Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetry: British Analysis
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.
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...
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