Analysis of Coleridge’s Dejection: An Ode

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1802) Dejection is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s greatest poems, and one of the greatest crisis lyrics of English romanticism. It is in a sense Coleridge’s answer to William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, as well as to Wordsworth’s “Tin­tern Abbey,” a kind of reworking of his own “Frost at Midnight,” within a present crisis of more momentous scale than the meditative musings of the earlier poem. But “Dejection” is a meditation as well, and as with “Frost at Midnight,” the time that passes during the meditation is central to its progress. For the nature of time—that is, the nature of the way life discloses itself to the mind, not all at once but piecemeal and unexpectedly over time—is part of what the poem broods about.

This is true as well in its primary source, the first four stanzas of the Intimations Ode, which Wordsworth read aloud to Coleridge, and indeed stanza 6 of “Dejection” begins with a direct quotation of the opening of the Intimations Ode: “There was a time when . . .” Furthermore, Wordsworth was once more obviously both subject and addressee of the poem. First addressed as a verse letter to Sara Hutchinson, with whom Coleridge was in love, he reframed it as a poem addressed to Wordsworth, whose poem “Lucy Gray” he alluded to in lines 117–125 when he wrote, in manuscript, of the “tender lay” that “William’s self had framed” (italics added). He changed William to the irrelevant Otway when he reframed the poem yet again and addressed it to the “Lady” who stands in relation to “Dejection” as Dorothy Wordsworth does to her brother at the end of “Tintern Abbey.” It should be noted that Wordsworth, too, returns the interchange of influence when in the later parts of the Intimations Ode he describes Coleridge’s son Hartley Coleridge at age six as an actor as well as a “mighty prophet,” which echoes Coleridge’s address to the storm: “Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds! / Thou mighty poet . . . !” (ll. 108–109).

But Coleridge’s poem has something of a different agenda from Wordsworth’s (though the two make perfect companion pieces for an understanding of the romantic movement the two poets inaugurated). Wordsworth resolves the crisis he suffers over the course of the Intimations Ode by a more intense subjectivity, whereas Coleridge finds a way out of the subjectivity whose loneliness and solitude has oppressed him to the point of despair. It is worth outlining the stages of the poem and the account it gives of the poet’s relation to the world.

We begin with a quotation from one of the ballads that so influenced Wordsworth and Coleridge to write Lyrical Ballads (1798) together—a ballad that prognosticates a storm on the basis of the near-supernatural clarity that allows one to see the disk of the old moon as a shadow within the crescent of the new. (Percy Bysshe Shelley used this image very powerfully in Prometheus Unbound.) It is not stormy yet; rather, the weather is oppressive and frustratingly sluggish, and Coleridge wishes for some storm to break the corresponding sluggishness of his own soul, in hopes of something that “Might startle this dull pain” which oppresses him, the “grief without a pang . . . stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned . . . Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, / In word, or sigh, or tear” (ll. 20–24). Here, too, he is thinking about the “timely utterance” that gave Wordsworth “relief” in the Intimations Ode. He looks at the world around him and it does not move him, despite the beautiful description he is able to give of it. In the poem’s most famous line, he describes how he can see all the excellently fair things of the world: “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are” (l. 38).

This leads Coleridge to a meditation about what gives the world meaning and power over the soul—the meaning and power he can no longer feel. The answer is that feeling itself does so. The external universe is simply an “inanimate cold world” (l. 51); whatever soul it has derives from the soul observing it and projecting its own light and life onto it. The light of the world is cast by the soul that looks on it, and its vitality is a reflection of the looker’s joy.

But what would the looker be joyful about? The answer he will give in stanza 6 comes down to the feeling of youth, or what the essayist William Hazlitt would later call “the feeling of immortality in youth.” However, before we get there, we can give an even more self-contained answer: Joy is what we feel at the thought of being wedded to the joyous world, but because the joy of the world is a reflection of the joy we feel, we turn out to be joyful because our joy suffuses the world.

Thus, in stanza 6 the very fact that this joy does not rely on the world at all, but is a self-sustaining power, makes possible the very fact of poetic vocation: “There was a time when, though my path was rough / This joy within me dallied with distress” (ll. 76–77). This is Coleridge’s version of Wordsworth’s account in “Resolution and Independence” of how poets begin in their youth in gladness and take pleasure even from the thoughts of the despondency and madness that one day will become all too real for them. Joy insulates the soul from the sorrow it can explore with transcendent élan.

But it is real sorrow, real “distress,” that the soul dallies with, and in stanza 6 Coleridge recollects how he discovered that the joy he thought belonged to him was strangely not his at all. His hope was not of any reality he could actually possess, any outside world that would sustain him. It was, rather, home in something unpossessable; it seemed so but was not, because it was not real.

It is at this point in the poem that Coleridge effects a major though subtle transformation. The outside world cannot give the soul what it wants because the only thing the soul wants is, in fact, a projection from the soul. But now this comes to mean not the sheer emptiness of the outside world or its complete inanimate inertness. Rather, the outside world is more independent of the mind than Coleridge had hoped—or so he now asserts. But earlier he had lamented that it was not independent of the mind and its moods.

Now his failure to feel joy becomes a kind of selfinfecting self-mutilation. Having been overly passionate, he has withdrawn too much from passion and love and feeling and imagination, thus stealing away everything that nature herself would endow him with. But this means, it turns out, that nature is real, that there is such a thing as “the natural man” (l. 90).

The subtle but saving ambiguity by which this poem progresses is captured in the wonderful rebuke of “Reality’s dark dream” (l. 95). Is reality just a dream, and a dark one (the way hope is a delusive mine in Samuel Johnson’s line about being “condemned to Hope’s delusive mine”)? Or is reality the saving truth, with the dark dream opposed to it being the thoughts that would drive him away from reality. The second interpretation takes over and displaces the first, both in point of meditation and in the reality of the surrounding environment in which Coleridge is pursuing the meditation, for he has not noticed that the storm has now arisen. He turns from reality’s dark dream to reality itself, to “listen to the wind, / Which long has raved unnoticed” (ll. 96–97). Reality has been working away all along, and now he hears its immensities and hears as well the gentleness that reminds him of poetry itself (in this case, as noted, “Lucy Gray”)—of poetry which derives from the reality it embraces.

The storm Coleridge had hoped would save him in stanza 1 has finally come, and now he can embrace a reality that transcends the emotions he would project onto it. This leads him to the great moment of all Coleridgean hope and salvation, the sense that this feeling is shared by others, that the soul is not alone but surrounded by “blesséd creatures” (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) or sung to by an Abyssinian maid (“Kubla Khan”), or part of a transcendent emotional reality shared by others—Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth, the Lady to whom the last version of the ode is addressed. He blesses her (as William had Dorothy) with the very sense that she belongs to the world he perceives, not as part of his perception, not therefore as part of his self-centeredness but as another perceiver of that world, another mind, something that simultaneously embraces the intensities of subjectivity and relieves them through the sense that the self is not alone in the world, that there are other selves to bless (as he blesses the Lady at the end of the poem), and that this very fact is what makes others blessed.

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