Five of Coleridge’s finest poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was one of the leading English Romantic poets, whose Lyrical Ballads, the 1798 collection Coleridge co-authored with Wordsworth, became a founding-text for English Romanticism. In this post, we’ve picked five of Coleridge’s best poems, and endeavoured to explain why these might be viewed as his finest poems.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Written in 1797-8, this is Coleridge’s most famous poem – it first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship appears to have been invented in this poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably William Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s (Wordsworth got the idea of the albatross-killing from a 1726 book, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke). The poem is one of the great narrative poems in English, with the old mariner recounting his story, with its hardships and tragedy, to a wedding guest. Variously interpreted as being about guilt over the Transatlantic slave trade, about Coleridge’s own loneliness, and about spiritual salvation, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains a challenging poem whose ultimate meaning is elusive.
‘Frost at Midnight’. Written in 1798, the same year that Coleridge’s landmark volume of poems, Lyrical Ballads (co-authored with Wordsworth), appeared, ‘Frost at Midnight’ is a night-time meditation on childhood and raising children, offered in a conversational manner and focusing on several key themes of Romantic poetry: the formative importance of childhood and the way it shapes who we become, and the role nature can play in our lives.
‘Dejection: An Ode’. Perhaps one of the finest poems about depression in all of English literature, ‘Dejection: An Ode’ was also, more surprisingly and controversially, inspired by the unhappily married Coleridge’s love for another woman, Sara Hutchinson. It’s also a great poem about writer’s block, though, and Coleridge’s inability to find a way forward in his life as well as his writing – he wrote ‘Dejection’ in April 1802, after Lyrical Ballads had made his name as a poet, and Coleridge found himself suffering from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome.
‘Kubla Khan’. Coleridge wrote this poem in 1797, but it wasn’t published until 1816. Was it inspired by an opium dream? Maybe. Was Coleridge really interrupted by a knock at the door from the ‘person from Porlock’, who destroyed his train of thought so the poem remained unfinished? We’ll probably never know for sure. But what we do know is that ‘Kubla Khan’ is one of Coleridge’s best-loved poems, admired for the richness of its exotic imagery and the delicious sound of its words.
‘Christabel’. This classic Halloween poem focuses on the titular character’s encounter with Geraldine, who claims to have escaped from a gang of men who kidnapped her. Coleridge completed the first two parts of the poem in 1800, but Wordsworth advised his friend to leave it out of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads published that year, and so the unfinished ‘Christabel’ wasn’t published until 1816.
Discover more great Romantic poetry with Wordsworth’s classic sonnet about Milton, Shelley’s bewitching fragment to the moon, and Keats’s ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.