The Eolian Harp by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘The Eolian Harp’ by S.T. Coleridge, has been entitled after the ‘Aeolian harp’, which creates melodious music while the wind blows across its strings. It is one of Coleridge’s early conversation poems.

In this poem, Coleridge anticipates his marriage with Sara Fricker. Since the main focus of the poem orbits around a lute, its title is appropriate and suggestive. However, Coleridge has made the best use of this smallish ornamental harp to express his personal feelings towards his fiancée, Sara, and God. ‘The Eolian Harp’ has a less straightforward subject. While the first few lines of the poem make it look like a simple love ballad, its main body turns into an allegorical approach when the harp symbolizes the poet and the wind symbolizes God’s breath.

 

The Eolian Harp by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

Summary

In ‘The Eolian Harp’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge depicts images of nature to explore philosophical ideas.

Throughout the poem, the lyrical voice will present opposite ideas and how these can be reconciled. Moreover, the poem deals with humanity’s relationship with nature and the divine component found within nature itself. The lyrical voice will seek to understand the universe and what surrounds him. Therefore, in the poem, a dialog will be established between philosophical and religious matters, to understand the universe, and especially nature, in a deeper and better way. The lyrical voice’s philosophical thoughts will collide with religion and he will experiment with a spiritual conflict, between the figure of god and nature.

 

Structure

‘The Eolian Harp’ is an early conversation poem, written in blank verse form. The medium-length poem stretches to 65 lines, divided into five stanzas. Each stanza of the poem does not contain a specific line length. Even there is not any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. For this reason, it is an ideal example of a free-verse poem. This poem is written from the first-person point-of-view. Henceforth, it is also an example of a lyric, overflowing with the lyrical voice’s intense emotions. Apart from that, most of the lines of the poem contain ten syllables. The major meter of this piece is the iambic meter. As an example, the first few lines of the first stanza are in iambic pentameter.

 

Literary Devices

Coleridge uses several literary devices in this poem to make his ideas more enthralling to the readers. The poem begins with an apostrophe. Here, the poet evokes her beloved Sara. Thereafter, the poet uses alliteration throughout the poem. Besides one can also find the use of consonance and assonance here. Apart from that, there is an onomatopoeia in the line, “The silly murmur of the distant Sea.” Thereafter, this line, “How by the desultory breeze caressed” contains a personification. Moreover, there is a metaphor in the “witchery of sound.” Alongside that, the poet uses a simile in the line, “The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.” The poet uses interrogation, metonymy, and synecdoche in this poem too.

 

Themes

The poem makes the anticipation of Coleridge’s marriage to Sara Fricker. In this poem, the poet discusses his engagement and his future marriage. However, the central theme of the poem is not love. The poem focuses on the image of the “Eolian Harp”, and how it represents both the order and the wildness found in nature. During his lifetime, Coleridge altered and revised the poem many times. He added and rewrote the text several times after the first publication. Coleridge thought that ‘The Eolian Harp’ was a model for later poems that he wrote.

 

Analysis of The Eolian Harp

Stanza One

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined

Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is

To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown

With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,

(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)

And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,

Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve

Serenely brilliant (such would Wisdom be)

Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents

Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!

The stilly murmur of the distant Sea

Tells us of silence.

The opening stanza of the poem, ‘The Eolian Harp’ is straightforward. The poet himself is the speaker of this lyric and is shown sitting with her fiancée, Sara. The couple is sitting in front of the small, old-fashioned yet charming cottage, where they are going to live in the future as a family. This is early evening time, and Coleridge here indicates the flowers of Myrthe and Jasmine, which are said to be the symbol of love and innocence.

Moreover, the lyrical voice portrays the happiness of holding Sara in his arms while in that beautiful place. He, as readers think that the lyrical voice could correspond to a fictional form of Coleridge, dreams about that possible beautiful existence with Sara in Clevedon. One can notice how the place is described, with numerous images of nature and with imagery of light.

The speaker pays attention to everything lying around him. He even notices those things that are generally taken for granted by many people. The place where he is sitting is like Eden, surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty.

While concluding this stanza, the poet says early evening has in it the sound and scents that collectively make the atmosphere very promising and peaceful. It looks awesome and inspirational as she is in the lap of nature in the evening.

 

Stanza Two

Lines 1–14

                            And that simplest Lute,

Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!

How by the desultory breeze caressed,

Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,

It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs

Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings

Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes

Over delicious surges sink and rise,

Such a soft floating witchery of sound

As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve

Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,

Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,

Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,

Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing!

This stanza presents the central elements that constitute the poem, ‘The Eolian Harp’. First, there is the Eolian Harp, which is referred to in the first line of the stanza. In 1803, Coleridge made some changes in the poem and he rewrote this line to “And th’ Eolian lute”. So, in the second stanza, readers are introduced to an ‘Eolian Harp’. This is a kind of musical instrument, which gives a musical sound when the wind blows across its strings.

The lyrical voice mentions this object and proceeds to describe it in detail. The images that depict this are related to the female figure and pleasure. After some lines, the description uses natural images once again to portray the delight and satisfaction that this instrument brings.

When Coleridge was sitting with his fiancée on a hillside and enjoying the beauty of nature, his ears were stricken through the sound of a lute and created disturbances in the silent place where the couple was sitting. And from this outburst, the horses of his imagination get ignited, or so to say his imagination goes higher and higher.

On hearing the sound, the poet first compares its music to a lute’s sound, then to the pleasurable (sensual) time the couple was enjoying there. After this, the speaker’s (Coleridge’s) imagination jumps to the Elfin music world, and the melodies, themselves, start doing wild dance as the ‘birds of paradise’ do. It is notable that readers again find Coleridge creating a perfect mental picture (scenery) of the natural beauty.

Besides, one also finds the poet talking about a divine force and creative power when he says: ‘O! the one Life within us and abroad,… Not to love all things in a world so filled.’

 

Lines 15–22

O! the one Life within us and abroad,

Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere—

Methinks, it should have been impossible

Not to love all things in a world so filled;

Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air

Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

In this section, the lyrical voice talks about the idea of “One life”. This idea opens a discussion about the relationship between humanity and nature. This concept is said to result from Coleridge’s experiences at Clevedon. The idea of “One life” suggests that men and nature are connected (“ Which meets all motion and becomes its soul”). Also, at the end of the stanza, while talking about this concept, the lyrical voice will mention the Aeolian harp to establish a relationship between this element and nature; the joy of nature and all its living things, and the emotions that his instrument produces.

 

Stanza Three

    And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope

Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,

Whilst through my half-closed eyelids I behold

The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,

And tranquil muse upon tranquility:

Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,

And many idle flitting phantasies,

Traverse my indolent and passive brain,

As wild and various as the random gales

That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!

In the third stanza of ‘The Eolian Harp’, a reader again sees the speaker (Coleridge) addressing Sara, and calling back to his mind a nap had by him while he was sitting with his fiancée, and enjoying the Seaview that afternoon.

He shifts the emphasis of the poem and acquires a tone similar to that of the first stanza. The lyrical voice pictures, again, the possibility of being with his loved one in that beautiful natural scenery. The sun (“The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,”) is the apogee of nature’s beauty and represents the absolute form of allure and joy.

However, in this stanza, the lyrical voice also reflects on his thoughts, acquiring a philosophical tone. The stanza will finish, again, with the mention of the Aeolian Harp. This element is mentioned to build a relationship between the form of the lyrical voice’s thought and how the musical instrument works. Once again, a metaphor will be established between this instrument and the elements that are mentioned in the poem.

Here, readers see him comparing the reflection of that shining-sun on to the sea to diamonds. Thereafter, we find him recalling an ‘uncalled and undetained’ thought and imagination, which he experienced through his brain.

The thought was quite similar to those the poet experienced after having heard the harp’s music. The poet says; just as a melodious sound is created by a harp as a result of the wind-blowing across the strings of a lute, similarly, a natural force brings about the creative spur that flies across his beliefs.

 

Stanza Four

    And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic Harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Stanza four is shorter than other stanzas of the poem. It is of just five verses wherein readers notice that the speaker is using a metaphor when he calls the entire nature ‘organic harps diversely framed.’

Here, the lyrical voice discusses pantheism. There is a desire to seek the divine and the possibility that it could be found in nature. Therefore, the lyrical voice reflects an individual spirituality where nature could correspond to god. Notice the importance of the Aeolian harp here and how it links the figure of nature with spirituality.

In the last four lines, the poet reveals that all these natural harps ‘tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, at once the Soul of each, and God of all?’

Coleridge and Sara have very different opinions about the existence of God. So, he takes precautions while referring nature to God, and does not compare this sublime, creative and spiritual force of nature to God.

 

Stanza Five

Lines 1–9

   But thy more serious eye a mild reproof

Darts, O beloved Woman! nor such thoughts

Dim and unhallowed dost thou not reject,

And biddest me walk humbly with my God.

Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!

Well hast thou said and holily dispraised

These shapings of the unregenerate mind;

Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break

On vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring.

In the concluding stanza of ‘The Eolian Harp’, readers find Sara setting the speaker (Coleridge) straight, and shrugging of his poet’s garb and understanding that since he wants to be with her in their world, he should, therefore, make a clean breast of all God-given worldly pleasures, and enjoy them in full swing.

It is to be noted that from lines 47 to 65, Coleridge is shown praising God because He (God) created him (Coleridge) among the mortal men, and provided the organic inspiration, nature, and beauty.

Expressing his wish, he says that he wants to have a humble walk with God in Christ’s footsteps. In line 57, we find the poet saying: “unregenerate mind”, which implies reborn in spirit or not renewed in heart and mind. He prays God to form his heart and mind to His (God’s) own thinking so that he can always remain engrossed in the thoughts of Almighty.

 

Lines 10–16

For never guiltless may I speak of him,

The Incomprehensible! save when with awe

I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;

Who with his saving mercies healèd me,

A sinful and most miserable man,

Wildered and dark, and gave me to possess

Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honored Maid!

Moreover, in the overall stanza of ‘The Eolian Harp’, the lyrical voice rejects the possibility of pantheism that he mentioned in the previous stanza. His love, Sara, will be the figure that will guide him back to God and more orthodox spirituality. Therefore, everything that the lyrical voice said in the previous stanza is neutralized and rejected. This is the result of the lyrical voice’s yearn to comprehend what surrounds him and ends up finding his answers in the figure of God.

One can notice the tone that this final stanza conveys, which is very dissimilar from the ones that portray the joy of nature. The lyrical voice reflects spirituality with darker and tougher imagery.

When one reads the last four lines of this stanza, one finds Coleridge telling God that though he isn’t a perfect man, you (God) have showered mercy on him by rendering him: “Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour’d Maid.” The mention of “Maid” in the last line means Sara, his fiancée who he started detesting in the later years.

Here it is notable that Coleridge dedicates his thank-you letter (through this last verse) to God, to his wife, Sara. His mention of “Maid” (Sara) shows that one should always try to find solutions to own problems, dislikes, and un-wants.

By referring to his wife in his thank-you letter, the poet wished to depict God, that while he and Sara have been together for long, he still feels grateful to her because whatever lessons he learned in his life that is only through his wife, Sara.

 

Historical Context

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet of the Romantic Movement. Alongside William Wordsworth, he published Lyrical Ballads, a book which was the starting point of the English Romantic Age. According to the critics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge also made a series of “conversation” poems which are eight texts that use the same form of writing to talk about different topics.  This term was set in 1928 by George McLean Harper.

Coleridge wrote this poem in 1795 and it was published the next year. In this poem, the female name refers to Coleridge’s fiancée, who he later married, named Sara Fricker. The lyrical voice, then, represents feelings and thoughts that evocate Coleridge’s real life. Moreover, in the first stanza, the poet refers to a house in Clevedon. A house that the couple visited and that it would serve as a home after their marriage. Therefore, the place and the female figure are filled with emotional and idealized meaning, as they relate to actual events in the writer’s living.

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly encompass the themes present in Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Eolian Harp’.

You can also read about Coleridge’s best poems and our curated list of best nature poems.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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