Poetry is made out of other poems.--Northrop Frye Let us give up the failed enterprise of seeking to "understand" any single poem as an entity in itself.--Harold Bloom The more complete and concrete our knowledge of an artist's generic contracts, the deeper can we penetrate the peculiar features of his generic form and the more correctly can we understand the interrelationships within it, of tradition and innovation.--Mikhail Bakhtin Everywhere there is connection, everywhere there is illustration, no single event, no single literature is adequately comprehended except in relation to other events, other literatures.--Arnold, "On the Modern Element in Literature"
Arnold's complex relationship to the Romantic poets, and particularly to Wordsworth, has been a recurring topic in criticism of his poetry, but conspicuously absent from the indexes of books on Arnold, and especially on his poetry, are entries under the name of S. T. Coleridge. It is not just that the relation between Coleridge and Arnold has been neglected or overlooked; it has been categorically denied. William E. Buckler, in On the Poetry of Matthew Arnold: Essays in Critical Reconstruction (1982), explicitly excludes Coleridge from the possible "literary models" that Arnold could "emulate" or "turn [to] for guidance": "In the prismatic view provided by Arnold's poetry as a whole, no nineteenth-century writer escapes qualification, and only Wordsworth emerges as a model, though a profoundly challenging model, for the young writer. Coleridge never attains a poetic presence [...]" (191; italics added). Buckler's view is implicitly endorsed by two later studies of Arnold's poetry. In "'The Burden of Ourselves': Arnold as a Post-Romantic Poet," Michael O'Neill states, "Arnold's reaction to the English Romantic poets involves a dual response of recognition and redefinition; his poems engage in an inexhaustible dialogue with the work of Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats" (109). Noticeably absent from O'Neill's list is the fifth of the five major Romantic poets. In The Audience in the Poem (1983), Dorothy Mermin singles out Coleridge's conversation poems as possible poetic models that Arnold and his contemporary poets failed to turn to for guidance:
English tradition offered few useful examples of how one Victorian individual could speak in poetry to another [...]. Coleridge's conversation poems might have served as a model if the Victorian poets had been able to sustain a faith in the benignity and truth of the poetic imagination, the value of their own experience, and the validity of lofty personal utterance. (5-6)
But in "Dover Beach" Arnold came the closest, in my view, of any Victorian poet to appropriating successfully not only the conversational voice but also the poetic structure of Coleridge's conversation poems.
Exactly what kind of a poem is "Dover Beach"? If this question seems strange, it is likely because its genre has seemed self-evident. When Matthew Arnold's most famous poem is not read as the quintessential expression of mid-Victorian religious angst and loss of faith (the traditional reading (1)), or as a key document in the poet's biography, (2) it is usually read either as an example of the dramatic monologue, which, with the publication of Browning's Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Persona (1864) became a prominent form of the Victorian lyric, (3) or as a Victorian variation on what M. H. Abrams calls the greater Romantic lyric. (4) Though technically a dramatic monologue, "Dover Beach" has more in common with its Romantic antecedents than with the contemporary dramatic lyrics in Men and Women. As Abrams himself points out, "Dover Beach" "closely follow[s] the pattern of the greater Romantic lyric" (78). While I fully agree with Abrams's placement of "Dover Beach" in the tradition of the greater Romantic lyric, Arnold's most famous lyric is indebted not just to the general form of this new lyric genre, but more significantly to a particular early prototype of it, "The Eolian Harp."
Coleridge himself recognized that in composing "The Eolian Harp" he was creating a new "species" of lyric. In a copy of his Sibylline Leaves (1817), he wrote this note on the first page of "The Eolian Harp":
Let me be excused, if it should seem to others too mere a trifle to justify my noticing it--but I have some claim to the thanks of no small number of the readers of poetry in having first introduced this species of short blank verse poems--of which Southey, Wordsworth, and others have since produced so many exquisite specimens. (qtd. in Magnuson 32) (5)
According to Abrams, in creating the conversation poem Coleridge was also creating the prototype of the greater Romantic lyric. "Coleridge," he says, "as early as 20 August 1795, composed a short first version of The Eolian Harp, and in 1796-two years before Tintern Abbey--expanded it to fifty-six lines which established in epitome, the ordonnance, materials, and style of the greater lyric" (80). One of the first critics to identify the structure of Coleridge's new "species of short blank verse poems" was George McLean Harper, who called them "Conversation Poems," a named he borrowed from the sub-title of "The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem, Written in April 1798." Harper takes the structure of "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement" as typical of a group of poems that includes "The Eolian Harp," "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "Frost at Midnight," "Fears in Solitude," and "Dejection: An Ode": "The poem begins with a quiet description of the surrounding scene and, after a superb flight of imagination, brings the mind back to the starting-point, a pleasing device we may call the 'return'" (148). Peter Barry has recently proposed the following structure:
First, there is usually a "locatory prelude," which describes the Coleridges' cottage and its immediate locale, setting the scene for the meditative, reflective main body of the poem. [...] Secondly, the main body of the meditation then involves a "transportation" of some kind, in which an aspect of the speaker's past self is recalled in a sustained and systematic way [...]. Thirdly, the outcome of the reverie or meditation in all the poems is a "self-reproof" of some kind, and, fourthly, coupled with the reproof is a "resolution," a determination to think or behave differently, or carry out some specific resolve in the future. These four stages constitute the basic underlying structure of all these poems. (601-02)
The typical conversation poem, then, is a meditative and descriptive lyric written in blank verse and featuring a male speaker who addresses a silent auditor, usually in (or close to) a natural setting. The poem typically opens with a description of the natural setting and then, in imitation of "the desultory breeze" vibrating an Eolian harp, moves through an associative process to a meditation provoked by the setting or, more typically, by some specific aspect of it. Strictly speaking, the silent auditor is optional, though the addressive mode is not. "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" is addressed to absent friends; in the earliest printed version of the poem, the title is followed by "Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India-House, London." And in "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge's sleeping infant son, Hartley, may be regarded as an addressee, but, at age seventeen months, he can scarcely be considered an "auditor," even a silent one. (6)
Although "Dover Beach" is not written in blank verse, it preserves most of the essential characteristics of Coleridge's conversation poems. It includes a "locatory prelude," and the equivalent of Barry's "transportation" is the speaker's imagining Sophocles hearing the same melancholy sound of the tide on the shores of the Aegean. The formal self-reproof is absent, but the speaker resolves to substitute love for the lost Sea of Faith. The parallels with "The Eolian Harp" are especially striking. The first of the conversation poems, "The Eolian Harp" is addressed to Sara Fricker, whom Coleridge married on October 4, 1795. They moved to a cottage (the "cot" mentioned in the poem) at Clevedon overlooking the Bristol Channel. Originally entitled "Effusion XXXV," it was composed on August 20, 1795, and first published in 1796, along with thirty-five other "effusions," in Poems on Various Subjects. The poem underwent several expansions and revisions--a standard practice of Coleridge--before the final version appeared in 1817 in Sibylline Leaves. Like "The Eolian Harp," "Dover Beach" opens with a "locatory prelude," but the sound of the ebbing tide, like the sound of Coleridge's harp, soon leads Arnold's speaker to shift his attention away from the natural scene. Both poems share a silent female auditor whom biographers have identified with the poet's wife or fiancee. The addressee of "Dover Beach" is usually taken to be Frances Lucy Wightman, and the events of the poem are surmised to have taken place in late June 1851 during Arnold's honeymoon, though the poem was not published until 1867. Arnold and Fanny Lucy had been married two or three weeks earlier, on June 10, 1851. Read biographically, both poems share a dramatic situation in which a recently or soon-to-be married man addresses his wife or fiancee and views a scene of tranquil beauty through an open window.
More striking than these biographical parallels between the poems, however, are their …