Ode To The Departing Year: by Coleridge - Summary & Analysis

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      The poem Ode To The Departing Year is composed during the Christmas festivities in the year 1796 and published on the last day of the year. At that time Coleridge has prefixed an "Argument" to the piece in which he has explained the theme. Three distinct items have been stressed in this ode of nine stanzas of uneven length; first, the avowal of the Divine Spirit that regulates all the events of time into one vast harmony; secondly the listing of various iniquities and acts of cruelties perpetrated by various persons including the Empress of Russia; and thirdly, the greatness as well as weakness of his own country and countrymen.


      The poet begins by invoking the Divine Spirit that blows upon the wild Harp of Time. Time is like the stringed musical instrument on which the Spirit produces sweet harmonious melodies. In the argument Coleridge himself explains it, stating that Divine Providence regulates all the events of time. The poet then acknowledges that he patiently listened to the harmony though it is difficult to hear it an: understand it. The poet is free from fear; he has inward stillness i.e., tranquillity; he is humble. Then he saw a vision of the eventful year 1796 making its ceremonious exit. The poet has glimpses of the main events of the year 1796. The poet feels that the silent sadness of the year is the reason that prompted him to describe the exit. Fortunately, before the vision fades the poet composes the ode to bid a ceremonial farewell to the departing year.

      In Stanza II the poet summons all types of woes and all types of joys on the earth to come together in the form of a mixed group so that they can either weep over their misfortunes or rejoice over their glorious achievements over the period of time. He calls the grief of persons due to recent death, the sufferings of prisoners, the sleeplessness or broken sleep vitiated by nightmarish dreams of persons suffering from bodily disorder. The poet then refers to the sorrows of poor people. Then the poet refers to various types of joy - the joyous tryst of lovers, the joy of parents over their children in the cradles, hoping for a bright future for their children and wishing for their prosperity. The Divine Spirit which is indefatigable plays on the harp of time. Woes and joy of the world must give vent to their respective feelings in loud, tones for at least one solemn hour because Nature is struggling to give birth to marvellous events and momentous miracles. The last five lines of this stanza (i.e., 33- 37) refer to the French Revolution 1789-1791. The stormy period of the actual revolution might have been criminally horrible due to the excessively hellish deeds of the leaders but by the year 1796, beneficent results of the revolution were also being enjoyed by the people, viz., justice, truth and liberty.

      In Stanza III the poet refers to the misdeeds of the Czarina, the Empress of Russia who died of apoplexy in the month of November, 1796. She has been very ambitious. She proudly called herself "Northern Conqueress". She has allied herself with certain other countries against the French Republic. She has attacked Poland, leading to the suffering of thousands of people in the capital city of Warsaw. She has attacked Persia. At Ismail's tower in that country thousands of people are massacred. The poet calls the Empress an "insatiate hag" and "exterminating fiend". She has poisoned even her own husband to realise her ambition to become a powerful monarch. Although the Empress is dead and gone, the poet says that her soul cannot rest in peace; the ghosts of those for whose death she is responsible, would dance around her tomb and give her no peace.

      In Stanza IV the poet continues the description of the vision of the Departing Year. Memory sits before the cloudy throne of the Almighty. The departing year has a robe inscribed with blood. This indicates that numerous persons has met with unnatural death in the year under review. The year stands amidst an assembly of angels in heaven. The spirit of Earth respectfully bows in front of God and waits for the permission to speak.

      In Stanza V, the poet briefly mentions how the spirit of Earth describes the atrocities on Earth and how it prays for the vengeance of God on all the exploiters of the weak nations. Many critics are of the view that this section contains a lot of unintelligible allusions. The style is also somewhat affected.

      Earth's groans are not comforted. People mask their hate, and show scorn to hide their envy. Wealthy people have wrought havoc over many years all over the Earth, especially in Africa from where people are exported as slaves. Those slaves are ill-heated. They are exposed to hunger and starvation. The Council of Religious leaders too has become deaf to the lamentations of these unfortunate human beings. Wealthy people lack sense and understanding. They are brutally foolish and arrogant. This being the case the Spirit of Earth prays to God to open His eyes of fire, and take action to stop the cruelty. The poet's humanitarianism is deep and genuine.

      In Stanza VI the poet says that though the vision has ended it has has a powerful effect on him. He gasps for breath and reels with great fear when he recalls it. Sometimes in the night the vision reappears to him in the form of a terrible nightmarish dream. On such occasions he sheds cold drops of sweat, his ears become hot, his eye-balls smart with pain, his brain begins to whirl, and his heart becomes agitated due to excessive excitement. The poet begins to gasp for breath like a dying man. He feels that even a dying soldier sprawling on the battlefield does not have to face an agony more acute than what the poet feels at the remembrance of the vision.

      In Stanza VII we find the loving patriotism of the poet exquisitely reflected in every line. Albion is the old Celtic name of the British Isles. The poet apostrophises his native land who has never been enslaved. England's valleys are as beautiful as the gardens of Paradise. The greenery with plenty of sunshine and rain is splendid. Flocks of sheep and cattle graze over the pasture lands. The rocks act like walls of a great fort around his island country The ocean accords good protection to the land from external invaders. Over a long period England has remained free from the fear of invasion. There has been stability and peace.

      In Stanza VIII the poet's mood changes from patriotism because he is again aware of the misdeeds of the people living here. A splendid land can be ruined by the misdeeds of its inhabitants. Mad avarice has become the guide of the inhabitants of England. Hence even Heaven will not hesitate to disown this land. The greed for empire and flourishing overseas trade has kindled the pride of the Britons. People of England are free from hunger and ravages of war but they have spread famine and bloodshed over vast territories all over the world in their eagerness to establish their overlordship. The other nations which suffer on account of the misdeeds of British curse their land. Wickedness will not go unpunished. Destruction waits like a vulture, to work havoc through fires, volcanoes etc. Personifying Destruction, Coleridge says that it has the eyes of a dragon which have no lids and so are ever wide open. The devilish female spirit of Destruction may appear to be sleeping but it is likely to triumph. It is possible that England may be ruined. The poet's warning is that his countrymen should not enjoy plenty and security at the cost of other nations suffering.

      In Stanza IX, the poet composes himself after lamenting the misdeeds of his countrymen. Though other people indulge in misdeeds the poet avers that he is aloof from all of them. He does not partake of their evil actions. He is devout and prays daily. He seeks refuge in his contentment.


Development of Thought

      Ode to the Departing Year begins with the poet's address to the Divine Spirit who regulates the events of time into one vast harmonious whole. The poet then calls on human beings to ignore for a while their personal sorrows and joys and instead devote some thought to the general happenings of the year that is about to pass. After paying tribute to Liberty, the poet speaks in a condemnatory note of the Empress of Russia who has concluded a subsidiary treaty with some other rulers against France. He then describes the vision of the departing year. In this vision, he hears the Spirit of the Earth narrating to God the atrocities and barbarities committed on the backward peoples of the world. The poet expresses his patriotic love for his country. However, he is not blind to the fact that his countrymen are much to blame for their commercial greed and insensitivity to others sufferings; smug in their social security, his countrymen do not bother about their tyrannical cruelty over other people in far off lands. He prophesies that such a wickedness will not go unpunished by God. Having lamented the wicked behaviour bf his countrymen, the poet composes his mind and seeks shelter behind his contentment that he himself is devout and full of love for all humanity. He is optimistic that simple people like him will prevail in the end.

Critical Analysis

      Topical Interest. The poem is in a way topical. It pertains to the international political situation in 1796, and particularly refers to the misdeeds of the Empress of Russia who dies in November 1796. Coleridge considers her as the personification of "the evil spirit". He is clearly critical of her ambitious political actions which results in much suffering and bloodshed in places like Poland and Persia. The poem is not just condemnatory of the Empress of Russia. The poet is deeply critical of all those who have perpetrated cruelty and injustice on people and exploits and people in different lands. The Africans get Coleridge's special sympathy for being victims and exploits by the English. Coleridge is deeply disgusted with the avarice and insensitivity of his own countrymen. He warns his countrymen that such wickedness will not go unpunished. His country will be destroyed for enjoying smug security while perpetrating atrocities on other people.

      Patriotic Element. In this poem too, as in Fears in Solitude, Coleridge praises his native land. He loves his "Albion...(his) mother Isle" whose

...valleys, fair as Eden's bowers
Glitter green with sunny showers,
...Grassy uplands, gentle swells
Echo to the bleat of flocks.

      In other words his land is beautiful and he loves the island country which has been so well endowed naturally by God. He is only disgusted with the people of his country who have been overcome by commercial greed and political ambition and become blind to the suffering of those over whom they tyrannise.

      Humanitarian Impulse and True Religious Faith. Every line of the poem show Coleridge's deep humanitarian impulses. He loves all mankind. That is why he is disgusted with his countrymen for their cruelty over other people, especially the Africans. He speaks vehemently against the exploitation of the African slaves by the avaricious and insensitive. His moral indignation and courage of conviction find sincere expression in the poem.

      Coleridge expresses a true religious faith in the poem. He is a believer in the brotherhood of man. He shows an unshakable faith in God and is sure that wickedness will be punished by the Almighty. He is also convinced that simple folk like him who believe in the brotherhood of man and pray sincerely to God will prevail in the end.

      Style. Parts of the poem ring with sincere anger at the inhuman behaviour of people. However, the style is uneven. The rhetorical manner of writing with the eighteenth century style of personification somewhat detracts from the overall effect. The affected phrases such as 'bowed mind', 'foeman', 'recentre', 'bedim', 'frost-winds', 'strange-eyed Destruction' etc. have no place in lyric poetry. However, "this ode, not withstanding it is affected in some parts, and unintelligible in others, breathes the genuine spirit of poesy."


      L. 122-134. O Albion.....gore. In these lines from his Ode to the Departing Year, Coleridge addresses his native land. He admires England's natural endowments — the valleys as beautiful as those of paradise, the 'grassy uplands' and 'glittering dells' that make it a beautiful island. He is glad that the island has been endowed with a natural protection of rocks which fortify it and the surrounding ocean, that makes it secure. It has always enjoyed social stability and peace, and has not been enslaved or conquered. 

      Coleridge apparently wants to convey the fact that as God has been so kind to their country, the people should not forget to be thankful. They have no right to be smug in their security and inflict cruel wrongs on the people of other lands.

      L. 135-148. Abandon'd of Heaven.....charmed sleep. Coleridge is unsparing in his criticism of his countrymen. After expressing patriotic admiration for his lovely land in the Ode to the Departing Year, he goes on to say that the beautiful land is doomed to destruction because its people have succumbed to avarice and indulge in exploitation of people in far off lands. Secure from invasion and free from hunger, its people have wrought destruction and famine on other lands. Obviously Coleridge is referring to the colonial exploitation by the British especially in Africa. These exploits nations are cursing England and Destruction is waiting like a vulture to swoop and annihilate the land.

      Coleridge has personified Destruction in the eighteenth century style. He has given a striking picture of Destruction as a vulture waiting to sweep upon the dead with a scream.

      L. 158-161. Now I recentre.....seraphim. After lamenting the misdeeds of his countrymen in the Ode to the Departing Year, Coleridge calms himself. In the typical manner of odes, Coleridge ends the poem on a calm note. He himself is a simple man who loves mankind. He will return to a calm state of mind. He will free his mind from passions that make God's image dull. He will take refuge in the mind's contentment.

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