Susan Siferd
Oct. 28, 1995

An Explication of Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode"


The text of the poem is here.


In his great Ode, written when he was only thirty years old, Coleridge mourns what he sees as the loss of his poetic gifts. By this time he had already published all the poems he is best remembered for: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), "Kubla Khan" (1797-8), and "Christabel" (1797-1801). He had collaborated with Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads (1798), and thus helped launch a poetic revolution. It strikes the reader as naive for Coleridge to be so certain of his decline, when so many adults today launch second careers, open successful businesses, and publish first novels, only after  their fortieth birthdays (Not that I would suggest that Coleridge might have opened a franchise.). Yet, in addition to possessing enormous talent and intellectual powers, Coleridge was burdened with rheumatism and an opium habit that surely sapped his bodily and mental strength; he was trapped in an unhappy marriage that must have drained his emotional resources. He must have had a keenly developed sensitivity and insight, a sixth sense about himself that allowed him to arrive at such conclusions. Much as I would like to wave his Ode in his face and ask, "What do you mean, washed up?" --to do so would be to belittle him, to treat his pain with insensitivity.

But how remarkable that the reading of a poem composed by a man from whom we are separated by two hundred years, should arouse such personal sympathy -- and a sense that we might  talk to him! Coleridge is -- was -- a man we can easily feel close to. Perhaps it is because he allows us to see his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Perhaps it is also because, as George McLean Harper writes in English Romantic Poets - Modern Essays in Criticism, "few poets have so generously given themselves out to us as Coleridge. The gift is rare and wonderful because he was a very good man, even more than because of his marvelous mind. When I say he was good, I mean that he was loving" (2). Harper contrasts Coleridge's "Mystery Poems" ("Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and "Christabel"), with their visions, their music which comes to us from a "magic realm" and disappears again into "unfathomable space" (Harper 1) with his "Poems of Friendship," (the "Ode," "Frost at Midnight," "The Aeolian Harp," "To William Wordsworth," "this Lime-Tree Bower my Prison," "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement"), which reveal the poet's "generous spirit" and the "riches of his mind" (2); then Harper goes on to say that "It is unfair to ourselves that we should refuse the companionship of the most open- hearted of men . . . a man whom all can understand and no one can help loving. There is not so much kindness, humor, wisdom, and frankness offered to most of us in the ordinary intercourse of life that we can afford to decline the outstretched hand of Coleridge" (2).

Other scholars disagree with Harper's effusive praise of Coleridge, citing the self-pitying and blaming tone of the first draft, the letter Coleridge composed on April 4, 1802, after hearing the opening stanzas of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality". This draft was a letter addressed to Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth's fiancee, Mary. The Norton Anthology of English Literature tells us that in this original version, Coleridge lamented his unhappy marriage to Sara Fricker and the helplessness of his love for the other Sara. In the next six months, however, he transformed this "confessional" poem into the "compact and dignified" ode. The revised poem was published Oct. 4, 1802, Wordsworth's wedding day (Norton 374). Other revisions came out later, for a total of fifteen in all. Among the changes Coleridge introduced into the various editions was the "addressee": the original "Sara" evolved to "William" (Wordsworth) then "Edmund" (?), then William again, then Edmund again, before finally becoming the generic "Lady" of the 1817 piece. "Otway" in stanza seven was originally "William," and the child lost in the wild was probably Wordsworth's Lucy Gray (Norton 377).

Scholars agree that the principal theme of the first draft was love; not merely the hopelessness of the poet's romantic love for Sara Hutchinson, but also the love of family, love of children, love of friends, and love of nature (Barth 93). By the final version, the themes of love have become secondary to the theme of poetic failure. J. Robert Barth notes that, while the word "love" appeared in one form or another twenty-one times in the first 340-line poem, while it is used only once in the final version, and then it has become "loveless" (95).

That Coleridge had marriage on his mind, both his and his friend Wordsworth's, is evidenced by the metaphors in stanzas four and five, where he writes: "Ours is her [Nature's] wedding garment, ours her shroud" (49), and "Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,/ Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower/ A new Earth and new Heaven" (67-69). Barth asks the pertinent question why Coleridge chose to publish the poem on Wordsworth's wedding day (coincidentally the Coleridges' seventh anniversary), and concludes that he meant to emphasize the piece as "an ironic epithalamion for himself rather than for his friend" (100).

Coleridge seems to have intended his poem to reflect the classical Greek form of the irregular ode, which deviates from the regular strophe, antistrophe, epode format, to allow for irregular stanza and line length, the fluctuation of the rhyme pattern, and the variation of the metrical movement, which quickens or slackens with the emotional intensity of the verse (Holman and Harmon 329). Coleridge's "Ode" is dignified and imaginative, and directed to a single purpose. And just as the classical ode was intended to be sung, "Dejection" contains a variety of musical effects, produced by alliteration, consonance and repetition, and aural imagery in every stanza, ranging from the throstle in stanza two, to the Aeolian lute in stanzas one and seven. The dramatic arrangement of musical effects in stanza seven are as carefully orchestrated as a symphonic movement by a Romantic composer like Beethoven. Whether intentional or not, either as plagiarism (of which Coleridge was occasionally guilty, per Norton 330) or as tribute, "Dejection" contains references reminiscent of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," such as the philosophy surrounding "clouds of glory" and how Nature and man are interconnected. The opening words of stanza six, "There was a time when . . ." are exactly the same as the opening line of Wordsworth's poem (although this may mean nothing, since the line is rather generic); and the wistful tone of the words reflects the theme shared by both poems: that of the waning of poetic powers.

The poem announces its tone in the very title: "Dejection." The epigraph from the "Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence" recalls the storm which drowned the noble Scots who set out on a mission for the king despite the omens portending bad weather. Coleridge may have altered the wording of the Ballad for his purposes, combining lines from two different stanzas. As printed in Norton, the original ballad stanza reads as follows:

"Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
Wi' the auld moon in hir arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm." (25-28)
By dropping the original version of line 28 and adding the last line of the preceding stanza, "We shall have a deadly storm," Coleridge is clearly placing priority on the coming storm. Of course it may simply be that he was looking at a different text of the ballad. Nevertheless, it is the approaching storm that interests the poet more than the possibility of "coming to harm," as becomes apparent in the first stanza, where he sets the scene for his ode and describes an evening much like that in the ballad, right down to the description of the moon. Coleridge likes the image of the moon in the ballad so much -- "the new Moon,/ With the old Moon in her arms" -- that he uses it again, even revels in it: "For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!/ And overspread with phantom light,/ (With swimming phantom light o'erspread/ But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)/ I see the old Moon in her lap" (9-13). Barth recognizes in this image the juxtaposition of life with death. "The old moon must die if the new moon is to be born," he writes (101), and adds that the "phantom light. . . rimmed and circled by a silver thread" may anticipate the wedding garment of stanza four (101). A storm is approaching and the poet longs for it to break, so that it might stir his "dull pain" into something that "move[s] and live[s]" (19-20). This idea gives the reader pause, for it would seem more likely that he would want to relieve his pain, rather than make it more intense.

In stanza two, he describes his pain as "grief" over the space of four lines as "stifled" and "unimpassioned," having no outlet, no release. The poet seems to be emotionally frigid. He addresses the Lady for the first time and describes the beauty of the sky to her; but although he is capable of making the reader see the beauty of nature, he says that he himself feels nothing in response.

Stanza three is the shortest of the poem: a mere eight lines long. In this stanza he identifies his problem: "My genial spirits fail" (39). No amount of time spent staring at all the beauties of nature can make up for that. In line 44, he refers to "that green light that lingers in the west" where the sun is going down. This is a most un-natural sunset; perhaps because of the approaching storm, or perhaps because Coleridge means it to represent the waning of his poetic powers, which are not going down in a blaze of glory, like a normal sunset, but fizzling in a sickly hue. In the last lines of the stanza he states his understanding that the fountains of "passion" and "life" are within, and not to be found from outside oneself, in nature. In this, Coleridge's philosophy differs from Wordsworth's, who saw Nature as the inspiration of poetry.

In the next few stanzas, the poet waxes philosophical. The tone, which has been at first chatty, and then intimate and personal, becomes excited, as he describes the intimate relationship between nature and poetic inspiration. He compares it to a marriage -- and a death. "[I]n our life alone does Nature live;/ Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!" (48-49). As in the image of the moon, which couples death with life, the nuptials of man and Nature represent a new life, but at the expense of a death. From the soul issues forth "a light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud" that envelops the earth (53-55) and "a sweet and potent voice" that gives life and element to all sound (56-58). The rest of mankind, those not lucky enough to be poets, are the "poor loveless ever-anxious crowd" (52), who must settle for the experience of an "inanimate cold world" (51). In stanza five, he identifies joy as the source of the power which transforms nature for the poet, and states that joy is only possible for "the pure and in their purest hour" (65). Coleridge repeats the word "joy" five times in the space of sixteen lines, so that it rings out: "Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne'er was given" (64), and "Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud -- / We in ourselves rejoice!" (71-72). We can hear the poet's enthusiasm; he's really "getting into it" with this discussion. In this stanza, Barth sees Joy as presiding over the nuptials of man and Nature, and acknowledges the allusion to the Apocalypse, in which Jerusalem is personified as the Bride of the Lamb (97). But he also connects the image of the new heaven and the new earth with a passage from Isaiah, where he says, the role of joy is made explicit:

For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. (Isaiah 65:17ff)
Stanza six grows meditative again as he directs the discussion towards himself. "There was a time when, though my path was rough,/ This joy within me dallied with distress" (76-77). Never was Coleridge without difficulties, problems, pain. But he was able to transform his misfortunes, through imagination, into "dreams of happiness" (79). The poet says that "Hope grew round me, like the twining vine" (80). The image describes a close relationship, but separate identities. Hope is never truly inseparable from the individual; never truly a part of any one. Thus, the "fruits and foliage" (81) of Hope only seemed to belong to the poet, but he was mistaken. In line 82, the tone turns again, the pain is more apparent as Coleridge mentions the afflictions that now "bow him down to earth." And yet it isn't his "mirth" that he regrets having lost, but that each new visitation of affliction suspends his native gifts, "My shaping spirit of Imagination" (85-86).

All he can do now is, not to think of what he ought  to feel, but to "be still and patient," to wait for inspiration or insight (?) or else, by mere chance, through "abstruse research" (study, philosophy) to "steal/ From my own nature all the natural man" (89-90). The exact meaning of these lines is elusive (I am reminded of Wallace Stevens's definition of poetry: "a pheasant disappearing in the brush." I think I know what Coleridge is saying, but when I try to articulate it, I can't.). Coleridge seems to be describing a process that has eroded his natural talents. Whatever it was, the process worked for awhile, but now has become his only recourse. "That which suits a part infects the whole,/ And now is almost grown the habit of my soul" (92-93), evokes the images of affliction and physical addiction. From letters Coleridge wrote during the months he was drafting the various versions of the Ode, we can deduce that the weakening of imagination which precipitated this poem, was attributed by the poet to a period of prolonged study the previous winter, when he had suffered a long and painful illness.

The first two lines of stanza seven really complete the ideas of stanza six. The ultimate result of his artificial attempts at poetic creativity is "Viper thoughts, that coil around my mind" (94) -- here Coleridge offers another image of suffocation, of something being "snuffed out" -- and, not the "light," the "glory," the "fair luminous cloud" of stanza four, but "Reality's dark dream" (95). The "viper thoughts" may refer to thoughts of depression and despair. Following these two lines, the poet turns his attention from the lady and from his philosophizing, to the storm which has finally broken. This is the longest stanza of the ode, the most dramatic, the most vividly etched, the most emotionally intense. The aural imagery here is particularly varied and impossible to ignore. First Coleridge mentions the Aeolian lute, which "screams [in] agony" as it is plucked by the wind, personified here as a "mad lutanist." He suggests that any number of desolate, man-forsaken places in nature might be more suited to be so harshly played upon, and calls the storm a "devil's yule," which is a winter storm in spring, hence unnatural: a devil's Christmas.

The wind is characterized now as an actor, capable of a full range of "tragic "sounds" (108), and as a frenzied poet telling of an army being routed (we see and hear the groans of the "trampled" men, shuddering with pain and the cold). Then comes a hush, a pause in the storm, which we hear as clearly as we do the earlier raging of the wind. This hush is followed by another "tale" being told by the wind-as-poet: that of a child lost in the wild, who "now moans low in bitter grief and fear,/ And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear" (124-5). This tale, Coleridge compares to one of "Otway's . . . tender lays" (120); Otway being a seventeenth century dramatist known for the pathos of his tragic passages. The tone of this stanza is quite dramatic, almost melodramatic, and it is possible that the poet meant to "lay it on heavy," as evidence of his poetic decline. "See?" -- he seems to say -- See how ill able I am to arouse authentic emotion?" But the passage is too well- written, his art too carefully crafted. If he has done a "botch job" of it, he has certainly done so deliberately, and I for one, am unpersuaded that Coleridge is finished, washed-up. In an earlier version of the ode, "William," and not Otway, was the writer invoked, and as the child in the tale is probably Wordsworth's Lucy Gray, it calls into question at least Coleridge's original intention in this stanza. If he wished to pay tribute to his friend and to acknowledge him as the greater poet, it seems most unlikely that he would cite Wordsworth's poetry as an example of melodrama, of poor poetry. Either Coleridge did not intend stanza seven to stand as an example of his current "artificial" means of creating poetry, or else he changed his mind at a later date about what he intended this stanza to do.

Barth asks how it is possible for the poet to describe a tale about a lost child as being "of less afright" and "tempered with delight"? He concludes that it is only possible if the storm does indeed work some positive effect on the speaker. Wedded to Nature, "The poet has revived within himself, or the wind has raised within him, or better yet, the poet and the wind in fruitful concert have revived . . . the song sung by the little girl. As Irene Chayes says, ÔThe poet of "Dejection" begins in his reverie to re-compose another man's poem and for the moment becomes a poet again.' His imagination has come to life again" (Barth 98). Through the agency of the wind and the power of Wordworth's verse ("Lucy Gray"), Barth says, "the actual experience of grief (both Coleridge's grief and the grief of the lost child) is transformed into a tale, an artistic form, that distances the listener from the actual experience, giving it shape and meaning and universal significance" (99). Thus, the storm does indeed work a positive effect on the poet, which makes the change in tone in the final stanza seem less abrupt, more appropriate.

For the last stanza is just as intense, but the tone is quite different. The storm has passed and the poet turns again to the lady. Now he asks all kinds of blessings upon her; in particular he asks that she may "ever, evermore rejoice" (139). The language in this stanza is gentle, the imagery benevolent, so that the whole scene is cast as a kind of nocturne, peaceful, soothing, and intimate. The poet has  been transformed by the storm, and so is able to transcend his own grief, in the name of love or friendship. Whether the transformation is permanent is perhaps in doubt: Coleridge writes: "And may this storm be but a mountain birth" (129), a metaphor which Norton footnotes as a possible allusion to Horace's phrase "the mountain labored and brought forth a mouse" (378), meaning that hopefully, the storm was intense but harmless. It's possible, however, given the wedding imagery in the Ode, that Coleridge meant that, with luck, his marriage to Nature, the experience of the storm, will be a fruitful union and result in new life.

When I first read the Ode, I was amazed that Coleridge could produce such a polished work in what I mistakenly thought was one flurry of writing (as a writer myself, I should have known better.). Now that I am aware of the many revisions this poem underwent, I am still in awe -- in fact, am even more in awe. Jack Stillinger, in his book Coleridge and Textual Instability, traces in detail the changes and deletions the Ode underwent, and writes that, along the way to the final version, the poem contained "silly lines that sound like early Gilbert and Sullivan," "homely, ploddy couplets reminiscent of the early Keats," "empty, non-personified abstractions frequent in the early Coleridge," and "weak or non-existent transitions" (96-97). He says that "Version 1 somewhat resembles that of Eliot's draft of The Waste Land  before Ezra Pound went to work on it -- a hodgepodge of brilliant and decidedly unbrilliant passages jumbled together as if Eliot had no awareness of any difference between the two kinds" (97). Coleridge, however, was in Stillinger's words, "both Eliot and Pound" in the writing and revision processes -- not a small accomplishment for a writer, as I can testify from experience! Coleridge obviously struggled with this work to produce the final draft, which makes it all the more amazing that, as Stillinger notes, "nearly all [the] lines and passages were in the poem, in something close to final form, from the beginning" (99). What Coleridge was able to do, was to eliminate from the early versions, conflicting emotions and self-pity so that "we could see at last what he really  meant to say in the work" (99). It perhaps undercuts Harper's theory of Coleridge as a paragon of loving generosity, to think that he published what was supposedly a personal love letter. Or maybe not; perhaps it proves that he was generous to a fault, publicly exposing not only his own emotion, but implicating Sara Hutchinson, in the process. Surely the many changes in "addressee" were necessitated by a wish to protect his wife and his lady love from the public -- and perhaps from each other. (How could he think his wife, Sara, wouldn't figure out that the "Asra" he used for Sara H. in some of his writings was an anagram?)

The poem "Dejection: An Ode" remains a most complex and compelling work, never easily -- or completely -- understood by anyone who has tried to unravel the silver thread that rims and circles its mysterious phantom light.




Works Cited

Barth, J. Robert, S.J. Coleridge and the Power of Love. Columbia: U of Missouri P., 1988. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Dejection: An Ode," in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Third ed. Alexander W. Allison, Herbert Barrows, Caesar R. Blake, Arthur J. Carr, Arthur M. Estman, and Hubert M. English, Jr. ed. New York: W.W. Norton. 1983. Harper, George McLean. "Coleridge's Conversation Poems," in English Romantic Poets -- Modern Essays in Criticism. M.H. Abrams, ed. New York: Oxford U.P., 1960. Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. Sixth ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992. Stillinger, Jack. Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versions of the Major Poems. New York: Oxford U P. 1994. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2. Fifth ed. M.H. Abrams, ed. New York: Norton, 1986.


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