Phantom or Fact: A Dialogue in Verse by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Phantom or Fact: A Dialogue in Verse

A lovely form there sate beside my bed,
And such a feeding calm its presence shed,
A tender love so pure from earthly leaven
That I unnethe the fancy might control,
’Twas my own spirit newly come from heaven
Wooing its gentle way into my soul!
But ah! the change – It had not stirred, and yet
Alas! that change how fain would I forget?
That shrinking back, like one that had mistook!
That weary, wandering, disavowing look!
’Twas all another, feature, look and frame,
And still, methought, I knew it was the same!

This riddling tale, to what does it belong?
Is’t history? vision? or an idle song?
Or rather say at once, within what space
Of time this wild disastrous change took place?

Call it a moment’s work (and such it seems),
This tale’s a fragment from the life of dreams;
But say, that years matur’d the silent strife,
And ’tis a record from the dream of life.

Unlike his major “conversation poems”, Coleridge’s Phantom or Fact declares itself formally a dialogue. In the Selected Poems Richard Holmes edited for Penguin Classics, Holmes suggests 1830 as the likely year of composition.

It might reflect an actual conversation, of course, but, more likely, the Friend voices the poet’s own, faintly mocking self-questioning. I think, either way, those demands for clarification in the Friend’s quatrain convey a mentality that’s essentially resistant to the poetic imagination. The Friend doesn’t disbelieve or distrust the “riddling tale” but requires some precise details in order to place and categorise it.

The tale itself is a forlorn one. The Author has been visited by a spirit, generous and loving, with an almost maternal aura suggested in the phrase “feeding calm”. Coleridge’s choice of “unnethe” (meaning “barely”), which in line four seems at first a disturbing oddity, may have been provoked by the similarity of sound with “ethereal”.

It seems that the Author has almost had control of the “fancy” – but only fleetingly. The distinction Coleridge made between Imagination and Fancy in the Biographia Literaria is significant here. Fancy has helped compose the image of the spirit, but what subsequently occurs is the stuff of Imagination, and moves beyond the creative manipulation implied by “fancy”.

The spirit is about to take possession of the protagonist’s soul. Then, coming closer, it is appalled by what it sees, and withdraws. The Author in turn is appalled by the reaction, and what he observes of the spirit’s face: “That weary, wandering, disavowing look!” Holmes suggests that the spirit may be the poet’s lost youth, and relates it to The Pang More Sharp Than All, “but seen at a greater distance, and with a certain wistful irony”. Holmes further suggests the Spirit could be “a woman who views and loves him”. It’s tempting to try to identify the spirit clearly, echoing the wishes of the Friend, but perhaps this entity is best imagined as a composite, representing all the qualities the poet has most valued in himself and others during his younger days.

The Author resists the questioner in the rhetorical spin of the reply: the tale is “a fragment from the life of dreams” but also “a record from the dream of life”. The chiasmus, “life of dreams” and “dream of life”, is complicated by the almost oppositional nouns “fragment” and “record” and by the sobering realism denoted by “record”.

The two separate quatrains each have their own differently forceful charge of meaning. While the dialogue looks top-heavy on the page because of the 12 lines devoted to the visitation (three merged quatrains but with a more complex rhyme scheme) there is enough substance in the Friend’s question and the Author’s reply to right the balance.

We need nothing more from either speaker to feel the melancholy expansion of the “wild disastrous change” – the loss that has governed the Author’s subsequent life, and is registered now as “fact”.

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