‘Tender Mercies’: re-reading The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree

Reg Foakes

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp.32-43)




1. The Setting.


When in April 1802 he wrote his verse letter that became the Ode to Dejection Coleridge had been encouraging Wordsworth to make a final break from Annette Vallon and their daughter and marry Mary Hutchinson (CN 3.3304).  As is well known, Coleridge would no doubt have liked to abandon his wife and seek to marry Sarah Hutchinson, but felt he could not in all conscience. His only recourse was to ‘be still and patient’ as far as he could, and ‘haply by abstruse Research to steal / From my own Nature all the Natural Man’ (Poem 289: A Letter to—, lines 266-8).[1]  He did not succeed, as a series of  poems, arguably the best of his later works, attests, poems that continue to explore in various ways the issues raised by Coleridge’s separation from his wife and his love for Sarah (Asra). Morton Paley uses some of these issues to organise his fine commentary on Coleridge’s later poems under headings that include Hope, Negation and Love, three of the main themes.[2]  The Letter to— looks back to a time when ‘Hope grew round me like the climbing vine’ (line 236), implying a loss of hope as Coleridge perceives that Wordsworth’s marriage will separate him from the ‘happy home’ where those he best loves dwell, while he resigns himself to ‘Indifference or Strife’:


No! Let me trust that I shall wear away

In no inglorious Toils the manly day,

And only now & then, & not too oft,

Some dear and memorable Eve will bless

Dreaming of all your Loves & Quietness.     (Letter, line 139)


This heroic if somewhat self-pitying vision of himself was omitted from Dejection: An Ode, dismissed perhaps as ‘Viper thoughts’, but it contains the germ of a number of later poems that spin variations on the issues implicit here, whether hope does altogether die, whether there are compensations for loss in toil or in dreams, and how to cope with love that is bound up with despondency and even despair. 




       A typical example is To Two Sisters (Poem 423:1807) written as a thank-you letter to the sisters Mary Morgan and Charlotte Brent after Coleridge had been staying with the Morgans in Bristol. The poems starts from ‘life’s Tale’ as made up of loving and parting, and through the kindness of these sisters he is enabled to ‘suspend the heart’s despair’, recalling Mary Wordsworth and Sarah Hutchinson in memories that bring back a sense of hope. The Morgan sisters are at once reality and vision as they merge into Coleridge’s youth and past loves.  The present solace they give is tempered by the sense of gratitude and kindness as cold compared with love; it is qualified also by the awareness that his double vision of present and past has only raised the ghost of hope and reminded him of ‘Love’s despair’. The poem plays with the difference between the general love he feels for the Morgans, the joy they have brought him in enabling him to live in vision or memory ‘His happiest hours again’, and the revival of grief and despair in his permanent loss of Asra. In his dream of what might have been, the loss of Asra is compounded with the loss of youth and of innocence. This poem may be linked with Recollections of Love (Poem 354:1804-7), in which Coleridge looks back to a time before he had met Sara Hutchinson, yet, as if in ‘A dream remembered in a dream’, he has intimations of her presence. It is a presence associated with innocence, and by analogy with childhood in the image of the poet as like a mother finding a lost infant.

       The network of associations in these two poems reverberates through many of Coleridge’s strongest and most moving later works. The only way he could retain any hope in loss was through what he recognised as Constancy to an Ideal Object (Poem 357:1804-7?).  Here the image of Asra haunts him as constant in his mind, even though he knows it is an image like the Brocken spectre, created in his own imagination,


                                            though well I see

She is not thou, and only thou art she,

Still, still as though some dear embodied Good,

Some living Love before my eyes there stood . . .


He addresses her in words put in quotation marks, ‘Ah! Loveliest Friend…’, as though she were actually present.  Hope is sustained by the presence of the ideal object, even as the poet despairs in the knowledge that any hope is self-created. Hope and despair are the twin poles between which these poems oscillate, ‘For Love’s Despair is but Hope’s pining Ghost’, as he wrote in The Visionary Hope (Poem 467: 1810?), rephrasing a line in To Two Sisters.

       At one extreme of this polarity stand perhaps Coleridge’s best-known later poems, Limbo (Poem 478: ?1811) and the spin-off from it, Ne Plus Ultra..  The figure of the old man whose eyeless face seems to rejoice in light as he stares at the moon suggests the poet’s ability to create an ideal image in the mind, which, though only ‘seeming’, is set against ‘the mere Horror of blank Naught at all.’ Coleridge seems to confuse Limbo with Purgatory, in opposition to




Hell, even as he seems uncertain about the terms ‘privation’ and ‘negation’. As first drafted, (CN 3 4073), Limbo ends with Hell as a state of ‘positive Privation’, which was changed in the draft to ‘positive Negation’, marking a difference between deprivation or a sense of loss, and the absence of anything positive at all. Ne Plus Ultra extends the contrast by identifying Hell with ‘Condensed Blackness’, the negation of light.  Coleridge later rejected the stark polarity of an absolute something (light) set against an absolute nothing (darkness) in favour of grounding all things in terms of the actual and the potential (CN 3 4445), but in a poem like Limbo this polarity provides an imaginative framework for his broodings on loss, hope, love and despair. The old Man,who seems at first a figure of Time, subtly changes as he stares at the moon:


His whole Face seemeth to rejoice in light/

Lip touching Lip, all moveless, Bust and Limb,

He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on Him!


The word ‘Bust’ here brings into play a female image and helps to create the peculiar power and tension of the poem - the term entered English at the end of the seventeenth century with reference to sculpture, and was first used of the human body, typically to signify the upper part of a woman, in the mid-eighteenth-century.  What is the old man gazing at? It is as if he is now in physical contact with a woman, lip touching lip, motionless bosom and limbs, who gazes back at him. Coleridge’s visionary figure of Asra invades the poem at this point. At the same time, we perhaps should not make too much of what Coleridge himself describes in CN 3 4073 as ‘A specimen of the Sublime dashed to pieces by cutting too close with her fiery Four in Hand round the corner of Nonsense’.

       Limbo and Ne Plus Ultra point to the hopelessness associated by Coleridge not only with love, but with nightmares, the pains of sleep, and with feelings of guilt about events in the past, as well as his opium habit, ‘Th’unfathomable hell within’ (Pains of Sleep, line 46). But these poems develop from a joking burlesque celebration of John Donne’s poem The Flea, via the purgatory fire of the flea on Bardolph’s nose in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and Ne Plus Ultra ends at the ‘Throne of Heaven’. Coleridge’s glimpses of hell within prompted occasional thoughts of suicide: ‘nothing now is left. Why then live on?’ (Fragment, Poem 468), but the love-stricken visionary could always hope to be ‘Pierced, as with light from Heaven’ (The Visionary Hope, line 23), like the Old Man in Limbo.[3] Many of the later poems straddle decades as Coleridge returns




to the visionary moments that restored the power to rejoice, as in A Day-Dream (Poem 629; 1802-1826) of being embowered with Mary Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson in a ruined hut covered in roses - a sentimental image perhaps too close to that of Bottom and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This poem begins ‘My eyes make pictures, when they are shut’, pictures like that celebrated in The Garden of  Boccaccio (Poem 652: 1828?), in which the poet imagines himself entering Thomas Stothard’s painting:


                                       I myself am there,

Sit on the Ground-sward and the banquet share.

’Tis I, that sweep that Lute’s love-echoing Strings,

And gaze upon the Maid who gazing Sings.             (65-8)


Coleridge alters Stothard’s picture, which represents the lute-player strumming as he stares at a girl kneeling near him whose eyes are fixed on a book that appears to contain the music of the song.  The poem suggests rather that the maid is gazing on him, recalling the old man in Limbo, who ‘seems to gaze on that which seems to gaze on Him’. The figure of Sara Hutchinson underlies these images, either as sharing his gaze at the moon or heaven (A Letter, lines 55-6), or as returning the gaze directed at her.

       One more image that connects with this network is that of an Arab, usually blind, as in what may be its first appearance in CN 1.1244 (1802), ‘Mother listening for the sound of a still-born child–blind Arab listening in the wilderness’.  This blind Arab appears in the late poem Love’s Apparition and Evanishment (Poem 688:  1833), upturning his ‘eyeless face’ to heaven, like the old man in Limbo, but explicitly associated here with Coleridge himself, whose eye is turned inward as in a trance to behold a female figure lifeless at his feet - the figure of Hope, Love’s sister. The linking of the Arab with a child appears in a letter of July 1802 in which Coleridge explained to William Sotheby why he could not complete a translation of Salomon Gessner’s poem Der Erste Schiffer: Gessner, he said, was a bad writer, lacking the ability to project himself into the thoughts and feelings of others; a great poet, by contrast – Shakespeare uniquely – can do this : ‘for all sounds, & forms of human nature he must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent Desart, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an Enemy upon the leaves that strew the Forest-; the Touch of a Blind Man feeling the face of a darling Child’ (CL II 810). Here the wild Arab listening in the desert passes into the image of a blind man feeling a loved child’s face. The loved child relates to the various images of a child I have mentioned, the child as Coleridge’s own innocence, hope, or love imagined through his inward eye in association with memories of Sara Hutchinson and/or his sense of loss and despair.  So the figure of a blind man seems to be a kind of surrogate for Coleridge, embodying his suffering and loss of love which may nevertheless be alleviated by visionary experiences of illumination when it seems as if Sara is present, and momentarily joy and




innocence, as figured in the child, are restored. 


2. The Text


In the letter to Sotheby Coleridge said ‘It is easy to clothe imaginary beings with our own thoughts and feelings’, and in some of his most deeply felt personal poems he did not attempt the Herculean Shakespearian task of thinking himself into the thoughts and feelings of others in circumstances wholly different from his own, but rather sought to achieve a distance from the poem by a more or less plausible prefatory statement about its origin, sources, or circumstances in which it came into being. I think The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree (Poem 396: ?1802-8) offers a notable instance of this mystifying process in relation to a poem that is very powerful and intriguing, and one that connects in many ways with the network of images I have been describing. It exists in three main versions. It first surfaced when three stanzas were published in the New Times, January 1818, as introduced into a lecture on the literature of the middle ages, under the heading, ‘Imitation of one of the Minnesinger of the Thirteenth Century’. The form, the seven-line stanzas and rhyme scheme, imitate a poem by Johans Hadloub that Coleridge had read when he was in Germany, and I can see why he recalled it so well: in it the narrator sees the rapturous encounter between a woman and an infant who tenderly embrace and kiss, and wishes he could share such happiness - but the woman vanishes, and he is left to clasp the child, while beguiled by the fancy that it is the woman he kisses. The image of a child as representing love and innocence, and as linked with his early love for Sara Hutchinson, is a recurrent motif in the poems I have been discussing.

       In fact, Coleridge’s poem is in many ways very different and much more complex. Version 2, in four stanzas, was published in Poetical Works, 1828, with the new title The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree, and with a preface explaining the title incorrectly as related to an anecdote taken from Linnaeus about a date-tree that blossomed year by year but bore no fruit until a branch from another tree 300 miles way was brought to it (evidently to pollinate it). Coleridge confused his readers in PW further by saying the manuscript lacked ‘two or three introductory stanzas’, for which he substitutes two prose passages, inviting ‘some congenial spirit’, who is as young as the author was when he wrote the poem, to restore ‘the Lament to its original integrity by a reduction of the thoughts to the requisite metre’.  Version 3 consists of 5 stanzas, preserved in a single manuscript sheet of uncertain date.

       The relation between the three versions is complicated.  Coleridge had, I think, a deep emotional involvement in the poem, and, as in the case of some other works, in publishing it he obscured his personal engagement in various ways.  In the 1818 printing, he presented it as an imitation of a medieval German poem, as if the ‘voice’ of the narrator is borrowed from the remote past; and he also addressed the final lines somewhat awkwardly not to a




woman, but to men in general, with the phrase, ‘Hear man!’  In PW (1828, 1829, 1834), the personal significance of the poem is mystified by the title and subtitle - the date tree in the anecdotal preface does at last bear fruit after being barren for years, which could suggest a return of creativity to Coleridge if the poem is his ‘fruit’, but has little to do with the theme of his verses, subtitled ‘A Lament’.  The prose alternatives he offers for the introductory stanzas he claims to have forgotten serve to generalize the argument and distract attention from his personal investment in the poem: ‘the more exquisite the individual’s capacity for joy, and the more ample his means of enjoyment, the more heavily will he feel the ache of solitariness’.  So it might seem that the speaker in the poem becomes any individual who has felt in this way rather than Coleridge himself.

       The third version, the manuscript of five stanzas in Coleridge’s hand, seems to be a private transcript, perhaps made for Mary Morgan, whose initials are written on it.  The first two stanzas are very personal, beginning


Hard is my lot, a Life of stifled Pain!

And oft to thee do I bewail my Doom…


The self-pitying aspect of this complaint might well have tired any listener to whom he oft bewailed his doom: the lines seem poured out by Coleridge, perhaps to Sara Hutchinson (if they date from 1802), or to one of the Morgan sisters (if they date from some years later). In the line, ‘I am not a God that I should stand alone’, Coleridge recalls Milton’s Paradise Lost, VIII.405, where God gives Adam to understand that he is happy though ‘alone / From all eternity’, and perhaps glances at Wordsworth’s self-sufficiency.

       The poem powerfully registers the inadequacy for the narrator of possessing everything he could wish for, a heaven on earth, when the one thing he desires and needs, love, is missing. The variant ‘Hear, man!’ in the Minnesinger version of 1818 suggests a generalized utterance, as though the poem is impersonal. In the manuscript 5-stanza version this becomes ‘Sweet Friend!’,  suggesting a direct personal address to Mary Morgan or Charlotte Brent. The text printed in PW has ‘Dear maid!’, which points rather to Sara Hutchinson.[4]  I think the manuscript stands in relation to the version printed in PW much as the verse letter to Sara does to the Ode to Dejection. In publishing the poem in PW, Coleridge reduced the two intensely personal and confessional stanzas of the manuscript version to one stanza that celebrates the positives in the life of the speaker. And perhaps feeling he had sufficiently obscured his personal investment by the date-tree title, prose preface and introductory passages, he felt able to address the final lines to his beloved ‘Dear maid’. So, assuming the title and introductory prose are there to cover Coleridge’s tracks, I think the best version of the poem remains the four-stanza one, more or less as the verses appeared in PW:




Imagination; honourable aims;

Free commune with the choir that cannot die;

Science and song; delight in little things,

The buoyant child surviving in the man;

Fields, forests, ancient mountains, ocean, sky,

With all their voices – O dare I accuse

My earthly lot as guilty of my spleen,

Or call my destiny niggard! O no! no!

It is her largeness, and her overflow,

Which being incomplete, disquieteth me so!


For never touch of gladness stirs my heart,

But tim’rously beginning to rejoice

Like a blind Arab, that from sleep doth start

In lonesome tent, I listen for thy voice.

Belovèd! ‘tis not thine; thou art not there!

Then melts the bubble into idle air,

And wishing without hope I restlessly despair.


The mother with anticipated glee

Smiles o’er the child, that, standing by her chair

And flatt’ning its round cheek upon her knee,

Looks up, and doth its rosy lips prepare

To mock the coming sounds. At that sweet sight

She hears her own voice with a new delight;

And if the babe perchance should lisp the notes aright,


Then is she tenfold gladder than before!

But should disease or chance the darling take,

What then avail those songs, which sweet of yore

Were only sweet for their sweet echo’s sake?

Dear maid! No prattler at a mother’s knee

Was e’er so dearly prized as I prize Thee:

Why was I made for Love and Love denied to Me!



3. The Poem


In his incisive post-modernist reading of the poem, Tim Fulford treats the prose preface and all the versions as equally important, and sees them as ‘Coleridge’s attempt to create his own myth of the fall [of man] as a sexual split,  an attempt that is also a meditation on the necessary incompleteness of




texts’ (84).[5] Coleridge, in this reading, longs for an original bisexual unity before the Fall that was brought about by ‘woman’s desire’ (85), and his ‘unmanning failure’ to complete the poem may be repaired by a female reader, the ‘congenial spirit’ to whom Coleridge appeals in his preface. It is a confessional poem that fails to provide a ‘transparent communication’ of the author’s situation, and ‘the act of writing seems not to master the self, but to displace it into an endless deferral of satisfaction, a masochistic and tantalizing process’ (88). The poem ‘ends by blaming the woman for its own and its Author’s incompleteness with a bitterness and desperation that suggests that the preface’s hope for ‘‘some congenial spirit’’ to complete it was optimistic’ (90).[6] This reading finds in the last line a ‘bizarre reversal and a bizarre androgyny with the male poet taking the mother’s role’ (89). The last lines of the poem can then be read in two ways, as accusing Sara of denying him the love she owes him, or alternatively as directed at ‘an unnamed power’ that destroys their relationship.

       The last line of the poem, ‘Why was I made for Love, yet Love denied to Me!’, certainly had special resonance for the poet, but its meaning seems to me  more complex. In a letter of January 3, 1819, he cited it as prompted by the anguish of his unwise marriage to Sara Fricker.  This line, indeed, can be read as standing by itself and open to varying applications.  It is above all a cri de coeur for the human condition that explodes out of the anecdote of the mother and child. The mother’s delight in the love of her child may be shattered by the death of the infant, but at least she has experienced a mutual love given and returned, a love that may be reborn in another child. The narrator’s voice in the last line, however, is that of a mature person who has no hope of a reciprocated love, and who is burdened by the sense that


To know, to esteem, to love - and then to part

Makes up life’s tale to many a feeling heart.

                                                     (To Two Sisters, lines 1-2)


       The image of mother and child recalls Recollections of Love, in which the poet, as in a dream, has intimations of Sara’s presence as associated with childhood and the recovery of a lost infant:


As when a mother doth explore

The rose-mark on her long lost child

I met, I lov’d you, maiden mild!

As whom I long had lov’d before—

So deeply had I been beguil’d.




This is the only example of ‘rose-mark’ given in the OED; it suggests an identifying birth-mark, beauty, innocence (as long associated with the Virgin Mary), and the rosy colour linked with health and well-being. The transference of Coleridge’s love into a mother’s innocent love of a child also serves to sublimate his passion for Asra by feminizing it.

       The image of mother and child recurs in various configurations in Coleridge’s later poems. Sometimes Sara Hutchinson is the mother-figure, the ‘conjugal and mother Dove’ of  the Letter to –, sometimes Coleridge himself; sometimes Sara is linked to the image of a child, and sometimes the poet. The Letter and Dejection include an image that recalls Wordsworth’s poem Lucy Gray, the image of a child lost in a storm and unable to find her way home, which, in the Letter connects with Coleridge himself in his lament


I am not the buoyant Thing, I was of yore—

When like an own Child, I to JOY belong’d,       (227-8)


and hope grew round him like the clinging vine (236).  In the curious allegory of The Pang More Sharp than All (Poem 412: 1807-25), ‘Hope’s last and dearest Child without a name’ has deserted the poet, a child (surely Cupid lies behind the image?) who seems to represent an innocent love that is replaced by esteem and kindness, poor substitutes that cause the pang more sharp than all. Yet at the same time, the image of the child, the ‘faery Boy’ lives on:


For still there lives within my secret heart

The magic image of the magic Child,


who conjures a mirror in which ‘All longed for things their beings did repeat’,  a mirror in which he might see Sara Hutchinson returning his gaze once more. This group of images is eventually transformed through the distancing provided  by the late poem The Garden of Boccaccio, where the faery child he ‘wooed’ in his own childhood is identified as ‘Poesy’, a child that ‘had but newly left a Mother’s knee’ (the mother being the sober matron Philosophy); the child, identified with Love, is located in this poem in the gardens of Tuscany depicted in the drawing that inspired Coleridge to write the poem.

       In The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree are to be found most of the elements I noted in the later poems that deal with aspects of Coleridge’s continuing struggle to cope with loss and loneliness. There is the fluctuation between hope and despair; the double vision of the present eye and dream of the past; the inner sight of the blind figure; the image of mother and child in various configurations of innocence, love and loss; the constancy to an ideal sustained even as hope is momentarily renewed; the sense of terrible deprivation set off against the power of the imagination to make pictures and create visions of happiness. In addition, this poem is unusual in beginning with a fine acknowledgement of the many pleasures and advantages life has brought him. This first stanza registers his continuing enjoyment of nature, poetry,




science, as well as delight in little things. The ‘touch of gladness’ in such things passes into the imagined touch of Asra, in a vision or dream from which he wakes like the blind Arab in his lonely tent, deserted, as the bubble of his dream vanishes, and his gladness gives way to despair.

       The last two stanzas rework the image of mother and child Coleridge developed in ‘Recollections of Love’; the mother rejoices to see and hear the infant imitating her, an image that suggests a mutual devotion that is wholly innocent. The pair I think embody the poet’s idealised vision of his own passion for Asra; and his parting from Asra and loss are hinted at in the death of the infant, ‘taken’ by accident or disease, by factors beyond Coleridge’s control. The analogy between the mother and child on the one hand, and Coleridge and Sara on the other, is made explicit (for those in the know) in the last lines: ‘Dear maid! No prattler at a mother’s knee / Was e’er so dearly prized as I prize Thee’, with their final cry of anguish, ‘Why was I made for Love, and Love denied to Me!’  The imaginative leaps between the first two and between the second and third stanzas seem modernist; as do the unresolved contradictions which yet make sense. The ‘buoyant child surviving in the man’ in the first stanza, seems unrelated to the infant at its mother’s knee carried off by death in the last stanzas. But Coleridge is at once the buoyant child (the word ‘buoyant’ links this image with the Letter), whose capacity for delight remains vigorous, and the mother whose child has died, just as he is at once both the richly circumstanced poet, in commune with the songs of the ‘choir that cannot die’ as well as the ‘voices’ of nature, and, at the same time, the blind, lonely Arab, who yearns for the one voice that is not there, a voice echoed only in dreams that vanish.  There is no answer to the final rhetorical question; the love songs that once were sweet are of no avail, but yet the condition of unrequited love, for which, as the last line implies, there is no solution, is what made possible this poem or song in which Coleridge’s impassioned if conflicted feelings are expressed.

       The prose preface begins with a little story of Satan pretending to intercede for Adam as he was being exiled from Eden, and pleading with God to let Adam remain in paradise and send Eve out, as being most at fault. God replied saying, ‘The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel’, a sentence borrowed from the Bible, at Proverbs 12 10. God’s tender mercies, by contrast, are shown, according to various psalms, in love and the forgiveness of sins. In the 1828 text, Satan’s wickedness is shown in denying ‘the yearning of the soul for its answering image and completing counterpart’ (modified in 1829 into ‘the yearning of a human soul for its counterpart’). Here Coleridge comes near to identifying what he called in the second prose stanza ‘the ache of solitariness’ with the agency of the Devil. The poem itself makes no such connections directly, but its power issues from its recognition of the many blessings that the poet’s ‘earthly lot’ has brought him, even if these blessings, ‘tender mercies’ as they might seem, heard in the many ‘voices’ of people and the natural world, are as nothing in the absence of the voice of the ‘Beloved.’ 




The poem is, in its way, a gloss on Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam and Eve are represented as married in Book IV, and Adam is drawn by ‘the bond of nature’ to follow Eve in disobeying God, since they ‘are one, One flesh’ (IX 959-60). Coleridge’s anecdote finds cruelty in the offer of solitude in paradise as  compensation for the loss of love. It is a rejection of Marvell’s enthusiasm for solitude in The Garden,  ‘Two paradises ’twere in one /To live in Paradise alone’, and the many celebrations of ‘still retreats and flowery solitudes’ (Thomson, The Seasons, Autumn, 1305) in the eighteenth century.[7]

       Coleridge had offered his own variations on this debate in Reflections on a Place of Retirement (Poem 129: 1796), on quitting his Clevedon cottage for political activity in Bristol, a poem in which he deplores those who nurse ‘in some delicious solitude /Their slothful loves and dainty Sympathies!’ Here he may deliberately invoke Marvell’s lines ‘Society is all but rude / To this delicious solitude’, and a contemporary reader would no doubt recall the praise of solitude in other well-known works. The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree, however, takes the old debate between the advocates of retirement and of public life into a new dimension. Indeed, it changes the parameters in its recognition of the problem of loneliness, and becomes a lament for the human condition that so often thwarts hopes and desires, and that forces on us a consciousness of our ultimate isolation.

       In this shift of focus the poem also serves as a rebuke to Wordsworth, whose delight in ‘Musing in solitude’ (Preface to The Excursion) marks perhaps the culmination of the preference for retirement from public life so often celebrated in eighteenth-century poetry. In his poem Vers de Société,[8] Philip Larkin, jokingly commenting on yet another evening party, wrote that ‘the big wish / Is to have people nice to you’, so, he writes,  ‘how sternly it’s instilled / All solitude is selfish’.  Only God stands alone, and, well, maybe Wordsworth, who felt too much ‘The self-sufficing power of solitude’ (The Prelude, 1805, II 78).  In Wordsworth’s poem he copes with London only by remembering the things he had felt and thought of in his ‘solitude’ (The Prelude, VII 515). Solitude, as a condition we may choose, is selfish; loneliness, on the other hand, is the unbearable state we avoid as far as possible, and the most terrible loneliness is that felt in the midst of all that life can offer except love. In repudiating the pleasures of solitude and creating a poetry of loneliness and loss, Coleridge initiated what was later to become a powerful theme, as manifested, for example in the verse of Matthew Arnold, with its plangent sense that ‘in the sea of life enisled…We mortal millions live alone.’ (To Marguerite); or in the elegiac poetry of Tennyson (‘O for the touch of a




vanished hand / And the sound of a voice that is still’); or later in the isolation of the lonely crowds that inhabit James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night and T.S.Eliot’s early poems, Prufrock watching ‘the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirtsleeves’, or the crowd flowing over London Bridge in The Waste Land: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.  Reading The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree in this context suggests that Coleridge was ahead of his time not only as a proto-modernist in fragmenting his verses and abandoning a narrative flow, but also in anticipating the concern with loneliness and loss of community that later writers were to associate with the growth of mass societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[1]       Titles, poem numbers and dates are those assigned by J. C. C. Mays in his edition of PW (CC16), Reading Text .

[2]       Morton D. Paley, Coleridge’s Later Poems (Oxford and New York, 1996).

[3]       In ‘Romantic Improvisatori: Coleridge, L. E. L., and the Difficulties of Loving’, Philological Quarterly, 79 (2000),  501-22, Anya Taylor points out that Coleridge’s late poem, The Improvisatore (Poem 623: 1826), suggests that contentment is possible, ‘Though heart be lonesome, Hope laid low.’  ‘Coleridge argues that most persons do not achieve full reciprocity in love, and that this very absence of completion sharpens the soul’s yearnings for a sufficiency beyond what human love offers’ (517).

[4]       A transcript of the Minnesinger paraphrase adds yet another variant, ‘Dear dame’.

[5]  ‘Paradise Rewritten? Coleridge’s The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree’, The Wordsworth Circle, 24 (1993), 84-91.

[6] Tim Fulford, I should add, praises the poem as ‘an innovative text, new in its very form, disrupted as it is into fragments, translations, quotations, sections of prose’ (90). See also his follow-up essay on ‘Coleridge, Darwin, Linnaeus: The Sexual Politics of Botany’, The Wordsworth Circle, 28 (1997), 124-30.

[7]       See, for example, Abraham Cowley’s Of Solitude (1656); James Thomson’s Hymn on Solitude (1729); Joseph Warton’s To Solitude (1746); and William Cowper’s Retiremen (1782). Cowper gently mocks those who celebrate solitude in poems addressed to others:

                How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude!

                But grant me still a friend in my retreat,

                Whom I may whisper – solitude is sweet.

[8]       See High Windows (1974), 35.