Coleridge drinks my coffee
Accomplished poet and proud allotment-owner, Dominic Fisher discusses the relationship between poetry and nature with an unexpected visitor over a flask of coffee.
I had Samuel Taylor Coleridge on our plot the other day. He’d walked all the way from the Quantocks and looked pretty much as muddy and dishevelled as I was. He’d come to take part in this month’s festival in Bristol, and while here, talk to John Cottle his publisher, and – ahem – visit the apothecary. To be fair, on that last point the poor man had dreadful aches and pains. All the same, opium really doesn’t help on the allotment, though he was kind enough to offer to help.
He was telling me all about what they had planted in the back garden at Nether Stowey and the Wordsworths’ place in Alfoxden. Sounded a bit like 1970s West Wales to me – rent a place, talk about vegetables and revolution, but get too stoned to do very much. Not that I’d know really. William Wordsworth wasn’t a lot better, from all accounts. He’d just wander off muttering to himself and making the locals suspicious (also like West Wales in the 1970s).
I think this must be where horticulture and poetry intersect. It’s no use unless you finish it. That means, in the first place, waiting if need be for the risk of frost to pass and for the ground to dry and warm up, preferably having prepared it in the autumn. Then you have to actually plant something. Then there’s quite a lot of weeding to be done (unlike West Wales in the 1970s, where you hadn’t planted anything in the first place, despite the approaching Age of Aquarius). And it’s no use saying ‘but all those wild flowers such as willowherb and speedwell are as welcome as the onions.’ Not if you want decent onions, they’re not.
You can of course take analogies too far. As we sheltered from rain and hail in the damp and cramped shed, we discussed to what extent a poem could reasonably be compared with an onion. It’s true, we agreed, that they both have layers upon layers and they come out of dark ground. Some onions over-winter well, others are better suited to a spring planting and also keep better. We weren’t sure, to be honest, if the same was true of poems. It does seem to be the case that poems need a period of darkness to emerge from, but when we got to the particulars of which poems were heavy feeders and which were lighter, again we couldn’t be certain.
Nonetheless, we thought, as Samuel Taylor finished my flask of coffee, some poems come up like lettuces – and bolt if over-stimulated. Others seem to do nothing for months and months and then you find yourself with heaps of purple sprouting. Some poems are potatoes because you don’t know if they are there at all till you dig them up, and when you do, whether they will be riddled with eelworm. I’m not sure, though, that Coleridge thought the question was all that worth pursuing, because he nodded off at that point.
However, when the rain eased off and I thought I had better wake him up and find out when he had to get to his gig, he became very animated on the question of deity and nature. He had of course been a Unitarian preacher. The question was whether Nature was an expression of the Divine Will or whether the latter was a human extrapolation from observation of the natural world. STC tended to the former and thought me a confounded atheist for suggesting that religion was a kind of fossilisation of all poetry, music and art, that the trouble arose when people mistook metaphor for truth. He became untroubled enough to offer that there were indeed veils behind the veils, and we agreed that after all poems are not potatoes, eelworms notwithstanding.
And so we came to another question. What is the relationship between poetry and nature? Obviously, when I mentioned eco-poetry STC had no idea what I was talking about. In his time nature didn’t seem to need actively championing and defending. But weren’t he and Wordsworth ‘eco-poets’? Wasn’t Hesiod (approx 700 BCE Ancient Greece) an eco-poet? Have a look at Hesiod’s Works and Days. There’s someone who would have been handy on the allotment. But is poetry an expression of nature perhaps, and not just a horticultural analogy of it, whether you view that as divine or not (which Coleridge certainly did)? And to shift the question round to the crisis of the present, what use is poetry to nature?
‘Mister Coleridge,’ I said ‘what help to the rivers and trees, to your “roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow deep,” “the many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows,” are we and our words? ‘Perhaps none,’ he replied. ‘Tis what they say to us.’
As late I journey’d o’er the extensive plain
Where native Otter sports his scanty stream,
Musing in woe a sister’s pain.
The glorious prospect woke me from the dream.
At every step it widened to my sight –
Wood, Meadow, verdant Hill, and dreary Steep,
following in quick succession of delight, –
Till all – at once – did my eye ravish’d sweep!
May this (I cried) my course through life portray!
New scenes of Wisdom may each step display,
And Knowledge open as my days advance!
Till what time Death shall pour the undarken’d ray,
My eye shall dart thro’ infinite expanse,
And thought suspended lie in Rapture’s blissful trance.
‘Seventeen when I wrote that,’ he said, as I unpadlocked the gate to let him out to walk down the A38 to his gig in town.
 River in Devon. Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary
 Coleridge’s sister was ill and died not long after this poem was written