Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned ‘Dejection: An Ode’ after falling in love with one woman while he was married to another. In this lesson, we will explore the feelings of this melancholy poet who knew the meaning of unrequited love.
In order to fully understand Coleridge’s motivation in writing ‘Dejection: An Ode,’ we need to take a look at Coleridge’s love life. When Coleridge was 23, his good friend Robert Southey talked him into marrying a woman he did not really love, Sara Fricker. Sara was Robert’s sister-in-law.Later, after Coleridge had met Wordsworth, he fell in love with another woman, Sara Hutchison, who ironically was the sister of Wordsworth’s fiancee. Coleridge felt trapped in a loveless marriage.
This motivated him to write ‘Dejection: An Ode,’ because he felt real despair over not being able to be in a relationship with the woman he really loved. Coleridge actually published this poem on October 4th, 1802, which was his seventh wedding anniversary and the day of Wordsworth’s wedding.
Why an Ode?
An ode is a poem that is meant to be sung, and generally it is very solemn and ‘lofty’ in nature. We can hardly imagine singing this poem! It is clear that although this poem fits some of the informality of a ‘conversational’ poem, Coleridge wants his audience – the woman he loves–to know that his feelings are solemn and that the depth of his agony in not being able to be in this relationship matches the scope of epic, somber odes.
Analysis of the Poem
This lengthy and somewhat difficult poem is written in eight stanzas of varying lengths. Before Coleridge begins the first stanza, he quotes this passage from Sir Patrick Spence:Late, late yestreen I saw the new moon,With the old moon in her arms;And I fear, I fear, my master dear!We shall have a deadly storm.
His ode is a response to this verse. We will take a look at this poem stanza by stanza, highlighting certain lines and summarizing the rest.
In stanza one, and piggybacking on Spence’s verse, Coleridge wishes that there would be a storm. He says that if he had his way,This night, so tranquil now, will not go henceUnroused by winds, that ply a busier trade.Coleridge writes on, describing a gathering storm he wishes would erupt, so that it might distract him from the pain in his heart, that the storm ‘might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live.’
In stanza two, Coleridge describes that sort of depression that sits like a gloomy cloud upon the soul. He doesn’t cry.
He just knows he is in deep pain. Stanza two describes the peaceful night sky full of lovely stars that Coleridge can ‘see’ but not ‘feel.’ For the poet, this is important because to experience is to feel, and to feel is to express the depth of those feelings in poetry.
In stanza three, Coleridge says:Though I should gaze foreverOn that green light that lingers in the West:I may not hope from outward forms to winThe passion and the life, whose fountains are within.Coleridge is staring at the sky, all that while knowing that he could stare forever, looking for some hope that his situation will change, but knowing that it will not. He cannot see his ‘passions’ fulfilled. He is trapped in a loveless marriage and longs for this unreachable woman.
The ‘green light’ is a symbol of false hope.
In stanza four, Coleridge muses that ‘(w)e receive but what we give,’ as he addresses Sara directly. He realizes that a person’s outlook affects how he understands the world around him.
If he has inner happiness, then that changes his perspective. He states:Ah! from the soul itself must issue forthA light, a glory, a fair luminous cloudEnveloping the Earth –We make our weather, in a sense. But what weather will Coleridge choose?
Stanza five begins with these words:O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of meWhat 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!Coleridge expounds on the power of inner joy. He believes that joy comes from a balance between his inner soul and nature.
In stanza six, Coleridge is remembering a time when he knew what it was to be joyful.
He had hope wrap around him ‘like the twining vine.’ But now he realizes that his ‘afflictions bow me down to Earth: Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth.’Again, we see a reference to the depth of his hopelessness and depression. He doesn’t even feel regret over the loss of his joy. He cannot feel at all. Coleridge can’t even trust his imagination to bring him up from this dark place.
In stanza seven, Coleridge begins to fight with his dark mood, saying: ‘Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, Reality’s dark dream!’ He recognizes that his present thoughts are poisonous to his soul just as a viper’s sting would be, thus using a metaphor.
He compares these thoughts to a snake wrapping itself around his mind. His situation, though, is ‘reality’s dark dream.’ It might be important to note that Coleridge was a laudanum addict, and the drug may have played a part in his perceptions and feelings as well.
This stanza feels like the climax of the poem; it feels like the intensity of a storm. Coleridge uses dark words such as ‘torture,’ ‘devils,’ and mad lute players, ‘witches,’ ‘bare crags,’ and ‘groans’ to paint a picture of the black pit he feels in his soul, the antithesis to the joy he desires. He even uses the image of a lost child, crying in fear for her mother. If we didn’t know how Coleridge felt before reading stanza seven, we know now.
In stark contrast to stanza seven, Coleridge writes a blessing, even something like a prayer, for the woman he loves in stanza eight. He states: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.Coleridge cannot find joy without her, but he realizes that she must find joy without him.
In this poem, we see the wretched soul of a man who knows he can’t have the woman he loves most.
He wants relief from his depression, and he expresses deep darkness in this poem. Yet, he only wishes a joyful life for the woman he loves in spite of his own pain.