Coleridge and the Pleasures of Verse

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IN THE CONTEXT OF A RECENT REVIVAL OF INTEREST IN ROMANTIC LITERARY form, (1) this essay hopes to demonstrate that Samuel Taylor Coleridge is among the most purposeful practitioners of verse as verse in his era. The essay suggests that, along with his deep engagement with the shifting political scene and with philosophical and religious disputes, he cherished the particulars of willed poetic craftsmanship, and was quick to criticize in his own work and in that of others lapses in sound, whether from haste to express opinions however true or false, from lack of training, from a natively faulty sense of rhythm or weight of vowels, or from erroneous views about the equivalence of poetry and prose. Amid his many ardent defenses--of the sanctity of the human soul, of the trinity, of the clerisy, and of method--his defense of the ancient art of musical perfection in words was similarly ardent and his insistence on its purpose--pleasure--decisive throughout his life.

Mellifluous and varied metrics was his darling study. (2) New volumes of The Collected Coleridge have revealed more and more contexts in which Coleridge expressed his thoughts about the value of meter, demonstrated his practical expertise in meter, criticized the meters of other poets, and admonished fellow poets not to forget meter in the excitement of disputation. Coleridge's preoccupation with meter occupies many pages of the Collected Notebooks, Collected Letters, Biographia Literaria, the Lectures 1808-1818, Table Talk, the Marginalia, and Shorter Works and Fragments. (3) He was interested not only in meter as a topic in itself but also as a discipline that touches many of his other interests. Meter, for him, is the chief vehicle for achieving the aim of poetry, which is pleasure; it quickens passions; it demands technical skill and knowledge of other and older languages. Meter pulls Coleridge back from the chasm of idealism to the vivacious body that his spirit filled. Meter draws its power from both the disciplined will and the body's rhythmical energy; it spans the intersection of mind and body and reconciles head and heart, specifically the heart-beat.

Coleridge's contemporaries recognized his passion for prosody; his own criticism of other people's verse harps on meter and errors of meter as politely as possible, given his fear that a crucial skill risked being lost to the poetic tradition; his definitions of poetry stress energy and movement rather than the belabored distinctions between primary and secondary imagination; and his practice as a poet at its best fulfills his own requirements for verse, promoting this purpose, for instance, in "Christabel." Throughout, he demonstrated in his own acts and in his praise or detraction of others a belief in carefully weighted sound as the true measure of poetic excellence.

In 1832, trying to capture as much of the essence of his failing father-in-law as possible, Coleridge's nephew described Coleridge's unusually intense passion for versification:

   Mr. Coleridge has almost from the commencement of his poetic life looked
   upon versification as constituting in and by itself a much more important
   branch of the art poetic than most of his eminent contemporaries appear to
   have done. And this more careful study shows itself in him in no technical
   peculiarities or fantastic whims, against which the genius of our language
   revolts; but in a more exact adaptation of the movement to the feeling, and
   in a finer selection of particular words with reference to their local
   fitness for sense and sound. (Table Talk 1.564)

Merging his own impressions with his uncle's remarks in a conversation on 31 March 1832, Henry Nelson Coleridge goes on to describe Coleridge as a musical poet rather than a pictorial one, for "the whole man is made up of music; and yet Mr. Coleridge has no ear for music, as it is technically called." He compares the exquisite versification of the conclusion to "Kubla Khan" to "an outburst or crash of harps in the still air of autumn. …