A Short Analysis of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter’

Coleridge, the co-author with Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads, was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon in 1772. The village is named for the river which passes through it – the river which Coleridge eulogises in this Romantic sonnet, ‘To the River Otter’, recalling his childhood when he skimmed stones along the river’s surface:

Sonnet: To the River Otter

Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of Childhood! oft have ye beguil’d
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless Child!

Coleridge longs to return to those carefree childhood days when he played alongside the river Otter. But, of course, he cannot: the Romantic’s double-bind is that one has to reach adulthood in order to give full expression to, and realise the deep significance of, those formative childhood years. ‘The child is father of the man’, as Wordsworth put it in a wonderful short poem of his own.

There is a particular emphasis on light in ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter’, perhaps hinting at the broader enlightenment Coleridge now feels as he recalls the river vividly. (And here’s a question: is Coleridge merely revisiting the river in his memory, or has he physically retraced his childhood steps and is having these early memories evoked by actual sight of the river that meant so much to younger him?) We get ‘sunny ray’, ‘tints’, ‘Gleam’d’, and ‘bright transparence’, all in the space of a few lines. As is so often the way with Romantic poetry, Coleridge’s recollection of his youth is bright in every sense: clear, vivid, happy. The wistfulness, of course, comes from the fact that, as he pens his sonnet to the river Otter years later, the older Coleridge knows he might be able to revisit the river – whether physically or in his memory – but he can never revisit it as the same carefree person he was back then. As sage Heraclitus might have said, you can never skim stones across the same river twice.

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