This long pursuit, p.9
This Long Pursuit, p.9Richard Holmes
Susan Greenfield calls it, among all the common processes of human memory, ‘the most mysterious issue of all’. Characteristically, she sees the problem in terms of cellular loss and renewal: ‘We know that some people can remember what happened to them ninety years ago, but by then every molecule in their body will have been turned over many times. If long-term changes mediating memories are occurring continuously in the brain, how are they sustained?’ This paradox had already been observed by Leonardo da Vinci, in one of his notebooks known as the Codex Atlanticus, at the beginning of the sixteenth century: ‘Things that happened many years ago often seem close and proximate to the present time, and many things that happened recently seem as ancient as the long-gone days of youth.’
Coleridge saw the problem in psychological terms. He suggested shrewdly that memories of childhood have a high visual content, with strong associated moods, but lack linguistic or spoken elements: ‘If I were asked how it is that very old people remember visually only the events of early childhood, and remember the intervening spaces either not at all or only verbally, I should think it a perfectly philosophical answer that old age remembers childhood by becoming a second childhood!’
Coleridge expanded on this in a letter to his friend Robert Southey in August 1803: ‘I hold that association depends in a much greater degree on the recurrence of resembling states of feeling than in trains of ideas; that the recollection of early childhood in latest old age depends on and is explicable by this.’ He added that if flows of feelings, rather than discrete chains of ideas, formed the essential structure of memory, then Hartley’s system was too atomistic and passive: ‘Hartley’s system totters.’
In fact Coleridge came to consider (like Bergson, like Proust) that perhaps nothing was really ever forgotten. Perhaps movements of feeling, vibrations of emotion, were capable of resurrecting almost anything from our past lives. He wrote in a notebook of 1803: ‘For what is Forgetfulness? Renew the state of affection or bodily Feeling, same or similar – sometimes dimly similar – and instantly the trains of forgotten thought rise up from their living Catacombs!’
Yet in the Preface to his unfinished ‘Kubla Khan’ (1816), Coleridge described the most famous incident of creative forgetting in English literature. Retired to a lonely farmhouse near Exmoor in the autumn of 1797, he took opium and dreamed a poem of ‘not less than from two to three hundred lines’. On awaking he wrote down the first fifty-four lines (as we now know ‘Kubla Khan’), but was interrupted by ‘a person on business from Porlock’. He could never recall the rest of the poem.
The analogy Coleridge uses for this moment of forgetfulness is, once again, water: ‘… On his return to his room, [he] found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!’
Most modern critics and biographers think that Coleridge invented the person on business from Porlock, to hide the fact that he simply could not finish the poem. But I think he was visited first by Mnemosyne, and then by the other goddess. It was just that he could not remember her name.
In restless middle-age, I became crazy about hot-air balloons. Gazing from my study window in Norfolk at their stately shapes, as they float at dusk over the beech trees down the line of the River Yare valley, fills me with pleasure and longing. I watch the twinkling flame of their gas-burners, like celestial pilot lights in the sky, and catch the distant thunder of their propane breath. My heart leaps up when I behold these dragons in the sky.
Travelling aboard them I find little short of a visionary experience. In the words of Jacques-Alexandre Charles, who took off in the first ever man-carrying hydrogen balloon from Paris on 1 December 1783: ‘Nothing can ever match the sensation of euphoria that filled my whole body as we made our ascent. I felt that the Earth and all its troubles were silently dropping away …’
Of course, there’s a reasonable view that all balloon travel is insane. Balloons are brilliant at departures, but useless at arrivals. What the earliest eighteenth-century balloonists discovered was that they could always leave A, but never – despite endless experiments with wings, oars, airscrews, silken paddles – be sure of arriving at B. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
It’s not that they couldn’t travel remarkable distances – from A to X, as it were. In 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and an American, Dr John Jeffries, ballooned thirty-five miles across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. Though admittedly they did not actually touch down at Calais, but in an unknown wood, having abandoned everything to avoid drowning on the way. They departed in fur coats and arrived in underwear (an experience, I’m told, common for Ryanair passengers).
Balloon fact and balloon fiction are inextricably entwined, which makes them peculiarly interesting to a biographer. In 1870–71, sixty-seven air-mail balloons escaped the Prussian siege of Paris, the first carrying a letter of complaint to The Times, the last landing with three mailbags on a snowy mountainside in Norway. They delivered 2½ million letters, keeping the morale of the besieged population alive. This is largely fact. Seven years before, three Englishmen ballooned from Zanzibar to Senegal, overflying an erupting volcano and being attacked by condors on the way. This is fiction: Jules Verne’s Cinq Semaines en Ballon.
My own best balloon moments float similarly between factual and fictional travel. I can never be sure if they really happened. They include flying over Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia, and trying to land on the front lawn of the national Parliament, until waved off by a security attendant – ‘You can’t park here, mate.’ Or joining the Mass Dawn Ascent at Albuquerque, New Mexico, alongside four hundred other hot-air balloons, and gently (but surely fatally) colliding with another balloon at one thousand feet. As we bounced apart, in dreamlike slow-motion, it revolved, revealing its name-banner: ‘Jesus Saves’. And He did.
How can I explain all this? Probably I’m experiencing a sort of second childhood. I remember seeing Albert Lamorisse’s miraculous film The Red Balloon when I was ten or eleven. I identified with the small boy carried away over the Paris rooftops by a multi-coloured cluster of helium balloons, to some heavenly destination X in the clouds. Perhaps I still do. But then, I also love the way all balloonists encourage the ascent from fact into fiction, even among biographers.
It may be imagined that I had many dreamlike encounters, both airborne and otherwise, while researching my balloon book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (2013). I have for example held in my hands a fragment of the legendary ‘Silk Dress Balloon’ flown by the rebel South during the American Civil War in 1862. I have stood in the basket of Le Géant (at Le Bourget), in which Félix Nadar flew through the night from France to Germany before the Prussian siege of Paris. I have knelt at the gravestone of the great British aeronaut Charles Green in Highgate Cemetery, with its beautiful balloon bas-relief, only to discover that his body had quite literally flown elsewhere. However, among my most dreamlike discoveries, accompanied by not a little intellectual vertigo, must be that of a hitherto unknown balloon flight undertaken by Coleridge in 1814. It is astonishing that no previous scholar has fallen upon this curious item.
The account appears in an unsigned newspaper article in the New York Sun of 1845, entitled ‘STC Ascends in an Inflammable Gas Balloon’. This purports to describe how Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘poet and opium addict, metaphysician and mystic’, embarked on a yet more fantastic journey than even his Ancient Mariner, when he ‘took to the aerial regions in an immense aerostatic balloon filled, not as might be supposed with hot air, but with hydrogen gas’.
At ten thousand feet above the ‘Exmoor confines of Devon’, where fifteen years previousl
I had of course become aware in my researches of Poe’s fascination with flight, and his curious obsession with balloons. One of his very earliest stories was ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfaall’ (1835), about a Dutch, or double-Dutch, aeronaut who balloons as far as the moon.
Another was his brilliant account of the first ever successful balloon flight across the Atlantic, in summer 1844. This historic crossing was made aboard a massive hydrogen balloon flying east to west, from Ireland to Newfoundland, piloted by that same famous British aeronaut Charles Green. Green had previously flown nearly five hundred miles from London to Nassau in Germany, in around eighteen hours. Now, accompanied by the thriller writer Harrison Ainsworth as his observer, and equipped with a special kind of airscrew steering system, Green completed the 3,200-mile transatlantic journey in just three days.
Replete with technical details, and extracts from Ainsworth’s flight-log, Poe’s gripping account was published in three successive issues of the New York Sun, and caused a sensation that tripled the circulation of that newspaper. It was only subsequently that Poe revealed that the whole thing was a complete invention, and had the story reprinted as ‘The Trans-Atlantic Balloon Hoax’. Charles Green had never flown in a balloon across the Atlantic. He had never even set out. In fact a manned balloon would not cross the Atlantic until 1978. Poe could claim prophecy, but not history.
This much is known to modern Poe scholars. What seems to have escaped their attention is the third balloon piece which appeared in the same paper, the New York Sun, the following 1 April 1845, concerning ‘STC’. Although the article is unsigned, Poe’s admiration for Coleridge (as opposed to Wordsworth) is well attested in his other writings: ‘Of Coleridge I cannot but speak with reverence. His towering intellect! his gigantic power!’ In reading Coleridge’s poetry, Poe characteristically felt vertigo: ‘I tremble, like one standing on the edge of a volcano.’ Furthermore, his fantastic tale of a wild sea voyage to the Antarctic, ‘A Ms. Found in a Bottle’, written in 1833 when he was twenty-four, is another youthful prose homage to Coleridge’s haunting Ancient Mariner.
Equally, Poe’s familiarity with the difficult circumstances of Coleridge’s life, and his sympathy towards them – his opium addiction, his alcoholic episodes, his visionary euphorias, his restless travels, his unhappiness in love – is also well-established. Many of these circumstances found dark echoes in Poe’s own career during the 1840s. So it seems quite possible that the article about Coleridge’s hitherto unrecorded balloon flight over the Bristol estuary, off the west coast of England, though unsigned, is in fact an anonymous tribute by Poe. However, whether it is a genuine piece of reportage, or a fantasy omitted from his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1839), or simply another aeronautical hoax, remains to be seen.
Coleridge himself makes a significant balloon comparison in his notebooks of 1799, in which he describes a flock of starlings viewed in the dawn sky from his carriage window (he was travelling south from York to London, uncertain of his future career) as being like him, or like a runaway balloon, without control or direction: ‘Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or anything misty without volition … now a Globe, now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong, now a balloon with the car suspended … dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!’
Naturally, Poe could not have known of this notebook entry which remained unpublished until the twentieth century. But he would certainly have known of William Hazlitt’s essays, in which balloon metaphors are frequently used to describe Coleridge’s metaphysical tendencies – although usually for comic or disparaging effect. ‘What right, then,’ Hazlitt asks in a letter to the Examiner of March 1817, ‘has Mr. Coleridge who is just going to ascend in a balloon, to offer me a seat in the parachute, only to throw me from the height of his career upon the ground, and dash me to pieces?’
Poe situates Coleridge’s balloon flight in the early spring of 1814, when Coleridge’s opium addiction had reached its height – so to speak. He also claims that it took place over Bristol, and the Avonmouth estuary, when Coleridge had indeed been secretly staying in the district with his indulgent friends Charles and Mary Morgan, attempting to combat his addiction, avoid creditors, and draft his Biographia Literaria.
Bristol was then a centre of hydrogen ballooning, just as now its Festival of Hot Air Ballooning has become world-famous, second only perhaps to Albuquerque, New Mexico’s International Balloon Festival. Poe states that Coleridge flew not with Charles Green (still a teenager), but with the most celebrated British balloonist of the previous generation, James Sadler, who just two years previously, in 1812, had successfully ballooned across the Irish Sea from Dublin to Anglesey, and was certainly active in the region at this time.
As a further complication, Poe’s account claims to draw on an unknown essay by Coleridge himself, published in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal in July 1814. Poe also appears to have had knowledge of a private letter that Coleridge wrote to Charlotte Brent, the young sister of his friend Mary Morgan, whose family patiently ministered to him in the worst period of his opium addiction at Bristol. Coleridge was romantically attracted to Charlotte, then in her twenties, and caused her many embarrassments during this troubled time. He would also write to her in a high-flown manner otherwise rare at this stage in his life. It was as if the battered man of forty-one had briefly become the visionary youth of twenty-one again.
How Poe came across this document is not explained, but it is possible that it was through a gift from Coleridge’s old acquaintance, the American artist Washington Allston, whom he knew in Bristol and who painted Coleridge’s portrait there in exactly the same year, 1814. This painting is now held by the National Portrait Gallery, London, though Allston himself subsequently returned to New York, and was later buried in a little graveyard in the centre of Harvard. (I visited it in 2013, when I was giving a lecture entitled ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Visionary Nineteenth-Century Balloon Flights’.)
The extraordinary thing is that part of this letter appears to have been written while Coleridge was actually airborne, when perched in the very balloon basket. If so, it would appear to be similar in inspiration to the famous one he wrote to his earlier beloved Sara Hutchinson (‘Asra’) from the perilous top of Scafell, the highest mountain in the Lake District. Both may be considered as ‘visions from on high’. The earlier ‘plein-air sketch’ was written more than a decade previously, in the summer of 1802, but is now classed as one of the historic first accounts of the pursuit of fell-walking. Perhaps Coleridge’s later ‘airborne sketch from the clouds’, at least in Poe’s version, may come to be considered an equally historic early document in the sport of ballooning. Both pieces, says Poe, show Coleridge ‘in an arabesque of ecstasy, riding on the clouds of existence, above abysms too fearful to contemplate, as he had once done in his poem Kubla Khan’.
Poe sets the scene as follows: ‘The balloon flight was taken at the invitation of Mr. James Sadler, at a time when Mr. Coleridge was in deep melancholy after his quarrel with Mr. Wordsworth, and also in considerable debt. His heart too was entangled. He evidently sought both physical relief and metaphysical inspiration. The poet and the aeronaut ascended from a field outside Bridgwater, beside the River Parrot. The balloon arose swiftly, and drifted north westwards.’
Poe then quotes from a number of Coleridge’s miscellaneous observations made, it would appear, during the ascent itself, or at least very shortly after:
Angelic ascent! Not a sound, not a quiver, not a breath of wind. Pure elevation! The landskip drops, spins, spreads. Mr. Sadler’s restraining hand – Sir! do not lean so far.
A Hydrogen balloon suspends one of the primary
Now far far below I could glimpse my beloved Stowey nestling beneath Quantock’s airy ridge! There the elms of Holford, and there the gleaming slates of Alfoxden, where Wordsworth and Dorothy once dwelt, a blessed time … So it seems my journey is not merely upwards, but backwards, into the past. The vision is historical, as well as geographical …
The sound of a dog barking in an empty farmyard, a startled deer crashing through the Exmoor bracken, a water mill-wheel turning, a labourer calling to his cows, the sea breaking on the Watchet shingle … They rise to me, so singular and sharp, like the promptings of memory, or should I say the blessings of recollection. Oh, obstinate in resurrection!!
Poe gives this much of Coleridge’s miscellaneous observations, suggesting that ‘each glimpse, each glimmer’ indicates poignantly that ‘the poetic afflatus had not yet abandoned him’. He then adds three longer passages, more in the nature of philosophical reflections, in which he remarks that the poet and the metaphysician become again like his Ancient Mariner, with his haunting experience of a journey and a ‘traume’, and so ‘holds us with his glittering eye’.
The first is one of Coleridge’s striking observations on ‘form’, so characteristic of the later Biographia, yet here seen from an entirely novel perspective:
We gain what we may term ‘altitude’, and oversee a prospect with hitherto novel relations, in which pattern, design, Goethe’s morphologie – the growth of forms both in man and nature – becomes paramount. So I saw the serpentine intentions of the river, the marching promise of the corn field, the hospitable embrace of cottages along a country lane, the magnetic influence of the little church married to its village (yet its spire strangely invisible from this Godlike height), the dark romantic chasm of the coombes …
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