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–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.” 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. 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,” 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 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 Marks.” 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 continues: 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, thus: 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 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.” 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.” “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.” 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. 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 Bürger. In the nineties, ballad imitations–rather than the ancient originals so praised by Herder and Scott–were becoming increasingly sensational and poorly written. Bürger was a welcome relief. Jacobus comments: “As no-one in England had done, Bürger transformed the traditional ballad into something both novel and contemporaneous.” Bürger’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 Bürger 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, …