Study Guide

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison Quotes

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Isolation

    In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking during the whole of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower. (dedication)

    Coleridge gives the quick-and-dirty version of why he got stuck in the bower for so...many…hours! He leaves out the part when someone drops a skillet of hot milk on his foot. It was not unusual for him to give short prose prefaces to his poems; he also did so for his dream poem, "Kubla Khan."

    Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
    This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
    Such beauties and such feelings, as had been
    Most sweet to have remembrance, even when age
    Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! (1-5)

    The first five lines are the whiniest of the poem. He feels the pain of isolation and blows the problem way out of proportion by describing how he will have lost precious visual memories to aid him in his blindness. The role that memory plays in producing retrospective peace and happiness was also the subject of William Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," written around the same time as this poem.

    In the great City pent, winning thy way
    With sad yet patient soul (31-32)

    Coleridge's isolation could be compared to Charles Lamb. The city is also like a prison or "pen." (The word "penitentiary" contains the same linguistic root.) But Charles has it even worse – at least Coleridge has peace and quiet; there's nothing more dispiriting than feeling alone in a crowd.

    A delight
    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. (45-49)

    He has an epiphany at the beginning of the third stanza: he's not alone after all! The feeling of isolation melts away thanks to the work of his imagination.

    Henceforth I shall know
    That nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure; (60-61)

    Coleridge is no longer isolated, but does he feel connected to his friends, or only with nature? From these lines it seems that nature is a suitable substitute for Lamb and the others. Or maybe he feels comfort in fact that he can share in Lamb's joy, even at a distance.

  • Admiration

    Yes! they wander on
    In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
    My gentle-hearted Charles! (27-29)

    Coleridge repeats the phrase "wander on in gladness" several times throughout the poem. His friends have a fine appreciation for nature, but the speaker feels a special fondness for Charles Lamb, who has been deprived of nature and happiness because of circumstances in his life. Maybe Coleridge admired the way Lamb dealt with his setbacks because Coleridge had (or was to have) so many setbacks of his own (opium addiction, a failed marriage, the list goes on and on).

    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! (29-33)

    Charles's soul is fundamentally "sad" or melancholy because of what he has been through – the death of his mother at his sister's hands, among other things. But Charles suffers through hardship with "patience," knowing that better days lie ahead.

    So my friend,
    Struck with deep joy, may stand, as I have stood,
    Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
    On the wide landscape (38-41)

    The speaker knows that Charles is capable of having a deeply spiritual experience like the ones he has had. Is his admiration for Charles a form of self-admiration?

    My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
    Beat its straight path along the dusky air
    Homewards, I blessed 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 (69-74)

    After his epiphany at the beginning of the third stanza, he overflows with feelings of good will and brotherly love. His statement about blessing the rook has the tone of, "Guess what I did? Tee-hee." Or maybe we just like the idea of Coleridge giggling like a schoolgirl.

    and had a charm
    For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
    No sound is dissonant which tells of Life. (75-77)

    The end of the poem reveals what might be Charles's most admirable character trait: his ability to integrate unpleasantness and suffering into the harmony of a full life. The end might also hint at the need to harmonize an individual life with the greater unity of Nature – a classic Romantic idea.

  • Man and the Natural World

    This lime-tree bower my prison! (2)

    You could read the beginning in at least two ways. Either the speaker views nature itself as a prison because he has a distorted perspective at the moment, or he views only that nature which has been controlled and domesticated by humans as confining.

    They, meanwhile,
    Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
    On springy heath, along the hilltop edge,
    Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
    To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
    The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep, (5-10)

    It's as if he thought nature would swallow up his friends and suck them into a black hole – why else would he worry about not seeing them again? Nor do we think it's a coincidence that he imagines them traveling down into a dark ravine here.

    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!(33-38)

    In the speaker's first attempt at union with nature, he takes kind of a bossy tone, ordering the flowers to do this and the clouds to do that. Actually, he's using an ancient rhetorical device known as apostrophe, in which the speaker demands that nature do everything it is already doing – only better. You'll find this device in a lot of Romantic lyrics.

    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! (63-66)

    A modern-day microbiologist would be proud of Coleridge's thoughts here. We have an easy time appreciating natural beauty when it takes grand and dramatic forms: blazing sunsets, towering mountains, crashing waves; but less so when it comes to the details: the structure of plants, the color of light passing through leaves, the composition of soil. It all depends on perspective.

    and had a charm
    For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
    No sound is dissonant which tells of Life. (76-78)

    The bird carries a little good luck charm that it sprinkles on Charles's gentle little head. Or at least so the speaker imagines. The bird's linear travel becomes a pretext for drawing a symbolic line between the speaker and his friend. The poem ends on the simple but universal message that nature connects all things.

  • Time

    To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
    The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
    And only speckled by the mid-day sun; (9-11)

    His friends enter the valley around mid-day, with the sunlight passing down directly through the branches. The forest is so dense that only some of the light makes it through to the ground.

    With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
    The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
    Of purple shadow! (25-27)

    This poem has many images of objects being "lit up" by afternoon or evening light. Think of all the leaves and trees that are illuminated. The light on the sails contrasts with the "purple shadow" of the islands. The sails just catch the last bit of daylight.

    Ah! slowly sink
    Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun! (33-34)

    The sunset forms the climax of the second stanza. All human activity in the poem ceases at this point as Charles is "struck" by the profound and transient beauty.

    Pale beneath the blaze
    Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch'd
    Some broad and sunny leaf, and loved 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! (49-60)

    This passage of the poem plays out the change of time that has been playing out throughout the poem as a whole. Using the imagery of light on leaves, the passage moves from full sunlight to "late twilight." You can also notice another pattern here: the emphasis on the "last" things of the day. Here we see the "last" bee in the flowers.

    when the last rook
    Beat its straight path along the dusky air
    Homewards, I blessed it! deeming its black wing
    (Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light) (70-73)

    And now here's the "last" bird or rook. As we have seen above, the birds have mostly been replaced by bats. The rook turns into a black speck as it flies into the last bit of light left from the sunset. For a similar image of birds flying at sunset, check out "Sunday Morning" by the American poet Wallace Stevens, also on Shmoop.

  • Spirituality

    Now my friends emerge
    Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
    The many-steepled tract magnificent(21-23)

    The word "Heaven" does not have a specifically religious meaning here – it just means "sky." But the phrase "many-steepled track magnificent" compares the hills that poke out of the landscape to the steeples of country churches that are visible when you approach a village. Rather than being confined to one church, as most villages were, the landscape has many of these metaphorical places of worship. In other words, nature beats man.

    gaze till all doth seem
    Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
    As veil the Almighty Spirit, when he makes
    Spirits perceive his presence. (41-44)

    These lines are the most difficult in the poem. The speaker says that the landscape is not just blind matter, not "gross" like a lifeless rock or stump. Instead, nature is like a body that houses that "soul" of the Almighty Spirit of God. A philosopher might find this imagery to be evidence of "Transcendentalism" or "Idealism." The basic idea is that the "real world" – the true nature of things – lies "behind" or "inside" the visible world.

    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! (61-66)

    Try taking out the word "nature" in these lines and replacing it with the word "God." Do you see a substantial difference?

    Had cross'd the mighty Orb's dilated glory
    While thou stood'st gazing; or, when all was still,
    Flew creaking o'er thy head, and had a charm
    For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
    No sound is dissonant which tells of Life. (74-78)

    The bird is a traditional symbol for the spiritual soul that flies "above" the material world. But this bird makes an awkward "creaking" sound that can only be understood in the context of nature as a whole.