Monday, 27 June 2011

The Eolian Harp by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o'ergrown
With white-flower'd Jasmin, and the broad-leav'd Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatch'd from yon bean-field! and the world is hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.

And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caress'd,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dripping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam'd wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill'd;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos'd eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall'd and undetain'd,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O belovéd Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow'd dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God.
Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!
Well hast thou said and holily disprais'd
These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.
For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healéd me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wilder'd and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour'd Maid!

An analysis of The Eolian Harp by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Eolian Harp’ is a poem of medium length, stretching to 64 lines. This is a descriptive poem, where the focus is on aspects of the lute and the poet rather in relating any tale. It could also be described lyrical as it expresses so much about his personal feelings and, indeed, has narrative elements in the story about going up the hill and the change of mind at the end. The subject of the title is a smallish ornamental harp which ‘plays’ ‘music’ when wind blows across the strings. The subject of the poem is less straightforward and though the first dozen lines suggest it to be no more than a simple love ballad, the main body of the poem takes on an allegoric approach where the harp represents the poet and the wind which causes it to play is a metaphor for God’s breath. The narrator is the author himself, speaking to Sara, who we can safely take to be his lover, “And thus, my Love!” (line 33), “heart-honour’d Maid!” (line 64), and who indeed is almost certainly Coleridge’s own wife to be Sara Fricker.

On first reading this is not an easy poem to read or to comprehend. The reading difficulty comes through the non-existence of any rhyming scheme —the absence of stanzas is also a challenge. This type of writing might be said to tend to the prosaic but it remains a poem in free verse. At a stretch it is almost possible to identify a single rhyming couplet in lines seven and eight (eve and be) but given that this is a solitary instance it is more likely to be borne out of necessity, or even mischief on the part of the poet, rather than any serious attempt at rhyme . There is little evidence of any pattern at the beginning of the lines either although the at the start of lines seven to ten there is evidence of sibilance (a repetition of the ‘s’ sound) with the words ‘Slow, Serenely, Shine and Snatch’d’. Comprehension is not aided by the fact that the poem is not broken down into regular stanzas. The poem can be divided into five distinct verse paragraphs which end at lines 12, 33, 43, 48 and 64. As we can see from the numbering here these sentences are not of similar length and in fact the first sentence ends in the middle of line 12 rather than the end as all others do. Comprehension is further confused by the excessive use of exclamation marks - 13 in total - some of which appear unnecessary, for example after “field” and “hush’d” in line 12. However there are others (after ‘opposite’ in line nine and ‘wrong’ in line 17) which seem to be more grammatically correct since the following word starts with a capital letter thus indicating a new sentence. It could be that Coleridge has used this technique for the same reason a composer of music might use scherzo to indicate excitement - he is after all young and in love – rather than to challenge the reader and poetic convention.

There is however a rhythm to the poem and this is constant throughout every almost every line. The rhythm used is iambic pentameter – each line being composed of ten syllables with stress on alternate syllables. This structure is occasionally broken, for example in lines four, 23, 25, 39 and 47 where there are 11 syllables in each line though there is no clear pattern emerging.

Enjambment (where the phrase runs on to the next line) and caesura (where some punctuation causes us to pause in the middle of the line) are both used liberally throughout the poem. Again these contribute to the difficulty of a first reading of this poem.

Looking at the first section (up to line 12), as already mentioned, it appears on the surface to be little more than a simple love ballad. However, as early as line four, ‘With white-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad-leav’d Myrtle’, which he describes as emblems of innocence and love, Coleridge has introduced links to heavenly beings. Jasmin (Jasmine) comes from the Persian Yasmin meaning ‘gift of god’ and Myrtle was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite in Greek mythology. Coleridge capitalises the words Innocence and Love (line five), Wisdom (line eight), Sea (line 11) and Silence (line 12) and through this elevation, gives them life. So we can see already that there is some deeper meaning and purpose in this poem.

The second, and longest, verse paragraph (lines 12 to 33 introduces the harp, ‘And that simplest Lute, plac’d length-ways…’ moving the theme away from his love for Sara and providing an evocative description of the harp. Referring first to the ‘desultory breeze’ (line 14) there is a suggestion of aimlessness in the way the harp relies on the wind to feed its musical inspiration and in the next line the ‘coy maid half-yielding’ implies the sense of the harp as a helpless object at the mercy of the random breeze.

But Coleridge quickly finds beauty and joy in the sounds produced, ‘a soft floating witchery of sound’ (line 20), ‘gentle gales from Fairy-Land’ (line 22) and ‘joyance every where’ (line 29). By the end of this section he also acknowledges the symbiotic    relationship between the wind and the harp, ‘the mute still air is Music slumbering on her instrument’ (line 32/33). Again the careful use of capitalisation at Melodies (line 23) and Music (line 33) gives a different meaning to these words, making them nouns and giving them a sense of physical presence. In lines 23 to 25 Coleridge likens the melodies to ‘birds of Paradise’, ‘hovering on untamed wing’. Birds were well represented in Romantic poetry of that period and were at times used to represent the poet looking down on the world and expounding a view which was not seen by the, flightless, remainder of humankind. This is the first indication that the poet sees a likeness in his own situation to the relationship that exists between the wind and the harp.

In the following section Coleridge moves the focus firmly to himself. We see this in line 35, ‘I stretch my limbs’. Here he considers the impact of his own relationship with nature seeing parallels between the way his musings are created in the presence of natures forces, ‘sunbeams dance, like diamonds’ (line 37), and the sounds of the harp produced by nature’s wind.

The fourth verse (lines 44-48) contains a revelation. The poet ponders whether or not it can be the case that all of nature is in a sense one great harp or even a multitude of different harps each reacting to the wind. Further, that the wind is more than a random movement of air but it has some purpose and direction. He sees nature and God as the same thing, ‘one intellectual breeze, At once the Soul of each, and God of All?’ (line 47/48). It is interesting that Coleridge chooses to end here with a question mark. In asking a question he suggests some doubt. It may be that he doesn’t think this is the case at all or that to be openly seen holding such a belief may be seen to be seditious.

In the final passage Coleridge returns to his address to Sara. In a sense he shrugs of his poet’s garb and recognises that since it is his desire to live in a world with her, he must acknowledge and enjoy the worldly pleasures that God has created.

To understand and appreciate this poem fully it is useful to have some understanding of Pantheism, a belief system of which Coleridge was a major proponent. This is particularly true in coming to understand Coleridge’s apparent climb down in the final passage. In simple terms, Pantheism is the identification of God with all that exists. Pantheists would believe in the idea of an abstract god rather than an individual deity which serves as the central focus of worship. This abstract god would encompass and include everything which was known on earth and indeed the universe itself. Therefore God, from the perspective of a pantheist, would include all aspects of nature including man. This of course would make man equal with God since man was part of God and vice versa. While this may be a suitable platform for a poet to work in – the idea of being an ‘equal’ with God allows the poet to act as a conduit for God – it poses difficulties in defining relationships with others who hold different, traditional, views. Because of his love for Sara, Coleridge is prepared to put aside his beliefs, ‘biddest me walk humbly with my God’ (line 52), as he realises that this sacrifice will be a small price to pay for the pleasure it will bring. Coleridge rounds off the poem with a reaffirmation of his acceptance of God in the recognised form for that age and concludes with an acknowledgement that in accepting God he has become himself improved, ‘his saving mercies healed me,…and gave me to possess Peace’ (lines 61-63).

As already stated, this is not an easy poem to engage with on a first reading but on closer analysis layers of meaning become more apparent. In structuring the poem in an arguably awkward way (no rhyme scheme, irregular length passages and a welter of punctuation), Coleridge has forced us to examine it with greater deliberation. In this way the techniques used have been effective not only in providing a challenging piece of work but also one where, after some investigation, we are able to understand the poet’s joy with his life.

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