Coleridge and the Explosion of Voice



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