Coleridge’s poetry in “conversation”

Coleridge’s Poetry in “ Conversation” Nothing about Samuel Coleridge’s “ conversation” poems is conventionally conversational. These poems do not create a dialogue between two characters, but instead focus on an internal dialogue that Coleridge’s personas have with themselves. For Coleridge, conversation is a personal, individual action. In “ Sonnet to the River Otter” and “ Frost at Midnight” the personas philosophize to themselves about themselves, but their physically present human counterparts are unnecessary to the thoughtful commentary. As the river and the infant child exist in these poems they are merely objects that initiate the persona’s internal dialogues. Both poems feature an evocation of the object that quickly gives way to personal ruminations: “ Dear native brook! wild streamlet of the West!” (Coleridge, “ Sonnet to the River Otter,” 1), and “ My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart / With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,” (“ Frost at Midnight,” 48-49). The lines following these mark a turn inside the persona to his own thoughts that have nothing to do with the subject he called upon. In “ Frost at Midnight,” the persona considers his own cloistered childhood, and in “ River Otter,” the focus becomes the persona’s experiences at the river and his own loss of childhood innocence and its ramifications. Neither of these “ conversations” completely departs from a conversational form, nor do they maintain a conventional, back and forth, persona-to-subject quality, which leaves the reader in the position of a listener to the speaker’s thoughts. We become a part of the poem, an aspect of Coleridge’s thought process, and thereby are immersed in the worlds he laments. As the speaker uses the word “ thy” (lines 4, 8, 9, 11), four times in the short “ River Otter,” the reader becomes the second person to whom the speaker refers. Coleridge asks us to become the river and hear the persona’s thoughts as the river would, if it were able to hear at all. The river is then a substitute for a human subject, which forces us to play its part. Once the reader becomes the river, Coleridge is able to “ converse” with us as if we were the counterparts of the conversation. He is then able to have an ongoing debate with the reader that is timeless and outside of the boundaries of conventional conversation. He has broken the rules of interpersonal communication to make it something mystical. And with the freedom to speak one-on-one with all readers, he then contemplates lost childhood, aging and emotion. This contemplation appears in the following passage: What happy, and what mournful hours, since lastI skimmed the smooth thin stone along thy breast, Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprestSink the sweet scenes of childhood… (3-6). Again, the “ thy” in line four calls upon the reader to be the river, placing us in the position of direct listener to the persona’s lamentation. Once in this position, the reader receives lines five and six in which the speaker considers the loss of childhood innocence as payment for growing up. The diction connotes this payment through the word “ imprest,” which is defined as “ to advance or lend” (Oxford English Dictionary). This definition would have been current during Coleridge’s time, as references appear in the OED for the years 1780 and 1810. By considering childhood a loan, the persona raises the argument that innocence must be given back to nature in a sort of transactional way. All losses of innocence are then something contractual that we must both expect and honor as we grow older. These last two lines become advice from the speaker to the reader, warning us that we will lose our innocence, and that we must expect it as we would expect to pay off a loan. Despite this conversational warning to the reader, the speaker then laments this loss, seemingly in spite of himself: “ Visions of childhood! oft have ye beguiled / Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:” (12-13). This sad consideration of the loss asserts the conversational quality of the poem by humanizing the speaker. It makes him not only a knowledgeable advisor to the reader, but also a living, feeling human being who understands the complexity of letting go of innocence for the responsibilities of adulthood. “ Lone manhood’s cares” especially asserts his humanity by hearkening back to the use of “ imprest.” The speaker acknowledges that not only must a man pay his childhood to gain age and responsibility; he must also continue to pay life for all he gains, whether that is in labor or finance. Coleridge’s personal financial situation comes directly into play here – he wandered Europe living in hostels, earning very little through the sale of his poems and living in poverty, which made his early adulthood trying at best. He speaks to readers through the persona about a personal aspect of his life, which breaks the boundary between poet and reader that was built by previous poets. There is a one-on-one conversation occurring between Coleridge and his reader, an emotional outburst. For Coleridge, the conversation within the poem extends beyond the words on the page. Instead, it flows out to the reader even further, creating conversation with its content.” Frost at Midnight” opens with a similar conversational quality that inadvertently calls upon the reader once again to be the external listener to the speaker’s thoughts: The Frost performs its secret ministry, Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cryCame loud-and hark, again! loud as before. The inmates of my cottage, all at rest, Have left me to that solitude, which suitsAbtruser musings: (“ Frost at Midnight,” 1-6). As the speaker states in line three, “ and hark, again,” he seems to be calling for the attention of someone not present to hear the cry of the owls outside. He clearly also says that all the “ inmates of my cottage, all at rest” (3), begging the question of why he tries to illicit anyone’s attention to the call of the owls. The speaker asks the reader, instead of the denizens of the cottage, to hear the owl with him. The “ hark” is a call for the reader to join in the conversation that unfolds in the subsequent lines as “ abtruser musings” (6). Other dialectal phrases arise throughout the first two sections of the poem that indicate the speaker’s attempt to connect with the reader in conversation. On line 17, “ Methinks” calls specific attention to the persona’s thought, which would be unnecessary if he did not expect the reader to also be thinking independent of himself. “ But O!” (24, break) also calls the readers attention to the persona’s voice. It would be superfluous to call his own attention to his own thought, and with no other listener stated at this early point in “ Frost,” it must be an evocation of the reader to enter the poetic discourse. Coleridge wants again to break the rule that the reader and poet must be separate entities on two sides of the writing process, and instead intends to incorporate the audience in his theories of the magic in the fluttering piece of soot. The “ film” (15), is not the focus of the poem, but acts as a catalyst for the dreams and childhood memories of the persona. As childhood becomes prevalent, “ Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye / Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:” (37-38), and “ My playmate when we both were clothed alike!” (43), the persona turns away from the reader and his thoughts about the floating soot to his child. This shift shows the volatility of conversation, as now a baby takes precedent over the reader who was so warmly welcomed into the beginning of the poem. However, the persona comments on the beauty of the baby in line 48, stating “ My babe so beautiful!” and thereby calling on the reader to agree and observe. Again we are incorporated directly into the discourse, and Coleridge allows us access to the cottage and the people within. By invoking the baby, the speaker is easily able to advance his theory on education and the nature of schooling throughout childhood to the reader as well. The baby takes some of the reader’s attention away from the conversation by presenting a new object on which to concentrate. But considering that a baby, and a sleeping baby at that, would have no way of hearing the ideas the speaker proclaims, the content must be intended specifically for the reader. Consider this passage: And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hearThe lovely shapes and sounds intelligibleOf that eternal language, which thy GodUtters, who from eternity doth teachHimself in all, and all things in himself. (58-62). The speaker believes that God teaches us everything we need to know, the “ eternal language,” through nature (i. e. “ mountain crags). Previously he mentions, “ By lakes and sandy shores…” (55), which also exemplifies the natural greatness that is supposed to teach us all we need to know. It seems fairly obvious that the persona wants to explain the power of nature as a replacement for the “ stern preceptor” (37), declaring that nature is the “ eternal language, which thy God / Utters.” One’s attention gravitates to the language because it is too complex for a father to say to his baby, even if the child were awake. If the content of his ponderings is actually intended for the baby, they seem too formal linguistically. Instead, the persona speaks to the reader through the baby and in so doing forwards his belief that nature is the ultimate teacher to an entire audience of literate adults. Coleridge uses the conversational properties of the poem to present his readers with his theory, once again breaking down the wall between poet and audience. He opens the discourse to readers by speaking to a subject, the baby, with no voice of its own. Calling Coleridge’s “ Frost at Midnight” and “ Sonnet to the River Otter” “ conversation” poems seems at first inaccurate. There is no actual conversation taking place inside either text, and the subjects of the poems have no voices or opinions to share with the personas. They are placeholders designed to make a spot in the poetic discourse for the reader. Coleridge invites us into these poems with diction such as “ thy,” “ Methinks,” and “…hark.” Once the reader is inside the poem, and part of the conversation, Coleridge states his beliefs on the nature of childhood, nature, and dreaming through his personae. He addresses nature’s influence on man and the debts we must pay as we move from childhood into adulthood, but allows us to continue the discussion outside the textual boundaries of the poem and the page. Coleridge’s “ conversation” poems are indeed conversations, albeit in an unconventional sense. He allows us into his work and lets us consider and add to it, thereby shattering preconceptions about the separation between poet and audience. Works CitedColeridge, Samuel Taylor. “ Frost at Midnight.” 1798. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 2003. 562-563.- – – Sonnet to the River Otter. 1797. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 2003. 522.