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The most innovative and influential of all the English Romantic poets, Coleridge was also the least prolific. Yet what force of genius is contained in his most famous works! From the thrilling mystical power of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ to the visionary magnificence of ‘Kubla Khan’, these poems reshaped the landscape of English poetry and ensorcelled generations of readers. Over the years, numerous artists have been drawn to them. Now, The Folio Society presents a collector’s edition of four immortal poems by Coleridge with superb illustrations by one of the country’s leading wood-engravers, Harry Brockway.
Coleridge stands alongside Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats as one of the principal architects of the Romantic movement. He forged new paths in poetry, philosophy and criticism, but it is his poems that have earned him pre-eminence. From Xanadu to the Ancient Mariner and the albatross, Coleridge’s poetic images have sunk deep into our cultural consciousness, while whole phrases are frequently quoted: ‘water, water every where’; ‘a sadder and a wiser man’… This edition unites four famous poems, all written early in Coleridge’s career, and exceptionally influential on later writers. Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, Bram Stoker in Dracula and Herman Melville in Moby Dick all explicitly referred to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Coleridge had his inspiration for a supernatural ballad when walking in the Quantock Hills with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. In Wordsworth’s great work The Prelude (originally entitled ‘Poem to Coleridge’), the poet recalls how Coleridge ‘in bewitching words, with happy heart/Did chant the vision of that AncientMan,/The bright-eyed mariner’. From the initial inspiration Coleridge laboured for five months, changing a traditional ballad stanza into an astonishingly flexible and musical unit of varying length with intricate internal rhyme, repetition and alliteration. Lyrical Ballads, the collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth, opened with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It became the keynote of the book, indeed of English Romanticism as a whole. Fantastical, supernatural, ballad-like but innovative in metre and rhyme – this was poetry as it had not been known before. No wonder it instigated a literary revolution.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeeze to blow!
The poem is a gripping supernatural tale: a voyage into a far southern sea with towering icebergs and the soaring albatross, a ghost story of curse, death and expiation. On another level it is an allegory of sin and repentance, a mystical account of man’s fall from a natural state of Grace through a symbolic killing of innocent and beautiful nature. For some critics, the mariner represents the poet himself: Coleridge wrote of his ‘Mind shipwrecked by storms of doubt, now mastless, rudderless, shattered, – pulling in the dead swell of a dark and windless Sea’. Just like the wedding guest, halted by the glittering eye of the mariner and unable to break away, the reader is entranced by this visionary poem, carried along by the beauty and passion of the language.
When Lord Byron heard Coleridge recite his astonishingly powerful poem ‘Kubla Khan’, he used his considerable influence to ensure that it was published.The edition also included ‘Christabel’ and ‘The Pains of Sleep’. It was a daring decision: both ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’were unfinished ‘fragments’, as Coleridge named them, as well as being dream-like, with meanings that were not easy to pin down. Yet it was their very unfinished nature which made them so evocative and influential.
‘Christabel’ is a masterpiece of Gothic imagery: owls hoot and obscure terrors lurk outside the lonely castle; a beautiful woman with a demonic soul undresses in the moonlight; in a dream, a snake coils about a white dove…Its haunting, enigmatic symbols defy easy narrative explanation, but compel readers to return again and again to the shadowy nightmare scenes of the poem. ‘Kubla Khan’ needs no introduction. Its dream-like, cadenced phrases ring in the memory of anyone who has ever read it. Coleridge’s account of its composition is perhaps the most famous in literature. After taking two grains of opium, Coleridge dreamed a vision of such intensity that when he awoke he instantly began to write the poem. Less than half way through, he was disturbed by ‘a person from Porlock’ and when he returned he was unable to recapture the remainder of his vision.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
The final poem, ‘The Pains of Sleep’, is one of Coleridge’s most personal, written during a nightmare-ridden period of withdrawal from laudanum, the drug to which he was addicted. It is an outpouring that uncovered his deepest soul, his sense of wasted promise and guilt and his desperate, childlike yearning for love.
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Ever since I first read Coleridge’s poems they have occupied a special place in my life. As a student, I devoured and analysed huge quantities of literature, but Coleridge was a hallowed preserve – I loved reading the poems, but wished to stay entranced by their music, not to dissect them with the forensic knife of literary criticism. This was most true of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', and this fascination led me to collect illustrated editions of the poem – by Gustave Doré, David Jones and Mervyn Peake – and to commission wood engravings for earlier Folio Society editions from Garrick Palmer and Miriam MacGregor. But still I felt the urge to produce another edition, one in which the poetry would be typeset on a grand scale, and which would add another dimension to the illustrations: retaining the strong architecture of wood engraving, but adding to it the colours which are such a vivid part of the poetic imagery.
Harry Brockway is an artist, stone carver and engraver with whom I have enjoyed many fruitful collaborations over the last twenty years. His work has a visionary quality, a sense of the spirit residing within solid matter, which I believe is essential for a visual rendition of Coleridge’s poem. When I put the idea to him he gulped, audibly, but took no time in making up his mind.
'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' was always to be the core of this new edition, but we discussed at length just how many more poems to add, to arrive at a book with the right balance between text and illustration. If The Rime has a companion poem it is surely 'Christabel', a beautiful and enigmatic work with luscious gothic imagery. We were also keen to include 'Kubla Khan', the greatest of his visionary fragments. Fortunately, a rationale suggested itself, since these two poems were originally published together in one volume with a third poem, 'The Pains of Sleep', so we decided to include all three.
Very early on in the design process, Harry decided that the engravings should be unified by certain recurring motifs, the principal element of which would also be used in the surrounding borders. This motif evolves into the sea, the storm-shot sky, and the flowing tresses of the Lady Christabel.On another level, it represents the restless nature of Coleridge himself, the power of his vision, and how easily it tumbled into nightmare.
Though well aware that other great artists had illustrated the poem, Harry chose not to look at their work, but to wrestle afresh with the poetry to create his own imagery. Take, for example, ‘Slimy things with legs did crawl, upon a slimy sea’. What should such creatures look like? Inspired by Coleridge’s fascination with contemporary accounts of exotic journeys, Harry decided that these should not be from fantasy, but real sea creatures with a nightmare edge. The resulting jellyfish are like monstrous Portuguese men-of-war, surrounding the ‘painted ship/Upon a painted ocean’. Once each design was done, Harry began to engrave the blocks. Each one took about a week and he then printed proofs on his own press. Important changes occurred to him between design and engraving. In ‘The Pains of Sleep’, for example, the original drawing showed a bottle of laudanum beside the sleeper, but Harry decided it was too specific a statement given the poem’s ambiguities, and removed it. After the blocks were engraved, the colouring began, a process involving several proofing trials which led to further refinements. Only the deadline itself could call a halt to Harry’s relentless quest for perfection! He has an enthusiastic following amongst collectors, and I confidently expect these engravings to cause a great deal of excitement.
We decided that the limitation engraving should be printed directly from the wood, and asked Ian Mortimer, the doyen of wood-block printers, to undertake it. The fine and delicate nature of the engraving required the utmost care to be taken of the block, particularly in keeping it free from dust. Three men were required – one to tear the paper to size, one to apply ink with the hand-roller and a third to operate the press. The whole process took nearly ten minutes per print, which meant the press was occupied for an entire month on just this one engraving.
The benefits of a hand press can really be seen in the quality of the end result, and amply demonstrate how Ian earned his outstanding reputation. To achieve the blackness of line for the albatross’s wings and back, extra ink is applied with the roller to these sections of the block only. More pressure is needed here than on the delicate, fine lines of the background and so the press is set up with extra paper to raise the critical areas of the print. The solid blacks thus have an intensity which does not compromise the crispness of the fine lines, and the final effect has a tactile quality wholly different from that achievable by any digital technology. The limitation statement and endpapers have also been printed letterpress.
All the separate elements have now been delivered to the binders where the pages are being sewn, the book cased in, and the prints tipped in by hand. You may be interested to know that William Cowley, our vellum supplier, also provides the vellum on which British Acts of Parliament are recorded. The vellum is blocked using real gold – a rare, expensive, but necessary indulgence which achieves a deep lustre unmatched by any imitation gold foils.
Our previous two limited editions in this format: The Wind in the Willows and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, sold out quickly, leaving many members disappointed. The constraints of printing original engravings directly from the wood block simply do not permit a larger limitation and so I would urge you to respond swiftly if you would like to reserve your copy. Once sold, these editions can never be repeated.
Review by Bahamas on 16th Feb 2013
"I was very impressed when my copy arrived. The overall quality is simply amazing and Harry Brockway's engravings are great. A beautiful edition."
Review by MKenny on 1st Jul 2012
""The wonderful binding and blocked front board make this a really beautiful book to look at and hold. Harry Brockway's engraving is lovely and his illustrations are bold and add an extra dimension to ..." [read more]