Staging the Life. A Reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Conversation Poems as Dramatic Monologues

Term Paper, 2013

22 Pages



1. Dramatic Monologue: A Definition

2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Profile

3. Conversation Poems: A Critical Analysis
3.1. “The Nightingale”
3.2. “The Aeolian Harp”
3.3. “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement”
3.4. “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”
3.5. “Frost at Midnight”
3.6. “Fears in Solitude”
3.7. “To William Wordsworth”
3.8. “Dejection: An Ode”

4. Conclusion



The Conversation Poems are those eight poems written by the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) between 1795 and 1807. Each one of them tackles a certain life experience the poet had and ends either happily or sadly.

A rapid reading of these poems may reveal that they have core features of dramatic monologue. Hence, this paper aims to study these eight poems in the light of the characteristics of dramatic monologue.

To achieve this aim, the paper falls into three sections and a conclusion. The first section is a brief introduction about the definition of dramatic monologue. The second section is a profile of Coleridge. As for the third section, it provides a critical analysis of the Conversion Poems.

The conclusion sums up the findings of the paper.

Keywords: conversation, monologue, Coleridge, speaker, listener, experience, life

1. Dramatic Monologue: A Definition

“Dramatic monologues belong directly to the tragedy and to the comedy of life.”

─Stopford A. Brooke, Tennyson, His Art and Relation to Modern Life

Dramatic monologue, as Margaret Drabble puts it, is “a poem delivered as though by a single . . . person, frequently but not always to an imagined auditor.”[1] In this “poem,” the speaker dramatizes an occasion by using his own words.[2] “With very few exceptions,” say W. L. Phelps, “the dramatic monologue is not . . . a soliloquy” but is a chain of comments “usually confessional, addressed either orally or in an epistolary form to another person or to a group of listeners.”[3] These other listening addressees, though they keep silent, are essential to the understanding of the monologue.[4]

Bliss Perry thinks of the dramatic monologue as “that form wherein the inter-relations of drama” and “of lyric mood are peculiarly interesting.”[5] He further clarifies that the genre is a “dynamic revelation of a soul in action, not a mere static bit of character study.”[6] In his The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, Robert Langbaum gives a typical definition of the dramatic monologue:

The empiricism of the dramatic monologue, as demonstrated by its disequilibrium between sympathy and judgment, is a sign that it imitates not life but a particular perspective toward life, somebody’s experience of it.

The particular perspective is especially apparent in the dramatic monologue, where we clearly adopt the speaker’s point of view, both visual and moral, as our entry into the poem the resulting limitation and even distortion of the physical and moral truth being among the main pleasures of the form.[7]

Commenting on Langbaum’s definition, Gennis Byron says that the dramatic monologue is “a form posits a disequilibrium between sympathy elicited for the speaker and moral judgment.”[8] He further adds that “the analysis of the speaker of a dramatic monologue focuses on analysis of the resulting tension experienced by the reader.”[9] Ina Beth Sessions suggests that a “perfect” dramatic monologue is that literary form or genre which possesses “the definite characteristics of speaker, audience, occasion, revelation of character, interplay between speaker and audience, dramatic action,” in addition to “action which takes place in the present.”[10] M. H. Abrams defines the dramatic monologue as “a type of lyric poem” that has a number of features:

(1) A single person … utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment. (2) This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors’ presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker. (3) The main principle controlling the poet’s formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker’s temperament and character.[11]

Terminologically speaking, dramatic monologue was not in circulation until late in the nineteenth century when the traditional canon of dramatic monologues saw the light artistically on the hands of Robert Browning (1812-1889) and Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) in the Victorian period. The notion of the dramatic monologue and its broad lines became associated with the Romantic poetry in the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century.[12] With the coming of Romanticism, the dramatic potential of lyric utterance gains a new importance. Many of the Romantic poets draw on the use of monologue and dialogue in the traditional ballad.[13] “Perhaps most significant in the history of dramatic monologue,” as John Anthony Cuddon and Claire Preston believe, “is the use of the dramatic in personal poems” in “conversation pieces” as S. T. Coleridge’s Conversation Poems.[14]

2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Profile

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was born October 21, 1772, in Devon, England. He was the youngest child of a clergyman and his wife. At the age of ten, he entered Christ’s Hospital School in London, where he read a wide variety of classical and political works. In 1791, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, and became interested in revolutionary politics and Unitarianism.[15] He left school without earning a degree. In 1794, he met poet Robert Southey, with whom he planned a utopian community to be built on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States. As part of this plan Coleridge married Southey’s sister-in-law Sara Fricker.[16]

Coleridge published his first poetry in the “Morning Chronicle” in 1794. He tried his hand at sonnets but failed utterly and abandoned the form. In 1795, he began giving a series of lectures to finance the utopian scheme, but when the idea was abandoned, he returned to writing poetry. From 1797 to 1798, he lived at Nether Stowey in Somerset, and completed the poems ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ ‘Kubla Khan,’ (known as Supernatural Poems in addition to ‘Christabel’) ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and ‘Fears in Solitude’ (known as Conversation Poems with similar poems which will be mentioned below). In 1798, with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, he traveled to Germany, where he became deeply interested in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Coleridge’s addiction to opium gradually overtook him and his marriage. He traveled to Malta in 1804 in an attempt to restore his mental and physical health, as well as his marriage. He returned to England in 1806, but by then his marriage had fallen apart.[17]

By 1813, he had returned to Christian beliefs and was being treated for his opium addiction. He began working on Biographia Literaria (1817), a discussion of poetry and a critique of Wordsworth, drawing on the work of German philosophers such as Kant and Fichte. He died July 25, 1834, in Highgate, England.[18]

3. Conversation Poems: A Critical Analysis

Coleridge was known of being a mind-blowing talker. Everybody knew and met him was immediately captivated by the mastery of talking he had. His Conversation Poems represent a new kind of poetry. [19] They are a group of poems written by him in the years between 1795-1807 which are, as John Spencer Hill puts it, “linked by a number of striking stylistic and structural similarities.”[20] “The Nightingale” which appeared in Lyrical Ballads (1798) with the subtitle “a Conversation Poem” is the only poem to which Coleridge himself applied this specific epithet. Later a number of his poems which have many characteristics in common with “The Nightingale” on one hand and among themselves on the other hand are also termed as Conversation Poems. They include “The Aeolian Harp”, “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement”, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, “Frost at Midnight”, “Fears in Solitude”, “To William Wordsworth”, and “Dejection: An Ode.”[21]

These are Coleridge’s “Poems of Friendship” which cannot be fully understood unless the reader knows what persons Coleridge has in mind. That’s to say, each one of them is addressed to a certain close person of Coleridge. These poems have the same style and ease of expression in addition to sharpness of feelings and intimacy of address. In addition, they are all related to a certain real-life situation which occurs in specific time and place.[22]

John L. Mahoney believes that the Conversation Poems are “a blend of description and rumination emerging from a solitary speaker” whereas “a silent listener, present or absent, serves as a vital force” and “the landscape plays a prominent part in the drama.” [23] “Their meter,” continues Mahoney, is “a free-flowing blank verse; the manner relaxed and idiomatic; the language concise, rich, sensuous; the subject matter the probing of complex psychological states.”[24]

Writing a broad description of the Conversation Poems, Abrams observes that in each one of them, the speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied by integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation.[25]

So far, the definition of both the dramatic monologue and the Conversation Poems become clear. It is time now to slice the lines of each poem to see how a dramatic monologue it is.

3.1. “The Nightingale”

Coleridge wrote “The Nightingale” in April 1798. The occasion of the poem was a walk he had while visiting his childhood home at Ottery with William and Dorothy Wordsworth after visiting them.[26] “The Nightingale” is part of a discussion directed to the Wordsworths in which Coleridge refutes the traditional association between nightingales and melancholic feelings because of the bird’s appearance in the myth of Philomel, the nightingale in the Greek mythology:[27]

Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues.

Come, we will rest on this old mossy bridge!

My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt

A different lore …[28]

The nightingale was used as a sign of melancholy because of its relationship to the legend of Philomel, the legendary female who was raped by her brother-in-law and was transformed into a nightingale. Although Coleridge corrects the idea of nightingale as melancholic, the poem relies on the tradition and gothic descriptions to guide the poem. Eventually, the nightingale is what brings the narrator back to his topic after diverging from it:[29]

Farewell! O Warbler! till tomorrow eve,

And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!

We have been loitering long and pleasantly,

And now for our dear homes. That strain again. (CP, 114)

Richard Holmes points out that the nightingale in Coleridge's poem represents an experience he had with the Wordsworths.[30] The narrative is interrupted by “a mysterious” female character whom he described as “A most gentle Maid” (CP, 113). The work mentions Hartley, Coleridge’s son, as well as an resonant night in which Coleridge viewed and contemplated the moon:[31]

My dear babe,

Who, capable of no articulate sound,

It is a father's tale: But if that Heaven

He may associate joy. Once more, farewell,

Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell. (CP, 114-5)

It can be concluded from the poem that Coleridge was fascinated by the natural surroundings he attended, especially the nightingale’s song. He was breathing the air of friends, family and nature. ‘The Nightingale’, then, says Geoffrey Yarlott, is a poem “where the metaphysic is played down” for the sake of “the improvement of the poem, and there the mature conversational tone duplicates almost perfectly the shifting flow of natural speech and feeling.”[32]

3. 2. “The Aeolian Harp”

Coleridge began work on “The Aeolian Harp” in August 1795 and revised it many times to put it in its final version in 1817. He wrote it during his engagement to Sara Fricker.[33] Rosemary Ashton states that the poem details Coleridge and Sara’s future union and was inspired by Coleridge’s visit to the house in Clevedon that would serve as their home after their wedding:[34]

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined

Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is

To sit beside our cot, our cot o'ergrown

(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!) (CP, 119)

The poem portrays a series of oppositional ideas and how they can be reconciled with each other. The image of a bean field is contrasted against the image of a lute while they are compared to the image of a coy woman being caressed and then resisting the caresses. This image is compounded with the coy woman being caressed compared to the innocence of Fricker. Nature is also seen in its oppositions, with a wildness within nature being contrasted with order within nature, especially in regards to the effects of an Aeolian harp.[35]

O beloved Woman! nor such thoughts

Dim and unhallow'd dost thou not reject,

And biddest me walk humbly with my God.

Meek Daughter in the family of Christ! (CP, 121)

The poem closes with the poet descended after a “cosmic” journey to Sara Filcher and their pastoral cottage. It is quite obvious that the ‘The Aeolian Harp’ gives the feeling that Coleridge was very happy with his approaching marriage.[36] Abrams declares that the idea of the “One Life” (CP, 120) within “The Aeolian Harp,” “best epitomize the Romantic constellation of joy, love, and the shared life.[37]

3. 3. “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement”

Soon after Coleridge’s marriage in autumn 1795 to Sara Fricker, Coleridge left their home in Clevedon, North Somerset. However, he felt guilt at his absence from his wife, and eventually went to live with her family at Radcliffe Hill, Bristol. As he completed “The Aeolian Harp,” composed to commemorate his return to Clevedon, Coleridge composed ‘Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement’ on his absence from Clevedon and later return to be with his wife at Bristol.[38] He reflects,

In the open air

Our Myrtles blossom'd; and across the porch

Thick Jasmins twined: the little landscape round

Was green and woody, and refresh'd the eye.

It was a spot which you might aptly call

The Valley of Seclusion! (CP, 127)

Holmes points out that both “Reflections” and “The Aeolian Harp” “mark a new stage in Coleridge's exploration of the sacred relations between man and nature.”[39] These relations gradually “become more serious and impassioned.” This is because “they carry increasingly theological implications behind his Romanticism:”[40]

My benefactor, not my brother man!

Yet even this, this cold beneficence

Praise, praise it, O my Soul! oft as thou scann'st

The sluggard Pity's vision-weaving tribe! (CP, 128)

Commenting on the Coleridge’s yearning for his retirement, Virginia Radley states that the reflection on his life within the poem represent “an unwillingness to accept his current idyllic life and a rejection of the conclusion drawn in ‘The Aeolian Harp’.”[41] Although the land of Clevedon, as Radley believes,“can bring one closer to God in Coleridge's view, he reflects on how one cannot simply exist in such an area but must actively seek out truth in order to fulfill God's will.”[42] The poem details how men feel a need to seek truth like a philosopher while also desiring to simply live in an idyllic natural state. The poem reconciles these desires “by claiming that the pursuer of truth can still reflect back on his time when he was simply enjoying nature and God’s presence,” Radley concludes.[43]

3. 4. “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”

During summer 1797, Coleridge spent time with many of his friends, including John Thelwall, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Thomas Poole, and his wife Sara Fricker. During this time, he suffered an accident in which his foot was burned. As a result he was left alone at Poole's property underneath a lime tree, while Lamb, the Wordsworths and his wife went on a journey across the Quantocks. The poem was dedicated to Lamb, Fricker, and the generic friends, but Fricker's name was left out of the published edition:[44]


1 Margaret Drabble, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 299.

2 Ibid.

3 W. L. Phelps, Browning How to Know Him (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1915), 169.

4 Ibid.

5 Bliss Perry, A Study of Poetry (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1920), 267.

6 Ibid., 268.

7 Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1957), 137.

8 Gennis Byron, Dramatic Monologue (London: Routledge, 2003), 21.

9 Ibid

10 Ina Beth Sessions, “The Dramatic Monologue” in PMLA 62, no. 2 [June, 1947]: 508, (accessed March 20, 2012).

11 M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. (Massachusetts: Heinle & Heinle, 1999), 70.

12 Byron, 2.

13 John Anthony Cuddon and Claire Preston, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 239.

14 Ibid.

15 Ira Mark Milne, ed., Literary Movements for Students, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Gale Cengage Learning, 2009), 707. To read about Unitarianism, see: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, s. v. “Unitarianism,” (accessed June 8, 2016).

16 Milne.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 John Spencer Hill, A Coleridge’s Companion: An Introduction to the Major Poems and the ‘ Biographia Literaria ’ (London: The Macmillan Press, 1983), 19.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 George Mclean Harper, “Coleridge’s Conversation Poems” in English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed., edited by M. H. Abrams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 145-6.

23 John L. Mahoney, “‘We Must Away’: Tragedy and the Imagination in Coleridge’s Later Poems,” in English Romantic Poetry, edited by Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2004), 190.

24 Ibid.

25 M. H. Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” in From Sensibility to Romanticism, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 527.

26 J. C. C. Mays, ed., The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poetical Works (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 468-9.

27 Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 136–9.

28 All further quotations from Coleridge’s Conversation Poems will be made to Alfred A. Knopf, ed., Coleridge: Poems and Prose (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1997). Henceforth, they will be marked as (CP) followed by page number. This quotation is found in pages 111-2.

29 Ashton, 137.

30 Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 191-3.

31 Ibid.

32 Geoffrey Yarlott, Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid (London: Methuen, 1967), 116.

33 Ashton, 74.

34 Ibid.

35 Virginia Radley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York: Twayne, 1966), 44-6.

36 Harper, 147-8.

37 M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), 434.

38 Ashton,.80-1.

39 Holmes, 104.

40 Ibid., 104.

41 Radley, 47-9.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Holmes, 152-3.

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Staging the Life. A Reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Conversation Poems as Dramatic Monologues
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conversation, monologue, Coleridge, speaker, listener, experience, life
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