Friday, January 8, 2010

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

I have a crush on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was an addict, and sometimes a curmudgeon, but oh, his poems! (I also have a crush on Keats. I do not have a crush on Wordsworth, Shelley, or Byron, though I respect those who do.)

This is one of my favorite poems in all the world, and it exemplifies the glorious lack of cynicism that I crave in contemporary poetry and so rarely find. This poem is all about Love and Beauty, and yet it is innocent and intense and gorgeously made. Every time I read it, I am, for a few moments, transfigured.

Coleridge dedicates the poem to Charles Lamb. You may have heard of him: he was an essayist and, with his sister Mary, published Tales from Shakespeare, a lovely compendium of prose retellings of several Shakespeare plays. It was intended for children but remains useful for anyone who would like an elegant and comprehensible plot summary of the plays.

In the poem, Coleridge speaks directly to Lamb and refers, at one point, to the "strange calamity" he has suffered: in a fit of insanity, Mary had murdered their mother. She did not go to prison but was left for decades in Lamb's household charge. He loved her dearly, as he had loved his mother, yet the burden was terrible.

Coleridge published "Lime-Tree" with a short introduction that explains its setting and situation:

In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's [Coleridge's] cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking for the whole time of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.

And in an 1834 copy of his Poetical Works he wrote this note in the margin:

Ch. and Mary Lamb--dear to my heart, yea, as it were my Heart--S.T.C. Aet. [age] 63; 1797-1834 = 37 years!

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

dedicated to charles lamb

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost

Beauties and feelings, such as would have been

Most sweet to my remembrance even when age

Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,

Friends, whom I never more may meet again,

On springy heath, along the hilltop edge,

Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,

To that still roaring dell, of which I told;

The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,

And only speckled by the mid-day sun;

Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock

Flings arching like a bridge—that branchless ash,

Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves

Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,

Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends

Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,

That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)

Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge

Of the blue clay-stone.

Now, my friends emerge

Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again

The many-steepled tract magnificent

Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,

With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up

The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles

Of purple shadow! Yes! They wander on

In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,

My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined

And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,

In the great City pent, winning thy way

With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain

And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink

Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!

Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,

Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!

Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!

And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend

Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,

Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round

On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem

Less gross than bodily; and of such hues

As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes

Spirits perceive his presence.

A delight

Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad

As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,

This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d

Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze

Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d

Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see

The shadow of the leaf and stem above

Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree

Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay

Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps

Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass

Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue

Through the late twilight: and though now the bat

Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,

Still the solitary humble-bee

Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know

That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;

No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,

No waste so vacant, but may well employ

Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart

Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes

’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,

That we may lift the soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share.

My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook

Beats its straight path along the dusky air

Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing

(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)

Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,

While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,

Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm

For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom

No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.


charlotte gordon said...

Thank you so much for copying out that poem. I have not read it in years. I loved him, too, once upon a time. I still quote (misquote) that melancholy cloud sudden from heaven drops. Or however it goes. All I know is that is what happens to me.

Did you know that MW and Kubla Kahn are somehow linked?

It is nice to be reading you again.

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