"Striking Passages": Memory and the Romantic Imprint

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BURIED IN THE MIDDLE OF SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE'S BIOGRAPHIA literaria (1817) is an unusual little paragraph, one that (unsurprisingly) offers a critique of Wordsworth's poetic theory based on the elusive mechanisms of a (surprisingly) disordered memory. According to Coleridge, "the pleasure received from Wordsworth's poems being less derived either from excitement of curiosity or the rapid flow of narration, the striking passages form a larger proportion of their value." (1) And these "striking passages," Coleridge continues, find their own independent life in the memory of their reader: many people confess that "from no modem work had so many passages started up anew in their minds at different times" (2:106). Isolating themselves in the mind, they arise, we're told, "without reference to the poem in which they are found" (2:106). This decontexmalization and subsequent relocation of such passages matters to Coleridge in part because he sees it as the effect of an historical shift in the relationship of poetry to memory, one explicitly linked to the invention of print culture:

   Before the introduction of printing, and in still greater degree,
   before the introduction of writing, metre, especially alliterative
   metre, (whether alliterative at the beginning of the words, as in
   "Pierce Plouman," or at the end as in rhymes) possessed an
   independent value as assisting the recollection, and consequently
   the preservation, of any series of truths or incidents. (2:67)

In an oral culture, then, the memorization of poetry was facilitated by its rhythmic consensus, its integrity as a "series." But this changed, Coleridge says, with the introduction of print.

Recent criticism has sought to reconsider the traditional critical interpretation of Romanticism--and Coleridge in particular--as invested primarily in organic theories of voice and speech, looking instead for signs of its engagement with a specifically print culture. Celeste Langan, for example, has suggested that Coleridge's "Christabel" enacts an explicit move away from orality as a medium of transmitting and recording meaning. Langan sees Coleridge's Romantic project "not in terms of a nostalgia for the 'oral' culture of the ballad but rather as an exploration of ballad meter as the sign of 'narration without a narrator,' as the sign of writing-as-citation rather than of speech." (2) Coleridge's view of poetry in print culture revises the way poetry is seen to function in relation to the reader's mouth, but it also revises poetry's relationship to the reader's memory: Coleridge implies that poetry operates within memory in ways that are irregular, striking, and self-replicating. And, while the sources of this implication are varied, Coleridge's poetic technology generally relies very much on a new understanding of memory as physiological, one that grows out of Enlightenment materialist philosophy and early Romantic medical science. Linda Austin identifies in this newly embodied memory a privileging of repetition and iterability over authenticity: "a mnemonic process governed by physiology is unbeholden to a recollected, cognitive past and can generate aesthetic pleasure that thrives, correspondingly, on copies and replicas." (3) Coleridge's responsiveness to print culture and to materialist physiology together make his understanding of poetry and memory stand in sharp contrast to a Wordsworthian poetics of context, association, and recollection: "emotion recollected in tranquility." (4)

But what happens, more particularly, when poetry is memorized without the rhythmic context provided by regular meter? And what happens when we memorize poetry by reading it from the printed page? These were key questions not only for Romantic poets but also for Romantic physiologists of memory and hallucination. Just as, for Coleridge, excerpted passages in Wordsworth's poetry possess an independent force that can "start up anew in the mind," so hallucinations were theorized as sensory images decontextualized, relocated, and involuntarily recalled--a move that, I will argue, depends on this newly physiological understanding of memory as a somatic repository imprinted with past sensory experiences. …