Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Anna Laetitia Barbauld – To Mr. Coleridge on Romanticism

Romanticism idealised the pastoral. Image Copyright Janet Cameron
To Mr. Coleridge was written by Anna Laetitia Barbauld to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after she met him in August 1797. She was deeply admiring of his work and character, although, sadly for her, Coleridge turned against her in 1812, together with many other poets and critics. Her crime? - she had criticised Britain's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. 

Tragically, Barbauld was deeply hurt by the bad reviews and did not publish anything else from that time.

Romanticism - a Challenge to the Enlightenment

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was - with William Wordsworth - a central figure of the Romantic reaction against the the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment stressed the importance of reason. Romanticism, on the other hand, idealised the qualities of intuition and the pastoral. Other prominent Romantic poets were William Blake, Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Bysse Shelley, whose second wife was the Romantic novelist of "Frankenstein",  Mary Shelley.

Barbauld's lyric poem to Coleridge, written in blank verse, is one of romantic ideals and sensibilities, which, although a personal message for an admired poet, was also intended for publication. Her poem begins with a long, convoluted sentences that stretches over nine lines, beginning: "Midway the hill of science, after steep" and ending "Before the cheated sense."

Barbauld's language is neo-classic, and uses many of the conventions of eighteenth century verse, for example, the reversal of the order of words for rhetorical effect (inversions) and heavy use of adjectives, although it is fair to say that it is a feature of the 18th century neo-classic style that virtually every noun has an adjective. But then again, this complexity of sentence structure may well be deliberate as much as it is conventional, and is suggesting the "tangled mazes" referred to by the poet.

Barbauld's Feminine Writing

The poem is in strict iambic pentameter. In the early days of Romanticism, metrical neatness, a regular rhyme scheme and polished language mirror feminine fashion. Of course, the poem is in blank verse although Barbauld's use of assonance and half-rhyme is striking: "steep / feet" and "shapes / chase", although the rhymes are not at regular intervals. She will personalise an abstract nown by the use of an initial capital letter, following by employing the pronoun "her" in relation to it: "Nor seldom Indolence / these lawns among, / Fixes her turf built seat..."

She makes use of literary allusion, ie: that of the Greek enchantress who changed those to drank from her cup into swine: "And be this Circe of the studious cells." Circe, of course, is a metaphor for the metaphysical that Barbauld is warning against.

The Dangers of Abandoning Rationality

The poem is expressive of a futuristic fear, as she warns the young poet, Coleridge, of the danger of abandoning the rationality of science for "the tangled mazes" and "strange enchantments" of mysticism. She speaks of dubious shapes, eager foot, youthful ardour and unearthly forms to explain her fear that a talented young poet might be tempted to explore beyond what is good for him.

From a description of the journey away from the rigours of science to the enchantments of the mystical, Barbauld becomes specific about the dangers: "...and mystic visions swim / Before the cheated sense." Gradually, the adjectives become stronger, emphasising the poet's reservations about the metaphysical, for example: "And fair ambition with the chilling touch / Of sickly hesitation and blank fear."

Barbauld's lyric poem acknowledges and describes in the first half of the poem, the susceptibility that may entrap the unwary poet. "In dreamy twilight of the vacant mind," and "With moonbeam rainbows tinted. Here each mind / Of finer mould, acute and delicate." Later, the poet speaks of "fairy bowers", where she "Looks down, indignant on the grosser world."

A Warning against Abstract Philosophy

The poem laments a world that is lacking, and Barbauld's moralising, feminine writing is subtle, optimistic and persuasive as she warns Coleridge, not only against the mystical, but also against abstract philosophy:

"Nor seldom Indolence these lawns among / Fixes her turf-built seat, and wears the garb / Of deep philosophy, and museful sits, / In dreamy twilight of the vacant mind..."

Her warning to Mr. Coleridge is found in the final lines: "Not in the maze of metaphysic lore / Build thou thy place of resting! Lightly tread." She urges that the metaphhysical should be "Enjoyed but still subservient." The warning is followed by an attempt at reassurance: "Active scenes / Shall soon with healthful spirit brace thy mind," and then, in the final line, she ends on a note of optimism: "Now heaven conduct thee with a parent's love."

Through her implicit advice to deal with everyday reality, Barbauld seeks an ideal and, in this lyric poem, expresses her fear for the future loss of that ideal.

"To Mr. Coleridge," Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Romanticism, an Anthology, Ed: Stephen Bygrave, Open University Press, N.Y., U.S. 1996.
"Women Poets 1780-1930" Romantic Writings, Ed: Stephen Bygraves, Open University Press, N.Y., U.S. 1996.

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