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The Poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (lit essay)

Posted on May 23, 2009 at 4:05 AM

Imaginative Journeys (Discussion)

A journey is when a person or group of people set out to reach an objective or accomplish a goal. The journey is the distance between the person(s) and their objective; the physical, mental, psychological, emotional, and spiritual changes and developments they experience along the way; and the events and stages that they are confronted with.


There are many reasons why people undertake journeys. They include: challenging your thinking; experiencing an imagined or real world; physically getting somewhere; overcoming obstacles; self-discovery; and adventure. And while it is important to have a goal, many people believe it is the journey itself that is truly significant.


There are primarily three types of journeys in classical and contemporary literature: (1) the literal journey; (2) the introspective journey; and (3) the imaginative journey.


The “literal journey” is the most obvious, as it deals with a physical voyage from one point to another. Some examples of literal journeys include, “Lionheart” (the true story of Jesse Martin, the schoolboy who single-handedly sailed nonstop around the world) and “Seven Years in Tibet” (the autobiographical novel about an Austrian mountain climber who escapes from a British prison camp during World War II, treks through the Himalayas, and ends up in the isolated country of Tibet).


The second type of journey, an “introspective journey”, is a little more thoughtful and complex. It deals with ones inner thoughts and emotions. One example of an introspective journey in contemporary text is in the film “8 Mile”. While the stories protagonist, Jimmy Smith, Jr., doesn’t physically go anywhere new, he undergoes deep psychological development, and by the end of the film, he has reached a heightened level of mental growth and maturity.


The third type of journey, and the one that we will be analyzing in detail, is the “imaginative journey”. The imaginative journey is a journey that is undertaken in, or into, an imaginative world. The reality and nature of this world are in someway different or opposite to the world we know, and this world is entirely created by the author of the text. Stories of this kind are usually seen from someone who is a foreigner to this new world, and therefore what they experience in this new setting, we do too. In the story, the protagonist must embark on a long and dangerous journey through this imaginative world, and as this journey unfolds, we are able to experience all of the inhabitants, culture, geography, and nature of this world, through their eyes. A good example of an imaginative journey is in the novel “The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, in which four children walk through a magical wardrobe and find themselves in the land of Narnia – a world of talking animals, mythical beasts, and an evil witch. The imaginative journey is by far the most interesting and exciting of the three journeys, and there are many more examples of imaginative journeys throughout film and literature, they include: “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (by Jules Verne), “The Time Machine” (by H.G. Wells), “The Silmarilian” (by J.R.R. Tolkien), “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Planet of the Apes”, and the “Star Wars” saga.


Joseph Campbell, a notable essayist and Princeton scholar, outlined the basic structure of imaginative journeys in his infamous book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. In the book, Campbell describes the monomyth (sometimes called the hero’s journey); the universal pattern found in all text dealing with the imaginative journey, from ancient mythology to modern day fantasy literature.


This pattern contains seventeen stages, divided into three levels: Departure (or separation); Initiation; and Return. The seventeen stages of the monomyth are: (1) The Call to Adventure; (2) Refusal of the Call; (3) Supernatural Aid; (4) The Crossing of the First Threshold; (5) Rebirth; (6) The Road of Trials; (7) Marriage; (Woman as a Temptress; (9) Atonement with the Father; (10) Apotheosis; (11) The Ultimate Boon; (12) Refusal of the Return; (13) The Magic Flight; (14) Rescue from Without; (15) The Crossing of the Return Threshold; (16) Master of Two Worlds; and (17) Freedom to Live.


Campbell claims that this is the universal pattern of ancient and modern mythology, and makes up the basic structure used by all text concerning the imaginative journey. He claims that imaginative journeys follow all or most of these seventeen steps. Even today, many popular films follow this exact structural pattern. Films like “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” are based on the idea of the monomyth, abiding by all seventeen steps. For example, in “Star Wars” Luke Skywalker must make it through Mos Eisley, a spaceport that acts as a doorway between Luke's home planet and the wider universe. Similarly in “The Matrix”, Neo must choose the red pill to leave the Matrix and enter the real world. Both these sequences represent (step 4) The Crossing of the First Threshold. Campbell summed up the monomyth with the statement, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”.


In modern literature, stories containing an imaginative journey are generally categorized under speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is fiction that takes place in an alternate or impossible reality, or that deals with people or events that are foreign to our world (e.g. A magical world of elves and wizards; or an alien spaceship galaxies away). As opposed to fiction that could actually happen (e.g. A teenagers time at school; or life in an emergency hospital ward). Speculative fiction mainly covers the genres of fantasy and science-fiction literature, but some have argued that it also contains the horror genre.


In some cases, a text will cover the criteria of all three journeys – literal, introspective and imaginative. A great example of this can be found in the fantasy novel, “The Lord of the Rings” (by J.R.R. Tolkien). The story is set in an imaginary world called Middle-Earth. This world is similar to medieval Europe, but it contains such mythical and fantastic creatures as elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins, hobbits, and many others. The story is obviously an imaginative journey, but it also covers aspects of the literal journey (i.e. the physical journey of the fellowship across the lands of Middle-Earth, and then the voyage of each individual member of the fellowship after it has broken) and the introspective journey (i.e. the psychological and emotional torture the protagonist, Frodo Baggins, suffers for bearing the ring of power; and also the inner torment that Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, experiences in making his decision to take up his duty). Other texts that cover all three journeys include: “The Odyssey” (by Homer), The Tragedy of Macbeth (by William Shakespeare), “Lullaby” by (Chuck Palahniuk), and “The Lion King”.


For any piece of film or literature, the combination of all three journeys gives the text so much more depth and meaning. The added layers of the storyline allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in the world created by the author, and also familiarize and sympathize with the characters within it.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Analysis)

The poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers us an excellent insight into the idea of imaginative journeys. Imagination is central to both the imagery and structure of Coleridge’s poetry, and the concept of the journey itself is explored in all four elected poems. The theory of the monomyth can also be applied to Coleridge’s works, and several of his poems also transcend into the realms of literal and introspective journeying.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the vividly surreal story of a mariner and his frightening voyage across the southern seas of the Earth. As the mariner and his crew travel south across the equator, they are suddenly hit by a ferocious storm, which pushes their vessel deep into the Antarctic oceans, where they remain helpless for days. Eventually the crew sights an albatross (traditionally a symbol of good fortune), the ice around the ship brakes and the mariner and his men head away from the frozen seas. The mariner however, for reasons unknown, shoots the albatross and hangs it around his neck. In the months that follow, the mariner’s ship is pushed into uncharted waters by freak winds; pursued by a ghostly vessel from beneath the ocean; and attacked by Death himself, killing everyone on board, save the mariner, as punishment for slaying one of God’s creatures. The mariner tries fruitlessly to steer his ship back to dry land, while the corpses of his dead crew stare at him with unblinking eyes, filling his heart with guilt. Eventually angels of the Lord come down from Heaven and, possessing the bodies of the mariner’s dead crew, they steer the ship back to the mariner’s home country. As punishment for his sin the mariner is forced to travel the land, reciting his story to anyone he meets. The poem ends with the mariner finishing his story to a guest at a wedding ceremony, who having heard the mariner’s tale, is “a sadder and wiser man”.


In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge uses his imagination to create a cold and frightening world, using the dark and gripping imagery of slimy sea monsters, soulless ghosts, and rotting corpses (“slimy things did crawl with legs” ; against the backdrop of icy waters and foggy air (“and now there came both mist and snow/and it grew wondrous cold” ). The mariner’s journey through these weird and supernatural events is long and wearisome, for both him and us (“there passed a weary time. Each throat/was parched, and glazed each eye” ). And though he is destined to live a hollow and guilt ridden existence traveling from place to place, reciting his story, we are given the impression that he is better for it. Because the mariner survived his ordeal he has been given a greater understanding and respect for nature, and a greater love of God. A message he passes on to all he meets (“I pass, like night from land to land … to him my tale I teach” ).


The language of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is dark and depressing, thrusting images of “death” and “corpses” and “blood” onto us. The poem features an extensive use of alliteration (“the fair breeze blew”, “the white foam flew” and “the furrow followed free” )to give it imagery and drive. It is also a very passionate poem, describing the power and fury of nature (“[the ice] cracked and growled, and roared and howled” and “the bloody sun” ). The basic structure of the poem alternates between stanzas of four to six lines.


As well as being an imaginative journey, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also a literal journey (in the voyage of the mariner and his crew through the southern seas of the Earth and back to his home country; and the travels of the mariner afterwards as he recites his cautionary tale to everyone he meets) and an introspective journey (the guilt the mariner suffers for having sentenced his crew to death; the realization of his love for God and nature; and his redemption in passing on what he has learnt to others).


This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison is very interesting because in some ways it is a poem about imagination. The poem was written in the June of 1797; while some good friends of Coleridge’s were visiting him, he injured himself in a way that made him immobile. The poem was composed one evening while his friends were out enjoying themselves, while he was trapped inside his house. Despite being trapped in this state, Coleridge is able to imagine being beside his friends as they roam the beautiful rolling hills and enjoy nature (“of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea” ). The two major themes of the poem are therefore confinement (“here I must remain/this lime-tree bower my prison” ) and freedom (“a delight/comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad/as I myself were there!” ), and the journey between the two. The poem also explores the subjects of nature, man and God (beneath the wide wide Heaven and view again/the many-steepled tract magnificent” ).


This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison is very much a psychological journey from the physical world of restriction, confinement and control and the imagined world of beauty, freedom and nature. The imaginative journey of this piece is thus represented by the state of ones one mind, rather than the state of ones surroundings.


The tone of This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison begins with depression and melancholy, as the narrator laments on the loss of his friends’ company (“beauties and feeling, such as would have been” ), but then becomes more happy and celebratory (“in gladness all; but though methinks most glad” ), until even when the poem ends we are given the impression that the narrator is content and at peace with his state (“this little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d/much has sooth’d me” ) The language of the poem is very happy and colorful (save the beginning); continually praising the beauty of nature (“each faculty of sense, and keep the heart/awake to love and beauty!” ).


Frost at Midnight is set at nighttime, inside a domestic, country cottage. As the narrator sits, cradling his infant, it snows heavily outside. While he sits there, rocking by the fire, the narrator begins to imagine what life and the future holds in store for his baby (“but though, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze/by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/of ancient mountain” ).


The poems depiction of the imaginative journey is in the narrators thoughts. He imagines that the baby will see so much more than he could ever dream (“and think that thou shalt learn far other lore/and in far other scenes” ), and experience all of the beauty and wonder of nature and God (“the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible/of that eternal language, which thy God/utters” ).


The language of Frost at Midnight is calm and inviting (“my cradled infant slumbers peacefully/’tis calm indeed” ). Motifs like the fire, when compared to the freezing storm outside the cottage, give the poem a warm feeling. What is interesting about the poems form and structure is that it is entirely focused on the little infant, even though he/she is never awake. The babies “gentle breathing” also gives the poem a calming quality.


Kubla Khan is a poem that vividly describes the dreamy paradise-world of Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol/Chinese emperor of the Yuan dynasty (Kublai Khan). Coleridge composed the poem while in an opium-induced sleep and the poem that we know of today is apparently only a fragment of his real vision of paradise.

  Of all four selected poems Kubla Khan is the one that really demonstrates Coleridge’s powerfully gifted imagination. He takes us into a world where the rules of our reality do not seem to ably, whizzing us around every river, pillar and chasm of this magical place (“but o! that deep romantic chasm which slanted/down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!/a savage place!” ).


The language of Kubla Khan is used to really emphasize specific aspects of the palace. For example, the shades of light (“sunny” ) are contrasted against darkness (“sunless” ); and the ideas of peace and civilization (“a stately pleasure-dome” ) are contrasted against war and savagery (“a savage place!” ). Imagery is also an important part of the poem, using motifs like the “sunny dome” to imitate both Heaven and Hell (in its unification of both the “sunny pleasure-dome” and the “caves of ice” ); and the “river” to symbolize man’s flowing convulsions between “holiness” and “savagery”. The mood and tone of the poem are very dreamlike, and we can’t help but feel a lack of control as the journey carries on (“through caverns measureless to man/down to a sunless sea” ).


When compared against each other, all four of Coleridge’s poems focus on diverse aspects of the imaginative journey. While focusing on completely different themes and issues, the poems This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison and Kubla Khan are constructed as imaginary worlds in which the narrator (and the reader) travels introspectively through. Compare this to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which creates an imaginary world which the protagonist literally travels through (though an inner journey does occur). Frost at Midnight is arguable not even a journey, but a glimpse into a moment between a man and his child.


Coleridge’s poems also differ in language and tone. This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison and Frost at Midnight use warm and welcoming language, as Coleridge has styled these two poems in a conversational tone. They also share common imagery of natural and divine monuments. Kubla Khan, on the other hand uses dreamy and contradictory language, creating images of darkness-light, and peace-war. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is unique in its stanzas; four to six lines, rather than twenty to twenty-five like the others. The imagery of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is more dark and surreal than Coleridge’s other pieces.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also complies with several stages of the monomyth. Most notably, The Crossing of the First Threshold (represented by the ship’s getting stuck in the ice surrounding Antarctica); The Road of Trials (represented by the ship’s voyage into the violent and monster-infested tropics); The Magic Flight (represented by the angels possession of the crews’ corpses, and their steering the ship back to land); and Freedom to Live (represented by the mariners duty to tell all those he meets his cautionary tale).



I found the study of Imaginative Journeys to really be a tough, but ultimately rewarding journey in its own right. Initially I thought I knew exactly what an imaginary journey entailed – a hero, a princess, a dragon, a battle, and then marriage. But after extended analysis of the concept I discovered it was much more complex and difficult to grasp. What first caught my attention were the different levels of a journey—literal, introspective and imaginative—and their influence over film and literature. I also found the theory of the monomyth an interesting take on classical and contemporary text; the idea that all speculative fiction unconsciously abides by a strict set of rules and archetypes. Both these factors really helped me better understand the nature of the imaginative journey.


Studying the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge also helped extend my knowledge of imaginative journeys. Originally, however, I found his work very dense and hard to understand. But after reading the selected poems multiple times, and reviewing various notes and study guides, I gradually came to understand the themes and ideas he was trying to articulate to the reader. The language and style he uses is very elegant and romantic, but the grandeur and raw imagination he is able to express was what truly impressed my. Coleridge’s themes of crime, confinement, release, freedom, perception, redemption, and innocence are powerfully portrayed through the medium of imaginative journeys. As are his insightful and enlightening depictions of man, God and nature.

Categories: ESSAYS, Literature

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