Three Poems: Wordsworth and Coleridge
Coleridge was often a guest at Wordsworth's small house, Dove Cottage, Grasmere.
Three Poems from the Annus Mirabilis
of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
"This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," by Coleridge
"We Are Seven" and "The Tables Turned" by Wordsworth
by George Soule
This essay incorporates material from essays on these poems appearing in Masterplots II: Poetry. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1992.
I have never read a discussion of the phenomenon of artists' anni mirabiles--marvelous periods of about a year (or somewhat shorter or longer) in which an artist flourishes at a peak of creativity that he or she may never achieve again. History will, I think, show that these periods are sometimes the result of the close friendship of two sympathetic persons who are significantly different in outlook and style. Think of Pope and Swift, Pound and Eliot, Lennon and McCartney. Their differences may have made them more productive than they otherwise would have been.
Perhaps the most important pairing in English literature was that of William Wordsworth with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. From mid-summer 1797 to the end of spring in 1798, they lived near each other in Somerset-Coleridge with his wife Sarah in Nether Stowey and Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy only a few miles away at Alfoxden. Wordsworth was the more taciturn, more restrained in conduct of the two, and in his poetry he was more concerned with ordinary people and ordinary life. In contrast, Coleridge was impulsive and effusive, and his interests were religious and transcendental. At the end of their year together when they contemplated their joint venture, to be called Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth would write about common life and Coleridge was assigned poems of the supernatural. Even so, they spent much of this year talking and walking together, making suggestions for each other's poems. Whatever their achievements before and after this annus mirabilis, during its months Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote all or part of some of their finest poems.
Here are commentaries on three poems written during the space of that year-one by Coleridge, two by Wordsworth. In each case, I will first explicate what happens in the poem, then discuss the poetical devices the author uses, and finally treat the poem's larger themes.
"This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" is a moderately long (76 line) poem divided into three verse-paragraphs. Its speaker, as we will see below, is clearly the poet himself. The poem is "Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London," and at Line 27 and in the final nine lines, the poet openly addresses his friend. Nevertheless, the poem opens as a private meditation and continues in that vein for most of its length; Lamb is addressed only infrequently, and then as an absent friend. Though Coleridge termed this a "conversation poem," it may better be described as a long lyrical and dramatic meditation.
Coleridge prefaces his poem with a note which sets the scene. In the summer of 1797, he was visited at his cottage at Nether Stowey in Somerset by friends: not only Lamb, but William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The poet "met with an accident" which prevented him from walking with his friends. What happened was that Sarah accidentally spilled boiling milk on his foot, and he could not walk for a few days. So his friends had to leave him behind when they went to walk in the nearby hills to get a view of the Bristol channel. Coleridge continues: "One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower." We picture Coleridge immobilized in a back garden, actually his neighbor's orchard, shaded by large, beautiful lime-trees (trees that are sometimes called "lindens").
At first, Coleridge is irritated at being left behind; his garden seems a prison. He resents not being with his friends, who are seeing remarkable sights and responding with intense feelings to them. Not only would these sights and feelings have been good in themselves, but they would have remained in the poet's memory to cheer him later on, when he is old and even blind. Coleridge childishly complains that he may never see his friends again. With envy he lists the sights he imagines they see: a shady dell, an ash-tree, a waterfall, tall weeds, cliffs.
At the beginning of the second verse-paragraph (Line 20), he imagines his friends coming out onto open land and seeing fields and the sea. At this point, Coleridge's mood begins to change. He thinks of Lamb, who must spend most of his days in London and who must patiently bear an unnamed "strange calamity." (In reality, Lamb was burdened with the care of his sister Mary, who had recently murdered their mother in a fit of madness.) Coleridge now imagines the beauties of the oncoming evening and the colors that the setting sun brings out in the clouds, the sea, and the land. He hopes that at that moment Lamb is feeling what he (Coleridge) has felt at such scenes in the past: the presence of an "Almighty Spirit" in nature.
In the last verse-paragraph, Coleridge knows he is happy for his friends, and his thoughts return with comfort to his own situation in the lime-tree bower. As night approaches, he looks intently around him, especially at the beautiful leaves of the lime and of the walnut and elm trees; he sees a bat and hears the sound of a solitary bee. He concludes that it was a good thing that he could not accompany his friends, for now he is appreciative of the nature he finds in his own garden. He imagines that the bird he sees fly across the face of the risen moon is also seen or heard by his friend Lamb, wherever his walk has taken him.
* * * * * *
"This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" is written in blank verse; its verse paragraphs informally divide the speaker's thought processes into three sections of approximately equal length. These steps are dramatic and seem at first to follow not the rules of logic but the process of association. The speaker begins by expressing irritation, then feels sympathy for his friend Lamb, then is both happy that he is enjoying his own situation and hopeful that Lamb can feel what he feels.
That Coleridge classified this as a conversation poem suggests that its language is close to the language of everyday speech. It begins colloquially: "Well, they are gone . . . ." The sentences that follow are like those of conversation: there are no startling inversions; clauses and lists seem to develop informally. The poet is most interested in evoking the scene. Only occasionally does he locate us firmly in his sentence by supplying a verb: "wander" (Line 8) and "behold" (Line 17). This paragraph's most impressive effects derive from its vivid visual images: "the roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep, / And only speckled by the mid-day sun," and the "branchless ash, / Unsunned and damp."
The second paragraph develops the poem's themes more seriously, and its poetic devices are appropriately changed. When the poet gives over feeling sorry for himself and begins to understand his friend's happiness, his language becomes more thoughtful and less colloquial. Clauses are shorter, and even though there are several vivid descriptions, the reader becomes more aware of Coleridge's thought processes, as expressed in precise grammatical relationships. The poet is also more assertive; here he does not merely describe the sun, but commands it to shine and the clouds to burn. Word-order is heightened by inversion ("tract magnificent"), and we meet a more poetic vocabulary ("betwixt," "methinks," "thou," "thy," "ye," "doth"). Toward the end of this paragraph, the poet signals the arrival of an important idea with exclamation points, strong emphases ("yea"), repetitions ("gaze"), intensifiers ("such") and the strong consonance of s's and p's.
We can now see that the poet's thoughts do exhibit a kind of logic. Like a syllogism of the emotions, the poem returns in its third verse-paragraph to matters more close to home, more like those of the poem's opening. For the first fifteen lines of the third paragraph, the style once more is conversational and visually evocative like the first paragraph. Then at Line 59 Coleridge returns to less visual, more abstract, and more philosophical notes; his vocabulary again is somewhat heightened, and he uses an uncommon subjunctive ("be but Nature"). In the last eight lines, he ties up the poem's various strands: now he is related to Lamb in that they may perhaps observe the same bird; this bird not only provides a vivid visual image that appeals to the senses; it carries great significance, quite literally by being the agent that enables the separated friends to be united.
* * * * * *
Romantic poets such as Coleridge often worry that the abstractions of earlier times (such as Virtues and Principles) lacked meaning for their age. Accordingly, when they attempted to describe and define great issues and forces, they took great pains to describe these forces in concrete situations, often in the actual situations and places in which the poets themselves learned about them. It is therefore very important in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" that Coleridge sets the scene literally in orchard adjoining the back garden of the house he and his wife were renting in Nether Stowey, Somerset. We have no reason to doubt the outlines of the story; in the summer of 1797, the poet had something like the experience he describes in which his mind moved from irritation, to imagination, to sympathy, to vivid sensations of the back garden in which he was sitting. This is the way we have such thoughts; this is the way Coleridge (and other contemporaries like Wordsworth) believed these ideas should be presented to be most effective.
When he chose to write his poem in blank verse, he was also breaking with tradition. The dominant verse form of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century has been the rhymed couplet, a form that encouraged poets to write in short clauses. When later in the eighteenth century poets wanted to break with the past, they turned to other forms that would allow them to be more lyrical and evocative and less assertive, and one of these forms was blank verse, a kind of verse that proclaimed their kinship to Milton and Shakespeare.
What ideas did Coleridge present in this poem? First of all, the poem takes very seriously the importance of friendship. Coleridge is unhappy about being left behind; he is hurt by the thought he may never see his friends again; his spirits revive when he thinks of Lamb. Just as important is the poem's insistence on the value of experiencing nature. Coleridge envies his friends' sensations; he remembers the places they will visit; he himself looks at the heavens and at the trees in his own bower. Note that though these sensations are almost exclusively natural and are primarily visual, they are not simply beautiful descriptions of stately trees and lovely flowers. We are shown the unlovely "dark green file of long lank weeds" as well as "the smooth clear blue" of the sea. In general, the images are of a mixed sort--arresting and detailed rather than conventionally beautiful.
Coleridge is interested in the effects on us of our real experiences of nature--unprettified and unsensationalized. In this poem he illustrates how such experiences (and memories of them) can lead us on to intuitions that are beyond nature as we usually think of it. He tells us at the end of the second verse-paragraph that when he gazed at a "wide landscape" it began to seem somewhat insubstantial ("Less gross than bodily") and more and more like the outward manifestation (the "veil") of "The Almighty Spirit." Note too that Coleridge sees himself and others like him (perhaps Lamb) as "Spirits" themselves, suggesting that at such moments something in his own soul is responding to the spirit he apprehends in Nature.
After he has rediscovered "the Almighty Spirit," Coleridge returns to his present situation and lovingly responds to its beauty. He is now happy and confident that "Nature"--the veil of the Spirit--"ne'er deserts the wise and pure" no matter where they are. Perhaps moments of spiritual deprivation are the necessary preludes to moments of enlightenment (Lines sixty-four to sixty-seven). Certainly, he hopes and imagines that Lamb is having a similar experience at that very moment. (Coleridge's hopes and perhaps the requirements of this poem caused him to seriously misrepresent the actual character of Charles Lamb, who after reading this poem complained that he really preferred London to the country and was not "gentle-hearted.")
In short, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" is an informal, selective, versified, and dramatic account of an experience Coleridge had in 1797. In it he meditates on how the influence of "the Almighty Spirit" works through nature on individuals, and how it can provide the basis for a close friendship with another.
"We are Seven" is a short poem of sixty-nine lines divided into stanzas. It relates the story of a narrator meeting an eight-year-old girl who tells him about her family. (Wordsworth tells us that the poem was suggested by a real child he met near Goodrich Castle in Wales five years earlier.)
Stanza one asks a broad question which points to the theme of the poem: what can a lively child "know of death?" In stanzas two and three, the narrator sets the scene. He presumably is walking in the country when he encounters an eight-year-old "cottage Girl," the kind of ordinary lower-class child he might have expected to meet there. He is struck ("made . . . glad") by her beauty, in particular by her thick curly hair and "very fair" (blue?) eyes, by her strange clothes ("she was wildly clad"), and in general by her rural "air." He pauses and, in order to make conversation with her, asks the ordinary questions you would pose to a child--How many sisters and brothers do you have? Where are they?
The girl gives him an extraordinary answer to his first question. How many siblings? "Seven in all." There are herself, two living in Conway (a sea-port in Wales), two at sea, and two others who "in the church-yard lie." In short, of the seven, two are dead. She and her mother live in the church-yard cottage near the two dead children--a sister and a brother. Even though it is obvious to the narrator (and to the reader) that these two are literally dead, the girl tenaciously insists that "Seven boys and girls are we."
The narrator seems amused. He points out gently that the two who are buried in the church-yard are significantly different from her: "You run about" and live, whereas they simply lie there. In sum, he concludes, "ye are only five."
The child is obstinate and describes how she frequents the two graves near the cottage door. She knits and sews by the graves; she eats her supper there; she sings songs to the occupants of the graves. She tells the narrator how she had played with her sister and brother and describes the days when they were laid side-by-side in the church-yard.
What had first seemed a pleasant chat with a pretty child has turned into a contest of wills. "But they are dead; those two are dead!" cries the narrator. But he concludes he is only "throwing [his] words away" when the girl willfully insists: "Nay, we are seven."
* * * * * *
Wordsworth wrote most of this poem in a frenzy of poetical activity during the spring of 1798 while walking in a grove of trees near Alfoxden House, the home he shared with his sister. He composed the last five-line stanza first, beginning with the last line. After he had written most of it, he recited it to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and remarked that it needed an opening stanza. Coleridge then improvised what is now Stanza one. (Coleridge's first line was "A little child, dear brother Jem," later changed to "Jim"; the first line was changed and shortened in 1815.)
Except for the last five lines, "We Are Seven" is written in standard ballad stanzas in which the lines are alternately eight and six syllables long and which usually rhyme abab. This is the stanza of many anonymous oral folk ballads, a kind of poetry which began to be written down, collected, and imitated in the eighteenth century, even though most major poems of that age employed heroic couplets. So when Wordsworth selected to write in the ballad form (as when Coleridge decided to write in blank verse), he was pointing out to readers that his poem was much different from those written during the age which preceded him.
Because "We are Seven" is written by a single poet, it is a literary ballad, not a folk ballad. Nevertheless, it shares many characteristics with folk poetry: ballads tell simple stories of uncomplicated characters with straight-forward emotions; when they speak, they speak simply and often repetitiously. A ballad's rhythm is marked and fairly regular, for many ballads are meant to be sung. So not only is Wordsworth's little girl a representative of the rural lower class, but the form of this poem is a literary version of the form that poetry coming from her class was thought to take.
In poems like "We Are Seven," Wordsworth consciously presented to British readers a new kind of poetry. Its language was to be simpler than that of previous poetry, stripped of poetical terms and circumlocutions until it resembled what he termed in his "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads (1802) "the real language of men." In this poem, we can see how much he simplified. There is only one metaphor in it, and that a conventional one ("throwing words away") employed by the narrator when he is most exasperated. The little girl personifies God, but this is hardly a figure of speech to her. The poem's syntax is marked by simple balanced phrases, pairs of words, and parallels. Although its language is somewhat general, it becomes more specific and more touching toward the end of the poem. We discover then how very close the graves are to her cottage-door, that she is by them when she eats her supper out of her porringer, that she (and her brother before he too died) would play around one of them. The poem then shifts from being rather matter-of-fact to deeper emotions: the narrator implies his exasperation while the reader responds to the little girl with pity. The last stanza is marked as conclusive by having the weight of an extra line. In fact it seems not to conclude at all: neither the narrator or the child has begun to convince, yet alone understand, each other.
* * * * * *
The poem may seem simple at first reading, even childish and laughable. It is true that Wordsworth has not availed himself of many of the resources of impressive poetry. But the dramatic confrontation of the narrator and the little girl is not just a conversation at cross-purposes. The poet raises important questions to which several answers have been given.
What are we to make of this confrontation? Wordsworth himself gives us an opening to an interpretation in his "Preface." He tells us that "We Are Seven" shows "the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that notion." This passage has meant to many readers that we are to sympathize with the girl because she is blind to the reality that her brother and sister are dead; we should pity her benignly for her childish ideas, but reflect sadly that time will teach her the lesson we all must learn about death.
But Wordsworth's "Preface" was intended to ease the reception of his poems, not to engage the reading public in specific interpretations. In reality, the poet's (and the poem's) sympathies may have been profoundly with the girl. Late in his life he quoted part of "We Are Seven" to a friend and said that "Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being." He went on to say that, unlike the little girl who displayed such vitality, his own difficulty in accepting death resulted from "a sense of the indomitableness of the spirit within me." But I think we can see something of the young Wordsworth's indomitable spirit in the girl as well.
And her visions of the continued life of those who lie buried in churchyards and those who are associated with specific places are life-long themes in Wordsworth's poetry. He translated and wrote epitaphs, and wrote a long essay on them; many of his finest passages have to do with the spirits of places; his last long poem The Excursion (1814) evokes at great length how the lives of the dead linger on after their burial. Moreover, many readers have noted that Wordsworth often implies that children live closer to God than adults, who have been corrupted by society, especially urban society, and by rational educational schemes.
So even though the first interpretation is favored by many readers, the second may be more true to Wordsworth. The little girl possesses a truth about how her brother and sister live on, perhaps in a place, at least in her memory; the death of the body is not final. The older narrator, schooled in conventional and reasonable notions, is cut off from her vision.
Wordsworth's emphasis on a child's wisdom (here and elsewhere) is a familiar way to identify his ideas as "Romantic," for the emphasis on a child's innocence had been around since Rousseau. But his use of dramatic dialogue here and in "The Table's Turned" may also send "Romantic" signals. To use a contemporary term, many of Wordsworth's poems are dialogic, and to write in such a way that neither side in an argument embodies the whole truth is a procedure we don't often find in mainstream poetry of the eighteenth century.
"The Tables Turned" is subtitled "An Evening Scene on the Same Subject," indicating that it forms a pair with the poem published just ahead of it, "Expostulation and Reply." A reader should understand one to understand the other.
In "Expostulation," Wordsworth's friend Matthew, finding the poet sitting on a stone, urges him to quit dreaming and to read serious books--books through which the wisdom of the past sheds light on the problems of the present. William replies that while he sits quietly he feels the force of "Powers" which give his mind a "wise passiveness." By implication, this passiveness is more precious than the knowledge which can be gained by reading.
"The Tables Turned" is a short lyric poem of thirty-two lines arranged in eight stanzas. It takes the form of an address by a speaker (who most readers will agree is Wordsworth himself) to a friend, the Matthew of "Expostulation." The scene is presumably that of the other poem ("by Esthwaite lake") in England's Lake District; by it's subtitle, "An Evening Scene on the Same Subject," we assume the events of the poem take place later in the same day.
Wordsworth metaphorically turns the tables on his friend, for this time it is he who makes the confrontation. The poet's general argument has not changed: the mind is much better off when it responds to the influences of nature than when it takes on intellectual tasks. The central concern of the poem is to develop this argument.
In stanza one, Wordsworth forcefully yet playfully urges Matthew to stand "Up! up!" lest he "grow double" in the "toil and trouble" of reading. In stanza two, the poet paints a picture of the glories to be seen in nature as the sun appears above a mountain and gives the "long green fields" their "sweet evening yellow." From stanza three on, nature is embodied specifically in the sounds of bird-calls in the woods--the music of the linnet and the "blithe" song of the throstle (or thrush).
But Wordsworth is interested in more than simply giving the reader specific images of nature. Most of the poem is given over to an argument. The "dull and endless strife" of reading books, the preachers' wisdom they contain, and even the "ready wealth" they may bring-all these are not so sweet and wise as a bird's song. The argument becomes more intense in Stanzas seven and eight, where the poet's objections to books widen to include most kinds of knowledge found in books, especially that "barren" knowledge which comes from rational (perhaps scientific) analysis by which "Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: / We murder to dissect."
In contrast, the poet urges Matthew to "Let Nature be your teacher," by responding to bird-songs, by deriving "Spontaneous wisdom" from them in a state, not of dull toil, but of "health" and "cheerfulness." He states his program for wisdom in Stanza six: "One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, / Than all the sages can."
Because this is so, Wordsworth ends his poem in Stanza eight by calling on his friend to "come forth" from his books with an alert heart ready to receive nature's lessons.
* * * * * *
Like "We Are Seven," "The Tables Turned" is written in ballad stanzas, in this case eight of them. The poem begins playfully. The poet remonstrates with Matthew, calling forth a fanciful image of his friend's growing double over his books with a witty implication he is behaving like, and perhaps coming to resemble, the witches in Macbeth ("toil and trouble").
The next three or four stanzas are also light in mood. The poet continues to use the imperative voice to call upon his friend to come away from books, and uses most of the poem's vivid visual images in so doing. And most of the poem's few metaphors (bird as preacher, nature as teacher) occur in Stanza four. But in each, the amount of semi-serious and abstract assertion increases: from none in Stanza two to almost all of Stanza five.
In the climax of the poem, Stanzas six and seven, we meet almost no images, no metaphors. The poet is serious, not urgent or playful. Stanza six states the positive side of Wordsworth's argument. Its language has a grand and prophetic simplicity; its rhythm is appropriately regular and calmly emphatic. Stanza seven states the negative: it is more cacophonous, irregular in rhythm, and polysyllabic than Stanza six. Its final line ("We murder to dissect") is the poem's most forceful in meaning and most dramatic in presentation.
The poem ends on a somewhat less intense but hopeful note, as it returns to the imperative to call Matthew forth and to define how he will attain the insights the poet has described.
* * * * * *
When Wordsworth chose to employ the ballad stanza, he not only broke with the poetic practice of serious English poetry of the past, he implied that he held new values as well. If these new values were not always the values of common folk, they were at least quite different from those common to educated persons in the eighteenth century.
Matthew, the representative of older values, has been identified in part with William Taylor, Wordsworth's boyhood schoolmaster. Wordsworth tells us that this and the poem that preceded it "arose out of conversation with a friend" (possibly William Hazlitt) "who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of Moral Philosophy."
It is precisely the kind of ideas about moral philosophy found in books that Wordsworth attacks. In the all-important sixth stanza, Wordsworth asserts that when a person is affected by a perception of beauty in the natural world in springtime ("an impulse from a vernal wood"-perhaps a bird song, or a fragrant breeze), that person is made immediately and intuitively sensitive to what is good and what is evil. This kind of moral intuition is more to be trusted than judgments made on the bases of philosophical systems.
The seventh stanza describes what such systems do. They reject what can be learned from the pleasing ("sweet") impulses of nature ("the lore which Nature brings"). Instead, these systems encourage the mind ("Our meddling intellect") to analyze ("dissect") the "beauteous forms of things." This last phrase is somewhat vague. Presumably the mind attempts to analyze not only the beautiful impulses from nature and but human actions as well. In either case, before the mind can analyze, it must kill: "We murder to dissect." The action of the logical mind destroys what it touches and defeats its own purpose of discovering moral principles.
Wordsworth criticizes how the logical mind operates upon moral questions. Some readers also take the powerful statements in Stanza seven to apply to the analytical mind in all of its operations. Although elsewhere he has different opinions, here Wordsworth seems to have much in common with other Romantic poets, who generally valued imaginative understanding much higher than logical and rational thought.
April 5, 2000