How does Samuel Taylor Coleridge use his poem "The Dungeon" to engage the reader and incite the imagination towards taking action in the politics of his day?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge became a staunch advocate for social and political reforms. He particularly spoke out against "unchecked industrialism," arguing that an unregulated free-market would simply bring more social and political imbalances. He had at first been a supporter of the French Revolution with all of its ideals of social equality; however, when it began to grow far too bloody, he switched sides and began supporting Edmund Burke, a fellow critic of the French Revolution. Although, Coleridge developed one of his most important social and political beliefs when he disagreed with Burke's idea that "society ... tended naturally towards a stable equilibrium" (Ballantyne, "Political Ideas: Samuel Taylor Coleridge"). Upon this principle, Coleridge also based his arguments against industrialism, arguing that a capitalistic economy will not simply self-regulate and will only create more inequalities. Coleridge especially noted that after the Napoleonic wars, England had a declining economy full of "bank failures, bankruptcies, widespread joblessness, hunger and mass rioting" (Ballantyne). Coleridge was the first to argue that a government during a troubled economy should actually spend more than it has in order to boost the economy and create new jobs (Ballantyne). Hence, Coleridge's poem "The Dungeon" reflects what he views as his government's flaws in regulating society and the economy, creating poverty, social inequality, and other hardships.

Particularly, Coleridge uses the metaphor of a dungeon and dungeon masters to portray the nation's poor as being cruelly imprisoned in a dungeon, like the dungeon of a capitalistic society. We particularly see the image of the imprisoned poor portrayed in the opening lines when he asks how "our love and wisdom" could make such an awful place for "each poor brother who offends" and is most likely innocent, as we see in the lines:

And this place our forefathers made for man!
This is the process of our love and wisdom,
To each poor brother who offends against us--
Most innocent, perhaps--

The phrase "who offends" particularly relates to capitalism because a common notion that accompanies the belief of capitalism is that in a free market, those who are poor are poor due to their own faults, and, hence, the poor are offenders against society through their neediness when really their poverty is their own fault. Hence, Coleridge is using the phrase "poor brother offends" to symbolize the poor who suffer in a capitalist society to assert his own belief that uncontrolled capitalism actually helps create poverty. We further see Coleridge's views of poverty and human suffering being spoken of in lines such as:

Each pore and natural outlet shrivelled up
By Ignorance and parching Poverty,
His energies roll back upon his heart,
And stagnate and corrupt.

Hence we see that Coleridge is using the images in this poem and the metaphor of a dungeon to portray his government's treatment of the poor and to assert that an uncontrolled capitalist society only makes things worse. Through the extended metaphor of a dungeon and through his images, Coleridge peaks his reader's imagination, inspiring them to take action.

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