Essay, Research Paper: Coleridge And The Explosion Of Voice

Literature: Romanticism

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Coleridge and the Explosion of Voice Coleridge is so often described in terms
which are akin to the word, "explosive," and by all accounts he was at
times an unusually dynamic,charismatic and unpredictable person. His writings
themselves could also betermed "explosive" merely from their physical
form; a fragmented mass, some pieces finished but most not, much of his writing
subject to procrastination or eventual change of mind. Today I want to address a
moment in his life which produced, as Richard Holmes has characterized it, an
explosion of his poetic talent[1]--Autumn 1799, when he first met Sara
Hutchinson, and wrote, amongst other poems, the ballad, "Love." In
addressing this moment, I want to suggest that the voice of Coleridge at this
time was explosive, vital and new, but only when set against the
"ancient" balladic tradition with which he engaged. Whilst accepting
the dynamism and the unpredictability of Coleridge, I want to show that his
acceptance of a formal mode allowed him to find his own particular, romantic
voice; for, as Stephen Parrish has pointed out, "for Coleridge, the passion
was obscured unless the poet spoke in his own voice."[2] The ballad revival
of the eighteenth century supplied Romantic writers with an archive of voices
from the past, a past which many seemed to idealize as a time of true feeling,
when Nature not only had its place but was also imbued with a raw power.
Particularly in the late 1790s, Coleridge worked within such a tradition, and in
so doing, found his own voice from the minstrelsy of the past. I want to begin
by illustrating the literary environment in which Coleridge found himself at the
end of the eighteenth century. Ancient ballad and song culture was being revived
throughout Europe from the early eighteenth century onwards, possibly beginning
with the "Ossian" fragments in Scotland. Although most British
commentators were skeptical of the authenticity of Ossian, as Hugh Trevor-Roper
reports, they were feted in other parts of Europe; and Germany in particular.[3]
The title of this conference is "The National Graduate Romanticism
Conference"; the proximity of "Romantic" and "National"
in this tag is fortuitous, since it is important to realize the close
relationship between the ballad revival and a sense of nationhood. In Johann
Herder's famous essay on Ossian, the place of the song or ballad as a kind of
national cultural archive is made plain.[4] He refers to the ballads as
"the gnomic song of the nation," and continues, in letter form, to his
"friend": What I wanted to do was remind you that Ossian's poems are
songs, songs of the people, folk-songs, the songs of an unsophisticated people
living close to the senses, songs which have been long handed down by oral
tradition. Herder locks into the fashionable Rousseauian notion of the
"Noble Savage." He goes on: Know then, that the more barbarous a
people is - that is, the more alive, the more freely acting (for that is what
the word means) - the more barbarous, that is, the more alive, the more free,
the closer to the senses, the more lyrically dynamic its songs will be, if songs
it has. The more remote a people is from an artificial, scientific manner of
thinking, speaking and writing, the less its verses are written for the dead
letter. The attraction of this national voice is its proximity to nature; and
thus, proximity to a kind of raw reality. Herder makes clear that this
"ancient" verse is a superior form for it is from "Nature"
and not from "Art." The present age, he observes, has made the mistake
of foregrounding Art over Nature: And if that is the way our time thinks, then
of course we will admire Art rather than Nature in these ancients' poems; we
will find too much or too little Art in them, according to our predisposition,
and we will rarely have ears to hear the voice that sings in them: the voice of
Nature. Indeed the general thrust of this essay is to cry out for a natural
poetic voice, the kind of voice that he found so evident in the Ossian
fragments. He complains at the recent German translation of Ossian, by Michael
Denis, because he used the polished hexameters of the German neo-classical
idiom; a hated, artful masking of the Natural Voice. At the end of the essay,
Herder calls to his countrymen for a collection of German folk-songs. They are
badly needed, he feels, to remind the nation of their own collective voice, a
voice that has been suppressed. Herder holds up England's Bishop Percy as the
great example. He says that, "the sturdy Englishmen were not ashamed of
[their ballads], nor did they need to be." Whilst invoking the Elizabethan
"Hearts of Oak" quality in the phrase "sturdy Englishmen,"
Herder reminds his public that they have theirs--and we should have ours. It is
a national necessity. Eventually Herder fulfilled his own wish, and himself
edited a two volume collection of folk-songs, entitled Volkslieder, which
emerged in 1778-9. This collection was well-known among literary circles in
Europe; when Coleridge visited Hamburg in 1798, he made a point of buying
"a Luther's Bible, 3 marks & 4 pence -- and Herder's Popular Songs, 7
Marks."[5] Herder was writing about Ossian around eight years after the
first publication of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which came out
in 1765. Although Percy was later to be hailed by many Romantics as a precursor
to that movement, he underplays his contribution to any development in
aesthetics, calling his collection "the barbarous productions of unpolished
ages,"[6] and worrying that these poetic fragments are unworthy of
patronage. However under this veneer of care and worry is a sly advancement of
Herder's division between natural spontaneity and superfluous decoration. Percy
immediately continues: But this impropriety, it is presumed, will disappear,
when it is declared that these poems are presented to your ladyship, not as
labours of art, but as effusions of nature, showing the first efforts of ancient
genius, and exhibiting the customs and opinions of remote ages. Percy, in his
famous phrase, "effusions of nature," anticipates the explosion of
Romantic voices. But in a similar vein to Herder, he points to the collective
importance of the ancient fragments. Voices are not singled out in these
minstrels' lays; partly because they are anonymous, but partly also, I think,
because Herder and Percy saw the fragments as in fact a kind of corpus, which in
some way represented the collective ancient whole of a nation. Thus Percy refers
to the works as the efforts of "genius," not "genii." For
the generations who grew up with Percy's Reliques, this collection of songs
would prove extremely influential. By the end of the century, publication of
songs had become even more popular and profitable. One of the most influential
of these, as well as one of the most comprehensive, was Sir Walter Scott's
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, of 1802. Here was the historical archive of
ancient Scotland; the second chapter of Ossian, perhaps. Scott emphasized the
link between poetry and national history, thus: The historian of an individual
nation is equally or more deeply interested in the researches into popular
poetry, since he must not disdain to gather from the tradition conveyed in
ancient ditties and ballads, the information necessary to confirm or correct
intelligence collected from more certain sources. [7] Hugh Trevor-Roper states
that, "Before he had ever written a novel, Scott had eclipsed the two
founding fathers of the romantic revival. He was at once the new Percy of his
country, the new Ossian of his time."[8] Trevor-Roper's thesis in this 1969
Coffin Lecture is that Scott changed the writing of history, by peopling it.
Enlightenment historians--Hume, Gibbon and Robertson, for example--"saw
history as a process, and a process, moreover, of improvement, of
"progress."[9] "But", as he goes on to say, if they thus
penetrated to the inner meaning of history, they did so, too often, by
overlooking the human content. The men of the past entered their story only
indirectly, as the agents or victims of 'progress': they seldom appeared
directly, in their own right, in their own social context, as the legitimate
owners of their own autonomous centuries. The romantic writers changed all that.
Appearing "directly," in one's "own right," becomes of
crucial importance when considering the emergence of an individual voice in
Coleridge's early ballads. Thus Britain at the end of the eighteenth century,
according to Dianne Dugaw, "was being swept, bottom to top, by a spirit of
antiquarianism, a sentimental and revivalist love for old ballads and
histories."[10] Wordsworth and Coleridge were caught up in this surge of
sentimental interest and, whilst walking on the Quantock Hills in the late
nineties, would conceive the idea of the Lyrical Ballads. In the later
Supplementary to the Preface (1815), Wordsworth makes clear his, or their, debt
to Percy: I have already stated how much Germany is indebted to this . . . work;
and for our own country, its poetry has been absolutely redeemed by it. I do not
think that there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not be
proud to acknowledge his obligations to the Reliques; I know that it is so with
my friends; and, for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal
of my own.[11] Wordsworth and Coleridge were undoubtedly influenced by Percy.
But, as Mary Jacobus points out, the English romantics were equally stimulated
by a descendent of Herder, the German balladeer, Gottfried Bьrger.[12] In
the nineties, ballad imitations--rather than the ancient originals so praised by
Herder and Scott--were becoming increasingly sensational and poorly written. Bьrger
was a welcome relief. Jacobus comments: "As no-one in England had done, Bьrger
transformed the traditional ballad into something both novel and
contemporaneous."[13] Bьrger's ballad, "Leonore," had been
in circulation in England from the early nineties, and it thrilled the English
writers. Charles Lamb wrote to Coleridge in 1796, "Have you read the Ballad
called 'Leonora', in the second Number of the 'Monthly Magazine'? If you have
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"[14] Coleridge found himself at a time of intense interest
and debate over the ballad form. His closest friends were writing to him about
the Bьrger ballads; he talked about the ballad form with Wordsworth, in
particular; and he was deeply interested in German aesthetics. He had taught
himself German in the mid-nineties, because, as Richard Holmes puts it, "he
considered [it] to be far more advanced, both scientifically and
philosophically, than French and English."[15] During the Lyrical Ballads
months, he composed many experimental ballad poems: between September 1797 and
April 1798 he began The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, "The Three
Graves," and "The Ballad of the Dark Ladie." Soon after, he
traveled to Germany with the Wordsworths; he spent virtually a year there,
reading German philosophy and aesthetics voraciously, particularly Kant,
Schelling, and the Schlegels. It was during this visit that he bought Herder's
Volkslieder. He returned to England in July, 1799. And in the autumn of that
year, amid his failing marriage, he traveled to Durham and met Sara Hutchinson
whilst with the Wordsworths. He fell in love with her. Holmes comments:
"This love affair underlay, and to some degree undermined, almost
everything he did and wrote in the next ten years. It broke his marriage, it
helped to break his health, and it very nearly broke his will to go on with his
work."[16] But at this time, Coleridge was ignited, regenerated in a
passion for life and for writing. "His notebooks, previously used largely
for memoranda of his reading, lists, addresses and accounts, suddenly explode
into life with descriptions of the rivers and mountains, and the subtle effects
of light and weather." From this regeneration, came immediately the poem
"Love"--another experimental Gothic ballad. It was the only other
ballad apart from the Mariner which he actually completed. Coleridge's personal
explosion here, although important, is somehow not unexpected. His life seemed
to be a series of violent outbursts and then of silences, of tremendous energy,
and then of procrastination. Dorothy Wordsworth, impressed by Coleridge in at
least the early years of their friendship, describes the energy of his arrival
at Racedown in June 1797: "he did not keep to the high road, but leapt over
a gate and bounded down the pathless field by which he cut off an
angle."[17] One of the more famous, early, descriptions of Coleridge is
from William Hazlitt.[18] Hazlitt describes the scene, when Coleridge arrived at
his local town to preach in 1798: He did not come till late on the Saturday
afternoon before he was to preach; and Mr Rowe, who himself went down to the
coach in a state of anxiety and expectation, to look for the arrival of his
successor, could find no one at all answering to the description but a
round-faced man in a short black coat (like a shooting jacket) which hardly
seemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking at a great rate
to his fellow-passengers. Mr Rowe had scarce returned to give an account of his
disappointment, when the round-faced man in black entered, and dissipated all
doubts on the subject, by beginning to talk. He did not cease while he staid;
nor has he since, that I know of. He held the good town of Shrewsbury in
delightful suspense for three weeks that he remained there. Coleridge himself,
in describing his habit of procrastination, says, castigating, "it is a
deep & wide disease in my moral Nature . . . Love of Liberty, Pleasure of
Spontaneity, &c&c, these all express, not explain, the fact."[19]
Such "Pleasure of Spontaneity" is, as Thomas McFarland notes, most
fully felt in Coleridge's notebooks and marginalia. These fragmentary effusions
of the poet's mind work well with McFarland's thesis, which to simplify, sees
expressions of ruin and fragmentation as a core or bedrock of Romanticism. He
says, "It is my judgment, and I believe of many and perhaps most scholars
actively engaged in Coleridge studies, that Coleridge's most pregnant, vital and
idiosyncratic work is to be found in his pure fragments: in the haphazard
entries of his notebooks, and in the immediacies of marginal notations in books
he was reading."[20] Many of Coleridge's poems are fragmented, too;
Christabel was written in a series of pieces, over a period of time; and Kubla
Khan's form, actually described by the poet as "A Fragment," is a
result of interruption and forgetfulness. Friedrich Schlegel, in one of his own
"Fragments," responds to this modern habit, and relates it to the
ancient tradition: "the works of the ancients have become fragments; the
works of the moderns are fragments at their inception."[21] But the poem
"Love" is a completed ballad. If there is fragmentation here, it seems
to be of a more subtle kind. I suggest that the "ruin," to use
McFarland's word, is that of the ancient national tradition. In this balladic
experiment, Coleridge works within the by now predictable voices of the
tradition, and from their ruins builds a personal emergent voice. The poem
"Love" reminds us that you cannot have ruins without having a castle
in the first place; Coleridge's own voice is new, but it is the product of a
knowledge and love of the historical voice which Herder and Scott refer to in
their own ways. Stephen Parrish, in his article, "The Wordsworth -
Coleridge Controversy," [22] simplifies nicely the difference in approach
for Wordsworth and Coleridge in writing songs and ballads: the crucial
difference lay in Wordsworth's adoption of the dramatic method in his ballads.
and Coleridge's rejection of it. To put it in the simplest way, the passion that
Wordsworth expressed in poetry was likely to be that of his characters, the
passion that Coleridge looked for was mainly that of the poet. For Wordsworth,
the passion could appear only if the poet maintained strict dramatic propriety;
for Coleridge, the passion was obscured unless the poet spoke in his own voice.
Coleridge approaches the balladic tradition and takes what he needs in order to
experiment with his own voice. The voice speaks out of generations of voices. At
the time when he met Sara, Coleridge's notebooks teem with jagged shards of
life, to use a McFarland turn of phrase. Not only are the entries for November
1799 about as long as all the entries for the preceding six months, but the
mental leaps of imagination, excitement and wonder as revealed in the entries is
disorienting:[23] 576 -- O God! when I now think how perishable Things, how
imperishable ideas -- what a proof of My Immortality -- What is Forgetfulness?
-- 577 May not Time in Association be made serviceable & evidence Likeness/.
578 The Long Entrancement of a True-Love's Kiss. 579 In the North every Brook,
every Crag, almost every Field has a name -- a proof of greater Independence
& a Society more approaching in their Laws & Habits to Nature -- Less
than a month after these entries, "Love" was published in the Morning
Post, on 21 December 1799, as "Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie."
It was considerably edited and newly titled "Love" for the 1800
edition of the Lyrical Ballads.[24] It appears on the page as a controlled,
completed, twenty-five stanza poem; evidence of romantic fragmentation here will
certainly not come from the format of the verse. The ballad structure is rigid;
every stanza is four lines long, the first three of eight syllables, and the
last of six syllables. Coleridge dots the poem with the obligatory archaisms of
the "ancient tradition": for instance, "ladie,"
"lay," and "minstrel." The story within the poem is
recognizably of the antiquarian tradition, too: the wooing of a Lady by a
Knight, "that wore / Upon his shield a burning brand." This story is
told by a minstrel, who himself is wooing a woman. When it first appeared, the
poem was prefaced by a letter which Coleridge wrote to the editor of the
newspaper, and the letter makes a case for his modern balladeering. Coleridge's
list of excuses makes interesting reading in the light of our discussion
today:[25] [A]s it is professedly a tale of ancient times, I trust that 'the
affectionate lovers of venerable antiquity' (as Camden says) will grant me their
pardon, and perhaps may be induced to admit a force and propriety in it. A
heavier objection may be adduced against the Author, that in these times of fear
and expectation, when novelties explode [Coleridge's emphasis] around us in all
directions, he should presume to offer to the public a silly tale of old
fashioned love; and, five years ago, I own, I should have allowed and felt the
force of this objection. But, alas! explosion has succeeded explosion so
rapidly, that novelty itself ceases to appear new; and it is possible that now,
even a simple story, wholly unspired [sic] with politics and personality, may
find some attention amid the hubbub of Revolutions, as to those who have resided
a long time by the falls of Niagara, the lowest whispering becomes distinctly
audible. Coleridge is coy in this letter. We should not believe that he, of
anyone, has not been affected by the explosion of "novelties" in
"these times of fear and expectations." "Personality," or
the individual person, is actually deeply involved in this poem; we do not need,
in this case, the benefit of Holmes' and other modern biographical scholarship,
for E.H. Coleridge glosses the history of this poem in the Poetical Works, and
he points out a clear connection between this pseudo-medieval fable and
Coleridge's personal life. He details the visit to Sockburn, and goes on to show
direct links between the poem and this visit; for instance, he says that lines
13-16 describe scenes from Sockburn church and the "field near the
farm-house."[26] More than plain biographical and topographical links, an
individual personality or voice emerges from the story of the minstrel singing
to his princess, the story which frames the Knight's tale. Because the
minstrel/poet is the real subject of the poem, the ballad form is taken from
historical fragment to personal, romantic song. The poem becomes less of an
ancient imitation, less of a "simple song," than an expression of
love, and at the same time, a statement of personal poetic ambition. The poet's
love for Genevieve seems more concrete, more real, than the Knight's story,
which is transparent by comparison. The Knight's story is constantly interrupted
by the poet observing Genevieve react to him; her blushing, and finally, their
embrace. "Love" does not end with the Knight, but with the minstrel:
"And so I won my Genevieve, / My bright and beauteous bride." The poem
foregrounds the minstrel's vocation as a poet, a singer and a teller, by
repeating verbs which emphasize such a role: "I told her of the
Knight" . . . "I told her how he pined" . . . "I sang an old
and moving story." From this, the reader is encouraged, I think, to realize
the triple relationship occurring; at the same time, three sets of voices
compete for love's sake; Knight and Ladie, Minstrel and Genevieve; Coleridge and
Sara. The ninth stanza in particular seems to indicate the importance of finding
your way through a poem's voices.
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