“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” is a moderately long (seventy-six lines) poem divided into three verse paragraphs. Its speaker is clearly the poet himself. The poem is “Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London,” and in line 27 and the final nine lines, the poet openly addresses his friend. Nevertheless, the poem opens as a private meditation and continues in that vein for most of its length; Lamb is addressed only infrequently, and then as an absent friend. Though Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed this a “conversation poem,” it may be described as a long lyrical and dramatic meditation.
Coleridge prefaces his poem with a note which sets the scene. In the summer of 1797, he was visited at his cottage by friends. His cottage was at Nether Stowey in Somerset, England; his friends were Lamb as well as William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The poet “met with an accident,” which prevented him from walking with his friends. (His wife accidentally spilled boiling milk on his foot; his friends left him to walk in the nearby Quantock Hills to get a view of the Bristol channel.) Coleridge continues: “One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.” The reader pictures Coleridge immobilized in his backyard, shaded by large, beautiful lime trees (a species also called lindens).
At first, Coleridge is irritated at being left behind; his garden seems a prison. He resents not being with his friends, who are seeing remarkable sights and responding with intense feelings to them. Not only would these sights and feelings have been good in themselves, but also they would have remained in the poet’s memory to cheer him later on, when he is old and even blind. Coleridge childishly complains that he may never see his friends again. With envy he lists the sights he imagines they see: a shady dell, an ash tree, a waterfall, tall weeds, and cliffs.
At the beginning of the second verse paragraph (line 20), he imagines his friends coming out onto open land and seeing fields and the sea. At this point, Coleridge’s mood begins to change. He thinks of Lamb, who must spend most of his days in London and who must patiently bear an unnamed “strange calamity.” (Lamb was burdened with the care of his sister Mary, who had recently murdered their mother in a fit of madness.) Coleridge now imagines the beauties of the oncoming evening and the colors that the setting sun brings out in the clouds, the sea, and the land. He hopes that at that moment Lamb is feeling what he, Coleridge, has felt at such scenes in the past: the presence of an “Almighty Spirit” in nature.
In the last verse paragraph, Coleridge knows that he is happy for his friends, and his thoughts return with comfort to his own situation in the lime-tree bower. As night approaches, he looks intently around him, especially at the beautiful leaves of the lime and of the walnut and elm trees; he sees a bat and hears the sound of a solitary bee. He concludes that it was a good thing that he could not accompany his friends, for now he is appreciative of the nature he finds in his own garden. He imagines that the bird he sees fly across the face of the risen moon is also seen or heard by his friend Lamb, wherever his walk has taken him.
“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” is written in blank verse; its verse paragraphs informally divide the speaker’s thought processes into three sections of...
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approximately equal length. The progression is dramatic and seems at first to follow the process of association, not the rules of logic. The speaker begins by expressing irritation, then feels sympathy for his friend Lamb, then is both happy that he is enjoying his own situation and hopeful that Lamb can feel what he feels.
That Coleridge classified this as a conversation poem suggests that its language is close to the language of everyday speech. It begins colloquially: “Well, they are gone.” The sentences that follow are like those of conversation: There are no startling inversions; clauses and lists seem to develop informally. The poet is most interested with evoking the scene. Only occasionally does he locate the reader firmly in his sentence by supplying a verb: “wander” (line 8) and “behold” (line 17). This paragraph’s most impressive effects derive from its vivid visual images: “The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,/ And only speckled by the mid-day sun,” and the “branchless ash,/ Unsunned and damp.”
The second paragraph develops the poem’s themes more seriously. When the poet gives over feeling sorry for himself and begins to understand his friend’s happiness, his language becomes more thoughtful and less colloquial. Clauses are shorter, and even though there are several vivid descriptions, the reader becomes more aware of Coleridge’s thought processes, as expressed in precise grammatical relationships. The poet is also more assertive; he not only describes the sun but also commands it to shine and the clouds to burn. Word order is heightened by inversion (“tract magnificent”), and one encounters a more poetic vocabulary (“betwixt,” “methinks,” “thou,” “thy,” “ye,” “doth”). Toward the end of this paragraph, the poet signals the arrival of an important idea with exclamation points, strong emphases (“yea”), repetitions (“gaze”), intensifiers (“such”) and the strong consonance of s and p sounds.
The poet’s thoughts do exhibit a kind of logic. Like a syllogism of the emotions, the poem returns in its third verse paragraph to matters more close to home, more like those of the poem’s opening. For the first fifteen lines of the third paragraph, the style once more is conversational and visually evocative. Then at line 59, Coleridge changes to less visual, more abstract, and more philosophical notes; his vocabulary now is somewhat heightened, and he uses an uncommon subjunctive verb (“be but Nature”). In the last eight lines, he ties up the poem’s various strands: Now he is related to Lamb in that they may observe the same bird. This bird not only provides a vivid visual image that appeals to the senses, it also carries great significance, quite literally by being the agent that enables the separated friends to be united.