The brilliant English poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was born in England on October 21, 1772. He is famous not only for his poetry but also for his work as a literary critic. He also helped to inspire what later became the Transcendentalist movement in America. Together with his friend William Wordsworth, he launched the Romantic Movement in England and was also among the Lake Poets. Like other Romantics, Coleridge as a poet represents the culmination of Romanticism in its purest form. His poetry manifests all the characteristics for which Romanticism stands.
Coleridge is most famous for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Kubla Khan, Ode to Dejection, and Frost at Midnight. Besides, he is also known for his major prose work Biographia Literaria. His career as a lyrical poet frequently focused on supernatural themes, including perhaps his most famous work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here are some major contributions of Coleridge as a poet, analyzed mainly through his most famous poems.
1. Coleridge as a Poet: His Place and Contribution in English Poetry
Coleridge as a poet occupies, along with Wordsworth, the position of a pioneer in the ‘Romantic Revival in England’, even though the quantity of his poetry is much smaller. If Wordsworth represents that side of the romantic revival which we describe as ‘The Return to Nature’, Coleridge has justification for the phrase ‘Renaissance of Wonder’. He revived the supernatural as a literary force, emancipating it from the crude mechanism which had been applied to it by dilettanti, and invested it instead with that air of suggestion and indefiniteness which renders it with highest potency in its effect on the imagination.
There is no doubt that Coleridge’s poetry represents the culmination of Romanticism in its purest form. Historically, he belongs to the medieval revival; but he is far too original to be classed merely as part of the movement; and the distinctive qualities of his work are all his own. In pictorial power, felicity of phrasing and word music, he is one of the great masters. Furthermore, in his subtle suggestive treatment of the supernatural, he stands almost alone. It is due to the fact that he eliminates from his supernaturalism the crude material horrors, then popular with writers of the romantic schools, and gives it a ‘psychological foundation.’
This is particularly evident in Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the backbone of which lies not in the marvels of the narrative but by the hero’s spiritual history. Wordsworth, however, attempted to save naturalism, from Crabbe’s hard literalism, by touching reality with imagination. While Coleridge, in order to redeem romance from coarse sensationalism, linked it with psychological truth. His best poetry belongs to a brief period of wonderful activity (1797-1799); yet, small as it is in bulk, it ranges among the rarest treasures of English literature.
1.1. Coleridge As A Poet Seldom Finished What He Began
However, Coleridge as a poet is more noteworthy for what he suggested to others than for what he did in himself. His poetry is even unequal; he is capable of large tracts of dreariness and flatness and he seldom finishes what he began. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was the fruit of his close companionship with Wordsworth, is the only completed poem of the highest quality in the whole of his work.
Coleridge’s Christabel is a splendid fragment of which for years the first part lay uncompleted; and when the odd accident of an evening intoxication led him to begin the second, the inspiration had fed. Or the second part, by giving to the fairy atmosphere of the first ‘a local habitation and a name’, robbed it of its most precious quality. And what he gave in exchange was something the public could get better from Scott. Similarly, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan went unfinished because the call of a friend broke the thread of the reverie in which it was composed.
Furthermore, Coleridge was unable to fulfil the promises of his early days with William Wordsworth. But it is on the lines laid down by his share in ‘the pioneer work, rather than on the lines of Wordsworth, that the second generation of Romantic poets developed.
1.2. Various Critics’ Remarks About Coleridge’s Place in English Poetry
Various critics have differently viewed Coleridge’s place in English poetry and his contribution as a poet. The old-fashioned critics, like Swinburne, admirably compared him to ‘a foolish bird of Paradise’. They dwelt chiefly on the romantic strangeness of his work, its wealth of fantastic incidents and its dream-like inconsequence, or its cloud-like and rainbow-like splendors. They also lamented that a great lyrical poet had only atrophied his creative powers by a perverse devotion to German metaphysics.
On the other hand, some modern extremist critics exalt Coleridge as a philosopher, and claim him to be the father of Existentialism, an anticipator of both Freud and Jung, of the Gestalt philosophy. But Various critics consider their estimates as mere exaggeration. No doubt, the mental life and inner feeling were valuable to Coleridge. Yet, as mentioned by Humphrey House:
‘By minimizing the importance of Coleridge to the external world in which he lived, we run the risk of diverting attention from some of his most characteristic strengths as a writer—from his power of detailed poetic description of objects in nature, from his power of attuning moods of emotion to landscape and movements of water; of using the shapes and shifts and colors of nature as symbols of emotional and mental states. Even his critical idealism, whether expressed in poems or in his more technical philosophy, is grounded in a minute analysis of the phenomena of sense. He is far more alert and sensitive to the modes in which sense-experience conditions the life of mind than most technical philosophers.’
Stopford Brooke, however, says that, ‘His best work is little, but unique of its kind. For exquisite metrical movement and imaginative fantasy, there is nothing in our language to be compared with Christabel and Kubla Khan.’
2. Major Characteristics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a Poet
Coleridge’s best poems are ones that we distinguish to a remarkable degree by the perfection of their rhythm and metrical arrangement. It is this remarkable power of making his verse musical that gives a peculiar character to Coleridge’s poetry. He is not only a brilliant poet of imagination, but also the poet of thought and verbal harmony.
Coleridge wrote mainly three types of poems: romantic, personal, and political. Coleridge’s most famous political poems include: The Ode on the Departing Year, Fears in Solitude, and The Destruction of Bastille. Among his famous personal poems are: Frost at Midnight, My Prison, The Eolian Harp, An Ode to Dejection etc. However, his greatest romantic poems include: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan on whom the reputation of Coleridge as a poet chiefly lies. Here is the detailed analysis of the major characteristics of Coleridge as a poet:
2.1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a Romantic Poet
Coleridge was a co-founder of Romanticism in English literature. In his rich romantic imagination, suggestiveness, symbolism, love of nature, fascination for the remote, treatment of the supernatural, medievalism, love of music, and the dream quality of his poetry, Coleridge is a Romantic poet up to every inch. Romanticism, in fact, reaches its acme in his poetry. In the words of a critic, his poetry is ‘the most finished, supreme embodiment of all that is the purest and most ethereal in the romantic spirit.’
Wordsworth’s part in Romanticism was to extend the boundaries of thought and remove the veil of formality hung between Man and Nature. Coleridge, however, gave to this broader sphere its music; to the intellectual side of the movement, he gave its concrete beauty.
Besides, like Wordsworth, Coleridge held a higher ideal of poetry and fought bravely against the artificial style of the previous age. The simplicity of language, the variety of meter, flight of imagination, love of nature, humanitarian and democratic outlook are the major characteristics of Romanticism, and Coleridge possesses all these qualities in abundance.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan are his most famous Romantic poems that clearly depicts major artistic skills of Coleridge as a romantic poet. To quote C.M. Bowra:
“Of all English romantic masterpieces, they are the most unusual and the most romantic.”
2.2. Coleridge & His Rich Romantic Imagination
Coleridge as a poet possessed a rich romantic imagination which is the chief characteristic of romantic poetry. His eyes rolled from earth to heaven and heaven to earth. He could conceive and perceive both the natural and the supernatural. In practice as well as theory, he laid great emphasis on imagination. He also gave unprecedented importance to imagination in his Biographia Literaria. For him, the real world was a world of fixities and definites. Only the imagination of the poet could make it worthy of appreciation.
Deriving his support from Schiller and Kant, Coleridge pleaded for the importance of the individual mind and power of imagination in most forceful words. He reacted against the philosophy of Locke and Hobbes, the 18th century philosophers who had reduced the human mind to a tabula rasa, a blank tablet. Coleridge rejected reason and preferred impulse and imagination. An example of his rich imagination can be cited from Kubla Khan:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail…
2.3. Coleridge as a Ballad Writer
One of the characteristics of the Romantic Movement was the revival of old forms like the ballad. The real power of the popular ballad (simple and spirited narrative poems written in short stanzas) did not work until Coleridge and Wordsworth wrote the Lyrical Ballads. Both poets found in the ballad poems of imagination, untrammeled by artificialities of civilized life and models of direct simplicity in language and tone, Percy’s Reliques, containing a large selection of the traditional ballad poetry that had appeared in 1765.
By Coleridge’s time, the influence was already powerful; and it was natural enough for a tale of strange adventures to be told in ballad style. However, Coleridge used the ballad stanza, with additions and extensions of his own. Above all, he used the ballad manner of narration, rapid, economical, without transitions, switching abruptly from narrative to dialogue.
Of course, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is longer and more highly organized than any ballad, but it retains the concrete directness that seems to remove it from the realm of modern self-conscious and personal poetry altogether. The supernatural passages, in addition, also remind continually of the ballad of magic and enchantment. Furthermore, the poet uses in the poem all the resources of the old ballad meter, yet never exaggerates them. For instance, the effective medieval rhymes and tricks of alliteration (see lines: 103, 104). There is also the ballad habit of repetition (see lines: 158-159 and 162-163).
In Christabel, too, Coleridge touches the characteristic motives of the old romantic ballad in a spirit made subtle and fine by modern reflection (see lines: 557 and 559).
2.4. Coleridge as a Poet of Nature
Like other poets of Romanticism, Coleridge is a true lover and minute observer of Nature. In his poems, he gives sensuous pictures of Nature like a painter. He satisfies all the senses—smell, color, sound—and invariably humanizes his landscapes. Firstly, he found a pantheistic note in Nature, like Wordsworth. But later on, under the influence of the German idealists or transcendentalists, his attitude towards Nature changed.
2.4.1. Coleridge Under the influence of Wordsworth’s pantheism
In the beginning of his poetic career, Coleridge was greatly influenced by Wordsworth’s pantheism and attributed to Nature an independent existence capable of comforting human beings and exerting on them a salutary moral influence. His Frost at Midnight is typically Wordsworthian in spirit and form. His pantheistic influences are visible in the poem when he notices the Divine Spirit permeating through the objects of Nature. According to the poem, there is one spirit, immanent through Man and Nature, and it is this spirit which is the controller of the universe. For instance, in the poem, he says:
“…so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.”
2.4.2. Coleridge Under the influence of influence of German idealism
But, later on, his estrangement from Wordsworth and the influence of German idealism modified his attitude towards Nature. As a result, he denied a separate life to Nature and made her a mere reflection of human thought and mood. He came to believe that the impressions we receive from Nature do not have any distinct existence. They are merely the reflections of our own thoughts. Nature is, according to him, what we think her to be. It appears joyous or mournful according to our own moods. This view of Nature is reflected in his great poem Dejection: An Ode:
“O Lady! We receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!”
Here Coleridge describes sights and scenes of Nature as colored by human emotion.
2.5. Coleridge as a Poet of the Supernatural
In his treatment of the supernatural, Coleridge is supreme among all the Romantic poets. The pervading sense of mystery is the most essential element of Coleridge’s supernaturalism. It is that species of ‘supernaturalism whose essence is psychological.’ Instead of dealing with stories of ghosts and devils, Coleridge gives a new turn to supernatural happenings, ‘by presenting them as phenomena of the mind’ and what is excited in the mind by the passions.
Furthermore, Coleridge does not invent wonders or gruesome horrors; but makes the supernatural as psychic phenomena, symbolizing the mystery of life. He takes the most sober means to ‘suggest’ the terror of a vague threat. If Wordsworth’s genius was to stamp the commonplace, everyday life and character with the charms of novelty, Coleridge’s genius was to ‘make the supernatural appear very real by a hundred delicate touches and sublime hints’ of a profoundly impressive nature, which persuade the reader to take it as true.
It is this finer, delicate supernaturalism, result of his ‘own more delicate psychology’, that Coleridge infuses into romantic adventure, which itself was then a new or revived thing in English literature. The mystery, the weirdness, the strangeness of the supernatural cast a peculiar spell on the dreamy imagination of Coleridge. It worked most vigorously when it was called up to evoke a mysterious vision of the unseen world. Behind and beyond a seen world of natural reality is the unseen world of the supernatural. And this unseen world, populated with mysterious beings and powers, was what Coleridge sought to make real by the power of his imagination.
Also, Coleridge doesn’t pile horrible details as was done by the Gothic Romancers. Rather, he presents the supernatural in a psychological manner. And thus, he presents a model for other Romantic poets to follow.
2.5.1. Analysis of Coleridge’s Supernaturalism in his Famous Poems
Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel are purely supernatural poems of Coleridge. In these poems, he succeeds both in creating an atmosphere of mystery by indefiniteness, subtle suggestion, psychological portraiture of effects, and by creating a proper atmosphere for the supernatural happenings. He excels in making suggestive pictures of the supernatural since ‘suggestiveness’ is a special characteristic of Coleridge’s supernaturalism. His supernaturalism is psychological, suggestive, and refined; not crude and sensational like that of Scott.
Coleridge as a poet also succeeds in giving an air of realism to his supernatural happenings. This is most conspicuously achieved by him in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner where he skillfully blends the real and the fantastic. With supernatural incidents, the poet artistically interweaves convincing pictures of Nature like the sun shining brightly in the East, the mist and snow surrounding the ship, and the freezing cold of the Arctic region.
In Christabel, however, the element of the marvel is not portrayed but slightly distilled into the atmosphere. Here the whole scheme is based on supernaturalism. The evil spirit who haunts Geraldine’s body and attempts to ruin the happiness of innocent Christabel is in the true tradition of vampires. Moreover, Coleridge also infuses a mysterious dread here.
Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, however, is less directly concerned with the supernatural than The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Still, the supernatural has found its way into its wild magnificence, either in the ‘ancestral voices prophesying war’ and ‘woman wailing for her demon-lover,’ or in the magical music when the speaker seems to break all the bound of humankind and become a wild spirit of the song.
Read More: Coleridge’s Treatment of the Supernatural in his Major Poems
2.6. Medieval Element in Coleridge’s Poetry
Coleridge’s treatment of the supernatural is intimately connected with his Medievalism. We find the spirit of the Middle Ages everywhere in his poetry. The Middle Ages were a store-house of romantic associations for the escape of the erratic mind from the dull pressure of the present. Coleridge, Scott and Keats—each drew his inspiration from thought elements that fed on the past. Scott was attracted by its pageantry; and Keats by its life of passion and sensuous delights. But Coleridge’s finer imagination caught its atmosphere of mystery. He considered the past hidden from one’s knowledge as a source of many secrets.
Medievalism was to Coleridge a necessary atmosphere, from the artistic point of view, for the proper treatment of his theme—the unusual and the marvelous. He begins in medieval associations to give a necessary remoteness and a suitable setting for the marvelous which he only hints at and suggests in a delicate manner. The wide difference between Coleridge and the other Romantics in this respect would be clear if the description of Madeline’s chamber in Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes is compared with the simple picture of Christabel’s chamber (see lines: 178-183).
In Christabel, we have an ancient castle, a wood at night, an oppressive silence, a calm in which the wind forgets to blow, a vague moonlight—the whole romantic machinery with which a sense of medieval times is awakened. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also wrought with the glamor of the Middle Ages. From the quaint embroideries of the ‘Merry Minstrelsy’ to the central pattern of the Catholic idea of the penance—everywhere we see the medieval touch.
2.7. Sensuousness of Coleridge’s Poetry
Coleridge’s power of creating mysteries which stir the depths of the soul go hand in hand with his power of creating beauties that appeal to the senses. This touch of the real is a part and parcel of the art of making the unreal irresistible. As our pity, horror, wonder and other feelings are aroused, the imagination is entertained with sensuous pictures that keep us tied to the earth.
Coleridge handles all the visual details very successfully. His observations, sometimes, seem to go beyond the limits of ordinary visual perceptions. What he doesn’t see is, as much a part of his perspective, as what he does see. In Frost at Midnight, the working of nature comes alive because of what Coleridge does not hear, as Keats sees nightingale only because it is not seen.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also remarkable for its scenery, atmosphere and color effects. It appears as if Coleridge has arrested the motion of the moon through his verse (see lines: 263-266). Another example may be given of his pictorial description of natural phenomena (see lines:472-479). There are similar pictorial passages in Christabel and Kubla Khan also (see lines 14-19 of Christabel; and 2-5, 26-28, 31-36 of Kubla Khan). We may cite one more example of a perfect pen-picture from his Ode to Dejection (see lines: 35-36).
Additionally, Coleridge also describes the sensuous aspect of human love, as we find in Christabel (lines: 58-59). We also find the physical beauty of Christabel being sensuously portrayed; or Geraldine’s bosom described as a sight to dream of, not to feel. The tears that Christabel sheds seem to sparkle on her bright lashes making the picture very vivid.
2.8. Coleridge as a Narrative Poet
In his skillful management of narrative, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an artist of the highest rank. He is, in fact, a superb narrator of tales. His gift of storytelling is par excellence. He is a profound psychologist and knows how to uphold the listener’s suspense. Instead of describing things in a straightforward manner, he describes them in an interrogative manner. The result of putting a question in a critical situation is very dramatic. We hold our breath and read with great thrill and excitement as to what is going to happen next. For instance, when Christabel goes to the forest at midnight, the poet asks:
What makes her in the wood so late,
A furlong from the castle gate?
Whereas, In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he invites the Mariner with a hypnotic power in order to rouse our curiosity in his story. Coleridge also introduces his events very dramatically. By bringing the spectre ship gradually closer to view, a hush of expectancy is created, before Death and Life-in-Death are dramatically brought on the scene to determine the fate of the ancient Mariner and his crew. Two hundred sailors cursing the Mariner and dropping dead one by one, with their souls passing by him like the whiz of his crossbow, also produces a very dramatic effect. The Wedding-Guest’s interruptions are used to highlight the climacteric moments. All these devices give the poem an unrivaled narrative beauty.
Coleridge’s second major narrative poem is Christabel. In this poem, he tells the story with great precision, economy and compactness. Coleridge is, undoubtedly, a master of the terseness, vigor and naivete of the true ballad manner. His poems have an allegorical interest; but it never gets the upper hand of the narrative.
2.9. Spirituality in Coleridge’s Poetry
We can divide the growth of Coleridge’s spiritual life into two parts with 1798-1799 as the point of division. This is the time of his visit to Germany. In the first period, he is a Necessitarian and a Unitarian Christian; in the second, he is a Transcendentalist. Initially, his poetry is chiefly the expression of the conception that God is at the center of everything, predetermining and regulating all physical and mental life into a kind of universal harmony or unity.
It is, however, true that his great poetical achievement belongs to that period when his mind was governed by this twofold conception of Necessity and Unity. But when he became a Transcendentalist, he ceased to be a poet. His most characteristic poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel are the expressions of his Necessitarianism and Unitarianism.
From a complete Necessitarian, Coleridge then became a radical Transcendentalist. But he was unable to render his Transcendentalism in concrete representation, suggestive imagination, and deep feeling. We have no poem in the Transcendentalist period corresponding to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, except his Ode to Dejection. In essence Coleridge’s Unitarianism led to an unqualified optimism. It also implied several things: the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, eternal life for everyone, no original sin, God’s forgiving love for all.
2.10. Coleridge as a Metrical Artist
Romantic poetry was poetry of revolt against the artificial poetic diction of the 18th century and the tyranny of the heroic couplet. Though Coleridge did not subscribe to Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction, yet there is a charming simplicity in his style that is entirely his own. He disregarded the heroic couplet and experimented with a number of ancient metres, mostly medieval.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he uses the old ballad meter with perfect mastery. His other major poem, Christabel, displays full command over the music of the octosyllabic couplet. The poem is written in the irregular meter established on a new principle; that is, counting the accents in each line, not the syllables. What is true of Christabel is true of Kubla Khan also. Like Christabel, the meter of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the four-foot iambic with rhymes abab, though varied from time to time.
Moreover, the tendency in the art of poetry to approximate the art of music is manifest in all of Coleridge’s most characteristic pieces. His melody never fails. In his use of the octo-syllabic meter or of the ballad meter, he remains unrivalled. There is a charm in these poems which the reader can only feel in the silent submission of wonder.
Coleridge definitely took up the principle of accentuation; and this made him vary the unaccented syllables according to the artistic needs of melody. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for instance, contains a series of cunning sound patterns which lull the reader and produce a hypnotic effect on his mind.
2.11. Communication of Moral Truth in Coleridge’s Poetry
Some of Coleridge’s most famous poems, such as Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, have very serious moral and spiritual bearing on human life. We may enjoy the magical atmosphere of these poems. But there are moments when they break beyond illusion and call to something deep and serious in us. Both the poems communicate moral truth which we cannot dismiss. The moral of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is expressed in the following lines:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Thus, through his concrete story, Coleridge reaches wider issues and the poem communicates an eternal moral truth in and through the temporal. Similarly, in Christabel, the poet has presented a contrast between good and evil, between pure innocence and motiveless malice, and the question of expiation.
This communication of moral truth gives these poems a new dimension, what might otherwise be no more than irresponsible fairy tales, brought closer to life and to its fundamental issues. Much of the magic of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel is due to the blend of dark and serious issues with the play of creative energy.
2.12. Mysticism or Element of Mystery in Coleridge’s Poetry
At the center of Coleridge’s art lies his unique faculty of evoking the mystery of things. In his best poetry, he breathes into his subject-matter a mystery which is the very essence of his romanticism. This mystery pervades the human souls of the persons treated as well as the very face of Nature, however delightfully accurate he is in describing its external details.
The poet masterfully creates an atmosphere of mystery in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Even natural phenomena, such as the sunrise, the blowing of the winds on the sea, the rise of the moon in the sky, or the twinkling stars assume a mysterious character. Human characters, such as the Ancient Mariner, also acquire a mysterious character; and, passing through the imagination of the poet, become a thing of mystery, marvel and wonder.
In Christabel, the sense of mystery is the very atmosphere in which both Christabel and nocturnal scenes are steeped. There is a moaning sound, as of the wind in the forest, though ‘there is not wind enough in the air’. Moreover, ‘the one red leaf, the last of its clan, hanging so light and hanging so high’ is, indeed, a leaf of this world. But it carries the weird suggestion of a mysterious other world of grim shadows and terrible happenings.
2.13. Psychology in Coleridge’s Poetry
English Romanticism owes this great debt to Coleridge that he introduced (or, rather revived) in English poetry the portrayal of emotions with knowledge of the phenomena of mind. This physical element in his poetry resulted from his metaphysical speculation or spiritual philosophy which explained, in the manner of German transcendentalists like Kant and Schelling, the universe of matters in terms of ‘an organizing surge of vital energies which emanate directly from God.’
It was with this belief that, in his mature poetry, he read into the soul of Man and Nature. As a result, he found in Man and Nature a ‘mystery.’ In his best poetry, one can analyze the physical details of the central characters as well as of Nature, through vivid and graphic, as mere external manifestations of the subtle operations of the inner soul. It is this essential reality in Man and Nature that is beyond ordinary human knowledge or ‘mystery’.
However, Coleridge’s spiritualized Nature also abounds with color and melody and perfume. His touch having at once the voluptuous quality of Keats and the mystic quality of Shelley. In Christabel, we see the ‘toothless mastiff bitch’ giving ‘sixteen short howls’ for ‘she sees my lady’s shroud.’ Again, as Christabel passes the hall with Geraldine, ‘a tongue of light, a fit of flame’, shows her only the eye of Geraldine, ‘and nothing else saw she thereby,’ the eye being the sure index of the inner wickedness of Geraldine.
2.14. Dream Quality of Coleridge’s Poetry
Another major characteristic of Coleridge as a poet is the dream quality that pervades his works. Coleridge’s imagination is only at its height when he is away from human reality and in the world either of his own personality or of the mystic realm in which The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel were conceived and wrought. Also, his imagination works up into high activities in that world where Man and Nature are the stuff which dreams are made of. For example, the quality that gives the distinctive stamp to Christabel is its half-light, its twilight vagueness, where everything is seen as if through a haze or a glimmer from a dreamland.
Thus, the supreme strength of Coleridge as a poet lay in this marvelous dream faculty. In Christabel, the tone keeps with the temper of the crowing cock ‘how drowsily it crew,’ of the mastiff bitch, which ‘did not wake. Yet she an angry moan did make.’ Everything that Christabel felt, she did feel ‘with open eyes, asleep, and dreaming fearfully’. Moreover, the charm exercised by Geraldine has a vague twilight glimmer which stuns by its mystic shadowiness.
Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is essentially a dream poem recounting in poetic form the beautiful dream that the poet had seen in his dreamy vision. The dreamy element is also well pronounced in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which seeks to show that, corresponding to our inner sense of sin bringing sure suffering, there is an actual life severe punishment following upon even a trifling and wanton act, such as killing an innocent bird.
2.15. Suggestiveness and Symbolism in Coleridge’s Poetry
Coleridge’s poetry is perhaps the most suggestive and symbolic among the works of the Romantic poets. It suggests the supernatural through the natural, and the moral through the amoral. The subtle suggestion thrown in apparently at random in Christabel and in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner deserve special notice. It is mainly through his suggestiveness that Coleridge is able to create the desired atmosphere in his poems.
Like Shelley, Coleridge searches in nature for symbols of his thoughts and emotions. For instance, the moon in his poetry is the ever recurring symbol of imagination. And the breeze symbolizes the act of creation. Besides, the killing of the albatross represents the violation of Nature’s sanctity, and it becomes the Christian emblem when sailors hangs it round the Mariner’s neck like a cross. Similarly, the smooth sailing of the ship in the beginning of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner symbolizes progress and success while its motionlessness symbolizes complete paralysis of the will.
In Dejection: An Ode, Coleridge makes natural objects symbols of his own feelings and emotions. Whereas, in Christabel, Christabel stands for the good forces of nature and Geraldine for the evil ones.
2.16. Coleridge as a Poet’s Poet
Coleridge is one of the seminal influences on poets, and in every sense, he is a poets’ poet. There is, above all, his supreme technical skill in the manipulation of meter. The measure to which The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is set, passing through so many cadences and wedding it’s cadences so completely to it’s subject, was a new thing in English poetry. The meter never used so freely and flexibly ever since the days of the Elizabethan lyricists.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was not merely a ballad poetry. It was, however, a kind of poetry which took the form of the ballad and used it to convey a subtle sense of harmony hitherto unknown to experience. In this respect The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is beyond criticism.
The artful simplicity of phrase and music, the constant change of time, the loosely-strewn yet meditated arrangement of syllables—all these point to the work of an artist who guided himself instinctively to the inevitable word and knew the inevitable musical phrase with which to express it. Thus, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the first sign of a revolution in English poetry.
2.16.1. Coleridge as the Creator of Modern Poetry
Christabel, however, was a more immediately powerful factor of change. The unfinished poem had laid in manuscript for 18 years; but, later on, became widely circulated. Further, it had given the principal suggestion for Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel and for Byron’s early poems. In fact, the popular narrative poetry of the generation had borrowed its form almost entirely from this strange tale in verse.
Christabel is nothing but a splendid masterpiece of style. There isn’t a very definite story to take the readers’ interest, no great individuality about the personages; the poet means to convey no moral; but he has stung together a set of lines which follow one another in ringing succession. It is only by effects such as these that a poet catches the ear of his own generation. And it is certainly on these that the final judgement of Coleridge rests.
Thus, among the succeeding poets, there is scarcely one who consciously or unconsciously has not sought some ideal, very likely the standard of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Of one from whom both Scott and Byron borrowed so largely, it is not wrong to say that Coleridge was the creator of modern poetry.
3. Limitations of Coleridge as a Poet
Though a great poet and co-founder of the Romantic Revival of English Poetry, Coleridge had his limitations. These were to a large extent the faults of his personality and his habits that hampered his poetic growth. His life, work, and even thoughts are marked by an unhappy fate, which prevented him from reaching complete self-fulfillment. His nervous energy was incapable of coping with his intellectual and artistic ambition. He became a slave to opium, and to a deep-set disease of his very personality, of which the former habit was as much the effect as the cause. Unlike Wordsworth, he never recovered his balance; and while he taught the moral courage which culminates in victory, it was with the sense of defeat.
Coleridge’s poetry is much more dreamy and concerned with his visions or the supernatural; thus deficient in the treatment of the actualities and major realities of life. Another defect of his poetry is his want of concentration and inability to make a sustained effort or to keep up a unity or continuity of purpose. Lack of concentration, however, is hardly discernible in Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. But it becomes manifest with Ode to Dejection wherein he laments the loss of his ‘shaping power of imagination’. Many of his poems suffer from a lack of continuity and unity. Christabel is as fragmentary as Ode to Dejection.
Though there is a human touch in his poems, yet Coleridge does not seem to be a master of human psychology. His poems lack substantive subject-matter. Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been built around a thin plot, and so is the case with Kubla Khan. Had there been no music which is sweet and attractive, his poems would have been somewhat dull.
Sources of this article:
- Bowra C. M.: The Romantic Imagination, 1950.
- Coburn, Kathleen.: Coleridge, A Collection of Critical Essays (Twentieth Century Views), 1967.
- House, Humphry: Coleridge, 1953 (Clark Lectures, 1951-52)
- Knight, G. Wilson: The Starlit Dome, 1941.
- Brooke, S.A.: Theology in the English Poets Cowper, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Burns (1874)