Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetry: British Analysis

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s major poems turn on problems of self-esteem and identity. Exploring states of isolation and ineffectuality, they test strategies to overcome weakness without asserting its antithesis—a powerful self, secure in its own thoughts and utterances, the potency and independence of which Coleridge feared would only exacerbate his loneliness. His reluctance to assert his own abilities is evident in his habitual deprecation of his own poetry and hyperbolic praise of William Wordsworth’s. It is evident as well in his best verse, which either is written in an unpretentious “conversational” tone or, when it is not, is carefully dissociated from his own voice and identity. By means of these strategies, however, he is often able to assert indirectly or vicariously the strong self he otherwise repressed.

“The Eolian Harp”

Writing to John Thelwall in 1796, Coleridge called the first of the conversation poems, “The Eolian Harp” (written in 1795), the “favorite of my poems.” He originally published it, in 1796, with the indication “Composed August 20th, 1795, At Clevedon, Somersetshire,” which dates at least some version of the text six weeks before his marriage to Sara Fricker. Since Sara plays a role in the poem, the exact date is crucial. “The Eolian Harp” is not, as it has been called, a “honeymoon” poem; rather, it anticipates a future in which Coleridge and Sara will sit together by their “Cot o’ergrown/ With white-flower’d Jasmin.” Significantly, Sara remains silent throughout the poem; her only contribution is the “mild reproof” that “darts” from her “more serious eye,” quelling the poet’s intellectual daring. However, this reproof is as imaginary as Sara’s presence itself. At the climax of the poem, meditative thought gives way to the need for human response; tellingly, the response he imagines and therefore, one must assume, desires, is reproof.

“The Eolian Harp” establishes a structural pattern for the conversation poems as a group. Coleridge is, in effect, alone, “and the world so hush’d!/ The stilly murmur of the distant Sea/ Tells us of silence.” The eolian harp in the window sounds in the breeze and reminds him of “the one Life within us and abroad,/ Which meets all motion and becomes its soul.” This observation leads to the central question of the poem:

 And what if all of animated natureBe but organic Harps diversely fram’d,That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweepsPlastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Sara’s glance dispells “These shapings of the unregenerate mind,” but, of course, it is too late, since they have already been expressed in the poem. (Indeed, the letter to Thelwall makes it clear that it was this expression of pantheism, not its retraction, that made the poem dear to Coleridge.) For this reason, the conflict between two sides of Coleridge’s thought—metaphysical speculation and orthodox Christianity—remains unresolved. If the poem is in any way disquieting, it is not because it exemplifies a failure of nerve, but because of the identifications it suggests between metaphysical speculation and the isolated self, religious orthodoxy and the conventions—down to the vines covering the cottage—of married life. Coleridge, in other words, does not imagine a wife who will love him all the more for his intellectual daring. Instead, he imagines one who will chastise him for the very qualities that make him an original thinker. To “possess/ Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour’d Maid!,” Coleridge must acknowledge himself “A sinful and most miserable man,/ Wilder’d and dark.” Happiness, as well as poetic closure, depends on this acceptance of diminished self-esteem. Even so, by embedding an expression of intellectual strength within the context of domestic conventionality, Coleridge is able to achieve a degree of poetic authority otherwise absent in the final lines of the poem. The ability to renounce a powerful self is itself a gesture of power: The acceptance of loss becomes—as in other Romantic poems—a form of strength.

The structure of “The Eolian Harp” can be summarized as follows: A state of isolation (the more isolated for the presence of an unresponsive companion) gives way to meditation, which leads to the possibility of a self powerful through its association with an all-powerful force. This state of mind gives place to the acknowledgment of a human relationship dependent on the poet’s recognition of his own inadequacy, the reward for which is a poetic voice with the authority to close the poem.

“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”

This pattern recurs in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1797). The poem is addressed to Charles Lamb, but the “gentle-hearted Charles” of the text is really a surrogate for the figure of Wordsworth, whose loss Coleridge is unwilling to face head-on. Incapacitated by a burn—appropriately, his wife’s fault—Coleridge is left alone seated in a clump of lime trees while his friends—Lamb and William and Dorothy Wordsworth—set off on a long walk through the countryside. They are, like Sara in “The Eolian Harp,” there and yet not there: Their presence in the poem intensifies Coleridge’s sense of isolation. He follows them in his imagination, and the gesture itself becomes a means of connecting himself with them. Natural images of weakness, enclosure, and solitude give way to those of strength, expansion, and connection, and the tone of the poem shifts from speculation to assertion. In a climactic moment, he imagines his friends “gazing round/ On the wide landscape” until it achieves the transcendence of “such hues/ As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes/ Spirits perceive his presence.”

As in “The Eolian Harp,” the perception of an omnipotent force pervading the universe returns Coleridge to his present state, but with a new sense of his own being and his relationship with the friends to whom he addresses the poem. His own isolation is now seen as an end in itself. “Sometimes/ ’Tis well to be bereft of promised good,” Coleridge argues, “That we may lift the soul, and contemplate/ With lively joy the joys we cannot share.”

“Frost at Midnight”

“Frost at Midnight,” the finest of the conversation poems, replaces silent wife or absent friends with a sleeping child (Hartley—although he is not named in the text). Summer is replaced by winter; isolation is now a function of seasonal change itself. In this zero-world, “The Frost performs its secret ministry,/ Unhelped by any wind.” The force that moved the eolian harp into sound is gone. The natural surroundings of the poem drift into nonexistence: “Sea, and hill, and wood,/ With all the numberless goings-on of life,/ Inaudible as dreams!” This is the nadir of self from which the poet reconstructs his being—first by perception of “dim sympathies” with the “low-burnt fire” before him; then by a process of recollection and predication. The “film” on the grate reminds Coleridge of his childhood at Christ’s Hospital, where a similar image conveyed hopes of seeing someone from home and therefore a renewal of the conditions of his earlier life in Ottery St. Mary. Even in recollection, however, the bells of his “sweet birth-place” are most expressive not as a voice of the present moment, but as “articulate sounds of things to come!” The spell of the past was, in fact, a spell of the imagined future. The visitor he longed for turns out to be a version of the self of the poet, his “sister more beloved/ My play-mate when we both were clothed alike.” The condition of loss that opens the poem cannot be filled by the presence of another human being; it is a fundamental emptiness in the self, which, Coleridge suggests, can never be filled, but only recognized as a necessary condition of adulthood. However, this recognition of incompleteness is the poet’s means of experiencing a sense of identity missing in the opening lines of the poem.

“Frost at Midnight” locates this sense of identity in Coleridge’s own life. It is not a matter of metaphysical or religious belief, as it is in “The Eolian Harp” or “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” but a function of the self that recognizes its own coherence in time. This recognition enables him to speak to the “Dear Babe” who had been there all along, but had remained a piece of the setting and not a living human being. Like the friends of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” who are projected exploring a landscape, the boy Hartley is imagined wandering “like a breeze/ By lakes and sandy shores.” The static existence of the poet in the present moment is contrasted with the movement of a surrogate. This movement, however, is itself subordinated to the voice of the poet who can promise his son a happiness he himself has not known.

In all three poems, Coleridge achieves a voice that entails the recognition of his own loss—in acknowledging Sara’s reproof or losing himself in the empathic construction of the experience of friend or son. The act entails a defeat of the self, but also a vicarious participation in powerful forces that reveal themselves in the working of the universe, and through this participation a partial triumph of the self over its own sense of inadequacy. In “Frost at Midnight,” the surrogate figure of his son not only embodies a locomotor power denied the static speaker, but also, in his capacity to read the “language” uttered by God in the form of landscape, is associated with absolute power itself.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Although written in a very different mode, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner centers on a similar experience of participation in supernatural power. At the core of the poem is, of course, the story of the Mariner who shoots the albatross and endures complete and devastating isolation from his fellow man. The poem, however, is not a direct narrative of these events; rather, it is a narrative of the Mariner’s narrating them. The result of the extraordinary experience he has undergone is to make him an itinerant storyteller. It has given him a voice, but a voice grounded on his own incompleteness of self. He has returned to land but remains homeless and without permanent human relationships. In this respect, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is Coleridge’s nightmare alternative to the conversation poem. As “conversations,” they suggest the possibility of a relationship with his audience that can in part compensate for the inadequate human relationships described in the poem. The Mariner’s story is a kind of conversation. He tells it to the Wedding-Guest he has singled out for that purpose, but the relationship between speaker and audience can scarcely be said to compensate for the Mariner’s lack of human relationships. The Wedding-Guest is compelled to listen by the hypnotic power of the Mariner’s “glittering eye.” He “beats his breast” at the thought of the wedding from which he is being detained and repeatedly expresses his fear of the Mariner. In the end, he registers no compassion for the man whose story he has just heard. He is too “stunned” for that—and the Mariner has left the stage without asking for applause. His audience is changed by the story—“A sadder and a wiser man,/ He rose the morrow morn”—but of this the Mariner can know nothing. Thus, the power of the Mariner’s story to captivate and transform its audience simply furthers his alienation from his fellow human beings.

Structurally, the poem follows the three-stage pattern of the conversation poems. A state of isolation and immobility is succeeded by one in which the Mariner becomes the object of (and is thus associated with) powerful supernatural agencies, and this leads to the moralizing voice of the conclusion. Unlike the conversation poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner prefaces individual isolation with social isolation. The Mariner and his shipmates, in what has become one of the most familiar narratives in English literature, sail from Europe toward Cape Horn, where they are surrounded by a polar ice jam. An albatross appears and accepts food from the sailors; a fair wind springs up, and they are able to resume their journey northward into the Pacific Ocean; the albatross follows them, “And every day, for food or play,/ Came to the mariner’s hollo!”—until the Mariner, seemingly without reason, shoots the bird with his crossbow. Coleridge warned readers against allegorizing the poem, and it is fruitless to search for a specific identification for the albatross. What is important is the bird’s gratuitous arrival and the Mariner’s equally gratuitous crossbow shot. The polar ice that threatens the ship is nature at its most alien. Seen against that backdrop, the albatross seems relatively human; the mariners, accordingly, “hailed it in God’s name”; “As if it had been a Christian soul.” Like the “film” in “Frost at Midnight”—a poem in which crucial events are also set against a wintry backdrop—the bird offers them a means of bridging the gap between humans and nature, self and nonself, through projecting human characteristics on a creature of the natural world. By shooting the albatross, the Mariner blocks this projection and thus traps both himself and his shipmates in a state of isolation.

The Mariner’s act has no explicit motive because it is a function of human nature itself, but it is not merely a sign of original sin or congenital perversity. His narrative has until now been characterized by a remarkable passivity. Events simply happen. Even the ship’s progress is characterized not by its own movement but by the changing position of the sun in the sky. The ice that surrounds the ship is only one element of a natural world that dominates the fate of the ship and its crew, and it is against this overwhelming dominance that the Mariner takes his crossbow shot. The gesture is an assertion of the human spirit against an essentially inhuman universe, aimed at the harmless albatross.

He is punished for this self-assertion—first, by the crewmen who blame him for the calm that follows and tie the albatross around his neck as a sign of guilt. It is only after this occurs that the Mariner, thirsty and guilt-ridden, perceives events that are explicitly supernatural, and the second stage of his punishment begins. However, the Mariner’s isolation, even after his shipmates have died and left him alone on the becalmed ship, remains a consequence of his assertion of self against the natural world, and the turning point of the poem is equally his own doing. In the midst of the calm, the water had seemed abhorrently ugly: “slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea,” while “the water, like a witch’s oils,/ Burnt green, and blue and white.” Now, “bemocked” by moonlight, the same creatures are beautiful: “Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,/ They coiled and swam; and every track/ Was a flash of golden fire.” In this perception of beauty, the Mariner explains, “A spring of love gushed from my heart,/ And I blessed them unaware.” At the same moment, he is once again able to pray, and the albatross falls from his neck into the sea. Prayer—the ability to voice his mind and feelings and, in so doing, relate them to a higher order of being—is a function of love, and love is a function of the apprehension of beauty. In blessing the water snakes, it should be noted, the Mariner has not returned to the viewpoint of his shipmates when they attributed human characteristics to the albatross. When he conceives of the snakes as “happy living things,” he acknowledges a bond between all forms of organic life, but their beauty does not depend on human projection.

However, achieving this chastened vision does not end the Mariner’s suffering. Not only must he endure an extension of his shipboard isolation, but also when, eventually, he returns to his native land, he is not granted reintegration into its society. The Hermit from whom he asks absolution demands quick answer to his own question, “What manner of man art thou?” In response, the Mariner experiences a spasm of physical agony that forces him to tell the story of his adventures. The tale told, he is left free of pain—until such time as “That agony returns” and he is compelled to repeat the narrative: “That moment that his face I see,/ I know the man that must hear me:/ To him my tale I teach.” The Mariner has become a poet—like Coleridge, a poet gifted with “strange power of speech” and plagued with somatic pain, with power to fix his auditors’ attention and transform them into “sadder and wiser” men. However, the price of this power is enormous. It entails not only the shipboard suffering of the Mariner but also perpetual alienation from his fellow human beings. Telling his story is the only relationship allowed him, and he does not even fully understand the meaning of his narration. In the concluding lines of the poem, he attempts to draw a moral—

He prayeth best, who loveth bestAll things both great and small;For the dear God who loveth us,He made and loveth all.

These words are not without bearing on the poem, but they overlook the extraordinary disproportion between the Mariner’s crime and its punishment. Readers of the poem—as well as, one supposes, the Wedding-Guest—are more likely to question the benevolence of the “dear God who loveth us” than to perceive the Mariner’s story as an illustration of God’s love. Thus, the voice of moral authority that gave the conversation poems a means of closure is itself called into question. The soul that acknowledges its essential isolation in the universe can never hope for reintegration into society. The poet whose song is the tale of his own suffering can “stun” his reader but can never achieve a lasting human relationship. His experience can be given the aesthetic coherence of narrative, but he can never connect the expressive significance of that narrative with his life as a whole.

It is in part the medium of the poem that allows Coleridge to face these bleak possibilities. Its ballad stanza and archaic diction, along with the marginal glosses added from 1815 to 1816, dissociate the text from its modern poet. Freed from an explicit identification with the Mariner, Coleridge is able both to explore implications of the poet’s role that would have been difficult to face directly and to write about experiences for which there was no precedent in conventional meditative verse.

“Kubla Khan”

A similar strategy is associated with “Kubla Khan,” which can be read as an alternative to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The poem, which was not published until 1816, nearly two decades after it was written, is Coleridge’s most daring account of poetic inspiration and the special nature of the poet. In the poem, the poet’s isolation is perceived not as weakness but strength. Even in 1816, the gesture of self-assertion was difficult for Coleridge, and he prefaced the poem with an account designed to diminish its significance. “Kubla Khan” was, he explained, “a psychological curiosity,” the fragment of a longer poem he had composed in an opium-induced sleep, “if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.” Waking, he began to write out the verses he had in this manner “composed” but was interrupted by a visitor, after whose departure he found he could no longer remember more than “the general purport of the vision” and a few “scattered lines and images.”

The problem with this explanation is that “Kubla Khan” does not strike readers as a fragment. It is, as it stands, an entirely satisfactory whole. Moreover, the facts of Coleridge’s preface have themselves been called into question.

Just what was Coleridge trying to hide? The poem turns on an analogy between the act of an emperor and the act of a poet. Kubla Khan’s “pleasure-dome” in Xanadu is more than a monarch’s self-indulgence; symbolically, it attempts to arrest the process of life itself. His walls encircle “twice five miles of fertile ground,” in the midst of which flows “Alph,” the sacred river of life, but they control neither the source of the river nor its conclusion in the “lifeless ocean” to which it runs. The source is a “deep romantic chasm” that Coleridge associates with the violence of natural process, with human sexuality, and with the libidinal origins of poetry in the song of a “woman wailing for her demon lover.” Kubla’s pleasure-dome is “a miracle of rare device,” but it can exert no lasting influence. The achievement of the most powerful Oriental despot is limited by the conditions of life, and even his attempt to order a limited space evokes “Ancestral voices prophesying war!”

In contrast, the achievement of the poet is not bounded by space and time and partakes of the dangerous potency of natural creativity itself. The nature of inspiration is tricky, however. The speaker of the poem recollects a visionary “Abyssinian maid” playing a dulcimer, and it is the possibility of reviving “within me/ Her symphony and song” that holds out the hope of a corresponding creativity: “To such a deep delight ’twould win me,/ . . . I would build that dome in air, . . .” The poet’s act is always secondary, never primary creativity. Even so, to re-create in poetry Kubla’s achievement—without its liabilities—is to become a dangerous being. Like the Mariner, the inspired poet has “flashing eyes” that can cast a spell over his audience. His special nature may be the sign of an incomplete self—for inspiration depends on the possibility of recovering a lost recollection; nevertheless, it is a special nature that threatens to re-create the world in its own image.

Christabel

Nowhere else is Coleridge so confident about his powers as a poet or writer. Christabel, written in the same period as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan,” remains a fascinating fragment. Like “Kubla Khan,” it was not published until 1816. By then, the verse romances of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron had caught the public’s attention, and among Coleridge’s motives in publishing his poem was to lay claim to a poetic form he believed he had originated. More important, though, his decision to publish two parts of an incomplete narrative almost two decades after he had begun the poem was also a means of acknowledging that Christabel was and would remain unfinished.

To attribute its incompletion to Coleridge’s procrastination evades the real question: Why did the poem itself preclude development? Various answers have been offered; the most convincing argue a conflict between the metaphysical or religious significance of Christabel—whose name conflates Christ and Abel—with the exigencies of the narrative structure in which she is placed. As Walter Jackson Bate explains it, the “problem of finding motives and actions for Christabel . . . had imposed an insupportable psychological burden on Coleridge.” The problem that Coleridge fails to solve is the problem of depicting credible innocence. Christabel, the virgin who finds the mysterious Lady Geraldine in the forest and brings her home to the castle of her father, Sir Leoline, only to fall victim to Geraldine’s sinister spell, is either hopelessly passive and merely a victim, or, if active, something less than entirely innocent. At the same time, Geraldine, who approaches her prey with “a stricken look,” is potentially the more interesting character. Christabel is too much like the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Geraldine, too much like the Mariner himself, whose guilt changes him from a simple seaman to an archetype of human isolation and suffering. Christabel’s name suggests that Coleridge had intended for her to play a sacrificial role, but by promising to reunite Sir Leoline with his childhood friend, Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, whom she claims as her father, Geraldine, too, has a potentially positive function in the narrative. Whether or not her claim is true, it nevertheless initiates action that may lead to a reconciliation, not only between two long-separated friends but also between Sir Leoline’s death-obsessed maturity and the time in his youth when he was able to experience friendship. There is, therefore, a suggestion that Geraldine is able to effect the link between childhood and maturity, innocence and experience, of particular concern to Coleridge—and to other Romantic poets as well. If Christabel and Geraldine represent the passive and active sides of Coleridge, then his failure to complete the narrative is yet another example of his inability to synthesize his personality—or to allow one side to win out at the expense of the other.

A few other poems from 1797 to 1798 deserve mention. “The Nightingale” (1798), although less interesting than the other titles in the group, conforms to the general structure of the conversation poems and so confirms its importance. “Fears in Solitude” (1798) is at once a conversation poem and something more. Like the others, it begins in a state of isolation and ends with social reintegration; its median state of self-assertion, however, takes the form of a public political statement. The voice of the statement is often strident, but this quality is understandable in a poem written at a time when invasion by France was daily rumored. “Fears in Solitude” attacks British militarism, materialism, and patriotism; however, it is itself deeply patriotic. “There lives nor form nor feeling in my soul,” Coleridge acknowledges, “Unborrowed from my country,” and for this reason the poem is not a series of topical criticism but an expression of the dilemma of a poet divided between moral judgment of and personal identification with his native land.

“Dejection”

When Coleridge returned from Germany in the summer of 1799, his period of intense poetic creativity was over. The poems that he wrote in the remaining years of his life were written by a man who no longer thought of himself as a poet and who therefore treated poetry as a mode of expression rather than a calling. “Dejection: An Ode,” which Coleridge dated April 4, 1802, offers a rationale for this change and seems to have been written as a formal farewell to the possibility of a career as a poet. The poem’s epigraph from the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence and its concern with perception link it with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; its use of the image of the eolian harp links it with the poem by that name and, by extension, with the free-associational style of the conversation poems as a group. Its tone and manner are also close to those of the conversation poems, but its designation as an ode suggests an effort to elevate it to the level of formal statement. At the same time, its recurrent addresses to an unnamed “Lady” (Sara Hutchinson) suggest that the poem was primarily intended for a specific rather than a general audience, for a reader with a special interest in the poet who will not expect the poem to describe a universal human experience. Thus, the poem is at once closely related to Coleridge’s earlier verse and significantly different from it.

In keeping with the conversation-poem structure, “Dejection” begins in a mood of solitary contemplation. The poet ponders the moon and “the dull sobbing draft that moans and rakes/ Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute.” Together, they portend a storm in the offing, and Coleridge hopes that the violence of the “slant night shower” may startle him from his depression. His state, he explains, is not merely grief; it is “A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,/ Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,/ In word, or sign, or tear.” All modes of emotional expression are blocked: He is able to “see” the beauty of the natural world, but he cannot “feel” it, and thereby use it as a symbol for his own inner state. He has lost the ability to invest the “outward forms” of nature with passion and life because, by his account, his inner source of passion and life has dried up. This ability he calls “Joy”—“the spirit and the power,/ Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower/ A new Earth and new Heaven.” The language of apocalypse identifies “Joy” with religious faith; the notion of language suggests a more general identification with the expressive mode of his earlier poetry and its ability to transform an ordinary situation into an especially meaningful event. To have no “outlet . . ./ In word” is to have lost the voice of that poetry; to make the observation within a poetic text is to suggest one more difference between “Dejection” and Coleridge’s earlier poetry.

“Dejection” may seem like a restatement of the notion of a possible harmony—now lost—between nature and the human that was expressed in the earlier poetry. In fact, “Dejection” denies the grounds of the harmony advanced in the earlier poems. In “Frost at Midnight,” for example, the “shapes and sounds” of the natural world are perceived as an “eternal language, which thy/ God utters.” In “The Eolian Harp,” man is conceptualized (tentatively) as only one of the media through which the eternal force expresses itself. “Dejection,” in contrast, identifies the source of “Joy” in man himself. In feeling the beauty of nature, “we in ourselves rejoice.” Although the earlier poems toyed with pantheism, this focus on the state of mind of the individual soul is squarely orthodox, but the religious conservatism of “Dejection” does not in itself explain the termination of Coleridge’s poetic career.

Coleridge himself attributes this termination to his own self-consciousness. As he explains in “Dejection,” he had sought “by abstruse research to seal/ From my own nature all the natural man.” This scientific analysis of the self got the better of him, however, and now his conscious mind is compelled to subject the whole of experience to its analytic scrutiny. Nothing now escapes the dominance of reason, and insofar as the power of Coleridge’s greatest poetry lay in its capacity to dramatize or at least imagine a universe imbued with supernatural meaning, the power is lost. Theologically, this capacity can be associated with pantheism or the vaguely heterodox natural theology of the conversation poems; psychologically, its potency, derived from primal narcissism, is related to the animism given explicit form in the spirits who supervise the action in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The power of this poetry, it can be argued, lies in its ability to recapture a primitive human experience of the world.

The psychological awareness that Coleridge gained by his own self-analysis made this primitive naïveté impossible. “Dejection” is thus potentially a poem celebrating the maturity of the intellect—its recognition that its earlier powerful experience of nature, even when attributed to a Christian deity, was a matter of projection and therefore a function of his need to associate himself with an objective expression of his own potency. If the poem is not celebratory, it is because the consequences of this recognition amount to an admission of the importance of his individual self at odds with Coleridge’s need for social acceptance. At the same time, it deprives him of that powerful confirmation of self derived from the illusionary sense of harmony with the animistic forces of the natural world. “Dejection” should have been a poem about Coleridge’s internalization of these forces and triumphant recognition of his own strength of mind. Instead, he acknowledges the illusion of animism without being able to internalize the psychic energy invested in the animistic vision.

In disavowing belief in a transcendental power inherent in nature, Coleridge disavows the power of his own earlier poetry. “Dejection” lacks the ease and confidence of the conversation poems, and its structure is noticeably mechanical. The storm that ends “Dejection” replaces the voice of authority that defined their closure, but, despite being anticipated by the opening stanzas, it is a deus ex machina without organic connection with the poet. For reasons that the poem itself makes clear, it can effect no fundamental transformation of his being. Hence, it is simply unimportant, and to expect it to have greater effect is, in the words of “The Picture” (1802), to be a “Gentle Lunatic.”

Later poetry

Having forgone “Gentle Lunacy,” the best of Coleridge’s later poetry speaks with an intense but entirely naturalistic sincerity. In poems such as “The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree” (1805), “The Pains of Sleep” (1815), and “Work Without Hope” (1826), Coleridge makes no attempt to transform his poetic self into the vehicle for universal truth. He simply presents his feelings and thoughts to the reader. He complains about his condition, but there is no sense that the act of complaint, beyond getting something off his chest for the time being, can effect any significant alteration of the self. Other poems lack even this concern for the limited audience whom he might have expected to be concerned with his personal problems. Poems such as “Limbo” (1817) and “Ne Plus Ultra” (1826?) are notebook exercises in conceiving the inconceivable—in this case, the states of minimal being, in which even the Kantian categories of space and time are reduced to uncertain conceptions, and absolute negation, “The one permitted opposite of God!” With other poems written for a similar private purpose, they are remarkable for the expressive power of their condensed imagery and their capacity to actualize philosophical thought. Coleridge’s mastery of language never deserted him.

The greatness of the half dozen or so poems on which his reputation is based derives, however, from more than mastery of language. It derives from a confidence in the power of language that Coleridge, for legitimate reasons, came to doubt. Those half dozen or so poems assume that Coleridge is not a great poet, but that the grounding medium of poetry, like the “eternal language” of nature, is itself great. The very fact of his achievement from 1797 to 1798 presented to him the possibility that it was Coleridge and not poetry in which greatness lay; and, given that possibility, Coleridge could no longer conceive of himself as a poet. He would continue to write, but in media in which it was the thought behind the prose, and not the thinker, that gave meaning to language.

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