Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it,
With sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet –
- Just when we were settling into the patterns of metrical feet in the first stanza, Coleridge shifts gears and starts talking about somebody named Derwent. Who?
- Derwent is the name of a river in northern England, where Coleridge lived for quite some time, but it is also the name of one of his sons, who was almost seven years old when Coleridge sent him this poem in a letter. So we're betting the "boy" mentioned in the title is Coleridge's son Derwent.
- Now that we're armed with that bit of information, let's tackle the rest of this rather long sentence. There are two ways to interpret these lines, and it gets a little tricky, so you'll have to bear with us.
- First, following the example of the first part, we can apply the word "if" to all parts of the sentence. So if "Derwent" is "innocent, steady, and wise," if he loves the natural world ("things of earth, water, and skies"), if he has "tender warmth at his heart," if he can employ the meters described in the poem, and if he has "sound sense," then he can become a poet! Yikes, that's a whole lot of qualifications.
- The other way to interpret the sentence is to assume that the sentence structure changes midway through. It starts out with Derwent as the subject – e.g. "if Derwent is…if Derwent has" – but then concludes with Derwent as an object being acted upon by something else (something has to "make" him, right?).
- So in this reading, the sentence reads something like this: "If Derwent is all the these things, then the tender warmth of his heart will make him a poet, provided he can use these meters and has good sense in his head."
- Clever Coleridge – he has a knack for packing in two meanings at once. "Sound sense" is another neat example of this. It means both something like our notion of "good sense," as in, "good judgment." But it can also mean "a good sense of sound," which is fitting because poetry and meter depend a lot on sound. So our little Derwent needs to be smart, of course, but he also needs to be blessed with a good ear. If that sort of thing runs in the family, we think he has a ton of promise.
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
Of his father on earth and his father above.
- The speaker continues to imagine the possibility of Derwent becoming a poet. If all the things in the preceding lines can make him a poet, they "may" also bring him poetic fame. This kid might just have it made.
- In fact, they may also help him "win" the "love" both of his dad – his "father on earth" – and God, the so-called "father above." Wait, so does this mean the child can't earn his father's love if he doesn't become a famous poet? Does this also mean that God won't love him unless he becomes famous? Probably not, but the implication is there.
- If there were ever an incentive to become a good poet, it's this. So memorize your feet, kids!
[…] My dear, dear child!
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Coleridge.
- Because it's indented, we might consider the first line of this group a continuation of line 16 above, which gives this poem a nice balance of two stanzas, with ten lines each. Just a thought.
- The speaker addresses his son directly, calling him his "dear, dear child." He tells him that, if he could "stand" on "Skiddaw," he wouldn't see anybody that loves him as much as S.T. Coleridge, his father and the author of the poem. We must say, this is reassuring after what we read in lines 15 and 16 – as it turns out, Derwent's dad totally loves him, despite the fact that the kid isn't a famous poet.
- That's nice and all, but what the heck is "Skiddaw"? A hill or a mountain or something? In fact, it is. It's a hill located in the Lake District (in northern England) and is the fourth tallest mountain in England (about 3000 feet above sea level). And as it turns out, this mountain overlooks the River Derwent.
- Note the way in which Coleridge inserts his own name into the poem and rhymes it with the word "ridge." In addition to teaching Derwent about meter, he's also teaching him about parental love. Aw, how sweet.