Arnold's Coleridgean Conversation Poem: "Dover Beach" and "The Eolian Harp"

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  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"

I

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. …