The Poetry of Coleridge

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2372

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most complex and richly suggestive writers in English. Poet, philosopher, critic, and, not infrequently, genius, he has left an indelible mark on the history of English poetry and criticism. His major critical work, BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA, stands as the source of much modern critical theory. With William Wordsworth, Coleridge led the “Romantic revolt” in English poetry. They asserted not only that the source of poetry is the ordinary life and language of men, but also reasserted the validity and beauty of the imagination. Coleridge’s poetry is not voluminous, and the great pieces were nearly all written in a space of from two to five years, but at his best his poems are rich in their concrete, forthright evocation of the psychological and the mysterious.

Coleridge believed in the “feeling heart,” in the spiritual power of the individual imagination to apprehend, in images of beauty, the completeness and harmonious beauty of God’s creation. He was, therefore, the first of the English idealistic Romantics who asserted the primacy of the inner vision in the face of eighteenth century theories of materialism and mechanical, sense-bound perception. He derived from the German idealists, notably the Schlegels and Schelling and through them, Kant, many of his ideas of reason and imaginative vision, both of which qualities free men from bondage to the senses alone.

His earlier poetry is notable for its subtly patterned use of ordinary speech and its quiet, imaginative manipulation of scene and mood.

Low was our pretty cot; our tallest RosePeeped at the chamber-window. Wecould hearAt silent noon, and eve, and early morn,The sea’s faint murmur: In the openairOur myrtles blossomed; and across theporchThick jasmins twined: The little land-scape roundWas green and woody, and refreshedthe eye.

Here is a distinctive ease of manner, of rhythm and direct observation which, as in Wordsworth’s verse and according to the credo announced in his Preface to their LYRICAL BALLADS, replaces the artificially poetic, “literary” manner of much eighteenth century verse. An example of how Coleridge can develop a passage of such simplicity into a more elaborate vision may be found in “The Nightingale.” He does so without sacrificing the basic tone and texture of ordinary speech. Here, he writes disapprovingly of the closeted, ink-horn poet:

Poet who hath been building up therhymeWhen he had better far have stretchedhis limbsBeside a brook in mossy forest-dell,By Sun or Moon-light, to the influxesOf shapes and sounds and shifting ele-mentsSurrendering his whole spirit, of hissongAnd of his name forgetful! so his fameShould share in Nature’s immortality,A venerable thing!

The alliteration and the repetition of prepositional phrases create a heightened effect, expressive of Coleridge’s faith, not in a poetry of midnight oil, but of a direct, spiritual connection between man and actual nature. As Coleridge’s poetry developed, however, he became even more strikingly the poet of the imagination, of the supernatural, as is evidenced in such poems as “Kubla Khan” and THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.

For though Coleridge shared with Wordsworth a desire to return poetry to the ordinary, the concrete, and the language of speech, he was also desirous of discovering the spiritual, supernatural principles of unity within, and lying behind, the concretely sensed multiplicity of ordinary experience. Thus, he writes, the best style is that written “when the author has had his own eye fixed steadily on the abstract, yet permits his readers to see only the concrete.” Accordingly, Coleridge expresses his conception of...

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poetry in terms of a synthesis of imaginative vision and of actual perception, of “outer” and “inner,” in other words, or of “object” and “subject.” His earlier verse usually had nature as the “object,” but later poems approach treatment of the symbolic, mythic, and general consciousness of the inner man. Myths of death and symbolic rebirth predominate. Historically, this conception of poetry, a synthesis of the individual and subjective with the concrete and objective, moves sharply away from neoclassic doctrines of a poetry as imitation governed by rules. To Coleridge, art is less imitative than “organic”; a poem is a growing unity, the parts related to one another and all comprising a whole. The “end” of poetry is pleasure, not instruction, and yet a poem tells a higher truth. A poem expresses “a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order.” The order, however, is not imposed from without, by aid of rules for writing poems, nor according to agreed-upon “laws” of nature. The order grows out of the synthesizing power of the individual imagination. Indeed, according to Coleridge’s notion, the creative act of the imagination is first a breaking down of the usual sensations and perceptions of outward reality, and then a synthesizing, a reconstruction of that outward reality by means of an inner vision to produce “a new unity, a new reality.” This cnception of the “creative imagination” and of “organic unity” underlies nearly all modern criticism.

Coleridge’s desire for synthesis and unity marked all his thinking and writing. Any tendency toward isolation or fragmentation, whether in idea or in his personal life, was an occasion for regret and even despair. Many of his best poems lament a fall from communion, a loss of harmony, and celebrate a revival of companionship, of unity both personal and moral. He ever tried to express his sense of the underlying Oneness of the world, the great created Cosmos of God, Who is, in these terms, the original and most sublime Artist. The poet-as-seer and idealist must try to achieve a vision, however partial, of this divine wholeness.

“Dejection, an Ode” records a sense of failure in trying to achieve such harmony, and the poem marks the approximate end of Coleridge’s brief and brilliant “great period” as a poet. “Dejection” was first published on Wordsworth’s wedding day. Perhaps there is some significance in that fact, for their vital partnership, which had helped both so much, was ending. “Dejection” begins in the conversational tone noted earlier.

Well! If the Bard was weather-wisewho madeThe grand old ballad of Sir PatrickSpence,This night, so tranquil now, will notgo henceUnaroused by winds. . . .

The tone sounds somewhat rueful, a trifle bitter; one notices, too, the firmer cadence of this mature poetry: simple, yet beautifully molded. Coleridge refers here to the prophecy of storm in that ballad (“And I fear, I fear, my Master Dear!/We shall have a deadly Storm”), and the disarming tone of the opening lines gives way, naturally and “organically,” to the dirgelike cadences which express the poet’s inner turmoil:

My genial spirits fail,And what can these availTo lift the smothering weight from offmy breast?

Disharmony has soured the visionary’s glimpse of Nature’s goodness:

Hence viper thoughts, that coil aroundmy mind,Reality’s dark dream!

Coleridge, not unlike Wordsworth, had often felt that Nature brought him solace and pleasure. Nature was an “Eolian Harp,” making a kind of cosmic music. Now, he welcomes the storm, whose sound had before “sent my soul abroad.” He hopes that the sounds

Might now their wonted impulse give,Might startle the dull pain, and makeit move and live!

But the poet has lapsed into a state of alienation from Nature, and from his most natural self. His inner sadness has closed him off, isolated him. Addressing his “lady,” he describes the beauty of the evening sky and stars:

I see them all so excellently fair,I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

The old source of solace, wonder and “feeling” is shut off from him. His inner self has shrunken, and so he can no longer make, personally, that vital synthesis between inner and outer vision. He makes, instead, a poem out of the failure, a poem which still deals, negatively, with the old harmony.

O Lady! We receive but what we give,And in our life alone does nature live:

Coleridge next writes a stanza which is, in effect, a hymn to joy, and he states that man and nature are wedded in joy, and as a dowry man gets “A new Earth and new Heaven.” But the poet has lost such capacity for joy and has, as well, lost “my shaping spirit of imagination.” Stoically, then, he will take refuge in patience and “abstruse research” in an attempt to escape the personal pain. He turns to the wild mountain storm for some solace, and calls the wind a “mad lutanist,” befitting his dark soul. Silence comes, and then a softer sound, or moan, appears to sing sadly of a lost child. The image of that lost child, growing organically out of both the theme and imagery of the poem, becomes on a deeper level symbolic of Coleridge himself, lost, afraid, cut-off. Like the ancient mariner, he is adrift, at sea, and such images are recurrent in the poetry. The child-wanderer and the spellbound damsel symbolize both Coleridge’s creative imagination and his fear of losing that creative power of attaining unity. So “Dejection” ends poignantly enough with an appeal to the stars to bring his “lady,” his friend, joy—for they remind him only of sorrow.

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER also deals with the theme of isolation, frustration, and symbolic renewal. The ballad form of the poem indicates Coleridge’s preference for the poetry of the folk, dealing often mysteriously but always concretely with significant human actions. Ballads preserve the supernatural within the ordinary, and their simple yet highly patterned form and language appealed to Coleridge, and his most memorable verse is built on the ballad form.

The story of the mariner who shoots the albatross, symbol of divine beneficence, and who thereby brings upon himself a curse, but who is finally released from the curse by blessing in his heart, in spite of his lonely suffering, the beauty of the mysterious water-snakes, is familiar to all readers. What should be emphasized is that it is through the mariner’s opening of his heart to God’s created creatures that his release from the curse is brought about. His tale sobers the wedding guests, for it warns of how the “wedding” of man and woman, man and nature, is dependent, as both image and idea repeat in “Dejection,” on a creative, joyful communion with all of nature. The springs of life lie under the surface and are mysterious, and such is the effect of the mariner’s experience and tale.

Formally, THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER is notable for its swiftness of narration, its vivid imagery, and Coleridge’s sure-handed use of a modified ballad measure. Important and dramatic details are given quickly, increasing both the economy and dramatic effect of the poem. Thus, when a wedding guest wonders why the tormented old mariner tells this tale, the crucial fact is abruptly supplied.

God save thee, ancient mariner!From the fiends, that plague thee thus!Why look’st thou so?— With my cross-bowI shot the Albatross.

The visual detail, suggestive and mysterious, is omnipresent:

About, about, in reel and routThe death-fires danced at night;The water, like a witch’s oils,Burnt green, and blue and white.

Repetition, alliteration, and the subtle use of refrain, often incremental, produce the eerie, chanting effect of the masterwork, in which the symbolic meanings of spiritual death and rebirth find fully adequate objective terms, both in the imagery and in the dramatic situation of the mariner and the wedding guest.

CHRISTABEL, written earlier but left incomplete, was not published until 1816. In a preface to the poem, Coleridge explains how the meter is based on the number of accents, regardless of the number of unaccented syllables. This, in fact, is the simple principle behind Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “sprung” rhythm. Again, the form and effect is that of a modified ballad-narrative, and the story is both swiftly told and richly endowed with imaginative detail. Christabel, while praying in the woods at night for her betrothed, is interrupted by Geraldine, who is, in fact, a supernatural creature, a witch, apparently bent on doing harm. Geraldine herself is deformed and isolated, cut off from human sympathy. Christabel is permitted to see through the disguise when the two spend a night together, but she is silenced by a spell.

Bracy, the bard, is sent to tell Geraldine’s supposed father, Lord Roland, that the young woman is well. As in THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, the theme of estrangement and reunion is touched on here, for Sir Leoline and Lord Roland, once friends, are now estranged, and on this occasion Sir Leoline suddenly desires a reconciliation. But Bracy as poet-seer, has also felt the evil presence, and is reluctant to leave on his mission. Sir Leoline is angered at his daughter Christabel’s inhospitality; he appears to have fallen in love with Geraldine. The poem is incomplete, and the short conclusion to Part Two really solves none of the logical or narrative questions. Thus, the poem lurks in the imagination, somehow mysterious, psychologically profound, haunting. Themes of purity and guilt, of isolation, estrangement, and reunion are all working, but CHRISTABLE remains an enigma.

The same is true of Coleridge’s most famous fragment, the drug-induced “Khubla Khan.” This poem expresses a dream-vision in which Coleridge’s genius for weird, mysterious, and yet concretely realized poetic effects is most in evidence. Coleridge himself claimed no “poetic” merits for the piece (having in mind, no doubt, the requirement that a poem be a whole), and he published it as a “curiosity” at Byron’s request. Dreamed while Coleridge was ill and under the influence of a prescribed anodyne, its “two or three hundred” subconscious lines became, upon wakeful reconstruction, the fifty-four or so that we know. These describe a sacred river, a fountain, “a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice,” where Kubla Khan hears “ancestral voices prophesying war!” As in most of Coleridge’s great poems, perhaps it is that the mysterious evocations rouse, in our “collective unconscious,” “ancestral voices.”

At any rate, the fragment is a vivid image of the mysterious vitality of nature set against the recurring and conflicting paroxysms of human dreams, desires, and actions. It is, in a sense, the epitaph of a dejected genius.