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Coleridge And The Explosion Of Voice Essay, Research Paper

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


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


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


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,


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 B?rger.[12] In the

nineties, ballad imitations–rather than the ancient originals so praised by Herder

and Scott–were becoming increasingly sensational and poorly written. B?rger

was a welcome relief. Jacobus comments: “As no-one in England had done,

B?rger transformed the traditional ballad into something both novel and

contemporaneous.”[13] B?rger’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 B?rger 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


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


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


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


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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