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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: Tension in Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Mariyah Mandhu (University of Sheffield) discusses tension in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude (1798) is frequently considered as one of the poet’s most political works.[1] The volatility of this lyric has often been attributed to Coleridge’s political torment,[2] yet the implications of his experimentation with genre have largely been ignored. Sponsoring Carl Woodring’s observation that politics ‘agitated the body of [Coleridge’s] verse with severe but local storms’,[3] Coleridge uses the pastoral to inform his tale of nationalism. Rupturing the unified, idyllic landscape of pastoral, the poet darkens the natural world to a point of high anxiety, creating an insoluble tension in his poem. Reconsidering Fears in Solitude as an exercise in genre, this blog post will explore how the pastoral informs the political drive of this ‘Conversation Poem’.

Fears in Solitude opens with a typical scene of pastoral retreat in the Quantock Hills. A sight close to the poet’s heart, he tells us of a ‘green and silent spot, amid the hills’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 1) where ‘No singing sky-lark ever poised himself’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 3). The beauty of the scene is complemented by the fresh greenness, the soothing sibilance and the skylark, a joyous symbol of the divine spirit. There is a nostalgic overtone implied in the lushness of landscape as it embodies a ‘quiet spirit-healing nook’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 12). Erecting ‘a different kind of world to that of realism’,[4] Fears in Solitude begins in the conventional pastoral mode, instating physical and spiritual unity in the natural world.

Obliterating nature’s beauty almost immediately, the pastoral is suddenly upended in the next stanza. Contemplating the possibility of ‘What uproar and what strife may now be stirring / This way or that way o’er these silent hills—’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 34-35), there appears to be an inherent anxiety stirring in Coleridge’s mind. Where the hills previously denoted calm, their silence now operates as a perturbation that anticipates the impending French invasion. Registering a sense of immediacy, the use of ‘now’ draws this tension into the present, completely overturning the idyllic opening of the poem. The pastoral is suddenly overwhelmed by a cacophony of noise, ‘the thunder and the shout, / And all the crash of onset; fear and rage’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 36-37). Notwithstanding the obvious onomatopoeia, Coleridge rejects what Simon Jarvis terms a ‘nihilated theory of the living, healthy and whole’.[5] Pastoral degenerates into a threatening, alien and loud presence, representing the ‘groan’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 40) of political torment, an efficient expression of national fear.

The poem then descends into an admonition as Coleridge reprimands his countrymen for the gross offences they have perpetrated. Unlike Wordsworth who seems to criticise the urban commercial world, Coleridge draws attention to man’s offences as a nationwide, rural and urban, issue. Pastoral sheds its status as a pure genre, admitting that the rural sphere is just as polluted as the urban, weakening the genre’s typical city/country contrast. Highlighting the hypocrisy of man, Coleridge muses:

Forth from his dark and lonely hiding-place,

(Portentous sight!) the owlet Atheism,

Sailing on obscene wings athwart the noon,

Drops his blue-fringed lids, and holds them close,

And hooting at the glorious sun in Heaven,

Cries out, ‘Where is it?’

(Fears in Solitude, l. 81-86)

Adding a strong grain of satire to Fears in Solitude, Coleridge redirects the pastoral to criticise mankind. The ‘owlet Atheism’ holding its ‘blue-fringed lids’ close symbolises wilful, intellectual blindness. Mocking the type of person who would stare at the sun without seeing it, there is a genuine fear that the deluded countrymen will listen to such hooting blindness, and thence degenerate further. With pastoral now embodying Coleridge’s main fear in solitude—a fruitless future for his nation—the genre takes on a darkened aesthetic power in order to expose the consequences of man’s apathy.

Offering a solution to this great national issue, Coleridge calls out to God to ‘spare us ye awhile!’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 130) in order that his countrymen may redeem themselves. Suggesting collective action as the chief antidote to this ‘Alarm of an Invasion’,[6] the poet commands:

Stand we forth;

Render them back upon the insulted ocean,

And let them toss as idly on its waves

As the vile sea-weed,

(Fears in Solitude, l. 146-149)

Drawing the ocean into his pastoral, Coleridge affirms that the British must undertake the arduous task of defence. Reducing the enemy down to ‘vile sea-weed’ demonstrates Coleridge’s contempt of, and determination to defeat the French. That the opposition should ‘toss as idly on its waves’ suggests a lifelessness, allowing the pastoral to consider more sinister and hostile subject matter. Modifying nature, and particularly the ocean, to such an extent that ‘a person [becomes] unsure of his way around’,[7] pastoral becomes uncertain, cold and intimidating.

Having battled through such a brutal and unforgiving vista, Coleridge attempts to instil pastoral calm as he remembers the ‘green and silent dell’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 238). Grateful for ‘nature’s quietness / And solitary musings, all [his] heart / Is softened’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 239-241). Acknowledging the pastoral turmoil that we have just weathered, this retreat brings with it ‘a tension of values’ as we are asked to reconsider the efficacy of the serene bucolic against the backdrop of the chaotic, anxious darker pastoral.[8] Against William Empson’s view that Coleridge’s main business is ‘to reconcile nature to his tribe’,[9] Coleridge seems unreconciled with nature himself, as is reflected in the fracture and tensions of the poetry.

Works cited:
[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Fears in Solitude (1798)’, in The Major Works including Biographia Literaria, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 92-98.
[2] See for example, Peter Larkin, ‘”Fears in Solitude:” Reading (from) the Dell’, The Wordsworth Circle, 22. 1 (1991) < https://www.jstor.org/stable/24042639> [Accessed 30 July 2019] and Paul Magnuson, ‘The Shaping of “Fears in Solitude”’, in Coleridge’s Theory of Imagination Today, ed. by Christine Gallant (New York: AMS Press, 1989).
[3] Carl Woodring, ‘The Language of Politics’, in Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp. 33-44 (p. 33)
[4] Terry Gifford, ‘The Discourse of Retreat’, in Pastoral (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 45-80 (p. 45).
[5] Simon Jarvis, ‘Life’, in Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 153-194 (p. 155).
[6] Coleridge, ‘Fears in Solitude (1798’), p. 92.
Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, in The Uncanny: Translated by David McLintock with an Introduction by Hugh Houghton (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 121-159 (p. 125).
[8] Stuart Curran, ‘Pastoral’, in British Form and Romanticism (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 85-127 (p. 88).
[9] William Empson, ‘The Beggar’s Opera: Mock-pastoral as the Cult of Independence’, in Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), pp. 195-252 (p. 207).

Mariyah Mandhu is a PhD student in Romantic poetry at the University of Sheffield. Her project reinterprets the use of the pastoral genre in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Adapting Timothy Morton’s concept of ‘dark ecology’, she argues that in Romantic poetry there emerges an ambivalent, treacherous version of nature, unseen in such an extensive capacity until Coleridge’s ‘Conversation Poems’ in 1975. Revealing the existence of a Romantic subgenre entitled the dark pastoral, she explores its usage in poems that span the full length of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s careers.