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This report is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

A Better Class of Conversation Neil Powell

'The present age is an age of talkers, and not of doers; and the reason is, that the world is growing old,' wrote Hazlitt in 1825. Coleridge, as everyone knows, was a prodigious talker: Dorothy Wordsworth found that his conversation 'teams with soul, mind, and spirit' and even an audience of donkeys wouldn't have had a hind leg to stand on. Naturally, he was Hazlitt's chief culprit: 'If Mr Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor, and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler.' Posterity, so far as her fickle favours may be quantified, has probably bestowed more admiration on Coleridge than on Hazlitt. But his talking gets everywhere. These, for instance, are the opening lines of Thom Gunn's sonnet 'Keats at Highgate':

A cheerful youth joined Coleridge on his walk
('Loose,' noted Coleridge, 'slack, and not well-dressed')
Listening respectfully to the talk talk talk...

Yet posterity, having remembered Coleridge as a chatterbox, perversely chooses also to remember him as the author of two poems which bear little resemblance to his, or anyone else's, conversation. It was Chris McCully, in PNR 171, who started this train of thought with his reminder that it was exceedingly odd of Wordsworth and Coleridge to begin the Lyrical Ballads with that 'brilliant antiquarian pastiche', 'The ...

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