Coleridge’s Poetry on Mental Instabilities


Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most widely praised of the Romantic poets because his writings have a depth of feeling and imagery that is profoundly unique. One could argue that one of the reasons his writing stands out from the other Romantic poets is because it reflects not only an in depth understanding of poetic and literary devices, but also because his content is deep and at times even unsettling. His troubled life and mental complexes influenced his writing; nightmares plagued him on a consistent basis, and his upbringing left him with a complicated array of neuroses characterized by narcissistic tendencies and a borderline Oedipus complex. In light of these complicated mental processes, Coleridge would have undoubtedly been fascinated by the mind and its mysterious workings. This fascination is particularly well evidenced in three of his poems – Christabel, Kubla Khan, and The Pains of Sleep, which happened to be grouped together in an 1816 publication by John Murray. When considering the role of mental processes, the reason for this grouping becomes clear: Christabel and Kubla Khan mirror Coleridge’s Oedipus complex, and opium addiction, while Pains of Sleep exemplifies how deeply the aforementioned influenced Coleridge’s reality; further, the paratext of the 1816 publication also lends weight to this assertion.

This analysis will begin with how the Oedipus complex is manifested in Christabel. The most obvious place to begin in analyzing Christabel is the fact that Christabel’s mother is deceased. The character Geraldine enters the story early on, and immediately attempts to gain dominion over Christabel, who happens to be guarded by the benevolent spirit of her late mother. To understand how the Oedipus complex functions in this context, one has to incorporate elements from Coleridge’s upbringing. For this, one can turn to the work of Douglas Angus, who was one of the scholars who analyzed Coleridge’s letters: “Coleridge was violently jealous of his older brother Francis […] He once tried to kill his brother with a kitchen knife in a jealous quarrel” (Douglas, 657). This piece of Coleridge’s history is reflected in the dynamic between Christabel, Geraldine, and the spirit of Christabel’s mother; specifically, it is the instance where Geraldine battles the spirit of the mother for dominion over Christabel, which resembles the incident with Coleridge and his brother. Similarly, if one takes the Freudian reversal view, Christabel’s unfulfilling relationship with her father parallels Coleridge’s feelings of rejection and abandonment. Further examples of Coleridge’s fixation over motherly love, one may turn to numerous clues scattered throughout the text. For instance, there are quite a few references to the bosom – most notably when Christabel finally succumbs to Geraldine’s spell through her embrace:

“And in her arms the maid she took,
Ah wel-a-day!
And with low voice and doleful look
these words did say:
In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell.
(Coleridge, Christabel, 250-255)

Through these examples, it becomes clear that the poem Christabel is replete with veiled symbolism; this essentially enables Coleridge to exorcise his secret symbolically without expressing it in literal terms.

Christabel by Harry Brockway

The fragment Kubla Khan also explores Coleridge’s Oedipus complex, but Coleridge approaches it slightly differently in this poem. In this piece, the characters do not necessarily embody the fixation. Instead, the poem is rife with the symbolism of motherhood and fertility. The most noteworthy and self-evident of these examples is the central image of the poem – the pleasure dome, which can clearly be understood as a breast symbol. Second to this, there is also emphatic use of synonyms pertaining to motherhood, such as “moon,” “fertile,” “girdled,” and “enfolding.” One of the more striking examples of Coleridge’s allusion to his Oedipus complex is in his contrasting description of the pleasure dome, wherein the narrator exclaims: “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” (Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 46) On the one hand the sunny dome, or breast, is idealized, while the caves of ice, a womb symbol, is frosted over and foreboding. This juxtaposing portrayal can be seen as a reflection of the complex perception the sufferer has in his Oedipus complex. When one considers these references to Coleridge’s complexes in Christabel and Kubla Khan, the combination of these two works in one publication seems a sensible grouping.

In addition to showcasing Coleridge’s mental fixations, the inclusion of Christabel and Kubla Khan is also logical when looking at the references to opium use. In the Christabel poem, the references to opium are symbolic, but are evidenced in several instances. The character Geraldine in particular can be seen as the embodiment of the drug and its addictive qualities. To begin, she is seductive, and appears to be innocuous at first. This parallels the drug, which has euphoric effects, and at this time was prescribed liberally for ailments ranging from anxiety to chronic pain. Further, there is the instance where Geraldine laments about the shamefulness of her seduction of Christabel: “This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow” (Coleridge, Christabel, 258) This line can be seen to mirror the shame that addicts invariably feel while the effects of the drug are wearing off. In essence, both Christabel’s shame and the shame of the drug addict reflect a powerlessness and lack of autonomy. Furthermore, the next few lines in Geraldine’s midnight seduction describe a demand for secrecy, and this too resembles tendencies of a drug addict, who wish to keep their habits secret from those around them. Through these examples, we can see that Geraldine serves as a symbolic representation of Coleridge’s Opium addiction.

Kubla Khan’s fantastic imagery resembles hallucinatory states, even without the foreknowledge of Coleridge’s addiction. Towards the end of the poem, the following exclamation appears: “I would build that dome in air […] And all should cry Beware! Beware!” (Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 46-48) This line is significant to the analysis that Kubla Khan reflects opium use; the part about building the dome in the air can be read as a description of how opium helps artists bring life into their creative visions. At the same time, Coleridge warns the reader to beware of this practice, because of the inevitable consequences of opium use. To lend further weight to the argument that Kubla Khan is representative of opium use, and the creative spurts accompanying, one can turn to the scholarly works of Elisabeth Schneider. Her article “The Dream of Kubla Khan” is based on Coleridge’s journals. In one instance Coleridge states that “this fragment […] composed in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of opium” and later Schneider discusses how “Coleridge […] speaks of the drug as making him ‘capable of conceiving and bringing forth Thoughts, hidden in him before’” (Schneider,794). Through these quotes, we can see that Coleridge himself noted the creative abilities that the drug could provide. There are other instances where the text symbolically represents the drug. The river, one of the primary images in the poem, is described meandering through the verdant hills, then continuing its course deep into the underground caverns. This image can be seen to represent the drug’s course throughout the venous system, and ultimately effecting the mind; here, the mind is the cavern, which is “measureless to man” (Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 27). By looking at these examples both within and without the text, one can see that there is ample evidence to suggest that Kubla Khan is representative of Coleridge’s habitual use of opium. The opium references in both Christabel and Kubla Khan are yet another useful means of understanding why these poems were selected alongside one another for the 1816 volume of poetry.

Kubla Khan by Harry Brockway

The explorations above describe the reasons Christabel and Kubla Khan were featured beside one another for the 1816 publication. However, there is still the remaining poem, The Pains of Sleep, which has yet to be analyzed. It is my assertion that while Christabel and Kubla Khan symbolically represent Coleridge’s mental complexities and vices, Pains of Sleep showcases how these problems manifest themselves in Coleridge’s life.  There following are a few cryptic line in Pains of Sleep that allude to the mixture of feelings that surround the Oedipus complex:

“Desire with loathing strangely mixed
on wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! Mad’ning brawl!
And shame and terror over all! (Coleridge, Pains of Sleep, 23-26)

By taking this textual evidence in concert with what we already know about Coleridge’s familial relations, one can see how this passage pertains to his Oedipus complex. What is more, the passage takes on added significance if the original lines in the following had been included in the poem: “Rage, Passion, mad’ning brawl!” By looking at this version of the line, the anger at having to share his mother’s attention and the intense feelings of love for her become clearer.

Pains of Sleep also has evidence of Coleridge’s addiction within the text. The lines resemble the feelings of drug addicts, who experience personal shame, and guilt for putting their loved ones through grief and turmoil:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame!
(Coleridge, Pains of Sleep, 30-32)

This stanza indicates that Coleridge suffered from the guilt and shame of his addiction, and these feelings tended to manifest themselves in his nightmares. David S. Miall’s work on Coleridge’s dreams in particular further supports the aforementioned point: “[Coleridge’s] keen sense of the workings of the unconscious enabled him to recognize that some dreams originate in, and express, the deepest interests of the self” (Miall, 69). With this quote in mind, it is clear that Coleridge himself was aware of how repressed mental workings can exhibit themselves in dreams and nightmares. By looking at the examples above, the final link between the three poems in Coleridge’s 1816 publication becomes clear. Christabel and Kubla Khan features textual, symbolic representations of Coleridge’s complexes and addiction, while Pains of Sleep is an exploration of how these issues are exemplified in his nightmares.

Pains of Sleep by Harry Brockway

The mental instabilities that link Christabel, Kubla Khan, and Pains of Sleep together logically in the 1816 are not the only clues that reveal this theme. Indeed, there are also clues that reflect this, which are found in the paratext of the book itself. For instance, one can look to the liberal inclusion of white spaces in and around the poems to identify Coleridge’s complex and addiction as the link between these poems. As we know, paper was very expensive in the 19th century. In light of this, using ample amounts of white space in a publication was undoubtedly intentional. If taken in conjunction with the fact that the theme of the three poems is mental instabilities, one can also conclude that the white space might allude to this as well. Specifically, the ratio of white space to black print can be seen as representative of the conscious and unconscious mind. The print symbolizes the known, conscious mind. Meanwhile, the surrounding white space represents the unconscious and unknown parts of the mind.

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Another clue can be found in the prefatory notes to Christabel and Kubla Khan. The note for Christabel discusses issues with the content, and the meter. Specifically, Coleridge states that had he published Christabel sooner, there would be no question as to the integrity of his subject matter. Similarly, he states that any similarities found between his use of meter, and that of other poets, was not an intentional replication. With a renowned poet like Coleridge, these comments do not strike one as entirely necessary. With this in mind, it is possible that Coleridge included these prefaces as a means to redirect the reader away from the deeply personal subject matter evident in the symbolism. The same assertion applies with regards to the preface for Kubla Khan. It is self-depreciating in nature, and suggests that the poem be read as more of a psychological curiosity. These comments serve as a distraction against the abundant references to motherhood, fertility, and opium abuse.

On the surface level, the 1816 publication of Coleridge’s poetry features poems about a bewitching woman, an extraordinary landscape, and horrifically troubling nightmares. However, a close analysis of the symbolism and allusions in Christabel and Kubla Khan, taken in concert with Coleridge’s biography shows that they can be grouped together on the grounds of his Oedipus complex and opium addiction. To complete the logical grouping of these works together, one can look at how Pains of Sleep explores the manifestation of these mental instabilities in the form of Coleridge’s nightmares. Further, the paratext contains clues like the ample use of white space to represent the unknowable qualities of the mind. What is more, the distracting prefatory notes function as a means to direct the reader away from the intensely personal subject matter. This clever, yet cryptic way of veiling personal content in the poems Christbel, Kubla Khan, and Pains of Sleep is one of the most significant reasons why Coleridge’s writing is not only elevated above many of the Romantic poets, but also why it remains so important to literary studies today.