Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison


Tilia henryana, cultivated, Northumberland, UK: photo by MPF, July 2006

In the June of 1797, some long-expected Friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking during the whole time of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.

[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;
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.

..............................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,
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!
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.

....................................A delight
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. 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;
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
'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.
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.

Leaves of a common lime (Tilia x europaea): photo by Alvesgaspar, May 2007

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, sent in a letter to Robert Southey 9 July 1797


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

This is gorgeous in spirit and love nearly beyond words, though Coleridge certainly lacked none.

"That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure ..."

The sharing in his mind of what may not be shared in presence, the rook as it moves away imagined as being perceived by his friend, Lamb ... recalls for me the great Eastern poems, when the poet imagines the moon s/he gazes on being seen, too, by the faraway lover ...

The self-same moon.


TC said...


Surely one of the great poems.

This from Coleridge to Southey, 17 June 1797, an account of the occasion:

"I had been on a visit to Wordsworth's at Racedown near Crewkherne -- and I brought him & his Sister back with me here & I have *settled them* [i.e. at Alfoxden, four miles from Nether Stowey]... Charles Lamb has been here with me for a week -- ... The second day after Wordsworth came to me, dear Sara accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole of C. Lamb's stay & still prevents me from all *walks* longer than a furlong, -- While Wordsworth, his Sister & C. Lamb were out one evening, sitting in the arbour of T. Poole's garden, which communicates with mine, I wrote these lines, with which I am pleased."

It is indeed a poem by which that garden has communicated with many gardens in and out of many minds, in these years since.

(A chorus of birdsong in the tangled green thicket here, this morning.)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Yes, well, though we are back to rain here in Pittsburgh, the chorus at 5:30 am actually pulled me away from work - a din would describe it here!

Thanks for the background. I'd read a bit about this poem previously, pertaining to the character of Charles Lamb, who on all accounts is as Coleridge portrays him - an incredible, gentle man.

When the poet says he's pleased, that is something. The minute detail, coupled with the deep feeling, is just stunning.

TC said...

Don, we understand Lamb, who had a most tragic personal history, to have been the gentlest and best of friends.

He had always been considered odd, to a purpose, as one might say. Then toward the end of his life, some thought him outright mad. Well, perhaps he was neither the first nor the last wise, weird old person of whom that has been thought. Some nights on the bus...

An entry from Crabb Robinson's diary for 28 May 1832 seems to capture the later Lamb as well as anything else we have:

"I was reading Boccaccio when Lamb was again at my door. He however did not stay, but I made a cup of coffee for him. He had slept at Talfourd's again with his clothes on. Yet in the midst of this half crazy irregularity he was so full of sensibility that speaking of his sister he had tears in his eyes. He talked about his favourite poems with his usual warmth, praising Andrew Marvell extravagantly."

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

The line, indeed, is so fine. We could and would prefer this type of friend to the other - fair weather that is.

John Clare, too, I believe had a touch of this madness, with deep sensitivity.

The diary entry does seem to capture both aspects at once - do you think the "extravagantly" used by Robinson means 'over much' or he is simply characterizing the praise? The modern sense of the modifier often brings irony with it.

TC said...


It was known to those in Lamb's circle of friends, and also to those in that wider circle of friends who knew Lamb only through his wonderful essays, that he had a close knowledge of deep and abiding affection for the work of the English poets of the Seventeenth Century, whose writings in general he regarded as representing a great permanent treasure to the culture and indeed also a significant moment in the history of the language.

He was of course absolutely right in this.

And he never "curbed his enthusiasm" on the subject, even though more recent models had in the minds of most "literary" people long since superseded the poets Lamb loved and continued to champion.

So "extravagantly" here would also have meant "enthusiastically" (and perhaps "predictably" as well). Lesser souls with lesser acquaintance in the area of poetry would like quicksilver creatures of a moment -- that is, like most literary people in most times -- have found it more advantageous (and of course easier) to follow current trends and vogues of taste than to devote themselves to the due and proper respect and application that come with a respectful valuation of something that is no longer fashionable.

In the 1820s and 1830s that body of the unfashionable would have included Marvell. Lamb obviously recognized this, and Lamb being Lamb, it made him appreciate and stand up for the Seventeenth century, and his favourite writers in it, all the more.

Marvell was his favourite poet apart from Shakespeare (whom he regarded foremost as a dramatist). He admitted this openly and often, without provocation; and certainly Crabb Robinson knew all this. But though there is a hint of irony in Robinson's comment about the extravagance of Lamb's praise, I think there is in it also a real acknowledgment of Lamb's devotion to the great virtue of the literature which was after all their common heritage.

At least in older and more civilized cultures than ours there has been the acknowledgment that fashions come and go, but certain things are real and lasting. For the odd old bird like Charles to show up at the door, proving this truth once again, would certainly have been much less a bother than a joy to Crabb Robinson, I would think.

TC said...

Well, Don, thinking a bit further today, maybe I should have gone on to add that for Lamb, as with some others, the sense of a quality in poems and books was refined with the passing of the years; and that Marvell had, by two years before Lamb's death, come to him to represent the pinnacle of poetic fineness. A decade earlier -- and here we see a touch of that sweet oddness-to-a-purpose in his not-minding-to-be-different -- he had written this: "Shall I be thought fantastical, if I confess, that the names of some of our poets sound sweeter, and have a finer relish to the ear -- to mine, at least -- than that of Milton or of Shakspeare? It may be, that the latter are more staled and rung upon in common discourse. The sweetest names, and which carry a perfume in the mention, are, Kit Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley." The sweetness of the names, of course, was to him a matter not wholly, or perhaps even not principally, of the quality of the writings but of the atmosphere of the lost beauty of a past in which he wished he might have lived; and which those poets' names conjured up for him.

(Perhaps, should one's typing appendages -- both fingers -- live so long, a bit more of the marvelous essay from which that quote has been extracted will go up here, so as to continue this pleasant conversation)

Remembering as we do that Lamb's extremely unromantic, in fact entirely mundane workaday life, from 1792 until 1825, required him to toil from morn to night in the counting-house of the East India Company, where he worked in the auditing department, totting up bills of lading and invoices for tea, indigo, drugs & c.

Thomas De Quincey visited him there, and left this description of that workplace:

"I was shown into a small room, or else a section of a small one... in which there was a very lofty writing desk, separated by a still higher railing from that part of the floor on which... the laity... were allowed to approach the clerus or clerkly rulers of the room. Within the railing sat, to the best of my remembrance, six quill-driving gentlemen... they were all too profoundly immersed in the oriental studies to have any sense of my presence."

And finally -- for one could go on forever about this lovely and eccentric man -- Coleridge's reference to him in "This Lime-Tree Bower..." as "gentle-hearted Charles" brought back this characteristically modest and self-deprecating response in a letter from CL to STC: "the meaning of gentle is equivocal at best, and almost always means poor-spirited."

Lamb certainly was never that.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Tom, oh, there is so much to ponder over here in your two latest comments, so very wonderful. My school "learning", now 40 years hence, had so little Marvell as to be negligible. Probably the best course I took at the middling school I attended (in an article on the Kent State riots, Life Magazine described it as "a meat and potatoes education" and that certainly was spot-on) the best course I had by far was on Romanticism.

Taught by an eccentric yet worldly professor, who I remember smoking while he taught (one day he ran out and frantically looked about the room asking for one from a student and I gave him an unfiltered Camel - he swore he'd get me back and the following week brought a wonderful Gauloises for which I'll be forever grateful) and once, in a classroom in which the teacher was in a well in the bottom of the room, somehow walked off from the side right on to the top of the desk and just kept right on going.

As good as his course was - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, even some Blake - we never had time enough to learn very much and it is usually the human quality, that you touch on so well and deeply, that we missed. We probably read an essay or two by Lamb, but nothing as to the true nature of the man so I must thank you for the wonderful detail you have provided.

I had a feeling that the meaning of extravagantly might be a shade different so your delination is very helpful.

Lamb's devotion to Marvell obviously still reverberates today, for me here (literally) and now. It is time to go to the stacks, as they say, and do some independent study.

Obviously for me, there is the work of the great Eastern poets, but none are 2nd to the Romantics. I will forever be in the debt of R. H. Blyth for bringing the two strains of poesy together in his great work, seeing the shared ground of being in nature, and the nature of existence, that are so vital to both "schools" and, of course, to life itself.

TC said...


Blyth has been a great contributor to our understanding of the possibilities of poetry. In my mind his work stands, in this respect, as a kind of bridge between worlds. As you know he will often help us to grasp the universality of a haiku by holding it up against a bit of Wordsworth, or Blake, or Shelley, or Coleridge, or Keats.

The eccentric and rather heroic selflessness of Lamb might well have suited him to the life of a reclusive poet of some wild mountain in the East. Instead he lived through unimaginable private turmoils in the metropolitan city. The picture of him coming home from work one day to find that his badly overburdened sister, having suffered a breakdown, had killed their mother and stabbed their demented father in the forehead with a fork -- well, that would be a lot for anyone to deal with. But he cared lovingly for Mary, wrote the wonderful Tales from Shakespeare with her... and every now and again, when she had her crack-ups, escorted her in a strait-jacket back to the madhouse.

His famous stuttering, his continuous puns and delight in the haphazard and the ridiculous, all seem marks made by life upon one who has lived through hell, and yet would insist on finding the lighter side of things -- how moving to think of it, really.