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.

Goethe's Faust

Coleridge as translator of Goethe's Faust

The editors, Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick, published at Oxford University Press, Faustus, From the German of Goethe, Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2007). This edition claims that Coleridge is the author of the anonymously published translation Faustus, From the German of Goethe (London: Boosey, 1821). The editors, who are both eminent Coleridge scholars, presented their case for Coleridge's authorship at the Coleridge Summer Conference 2006. Responses to this substantial claim have been coming in as follows:

Reviews and responses

The illustrations:

The background:

  • [Anon], 'A Critical Essay on Goethe's Faustus a Tragedy'  The Flowers of Literature, by William Oxberry, Comedian (1821)
    PDF file available here. The instalments (joined here) are spread out over several numbers of the magazine.
  • Rosemary D. Ashton, 'Coleridge and Faust' The Review of English Studies, NS28 (110) May 1977 156-167
    Available online for JSTOR subscribers.
    A survey of Coleridge's encounters with Goethe's Faust.
  • Lina Baumann, Die englischen Übersetzungen von Goethes Faust... (1907)
    A survey of English translations of Faust. Unlike Hauhart, it doesn't cover the 1820's in any detail.
    See http://www.archive.org/details/dieenglischenbe00baumgoog
  • Frederick Burwick The Damnation of Newton: Goethe's Color Theory and Romantic Perception (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1986) 257-60 -- not in the Burwick/McKusick bibliography -- 'interesting for the co-editor's earlier, more nuanced proposal of STC as translator and some comments by Paul Zall not used in the edition'.
  • Paul Cheshire, '"I Lay too Many Eggs": Coleridge's "Ostrich Carelessness" and the Problem of Publication',
    Coleridge Bulletin NS23, Spring 2004, 1-21.
    pp16-20 on the Coleridge - Murray relationship.
  • Hugh Craig -A Companion to Digital Humanities
    A very useful online introduction to stylometrics.
  • [Charles Edward Dodd] An Autumn Near the Rhine (London: John Murray, 1821 2nd ed.)
    Available on Google books. This anonymous account of a tour of Germany includes well informed commentary on Goethe (Letter XIII - pp213-230) and the author's own verse translations of poems by Goethe, Schiller and others. Not in the Burwick/McKusick bibliography. It is a useful contemporary account of the reception and an instance of anonymous English translation of German poetry.
  • William Frederic Hauhart, The Reception of Goethe's Faust in England in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1909).
    Contains a historically influential discussion of Coleridge and Goethe's Faust. see http://www.archive.org/details/receptionofgoeth00hauh
  • Emma Gertrude Jaeck, Madame de Staël and the Spread of German Literature (New York: OUP, 1915)  - 'It has quite a lot on translators of Faust - it's very much of its time, but I find such early C19 reception studies sometimes amazingly interesting and useful, precisely due to the lack of a "thesis"!'
  • Anthony Kenny, The Computation of Style (Pergamon, 1982)
    'An excellent and relatively non-technical introduction to stylometric analysis and the relevant statistical theory'
    (Cit. www.philocomp.net, the website of Peter Millican the creator of Signature, the stylometric analysis software used by James C. McKusick.)
  • William Vaughan, German Romantic Painting (London and New Haven 2nd edition 1994) - not in the Burwick/McKusick bibliography - 'a standard work that would have led them to Cornelius as well as Retzsch'.
  • Catherine Waltraud Proescholdt-Obermann, Goethe and his British Critics (European University Studies, Peter Lang, Frankfurt 1992) - not in the Burwick/McKusick bibliography - 'to an extent updates Hauhart'.

This page aims to be comprehensive and even-handed. Relevant contributions of the following kind are welcomed:

  • Notice of reviews or articles published elsewhere that can be added as links (if available online) or as citations if only available in print.
  • New unpublished information in essay form.
  • Information supplementary to letters accepted for publication in periodicals.

Genevieve (1789-90)

‘Genevieve’ was probably Jenny Edwards, the daughter of a school matron in Christ’s Hospital.  Coleridge was in the sick ward for most of 1789, when he would have seen her regularly.

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On Presenting a Moss Rose to Miss F Nesbitt (1796)

Coleridge became a mild rake at Cambridge, and in the summer holidays returned to Ottery to flirt with local belles, writing them subliminally erotic verses. Nor did he present them to just one beauty; the original addressee of this was Angelina, and later, Sara Fricker, Coleridge adapting lines to suit the occasion―so line 12 became ‘On spotless SARA'S breast.’ PW 56; 1793

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Composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, in the county of Somerset, May, 1795

Coleridge would marry Sara Fricker in October 1795.  Throughout his life the beauty of a landscape inspired a longing in him for his beloved.  In 1799 he met one of the two major loves of his life, Sara Hutchinson, and 35 years later he remembers this poem as written for her, not with his future wife. PW 108


The Eolian Harp: composed August 20th 1795 at Clevedon, Somersetshire

A favourite poem of Coleridge’s, and one he worked on almost all his life.  He is writing about his honeymoon cottage. He and Sara Fricker married in October, but this poem suggests they were domesticating earlier in the year.  For the poem’s genesis, see Paul Cheshire, Coleridge Bulletin 17.  The poem is packed tight with lines of thought Coleridge will both develop and reject in later years. PW 115


This Lime-tree Bower my Prison (1797)


This extract from a letter explains the context of the poem: ‘Charles Lamb has been with me for a week―he left me Friday morning.― / The second day after Wordsworth came to me, dear Sara accidently emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C. Lamb's stay & still prevents me from all walks longer than a furlong.― While Wordsworth, his Sister, & C. Lamb were out one evening; / sitting in the arbour of T. Poole's garden, which communicates with mine, I wrote these lines, with which I am pleased―’. CL I 334; PW 156; July(?) 1797

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-1816)

This is one of the most discussed poems in English literature―probably because it it yields up any meaning it might have with considerable reluctance.  It began, like its predecessor, The Wanderings of Cain, as a joint production with Wordsworth to ‘defray the expenses of a walking tour’—and its intended money-spinning, light-hearted origin fell in with contemporary gothic fashion, largely removed in the second edition.  Should one simply enjoy the rollicking plot, take it as his contemporaries first did — ‘a drunken dream’, a poem of ‘delirium, confounding its own dream imagery with external things’, or attend upon its potential signficance?  Why not take it as a poem of pure imagination? Why should it mean anything? Because Coleridge happened to mention what it meant on a mountain in Germany.  Fortunately, perhaps, all Clement Carlyon recorded was the fact of the conversation, not its substance.  There are hints of meaning in the poem, more in the gloss, and the standard reading, with many variants, is that of a poem of redemption; but there are so many complicating factors, that such a reading is always reductive, and finally tends to a method of not reading. Our advice is, Enjoy the story, enjoy the richness and variety of all the imagery, and the tales within the tale; and if you are wondering what it is all about, think that it is probably a poetic version of the kind of question Coleridge asked himself all his life: what is the relationship between man, God and nature? What does it mean to be in the world?      PW 161; originally 1798, this version 1800

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Frost at Midnight (February 1798)

Coleridge compares his childhood with that he projects for his sleeping son, Hartley, just 18 months old. It didn’t work out as planned and Coleridge was more absent than present in Hartley’s childood — who did ‘wander like a breeze’ but as a lost ‘elf’, regretting his father’s absence in a sonnet on the anniversary of his death:
           ‘Yet can I not but mourn because he died
            That was my father, should have been my guide.’
                                                                                            PW 171; Feb 1798

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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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Kubla Khan, Or, a vision in a dream (Autumn 1797)

Perhaps the best-known of all Romantic poems, for years Coleridge was reluctant to acknowledge it as anything but ‘a fragment’ and ‘as a pyschological curiosity’.  He published it with two other poems, The Pains of Sleep and Christabel, both of which bore signs of psycho-sexual disturbance, and all three remained in manuscript, though circulated among friends, long before they were published.  Readers should ask themselves whether it feels like a fragment.  PW 178; written sometime between Sep 1797 and Oct 1799, first published in 1816

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Lines written in the album at Elbingerode, in the Harz Forest (May 1799)

The relationship between mind and landscape was one of the great romantic debates—which makes which?  Coleridge gave his definitive answer in ‘Dejection: An Ode: ‘… in our life alone does Nature live.’  Homesick in Germany in 1798-9, conscious that his youngest son, Berkeley, had died in his absence, Coleridge here declares ‘That outward forms, the loftiest, still receive/ Their finer influence from the Life within…’. For Coleridge, the realisation of a landscape depends on love of a person; Wordsworth seemed to need that mediation much less.  PW 200, 1799

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Love (1799)

Coleridge’s most popular poem in his lifetime, often re-printed anonymously, and therefore not always recognised as his. The simplicity of the verse and the success of the courtship were presumably two key factors in its success. Other poems of courtship, Christabel, and The Ballad of the Dark Ladie ― to which this was originally an introduction ― are troubled and unfinished.  PW 253; 1799

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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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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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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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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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