Sunday, September 26, 2010

Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," Stanza 4.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth--
And from the would itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

This is the fourth stanza of Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," which was begun in April 1802 in response to Coleridge's hearing the opening stanzas of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Both poems focus on the speaker/poet's loss--loss of an ability to perceive "glory" in Nature, and thus to receive a dynamic, spiritual sustenance from the fusion of mind and nature. This was, of course, the great theme of Wordsworth and Coleridge's poems from the later 1790s, but now for both poets that capacity for a feeling, emotional, even visionary perception of natural beauty seems to be fading. As Coleridge explains in the first stanzas of "Dejection," he gazes with a "blank" eye upon the images of a beautiful sunset, and instead of being inspired by the beauty of nature, he merely registers these images as perceptions: "I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!" Images that previously would have provided emotional and spiritual inspiration are now the mere stuff of mechanical perception.

The loss of the former mode of "glorious" perception raises implicit questions for Coleridge as it raised explicit questions for Wordsworth: Where did the glory come from? Where has it gone? Can it be rekindled? Wordsworth, of course, eventually resolved these questions by positing a supernatural and immortal soul which preexists our mortal selves and that will presumably continue even after we are no longer living our natural lives. Coleridge's response, written before Wordsworth's, is less optimistic: "I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within." For Coleridge, then, the failure of the heretofore sustaining "marriage" between mind and nature is attributable exclusively to the "soul" and not to any failing on the part of nature. Further, the marriage itself, as Coleridge suggests in Stanza 4, has been a very one-sided affair.

The stanza opens (after the "O Lady!" apostrophe, an echo of the poem's origins in an April 1802 letter to Sara Hutchinson) with the claim that "we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live: / Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!" In other words, whatever glory we once attributed to a creative fusion of mind and nature was really a projection of mind alone. Coleridge had, in effect, mistakenly posited a dynamic and reciprocal interchange between mind and nature, but it turns out that nature, itself passive, was really only reflecting back the projections of the speaker/poet--he receives but what he gives. Thus, if nature ever appeared to offer anything of "higher worth" than a mere "inanimate cold world," that "higher worth" was actually "A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud" that "issue[d] forth" from the soul. It is not (nor was it ever) the product of a fruitful interchange between mind and nature.

An analogy may help to clarify this argument. Suppose a person is sitting in a theatre, watching a film, and becoming emotionally engaged in and perhaps even inspired by the action and images presented on the screen. Initially one might conceive of this movie-goer's experience in holistic terms: the inspired, emotionally engaged condition is "caused" by a marriage of the viewer's emotional capacity to respond to the images presented on the screen, and the images themselves which are designed and organized by a filmmaker to foster just such a reaction on the viewer's part. Following through on this model, the filmmaker would be something akin to God, or, as Coleridge says in "Frost at Midnight," the "Great Universal Teacher." Hence, one might imagine a kind of visionary inspiration to derive from a "marriage" of perceiver and imagery, mind and nature, subject and object, and the viewer's inspired condition thus constitutes a feeling response to the divinity that flows in and through the perceived images. Such is the original, glorious mode of perception eulogized by Wordsworth's Ode and Coleridge's "Dejection."

But now imagine the same scene a few years later: this time the viewer does not respond emotionally to the images on the screen. The viewer still sees the images on the screen, but this is now just an indifferent and mechanical perception. The images are registered, but they are void of any particular meaning or emotional affect. They are no longer conceived as the inspired and inspiring work of some filmmaker/God figure--now they are just so much color and line with no particular significance attached. This second viewer can recall that at one time he was emotionally and spiritually engaged, but now the perceptual world is nothing but an empty show, and the viewer is left to grieve for his lost capacity to respond. (This is the "grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, / A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief" that the "Dejection" speaker expresses in the second stanza.) What is perhaps worst of all, from his current impassive and detached perspective, the speaker now sees that his former emotionally inspired condition, his assumption that he was intuiting the intentions of the filmmaker/God, was merely an illusion born of his own enthusiasm. Rather than sensing the willful purposes of a filmmaker/God in the images on the screen, he was actually "seeing" a reflection of his own enthusiasm. Now that the enthusiasm has faded, so too does the whole emotionally inspiring experience: there is finally no filmmaker/God, no "Great Universal Teacher," no "vast ... intellectual breeze."

Under the circumstances, one can certainly understand the gloominess of Coleridge's title. The poem calls into question the central philosophical, even theological position that had dominated Coleridge's poetry in the 1790s. By poem's end, the speaker has recovered somewhat--at least he hopes that Sara's experience will be happier than his own: "May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling, / Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!" But for the numbed and grieving speaker of this poem, there is little hope of escape-- "afflictions bow me down to earth" and "each visitation / Suspends what nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination."