Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s place in the canon of English poetry rests on a comparatively small body of achievement: a few poems from the late 1790s and early 1800s and his participation in the revolutionary publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1797. Unlike Wordsworth, his work cannot be understood through the lens of the 1802 preface to the second edition of that book; though it does resemble Wordsworth’s in its idealization of nature and its emphasis on human joy, Coleridge’s poems often favor musical effects over the plainness of common speech. The intentional archaisms of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the hypnotic drone of “Kubla Khan” do not imitate common speech, creating instead a more strikingly stylized effect.
Further, Coleridge’s poems complicate the phenomena Wordsworth takes for granted: the simple unity between the child and nature and the adult’s reconnection with nature through memories of childhood; in poems such as “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge indicates the fragility of the child’s innocence by relating his own urban childhood. In poems such as “Dejection: An Ode” and “Nightingale,” he stresses the division between his own mind and the beauty of the natural world. Finally, Coleridge often privileges weird tales and bizarre imagery over the commonplace, rustic simplicities Wordsworth advocates; the “thousand thousand slimy things” that crawl upon the rotting sea in the “Rime” would be out of place in a Wordsworth poem.
If Wordsworth represents the central pillar of early Romanticism, Coleridge is nevertheless an important structural support. His emphasis on the imagination, its independence from the outside world and its creation of fantastic pictures such as those found in the “Rime,” exerted a profound influence on later writers such as Shelley; his depiction of feelings of alienation and numbness helped to define more sharply the Romantics’ idealized contrast between the emptiness of the city—where such feelings are experienced—and the joys of nature. The heightened understanding of these feelings also helped to shape the stereotype of the suffering Romantic genius, often further characterized by drug addiction: this figure of the idealist, brilliant yet tragically unable to attain his own ideals, is a major pose for Coleridge in his poetry.
His portrayal of the mind as it moves, whether in silence (“Frost at Midnight”) or in frenzy (“Kubla Khan”) also helped to define the intimate emotionalism of Romanticism; while much of poetry is constituted of emotion recollected in tranquility, the origin of Coleridge’s poems often seems to be emotion recollected in emotion. But (unlike Wordsworth, it could be argued) Coleridge maintains not only an emotional intensity but also a legitimate intellectual presence throughout his oeuvre and applies constant philosophical pressure to his ideas. In his later years, Coleridge worked a great deal on metaphysics and politics, and a philosophical consciousness infuses much of his verse—particularly poems such as “The Nightingale” and “Dejection: An Ode,” in which the relationship between mind and nature is defined via the specific rejection of fallacious versions of it. The mind, to Coleridge, cannot take its feeling from nature and cannot falsely imbue nature with its own feeling; rather, the mind must be so suffused with its own joy that it opens up to the real, independent, “immortal” joy of nature.
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