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A Reading of “The Knight’s Tomb” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By Christopher Nield Created: April 14, 2009 Last Updated: April 14, 2009
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The Knight’s Tomb

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O’Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be?--
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree!
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone,--and the birch in its stead is grown.--
The Knight's bones are dust,
And his good sword rust;--
His soul is with the saints, I trust.

 

“When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time I See Description of the Fairest Wights, and Beauty Making Beautiful Old Rhyme in Praise of Ladies Dead and Lovely Knights, Shakespeare” Robert Anning Bell (1907), watercolor, private collection. (artrenewal.org)

“When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time I See Description of the Fairest Wights, and Beauty Making Beautiful Old Rhyme in Praise of Ladies Dead and Lovely Knights, Shakespeare” Robert Anning Bell (1907), watercolor, private collection. (artrenewal.org)

In this wonderfully atmospheric poem, the speaker wants to know where the virtuous knight, Sir Arthur O’Kellyn, lies buried. Why? Perhaps it’s because he wants to go on a pilgrimage. We go on a pilgrimage ourselves each time we recite the words, visit the knight’s grave in our imagination, and pay homage to a bygone era of chivalry.

Historically, such knights were a mixture of soldier and monk and often far from pure in their conduct. Yet, symbolically, we can take the knight as a universal ideal—someone who balances strong moral conviction with physical courage.

Sir Arthur’s name appears to be concocted from King Arthur and a convenient rhyme with Hellvellyn, yet it has a strange ring of truth to it. Like Eleanor Rigby’s, his name is so evocative it’s hard to believe no such person ever existed.

His grave rests in a secluded spot “by the side of a spring” on “the breast of Helvellyn”—a mountain in the Lake District in the North West of England. Nature, often so vengeful in the Coleridge’s work, assumes a comforting maternal aspect.

The spring suggests new life and perhaps even the presence of the miraculous, recalling legends of streams gushing forth from where martyrs were slain.

These details, along with the “twigs” of the “young birch tree” powerfully convey a sense of fresh beginnings. There is nothing morbid or frightening here.

Coleridge tells us of the oak that once stood by the tomb. Our attention is directed to the way it “rustled” and “whistled” and “roared”; and, as the lines take on a vigorous rhythm, we enter into the life of the seasons, culminating with the image of the oak standing alone in the winter.

Then, as the line breaks, we learn it is “gone.” We hear its absence after the tumult of sounds just passed. Yet, as if to counter any sadness, the word “gone” yields to the word “grown.” The birch stands in the oak’s place, showing how life emerges from death.

Like the oak, the knight is no more. His bones are “dust” and his “good sword rust.” Yet in the final line, Coleridge hopes that beyond nothingness another world awaits. He trusts the knight’s virtue has been rewarded, and thus his soul dwells “with the saints” in heaven.

If we memorize the poem, and allow this tranquil grave to take root in our mind, we can return to it again and again whenever we doubt the necessity to strive to do good.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was an English poet, critic, and philosopher. Christopher Nield is a poet living in London. You can reach him at christophernield@hotmail.com.

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