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The Eolian Harp by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis

The Eolian Harp by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:01 The Background of The…
  • 1:22 Poem Summary
  • 5:26 Analysis
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
After Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed the poem 'The Eolian Harp,' he revised it several times over the course of 23 years. In this lesson, we will examine the background and meaning of this poem.

The Background of the Eolian Harp

Before Samuel Taylor Coleridge married Sara Fricker, the two visited a cottage where they would spend the beginning part of their married lives. It was after this visit that Coleridge wrote the first draft of the 17-line poem titled 'The Eolian Harp' in 1795.

By the time it was published in 1796, the poem had 56 lines, and by 1828, it had expanded still more to 65 lines. Because Coleridge revised it several times over the 33 years, it seems like a group of separate poems joined together into one.

An Eolian harp or 'Aeolian harp' is a stringed instrument that makes music when the wind blows through it, much like wind chimes. Coleridge titled the poem after the instrument. It's believed that Romantic poets like Coleridge were drawn to this instrument because it was controlled by the forces of nature. All creative music or inspiration came from outside the instrument, just as all creative power came from outside the poet in some sublime way, much like the Greek muse.

However, Coleridge changed his own beliefs about inspiration after 1800; he no longer held to the symbol of the Eolian Harp, but rather felt that the mind should be compared to an instrument such as the violin, which made lovely music when 'played on by a musician of genius.' Still, Coleridge kept the title.

Poem Summary

Let's take a look at the five stanzas of The Eolian Harp.

Stanza one is fairly straightforward. Coleridge is sitting with Sara, his fiancée, in front of the quaint cottage that will be their future home. It's early evening. Coleridge mentions the flowers Jasmin and Myrthe, and that they symbolize innocence and love. As a poet, Coleridge notices everything around him, things that many people would take for granted. The setting is almost like Eden. He ends the first stanza with these lines:

'How exquisite the scents

Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!

The stilly murmur of the distant Sea

Tells us of silence.'

The scents and sounds of the early evening are nothing but peaceful and promising.

In stanza two, Coleridge hears the sound of an Eolian harp that disturbs the silence, and this burst of stringed melody propels his imagination beyond the literal moment to the sublime.

First, Coleridge compares the music of the harp to the sound of a lute and then to a sensual moment between lovers. From there, Coleridge's imagination leaps to a world of Elfin music, 'when they at eve (v)oyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,' and the melodies, themselves, dance wildly like 'birds of paradise.' Again, Coleridge produces a stark mental picture for us as we read.

Coleridge references creative power and a spiritual force when he states:

'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 everywhere--

Methinks, it should have been impossible

Not to love all things in a world so filled.'

Coleridge's soul rises above the seeming simplicity of the moment at the cottage to the spiritual inspiration that he believes fills all of creation.

In stanza three, Coleridge addresses Sara. He recalls a nap he took on a hillside overlooking the sea that afternoon. He compares the sun shining on the sea to diamonds. Then, he remembers the unasked-for thoughts and inspirations that flitted through his brain, much like those he is thinking of after hearing the music of the harp. Some force in nature, just like the harp, produces the creative inspiration that sweeps through his thoughts.

In stanza four, Coleridge uses a metaphor, calling all of nature 'organic harps diversely framed.' He goes on to say that these natural harps 'tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps (p)lastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, (a)t once the Soul of each, and God of all?' Here, Coleridge knows he is treading dangerously as he and Sara have differing opinions as to who God is, for Coleridge is giving this sublime, spiritual, creative force in nature equality with God.

Finally, in stanza five, Sara sets Coleridge straight. He writes: 'But thy more serious eye a mild reproof (d)arts, O beloved Woman!' Her glance, alone, lets him know that she believes he is erring, spiritually. Coleridge continues with the words:

'Dim and unhallowed dost thou not reject,

And biddest me walk humbly with my God.

Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!'

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