In ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter,’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge recalls his own youth along the River Otter in Ottery St. Mary in Devon. He uses clear and evocative images in order to paint a picture of what his youth was like there and the joy he’s left behind as he’s transitioned into adulthood. Sadly for Coleridge, he is, like other poets, artists, and thinkers throughout the ages, filled with sorrow for a time in his life he didn’t appreciate while he was living it.
Explore Sonnet: To the River Otter
Throughout the lines of this piece, Coleridge’s speaker, who is generally considered to be the poet himself, describes a river he knew in childhood. It’s unclear whether or not he’s there, standing beside the river, or just looking back on the memory. Either way, he depicts the river banks, the trees, and the river’s shining surface. He remembers skipping stones along with its “breast” and the joy that filled his own when he walked there as a child. Despite his longing for this time, he can’t recreate it, nor can he go back and live it again.
Coleridge explores themes of childhood and memory in ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter.’ His speaker spends the poem thinking about the past and reliving memories that are now tinged with sorrow due to the fact that he’ll never experience the same feelings again. The beauty and carefree joy of childhood is lost forever. It’s only now as an adult that he’s able to look back on that time and appreciate it for what it was.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet: To the River Otter’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a fourteen-line sonnet that’s contained, as is traditional, in a single stanza of text. Very untraditionally, the sonnet follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAACDCDCDEC. This pattern includes elements of a Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet but it is not recognized as either. The first five lines feel like a Petrarchan sonnet while the next few use an alternating rhyme scheme like a Shakespearean sonnet.
In contrast to the surprising rhyme scheme is the very structured meter of the poem. Almost uniformly, the poem uses iambic pentameter. This means that most of the lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
Coleridge makes use of several literary devices in ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter.’ These include but are not limited to examples of apostrophe, caesura, and alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “wild” and “West” in the first line and “sweet scenes” in line five.
An apostrophe is an address to something or someone that cannot hear or understand what’s being said. This might be because it’s an object, someone who passed away, or in this case, a river. In the first line, the poet makes this technique obvious when he says “Dear native brook!”
A caesura is a pause in the middle of a line. This is created either through punctuation or through the use of a metrical pattern. There is a good example in the first line as well as in line four. The latter reads: “Numbering its light leaps! Yet so deep impressed.”
Dear native brook! wild streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have passed,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimmed the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter,’ the speaker begins by addressing his “native brook,” a stream near where he used to live. He continues to speak to it throughout the poem, creating a great example of an apostrophe. Numerous years have passed since he spent his time along the stream and made the lovely childhood memories he now has to look back on. He used to walk there, and skim the “smooth thin stone along thy breast.” This line is an example of personification, comparing the river’s surface to someone’s chest. He’s been happy since then, he’s also been sorrowful since then, a statement that represents the broader nature of many liminal years.
Numbering its light leaps! Yet so deep impressed
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
In the following lines, the speaker looks back with happiness on this time and what it was like to watch the stones skip along the river’s surface. It was a good time in his life, marked by the sweetness of childhood. He was filled with youth then, and with all the aspirations a child holds in their mind and heart. The following lines outline some of the features of the stream that he remembers.
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that, veined with various dyes,
Gleamed through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of childhood! oft have ye beguiled
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless child!
The speaker recalls a plank used to cross the water and the grey willow trees. There was sand with different colors running through it at the bottom, seen through the “bright transparence” of the surface. The poem ends with a clear longing for the days of childhood to return, one of the most prominent and widespread themes of the Romantic movement and work by Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Now that he truly appreciates what this time was worth, he’s longing to be returned there. He knows, of course, that this is impossible. The separation is making the memories sweeter and more sorrowful.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter,’ should also consider reading some of Coleridge’s other, better-known poems. For example:
- ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – is Coleridge’s most famous poem, usually regarded as his masterpiece. It details a Mariner’s horrors on the sea, the death of his shipmates, and some otherworldly visitors.
- ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’ – speaks on the passage of time and how two imaginary children move through it, relating directly to ‘Sonnet: To a River Otter.’
- ‘The Pains of Sleep’ – describes a period in a speaker’s life in which he is besieged by terrible imagery. No matter how much he prays, he’s filled with horror and awoken from sleep screaming.