Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dejection: An Ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The poem, ‘Dejection: An Ode, written on April 4, 1802, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s swan song lamenting the decline of creative imagination. It is a deeply personal and autobiographical poem and depicts his mental state at the time. In this sublime and heart-rending poem, Coleridge gives expression to an experience of double consciousness. His sense perceptions are vivid and in part agreeable; his inner state is faint, blurred, and unhappy. He sees but cannot feel. The power of feeling has been paralyzed by chemically-induced excitement in his brain. The seeing power, less dependent upon bodily health, stands aloof, individual, critical, and very mournful. By ‘seeing’ he means perceiving and judging; by ‘feeling’ he means that which impels action. He suffers, but the pain is dull, and he wishes it were keen, for so he should awake from lethargy and recover unity at least. But nothing from outside can restore him, as the sources of the soul’s life are within.

Dejection: An Ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The poet’s heart is numbed by pain in his state as it seems to paralyze his heart. The poet sees the old moon in the lap of the new moon. This phenomenon, according to an ancient superstition, is the harbinger of a furious storm that is likely to blow. The poet would welcome that storm because it might startle the dull pain in his heart. However, the poet’s dull and drowsy grief finds no outlet. He has been gazing at the beauty of the sky and stars all evening, without being able to feel that beauty. The poet cannot hope to obtain these from external sources as the inner sources of animation and excitement in life have dried up. Nature has no life of her own. We transfer our own moods and our own feelings of nature.

External sights are illuminated by the light which can flow from the joy in our hearts, and external sounds can acquire a melody only from the joy that must flow from our hearts. The poet recalls the time when he also used to experience this joy, but now he has been crushed by the misfortunes of life. His joy is gone and the power of his creative imagination has greatly declined. It has been twisted and infected by philosophy and metaphysics. Dismissing the depressing thoughts, he turns his attention to the various shrieking, groaning, fearful sounds that the raging storm is producing. In the concluding lines, the poet expresses his good wishes for his wife Sara whom he has addressed several times in the course of the poem. He would like her to enjoy sound sleep and perfect happiness.

Thus, Coleridge felt that his inborn gift of imagination was decaying and that his interest was shifting to philosophy. His talent for poetry was drying up and he was becoming more and more of a philosopher. This thing greatly distressed him and he was dejected at the thought ‘that his interest in abstruse research was crushing his poetic talent’. The poet expresses grief at his loss. He says:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In word, or sigh, or tear—

Seldom has grief found such tragic expression as in this poem which has been called ‘the poet’s dirge of infinite pathos over the grave of creative imagination’. The poet proceeds with an ever-deepening sadness, each stanza charged with heavy gloom. Sadder lines than these were never perhaps written by any poet in the description of his own feelings. It is much sadder and more tragic than Shelley’s Stanzas Written in the mood of ‘Dejection: An Ode’.

A remarkable thing about ‘Dejection: An Ode’ is that here Coleridge contradicts his own previous view of Nature, thus challenging Wordsworth’s Nature-creed also. In The Eolian Harp and Frost at Midnight, Coleridge had expressed a belief in pantheism – the view that Nature is a living whole, that a Divine Spirit passes through all objects of Nature, that man can establish spiritual intercourse with Nature, and that Nature exercises an ennobling and educative influence upon man. But in this poem, Coleridge completely denies this belief. Here the poet Coleridge asserts that Nature does not have a life of her own and if we the human beings who attribute life to her:

O Lady! we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

Coleridge is no longer able to get from Nature the joy because he has no joy in his heart to meet her half-way. He has realized that Nature cannot provide any joy to those who do not already have joy in their hearts:

Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,

Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower

The ‘Dejection: An Ode’ uses some very vivid and concrete imagery. In the very first stanza we have the powerful image of the winter-bright new moon having the old moon in her lap and swelling storm with night shower falling loud and fast, and the stars gliding behind or between the stars:

I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling

The coming-on of rain and squally blast.

And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,

And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

More vigorous and forceful are the lines where the sounds of the storm are  compared first to the rushing of a defeated army, with groans of trampled and wounded men and then to the alternate moaning and screaming of a frightened child who has lost its way home:

What tell’st thou now about?

‘Tis of the rushing of an host in rout,

With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds—

At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!

But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!

And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,

With groans, and tremulous shudderings—all is over—

It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud!

A tale of less affright,

And tempered with delight,

As Otway’s self-had framed the tender lay,—

‘Tis of a little child

Upon a lonesome wild,

Nor far from home, but she hath lost her way:

And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,

And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.

Please mind that these are not the only pictures in the Ode; for we also have the image of the raging storm over a rock or a tree, a pine-grove or a haunted house, and of its celebrating the Devil’s Christmas in the month of showers of dark-brown gardens and of the peeping flower.

The entire Ode is full of gloom and dejection but in the concluding stanza, there is a note of tenderness. The poet here expresses his good wishes for his wife Sara whom he has addressed several times in the course of the poem. He would like his wife Sara to enjoy sleep and would also like her to enjoy perfect happiness. He himself is unable to sleep but he does not want her to have such an experience of sleeplessness. He wishes that his wife should get up from bed the next morning with a cheerful, care-free heart to lend a sweetness to her voice.

Interesting points of comparison and contrast at once occur to us between this ode and Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. As in Wordsworth’s poem, we have here the poet’s reference to his past joy and a description of his present mood of grief. There was a time when even misfortunes had an aspect of happiness, but now afflictions bow me down to earth. In Wordsworth’s ode, grief finds relief in joy; in Coleridge’s poem grief finds no relief and ends in dejection. It is morning in Wordsworth’s Ode, midnight in Coleridge’s.

In the former, it is May and the sun shines warm; in the latter, it is the month of showers. Wordsworth hears the happy shouts of children; Coleridge hears the wind screaming in agony. Like Wordsworth’s ode, this one is irregular in structure and stanza formation.


Dejection: An Ode Analysis

Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made

The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,

This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence

Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade

Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,

Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes

Upon the strings of this Æolian lute,

Which better far were mute.

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, foretelling

The coming-on of rain and squally blast.

And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,

And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,

And sent my soul abroad,

Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,

Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!

The poem ‘Dejection: An Ode’ is an Ode composed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As is suggested by its very title, Coleridge wrote this ode in a mood of dejection and despair. The poet feels that the poet within him is dead. So, he longs for a storm that may stir his poetic talent to revive it. The occasion is the night of April 4, 1802. The entire atmosphere is full of peace and quiet. The poet looks at the moon.  Against its background is a disc of light. The poet thinks this disc of light to be the old moon. This reminds him of the old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence. In the ballad, it was said that an old moon in the arms of a new one would bring a storm.

Seeing these conditions here, Coleridge thinks that a storm is on its way. The slow-moving winds, which are already reshaping the floating masses of clouds, will soon change into fiercely blowing winds. The Aeolian lute (the musical harp Aeolus, the Greek god of wind) which is being played by the wind, will gradually stop sighing and lamenting. In its place, stormy winds will blow. In the past, the storm had been a source of inspiration to the poets. He hopes that the storm and rain will once again invigorate his mind and get him out of his emotional break-down.

He expects them to lift his sorrow-stricken soul and enliven his dull pain plying dead in his heart. In other words, his heart’s feelings will be enlivened by the fury of the storm. As a result of this revival and enlivenment, the dead poet within him will again start working as before. The overall spirit of these lines is that the poet wants to rise from his deep slumber of barrenness and only a fierce storm can perform the trick of firing his imagination.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In word, or sigh, or tear—

O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,

To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo’d,

All this long eve, so balmy and serene,

Have I been gazing on the western sky,

And its peculiar tint of yellow green:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,

That give away their motion to the stars;

Those stars, that glide behind them or between,

Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:

Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew

In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;

I see them all so excellently fair,

I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

In the above lines of the poem ‘Dejection: An Ode’ by Coleridge, the poet further says that he is in a mood of deep sorrow. No beautiful object of Nature can charm him. In the absence of the inner joy in his heart, he does not feel the beauty of Natural objects. This grief and pain have been expressed effectively by these verses. The poet is full of very deep grief, which has so completely overpowered him that he does not feel its pang or pain anymore. The grief is void or empty, that is, it does not arouse the poetic feeling in any way. It is empty darkness in his heart out of which the poet cannot expect to come out. Due to this grief, he is becoming more and more drowsy and inactive. This grief has been described by the poet as ‘stifled, drowsy and impassioned.’ It does not arouse the poet even to weep or to heave sighs. The poet is not stirred or inspired.

Thus, though the poet is very much aggrieved, he is not in a position to give vent to his grief. Having lost his sense of feeling, Coleridge is very much dejected. He looks at the beautiful external objects of Nature. These had once inspired him but they no longer do so now. He gazes at the floating flakes of clouds, but his eyes are blank because he does not feel their beauty anymore. The shining stars appear to be modest and grave. The crescent moon appears to be fixed in the sky. It is glowing in a majestic manner. The floating clouds appear like flakes and bars hiding and revealing the shining stars. In this way, all the objects of Nature are going on in their usual way. They are all very beautiful, but the poet does not feel their beauty or charm. His soul is not lit up with joy. His imagination does not get stirred or inspired.

My genial spirits fail;

And what can these avail

To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

It were a vain endeavour,

Though I should gaze for ever

On that green light that lingers in the west:

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

The poet, in these lines, is full of grief and does not feel the beauty of Nature’s external objects anymore. He explains this phenomenon by saying that since his ‘joy within’ is dead and  ‘joy within’ comes from within the soul of a being, hence he has become insensitive to beauty.

Coleridge is full of deep sorrow. He feels no beauty or joy anywhere. He explains that his jovial spirits have failed. They cannot remove the dead weight of sorrow from his heart. He looks at the sky, the clouds, the stars, and the crescent moon, but they do not give him any joy. They are all beautiful, but he does not feel their beauty or charm. He thinks that it is now of no use for him to continue looking at the external objects of Nature. He realizes that joy will come to him from within and not from the outer world. Nature by itself cannot heal and soothe the deep grief of his heart, nor can the heart feel Nature’s beauty unless it is stimulated by joy. It is this joy that the poet has lost.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

And would we aught behold, of higher worth,

Than that inanimate cold world allowed

To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,

Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

Enveloping the Earth—

And from the soul itself must there be sent

A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,

Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

These lines show the attitude of the poet towards Nature. The poet addresses here Sara Hutchinson to explain the things that lend life and glory to Nature. Coleridge is dejected and has lost his inner joy. His observing spirits have died down, and he does not find any joy or happiness anywhere, anymore. He gazes at all the beautiful objects of Nature. But they do not provide him joy or remove his grief. All around him he sees nothing but gloom and grief. To tell of this, Coleridge addresses Sara Hutchinson (O Lady!), the sister-in-law of Wordsworth and his own beloved. Through these lines, the poet also portrays his own philosophy of Nature.

Wordsworth believed that Nature had an independent life of its own. But Coleridge does not seem to think so. According to him, it is the creative faculty of our mind which gives life and color to Nature. It depends on our mental state for its existence. It cannot make us happy or sad. Nature only reflects our own moods. Nature lives in us, that is, it is a product of our own creative imagination. It is our own imagination that adores richly or serves as its wedding garment. The objects of Nature look happy or beautiful only when we ourselves are in a happy and gay mood. It is our mood that serves as its shroud or coffin. If anything extraordinary or of greater value is seen in Nature it is through our imagination and not through our senses.

To the common man Nature does not portray anything extraordinary, but to the poet is present a changing phenomenon. Sometimes it is full of life and color while at other times it is dead and colorless. It is from the soul that light arises which makes Nature glorious and heavenly. Nature’s beauty can be appreciated only through the ‘inner joy’ arising from the soul. Thus, the external vision of the world is our inner reflection. Nature lives in us. We can see the beauty or sadness of Nature only through our inner eye.

O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me

What this strong music in the soul may be!

What, and wherein it doth exist,

This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,

This beautiful and beauty-making power.

Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,

Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,

Life, and Life’s effluence, cloud at once and shower,

Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,

Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower

A new Earth and new Heaven,

Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud—

Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—

We in ourselves rejoice!

And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,

All melodies the echoes of that voice,

All colours a suffusion from that light.

Through these lines, Coleridge explains to Sara Hutchinson, his beloved, the power of inner joy. This inner joy can be felt only by pure and virtuous souls like Sara’s. The poet says that he has lost inner joy. Nature does not offer him any consolation for his loss of joy. Nature by itself cannot provide any relief to the aggrieved heart. It is the inner joy of the soul that lends life and glory to Nature. Nature obtains its beauty from this joy. In the absence of this joy, the floating clouds in the blue sky and the crescent moon will have no life or color. This joy abides in a pure soul. Thus, Sara, who according to Coleridge is a virtuous lady of pure soul, need not ask what this joy is and where it lives. In Coleridge’s view, this joy is the power of the soul through which the music of external objects can be heard. It is such a force that even the ugliest realities of life are made beautiful by it. Thus, the inner joy of the soul is a beauty-making power. It lends color and beauty to all external things. But only pure and virtuous souls (like Sara’s) can possess it and feel its impact.

Joy is both life and the emanation of life. Like the rain and the cloud, joy and life cannot be separated. Joy represents the power and spirit of life. Only through joy, the miseries of life can be endured and its pleasures are enjoyed. This joy distinguishes poets from ordinary human beings. This joy is wedded to Nature to which it gives in dowry a happy new world and a gay new heaven. In other words, everything seen through joy appears very beautiful and attractive. The whole earth appears to be new. However, only those persons who are pure of heart can possess this power of joy. Sensual and proud persons avail of it. Joy enables us to hear sweet voices and see the sparkling clouds in the sky. We thus rejoice in our own power –the beauty-making power. It is in the joy of the soul that all external objects of Nature abide. All the beautiful colors that we see and the sweet sounds that we hear arise from the soul. Without this joy, everything appears dead and colorless.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,

This joy within me dallied with distress,

And all misfortunes were but as the stuff

Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:

For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,

And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

But now afflictions bow me down to earth:

Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;

But oh! each visitation

Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,

My shaping spirit of Imagination.

For not to think of what I needs must feel,

But to be still and patient, all I can;

And haply by abstruse research to steal

From my own nature all the natural man—

This was my sole resource, my only plan:

Till that which suits a part infects the whole,

And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

These lines contain the saddest thought ever written by the poet. In these lines, the poet mourns the loss of his powers of imagination. He is utterly sorrowful that he has lost the essentials of poetry – hope and joy. Coleridge remembers his early years when he had hoped for a bright future. At that time he was not happy, but he had hoped to get out of his misfortunes. Although his life had been hard, yet his heart was full of inner joy. This joy had enabled him to get over his misfortunes. It had stimulated his imagination and thus made him happy. Despite the fact that his life had been very hard, he was optimistic about good days lying ahead. His soul was kindled with the light of hope.

However, the ever-growing afflictions had marred his jovial and optimistic spirit. He had stooped down to the earth. His poetic fancy, which was at one time sky-high, had now been crushed. The poet is not so much worried over the loss of happiness but is extremely sad that he has lost his ‘shaping spirit of imagination’, which had been with him since birth. He painfully realizes the loss of his creative imagination which had helped him to shape his emotions in poetry. Due to this irreparable loss, he now turns to the philosophical aspect of life.

He desires peace and so tries to reconcile himself with the loss of his natural impulses and feels satisfied only with the metaphysical knowledge. It was this metaphysical knowledge which had robbed him of his ‘shaping spirit of imagination. But he finds no way out except by depending on the same metaphysical thoughts for peace and quietude. Philosophical speculation is thus the only course left for him to spend the rest of his life. The present grief has become a part of this life and he will have to bear it calmly and quietly. But the poet does not see any new ray of hope to relive him of his grief.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,

Reality’s dark dream!

I turn from you, and listen to the wind,

Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream

Of agony by torture lengthened out

That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,

Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,

Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,

Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,

Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,

Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,

Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,

Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,

The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.

Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!

Thou mighty Poet, e’en to frenzy bold!

What tell’st thou now about?

‘Tis of the rushing of an host in rout,

With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds—

At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!

But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!

And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,

With groans, and tremulous shudderings—all is over—

It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud!

A tale of less affright,

And tempered with delight,

As Otway’s self had framed the tender lay,—

‘Tis of a little child

Upon a lonesome wild,

Nor far from home, but she hath lost her way:

And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,

And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.

These are almost the last lines from the poem. The poet is full of sad thoughts over the loss of his inner joy. The poet within him is dead. His hopes for a bright poetic future are shattered. He is dejected and disappointed. To get some relief from this state of mind, he turns his attention to the fierce storm raging outside.

The poet tries to put away the sad thoughts which surround him at present. But the reality with its dark dreams is weighing heavily upon him. As he was engrossed in his own distress, he had not noticed the storm raging outside. But now he turns his attention to that. He hears the music being made by the wind. But he only finds an acute agony in it. The wind blew hard across Rocks Mountains and trees. It also blew into the groves of pine trees and visited the home of the witches. It was producing wild music. Coleridge calls the wind a ‘mad lutenist’ which had changed the month of rain, that is, April, into the wintry days of Christmas. The wind is now making merry among the flowers, the buds, and the leaves.

To Coleridge, the wind appears tragic in all respects. He finds its sounds as being of a sad nature. He is surprised to hear the mad music of the wind. He asks the wind what it is telling about. Was it telling about some mad rush of rioters and revolters and the groans of the wounded men in acute pain? But just then the noise or tumult of the wind weakened greatly. The painful sounds produced by it became faint and weak. Like the sad tale of Otway’s Orphan, Coleridge gives us a perfect pen-picture of a little baby crying in the wilderness for its dear mother. Sometimes it screams and sometimes moans trying to make itself heard by its mother. Coleridge also remembers the sad and tragic tale of Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray. In short, the storm which had once been an inspiring force to Coleridge, now gave him only pain, fear, and sorrow.

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:

Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!

Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,

And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,

May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,

Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!

With light heart may she rise,

Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,

Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;

To her may all things live, from pole to pole,

Their life the eddying of her living soul!

O simple spirit, guided from above,

Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice,

Thus mayest thou ever, ever more rejoice.

These lines form the last and eighth stanzas of the poem ‘Dejection: An Ode’. In this closing stanza of the ode, Coleridge wishes that the joy which has left him may forever bless his beloved Sara Hutchinson who has been addressed as ‘Dear Lady’ in the last but one line. The poet wishes peaceful deep sleep and joy for the lady. He wishes that gentle sleep may visit Sara and smile on her so as to make her gay and cheerful.

Half the night is over, but the poet is still awake. He cannot sleep. But for his beloved Sara he wishes that God would not give her such vigils, that is, may not have to keep her awake. He wishes the angelic sleep (wings representing angels) may feel her pangs and sores and may calm down the disturbances, that is storm, of her life. The stars may watch her dwelling as quietly and as brightly as they watch the silent earth. Symbolically this means that the stars may pour into her ears the divine music. The sleeping earth stands for the sleeping beauty (Sara).

The poet has himself lost forever his light and cheerful heart, but he wants Sara to have a joyful heart. He wishes that stars may rise in the morning fresh and cheerful. He hopes that she may be endowed with the powers of happy imagination and her eyes may be full of cheering spirits. She may be full of joy and possess a musical voice.

All the things of the world may come to her service and she may not suffer for want of anything. Her soul may be kindled with joy and thus she may enjoy looking at all earthly objects. Coleridge wishes that Sara may be guided by spirits and instructed by heavenly powers. She is Coleridge’s devoutest and purest friend and so he wishes that she may live happily and may have all that she wants.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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