Coleridge And The Explosion Of Voice

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Coleridge is so often described in termswhich are akin to the word, “explosive,” and by all accounts he was attimes an unusually dynamic,charismatic and unpredictable person. His writingsthemselves could also betermed “explosive” merely from their physicalform; a fragmented mass, some pieces finished but most not, much of his writingsubject to procrastination or eventual change of mind. Today I want to address amoment in his life which produced, as Richard Holmes has characterized it, anexplosion of his poetic talent Autumn 1799, when he first met SaraHutchinson, and wrote, amongst other poems, the ballad, “Love.”

Inaddressing this moment, I want to suggest that the voice of Coleridge at thistime was explosive, vital and new, but only when set against the”ancient” balladic tradition with which he engaged. Whilst acceptingthe dynamism and the unpredictability of Coleridge, I want to show that hisacceptance of a formal mode allowed him to find his own particular, romanticvoice; for, as Stephen Parrish has pointed out, “for Coleridge, the passionwas obscured unless the poet spoke in his own voice.”

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The ballad revivalof the eighteenth century supplied Romantic writers with an archive of voicesfrom 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 inso doing, found his own voice from the minstrelsy of the past. I want to beginby illustrating the literary environment in which Coleridge found himself at theend of the eighteenth century. Ancient ballad and song culture was being revivedthroughout Europe from the early eighteenth century onwards, possibly beginningwith the “Ossian” fragments in Scotland. Although most Britishcommentators were skeptical of the authenticity of Ossian, as Hugh Trevor-Roperreports, they were feted in other parts of Europe; and Germany in particular.

The title of this conference is “The National Graduate RomanticismConference”; the proximity of “Romantic” and “National”in this tag is fortuitous, since it is important to realize the closerelationship between the ballad revival and a sense of nationhood. In JohannHerder’s famous essay on Ossian, the place of the song or ballad as a kind ofnational cultural archive is made plain.

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 aresongs, songs of the people, folk-songs, the songs of an unsophisticated peopleliving close to the senses, songs which have been long handed down by oraltradition. Herder locks into the fashionable Rousseauian notion of the”Noble Savage.” He goes on: Know then, that the more barbarous apeople is – that is, the more alive, the more freely acting (for that is whatthe 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 songsit has.

The more remote a people is from an artificial, scientific manner ofthinking, speaking and writing, the less its verses are written for the deadletter. The attraction of this national voice is its proximity to nature; andthus, 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 mistakeof foregrounding Art over Nature: And if that is the way our time thinks, thenof course we will admire Art rather than Nature in these ancients’ poems; wewill 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 ofNature. Indeed the general thrust of this essay is to cry out for a naturalpoetic voice, the kind of voice that he found so evident in the Ossianfragments. He complains at the recent German translation of Ossian, by MichaelDenis, because he used the polished hexameters of the German neo-classicalidiom; 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 arebadly needed, he feels, to remind the nation of their own collective voice, avoice that has been suppressed. Herder holds up England’s Bishop Percy as thegreat example. He says that, “the sturdy Englishmen were not ashamed oftheir 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 isa national necessity.

Herder was writing about Ossian around eight years after thefirst publication of Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which came outin 1765. Although Percy was later to be hailed by many Romantics as a precursorto that movement, he underplays his contribution to any development inaesthetics, calling his collection “the barbarous productions of unpolishedages,” and worrying that these poetic fragments are unworthy ofpatronage.

However under this veneer of care and worry is a sly advancement ofHerder’s division between natural spontaneity and superfluous decoration. Percyimmediately continues: But this impropriety, it is presumed, will disappear,when it is declared that these poems are presented to your ladyship, not aslabours of art, but as effusions of nature, showing the first efforts of ancientgenius, and exhibiting the customs and opinions of remote ages. Percy, in hisfamous phrase, “effusions of nature,” anticipates the explosion ofRomantic voices. But in a similar vein to Herder, he points to the collectiveimportance of the ancient fragments.

Voices are not singled out in theseminstrels’ 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 insome way represented the collective ancient whole of a nation. Thus Percy refersto the works as the efforts of “genius,” not “genii.” Forthe generations who grew up with Percy’s Reliques, this collection of songswould prove extremely influential. By the end of the century, publication ofsongs had become even more popular and profitable.

One of the most influentialof these, as well as one of the most comprehensive, was Sir Walter Scott’sMinstrelsy of the Scottish Border, of 1802. Here was the historical archive ofancient Scotland; the second chapter of Ossian, perhaps. Scott emphasized thelink between poetry and national history, thus: The historian of an individualnation is equally or more deeply interested in the researches into popularpoetry, since he must not disdain to gather from the tradition conveyed inancient ditties and ballads, the information necessary to confirm or correctintelligence collected from more certain sources.

Hugh Trevor-Roper statesthat, “Before he had ever written a novel, Scott had eclipsed the twofounding fathers of the romantic revival. He was at once the new Percy of hiscountry, the new Ossian of his time.”8 Trevor-Roper’s thesis in this 1969Coffin Lecture is that Scott changed the writing of history, by peopling it. Enlightenment historians-Hume, Gibbon and Robertson, for example-“sawhistory as a process, and a process, moreover, of improvement, of”progress.”

“But”, as he goes on to say, if they thuspenetrated to the inner meaning of history, they did so, too often, byoverlooking the human content. The men of the past entered their story onlyindirectly, as the agents or victims of ‘progress’: they seldom appeareddirectly, in their own right, in their own social context, as the legitimateowners of their own autonomous centuries. The romantic writers changed all that.

Appearing “directly,” in one’s “own right,” becomes ofcrucial importance when considering the emergence of an individual voice inColeridge’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 ofantiquarianism, a sentimental and revivalist love for old ballads andhistories.”10 Wordsworth and Coleridge were caught up in this surge ofsentimental interest and, whilst walking on the Quantock Hills in the latenineties, would conceive the idea of the Lyrical Ballads.

In the laterSupplementary to the Preface (1815), Wordsworth makes clear his, or their, debtto 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 notthink that there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not beproud to acknowledge his obligations to the Reliques; I know that it is so withmy friends; and, for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowalof my own.11 Wordsworth and Coleridge were undoubtedly influenced by Percy.

But, as Mary Jacobus points out, the English romantics were equally stimulatedby a descendent of Herder, the German balladeer, Gottfried Bürger.12 Inthe nineties, ballad imitations–rather than the ancient originals so praised byHerder and Scott–were becoming increasingly sensational and poorly written. Bürgerwas a welcome relief. Jacobus comments: “As no-one in England had done, Bürgertransformed the traditional ballad into something both novel andcontemporaneous.”

Hazlitt describes the scene, when Coleridge arrived athis local town to preach in 1798: He did not come till late on the Saturdayafternoon before he was to preach; and Mr Rowe, who himself went down to thecoach in a state of anxiety and expectation, to look for the arrival of hissuccessor, could find no one at all answering to the description but around-faced man in a short black coat (like a shooting jacket) which hardlyseemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking at a great rateto his fellow-passengers.

Many of Coleridge’s poems are fragmented, too;Christabel was written in a series of pieces, over a period of time; and KublaKhan’s form, actually described by the poet as “A Fragment,” is aresult of interruption and forgetfulness. Friedrich Schlegel, in one of his own”Fragments,” responds to this modern habit, and relates it to theancient tradition: “the works of the ancients have become fragments; theworks of the moderns are fragments at their inception.”

But the poem”Love” is a completed ballad. If there is fragmentation here, it seemsto be of a more subtle kind. I suggest that the “ruin,” to useMcFarland’s word, is that of the ancient national tradition. In this balladicexperiment, Coleridge works within the by now predictable voices of thetradition, and from their ruins builds a personal emergent voice.

The poem”Love” reminds us that you cannot have ruins without having a castlein the first place; Coleridge’s own voice is new, but it is the product of aknowledge and love of the historical voice which Herder and Scott refer to intheir own ways. Stephen Parrish, in his article, “The Wordsworth -Coleridge Controversy,” simplifies nicely the difference in approachfor Wordsworth and Coleridge in writing songs and ballads: the crucialdifference lay in Wordsworth’s adoption of the dramatic method in his ballads.

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