Truncating Coleridgean Conversation and the Re-visioning of "Dover Beach"
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Truncating Coleridgean Conversation and the Re-visioning of “Dover Beach”

Reflect too, as I cannot but do here more and more, in spite of all the nonsense some people talk, how deeply unpoetical the age and all one's surroundings are. Not unprofound, not ungrand, not unmoving:—but unpoetical.1

Ever since Ruth Pitman demonstrated the corrosive influence of Victorian science on Matthew Arnold's world and its manifestation in the eroding stanzaic structure of "Dover Beach," scholarship devoted to exploring this relationship has proliferated.2 But while this trend has greatly clarified the particular scientific vision that troubles the poem, it yet remains quite clear that Arnold's relationship to science was by no means unequivocal. As early as 1942, Fred Dudley told us that Arnold, in one of his two dominant treatments of the word "science," associated it "with his favorite formula, 'to see the thing as in itself it really is,' implying that it meant disinterestedness."3 In "Dover Beach," this kind of disinterestedness requires not a criticism of science but a good hard look at what has happened to the self in the world. Science, in some crucial way, does not change the world: it changes the way we see a world that has always been the way that it is. The cliffs of Dover may be eroding, but Victorian science showed that even erosion follows a natural trajectory that human vision or desire can do little to remedy. In effect, we may, through our own scientific progress, write ourselves out of the world.

While the recent fascination with Victorian science has certainly helped us understand a major Arnoldian anxiety, such a close focus has also distorted our image of the writer who, more distinctly than any other critic of his time, defined our post-Romantic relationship to Romanticism. In his classic biography of Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling writes that the poet viewed his age "as a time when all the old orders were breaking up, the order of the Reformation and of the French Revolution as well as the order of ecclesiastic feudalism."4 Arnold has often been hailed as a harbinger of modernism; more than just a man concerned by science and "progress," he serves as vanguard [End Page 429] for that disillusioned movement, and "Dover Beach" is a compact, precise, and pitted struggle with a very literary kind of displacement. In his younger poetic days, Arnold said that one could "hear [his] sinews cracking under the effort to unite matter" (Letters to Clough, p. 65). ("Integration," Trilling writes, was one of young Arnold's "obsessive themes" [Trilling, p. 33].) All of this is quite Romantic in nature, but these dreams fell by the wayside as the poet aged. Oddly enough, this very trouble with Romanticism suggests an unorthodox pairing that will serve as the basis of this essay: of Arnold with the one Romantic poet of whom he had virtually nothing to say—Coleridge. Both important poets more or less abandoned that calling to become even greater critics, and their careers share a curious trajectory: for all of Coleridge's innovation, his poetic (though not his critical) career, like Arnold's, petered out in dejection. Though Arnold has little more to say about Coleridge the man than that he was a "poet and philosopher wrecked in mist of opium,"5 Coleridge's artistic anxiety lies uncomfortably close to Arnold's own. We may gain a clearer vision of Arnold through a comparison to a fellow poet-critic whom he certainly resembles—and we may make that comparison in a space unobscured by Arnold's own critical vision, which may have rejected Coleridge for a failure which he himself eventually repeated.6

This is not to deny Wordsworth's influence. But if Arnold is clearly thinking of Wordsworth in "Dover Beach," it is Coleridge who haunts the literary "atmosphere" (the term is an Arnoldian one) of the poem.7 In fact, Wordsworthian poetic theory hardly applies to Arnold. For Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams reminds us, "imagination is associative: both powers alike [of fancy and imagination] serve 'to modify, to create, and to associate.'"8 We do not find this associative Wordsworthian...