Poetry Survey Series Post Six: A Moment by Mary Elizabeth Coledridge

The clouds had made a crimson crown
Above the mountains high.
The stormy sun was going down
In a stormy sky.

Why did you let your eyes so rest on me,
And hold your breath between?
In all the ages this can never be
As if it had not been.

Here is a poem almost as brief as its subject, containing in it that paradox of limitation and infinity which characterizes the “moment.’ A moment, of course, is different than a second, or any other scientific division of time. “A moment” is to Time what “a place” is to Space. It is natural time, as conscious people experience it directly, and not as it is measured by clocks and measuring-rods.

What I think about this poem is that it is not meant for endless contemplation (though it may call attention to thoughts and feelings that one can comfortably be alone with for a long while.) It is meant to be got at in a single gulp, or two. The poem has only one point, and that is to transfer a very specific concious experience from the author’s mind to ours. That experience has never been given a name by the English language. This poem is its name.


  1. This reminds me of a verse from “the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes into hours?


  2. While thinking about

    “It is meant to be got at in a single gulp, or two. The poem has only one point, and that is to transfer a very specific concious experience…”

    I realized that the poem actually might have a story that could be got at through asking questions about the images, their influence on that mysterious (peaceful or longing or just curious) eye contact, and the reasons for choosing the words “let” instead of “make,” “so” instead of “to,” and “can” instead of “will.”

    Two other puzzles: what is behind “hold your breath, ” and why the elliptical “between”. (Between a series of looks? But that would contradict “rest.” So what has been omitted ? I. E. “between what?”)

    All these questions lead to the big one: who is the speaker, and what is his relationship with “you”? At first it seemed easy – a romantic setting evokes a romantic feeling. And maybe I should leave it at that. Except: the first line of stanza two changes the rhythm and tone so abruptly from the imagery and rhythm of stanza one, which is almost fairy-tale-like. And the final two lines return to that heightened tone consistent with the land of imagination (but with a philosophical twist, as often happens in fairy tales. ).

    So, is it a straightforward poem with unanswered, some would probably say unnecessary, questions. . . Or s it a well constructed story puzzle which provides pleasure in working out the answers? I don’t know anything about the author or her recognition by others, so I am going by the new critic in me (the one who claims to “read” a poem by examining its elements, and then to assess its importance in relation to other poems of a similar nature).

    Conclusion: this is a better poem than I first thought. And I shall enjoy reading it again. And again, this time trying to support my hunch that it could be about a religious experience as much as it seems to be about romance. Ambiguity! Another characteristic of good poems, according to you-know-who,

    A Professor of the Practice of Literary Ctiticism


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