Fears in Solitude: by S. T. Coleridge - Summary Analysis

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      Fears in Solitude is a long poem of 232 lines. It is composed and published in 1798 at a time when England is facing the grave danger of being invaded by France. The fears expresses in the title of the poem, of course, turned out to be baseless later as the poet himself expresses (in lines 197-199). The poet has been an admirer of the French Revolution but unhappily within a few years after the revolution, the condition in France has deteriorated much. Throughout the poem we find ruthless criticism of the misdeeds of the poet’s countrymen and the expression of his love for the land with its natural beauty. The fact that he loves the land does not blind him to the misdeeds of his countrymen. The poet, under the influence of Wordsworth, has begun to see in Nature a profoundly religious aspect, as is evident in this poem.


      Fears in Solitude, Coleridge's longest 'conversation poem', begins with a quiet description of the poet's surroundings. It is a still and silent spot where the singing skylark poises himself because there cannot be a stiller place elsewhere. The hills are mostly covered with tracts of wastelands except a swelling slope where the furze grows in plenty. The poet thinks that this is a, corner that can quietly exert its spirit-healing power. All people must necessarily love this beautiful spot and referring to himself, the poet says that a man like him must love it all the more. He is a humble man. It is possible that during his early youthful years he might have been guilty of many foolish acts. Possibly this has made his early manhood securely wise. The poet then says that he can conveniently lie down on the fern or the faded heath from where he can listen to the songs of the lark and feel the soothing influence of the sun and the gentle breeze. Under the influence of this exquisite pleasurable atmosphere the poet begins to experience meditative joy and finds religious meaning in the forms of Nature. He dreams of better worlds.

      The poet now comes to the crux of the matter. While dreaming of better worlds, the poet is compelled to think of realities also in the form of an imminent attack of the foreign soldiers on his beloved motherland. The poet feels that the external danger might have been the result of a series of wrongs and sins has committed by his own countrymen. War means a great deal of angry shouts, fearful crashes and reckless conflicts. Carnage is inevitable. People will be groaning due to pain even beneath the blessed sunshine. The poet then addresses his countrymen and reminds them that all these troubles shall be attributed to their own faults and offensive behaviour in the past. From east to west all over the world the people belonging to various nationalities have begun to accuse Englishmen in loud tones for making them wretched and miserable. People of other lands too are the Sons of God and our own brethren. The British people utilised their military might in extending the pernicious system of slavery and forced labour all over the world. The damage done is not confined to the body alone. Even the soul is contaminated and make prone to perdition. The individual dignity and power became confined to "Courts' Committees, Institutions, Associations and Societies", i.e., different organisations that the British people, evolves in different places for the purpose of perpetuating their overlordship at different places. All the rulers i.e., the British people are avaricious, with money-making as their sole aim. These associations, the poet says, were mere "Speech-reporting Guilds" and "Benefit-Clubs for mutual flattery". One member praises another and is praised by him in return. The poor man's life and freedom is bartered for gold. The poet then points an accusing finger at the Christian missionaries of those days. The Bible and the words of God are intended for stemming destruction by preaching them wisely. But the priests who goes overseas considered their own professional job wearisome. They are lazy and they did not study scriptures thoroughly to understand the truth and spiritual revelation contained in them. The Book of life (i.e., the Bible) is considered to be an instrument to take oaths on. People mutter something unintelligibly, touching the book. They swear by the Bible but break the oaths with impunity. The briber and the bribed equally swear. The Merchant, the lawyer, senator, priest, the rich, the poor, the old and the young — all are guilty of perjury (false swearing). God's name descends to the level of a juggler's charm. The owl does not like the bright sunshine. Similarly, Atheism does not want devout feelings and God fearing habits to flourish. How absurd it will be when the owl hoots at the glorious sun in the sky and loudly proclaims "where is the Sun"? The Atheists behave like that with regard to God and His benign overlordship over the destinies of men and matters.

      After narrating the misdeeds of those Britons who goes overseas accompanying the trading companies and wrought havoc in those distant colonies, the poet turns to the Britons in England itself who has been abetting the crimes of those who went out. England has been free from external attacks for a long time. The peace within the country can be preserved because the land is surrounded by perilous seas and the fleet possessed by the British is formidable. Hence the local people has never been victims of naval attacks and bombardment. This immunity has not however, ennobled them but make them indulge in war cries and passionate advocacy of war elsewhere. For a long time the British people has been unaware of the ghastly inhuman results of war, namely famine, plague, blockades and flight of refugees from place to place. But instead of continuing to be peace-loving people they have begun to clamour for war and bloodshed. They consider war on a par with animating sports for which they pay to remain mere spectators and not actual participants. If there has heen a wrong done to them, they may have adjust cause for fighting. But they do not take the trouble of ascertaining whether war is just. Everything is dim and vague. Still, the orders are to fight. Small boys and girls and women who are too sensitive to bear an insect's leg being pulled off, seem to revel in reading about war. All those who fluently speak about war do not bother to think about the wounds and sufferings of the fighting soldier. They seem to believe that a soldier dying in the battle is immediately taken to Heaven. They do not care for his wife and children who suffer on account of his death. After listing all the wrongs of his countrymen the poet concludes this section by warning them that Providence may take retributive steps to force them realise their mistakes and the disastrous consequences.

      The poet goes on to fervently pray to God to spare his countrymen the fierce disaster foretold by himself. He also calls upon his countrymen to resist the attack of the impious foe. The poet eagerly implores that they shall be saved from the evil consequences of a deadly war. He appeals to all the people — sons, brothers, husbands, sisters, daughters, mothers, etc. who grow up around the same fireside to resist the attack of the infidel. The foe must be repelled and driven away. They are so ruthless as to laugh away all virtue. They mix mirth and indecent joy with their own deeds of murder. They speak highly of freedom. Still, they do not want others to enjoy freedom. Amity, faith and hope elevate the spirit of man. But the enemy's activities poison the atmosphere. The Britons shall stand together and see that the enemy is swept back from the shores of their country like sea-weed by a mountain blast. Of course, they must not be proud of their victory; they must feel sorry for all the wrongs, — their own as well as their enemies."

      The poet goes on to request his countrymen not to misinterpret his ideas. He does not want them to consider his advocacy of sanity and peace for all to be wayward comments of a factious Spirit and dub him as a traitor to the country of his birth. The poet frankly admits that what he says is the bitter truth but avers that he does not express them with bitterness of spirit. If people do not pay heed to their own conscience, if they do not realise their own mistakes and admit their vices they cannot be considered truly courageous. Delusion has been cheating them for a long time. Perhaps there may be some people in England who wish to change the form of the government in power in order to bring about better results in this context. They are mistaken if they believe that a mere change of government will sweep off all the ills rampant in the land. People can, at will, change their clothes but a government is not akin to robes wherein the ills and sufferings are tagged on like fancy points and fringes. By the mere pulling off of this robe no serious changes in the land can be brought about. The enemies that are likely to attack them are mere tools and menials who work under the behest of Providence that wishes to punish them for their wrongs. Radical causation shall not be attributed to their activities. If at all they have any inherent strength, it is drawn from the folly and wickedness of the British people. Truth such as the poet speaks may be deemed traitorous by those who want everyone to worship them. People who do not fall down before their images are soon branded as enemies of their own country.

      The poet affirms his loyalty to the land of his birth. He respects all the bonds of natural love such as that of son and father, of brother and sister, of husband and wife, and also that of a friend to another friend. He apostrophises his motherland within whose boundary he finds love flourishing. He takes inspiration from her lakes, mountains, hills, clouds, valleys etc. His sweet sensations, ennobling thoughts, worship of God in the form of Nature, indeed, everything that makes the human spirit feel the joy and greatness of the bright future that his country is destined to have — all these things he has acquired from his motherland. He has treated the beautiful Island as his shrine of worship.

      The poet expresses the hope that his fears regarding his country will prove false and the enemy will not be able to do anything that he boasts of In the concluding lines, the poet bids farewell to the green silent spot where he has been thinking and dreaming. He says that he is going back to his own cottage. He wants to give practical form and shape to his all-embracing love and sympathetic consideration for the entire mankind. The sunlight has disappeared from the top of the hill. Oblique rays can be seen in the ivied beacon i.e, the light-house covered with ivy shrub. The poet walks homeward along the sheep-track. The thoughts and musings that he has indulged in this quiet healthy spot has given him joy. The distant village where his friend and he live appears like a great amphitheater with the elm-trees and fields. The poet's heart has become softened and light through the influence of nature. He feels full of love and universal brotherhood.


Development of Thought

      The poem begins on a quiet note with a description of the natural surroundings of the poet as he sits and muses upon the danger of war threatening his country. He reposes in a green dell, above which sings a skylark in the clouds. Such natural beauty and the religious spirit it invokes must appeal to all. Sadly, however, the poet is forced to think of the peace being shattered by war. Coleridge rises above narrow partisan views. He do not hesitate to condemn his countrymen for their various acts of omission and commission such as greed of wealth, overlordship of colonial regions, indulgence in slave trade etc. The local society is hard-hearted, frivolous and prone to flattery and corruption. They speak enthusiastically about war and show no sensitivity to the suffering of the soldiers actually fighting and dying and their wives and children. The pacifist outburst is soon followed by a sincere hope that his countrymen will be able to resist the impious foe. The poet is not behind anyone in his patriotism for his own country but it does not make him. narrow-minded. He wants no war. He wants people to be large-hearted and work for universal brotherhood. The poem ends on a hopeful note. The poet is grateful that his quiet meditative sojourn amidst nature's beauty has softened his heart which is full of love for mankind.

Critical Appreciation

      Love of Nature and Minute Observation. The poem reflects Coleridge's love of Nature and his minute observation. At the very beginning we have a beautiful scene of nature brought to us through a few vivid details of description. We are struck by the sense of light gleaming through the half-transparent stalks of crops —

The level sunshine glimmers with green light.

      Similarly, the concluding passage also shows a vivid picturization of natural scenes:

....the gentle dew-fall sends abroad
The fruit-like perfume of the golden furze...

      The feeling for natural beauty is heightened because of the poet's perception of Nature's religious aspect. The natural beauty is imbued by God's spirit — a spirit that soothes and comforts and teaches man the true value of life. The poet finds "religious meaning in the form of Nature".

      Patriotism through Love of Nature. It is the natural beauty of the land that makes Coleridge apostrophise his country. He loves his motherland — his native isle with all its lakes, mountains, rocks and seas — for these have inspired his intellectual life and stimulated in him beautiful feelings and adoration of God. The poet is grateful to his land, for having provided him with the spirit of joy and hope in the future. He is thus truly patriotic and loves his country and wants no harm to befall it. It is because he is patriotic that he does not want the effects of bloody war to touch it. His patriotism is not of a narrow and partisan kind. He does not think it patriotic to glorify war. Nor does he think that to be patriotic one must worship those who claim loudly to be the leaders of the nation and who condemn anyone who disagrees with them as unpatriotic.

      Severe Condemnation of the British Society. Coleridge delivers a scathing attack on the contemporary British society. He pin-points their faults and folly. He condemns their commercial greed, their imperialistic designs, their hypocrisy even in religion. He is disgusted at their perjury — their abusing God's name in trying to achieve personal material success and power over other human beings. He clearly avers that it is not just the political system that needs change, it is the people's heart that must change and become sensitive to human suffering everywhere. A change of government cannot improve matters, for the government is not a robe by the removal of which the country's "vice and wretchedness" will disappear.

      Hatred of War Part of Humanism. Coleridge advocates pacifism because he loves humanity. The idea of war excites people and makes them eloquent on the subject. His sensitivity to the reality comes out in the lines where he tells his countrymen to think of the impact of war on the soldiers who actually fight it. No soldier dies without a wound; every one who dies on the battlefield suffers the pangs of death and is not simply transferred to heaven, and each dead soldier's widow and child feel the sorrow of his death. The poet realizes that war in defense of one's country is a necessity but he asks his countrymen not to gloat over the bloodshed and not to give in to a feeling of "drunken triumph".

      Sincerity of Feeling Expressed in the Style. The style of the poem matches the theme and effectively expresses the sincerity of the poet's feelings. Vigorous and forceful vocabulary emphasises the poet's severely critical attitude towards contemporary society. There is no artificiality in the lines in which he speaks of the horrors of war. The tone is appropriately subdued and mellow in the passages where he praise and his motherland. It is a poem marked by quiet sincerity.


      L. 49-63 Even so, my countrymen.....as at a market: In Fears in Solitude, Coleridge criticises his countrymen severely. As a Romantic and a humanist Coleridge finds it disgusting that the English have enslaved people in distant lands and caused them much suffering. The English have done worse in inflicting the people of those lands with their own vices and thus crushing them physically and spiritually. Cruel and unjust to people of other lands, the English in their own land are leading a meaningless existence. Committees, associations, and societies have been formed and the members of these have been spouting words unaccompanied by any useful action. They merely compliment one another and indulge in mutual flattery for mutual gain. They have all been guilty of commercial greed. They have ignored the principles of honourable living and are polluting their life with their desire of making money. These people have bartered freedom and the poor people's life for money and commercial gain. Coleridge is obviously referring to the English policy in the colonies at the time. He delivers an unbiased criticism of the mercenary and evil behaviour of his countrymen.

      L. 108-121. The poor wretch.....not killed: The poet delivers a diatribe against war in Fears in Solitude. He rightly points out that his countrymen read with amusement accounts of war and bloodshed taking place at other places in the world. The vocabulary of war is freely used. The speakers do not seem to realize the dreadful nature of war. They seem insensitive to the suffering and tragedy. The dead in the battlefield are spoken of as so many casualties as if they did not die of painful wounds. They talk of those dead in battles as if they were transferred without pain to heaven.

      The language used by Coleridge is strong and vigorous in this passage where he condemns the insensitivity of his countrymen. In the process his own humanitarian impulses come out clearly.

      L. 160-166. Some be like.....at pleasure: In Fears of Solitude, Coleridge points out that some people think that by changing the government, the ills besetting the country will be removed. This is a wrong idea. The government is not a robe on which the ills are like fancy work, that with the removal of the government the ills will also go. Coleridge rightly feels that the folly and wrongs of a nation springs from the attitude of the people.

      L. 198-202. May my fears.....grass: Coleridge wrote Fears in Solitude at a time when war seemed imminent. However, the fear of war is unfounded. Coleridge here prays that his fears about the well-being and security of his country should prove false. In a striking manner, he conveys the idea that the danger from the enemy shall pass over his country without harming it, just as the wind which may be heard but does not actually blow near enough to bend even a blade of grass in the valley where the poet stands.

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