Dejection An Ode as A Poem of Despair

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      Though originally a verse-letter addresses out of despairing love to Sarah Hutchinson, Dejection is at the same time an answer in kind to the first part of Wordsworth's Immortality Ode and is written at a time of crisis. Coleridge's health is failing, as is his marriage, and he believed the poet is dying inside him. While the poems have a good deal in common, even in vocabulary and imagery, it is important to remember that Dejection is a poem of despair, primarily despair over the failure of the imagination, while Wordsworth's Ode, though it shares Coleridge's theme of anguish in its first four stanzas, goes on to assert a new confidence in its author's poetic powers.

      The quiet opening of Dejection, in which the poet soliloquizes on the tranquil evening sky, creates an atmosphere superficially like that of the earlier Conversation pieces. There are, however, differences, minute at first, but significant. Such wind as stirs is a:

Sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute.

      In Romantic poetry, the Eolian lute is a standard symbol of the poet's mind works upon by natures inspiration (the wind), and the lute, moaning to the sobbing draff, conveys to the reader a mood of despair. The moon, which Coleridge always uses as a symbol of the imagination, is overspread with phantom light, and therefore suggests the death of the imagination, which is the central theme of the poem. Then comes an invocation violently at odds with the serene withdrawal characteristic of the earlier poems:

And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast...

      The reasons for this invocation are supplied by the reflective passage which follows. In it, Coleridge tells us that joy, which is linked with love, is denied him. The external glory of nature, which originates in the joy of the beholder and is known through the Shaping spirit of imagination, can be seen by him to exist, but can no longer be emotionally experienced by him; he therefore inhabits a world of life in death. Metaphysics offers no way out, it induces in him what Blake called 'Newton's sleep', a sleep in which the full reality of imaginative living shrinks into a merely mechanical knowing. The storm is invoked, therefore, as the only means of unfreezing the dull pain of a life that is emotionally numbed. Coleridge is so tragically different now from the poet who at Nether Stowey, in a briefly grasped joy, can be moved to fine poetry by a flame flickering in the grate, that he must invoke the eruption of all nature in a desperate attempt to bring the dead poet in him back to life.

      As the storm explodes the poet is conscious of a released emotion exploding within himself. The violence he invoked to stimulate feeling is now both externally present in the storm and inwardly present in his own paroxysm. The lute sends out: and the storm makes 'Devil's yule'.

a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out;
And the storm makes 'Devil's yule'.

      Coleridge has unleashed his emotion through a violence that is by no means accidentally linked with demonic forces. He is confronted by the nightmare of his private hell:

With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds -
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!

      Still in parallel movement with the storm, which subsides in 'soundless deep and loud', the terror subsides in exhaustion and pathos, and his vision is now of:

A little child
Upon a lonesome wild,
Not far from home, but she has lost her way....

      That Coleridge is lamenting his own condition in that of the lost child is clear enough.

      With the passing of the storm, Coleridge recreates a serene world, not unlike that of Frost at Midnight, of stars hanging bright over the 'sleeping Earth'. This world is briefly glimpsed, but it is no longer a possible world for him. It can only exist for those in whom joy has not died for Sarah Hutchinson;

Visit her, gentle sleep! with wings of healing....
Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice.

      The pathos of this is enriched by the implied contrast of the living death awaiting Coleridge himself. Only for her can the storm be a 'mountain-birth' and wholly external, only for her can 'gentle Sleep' — the sleep denied Macbeth in a meaningless world of nightmare, the sleep denied the Ancient Mariner before he finds grace restore the living principle of joy. Coleridge himself must keep vigil: "small thoughts have I of sleep". He has momentarily recaptured the vision of what life can be for others, but it is a life from which his own spiritual failure now excludes him.

      Dejection has all the vividness of the earlier Conversation poems and in the self-analysis that Coleridge gives of his failure a - post-mortem by a merely medically alive Coleridge on the poet that has died inside him thought and feeling are integrated more surely and powerfully than in any other of his poems. On miniature scale, the poem resembles a tragedy. From a calm but menacing beginning it works to a tragic climax and subsides into something not unlike 'calm of mind, all passion spent'. True, he does not transcend his neurotic state but he does indeed give it an adequate verbal shape. The poetical faculties of Coleridge have by no means declined as far as his style is concerned. There is a beauty in the images, an intensity of feeling in the language that makes this "dirge over the grave of creative imagination:" a great artistic achievement.

University Questions

"Dejection is a poem of despair". Critically examine this statement.
"Dejection: An Ode is a dirge over the grave of creative imagination". Discuss.

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