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Nature as a Gateway in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison"
For Coleridge, as for the other romantic poets, nature is more than just twigs and leaves. As is evidenced in his poem “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison,” nature provides a way to experience emotions and appreciate beauty through the actual experience, memory of the experience, and an imagined experience. Nature also represents a sort of quasi-religious force, which can provide spiritual healing and a sense of community. In short, nature becomes more than just the materials it is comprised of; it becomes a path to fulfillment and enlightenment.
In the poem, Coleridge laments the fact that he is unable to accompany his friends as they go walking around the surrounding area. He laments that he has “lost / Beauties and feelings” because injury has denied him the opportunity to come along. By going along with his friends he would’ve been able to experience the beauty and sublime joy of nature, which would have moved him emotionally. The very tangible world of the dell and the sea becomes a gateway to the intangible world of emotions. It is important to note that nature is not “love and beauty” in and of itself, but it keeps “the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty.” It is the catalyst that allows for emotional journeys and spiritual awakenings.
To follow up that sense of nature leading to the intangible world, Coleridge's account instills the natural world with a religious sense of awe. He uses the word “heaven” to describe the sky and speaks of an “Almighty Spirit” as being perceived in the natural world. He does not exactly call nature God itself. That would actually be somewhat counter to what is achieved by invoking the spiritual world. To call nature God would be to introduce a hierarchy that would divide man and nature into worshiper and worshipped. What Coleridge emphasizes is not divisive, but connective. He speaks of gazing into the landscape until “all doth seem / Less gross than bodily." This transcendent moment represents an escape from the material world of the body, allowing Coleridge to melt into the spiritual world and become one with it. Nature allows for a connection. This connection is made very clear by the end of the poem in which Coleridge has come to appreciate the bower (which he formerly called his prison) as having “soothed” him in much the same way that he assumed the nature walk would’ve restored Charles after his long stay in the city. He also notes that the same rook which flies over his head will fly over Charles, therefore connecting Coleridge’s small patch of nature in the bower to the wider natural world. This, along with the references to other creatures and plants such as the bee and the bean flower living in harmony, creates a community of living things that are all connected to one another. Nature allows one to tap into this vast spirit made up of smaller individuals.
It is important to note, as this philosophy makes a lot of hay about getting past the material world and in touch with the greater truths of the spiritual world: that physicality isn’t necessary to access it. Coleridge is able to connect with the Almighty Spirit through his own experiences in the dell and in his experiences in the bower, yes, but he is also able to capture the emotion, the divine and the healing qualities that nature helps him to access in a much more cerebral way. In this poem, Coleridge experiences such emotions both by remembering his past experiences with nature and by imagining the experiences of others. Therefore, memory and imagination become the means to tap into the spiritual world as well as nature.
It is easy to get swept away by the appreciative descriptions of the natural world and the heaped praises on nature itself in the poems of the romantics and forget that the nature they were talking about actually represented something much bigger than forests or fields. Nature was a way of experiencing a religion that preached a connected between the tiniest flower and the tallest mountain; between the buzzing bee and the thinking man. Nature allows an understanding of the vastness of the universe and an understanding of the larger soul which joins and moves within all living things.