Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Coleridge composed “Dejection: An Ode” as a direct response to the first four stanzas of William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807), in which Wordsworth lamented the loss of his childhood ability to see nature clothed in celestial light. Some of the phrases in Coleridge’s ode are clearly intended as allusions to Wordsworth’s poem. Compare, for example, Coleridge’s “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are” with Wordsworth’s “The fullness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.”

In its theory of perception, the ode marks a sharp break with Wordsworth’s views, which Coleridge had previously shared. Wordsworth thought that a higher vision of life could be obtained through an “ennobling interchange,” or marriage, between the human mind and nature. Coleridge had himself placed a very high value on the role that nature should play in the education of the human mind, especially in poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “The Dungeon” (1798). In “Dejection: An Ode,” he repudiates this view. He gazes out on a beautiful scene, but this does nothing to lift his spirits or rekindle his imaginative power. He concludes that “outward forms” are of no use unless the inner mind is vibrant: “we receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” Only if the mind is full of joy will it be able to perceive the unifying spirit that runs through all things, and so overcome the split between subject and object. Only then can Wordsworth’s marriage metaphor, which Coleridge also employs in this poem, have any meaning.

Interpreters have differed over the question of whether the poet (as speaker) shows any imaginative growth during the course of the poem. The general view is that he does not and that the final stanza, even though it brings the poem to a peaceful conclusion, is a defeat for the poet, since he can contemplate the possibility of joy only for his friend, not for himself. Unlike Wordsworth in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Coleridge can find no consoling thoughts to live by or convince himself that he has gained more than he has lost. A minority view sees evidence in stanza 7 that the poet has rekindled an imaginative spark and that as a result, in the calm final stanza, he is able to transcend his sense of separateness and feel compassion for another human being.