Friday, July 27, 2012

Dejection

Dejection

The Poem
“Dejection: An Ode” is an ode in eight stanzas that vary greatly in the number of lines, the length of line, and in thought and imagery. The title announces the subject of the poem, which becomes apparent in the first stanza. The poet is surveying the tranquil night sky in which the new moon can be seen. He recalls an old ballad, which predicted that when the new moon
can be seen with the old moon “in its arms,” a storm may be brewing. He hopes this is true, because he is sunk in depression and remembers past occasions when the
driving energy of a storm has enlivened his creative spirit.
In stanza 2, the poet elaborates on his dejected state of mind, which is deep and pervasive. Nothing seems able
to lift it. Addressing a “Lady” (who is Coleridge’s friend Sara Hutchinson), he says that in this mood he has
been gazing at the western sky all evening. Although he can see how beautiful the scene is, he cannot feel this
beauty in his inner being.
This observation leads him, in the short stanza 3, to reflect philosophically on his situation. The source of his
poetic power is failing him, and the knowledge of this weighs him down. He realizes that he could gaze out
forever on the external scene but that it would be no use to him. The “passion and the life” that he seeks is
not to be found outside the human mind, but within it.
In stanzas 4 and 5, the poet again addresses Sara directly, elaborating on his philosophy of imaginative
perception. He states that if one is to see anything of higher value in nature, one must supply it oneself. For
nature to be clothed in light and glory, light and glory must emanate from the soul itself. These qualities
cannot be found in outer things, which of themselves are merely cold and dead. The poet calls this power joy.
It permits a marriage between man and nature, which creates “a new heaven and a new earth.” The reference
is to the Christian Millennium, foretold in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Such perception is
available only to the pure.
In stanza 6, the poet looks back at a time when he possessed this joy, which could even withstand personal
misfortune. Then he was full of hope, but now he feels that his imaginative and poetic power, which nature
gave him at birth, has vanished.
In stanza 7, the poet turns from these dismal thoughts and listens to the wind, which has gathered strength in
the time he has been contemplating. In an apostrophe to the wind, he compares it first to a “mad Lutanist,”
then to an actor, perfectly enunciating a variety of sounds, and then to a poet, moved to the frenzy of
inspiration. He wonders what story the wind is telling. First he thinks of the headlong retreat of a defeated
army, groaning in pain. Then, with a sudden lessening of the noise, he thinks that it tells another tale, of a lost
child screaming for her mother.
In the final stanza, the poet’s thoughts turn to Sara. He hopes that sleep may visit her, since it is denied to
him. Invoking the joy to which he had given so much importance in stanza 5, he expresses the wish that Sara
may rise in the morning with an uplifted spirit, and that her life may always be full of rejoicing.
Dejection 1
Forms and Devices
“Dejection: An Ode” is sometimes classified as one of Coleridge’s “conversation” poems, a group which
includes “The Eolian Harp” (1796), “Frost at Midnight” (1798), and others. The opening line of the ode
(“Well! if the bard was weather-wise”) strikes the informal tone of the speaking voice. As in the other
conversation poems, the poet addresses an absent auditor, in this case Sara. Also like the other conversation
poems, the ode possesses a tripartite, rondo structure. It starts with a description of a tranquil natural scene (as
in “The Eolian Harp,” for example), juxtaposed and contrasted with the poet’s own mood (as in “Frost at
Midnight”). A meditation follows, in which the poet grapples with emotional and intellectual questions,
before the poem returns to the outer scene. The rhythm of the poem, at both inner and outer level, is one of
calm, followed by storm, followed by calm.
There are also, however, many differences between the ode and the conversation poems. The informal tone of
the ode’s first line is not maintained throughout, but gives way to the more lofty and dignified manner that
traditionally characterizes the ode. Also, the poem is in rhymed verse, as opposed to the blank verse of the
conversation poems. The incantatory power contained in the tetrameter and trimeter rhyming couplets in
stanzas 1 and 7, for example, bear a greater resemblance to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
(1798) and Christabel (1816) than to the conversation poems. Another difference is in how the theme of the
poem emerges. In “Dejection: An Ode,” the theme emerges quickly and deliberately, rather than slipping in
apparently by accident, an effect Coleridge cultivated so carefully in the conversation poems. Also dissimilar
are the rapid shifts of thought, feeling, and subject that characterize “Dejection: An Ode,” unlike the
associative links that make the conversation poems flow so smoothly from one idea to the next.
Imagery of the weather—wind, rain, and storm—dominates stanzas 1 and 7. In stanza 7, the noise of the storm
is described in a stream of metaphors: as an aeolian harp—a stringed instrument that produces music when the
wind sweeps over it—an actor, a poet, a retreating army, and a little child. The imaginative activity shown by
the poet at the height of the storm is an implicit denial of his statement that he has completely lost his
imaginative power.
Two other images, of serpent and bird, are worthy of note. The first lines of stanza 7, “Hence, viper thoughts,
that coil around my mind/ Reality’s dark dream!” expresses the enclosing, suffocating feeling the poet is
experiencing. In the following stanza, the image of serpent is contrasted with the image of sleep visiting the
Lady “with wings of healing,” a birdlike image suggesting freedom, flight, and expansion. Taken together,
the two make up one way in which the opposites which Coleridge saw at work everywhere in existence, and
which he once called the “Confining Form” and the “Free Life,” can be experienced.
Themes and Meanings
Coleridge composed “Dejection: An Ode” as a direct response to the first four stanzas of William
Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807), in which Wordsworth lamented the loss of his
childhood ability to see nature clothed in celestial light. Some of the phrases in Coleridge’s ode are clearly
intended as allusions to Wordsworth’s poem. Compare, for example, Coleridge’s “I see, not feel, how
beautiful they are” with Wordsworth’s “The fullness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.”
In its theory of perception, the ode marks a sharp break with Wordsworth’s views, which Coleridge had
previously shared. Wordsworth thought that a higher vision of life could be obtained through an “ennobling
interchange,” or marriage, between the human mind and nature. Coleridge had himself placed a very high
value on the role that nature should play in the education of the human mind, especially in poems such as
“Frost at Midnight” and “The Dungeon” (1798). In “Dejection: An Ode,” he repudiates this view. He gazes
out on a beautiful scene, but this does nothing to lift his spirits or rekindle his imaginative power. He
Forms and Devices 2
concludes that “outward forms” are of no use unless the inner mind is vibrant: “we receive but what we
give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” Only if the mind is full of joy will it be able to perceive the
unifying spirit that runs through all things, and so overcome the split between subject and object. Only then
can Wordsworth’s marriage metaphor, which Coleridge also employs in this poem, have any meaning.
Interpreters have differed over the question of whether the poet (as speaker) shows any imaginative growth
during the course of the poem. The general view is that he does not and that the final stanza, even though it
brings the poem to a peaceful conclusion, is a defeat for the poet, since he can contemplate the possibility of
joy only for his friend, not for himself. Unlike Wordsworth in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,”
Coleridge can find no consoling thoughts to live by or convince himself that he has gained more than he has
lost. A minority view sees evidence in stanza 7 that the poet has rekindled an imaginative spark and that as a
result, in the calm final stanza, he is able to transcend his sense of separateness and feel compassion for
another human being.