Suffering in Coleridge and Wordsworth
Chris Drummond '93 (English 32, 1989)
In "Dejection: An Ode," Coleridge bemoans his loss of vitality, joy, and poetic creativity. Among other things, Coleridge has become separated from the innocent experience of nature he had as a youth. "There was a time," Coleridge writes, "when, though my path was rough / This joy within me dallied with distress" (Norton 2, p. 376). Now, however, Coleridge looks at the wonders of nature, only to "see, not feel, how beautiful they are!" (Norton 2, p. 375). Coleridge, however, does not fault nature for this change. Instead, he recognizes that man's experience of the world is necessarily subjective:
O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud! (Norton 2, p. 376)
For Coleridge, beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, his misery is of such an intensity that it has become self-perpetuating, with Coleridge becoming depressed because of his depression. Inextricably caught in the throes of utter gloom, Coleridge cannot make the mental shift necessary to shed nature's "shroud" and don her "wedding garment." Instead, Coleridge must comfort himself with the happiness of Sara Hutchinson, writing of the woman he loves, "To her may all things live, from pole to pole, / Their life the eddying of her living soul!" (Norton 2, p. 378)
In "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth explains how he comes to terms with his suffering. As with Coleridge, Wordsworth has become separated from the innocent child's experience of nature, for he "cannot paint / What then I was" (Norton 2, p. 153). Likewise, Wordsworth also recognizes that this change is not in nature itself, but rather in the way that we view nature, noting that the world is an interpretation "Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create, / And what perceive" (Norton 2, p. 154). In addition, Wordsworth, like Coleridge, recieves consolation from a lady, specifically his sister Dorothy.
Seeing how the joy of nature passes on to future generations, Wordsworth consoles himself with the fact that his sister will experience the world as he once did. Certainly, Wordsworth receives a greater degree of comfort than Coleridge. Still, the two resemble each other in the way they value another person's happiness above their own.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000