Thursday, June 11, 2009

Playing The Part Of Poet

Garbage can be literature. The voice is all. That is the main concept that I always strove to leave with my literature students. The filth on bathroom walls might be literature, albeit a low form of it. And eloquence might fall short.

To qualify as literature, a group of words (usually but not always written) must leave us access to the real voice of the author or authors. We must be able to make real and authentic contact with the composer of the words before we call it literature. That is what elevates the comics in Bazooka Bubble Gum above the instructions on how to put that tricycle together Christmas morning. In Bazooka we get some (though very small) concept of the author. Not in the instructions.

The difference is always in the totally subjective question, "Do I, as a reader/listener find that I have made contact with a separate mind that wrote/spoke the words?"

With this question in my mind I am reading the poetry of Hartley Coleridge. He is well versed in all of the skills that one needs to make verse. He has, as his brother Derwent testifies, a natural ability with rhymes and meters. In fact his rhymes seem skillful, but not individual. His meters seem enough to earn him a passing grade in composition class, yet they are not playful; they do not say to me: "This is Harley Coleridge working out from all that he has seen before."

I am reading his poetry, all that I can find of it, in the effort to hear HIS voice. I want to hear Harley Coleridge! I want it so that I can listen to hear echoes (or the lack of echoes) of his father. I have become uncharacteristically fascinated by the question of how STColeridge's children felt about him when they were adults.

But I'm having a very hard time finding Hartley Coleridge's voice!

In the following wonderful poem I hear a mimic of his father's orchestration of the music of speech and it also seems to mimic his father's reach from the world of THINGS to the world of IDEAS. In some ways (rhythm and to some extent musical quality) it seems also a forerunner of the later work of Francis Thompson.


In stature perfect and with every gift
Which God would on his favourite work bestow,
Did our great Parent his pure form uplift,
And sprang from earth, the Lord of all below.

But Adam fell before a child was born,
And want and weakness with his fall began;
So his first offspring was a thing forlorn,
In human shape, without the strength of man:

So, Heaven has doom'd that all of Adam's race,
Naked and helpless, shall their course begin,
E'en at their birth confess their need of grace,
And weeping, wail the penalty of sin.

Yet sure the babe is in the cradle blest,
Since God himself a baby deign'd to be,
And slept upon a mortal mother's breast,
And steep'd in baby tears--his Deity.

O sleep, sweet infant, for we all must sleep,
And wake like babes, that we may wake with Him.
Who watches still his own from harm to keep.
And o'er them spreads the wings of cherubim.

But both when it seems an echo of Hartley's father and when it seems a forerunner of Francis Thompson, I have to say that I think it not Hartley's voice. Even to the extent that he has moved the poetic medium forward, I don't think that we are hearing here the VOICE OF HARTLEY COLERIDGE. That is a subjective conclusion, based both on my own idea of how Hartley's voice will sound and my idea of how Hartley will sound when he is playing a part.

To my own satisfaction I am convinced that he is playing here, sincere as he is and devout as the verse is, the poem itself is not entirely the voice of Hartley Coleridge himeslf. This, as I have said, comes down to a totally subjective understanding. We, the hearers/readers, must decide for ourselves whether we are satisfied that we have heard the individual poet speak.

The more I read of Hartley Coleridge the more I hear the voices of others.

"In the faery pinnance gaily flashing,
through the white foam proudly dashing."

Listen to how every syllable, save only "Through the," the voice must (or should) be raised into a steady high tense tone. It is a highstrung monotone, yet one that denies its monotonous quality through its rushing energy. This is EA Poe's voice. True, Hartley wrote before Edgar Allan Poe, yet the voice fits much better with the themes and ideas of Poe. Indeed it fits better with the person of Poe than it seems to fit with Hartley. Again this is subjective, yet I don't believe that I have heard Hartley here.

Or when we read:

"For ne'er the earth was sound of mirth
So like to melancholy."

In these lines I hear the rhythm of the wilderness voice of Robert Service. And I have to say that the voice sounds at home in Service while it sounds borrowed in Hartley Coleridge. Never mind that Hartley came first. The time is irrelevant. In the mouth (or pen) of Robert Service the voice sounds at home; in the voice and pen of Hartley Coleridge it sounds quaint. It sounds to me like an affectation.

At other times he speaks in the voice William Cowper. Sometimes I hear a minor preview of Gerard Manley Hopkins (tomorrow's post). The one I hear least is the one that I would have expected to prevail. How little I hear the voice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the poetry of this his son!

It is easier to hear echoes of William Wordsworth than of Samuel Taylor Coleridge here.

And this is what I have found so far in the poetry of Hartley Coleridge. While many of his poems are excellent and worth reading, I don't yet feel that I have heard Hartley Coleridge speak for himself. He seems to be performing. He seems to be playing the part of "poet" and I don't think that he has yet decided what poet he is to play!

Having now read half (only half) of his published poetry, the most striking conclusion so far is that he did indeed (not only as a child, but throughout his life) "make a mock apparel" of his words.

So I ask myself, by the definition that I pressed into my students: Is Hartley Coleridge literature?

I can't yet answer for sure. Some very good writing. But literature?

It's a little disheartening, but I am still hoping to hear what I will recognize to be the voice of Hartley.

And yet perhaps we find him; hear him; see him in that very reluctance to show himself. Perhaps we see him best in his need to be heard coupled with his impulse to hide. Perhaps his voice, his real voice, is in each of these poems; perhaps it is hiding between the sounds where it can watch us but we can never quite see it.

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