EP&M Online Essay

Coleridge’s Blank Verse

essay by

Edward Zuk

In a brilliant, but forgotten, essay on Christopher Marlowe, T. S. Eliot remarked that "every writer who has written any blank verse worth saving has produced particular tones which his verse and no other's is capable of rendering.”  This observation is all the more startling for being true.  No reader of poetry would confuse the blank verse of, say, Shakespeare and Jonson, or Wordsworth and Tennyson.  The form is supple enough to contain both Milton’s sublimity and Frost’s humility, Keats’s lyricism and Marlowe’s bombast.  For Expansive poets, Eliot’s observation will be something of a rallying cry.  It is, by itself, enough to banish Pound’s image of iambic pentameter as a dull metronome, since so many distinctive voices and tones have found their expression in blank verse.  It also casts a shadow over the worth of William Carlos Williams’s project of finding an American prosody based on a “variable foot,” since the range of blank verse makes the form capable of conveying the unique tones and voices of American poets as well as  their English counterparts.

In the history of English verse, few poets have employed as many of the tones of blank verse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who stands as one of the masters of the form.  His experiments (the proper term for his work) in blank verse span a period of little more than ten years, from 1795 to 1806, but each year saw an unresting search for new effects.  Coleridge's blank verse reveals what may be called a hyper-development, in which he made discovery after discovery in rapid succession, each one opening new possibilities  for the form.  Older modes would be quietly set aside, only to be reappear unexpectedly in a later poem.  Even after that two hundred years have passed, Coleridge’s body of work in blank verse offers a rich mine of suggestions, challenges, and hints to the formalist poet, as well as a timely reminder of how exciting the form can be.

The main features of Coleridge’s blank verse may be seen in the opening lines of "The Aeolian Harp," his first important poem:

    My pensive Sara!  thy soft cheek reclined
    Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
    To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o'ergrown
    With white-flower'd Jasmin, and the broad-leav'd Myrtle,
    (Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
    And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
    Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
    Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
    Shine opposite!

The most striking feature of these lines is their ability to spring constant surprises on the reader.  The rhythm is frequently broken by the free substitution of trochees, and in three places spondees make it difficult to decide exactly where to place the stresses, or how much emphasis to grant them: 

    . . . thy soft cheek reclined . . .

    With white-flower'd Jasmin, and the broad-leav'd Myrtle. . .

    Slow saddening round. . .

As a result, Coleridge's rhythm is unsettled, even jittery, as it acts to keep the reader on edge and ready for the next interruption or leap in thought.  This rhythm is reinforced by the syntax, which also tends a towards a continual variation.  Coleridge twice interrupts the description with paranthetical comments, and these unexpected pauses give the lines an energy and movement that easily outstrips the subject matter. 

To see how idiosyncratic are Coleridge's effects, these lines may be contrasted with any passage from Wordsworth:

            Nor less, I trust,
    To them I may have owed another gift,
    Of aspect more sublime; that blessèd mood,
    In which the burden of the mystery,
    In which the heavy and the weary weight
    Of all this unintelligible world,
    Is lightened: - that serene and blessèd mood,
    In which the affections gently lead us on, -
    Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
    And ev'n the motion of our human blood
    Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
    In body, and become a living soul . . . 

Unlike Coleridge's verse, these lines from “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” drop effortlessly into their iambic rhythm, making them almost monotonously regular.  Every significant phrase – "aspect more sublime," "that blessèd mood," "the burden of the mystery," "become a living soul" – conforms to the dominant rhythm, so the effect is not of an itinerant sensibility, as it is in Coleridge, but of a single thought driving to its conclusion.  The strength of Wordsworth's prosody lies in its regularity (the "inevitability" that Matthew Arnold found in Wordsworth's poetry derives, in part, from these strong and persistent rhythms), while Coleridge's prosody is distinguished by its irregularity and unprovoked metrical breaks.  

Wordsworth's blank verse contains grand crests and swells that Coleridge rarely attained.  Like Milton's, his blank verse is conceived in large units, often taking a dozen lines to build to its sublime effects.  Its weakness, however, lies in its inability to capture a sudden inspiration or to give the impression of hitting on an unexpected idea.  It is in these types of effects that Coleridge excels.  Coleridge is the master of lightning effects that burst suddenly on his lines, often in the middle of a sentence.  His uncertain rhythms, which may depart from his iambics at any time for emphasis or support, prepare for the flashes of brilliance.  Reading his blank verse is the poetic equivalent of walking through a minefield:  though there may be long, quiet stretches, one never knows where the next explosion will come. 

The success of these lines, for example, rests on their use of a single unexpected word:

            . . . our tallest Rose
    Peep'd at the chamber-window.
         ("On Having Left a Place of  Retirement")

        Two crescent hills
    Fold in behind each other . . .           
        ("The Picture")

In other passages there is a swift contrast:

    The sweet bird's song became a hollow sound . . .     
        "Lines Written in the Album at Elbingerode, in the Hartz  Forest")

    And listening only to the pebbly brook
    That mumurs with a dead, yet tinkling sound.
         ("The Picture")

In several passages a sudden shift in diction creates the interest:

    Dim coasts and cloud-like hills, and shoreless Ocean -
    It seem'd like Omnipresence!       
        ("On Having Left a Place of  Retirement")

Other lines rely on a near-repetition in which the repeated word is allowed to vary slightly:

                [The weeds]
    Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
    Of the blue clay stone.       
        ("This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison")

Even in the passages where Coleridge is able to sustain a description or mood, there is a continual modulation in image or effect; the imagery passes between one perspective and another, between shadow and light, or motion and stillness.  Coleridge's descriptions are never stationary, as shown by the famous ending of “Frost at Midnight” or this lesser-known passage from "The Keepsake":

    Softly she rose, and lightly stole along,
    Down the slope coppice to the woodbine bower,
    Whose rich flowers, swinging in the morning breeze,
    Over their dim fast-moving shadows hung,
    Making a quiet image of disquiet
    In the smooth, scarcely-moving river-pool.

The ability to find a series of contrasts in an ordinary forest scene is a kind of genius in itself.

"The Aeolian Harp" introduced several typical Coleridgean effects.  The first, which today seems dated, is the rapturous address of a friend, as in the opening phrase "My pensive Sara!"  Coleridge employed this device throughout his career, and an early draft of the poem "To William Wordsworth" began with the now-embarrassing line "O Friend!  O Teacher!  God's great Gift to me!"  A more lasting innovation occurs in the line on the jasmine and myrtle quoted above, which introduced into poetry a new, exact observation of nature.  Coleridge's descriptions incorporate a naturalism and precision that at times make even Wordsworth's writing on nature seem vague by comparison:

                    the dell,
    Bathed by the mist, is fresh and delicate
    As vernal cornfield, of the unripe flax,
    When through its half-transparent stalks, at eve,
    The level sunshine glimmers with green light
        ("Fears in Solitude")

            The foxglove tall
    Sheds its loose, purple bells . . .    
        ("The Keepsake")

In these final two lines the words "sheds" and "loose" seem to me as exact a description as is possible of a foxglove losing its flowers.  There is also, in "The Aeolian Harp," the sudden incorporation of a quiet image that leaves everything implied rather than stated:

    The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
    Tells us of silence.

This effect, made famous by Milton on a larger scale at the end of Paradise Lost, is the first of several adaptations by Coleridge of that poet's blank verse.

Another of Coleridge's innovations in "The Aeolian Harp" was the attempt, not wholly successful, to introduce philosophical language into poetry.  The famous lines that wonder if "all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely framed" seem more like a fanciful image than a serious effort at thought; the comparison is too vague and strained to be worthy of a thinker of Coleridge's stature.  His next major effort in the form, the 419-line "Religious Musings," represents a sustained effort to shape blank verse into a medium for philosophy.  In the poem, Coleridge adapted his favourite effects to an abstruse diction.  Sometimes he repeats, with variations, key terms to create the effect of a mind brooding over its subject:

    There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind,

Here he enlivens the verse by varying the philosophic tone with a concrete adjective:

            'Tis the sublime of man,
    Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves
    Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole. . .

And here key terms are emphasized through alliteration, a favourite device used throughout his work:

    The plentiude and permanence of bliss!

The desire to write philosophy in verse reappears in Coleridge's other long poem in blank verse, "The Destiny of Nations."  Here he perfected a philosophical style, one filled with speculations that hover on the edge of sense, at times even crossing into unintelligibility.  Coleridge frequently introduces concepts at a rate that is impossible for anyone but another Coleridge to follow:

    For all that meets the bodily sense I deem
    Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
    For infant minds . . .

            For Fancy is the power
    That first unsensualizes the dark mind,
    Giving it new delight. . .

But after these works Coleridge largely abandoned the attempt to import the language of philosophy into his blank verse.  This turn marks one of the great lost opportunities of Romanticism.  For whatever reason, the movement's poet-philosopher never attempted a successful philosophical poem.  What wouldn't one give for a poem titled "Philosophical Musings" on Coleridge’s metaphysics, or perhaps an "Ars Poetica" on the principles of the Lake Poets?  Had he intelligently exploited the innovations in blank verse he made here, the English language might have had its De Rerum Naturae or its Faust.

Having developed a blank verse suited to abstract philosophy, Coleridge next moved to the opposite extreme by refining the informal speaking voice that had made its first appearance in "The Aeolian Harp."  This voice is usually called "conversational," following Coleridge's own label for some of his poems; whatever its name, it marks his most lasting contribution to blank verse.  There is no denying how close his lines come at times to the everyday speech of the nineteenth century:

    Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.
        ("This Lime-Tree Bower  My Prison")

    Foster-Mother:  I never saw the man whom you describe.
    Maria:  'Tis strange!             
        ("The Foster-Mother's Tale")

A comparison with Wordsworth's poetry can again help to bring out the radical nature of these lines.  Wordsworth never captured everyday speech in his poems.  His characters speak poetry whose diction is drawn from everyday speech, which is a different thing.  Although he wrote in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that he wanted to bring poetry close to "the real language of men," Wordsworth believed that poetry transcended common speech through its use of metre: 

    The music of harmonious language the sense of difficulty overcome, and the
    blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works
    of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception
    perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in
    the circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely – all these imperceptibly
    make up a complex feeling of delight.

These following lines from "Michael" employ a regular metre to elevate the language far above ordinary speech:

    "When I began, my purpose was to speak
    Of remedies and of a cheerful hope.
    Our Luke shall leave us, Isabel; the land
    Shall not go from us, and it shall be free;
    He shall possess it, free as is the wind
    That passes over it . . ."

At no time does this passage fall from its measured poetry.  But Coleridge's verse is less elevated and more natural, in part because he selects common phrases that fall inevitably into the iambic rhythm, and in part because he varies his rhythm so often, as happens in casual speech.  Coleridge seems at times to erase the division between speech and poetry, allowing them to become one.  The line "well, they are gone" suggests a way of bringing poetry closer to everyday language, even if this effect disappears after the opening lines of its poem.

The final phase of Coleridge's development reveals him drawing away from the naturalness and informality that he had achieved to move towards a measured, classical rhetoric.  This turn is surprising, as Coleridge's earlier attempts at writing in established blank verse styles were unsuccessful.  Coleridge did not excel at any conscious imitation of a poetic style; he was a brilliant pioneer, but an indifferent disciple.  In "The Destiny of Nations," for example, he tried to incorporate models that were completely unsuited to the type of verse that he was writing.  At times he tries to rise to a Miltonic grandeur and epic tone:

                    As along
    The Bothnic coast, or Southward of the Line,
    Though hushed the winds and cloudless the high noon,
    Yet if Leviathan, weary of ease,
    In sports unwieldy toss his island-bulk,
    Ocean behind him bellows, and before
    A storm of waves breaks foamy on the strand.

These lines are now interesting only for being a literary curiosity.  "Religious Musings" ends with the same stock allegories ("O ye numberless / Whom foul Oppression's ruffian gluttony," etc.) that now date so much mid to late eighteenth-century verse, with nothing much to recommend them.  The lineage of Coleridge's successful blank verse stretches back most often to the varied tones of Shakespeare, not to the formality of the late Renaissance (not coincidentally, the late dramatic fragment "The Night Scenes" is a fairly successful attempt to reproduce an Elizabethan blank verse).  Only Shakespeare’s blank verse captures the naturalness, swiftness, and diversity of Coleridge’s best efforts in the form, but even here the updated diction and naturalistic images provide a degree of separation, and Coleridge's tones and Shakespeare's are never quite the same.

But in the relatively late "To William Wordsworth” Coleridge turned his attention successfully to classical rhetoric.  The poem was written after hearing an early version of "The Prelude," and to praise the work Coleridge turned to classical epithets – "garlands," "Hyblean murmurs," "Orphic songs," and so on – which he then couched in traditional figures.  At times the poem seems to have stepped from the pages of a Latin rhetorical manual.  There is apostrophe, or direct address:

    Friend of the wise!  and Teacher of the Good!

And anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line:

    And all which I had culled in wood-walks wild,
    And all which patient toil had reared. . .

And epanastrophe, the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a line:

    Into my heart have I received the Lay
    More than historic, that prophetic Lay . . .

And chiasmus, or a reversal of order, in successive lines:

    Make audible a linkèd lay of Truth,
    Of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay . . .

These devices point to a formal and deliberate organization that had been absent from Coleridge's earlier blank verse.  The vitality of the early poems, with their swift effects, is missing, but in return there is an organization that is capable of sustaining his reverence for his friend's poem over one hundred lines.  And at one point there is what amounts to an epic simile, which ranks among the most engaging images that Coleridge wrote:

    My soul lay passive, by the various strain
    Driven as in surges now beneath the stars,
    With momentary stars of my own birth,
    Fair constellated foam, still darting off
    Into the darkness; now a tranquil sea,
    Outspread the bright, yet swelling to the moon.

These lines by themselves justify this final shift in style, and they bear comparison with the prose glosses to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which they resemble. 

Unfortunately, Coleridge's blank verse represents a dead end in literary history.  The poets who followed him and excelled in blank verse – among them Keats, Tennyson, and Browning – grasped toward different effects more suited for the extended narratives, remote scenes from history and myth, and the sustained lyricism (Keats and Tennyson) or dramatic irony (Browning) which they produced.  In their various works, the naturalistic observations, the colloquial authorial voice, and the swift, philosophical language that Coleridge created all but vanished from poetry – a glance at the bluster and sustained metaphors of "Bishop Blougram's Apology," for example, shows that Browning drew from sources other than Coleridge.  In the twentieth century Frost and Stevens were too different in their temperaments and aesthetic goals to be influenced by Coleridge, and after them blank verse itself nearly disappeared from view.  

But that is no reason why Expansive poets cannot be inspired by his example.  His broken rhythms, which are recognizably iambic while avoiding monotony, can help to both tighten and add variety to contemporary blank verse, which at times is too lax; his swift effects can lend urgency and excitement to a poem; his sudden shifts in diction may rescue a passage that has drawn too close to ordinary speech; and the occasional success of his philosophical blank verse may even point to a method of reviving the meditative or didactic poem.  Yet it is Coleridge’s unceasing willingness to experiment with the form, to search for new effects and ways of exploiting the range of blank verse, that may be his legacy to the Expansive movement.  If Expansive poets add even a few distinctive tones to their blank verse to rival those of Coleridge, their contribution to poetry will have been one for the ages.

                                Edward Zuk