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–Autumn 1799, when he first met Sara Hutchinson, and wrote, mongst 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 riters 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 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 ost 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.  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.  He refers to the ballads as “the gnomic song of the nation,” nd 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 Herder locks into the fashionable Rousseauian notion of the “Noble Savage.
He 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 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 r 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 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 heir 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 ircles 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,” 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 mportance 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 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 omprehensive, 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. ] Hugh Trevor-Roper states that, “Before he had ever written a novel, Scott had clipsed the two founding fathers of the romantic revival. He was at once the new Percy of his country, the new Ossian of his time. “
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 eldom 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. “ Wordsworth and Coleridge were caught up in this surge of sentimental interest and, whilst alking 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 Brger.  In the nineties, ballad imitations–rather than the ancient originals so praised by Herder and Scott–were becoming increasingly sensational and poorly written.
Brger was a welcome relief. Jacobus comments: “As no-one in England had done, Brger transformed the traditional ballad into something both novel and contemporaneous. “ Brger’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 !!!!!!!!!!!!!! “ Coleridge found himself at a time of intense interest and debate over the ballad form.
His closest friends were writing to him about the Brger 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 ore advanced, both scientifically and philosophically, than French and English. “ 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 ailing 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. “ 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 ivers 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 id 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.  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 an 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 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 f 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 But the poem “Love” is a completed ballad. If there is fragmentation here, it eems 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,”  simplifies nicely the ifference 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 xperiment 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 576 — O God! en I now think how perishable Things, how imperishable ideas — what a proof of My Immortality — What is 577 May not Time in Association be made serviceable & evidence 578 The Long Entrancement of a True-Love’s Kiss. 79
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. 4] 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 tanza 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: [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 hould have allowed and felt the force of this objection. But, alas! plosion 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 More than plain biographical and topographical links, an individual personality r 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 lushing, 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.