- Serendipitous Failures
Big ideas "emerge from spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs," wrote Pagan Kennedy in an essay about the science of serendipity.1 For evidence, look no further than Coleridge's Christabel, the poem credited by many (including the author of the volume under review) as "the spark that led to . . . the emergence of modern free verse," "one of the great turning points in the history of English poetics" (262). The poem was immediately appreciated upon its publication in 1816 for what the London Times called its "indisputable originality, . . . beauty, . . . and singularity" (264). But readers, critics, teachers, and students have struggled to understand, explain, or even accurately describe the irregular meter and variable line lengths of the poem. Most have fallen back on the imprecise idea expressed by Coleridge himself, that he varied his essentially tetrameter lines, which range from as few as seven to as many as eleven syllables, in order to express their "Passion & Meaning" better (265). Jeff Strabone offers the more precise and convincing argument that Coleridge, caught up in the idea promoted by early Romantic antiquarians that "English" literature stretched back to the time of Bede and Cædmon, believed that [End Page 68] he was reproducing the meter of ancient British poets lost to time. And that Coleridge was wrong.
Coleridge's "neo-retro-metrical experiments" (260), Strabone argues, were based on the limited knowledge of premodern poetic meters available in the late eighteenth century. Writing in ancient meter was important to Coleridge because he sought, in Christabel and other poems, to demonstrate in verse the Romantic idea that "the modern English nation was descended from age-old Northern forebears" (261) rather than from the garrisons of Roman Britain. Poets and nationalists both rely on invented versions of the antique past to justify their lineage and authority. Beginning in the sixteenth century, antiquarian scholars brought into view pre-Conquest Welsh, Scots, Anglo-Saxon, and other languages and artifacts as origin stories of the nation of Great Britain. The laws, faith, and language of this newly imagined antiquity stretched back to the monks and missionaries who made their way to the British Isles in the first centuries of the common era, the sources of an indigenous Christianity that, in the wake of the Tudor break with Rome, were recruited to displace the authority of the Roman church.
Strabone digs into the editorial practices that distinguish two heightened moments of antiquarian scholarship, the Elizabethan and the Romantic. Sixteenth-century scholars published new accounts of rediscovered Old Welsh, Middle Scots, and Anglo-Saxon texts as evidence of the antiquity of English Christianity and the English nation. Although many of these texts were poems, and the status of the "bard" as the keeper of the culture of Great Britain was an important part of the argument for the continuity of British self-rule and pre-Roman Christianity, initially these books were read as ecclesiastical and legal authorities, not literary documents. But with the rise of independent printers and booksellers in the eighteenth century, such manuscripts began to be understood as literary texts of contemporary interest. As Strabone puts it, "Beowulf may be a 1200-year-old poem, but it is barely a 200-year-old book" (4). We have long learned to recognize the "imagined community" of the nation as a product of a print culture that produced affective investments in national identity apart from, though crucial to the power of, state mechanisms. But for Benedict Anderson and much of the literary criticism influenced by his work, "print" means "prose," especially the novel. Strabone shows us that "the publishing of archaic poetry and the composition of new poetry whose form and content asserted descent from archaic native predecessors" (17) played a role as well.
Coleridge and his contemporaries knew that Anglo-Saxon verse must have differed metrically from poetry in modern English, especially from the ten-syllable iambic pentameter line that dominated the eighteenth century. Coleridge studied and imitated the meters of Old Welsh, Old Norse, and Old [End...