Featured Poem: This Lime-tree Bower my Prison by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This week in our special series of poems to help us through the testing times ahead, Grace Frame, The Reader's Publications Manager, shares her thoughts on This Lime-tree Bower my Prison by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I’ve had this line, the title of Coleridge’s poem, circulating around my mind for a few days. Poems can do that, can’t they: a line can lift itself into consciousness without much context or explanation except that a certain feeling seems to hang on the words. This is what I began with. An idea of opposites or contrasts, with the phrase ‘lime-tree bower’ conjuring up associations of a home or safe place; a spot that is relaxing and pretty, that one has chosen to spend time in, whereas ‘prison’ immediately suggests to me somewhere closed off, and perhaps also dark instead of light. This is not necessarily what the poem is about, but that play of somewhat confused feelings is something that I think many of us might identify with if we are staying at home, safe but not comfortably so, in the current crisis caused by COVID-19.
In Coleridge’s case, he too was unused to being restricted, and on the occasion of writing this poem was having to miss out on taking long walks (to which he had been looking forward) with his friends the Wordsworths and Charles Lamb, while he recovered from an accident that had left him with a badly burned foot.
In the first two sections of the poem Coleridge follows the route that he knows his friends will be taking, imagining the experience even as he regrets that he cannot share in it. Then the poem continues into a third verse paragraph:
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,
Yet 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
Beat 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.
What could Coleridge have done with that lost time, while he waits for his friends to return? Empty time is a problem, especially when our minds have not yet become practiced in dealing with it. What I like here is how, as Coleridge stays still, he almost allows the sight to come to him, the sight by which he is ‘sooth’d’: ‘I watch’d’, ‘and lov’d to see’. I like ‘mark’d’ as well: not a word that you hear so often now, but I wonder if it suggests a kind of older mental practice not only of noticing things but also of making a note to yourself and storing this away for further use. ‘Have I not mark’d / Much that has sooth’d me.’
But after ‘marking’ all those little touches – the lights and the shadows, the big lines that follow seem to begin with that signal, ‘henceforth’. There is a ‘lesson’ in this experience about how we keep ourselves alive in straitened circumstances, and how Nature can come in and fill the gap that we may be feeling. ‘Nature ne’er deserts.’ And yet the task is not left solely up to Nature. There is a kind of recommendation here, too, to engage by contemplating ‘With lively joy the joys we cannot share’. In other words, don’t hide away from the things you’re missing out on. Contemplate them for the joyful things that they are. The baby being born some miles away. The treasured spot that you like visiting on your days off, but that you cannot get to just now. Somewhere, joy lives on, and there is a way to participate in it.