This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Romantic poets such as Coleridge often protested that the abstractions of earlier times (such as Virtues and Principles) lacked meaning for their age. Accordingly, when they attempted to describe and define great issues and forces, they took great pains to describe those forces in concrete situations, often in the actual situations and places in which the poets themselves learned about them. It is therefore very important in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” that Coleridge sets the scene literally in the backyard of the house he and his wife were renting in Nether Stowey, Somerset. One has no reason to doubt the outlines of the story; in June, 1797, the poet had something like the experience he describes in which his mind moved from irritation, to imagination, to sympathy, to vivid sensations of the backyard in which he was sitting. This is the way a person has such thoughts; this is the way Coleridge (and other contemporaries, such as Wordsworth) believed these ideas should be presented to be most effective.

The poem takes very seriously the importance of friendship. Coleridge is unhappy about being left behind. He is hurt by the thought that he may never see his friends again, but his spirits revive when he thinks of Lamb. Just as important is the poem’s insistence on the value of experiencing nature. Coleridge envies his friends’ sensations; he remembers the places they will visit, then he looks at the heavens and at the trees in his own bower. Although these sensations are almost exclusively natural and are primarily visual, they are not simply beautiful descriptions of trees and flowers. The reader is shown the unlovely “dark green file of long lank weeds” as well as “the smooth clear blue” of the sea. The images are of a mixed sort—arresting and detailed rather than conventionally beautiful.

Coleridge is interested in the effects of a person’s real experiences of nature—unprettified and unsensationalized. In this poem, he illustrates how such experiences (and memories of them) can lead one to intuitions that are beyond nature as one usually thinks of it; the reader may think that Coleridge is vague about these matters. He says at the end of the second verse paragraph that when he gazed at a “wide landscape” it began to seem somewhat insubstantial (“Less gross than bodily”) and more and more like the outward manifestation (the “veil”) of “the Almighty Spirit.” Note that Coleridge sees himself and others like him (perhaps Lamb) as “Spirits” themselves, suggesting that at such moments something in his own soul is responding to the spirit he apprehends in Nature.

After he has rediscovered “the Almighty Spirit,” Coleridge returns to his present situation and lovingly responds to its beauty. He is now happy and confident that “Nature”—the veil of the Spirit—“ne’er deserts the wise and pure” no matter where they are. Perhaps moments of spiritual deprivation are the necessary preludes to moments of enlightenment (lines 64 to 67). Certainly, he hopes and imagines that Lamb is having a similar experience at that very moment. (Coleridge’s hopes and perhaps the requirements of this poem caused him to misrepresent seriously the actual character of Charles Lamb, who after reading this poem complained that he really preferred London to the country and was not “gentle-hearted.”) “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” is an informal, selective, versified, and dramatic account of an experience that Coleridge had in 1797. In it he meditates on how the influence of “the Almighty Spirit” works through nature on individuals and how it can provide the basis for a close friendship with another.

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