With “The Visionary Hope,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge romanticizes the overpowering state of yearning without excluding the turmoil it causes in human life. Coleridge develops for the reader an almost picturesque cluster of emotional impulses and handicaps far from abstract, and obscure only in the question of their true source. The reader of “The Visionary Hope” must decide if the individual significance of that vision roots itself in the naive hope of an end, or if, in actuality, the fantasy remains for fantasy’s sake. While presenting two sides of an argument concerning the validity of human aspiration, the author finds hope itself to be the one and only necessary lifeblood for the spiritually thirsty soul. At the same time, however, Coleridge’s fantastic surrender to the power of a single hope at the close of the poem provides a subtle solicitation of self-examination; the reader must ask discover whether the value of an ungraspable prospect lies in the glimmering possibility of it being met, or merely in its capacity to foster a cleansing outpouring of lustrous emotion and feeling.At the onset, Coleridge makes clear what will be the outcome of his poetic debate between reason and emotion. Opening with “Sad lot, to have no hope!” (Line 1), the author proclaims the reigning source of living valor to be hope, however “visionary” it may actually prove to be. To Coleridge, he who “fain would frame a prayer within his breast” (2) lives a brave existence in submission to blind faith. While acknowledging the sheer lowliness of his “kneeling” (1) to an unrealistic desire, the speaker, fighting for relief, simultaneously understands his own ignorance while experiencing surreal solidarity with his spiritual psyche: “Would fain entreat for some sweet breath of healing, /That his sick body might have ease and rest; / He strove in vain!” (3-5) Supporting Coleridge’s stark contrast between emotional magnificence and its subsequent all-consuming strife, his character acts in “fain” entreaty to the powers that be. In full realization of his powerlessness to the hope that limits, and yet, propels him through life, he continuously puts conscious effort into developing that unfulfilled desire which now has become more real than concrete reality. Ironically, what is to the rational person a meaningless pursuit driven by fleeting emotions is for the speaker no less than the veritable meaning of his life.Despite that the object of the speaker’s desire provides his life’s guiding force, the poem’s character does submit to pain’s disarmament, in all human actuality: “The dull sighs from his chest /Against his will the stifling load revealing”(5-6). While the speaker’s indulgence in his imaginative project fills his heart with purpose, Coleridge suggests the existing counterbalance of a deliberate cry for relief from worry. Here the author fully examines the weight of reason in a life of distortion; although the power of the hope itself undermines the speaker’s rational ability to see completely through it, his earthly will nonetheless desires escape from pain as much as the achievement of his vision. However, where Coleridge equalizes the status of reality and fantasy, he distinctly places them in separate psychological poles. The speaker’s cries reveal the “stifling load” of his unattainable prospect, “though Nature forced” (7), and no escape is possible. Coleridge’s capitalization of “Nature” along with more abstract concepts of “Hope” (17, 20, 27) and “Love” (20) in later lines set the stage for both nature’s physical power and its connection to the psychological nature of the soul. Not only does this hope represent a larger entity of intangible human affections, but its power, indeed, surpasses a human’s effort to be realistic: “Some royal prisoner at his conqueror’s feast, / An alien’s restless mood but half concealing” (8-9). The speaker, in this instance, does not yet choose to live by the hope, but falls at its foot, powerless; alien to his own strife, his attempts to stamp out an unreasonable aspiration fall captive to the vision’s tyrannical existence.”The Visionary Hope” unveils, by and large, Coleridge’s laser-beam sense of clarity regarding reason’s distortion in the midst of an all-powerful pining. The speaker’s expected grief as he withers away in the impossibility of meeting his hope moves him to take one last grasp at base reality, “The sternness on his gentle brow confessed” (10). Fairly quickly, Coleridge’s poem, and thus, the convoluted rationality of the speaker, take a sharp turn away from reality and into feelings whose roots are now indefinable. Sickness and misery, tangible evidence of his fantasy’s harm on him, become no more than “obscure pangs” (12) that “made curses of his dreams” (12). Significantly, the world of dreams suggests sleep, submission, and surrender. Although Coleridge’s speaker mindfully dreads that world of sleep, he fails to deny it: “each night repelled in vain, / Each night was scattered by its own loud screams” (13-14). Sucked in by the muscle of his longing, not even his earnest desire to turn from it can falter the journey into obscurity.Thus, Coleridge envelops the reader into the command of the speaker’s heart. No more is the speaker tormented by “obscure pangs” (12), but acknowledges his foregoing strife to be only the equally magnificent remnant of hope: “For Love’s despair is but Hope’s pining ghost!” (20). In deliberation, Coleridge cancels out the speaker’s miniscule sense of rationality and creates a world where all is vision, all is wonderfully intangible, and the fantasy itself provides relief from complex reality. When, one might say, the tables are turned on reality, this capitalized condition of “Hope” (17) serves as the speaker’s source of pride, “his inward bliss and boast” (17). Coleridge’s speaker makes a conscious choice to live by his dreams. Furthermore, he needs nothing more than a simple goal in and of itself to live, day in and day out: “For this one hope he makes his hourly moan, / He wishes and can wish for this alone!” (21-22) While physical human needs remain, Coleridge’s primary concern are those hungers and thirsts of the soul.”The Visionary Hope” romanticizes dreamlike pining as it is a means for expressing splendorous sensitivity to emotion. Contrasting elements of pleasure and pain represent Coleridge’s ever-existing question of a dream’s realistic validity beyond forming an ideal prospect: “Pierced, as with light from Heaven, before its gleams/ (So the love-stricken visionary deems)” (23-24). While the visionary will inherently fall captive to an ignorant hope of attaining the unattainable, he lives in a tranquil sense of certainty, an understanding of his own simple ignorance and blind faith, in the half-reality of imagining what meeting his goal would mean. In a word, Coleridge’s character lives the dream most fully in the awareness that it is not, and may never be, fulfilled. Concluding verses proclaim the thinker’s adamant decision: “Or let it stay! yet this one Hope should give / Such strength that he would bless his pains and live.” (27-28) In Coleridge’s eyes, faith in what is purely imaginative brings the human closer to his own divinity. Through romanticizing blind faith, he eloquently reveals an individual’s spiritual elevation in understanding what he cannot grasp.Coleridge’s poem speaks to the emotional heart; no source other than a heartfelt sense of the intangible dream can sustain a life of individual awareness. For the author, rationality of the mind cannot substitute the sensations of the soul, for to live motivated by something ever-nearing but never arriving is to condition the strength of human passion. Coleridge’s poem calls hope salvation from an otherwise bleak existence. The dreamlike aspiration constantly nourishes and draws one forward, allowing one to “bless” and cherish all aspects of happiness and pain involved in living a human life. One can hope and “wish for this alone” (22), for the act of envisioning grants greater human consciousness.
The Dawn is Coming: “Frost at Midnight’s” Hope for the Next Generation
It’s a common hope in the life of parents that their children will go on and live more successful lives. That their child will learn the lessons their parents taught them and the road their parents laid out for them to lead them to a more promising future. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Frost at Midnight,” we see the hopeful parent theme in Coleridge’s use of opposites, context, and word choice.
Even within the title we immediately see literary archetypes at work. Frost is a naturally occurring phenomenon that works rather slowly, has a tendency to kill living things, and usually only works at night or better said at the close of the day. Frost’s definition in this sense can almost exactly be exchanged with the death if we are to personify it formally as Death. Death is a naturally occurring thing, Death tends to end one’s life, and Death usually takes it’s time and comes for them at the end of their life. So the very first word in the title of the poem suggests death. The second part of the title is naming a very unique time of day. In all the minutes and hour in the day Coleridge chooses the exact minute of the day when one day dies and a brand new day begins. So the title alludes that Death is coming and it is the end of a day, or someone’s day. We aren’t sure exactly who from the title alone, but the context gives us more as to whose day is over. On line four of Coleridge’s poem the speaker makes a point to the reader that the “inmates” of his cottage are all at rest, except for the speaker who addresses themselves on line five. The only other member of the household that the speaker calls out in the poem is their infant. So through the context it is obvious who the two important characters are within this poem. This is important because it is clear that the infant specifically is the speakers which means it is a succeeding generation.
The infant is mentioned only once more in detail until line forty four. On line forty-four the poem becomes a letter filled with optimism. The language used to describe the sleeping infant becomes words of softness and frailty as opposed to the imagery from the beginning of the poem and the previous stanza. At the beginning of the poem the author talks about an extreme silence but notes that the dying fire is companionable and that it understands and sympathizes with him. The speaker talks in the next stanza of being stuck behind bars, and items from the speaker’s childhood that “Haunted him” (line 31), and “so I brooded all the following morn,” (line 36), and lines thirty-nine through line forty-three suggests that the speaker was anxiously waiting for someone who never came. The entirety of this stanza’s focus and specific word choice allows Coleridge to give the reader a certain level of anxiety. Starting with line forty five we see words like “gentle,” and “deep calm,” and immediately the reader is brought back down to this level of tranquility.
We see for the first time that this is a message of hope to the speaker’s infant with line forty-eight where the speaker says, “My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart/ with tender gladness, thus to look at thee,/ And think that thou shalt learn far other lore/ And in far other spaces! For I was reared/ in the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim…” At this point it makes sense to the reader that everything leading up to this stanza was the speaker essentially saying in long hand that he regretted being raised in a large stone city. He wanted to be in the countryside alongside nature who is later referred to as “the Great Universal Teacher.” Coleridge uses opposites not only in these two stanzas but in several other instances in the poem to further illustrate this idea of hopefulness for his infant’s future. Coleridge uses opposites throughout the whole poem. The first opposite that we see is Coleridge using the cold and the fire. The cold is slowly creeping across the outside and covering everything and the fire is dying. Even though frost and fire are opposites, they complement each other in this poem. The main contrast in the poem is the tone an language concerning the second and third stanza. Especially concerning the idea that the speaker has a hopeful outlook for their son. The biggest contrast comes from the word choice and contextual evidence the speaker gives us. The other big contrast is with the start and end of the poem. At the beginning the speaker makes a point that only this small part of nature, a dying flame, understands and sympathizes with him, but with his kid, God himself and nature in its entirety from great mountains and deep crags are here to aid and teach the young infant. The tone starts dark and solemn but ends light and hopeful.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Frost at Midnight,” we see the hopeful parent theme in Coleridge’s use of opposites, context, and word choice. Coleridge uses context to illustrate that the speaker feels hopeful for their infant’s up bringing in the country. He uses opposites to contrast his dim life in a city with the openness of the country and his word choice specifically in stanzas two and three help drive Coleridge’s points home.
Attaining the Harmonious Vision through the Natural World
From the 18th to the early 19th century, a wave of Romantic writers rose fervently against the emergence of industrialisation, resisting against the Industrial Revolution’s intrusion upon the natural world. Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and female writers such as Joanna Baillie were among the many Romantic poets rising against this decline of nature. These poets often constructed binaries of the pastoral world and the metropolitan city in their literary compositions, usually privileging the former’s rustic tranquillity over the latter’s cluttered and chaotic landscape. Associated with this preference for the natural world was the Romantics’ pursuit of a harmonious vision, which posits that any being containing a “centre within itself, as well as a centre outside itself” would strive “for greater harmony, [and] unity [in both spheres]” (Miller 85). Essentially, in the hopes of becoming a unified self, the Romantics envisioned an emotional and intellectual union with following: the divine, his physical environment – both of which are classified under the “centre outside” of an individual, as well as his inner self – the “centre within”. With reference to Joanna Baillie’s “London” (1800) and Samuel Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (1798), I will explore how these three components – vital to the Romantics’ pursuit of a harmonious vision, are cultivated through a communion with the pastoral world. This paper will also explore how metropolitan conditions hamper the union between individuals with their inner and external “spheres”, hindering the achievement of the harmonious vision.
Briefly, “Frost at Midnight” chronicles the introspective journey of a solitary persona, whose experience in the “hush of nature” (Coleridge 17) permits his unimpeded exploration of inner thoughts. The persona thus gains an appreciation for his environment and even comes to perceive it as God’s “eternal language” (Coleridge 61). On the contrary, Joanna Baillie’s “London” documents the jarring sights and sounds of the urban landscape, which emotionally displace the persona into a state of disconnect from her environment, and which distract her from a spiritual engagement with God. Baillie also illustrates the way in which confounding effects of urbanity potentially thwart the individual’s connection with his or her inner self. While both poems demonstrate the possibility of acquiring spiritual awareness across metropolitan and natural landscapes, they also attest for how a proper, deep spiritual union with the divine is only attained through man’s interaction with the natural world. As depicted in “Frost at Midnight”, the “extreme silentness” of the natural world encourages “meditation” (Coleridge 10, 9), eminently elevating the speaker’s level of spiritual concentration and awareness. Under the enchantment of “solitude” (Coleridge 5), Coleridge’s speaker demonstrates his spiritual sensitivity even towards ordinary elements of nature such as the “Frost”, which he sees as God’s “eternal language”, capable of performing a “ministry” (Coleridge 5, 1, 61, 73). By emblematising the constituents of the natural world as a system of divine symbols, the speaker sees his material surroundings as a portal through which the divine communicates with man, unconsciously articulating his sensitivity towards God’s omnipresence within his immediate surroundings. This strong spiritual sense fostered in nature is further emphasised when the speaker proclaims that God “teach Himself in all/ and all things in himself” (Coleridge 63). Here, the line’s inversion places God as central to all existence, as well as central to the speaker’s relationship with the world. Therefore, an observation of the speaker’s spiritual sensitivity and his reverence for God offers audience the insight of how an interaction with nature cultivates a deep, spiritual appreciation within man – which in turn, encourages his union with God.
Exiting from the pastoral world, the spiritual union between man and the divine appears unestablished and shallow in the concrete jungle of “London”. While elements of the persona’s immediate environment are interpreted as divine symbols in “Frost at Midnight”, Baillie’s persona displays a shallow perception of her environmental cues which are associated with the divine. In fact, the sole physical symbol of spiritual faith in the poem – “St. Pauls” church, is descriptively reduced into a mere “artful structure” (Baillie 5, 24), attributed no deeper, spiritual meaning by the persona herself. This reduction strips down the “Great[ness]” (Coleridge 64) and the essential personality of God that was amplified in “Frost at Midnight”, mirroring the speaker’s declined ability to comprehend the immaterial essence of God that possibly underlies the husk of the urban environment. This dampened sensitivity can be juxtaposed against the acute spiritual awareness of Romantic writers such as Coleridge, who in the natural world, often saw their surroundings as “imbued with the divine… Everyday natural elements such as flowers, stones … were described as though they carried a bit of God within them” (Drobot 60). As opposed to the clarity of spiritual vision owned by characters situated in the natural world, the blurred spiritual sensitivity of Baillie’s persona is arguably contributed by the urban clutter – for instance, the “swathing mist” of industrial fog which partially “conceal’d” (Baillie 21) the church. This visual concealment of the church’s infrastructure metaphorically signifies the persona’s stymied vision of God, impeding a proper establishment of a union and connection between her and the divine. Therefore, even though both personas across the urban and pastoral spaces exhibit their recognition towards physical cues associated with spiritual faith, Baillie’s persona remains distracted by her emphasis on the material clutter of London, rather than on the immateriality of God.
Conversely, Coleridge’s persona establishes a comprehensive appreciation of God through the natural world, enabling him to attain a harmony with the “centre” beyond himself. Expounding on the next component of man’s relationship with his external “sphere”, both poems testify for how the pastoral world, rather than urbanity, facilitates an emotional union between the individual and his or her physical environment. The fraught connection between characters and their environment in urbanity is demonstrated by “Frost at Midnight”, where Coleridge’s persona recounts his prison-like school in the “great city” as an institution with “bars” (Coleridge 53, 26). Symbolically, these “bars” reflect the stifling and depressing atmosphere of institutionalised grounds, which at the same time, express the persona’s sense of alienation amidst the hostile atmosphere of urbanity. Baillie elaborates similar feelings of repulsion which her speaker harbours towards “London”. She documents “Cataracts of tawny sheen pour[ing] from the skies” (Baillie 31) – using the imagery of disease to highlight her awareness towards the metropolitan landscape’s degraded condition. Also, by infusing emotions of “rage” into her illustration of urban “streets” (30, 28), Baillie’s pathetic fallacy conveys her speaker’s anxiety, provoked by the urban clutter which consists of “furnace smoke” and “tinted vapours” (32, 33). This discomposure is further exposed by Baillie’s alliteration when she notes the “curling columns rise” (32), stressing on harsh alliterative tones to parallel the pervasiveness of industrial smoke, and in extension, the oppressive atmosphere of the city weighing down on the urban dweller. This unpleasantness is also intensified by the poem’s masculine rhyme scheme – “… She seems a curtain’d gloom/ … a threat’ning sign of doom” (Baillie 17, 18). The masculine rhyme scheme, developed upon the speaker’s entrance into London from line 17, places great emphasis on rhyming words “gloom” and “doom” – magnifying the speaker’s assumption of her urban experience as a fearful and ominous one. This rise of rhyming consistency also quickens the pace of the poem, hinting at the unsettling sensations stirring within the persona and likely, a budding desire to retreat from the urban clutter. In summary, Baillie’s pessimistic shift in tone as her speaker transits from “Hampstead” into “sublime” (Baillie 2, 17) London, along with Coleridge’s unfavourable portrayal of the “great city” (Coleridge 53), closely mirrors sensations of uneasiness arising from interactions with the metropolitan world.
This emotional discomfort triggered by the atmosphere of the urban world precludes an emotional union between these personas and their physical environment. While such hostility pervades the relationship between individuals and their physical environment in the urban world, the natural world is constructed as a site which catalyses an intimate connection between both. For example, Coleridge’s persona perceives the pastoral world as a site of imaginative escape during his London school days – recounting his “sweet birth-place” with the memory of “church-tower” bells that “…rang/…/So sweetly…” (Coleridge 29, 30, 32). The repetition of the word “sweet”, and the auditory imagery of ringing bells project nature as an Arcadian, idyllic, dream-like setting where the persona is able to experience a sense of belonging and ease. Moreover, with the motif of “sleep” and slumber (Coleridge 36, 45, 7), and with the situation of a “cradled infant” (Coleridge 7) as the poetic subject of “Frost at Midnight”, Coleridge constructs the natural world as a site of restoration and comfort, a place capable of providing relief from urban pressures. This concept of nature as a sanctuary is sustained by “London”, whose speaker notes that Hampstead stands at a “healthy height” where one can spot the “hills of Surrey Shine” (Baillie 2, 11). Firstly, Baillie’s specific diction “healthy” and “Shine” paints the country as a place of radiance, and of restored health as opposed to the degraded condition of the city. Secondly, the gentle alliteration in both lines evokes a light-hearted atmosphere, and when accompanied by the regulated rhythm of an aabcbc ddefef rhyme scheme, (lines 5-16) sets up a comfortable poetic pace. This linguistic gentleness accompanied by a comfortable rhythm mirrors the speaker’s sense of ease encouraged by the pastoral setting, whom like Coleridge, experiences an emotional union with their physical environment through the natural world. The final component to fulfilling the harmonious vision includes man’s union with the sphere “within” – a communion with the inner self.
Primarily, the Romantics were concerned with this harmony as they insisted that “the true meaning and purpose of life lie in the finding … of the inner Self”, for this “forms the point of contact between the individual and the infinite spiritual reality.” (Menhennet 19). In exploration of this final condition to achieving the harmonious vision, a comparison between both poems will prove that the individual’s connection with the inner self is strengthened in the natural world, as opposed to in the urban landscape. In both poems, characters are positioned in solitude – allowing for each to notice the “musings” (Coleridge 6), “thoughts and feelings” (Baillie 49) generated by the inner self. Although these instances prove that a receptivity towards the inner self is present in both poems, the degree of this receptivity varies according to the environment which the individual is situated in. For Coleridge, the “deep calm” and “extreme silentness” (8, 10) of the natural world promotes a greater understanding of the “inner Self”, as demonstrated by the poetic form of “Frost at Midnight”: “But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, (Coleridge, 55-57) As evidenced by the extract above, the poem adopts an iambic pentameter with blank verse – conveying the flexible and natural expression of the inner psyche. With the omission of a fixed rhyme scheme, Coleridge conveys the manner in which the poet moves in unity with the flow of thought, in the natural world. This harmony between the persona and his inner thought is further indicated by caesurae present throughout the poem, such as in line 55 – “But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze”, where punctuation and pauses document the unfiltered, informal expressions channelled by the poet’s inner contemplations. This spontaneity of poetic form parallels the “momentary pauses of the thought” – the unrestricted expression of the inner self, in the uncomplicated natural landscape ideal for “meditation” (Coleridge 48, 9). Notably, this natural world encourages the individual’s understanding of his inner mind, which in turn, strengthens the relationship between him and his inner self. In contrast, Baillie’s persona exemplifies how the cluttered city landscape erodes her comprehension of the inner self.
Upon transiting into London from Hampstead, the poet switches from an unhurried poetic pace, into a largely consistent, masculine, aabbccdd rhyme scheme which extends throughout the rest of poem: “What hollow sound is that?” approaching near The roar of many wheels breaks on his ear, It is the flood of human life in motion! It is the voice of a tempestuous ocean! (Baillie 43-46) Coupled with iambic pentameter, the rising rhythmic consistency of the poem echoes the uncontrollable rush of emotions caused by the overwhelming “roar” and “flood” (Baillie 44, 45) of activities in the city centre which leaves one’s inner psyche in disarray. On one hand. this rise in rhythmic consistency mirrors the agitation of emotions upon entrance into London, stunting the persona’s capacity for deep contemplation. On the other hand, the rigidity of the rhyme scheme reflects how the anxious emotions of the persona excessively restrains, and leads to an ungenuine expression of the inner mind – creating a distance between the speaker and her inner self. Consequently, the effects of urbanity leave the urban dweller’s inner thoughts unresolved and unanswered – as reflected by the “mingled, melancholy” thoughts of the “distant traveller[‘s]” “restless, reckless” mind (Baillie 50, 37, 51) at the end of the poem. The effect of alliteration in these two lines emphasises the character’s futile attempts of reconciling with his inner thoughts amidst urban distractions, leaving most of them “undefined” (Baillie 50) and unanswered. Therefore, even though the metropolitan world proves itself as a space capable of evoking responses from the inner self, it remains unconducive in conducting a reconciliation between characters and their interiority. On the contrary, the undisturbed tranquillity of the pastoral world creates a solipsistic space for contemplation, fostering a strong harmony and comprehensive understanding between man and the inner self.
In conclusion, a comparison between “Frost at Midnight” and “London” justifies the Romantics’ fervent inclination towards the natural world during the age of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The conversation between both poems reasserts the Romantic belief that the natural world is where individuals reinstate as unified wholes, for a return to the pastoral world is defined as the ultimate solution to reconnecting with the “spheres” within and beyond oneself. In essence, nature is the Arcadian and idyllic world where man experiences a palpable spiritual communion with God, an emotional union with their material environment, and a connection with their inner self. Contrastingly, the oppressive atmosphere of urbanity promotes feelings of repulsion and emotional disconnect within the urban dweller, thus depriving him or her of a connection with the three entities vital to the fulfilment of the harmonious vision. As such, it is the solace of the natural world which the metropolitan landscape lacks that renders this harmonious vision achievable by the Romantics – for the natural world facilitates inner contemplation, while offering comfort and ease to its dwellers at the same time.
Baillie, Joanna. “London”. 1800. HL2004 Sensibility and Romanticism Course Reader,
Katherine Wakely-Mulroney, 2017, pp. 42.
Coleridge, Samuel. “Frost at Midnight”. 1798. HL2004 Sensibility and Romanticism Course Reader,
Katherine Wakely-Mulroney, 2017, pp. 54-56.
Drobot. Irina-Ana. “Graham Swift and William Wordsworth: “The child is father to the man.” Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, Vol. 6, 2014, pp. 57-65. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/Legacy/Views/static/html/Error.htm?aspxerrorpath=/eds/detail/detail 7426f6680d64%40sessionmgr4010&vid=0&hid=4105&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLW xpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=100415624. Accessed 15th February. 2017.
Miller, Craig W. “Coleridge’s Concept of Nature.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1964, pp. 77-96., www.jstor.org/stable/2708086. Accessed 15th February. 2017. Menhennet, Alan. The Romantic Movement. Rowman & Littlefield. 1981
The Corruption of Christabel: Coleridge, Milton, and Portrayals of Fallen Femininity
In his poem Christabel (1816), Samuel Taylor Coleridge revises John Milton’s Paradise Lost to create a version of the fall of humanity that is wholly feminine. Coleridge represents Eve though the character Christabel, an innocent young maiden whose naiveté makes her easily corruptible. Geraldine, a beautiful and manipulative seductress, represents Satan and her sexuality is the source of corruption that leads to Christabel’s loss of innocence. Coleridge’s version of the fall unambiguously targets the feminine trait of sexuality as the cause of the fall and emphasizes Christabel’s naiveté and Geraldine’s deceptive nature to paint woman as wholly culpable for the fall therefore placing the blame for all of the human suffering that comes from the fall onto women.
Coleridge’s version of Eve emphasizes the corruptibility of woman and places part of the blame for the fall onto Christabel because she’s naïve and falls for Geraldine’s charms. From the outset of the poem, Coleridge emphasizes Christabel’s naiveté through the way she makes herself vulnerable to dangerous situations. Christabel ventures into the woods when “the night is chill, the cloud is grey,” creating an eerie setting that leaves the reader on edge in anticipation for an impending danger (l.20). The narrator asks, “What makes her in the wood so late / A furlong from the castle gate?”, which encourages the reader to question Christabel’s judgement (l.25). Coleridge’s invocation of a gothic setting sets the tone for the rest of the novel and cues the reader to look for signs that something out of the ordinary will happen in the following lines. Through asking the question regarding Christabel’s purpose for being in the woods, Coleridge invites readers to question her judgement and see the naiveté behind her actions. All events that follow throughout the rest of the poem stem from her decision to venture out into the woods in the middle of the night, therefore through questioning her judgement at the outset of the poem Coleridge places the blame for the actions that follow onto Christabel. Coleridge’s framing of Christabel’s poor judgement relates to Milton’s framing of Eve’s decision making in Paradise Lost. Prior to Satan tempting Eve, she insists that her and Adam work separately so that they can be more productive with their labor. Despite Adam warning her about the possibility of her being tempted if they are separated, she chooses to leave him and gets tempted by Satan in his absence. Similarly, Christabel’s decision to wander into the woods late at night gave Geraldine the opportunity to corrupt her therefore Christabel’s poor judgement and naiveté hold part of the blame for the fall.
In addition to placing herself in a questionable situation from the outset of the poem, Christabel ignores the ominous signs surrounding Geraldine and allows Geraldine into her bed where the corruption of Christabel takes place. When Christabel first encounters Geraldine, she notices her “blue-veined feet unsandal’d were” (l.63). Blue-veined feet provide an allusion to some sort of undead creature and make Geraldine’s beauty uncanny, yet Christabel fails to recognize the oddities surrounding Geraldine and invites her back to the castle once again highlighting Christabel’s questionable judgement. Ominous and supernatural signs, such as Christabel having to carry Geraldine over the threshold, a dog moaning in its sleep, and an unlit fire flickering, all signal to the reader that something bad is about to occur, yet Christabel fails to read any of these signs. Once Geraldine and Christabel reach her chambers, Geraldine disrobes and reveals a mark on her side that she calls “this mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow” (l.270). The revealing of this “mark” represents the most overt signal of Geraldine’s true identity, yet Christabel ignores it and gets into bed with her. Coleridge highlights Christabel’s naiveté and poor judgement to illustrate that she holds some of the blame for her corruption. Geraldine presented signs to her that Christabel should have recognized as uncanny yet she fails to see Geraldine’s true nature which leaves her vulnerable to corruption. Coleridge’s version of Eve differs from Milton’s version of Eve in that while Satan had to tempt Eve into eating the apple by using her desire for knowledge, Christabel fails to even question Geraldine’s actions and goes along with her whatever she says, despite overt signs not to. Coleridge highlights the naiveté and poor judgement of Christabel through her blind following of Geraldine and therefore places some of the blame onto Christabel for her own corruptibility. Coleridge’s reworking of the Eve character essentially dumbs her down and makes her even more susceptible to corruption than the Eve of Paradise Lost.
Satan’s reconstruction in the form of Geraldine eliminates all male culpability in the fall by making both actors in the fall female. Geraldine acts as the “Satan” in Christabel through her role as the corrupter of Christabel’s innocence. Coleridge signals the connection between Satan and Geraldine in his description of Geraldine’s appearance after Christabel tries to describe what Geraldine is. Coleridge writes that “A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy / And the lady’s eyes they shrink in her head / Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye” (l.583-585). In these few lines, Coleridge packs several references to snakes, which ties both into Satan’s appearance when he tricks Eve and the appearance of his daughter, Sin. The sibilance created through the repetition of the “s” sound refers to the hissing made by snakes. Additionally, Milton’s description of Satan as a snake describes “his head / Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes” (Milton, Book IX, l.499). The focus on Geraldine’s eyes ties back to Milton’s description of a snake, illustrating Coleridge’s allusion of Geraldine as his version of Satan.
Satan and Geraldine play the same role as a corrupter in their respective poems. Satan corrupts Eve through tempting her to eat the apple, while Geraldine corrupts Christabel with her sexuality. In Paradise Lost the role of sexuality in corruption was ambiguous and the overt causes of the fall were knowledge and ambition. In Christabel sexuality is a wholly feminine trait and acts as the main source of corruption and cause of the fall. From the outset of the poem, Coleridge aligns Geraldine with sexuality. Coleridge’s first description of Geraldine highlights her physical appearance by describing her “stately neck, and arms were bare,” (l.62). Her bare neck and arms imply some sort of nudity and define Geraldine’s sexual nature. Geraldine uses her sexuality as a tool to corrupt Christabel and strip her of her innocence. Prior to her corruption, Coleridge sets up a dichotomy between Christabel’s innocence and Geraldine’s sexuality in the way that they undress. Coleridge describes Christabel undressing as “Her gentle limbs did she undress / And lay down in her loveliness,” (l.237-238). Christabel’s version of undressing illustrates a level of innocence, despite the fact that she is naked. It only takes up two lines, Coleridge leaves out any explicit description of Christabel’s body.
Comparatively, Coleridge presents Geraldine’s undressing as some type of show. First, “the lady bowed / And slowly rolled her eyes around”, showing that she wants Christabel’s attention as she undresses (l.245-246). Coleridge continues and describes how “she unbound / The cincture from beneath her breast: / Her silken robe, and inner vest / Dropt to her feet, and full in view,” (l.248-251). Coleridge highlights the different aspects of Geraldine’s figure, like her breasts, and presents a dramatic undressing in which Geraldine appears to start seducing Christabel, as well as the reader. Geraldine’s sexuality juxtaposes Christabel’s innocence, yet the two become jumbled after Christabel and Geraldine spend the night in bed together. The next morning, Coleridge describes Christabel’s “heaving breasts” and her exclamation of “Sure I have sinned!” (l.380-381). This description of Christabel’s breasts represents the first time Coleridge ascribes any type of sexuality to Christabel. When coupled with her exclamation, Coleridge makes it clear that Christabel’s innocence has been corrupted through her night with Geraldine. Geraldine uses her inherent female sexuality to corrupt Christabel and expose her to her own sexuality. In Coleridge’s version of the fall therefore, all actors are female and the corrupting “thing” is an inherently feminine trait. This differs from Milton’s Paradise Lost because although sexuality plays a role in the poem, he portrays Eve’s sexuality as innocent until after the fall, when it becomes lustful and sinful. Knowledge and ambition, rather than sexuality, acted as the corrupting forces of Paradise Lost that led to the downfall of Adam and Eve.
Coleridge’s reworking of the characters of Eve and Satan from Paradise Lost creates a version of the story that eliminates all male culpability and places all blame onto women. His Eve is Christabel who, despite representing the ideal version of womanhood, allows herself to be easily corrupted by sex. Geraldine acts as Coleridge’s Satan and her gender removes males from the fall entirely by creating a version where the corrupter is female. Finally, Coleridge targets the inherently feminine trait of sexuality as the corrupting force that causes the fall making all aspects of the fall wholly female. Coleridge’s reworking therefore can be read as placing the blame for the fall of humanity and all of the adverse effects that emanate from it onto women.
Symbiosis and Harmony with the Landscape in the Poems of Judith Wright and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It is through the concept symbiosis and harmony with the landscape that Judith Wright effectively presents a positive experiences between individuals and their environment. These notions are most transparent through her poems, South of My Days and Flame-Tree in a Quarry, of which publication dates span from 1942-1970. Furthermore, Samuel Taylor Coleridge consistently and evocatively expands upon the notion of harmony with the landscape to demonstrate the encounters between people and their environment through “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”.
Judith Wright’s “South of My Days” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” both present personas who feel an intrinsic connection with the landscape, one so deep that they become symbiotic in harmony, and this is demonstrated through the real, remembered, and imagined environments. The character of Old Dan within South of My Days acts as a representation of the influence of the remembered landscape, and how it continues to affect individuals into the present, “Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones. / Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey.” Metaphor physically connects Old Dan with the landscape as they become one, and the anaphora of “seventy summers” reinforces the length of this inextricable attachment. Old Dan’s interdependence with his country engenders his ability to manipulate its physicality, “Hardly to be believed that summer/ will thrust… its hot face in here to tell another yarn-/ a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.” Wright personifies the summer to exemplify the relationship between Dan and the Australian landscape, who utilizes his remembered and imagined summer environment to shield himself from the harshness of his current winter. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s persona in This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison experiences a similar phenomenon, as he can connect to nature through his imagined landscapes, “A delight/ Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad/ As I myself were there!” The tonal shift that evidently occurs within this stanza, from morose and melancholic to joyful, further represents the happiness that arises from his correspondence with the environment. The real landscape is just as effective in portraying a symbiotic relationship between people and their naturalistic worlds, as Wright’s persona figuratively refers to it as a physical and biological connection, “part of my blood’s country”, and Coleridge explores this through Charles Lamb, “my friend/ Struck with deep joy may stand…/ Silent with swimming sense.” Sibilance reinforces the calming effect of the naturalistic surroundings upon the individual and emotive language depicts the absolute harmony between him and the landscape.
A notion of absolute symbiosis between people and the landscape is one further explored through Wright’s poetry, and in particular, within Flame-Tree in a Quarry. Coleridge’s This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison presents this also, through his persona and discussion of the real, remembered, and imagined naturalistic environments. Just as “South of My Days” represents this connection through physical attachment, so does Flame-Tree in a Quarry, through figurative language, “Flesh of the world’s delight/ Voice of the world’s desire.” The utilization of the word “flesh”, repeated from the previous stanza, further reinforces the tangible and inextricable link between Wright’s persona and the skeletal landscape. The four-line stanza continues with, “I drink you with my sight/ and I am filled with fire.” The full rhyme demonstrates the tonal shift that has occurred in the poem, from morose to joyful, and it is a change that distinctly mirrors the one within This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison. Through metaphor, Wright suggests that the persona consumes the Australian landscape, which is reflective of society’s consumption of the land and why only a symbolic tree in the quarry remains. This, as well as the utilization of first-person, further indicates the symbiotic relationship between the persona and the environment, as the persona exhibits a deep level of understanding regarding the landscape. The repetitive biblical allusions fabricated within Flame Tree in a Quarry, including consistent referencing of “flesh” and “fire”, illuminates the parallels between the text and This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison. The persona of Coleridge’s poem views his imagined landscape as a paradise, and thus the relationship he maintains with it is one of perfect harmony, “Now, my friends emerge/ Beneath the wide wide Heaven.” The persona’s joy at interacting with nature extends to his remembered experiences, exhibited through exclamation, “I watch’d/ Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see/ The shadow of the leaf and stem above/ Dappling its sunshine!” Contrastingly, Wright’s persona has a much more realistic and unromantic approach to the landscape, however still experiences a positive understanding of it, “Out of the very wound/ springs up this scarlet breath.” Kinaesthetic imagery depicts the absolute resilience of the Australian landscape as the symbolic “wound”, the quarry, comes alive with “scarlet breath”, reflecting the very real and tangible relationship between the persona and this previously broken environment.
In conclusion, both Judith Wright and Samuel Taylor Coleridge distinctly represent the relationships between people and the landscape pertaining to symbiotic and harmonious experiences.
Language, Verse Form, and Loss in The Mariner
”To account for life is one thing; to explain life another” – Coleridge (Norton p.596)
One of the most easily definable of Coleridge’s Mariner’s losses is his loss of a concrete existence. Coleridge’s mariner exists in a liminal space in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. He is neither dead nor alive, his soul has been won by ‘Life-in-Death’ and he has lost normal human mortality. He wanders, looking for an outlet to purge him of his guilt and offer a final outcome to his predicament, but finds no lasting solution. The duality of his existence is further illustrated by the poet through his choice of language and form, while the loss that the mariner is subjected to, and offered no resolution from, mirrors the lack of a concrete and definable ‘meaning’ in the poem.
‘It is an ancient mariner’ begins the poem and immediately Coleridge is treating his protagonist as ‘otherworldly’; by not offering him a personal pronoun, but instead referring to him as ‘it’, he is separated from the narrator and from the wedding guest, to whom he is speaking. The Mariner’s movement away from humanity continues in lines 21-24 as the poet describes the mariners descent away from what is normal; ‘Merrily we did drop / below the kirk, below the hill / below the lighthouse top.’ Which could be said to represent a move away from what is good and ‘godly’, the ‘kirk’ and what is human, ‘the lighthouse’. The anaphora at use in this stanza quickens the narrative and the descent.
Anaphora is used in frequently in the poem. At times to speed the narrative, or slow it down. It is also used to emphasise a point, as seen in the stanza that details ‘Life-in-Death’s’, (who won the Mariner’s soul) appearance.
‘Her lips were red her, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold’
The strong caesura between lines two and three in this stanza also illuminates the strikingly contradictory nature of her appearance and serves to divide the stanza into human and non-human. This duality presented in Coleridge’s stanzas is, for Seronsy, a major driving force in the narrative. (Seronsy, Dual Patterning in RAM) Focusing on the syntactical division in stanzas he links this to the thematic duality at work in the poem; joy and sorrow, innocence and guilt. He doesn’t, however, place importance on the link between the ‘dual patterning’ (Seronsy) and the duality of the mariners existence between natural and unnatural, life and death.
Much critical attention has been paid to the contradictory nature of the poem and the state of the mariners existence. Critics themselves seem to be divided into two rough groups. Those who champion an allegorical Christian reading or another moral outcome, or those who, like Stillinger, accept the lack of a clear cut resolution to the moral issues raised, as an intrinsic part of the text. (Stillinger: How Many Mariners did Coleridge write?) Wordsworth described the mariner as a man continuously ‘acted upon’ (Wordsworth: The prelude) and for L.M Grow, ‘the Rime’ presents us with ‘not an answer to the question ”what is real”. But a vivid illustration of the problem itself’. This vivid illustration of the contradictory state of the mariners existence is similar to Coleridge’s treatment of the sun and moon as oppositional forces.
As Warren points out, the sun is (mostly) presented as a negative in the poem. The sun makes frequent appearances throughout the story, as does the moon. While the sun is ‘bloody’ and ‘his’ appearance often coincides with supernatural events; the moon, female, (usually) offers the Mariner respite and calm. In the 1834 marginal gloss, the ‘imaginary editior’ (H.Brown) explains lines 263-266; ‘In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth toward the journeying moon’. That the moon is female and the sun masculine presents another element of duality to the poem, and another in-between space for the Mariner to be ‘acted upon’.
Some critics have noted the ‘flatness’ (Ferguson) of tonal variances at points in the poem. Perhaps the tonal flatness and the mostly consistent ABCB rhyme scheme provide Coleridge with a canvas to attempt to ‘explain life’ (Coleridge). The musicality of the ballad format (which Coleridge puts to good use, as seen in lines such as, ‘Alone, alone, all all, alone’) could be said to allow the poet more time and length to develop his theme. Not that Coleridge offers any final definitive explanation of life, or clear cut moral outcome. Though he sums up the Mariners experiences with theses lines in the third to last stanza;
‘He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’
After these lines, which some critics have called ‘banal’ (CITE), he goes on to describe the wedding guest ‘turned from the bridegroom’s door’, as, ‘stunned’, ‘forlorn’ and ‘sadder’. This doesn’t exactly balance with the stanza above, particularly as the wedding guest is involved in a celebration of love at, presumably, a church. As Coleridge said, ‘poetry is best when only partly, not perfectly understood’. Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining the contemporary reception the poem received. Abrams defines a sub genre, ‘the greater Romantic lyric’ (Abrams) and cites Coleridge as inaugurating the form. One of the features he identifies in his classification of this lyric, is the mind confronting nature. Perhaps,’ the wedding guest’s mind, after being confronted with the Mariners wild tale of nature as unstable is struggling to situate himself.
Surely, the Mariner’s mind confronting nature is a frequent feature of the poem. As nature gives way to the supernatural, taking the Mariner with it. At times, nature is beautiful; ‘And ice, mast high, came floating by / As green as Emerald’. In these lines, the frequent commas slow the cadence and add to the musicality of the iambic beat. This assists with the presentation of the ice at this point as beautiful, not yet frightening. However, at other times, nature turns;
‘The ice was here, the ice was there
the ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled
like noises in a swound!’
The repetition adds to the notion of being surrounded by ice, while the onomatopoeic words describe the sound of the ice as that akin to what one might hear in a faint (swound). This creates an unnatural element to the ice, preparing the scene for the supernatural events to follow. It is in this unstable world that the mariner exists, having lost his human existence and existing as another supernatural element in the poem.
His lack of explicit motive and lack of subsequent resolution is mirrored by the thematic treatment of nature as fluid and subject to change. This duality is further illustrated by the poet’s frequent use of anaphora and the two part structuring of many of his stanzas (Cecil) . While internal rhymes such as, ‘the guests were met, the feast was set’ and punctuation provide Coleridge with a way to speed or slow the narrative. This treatment of form, to further thematic elements of duality, gives Coleridge a fluidity to match the unstable situating of his Mariner, in a world where nothing can be said to be entirely ‘real.’
Perhaps this was Coleridge’s aim with the poem. In offering a protagonist who has, essentially, lost it all, and situating him in a volatile space between natural and supernatural, the poet had a canvas for questioning the nature of existence.
The Sublime in the Poetry of Keats and Coleridge
The philosophical concept of The Sublime, though typically hard to define due to its complex nature, is most often described as an object or a surrounding which evokes a feeling of profound awe when viewed. The key difference between the concept of The Sublime and the more straightforward one of ‘beauty’ is that The Sublime, though awe-evoking, usually comes with a sense of uneasiness and often even fear, rather than evoking the sole response of delight in the way an object of beauty does. Sublime entities include mountains, oceans, caves and cathedrals, which all can simultaneously evoke both joy and terror when one finds itself in its present.
Coleridge, who had a continuous fascination with The Sublime – apparent in both his works of poetry and in his autobiographical writing – differentiated between The Sublime and the beautiful by use of a metaphoric circle. In his Biographia Literaria he suggests; ‘The circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomes Sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure’. This analogy indicates a need for further exploration and contemplation when faced with The Sublime’.  As Coleridge conveys, there is no simple definition or understanding of The Sublime, and that is because the feeling it provokes is so profound that putting it into mere words is not a simple task. So why then is the concept of The Sublime so heavily present in Romantic literature, a movement based solely of the written word? The answer is just as Coleridge suggests; The Sublime calls for exploration and introspection, which Romantic poetry serves as the perfect medium for. Literature of the Romantic period most often finds The Sublime in nature. As Romantic poetry is often an expression of the Self it can serve as a form of written introspection, and Romantic poets are able to use Sublime surroundings as a tool for deeper thought and understanding of the Self, then turning to the written word to exercise this. The analysis of nature is synonymous with the analysis of the Self and so, when left solely to nature one is essentially left to themselves, and any thoughts about ones surrounding are also thoughts from deep within the psyche. So when approached with Sublime objects in nature, which often represent a void or something dwarfing to man, one’s introspection turns transcendent and one is able to introspect on a more profound level, making further expression and discovery through the medium of poetry ideal.
In ‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge uses effective linguistic styles to convey the overwhelming uneasiness of The Sublime. With the use of lines such as; ‘Enfolding sunny spots of greenery’  and ‘Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea’,  Coleridge creates dwarfing imagery and highlights the contradictory nature of The Sublime. By implementing both beautiful and ugly adjectives in the same line to describe the same Sublime surrounding, such as ‘savage’ and ‘enchanted’  , he successfully reflects how The Sublime makes one feel both terror and joy simultaneously. The line ‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing’  is an example of personification of nature, which is evidence to the connection between man and Sublime nature.
When exploring The Sublime it is common for one to find an absence rather than something tangible. The Sublime itself is a limitation  , the limitation of sense and the absence of a full understanding; a feeling of longing with no end objective available. Beyond the sensory excitement and confusion of The Sublime is ultimately a void, representative of death, mortality and human futility; death itself being intangible as it cannot be experienced with awareness. The fact that the Sublime in nature is boundless in comparison to human life, whilst simultaneously often being threatening to it, adds perspective. Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on ‘European Literature’ by recalling: ‘my whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’, which concludes that his ultimate realisation of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.
When reading Romantic poetry we can also observe the different ways that various poets from the period define and understand the implications behind The Sublime, by viewing their respective works alongside each other. Whilst Coleridge approaches The Sublime with wonder, whilst articulating the encompassing discomfort of it as presented in ‘Kubla Khan’, Keats tends delve further behind the veil of The Sublime and closer to the truthful core of it; the perpetual void which is representative of mortality. In ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ Keats immediately addresses his awareness of his mortality and compares it to a ‘pinnacle and steep of godlike hardship tells me I must die/Like a sick eagle looking at the sky’.  Here we see Keats place himself into the powerful yet ultimately mortal and waning creature of an Eagle looking up at an infinite and Sublime sky and paling in comparison.
Despite these differing representations of The Sublime presented in Romantic period literature, it is evident that the Romantic writers who indulge in the subject have that in common that they recognize The Sublime as a metaphor for part of themselves rooted deep in the subconscious to be identified and explored, a part that has an awareness of the profound truths of actuality. The various personal relationships each writer has with this truth is the differentiating factor, making each respective work that focuses on The Sublime in the Romantic period unique in content and style.
1. Philip Shaw, The Sublime (Oxford: Routledge, 1996), p. 95.
2. Shaw, The Sublime, p. 95.
3. Coleridge, Sam Taylor, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
4. Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
5. Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
6. Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
7. Shaw, The Sublime, p 10.
8. Keats, John, ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles‘, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52305/on-seeing-the-elgin-marbles [accessed 27 January 2015]
How the Lyrical Ballads Portray a Natural and Exuberant Sense of Life?
‘Lines’ opens with a celebration of natural life and its exuberance, ‘the red-breast sings from his tall larch’. Here the singing robin is portrayed through metonymy giving a sense that it is something accessible and familiar to the common people. The singing ‘red breast’ and ‘tall larch’ are dual symbols of joy and renewal, linked through the idea of nature being a constant source of vitality. This idea is particularly true, when placed in the context of spring ‘the first mild day of March’ as it represents the start of the fertile year and epitomises growth and rebirth. Birds held metaphorical significance for Romantic poets (‘the Nightingale’, albatross in ‘Rime’ and woodland linnet/ throstle in ‘Tables Turned’) as they symbolise freedom through their flight and offer perspectives that humans are unable to. Through the contemplation of natural forms, Wordsworth and Coleridge thought, one could attune into a transcendental quasi-religious experience and achieve a sense of joyful fulfilment, which could be viewed as exuberant.
In this way, nature releases a force within the human mind allowing us to achieve a state of euphoria and heightened awareness of the ‘life in things’. Later in the poem Wordsworth states,
‘One moment now may give us more
Than fifty years of reason;
Our minds will drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.’
The collective pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our’ suggest a unity between Wordsworth and the reader and invite a sense of agreement. Outwardly, Wordsworth seems to celebrate the exuberance which nature offers and this is intensified by the rhyme which synthesizes the ideas of ‘reason’, nature and the ‘season’. The first two lines of the stanza are a reaction against conventional ‘reason’ in the form of empirical, possibly Newtonian, science (as represented in ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Expostulation and Reply’). In this way, the quatrain becomes both a celebration of life, nature and exuberance but also a veiled attack upon the rationality of science. Wordsworth believed that the idea of ‘feeling’, as opposed to thinking, was paramount in the absorption of this aforementioned ‘spirit’.
The conflict between reason and feeling is also clearly presented within the poem ‘We are Seven’ in which the speaker and a small girl’s views on life and death are juxtaposed. The little girl offers what she believes to be quantifiable evidence to the speaker of her siblings’ continued presence in her life, after death, ‘Their graves are green they may be seen…Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door.’ The modifier ‘green’ is frequently associated with vitality and growth, thus life itself. Furthermore, the numbers of steps are counted and emphasized by the internal rhyme as if to dispute, in a scientific way, every aspect of the man’s argument. Wordsworth is perhaps trying to show the fresh perspective children bring to life and the way in which they are unencumbered by the rational adult view of mortality. In the process, the poem highlights the cynicism and exasperation of the speaker, ‘But they are dead, those two are dead!’ and his inability to force his rational viewpoint onto the natural innocence of the child. Thus, the child is presented as being pure in thought, in a state of grace and optimism, akin to nature. This conflict comes to represent wider contrasts in the anthology such as innocence and experience (recalling Blake), age and youth, and science and the imagination.
What Wordsworth saw as the true understanding to be found in nature, is at the heart of ‘Tables Turned’ and also echoes some of the sentiments expressed in ‘Lines’. Wordsworth argues that a joyful and truthful lifestyle must come primarily from an appreciation of nature which is itself constantly alive and changing, ‘Come hear the woodland linnet…There’s more of wisdom in it’. The simple ballad rhyme scheme reflects the joyful tone of the poem (a reaction against complex Augustan use of form and structure?). Wordsworth’s argument is an attack upon the jaded and vicarious experience to be found in ‘Books!’ and is in contrast to the life affirming joys to be found through nature.
Later in the poem, he talks of the ‘blithe…throstle’ as being ‘no mean preacher’. The modifiers ‘mean’ and ‘blithe’ are juxtaposed showing the exuberance of natural life compared with the contrived and scholarly life of a preacher. This is also perhaps a reflection upon the changing nature of religion which had been undermined by Enlightenment science (the Age of Reason), with the Romantics now looking to rediscover a, possibly heretical, sense of religion through nature (recalling Francis of Assisi). It is clear that Wordsworth feels that conventional religious ideas imposed upon man are not conducive to a spontaneous, spiritual lifestyle.
Similarly, in the poem ‘Lines’, Wordsworth also encourages a disregard for man’s calendar within ‘Lines’ in favour of a ‘living’ one, governed by the changes in nature rather than man’s own fallacious idea of time and season (possibly anti-reductionist). This dismissal of routine in favour of spontaneity, however limited, could be linked to the idea of revolution. Wordsworth is challenging social conventions in the hope that it will lead to a more fulfilling and exuberant lifestyle already implicit in natural forms.
Wordsworth challenges conventional routine for the desensitizing effect it has upon the mind, urging his sister Dorothy to break her monotonous ‘morning task’ in favour of spontaneity, suggesting instead, ‘For this one day// We’ll give to idleness’. Wordsworth presents spontaneity almost as the antidote to monotony, in which the constraints of work are joyfully cast aside in favour of more natural pursuits. Interestingly, however, the determiner, ‘one’ (day) still limits Wordworth’s proposed rebellion against such convention. This is in contrast to the ‘Yew Tree’ which is about a complete devotion to solipsistic idleness.
‘Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree’ presents the limits of an exuberant lifestyle. It is a poem also notable because it is set within an infertile and desolate natural context, ‘No sparkling rivulets…these barren boughs the bee not loves’. The description is largely negative. Furthermore, the awkward syntactical structure suggests dysfunction and is emphasized by the alliterative and plosive ‘b’ sounds. Bees often carry the symbolic value of community and government which is absent for the solitary protagonist and allows him to engage in his quasi-solipsistic behaviour unregulated.
Previously, nature and children (though largely ignored) have been symbols of an exuberant sense of life. However the symbolic importance of the yew tree is in complete antithesis to this. Its connotations of death are largely due to the poison in its berries and leaves- often considered fatal by consumption. Furthermore, the historic tradition of making yew wood into long-bows is well known and thus it is also has these deadly associations. Finally, yew trees were often found in graveyards and related to the underworld in Latin poetry and therefore seen as inextricably linked with one’s eventual demise.
Instead of using nature to nurture him to a higher state of spiritual being, as in previous poems, the protagonist misuses it, to self-indulgently to ‘nourish’ his vicarious ‘morbid pleasure’ and ‘mournful joy’. The landscape seems to form out of the protagonist’s unhappy sentiments, almost an extended pathetic fallacy and the natural world which he immerses himself in is anything but exuberant and thus the only monument of his passing is a ‘lonely’ yew tree. Here Wordsworth inverts the vitality of nature though in doing so, ironically, he still highlights nature’s power by its very absence.
In the poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’ this absence of natural joy is presented within a context of social injustice. Wordsworth subverts the idea of exuberance by having Goody Blake constrained by a figure which one would usually consider an example of physical exuberance: ‘lusty…stout of limb…cheeks were red as ruddy clover…voice was like the voice of three’. Harry Gill is the physical embodiment of youth and vitality (and a metaphor for the emergent middle classes?). His description is contrasted with that of Goody Blake, a symbol of the aged proletariat and abandoned woman (cf. The Female Vagrant, The Thorn, Mad Mother- possibly reflecting his troubled affair with Annette Vallon). Blake is described as ‘old and poor…ill fed…thinly clad’ and the descriptions are stark in their unadorned simplicity. It becomes clear that her inability to lead a joyful lifestyle is limited by her old age, poverty and the harsh winter, compounded by the selfish actions of Gill.
His attempts to prevent her from taking wood for her fire exposes his lack of altruism and is represented by the onomatopoeic refrain of his chattering teeth:
‘evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still’
Wordsworth focuses upon the physical implications for Gill’s health and the repetition of ‘chatter’ is almost a feverish manifestation of his lack of spiritual warmth. Interestingly, as in the Yew Tree, this idea is represented through the natural environment- though here from a more seasonal perspective- with the poem moving away from the abundance of summer, where exuberance is implicit, towards the cold austerity of winter. This seasonal metaphor ties together all the poem’s thematic material and is used as a transformational device bringing about change within the poem and altering nature from a life-giving force to an unsympathetically destructive one.
Though the treatment of exuberant nature in the ‘Yew Tree’ and ‘Harry Gill and Goody Blake’ is unconventional, in ‘the Dungeon’ (a parallel to the Bastille?) nature is completely absent. This is clearly shown in the line: ‘Each pore and natural outlet shrivell’d up.’ The word ‘pore’ has a living quality though this is undercut completely in the context of the dry and lifeless ‘shrivell’d’. The opening line, ‘And this place our forefathers made for man?’ is almost starkly unpoetic, in its incredulous response to the sight of the dungeon. This is a vision almost hell-like in its total absence of anything natural or joyful. Coleridge’s personal expression of indignation ‘Merciful God’ is quickly followed by images of an all encompassing spiritual and social degeneration. One negative image associated with the effects of imprisonment is piled upon another and its accumulative impact is almost overpowering. Critically, the prisoner ‘lies circled with evil’ the evil is not located within the prisoner for his crimes but with those who have imprisoned and debased him. The stanza presents prison as starkly unnatural, culminating in the line: ‘his very soul unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed’. The soul represents man at his purest, most spiritual and ethereal; that this should be ‘hopeless deformed’ is shocking. Clearly, the dungeon epitomises a lack of hope, nature and exuberance but also represents a force which exacerbates the descent into corruption.
This creates a sense of structural polarity when the second stanza is read, showing a complete joyful contrast and the redemptive power of nature not just to heal the body but also the soul. Coleridge’s heart-felt and searing appeal ‘O nature’ is not a lament but rather an overwhelmingly joyful call, encapsulating his feelings. Nature here is at its most exuberant: ‘sunny hues…fair forms…breathing sweets’ it is something vital and given greater power by its contrast to the earlier description of the dungeon. The lines have a sensual power and the musicality of ‘Thy melodies of woods, winds and water’ is almost palpable in its euphony. The rewards of nature are most extolled by this poem because it begins in such a hopeless and hostile environment. There is a sense of climactic release when the hypothetical prisoner succumbs to nature, ‘Till he relent,’ the comma presents a slight pause almost suggesting an expiration of breath which has built up, from the accumulative descriptions of nature. A soul and spirit which had unmoulded its natural shape and lost all exuberance, is here ‘healed and harmonized’ resolving the poem literally and also satisfying the musical motif which had been suggested by reference to ‘melodies’ and ‘dissonance’.
Homoerotics of Romantic Poetry
In the work of the Romantic poets, there is a clear disparity in the representation of male and female homoerotics. While male homosexual poetry is generally characterised by a careful synthesis of personal feeling and an imagined homosocial tradition in Hellenism, female homoerotics are typically torn between an extreme degree of sexual sublimation into the ‘romantic friend’ ideal and a voyeuristic male heterosexual fantasy that is nevertheless pervaded by a sense of panic induced by the presentation of female sexuality. That is, ostensibly lesbian poetry undergoes a process of heterosexualisation that dilutes (and may in fact, entirely undo) any liberating potential the poem would have otherwise possessed. Moreover, while gay male narratives are privileged within a mythologised Hellenistic context and become purified and validated therein, specifically lesbian poetry is denied access to Sapphic tradition. Thus, lesbians become de-Hellenised in Romantic poetry and the reader is alienated from a positive tradition of female homoerotics.In ‘To lady Eleanor Butler . . .,’ Wordsworth describes the romantic friendship of the Ladies of Llangollen. The poem is pervaded by a sense of sisterhood and close friendship without being overtly sexual and thus avoiding a cursory reading of the poem as a male fantasy – predicting later attempts by female writers to ‘articulate an explicitly female sexual agency free from male-imposed constraints and expectations’#. This technique also reflects the general view of such relationships in the period – being that ‘female pairs might, if they maintained a façade of genteel respectability, be acclaimed, after the fashion of the day, as idealised “romantic friends.”’ In line with this view, the relationship between the women is related mainly through euphemism and code, describing the women’s house as a ‘Vale of Friendship’ for the ‘[s]isters in love’. This conscious use of euphemistic expression is also reflected in Wordsworth emphasis on the act of naming and linguistic cipher in the poem, hypothesising the origins of the name of the vale and postulating a new name by which it may be called while simultaneously recognising the inherent, natural benevolence of the place regardless of its name. However, the way in which Wordsworth constructs space in the poem is significant. Through the title and narrative focus on place, he creates a well-defined spatial framework in which this poem operates. Although the space is characterised by its connection with nature and thus privileged in accordance with Romantic tradition there seems to be an indication of this space as being the only one in which lesbian desire can be expressed, in which the ladies’ love can be ‘allowed to climb . . . above the reach of time’. Thus, the poem implicitly recognises its own homophobic context and through its construction of a safe space for lesbian representation also defines a dangerous space.‘Christabel and Geraldine’ (lines 236-277 from ‘Christabel’) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge constructs a representation of female homoerotics that is, in many ways opposed to that of Wordsworth’s discussed earlier. Superficially, the poem can be read as an empathetic exploration of tortured and unspeakable lesbian desire through the construction of Christabel and Geraldine as lovers. However, it is important to note that this reading can never go beyond empathy due to the omnipresent male persona. This persona (if we are to understand it as being Coleridge himself; that is, a heterosexual and indeed, very probably homophobic# male) thus informs the reader’s understanding of lesbian desire in the poem. If read in this way, the narrative becomes overwhelmed with two simultaneous and potentially contradictory moods: heterosexual panic and fantastic male voyeurism. The physical descriptions of Christabel and Geraldine act to anatomise (and thus objectify) the female characters by describing their constituent body parts: ‘Her gentle limbs’, ‘her lids’, ‘her elbow’ and ultimately, ‘her breast’. Conspicuously absent from these erotic descriptions is any mention of female genitalia, which can be read as representing Coleridge’s phallic panic in the narration of this poem; the sexual satisfaction of the lesbian couple without phallic assistance is thus avoided. This absence may also be explained by what Faust describes as a ‘fetichist emphasis’#. As the narrative of the poem is ultimately governed by a male persona, lesbian erotics cannot exist as a valid coital act. They become, instead a ‘fetich’ in which the object of arousal (the sexual interactions between the females, in this case) ‘overshadows or replaces genital activity’ – which can be used to explain the focus on parts of the female anatomy that are traditionally sexualised (e.g. the limbs, the breasts) without recognising the genitalia and thus, coital potential. Coleridge frames this encounter within descriptions of mental and physical anguish that typifies heterosexual depictions of lesbian erotics. Christabel’s brain is described as one ‘of weal and woe’ while Geraldine describes the ‘mark of [her] shame, this seal of [her] sorrow’. The depiction of lesbians as tortured individuals can be read is several ways. In one way, Geraldine’s description of her shame seems to be indicative of self-revulsion, reflecting the contemporary belief that those who engaged in homosexual activity were forced into a position of self-hatred by their acts and hence had a tendency to engage is self-harm. This justified male arousal by lesbian activity by punishing them ‘through invective, denigration, and representations of violence upon her body.’ Furthermore, Geraldine communicates a sense of frustration when she says to Christabel, ‘vainly though warrest’ – indicative of Christabel’s sexual frustration. This serves to justify lesbian anguish by reiterating the heterosexual assumption that ‘lesbian loving is only an apprenticeship or foreplay to heterosexual coitus’ #– a coitus that remains exclusively that: heterosexual.Despite the apparent opposition of the representation of female homoerotic activity in these poems, there exist a few similarities between them which can inform the reader’s knowledge of Romantic poetics. Siginificantly, despite the very different treatment of lesbian desire in the poems, both Wordsworth and Coleridge use the natural world as a conceptual framework for their particular representations of female homoerotics. While Wordsworth uses nature as a space in which lesbian desire can be safely articulated, Coleridge employs the image of ‘the dim forest’ to ‘purify’ female sexuality and sublimate lesbian desire into explicitly non-erotic friendship. The poems also share the presence of a male persona which overshadows and frames the narratives, a fact that has enormous ironic potential given the lesbian content of these two poems. Although the persona may not explicitly act to negatively impact the representation of female erotics, female homosexuality becomes disempowered and there is an implication that female homosexuality is ‘less institutionalised, less well-developed, less important or less visible than male homosexuality’ as a result. In contrast to the specifically female content of the previously discussed poetry, Lord Byron constructs very different representations of male homoerotics in his poems ‘The Cornelion’ and the ‘To Eddleston’ (from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, stanzas 95-96), both describing his relationship with a choirboy, Edleston with ‘The Cornelion’ being written about ten years before ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. The former poem describes Lord Byron’s relationship with Edleston through reference to Greek Love and the Hellenistic tradition. This can be seen through the structure of the exchange, which is made in such a way as to reference Greek pederastic tradition; the use of the term ‘pledge’ recalls the traditional Athenian approach to pederastic relationships. This contingency is reflected in the lack of focus on explicitly physical or sexual attraction between Byron and Edleston – invoking what Symonds referred to as a ‘code of honour [which] distinguish[ed] the noble from the baser forms of paiderastia’ #– a socially accepted homogenic love. The only real possibility of an openly sexual encounter between the two occurs (as in Wordsworth) in a pastoral setting where the two men can successfully disentangle themselves from the un-natural expectations of society: ‘But he, who seeks the flowers of truth/Must quit the garden for the field’.The second poem, composed much later, more clearly ambiguates the pederastic tradition that dominates the interaction between Edleston and Byron in ‘The Cornelion’. In ‘To Eddleston’ Byron avoids euphemistic sublimation (such as that which occurs in Wordsworth’s ‘To lady Eleanor Butler . . .’). This is represented in a shift of titular emphasis; whereas before, the poem focused on a symbol of Hellenistic structure, ‘To Eddleston’ captures more clearly the personal element of the poem. While the previous poem discussed notions of ‘friendship’, this poem describes Byron’s lover as being ‘now, more than friend’. In contrast to a pederastic power structure, which is characterised by a disparity in desire, the power relationships in ‘To Eddleston’ deconstructed as agency shifts between the persona and the lover in the poem. The most significant difference, however, is the way in which the boundary between the homoerotic and the homosocial becomes ambiguous through the use of imagery. While this poem does, in some ways reflect notions of ideal love between men it also problematises this ideal through its use of sadomasochistic imagery. The 96th stanza is characterised by the use of violent metaphor. Byron invokes the personification of Death (potentially sexualising Eldleston through the metaphor of an orgasm). He further describes himself as being pierced by arrows – an image that invokes notions of romantic love through the tradition of Eros and sadomasochistic penetration by the phallus in the tradition of Saint Sebastian, thus sexualising the wounded male body. Thus, in what may be viewed as an evolution of the Hellenistic tradition represented in ‘The Cornelion’, Byron uses ‘To Eddleston’ to define a new form of male homosexuality along the difference between the sexual practices of his time and the Greek tradition.Unlike the previously discussed poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the representation of homoerotics in this poem is directly informed by the personal experience of a poet who was at least had bisexual tendencies, if not primarily homosexual. Regardless of the exact nature of Byron’s questionable sexuality, the fact remains that the poems are framed by male personae, distinguishing these poems from the heterosexual voyeurism explored in the analysis of the poems dealing with female homoeroticism. This allows Byron to engage with homoerotic material in more sensitive way and avoid objectifying the point of sexual and indeed, emotional attraction. Moreover, the depictions of male and female homoerotics differ in the way in which they explore Greek homosexual tradition. While Byron denaturalises some elements of Hellenistic homosexuality, he nevertheless relies on a particular version of this mythology to validate and represent his particular version of male homosexuality. In contrast, the women of Romantic poetry are denied access to Sapphic mythology and thus to Greek homosexual tradition; reflecting a cultural strategy that Virginia Woolf would later describe as the ‘secret language’# of men from which women were by and large excluded. In effect, by simultaneously laying claim to ownership of Greek homoerotic heritage and denying its counterpart to women, the Romantic poets effective construct a ‘gay consciousness’ (insofar as such a consciousness can be said to exist) that defines the lesbian as the ‘Other’. ‘[I]f Greece is not “yours,” you are not “us”. “You” are not marginalised in, but rather excluded from, “our” discourse.’Thus, though Romantic poetry does address the issue of same-sex love, it approaches male and female homosexuality in very different ways. Through the construction of lesbian desire in Coleridge and Wordsworth, the reader is positioned to read the narrative through a decidedly heterosexual discursive framework. Thus, female homoerotics must become either sublimated to a romantic (and desexualised) ideal or degenerate into male voyeurism characterised by ambivalent heterosexual fantasy and phallocentric panic. These disparities in construction are summarised in the way in which the concept of Greek Love is incorporated into the homosexual narratives of Romantic poetry. While Byron’s poetry treats Hellenistic homoeroticism with a certain ambivalence, it remains important nevertheless to his justification of homosexual tradition and forms an integral element of his construction of homoerotics. Contrastingly, female homoerotics are decontextualised and through the denial of a specifically lesbian tradition, become demonised.
Opioids, Industrialism, and Decadence: An Autobiographical Reading of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan follows the journey of a Mongol emperor through Xanadu, an ancient capital city described through themes of nature, decadence, and human dreams and visions. While the poem may seem justified for the time as Coleridge was a part of the Romantics, its intense imagery and overall odd descriptiveness is the result of an opioid-infused dream. Coleridge awoke from his dream and immediately began writing Kubla Khan, however, he was interrupted by a visitor and stopped writing because he could not remember the rest of the dream. Prior to reading Coleridge’s biography, and prior to knowing the poem was written under the influence of an opioid drug, the imagery present in Kubla Khan seemed as though it just aimed to break boundaries for a new era of poetry, one that didn’t need to follow rules or preexisting norms. After learning of Coleridge’s lifestyle, however, Kubla Khan seems to express a vision of decadence unknown to most, one that is demonstrated through nature imagery.
Coleridge begins the poem by describing the palace of Xanadu and its surrounding area with great admiration. He uses words such as “sacred,” “measureless,” and “sunless” to express the unparalleled sublimity of the area, a beauty that cannot be adequately described. Coleridge writes “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, Through caverns measureless to man.” This quotation appeals to the reader because it references something commonly known, man, and compares it to something unknown to man (the area surrounding Xanadu). This comparison stresses the inconceivable beauty that the natural scene presents in a way that shows man’s inferiority to the natural world around him. This theme of man versus nature was evident in much of the writing during the period of the Romantics, as the movement sought to counter the materialistic ideals that emerged during the Industrial Revolution by stressing the serenity, and ultimate superiority that can be found in nature.
The poem goes on to describe the scents and great scope of the land before once again, referencing the varying viewpoints between the Romantics and those in favor of industrialism.
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced: Amid whose swift
half-intermitted burst [.]
Coleridge’s use of the word “chasm” is ultimately a reference to the time period itself as the word can mean either an opening in the land or a distinct difference between viewpoints or groups of people. In the natural sense, this quotation seems to mean a geyser erupted, but in another sense, it can mean the two groups disagreed and the argument eventually exploded. This second meaning can be especially noted when looking at the use of words such as “seething” and the phrase “fast thick pants” (which conjures up images of man, or humans in general).
The majority of the poem continues to describe an enchanted natural scene, before the last stanza, where Coleridge describes a “damsel with a dulcimer.” The inclusion of an instrument obviously suggests a materialistic item, but Coleridge explains that the woman is a maid singing of Mount Abora, a reference to Mount Amara which is a real mountain located in Ethiopia. This crosslink between materialism and nature brings an ongoing argument to a peaceful close. The woman uses the instrument to instill serenity and peace within the listeners through beautiful song, much like nature is capable of. This peace, however, ends abruptly when Coleridge writes a warning:
Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes
with holy dread For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The utter reality of Coleridge’s dream comes to a peak in this quotation, as its intensity is enough to scare himself. Coleridge writes to warn readers of some creature with “flashing eyes” and “floating hair,” and the very last line referencing Milton’s Paradise Lost serves as an additional warning for those who know the consequences Adam and Eve faced after eating the fruit in Paradise. Overall, Kubla Khan began as a poem typical of a Romantic, with intense description of nature imagery, but it ended with a serious warning to readers. Perhaps research into the lifestyle of Coleridge will reveal reasoning for this drastic change in tone.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in October, 1772 in Devonshire, England. Coleridge was the youngest of fourteen children and went on to attend school in London after his father’s death. Coleridge eventually went on to attend Jesus College at the University of Cambridge in 1791, ultimately following his father’s wishes for him to become a clergyman. Coleridge’s views changed drastically over the course of his time at Cambridge, however, and he became very interested in philosophical ideas, and religious and political discussion. He also became very dependent on others as he spiraled into great debt. A few years later, Coleridge met Robert Southey and the two shared many of the same philosophies. Coleridge and Southey idealized an equal government by all and even imagined migrating to the New World with others to set up a new life in Pennsylvania. In order to live in the New World, however, the two men would need to be married, and so they married two sisters named Edith and Sarah Fricker (Academy of American Poets).
Coleridge’s marriage was a transition point from a period of freedom and self-growth to a distant and lonely life. Unhappy in his marriage, and with him and Southey’s plans falling apart, Coleridge dropped out of Cambridge and spent the next few years becoming a writer. Years later, Coleridge befriended William Wordsworth, another Romantic poet who influenced Coleridge’s life greatly. The two poets focused on a natural writing style, much like the rest of the Romantics, and Coleridge often turned to the experiences of his friends for subjects to write about. This symbiotic friendship between the two poets continued even on their travels to Europe, but faded once Coleridge returned to England in 1800.
The remainder of Coleridge’s life is characterized by a combination of self-growth and self-destruction. Coleridge continued to study and lecture on philosophy and politics, furthering his knowledge on the subjects, and he also published some famous poetry and prose. On the other hand, he struggled with an opium addiction and other health issues. He lived on the island of Malta for a few years, working as a secretary to the governor as he tried to quit his drug addiction. He was unable to give up opium, however, and he continued to spiral into a financial disaster and ultimately resorted to living off of donations and grants. In 1816, Coleridge moved in to live with a physician in one last effort to battle his drug addiction. During this time, he continued to publish while dealing with health issues, and he died in July 1834 while in London (Academy of American Poets).
While the beginning of Coleridge’s career was full of free expression and new knowledge, his time spent dealing with an opium addiction likely inhibited his newfound writing potential. Coleridge’s addiction may have resulted from a lack of familial support (they did have fourteen children after all), financial depression, or a feeling of failure after his plans with Southey did not pan out. After reading Coleridge’s biography and learning of his opium addiction, the tone present in Kubla Khan changes to something unknown to most, visions of decadence that can only be seen under the influence of an opioid drug. While Coleridge was a part of the Romantic movement and ideas of superiority of nature are associated with the era, the point to which he describes the natural world is almost too great a degree for any normal human being to be capable of imagining. His description of the land surrounding the palace, and the palace itself, shows decadence, much like his act of using an opioid drug. This over-the-top imagery is especially present in the specificity evident in the poem such as “five miles of fertile ground” and “sinuous rills.” It seems logical that Coleridge’s ability to describe his dream in such detail is partly due to him being under the influence of an opioid drug.
Additionally, after reading Coleridge’s biography, it seems as if his description of a terrifying creature in the last stanza is actually a description of himself under the influence of the drug. Coleridge writes “For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.” This quotation references the simple act of consuming something through its use of “fed” and “drunk,” and, knowing what we do about Coleridge’s drug use, it seems possible that the “milk of Paradise” or “honey-dew” could be referring to opium. Coleridge’s addiction likely makes the drug seem very appealing, but later he suffers the consequences of its use. Prior to these last two lines, he warns readers of this creature that seems unordinary, and it is possible that he is writing about his unordinary behavior when under the influence of the drug.
In examining the life of Coleridge, it becomes evident that he suffered through many losses and encountered several obstacles that ultimately caused him to resort to drugs. In first reading Kubla Khan, the poem seemed extremely descriptive, but not too far-fetched for a poet of the Romantic movement. After learning of Coleridge’s addiction, however, it’s quite possible that the level of specificity and overall decadence portrayed in Kubla Khan would not have been possible had the author not taken a drug. Additionally, knowing of Coleridge’s opium use adds an element of randomness to the poem, because the drug could have caused the author to dream of anything, but it specifically led the author to write about the Mongol emperor and Xanadu. Coleridge’s life was full of ups, but also many downs, and his drug use most definitely leads the reader to take on a new perspective regarding Kubla Khan.
Academy of American Poets. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 6 Oct. 2015, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/samuel-taylor-coleridge.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan.
 Normal meaning not under the influence of any drugs