by Matthew VanWinkle
Featured art: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow by Thomas Cole
In a sheepish prefatory note to the belatedly published “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge recalls a felicitous if ultimately frustrated exception to his usual habits of poetic composition. He writes that “all the images [in “Kubla Khan”] rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.” Coleridge identifies his usual artistic challenge, here overcome with miraculous ease, as finding words for images. Those who seek to bring poets, and poetry, to life on film are confronted with the counter-difficulty of finding images for words. Or, more precisely, filmmakers face the daunting task of rendering the wrangling of words visually compelling. (The footage of Coleridge reciting “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” to delirious crowds at Wembley Stadium has been lost, regrettably.) So how do filmmakers inject motion and volume to a creative process that is presumably usually so still, so muted?
Pandaemonium (2000), directed by Julien Temple, is a biopic of Coleridge and Wordsworth (but really mostly Coleridge), and it proceeds in part by taking Coleridge’s account of writing “Kubla Khan” not as rare device but instead as something more like workaday blueprint: live life, transcribe living, supplement with opium as needed, need opium rather a lot eventually. The movie tacitly concedes that this works better, for the poet if not the poetry, in Coleridge’s conversation poems, those fondly domestic lyrics in which he explicitly cultivates a substantial correspondence between work and life. Carry your infant son outdoors in the winter, and behold, instant “Frost at Midnight.” (Instant “The Nightingale” would have been more historically accurate, but a bastion of accuracy Pandaemonium enthusiastically and explicitly declines to be.) When Pandaemonium turns to the supernatural poems, however, it asserts that immediately biographical inspirations persist. A nearby subterranean river trills out the basis for “Kubla Khan”; a visit to some elver fishers, one wracked with lingering disproportionate guilt over filching a bucket back in the day, starts mapping the currents that will become “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” As Coleridge devotes his genius to these wilder worlds, Pandaemonium imagines the poet increasingly lost in his own poems, needing to approximate an experience he can’t actually have in order to continue working. To conjure the language that pictures the Mariner up a mast, “alone on a wide, wide sea,” Coleridge (gamely portrayed by Linus Roache) must venture up a tree in a downpour. He inhabits a vision that threatens to overwhelm him.
Although the fluidity of these exchanges between the fantastic and the mundane drives what is most cinematically vivid in Pandaemonium, the movie can’t seem to decide what to make of the confluence. It consistently presents “Kubla Khan” as Coleridge’s masterpiece, while also lingering (fondly?) over the glassy-eyed ague trembles that pry it from his mind, and pry him from his family. After reading “Kubla Khan” in manuscript, Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy is awed by how exquisitely “touched with [Coleridge’s] alchemy” the poem is. At the same time, however, she voices the film’s cautionary note, observing that Coleridge’s habit of composition “is self-destruction. It’s too high a price.” Pandaemonium is convinced of the first thing; it has its doubts about the second. While it presents an alternative model of poetic composition, and of living, in William Wordsworth, the film presents that model as dourly if cannily exploitative of Coleridge’s superior gift. It is Wordsworth who encourages some of Coleridge’s early pharmaceutical forays. It is Wordsworth who deprives Coleridge of Dorothy’s valuable insight—a point to which we will eventually return. Wordsworth even becomes the apocryphal Person from Porlock, fatally interrupting the writing of “Kubla Khan.” Pandaemonium not only suggests that we’d rather have Coleridge’s poems than Wordsworth’s; it inclines toward the notion that it would be better to live Coleridge’s life than Wordsworth’s. That’s a preference that seems more cinematically practical than realistically persuasive. Sure, Coleridge scribbling away desperately under a cataract, the torrent washing away the ink as soon as it meets paper, is a paradoxically indelible scene. Wordsworth’s monologuing rambles through his native hills pale in comparison. We’d rather see the soaking, but we’d rather do the hike.
If Pandaemonium problematically invigorates the claim, echoing through romanticism more generally, that poetry and the life of the poet must be inextricably intertwined, the strain of modernism represented by T. S. Eliot articulates the most insistent subsequent dismissal of that theory. In Tom and Viv (1994, directed by Brian Gilbert), we hear Eliot rehearse his most memorable objection to poetry as inevitably autobiographical: “no poet can truthfully tell you the origin of the poem, however personal the poem may seem. What makes it a poem will not derive from the fact it is personal. Poetry is not an expression of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” As if to sharpen the point, Eliot is offscreen when he says this. We overhear the pronouncement, delivered to a select audience in the Eliot home, while we see Tom’s wife Viv—Miranda Richardson, in an Oscar-nominated performance—exit the premises, presumably excluded from the occasion in advance. Their marriage has been troubled from the start; Tom’s initial affection rapidly retreats into starchy reticence, and Viv’s frustration with his retreat exacerbates her own erratic behavior. Tom—embodied with hunkered sensitivity by Willem Dafoe—increasingly situates her on the outside listening in as his career flourishes, passive aggressively arranging a formal separation and eventually collaborating with his brother-in-law to commit Viv to a psychiatric institution.1 Viv spends the last nine years of her life there, and as the movie draws toward its close Tom confides to his former mentor Bertrand Russell that the separation is indeed the source of an abiding pang: “Don’t think that it doesn’t hurt. She is with me all the time, every minute of the day.” The scene concludes with a grated elevator door drawing closed across Eliot’s still visible, and visibly distressed, face. The cinematic grammar is unmistakable; his life has become a kind of prison. There are lives, though, that are presumably even more like prisons. Lives lived in sanitariums, for instance.
Tom and Viv suggests, then, that Eliot’s rejection of the personal aspect of poetry might be seen as a calculating form of damage control, a chilling attempt to cordon off the husband’s failings from the writer’s successes. At the same time, however, the movie also contends that Tom’s poetry often provides the unhappy couple their one shared, cramped refuge from their unrelenting marital storms. For instance, we see Viv at a typewriter, calling Tom in to suggest an emendation to The Waste Land. A smile unclenches the characteristic reserve of Tom’s face and voice as he accepts the revision with a mixture of pleasure and pride in his wife’s insight. This meeting of the minds only stays on the page, however. The moment is almost immediately interrupted by Tom’s departure for a walk with the Bishop of Oxford. Viv, incensed that Tom is leaving his true calling behind, sneers at the clergyman that virtue isn’t what her husband is after: “No, what Tom wants is boredom. A boring and conventional life. He mistakenly thinks he needs it for his work.” Pandaemonium just assumes that detailing Coleridge’s life, with a zest for the occasional embellishment, will automatically convey how the poems get written. Tom and Viv accepts that some meaningful connection between work and life obtains, but it remains perplexed as to the scope and the precise dynamic of the relationship. Just prior to her incarceration, Viv pleads for more acknowledgment of her contribution to Tom’s career: “You see, you have to remember what a success you are. I would like some recognition for that. After all, the poems come out of our lives, Tom. I’d like to share just an inch of that success.” Her request locates something true, but how it’s true, exactly, mostly eludes the frame. At one point, Tom reassuringly insists to Viv that she’s in every line that he writes, but that’s an easier thing to say than it is to show.
We might expect the differences between these two film biographies to be more striking and significant, depicting as they do two substantially different artistic moments and sensibilities. Romanticism’s headlong faith in the life of the senses would inevitably clash with the headily reserved judgment so often found in modernism. Beyond the mere fact of their common genre, however, Pandaemonium and Tom and Viv share two key features: an attempted solution to the problem of dramatizing activity inherently lacking in cinematic appeal, and an unsettling element of that solution’s collapse. Both movies emphasize the collaborative aspects of poetic composition as an antidote to the unvisualizability of what Jack Stillinger has termed “the myth of solitary genius,” which is both one of the most abiding legacies and one of the most frustrating clichés of romanticism. By playing up the exchanges among like and lively minds, Pandaemonium in particular makes writers, if not the actual moment of writing, watchable. Though Tom and Viv pursues the possibilities of collaboration less stridently, its tenderest and most evocative moments move through conversation rather than through lingering, isolating closeups.
Nevertheless, in both movies collaboration proves to be a kind of false promise, and falser to women in the poets’ lives than to the featured poets themselves. Dorothy Wordsworth and Vivienne Eliot both do at least their fair share of the lifting; both pay a disproportionate price for their efforts. In Pandaemonium, Dorothy explicates the obscure profundity of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” at this point still a work in progress, to her perhaps willfully uncomprehending brother: “[The Mariner has] broken his bond with nature . . . Man is tied to nature; if he cuts that tie, then the result is chaos.” Later, when Coleridge, writhing under the emergent anguish of addiction, fears he cannot complete the poem, Dorothy suggests the resolution to the plot.
An eerily similar mix of precocious interpretation and contribution occurs at a key moment in Tom and Viv, when the couple reads a working draft of The Waste Land to select members of Viv’s family. Viv prepares their audience for the poem’s technical difficulties—multiple perspectives, copious allusions—and then suggests that recurrent mention of disastrous marriages and a revulsion at women’s sexuality hold the verse together: “There’s a moment where she brushes her hair, and [her husband] cannot bring himself to touch her. Horror engulfs him.” Tom responds drily with “that is not what I meant at all.” We are led to suspect that the famous line is not yet in the poem, but will be soon enough.
A charitable viewing of these analogous moments might find in them a betterlate-than-never recognition of the stilled voices amplifying the single name that resonates. It’s hard to shake the suspicion, however, that this credit is given only to be taken away. Pandaemonium, with no regard to the historical record, reduces Dorothy to an opium addict exemplifying the perils of Coleridge’s example. The only things consistently secure in her sadly shattered mind are the long-remembered, still cherished lines of “Kubla Khan.” Tom and Viv at least can claim the sad realities of Viv’s later life as a basis for situating her as it does. Even so, it emphasizes that the best of what remains of her is her devotion to Tom’s poetry, which he carries on with continued success in the wake of their separation. We see her listening appreciatively to his reading of Four Quartets over the wireless, apparently without any recrimination that might plausibly attend the failure of their marriage. If, as Margaret Atwood shrewdly reminds us, “a word after a word / after a word is power,” both Pandaemonium and Tom and Viv show us a vibrant, creative woman confined to an afterword.
Although both movies strive to embrace the possibilities of collaboration, they each revert to a celebration of the poet in isolation. Each suggests that we can dismiss collaboration in the same way and to the same degree that our culture has traditionally dismissed women. Perhaps it is something to show this dismissal for what it is, even if inadvertently. It would be something more to think beyond this insistence on solitary genius, toward a sense of creativity as shared striving, of the sort that film as a medium necessarily involves, and that poetry embraces more readily than we have tended to recognize, let alone respect.
(1) Tom and Viv, following the 1984 play on which it is based, rehearses what at the time was the conventional wisdom regarding Tom’s role in Viv’s institutionalization. Evidence that has come to light in the interim suggests that the conventional wisdom likely overstated his involvement in this decision, but the characterization still speaks to the increasing (and still largely undisputed) emotional distance between Eliot and his wife in the years leading up to her committal.
Matthew VanWinkle is an associate professor of English at Idaho State University, with research interests in romantic and Victorian poetry, and in gothic fiction. He has previously published on the use of Tennyson’s poetry in The X-Files. His most recent work has appeared in Journal of Dracula Studies and in Victorian Poetry.