Through their poetry and literary criticism, S.T. Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and John Keats construct and refine their personal understandings of the world. By setting their works in conversation with each other, we may uncover the important subtleties in their conceptions of creativity, nature, and human perception. An interwoven analysis of Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” and Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” will provide clarity to the authors’ theories on the source of poetic inspiration, the relationship between man and nature, and the creative significance of loss. Considering the authors’ convictions in relation to one another, readers will better grasp conceptual harmonies and oppositions within the Romantic poetic discourse.
Each of these poets presents a unique perspective on the source of inspiration, allocating varying degrees of agency to the human mind and the outside world. A common thread runs through their works, which emphasizes the importance of sensitivity and intensity of feeling in the creative process. Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” demonstrates the internality of inspiration. One’s impression of the world derives solely from the soul’s personal, emotional perception. The poem reads, “I may not hope from outward forms to win/ The passion and the life, whose fountains are within!” (45-46). The internal source of inspiration is a “beauty-making power” and a “shaping spirit” that creates the world we perceive (63, 86). The glory of nature is the reflection of one’s internal, imaginative thoughts projected on the world. It is this reflection that inspires the poet. “We receive but what we give,” Coleridge writes, asserting the incapacity of the outside world in affecting imaginative perception (47).
Implicit in Coleridge’s claim about the internal source of imagination is the necessity of sensitivity. “Dejection: An Ode” illustrates Coleridge’s stunted imaginative ability as a result of his “stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned” feeling (22). Coleridge’s “vain endeavor” to find passion in the external world leads to the conclusion that his surroundings cannot generate emotions or imaginative impulses, as he writes that joy “ne’er was given” (42, 64). The intensity of internal feeling produces the perceived glory of nature. Dulled sensitivity empties the natural world of spiritual meaning, as Coleridge laments of the uninspiring moon and stars, “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!” (38) Coleridge implies that this sensitivity is a remarkable capability, acquired only by a select few. Lines 50-52 elucidate this concept: “And would we aught behold of higher worth/ Than that inanimate cold world allowed/ To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd.” Only the most sensuous men are capable of attributing internal, imaginative meaning onto the natural world. But Coleridge, suffering from “dull pain,” lost this poetic faculty that enables deep feeling and inspiration (20). The tensions within the poem’s diction relay the speaker’s distance from his sensitive instinct. “Dejection: An Ode” is conversational, with the speaker directly addressing a woman, as in “Oh Lady!” and “Oh pure of heart!” (25, 59). In contrast, the poem, as an ode, is dense with abstract, expansive concepts. In addition to an inconsistent and complex rhyme scheme, this polarity between informal and formal language illustrates Coleridge’s detachment from his primal, inspirational instinct.
In “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge rejects the metaphor of the poet as an Eolian harp (“Which better far were mute”) because of his theory that poetic inspiration is produced only from within the soul (8). Nature cannot move a poet to sing beautifully unless the poet himself feels and produces beauty. Shelley also rejects the accuracy of this metaphor in his work of literary criticism, “A Defence of Poetry.” He explains, “But there is a principle within the human being… which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony” (1233). Shelley argues that the agency of imagination is crucial to creativity. Like Coleridge, Shelley supports the notion that nature is not the only imaginative influence on a passive poet, but his stance on the issue is less extreme. Nuancing Coleridge’s claim, Shelley asserts that the source of inspiration is a combination of both internal perception and external influence. Describing the metaphorical language of poetry, Shelley writes that one’s inspiration emerges from “the combined effect of … objects, and of his apprehension of them” (1234). Reminiscent of Coleridge’s illustration of the soul’s light, glory, and power, Shelley comparably interprets the imagination as “the power which is seated upon the throne of [the] soul” (1247). From these examples, Shelley’s opinion on human agency as a source of inspiration is clear. This power “arises from within,” but the external world grants men with sudden incidents of perceivable beauty (1244). “Poetry is not like reasoning,” Shelley declares, “A power to be exerted according to the determination of the will” (1244). While Coleridge argues for total internal agency, Shelley finds limitations on the imaginative faculty, which depends on the natural world to impart unpredictable moments of inspiration unto the mind.
In both Coleridge and Shelley’s perspectives, the internal power to create inspiration is contingent upon one’s sensitivity. Shelley expresses the poet’s uniqueness for possessing an excess of the “faculty of approximation to the beautiful,” which is acquired by “whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds a spirit to sense” (1234, 1241). These claims hark back to the previous discussion of Coleridge’s poem. Additionally, Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” echoes the same creative necessity for intense feeling. Keats warns not to “drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” with dulled emotions, like Coleridge’s unfeeling state in “Dejection: An Ode” (10). Only with sharp, keen emotions can one fully achieve the inspiration’s potential. Harmonizing with the preceding authors’ ideas, Keats asserts the poet’s rare emotional capability—“none save him,” the most sensuous of men, can reach the peak of the world’s meaningful intensity (27).
Keats identifies the source of inspiration in the potency and vigilance of human passions, which seek and discover transcendental meaning in the world. He asserts the necessity of intense feeling in order to perceive inspiration in the world, similar to Coleridge. But while Coleridge declares that one must possess internal joy to project glory on nature, Keats specifies that one must deeply experience melancholy to find worldly inspiration. “Ode on Melancholy” uses metaphors and imagery of food and consumption to illustrate that melancholy provides nourishment to the soul. Keats writes, “glut thy sorrow,” in addition to employing the words feed, lips, sips, tongue, grape, berries, and taste (15). Keats urges agency to immerse oneself in vivid melancholy in order to find the world’s true beauty. In this way, Keats differs with Coleridge and parallels Shelley’s thought. Just as Shelley describes the bestowal of unpredictable inspiration from external powers, Keats explains, “The melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud!” (11-12). The reversed iamb of the word “sudden” reinforces melancholy’s characteristically unexpected arrival. “Ode on Melancholy” argues that natural beauty does exist in the external world, but men can only discover it when submerged in lively melancholy.
Nuancing this claim for the imaginative necessity of melancholy, Keats’ poem also points toward the importance of joy in inspiration. Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” illustrates his poetic incapacity due to a loss of internal joy. In a similar vein, Keats encourages people to envelope themselves in joy–but only to find the inherent melancholy that exists within all beauty. Keat’s poetry reads, “Aye, in the very temple of Delight/ Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine” (25-26). At the deep core of all beauty hides pain, which is discovered only by the most sensuous men. Keats illustrates this intertwining of joy and melancholy through alliteration in the following lines: “And aching Pleasure nigh,/ Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips” (23-24). Pleasure and poison are intricately linked, since melancholy always “dwells with Beauty” (21). Hints of this union between joy and melancholy occur in Shelley and Coleridge’s works as well. In “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley explains that poets may confuse pleasure and pain when “these objects of universal pursuit and flight have disguised themselves in one another’s garments” (1246). Coleridge also expresses a darker side to joy in line 71 of his poem: “Joy is the sweet voice, joy the luminous cloud.” Keats draws this connection between joy and pain to a further extreme. He claims that inspiration originates in sensing the presence of melancholy within an all-encompassing investigation of the world’s beauty.
“Ode on Melancholy” exhibits Keats’ understanding of man’s close connection with nature by reflecting the union of human joy and pain with the natural world. In the second stanza, natural imagery is mixed seamlessly with personified verbs. This blend of the natural and human realm paints the duality of joy and melancholy. Keats writes, “…like a weeping cloud,/ That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,/ And hides the green hill in an April shroud” (12-14). Nature is personified with these verbs, and readers feel a consistent vacillation between beauty and pain; weeping is sad, but it cultivates flowers. Nature is green and lively in the spring, but it is hidden by darkness. While Keats underlines the intimacy between man and nature, Coleridge maintains the total separation between them. An individual cannot relate to nature without access to the inward source of human feeling, as Coleridge’s poem declares, “Joy, Lady, is the spirit and the power/Which, wedding nature to us, gives in dower…” (67-68). Without sensual perception, nature is simply an “inanimate cold world” (51). The soul is responsible for the failure of marriage between mind and nature, since nature is passive in the relationship. Shelley, though acknowledging the effect of external forms, agrees with Coleridge about the imagination’s creative power over nature. Sensory perception enables men to innovate new descriptions of the world and therefore change how nature exists. Shelley writes of poetic language, “It marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them become through time signs for portion or classes of thought, instead of pictures of integral thoughts” (1235). The practical utility and tangibility of poetic expression gives men power to add new conceptual structures to the external world. But in Shelley’s view, nature is not totally passive. The agency of imagination results from “communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature,” so the mind collaborates with nature’s external influence (1247).
Shelley’s understanding of inspiration is characterized by its quality of impermanence. Each of these authors suggests the creative significance of loss, and, for Shelley, this loss is encapsulated within the creative process itself. While asserting the overwhelming power of the imaginative mind, Shelley explains the poet’s perpetual pursuit to capture these fleeting moments of inspiration. “When composition begins,” he explains, “Inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet” (1244). Despite the poet’s ceaseless frustration, the transience of inspiration only strengthens its profound remarkability. The significance of impermanence is central to Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” as well. Keats believes that the source of melancholy within all beauty is the fact that “Beauty…must die” (21). By contemplating the inevitable demise of all beautiful things, we may fully grasp the inspiring profundity of the world. Keats urges us to become saturated in the melancholy of objects with temporary beauty: a morning rose, a rainbow, peonies, and even a lover. The power of fleeting joy, which is always “bidding adieu,” is best illustrated in the climactic moment of Keats’ poem, which reads, “None save him whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” (27-28). This sensual burst signifies the mind’s arrival at the peak of joy and the start of melancholy, achieving ultimate satisfaction and inspiration, which immediately declines with the inevitable death of beauty.
Coleridge reflects on a personal loss in “Dejection: An Ode.” In a previous time, he possessed joy and therefore marriage with nature, contrasting with his current dull feeling. Coleridge expresses that when “this joy within [him] dallied with distress… hope grew round [him] like the twining vine,” but now, without joy, he “may not hope” (77, 81, 45). The awareness of his loss implicitly illuminates a creative revelation—the new understanding of an internal source of inspiration. Coleridge’s loss in and of itself provides the poet with imaginative enlightenment. This phenomenon is evident in the conclusion of his poem, in which Coleridge suddenly finds meaning in his natural surroundings, calling the wind “the mighty poet” which “tells another tale” (109, 117). Paralleling the other poets, Coleridge finds the pinnacle of creative inspiration in his sense of loss.
Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats’ conceptual understandings of inspiration, nature, and loss reveal the importance of the commonalities and deviations that vivify the Romantic perspective. Positioning the poets in conversation enables readers to better appreciate the rich nuances of these poetical works and their philosophical implications. By exploring the depths of “Dejection: An Ode,” “A Defence of Poetry,” and “Ode on Melancholy” in combined analysis, we encounter the shared assumptions, varied themes, and subtle debates that stimulate the Romantic poet.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Romantic Poetry with Professor Erik Gray at Columbia University.
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism: An Anthology. Malden, MA, U.S.A.: Blackwell, 2012. Print.