to read the sentence since it was written.  Was that important?
Yes, it was.   Was he meant to see it?   Did it concern him in some way?  But how?  Sleeping thoughts?  Waking thoughts?    Was “Kubla Khan” a sleeping thought?
Scrivener had read Mr de Quincey’s book Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which had been published just three years before.  It was all the rage, in Cambridge as everywhere else.   It said that opium caused dreams more vivid, real and wonderful than anything in ordinary life.  This thrilled others: it frightened him.
      Was that what the mysterious defacer meant, that  “Kubla Khan” was an opium dream?  The words had danced compellingly through Scrivener’s brain, the visions of the Abyssinian maid with her dulcimer and the poet with flashing eyes and floating hair (“Beware, beware:” the words  were sonorous bells in his mind) feeding on honey-dew and drinking the milk of Paradise were so vivid, real, wonderful – and, yes, frightening.
    He was about to scrumple up the paper and throw it in the waste basket. But a strange thought stopped him.  If he was meant to see it, the sentence might contain a message on which he must act.
      What could it be?  He peered at the words through narrowed eyes.  He said them aloud several times.  Once, in case there might be some hidden code, he said them backwards.   But they remained enigmatic.
      It was time for sleep.   He undressed, put on his nightshirt, climbed into his bed and blew the candle out.
        Yet his mind wouldn’t stop working.  When he finally slept at three in the morning, he saw the strange, angular handwriting crawling across the page and mocking him in his dreams.  When he woke, his head ached and the puzzling words were still there.

*      *      *      *

Detailed image. Please click to enlarge

Jesus College Cambridge in the days of STC and Mr Scrivener.


Bill Kirton said…
A powerful demonstration of the fact that writing involves far more than putting words together on page or screen. Fascinating, Dennis, and the extract's a great teaser, setting up a mystery far more compelling than the Dan Brown contrivances. Thanks for sharing.
I can't wait to read the rest, Dennis! And do visit Porlock Weir (i can recommend staying at the lovely B & B Cafe. Walk up the path behind the village, through the ruins of Ada Lovelace's manor garden, to another world, where Napoleonic prisoners skulked in the steep woods making charcoal, and where a strange tiny chapel nestles in the trees....And sit in your room overlooking the estuary, and write!
Lydia Bennet said…
ooh, great teaser Dennis! So interesting to hear where your fascination with STC has taken you. I remember reading somewhere that images of ice in fantastic shapes are characteristic of opium addicts' visions, hence the 'caves of ice' etc in KK. Drug addiction was so widespread then when you could buy cocaine in Boots and 'Superdrug' was to be taken literally. Before paracetamol and aspirin, any painful condition could lead to addiction as opiates were the only option. One wonders what he'd have been like without it.
julia jones said…
Where would any of us be without our sleeping thoughts ...? Seems to me that the most part of learning to be a writer is discovering how best to harness what the mind comes up with when left to its own devices. Hope Scrivener gets this point sooner rather than later (sez me, aged almost 60)

And, quite different, your Greta Hall section was a lovely coincidence as I'm currently re-reading my friend Imogen Roberson's Circle of Bones, fictionalising the aftermath of the Earls of Greta. She's such a good writer. May I recommend her to anyone who likes mysteries and historical fiction and appreciates depth of research?

Oh joy. I look forward to your book Dennis - partly as i got SO fed up with STC when reading Kathleen Jones's marvellous biog of the wives and daughters. Another sincere recommendation. One of those books that stays with one for a long while afterwards. I'd be glad of some rehab for him.
Dennis Hamley said…
I've read Katherine's 'Passionate Sisterhood' too, long, long before AE. Huge help in my first Coleridge effort, even more so now.
glitter noir said…
You've certainly captured my interest here, Dennis, though I've always been more of a Byron man and would have thought STC the least likely writer to write a book about. But that's what real writers do, isn't it? I'd probably have to draw the line at anybody writing a sympathetic book about Robert Southey, ruined forever by Lord B's wit. But now I see STC as brimming with lively potential.
glitter noir said…
P.S. Note to Bill: Brown's new book on Dante sounds promising to me. Might be worth a look. Also: there was a magnificent book about Dickens and Drood, whose title I've forgotten. I believe that novel's author had also written about Poe and Dante. Great stuff, much better written than Brown's stuff.

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