Vital Breathings
: Breath, Voice, and the Culture of Air in Coleridge and Tennyson

  • Elsa A Hammond

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that the notion of breath and breathing in the literary work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and some of their contemporaries, is more complex than previously recognised, and is grounded in the scientific and cultural developments of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chapter 1 establishes a scientific and cultural context for the chapters that follow, whilst also determining the prevalent themes of this study, including the relationship between breath and thought, the symbiotic respiratory relationship of the natural world, technological and medical advances, giving or taking voice, and the contrasting qualities of substantiality and insubstantiality of breath. Chapter 2 is concerned with cycles, meeting points and exchanges of breath in Coleridge’s writing, and focuses primarily on his conversation poems, ‘To William Wordsworth’, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Chapter 3 is an examination of Coleridge the talker, and presents a physiological and psychological explanation for why Coleridge talked so continuously. Chapter 4 offers a detailed reading of the reciprocal breathing relationship in In Memoriam, arguing that Tennyson’s particular engagement with forms of resuscitation and ventriloquism reflects and emphasises the paradox of circular and forward movement inherent in mourning and elegy. Chapter 5 argues that breath, ubiquitous in Idylls of the King in various forms of speech, is paradoxically insubstantial yet powerful; the atmosphere of rumour becomes increasingly substantial to the point that breathing becomes difficult, and the purpose of verbal commemoration is questioned in a world where words can no longer be trusted. Ultimately, this thesis argues that literary attentions to breath, in this period, are engaged with, and influenced by, the wealth of scientific development and concomitant cultural awareness, meaning that breathing is, in the work of Coleridge and Tennyson, compound, substantiated, and symbiotic.
Date of Award19 Mar 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorRalph R G Pite (Supervisor) & Jane E Wright (Supervisor)

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