Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Eolian Harp

In my recent re-posting of a review of Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown [here], I made reference to ST Coleridge and his own brand of pantheism, expressed with such paradoxical impact in The Eolian Harp, so I am now re-posting a short piece on this, originally presented in March, 2012:

(Composed at Clevedon, Somersetshire)


My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad-leav’d Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatch’d from yon bean-field! and the world is hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.

And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caress’d,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dripping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam’d wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos’d eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O belovéd Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow’d dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God.
Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!
Well hast thou said and holily disprais’d
These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring.
For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healéd me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wilder’d and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour’d Maid!

I am currently involved in some work on Coleridge though my contributions are informed more by my enthusiasms than detailed knowledge. I studied his poetry at ‘A’ level and regarded him then, and now, as one of the first hippies, so cultivated that affinity – the communing with nature and dabbling in drugs as requisites for his membership of the club.

It wasn’t until my own teaching of ‘A’ level English Literature that I chose his poem The Eolian Harp to include in a self-selected anthology I comprised to teach for a coursework component. I do genuinely feel this poem has such startling contradictory qualities: the exalted expression of his oneness with god – a communing I cannot share but fully empathise with through the mimesis of his language which captures that moment,

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;

The sound-balance of that first line is stunning. I can relate to this pantheistic moment, although, as I’ve already said, not make its leap.

The opposing expression in the poem is of course the orthodox and pious stance Coleridge is forced to take near the end when Sara reminds and bullies him to be humble before the god with whom he had dared to share that remarkable moment of coalescence. The dirge of those dreadful closing lines is such a stark contrast with the joy and celebration of his transient sound-like power in light.

1 thought on “Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Eolian Harp

  1. Yes-I’m a fan of Coleridge, having studied him for A Level. There is a particular quality in his work I can’t quite put a finger on, but I think that’s precisely why it appeals to me. The sound is in itself something special-I like what you say about the balance being stunning in the line you mention-and actually I think it is this ‘sound-balance’ which most draws me to Kubla Khan-particularly the first stanza.


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