According to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755), "the ode is either of the greater or less kind. The less is characterised by sweetness and ease; the greater by sublimity, rapture, and quickness of transition." The distinction that Johnson is making is that between the literary heirs of Horace and those of Pindar. Gilbert Highet distinguishes the two traditions in this way:Among the lyricists who follow classical inspiration, consciously or unconsciously, some are descendants of Pindar, some of Horace. The Pindarics admire passion, daring, and extravagance. Horace's followers prefer reflection, moderation, economy. Pindaric odes follow no pre-established routine, but soar and dive and veer as the wind catches their wing. Horatian lyrics work on quiet, short, well-balanced systems. Pindar represents the ideals of aristocracy, careless courage and the generous heart. Horace is a bourgeois, prizing thrift, care, caution, the virtue of self-control. Even the music we can hear through the odes of the two poets and their successors is different. Pindar loves the choir, the festival, the many-footed dance. Horace is a solo singer, sitting in a pleasant room or quiet garden with his lyre.1In English literature the Pindaric tradition attracted such practitioners as Milton in On the Morning of Christ's Nativity and Dryden in Alexander's Feast, and the publication in 1656 of Abraham Cowley's Pindarique Odes spawned a shoal of lesser fry in a stream that tumbles eventually into the calmer waters of Gray and Collins in the middle of the eighteenth century. The Horatian tradition, which found perhaps its most able exponent in Andrew Marvell, begins with Ben Jonson and passes, through Pope, to such mid-century poets as Mark Akenside, Matthew Prior, and William Collins.2
By 1802 Coleridge had composed a number of odes, ranging from the turgid "Pindarick" sublime of Ode to the Departing Year (1796) to the meditative Horatian accents of Ode to Tranquillity, which appeared in the Morning Post of 4 December 1801. From its first publication in October 1802, Coleridge called his Dejection an ode. It is, like Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality, an irregular English Pindaric. And yet it has always existed somewhat  uneasily within the confines of this generic description. On the one hand, it is one of the most regular odes in the language: "five-sixths of its lines", as John Jump has pointed out, "are either iambic pentameters or alexandrines, nearly four-fifths of them iambic pentameters".3 In addition, it shares a significant number of characteristics with Coleridge's Conversation Poems; and some critics -- notably G.M. Harper and (with reservations) George Watson4 -- are inclined to group it generically with these earlier poems, while M.H. Abrams (imitating the Augustan distinction between "greater" and "lesser" odes) prefers to assign both the best of the Conversation Poems and Dejection: An Ode to a new lyric category which he denominates "the greater Romantic lyric".5 On the other hand, however, there is the fact that Coleridge persistently referred to Dejection as an ode6 and the fact that the poem is (despite other influences) recognisably part of the English Pindaric tradition. While no one, I think, would deny that Coleridge's "conversational" mode has left its mark on the poem and is largely responsible for its being so different in many ways from earlier Pindarics in English, it is equally apparent that Dejection: An Ode cannot properly be called a Conversation Poem. Its tone, for one thing, while genial and (at least superficially) familiar, is not intimate and is exalted and dignified to a degree that has no parallel in the Conversation Poems of 1795-8. Its form and style, moreover, are radically unlike those of the earlier poems: it is divided into formal stanzas rather than into apparently artless verse-paragraphs; and, while iambic pentameter provides the prosodic base, there is no blank verse in the poem at all -- rhyme is employed throughout and line-lengths are varied. In short, Dejection: An Ode is a sort of middle thing between a traditional Pindaric and a Coleridgean Conversation Poem; and I would agree with A.H. Fairbanks that the poem "has fair claim to status as the first distinctively Romantic ode" -- a status achieved by the "synthesis of the magnitude and dynamics of the ode with the personal style and immediacy of the conversation poem".7
Dejection: An Ode is a poem of paradox, of balanced opposites -- the formal and the informal, imaginative loss and imaginative power -- held in delicate equilibrium. The magnificent opening stanza (lines 1-20), which merits citation in full, subtly establishes the antitheses that the poem develops as it progresses:
These lines, relaxed and colloquial, giving a sense of ambling, meandering thought, are unobtrusively but firmly controlled by a formal rhyrne-scheme that never threatens or interferes with the illusion of genial spontaneity. The formality of rhyme and stanza-form are modulated by an abundance of enjambment and by varied metrical patterns that imitate the ebb and flow of thought and of the rising and falling breeze. The imagery, too, moves effortlessly from the external world to the internal demesne of the poet's mind, blending outness with inscape: the lute, for example, is both an actual Aeolian harp and a metaphor of mind, and the rising wind is both real and a symbol of inspiration. And there is in the stanza, as William Walsh points out, "a constant transition from particular to general and from general to particular: reflection feeds on the concrete and the concrete holds within it the impulse of the general".8 Thus, the moon, while mysteriously overspread with a vague "phantom light", is yet defined with mathematical precision as "rimmed and circled by a silver thread". The surety of the present moment and the present scene are counterbalanced by contingency and a deep-set apprehension of what the future holds; the rising wind, while invoked, is yet feared -- for it  strikes a deeper chord that reverberates through the stanza from the ominous prolepsis of the epigraph:
 Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Æolian lute,
Which better far were mute.
For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light overspread
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!
Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,
And sent my soul abroad,
Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!
Will the wind, when it comes, be creative or destructive? And the moon, too -- the new moon with the old moon in her arms -- is similarly ambiguous: does it signify rebirth or death, what is yet to come or what has passed away? Poised between expectation and foreboding, between vivid awareness of the world and an apathetic inability to respond to it, the opening stanza establishes the paradoxes which the following stanzas will explore.
And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.
In the second stanza (lines 21-38), which develops the disparity between internal and external nature, Coleridge comes to the heart of his dejection:
Essentially, the crisis has its root in a failure of perception; and, while this failure is initially described in a weary piling-up of epithets ("void, dark, and drear", etc.), it eventually finds a natural outlet in a powerfully realised response to nature, a response which (paradoxically) laments the inability to respond:9
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 . . . .
The failure of his "genial spirits" 10 -- a loss to which he is now resigned -- leads in stanza 3 (lines 39-46) to the conclusion: "I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life,  whose fountains are within". Something has died at the centre of his being and the loss is irreparable.
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
Stanzas 4 and 5 are marked by an outward-turning cadence, as the poet addresses himself directly to the "Lady", and there is a corresponding shift from the particular to the general -- a shift, that is to say, from the poet's personal loss to an examination of the general truths implied by individual experience. In stanza 4 (lines 47-58) Coleridge states, as a universal truth, that true perception depends upon interaction between the self and the non-self, that (if the world is to be other than inanimate and cold, then) "from the soul itself must issue forth / A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud / Enveloping the Earth"; and in stanza 5 (lines 59-75), still speaking universally, he explains that this "beautiful and beauty-making power" both is and results in "joy":11
Stanza 6 (lines 76-93) turns inward again, back to the poet himself and his own particular loss. There was a time, he says, when he possessed enough "joy" to withstand "misfortunes", but now affliction has robbed him of this power and suspended his "shaping spirit of Imagination". As a last recourse, he had sought relief from his sorrows in "abstruse research":
Joy, virtuous Lady! joy that ne'er was given,
Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,
Life, and Life's effluence, cloud at once and shower,
Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven . . . .
What has happened in these three stanzas (4-6)? What conclusions have been reached? Although it is not possible to say exactly, there are three observations that may be useful. First, for Coleridge perception involves both receptivity and projection. The poem laments the loss of the latter power (the drying up of the "fountains within") and, as well, the resulting atrophy of the power to shape and develop perceptual experience. With the aid of Coleridge's later terminology one might put the case this way: an  impairment of the Primary Imagination results in the suspension of the Secondary (or poetic) Imagination. Second, Coleridge's loss of "joy" is as much a moral as a metaphysical problem. Joy, he says, is given only "to the pure, and in their purest hour". In his own case he is mightily aware of the depth of impurity, caused primarily by his illicit (if idealised) passion for Sara Hutchinson and probably as well by the failure of his "moral will" to cope with the evil of opium: "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do" (Romans 7: 19). So heartfelt a conviction of sin and personal guilt must necessarily be crippling to one who believes, with Ben Jonson and Milton, that a good poet must also be a good man.12 Third, there is the problem of what Coleridge means by saying that he had allowed "abstruse research to steal / From my own nature all the natural man". Is this a good or a bad thing, an escape or a revelation? "Is the state being described [in stanza 6] one of sickness, or maturity?" asks Stephen Prickett; and he concludes that
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.there is a feeling of qualitative mental change in Coleridge following on his "loss" of the creative (Secondary) Imagination that he certainly regrets, but is not quite sure whether to regard as a disaster or a development. If, on the one hand, he talks of it as if it is an unmitigated disaster, on the other, Dejection itself is one of his greatest insights into the workings of his own creativity -- and he is always aware of this.13In the much-discussed seventh stanza (lines 94-125) the poet, by an effort of will, thrusts from him the "viper thoughts, that coil around my mind", and turns his attention outward again to the wind that "long has raved unnoticed". The wind, demonic and demented, tortures "a scream / Of agony" from the Aeolian harp in the window. There follow three apostrophes where the wind is called, first, a "Mad Lutanist" that disturbs the nascent springtime of buds and peeping flowers "with worse than wintry song", then, an "Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds", and finally, a "mighty Poet" telling now "of the rushing of an host in rout, / With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds" 14 and now (after "a pause of deepest silence")
In this stanza, as Walter Jackson Bate has said, "the imagination turns out to be far from dead or suspended. It is only too active. If joy is creative, the poem exemplifies that dejection can be equally so".16 The inspiration prayed for in the opening stanza of the poem has come -- but it has brought, not images of joy and solace, but images of horror, of isolation, of loss. And in the last stanza (lines 126-39) the poet wishes for the Lady the peaceful sleep and "joy" that are (at least on this night of storm) denied to him:
It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud!
A tale of less affright,
And tempered with delight,
 As Otway's self had framed the tender lay,--
'Tis of a little child
Upon a lonesome wild,
Not far from home, but she hath lost her way:
And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,
And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.15
"The blessing" -- to cite Bate again -- "is possible, more than possible, but it is not for him".18
To her may all things live, from pole to pole,
Their life the eddying17 of her living soul!
O simple spirit, guided from above,
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice,
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.
There are two persistent critical problems associated with Dejection: An Ode, especially with the last two stanzas. First, there is the question of unity. "I think", wrote Humphry House in the early 1950s, "it is the opinion of many readers of the Ode, that brilliantly successful as most of it is, as parts, yet it fails to achieve complete artistic unity".19 House's view is based on his belief that the finished ode is a flawed public rendering of the original verse-letter to Sara Hutchinson; both poems, he maintains, are "about unhappiness and about love and about joy" -- rather than about "modes of perception" -- and the finished ode suffers from the exclusion of the love theme and is, as a result, "not a whole poem".20 William Walsh, however, considers Dejection "one of the finest of all Romantic poems" and says that "the formal, distancing qualities of the ode, while they strengthen the arrangement of the poem, do not subdue the intense and feeling part of it. In fact they help towards a steadiness of honesty and a continuity and patience of attention all too rare in Coleridge".21
The second major problem that has vexed critics of the poem is  whether or to what extent the dejection with which the poem begins is alleviated, or transcended, or come to terms with. For some readers there is no spiritual or psychological advance at all. Walter Jackson Bate, for example, states flatly that the poem is "no triumphant assertion of the 'creative imagination' . . . . It is a cry of despair"; and Max F. Schulz concurs, saying of stanza 7 that "Sharpness of feeling has returned to the poet, but it is not the imaginatively creative, life-giving wholeness of joy; it is still the death-dealing fragmentation of dejection".22 F.M. Smith, comparing Coleridge's poem with Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality, is even blunter: "In Wordsworth's Ode grief finds relief and ends in joy; in Coleridge's, grief finds no relief and ends in dejection".23 In diametric opposition to these views is the position of R.H. Fogle, who argues that the poem illustrates Coleridge's "rebirth of imagination" -- a position supported, in recent years, by such readers as J.L. Simmons and P.R. Broughton, the latter of whom asserts that the poem "remains an ode about dejection, but it is not an apostrophe to dejection" and that, as Coleridge learns (or sees) by stanza 6, "Dejection understood . . . is dejection controlled".24
Still other readers, however, prefer to say that the poem's conclusion is essentially ambivalent. M.H. Abrams states the case admirably:The poetic meditation is set in April, which turns out, as in Eliot's Waste Land, to be the cruelest month because, in breeding life out of the dead land, it painfully revives emotional life in the observer, mixing memory and desire . . . . In implicit parallel with the wind-harp, the poet also responds to the storm with mounting vitality . . . until, in a lull of the wind, the poem rounds on itself and ends where it began, with a calm both of nature and of mind. But the poet has moved from the calm of apathy to one of peace after passion. By the agency of the wind storm it describes, the poem turns out to contradict its own premises: the poet's spirit awakes to violent life even as he laments his inner death, achieves release in the despair at being cut off from all outlet, and demonstrates the power of imagination in the process of memorializing its failure.25
|So much I feel my genial spirits droop,|
My hopes all flat, nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself.
Table of Contents
- Coleridge Companion Titlepage
- Preface and Abbreviations
- List of Plates
- Coleridge: A Biographical Sketch
- The Conversation Poems:
- Kubla Khan:
- The Ancient Mariner:
- Dejection: An Ode
- Biographia Literaria:
- Return to John Spencer Hill's Home Page
Document Completed: 22/04/96