Young Coleridge and the Idea of Lyric

Paul D. Sheats

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp14-31)



IN 1982 the classicist W. R. Johnson observed that the romantic ‘idea of lyric’ was essentially introverted and solitary, and that it betrayed a robustly social lyric tradition that extended from ancient Greece to the Renaissance.  The romantic poet, he wrote, ‘has removed himself… from the world into a private vision of nature in which he sees himself reflected. At best, the audience is extraneous to his poetry; at worst, all sense of an audience has vanished.’[1]

       Johnson’s classical perspective is unusual, but his perception of romantic lyric is at least as old as Shelley’s famous comparison of the poet to a nightingale who ‘sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude.’[2]  The introversion of romantic lyric was assumed by Victorians like J.S. Mill, who on the model of Wordsworth’s 1815 Preface argued that poetry was ‘feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.’[3] The same assumption appears in the critical debates of the twentieth century, from modernists like T.S. Eliot to M.H. Abrams, who in 1965 influentially defined the ‘greater romantic lyric’ as essentially a subjective meditation in a landscape.[4] A generation later, like Johnson, Jerome McGann assumed the introversion of romantic lyric, but dismissed it on materialist grounds as socially and morally irresponsible.  A chief example was Coleridge’s poetic ‘reverie,’ Kubla Khan.[5]

       As several critics have recently suggested, this model of romantic lyric has its drawbacks.[6]  In essence a Victorian construction of later romantic practice, it obscures historical developments of considerable interest, particularly in the decade of the 1790s, when the forms and strategies of high romanticism were emerging.  This is especially true of the early lyric poetry of Coleridge, where the power of the social impulse is unmistakeable, along with its practical correlative, the importance of the poet’s relation to an audience—whether by ‘audience’ we mean the virtual audience represented within the poem, as do the critics above, or the flesh-and-blood audience, the person who buys the book and reads the poem.

       Even a quick look at Poems on Various Subjects, published in April, 1796, complicates Johnson’s account, because in it Coleridge effectively rejects the




lyric of meditative solitude, in which the melancholy poet muses alone in a landscape.  Virtual loneliness was highly marketable in the age of sensibility, and the sonnets of Charlotte Smith and William Bowles had won an extensive audience, including, of course, Coleridge. It isn’t surprising, then, that he positioned the volume of 1796 to support Bowles.  In a polemical Preface he defends the ‘querulous egotism’ of poets like Bowles and Smith, and he gives two-thirds of his own poems the title of ‘Effusion,’ a controversial term with liberal, enthusiastic overtones, which implies the irrelevance of audience to the creation of poetry.[7]  His motto for these Effusions, taken from Bowles’s Monody Written at Matlock, commends the ‘desultory’ verse of a solitary poet’s ‘lonely lyre.’[8]

       We are mistaken, however, if we expect such gestures of solidarity with Bowles to describe Coleridge’s own poetic practice, which was in fact highly selective.  He imitated the elder poet’s ‘manly Pathos’ and natural language of feeling, but he strongly resisted the Bowlesian model of lyric solitude.[9]  When we peel the ‘Effusion’ labels off these poems, most composed over the preceding three years, what we find is more like Langland’s ‘fair field of folk’ than Bowles’s ‘lonely lyre.’  Unlike the fourteen sonnets in Bowles’s first volume, none of which addresses a human being, fully two-thirds of Coleridge’s poems address other people, whether named individuals, from his wife, Sara, to Edmund Burke, or generic types, like an ‘Old Man’ or the ‘Ladies’ of the Song of the Pixies.  More telling, perhaps, is the virtual absence of poems in which the speaker muses to himself in a landscape.[10] These early poems reflect developing tastes and purposes; Coleridge dismissed one on the spot as ‘namby-pamby,’ and another in later years as ‘Della Cruscan.’ [11] He would drop nearly half from the second edition a year later.[12]  But taken together the 1796 poems forcefully portray him as a young man who not only conceives of poetry as an act of human relationship, but prefers to represent it as such.  Here, for example, is his vision of the poet Chatterton, reciting the Rowley poems to a circle of Pantisocrats in the New World:


And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,

Hanging, enraptur’d, on thy stately song!

And greet with smiles the young-eyed POESY

All deftly mask’d, as hoar ANTIQUITY.[13]


The listeners smile indulgently at the marvellous boy’s pretense that he is a




medieval poet.  Unlike the English literary marketplace, this utopian audience is intimate and affectionate, an early version of the community of friends that would gather at Nether Stowey.

       Athough Johnson laments its absence from romantic lyric, the ‘sense of an audience’ in fact pervades these early poems.  Coleridge’s serious interest in the reception of his poetry appeared early, and, I suggest, underwent a crucial transformation in the autumn of 1794, during the first heady months of the Pantisocracy scheme. As an eager proselytizer for Pantisocracy, bent on political action, the twenty-two-year-old encountered the ideological divisions of the time from a newly pragmatic angle, which focussed attention on the rhetoric of persuasion and the psychology of reception. His first play, The Fall of Robespierre, finished in late August, sought to dramatize a demonstrably effective political language, the highly figured oratory of the French revolutionaries.  Beginning in 1794 he had at his disposal poetical and political feedback from readers like Southey and his brother George, a circle that would grow more varied and articulate in coming years.[14]

       The practical problems of building a new society made clear just how difficult it was to change human behavior, and afforded insights that applied as well to poetry.  Southey, for example, enthusiastically espoused the principle of justice, but was unable to accept its practical corollary—that Pantisocracy required him to give up his aunt’s manservant.  In reply on October 24, Coleridge illustrated a common argument of the time, the impotence of abstract speculation, with a remarkable simile.  Nothing is easier, he pointed out, than the complacent endorsement of a virtuous principle.  But to transform abstract principle into practice—to live as well as think it—requires a profound and continued effort of mind, ‘the most wakeful attentions of the most reflective minds in all moments… The Heart should have fed upon the truth, as Insects on a leaf—-till it be tinged with the colour, and shew it’s food in every the minutest fibre.’ [15]

       One recognizes here several of the dynamic oppositions, or what Seamus Perry calls ‘muddles,’ that characterize Coleridge’s mature thinking.[16] The reception of truth is presented, by the metaphor of feeding, as both active and passive, a satisfying of appetite.  What feeds on abstract principle is not the reason, as we might expect, but the seat of desire, the heart.  What Coleridge images here, in other words, is that ‘union of deep feeling with profound thought’ he would seek in his own poetry and find in Wordsworth’s.[17]  The simile’s biological vehicle, an insect-body tinged in every part by its food, implies that this act is an incarnation, a Unitarian’s secular Eucharist, in its transubstantiation of spirit into body.  Here and at the end of his first Bristol




lecture in January, Coleridge applied it to the problem of transforming society, but it could equally well describe a poem’s effects upon its reader.[18]  An ideal poem, it suggests, will embody abstract truth, giving it a literal ‘body’ on which a reader’s senses and passions can work.  The craft of such a poem will orchestrate all its technical means, its lyric music, imagery, and structure, to engage both sense and passion, and its reception will be active as well as passive, a bestowal by the reader of profound and participatory attention.

       In the autumn of 1794, during his final term at Jesus College, Coleridge put such ideas into practice.  The traditional lyric vehicle for the impersonation of abstractions was the greater or sublime ode, a form he found both attractive and challenging.  Even as he wrote Southey, in late October, he was working on an irregular ode, the Monody on the Death of Chatterton, a version of which he would publish before the year’s end.  The first of three major odes he would compose over the next four years, the Monody held deep personal significance, apart from his feelings for Thomas Chatterton.  It reached back to pinnacles of early success in the same genre: a schoolboy ode to Chatterton, which won a place in Christ Hospital’s Liber Aureus, and the Sapphic ode on the slave trade that won the Browne Prize at Cambridge.  A friend recalled Coleridge reading the Monody from his sickbed, in tones ‘delicate but deep,’ two years before he died.[19]

       In its opening lines we see him engaging the lofty decorum of the sublime ode. After an opening allegorical landscape, in which ‘poor Misfortune’s child’ journeys over a desert of Sorrow, the speaker apostrophizes Death, asking it to end Chatterton’s suffering:


No scourge of scorpions in thy right arm dread,

No helmed terrors nodding o’er thy head,

Assume, O DEATH! the cherub wings of PEACE,

And bid the heart-sick Wanderer’s anguish cease!   

                             (ll. 5-8 [1794])


Although Coleridge would deplore the ‘swell and glitter’ of this highly figured style, it is not difficult to sense its energy and ambition.[20]  Borrowing a motif from the opening of his prize ode, he constructs an allegorical tableau in which his speaker, like the Satan of Paradise Lost, boldly addresses Death, commanding it to become a minster of Mercy, not Terror.  The passage seeks to evoke Burke’s terrible sublime, but it repudiates Burke’s emphasis on obscurity, retouching Milton’s famously obscure figure with visual details: Death’s Biblical emblems, its sting and armor, and, more grotesquely, the ‘cherub wings of Peace.’ [21]




       The theoretical underpinnings of this sublime style drew on empirical epistemology as well as ancient allegorical tradition.  Its decorum was described in the later eighteenth century by numerous poets and critics, including Coleridge, but as a useful example we might take Mrs. Barbauld’s 1797 Preface to the poems of Collins.  Most poetry, she points out, addresses objects that ‘in their own nature are affecting or interesting.’  But ‘Pure poetry, or Poetry in the abstract’—a category she equates with the ode—creates its own objects. ‘Conversant with an imaginary world, peopled with Beings of its own creation,’ it offers ‘splendid imagery, bold fiction, and allegorical personages.’  Because of its highly figured style, however, it is ‘necessarily obscure,’ accessible only to a few highly qualified readers. [22]

       In this passage from the Monody, then, Coleridge accomplishes what he recommended to Southey,  the embodiment of ‘high and abstract truths.’[23]  In the ode the lyric poet transcends the imitation of nature, since everything in the poem is bodied forth by the imagination, the allegorical personages and the impetuous transitions, in which attention darts from object to object, trespassing the epistemological and ontological boundaries of daily life with impunity.  At the end of the eighteenth century odal decorum urged the lyric poet, in fact, toward the introversion Johnson and McGann would deplore two centuries later, and to a modern eye its solipsistic implications may seem far more radical than Bowlesian solitude, like Wordsworth’s ‘abyss of idealism’ or Blake’s self-replicating Urizen.

       For Mrs. Barbauld, however, it was the very idealism of this style, its autonomy from the material world, that constituted the chief virtue of ‘pure Poetry.’   Other readers of liberal inclination seem to have agreed with her. In his review of Coleridge’s 1796 volume her brother, John Aikin, praised the Monody as a ‘wild irregular strain.’[24]  Thomasina Dennis, the governess of Josiah Wedgewood’s children, described an allegory later in the poem, where Affection and Despair struggle for Chatterton’s life, as ‘particularly beautiful.’[25]  Charles Lamb urged Coleridge to cut this passage from the second edition, but he found ‘the spirit of sublimest allegory’ in a later ode.[26]

       Sympathetic readers had no problem, it would seem, accepting these creations of the personifying imagination, authorized as they were by generic decorum.  But in 1797 Coleridge repudiated the allegorical style, and this very passage, on ontological grounds: ‘on a life & death so full of heart-giving realities as poor Chatterton’s to find such shadowy nobodies, as cherub-winged DEATH… makes one’s blood circulate like ipecacacuanha [sic].’[27]  He deplores the insubstantiality of these figures, when compared to ‘real’ suffering, and we




are surprised to find him personifying Death again a few months later, in his best-known ‘supernatural’ poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:


His bones were black with many a crack,

       All black and bare, I ween:

Jet-black and bare, save where with rust

       Of mouldy damps and charnel crust

They’re patched with purple and green.

                                                     (ll. 189.1.1-5 [1798])


Coleridge endows Death with ‘reality’ by calling on Gothic imagery, an empowered lyricism, and the realistic expectations raised by ballad-narrative.  This creature nevertheless belongs to the same order of beings as the winged figure of 1794: it impersonates an abstraction.  It is, as Coleridge would famously say, a ‘shadow of imagination,’ in a poem he would describe to a critical Mrs. Barbauld as a work of ‘pure imagination.’[28] One wonders if he meant to remind her of her own definition of ‘pure’ poetry, and of the kinship between this supernatural ballad and the sublime ode she had praised so highly.

       For the Pantisocrat of 1794, eager to reach a wider audience, the obscurity and inaccessibility of the sublime style would nevertheless present a problem.  Coleridge wavered on this question, now upholding the aristocratic decorum of the ode, now mocking its obscurity and endorsing ‘simplicity.’  When he imagined a Pantisocratic lyric, however, it was pointedly democratic: the ‘roundelay’ the ‘Passions’ dance (and presumably sing) in the sonnet on Pantisocracy.[29]  Both a round dance and a refrain song, the roundelay aptly embodies the equality of all, or ‘pantisocracy,’ and it may link the utopian settlement in Pennsylvania to two other sites where circle-dancing accompanied achieved democracy, revolutionary France and ancient Greece.[30]  Dancing his roundelay are personifications borrowed from William Collins’ The Manners, where the ‘wizard passions’ (l.11) are principles of disorder. In utopian Pennsylvania, however, they move in disciplined harmony. 

       Coleridge never composed a roundelay, but his practical solution to the obscurity of the ode moved in the same direction.  In a letter of 1796 to John Thelwall he confesses his delight in an ode by Collins, which ‘inspired & whirled me along with greater agitations of enthusiasm than any the most impassioned Scene in Schiller or Shakespeare.’  Yet he considers the ‘latter poetry’ more valuable, ‘because it gives more general pleasure—and I judge of all things by their utility.’[31]  The ‘latter poetry,’ I suggest, includes not only the drama proper but other poetic forms capable of dramatic treatment, most




obviously the lyric.  This, at least, seems to have been Coleridge’s thought late 1794, when he began to shape a lyric alternative to the highly figured ode.  

       From 1794 to 1797 his lyric composition was flanked, like Keats’s a generation later, by work in the epic or, as here, the drama.  Already the co-author of a tragedy, he was dazzled in early November by Schiller’s Robbers. In an enthusiastic sonnet to Schiller, written soon after, he dissected the mechanism of drama, imagining himself successively as the play’s audience, character, and author, and ended by paying homage to its power.  A month later he sent a new sonnet to Southey, which, its rhyme-scheme aside, could be a fragment of stage dialogue. ‘To an Old Man in the Snow’ begins by reminding us of Shakespeare’s Lear, as a colloquial exclamation, ‘Sweet Mercy!’ is wrung from the young speaker by the sight of the old man in the snow.  He impulsively offers his garment, his arm, and his home:


My Father! throw away this tatter’d vest

That mocks thy shiv’ring! take my garments—use

A young man’s arms! I’ll melt these frozen dews

That hang from thy white beard and numb thy breast.

My Laura too shall tend thee, like a Child—

And thou shalt talk, in our fire side’s recess,

Of purple Pride that scowls on Wretchedness!

He did not so, the Galilean mild,

Who met the Lazar turn’d from Dives’ doors

And call’d him Friend and wept upon his Sores!

                                                     (ll. 5-14 [MS 1])


To compare this sonnet to the ode is to see why Poole called Coleridge’s powers ‘various.’[32] When his brother assumed, not without reason, that he shared the Jacobinism of his characters in The Fall of Robespierre, Coleridge pointed out the absurdity of regarding a dramatic character as the mere ‘Automaton’ of its author—an insight that would contribute to his future criticism of Shakespeare as well as this sonnet.[33]  This speaker is not a poet-bard, bodying forth the forms of things unknown, but a character, within a familar, earth-bound landscape. The old man is rendered substantial by forceful images of the physical body—the frozen beard, the offered arm, the tactile senses of cold and warmth that paradoxically lie beyond the exalted but highly visual ken of the sublime ode.  Attention registers the speaker’s passion, as in the ode, but here his sympathy fixes steadily on another human being, and then moves in a natural sequence to the imagined domestic scene by the fireside, and finally to two antitypes, the scornful aristocracy, and the Christ who dismissed the rich man and healed the lepers.  Language respects the natural order, and remains wholly literal until ‘purple Pride,’ where personified abstraction is associated not with the outpouring of creative imagination, as in




the ode, but with the social distance between a disdainful aristocracy and the poor.  Coleridge manipulates his diction against the grain of prescribed decorum, subverting its ideological commitments. 

       A friend may have contributed to the first quatrain, and it is at the beginning of the second that we sense Coleridge's effort to concentrate and enrich lyric effects.[34]  Attention is guided and intensified not only by apostrophe—My Father!—but by deictic pointers: this tatter’d vest, these frozen dews—-a device that stations a speaker within the imaginary space of the poem, which Bowles had used to good effect in his landscape sonnets.   Three transitive verbs, throw, take, and use, anchor a forceful syntax, and the powerful enjambement of use is intensified by covert patterns of alliteration and assonance:


                             take my garment—use

A young man’s arms!


The point of such devices is not mere ‘alliterative beauty,’ as Coleridge termed it, but their contribution to the poem’s larger effect, its ‘utility.’[35]   To read aloud this enjambement on use, in a suitably Coleridgean ‘dramatic’ voice, is to sense the power with which he transforms abstraction into verbal act.[36] 

       When he edited this sonnet in 1912, E. H. Coleridge gave it the name of the abstraction it seemed to him to embody, ‘Pity.’  Another reader might see it as an embodiment of Christ’s second commandment—love thy neighbor as thyself.  What is clear is that this humble lyric resembles the ode in its ability to impersonate abstract truths, but that it rejects figuration in favor of dramatic representation.  Clearly designed to give a ‘more general pleasure’ than the ode, it is conceived pragmatically; it seeks to reach a general audience.  This particular sonnet, moreover, seems addressed specifically to readers of complacently delicate sensibility, whom Coleridge condemned in a letter of December as mere ‘Skirmishers of Sensibility,’ who lack the ‘well-disciplined Phalanx of right onward Feelings’ that result in action.[37]  These ‘right onward feelings’ march through the structure and versification of this sonnet, which seeks to take advantage of its reader’s expectations. Like many humanitarian lyrics of the time, it offers occasion for a virtuous and pleasurable pity, but as the sonnet ends pity becomes less easy.  Christ ministers to pain and disease, evils presented not as abstractions but by the ‘Sores’ of the leper.  This parting image evokes disgust, not pleasure, a response Coleridge deliberately intensified in 1796 by making the Sores ‘noisome,’ or ill-smelling.  He deliberately offends the delicate sensibilities of the reader, in a tacit imitatio Christi, a benign humiliation.  In this same dark year of 1794, William Blake




used abstract epigram to make a similar point: ‘Pity would be no more,/ If we did not make somebody poor.’[38]  The spirit of Coleridge’s sonnet is far closer to Blake’s Songs than to the tender, passive melancholy of Bowles, but its technique gives Blake’s point a dramatic form: it offers the reader the experience of transmuting a selfish pity into active and determined charity.  Writing in late November about the difficulty of amelioriating society, Coleridge observed that Christ’s success as a reformer proceeded from astute indirection; he ‘prepared the mind’ of his hearers ‘for the reception before he poured the blessing.’[39]  We might think of this sonnet as an imitatio Christi in a formal sense: seen as a whole, it reflects a new conception of lyric design, which prepares its unsuspecting reader for a premediated and ironic ‘blessing.’

       On October 24, the day of his memorable letter to Southey, Coleridge wrote out a draft of the Address to a Young Jackass, in which he descends to a subject-matter that confounds social as well as literary hierarchy.[40] In later years the radicalism of this poem would embarrass Coleridge, who called it ‘ludicro-splenetic,’ the work of the ‘affected simplicity’ of youth.[41]  As his Polonian epithet suggests, the Address is a remarkable poem, most obviously for what it attempts to do to its several audiences.  Its strategy turns on the power of its subject to attract ridicule, which threatens to transform any attempt at seriousness into burlesque. As a schoolboy Coleridge composed an ode to a tea-kettle, and he was not blind to the comic and satiric possibilities of an ode to a jackass.  And yet this legendary butt of ridicule is also a type of Christian humility, the bearer of Christ to Jerusalem and to martyrdom, and the ultimate vision of the poem, a loving democracy of all living things, rises toward the moral sublime—and would reappear as such in later, more assured poems.  Here, with obvious zest, Coleridge attempts both earnest and game, using his recalcitrant subject as a type of universal democracy and at the same time as a weapon against the ridicule of his conservative opponents.

       He found the living models for his poem grazing on the grounds of Jesus College, but a literary counterpart had appeared the year before in The Gentleman’s Magazine, in some anonymous verses ‘Written under the Picture of an Ass.’[42] by William Crowe, whose Lewesdon Hill Coleridge admired, it shows us how an established poet, the Public Orator at Oxford, might present a jackass as the object of polite verse:


Meek animal, whose simple mien

Provokes the insulting eye of spleen,

       To mock the melancholy trait




Of patience, in thy front display’d

By thy great author fitly so portray’d

       To character the sorrows of thy fate.[43]


As this first stanza suggests, Crowe writes a decorous and dignified poem, which presents the ass as a sympathetic emblem of patience under suffering.  He veils its vulgarity in an abstract, euphemistic diction, and quickly directs attention away from the animal itself to the scorn it inspires in human breasts (the ‘eye of Spleen’), and ultimately, via a complex syntax, to its first cause as a divinely-appointed moral emblem.

       Coleridge shared Crowe’s reforming politics, and he echoes this poem at several points in his own. But his strategy is quite different.  His poem's confrontational spirit may be judged from its subtitle when it appeared in The Morning Chronicle in December: ‘in familiar verse.’  Seemingly a description of style, the phrase takes on new meaning when, at the poem’s climax, the speaker passionately declares the jackass his ‘brother,’ a member of his extended ‘family’ in the sense of French fraternité—unveiling the poem as a ‘familiar verse’ not likely to please a reader dedicated to King and Country.  We see similar indirection in its opening line, where simplicity of diction dramatizes the speaker’s open and equal relationship to the animal, but at the same time provides cover for political satire:


Poor little Foal of an oppressed Race!


The meter gives oppresséd an extra syllable, dignifying the final phrase and underlining the implicit synecdoche that equates this animal with all victimized ‘races,’ including the poor of England and the slaves of Africa.  From this point on, any attempt to elevate the foal will gesture toward political and social reform, and we are not surprised when the speaker openly laments the ‘half-famish’d’ poor in England (l.22), and suggests that all Monarchs are ‘Scoundrels’ (l.36).  At first, however, he seems not only innocent of subversive intent but unaware of the ‘Spleen’ in his audience’s eye.  Another invented character, he proceeds in the presence of his enemies, as it were, declaring his feelings for the animal with disarming frankness, and expressing them in homely gestures of touch:


I love the languid Patience of thy face:

And oft with friendly hand I give thee bread,

And clap thy ragged Coat, and scratch thy head.

                                                     (ll. 2-5 [1794])


As the Address proceeds, the celebration of the ass becomes serious and outrageous by turns, as Coleridge adapts his style to gratify one audience




and skewer the pride of the other.  As he dramatizes the speaker’s growing intimacy with the animal, sympathetic imagination circulates from speaker to foal, from foal to mother.  We are invited even to share the tethered mother’s desire for the grass she cannot reach: 


While sweet around her waves the tempting green (l. 18)


where the ‘sweet… union’ between mind and nature Coleridge admired in Bowles is projected, daringly, into the mind of a beast.[44]  But at the same time Coleridge teases a conservative reader, adjusting diction and allusion to satirize the pride embodied in poetic decorum.  As if to gratify polite expectations, the level of diction rises, and by the tenth line the ‘poor little foal’ of the opening line has become a ‘meek Child of Misery.’  Coleridge calls on Shakespeare to dignify the beast, whose ‘prophetic Fears’ echo the first line of Sonnet 107, and whose trials merit a quotation from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.[45]  A couplet describing the animal’s feelings for its mother borrows the language of sentimental melodrama—


Or is thy sad heart thrill’d with filial pain

To see thy wretched Mother so complain?  (13-14)


Except, of course, that the last three words are mine, and that Coleridge actually wrote ‘thy wretched Mother’s shorten’d chain,’ reminding us, with a universal image of bondage and an abrupt change of tone, that we’re contemplating an enslaved animal.  The apostrophe that follows—‘Poor ass!’—drops all pretense of euphemism, and may seem offensive, pathetic, or even comic, depending on the reader’s ideological stance.  What it does make clear, however, is the difference between the creature itself and a diction that panders to human pride.  As in the sonnet, Coleridge has emancipated himself from the authority of established decorum; he manipulates it freely and often ironically, turning it into a weapon against its ideological sponsors.

       The poem’s supreme example of this strategy is the speaker’s declaration of brotherhood, which is calculated to polarize the ideological prejudices of both parties.


Innocent Foal! thou poor despis’d Forlorn!

I hail thee BROTHER—spite of the fool’s scorn!



Readers of warm sensibility and radical politics will join in affirming this ‘fraternity of universal Nature,’ as Coleridge described it on October 24.[46] 




Christian readers may sense a further comparison of the beast to the ‘despised and rejected’ Christ and a further humiliation of human pride.[47] To a literary and political conservative, however, the line will provoke scorn, as the work of a leveller who debases both poetry and humanity.  As several readers have noted, the openness of this provocation is remarkable[48]; the speaker seems to offer himself, in another imitatio Christi, as a tacit surrogate for the ass, a target for the public satire Coleridge would in fact receive from Gillray and Byron.[49]  But then, in the line’s final phrase—‘spite of the fool’s scorn’—humility vanishes, the splenetic spirit returns, and scorn is met with scorn 

       The ludicrous potential of the poem comes to the fore as it ends.  Imagined frisking among the Pantisocrats, the foal is joined, improbably, by a train of allegorical personifications:


And fain I’d take thee with me in the Dell

Of Peace and mild Equality to dwell!

Where Toil shall call the charmer, HEALTH his Bride,

And LAUGHTER tickle Plenty’s ribless side!

                                                     (ll.27-30 [1794])


At this point, judging from the earliest manuscript, ‘Laughter’ seems to have tickled the author.  In the next lines, omitted from the published poem, he rings merry changes on the idea of a Pantisocratic peaceable kingdom, where liberated animals will repay oppression with caritas:


Where Rats shall mess with Terriers, hand in glove—

And Mice with Pussy’s whiskers sport in love!

                                                     (ll.30.1.2-3 [MS 1])


The poem ends awkwardly but defiantly, elevating the ass’s ‘harsh Bray’ over the ‘warbled Melodies’ sung to a ‘scoundrel Monarch.’[50]

       In this poem and the sonnet, I suggest, we see an important and prophetic change in the way a lyric poem is conceived in relation to its audience. In both poems style and structure are arranged so as to take advantage, covertly and at times ironically, of the expectations and prejudices of particular audiences, to the end of reforming them.  In their reliance on indirection both poems suggest the profound effect on lyric form of political repression and ideological conflict.  In ‘To a Young Ass,’ in particular, we find strategies that would reappear in 1798 in a series of brilliant adaptations by Wordsworth.  Like The




Idiot Boy, it seeks the sublime in the humble, advancing a grand theme and at the same time manipulating a predictably offensive subject to arouse and correct prejudice and pride.  Well before the two poets met, in other words, Coleridge was developing techniques that would signal the advent of high romanticism four years later, when they would appear, ironically, not under Wordsworth’s name, not his.  The resemblance to Lyrical Ballads grows when we consider that in late 1794 Coleridge was exploring both ends of the stylistic spectrum simultaneously, in ways that foreshadow the division of labor he recalled in Lyrical Ballads: the ‘shadows of imagination’ common to the ode and the supernatural ballad on the one hand, and the humble realism of the dramatic lyrics on the other.  Coleridge would assign similar roles to himself and Wordsworth, respectively, but in fact he had pioneered both himself.  Perhaps the keenest irony, however, was reserved for Coleridge's sharp critique, in the Biographia, of The Idiot Boy's disgusting subject and frank diction.[51]  No wonder that this poem of 1794, in which Coleridge commits the very same offenses, would come to embarrass him.

       The profile of his stylistic development during the next three years is often seen as he represented it in the Biographia: a gradual simplification of the turgid and swelling style of the Monody, in response to the urging of Lamb and the example of Wordsworth.  But this is a simplification.  He was already working at both ends of the lyric scale in 1794, as we’ve seen, and he continued to do so for four years.  As his lasting enthusiasm for Collins suggests, his personal commitment to the sublime ode remained firm.  It was Lamb who urged him in early 1797 to stick to the ‘higher species of the ode,’ because he was ‘born for atchievments of loftier enterprise than to linger in the lowly train of songsters and sonneteers.’[52]  Lamb had just read his second major ode, To the Departing Year, which a provincial critic would soon rank among the great sublime odes of English literature.[53]  A third ode, To France, received the central place of honor in the Quarto of 1798.

       But Coleridge’s more influential work was at the lower end of the lyric scale, where he transformed the dramatic mode of 1794 into the form we know as the conversation poem.  Although it has been linked to Cowper, Bowles, and others, Coleridge claimed ‘this species of short blank verse poems’ as his own, and there is a natural line of descent from the dramatic lyrics of 1794 to Effusion XXXV, or The Eolian Harp, in 1795, and on to the great blank verse poems of the next three years.[54]  These poems display new interests and new settings, as well as a conversational blank verse that was virtually new to Coleridge's poetry, but they adopt the dramatic mode of the Pantisocratic lyrics and brilliantly extend it into new territory.

       In Effusion XXXV, for example, Coleridge meets the challenge posed by




conversational blank verse—to avoid appearing ‘flat & prosish’ in the absence of rhyme, stanza, and elevated diction—by concentrating devices he had used in 1794.[55]  Deictic ‘pointers’ guide and intensify attention in time as well as space: ‘thy soft cheek reclin’d/Thus on my arm  (ll. 1-2); ‘that simplest lute’ (l.12);’And now its strings’ (l.17).[56]  In contrast to the edifying disagreeables of 1794 (the leper’s sores, the harsh bray), imagery now seems to revel in the sensuous pleasures offered by natural landscape and sexual intimacy. The ideological edge of the Pantisocratic lyrics is softened by Coleridge’s withdrawal from ‘local and temporary Politics,’ and we sense a new freedom and amplitude in his dramatization of consciousness.[57]  Yet, as in 1794, aesthetic ‘beauty’ is put to work on behalf of dramatic action, as images trace significant movements of attention and orchestrate later, premeditated effects.  Our attention is motivated and gratified, for example, as it moves from the ‘stilly murmur’ (l.11) of the hushed opening landscape to the sound of the wind-harp, embodied in clustered effects of sound and rhythm that explain why Wordsworth called Coleridge an ‘epicure of sound’:[58]


                             and now its strings

Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes

Over delicious surges sink and rise . . . .

                                                     (ll. 17-19)


Like the melodies of Keats’s urn, this sensuous music paradoxically dramatizes the gradual disengagement of the senses from the material world, preparing for the imaginative flight, in the next lines, to ‘Faery Land’ (l.22).  

       Other patterns dramatize the more lofty aspirations Coleridge associated with the sublime ode.  Twice in the first verse-paragraph the mind’s abstracting power intrudes on a literal landscape, as the speaker sees the cottage-flowers as ‘emblems of Innocence and Love’ (l.6) and the evening star as a type of Wisdom (l.8).  Contained by parenthesis and neutralized by nature’s abundant gratification of the senses—


                             how exquisite the scents

Snatch’d from yon bean-field! (l.9)—


these impulses toward a world of idea are temporarily disciplined, only to reemerge at the poem’s climax as a grand surmise that seems, for a moment, to unveil a new universe:


But what if all of animated nature




Be but organic Harps diversly fram’d . . .

                                                     (ll. 44-45)


Such ‘metaphysical’ ideas, imported from work on Southey’s epic, have great intrinsic interest.[59]  Within the precincts of the poem, however, philosophical speculation, like aesthetic beauty, obeys a decorum that is dramatic. In Effusion XXXV ‘vain Philosophy’ (l.57) becomes the object of an unexpected humiliation of intellectual pride, administered gently but firmly by the speaker’s Christian auditor.  This first conversation poem thus re-enacts, in a new domestic key, the moral and religious discipline of the two dramatic lyrics of the previous year.

       Considered as a lyric form, the conversation poem thus contrives a marriage between the two extremes of 1794, rising from a humble, realistic setting toward states of mind proper to the sublime ode.  Instead of writing an ode, as it were, Coleridge dramatizes the mental powers that produce it, tracing their emergence, aspiration, and subsidence, making them an object of attention in their own right, and grounding the radical subjectivity of the ode in the familarity of the sensible world.[60]  The conversation poems thus continue to exploit the ‘utility’ of dramatic impersonation, but on a far broader and more various scale than the lyrics of 1794.  They open up the higher reaches of lyric poetry to a general audience, preparing the mind of the reader to receive their 'blessings.'  Coleridge described their pragmatic aims variously, as an attempt to ‘elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune,’ or a demonstration, in ‘tumultuous times,’ of how to ‘cope with the tempest’s swell!’[61]  But like the Pantisocrat of 1794 the cottager of Clevedon and Nether Stowey designed his poems to reach and change his audience: ‘I am not fit for public life,’ he told Thelwall, ‘yet the light shall stream to a far distance from the taper in my cottage window.’[62] 

       In several conversation poems it is possible to see this concern for utility come into conflict with the formalist aesthetics of Coleridge’s later thinking.  Toward the end of Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement, for example, the speaker’s attention circles back to his cottage, where the poem began:


My Spirit shall revisit thee, dear cot!

Thy jasmin and thy window-peeping rose… (ll.65-66 [1796])


In later years Coleridge would praise this ‘rondo, or return upon itself of the poem’ on aesthetic and theological grounds, ultimately portraying it as a way of




transcending the linearity of history.[63]  But in this poem of 1796 a closed, circular form would contradict the poem’s dramatic action, which relinquishes the cottage and domestic happiness on behalf of a militant activism: the fight ‘Of Science, Freedom, and the Truth in Christ’ (l.62).  However aesthetically satisfying the rondo might be, Coleridge rejects it:


And I shall sigh fond wishes—sweet abode!

Ah! had none greater! And that all had such! 

                             (ll.68-69 [1796]; Coleridge’s emphasis.)


The cottage briefly serves as a goal of nostalgic return, but then becomes an exemplum of the Pantisocratic agenda, the redistribution of property.  The poem ends with a prayer that passionately endorses the flow of time:


It might be so—but the time is not yet;

Speed it, O Father! Let thy kingdom come! 

                                                     (ll.70-71 [1796])


Speaker and reader are left looking into a possibly millenial future, where hope will find its objects, if at all. 

       The same formal problem was raised in 1798 by Frost at Midnight, which also circles back toward its own beginning. As printed in Sibylline Leaves in 1817, the poem quotes its own opening words exactly, and ends with a famous image of cosmic reciprocation:


Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.  (ll.72-4)


It was this poem that M.H. Abrams chose to represent the ‘greater romantic lyric,’ and these final lines that he praised as a ‘deliberate endeavor’ to achieve ‘a sufficient aesthetic whole’[64]   As we know, that endeavor actually dates from around 1807, when Coleridge rearranged the poem’s last lines to secure the ‘rondo.’   In 1798, however, he just as deliberately rejected it:


Or whether the secret ministry of cold

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet moon,

Like those, my Babe! . . .  (ll.72-74.1.1)


As in Reflections, he pointedly avoids closure, writing ‘cold’ instead of ‘frost’ to prevent the perfect echo of the poem’s first line.  Instead of a full stop after ‘quiet moon,’ we find an energetic transition, as deixis (those) and apostrophe




(my babe!) wrest attention away from the quiet nocturnal scene and transfer it to a busy morning scene, where we see the effect of these icicles, now sunlit, on the baby’s mind and heart:


Like those, my babe! which, ere to-morrow’s warmth

Have capp’d their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,

Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty

Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,

And stretch and flutter from thy mother’s arms

As thou woulds’t fly for very eagerness. (l.74.1.1-6)


This scene brings closure that is not primarily aesthetic but dramatic: it quite literally fulfils the speaker’s prophecy to baby Hartley earlier in the poem, that God ‘shall mould/Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask’ (ll.63-4).  It embodies the reciprocal relation between nature and the human soul, the same truth Wordsworth would make the subject of his meditation in the early Prelude, on the ‘infant babe’ as ‘inmate of this active universe.’[65]

       The two endings point toward the two ideas of lyric I have traced: one solitary and idealistic, the other social and pragmatic.  In the 1817 ending we share a rapt solitude that bespeaks transcendental destinies.  As a form the later poem is closed, complete, and autonomous.  In 1798 the speaker turns back to his audience, the baby he addressed earlier in the poem, and beholds the immanent powers of mind and nature that will confer his earlier blessing.  Poetic form is open, and as it ends the poem seems confident of its power to reach and edify its reader.

       The earlier passage marks a triple ending: of a great poem, of the Quarto of 1798, and of the first chapter of Coleridge’s poetic career.  After 1798, with a few notable exceptions, he no longer writes a poetry that grants priority to pragmatic effect.  One can sense this sea-change in the decision, two years later, to call the Ancient Mariner 'a Poet's Reverie.'  As Lamb realized, this subtitle signalled a retreat; it either concedes the irrelevance of an audience, or it badly misjudges its audience, more like Shakespeare’s Bottom than Coleridge.[66]  The change may reflect Coleridge's loss of confidence in his poetic vocation, a deepening sense of Wordsworth’s power and destiny, or a rapidly evolving political and cultural milieu, the shifting balance of the French war and the cooling of millenial enthusiasm.   Certainly there were places Coleridge would not willingly follow Wordsworth, one being ‘the dread Watch-tower of man’s absolute Self,’ as he envisioned, a few years later, what Keats




would call the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.[67]  To Coleridge such radical subjectivity seems dreadful, like the ‘dread’ personification of death that began the Chatterton ode twelve years before, and he might have said of his friend, the great spectator ab extra, what Keats came to say of Milton, that ‘life to him would be death to me.’[68]

       As we’ve seen, Coleridge’s resistance to a poetry of radical solitude can be traced back to 1794, when the young Pantisocrat’s spirited determination to engage a public audience began to shape the traditional lyric in new and influential ways.  Although critics looking back through two hundred years would describe the romantic lyric as lacking any ‘sense of an audience,’ it would seem to be precisely that ‘sense’ that nourished and guided Coleridge’s early innovations in form and style, well before he began what Paul Magnuson has called his ‘lyric dialogue’ with Wordsworth.  The romantic lyric thus offers something of a litmus test for our larger constructions of historical romanticism, whether they be formalist, materialist, or idealist.  As we have seen in the case of To a Young Ass, or Frost at Midnight, Coleridge’s own reconstructions of his radical youth have had a powerful influence on our conception of what a romantic lyric should look like.  It’s all the more important, then, to identify the distinctive commitments and achievements of this earlier phase of English romantic lyricism, and to attempt, at least, to value them in their own terms as well as ours.


[1]       The Idea of Lyric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 6.

[2]       Complete Works, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (New York: Gordian, 1965), VII.116.

[3]       ‘What is Poetry,’ in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt, 1971), p. 539.

[4]       ‘Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,’ in From Sensibility to Romanticism, ed. Hilles and Bloom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 527-8.

[5]       The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 95 ff.

[6]       Two recent studies are especially noteworthy: Sarah Zimmerman’s Romanticism, Lyricism, and History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), which questions the adequacy of the subjective model to the work of Charlotte Smith, the Wordsworths, and Clare; and Susan Wolfson’s Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), which incorporates a similar critique in a series of fine readings of particular poems.

[7]       Poetical Works, ed. J.C.C.Mays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) I.2,1194  Henceforth referred to as PW.

[8]       PW I.2.1198.

[9]       See Coleridge’s 1794 note to the sonnet to Bowles, PW I.1.162.

[10]     Coleridge infrequently addresses animals (a nightingale, a jackass), inanimate objects (a stream), or personified abstractions.  Once he addresses his own personified heart. When a specified audience is absent at the beginning of a poem, he is usually following generic decorum, as in an epitaph or the visionary prophecy, Religious Musings.

[11]     CL I.1.92, 108.

[12]     For help with these statistics I’m grateful to Paul Magnuson, who generously shared his forthcoming notes on the 1796 and 1797 volumes and Coleridge’s negotiations with Cottle in the winter of 1796-97.

[13]     PW I.1.144.

[14]     Nor was he above doing his own field-work: in early 1796 he tried out the most challenging poem in the coming volume, Religious Musings, on a Birmingham candlemaker. Biographia Literaria, ed. Bate and Engell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), I.181.

[15]     CL I.115. Coleridge’s emphasis.

[16]     See Perry’s Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p.7.

[17]     Biographia, I.80

[18]     Lectures on Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 49.

[19]     Richard W. Armour, Coleridge the Talker (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1940), p. 311.

[20]     PW I.2.1233

[21]     Burke had cited Milton’s figure as his only literary example of sublime obscurity.  See his Philosophical Enquiry, ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 55.

[22]     The Poetical Works of Mr. Collins (London: Cadell, 1797), pp. iii-iv.

[23]     PW I.2.1233.

[24]     Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, ed. J. R. de J. Jackson (London: Routledge, 1970), p.36.

[25]     R.S. Woof, ‘Coleridge and Thomasina Dennis,’ UTQ 32 (1962),42.

[26]     The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. Edwin W. Marrs, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), I.80.  Henceforth LL.

[27]     CL I.333. Coleridge’s emphasis.

[28]     Biographia, II.6; Table Talk, ed. Carl Woodring (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) I.149, 272-73.

[29]     The lines appear as well in the Monody, ll. 124-25.  Coleridge could have encountered roundelays in Mary Robinson, Richard Jago, or, most probably, the ‘Minstrel’s Song’ from Chatterton’s Ella.

[30]     The revolutionary farandole is discussed in Mona Ouzouf, Festivals and the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 18. In his Sapphic ode of 1792 Coleridge had used the Greek term for the round dance to describe the ‘circling dances’ of the spirits of dead slaves on their return to Africa.

[31]     CL I.279. Coleridge’s emphasis.

[32]     Mrs. Henry Sanford, Thomas Poole and His Friends, [London: Macmillan, 1888], I.125.

[33]     CL I.125.

[34]     At one point Coleridge thought its last ten lines ‘perhaps the best I ever did write.’ CL I.134.

[35]     CL I.103.

[36]     A few years later William Hazlitt found Coleridge’s reading more ‘dramatic,’ Wordsworth’s more ‘lyrical.’ ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets,’ in Complete Works, ed. P.P. Howe (London: Cass, 1967), xvii. 118-19.

[37]     CL I.138. A better-known attack on ‘sluggard Pity’ occurs in Reflections after Having Left a Place of Retirement (l. 56).

[38]     ‘The Human Abstract,’ ll. 1-2.

[39]     CL I.126.

[40]     Even Lamb, that champion of ‘simplicity,’ was put off by the poem: ‘Burns hath his mouse, his louse, Coleridge, less successfully, hath made overtures of intimacy to a jackass.’ (LL I.165).

[41]     Biographia I.26; CL III.433.

[42]     The precedent is pointed out by Mays, PW I.1.146. The poem had also appeared six years earlier, again anonymously, in The Norfolk Chronicle.  See David Chandler, ‘Coleridge’s ‘Address to a Young Jack-Ass’: A Note on the Poetic and Political Context,’ N&Q N.S.42 (1995), 179-180.

[43]     Gentleman’s Magazine, LXIII (Feb,1793), 165 (ll. 1-6).

[44]     PW I.2.1206.

[45]     Hamlet III.i.74.

[46]     CL I.121. The politics of The Morning Chronicle, where the poem was first published, were liberal if not radical.  David Perkins explores the poem’s sensibility toward animals, against the background of middle-class animal-rights activism, in ‘Compassion for Animals and Radical Politics: Coleridge’s ‘To a Young Ass’’ ELH 65 (1996), 929 ff. 

[47]     Cf. Isaiah 53:3.

[48]     Kelvin Everest writes, for example, that the poem ‘precisely anticipates’ a satirical response. Coleridge’s Secret Ministry (Sussex: Harvester, 1975), p. 51.

[49]     In Gillray’s cartoon, New Morality (1798), and Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: ‘The bard who soars to elegise an ass’ (l. 262).

[50]     ll. 34-36 [1794]). As the manuscript reveals, Coleridge had in mind at one point the melodies of Handel, whose Messiah glorifies but by no means imitates the ‘despised and rejected’ Christ.

[51]     Biographia, II.48.

[52]     LL I.80.

[53]     Nathan Drake, Literary Hours: or, Sketches Critical and Narrative, 2nd ed. (London: Cadell and Davies, 1800) II.82.

[54]     PW I.1.232.

[55]     PW I.334.

[56]     I have been greatly helped by Paul Cheshire’s lucid analysis of this poem’s evolution, in ‘The Eolian Harp,’ Coleridge Bulletin NS 17 (2001), 1-27.  I quote the poem as it appeared in Poems on Various Subjects (1796), but adopt PW’s line numbering. 

[57]     CL I.222.

[58]     The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Alexander Grosart (London: Moxon, 1876) III.427.

[59]     John Beer, for example, calls attention to the poem’s attempted reconciliation of Greek and Hebrew thought, in Coleridge the Visionary [London: Chatto & Windus, 1959), p. 29), and Ian Wylie emphasizes the conflict between Newtonian cosmology and Christian orthodoxy in Young Coleridge and the Philosophers of Science (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp.35-38.

[60]     It is suggestive that Coleridge disrupted this dramatic arc, casually or deliberately, when he interpolated the ‘one Life’ passage in 1817. Paul Cheshire discusses its placement in ‘The Eolian Harp,’ p. 17.

[61]     Lectures on Politics and Religion, pp. 12-13; CL I.397; To the Rev George Coleridge, ll.77-78

[62]     CL I.277. Coleridge’s emphasis.

[63]     PW I.1.456; see also Coleridge’s disquisition to Cottle in 1815, CL IV.545.

[64]     ‘Structure and Style,’ p. 532.

[65]     Prelude II.266 [1805] The conclusion of The Nightingale and several notebook entries attest to Coleridge’s interest in the growth of the infant mind. See The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn (New York: Bollingen,1957) I.330.

[66]     Lamb, of course, makes the comparison to Bottom (LL I.288). Whether or not the subtitle was Coleridge's or Wordsworth's,  it was Coleridge who sent the change to Cottle in July, 1800 (CL I.598). Lamb and Mays attribute it to Coleridge, Paul Fry to Wordsworth (see his  edition of the Rime [Bedford:New York, 1999],  p.12).  My thanks to Graham Davidson for reminding me of this difference of opinion.

[67]     To William Wordsworth, l. 40; Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), I.387.

[68]     Letters, II.212.