I woke this morning and felt like reading from my college tome: English Romantic Writers. I opted for Coleridge, but didn’t want to read anything long and dense, so I scanned his section and discovered this poem, which is his earliest work included in the book and one I had not read before. I’ll include the text here, since it is short.
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of Childhood! oft have ye beguil’d
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless Child!
The river otter referred to in the title is clearly Coleridge as a child: playful, imaginative, and carefree. As an adult, he has returned to the place where he played as a child and being in that place causes a flood of vivid memories. But it is not just the memory of childhood events that he experiences, he becomes filled with the emotions he felt as a child, the boundless wonder and deep pleasure found in the simplest of things, like skimming a stone.
I see the brook as a symbol of Coleridge’s memory. When he writes “But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,” he is talking about his memories rising to the surface. The tints are the emotions attached to these memories. The emotions associated with his childhood experiences are what add color to his memories. But the stream is also a symbol for life, ever changing and flowing onward. He has drifted forward and left the realm of childhood behind.
The poem ends with Coleridge longing for his childhood, to be free of the cares associated with being an adult. But I sense there is more here than just a longing to be carefree again. I think that what Coleridge is really aching to recapture is the imaginative spirit he possessed as a child. The divine power of the imagination was incredibly important to the romantic writers, and Coleridge would have wanted to connect with the boundless imagination he felt as a child.
I confess, as I sit here drinking my coffee and trying not to think about the hectic day of work that looms before me, that the carefree and imaginative days of my childhood would be a welcome escape. I would love to just go and spend the day in the woods, tossing sticks and leaves into a stream just to watch them float away. But I can’t, which is why I can so relate to the feelings that Coleridge expresses in this sonnet.