Sunday, 18 September 2016

Swellfoot Samuel: 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' (1797)

'This Lamb-tree...' (see below)


It's a very famous poem. 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' is addressed to Coleridge's friend Charles Lamb, who had come to Somerset all the way from London. STC prefaces the poem with this note:
Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India-House, London. In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident which disabled him from walking during the whole of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.
The accident was, as he explained in a letter to Robert Southey, that his wife Sara had 'emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot' [Collected Letters 1:334]. Indeed, the first draft had an extra line, between the present lines 1 and 2, spelling this injury out: 'Lam'd by the scathe of fire, lonely & faint' (though this line was cut before the poem's first publication, in 1800). At any rate, the result was that poor, swellfoot-Samuel could only hobble around, and was not in a position to join the Wordsworths, (Dorothy and William) and Charles Lamb as they went rambling off over the Quantocks. Instead he sat in the garden, underneath the titular lime-tree, and wrote his poem. Its opening verse-paragraph is 20 lines (out of a total 76):
Well, they are gone, and here must I 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 hill-top 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.
The exclamation-mark after 'prison' suggests light-heartedness, I suppose: a mood balanced between genuine disappointment that he can't go on the walk on the one hand, and the indolent satisfaction of being in a beautiful spot of nature without having to clamber up and down hill and dale on the other. Not to be too literal-minded, but we get it, that STC is being ironic when he calls the lovely bower a prison. His exaggeration of his physical disabilities is a similar strategy: the second exclamation-mark after 'blindness!' is there to let us know that he is not actually blind. But then again, irony is a slippery matter: he's in that grove of trees, swollen-footed and blind, but gifted with a visionary sight that accompanies his friends and they pass down, further down and deeper still, through a corresponding grove into a space 'o'erwooded, narrow, deep' whose residing tree is not the Linden but the Ash. He watches as they go into this underworld. Does he remind you of anyone?

I don't want to get ahead of myself. The three friends don't stay in this subterranean location; the very next line has them emerging once again 'beneath the wide wide Heaven' [21], having magically (or at least: in a manner undescribed in the poem) ascended to an eminence from which they can see 'the many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea' [22-23]. Coleridge then directly addresses his friend: '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! [28-32]
The poem imagines the descending sun making the heath gleam. The clouds burn now with sunset colours, although 'distant groves' are still bright and the sea still shines. The poem makes it clear Coleridge is imagining and then describing things Charles is observing, rather than his own (swollen-footed, blinded) perspective: 'So my friend/ Struck with deep joy may stand ... gazing round'. And what he sees are 'such hues/As cloathe the Almighty Spirit' [37-40]. So it's a poem about the divine as manifested in the material.

In all, the poem thrice addresses 'gentle-hearted CHARLES!' [28, 68, 75]. Interestingly, Lamb himself genuinely disliked being addressed in this manner. 'For God's sake (I was never more serious)', Lamb wrote to Coleridge on 6 August 1800, having read the first published version of the poem in Southey's Annual Anthology, 'don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print'. A week later he wrote again even more insistently, begging Coleridge to 'blot out gentle-hearted' in 'the next edition of the Anthology' and instead 'substitute drunken dog, ragged-head, seld-shaven, odd-ey'd, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the Gentleman in question' [Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb 1:217-224]. Coleridge didn't alter the phrase, although he did revise the poem in many other ways between this point and re-publication in 1817's Sybilline Leaves. STC didn't alter the detail because he couldn't alter it without damaging the poem, and we can see why that is if we pay attention to the first adjective used to describe the vista the three friends see when they ascend from the pagan-Nordic ash-tree underworld of the 'roaring dell': 'and view again/The many-steepled tract magnificent/Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea' [21-3]. Churches, churches, Christian churches. Lamb is in the poem because he was Coleridge's friend, and because he actually went on the walk that the poem describes; but Lamb is also in the poem as an, as it were, avatar or invocation of the Lamb of God, whose gentleness of heart is non-negotiable. Read this way the poem describes not so much a series of actual events as a spiritual vision of New Testament transcendence, forgiveness and beauty. Hence, also, the trinitarian three-times address to the gentle-heart.

'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' is very often taken as a more or less straightforward hymn of praise to nature and the poet's power of imaginatively engaging with it. So, for example, Donald Davie reads the poem simply enough as a panegyric to the Imagination, celebrating that which enables Coleridge to join his friends despite being prevented from doing so. This idea, Davies thinks,
refers back to the paradox which gives the poem its title. How can a bower of lime-trees be a prison? And, even as he begins to show how this can be, he proves that it cannot be, since the imagination cannot be imprisoned.’ [Donald Davie, Articulate Energy: an Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1955), 72].
The imagination cannot be imprisoned! has the confident ring of a proper Romantic slogan, something to be chanted as we march through the streets waving our poetry banners. But there are significant problems with Davies' reading, I think. One is that it doesn't really know what to do with the un- or even anti-panegyric elements; the passive-aggression of Coleridge's line, as the three disappear off to have fun without him, that these are 'Friends, whom I never more may meet again' [6]—what, are they all going to die, Sam?—or the sinister vibe of the descent-into-the-roaring-dell passage. Or, indeed, the poem's last image: an ominous solitary rook, 'creaking' its 'black wings' [70, 74] as it flies overhead. Plus, to be a pedant, it's sloppy to describe the poem's bower as exclusively composed of lime-trees. In fact the poem specifies that Coleridge's bower contains a lime-tree, a 'wallnut tree' [52] and some elms [55]. And, actually, do you know what? I'm going to suggest that it's not mere pedantry to note that.

Critics are fond of quoting elements from this poem as it they were ex cathedra pronouncements from the 'one love' nature-priest Coleridge: 'That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure' [61]; 'No sound is dissonant which tells of Life' [76] and so on. But it's not so simple. Take the rook with which it ends. It's true, the poem ends with Coleridge blessing the ominous black bird as it flies overhead, much as the cursed Ancient Mariner blesses the water-snakes and so sets in motion his redemption. But read more closely and we have to concede that, unlike the Mariner, Coleridge is not blessing the bird for his own redemptive sake.
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. [68-76]
It's Charles, not the speaker of this poem, who believes 'no sound is dissonant which tells of Life'; and it's for Charles's benefit that Coleridge blesses the bird. Indeed the whole poem is one of implicit dialogue between Samuel and Charles, between (we could say) Swellfoot and the Lamb.

There's no need to overplay the significance of 'Norse' elements of this poem. It's there, though: the Yggdrasilic Ash-tree possessing a structural role in the underside of the landscape ('the Ash from rock to rock/Flings arching like a bridge, that branchless ash/Unsunn'd' [12-14]). And we can hardly mention this rook without also noting that Odin himself uses ominous black birds of prey to spy out the land without having to travel through it himself. I'd suggest Odin's raven provides a darkly valuable corrective to the blander Daviesian floating Imagination as locus of holy beauty. Richard Holmes thinks the last nine lines sound 'a sacred note of evensong and homecoming' [Holmes, 307]. Which is fair enough, although saying so rather begs the question: sacred to whom? Odin's sacral vibe is rather different to Christ-the-Lamb's, after all. Ravens fly over the heaped-up battlefield dead because those slain in war belong to Odin. Grim but that's the way Norse godhood interacted with the world. 'Friends, whom I never more may meet again' indeed!


Let me take a step back before I grow too fanciful, and concede that the 'surface' reading of this poem can't simply be jettisoned. Coleridge's conscious mind, of course, gravitated towards the Christian piety of the 'many-steepled tract' as the main thrust of the poem (and isn't the word 'tract' nicely balanced, there, between a stretch of land and published work of theological speculation?) When we read the pseudo Biblical 'yea' and what follows it:
               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. [39-43]
...there's no mistaking the singular God being invoked; and He's the Christian one. That said, 'Lime-Tree Bower' is clearly a poem that encompasses both the sunlit tracts above, and the murky, unsunn'd underworld beneath: that is, encompasses both Christian consolation and a kind of hidden pagan potency. It is (again, to state the obvious) a poem about trees, as well as being a poem about vision. By 'vision' I mean seeing things that we cannot normally see; not just projecting yourself imaginatively to see what you think your distant friends might be seeing, but seeing something spiritual and visionary, 'such hues/As cloathe the Almighty Spirit' [41-2]. It makes deep sense to locate such shamanic vision in a copse of trees. Single trees—particularly the Edenic Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the cross on which Christ was crucified—are important to Christian thought, but groves of trees are a locus of pagan, rather than Christian, religious praxis. And the title makes clear that the poem is located not so much by a tree as within such a grove. The trees comprising Coleridge's poem's grove are: Lime, Walnut (which, in Coleridge's idiosyncratic spelling, 'Wallnut', suggests something mural, confining, the very walls of Coleridge's fancied prison) and Elms, these last heavily wrapped-about with Ivy. There's also an Ash in the poem, though that's not strictly part of the grove.

Let's unpack this a little, using the sort of frame of reference with which Coleridge himself was liable to be familiar. So the Lime, or Linden, tree is tilia in Latin (it grows in central and northern Europe, but not in the Holy Land; so it appears in classical and pagan writing, but not in the Bible). Ash is Fraxinus, and is closely associated, of course, with Norse mythology: the world-tree was an Ash, and it was upon it that Odin hung for nine-nights sacrificing himself to gain the (poetic) wisdom of runes. Walnut, or Iuglans, was a tree the Romans considered sacred to Jove: its Latin name is a shortening of Iovis glāns , “Jupiter's acorn”. Then there's the Elm ('those fronting elms' [55]), Ulmus in Latin, a tree associated by the Romans with death and false visions. So, for instance, one of the things Vergil's Aeneas sees when he goes down into the underworld is a great Elm tree whose boughs and ancient branches spread shadowy and huge ('in medio ramos annosaque bracchia pandit/ulmus opaca, ingens'); and Vergil relates the popular belief ('vulgo') that false or vain dreams grow under the leaves of this death-elm: 'quam sedem somnia vulgo/uana tenere ferunt, foliisque sub omnibus haerent' [Aeneid 6:282-5]. That, then, is Coleridge's grove. One needn't stray too far into 'mystic-symbolic alphabet of trees' territory to read 'Lime-Tree Bower' as a poem freighted with these more ancient significances of these arborēs.

It's possible Coleridge had at the back of his mind this famous arborial passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses:
Collis erat collemque super planissima campi
area, quam viridem faciebant graminis herbae.
Umbra loco deerat: qua postquam parte resedit
dis genitus vates et fila sonantia movit,
umbra loco venit. Non Chaonis afuit arbor.
non nemus Heliadum, non frondibus aesculus altis,
nec tiliae molles, nec fagus et innuba laurus,
et coryli fragiles et fraxinus utilis hastis...

Vos quoque, flexipedes hederae, venistis et una
pampineae vites et amictae vitibus ulmi.  [Metamorphoses 10:86-100]

There was a hill, and over the hill a plateau
of fields, green with a carpet of grass,
but without any kind of shade. That only came when
the heaven-born poet sat down and strummed his lyre.
Then shade came. Then Chaon's trees suddenly appeared:
the grove of the Sun's daughters, the high-leaved Oak,
smooth Lime-trees, Beech and virgin Laurel
and fragile Hazel, and Ash that is made into spears ...
and then you came, Ivy, zigzagging around trees,
vines tendrilling on their own, or covering the Elms.
The poet here is Orpheus, and here he magically summons (amongst others) Lime—'tiliae molles' means smooth or soft Lime-trees—Ash and Elm, and swathes the latter in Ivy.  In Coleridge's poem the poet summons, with the power of his visionary imagination, Lime, Ash and Elm, and swathes the latter in Ivy ('ivy, which usurps/Those fronting elms' [54-5]). Ovid's Lime-tree, here in Book 10, glances back to his story of Philemon and Baucis in Book 8: a virtuous old couple who entertain (unbeknownst) the gods in their hut, and are rewarded by being made guardians of the divine temple. At the moment of their death they are metamorphosed, Philemon into an oak, Baucis into a Lime-tree. It's a reward for their piety, but it's hard to read this process of an infirm body being transformed into an imprisoning tilia without, I think, a sense of claustrophobia:
                                                 both Philemon and Baucis
witnessed their partner sprouting leaves on their worn old limbs.
... The bark closed over their lips and concealed them forever. [Metamorphosis 8:719-22; this is David Raeburn's translation.]
Maybe Coleridge, in his bower, is figuring himself a kind of Orpheus, evoking a whole grove with his words alone. That is, after all, what a poem does. But actually there's another famous piece of Latin forest-grove poetry, by Seneca, that I think lies behind 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison'.

But what's at play here is more than a matter of verbal allusion to classical literature. As I say above: Coleridge, with a degree of conscious hyperbole, styles himself in this poem as lamed in the foot and blind. Doubly incapacitated. This may well make us think of Oedipus (Οἰδίπους ‎from οἰδάω, “to swell” + πούς, “foot”). Unable to accompany his friends, his disability nonetheless gifts him with a higher kind of vision. This vision, indeed, is really the whole point of the poem. He shares it in dialogue with an interlocutor whose name begins with 'C'.

So maybe we could try setting this poem alongside Seneca's Oedipus in which the title character—a much more introspective and troubled individual than Sophocles' proud and haughty hero—is puzzled about the curse that lies upon his land. Creon returns from the oracle at Delphi: the curse will only be lifted, it seems, if the murder of the previous king, Laius, be avenged. Of course we know that Oedipus himself is that murderer. Oedipus ironically curses the unknown killer, and then he and Creon call-in Tiresias to discover the murderer's identity. Tiresias says he will summon the spirit of dead Laius from the underworld to get the answers they seek. Creon accompanies Tiresias, and reports back. At this point in the play Creon and Oedipus are on stage together, and the former speaks a lengthy speech [530-658] which starts with this description of the sacred grove located 'far from the city'—including, of course, Lime-trees:
Est procul ab urbe lucus ilicibus niger,
Dircaea circa vallis inriguae loca.
cupressus altis exerens silvis caput
virente semper alligat trunco nemus,
curvosque tendit quercus et putres situ
annosa ramos: huius abrupit latus
edax vetustas; illa, iam fessa cadens
radice, fulta pendet aliena trabe,
amara bacas laurus et tiliae leves
et Paphia myrtus et per immensum mare
motura remos alnus et Phoebo obvia
enode Zephyris pinus opponens latus:
medio stat ingens arbor atque umbra gravi
silvas minores urguet et magno ambitu
diffusa ramos una defendit nemus,
tristis sub illa, lucis et Phoebi inscius,
restagnat umor frigore aeterno rigens;
limosa pigrum circumit fontem palus. [Seneca, Oedipus, 530-48]

Far from the city is a grove dusky with Ilex-trees near the well-watered vale of Dirce’s fount. A Cypress, lifting its head above the lofty wood, with mighty stem holds the whole grove in its evergreen embrace; and an ancient oak spreads its gnarled branches crumbling in decay. The side of one devouring time has torn away; the other, falling, its roots rent in twain, hangs propped against a neighbouring trunk. Here are the Laurel with bitter berries, slender Lime-trees, Paphian Myrtle, and the Alder, destined to sweep its oarage over the boundless sea; and here, mounting to meet the sun, a Pine-tree lifts its knotless bole to front the winds. Midmost stands a tree of mighty girth, and with its heavy shade overwhelms the lesser trees and, spreading its branches with mighty reach, it stands, the solitary guardian of the wood. Beneath this tree a gloomy spring o’erflows, that knows nor light nor sun, numb with perpetual chill; an oozy morass surrounds the sluggish pool. [This is Frank Justus Miller's old 1917 Loeb translation.]
Coleridge's poem also describes a grove far from the city (London, where Charles Lamb was 'pent'), a grove comprised of various trees including a Lime. But it's the parallel with Coleridge's imagined version of Dorothy, William and Charles 'winding down' to the 'still roaring dell' that is most striking, I think. They
        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. [8-20]
In Seneca's play the underworldly grove of trees and pools is the place from which the answer to the mystery is dragged, unwillingly and unhappily, into the light. Seneca's Oedipus feels guilty, in an obscure way, before he ever comes to understand why. In 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' Coleridge's Oedipal point-of-view is trying to solve a riddle, without ever quite articulating what that riddle even is, and our business as readers of the poem is to test it on our own pulses, to try and decide how we feel about it. My sense is that it has something to do with Coleridge's guilty despair at being excluded, which is to say: his intimation that he is being cut-off not only from his friends and their fun, but from all the good and wholesome spiritual things of the universe. The poem is saying, without ever quite spelling it out, that Coleridge's exile is more than an unlucky accident of boiling milk (maternal milk of all things!) spilled onto his foot. His exclusion is not adventitious. It relates to some deep-buried shameful secret, something of which he is himself only dimly aware, but which the journey of his friends will bring to light. Of course, for them this passage into the chthonic will be followed by an ascent into the broad sunlit uplands of a happy future; because it is once the secret is unearthed, and expiated, that the plague on Thebes can finally be lifted. But it's hardly good news for Oedipus, himself.

Reading the poem this way shines some light (though of course I'm only speaking personally here) on why I have always found its ostensible message of hope and joy undercut by something darker and unreconciled, the sense of something unspoken in the poem that is traded off somehow, some cost of expiation. Seneca's play closes with this speech by Oedipus himself, now blind:
Quicumque fessi corpore et morbo graves
semanima trahitis pectora, en fugio exeo:
relevate colla, mitior caeli status
posterga sequitur: quisquis exilem iacens,
animam retentat, vividos haustus levis
concipiat. ite, ferte depositis opem:
mortifera mecum vitia terrarum extraho.
violenta Fata et horridus Morbi tremor,
Maciesque et atra Pestis et rabidus Dolor,
mecum ite, mecum, ducibus his uti libet. [Seneca Oedipus, 1052-61]

All you who are exhausted in body and sinking with disease,
whose hearts are faint within you, look!, I fly, I'm going;
lift your heads. Mellower skies will come for you
after I have gone. Those who have been barely hanging on,
retaining just a bare life, may now freely breathe deep life-giving
breaths. Go, help those almost given up to death;
I carry away with me all this land's death-curse.
I say to you: Fate, and trembling fearful Disease,
Starvation, and black Plague, and mad Despair,
come you all along with me, come with me, be my sweet guides.
Coleridge blesses the atra avis at the end of 'Lime-Tree Bower' in something of this spirit. Because the secret guilt of Oedipus is the inescapable fact of Oedipus himself. He not only has, he is the incapacity that otherwise prevents the good people (the Williams and Dorothys and Charleses of the world) from enjoying their sunlit steepled plain in health and good-futurity. Indeed, I wonder whether there is a sense in which that initial faux-jolly irony of describing a lovely grove as a prison (or as the poem insists, 'prison!') doesn't become strangely inverted as the poem goes on. It is less that Coleridge is trapped inside the lime-tree bower, and more that the bower is, in a meaningful sense, trapped inside him. That's a riddle that re-riddles the less puzzling assertion that nature imprisons the poet—for, really, suggesting such a thing appears to run counter to the whole drift of the Wordswortho-Coleridgean valorisation of 'Nature'. But that's to look at things the wrong way. It looks like morbid self-analysis of a peculiarly Coleridgean sort to say that the poet imprisons nature inside himself. He is the atra pestis that afflicts the land, and only his removal can cure it. So, perhaps, the thing growing inside the grove that most closely represents Coleridge is the ivy. Let's say: Lamb is the Lime-tree (and how did I never notice that near-pun before?), Dorothy the 'wallnut tree' and tall, noble William the 'fronting elm'. If so, then Coleridge positions himself not as part of this impressive parade of fine-upstanding trees, but as a sort of dark parasite:
           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: [53-7]
Those italics are in the original (that is, 1800) version of the poem. What's particularly beautiful about that moment, if read the way I'm proposing, is the way it hints that Coleridge's sense of himself as a black-mass of ivy parasitic upon his more noble friends is also open to the possibility that the sunset's glory shines upon him too, that, however transiently, it makes something lovely out of him. There's a paradox here in the way the 'blackest mass' of ivy nonetheless makes the 'dark branches' of his friends' trees 'gleam a lighter hue' as the light around them all fades. But without wishing to over-reach that's also the paradox of Christ's redemptive atonement. Death is defeated by death; suffering by suffering; sin is eaten by the sin-eater; Oedipus carries the woes of Thebes with him as he leaves. Ivy in Latin is hedera, which means 'grasper, holder' (from the same root as the Ancient Greek name of the plant: χανδάνω , “to get, grasp”). It was sacred to Bacchus, and therefore wound around his thyrsis. Which is to say: it is both a poet's holy plant, as well as something grasping, enclosing, imprisoning. The Lamb-tree of Christian gentleness is imprisoned by something grasping and coal-black.

I wouldn't want to push this reading too far, of course. It's safer to say that 'Lime-Tree Bower' is a poem that both recognises and praises the Christian redemptive forces of natural beauty, fellowship and forgiveness, and that ends on a note of blessing, whilst also including within itself a space of chthonic mystery and darkness that eludes that sunlight. The blessing at the end reserves its charm not for Coleridge, but 'for thee, my gentle-hearted CHARLES', the Lamb who, in the logic of the poem, gestures towards the Lamb of God, the figure under whose Lamb-tree the halt and the blind came to be healed. After all, Ovid's 'tiliae molles' could perfectly properly be translated 'gentle Lime-trees'. Agnes mollis, 'gentle lamb', is a common tag in devotional poetry.  Of course Coleridge can't alter 'gentle-hearted' as his descriptor for the Lamb.

If the poem leaves open the question as to whether Coleridge will share in that miraculous grace or not, that says as much about Coleridge's state of mind as anything else.

I've gone on long enough in this post. Oedipus the poet ('Coleridgipus') is granted a vision that goes beyond mere material sight, and that vision encompasses both a sunlit future steepled with Christian churches, a land free of misery and sin, and also a dark underworld structured by the leafless Yggdrasil that cannot be wholly banished. The reciprocity of these two realms is part of the point of the whole: the oxymoronic coupling of beautiful nature as an open-ended space to be explored and beautiful nature as a closed-down grasping prison. If I wanted to expatiate further, I might invoke Jean-Joseph Goux's Oedipus, Philosopher (1993). Chapter 7 of that study, 'From Aspective to Perspective', positions Oedipus as a way of reading what Goux considers a profound change from a logic of 'mythos' to one of 'logos' during and before the fifth century B.C. The shift from mythos to logos could function as a thumbnail description not only of Coleridge's deeper fascinations in this poem, but in all his work. Interestingly for my purposes Goux takes the development of perspective or foreshortening in painting as a way of symbolizing a whole raft of social and cultural innovations, from coinage to drama, from democracy to a newly conceptualised individual 'subject'. He uses the term 'aspective' (art critics use this to talk about the absence of, or simple distortions of perspective in so-called primitive painting) to describe traditional, pre-Sophistic Greek society; the later traditions are perspectival. For our purposes here, we might want to explore the difference between the two spaces of the poem's central section, lines 8-44. First the aspective space of the chthonic 'roaring dell', where everything is confined into a kind of one-dimensional verticality ('down', 'narrow', 'deep', 'slim trunk', 'file of long lank weeds' and so on) and description applies itself to a kind of flat surface of visual effect ('speckled', 'arching', 'edge' and the like). Then the ostentatious use of perspective as the three friends
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! ... 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! [20-37]
This, as Goux might say, is mythos to logos visualised as the movement from aspective to perspective. And that is the poem in a (wall)nut-shell.

I do genuinely feel foolish for not clocking 'Lamb-tree' before. It's the sort of wordplay that, once noticed, never leaves the way you read the poem.


  1. And then there's the solitary humble bee; Honey Pie perhaps?

    More seriously, that roaring dell is surely kith and kin to the deep romantic chasm of "Kubla Khan." & KK has that sunny dome which is seen by all those who heard the poet and were stopping their ears to keep themselves free of his enchanting voice. & Charles and STC both see the sun; you're right about that. We've got a bromance of sort going here.

    Here's a working paper where I discuss the linkages between KK and LTB (pp. 36-42, & with pictures):

    And here's a full dress account of LTB (again with pictures):

    1. I suppose my favorite image from the poem is that of "two isles/ Of purple shadow!" – shadows of clouds cast on the water by the distant sun, which then appears in the poem. Clever poet this Lamefoot.