The Ocean

When Coleridge was on his voyage to Germany, he hunkered up on the deck at night in his enormous overcoat whilst the Wordsworths, seasick, dozed below deck. He wrote about what he saw, and three versions of his accounts survive which I present side-by-side with similar sections colour coded to show the process of Coleridgean revision:

“Tuesday Night [September] 18th, 1798. [...] The Ocean is a noble thing by night — / the foam that dashes against the vessel, beautiful[.] White clouds of Foam roaring & rushing, by the side of the Vessel with multitudes of stars of flame that danced and spar[k]led & went out amidst it — light skirmishes”

Coleridge's Notebooks, Perry 79, p.11. Also to be found in Coburn, Vol.I, Note NNN.

The Ocean is a noble Thing by night; a beautiful while cloud of foam at momently intervals roars & rushes by the side of the Vessel, and Stars of Flame dance & sparkle & go out in it& every now and then light Detachments of Foam dart away from the Vessel's side with their galaxies of stars, & scour out of sight, like a Tartar Troop over a Wilderness! — What these Stars are, I cannot say — the sailors say, that they are the Fish Spawn which is phosphorescent.”

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume I, Griggs, p.416.

“I wrapped myself up in my great Coat, and looked at the Water. A beautiful white cloud of Foam at momentary intervals coursed by the side of the Vessel with a roar, and little Stars of Flame danced and sparkled and went out in it: and every now and then light detachments of this white cloud-like foam darted off from the Vessel's side, each with its' own small constellation, over the sea, and scoured out of sight like a Tartar Troop over a Wilderness.”

The Friend, S.T. Coleridge, p.220.

The first is from his notebook; the second what he wrote to his wife from Hamburg the next day; and the third from his later periodical, The Friend. As Holmes says in his biography of Coleridge, it's fun to picture Coleridge, the writer of The Ancient Mariner, adrift on the ocean for the first time in his life, the Wordsworths below deck, at four in the morning huddled up in that truly enormous overcoat (that he bought for the voyage: the collar was so big that he could use it as a hood) whilst he looks at the foam with poetic wonder and scribbles in his notebook.

Ascertaining the actual circumstance of the experience is not easy. The original note, from the notebooks that he carried around with him habitually, starts by describing Coleridge's barque having dropped anchor in a "grand Stream" 35 miles from Cuxhaven, 2/3 of the way up the Elbe to Hamburg. So the rest must have been written up the Elbe, unless it's a recollection of an earlier event. The letter is, in the edition I transcribe it from, numbered as LCCCVII to this wife, sent from Hamburg, September 19. 1798. In The Friend, Coleridge places the event on the Sunday night, him then sleeping and waking up again at one o' clock early on Monday morning. The ocean imagery fits better than the river imagery of the Elbe, but is at variance with the notebook order.

The most plausible explanation for this evidence is that Coleridge recalls correctly the date of seeing the oceanic stars in The Friend, i.e. the he saw them on the Sunday night but did not write down the experience until he drafted the letter to Sara in his notebooks on the Tuesday, moored in the Elbe. He then wrote the letter out fully on proper paper on Wednesday, embellishing his notebook draft in the process.

Compare also the following verse from Sibylline Leaves, To William Wordsworth (subtitled “Composed on the night after his recitation of a poem on the growth of an individual mind”), written in January 1807:

Eve following eve,
Dear tranquil time, when the sweet sense of Home
Is sweetest! moments for their own sake hailed
And more desired, more precious for thy song,
In silence listening, like a devout child,
My soul lay passive, by thy various strain
Driven as in surges now beneath the stars,
With momentary stars of my own birth,
Fair constellated foam, still darting off
Into the darkness; now a tranquil sea,
Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the moon.

To this passage is appended a note by Coleridge himself citing the passage in the The Friend (no. XIV, 23 November 1809, p. 220) as its source. The passage from The Friend was also reproduced verbatim in the Biographia Literaria. On Coleridge's trip to Malta, he also describes the phenomenon again, in a note (CN 1996) of the 10th April 1804:

“The Ship at night moves like the crescent in a firmament of Clouds & Stars in them, the Clouds now all bright with a moonlike Light, now dim & watry-grey—now darting off—& often at such distance that they lose all apparent connection with the Ship, & seem each its own Lord, Spirits playing with each other // In my tour to Germany I have described them most accurately, only that now I observed close under the Ship side, a constant clear blue Sky with coursing [?Star./Stars]”

Analysis & Summary

The framing of it changes (for example, the coat is only mentioned in the Friend), and details of it come and go. It's surprising that he omits “The Ocean is a noble thing by night” in the version in The Friend, because it seems like the natural key under which to store the text; its natural summary and title. The use of beautiful as an adjective modifying "white cloud of foam" in the letter and journal versions indicates that Perry's interpolation of a full stop after it in the notebooks may be incorrect.

The stars of flame are “multitudes” in the notebooks, “little” in The Friend, but just stars in the letter. The explanation of the stars, perhaps an exegesis to Sara, appears only in the letter, but I think it's a bold and beautiful part of the whole piece in its folkloric mode and it is perhaps my favourite element: it gives a deepened mystery to what he saw, transforming it with an almost folkloric reliance on the local knowledge to semi-resolution.

For Coleridge to have used the passage so often—in a letter, in a journal, and in a poem—means he must have been fairly fond of it, and his shifting emphasis perhaps says as much about how he writes for his audiences—himself as a memoranda, his wife, his public readers—as much as an attempt to improve the expression with each rewrite. Coleridgean revision is quite under-studied, but it's one of the most interesting aspects of the burgeoning Coleridge scholarship.

Sean B. Palmer,