Term Paper: Samuel Taylor Coleridge the Cliched

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[. . .] .. I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!' (Coleridge, 1912, 364). Coleridge sees, but does not feel; he has lost the imaginative capacity which Wordsworth had taught him was the fundamental sense of a poet. In a letter to Robert Southey written at this time he remarks that 'all my poetic Genius, if ever I really possessed any Genius, & it was not rather a mere general aptitude of Talent, & quickness in Imitation, is gone' (Hill, 177).

Coleridge's poem 'The Eolian Harp' was developed over a long period - as long as twenty-three years, beginning in 1795 (Hill, 22-3). In its changing nature can be seen, among other things, the influence of Wordsworth on Coleridge's poetic art. The earliest versions of the poem took the image of the wind caressing the strings of the harp as the basis of a love poem, in which the relations of the wind and the strings echoed the motions of the human lovers. Subsequently, it expanded to become a meditation on the animation of all nature; and in its final version, crafted between 1817 and 1828, the love poem has become a work of cosmic scope, in which the love between the couple (the poet and his love) becomes an expression of a universal relationship of harmonious union.

The crucial evolution is in the image of the Aeolian harp itself. In the first version of the poem (1795), Coleridge sees the harp as an image of the mind, through the eyes of empirical philosophy, as the purely passive recipient of external forces. The influence of Wordsworth in drawing Coleridge to a view of the mind as active in perception and imagination as a process of recreating the world produces a more critical view of the harp as a metaphor for mind, to the point where it is ultimately rejected altogether, in terms of a rather conventional Christianity. The crucial passage of the poem, however, is that in which natural description ('How exquisite the scents / Snatch'd from yon bean-field! And the world so hush'd! / The stilly murmur of the distant Sea / Tells us of silence') moves to fanciful analogy ('How by the desultory breeze caress'd, / Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover, / It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs / Tempt to repeat the wrong!') and finally to a brilliantly rich evocation of imaginative participation:

O! The one Life within us and abroad,

Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where. (Coleridge, 1912, 109-10)

This passage constitutes a fine expression of the Wordsworthian notion of the mind's active imaginative participation in perception and reflection.

Of the other figures who exerted significant influence on Coleridge, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) is among the most prominent. Lamb was a Londoner who spent his career working for the East India Company. For a short period in 1795-6 he became mentally deranged, and the threat of madness was a continued shadow on his life. His sister, Mary, also suffered from fits of insanity; during one of these, in 1796, she killed their mother. Charles took on the care of his sister. Lamb's admiring friendship for Coleridge began at Christ's Hospital School, which they both attended, and continued throughout his life. He gained some note as an essayist, and had some poetry published, included some verses in a volume of Coleridge's poetry in 1796. Coleridge greatly valued Lamb's friendship, and at the end of his life bequeathed a gold ring to him as one of 'those who had been closest to his heart' (Holmes, 1998, 559). Lamb was always among Coleridge's most sympathetic, perceptive and influential critics, and played an important role in the development of Coleridge's poetic style. In particular, he argued for a clearer voice of feeling in Coleridge's verse, in terms which anticipated, then paralleled and strengthened the influence of Wordsworth's 'plain style' on Coleridge's writings. Thus in 1796 Lamb advised: 'Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge... For simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart, and carries into daylight its own modest buds and genuine, sweet, and clear flowers of expression' (Holmes, 1989, 115).

In July 1797 Lamb paid a long anticipated visit to the Wordsworths and Coleridge at Alfoxden. Coleridge had been looking forward to showing his friend the countryside around, but because of an unfortunate accident with a skillet of boiling milk he found himself confined to the house and garden, and unable to accompany the others on their walk. Left alone in an arbour, he wrote the lines which became 'This Lime Tree Bower My Prison'. This poem, which with is unaffected prose clearly embodies the fruits of Lamb's advice to cultivate 'simplicity', is perhaps above all a poem of friendship, in which Coleridge overcomes his physical immobility to range in admiration across the landscape with his friend, sharing his joyful experiencing of nature and returning to his own 'prison' with his perception of his situation transformed. Vision and imagination are entirely assimilated in this poem and focused through the prism of friendship and shared experience. 'I have lost', Coleridge laments at the beginning, 'Beauties and feelings, such as would have been / Most sweet to my remembrance even when age / Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness!' (Coleridge, 1912, 178-9). He can only share the sights and sounds that his friends, Lamb and the two Wordsworths, are enjoying, through his imagination; this predicament moves him to address the various aspects of nature directly and call on them to reveal their beauties fully to Charles: 'thou glorious Sun... Ye purple heath-flowers... thou blue Ocean!' His friend, he suggests, will particularly relish such natural sights given that he has been cut off from nature and its divinity both by his residence in London and the various tragedies and afflictions that have beset him:

but thou, methinks, most glad,

My gentle-hearted Charles! For thou hast pined

And hunger'd after Nature, many a year,

In the great City pent, winning thy way

With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain

And strange calamity! (Coleridge, 1912, 179)

In the final section of the poem, having ranged far across the landscape in imagination with his friend, Coleridge returns to the lime-tree bower having discovered the benefits such sympathetic and generous imaginings can have for the soul:

keep the heart /

Awake to Love and Beauty! And sometimes /

'Tis well to be bereft of promis'd good, /

That we may lift the soul, and contemplate /

With lively joy the joys we cannot share. (Coleridge, 1912, 181)

This progress of the soul achieves its concluding expression in the symbol of the homeward flying rook at the close of the poem. The bird's flight embodies the unity which imagination and friendship have brought to the separate worlds of Lamb and Coleridge. The 'creeking' sound of the bird's wings brings Coleridge to the moral of the poem, that 'No sound is dissonant which tells of Life', a sentiment which the poet ascribes to Charles but which is an expression of his own soul's conviction. It is notable that there are no fewer than three uses of the phrase 'gentle-hearted Charles' in this poem (a phrase to which Lamb himself violently objected (Holmes, 1989, 154)), stressing the extent to which the writing of this poem is a highly personal act of friendship as well as an expression of universal principles of harmony and imagination.

Lamb is the central figure of 'This Lime Tree Bower', but both of the Wordsworths are also featured - William and Dorothy, his devoted sister. Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) settled with William in 1795 and stayed with him until his death. When in 1797-8 the Wordsworths lived at Alfoxden in Somerset to be near Coleridge, Dorothy kept a journal, surviving portions of which reveal the close companionship of the three friends. Her entries in the Alfoxden Journal record almost daily interaction between the Wordsworths and the Coleridges, with constant walks with Coleridge through the countryside, shared talks and meals (D. Wordsworth, 1941, 6-16). There is constant observation of nature throughout Dorothy's writing, and it is clear that a mutual enjoyment of and receptiveness to the beauties of nature was a defining characteristic of this period of, for Coleridge, intense and successful poetic composition. On occasion it seems that a detail recorded by Dorothy has found its way directly into Coleridge's poetry, as in this example, from Dorothy's journal entry of 7 March 1798: 'One only leaf upon the top of a tree - the sole remaining leaf - danced round and round like a rag blown by the wind' (D. Wordsworth, 1941, 12); which can be compared to Coleridge's lines from 'Christabel':

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,

That dances as often as dance it can,

Hanging so light, and hanging so… [END OF PREVIEW]

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