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....
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