Prefatory Note

Prefatory Note
[Poetical Works. London: Pickering, 1828]

A PROSE composition, one not in metre at least, seems prima facie to require explanation or apology. It was written in the year 1798, near Nether Stowey in Somersetshire, at which place (sanctum et amabile nomen! rich by so many associations and recollections) the Author had taken up his residence in order to enjoy the society and close neighbourhood of a dear and honoured friend, T. Poole, Esq.[1] The work was to have been written in concert with another,[2] whose name is too venerable within the precincts of genius to be unnecessarily brought into connection with such a trifle, and who was then residing at a small distance from Nether Stowey. The title and subject were suggested by myself, who likewise drew out the scheme and the contents for each of the three books or cantos, of which the work was to consist, and which, the reader is to be informed, was to have been finished in one night! My partner undertook the first canto; I the second: and which ever had done first, was to set about the third. Almost thirty years have passed by; yet at this moment I cannot without something more than a smile moot the question which of the two things was the more impracticable, for a mind so eminently original to compose another man's thoughts and fancies, or for a taste so austerely pure and simple to imitate the Death of Abel?[3] Methinks I see his grand and noble countenance as at the moment when having dispatched my own portion of the task at full finger-speed, I hastened to him with my manuscript--that look of humourous despondency fixed on his almost blank sheet of paper, and then its silent mock-piteous admission of failure struggling with the sense of the exceeding ridiculousness of the whole scheme—which broke up in a laugh: and the Ancient Mariner was written instead.

Years afterward, however, the draft of the Plan and proposed Incidents, and the portion executed, obtained favor in the eyes of more than one person, whose judgment on a poetic work could not but have weighed with me, even though no parental partiality had been thrown into the same scale, as a make-weight: and I determined on commencing anew, and composing the whole in stanzas, and made some progress in realizing this intention, when adverse gales drove my bark off the "Fortunate Isles" of the Muses; and then other and more momentous interests prompted a different voyage, to firmer anchorage and a securer port. I have in vain tried to recover the lines from the Palimpsest tablet of my memory: and I can only offer the introductory stanza, which had been committed to writing for the purpose of procuring a friend's[4] judgment on the metre, as a specimen.

Encinctured with a twine of leaves,
That leafy twine his only dress!
A lovely Boy was plucking fruits,
By moonlight, in a wilderness.
The morn was bright, the air was free,
And fruits and flowers together grew
On many a shrub and many a tree:
And all put on a gentle hue,
Hanging in the shadowy air
Like a picture rich and rare.
It was a climate where, they say,
The night is more belov'd than day.
But who that beauteous Boy beguil'd,
That beauteous Boy to linger here?
Alone, by night, a little child,
In place so silent and so wild—
Has he no friend, no loving Mother near?

I have here given the birth, parentage, and premature decease of the "Wanderings of Cain, a poem," — intreating, however, my Readers not to think so meanly of my judgment as to suppose that I either regard or offer it as any excuse for the publication of the following fragment, (and I may add, of one or two others in its neighbourhood) in its primitive crudity. But I should find still greater difficulty in forgiving myself, were I to record pro taedio publico a set of petty mishaps and annoyances which I myself wish to forget. I must be content therefore with assuring the friendly Reader, that the less he attributes its appearance to the Author's will, choice, or judgment, the nearer to the truth he will be.[5]

S. T. Coleridge.


[1] On the request of his neighbour, Thomas Poole, Coleridge began to write a series of autobiographical letters. One of particular significance with regards The Wanderings of Cain is endorsed 16th October, 1797 [See Griggs, I:353.]. In this letter, Coleridge recounts a childhood fight with his brother Frank over who is the favourite son. The young Coleridge runs at Frank with a knife before running away and spending "a dreadful stormy night" hiding by the river Otter.

[2] William Wordsworth, who had recently moved into Alfoxton house in the village of Holford, 3 miles from Nether Stowey, with his sister, Dorothy.

[3] Salomon Gessner's, The Death of Abel was a great success when it appeared in English translation (by Mary Collyer) in 1761.

[4] Contextual Note: S. T. Coleridge to Lord Byron, 22 October 1815 (from Collected Letters iv: 601-06) .

"['Christabel'] is not yet a Whole: and as it will be 5 Books, I meant to publish it by itself: or with another Poem entitled, the Wanderings of Cain — of which, however, as far as it was written, I have unfortunately lost the only Copy — and can remember no part distinctly but the first stanza:—

Encinctur'd with a twine of Leaves,
That leafy Twine his only Dress!
A lovely Boy was plucking fruits
In a moon-light Wilderness.
The Moon was bright, the Air was free,
And Fruits and Flowers together grew
On many a Shrub and many a Tree:
And all put on a gentle Hue
Hanging in the shadowy Air
Like a Picture rich and rare.
It was a Climate where, they say,
The Night is more belov'd than Day.
But who that beauteous Boy beguil'd,
That beauteous Boy to linger here?
Alone, by night, a little child,
In place so silent and so wild—
Has he no Friend, no loving Mother near?

[5] This final paragraph was removed from the Preface in Poetical Works, 1834.