Tag Archives: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Paganism, Vampires, and the Supernatural

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Those of you who know me know how much I love the romantic writers, and Coleridge is among my favorites. Although this is considered an “unfinished” poem, it is still too long to include in this post. But for those who need, here is a link to an online version. I recommend you read it if you are not familiar with the poem.

Poetry Foundation: Christabel

This poem is, in my opinion, one of the great literary expressions of the supernatural. Basically, it tells the story of a young maiden, Christabel, who meets a woman, Geraldine, who turns out to be a vampire. It is the subtlety of the imagery and the beauty of Coleridge’s verse that make this such a great poem.

Coleridge opens the poem by establishing the time, which appears to be just past midnight.

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Christabel, a virgin maiden, goes off into the woods alone. She engages in a pagan ritual. She prays at an ancient oak tree, draped with moss and mistletoe.

She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

As she is praying, she becomes aware of someone on the other side of the tree. When she looks to see who is there, she encounters a mysterious woman who is described as enchantingly beautiful.

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

The woman tells Christabel her name is Geraldine and convinces her that she was the victim of rape. Christabel takes pity on her and invites her back to the hall where she lives with her father. When they arrive there, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold. This could be because vampires are unable to enter a home without invitation from the master, or there may be some protective spell guarding against evil. It is only after Christabel helps her across the threshold that she regains her strength.

They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.

Once inside, Christabel offers prayers to the Virgin Mary. She encourages Geraldine to do the same, be she refuses.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.

When Geraldine enters Christabel’s bedchamber, she senses a guardian spirit watching over her. The spirit appears to be that of Christabel’s deceased mother. Geraldine banishes the protective spirit, claiming her right to the maid.

But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.’
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.’

As Geraldine undresses, Christabel sees the mark of the vampire upon her breast.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

It is then implied that Geraldine drank some of Christabel’s blood. Later, when Christabel awakens, she notices the change in Geraldine, who is now fed and strong.

And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side—
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.

When Christabel brings Geraldine to meet her father, Sir Leoline, he becomes entranced by her. She convinces him that she is the daughter of one of Leoline’s old friend, Roland, with whom he had a falling out. Leoline vows to avenge her for the sexual assault, and thereby reestablish the lost friendship with Roland.

Leoline asks Barcy the Bard to convey his message to Roland, but Barcy is reluctant to do so. He had a prophetic dream which led him to believe that there was evil in the hall. This is a long passage, but for me it was the most important in the poem, so I am including it here.

And Bracy replied, with faltering voice,
His gracious Hail on all bestowing!—
‘Thy words, thou sire of Christabel,
Are sweeter than my harp can tell;
Yet might I gain a boon of thee,
This day my journey should not be,
So strange a dream hath come to me,
That I had vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest.
Warned by a vision in my rest!
For in my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call’st by thy own daughter’s name—
Sir Leoline! I saw the same
Fluttering, and uttering fearful moan,
Among the green herbs in the forest alone.
Which when I saw and when I heard,
I wonder’d what might ail the bird;
For nothing near it could I see
Save the grass and green herbs underneath the old tree.

‘And in my dream methought I went
To search out what might there be found;
And what the sweet bird’s trouble meant,
That thus lay fluttering on the ground.
I went and peered, and could descry
No cause for her distressful cry;
But yet for her dear lady’s sake
I stooped, methought, the dove to take,
When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove’s its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!
I woke; it was the midnight hour,
The clock was echoing in the tower;
But though my slumber was gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—
It seems to live upon my eye!
And thence I vowed this self-same day
With music strong and saintly song
To wander through the forest bare,
Lest aught unholy loiter there.’

What strikes me about this passage is that the bard recognizes the mystical power of poetry. He offers to stay because he knows that the power of his spoken word can banish evil.

Although this is an unfinished poem, I think it ends well and the open ending allows the reader to project his or her own interpretation on what the outcome will be. Christabel, realizing Geraldine’s evil nature, entreats her father to banish her from the home. He turns on her, probably from a combination of pride and enchantment. He stubbornly insists on sending Barcy forth, and then departs with Geraldine.

He rolled his eye with stern regard
Upon the gentle minstrel bard,
And said in tones abrupt, austere—
‘Why, Bracy! Dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!

I couldn’t help seeing Leoline as an incarnation of King Lear. He turns away from the true, loving child and falls prey to the wicked. It is also the weakness of men to fall for the archetypal temptress. He has done what many a man has done before and since.

Coleridge, like his romantic contemporaries, was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural. He definitely draws on those influences in this poem. While it is an “unfinished” piece, it is still very good.

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“Lines to a Beautiful Spring in a Village” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Once more, sweet stream! with slow foot wand’ring near,
I bless thy milky waters cold and clear.
Escaped the flashing of the noontide hours,
With one fresh garland of Pierian flowers
(Ere from thy zephyr-haunted brink I turn)
My languid hand shall wreath thy mossy urn.
For not thro’ pathless grove with murmur rude
Then soothest the sad wood-nymph, solitude:
Nor thine unseen in cavern depths to well,
The hermit-fountain of some dripping cell!

Pride of the vale! thy useful streams supply
The scattered cots and peaceful hamlet nigh.
The elfin tribe around thy friendly banks
With infant uproar and soul-soothing pranks,
Released from school, their little hearts at rest,
Launch paper navies on thy waveless breast.
The rustic here at eve with pensive look
Whistling lorn ditties leans upon his crook,
Or starting pauses with hope-mingled dread
To list the much-loved maid’s accustom’d tread:
She, vainly mindful of her dame’s command,
Loiters, the long-filled pitcher in her hand.

Unboastful stream! thy fount with pebbled falls
The faded form of past delight recalls,
What time the morning sun of hope arose,
And all was joy; save when another’s woes
A transient gloom upon my soul imprest,
Like passing clouds impictured on thy breast.
Life’s current then ran sparkling to the noon,
Or silvery stole beneath the pensive moon:
Ah! now it works rude brakes and thorns among,
Or o’er the rough rock bursts and foams along!

Upon first reading of this poem, it appears to be a pastoral work extolling the beauty of a stream as it flows through a small village. Having visited the Lake District of England several times, I can envision the scene that Coleridge is describing. But there are several metaphors in here that lead me to believe that the stream in this poem is really a symbol for poetic inspiration, a flowing stream of consciousness that feeds his psyche with images and emotion from which his poetry springs.

The first clue appears in the second line, where he describes the stream’s water as both milky and clear. We have an oxymoron here. I suspect that he uses the image of milkiness to symbolize the nurturing effect that the stream is having upon him. As a young child being fed milk from his mother’s breast, Coleridge is being fed by his muse and nurturing milk is what causes him to develop as a poet. It also brings clarity of vision, especially his inner vision, hence the stream is also described as clear. Just like in “Kubla Khan,” the poet has drunk the milk of Paradise and received divine inspiration.

The next clue to the poem’s symbolism is the reference to Pierian flowers. This is a mythological reference to the Pierian spring which was in Macedonia and was considered sacred to the Muses. The waters from the Pierian spring were believed to provide poetic inspiration (source: English Romantic Writers – David Perkins). Here, Coleridge is establishing a connection between the stream he sees running through the village and the mythological spring which was associated with the Muses.

The rest of the poem is easy enough to interpret. The stream evokes memories of his past, both joyful and painful. He experiences an array of emotions, all of which are inspiration for his poems.

Personally, I really enjoyed this poem, enough to read it twice before drafting this post. Coleridge was truly an inspired individual and a master of crafting words. Cheers!

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“Dejection: An Ode” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

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.

Poetry Foundation

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.”

Stanza I

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.

Stanza II

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!

Stanza III

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.

Stanza IV

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.

Stanza V

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,

Stanza VI

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.

Stanza VII

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.

Stanza VIII

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.

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“The Albatross” by Charles Baudelaire

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
The albatross, that vast sea-bird who sweeps
On high companionable pinion where
Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.

Torn from his native space, this captive king
Flounders on the deck in stricken pride,
And pitiably lets his great white wing
Drag like a heavy paddle at his side.

This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who lately was all grace!
A sailor pokes a pipestem into his beak;
Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.

The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds,
Familiar with storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.

(Translation by Richard Wilbur)

When I started reading this poem, I was expecting allusions to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Instead, I was thrust in front of a mirror and forced to see myself reflected in Baudelaire’s words.

I confess—I’m a bit of a dork, I’m introverted, and I can be socially awkward. I am certainly more interested in lofty ideas than in team sports or what Kim Kardashian is doing. As a result, I have frequently felt like an outsider, like the albatross flopping on the deck. As a kid, I was subjected to taunting and humiliation. Thankfully, over the years, I have learned to be OK with who I am and not try to play a role just to fit in socially. Also, being a dork is kind of cool now. Strange how paradigms change.

Like the Poet Baudelaire, I revel in the clouds of my thoughts and imagination; I am familiar with the storms of my passions and emotions; I reach for the stars; and I long for high things such as wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual growth. This poem lets me know that I am not alone, that there are others, like me, who share my passions and interests. I know I’m not the only albatross out there.

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“What Is Life?” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It’s the weekend and I kind of wanted to relax, but I also wanted to get a blog post written, so I searched my collection of poems by Coleridge for a short one that wouldn’t take up too much time to read and expound upon. I settled on this one.

Resembles life what once was deem’d light,
Too ample in itself for human sight?
An absolute self—an element ungrounded—
All that we see, all colours of all shade
By encroach of darkness made?
Is very life by consciousness unbounded?
And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath,
A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?

While this is indeed a short poem, there is a lot of contemplation going on regarding the essence of life. Coleridge appears to be considering that life itself is consciousness, or enlightenment. Our perception and ability to interact with our world is dependent upon our conscious mind. Without consciousness, life would be meaningless.

The most interesting aspect of this poem for me is the tension caused by the use of opposites; for example, light and darkness, pain and joy, life and death.  It is almost a representation of the opposing cosmic forces that hold existence together in balance. Think yin and yang. I myself have learned from experience that life is a constant struggle between opposites; for me it is often logic against emotion, or the spiritual against the material. This struggle is embodied by the archetypal image to which Coleridge alludes at the end of the poem, that of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

JacobAndAngelThe biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is symbolic of man’s struggle with God. Jacob is essentially struggling to come to terms with the divine aspect of himself. Coleridge appears to be having the same internal struggle, trying to make sense of life’s meaning. Is he just a temporary vessel for “an absolute self,” or is there more to his existence? Is there an even deeper meaning that has yet to be illuminated by human consciousness?

I found this poem oddly comforting. It is good to know that I am not the only person plagued with these questions.

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Ice Symbolism in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Image from Princeton.edu

Image from Princeton.edu

This is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to do something worthy of the milestone. I decided to re-read and write about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favorite poems. The poem is long and rich in symbolism, and I could easily write a dissertation on this one poem. But for brevity’s sake, I will focus on one aspect: the metaphor of ice.

I feel that ice is a key metaphor in this poem, especially since it figures prominently in the title. Rime is defined as “an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind.” So what make rime so unique is that it is the metamorphosis of gas to solid, bypassing the liquid state. Essentially, this would be symbolic of the transformation of spirit to flesh or matter.

Ice makes it first appearance in the poem at line 51:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!

The ice here seems both beautiful and frightening. The crystal structures create a stunning landscape, but also represent a dangerous place. Below the surface, hidden ice waits to tear into the hulls of ships. I see the ship as a metaphor for the journey into unknown regions. The land of ice represents the realm of imagination. I therefore interpret this passage as the mariner’s voyage into the mystic, a wondrous place where the images of the world are reflected and fractured. But a mariner must remain safe within his vessel, otherwise he becomes lost in the labyrinth of ice and cannot return to the realm of reality.

It is while in the land of ice and snow that the albatross appears, guiding the ship through the mists and clouds. I see the albatross as a spirit guide whose purpose is to lead souls safely through the mystical realms of imagination, ensuring they do not get lost. But the mariner, for no apparent reason, kills the albatross. He shows no emotion and has no remorse. Essentially, his soul has been iced over and his heart is frozen. It is a cold and senseless act that displays a complete disregard for all things divine and holy. This begins the ship’s descent into horror and the darker realms of the imagination.

It is only after the mariner begins to feel a sense of remorse that the ship begins to move again and the divine beings return to guide the ship safely to port. The rime that coated the mariner’s heart is melted away when he realizes that his actions have consequence and that all living things, instilled with the divine spirit, are deserving of love and reverence. He reiterates this belief toward the end of the poem.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’

I’ve often wondered why the mariner chose to recount his tale to the wedding guest. After this reading, I’ve come to believe that it is because the wedding guest is displaying the same coldness of heart that was in the mariner. The mariner sees this and chooses the guest. Likewise, the guest recognizes the mariner’s past iciness resides within himself, which adds to the fear that he feels as the mariner unfolds his tale.

Lastly, the mariner knows that unless he relives his experience through the retelling of his tale, he is at risk of returning to his cold, unfeeling state. The rime over one’s heart and soul forms quickly and silently. It is only by exposing the darker regions of one’s memory to the light that one can prevent the icing over of emotion.

I have only scratched the surface of this poem. There are so many images and metaphors which one could explore, it would be easy to write an entire book about this one poem. I encourage you read it, and if you have read it before, read it again. I have no doubt that you will discover things that you missed in your previous readings.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, go to a local bookstore and buy a copy of Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the money and you’ll be supporting your local bookseller.

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“To the Poet Coleridge” by Mary Robinson

MaryRobinsonYesterday and read and wrote about a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is one of my favorite poets. This morning, I was debating whether to continue reading a novel I started or read a poem. I opted for a poem and scanned the table of contents in my collection of English Romantic Writers, looking for something which would be completely new for me. A poem by Mary Robinson caught my eye because it was addressed to Coleridge. I had never read anything by Robinson, in fact, I had not even heard of her before, so I decided to read the poem. (Click here to read the poem online.)

I love this poem! It works for me on many levels. First off, it’s very well written. Nothing here seems forced. The cadence of the poem is very musical and the words flow effortlessly. It seems more like an inspired outpouring of the soul than a constructed piece of writing.

Robinson praises Coleridge, particularly for his ability to inspire her as a poet, which to me is the ultimate praise. As a writer and musician, nothing fills me with humble joy quite like having someone tell me that what I’ve written or some music I’ve performed has sparked their artistic creativity. Robinson acknowledges that Coleridge’s words have provided her with visions and divine inspiration, the source of all meaningful artistic expression.

Genius of Heaven-taught poesy!
While, opening to my wondering eyes,
Thou bidst a new creation rise,
I’ll raptured trace the circling bounds
Of thy rich Paradise extended,
And listen to the varying sounds
Of winds, and foaming torrents blended.

I have to say that I feel inspired after reading Robinson’s poem today. She reminds me of why we read, why we listen to music, why we spend time gazing into the depths of a painting, and most importantly, why we create art.

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