The Brook (1797)

In the Summer and Autumn of 1797 Coleridge was working on a poem that he called The Brook. Though he never completed and published the poem, there are fragments of it in his notebooks and he provides a summary of it in his Biographia Literaria. Wordsworth also comments helpfully on the poem and its structure. We can, therefore, at least get a sense of what Coleridge was working on in the year of Lime Tree Bower, Osorio, and Kubla Khan.

Notebook Fragment

The swallows interweaving there mid the paired
Sea-mews, at distance wildly-wailing.—

The a brook runs over Sea-weeds.—

Sabbath day—from the
Miller's mossy wheel
the waterdrops dripp'd

                 On the broad mountain-top
The neighing wild-colt races with the wind
O'er fern & heath-flowers—

                        A long deep Lane
So overshadow'd, it might seem one bower—
The damp Clay banks were furr'd with mouldy moss

Broad-breasted Pollards with broad-branching head.

This is Note 213 in Coburn (ed.), Coleridge's Notebooks.

James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge annotate this note as follows: “CN I 213. The fragments might well be studies for C's projected poem the Brook (153.X1); Lawrence 102–3 remarks that they are a perfect description of Butterfly Combe. The first fragment is echoed in 506 Lines of Looking Seaward.” See also a photo of Holford Combe/Butterfly Combe, and of the brook that runs out of it and into Holford. There's a pretty postcard, a Frith postcard indeed, of Butterfly Combe (spelled “Butterfly Coombe” on the postcard).

Biographia Literaria Summary

“I sought for a subject, that should give equal room and freedom for description, incident, and impassioned reflections on men, nature, and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts, and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream, traced from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of Bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops became audible, and it begins to form a channel; thence to the peat and turf barn, itself built of the same dark squares as it sheltered; to the sheep-fold; to the first cultivated plot of ground; to the lonely cottage and its bleak garden won from the heath; to the hamlet, the villages, the market-town, the manufactories, and the sea-port. My walks therefore were almost daily on the top of Quantock, and among its sloping coombs. With my pencil and memorandum book in my hand, I was making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding my thoughts into verse, with the objects and imagery immediately before my senses. Many circumstances, evil and good, intervened to prevent the completion of the poem, which was to have been entitled ‘THE BROOK.’ Had I finished the work, it was my purpose in the heat of the moment to have dedicated it to our then committee of public safety as containing the charts and maps, with which I was to have supplied the French Government in aid of their plans of invasion. And these too for a tract of coast that from Clevedon to Minehead scarcely permits the approach of a fishing boat!”

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817). Lines 4834–68, pp.189–90.

Wordsworth's Comments

“I am compelled to mention, that the above series of Sonnets was the growth of many years;— the one which stands the 14th was the first produced; and others were added upon occasional visits to the Stream, or as recollections of the scenes upon its banks awakened a wish to describe them. In this manner I had proceeded insensibly, without perceiving that I was trespassing upon ground pre-occupied, at least as far as intention went, by Mr. Coleridge; who, more than twenty years ago, used to speak of writing a rural Poem, to be entitled ‘The Brook,’ of which he has given a sketch in a recent publication. But a particular subject cannot, I think, much interfere with a general one; and I have been further kept from encroaching upon any right Mr. C. may still wish to exercise, by the restriction which the frame of the Sonnet imposed upon me, narrowing unavoidably the range of thought, and precluding, though not without its advantages, many graces to which a freer movement of verse would naturally have led.

“May I not venture, then, to hope, that, instead of being a hinderance, by anticipation of any part of the subject, these Sonnets may remind Mr. Coleridge of his own more comprehensive design, and induce him to fulfil it! —— There is a sympathy in streams, — ‘one calleth to another;’ and, I would gladly believe that ‘The Brook’ will, ere long, murmur in concert with ‘The Duddon.’ But, asking pardon for that fancy, I need not scruple to say, that those verses must indeed be ill-fated which can enter upon such pleasant walks of nature, without receiving and giving inspiration. The power of waters over the minds of Poets has been acknowledged from the earliest ages: —through the ‘Flumina amem sylvasque inglorious’ of Virgil, down to the sublime apostrophe to the great rivers of the earth, by Armstrong, and the simple ejaculation of Burns, (chosen, if I recollect right, by Mr. Coleridge, as a motto for his embryo ‘Brook,’)

‘The Muse nae Poet ever fand her.
Till by himsel' he learned to wander.
Adown some trotting burn's meander,

The motto is from stanza 15 of Burns's Epistle to William Simpson, Ochiltree, as noted in Wordsworth's River Duddon Sonnets, by Stewart C. Wilcox (1954, PMLA 69.1, p.131).

Other Notes

“Coleridge's plan for his poem “The Brook,” which, had it been written, might have rivalled in scale The Prelude, would have commenced with the source known as Lady's Fountain where Alfoxden Stream welled out of Danesborough Hill.” — Rivermen: A Romantic Iconography of the River and the Source, by Frederic Stewart Colwell.

Sean B. Palmer