Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375
“Dejection: An Ode” is generally considered the last of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s major poems. Coleridge wrote a draft of the poem on April 4, 1802, and published a significantly revised and shortened version in December of 1802 in The Morning Post. As its subtitle indicates, “Dejection” is an ode. The English ode from at least the time of Abraham Cowley in the mid-seventeenth century was an irregular form that generally served as a way for a poet to address interior states of mind and turns of cognitive reflection in an overall lyric frame.
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Coleridge begins his poem by quoting from the medieval English ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, citing the image of the new moon rising as the last vestiges of the old moon are disappearing. This optical effect is seen by the ballad, and sailors’ lore generally, as presaging a dire storm. Coleridge’s opening thus recalls the interest in oral and popular tradition that the poet and his sometime friend, sometime rival William Wordsworth produced in their coauthored Lyrical Ballads (1798) and that, in Coleridge’s own case, influenced his best-known poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). However, even as he calls on the sonorous orality of the ballad to begin his ode, Coleridge makes clear the distance of his own poem from that form.
Whereas the ballad uses simple, resonant language, Coleridge tends to use more abstract or discursive words. Indeed, the gap between the palpable density of the ballad and the cerebral ruminations of the rest of the poem epitomizes the very distance from primal inspiration that preoccupies the poet throughout the course of the ode. Coleridge uses rhyme in his ode, much like his English predecessors and unlike the ancients, but the rhyme scheme is not in successive pairs of couplets it had been in previous English odes. The rhyme scheme is complex and inconsistent. The first stanza has ten separate rhymes, alternating three times between direct and interspersed rhymes. Formally, it could not be more different from the straightforward rhyme scheme of the ballad. The poem, however, is not blank verse, which Wordsworth certainly found a fitting vehicle for similar poems. The decision to use any rhyme, albeit idiosyncratic rhyme, gives “Dejection” formal ballast that lends a steady beat to its often agonized and contorted line of exposition. Rhyme is used often in the poem—at one point in stanza 5, four end-lines rhyme in a row, “power,” “hour,” “shower,” and “dower”—but the argumentation is so strong that the rhyme is never obtrusive and often barely noticeable.
Ironically, the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens became part of the canon of Englsih literature almost wholly as a result of the attention Coleridge called to it. The intellectual meditation of Coleridge was needed to bring the oral ballad into scholarly focus. Coleridge himself may have had some wisdom about even such primal forces as the sea and weather that the ballad did not, yet this percipience is virtually annulled by the poem’s sense of severance from feeling. The poem’s combination of turbulence and malaise is quite unusual: Turmoil usually carries intense emotion with it, but the poem feels innoculated from the intensities of both joy and pain.
“Dejection” is often seen as Coleridge’s own commentary on his declining poetic powers or as presaging the shift in his intellectual attention from the writing of poetry to the formulation of the vast and intricately organized system of criticism unfolded in his Biographia Literaria (1817). The quandary of the poem is explicitly raised at the end of the second stanza. The poem has earlier complained of a “dull pain,” a grief that is not even cathartic in its emotional release but “stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned.” Coleridge recounts to the poem’s addressee, Sara Hutchinson, his experience of gazing on the beauty of the woods, the sky, the moon, and the stars, registering them mentally without, however, being convulsed by their emotional force as presumably he once had been. The stanza concludes: “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are.”
This deficiency of inner feeling is the quandary addressed in the remainder of the poem. Given that “Dejection” was Coleridge’s last major poem and given that he turned increasingly to criticism after writing it, critics have often read the ode as expressing the problems of affect and creativity that it diagnoses, problems the poem is unable to resolve. There is no ideal meld of ego and other. The poet says he “may not hope from outward forms” to win the spirit of true nature, whose aspiration is epitomized by an image of a green light that lingers in the west.
The frustrations of the poem’s speaker raise questions. When one sees but does not feel beauty, can one adequately grasp that beauty? How can one be a poet without feeling “inspired”? Can one’s mind navigate an act of poetic perception without affect? Coleridge chastises himself for not feeling enough, yet the poem itself is not a failure, even as it seems to chronicle the imaginative shortcomings of the poet. The thematic affirmation of wisdom and persistence at the end is augmented by the imaginative achievement of the poem. “Dejection” shows the poet’s mind contesting the problem, not just contemplating it. It is out of this activity that “Dejection” ends up conjuring “the natural man,” even if that quality of naturalness is stolen “by abstruse research.” Coleridge’s optimism may have been manufactured; the resolution at the end may have been willed or premeditated. That does not necessarily mean it is false. Coleridge, who later, in his criticism, so powerfully wrote of how the imagination weaves and knits together disparate phenomena, asserts in “Dejection” that imagination takes effort. Imagination must negotiate both the internal pitfalls of dejection and the outward perils of turbulence. It cannot afford to be naïve or to dispense with the intellect. What on one level is inauthentic is on another level a voluntary exercise. The mind can make experience that does not come naturally.
The Eolian lute, which comes to the fore in the poem’s sixth stanza, is an unusual instrument, built in order for the wind to play upon it. The poet uses this device to intensify the moods of nature, but he prefers the exclusively natural “music” of the wind playing on mountains and trees. The Eolian lute is a trope for the poet’s own will. It represents the sense of something in addition to nature that is concomitant with his mental exertions. It is not a shaping force; it can, in the terms of the poem’s lexicon, “receive” but not “give.” It is more a meteorological than a musical instrument. The poem has earlier said, in effect, that nature does not really matter unless people make it matter, that humans are the ones who supply nature’s “wedding garment” and her “shroud.” Coleridge had, seven years earlier, written a poem called “The Eolian Harp” (1795) that pictured the instrument as an accompaniment to domestic happiness amid natural bliss. In “Dejection,” the mood has darkened, and Coleridge no longer apostrophizes Sara Fricker—his wife at the time, the “pensive Sara” of the original poem—but rather Sara Hutchinson, his extramarital love interest in 1802.
In the original Morning Post version of the ode, Sara Hutchinson is named. In the final version, she is merely addressed as “Lady,” possibly to avoid confusing eventual readers of the collected poems by including two poems addressed to different Saras. Not only did Fricker and Hutchinson share the same Christian name, but they were also both sisters of wives of Coleridge’s friends and fellow poets. The first Sara’s sister Edith had married Robert Southey; the second Sara’s sister Mary had married Wordsworth. This repetition of name and circumstance emphasizes the more agitated, less tranquil 1802 revision of the harp-apostrophe combination, yet many critics would argue that Coleridge’s agonized address to the second Sara is less a wish-fulfillment of domestic bliss and more a revelation of the poet’s troubled state of mind. Thus, “Dejection,” wrangles honestly with the affective complexity of its tableau, thereby generating an unfettered joy that rebukes the delights of “the sensual and the proud” because it has required more struggle to achieve it.