Six 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 six of Coleridge’s best poems, and endeavoured to explain why these might be viewed as his finest poems.
‘And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.’
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS …
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.
2. ‘Frost at Midnight’.
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully …
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.
3. ‘Dejection: An Ode’.
Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Æolian lute,
Which better far were mute …
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.
4. ‘Kubla Khan’.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round …
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.
Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind, and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is gray:
‘Tis a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way …
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.
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness …
There’s a story behind this poem: during the summer of 1797, Coleridge’s wife ‘accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C[harles] Lamb’s stay’.
As a result, Coleridge was forced to stay behind at home while his friends went for a walk across the Quantocks. He chose to sit under the lime-tree in his friend Thomas Poole’s garden, and this moment of solitude occasioned one of Coleridge’s most famous poems.
Having imagined what his friends are up to out in the open as they stroll around Somerset, Coleridge, physically confined to his ‘lime-tree bower’, no longer feels mentally confined. Indeed, once he’s taken that mental trip via his imagination, and vicariously shared in the sights that his friends have (probably) seen, Coleridge has a new-found appreciation for his own surroundings: the lime-tree bower, as the sun sets and twilight comes on, seems a pleasing place to dwell, with nature for company.
We have offered an analysis of this poem here.
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.