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The Dungeon - A Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Plus Wordsworth's 'The Convict') - Analysis
THE DUNGEON - A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
And this place our forefathers made for man!
This is the process of our love and wisdom,
To each poor brother who offends against us ~
Most innocent, perhaps ~ and what if guilty?
Is this the only cure? Merciful God!
Each pore and natural outlet shrivell'd up
By ignorance and parching poverty,
His energies roll back upon his heart,
And stagnate and corrupt; till changed to poison,
They break out on him, like a loathsome plague-spot;
Then we call in our pamper'd mountebanks ~
And this is their best cure! uncomforted
And friendless solitude, groaning and tears
And savage faces, at the clanking hour,
Seen through the steams and vapour of his dungeon,
By the lamp's dismal twilight! So he lies
Circled with evil, till his very soul
Unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed
By sights of ever more deformity!
With other ministrations, thou, O nature!
Healest thy wandering and distempered child:
Thou pourest on him thy soft influences,
Thy sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets,
Thy melodies of woods, and winds, and waters,
Till he relent, and can no more endure
To be a jarring and a dissonant thing,
Amid this general dance and minstrelsy;
But, bursting into tears, wins back his way,
His angry spirit healed and harmonized
By the benignant touch of love and beauty.
'The Dungeon' Coleridge
~ A wonderfully thought-provoking example of Samuel Coleridge poetry.
Buy Lyrical Ballads - Wordsworth & Coleridge
In 1798 the poets and friends, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published their 'Lyrical Ballads with a Few Other Poems’. It was experimental and revolutionary in style.
Coleridge & Wordsworth
The Dungeon Analysis
'The Dungeon' Samuel Taylor Coleridge Analysis
‘The Dungeon' is one of Coleridge’s contributions. The poem concerns a dungeon of 'The Inquisition' and, along with 'The Foster Mother's Tale’, it forms part of a longer work ~ a play called 'Osorio', later renamed 'Remorse'.
This poem is written in free verse, without regular rhyme or obvious meter, though it might be considered to be in a type of iambic tetrameter. Since it is not a ballad, it must come under the heading of 'a few other poems'. The lack of regular rhyme and meter gives it a feeling of freedom from constrictions, and means that there is no barrier between the message and the reader.
Like a lot of other 'romantic' poetry, it is political and passionate. It reflects truths and is concerned with the well-being of the common man.
Language, Imagery, Etc
The language is more complex than that in the simple ballads, but it is not beyond the comprehension of most readers.
There are two stanzas. The first is longer than the second, having 19 lines. The second verse has 11 lines.
The first line of the first verse ends in the word 'man'. The first line of the second verse ends in the word 'nature'. Both have exclamation marks. This stresses the links that Coleridge sees ~ or would like to see ~ between man and nature.
In each verse, the vocabulary used contributes to the reader's understanding of the atmosphere and the environment.
The imagery of verse 1 is negative, soul-destroying and dark. Coleridge mentions 'dismal twilight'; also 'steam and vapours'. The darkness may also represent the 'ignorance' that he notes, in dealing with prisoners.
When he speaks of 'the criminal's energies', being 'shrivelled up' as they 'stagnate' and 'corrupt', the words bring his feelings directly to the reader.
His emotions about the wretchedness of this prison, and how it must have felt to experience it, are made clear when he mentions the criminal's 'groaning and tears' as he 'lies circled with evil' and it is further stressed in two successive lines, mid verse, which speak of 'poison' and of a 'loathsome plague-spot'.
The discomfort of the place is reflected in the short vowel sounds and the number of relatively short sentences or phrases.
All the negative imagery, including the 'savage faces' and the allusion to shackles or chains, in the word 'clanking', contribute to the hopelessness of the prison and to Coleridge's conclusion that it is not a suitable way to deal with any man.
The last two lines of the first verse sum up the miserable and unhealthy environment, ending, as they do, with the words 'deformed' and 'deformity'. They contrast noticeably with the second line of verse two, which begins with the word 'healest'.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Biographical, etc:
The Romantic Movement was revolutionary. It challenged the old classical, aristocratic style of literature, by championing the common man and using his language, and some of its roots lay in other revolutionary movements, including the French Revolution.
It was also a reaction against the changes that the English people and the English countryside were experiencing. During the 18th century, agricultural methods were changing. Many tenant farmers lost their land because of enclosure. People were moving in large numbers from country villages into the towns.
The romantics extolled the countryside and the beauty and goodness of nature over the man-made environments of towns ~ and their associated evils. This is what Coleridge is doing in this poem. He is criticising the way that a man, separated from his natural environment, might turn to crime, and be incarcerated in a cell as punishment. He is astounded that 'this [dungeon] is their best cure'.
Furthermore, he suggests that these men were perhaps 'most innocent', thus illustrating the injustice, as well as the uselessness, of such a dungeon.
Romantic poetry was a reaction against the agricultural revolution, urbanisation, industrialisation and the social ills which went with them.
The Enclosure Act, for example, could make a reasonably successful man into a homeless pauper, who might need to steal, simply to feed his family, through no fault of his own. Men such as this might have been included in 'the innocents' described here by Coleridge, who is displaying sympathy for human suffering, whether the human is guilty or innocent, when he draws our attention to their 'parching poverty' by using alliteration and by using plosives ~ he shows his anger, by almost spitting out these words.
He also indicates that this form of punishment turns men into savages, rather than allowing them to return to their harmonious place in the natural world.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Autobiographical, etc:
The second verse is much more positive and bright than the first. 'Sunny hues' replace 'dismal twilight'. There is a complete change in tone and mood. It is uplifting, speaking not of 'deformity' and poison', but of 'healing'. Rather than describing lying, 'circled in evil', it talks of 'dance and minstrelsy'.
The only ‘jarring and a dissonant thing’ in verse two is the line: ‘To be a jarring and a dissonant thing’ ~ and this can no longer be endured.
Coleridge uses the 'rule of three' in two consecutive lines, giving a satisfying poetic tone to the verse, which is pleasant to the ear. We have: 'sunny hues, fair forms and breathing sweets' followed by 'woods, winds and waters'. To add to the effect, Coleridge uses alliteration ~ 'w' in the latter and 'f' in 'fair forms'. He also gives soothing long vowel sounds, such as those in 'breathing sweets'.
Instead of short phrases, there are only two sentences for the whole of verse two, adding to the dreamlike view of nature. It is an idealistic poem ~ unrealistic and romantic.
While verse one gives the reader an enclosed cell, from which there is no escape, verse two gives the expansive freedom of nature. It reflects Coleridge’s belief in the power of nature to heal the criminal mind and to provide man with harmony.
The language is almost Biblical in tone, and 'nature' is addressed as if in prayer: 'O nature! Healest thy wandering and distempered child.' Between the two verses, the criminal man has become a distempered child.
The power of nature is likened, by both reader and writer, to the power of God, in that it can redeem and reform.
Indeed, it may be seen as superior to God, since in verse 1, Coleridge exclaims 'Merciful God!' ~ as if criticising God's supposed mercy, and questioning whether he cannot find a 'better cure' for man’s ills.
There is a huge contrast between the two verses. One describes a man-made hellish prison; the other describes nature's healing freedom. The vocabulary and sentence-structure differ accordingly.
It remains a beautiful, fascinating and thought-provoking poem.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1795 by Peter Vandyke
William Wordsworth in 1798 by William Shuter
'The Convict' by William Wordsworth
This is a poem, included in 'Lyrical Ballad's, on a similar theme to Coleridge's 'The Dungeon', but this one is by Wordsworth, and it is interesting to compare the style and content:
The glory of evening was spread through the west;
~ On the slope of a mountain I stood;
While the joy that precedes the calm season of rest
Rang loud through the meadow and wood.
"And must we then part from a dwelling so fair?"
In the pain of my spirit I said,
And with a deep sadness I turned, to repair
To the cell where the convict is laid.
The thick-ribbed walls that o'ershadow the gate
Resound; and the dungeons unfold:
I pause; and at length, through the glimmering grate,
That outcast of pity behold.
His black matted head on his shoulder is bent,
And deep is the sigh of his breath,
And with stedfast dejection his eyes are intent
On the fetters that link him to death.
'Tis sorrow enough on that visage to gaze.
That body dismiss'd from his care;
Yet my fancy has pierced to his heart, and pourtrays
More terrible images there.
His bones are consumed, and his life-blood is dried,
With wishes the past to undo;
And his crime, through the pains that o'erwhelm him, descried,
Still blackens and grows on his view.
When from the dark synod, or blood-reeking field,
To his chamber the monarch is led,
All soothers of sense their soft virtue shall yield,
And quietness pillow his head.
But if grief, self-consumed, in oblivion would doze,
And conscience her tortures appease,
'Mid tumult and uproar this man must repose;
In the comfortless vault of disease.
When his fetters at night have so press'd on his limbs,
That the weight can no longer be borne,
If, while a half-slumber his memory bedims,
The wretch on his pallet should turn,
While the jail-mastiff howls at the dull clanking chain,
From the roots of his hair there shall start
A thousand sharp punctures of cold-sweating pain,
And terror shall leap at his heart.
But now he half-raises his deep-sunken eye,
And the motion unsettles a tear;
The silence of sorrow it seems to supply,
And asks of me why I am here.
"Poor victim! no idle intruder has stood
"With o'erweening complacence our state to compare,
"But one, whose first wish is the wish to be good,
"Is come as a brother thy sorrows to share.
"At thy name though compassion her nature resign,
"Though in virtue's proud mouth thy report be a stain,
"My care, if the arm of the mighty were mine,
"Would plant thee where yet thou might'st blossom again."
'The Dungeon' or 'The Convict'?
Which do you prefer: Coleridge's 'The Dungeon' or Wordsworth's 'The Convict'?
The poems contributed to 'Lyrical Ballads' (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere
The Nightingale, a Conversational Poem
The Foster-Mother's Tale
Some of My Poetry Hubs
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Works
The poems contributed to 'Lyrical Ballads' (1798) by William Wordsworth:
Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite
The Female Vagrant
Goody Blake and Harry Gill
Lines written at a small distance from my House, and sent by my little Boy to the Person to whom they are addressed
Simon Lee, the old Huntsman
Anecdote for Fathers
We are seven
Lines written in early spring
The last of the Flock
The Mad Mother
The Idiot Boy
Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening
Expostulation and Reply
The Tables turned; an Evening Scene, on the same subject
Old Man travelling
The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman
Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey
Also the introductory 'advertisement' ~
'The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. ..........'
Some Related Hubs:
- The Birth of the English Romantic Movement
In the second half of the eighteenth century, a spirit of rebellion swept across the world. The American colonies fought for their independence from the British, and in 1789, the masses in France revolted...