Conversation Poems of S. T. Coleridge

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What are conversation poems? Why did Coleridge use this form? What success did he achieve in these poems? Critically consider some of the conversation poems to develop your answer.

      "Conversation poems" are also called "poems of friendship" because it is impossible for us to understand them unless we know of the persons Coleridge is thinking about when he writes these poems. Even though in form these poems are soliloquies or monologues, a listener may be supposed to be present at least in the writer's imagination; and it is for this reason that they may be regarded as "conversation poems". The best among these poems by Coleridge are: The Eolian Harp, Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement, This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, Fears in Solitude, The Nightingale, Dejection: An Ode and To William Wordsworth.

      As a form, the Conversation Poem has an attraction for Coleridge. He is temperamentally incapable of making the sustained effort essential to produce a great philosophic poem, but he knew the necessity of keeping his craft alive for the time when he tell himself he will be fit to undertake a great work. By writing Conversation poems he is saved from self-accusations of total indolence, and equally saves from facing the bitter truth of his inability to cope with a major project. The form offered still further advantages. In a Conversation poem themes can be taken up, developed, dropped and resumed, and shifts, of tone can be made, much more acceptably than in most other poetic forms. Critics are agreed that what Coleridge himself called 'the divine chitchat of Cowper' furnished him with a model, but in fact, he wholly transformed his model, and there is little in these poems that can be appropriately called 'chitchat'. They do, however, share the intimacy of tone, freely-ranging development of theme which characterizes Coleridge's own conversation, and they closely resemble the note-books, alike in their sensitive recording of nature, their tentative exploration of ideas and concern for self-analysis.

      The range and flexibility which Coleridge achieves in the Conversation poems is already apparent in The Eolian Harp, which he calls 'the most perfect' of his early poems. With The Nightingale, it celebrates his first happiness in love and he begins and ends with a reference to Sarah Fricker; but in theme it moves from the tranquil beauty of the cottage at Clevedon to 'all of animated nature', from the simple lute clasps in the casement to a Paradisal Fairy-Land, from an intuition of life's oneness to a personal confession of weakness and a need for orthodox religion. The sudden transitions and varied themes come from the association formed in the mind of the poet as he contemplates his surroundings.

      The greater part of the poem makes an immediate impact on the reader by its individual, emotionally direct use of language:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze
At once the soul of each, and God of all?

      Here, for the first time, Coleridge's poetry takes on a full organic life of its own. The language, sustains by the free rhythmic development, moves surely and with increasing intensity to a climax which is only formally a question, and is in effect a positive and joyful statement of faith in God's presence at the heart of all His creation. This intuition, wholeness and oneness, which is of absolute importance to our understanding of all Coleridge's poetry, is reaffirmed in the four magnificent lines that were later added to the poem:

O! the one life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joy a nee everywhere.

      Coleridge demonstrates in practice the sort of imagination he is later to analyse and define in theory. It is the expression of a new, age: a poetry of vision. Coleridge, like every genuine Romantic, admits no limitations: the oppositions between thing and thing, between God and man, are apparent only to our reason, and are reconciled at the deeper level of our spiritual experience. In the conclusion to the poem, Coleridge denies this experience and the poetry is cramped into artificial conformity to Sarah's views. It suffers accordingly, becoming stilted and Miltonic in manner.

      Representative as The Eolian Harp is Coleridge's handling of form in the Conversation poems, it will be misleading to suggest that the last two passages quoted are typical of the poetry of the group, taken as a whole. In general, the poems are written at a much more modest level: they are meditative-descriptive poems of great charm and ease of manner, and are better represented by such a passage as this:

Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch'd
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov'd to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine!
(This Lime-Tree Bower)

      Subdued though this is, the poetry achieves its vividness and clarity by a technique so unobtrusive that we are no more conscious of it than we are conscious, while watching a film, of the cinematographic equipment that gives us a brilliant close-up.

      Instances of vividly realized detail, an extraordinarily sensitive recording of visual impressions and colour, abound in the Conversation poems, whether in the well-known particularization of the 'Western sky' in Dejection, with its peculiar tint of yellow green, or in such lines as:

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

      But for all the delicate exactness of his description, Coleridge hardly ever writes purely descriptive poetry. Without distorting the eternal scene, he constantly invests it with his own mood.

      With the exception of Dejection, which is really a later poem, the Conversation poems are to a remarkable extent a poetry of withdrawal. This is so not only in an obvious 'physical sense in the celebration of pretty cot', 'lime-tree bower' or 'silent dell' but also in the way in which nature is presented in its tenderest aspects under 'late twilight' or 'dimness of the stars'. Not least, we are aware of withdrawal in the way in which the poet, even in the act of perception of outgoing to the external scene, still almost comfortingly gathers it back to himself at the inmost centre of his own mind. It is as if the 'wilder'd and dark' Coleridge, as he calls himself in The Eoltan Harp, were fabricating in these poems a world of intimate security which he felt orphaned from in real life.

      In Frost at Midnight, one of his finest conversation poems, Coleridge harmonizes the physical world about with his own mood. The inmates of the cottage have retired for the night and only his 'cradled infant'. Hartley, sleeps at his side. He is curtained in the 'hush of nature', which mutes the goings on of life' and makes them 'inaudible as dreams'. From the very first lines of the poem the silent operation of the frost in indistinguishable from the stealth of his own mind working in contemplation.

      As his eyes come to rest on the fragile life of a soot-flake on the grate, he recognizes, even explicitly, that it is intimately associated with his mind's activity:

Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling spirit
By its own moods interprets, everywhere
Echo or mirror seeking of itself...

      As the flame plays with a furtive life of its own, so the poem develops in an interplay of memory and thought emerging from and shifting back into a physically external environment, until the mind comes full circle to rest in the almost tranced contemplation of:

Silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon

      Though predominantly a poetry of withdrawal, the Conversation poems are very occasionally disturbed by Coleridge's attempts to face the harsh realities of politics and the world of affairs. Since his deepest psychological needs were for serenity and security, it is not surprising that these attempts usually fail. In Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement the recommendation of active life is less convincing than the nostalgia felt for the Valley of Seclusion, and it is hardly unfair to suggest that in Fears in Solitude, the poem's success is all in the solitude and its failure all in the fears. Insecurity and violence are too closely related to the terrors haunting Coleridge as a man to be a fit subject for his poetry.

      Though Coleridge's poetic efforts in the supernatural sphere are praised highly, and justly so, the Conversation poems have their own special appeal to the modern reader.

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