Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 170

"The Eolian Harp" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a poem about the beauty of romantic love. The Eolian harp creates beautiful, melodic music, and Coleridge likens his love for a woman with the music of the harp.

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He embraces the idea that he is a better man and more devoted husband because of his love and devotion to God and his understanding of his divine presence. Throughout the poem, Coleridge uses nature imagery and the imagery of the harp to discuss his feelings about love, marriage, and sexual union. He creates a sort of extended metaphor, likening himself to the harp and the music it makes to the breath of God. He connects images of nature with love and marriage, but he also highlights a series of conflicting ideas that characterize his feelings about his love for a woman as a battle between chaos and order, propriety and wild abandon. However, he reconciles these inconsistencies by affirming his faith in God and, by extension, his devoted love for a woman.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

“The Eolian Harp” is a lyric poem written in blank verse paragraphs of varying lengths. The title refers to a stringed instrument which produces music when placed in an open window so that the breeze may pass over it. The eolian harp was commonly used by poets in the Romantic period as a metaphor for the creative process.

The poem begins with the persona, who is clearly Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself, addressing his wife, Sara. They are sitting affectionately together outside their cottage in Clevedon, in the English county of Somersetshire. It is a quiet and peaceful evening scene. They look up at the evening star and the passing clouds; they can smell the pleasing scent from the nearby bean field, and they listen to the distant murmur of the sea.

In the second verse paragraph, the poet turns his attention to the eolian harp placed in the window of the cottage. Touched by the intermittent breeze, it is sending its music into the air. Coleridge compares the harp first to a girl “half yielding” as she is caressed by her lover; then, as the music grows stronger, he compares the harp to entrancing sounds coming from fairyland. The combination of silence and soft sound leads the poet into an intellectual reverie. He celebrates “The one Life within us and abroad,” a single spirit infusing everything in creation with joy. He feels that in such a world, in which the very air seems to be filled with music, it is impossible not to be filled with love for all things.

Stimulated by this thought, he remembers an incident when he was climbing a hill at midday and had watched, through half-closed eyes, the sunbeams dancing on the sea. The tranquil scene had stimulated his mind, and the present scene is having the same effect on him: A stream of thoughts rushes spontaneously through his “indolent and passive brain.” Another intellectual meditation follows, which develops the ideas implicit in the previous reverie. The poet speculates that perhaps everything in nature is like an eolian harp, brought into being as one vast “intellectual breeze” sweeps over it, a breeze which is at once the soul of each individual thing and the God of the whole creation.

In the final verse paragraph, the poet catches sight of his wife, Sara, who is chastising him for indulging in fanciful ideas. She tells him to “walk humbly with [his] God.” The poet praises her as a “Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!” and accepts her rebuke. He dismisses his thoughts as nothing more than the “shapings of the unregenerate mind” and concludes the poem with a more orthodox Christian position. He remembers that God is beyond understanding, except to the eye of deeply felt faith, and he accepts that it is only through God’s grace that he has been saved from his sins and granted the peace and happiness he now enjoys with his wife.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

“The Eolian Harp” is one of Coleridge’s first achievements in a new lyric form he developed, which is known as the conversation poem, or greater Romantic lyric. The form was later used by almost all the major English romantic poets, including Coleridge’s close friend William Wordsworth in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798).

The conversation poem, so called because it embodies the relaxed and informal tones of the speaking voice, is usually addressed to a silent listener, in this case Coleridge’s wife Sara. It usually begins with a description of a quiet scene in nature, then turns inward, to the workings of the poet’s own mind. Typically, the poet will reflect on an emotional or intellectual problem and work his way to some kind of resolution before the poem rounds back to where it began, in the calm of the natural scene. The rhythm is one of systole and diastole.

“The Eolian Harp” underwent many revisions before it reached its final form. Lines 26-33 did not appear until 1817; however, it clearly follows the pattern of the typical conversation poem. From the scene outside the cottage, the poem moves progressively away from the everyday world to more refined levels of the poet’s mind and imagination. The movement begins with the music from the harp prompting a simile (the harp is “like some coy Maid”); another simile follows, when the music is compared to the sounds that “twilight Elfins make” and the poet evokes the world of fairyland. Finally, the poet drifts into an inspired consideration of the fundamental structure of the universe. Notable is the synesthesia contained in the line, “A light in sound, a sound-like power in light.”

This structure repeats itself in the next verse paragraph. This time the external scene, which like the earlier one is described in terms of quiet tranquillity, is one that the poet remembers (his climb up the hill). The memory prompts another inward turn of the mind, which culminates in another of the poet’s stabs at the ultimate nature of life, in lines 44-47. Finally the poem returns to its starting point, and the poet realizes, with more than a little encouragement from Sara, that his metaphysical speculations are of little use to him.

The dominant image is that of the eolian harp, whose spontaneous music feeds the poet’s loftier speculations. The harp also provides the poet with an image of himself and his own craft: Like the harp, the poet waits passively for inspiration to come to him. He must “tranquil muse upon tranquillity” until the external scene, received through “half-clos’d eyelids,” stimulates his “indolent and passive brain” to deep thoughts. Linked to this interaction between active and passive modes of being is another prominent group of images, in which silence coexists with soft sound, as in the line, “The stilly murmur of the distant Sea/ Tells us of Silence,” and in all the passages that describe the harp’s music.

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