The speaker recalls a poem that tells the tale of Sir Patrick Spence: In this poem, the moon takes on a certain strange appearance that presages the coming of a storm. The speaker declares that if the author of the poem possessed a sound understanding of weather, then a storm will break on this night as well, for the moon looks now as it did in the poem. The speaker wishes ardently for a storm to erupt, for the violence of the squall might cure his numb feeling. He says that he feels only a ‘dull pain,” “a grief without a pang”—a constant deadening of all his feelings. Speaking to a woman whom he addresses as “O Lady,” he admits that he has been gazing at the western sky all evening, able to see its beauty but unable fully to feel it. He says that staring at the green sky will never raise his spirits, for no “outward forms” can generate feelings: Emotions can only emerge from within.
According to the speaker, “we receive but what we give”: the soul itself must provide the light by which we may hope to see nature’s true beauty—a beauty not given to the common crowd of human beings (“the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd”). Calling the Lady “pure of heart,” the speaker says that she already knows about the light and music of the soul, which is Joy. Joy, he says, marries us to nature, thereby giving us “a new Earth and new Heaven, / Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud.”
The speaker insists that there was a time when he was full of hope, when every tribulation was simply the material with which “fancy made me dreams of happiness.” But now his afflictions press him to the earth; he does not mind the decline of his mirth, but he cannot bear the corresponding degeneration of his imagination, which is the source of his creativity and his understanding of the human condition, that which enables him to construct “from my own nature all the natural man.” Hoping to escape the “viper thoughts” that coil around his mind, the speaker turns his attention to the howling wind that has begun to blow. He thinks of the world as an instrument played by a musician, who spins out of the wind a “worse than wintry song.” This melody first calls to mind the rush of an army on the field; quieting, it then evokes a young girl, lost and alone.
It is midnight, but the speaker has “small thoughts” of sleep. However, he hopes that his friend the Lady will be visited by “gentle Sleep” and that she will wake with joyful thoughts and “light heart.” Calling the Lady the “friend devoutest of my choice,” the speaker wishes that she might “ever, evermore rejoice.”
The long ode stanzas of “Dejection” are metered in iambic lines ranging in length from trimeter to pentameter. The rhymes alternate between bracketed rhymes (ABBA) and couplets (CC) with occasional exceptions.
In this poem, Coleridge continues his sophisticated philosophical exploration of the relationship between man and nature, positing as he did in “The Nightingale” that human feelings and the forms of nature are essentially separate. Just as the speaker insisted in the earlier poem that the nightingale’s song should not be called melancholy simply because it sounded so to a melancholy poet, he insists here that the beauty of the sky before the storm does not have the power to fill him with joy, for the source of human feeling is within. Only when the individual has access to that source, so that joy shines from him like a light, is he able to see the beauty of nature and to respond to it. (As in “Frost in Midnight,” the city-raised Coleridge insists on a sharper demarcation between the mind and nature than the country-raised Wordsworth would ever have done.)
Coleridge blames his desolate numbness for sapping his creative powers and leaving him without his habitual method of understanding human nature. Despite his insistence on the separation between the mind and the world, Coleridge nevertheless continues to find metaphors for his own feelings in nature: His dejection is reflected in the gloom of the night as it awaits the storm.
“Dejection” was written in 1802 but was originally drafted in the form of a letter to Sara Hutchinson, the woman Coleridge loved. The much longer original version of the poem contained many of the same elements as “The Nightingale” and “Frost at Midnight,” including the same meditation on his children and their natural education. This version also referred explicitly to “Sara” (replaced in the later version by “Lady”) and “William” (a clear reference to Wordsworth). Coleridge’s strict revision process shortened and tightened the poem, depersonalizing it, but the earlier draft hints at just how important the poem’s themes were to Coleridge personally and indicates that the feelings expressed were the poet’s true beliefs about his own place in the world.
A side note: The story of Sir Patrick Spence, to which the poet alludes in the first stanza, is an ancient Scottish ballad about a sailor who drowns with a boatload of Scottish noblemen, sailing on orders from the king but against his own better judgment. It contains lines that refer to the moon as a predictor of storms, which Coleridge quotes as an epigraph for his ode: “Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon / With the old Moon in her arms; / And I fear, I fear, my Master dear! / We shall have a deadly storm.”