“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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,375 words.)