Study Guide

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

Prison Life / Escape from the Bower!

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.

  • Line 2: The metaphor of the title appears in this line, comparing the lime (linden) trees that surround the speaker in the garden to the bars or walls of a prison that traps him.
  • Line 6: Really? You think you might "never" again meet your friends who took a stroll for a few hours at dusk? That's what you call some serious hyperbole, or exaggeration. It's like a teenager who insists they'll just "die" if they can't go to the concert with such-and-such cute boy/girl!
  • Line 23: Sneaky, sneaky. He compares the hills using metaphor to the tall "steeples" of churches. This image certainly makes churches seem confining.
  • Lines 29-31: Charles's desire for Nature is compared using metaphor to a "hunger." Like the lime-tree bower, the city is like a prison that separates people from nature; it "pens" them in.
  • Lines 62-63: Even in a so-called prison, which appears "narrow" and "vacant" of life, you can find small wonders of nature. These two lines are constructed using parallelism.

Forests, Trees, and Other Green Things

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.

  • Line 7: "Springy" sounds like it could be a pun. The heath is "springy" because it contains flowers and lush plants. But it is also "springy" to walk on – like a spring – because heaths consist of lots of short shrubs at ground level. Don't you ever wonder why those characters on British PBS specials can run so fast through the heath – that stuff is like wearing moon-shoes!
  • Lines 10-20: The first paragraph contains elaborate imagery of the deep, dark forest that the speaker's friends must cross in order to view the ocean. The atmosphere is moist and dark, with splashes of light here and there.
  • Line 13: His friends must cross over a fallen ash tree that spans the stream. The simile in this line likens the trunk of the tree to bridge, because that's how it functions for them.
  • Line 17: Those "long lank weeds" are an example of alliteration.
  • Lines 49-60: These lines are meant to make you think of the description of the lush greenery from lines 10-20. He gives the same kind of detailed imagery, only focusing on his own "bower" instead of the imagined interior of the forest. The word "transparent" is an exaggeration (hyperbole) of the effect of light on a leaf. The light almost makes the leaf seem see-through.

Best Wishes to "My Gentle-Hearted Charles"

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.

  • Lines 29-33: When you talk to someone in a poem who can't reply (because it's a poem!), the term is apostrophe. In this "conversation poem," Charles is the object of apostrophe.
  • Line 40: Charles's senses are personified as "swimming" in the rich density of the landscape.
  • Lines 42-44: In this set of similes, the most complicated in the poem, the landscape is compared to a "body" that contains a soul or "spirit." Its colors are like the semi-transparent "veil" behind which lies the "Almighty Spirit" (God).
  • Lines 69: The phrase "gentle-hearted" is attached to the name of Charles every time it appears in the poem. It helps to preserve the poem's iambic pentameter.
  • Lines 76-77: One more, for old time's sake: here's the final apostrophe to Charles Lamb. Charles can appreciate that the strange, "creaking" sound of the rook is a symbol of natural vitality.

Daylight, Twilight, Evening Light

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.

  • Line 11: The first stanza contains imagery of light falling through a dense, wooded ravine that will be picked up on in the third stanza.
  • Lines 25-27: The late afternoon sun goes down further and further as the poem goes on, a detail that Coleridge shows us in subtle ways. Here, the sails of a wee little boat are lit up by sun, but the islands already appear "purple" in the early evening.
  • Lines 33-38: As sunset approaches, the speaker speaks directly to the players who will make this the best darned sunset you've ever seen: the sun, the shining flowers, the "burning" clouds, and the trees in the distance. Addressing things that cannot reply in poetry is called apostrophe.
  • Lines 55-57: The ivy is darker than the trees around it, so it looks like a black "mass" of dark stuff in the evening.
  • Lines 72-73: The sun has set, the air is "dusky," and the rook grows dimmer and dimmer as it flies toward the last bit of light remaining. Rooks have black feathers.

The Rook

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….

  • Lines 69-71: The speaker's blessing of the rook turns it into a symbol, but for what: Friendship? Hope? Unity? If you could sum it up in one word, it wouldn't be poetry!
  • Lines 75-76: He imagines that he has attached to the rook a good wish or "charm" for Charles. We're still trying to figure out what it's a symbol for…any ideas?

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