You have to love a poem that opens with the word, "Well," as if the writer were just letting off steam. Think of a poem that begins, "Well, this stinks," and you'll have an idea of the tone that he's after. The speaker is pouring out a complicated brew of emotions, including frustration, astonishment, and brotherly love, but he does so within the confines of a specific poetic meter, blank verse. To use an analogy, imagine trying to discuss a topic of deep emotional significance without using the letters "M" or "R". It's a completely arbitrary rule, but it forces you to structure your thought…um…we mean…"it tasks you with the challenge of putting thoughts within a specific design" (no "Ms" or "Rs," phew!). Blank verse could be summarized as the poetic meter that is formal…but not too formal.
On the page, the poem has a somewhat uneven appearance: lines carry over from one line to the next without punctuation, and the stanzas chop off mid-line. But to your trained poetic ear (we know you've got one), you'll hear a kind of structure that your eye doesn't catch. For example, certain sections of the poem focus on particular letters and sounds. So, in the lines following the word "flings" (line 13), the "f" sound seems to dominate: "Fann'd by the water-fall! and there my friends." You see other examples of the repetition of sounds elsewhere, such as "winning my way" in line 31 followed by "With sad yet patient soul" in line 32. Other patterns include the frequent use of commas in the middle of lines and the use of single adjectives in front of nouns: "transparent foliage," "fronting elms," "dark branches," and so on.
Finally, the poem uses exclamation marks to note shifts in volume or intensity. The poem begins on such a note, as the speaker gets carried away with pessimistic thoughts about being in prison and going blind. As a general rule, every time he gets started on a description of the natural landscape – especially plants – you can bet that the verses will crescendo in some kind of exclamation. As he moves from specific images (elms, walnut-trees, bats) to abstract ideas (Nature! Love! Beauty! Joy!), the sound of the poem changes to reflect a kind of natural ecstasy. Though "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" is often called a "conversation poem," the sound of the poem more accurately reflects celebration than conversation.
The title of the poem comes from the second line comes from the second line of the 1834 revision of the poem, and the third line of the original version. The title has a catchy, arresting sound. Rather than saying, "This lime-tree bower is my prison" and making the metaphor super-obvious, Coleridge condenses the meaning so that you almost imagine a colon after "bower": "This lime-tree bower: my prison." If you automatically knew what lime trees were, as nineteenth-century British readers did, you would be drawn in by the implicit comparison between big, beautiful, leafy trees and prison walls. Updated into contemporary American-speak, the title might go, "These oak trees my Alcatraz."
Originally, the poem did not have a title. Coleridge sent it to his friend Robert Southey in a letter, as some "lines" that "pleased" him. It's like, "Hey, take a look at this. Neat, huh?" But then Southey published the poem in 1800 with the unnecessarily long title of "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, A Poem Addressed to Charles Lamb of the India House, London." Fortunately, the title of the poem was shortened when it was republished in 1834 as simply, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."
The poem begins in a dingy prison cell, with the late-afternoon light slanting down through the wooden bars. The speaker clinks his English tea-cup against the bars, whistling a tune with downcast eyes and…hey! those aren't prison bars. Those are trees! Lime trees, to be exact. And this is no prison but a lovely English garden. We'll have to be careful with this here speaker.
Our imagination busts out of the prison and takes on a walk along the heath, which is filled with delicate flowers and small shrubs. We're running to catch up with the speaker's friends – man, they are walking fast, as if they're on a mission. ("We can't miss the sunset!" they mutter under their breaths). They pass into a dark ravine, where they must crawl over legs and brush away mossy branches from their faces. They pass over a stream on a log, and a roaring waterfall sprays the vegetation with a heavy mist.
They walk back up the ravine and, all of a sudden, the sky opens up and they are standing on the heath again, looking out toward the ocean. They finally stop so that we can catch up with them. We regain our breath just long enough to see the blazing sun set on the horizon, lighting up everything in the landscape.
Back in the bower, the speaker notices the beauty of his own surroundings, on a smaller scale. The effect of the light on the plants in the garden resembles the effect of the light on the plants in the ravine. The prison bars turn back into trees and the dingy floor of the cell becomes a rich soil that grows flowers and ivy. Birds and bats flutter overhead. The day's last rook forms an imaginary line between the speaker and his friend Charles.
The speaker of this poem is an interesting mix of maturity and immaturity. How else can we describe someone who compares a garden where he has to spend a few hours by himself to a "prison," who worries melodramatically that his friends might never return, but who then selflessly tries to spur on a fantastic sunset for the benefit of his buddy Charles. Our speaker is very protective of his friends, but he hates to be apart from them.
One of the speaker's most admirable qualities is his sensitivity to pain and hardship. The poem is addressed to Charles Lamb, and once you learn the back story about the "strange calamity" when Charles's sister killed their mother during a mental breakdown, it's hard to avoid interpreting the speaker's wise, gentle, and reassuring tone except in light of this story. He's like that really nice uncle who wants to take his nephew out to a ball game to take his mind off bad stuff at home or at school.
There are plenty of interesting things going on with the speaker aside from Charles Lamb. For example, plants. The speaker knows a lot about plants and is able to rattle off the names of different trees and shrubs in the area. He would also make a great nature guide with his memory for natural places he has been. He knows exactly where his friends will have to cross the stream across a fallen tree trunk, and he vividly imagines the appearance of the weeds that "nod and drip" on the bank.
One question raised by the poem is whether the speaker has it out for organized religion. When he compares the hills the church steeples and notes that the "Almighty Spirit" of God is hidden within nature, you could be forgiven for thinking that he believes God is nature. More on that topic in the "Calling Card" section.
Believe it or not, in his day Coleridge's writing style was thought by some to be too casual and conversational. Poems like "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" were thought to approximate everyday speech, something that had rarely been seen in poetry before the Romantic period. Nowadays, we look at all those exclamation marks, the frequent "thees" and "thous," and words like "Orb" and "richlier," and we're tempted to call Coleridge a fancy-pants. But, aside from some old-fashioned words and expressions, this poem shouldn't be a difficult hike – unless, of course, you've just spilled a skillet of hot milk on your foot! Most of the poem is dedicated to vivid and beautiful descriptions, and aside from a complex passage around line 40, the wordplay is simple and user-friendly (for example, lime-tree bower = prison).
Welcome to the most famous nineteenth-century religious controversy you've never heard of. The great Pantheism debate! In one corner we have the Pantheists, who insist that "God is everything and everything is God" (source). In other words, God and Nature are the same thing. In the other corner we have the existing European religious establishment, which insists that God is the Creator of Nature but remains separate from it. For the establishment, Pantheism was no different from atheism. There has been much speculation about the extent to which Coleridge might have been a Pantheist, and this poem only complicates the question. Line 23 ever-so-gently suggests that the whole world is a big Church, which sounds Pantheist to our ears. Similarly, lines 40-44 claim that the natural landscape contains the "Almighty Spirit" of God, which could be Pantheistic, but then you've got the old Christian image of a "veil" suggesting that God is either in or behind nature. It appears as though this poem won't resolve the debate over Coleridge, but it does provide plenty of food for thought.
The poem consists of lines that were jotted down by Coleridge when he was sitting in a garden, so it has kind of a spontaneous feel. The Romantics and Coleridge especially were the kind of writers who scribbled works of genius down in the nineteenth-century British equivalent of coffee breaks (tea breaks?). This poem was originally included in a letter, so it was not meant as a something to be published widely.
"This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" consists of three stanzas of uneven length written in blank verse. An invention of the English Renaissance, blank verse has been used famously in Shakespeare's plays and in Milton's Paradise Lost. It has a regular meter, iambic pentameter, but no rhyme scheme. Iambic pentameter is the most common meter in English-language poetry. Each line has five "units" of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one:
No plot so nar-row, be but na-ture there (line 62)
It is fitting that the iambic pentameter in this poem is not very regular – Coleridge was more interested in capturing the mood than in counting syllables – and many lines have 9 or 11 syllables. Coleridge's buddy William Wordsworth also wrote a mean blank verse in his long poem, The Prelude.
In the Renaissance, blank verse was used in plays and other dramatic poems because it allows for a conversational tone that doesn't feel all formal and "Look-At-Me-I'm Speaking-In-Poetry." Coleridge knows this, of course, and it's no coincidence that "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" is a "conversation poem," or a poem where the speaker is supposedly speaking with a specific person. That person is Coleridge's friend Charles Lamb. In order to give the sense (somewhat) of conversation, he uses lots of enjambment, where one line carries over into another without a pause, and you'll also notice that the stanzas seem to break-off in the middle of a line and then pick up the meter using indentation at the start of the next stanza. This, too, was common practice in Renaissance plays. Open up just about any Shakespeare play and you'll see what we mean.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
For a poem with the word "prison" in the title, this one is kind of a tease. There are no riots, no ropes made from bed-sheets, no ripped men weightlifting in the prison yard… Instead, the speaker pouts that his country garden is really like a Maximum Security facility designed to keep him from his friends. Then he goes on a mental trip and decides he can escape the bower using his imagination, and then he decides he doesn't want to escape the bower after all, because the place has its own charms.
The title of the poem refers to the lime or Linden tree, and Coleridge must know his botany, because he also points out the ash, elm, and walnut trees. The poem contrasts, but ultimately unifies, the wild, dark, rugged forest of the "roaring" ravine with the neat, cozy, orderly space of the garden. Nature, he seems to say, is the same everywhere, if you have the right way of looking at it.
Charles Lamb was an influential member of the circle that included Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey; he was an important English essayist; and he had a deep knowledge of Shakespeare's plays. But…do we get any sense of this in the poem? Or, does he seem, kind of adorable? If you wanted to, you could read the entire poem as a message to Charles about how to recover from the disastrous blow he suffered when his sister killed his mother in an insane fit. All this talk of "spirituality" and "Nature" and "Life" could be therapeutic.
One of the most interesting aspects of this poem is the way that Coleridge actually shows the passage of time. You might be tempted to think that his change of mind from thinking that the bower is a prison to thinking that Nature is glorious everywhere comes too suddenly to be believable. But it doesn't come suddenly – as the speaker talks his way through the poem, we watch the light pass down through the trees while the sun is still high, then pass sideways at sunset, and finally we get the last bit of evening light as the rook flies out of vision. Notice especially the relation of light and foliage in this poem.
A rook is a black bird that looks like a crow. It's the kind of bird that likes to hang out in groups on bare tree branches and spook people. For the speaker, the rook is a means of connecting to Charles Lamb despite the distance that separates them. All the other rooks have gone home, and this one is the last straggler. It's that old ploy: if you can't join 'em, pretend that you have attached a lucky charm to a random bird that passes overhead and hope that the bird will sprinkle luck on your friend. Yes, an old ploy….
There's no sex here. However, some people think that Coleridge's wife was the one who spilled the skillet of hot milk on his foot. In fact, the story of Coleridge's marriage is an interesting one, but it has nothing to do with this poem.