Poetry and Prose

A selection of Coleridge's poems

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote some of the best known poems in the language – Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Frost at Midnight. His brief but unique collaboration with William Wordsworth produced Lyrical Ballads (1798); these poems presented new kinds of subject matter in a new way of writing, ‘the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’, as Wordsworth put it, which helped to break the mould of the stiff, formal classicism of the 18th century, marking the beginning of the Romantic movement.

Relatively little of Coleridge’s work was published in his lifetime. Now, at last all in print, his collected works, his notebooks and his letters take up yards of library shelving. Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge was not a professional poet. That is, he did not consider his primary task to be the writing of poetry: both by reputation and instinct, he was a philosopher first. He had epic ambitions (largely unrealised), but most of his poetry was unplanned and incidental. He himself treated it as such, though after the publication of his collected poetry we can now see it as a more coherent whole.

Coleridge had no such sense of his work, and mocked himself in the title of his first collected edition, Sybilline Leaves (1817) – he saw his poems as the leaves of prophecy scattered by the sybil on the winds of time. However, he did become a major poet, if only for a handful of poems. Those given below include the best-loved and best-known, and also represent the full range of his work, from his earliest to his latest. Despite his difficulties, to the end of his life Coleridge’s poetry bears witness to his spontaneous delight in the world around him.

Youth And Age (1823-32)

Coleridge’s subtitle was Aria Spontanea, and this poem seems to have originated in a rhythm, set out in one manuscript version, and described in a notebook just before the first draft: ‘An Air, that whizzed … right across the diameter of my Brain … exactly like a Hummel Bee, alias, Dombeldore, the gentleman with Rappee Spenser, with hands Red, and Orange Plush Breeches, close by my ear, at once shapr and burry, right over the Summit of Quantock, at earliest Dawn …’
CN IV 499; PW 592; 1823

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Phantom (1805)

 Coleridge believed that a person may exist in distinction from their body, and  felt that the experience recorded here justified his belief: he is remembering a vision of Sara Hutchinson. Other notebook entries express comparable insights, eg: ‘O there is a form which seems irrelative of Space.’  CN II 3146; PW 347; before Apr 1804

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The Pains of Sleep (1803)

Written during a walking tour in Scotland, after he had separated from the Wordsworths.  He writes the following to Southey, and then transcribes the poem: ‘I have been a wild Journey — taken up for a spy & clapped into Fort Augustus — & I am afraid, they may [have] frightened poor Sara, by sending her off a scrap of a Letter, I was writing to her.— I have walked 263 miles in eight Days — so I must have strength somewhere / but my spirits are dreadful, owing entirely to the Horrors of every night — I truly dread to sleep / it is no shadow with me, but substantial Misery foot-thick, that makes me sit by my bedside of a morning, & cry— . I have abandoned all opiates except Ether be one; & that only in fits — & that is a blessed medicine! — & when you see me drink a glass of Spirit & Water, except by prescription of a physician, you shall despise me — but still I can not get quiet rest—‘.  CL II 982; PW 335; Sep 11 1803

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Dejection: An Ode (1802)

Lamenting the loss of poetic power, it is a well-noted irony that this is one of the great Romantic poems. It is, in Jim Mays’ words, a reconstruction of an original verse letter written for Sara Hutchinson (PW 289).  It is much shorter — some  140 lines against the 340 of the letter ― and it is organised to create a different effect.  But in both there is an imagined resurgence, which occurs earlier in Dejection than in the verse letter, and weakens its power, having only a vicarious echo in the final stanza.  It is a poem to read in conjunction with Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode (each bore on each) and readers may ask which, finally, is the most hopeful of the two poems.  PW 293, July 1802

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Christabel (1797-1801)

This poem has a more subtle, integrated  relationship with the gothic than the Ancient Mariner. It is also of a different genre — not a ballad, but more a fabliau. (See Paul Cheshire, CB 23) Geraldine is a vampire of a kind, but Coleridge has given her a specific task, after which she was probably going to disappear.  But of the four or five proposed parts, we only have two, so it is uncertain how the poem would have ended.  James Gillman recorded the notion that Geraldine was to impersonate the absent knight, planning to marry Christabel, who feels very uncomfortable—but fortunately the real one turns up in the nick of time, and Christabel suddenly knows everything is right. If this or anything like it were the course of the unfinished poem, it might be seen as a poem of courtship, an epithalamion, a preparation for marriage.  Like its companion poems in the 1816 volume, Kubla Khan and The Pains of Sleep, it is a poem in which there is a subliminal sexual consciousness, here disordered at first, but which the progress of the poem might have put to rights.  PW 176; Part 1 1798; Part 2 1800; published 1816

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