Consider the uses - symbolic or otherwise - of natural imagery in the poetry of Coleridge.

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Consider the uses – symbolic or otherwise – of natural imagery in the poetry of Coleridge.

In this essay I am attempting to show the way in which natural imagery is used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in five of his poems; Kubla Khan, Christabel, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Frost at Midnight and This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison. Natural imagery is when a poet uses language to paint pictures in the readers mind of nature in certain ways, nature can seem so different in many different ways and the language a poet uses can change the way a reader may think of the objects his poetry is describing. Coleridge was a Unitarian; he desired a unity in nature and in all things.

Coleridge’s desire for ultimate unity, no more ‘little things’ is stated in is letter to John Thelwall written around the same time as Kubla Khan.

‘ I can at times feel strongly the beauties you describe, in themselves, & for themselves – but more frequently all things appear little – all the knowledge, that can be acquired, child’s play – the universe itself – what but and immense heap of little things? – I can contemplate nothing but parts, & parts are all little –! – My mind feels as if it ached to behold & know something great – something one & indivisible and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!’

Kubla Khan illustrates this desire for unity or ‘oneness’ as Coleridge shows in the second stanza. The powerful impression of the pleasure dome in the 1st Stanza is in the 2nd belittled by the enormity of its natural surroundings (Seamus Perry, 1998). In the Khans desire for paradisial beauty Coleridge states that he has shut out the natural beauty of the real world. The poem shows by the inevitable loss of Khans paradise that the unity of nature can be broken by walls of any strength. The reader can imagine the paradise being built within the pleasure dome by the language used by Coleridge to describe the beauty of the place;

‘Where Alph, the sacred river ran

Through caverns, measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.’

The sacred river, ‘Alph’ refers to Alpha, the beginning, first of all things and ‘the ‘sunless sea’ to which it runs, a kind of omega’ (Seamus Perry, 1998) implying that despite how  paradisial Khan tries to make his pleasure dome he cannot control the forces of nature described in the 2nd stanza. The 1st stanza describes recognized conventional beauty whereas the 2nd stanza refers to the romantic idea of the sublime;

‘mountainous and discordant paraphernalia’ (Seamus Perry, 1998).

Though the nature of the world is less than paradisial it is beautiful in its own right and the closest any living creature will get to paradise.

As in ‘Paradise Lost’ Coleridge uses serpentine imagery like ‘sinuous rills’ to allude to the serpent, Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Again, like the garden of Eden, Coleridge says that the pleasure dome ‘With walls and towers girdled round’ is closed off to the outside world, no one but those allowed can enter the pleasure dome as with the garden of Eden. The image of the fountain in the second stanza is also a reference to ‘Paradise Lost’ ‘fresh fountain…with many a rill/ Watered the garden’ (Paradise Lost, IV: 229-30) where the fountain is a pure thing used to water the garden whereas Coleridge’s fountain appears savage and fierce,


‘And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething…

A mighty fountain momently was forced.’


Where the first two stanzas of Kubla Khan are mainly descriptive, the third talks of the dream of paradise, of building a personal paradise;

‘I would build that dome in the air,

 That sunny dome, those caves of ice!’ 

But then realising that paradise can only be reached in the human mind and while on earth we have to make do with the paradise of nature that we have to achieve the eternal paradise in the afterlife.

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The last lines that follow after ‘Beware, beware’ show the Khan like Adam, wanting more than he could handle and trying to play god by creating a paradise.

‘For he on honey-dew hath fed

And drank the milk of paradise.’

By building/rebuilding the pleasure dome he has tasted the food of the gods, forbidden fruit.

In Christabel, critics have identified the title as an oxymoron. The ambiguity of the heroines name, compounded of two,

‘‘Christ’, whose sufferings are traditionally held to have possessed atoning power and ‘Abel’ whose innocence led him only to be slaughtered by ...

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