Coleridge’s 1797 poem ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’ is my choice for a lockdown poem. It offers the projective imagination as a powerful cure for privation and loss. The cause of Coleridge’s temporary confinement is explained in an accompanying note. He is ‘imprisoned’ in his garden bower because of a minor domestic accident in which he has scalded his foot with hot milk. This might be thought to lessen the poem’s seriousness, but this is not so. Coleridge’s minor accident provides a chance to get things in proportion and to see the larger picture. And he makes good use of the opportunity by examining in equal measure the dangers of melancholy and self-pity. More importantly for the poem, his enforced solitude enables him to celebrate companionship and to overcome absence by projecting onto his close friend Charles Lamb. In this way, he finds that he can participate in the picturesque walk his friends are enjoying without him. It is a celebrated instance of imagination’s liberating power. It can offer him release from the physical limitations of the body. Almost magically, it can make the absent present. All these achievements of imagination are well rehearsed in the history of Romanticism and they remain pertinent to the psychological challenge we all face in the current pandemic. It should be remembered that Coleridge’s poetry was – possibly more than Wordsworth’s – the ‘cure’ for John Stuart Mill after his breakdown. Poetry restored the utilitarian philosopher, not least because it taught him how to express his feelings and because it could ...
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