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June 20, 2013

This Norton Anthology My Prison

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In which I find in Samuel Taylor Coleridge a kindred soul. It might be his struggle with depression.  It might be his experience—so common to women—of feeling that nothing he does is respected as much as something a(nother) man does, in this case Wordsworth.  The two of them conceived of a book they called Lyrical Ballads.  Wordsworth wrote his poems of the common-folk and Coleridge contributed his mystical, magical story poems. Coleridge was self-deprecating when it came to Wordsworth, unjustifiably, I think.  I find his “Christabel” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, much more accessible, engrossing and downright interesting than Wordsworth’s “Michael.”

I read “Kubla Khan” when my friend Nancy assigned it to her college English class. I will be forever grateful to her introduction to it because the sexual imagery makes me swoon and I like a good swoon every now and again.   Go through the poem and circle every word that has sexual connotations.  Then think how much fun it would have been to have taken high school English from Nancy:


But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! As holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-mitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Of chaffy grain beneath the threshers’s flail:

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

And mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves:

Where was heard the mingles measure

From the fountains and the caves.  .  .

Coleridge never finished “Kubla Khan.” He was interrupted in his process of writing by a business acquaintance from the nearest town, Porlock.  When he returned to the poem, that particular muse had gone into permanent retirement. The expression a “person from Porlock” refers to an intruder who interrupts inspired creativity. That’s a freebie for your next party.  Here’s another, in case you weren’t assigned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in high school:  The mariner is the man with the original albatross around his neck.

One of the Coleridge poems I liked most in this past week’s reading was “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison.”  Coleridge had hurt his foot and couldn’t accompany his houseguests on a walk in the Devon countryside.  This poem arrived from that experience.

When I read the poem I immediately feel the emptiness and quiet after the house party moves off down the hill, leaving the poet indisposed underneath his lime tree, which he at first calls a prison. He imagines where his friends are going and what they will see. When he imagines them in the woods, his language suggests enclosure: the ash trees making arches across the dell.  When they emerge from the dell into the sun and fields, the language is more expansive.  I know all this because I made a list of all the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in each stanza.

It struck me that the first two stanzas are all fantasy.  Coleridge imagines they are walking from the dell into an expansive vista. He imagines what they will see because he knows what he has seen when he has made the walk.  But he doesn’t know that they aren’t going around a corner of the house, to smoke opium and speculate that he is faking his injury.  His lovely descriptions of nature aren’t immediate.

In the last stanza he comes into himself and notices what it feel like to be alive at that moment, right there under the lime-tree.  In doing so the lime- tree bower is no longer a prison and “no sound is dissonant which tells of Life.”

Coleridge had fresh and provocative ideas about the organic organization of Shakespeare’s plays and about poetry theory, more than I want to explore here.  I’ve got my father’s The Portable Coleridge which is on my list for when I get out of my Norton Anthology Prison.  Here are a few lines from Coleridge I loved:

.  .  .  Pale beneath the blaze

Hung the transparent foliage: and I watched

Some broad and sunny leaf, and loved to see

The shadow of the leaf and stem above

Dappling its sunlight. (“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”)


.  .  .  whether the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast,

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the silent moon.  (“Frost at Midnight”)




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