Dejection:an Ode by Coleridge

Background of The Poem

“Dejection: An Ode” by Coleridge is originally a poem about the depressed state the poet finds himself in. The work is not merely a poem, but a reflection of the poet, who was as well-known for his rise as for his fall. “Dejection” is thought to be the result of the despair of Coleridge born of his miserable marriage and his vain love of Sara Hutchinson; after all, the poem was first written as a letter to his beloved Sara.

On the surface, the work can simply be read as a remnant of unattainable love. On the other hand, “Dejection” is also read as a record of the creative crisis of Coleridge’s career. In this view, the poem is, in the end, a testament to the importance of imagination in Romantic thinking and ideology. Imagination gives life to external situations and objects, perception is everything. Throughout “Dejection,” Coleridge, in the depths of despair, tries to stimulate his imagination and creative powers through outer experiences of nature, but he fails. He realizes that meaning is attributed to an otherwise neutral stimulus only in his own mind; outside perceptions are nothing without internal attribution of meaning.

We see this Romantic theme taking place throughout the entire work. Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” attests to the significance of imagination in the despair of the poet, its central role in attributing meaning to external perceptions, the interplay of external and internal experiences, and the evidence of empathy in the poem’s final strophe.

Summary of “Dejection: An Ode”

The poem opens with a four-line quotation from Thomos Percy’s ‘Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence’ first printed in his ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ in 1765. Percy’s collection strongly inspired the romantic poets of the nineteenth century. The speaker says in the lines quoted by Coleridge that he has seen the old Moon holding the new Moon in her arms and that he is afraid. He is afraid that a deadly storm will follow. These strange forebodings happen in nature.

The relevance of these lines is that Coleridge wants such a storm to come in his life to arouse him from the spiritual slumber he is now in. The slumber is painful to the poet because it deprives him of his enjoyment of life and nature, and makes him unable to write poetry. At some stage of life, Wordsworth also felt the same crisis and he has pictured it in his ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’. Shelley’s invocation of the west wind is also in the same spirit. But unlike these two poets. Coleridge is very sentimental and that makes the immortality Ode and the West Wind Ode superior in quality to Coleridge’s ‘Dejection’.

‘Dejection: an ode’ is a verse letter written to a ‘Lady’. There is doubt about the identity of this Lady, in all likelihood it was Sara Hutchinson. But in a letter to his friend Poole. Coleridge gave him the impression that the poem was addressed to him. Later he told some people that it was addressed to Wordsworth. It was originally addressed to Wordsworth and subsequently ‘William’ was replaced by ‘Lady’. Coleridge, however, meant that it could be addressed to anybody with a happy disposition and contented mind. The poem is actually about the poet himself; it is a kind of confession. One confesses to one who is just the opposite type: a sinner to a holy priest, a guilty person to one who is pure of heart, and a sad man to one who is full of joy. It does not matter much whether it is addressed to Sara or Poole or Wordsworth: what matters is that it is a dejected Coleridge confessing his failings to one who is enviably joyous.

Originally the poem had 340 lines. Later Coleridge cut it short to 139 lines and divided it into eight parts. The drastic revision was made by Coleridge the critic who expunged the ‘too personal’ details and retained only those of universal significance but the revision has also taken away much of its beauty. At times the truncation becomes uncomfortably perceptible. Humphry House believes that the revision has affected its merit, in its revised version, he maintains. ‘It fails to achieve complete artistic unity, it is not a whole poem.”

The substance of the Poem

In the four-line quote from the ‘Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,’ there is the foreboding of a deadly storm, Such deadly storms, however destructive, bring about a change by causing a stir in the soil and making the plants sprout out of seeds. The poet feels that he is lying dormant and requires a new lease of poetic life. He wants to shake off his dullness and be creative once again.

The poet has melancholy of a subdued kind. It does not burst into any strong emotion. It is corroding his mind. He looks around and sees that everything in nature is excellently fair but he is not deeply touched by anything, He sees, but does not feel.

He has lost his genial spirits. The beauty of natural objects can no more lift from his heart the overwhelming burden of his grief. His attempt to gaze at the green light on the western horizon is futile, The real sources of passion and life are within one’s heart and when they have dried up he cannot expect the external forces to animate him. Man receives from nature what he gives to nature. Nature lives in our life. Her joys and sorrows are taken from man. It appears to be happy or sad according to our mood. The objects of nature are lifeless and cold. If we want to see some high or noble quality in nature, something better than the commonplace, we must send forth light, a glory, and radiance, to cover the natural objects, from our heart. Sweet and powerful voice must come out of human feelings to endow the sounds of nature with sweet charm.

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The lady addressed to is pure of heart. So she is full of joy. Therefore to her nature is always-festive, The poet finds a contrast between his mood and the mood of the Lady.

The poet remembers that in his earlier days he had this joy through the path of his life was rough. In those days he even used his misfortunes as material to weave visions of delight. Then hope grew around him like a creeper growing around a tree. Natural objects seemed to be his own as if an extension of his own personality. But now his care-worn heart has no joy. He cares little for this loss of joy but his loss of imagination is the real loss. He was born with superb power of imagination but it is almost dead now. He tried to be patient, forgetting the loss he had suffered, So he tried to cultivate the study of metaphysics so that once again he could be ‘natural man’ who does not sigh or shed tears all the time. This was his plan. He practised it but it did not’help him much. Tangled in metaphysics, he is still sad, unable to rouse imagination in him, unable to be creative, thoroughly incapacitated, and so melancholy.

The poet’s mind is in the grip of sad thoughts born of the tragic reality of his life. He wants to get rid of them so that he can listen to the wind once again. In the raving the wind he hears a prolonged scream of agony. It is a ‘mad’ scream, arid the poet thinks that the wind should go to places where its howling will not sound so discordant as it does here – to bare crag, mountain tairn, to some blasted tree, some pine grove far away from any woodman’s reach, or some witch-haunted lonely house. It is now causing havoc in this rainy month of April, creating the atmosphere of ‘Devil’s
Christmas’. The tragic atmosphere is full of the painful sound of the wind. So the wind is like an actor or even a poet. The sound made by the wind at the moment seems to be similar to the one made by a retreating army, its members groaning in pain and quivering in cold. The sound is silent and there is a brief pause. Then another sound is heard, less fearful, a bit pleasant even. It is like the tender story, written by Thomos Otway, of a little girl who lost her way on a desolate moor near her home. The little girl moaned low in grief and fear, and at times screamed loudly so that her mother might hear her and come to her rescue. The wind is imitating these sounds.

Care-worn the poet is sleepless, but he wants that his ‘friend’ may never suffer this sleeplessness. Sleep is a wonderful anodyne that heals all ailments. In the night the storm may blow and the stars may twinkle, but they cannot touch the person in profound sleep. The poet wishes her to rise in the morning, joyous and cheerful. He wants the purity and freshness of her heart spread all over nature. There is something divine in her heart and all things in nature should share that celestial element. The poet wants her to rejoice forever. May no ‘dejection’ be in her life.

Important Questions and Answers

Q. What does the appearance of the new moon in the lap of old moon signify?
Ans. The appearances of the new moon in the lap of old moon signify the coming of rain and a furious storm. In a few moments, the winds actually develop into a storm and rain starts falling with a loud sound.

Q. Why is the poet in a mood of dejection?

Ans. The poet is in a dejected mood because he fears that he has lost his creative faculty.

Q. To whom does the poet address the second stanza of the poem?

Ans. The poet addresses his wife Sara in the second stanza of the poem.

Q. What is the conviction of the poet in the poem about Nature?

Ans. The poet says that nature is inanimate and it reflects our mood only. If we are in a cheerful mood, we will find nature also in harmony with our mood. If we are sad and dejected then the whole nature also appears gloomy to us.

Long Answer Questions

Q. Write a critical appreciation of the poem.

Ans. Critical Appreciation of the poem- The Poem Ode to Dejection, is a confession of the poet Coleridge’s failure, and one of the saddest of all human utterances. The poem is written in the year 1802, in a way it is considered to be a swan song. In the poem, Coleridge laments the loss of his creative imagination and also mourns his moral and spiritual loss. It is a deeply personal and autobiographical poem which depicts the poet’s mental state at the time. It records a fundamental change in his life and is a lament on the decline of his creative imagination.

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The Quality of the Poet’s Grief

Coleridge at this time felt that his inborn gift of imagination was decaying and that his interest was shifting to philosophy. In other words, he found that he was becoming more and more of a philosopher or thinker and less and less of a poet. This change greatly distressed him. He was grief-stricken at the thought that his interest in abstruse research was crushing his poetic talent. The poem is an expression of that grief.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In a word, or sigh, or tear Seldom has grief found such tragic expression as in this poem which has been called “the poet’s dirge of infinite pathos over the grave of creative imagination”. The poem proceeds with an ever-deepening sadness, each stanza charged with heavy gloom. “Sadder lines than these were never perhaps written by any poet in the description of his own feelings.” It is much sadder and more tragic than Shelley’s Stanzas Written in a Near Naples.

Attitude to Nature

A very important point about this poem is that Coleridge here contradicts his own previous view of Nature, thus challenging Wordsworth’s Nature-creed also. In The Eolian Harp and Frost at Midnight, Coleridge had expressed a belief in pantheism—the view that Nature is a living whole, that a Divine Spirit passes through all objects of Nature, that man can establish spiritual intercourse with Nature, and that Nature exercises an ennobling and educative influence upon man. But in this poem, Coleridge completely denies this belief. Here he asserts that Nature has no life of her own—that it is we who attribute life to her

0 Lady! We receive but what we give
And in our life alone does Nature live
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud.

No longer can Coleridge gain from Nature the- joy used to give him because he has no joy in his heart to meet half-way. He has discovered that Nature can give no joy to these who have no joy already in their hearts.

Joy, Lady ! is the spirit and the power
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower


The ode contains some very vivid and concrete imagery. The poet sees the new-moon winter bright with the old moon in her lap; the swelling storm with night-shower falling loud and fast; the stars gliding behind or between the stars

‘I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gusts were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!’

More vigorous and forceful are the lines where the sounds of the storm are compared first to the rushing of a defeated army, with groans of trampled and wounded men and then to the alternate moaning and screaming of a frightened child who has lost its way home:

What tell’ st thou now about?
‘Tis of the rushing of a host in rout,
With groans of trampled men, with smarting
And now screams loud, and hopes ‘to make her mother hear.

Note of Tenderness

The poet ends on a note of tenderness for his wife. He prays to sleep to visit his beloved. May she rise with light heart, gay fancy, cheerful eyes!

These are the only lines which to some extent lighten the heavy gloom of the whole poem.

Interesting points of comparison and contrast at once occur to us between this ode and Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. As in Wordsworth’s poem, we have here the poet’s reference to his past joy and a description of his present mood of grief. There was a time when even misfortunes an aspect of happiness, but now had “afflictions bow me down ‘to earth.” These lines also remind us of similar lines in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind-

If even I were as in my boyhood and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed

In Wordsworth’s ode, grief finds relief and ends in joy; in Coleridge’s poem grief finds no relief and ends in dejection. It is morning in Wordsworth’s Ode, midnight in Coleridge’s. In the former and it is May and the sun shines warm; in the latter, it is the month of showers.

Q. Do you think ‘Dejection: an ode’ is an autobiographical poem. Discuss.

Ans. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge felt almost seriously that their poetic powers were on the decline. This unnerved them because their total identity was in being poets. The lass of that identity would mean spiritual death to them. The decline in that ‘one talent’ made them apprehensive of ‘death. It caused fear. Wordsworth tried to overcome fear by turning to the religio-philosophical explanation of the soul’s journey, and to a large extent revived mental strength again. Coleridge also turned to philosophy but he thought that it was a poor compromise, and it deepened his frustration. C.M Bowra rightly points ‘out: The problem which concerned both friends was that of poetical inspiration. Each felt that his hold on it was precarious and asked why this was so. Wordsworth faced the problem in the first three stanzas of the Ode and then abandoned it for at least two years: Coleridge, slower perhaps to start but quicker one he had started, told of his crisis in the poem which he afterwards called “Dejection.

The first version of ‘Dejection’ was called ‘Verses to Sara’. In this address to Sara Hutchins, there was a reference to some private matters which was omitted later on.

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The final version was printed in the Morning Post on October 4, Wordsworth’s wedding day. Coleridge tried to sincerely tell his friends of the psychological crisis he was undergoing. Even before Wordsworth completed his Ode, Coleridge gave full and powerful expression of his feelings, and there was so much of appeal in it that it touched all, and Wordsworth could not escape involvement and tried to console Coleridge, and in the process expounded a philosophy from which he also tried to derive psychological sustenance.

‘Dejection’ gives us an inkling of Coleridge’s mind. The images are of the night, darkness, howling storm, crescent Moon, Viper thought, dark dream. Devil’s rule, lonesome wild etc. It suggests despair of the worst kind. But there is one redeeming factor: his realisation that joy is the most important thing in life, and it comes like a fountain from within. He is happy to see this redeeming joy in his ‘Lady’. As the Miss of the Nightingale is the ideal Keats would try to reach and achieve and finally realise that it is beyond his merit and share, so is the ‘joy’ of the ‘Lady’. Coleridge’s ideal, he knows, is impossible for him to achieve.

Despite the autobiographical element, despite the powerful personal note, Coleridge has succeeded in universalising his experience. ‘Dejection’ is about a human experience more than an experience of Coleridge himself. Perhaps every work of art has its origin and roots in some personal feelings and experience but the more an artist transcends it the more successful his art becomes. Coleridge has found proper ‘objective correlative’ for the emotion he intends to communicate.

Q. Discuss ‘Dejection: an ode’ As a Romantic Poem.

Ans. Though the theme of ‘Dejection: an Ode’ is the failure of romantic imagination and subsequent grief on account of that, the poem is one of the finest examples of romantic poetry. In emotional depth, passionate feeling, the intensity of experience and expression, selection of images, lyrical flow, structural arrangement etc. it is a representative poem of the Romantic Revival.

The Great Romantics, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, made their lives the subject matter of their poetry. The autobiographical element is very much pronounced in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘The Prelude’ and ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’; among Coleridge’s poems, ‘Dejection’ is most overtly autobiographical. The tone of moralising is very prominent in Wordsworth; this romantic element of didacticism is not so prominent in Coleridge though ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has clear moral in it. The ‘moral’ is implicit in ‘Dejection’. Joy redeems, and so one should try to overcome grief and be joyous.

The poem opens with a strange reference. The extract from a ballad, quoted at the very outset says that if the old Moon is in the lap of the new Moon a storm is in the offing. The whole of the moon is faintly visible because a bit of sunlight reached it being reflected from the earth. On its edge, the crescent new moon looks like a bright girdle holding the old moon as if in its lap, The connection between this site and a possible storm is entirely magical or superstitious. But the romantic imagination of the poet accepts it as something that inevitably happens.

Then the outwards storm becomes an inner gale; or, the poet wants that there should be a big stir in his mind so that he comes out of the lethargic barrenness which had deprived him of creativity. Almost imperceptibly the external storm becomes an inner fury and the poet wants to make use of it;

Might now perhaps their wanted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!

This relationship between the external and the internal, outer nature and inner nature, is a romantic belief.

The subjective approach that the external world is nothing more than what we think of it, that human imagination is the most important thing, is essentially romantic

0 Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

The objective approach that the quality of the external world is independent of what man thinks of it is classical in spirit; Coleridge’s view is just the opposite.

In ‘Dejection’ the theme of the poem is just the ‘mood’ of the poet, a mental state.

This emphasis on a psychological condition, giving mind so much of importance, is a romantic trait. There is a contradiction, of course. The poet says that he has lost the
power to ‘feel! but the entire poem is an expression of great anguish, intense feeling about a troubled mind. So it is an apprehension of loss, more than real loss. The poet wants that a storm should come to unsettle him from his dull, lethargic state, and make him more dynamic, even if it would mean devastation. But there is great dynamism in the poem as suggested by the music, the tone, and the imagery. In his love for the ‘Lady’ Coleridge expresses his gratitude to and love for all those human beings whose heart is full of love and joy. Personal appreciation turns into romantic humanism and appreciation of the basic qualities and values of life. Glorious and divine love weds us to Nature but it is ‘undreamt of the sensual and the proud’. This hatred for, the sensual and the proud, is very much in the tradition of romantic poetry.

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