Coleridge’s Blank Verse
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
(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)
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
To see how idiosyncratic are Coleridge's effects, these lines may be
contrasted with any passage from Wordsworth:
Nor less, I
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
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
. . . our
("On Having Left a Place
Two crescent hills
behind each other . . .
In other passages there is a swift contrast:
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.
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
Other lines rely on a near-repetition in which the repeated word is
allowed to vary slightly:
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:
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")
Sheds its loose, purple bells . . .
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
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
There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind,
Here he enlivens the verse by varying the philosophic tone with a
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
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
Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.
("This Lime-Tree Bower My
Foster-Mother: I never saw the man whom you
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
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:
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
Friend of the wise! and Teacher of the Good!
And anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a
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
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