I had not read this poem since college and reading it this time I confess that I was completely blown away. Not only is the imagery and symbolism so powerful, but the language and musical cadence is nothing short of exhilarating. I feel like I have just come off an emotional rollercoaster after finishing this.
It is a fairly long poem, so I am not going to include all of the text in this post, but for those who need, here is a link to an online version.
The poem is comprised of eight stanzas and I will look at each stanza separately. In addition to the eight stanzas, the poem is prefaced with a quote from the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.”
In Stanza I, the emphasis is on dreams and inspiration. Coleridge is awake at night and his mind is wandering, thoughts drifting through and playing upon his mind like the wind upon the Aeolian lute. But he has a sense of foreboding; that a storm is coming.
For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!
There is some very interesting imagery here, particularly the New-moon shining brightly. The New Moon does not shine; it is dark. So we get a sense that he is slipping into the realm of the unseen, a place of “phantom light.” I see this as symbolic of his inner self, the part of him that is not visible to the world.
In the second stanza, Coleridge expresses emotional grief. His pain runs deep and is preventing him from being able to express himself artistically.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear—
He gives himself over to silent contemplation, observing the space around him. There is a strong emphasis on vision in this stanza. His attention is focused on the sensory as opposed to the emotional.
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
Here Coleridge has a realization that the symbols and forms that populate the world around him are inadequate metaphors for what is inside him. It seems that he has been relying upon images from Nature to express his spiritual being.
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
As the realization sets in, Coleridge expounds upon the idea of inspiration and enlightenment coming from within, and not from without.
O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
Artistic inspiration and spiritual enlightenment, which would have been similar in Coleridge’s view, is not bestowed upon us from Nature, but exist within us as the spark of divinity. Nature is but a reflection of the divine essence within us. It is the outward manifestation of the godlike soul that resides in our mortal shell.
In this stanza, Coleridge experiences a moment of spiritual rapture. He realizes that art and poetry is within him, and that poetry is the pure expression of his soul. This triggers a feeling of ecstasy. He realizes that by becoming pure of heart, he is able to connect with the muse that resides within himself, thereby becoming one with his creative side in a moment of sheer bliss.
O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,
Here Coleridge reflects back upon how he used to draw his inspiration from suffering.
There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
He then elaborates how his physical illness has demonstrated that suffering is the wrong path to take in the pursuit of artistic inspiration. Coleridge commits to explore the pathway of joy instead. He affirms that one must seek to connect with one’s inner joy in order to truly become artistically inspired.
This was my favorite stanza. Here we see the darker phantoms of the mind resurge. Coleridge experiences an inner struggle between the light and the darkness. As the conflicting emotions clash within, it seems like he is grappling with his sanity.
Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.
In the final stanza, we have an expression of resignation.
‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!
It is now midnight, a transitional time. Coleridge comes to a point of acceptance that although his muse sleeps, he will be kept awake by the storm of thoughts within his mind. But during this period, his muse will rest, and when she awakens, she will be refreshed and will bestow upon him new inspiration. And this inspiration will flow from within himself into the world around him, not the opposite way. Henceforth, his poetry will be an expression of the divine soul within.
I have always loved Coleridge’s poetry, but I guess I never gave this poem the consideration it deserves. I now feel that it is one of his finest works and I am certain that I will be reading it again. I never tire of great poetry and this is without a doubt great poetry.