About Joy and Melancholy

For an English class I’m taking, I’ve been reviewing the papers I’ve written for my English classes. And I got to this one, and it turns out I wrote it exactly a year ago. So of course I read it:) I guess it’s a terribly nerdy thing to publish one’s own (required) English papers. It’s an even nerdier thing to want to read someone’s required English papers. But if you want to, please do, and let me know your thoughts.

It turns out I only ever write the same paper with small variances each time. Thanks for reading me:)

Samuel Coleridge: A Return to Joy

Recently, my pastor spoke on certain gifts God has given those who follow Him; one of them, to my surprise, was grief. Grief and accompanying disappointment, he said, are gifts in that they remind us of what we truly value. Disappointment teaches us to value the right things, and grief, when it comes, brings us back to reliance on God. My pastor’s inclusion of grief on a list of God’s blessings surprised me, but I more-or-less accepted it and thought about other things. In writing this response, however, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago has come back into my mind, especially in considering the following passage:

…and sometimes

‘Tis well to be bereft of promised good,

That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share. (Coleridge 64-7)

When I read Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the above lines stood out to me as being especially worth remembering.  He wrote the poem under circumstances of loneliness, and, likely, pain, and yet he realized that his surroundings—his so-called prison—were lovely and full of comfort.

What I like about Coleridge, especially in this poem, is that, when he begins his meditation, he is despondent, but by the time he is finished, his soul is more peaceful than before. It seems as if his poetry is therapy for himself—if such was the case, I can certainly identify in that way with Coleridge. Although I do not struggle with an addiction as he did, I often become despondent or discouraged, and it is at those times that I find writing to be a gift. Writing, especially writing poetry or meditative prose, helps purge me of my despair and often leads me back to the hope I have in Christ. I write alone, which, similar to Coleridge’s situation, might seem sad to some people. However, if there is anything I have responded to with the Romantic tradition, it is the idea that melancholy is not always negative. Being alone and a little pensive is a means of developing thought and character, and is often precisely what I need. In a world where I have access to knowledge of what any number of friends is doing—of what I could be doing at any given moment—I value the ability to sit and simply be, without feeling as if I’m continually left out.

“That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate / With lively joys the joys we cannot share” (66-7). At first, Coleridge expresses disappointment that he cannot share his friend’s first experience of the sights that so delight him. He does not necessarily blame his wife for injuring his foot and thus confining him to his garden,[1] but he regrets losing “beauties and feelings, such as would have been / Most sweet to my remembrance even when age / Had dimmed mine eyes to blindness!” (2-5). He tends toward exaggeration: his garden-bower is therefore a prison, and he idealizes the “beauties and feelings” from which he is excluded. This is perhaps the more natural reaction: having been prevented from taking part in a long-awaited visit, Coleridge might be excused some jealousy. However, as he reviews them in his imagination, he begins to anticipate Charles’s joy, and that, in turn, gives him joy.

This seems like such a healthier, such a better, way of thinking, and, reading the turn in Coleridge’s thought, I wished I could have the same view of disappointing situations. I have stayed back from many events, either because I don’t feel I belong or because I have other obligations, and, in those situations, I tend toward a morose jealousy. Whether I admit it to myself or not, my gut reaction to deferred good is bitterness. Sometimes, though, I force myself to stop thinking of my feelings or misfortune, and consider the good in the situation. It may be that, because I was unable to go to the lake with a group of friends, for example, I had the time to read or think, or talk quietly with a friend who may have needed company.

Choosing to rejoice in the good fortune of others seems to be the happier, healthier attitude—as at Christmas, when, rather than compare my gifts with my siblings’, I choose to be glad for their sakes. Then again, I receive joy from anticipating peoples’ reactions to the gifts I have chosen for them; if I have put thought and feeling into finding what I think they will truly value, I would be disappointed not to see the expression on their faces when they unwrap their present. Perhaps this is a little of the disappointed feeling Coleridge has at the onset of the poem: having spent so much time anticipating Charles and Mary Lamb’s visit, only to miss seeing Charles’s reaction to, say, the purple flowers shining in the sunset, or “isles of purple shadow.”

How does he make up for the loss of such “beauties and feelings” as watching the sun set on a “kindled” ocean under a “wide, wide Heaven?” He imagines his friend experiencing such beauty for the first time, and the joy he imagines coming to Charles comes to him as well: “a delight / Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad / As if I myself were there!” (43-5). Now he begins noticing the beauty of his lime-tree bower, once a prison. He notices little things like a leaf’s stem making shadows on the transparent leaf, and the sights and sounds of twilight. “Henceforth I shall know,” he says, “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!” (59-64)

I identify with this view of Nature as a healing force. Whenever I am truly discouraged, I seek the outdoors—specifically a place where I can sit and notice little things of beauty. In college, I have found two spots on campus that have filled the role of Coleridge’s lime-tree bower: both are benches, one down near Speer Pavilion, the other just outside Berry Bible Building. From the bench at Speer, I can see the river, and, more importantly, the river’s bend, which I connect with hope and the anticipation of the unknown. I often hear birdsong, and on one occasion, I listened to a chorus of owls from across the river. It’s there that I have written the compositions that have shaped my thinking most clearly, because it’s there that I have the time and space to think clearly and process my thoughts. I notice things more there, and outside Berry, whether it’s the birdsong or the sunlight making the roses glow bright pink, dappled with sun and shade like Coleridge’s lime leaves. It is at times when I am at my leisure to notice well my surroundings that I realize how remarkable nature is. I wonder things like, “Why did God make flowers such a ruddy-pink?” God did not have to make the world so beautiful, yet He did. I wish I noticed it more.

These thoughts, thoughts that focus less on my circumstances than on truths I can be thankful for—these are what change my mindset from discouraged to content. If I can “employ each faculty of sense—” whether through looking or listening—under Coleridge’s view of Nature, my heart will keep awake to Love and Beauty. Joy will remain. Not just joy, but the “deep joy” Coleridge describes is highly attractive to me. He imagines Charles looking out over the wide landscape, and being overwhelmed with an inexplicable feeling of something more. Coleridge tries to describe it for the reader, speaking of a “swimming sense” that things are “less gross than bodily,” but this description seems vague and unsatisfying. Directly after, he compares the feeling of deep joy to the effect of the Holy Spirit on one’s soul, and that, to me, is a little clearer, though I still feel that Coleridge must have struggled to evoke the emotion he intended. I think I know what he meant, although I doubt I could express it any better than he did.

The feeling I am thinking of is one of reveling in the way the world is—and yet, it might not be particularly happy. It is seeing your surroundings with an eye of intense delight, as if you are seeing more to them than what is normally apparent. As Coleridge says, it is as when the “Almighty Spirit…yet [he] makes / Spirits perceive his presence.” I have felt a little of this enigmatic sensation, most often when surrounded by natural beauty, and I have encountered it in books. L.M. Montgomery, who wrote the “Anne of Green Gables” series, had a fondness for crafting highly-poetical, romantic heroines, such as Anne or the title character of the “Emily” series, both of whom were subject to what Emily called “the Flash.” The Flash, according to Emily, was a trance-like state that might come over her and make her extraordinarily sensitive to beauty or, in a broader sense, truth—especially truth that might not be apparent under ordinary circumstances. For Anne, the feeling manifested itself in her ability to notice the ethereal beauty of her environment. Perhaps the feeling comes with a tendency to poeticize one’s surroundings, a tendency Coleridge decidedly possesses.

And yet, this same sort of feeling shows up in C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, “Surprised by Joy.” As I recall, Lewis experienced a sense of longing, an “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Such a sensation he devotes an entire book to describing, or trying to describe—that of a depth of intense feeling that attracts him again and again. He calls it Joy, and differentiates the feeling from happiness or pleasure. Coleridge does not explicitly make such a distinction, so perhaps the two feelings are not the same. Regardless, in reading Coleridge’s words, I was reminded of Lewis’s, and further reminded of instances where I think I have had similar, if not identical, flashes of joy.

I think it happens most often when I am very content or very distraught, and less often when I am routinely going about my days, intent on getting things done. If I am feeling well and particularly happy to be alive, I might look up at the sky and feel a glad shudder go through me, simply because I can hardly believe this is real life. If I am sad, however, or discouraged, or only feeling a little lonely, everything around me, though beautiful, seems not enough. There ought to be more, I think—and the thought is never completed. I don’t know what it is that I long for more of, exactly, and even if I knew, perhaps I could not express it. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, speaks of a Christian being out-of-place in the world, and thus feeling “homesick at home.” Even in the middle of standing, like Coleridge, with a wide, wide view of an incredibly lovely world, I feel that something is missing—and I long for its completion.

 

[1] Just previous to the visit of his friends, Coleridge’s wife, Sara, accidentally spilled scalding milk on his foot, preventing Coleridge from walking with his friends during their visit.

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