Samuel Taylor Coleridge is considered one of the most significant poets and critics in the English language. His poem “The Nightingale”, is one of Coleridge’s most powerful and insightful poems because it represents Romanticism through themes of imagination, childhood innocence and a person’s relationship with nature. Within this conversational poem, Coleridge uses imagery and an analytical discussion with his friend Wordsworth to argue that many poets and individuals have cast their emotions onto nature thus portraying nature as a canvas of human emotions. Instead Coleridge believes that the foundation of a man’s relationship with nature should be one that has independent existence. In other words, nature does not need individuals to give it meaning, emotion or purpose. Instead we can learn from Coleridge’s poem “The Nightingale” that it is nature that helps the individual to find their own independence. Similarly, if humans are responsible for their own souls and emotions then we can’t hold nature responsible for creating our happiness, and by the same token we shouldn’t expect nature to have to possess our sadness as well. In this poem, Coleridge teaches his readers that the key to individualism is found though separating one’s emotions when portraying nature while he demonstrates romantic themes of childhood innocence and imagination.
In this conversation poem, Coleridge is the speaker and the two people he addresses, and who are the silent listeners of the poem, are William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Coleridge, William and Dorothy are simply observing the beauty of nature at night, and Coleridge brings their attention to the singing of a nightingale. Coleridge explains to his two companions how the nightingale came to be known as a melancholy bird. He supposes that a broken-hearted man wandered through the woods one night and upon hearing the bird’s song, the man projected his own emotions upon nature and the nightingale and “made all gentle sounds tell back the tale/ Of his own sorrow.” Coleridge remarks on the absurdity of calling anything in nature melancholy. Likewise, he expresses his dislike for how “many a poet echoes the conceit” of making nature representative of dark human emotions in poetry. Coleridge claims that if such poets took the time to observe and absorb the beauty of their natural surroundings, then they would create poems that reflect nature’s loveliness. However, Coleridge doubts that most poets will ever have such an experience, since most young men and women entertain themselves indoors on the most beautiful nights. In contrast to the majority of young people, Coleridge tells William and Dorothy that they three have a true appreciation for nature and they “may not thus profane/ Nature’s sweet voices, always full of love/ And joyance!” Likewise, Coleridge and his companions can interpret the nightingale’s song as joyous and not as melancholy.
Additionally, it is important to notice the inclusion of Coleridge’s friends, William and Dorothy Wordsworth into his conversation about the nightingale has two significant meanings. It is often been noted that one of Coleridge’s tactics in writing is to include his friends and their experiences into his works. So, it is here that the reader can examine that the inclusion of the Wordsworths in the poem can not only be a true event but, can also symbolize Coleridge telling his friend and other readers to acknowledge the dangers of imposing one’s emotion onto nature. Furthermore, within this part of the poem, Coleridge is not only praising Wordsworths and Dorothy for not adopting the attitudes of others but will instead appreciate the nightingale and all of nature as it should be properly appreciated. It is here that the idea of the individual not only should appreciate nature but also not to project their own feelings upon the nightingale. This provokes the theme of individualism within Romanticism and praises the individual for appreciating nature without their own emotional biases.
Additionally, before the companions’ part, Coleridge remarks how much his infant son would love the nightingale’s song. Coleridge explains how he has instilled a love for nature in his son and that he “[deems] it wise/ To make him Nature’s play-mate.” Coleridge wishes for his son to grow to love the nightingale’s song, so “that with the night/ He may associate joy” and he wants to teach his son along with his friends and readers the dangers of imposing one’s emotions onto nature. Here, the theme of childhood innocence appears alongside the notion of individualism. This is similar to “Frost at Midnight,” where Coleridge once again expresses his desire to instill a love for nature in his young son. Coleridge could also have such a determination to teach his son to love nature as its own entity and to associates a child’s innocence with the innocence of nature.
Furthermore, the idea of childhood innocence is discredited when there is a contrast between people who experience nature (like his son or Wordsworths) and those who address nature as a canvas for their emotions. The speaker quotes another’s view that the nightingale is a “most musical, most melancholy bird” but then immediately declares this an “idle thought!” To him, “In nature there is nothing melancholy.” In fact, the nightingale’s song should make all nature lovelier, and itself/Be loved like Nature!” However, the speaker realizes that in the popular conception of the bird, this will not happen; since “youths and maidens most poetical” insist on finding their delight in the “ball-rooms and hot theaters” of the city, the nightingale’s song will seldom be heard. When it is heard, it will be a reminder that the night draws to a close and therefore be a sign of sorrow to the young people, rather than the harbinger of Nature that it is meant to be. The youth’s failure to experience nature can show their lack of individualism.
In conclusion, Coleridge exemplifies major themes of romanticism such as Childhood innocence, appreciation of nature and uses this poem to clarify that he believes that the foundation of a man’s relationship with nature should be one that has independent existence. Not only is he teaching his readers about nature but also encourages people to embrace nature to find their own individuality. I feel that this poem is not only an important insight on Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth but that the themes of romanticism are evident throughout the poem, and the significance that Coleridge stresses the importance of individualism, nature and childhood innocence are important themes of romanticism.