'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (2024)

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (1)


This poem—one of Coleridge's more famous—began life as a section of a much longer, rather sprawling set of verses in one of STC's Notebooks [April/May 1811, actually]. The notebook text starts as a prose meditation, soon mutating into verse, on the varieties of wits typical of Coleridge's friends (including some impenetrable pseudonyms: 'Copioso' has a 'mercurial' wit; 'Tungtubig' has a 'hungry' wit and so on).

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (2)

The prose having morphed into verse, Coleridge moves on to a sprightly, comic section reacting to 'Donne's first Poem' (he means 'The Flea'):

Be proud as Spaniards. Leap for pride ye Fleas!
Henceforth in Nature's Minim World Grandees. ...
Skip-jacks no more, nor civiller Skip-Johns;
Thrice-honored Fleas! I gre[e]t you all as Dons.
In Phoebus' Archives register'd are ye,
And this your Patent of Nobility!

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (3)

A few more lines of this and it changes into a short poem about moles:

—They shrink in, as Moles
(Nature's mute monks, live mandrakes of the ground)
Creep back from Light—then listen for its sound:—
See but to dread, and dread they know not why—
The natural alien of their negative eye.

From here it's straight into the 28-lines that were printed in Henry Nelson Coleridge's posthumousPoetical Works (1834) as 'Limbo'

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (4)

Now, there's a consensus among critics of STC that we need to attend to this wider context, to what Morton Paley calls the whole 'Limbo constellation', when we read the poem excerpted and published under the title 'Limbo'. Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano's 'Norton Critical Edition' of Coleridge's Poetry and Prose doesn't even print 'Limbo' as a separate text, and instead gives us only the whole, rather garbled (as you can see above) notebook entry. Ewan James Jones's Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form (Cambridge Univ. Press 2014) spends several dozen pages (pp.107-45) going through the larger 'constellation' in exhausting detail, tracing obvious and less-obvious wordplay from section to section. Paley thinks the poem incomprehensible outwith its 'constellation'.

In this post I'm not going to do that. Instead I'm going to look just at the 28-line 'Limbo' that came out of the posthumous editing of Coleridge's work. I do this in part because that later text, howsoever derived, strikes me as being just a better poem than the whole of the constellation, or the other elements and poems mined out of it. Indeed, this actually-published 'Limbo' strikes me as a poem of remarkable finish and poise (even if some of its formal poise is about the articulation of disarticulation); although to say so is to go against a tradition of critical judgment that goes back all the way to Coleridge himself. In this same notebook entry he annotated 'Limbo' as 'a Specimen of the Sublime dashed to pieces by cutting too close with her fiery Four in Hand round the corner of Nonsense—'. Paley puts great emphasis on the lack of authorial imprimatur, insisting that after drafting 'Limbo' in 1811 Coleridge 'made no effort to publish' until 'September 1828, when he revised part of it into a poem intended for his friend Alaric Watts's annual The Literary Souvenir, describing it to Watts as 'a pretended Fragment of Lee, the Tragic Poet, containing a description of Limbo, & according to my own fancy containing some of the most forcible Lines & with the most original imagery that my nigg*rd Muse ever made me a present of?' (Letter dated 14 September 1828; CL 6: 758)'. Paley goes on:

The pseudo-ascription to Lee, who had been confined for insanity from 1684 to 1689, would have alerted Watts to the phantasmagoric nature of the poem. (Such an ascription may have been something of a convention) ... However, Watts did not receive the manuscript that Coleridge thought he had left at the editor's doorstep. [Paley, 'Coleridge's Limbo Constellation', Studies in Romanticism, 34:2 (1995), 190]

Paley thinks:

What all this demonstrates is that, although Coleridge may well have worked up a poem for Alaric Watts using the material in his Notebook, no such poem is now known to exist, and the only authoritative source for the text under discussion is Coleridge's Notebook draft. Any other rendition, from Henry Nelson Coleridge's on, lacks the authority of the poet. [Paley, 191]

I suppose I am less invested in 'the authority of the poet' than Paley; I prefer the authority of the poem. And the 28-line 'Limbo', whether a confection of Henry Nelson Coleridge or not, seems to me the one that has authority.


The first thing to say about 'Limbo' is that its 28 lines divide into a central 12-lines section flanked by two paired 8-line sections, the first a kind of introduction, the second a sort of summary. What the two outer passages frame is a central image of 'human Time' as an old, blind man staring at the moon. It is one of the most astonishing poetic images that Coleridge coined in four decades of writing:

But that is lovely—looks like human Time,—
An old man with a steady look sublime,
That stops his earthly task to watch the skies;
But he is blind—a statue hath such eyes;—
Yet having moon-ward turn'd his face by chance,
Gazes the orb with moon-like countenance,
With scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high,
He gazes still,—his eyeless Face all Eye;—
As 'twere an organ full of silent sight,
His whole Face seemeth to rejoice in light!
Lip touching lip, all moveless, bust and limb,
He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on him! [9-20]

The first oddity here is the 'lovely'. We might think the image that follows is very unlovely indeed: the blind old man, 'scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high', in the night staring unwittingly up at the moon, an image then pushed into surreality by the way the comparison of the face of the old man with the face of the moon ('gazes the orb with moon-like countenance') morphs, unexpectedly, into a comparison of the blind-man's face with a giant eye, 'his eyeless Face all Eye'. In what sense, then, lovely? In part it is simply the startling oxymoron of the passage that sticks it in the mind; but there's also something formal about the way the stumbles into its image, false-starting, all those em-dashes and isolate clauses, all the stuttering conjunctions 'But ... That ... But ... Yet ...' slowly giving way to a smoother and more onrolling versification through 'silent' and 'rejoice' and 'light' into the frank loveliness of that twentieth-line, spilling over the pentameter into a Spenserian alexandrine. It slows the verse to a steadily trodden stateliness that really enhances the still beauty of what's being described.

The effectiveness of that alexandrine is enhanced by the fact that line 20 is the first in this poem (the truncated line 27 being the only other) comprised entirely of monosyllables. Otherwise the studied circularity of this image, its seems-to-gaze-at-that-which-seems-to-gaze-on-himishness, is replicated formally and linguistically in the poem. Similar half-rhyming (skies/eyes; high/eye; sight/light) reinforce the sense of a lack of forward momentum. The final couplet rhyme limb/him is a half-rhyme glance back at the first couple rhyme time/sublime. 'Gazes' in line 14 and 'gazes' in line 16 are rehearsed by the 'gaze... gaze' of line 20; and 'moon-ward' [13] chimes with 'moon-like' [14] as 'lip touches lip [19]. Do we read that last image as the old man's upper lip touching his own lower lip? Or kissing somebody else's? Either way, I think, the phrase cannot escape the sense of erotic connection with the desired other.

So we can say: Coleridge's essence-of-Limbo is not, as it would be (has been) for so many others, a mode of sitting around, waiting for something to happen that does not happen. It's not En Attendant Godot. It's more like looking with unseeing eyes at something impossibly remote. And that blind looking is related in some oblique manner to the twin logics of writing whereby somethings are and others are like. So the old man's eyes are blind, and are like a statue's eyes; the old man's face is white and round and cratered and onlyis like the moon; and those two are/are-like balances revert cleverly back upon one another. What I mean by this latter is that the moon is a face-like stone artefact, which is to say, is a statue; except that insofar as a statue requires a sculptor the moon only is like a statue. It's the canny oblique asymmetry of this that works so well: when the blind man 'seems to gaze' at the moon it's because though he does have eyes they don't work, so his looking is a seeming-looking; but when the moon 'seems to gaze' at the man it's because it seems to have eyes (the face of the man in the moon) which, because of course they don't work, only seem to look at him.

I'll come back to this central white circle, this core image in the poem, in a moment. Now I want to look at the two eight-line framing passages, before and after. First:

Tis a strange place, this Limbo!—not a Place,
Yet name it so;—where Time & weary Space
Fettered from flight, with night-mare sense of fleeing,
Strive for their last crepuscular half-being;—
Lank Space, and scytheless Time with branny hands
Barren and soundless as the measuring sands,
Not mark'd by flit of Shades,—unmeaning they
As Moonlight on the dial of the day! [1-8]

I like the wrongfooting opening line: it's a place; it's not a place. And I like the way the words here blur into other words: 'lank space' is almost, but not quite, blank space; 'scytheless' is haunted by 'sightless'; 'branny' seems to lead word-ladder-like into 'barren', 'flight' and 'flit' are the same word, except that the latter is filed down. This queasy slippage of meaning from word to word marks a poetic space in which meaning is no longer crisply demarcated, and Coleridge styles this as, in effect, a disease of time. Time appears as the first of the poem's personifications, and he's in a bad way. 'Branny hands' means hands covered in scabs (it's eighteenth-century medical discourse; dry and flaky scabs that tended to come loose from the skin were called 'bran' or 'branny'; see for example here, here and here). He's too sick and exhausted to do his job; time no longer registers. It's part of the larger logic of the poem that image leads associatively to image, and so the moonlit sundial in line 8 sets-up, as it were, the round white face of the blind man looking at the round white face of the moon.

The final eight lines pick up on the counter-intuitive notion that the blind-man and moon image in the central section is, in some sense, 'beautiful' or a 'sweet sight':

No such sweet sights doth Limbo Den immure,
Wall'd round, and made a Spirit-jail secure,
By the mere Horror of blank Naught-at-all,
Whose circumambience doth these Ghosts enthral.
A lurid thought is growthless, dull Privation,
Yet that is but a Purgatory curse;
Hell knows a fear far worse,
A fear—a future fate.—'Tis positive Negation! [21-28]

The circle in the centre of this circling poem has become a 'circumambience' prison-wall that imprisons ('immures', 'enthrals'). 'Lurid' here presumably means not shocking or horrifying, but something closer to its Latin root (lūridus, 'pale yellow, wan'). In his first draft Coleridge toyed with reversing the two crucial terms: 'A lurid thought is growthless, dull Negation ... A fear—a future fate.—'Tis positive Privation!' He was right to change his mind on this (it amazes me that Morton Paley sees no difference between them: 'the choice of Negation or Privation hardly mattered, since the two ideas were in this context the same' [Paley, Coleridge’s Later Poetry (OUP 1996), 54]). Privation means being deprived of something; as Time is of his scythe, or the moon-looking man is of his sight. Negation, though, is being negated, everted, refused, turned-away, as Coleridge in 1811 finally understands he is being by Asra. He is not deprived of Asra, because deprivation contains within itself the implication of reprieve, as the old model of Limbo as 'waiting' implies that one is waiting for something, or somebody, and that the period of time spent en attendant will eventually pay-out—Godot, as it were, will actually arrive. But that's not, Coleridge realises in 1811, where he stands or has ever stood with Asra; and that's not what this poem is saying. STC has been waiting for Asra to ... well, who knows? To see the error of her ways? To fall belatedly in love with Sam? But it's here, in this poem, that Coleridge comprehends that limbo is not a waiting room. It is a room absent the temporal dimension required by 'waiting' as such.

In other words, and as Dante has already told us: Limbo is not a portion of Purgatory. It is the antechamber to Hell. When Vergil shows Dante Limbo in Inferno's fourth canto, he is, in effect, showing off his own home. It is significant to Coleridge's poem, I think, that he describes it in terms of a perfectly hopeless desire: 'che sanza speme vivemo in disio' (Inferno 4.42: 'that without hope we live in desire'). And if that looks like an oxymoron—not love without hope, which is a romantic cliché, but desire without hope, which is almost a contradiction in terms—it is an oxymoron precisely in keeping with the tenor of Coleridge's 'Limbo'. The man who gazes at the moon can never hope to embrace this white goddess; and it is the 'lip touching lip', and by the deliberate elision of the line, lip touching breast ('bust') and lip touching limb, that haunts the poem.

This brings me back to the poem's central image. One context for it (I'm genuinely surprised nobody seems to have argued this point before) is surely the famous description of the Achaean camp at night, under the moon, before the walls of Troy, in Iliad 8:

οἳ δὲ μέγα φρονέοντες ἐπὶ πτολέμοιο γεφύρας
εἴατο παννύχιοι, πυρὰ δέ σφισι καίετο πολλά.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν:
τόσσα μεσηγὺ νεῶν ἠδὲ Ξάνθοιο ῥοάων
Τρώων καιόντων πυρὰ φαίνετο Ἰλιόθι πρό.
χίλι᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν πεδίῳ πυρὰ καίετο, πὰρ δὲ ἑκάστῳ
εἴατο πεντήκοντα σέλᾳ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
ἵπποι δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας
ἑσταότες παρ᾽ ὄχεσφιν ἐΰθρονον Ἠῶ μίμνον. [Iliad 8:553-65]

'Thus full of the highest hopes they sat through the livelong night beside the pathways of the battlefield, and they lit a great many watchfires. As when the stars shine clear, and the moon is bright; not a breath of air moves, and every hilltop and glade and headland prominence stands out in the inexpressible light breaking down from the serene of heaven; the stars can all of them be counted and the heart of the shepherd is joyful— this was exactly how watchfires of the Trojans shone out before Ilion midway between the ships and the river Xanthos. A thousand camp-fires gleamed upon the plain, and in the glow of each fifty men sat, while the horses champed oats and wheat beside their chariots, waiting for the dawn.'

This was how Gilbert Wakefield, in his 1796 edition of Pope's Homer, glosses this passage; or rather glosses Pope's celebrated version of it ('As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night!/O’er heav’n’s clear azure spreads her sacred light'):

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (5)

(Coleridge knew Wakefield personally, and certainly read this edition of Pope; indeed it would be nice to find evidence that the 'poetical friend' mentioned here was, as it could easily have been, Coleridge himself). But it gives us a new mode of glossing the old blind man, looking up at the sky. He is Blind Homer, whose home—Dante goes out of his way to tell us this—is Limbo: 'quelli è Omero, poeta sovrano' [Inferno, 4:88]. Indeed, here is Blake's illustration of precisely this moment, 'Hell Canto IV, Homer and the ancient poets':

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (6)

It's hardly strange that Coleridge would find beauty and sweetness in the image of blind Homer staring unseeing at the unseeing moon, since out of precisely this circ*mstance were written some of the most resonantly lovely lines in all poetry.

Of course, we can't say the blind old man 'with a steady look sublime' staring as the refulgent lamp of night spreads her sacred lighto’er heav’n’s clear azureis Homer. Coleridge assuredly knew the passage from the Iliad, and conceivably had it somewhere in the backward and abysm of his extremely capacious imagination as he wrote these 'Limbo' lines; but if he invokes them (and if he invokes blind Homer gazing at the blind moon as the image behind their composition) then he does so not to deprive, but to negate. Because of course that luminous Homeric passage is freighted with a special kind oflooking-forward; soldiers who know they will fight and may die when the dawn comes. It shares that special in-the-momentness also present in the 'little touch of Harry in the night' scene from Henry V, and is wholly oriented towards a determinate future. Coleridge's poem negates that. His Limbo is a place where possibility has been collapsed into actuality and thereby annihilated. Wirklichkeit has swallowed Möglichkeit and untime has superseded time. I feel I should apologise for bringing in Heidegger, except that Coleridge's poem provides a bracing contradiction to the later German. If for Heidegger, 'as long as Dasein is, a not-yet [ein Noch-nicht] belongs to it” [Being and Time, 225], then for Coleridge the da of being is a 'there' of Nicht-Sein: a place that is not a place but which we must still call by the name 'place'; a never-yet untime.

'Limbo' (1811, 1834): Coleridge's Homeric Danichtsein (2024)


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