Coleridge's Swinging Moods and the Revision of "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"

By Simpson, Michael | Style, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Coleridge's Swinging Moods and the Revision of "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"


Simpson, Michael, Style


Michael Simpson

Goldsmiths' College, University of London

But, if hereafter thou shalt write, not feare

To send it to be judg'd by Metius care,

And to your fathers, and to mine; though't be

Nine yeares kept by: your papers in, y'are free

To change, & mend, what you not forth do see.

Horace, Ars Poetica. Trans. Ben Jonson

It has become quite fashionable when discussing the artistic products of early-nineteenth-century Europe to refute the Romantic ideology of spontaneous genius with reference to the numerous and laborious re-workings that such products in fact entailed: Beethoven's obsessive re-scripting, in his sketchbooks, of a single theme, along with Coleridge's intermittent but perennial revision of his poems have recently been documented in some detail. Jack Stillinger has furnished ample evidence of this "textual instability" in Coleridge's poetic writing and has drawn the following conclusions from the welter of drafts and variants that constitute all of Coleridge's major poems:

While some of these versions are in some sense "better" than others - structurally, logically, stylistically, philosophically, and so on - every one of them is independently authoritative, because it was authored by Coleridge himself. [...] The longstanding practice of identifying definitiveness with "final authorial intention" is no longer defensible, and Coleridge is an author whose practice supports this argument with particular force. In the theoretical framework of my study, he produced a new definitive version, the "final" text that he intended to stand at the moment, every time he revised a text. (10)

In this article, I shall perform my own act of revision, or rather revisionism, by first accepting the premise of an almost mechanical process of emendation in Coleridge's poetic writing before then arguing that "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" in particular demonstratively recuperates such change as an integral part of the textual incarnation that results from it. What I shall not do, however, is subscribe to Zachary Leader's notion, contra Stillinger, that the published version of a poem, here "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," is predominantly important in itself; instead, I shall address the relationship between this version and one crucial earlier impression.(1)

This retroactive gesture, which works to countervail the disjunctions highlighted by Stillinger, will be seen as driven not so much by a Romantic ideology of organicism as by a determinant that is best tracked within a history of ideas. Between the first extant text of "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," which forms part of a letter addressed to Robert Southey, and the poem's first published incarnation, Coleridge's letters and notebooks bear significant traces of his reading in Kant and Fichte. Entering the vexed critical debate about Coleridge's trading of allegiances from Hartley's account of experience to a largely Kantian model of mind, I shall propose that the revision of the first version of this poem, as effected by the later, published version, is motivated by this epistemological shift. Since the Kantian mind is posited as strenuously organizing its experience, to render it conformable with its own standards of intelligibility, I shall read the two versions of Coleridge's poem as divided by their correlation with Hartley's and Kant's theories only so that the Kantian model can demonstrate its superiority by actively assimilating or revising Hartley's model. The differences between the two versions of "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," which Stillinger valorizes, are staged only so that they can be recuperated in the capacious unity of the later draft and its Kantian affiliations. By thus gearing a discussion of textual variants to an account of a larger discursive field, this essay effectively follows Jerome McGann's practice and principle of promoting textual criticism to the extent of coordinating it with a history of ideas. …

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