Lesson #204: Considering Coleridge’s poem ‘Desire’ from 3 different perspectives

📜 Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;

It is the reflex of our earthly frame,

That takes its meaning from the nobler part,

And but translates the language of the heart.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This very short but thoughtful poem is our text for today’s poetry-based Lesson (you may have noticed how our weekend Lessons generally take a look at some poem or other)! 📜

I would like to consider it briefly from three perspectives:

  1. its historical and literary context
  2. its poetic meaning and interpretations
  3. its writing style: grammar and punctuation

📝 HISTORICAL AND LITERARY BACKGROUND

At the beginning of this month we looked at a famous poem by William Wordsworth (Lesson #200) and today’s poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), was one of Wordsworth’s closest friends and collaborators (together they wrote and published a poetry collection called Lyrical Ballads in 1798).

Coleridge was not only a poet but also a literary critic, philosopher, and theologian, and as such his writings are often occupied with (focused on) more abstract ideas than are found in Wordsworth’s poetry. For example, Wordsworth often wrote on banal (everyday) or natural-world topics; he was also fascinated by strong emotions of love, awe, and nostalgia (wishful remembering). By contrast, Coleridge was intrigued (fascinated) by more abstract ideas such as imagination (as in his poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’) and creativity (as in his poem ‘Kubla Khan’).

✍️ We can see this position in today’s poem ‘Desire’, where Coleridge examines what strong desire is made of, how it relates to love, and so forth – not really from the position of someone subjectively (personally) experiencing desire, but rather as if he were trying to understand desire as an idea, a notion, a phenomenon that is worth considering.

📝 INTERPRETING THE POEM

Before we look at the technical details of this poem and tips we can learn and use in our own English language study, we will quickly review what this poem is about.

Here are some questions to start our discussion: ✏️

  • Does Coleridge see ‘desire’ and ‘love’ as the same experience?
  • When you read ‘nobler part’, what comes to your mind?
  • What do you think Coleridge meant when he wrote about ‘the language of the heart’?

As you can see, this poem explores something that is common to all humanity everywhere – the experience of love and the experience of desire. For Coleridge, love is a spiritual connection between two souls, above and beyond what we can see or feel with the five senses.

But since we are not purely spiritual beings, we often express our love through desire (here meaning the physical longing for someone else, in love). Desire is the natural, human expression of love; Coleridge describes it as a kind of physical response or ‘the reflex of our earthly frame’.

Just like the flame of a candle, which is visible (can be seen), Coleridge seems to be saying that desire is itself the visible expression of love for someone else. He also sees desire is deeply, essentially connected with love, ‘Love’s pure flame’; desire is a living force that helps keep love alive.

‘That takes its meaning from the nobler part’; desire only has meaning and value when we see it as an expression of something nobler – the spiritual love we have for someone. Coleridge concludes his thoughts by using the verb ‘translates’ to describe how what is understood on one level (the spiritual) needs to be adapted and communicated on another level (the physical).

📝 A LOOK AT THE POEM’S GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION

✒️ #1 When reading the poem for the first time, you might stumble over the opening line with its mention of ‘Love’ twice. If it helps, imagine that you can change the punctuation so as to outline the line’s clauses separately. I would divide it as follows:

📜 ‘Where true Love burns, Desire is Love’s pure flame;’

The main clause then becomes ‘Desire is Love’s pure flame’, which reads like a short but manageable statement. By dividing the line like this, the first part ‘where true Love burns’ becomes a subordinate clause (one that explains the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of the main clause).

✍️ TIP: Anytime that you find a sentence that confuses you (as that first line might have done), always divide it into clauses that make sense. Don’t be surprised if you need to rearrange the clause order for this to happen – clause order in English is fairly flexible and it may simply reflect stronger emphasis on one clause over another without changing the sentence’s essential meaning.

✒️ #2 Notice the semicolon at the end of the first line. Semicolons are great punctuation marks that show a more definitive pause or break between sentences than a comma, and yet are not as final as a period or full-stop.

Here the semicolon reminds us that the first line is separate from the last three lines of the poem. That helps us to see at a glance that the first line is a kind of statement, and the last three lines (after the semicolon) are a kind of elaboration on the statement.

✒️ #3 ‘And but translates the language of the heart.’ This is a slightly confusing wording. We might be wondering what does ‘but’ mean in this context? It is simply another way of saying ‘only’ or ‘really’ or ‘just’; it helps to emphasise ‘translates’ in this context.

💡 You will notice many uses of ‘but’ to mean ‘only’, ‘really’, etc. in written and formal English, like that above.

So ends our Lesson on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem. I hope it will encourage you to try to read more English poetry (I have written some past lessons on great poems to get started with). As you can see from today’s text, we don’t need to read a long poem to learn a lot!