The preface to the poem is an excerpt concerning the Moon’s ominous foreshadowing of a deadly storm in the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.” Coleridge remarks that if the Bard is accurate about the weather, then this currently tranquil night will soon turn into a storm; Coleridge sees the new moon holding the old moon in her lap, an identical scene to the moon image in the prologue. He wishes for a storm to occur, because he needs something to stir his emotions and “startle this dull pain.”
Coleridge’s invocation of “Lady” suggests that his pain is the result of a broken heart and signals that this poem is a conversation with this Lady (who represents Sara Hutchinson). In his grief, Coleridge says that he has been endlessly gazing at the skies and the stars. He claims that he is so overwhelmed with sadness that he can only see and can no longer feel or internalize the beauty of nature.
Coleridge doubts that anything can “lift the smothering weight from off my breast.” He admits that gazing at the beauty of the skies is a vain and futile effort to ease his pain. He realizes that “outward forms” will not relieve him of his inner pain and that only he has the power to change his emotional state.
Coleridge once again addresses his Lady, telling her that although some things are inevitable in life and controlled by nature, a person must still be an active agent in creating his or her own happiness.
Coleridge describes the characteristics of the feeling of Joy to his Lady. He extols the powers of Joy, which can create beauty as well as create a “new Earth and new Heaven.”
Coleridge reflects on a time when joy was able to surmount his distress. During that time, he was able to take advantage of the hope (that was not his own internal hope) that surrounded him in nature. However, the distress he feels now is much more dominating. He no longer even cares that all his happiness is gone. However, he does lament how each small “visitation” of sadness robs him of his power of Imagination. Since Coleridge cannot feel any emotion other than sadness, his imagination would have at least allowed him to “steal” the happiness that surrounded him in nature and thus pretend that he possesses joy.
Coleridge now turns his attention to the tumultuous weather. Within this raging storm, he is able to hear the less frightful sounds of a child looking for her mother.
Although it is now midnight, Coleridge has no intention of going to sleep. However, he wishes for “Sleep” to visit his Lady and to use its healing powers to lift the Lady’s spirits and bring her joy. Coleridge concludes the poem by wishing the Lady eternal joy.
One of Coleridge's more personal and autobiographical poems, "Dejection" was originally a "verse letter" to Sara Hutchinson, a woman with whom Coleridge was desperately in love. Hutchinson is not mentioned directly, however, perhaps because at the time of the poem's publication Coleridge was (unhappily) married to Sara Fricker. Coleridge was inspired to write it upon hearing the opening lines of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." In his own poem, Coleridge echoes Wordsworth's themes of disillusionment in love and the loss of imaginative powers.
In "Dejection: An Ode," Coleridge also reinvents poetic traditions. His opening quotation is from the "Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence," yet his poem is given the title of an ode. The ode dates back to classical times as a serious poem concerning itself with a highly-regarded subject, accompanied by a strong attention to details of time and place; the English ballad tradition, on the other hand, was about intense action and emotion. Coleridge blends these two literary traditions into the triumph that is "Dejection: An Ode." He keeps the general form of the ode, modified from the classical Pindaran ode of 500 BC to the 17th century form of three-part stanzas structured in turn, counter-turn, and stand. The modification does not end there, however, as Coleridge uses irregular lines to make the poem somewhat informal in sound, harking to the ballads of days gone by. That the poem is (at least in part) dedicated to a "Lady" rather than a somber meditation upon a public occasion also divorces it from the ode tradition and places it closer to the English ballad in sensibility.
The motif of the power of nature, which runs throughout much of Coleridge’s work, is a major theme in “Dejection.” In the first stanza of “Dejection,” Coleridge hopes that the Bard in the preface is correct about the moon’s foreshadowing of the weather because Coleridge hopes that a storm can revive him from his paralyzed emotional state. He reflects that in the past, he was able to use his imagination to translate the beauty of the surrounding nature into his own happiness, even when he suffered from sadness. However, Coleridge now acknowledges that the futility of his current wish to rely on nature to change his emotions. Although Coleridge greatly admires and desires to feel as one with nature (see Coleridge’s lamentation of his upbringing in the city and his longing to be in a more natural landscape in “Frost at Midnight”), he realizes that nature and humans are separate and distinct entities.
In “New Moons, Old Ballads, and Prophetic Dialogues in Coleridge’s ‘Dejection: An Ode,” R.A. Benthall states that “the dramatic arc of ‘Dejection’ in large part dramatizes an attempt to see clearly how verbal and phenomenal worlds relate, collide, or whether they interact at all” (613). The conclusion that Coleridge reaches in this poem is that it is the responsibility of humans, not of the surrounding nature, to create and sustain their own internal happiness. However, as the poet-creator of the work, Coleridge is able to move between these two states (nature and the inner life) with ease, suggesting that the two may not be in a cause and effect relationship, but they are indeed equally accessible to the imaginative soul.
The power of imagination/dreams, another recurring motif in Coleridge’s work, is also prominent in “Dejection.” The one thing that Coleridge particularly misses is his power of imagination and the ability to pretend that he is happy. Interestingly, Benthall highlights “the irony implicit in the fact that Coleridge should write a poem about the inability to create” (613). Coleridge’s mention of the healing powers of sleep in the last stanza and his claim that he will not go to sleep tonight (and most likely cannot because of his depression) both suggest that dreams offer a portal to happiness. This implication could be the reason why Coleridge wishes for his beloved Lady to have a peaceful night of sleep.