Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Eolian Harp” expresses Coleridge’s belief in a natural philosophy that emphasizes the connectedness of all things, both inner and outer: “O! the one Life within us and abroad,” as he puts it in this poem. Coleridge believed that any separation between subject and object, the knower and the known, was ultimately false, and he was always searching for the ways in which the laws that govern the operation of the human mind could also be discerned in the workings of the external world. Like Wordsworth, he thought this could best be achieved when the mind was quiet—hence the emphasis in the poem on his own “indolence.” (Wordsworth called such a state “wise passiveness.”) Settling down into its own silence, the mind could then perceive the underlying principle of joy and harmony which runs through the whole of creation, the “Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where” suggested to the poet by the music of the harp.

Later in Coleridge’s career he became dissatisfied with the image of the eolian harp because it suggested that the mind was passive in perception, merely waiting to receive input from the sensory world. Coleridge rejected this view, which is associated with the English philosopher John Locke, replacing it with the idea of the mind as a fountain or a radiating light which actively projects life into all that it perceives. This view finds clear expression in Coleridge’s poem Dejection: An Ode (1802).


(The entire section is 489 words.)