Review of Max F. Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge.

[Review of Max F. Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge: A Study of his Desire for Spontaneity and Passion for Order. Queen's Quarterly 71.3 (Autumn 1964): 444.]


Mr. Schulz has written his book “to correct the prevailing misconception that Coleridge is a narrow poet of several inexplicable successes.”  His intention is to show that Coleridge’s poems are “the work of an artist seeking definite ends” and that the poems are “richly varied artifacts”; to isolate “the kind of poems he wrote, defining the aims and limitations of their forms and placing them in their respective literary traditions”; and to discover from these categories “the central vision which guided and shaped his achievement.”  Mr. Schulz announces that Coleridge’s poetry is shaped by a compelling desire for spontaneity and a passion for order, and proceeds then to analyse the poems in terms of seven voices: the voices of Farrago, Prophecy, Ventriloquism, Conversation, Dream, Confession, Improvisation, and Song.  The first three of these, he says, are associated with traditional genres of sensibility, sublimity, and balladry.  In the last five voices however, he says, Coleridge more nearly realizes his ideal of poetry: “how to give utterance to the unaffected response of his mind and heart so as to retain the original spontaneity of experience.”

The Farrago Voice is represented by early poems which imitate or mock the sentimentalists, the topographical devotees, and the Della Cruscans.  In the Prophecy Voice bard and prophet meet in the ode form; and the representative poems make a curious group – Religious Musings, Monody on Chatterton, Ode on the Departing Year, the Dejection Odes, Hymn before Sunrise.  The Ventriloquism Voice is to do with the ballads, and turns upon a quotation of a phrase from the Biographia – as though Coleridge had not used the phrase to point to one of Wordsworth’s characteristic defects.  With the Conversation Voice we are on safe ground already well mapped by Humphry House; but the emphasis falls upon Coleridge’s tendency in these poems to use “a master image” and to express “the oneness of life.”  The Dream, Confession, Improvisation, and the Song Voices are much more specialized and depend in their various ways upon psychological and biographical interpretations that may not be acceptable to all readers.

The best things in this book are the analysis of metrical forms and the detailed examinations of a few poems, especially in the chapter on the Confession Voice.  It is well to notice, as Schulz does, how acute was Coleridge’s perception of artistic values, and to notice that he was – as Wordsworth tells us – a conscious and painstaking practitioner.  But if we are to distinguish the kinds of Coleridge’s poems in a way that illuminates their specific qualities and will help us to understand the impulse and changing necessities of his work, we need to establish a more fastidious discrimination than Mr. Schulz offers.  One of Coleridge’s most arresting statements in the Biographia Literaria is that the imagination reveals itself in “a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order, judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement.”  To concentrate upon spontaneity as the mainspring of Coleridge’s work is, I suspect, to transfer from Wordsworth to Coleridge something that even Wordsworth never highly prized: that is, a sort of “manual somnambulism.”  Coleridge was much too alert to the conscious order of art to rely much upon accident.  Mr. Schulz set out to show how Coleridge’s poems were “the work of an artist seeking definite ends.”  I do not feel that he has made enough allowance for Coleridge’s poetic intelligence, nor that he has worked consistently from an adequate conception of what Coleridge’s poetic ends were.