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 own collective voice, a
voice that has been suppressed. Herder holds up England\'s Bishop Percy as the
great