France: An Ode by S. T. Coleridge - Summary & Analysis

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      The poem France: An Ode was published in the Morning Post in 1798, and is originally named Recantation because it is a public confession of what he has conceived to be his error. With Wordsworth and Southey, he has fully shared the revolutionary enthusiasm that swept a section of Englishmen when the French Revolution break out. But he is the first to confess that his sympathy with the revolution is wrong. The immediate occasion of the poem is the war declared by the French Revolutionary government against the sister republic of Switzerland in the winter of 1797-98. This is a betrayal of fundamental principles, and in this ode he has withdrawn all support from the Revolution. A Note on the French Revolution: The French Revolution plays a considerable part in influencing the course of the English Romantic movement. It is possible to distinguish three phases of the French Revolution, each of which affect English Romanticism: (1) the Doctrinaire phase — the age of Rousseau; (2) the Political phase — the age of Robespierre and Danton: and (3) the Military phase - the age of Napoleon. Rousseau's sentimental influence touched Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge; his intellectual influence affected Godwin, and through Godwin, Shelley. A love of external Nature and simple ways of life found expression in the earlier poets. The compelling power of love is what Shelley reiterated with such ecstatic eloquence. The doctrinaire side of the French Revolution, the revolution as an intellectual theory, give substance not merely to Godwin's philosophy but to Blake's spiritual creed. Freedom to him is a kind of mystical rapture, so exalted and impassioned, so free from dross that it sounds the same note as Shelley's lyrical poems.

      In 1789, the second phase of the Revolutionary movement opens, and in the first flush of the struggle it stirred to the depths the imagination of the English Romantic writers, and Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey caught the enthusiasm. Truly, as Wordsworth exclaimed:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.

      The spiritual asceticism and stoical vigour of Wordsworth's genius are soon horrified by the blood and fire across the sea. But Wordsworth's recantation and the lapse of Coleridge must not blind us to the fact that the best works of both poets has been done in the days of their revolutionary enthusiasm.

      Yet the most whole-hearted singer of the revolution is Shelley, and this is not because he looks more leniently on the horrors of the revolution, or looks beyond the immediate disaster to a future reconstruction, but because his imagination was far less concrete than that of his great contemporaries. Ideas inspired him; not episodes; so he drank in the doctrines of Godwin, and ignored the tragic perplexities of the actual situation.


      Stanza 1. The poet invokes and calls upon the clouds and the waves, and the woods and the Sun to bear witness to the deep feeling of worship with which he has adored the spirit of divinest liberty. Stanza 2. How he has hope and fear when France rose in all her mighty strength determined to be free. He calls upon them to testify how when even England joins the wish that his country may will be defeated. For he would never do anything that dimmed the light of liberty. He, therefore, blessed France and hung his head and wept in Britain's name.

      Stanza 3. Though the sweet music of liberty is disturbed in France by impiety and fierce and drunken passion, yet he has no idea that the sun is rising in the east. Therefore when at last disorder ceased and she emerge victorious over her enemies and destroys all traitors, she is happy to feel that soon her leaders will learn wisdom, and France will compel the nations to be free, and the earth will be filled with love and joy.

      Stanza 4. But these hopes are all doomed to bitter disappointment. They seem an insult to freedom. He asks pardon of the freedom-loving people of Switzerland to forgive him for honouring France in the name of freedom. For France destroys the peace and freedom of the people of Switzerland. The poet is filled with bitter indignation that France under Napoleon has joined the hated Kings and insulted the temple of liberty with offerings plundered from the free men of Switzerland whom they tempted and betrayed.

      Stanza 5. Those who are plunged in the darkness of the passions strive vainly for freedom. They are compelled by their nature to remain slaves. They take the name of freedom but remain bound by their slavery. The poor had vainly pursued liberty all these years. He has now realised that Liberty avoids the avarice of the priest and the wickedness of the impious. True liberty is to be found only in Nature, and he feels the spirit of liberty in the sweep of the wind and the surge of the wave.


      This is one of the great Odes of English Literature, although it is not among the greatest. The style is rhetorical; it has the passion that rises into a noble eloquence, but not one which stamps itself upon the mind with an indelible impression. It begins splendidly with an invocation that is matchless for its pomp and splendor. But this high tone is not consistently maintained, and the poem remains unequal. Its essential motive is a strong patriotic sentiment which expresses itself in an indignant reaction against Coleridge's earlier sympathy for the revolution. As Walter Paler said, however, in spite of some turgid lines, the composition justifies itself as poetry and "has that true unity of effect which the Ode requires"

      The conclusion, moreover, is typical of the general note of frustration that pervades romantic poetry. After all its passionate ardour the poem loses itself in a tame negation that true liberty can not be found among men. While he proclaims the abandonment of his youthful social ideals with a fiery passion and freedom of expression not always to be found in his work, under the influence of Wordsworth all that he can think of as a substitute is a glorification of Nature. Wordsworth's meditative spirit can withdraw from the revolution and take shelter in Nature, but Coleridge's subtle evasive temperament clutches at it eagerly, but hardly with a note of confidence. Hence the inspiring exordium exhausts itself in something like an anti-climax.


      L. 15—20. Blue rejoicing Sky - blue sky that seemed to rejoice in its blueness. Everything .... be free — Coleridge summons as his witness everything in Nature that is free. This line suggests the idea that concludes the poem that Nature alone is free, — and thus gives to the poem that organic unity which Pater praised. Bear witness for me — be a witness on my behalf. Still — always. Adored — worshipped.

      L. 22 — 27. In wrath — full of fiery anger against the tyrants. Her giant - limbs upreared — lifted up the terrible arms of her people with the might of a giant. With that oath — i.e., took that vow of freedom. And with...sea — i.e., which struck all Nature with fear and wonder. Stamped...foot — made a gesture of passionate defiance. — Proclaimed that she would make herself free. Bear witness...feared — Let all Nature bear witness how he hoped for the success of the revolution and feared lest it should fail. Gratulation—feeling of gratification, joy or exultation. Unawed —without the least fear. Amid a slavish band — amid a people whose feelings were slavish, who did not respond to this cry for liberty.

      L. 28 — 35. Whelm — overwhelm crush. The disenchanted nation — i.e., France, who had freed herself from the enchantment of slavery. So long France was under the spell of servitude; now she has thrown off this spell. Like fiends...wand — like so many evil spirits brought into the field by the magical power of wizards. The - The kings of Europe marched against the republic on a most inauspicious day. 

      Dire array — terrible army. The reference is to England's declaration of war against France in 1794. Though...ocean — Though England's shores and the seas that surround her are dear to me. Swoln — inspired. And flung....groves — And had thrown over her hills and groves the light of an enchantment that kept me spell bound. The poet means to say that although he had many friends and beloved ones in England to inspire in him a patriotic feeling, and his love for them had thrown a magical enchantment on her hills and groves he remained faithful to his revolutionary principles and to his support for France.

      L. 36—42. Yet still — in spite of all my feelings of patriotism. Unaltered — unchanged in revolutionary zeal. Sang defeat — wrote poetry wishing for the defeat of his own country and those others who had joined the war against France. To all....lance — wished defeat for all those nations who faced and opposed the army of the republic that had overthrown the tyrant kings of France. Braved — opposed. Tyrant-quelling lance — power of the new republic that overthrew tyrants. And shame....retreat — and I wished them the shame of humiliation that had been delayed so long, and utter defeat at the hands of France.

      L. 43-48. Blasphemy's - impiety. Blasphemy's loud scream - the harsh language of impiety. The French Revolution preached atheism and denounced all religion. Sweet....deliverance — the sweet appeal of freedom. Strove— struggled. And what....strove - what does it matter that the impious language of atheism tried to drown the sweet voice of liberty, though atheism counteracted the blessings of freedom. The fierce...passions — the savage and cruel passions that made them so bloodthirsty. Wove — formed, arranged. Maniac's — madman. Though...dream — All wild and cruel passions led the people to commit crimes of violence more savage than even a mad man would have dreamt. Ye storms — Oh you stormy passions. The poet addresses the wild stormy passions that swept France during the Revolution. That round...assembled — that gathered round the East where the sun of liberty was rising. These evil passions like storm clouds had almost hidden the dawning light of freedom in France. It is significant that neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge was frightened by the violence of the Revolution. The sun....light — The dawn of liberty was appearing although its light was hidden by these evil passions.

      L. 49—52. Dissonance — wild discord and disorder. He is referring to the time when the Revolutionary Government after the Reign of Terror, had established order in the Republic. Her front...gory — when France suffered wounds and blood-shed. Deep — scarr'd — marked by the deep wounds. Gory—blood stained. The poet is referring to the sufferings of France from foreign attacks. Concealed .... glory — covered all her suffering with the joys of glorious victory. The poet means that France had suffered deeply from foreign invasions which wanted to restore the King and abolish the republic, but all her suffering were concealed by this glory of the victories. She defeated her invaders.

      L. 53 — 57. Insupportably advancing — marching forward without any help or support. Ramp — threats of violence. Her arm...ramp — the armies of the new republic treated the threats of the enemies with utter disdain; made the threatening invaders look contemptible. Timid....glancing — casting furtively timid looks of anger; casting looks of fear and anger. Domestic treason — treachery at home; the attempt on the part of the royalists to overthrow the republic. Crushed...stamp — utterly destroyed by the deadly power of the republic; crushed underfoot by the deadly power of the republic. Writhed — twisted and turned painfully. Dragon — monstrous reptile; the term is applied to 'domestic treason'. Gore — blood. While timid gore — while casting fearful looks of anger, the enemies of the state at home were utterly destroyed by the republic and felt the pain and agony of being crushed underfoot.

      L. 58 — 63. I reproached my feats — I blamed myself for being afraid. That...flee — fears that kept pursuing my mind. Lore — lessons. In the low....groan — in the humble cottage of those who yet groan under tyranny. Conquering....alone - and France conquering other nation by the example of the happiness that the revolution had brought. — France will help nations to be free from the tyranny of kings. Till love....own — until the spirit of love and joy will become powerful in this earth. Coleridge says that the toilers in the cottages will soon learn wisdom, and France will conquer other people by the example of her happiness, and the whole earth will be filled with joy and love.

      L. 64 — 71. Freedom — He asks forgiveness of freedom because, to have expected France to help the cause of freedom was an insult to the spirit of freedom. Those dreams — that France by her example, shall compel other nations to be free. I hear lament — The poet imagines that he can hear the lament of Freedom when France attacked Switzerland. Helvetia — the Roman name for Switzerland, the country of the Helvetia. I hear....streams — I seem to hear the lament of freedom that issues out of the icy caves of Switzerland. Heroes — Heroes of Switzerland who shed their blood for the freedom of your country. That for...perished — who died in defence of your peace-loving country. Ye that — your soldiers of freedom who. Fleeing — running away before the attacks of your cruel enemy. Spot — stain. With bleeding wounds — with the blood that issues Out of your wounds. Cherished — entertained in my mind. One thought...foes — even once I wished happiness and success to your enemies. The poet is now repenting that lie should ever have wished even once blessings and happiness for France. Cruel foes — the French. Coleridge recants his previous homage to France hence the ode was originally called 'Recantation'.

      L. 71 — 77. To scatter rage, etc. — i.e., how ignoble it was for France to scatter rage, etc. Scatter...guilt — spread evil passions and the crime of being false to her faith. Traitorous guilt — the crime of being a traitor to one's own faith (France had turned against the religion of freedom which she had professed when she attacked Switzerland). Where — in that country, viz., Switzerland. Where peace...built — which had been the zealously-guarded home of peace. This refers to Switzerland's peaceful history. A patriot....race to disinherit — to deprive a patriotic people of their fatherland. The Swiss had inherited their country from their ancestors, and now France had 'disinherited' them. Of all....dear - disinherited them of everything that made the wild tempestuous regions of their country so dear to them. Inexpiable — that for which there is no pardon. With inexpiable .... mountaineer — to destroy the freedom of the mountain-people who are free from the guilt of bloodshed, in a manner which cannot be pardoned.

      L. 78 — 84. That mockest Heaven — you mock at the very gods by the way in which you have broken your vows. Adulterous — having been wedded to the republic, you are now proving faithless to the republican ideal (like a wife unfaithful to her husband). Blind — You have shut your eyes to your duties. Patriot...toils — you show your patriotism only in your hateful and evil deeds. Are these thy boasts — viz., that you must scatter anger and crime against freedom in a place which has been the home of liberty; that you must deprive a patriotic people of everything that made their wild country so dear to the Swiss; and that you must destroy in an unpardonable manner the unsullied, freedom of the mountaineer — do you boast of these, you who call yourselves champions of the human race? Champion — you who pose as the champion of mankind. To mix....sway — that you should act like kings and be moved by the desire to rule other countries. A republic should not envy other countries and hence should not desire to conquer them. But France now began to act not as a free republic but as kings do. Yell in the hunt — You shout and run like a pack of hunters running after their prey. Share....prey — claim your share in the country which had fallen a victim to your conquest. Coleridge is referring to France's efforts to conquer a part of Italy and share that country with Austria. To insult....torn — You offer on the temple of freedom what you have snatched and plundered from free man—an offering that is an insult to liberty. The poet means that France is now worshipping liberty with what she has acquired from other countries by plunder. To tempt...betray — You tempt nations with hopes of freedom and then you betray them into slavery. France has given up her republican ideals and taken to conquest and the desire to build up an empire.

      L. 85 — 88. The Sensual — (as opposed to the spiritual); those who pursue pleasures of the senses or material pleasures. The Dark — the ignorant. Rebel in vain — revolt against bondage but they do so in vain. Slaves .... compulsion — they are compelled to be slaves by their very nature; they remain slaves to their own passions. In mad game — In a spirit of senseless light — heartedness; not with any serious purpose. Burst — breakthrough. Manacles — chains. Wear...freedom — claim to be called free people. Graven....chain — But that claim to freedom is described as chains more heavy. In other words, while they claim to be free, they are really more than ever enslaved — they are enslaved by their own passions.

      L. 89 — 98. With profitless endeavor — I have followed you without any gain to myself (because I have not been able to find Liberty in France where I expected to find her). Many....hour — many hours full of weary efforts. But thou....strain — You do not add to the songs of triumph sung in honour of the victorious. Nor swell'st....power — nor has liberty given life to power of victorious nations (The French had started on a career of conquests. Coleridge says that liberty does not flatter the conqueror in any way. It is not to be found among victorious people. It does not influence in any way the vainglorious power — seekers). Alike from all — The construction is — Thou speedest on thy pinions alike from all those who praise you; i.e., liberty avoids the company or association of all who praise her. Howe'er....thee — however much they may praise you; i.e., the flattery of men cannot win the favour of the spirit of Liberty; you may praise liberty but that does not mean that thereby you become free. Nor prayer....delays thee — Liberty cannot be arrested by prayer or praise. Boastful name — i.e., stops liberty in her flight. Alike from...minions — i.e., liberty flies in the same way from the avaricious slaves or priests i.e., those who submit to priesthood are really full of cruel avarice. Liberty avoids all association with such people. Priestcraft's — arts used by priests to extend their influence. Harpy — grasping; full of cruel avarice (The harpy is a monster with a woman's face who always feeds upon human beings). Minion — favourites; dependants. Factious...slaves — liberty also flies from the indecent slaves of impious men. Factious —full of unscrupulous party spirit. Blasphemy's — (personification) men full of impiety; irreligious men. Obscener — more indecent. Speedest — flies away quickly. Subtle — delicate. Pinions — wings. The guide...winds — liberty guides the restless wandering winds, playmate of the waves — liberty is the happy companion of waves.

      L. 99—105. There I felt thee — I felt the presence of liberty in the elemental forces of nature. Sea cliff's verge — the limits of the rocks that overhang the sea. Whose pines — the pine trees on that cliff. Whose pines...above — The high winds hardly ever travel over those pine trees. Had made....surge — i.e., make one continuous murmur in harmony with the faraway waves of the sea. The poet means that he had felt the presence of liberty on the mountain cliffs over which stand the tall pines that are hardly ever touched by the wind that travels over them. My temples bare — i.e., my forehead being exposed to the wind. Shot my being....air — I projected myself into the world of nature; my personality penetrated earth, air and sky. — and while I possessed all things with a deep passionate love. My spirit....there — I could feel your spirit there. 


      L. 80-84. Are betray. These lines are taken from Coleridge's Ode France. Here, Coleridge is expressing his indignation, at the fall of France from her great ideals of liberty. She has posed as the liberator of humanity. But now she is following the path of kings. She is trying to conquer other countries. She is like a cruel hunter running after her prey with deadly intent. She wants to worship liberty by enslaving other peoples. This is not worship but insult. She tempts other. peoples with hopes of freedom and then enslaves them, and thus betrays them.

      L. 85-89. The sensual...heavier chain. These lines are taken from France by Coleridge. Coleridge has once rejoiced in the revolution of France; he has welcomed even the excesses of the revolution. But when France starts on a war of conquest, he was disillusioned. He regrets that he has ever praised France. Here he concludes his Ode to France by. asserting that though France. claims to have won freedom, she is really: not free. Because she is really enslaved by her own passions, her lust for conquest. The poet asserts that those ignorant people who seek a life of material gain, of sensual pleasures, cannot really rebel against their bondage. Their rebellion is all in vain. They are compelled to be slaves to their own blind passions; while they claim to be free they are really not free. They break the chains of their political subjection, but they wear other chains the:chains of their own passion. They call themselves free, but really; they are slaves to their own passions.

      L. 93-98. Alike from all...Waves. These lines are taken from Coleridge's Ode to France. Coleridge has once welcomed the French revolution and sung its praises. But when republican France attacks freedom-loving Switzerland and tries to conquer other lands, he is disillusioned. Here he says that he no longer expects to find liberty among men. Liberty flies away from all classes of men. Man may pray to liberty or praise her in lofty language, but that will not prevent liberty from running away from man. One will not find liberty among these slaves, who are under the artful influences of priests, or of impious men who are worse than priests, for liberty avoids all association with such people. Liberty flies from the human world and one finds her a guide and companion of winds and waves. (The fact that with all his love of liberty. Coleridge finds liberty not in the human world but with Nature, shows Coleridge's neutral and negative attitude).

      L. 99-105. On that sea-cliffs...felt thee there. These are the concluding lines of Coleridge's poem France. Coleridge has welcomed the French Revolution, and believes that France would be the standard-bearer of freedom. But he is disappointed, for the French begin to seek ways and means to conquer other peoples. Thereafter he of finding liberty, among human beings. He finds liberty in nature. He imagines himself standing on the verge of a sea-cliff. The wind there hardly travels over the pine trees which murmur in harmony with the sound of the waves. Standing there, he imagines his personality mingle and become one with nature. His forehead is open to the wind and he felt that he now loves all things in nature as though they are his own. It is then that he felt that liberty existed not in the world of man, but in the world of nature.

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