The Silenced Voice: Curses and Law in Coleridge’s Poetry


Stephen Burley.


 (Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp54-62)



There is ‘a time to keep silence’ saith King Solomon; - but when I proceed to the first verse of the fourth Chapter of Ecclesiastes, ‘and considered all the oppressions that are done under the Sun, and behold the Tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power’ – I concluded, that this was not the ‘time to keep silence.’ – For Truth should be spoken at all times, but more especially at those times, when to speak Truth is dangerous.[1]



THUS SAID COLERIDGE in his preface to Conciones ad Populum (1795), a work with the print of radical defiance stamped firmly upon it. By October 1796, however, the young poet had declared to Charles Lloyd’s father that he had ‘snapped [his] squeaking baby trumpet of sedition, and have hung up its fragments in the chamber of Penitences.’ [2] This sentiment was repeated with perhaps slightly more conviction eighteen months later in a letter to his brother George of 10 March 1798, but in both instances the veracity of Coleridge’s declaration of changed beliefs is highly questionable. The reality was that he didn’t really have much choice about snapping his ‘trumpet of sedition’: such was the force of the government clampdown on radical activity, and so powerful was the prevalent culture of alarmist anti-Jacobinism that the voice of political dissent in Britain was silenced irrevocably. It had simply become too dangerous ‘to speak Truth’. Coleridge’s great poetry of the final years of the eighteenth century expresses his sense of impotence in the face of this government imposed silence: the curses that are a prominent feature in Christabel, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, The Three Graves, and The Wanderings of Cain all have the effect of silencing completely or utterly controlling the powers of speech and expression of the protagonists. The trope of the curse within these poems is of great personal significance to Coleridge: it illustrates his belief that he was suffering under the curse of government repression.

       Much of Coleridge’s work of 1795-6 was undertaken with the purpose of opposing vigorously the passage of the Two Bills through Parliament. Both Conciones ad Populum and The Plot Discovered were spirited denunciations of the ‘ministerial treason’ that Coleridge believed was underlying these pieces of legislation. In the latter he wrote, ‘The first of these Bills is an attempt to




assassinate the Liberty of the Press: the second, to smother the Liberty of Speech.’[3] Indeed, one of the two main aims of Coleridge’s journal The Watchman, established in February 1796, was to procure the ‘repeal of Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s bills, now passed into laws.’[4] Needless to mention that the attempt failed, the final edition of 13 May, 1796 ending with the biblical quotation, ‘O Watchman! Thou hast watched in vain![5] When passed into law the effects of the Two Bills, popularly known as the Gagging Acts, was enormous. Combined with the suspension of Habeus Corpus they enabled the government to imprison suspected radical without trial, and also made the chances of conviction for treason much greater. Any form of criticism of the government or king became a grievous offence. During the years 1798-9 many of Coleridge’s acquaintances had been imprisoned under the powers endorsed by the new legislation: Gilbert Wakefield was imprisoned; Benjamin Flower, the editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer, was imprisoned for contempt, and George Dyer imprisoned for trying to help Flower. Coleridge had also been strongly affected by the case of Joseph Gerald, who had died in Botany Bay after deportation, by the Treason Trials in London in 1794, and by the expulsion of William Frend from Cambridge University in 1793. Not only did the culture of repression affect Coleridge’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but he himself was not left unscathed in the wholesale persecution of English radicals. He was forced to retire from his life in Bristol as a public speaker and to forge a new reclusive life at Stowey. But even here he was hounded by the efficacy of government rhetoric which had created an alarmist culture throughout the land. In a letter to Thelwall of 21 August 1797 he writes of the ‘tumult, calumnies, & apparatus of threatened persecutions’ [6] that his and Wordsworth’s arrival had occasioned in the village. Coleridge was a name that was despised by many: in a letter to Josiah Wade of 8 April 1797 he tells his friend of his journey from Bristol to Stowey in which he met a woman who unwittingly ranted at him for nearly an hour about a man called Coleridge who was a ‘vile jacobin villain’; he writes how ‘she heap[ed] on me every name of abuse that the parish of Billingsgate could supply’ [7]. And again in the summer of 1797 Coleridge became aware of a Home Office inspector, Walsh, who had arrived in the area to check out rumours of ‘a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen’ [8]: the force of the government clampdown was brutally evident. When Thelwall visited Stowey in July 1797 and wanted to settle permanently in the area Coleridge quickly came to realise that this could provoke ‘dangerous riots’. He ends this poignant letter to Thelwall by writing, ‘I am unwell - this business has indeed preyed much on my spirits.’ [9] The




effects of loyalist rhetoric and government legislation had left Coleridge crushed and destitute, with no prospect of a regular income. To Joseph Cottle he writes, ‘every mode of life which has promised me bread and cheese, has been, one after another torn away from me’.[10] Coleridge’s livelihood had indeed been severely damaged, and he was under increasing pressure to demonstrate his patriotism when faced with the prospect of French invasion. On 18 April 1798 Coleridge had returned to Ottery where his brother, James, had been appointed Major-Commandant of the Exmouth and Sidmouth Volunteers. As E.P.Thompson writes, ‘March and April, 1798, saw the greatest levée of the Volunteers in the whole decade…a new volunteer corps was founded “for the Defence of the Coast, and adjacent country, from West Point to Porlock Bay.’’ ’[11] It was under the incredible force of this social and cultural pressure of loyalist rhetoric and demonstration that Coleridge was impelled to snap his ‘squeaking baby trumpet of sedition’. In April 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth decided to flee from this scourge of political repression, this culture of loyalist alarmism, and to escape to Germany for two years, well outside of the war zone. It was within this social, cultural and political climate of government repression and loyalist agitation that Coleridge feared that his own voice had become impotent, that it had been silenced by the efficacy of the Gagging Acts.

       Although fearful of the power of his own voice Coleridge’s notebooks do demonstrate his awareness of the ancient traditions of the words of the poet being all-powerful. He refers to ‘The Iambics of Hipponax & Archilochus’[12] which were believed to have a magic potency that was able to kill an enemy. Within this cultural climate of repression, however, it was a sense of impotence in the wake of the highly potent rhetoric emanating from the government that was dominating Coleridge’s mind. Although he aspired to the magic potency of the ancient bards, Hipponax and Archilochus, he feared that his own efforts of expression would fall short of this ideal. It is in his poem Kubla Khan that he explores this discrepancy between the real and ideal most fully. In the preface Coleridge writes of his ‘profound sleep’ in which he had ‘the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than two or three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things’.[13] This is the ideal to which Coleridge aspired, an ideal in which there is no linguistic medium between expression and cognition as a result of the sovereignty of the imagination, in which an expression is perfectly performative. Similarly, in a letter to Godwin of 22 September 1800 he writes, ‘I would destroy the old antithesis between Words & Things, elevating, as it were, words into things, and living things too.’ [14] And this is precisely what



happens in the preface. When Coleridge begins finally to write his dream down, the poem begins with the lines,


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree…[15]


Here again Coleridge’s ideal of words becoming things is realised. The Khan’s words are wonderfully performative; no sooner does he decree the pleasure-dome than it is brought into existence. The Khan, however, is a profoundly ambiguous figure: he could be a prophet-figure whose performative language Coleridge aspires to emulate; but he could also represent a political tyrant whose decrees, much like those of Pitt’s government, are immediately efficacious. There is certainly a suggestively tyrannical and political aspect to the Khan’s character. Either way, whether a prophet-figure to which Coleridge aspires to emulate or a despot in the mould of Pitt whose power Coleridge fears, there is little doubt that it is the essentially performative nature of the Khan’s language that the poet desires to imitate. In the final verse paragraph, however, Coleridge’s voice appears to enter the poem.


I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! [16]


Here, however, Coleridge’s plea is in the conditional (‘would’). He wants his words and his utterances to be performative, but they are not. The performative utterance with which the poem begins is distanced from the poet. The powerful culture of anti-Jacobin alarmism that dominated Britain in the late 1790s had prevented Coleridge from occupying the traditional position of the bard within society whose words, like those of Archilochus, have power to affect change in the world. Instead Coleridge’s powers of speech and expression had been severely curtailed by the Gagging Acts, as he was forced into a position of conformity with the loyalist culture of the day, or alternatively into a state of complete silence, unable to voice his true feelings at all.

       This pervasive sense of impotence, this sense that his expression was under the scrutiny of and controlled by external cultural and political forces manifests itself within many of Coleridge’s poems which centre on curses; poems in which the image of verbal paralysis recurs frequently. In the prose fragment The Wanderings of Cain the eponymous character declares,


… the Mighty One who is against me speaketh in the wind of the cedar grove; and in silence I am utterly dried up…the curse of the Lord is on me.[17]




Here it is ‘the Mighty One’ (perhaps an anticipation of the omnipotence of the Khan) who is endowed with the powerful attribute of speech: Cain must exist in silence. Indeed, the Lord’s curse silences Cain, just as in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner the mariner’s ‘tongue [is] withered at the root’ and he ‘could not speak’ [18] as a result of the curse cast upon him by the other mariners, and just as Christabel is silenced by Geraldine’s curse. Geraldine chants,


In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,

Which is the lord of thy utterance, Christabel.[19]


In Coleridge’s mind there is clearly a very close relationship between curse and silence. At a time at which Coleridge’s career had been blighted by repressive government legislation, when his own political voice had been effectively silenced by the implications of the Treasonable Practises Bill, his poetry is suffused with these images of verbal paralysis. The findings of anthropological studies on the origin of law in primitive society may throw some light on Coleridge’s treatment of the subject in his poetry. In ancient times all laws and all forms of legislation were, literally, curses. In The Power of Satire Robert C. Elliot writes, ‘The curse is of the essence of law, as we find by examining ancient legal formulas which are built around its sanction. Instead of injunctions saying “do this” or “do that”, we find “cursed be he who does this”, or “cursed be he who does not do that”.’[20] Indeed Sigmund Freud analyses this development from curse to law in his essays of 1913 which constituted Totem and Taboo. He writes, ‘the taboos of the savage Polynesians are after all not so remote from us as we were inclined to think at first, that the moral and conventional prohibitions by which we are ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos.’[21] Freud then goes on to discuss the work of Wilhelm Wundt on the subject; ‘little by little, we are told, taboo then grows into a force with a basis of its own, independent of the belief in demons. It develops into the rule of custom and finally law… thereafter it itself became the root of our moral precepts and of our laws.’[22]  Freud’s study owes much to the work of famous anthropologists of the early twentieth century, Sir James Frazer and Wilhelm Wundt in particular, and although Coleridge would not have had the benefit of such detailed analysis on the subject of curse and law, he would certainly have been aware of the links between the two as a result of his knowledge of The Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. This ‘essential relationship’ between curse and law is also at the foundations of the Christian religion. The book of Genesis contains a particularly famous example; ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and




evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis, 2.17). God’s law prohibiting Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge is followed by the threat of the curse of death. Indeed, following their transgression God curses the serpent (‘thou art cursed above all cattle’), then Eve (‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’), and finally Adam (‘cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life’)[23]. Indeed, in the book of Leviticus the Lord’s commandments to the people of Israel are closely connected with the ideas of curse and taboo. Coleridge felt himself to be cursed by the efficacy of government legislation and rhetoric, and this manifests itself in the close connection between images of curses and verbal paralysis in many of his poems - he was deeply anxious that his own poetic and political voice had been silenced by the immediate power of government speech-acts.

       The concept of the power of speech and expression being controlled by an external force is evident in another of Coleridge’s poems which centres on the curse motif. Coleridge’s preface to The Three Graves confirms his strong interest in the effects of the rituals and superstitions of primitive societies on the imagination.  He writes, ‘I had been reading Bryan Edwards’s account of the effects of the Oby witchcraft on the negroes in the West Indies, and Hearne’s deeply interesting anecdotes of similar workings on the imagination of the Copper Indians.’ [24] It is this interest in the superstitious beliefs of these two tribes of people that seems to have sparked Coleridge’s interest in the effects of curses. It is the centrality of the imagination within the system of performative language that was of most interest to him; of the ability and power of the human imagination to transform utterance into action. In part four of the poem Ellen’s powers of expression are clearly under the control of some omnipotent external force.


And once her both arms suddenly

Round Mary’s neck she flung,

And her heart panted, and she felt

The words upon her tongue.


She felt them coming, but no power

Had she the words to smother;

And with a kind of shriek she cried,

‘Oh Christ! you’re like your mother!’ [25]


From being ‘silent all the time’ [26] Ellen is now compelled to speak by some strange external force that is controlling her powers of expression: she has ‘no




power’ over her utterances, or indeed her behaviour. Her imagination has transformed the curse uttered against her into a physical power that blights her abilities of speech and expression. This is almost identical to the effects of Geraldine’s curse on Christabel;


‘By my mother’s soul do I entreat

That thou this woman send away!’

She said: and more she could not say:

For what she knew she could not tell,

O’er-mastered by the mighty spell.[27]


Invariably throughout Coleridge’s poetry the curse has the effect of silencing completely or utterly controlling the speech and expression of its victim. The fervent imagination of his characters has metamorphosed the spoken word into active force that can harm. Coleridge’s own political voice, and indeed the general voice of radical dissent, had been silenced by the controlling powers of Pitt’s Gagging Acts of December 1795, and it was the collective imagination of the nation that had transformed these government utterances into physical realities that were silencing the voice of political dissent.

       Indeed, the idea of the curse must have been a topic of much discussion and debate between Wordsworth and Coleridge during their time in Somerset. The interconnected notions of curse and silence occur in Wordsworth’s poem Goody Blake and Harry Gill. The curse that Goody Blake casts upon her aristocratic neighbour silences him immediately.


No word to any man he utters,

A-bed or up, to young or old;

But ever to himself he mutters,

‘Poor Harry Gill is very cold’.[28]


There is, however, a significant difference between the trope of curse as employed by Wordsworth and that employed by Coleridge. Here Goody Blake’s curse is a powerful tool for social justice, working vengefully to rebuke Harry Gill’s miserly behaviour. In his book Oath, Curse and Blessing Ernest Crawley writes, ‘The curse is particularly the weapon of the wronged and oppressed against their more powerful enemies.’ [29] This is precisely the sense in which Wordsworth employs the trope. Wordsworth confidently uses the curse as an example of a powerful speech-act that somehow restores a sense of justice and fairness to an otherwise unjust and corrupt society: he believes that the curse can be used by the lower classes in a concerted attack against the privileged aristocracy. Wordsworth’s confidence is in complete antithesis to Coleridge’s pervasive anxiety. Whereas Wordsworth strongly believed that the curse could be used performatively, as a weapon to fight oppression, Coleridge believed that the




curse could only be used performatively by those in power to maintain an oppressive grip over the nation.

       The notion of curse dominated Coleridge’s mind, and this becomes most evident in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Like The Wanderings of Cain, this poem also began as a joint effort by both Wordsworth and Coleridge, but it is hardly surprising that it was Coleridge who found the subject matter of both pieces to be more fruitful than his friend - he would have deeply sympathised with the curse element that is central to both. Ernest Crawley’s book discusses the long tradition that exists of blessings nullifying curses and cites the example in the book of Judges (17.2) where ‘Micah’s mother cursed her son for his theft; [and] when he confessed she rendered his curse ineffective by a blessing.’[30] This also occurs in Southey’s poem of 1810 The Curse of Kehama, but it is not the case in The Ancient Mariner. Here the curse is followed by a blessing, but the latter fails to nullify the power of the former, and it has little or no lasting effect.


O happy living things! No tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.


The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea. [31]


This act of love on the part of the mariner seems to have an identical effect to the other examples of blessing in Coleridge’s poetry. It enables the mariner to pray and therefore to form a spiritual connection with God, just as the blessing in This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison enables the poet to form a bond with his friend Charles Lamb. But throughout The Ancient Mariner the power of the curse is much stronger than that of the blessing, and it powerfully controls the mariner’s utterances. By the end of part six of the poem he is still not absolved of his sin, as he hopes that the hermit will be able to help him.


He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away

The Albatross’s blood. [32]


But to the very end the mariner remains a cursed man, ostracised and separated




from the human society symbolised by the marriage ceremony, his heart burning within him he is forced to retell his ‘ghastly tale’, as the ‘agony’ keeps returning. During his experience aboard the ship the mariner’s tongue is ‘withered at the root’, the curse silences him and he is rendered ‘unable to speak’. The old man, however, who tells his story to the wedding guest is not silenced, like Cain or the young mariner, but is compelled to repeat his story frequently as a result of the controlling power of the curse. The two stages of the mariner’s life have been controlled by the curse: as a young man he is subjected to a state of enforced silence; as an old man the restraints of controlled speech are enforced upon him. Just as Coleridge felt anxious that his freedom of speech was being constrained by Pitt’s repressive legislation, so too the mariner’s ability to express himself freely is undermined by the curse. The blessing in the poem temporarily enables the mariner to form a bond with his creator, but it is the power of the curse which dominates the poem and controls the mariner’s life. Just as Coleridge’s life had been controlled and harmed by the power of government repression, and by an overwhelming sense of sin and guilt, so too the mariner must exist as a cursed man.

       In The Wanderings of Cain Coleridge describes Cain’s ‘countenance [which] told in a strange and terrible language of agonies that had been, and were, and were to continue to be.’ [33] This is a deeply autobiographical and prophetic moment in Coleridge’s writing, and there are many such moments in his work of this period. The agony experienced by Cain, the Ancient Mariner, and Christabel is much like that which Coleridge himself was experiencing. They are all cursed figures that have been silenced and marginalised irrevocably, just as Coleridge had been silenced and marginalised by repressive government legislation, been forced into silence and then to escape to Germany. The editions of Ode to the Departing Year in Poems 1797 and Sibylline Leaves (1817) are both prefaced with a highly pertinent section from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. Cassandra bewails, ‘Ha, ha! Oh, oh, the agony! Once more the dreadful throes of true prophecy whirl and distract me with their ill-boding onset…What is to come, will come. Soon thou, present here thyself, shalt of thy pity pronounce me all too true a prophetess.’[34]  Cassandra is cursed with the gift of prophecy, and Coleridge clearly felt this to have great relevance to his own life. Cursed by his own genius, by his religious beliefs which attested to the fallen state of man, by powerfully repressive government legislation, and finally by a devastating addiction to opium, the motif of the curse dominated Coleridge’s life, and his greatest poetry is saturated with its resonance.

[1]        Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, eds., Coleridge Collected Works 1, (Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 27.

[2]        Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., Earl Leslie Griggs, (Oxford, OUP, 1956), vol. 1, pp. 240.

[3]        Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, eds., Coleridge Collected Works 1, (Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 286.

[4]        Lewis Patton, ed., Coleridge Collected Works 2, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 5.

[5]        Ibid., pp. 375.

[6]        Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., Earl Leslie Griggs, (Oxford, OUP, 1956), vol. 1, pp. 343.

[7]        Ibid., vol, 1, pp. 321.

[8]        See Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, (London, Flamingo, 1999), pp. 159.

[9]        Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., Earl Leslie Griggs, (Oxford, OUP, 1956), vol. 1, pp. 343.

[10]      Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 319.

[11]      E.P.Thopmson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age, (New York, The Free Press, 1997), pp. 56-7.

[12]      Kathleen Coburn, ed., Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Notebooks, 1794-1804, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), entry 373.

[13]      Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Major Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., H.J.Jackson, (Oxford, OUP, 1985), pp. 102.

[14]      Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., Earl Leslie Griggs, (Oxford, OUP, 1956), vol. 1, pp. 625-6.

[15]      The Major Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., H.J.Jackson, (Oxford, OUP, 1985), pp. 103.

[16]      Ibid., pp. 103.

[17]      Ibid., pp. 43 and 45.

[18]      Ibid., pp. 53.

[19]      Ibid., pp. 76.

[20]      Robert C. Elliot, The Power of Satire, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960), pp. 285.

[21]      Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Religion, (London, Penguin, 1990), pp. 75-6.

[22]      Ibid., pp. 77.

[23]      Carrol and Pricket, eds., The King James Bible, (Oxford, OUP, 1998), pp. 3-4.

[24]      Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (Hertfordshire, Norhaven, 1994), pp. 269.

[25]      Ibid., pp. 282.

[26]      Ibid., pp. 281.

[27]      Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Major Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., H.J.Jackson, (Oxford, OUP, 1985), pp. 85.

[28]      William Wordsworth, William Wordsworth: The Major Works, Stephen Gill, ed., (Oxford, OUP, 1984), pp. 59.

[29]      Ernest Crawley, Oath, Curse, and Blessing, (London, Watt & Co., 1934), pp. 23.

[30]      Ibid., pp. 11.

[31]      The Major Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed., H.J.Jackson, (Oxford, OUP, 1985), pp. 57-8.

[32]      Ibid., pp. 64.

[33]      Ibid., pp. 43.

[34]      Ibid., pp. 31.