Poem of the week: Duty Surviving Self-Love by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Duty Surviving Self-Love

Unchanged within, to see all changed without,
Is a blank lot and hard to bear, no doubt.
Yet why at others’ wanings should’st thou fret?
Then only might’st thou feel a just regret,
Hadst thou withheld thy love or hid thy light
In selfish forethought of neglect and slight.
O wiselier then, from feeble yearnings freed,
While, and on whom, thou may’st — shine on! nor heed
Whether the object by reflected light
Return thy radiance or absorb it quite:
And though thou notest from thy safe recess
Old Friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
Love them for what they are; nor love them less,
Because to thee they are not what they were.

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Coleridge’s densely wrought sonnet, Duty Surviving Love, is a late poem, composed in 1826 during the poet’s residence with the physician James Gillman and his family in Highgate, and first published in Poetical Works, 1828. Its dominant, unifying figure is drawn from the science of optics, an important source of study and experiment for Coleridge, who once conducted a series of experiments intended to re-create Isaac Newton’s Opticks .

Moonlight provides the first metaphor, wrapped up in the noun, “wanings”. The speaker presumably takes the role of the sun: he shines unchangeably, but those his love has illuminated have receded like the moon during the phase in which a decreasing portion of its lit side is visible from Earth.

The lost friends, besides his unrequited love Sara Hutchinson, include Robert Southey, Hazlitt and Wordsworth who, Coleridge’s editor and biographer Richard Holmes points out, “would have given very different accounts of their reasons” for the separation. Coleridge insists on the centrality and staunchness of his own position. The longing for lost company perhaps resembles the opium addiction he’s attempting, with Gillman’s help, to control: he encourages himself with a little praise (“O wiselier then, from feeble yearnings freed …”) and rallies himself to “shine on! nor heed / Whether the object by reflected light / Return thy radiance or absorb it quite.” Reflection implies a two-way process, a giving back of light by the lit object to the source of its light, whereas absorption means, in optical terms, that the light is kept by the object receiving it and transformed into heat. Essentially, the poet accepts that reflection isn’t going to happen any more, but absorption has its consolations: the lost friends are still embodying or influenced by the Coleridgean light.

Like many commentators on Poem of the week, Coleridge was firm in his conviction that something other than a line-count of 14 should define the sonnet. He felt there had to be “a development of some lonely feeling deduced from, and associated with, the scenery of nature”. The natural scenery is boldly conceived in Duty Surviving Self-Love, and this relatively abstract conception enhances the “lonely feeling” and its transformation.

Regarding rhyme, Coleridge believed the sonnet-writer “should consult his own convenience – Rhymes, many or few or none at all”. The choice for Duty Surviving Self-Love is “many”, and it helps underline the dialectics, and physics, of the argument. When the quatrain replaces the dialectical intensity of the five couplets, Coleridge creates a quieter, subtler sound that helps bring his “light” analogy into an urban or domestic orbit. The “old friends” are like “lamps in noisome air” and “burn dim” because of the air’s foulness, another result of the sun’s absence, possibly. The scene, reflective in the meditative sense of the term, prepares a dramatic self-exhortation.

If the exhortation had been simply “to love them”(the lost companions) “for what they are … not what they were” it would have been morally slick and conventional, but Coleridge doesn’t say that. He reminds himself “to love them for what they are; nor love them less, / Because to thee they are not what they were”. That qualification as much as anything in the poem illuminates the qualities of Coleridge’s ethical thinking. He understands his own subjectivity, and is prepared to engage with a certain amount of relativism, a near-acknowledgment that what he sees from the “safe recess” may not be what the friends see. The poem is a deeper account of morality than the rather dutiful title suggests.

The Guardian