Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement the Speaker considers his home as a place of great beauty and a spiritual retreat away from society. The first stanza describes the cottage in the dell, the second focuses on the view from the hills nearby. The penultimate stanza deals with the Speaker’s decision to quit this idyllic setting and serve elsewhere. It is as though he feels he does not deserve this life of serenity when others fight for what they believe in. In the fourth and final stanza he concludes that though he has quit this place it will always remain in his heart and he can access these memories in times of stress and hardship.

 

Structure and Form

The poem is set out in four stanzas of unrhymed iambic pentameter. The Speaker makes much use of Biblical language which is not unfitting given that he was a lay preacher and the son of a vicar.

 

Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement Analysis

First Stanza

Sermoni propriora.-Hor.

Low was our pretty Cot; our tallest Rose
Peep’d at the chamber-window. We could hear
At silent noon, and eve, and early morn,
The Sea’s faint murmur. In the open air
Our Myrtles blossom’d; and across the porch
Thick Jasmins twined: the little landscape round
Was green and woody, and refresh’d the eye.
It was a spot which you might aptly call
The Valley of Seclusion! Once I saw
(Hallowing his Sabbath-day by quietness)
A wealthy son of commerce saunter by,
Bristowa’s citizen: methought it calm’d
His thirst of idle gold, and made him muse
With wiser feelings: for he paus’d, and look’d
With a pleas’d sadness, and gaz’d all around,
Then eyed our Cottage, and gaz’d round again,
And sigh’d, and said, it was a Blessed Place.
And we were bless’d. Oft with patient ear
Long-listening to the viewless sky-lark’s note
(Viewless, or haply for a moment seen
Gleaming on sunny wings) in whisper’d tones
I’ve said to my Beloved, ‘Such, sweet Girl!
The inobtrusive song of Happiness,
Unearthly minstrelsy! then only heard
When the Soul seeks to hear; when all is hush’d,
And the Heart listens!’

The reader is made immediately aware of the benevolence of nature and the situation of this beautiful cottage. He makes use of personification to describe his surroundings and it is almost as though the natural world seeks to welcome and nurture him. Flowers and the sea are capitalised, again making them seem like dear friends. The rose ‘peeps’ and the sea ‘faint(ly) murmur(s)’. This is a place of gentle growth and renewal. Left to thrive in their natural habitat, unobstructed by human interference, the ‘Myrtles blossom’d’ and ‘Thick Jasmins twined’. The fact that he also uses the personal pronoun ‘our’ when describing the flowers shows his love and affection for the place.

Even through a stranger’s eyes this cottage and its situation ‘refresh’d the eye’. We see the Speaker’s disdain for the world of business as he feels his cottage ‘calm’d’ the wealthy passer by’s ‘thirst for idle gold’. All the verbs employed by Coleridge suggest that this is a place of reflection, there is noting rushed about this scene. The stranger (thought to be a resident of nearby Bristol, therefore a Bristowa’s citizen) does not stroll, he ‘saunters’. The scene makes him ‘muse’, ‘pause’, ‘gaze’ and ‘sigh’. He is truly taken by the couple he encounters and the cottage itself, and seems wistful for a different way of life. The repetition of ‘blessed’ indicates that he feels the presence of God or certainly some sense of spiritual renewal which he struggles to access in his everyday life, hence the oxymoron ‘pleas’d sadness’.

The reader is drawn into an intimate moment when we can almost imagine the poet whispering into the ear of his ‘Beloved’. He addresses her ‘Such Sweet Girl!’ and the exclamation mark emphasises his joy at their being together in this exquisite place, so far removed from the everyday that they can listen to what really matters. Even though at first they cannot see the ‘viewless sky-lark’ its song makes them aware of their luck in living in such a place of serenity.

 

Second Stanza

But the time, when first
From that low Dell, steep up the stony Mount
I climb’d with perilous toil and reach’d the top.
Oh! what a goodly scene! the bleak mount,
The bare bleak mountain speckled thin with sheep;
Grey clouds, that shadowing spot the sunny fields;
And river, now with bushy rocks o’erbrow’d,
Now winding bright and full, with naked banks;
And seats, and lawns, the Abbey and the wood,
And cots, and hamlets, and faint city-spire;
The Channel, the Islands and white sails,
Dim coasts, and cloud-like hills, and shoreless Ocean-
It seem’d like Omnipresence! God, methought,
Had built him there a Temple: the whole World
Seem’d in its vast circumference:
No profan’d my overwhelmed heart.
Blest hour! It was a luxury ,-to be!

The second stanza takes us out of the valley and up to the hills for a different perspective of the scene. The first verse ends midway through a line and the second picks up and finishes the meter, which suggests a change or contrast is pending. Here there is a sense of danger when he leaves the dell for the outside world, for the Mount is ‘stony’ and he climbs with ‘perilous toil’. However, the journey was worth it to take in the ‘goodly scene’ below. He makes use of apostrophe: ‘Oh!’ so the reader can share his sense of joy and surprise. He makes use of repetition with ‘bleak’ and then repetition with ‘bare bleak mountain’. The first stanza seemed bathed in a golden light but this contains references to darkness with the sibilant line: ‘Grey clouds, that shadowing spot the sunny fields’.

He evokes the following panoramic picture of the view which stretches so far that he sees not only outside the valley but beyond England himself and the expanse of ocean, so vast it is ‘shoreless’. The repetition of ‘and’ as he lists what his eye can see reinforces the scale and scope of his view. He concludes this with the line: ‘It seemed like Omnipresence!’ and the caesura pause in the middle of the line again emphasises that this too is like a spiritual awakening. He has seen clearly the limitations of living in the dell and he is ‘overwhelmed’. He is possibly aware either of his own insignificance or by the size of his task.

 

Third Stanza

Ah! quiet Dell! dear Cot, and Mount sublime!
I was constrain’d to quit you. Was it right,
While my unnumber’d brethren toil’d and bled,
That I should dream away the entrusted hours
On rose-leaf beds, pampering the coward heart
With feelings all too delicate for use?
Sweet is the tear that from some Howard’s eye
Drops on the cheek of one he lifts from earth:
And he that works me good with unmov’d face,
Does it but half: he chills me while he aids,
My benefactor, not my brother man!
Yet even this, this cold beneficence
Praise, praise it, O my Soul! oft as thou scann’st
The sluggard Pity’s vision-weaving tribe!
Who sigh for Wretchedness, yet shun the Wretched,
Nursing in some delicious solitude
Their slothful loves and dainty sympathies!
I therefore go, and join head, heart, and hand,
Active and firm, to fight the bloodless fight
Of Science, Freedom, and the Truth in Christ.

This verse begins with the Speaker addressing the place he loves so much as though it were a dear friend. Again, his use of apostrophe and exclamation mark show his love and passion for the place. A long question follows where he challenges himself to leave, ridiculing himself with the hyperbolic image of him whiling away the ‘entrusted hours/On rose-leaf beds’.

It reads almost like a passage from the Old Testament book of Psalms as he considers those who do little to improve the lot of the less fortunate. His language is harsh and tone withering to those who refuse to help their ailing kin. He is moving from thought into action, and is scathing towards

‘The sluggard Pity’s vision-weaving tribe!

Who sigh for Wretchedness, yet shun the Wretched’

After the elongated sentences and flowery descriptions, he writes in a more direct style when he reaches his decision to leave. This is best described in the monosyllabic alliterative trio of ‘head, heart, and hand’ and the triad ‘Science, Freedom and the Truth in Christ’ with which he concludes the stanza.

 

Fourth Stanza

Yet oft when after honourable toil
Rests the tir’d mind, and waking loves to dream,
My spirit shall revisit thee, dear Cot!
Thy Jasmin and thy window-peeping Rose,
And Myrtles fearless of the mild sea-air.
And I shall sigh fond wishes-sweet Abode!
Ah!-had none greater! And that all had such!
It might be so-but the time is not yet.
Speed it, O Father! Let thy Kingdom come!

There are definite echoes of Wordsworth here when the stanza begins ‘Yet oft’. His mind is made up and he will indeed leave. However, just as Wordsworth can recreate in his head the ‘host of golden Daffodils’ he too shall conjure up in his head the image of the ‘dear Cot’ and its gentle environs. He concludes with a yearning for eternal rest in such benevolent surroundings, echoing the Lord’s prayer as he makes the impassioned plea: ‘Speed it, O Father! Let thy Kingdom Come!’ Although he has made peace with his decision, a tangible wistfulness remains.

 

Historical Context

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772, in Devonshire, England, the youngest child of an Anglican Vicar. He is one of the foremost poets of the Romantic Movement and he and his close friend William Wordsworth jointly published an anthology Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Coleridge based this poem upon his own experiences, when, troubled by his lack of action he left his peaceful abode and his wife, Sara, to travel through England preaching as a lay-minister and meeting fellow poets with whom he was to form strong allegiances, eventually changing the direction of English poetry.

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