“Dejection: An Ode” is an ode in eight stanzas that vary greatly in the number of lines, the length of line, and in thought and imagery. The title announces the subject of the poem, which becomes apparent in the first stanza. The poet is surveying the tranquil night sky in which the new moon can be seen. He recalls an old ballad, which predicted that when the new moon can be seen with the old moon “in its arms,” a storm may be brewing. He hopes this is true, because he is sunk in depression and remembers past occasions when the driving energy of a storm has enlivened his creative spirit.
In stanza 2, the poet elaborates on his dejected state of mind, which is deep and pervasive. Nothing seems able to lift it. Addressing a “Lady” (who is Coleridge’s friend Sara Hutchinson), he says that in this mood he has been gazing at the western sky all evening. Although he can see how beautiful the scene is, he cannot feel this beauty in his inner being.
This observation leads him, in the short stanza 3, to reflect philosophically on his situation. The source of his poetic power is failing him, and the knowledge of this weighs him down. He realizes that he could gaze out forever on the external scene but that it would be no use to him. The “passion and the life” that he seeks is not to be found outside the human mind, but within it.
In stanzas 4 and 5, the poet again addresses Sara directly, elaborating on his philosophy of imaginative perception. He states that if one is to see anything of higher value in nature, one must supply it oneself. For nature to be clothed in light and glory, light and glory must emanate from the soul itself. These qualities cannot be found in outer things, which of themselves are merely cold and dead. The poet calls this power joy. It permits a marriage between man and nature, which creates “a new heaven and a new earth.” The reference is to the Christian Millennium, foretold in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Such perception is available only to the pure.
In stanza 6, the poet looks back at a time when he possessed this joy, which could even withstand personal misfortune. Then he was full of hope, but now he feels that his imaginative and poetic power, which nature gave him at birth, has vanished.
In stanza 7, the poet turns from these dismal thoughts and listens to the wind, which has gathered strength in the time he has been contemplating. In an apostrophe to the wind, he compares it first to a “mad Lutanist,” then to an actor, perfectly enunciating a variety of sounds, and then to a poet, moved to the frenzy of inspiration. He wonders what story the wind is telling. First he thinks of the headlong retreat of a defeated army, groaning in pain. Then, with a sudden lessening of the noise, he thinks that it tells another tale, of a lost child screaming for her mother.
In the final stanza, the poet’s thoughts turn to Sara. He hopes that sleep may visit her, since it is denied to him. Invoking the joy to which he had given so much importance in stanza 5, he expresses the wish that Sara may rise in the morning with an uplifted spirit, and that her life may always be full of rejoicing.
“Dejection: An Ode” is sometimes classified as one of Coleridge’s “conversation” poems, a group which includes “The Eolian Harp” (1796), “Frost at Midnight” (1798), and...
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others. The opening line of the ode (“Well! if the bard was weather-wise”) strikes the informal tone of the speaking voice. As in the other conversation poems, the poet addresses an absent auditor, in this case Sara. Also like the other conversation poems, the ode possesses a tripartite, rondo structure. It starts with a description of a tranquil natural scene (as in “The Eolian Harp,” for example), juxtaposed and contrasted with the poet’s own mood (as in “Frost at Midnight”). A meditation follows, in which the poet grapples with emotional and intellectual questions, before the poem returns to the outer scene. The rhythm of the poem, at both inner and outer level, is one of calm, followed by storm, followed by calm.
There are also, however, many differences between the ode and the conversation poems. The informal tone of the ode’s first line is not maintained throughout, but gives way to the more lofty and dignified manner that traditionally characterizes the ode. Also, the poem is in rhymed verse, as opposed to the blank verse of the conversation poems. The incantatory power contained in the tetrameter and trimeter rhyming couplets in stanzas 1 and 7, for example, bear a greater resemblance to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Christabel (1816) than to the conversation poems. Another difference is in how the theme of the poem emerges. In “Dejection: An Ode,” the theme emerges quickly and deliberately, rather than slipping in apparently by accident, an effect Coleridge cultivated so carefully in the conversation poems. Also dissimilar are the rapid shifts of thought, feeling, and subject that characterize “Dejection: An Ode,” unlike the associative links that make the conversation poems flow so smoothly from one idea to the next.
Imagery of the weather—wind, rain, and storm—dominates stanzas 1 and 7. In stanza 7, the noise of the storm is described in a stream of metaphors: as an aeolian harp—a stringed instrument that produces music when the wind sweeps over it—an actor, a poet, a retreating army, and a little child. The imaginative activity shown by the poet at the height of the storm is an implicit denial of his statement that he has completely lost his imaginative power.
Two other images, of serpent and bird, are worthy of note. The first lines of stanza 7, “Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind/ Reality’s dark dream!” expresses the enclosing, suffocating feeling the poet is experiencing. In the following stanza, the image of serpent is contrasted with the image of sleep visiting the Lady “with wings of healing,” a birdlike image suggesting freedom, flight, and expansion. Taken together, the two make up one way in which the opposites which Coleridge saw at work everywhere in existence, and which he once called the “Confining Form” and the “Free Life,” can be experienced.
Brice, Benjamin. Coleridge and Skepticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Interesting on the poem’s compositional process and Coleridge’s poetic relationship to Wordsworth.
Christie, Will. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2006. The most authoritative and incisive biography of Coleridge; sheds light on the state of mind and circumstances of Coleridge at the time he wrote the poem.
Mellor, Anne K. English Romantic Irony. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. Insightful analysis of the poem as, in different moments, both happy and sad. An important counterpoint to readings of the poem that emphasize the poet’s incapacity and paralysis.
Roe, Nicholas. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Places the poem in the context of what Roe terms Coleridge’s “dejection years” and deftly explicates both its physical and its metaphysical aspects.
Schulz, Max. The Poetic Voices of Coleridge. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1963. Schulz’s dual emphasis on arrangement and instability is especially sensitive to the dialectic of these qualities evident in the poem.
West, Sally. Coleridge and Shelley: A Textual Engagement. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007. Especially good on the music and weather imagery on the poem, as well as its simultaneous conjuring of both emotion and detachment.