“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” is one in a series of poems in which Coleridge explored his love for a small circle of intimates. These poems, generally known as the Conversation Poems, all take the form of an address from the poet to a familiar companion, variously Sara Fricker, David Hartley Coleridge (Coleridge's infant son), Charles Lamb, the Wordsworths, or Sarah Hutchinson. “Lime-Tree Bower“ is one of these and first appeared in a letter to Robert Southey written on 17 July 1797. Coleridge tells Southey how he came to write that text (in Wheeler 1981, p. 123):
Charles Lamb has been with me for a week—he left me Friday morning.—/ 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 time 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—
The poem then follows directly. A moderately revised version was published in 1800, “Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London.”
The published version is somewhat longer than the verse letter and has three stanzas whereas the verse letter has only two. A casual perusal of the text, however, makes it clear that most of the change between the two versions resulted from the addition of new material to the first stanza of the verse letter. The first stanze of the verse letter ends on the same note as the second stanza of the published text:
1797So my friendStruck with deep joy's deepest calm and gazing roundOn the wide view, may gaze till all doth seemLess gross than bodily; a living ThingThat acts upon the mind, and with such huesAs cloathe the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makesSpirits perceive his presence.1800So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing roundOn the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seemLess gross than bodily; and of such huesAs veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makesSpirits perceive his presence.
For a detailed comparison of the two texts, see Appendix 3 of Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”. I am concerned only with the published text in this note and will treat is has having two movements, with the first two stanzas constituting the first movment; again, for detailed discussion, consult the section, Basic Shape, in Talking with Nature.
Two Movements: Macro and Micro
With this in mind let us now turn our attention the text. LTB starts with the poet in his garden, alone and self-pitying:
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lostBeauties and feelings, such as would have beenMost sweet to my remembrance even when ageHad dimm'd mine eyes to blindness!
The poet then imagines his friends taking a walk through the woods down to the shore. This takes two stanzas and ends with the poet in active contemplation of the sun:
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 friendStruck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing roundOn the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seemLess gross than bodily; and of such huesAs veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makesSpirits perceive his presence.
At the beginning of the third stanza the poet brings his attention back to himself in his garden:
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am gladAs I myself were there! Nor in this bower,This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark'dMuch that has sooth'd me.
Our poet then sets about examining his immediate surroundings, and with considerable pleasure and satisfaction. He is no longer feeling alone and dejected. The poem concludes by once again contemplating the sunset and his friend’s (inferred) pleasure in that sunset:
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rookBeat its straight path across the dusky airHomewards, 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 charmFor thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whomNo sound is dissonant which tells of Life.
Thus the poem’s two major movements each begin by focusing on the bower and end contemplating the sun, the landscape, and Charles. As each movement starts out at a modest emotional pitch and then builds in intensity, especially through its later lines, the shift from the first to the second movement entails an emotional “downshift.” If LTB were a piece of music, then we would have an abrupt shift from fortissimo at the end of the first movement to piano or mezzo piano at the beginning of the second.
The emotional valence of these movements, however, differs markedly. The first begins on a note of melancholy separation and ends on a note of joyous invocation. The second movement is overall more contemplative, beginning in joy and moving ending with a more moderating sense of invocation. Since the first movement takes place in the larger world outside the bower, let us call it the macrocosmic movement or trajectory, while the second is microcosmic.
Both the macrocosmic and microcosmic trajectories have a marked thematic shift at roughly their midpoints. The first part of the first movement takes us from the bower to the wide heath and then narrows its perceptual focus to the dark dell, which is, however, “speckled by the mid-day sun.” Within the dell, the weeds float on the water “beneath the dripping edge / Of the blue clay-stone” (19-20). At this point Coleridge starts a new line mid-way into the period. This new line shifts focus and tone in a radical way: “Now, my friends emerge / Beneath the wide wide Heaven” (20-21). From the narrow focus on the blue clay-stone we are now contemplating a broad view. Our contemplation of this view then gives way to thoughts of one “Charles” (Lamb, of course) and moves through a bit of pantheistic nature mysticism.
Similarly, the microcosmic trajectory moves from a contemplation of the trees (49-58), which would be relatively large in the garden context, and arrives at a “the solitary humble-bee” singing in the bean-flower (58-59). Thus the microcosmic trajectory narrows its perceptual focus at the middle as does the macrocosmic trajectory. From the humble-bee the poem broadens its focus from immediate observation of nature to a homily on Nature's plenitude, “No plot be so narrow, be but Nature there” (61). The poem then moves out from there to meet the sun, as happened in the first part, ending on the image of a “creeking” rook. Note that this microcosmic movement has introduced two elements of sound in contrast to the macrocosmic movement, where no sound was mentioned.
To summarize the analysis so far, LTB unfolds in two movements, each beginning in the garden and ending in contemplation of the richly-lit landscape at sunset. This entails a major topic shift between the first and second movements. Each movement, in turn, can be divided into two sections, the first moving toward a narrow perceptual focus and then abruptly widening out as the beginning of the second subsection. In that the first movement encompasses the world outside the bower we can think of it as macrocosmic in scope while the second movement, which stays within the garden, is microcosmic in scope.
I have summarized this in the constituent structure tree in following diagram, where I also depict the full constituent structure analysis (again, consult Talking with Nature for full particulars):
(Note that I put the line of arrows in the diagram to remind us that poems unfold in a linear sequence; the reader or listener does not have the “bird’s eye” view given in this diagram.) Given such a structure, what drives it forward? On the face of it LTB starts with the experience of loss; the poet is separated from his friends. Loss and separation are painful; overcoming them is often difficult. How does the poet overcome that sense of loss?
Note the two areas I’ve outlined in red. They have a triple structure, where all other subdivisions are double. The first concerns the roaring dell, as passage which critics agree is resonant with the deep romantic chasm of “Kubla Khan.” And “Kubla Khan”, as we’ve seen, is based on triple structures, with the chasm in the middle of the first movement of THAT poem.
The triple structure in the LTB’s second movement (ll. 47-59: 47-51, 51-56, 56-59) is more demure than that roaring dell, but it has a hint of darkness: “Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass / Makes their dark branches gleam …” Most significantly, of course, is that this triple structure has the same “slot” in the second movement that the roaring dell structure has in the first.
The game, my friends, is afoot.
To be continued.
The Text – “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”
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.
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 across 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.