Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ in 1797. The poem has a curious origin in an incident involving spilt milk; there may be no use crying over spilt milk, but there is something to be said for writing great poetry about it. ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, written in blank verse, is an example of this. Below, we go through the poem one stage at a time, offering a summary and analysis of it.
This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison
[Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London]
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;
What is Coleridge doing ‘imprisoned’ in the bower of a lime-tree? In summer 1797, he and his wife were staying at the house of Thomas Poole in the Somerset village of Nether Stowey, along with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy as well as the essayist Charles Lamb. Coleridge was left on his own while his wife and friends went out for a walk; he remained in Poole’s garden, under the shelter of a lime tree, and wrote this poem.
Coleridge later explained to Robert Southey that he stayed behind because his wife ‘accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C. Lamb’s stay.’ Coleridge (somewhat melodramatically) laments that he may never again be able to accompany them for a walk among the ‘roaring dell’ (a dell is a small valley, often covered in trees) of the local landscape. He goes on:
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.
Coleridge continues ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ by describing this ‘roaring dell’ or valley, in which an ash-tree stands between rocks, its leaves arching between them like a natural bridge. Coleridge then imagines the ash with its ‘few poor yellow leaves’ trembling thanks to the nearby waterfall (rather than the harsh wind). He imagines the Wordsworths, Poole, and Lamb seeing the long weeds dripping beneath the waterfall as they go on their walk among this natural sight.
Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
Coleridge now imagines the Wordsworths and the rest of his friends emerging out into the open, and viewing the beauty of those ‘hilly fields and meadows’ as well as the nearby sea. For Coleridge, this sight is religious: as so often with Romanticism – Wordsworth’s poems are also full of it – nature is pantheistic, with every hill and rock and tree filled with divinity.
Note how Coleridge doesn’t just describe his friends coming out into the open, but ‘the wide wide Heaven’: Heaven means not just the skies here, but resonates with holy connotations too. Similarly, the ‘many steepled tract’ is not just a tract of land (with the rocks forming natural steeples, like the spires of a church) but suggestive of religious tracts or writings. God is written into the natural landscape everywhere.
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My 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! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Coleridge imagines his friends seeing a ‘bark’ or boat on the sea, a sight that fills their hearts with gladness. Coleridge now apostrophises (i.e. addresses someone who is absent) one of his friends in particular, Charles Lamb, who has been ‘pent’ or holed up in the ‘great City’ of London, and has ‘pined’ after Nature while living so far away from it. Here we have another idea commonly associated with Romanticism: the city is bad, ‘evil’ in fact, corrupted by industrialisation and severing man’s natural ties to nature. Now the sun is setting in the west …
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! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; 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.
Coleridge turns his attention (and his address) to nature now, exhorting it to shine brightly and beautifully for Charles Lamb’s benefit, since he is in need of the healing powers of nature.
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me.
Even though he’s had to stay home, Coleridge is as glad for Lamb as though he were there with him. Such is the power of the (Romantic) imagination, and the power of nature: it can touch Coleridge even at a distance. He hasn’t found much to cheer him up and relax him as he sits there, lonely and scalded by hot milk, but the thought of Charles enjoying nature on his behalf warms his cockles (sorry, that isn’t supposed to be a cheap joke about the effects of hot milk in the lap).
Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and 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: and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
Having imagined what his friends are up to out in the open as they stroll around Somerset, Coleridge, physically confined to his ‘lime-tree bower’, no longer feels mentally confined.
Indeed, now he’s taken that mental trip via his imagination, and vicariously shared in the sights that his friends have (probably) seen, Coleridge has a new-found appreciation for his own surroundings: the lime-tree bower, as the sun sets and twilight comes on, seems a pleasing place to dwell, with nature for company (that ‘solitary humble-bee’ is singing: i.e. it’s on its own, like Coleridge himself, but it’s singing merrily as it goes about its business).
Moreover, Coleridge feels he has learned an important moral lesson through undergoing this rather unfortunate experience: he has learned that ‘Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure’. One’s mind, one’s imagination and appreciation of nature (‘purity’ or innocence are important ideas for many of the Romantics, such as Wordsworth), will set one free.
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
Here it’s worth drawing a comparison with Wordsworth’s sonnet about the benefit of confinement in some instances – a poem which we have analysed here.
’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
In other words, it’s sometimes good for us to be deprived of something we’d looked forward to, because it forces us to imagine those things instead. If we always get what we want, then we never have to think about what it is like to experience it, to force our imagination to take us places we cannot visit. We simply experience them, physically and actually.
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.
Of course, Charles Lamb is Coleridge’s kindred-spirit: just as Coleridge has been confined to ‘this lime-tree bower my prison’, so Lamb has been ‘pent’ or imprisoned in London for his work. The two men, who are physically distant, seem to meet through Coleridge’s imagined thought that the rook he saw flying home was perhaps witnessed also by Lamb. (Lovers who have been in different countries may well have reassured themselves that their loved one looks up at the same stars that they gaze up at; Coleridge’s sentiment is similar, if more specific and localised.)
The ‘mighty Orb’s dilated glory’ is a rather fanciful way to describe the sunset (the ‘Orb’ of the sun ‘dilated’ or stretched out on the horizon), but then if T. S. Eliot can have his patient etherised upon a table, we can let Coleridge have his dilated Orb.
‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ concludes with a reminder of the importance of ‘Life’, and we sense, in the last analysis, that it isn’t just the life of ‘nature’ – the rook, the bumblebee, the trees – but human life and human connectedness that matter here. The poem is not just about Coleridge’s connection with nature but with Lamb via nature. Although he couldn’t join Lamb and the others on their walk, he could mentally join them; and, in doing so, he could become a little more ‘wise and pure’ as a result.