This Lime-tree Bower my Prison belongs to the period in Coleridge’s life, in 1797, when the poet was living in close proximity to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in Somerset, and arises from an occasion in June of that year when the Wordsworths and a visitor from London, Coleridge’s friend from his schooldays, Charles Lamb (a poet and essayist), left Coleridge, who had been disabled by ‘an accident’, in his ‘garden bower’, and went walking in the neighbouring countryside. The poem’s title captures the mood of the opening lines (wherein it is repeated), and the impression that is conveyed is strong negative in ‘prison’. The oddity of the title – and, so, its arresting quality – is that a location as lovely as a ‘lime-tree bower’ should be prison-like. The Romantics usually celebrated the beautiful natural world, its plants and animals. However, the reason for this negative perception of the bower is immediately presented in the poem’s opening phrase, “well, they are gone,”
The speaker, although surrounded by beauty, is bereft of human companionship. Again, from the perspective of Romanticism, this is an ambiguous statement – for the Romantics enjoyed solitude, yet it was to be differentiated from loneliness. Coleridge’s isolation from his friends here is worsened by the fact that it is enforced by his inability to talk on this evening. This aggravation of his situation justifies its description in terms of imprisonment, “and here I must remain/ this lime-tree bower my prison!” the use of the exclamation mark intensifies his passionate frustration. The first verse paragraph is a lament for his dissociation from his friends, and the experiences in nature that they are enjoying on their walk. In the second verse sentence of this paragraph, Coleridge sounds a characteristic Romantic note in celebrating (even as he is lamenting his separation from it) the importance of youthful experience, of ‘beauties and feelings’, especially for the purpose of recollection in later years. The quote “I have lost/ beauties and feelings, such as would have been/ most sweet to me remembrance even when age/ had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness!” emphasises this argument. We remember that Romanticism set high value on beauty and feeling, on youthful passion and on nostalgia and recollection.
The extremity of Coleridge’s grief at his ‘imprisonment’ in the lime-tree bower is evident in his apprehension that these friends, walking away from him, might be lost to him forever. Rationally, this seems an overreaction, but such a powerful sense of the emotions, and their ability to govern our thoughts, is typically Romantic. So, too, is the imaginative picture that Coleridge paints of his friends’ walk – both in the exercise of imagination which it embodies and the vivid and various description of natural phenomena that it includes: “they/ on springy heath, along the hill-top edge/ wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance/ to that still roaring dell, of which I told,” it is evident, by this stage in the poem, that Coleridge not only misses his companions, but regrets that he, too, is not wandering in gladness in the natural world. We notice a contrast here between the domestic prettiness of a lime-tree bower and the grander, livelier environment of untamed nature. Coleridge repeats himself, with onomatopoeia, to emphasise this quality, beloved of Romantics: “the roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep/ and only speckled by the mid-day sun,” that the dell is “deep” and “only speckled” by sunlight (even a noon) indicates not only its darkness, but also its mystery and, to an extent, its thrilling danger. This is a very different location from a lime-tree bower.
The vitality of nature is captured in the use of verbs in the following lines: “where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock/ flings arching like a bridge,” even leaves that do not appear to move, nonetheless ‘tremble’. ‘Fann’d by the water-fall!’ Nature is alive in all its aspects:...
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