Swans – Brief Poems by S. T. Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleuewb_03_img0195ridge (1772-1834), was born in Devonshire, the youngest son of the vicar of Ottery St Mary. After his father’s death he was sent away to Christ’s Hospital School in London. He also studied at Jesus College where he was renowned for his amazing memory and his appetite for learning. However, he described his next three years of school as “depressed, moping, friendless.” Because of bad debts, Coleridge joined the 15th Light Dragoons, a British cavalry unit, in December 1793. After his discharge in April 1794, he returned to Jesus College, but he left in December without completing a degree.

In Cambridge he met the radical, future poet laureate Robert Southey and moved with him to Bristol to establish  a plan for a “pantisocracy,” a vision of an ideal community to be founded in Pennsylvania. The plan failed. In 1795 he married the sister of Southey’s fiancée, Sara Fricker. However, he grew to detest his wife, whom he only married because of social constraints. They eventually separated.

Coleridge’s first collection Poems On Various Subjects was published in 1796. He had a close friendship with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, one of the most fruitful creative relationships in English literature. From it resulted Lyrical Ballads, which set a new style by using everyday language and fresh ways of looking at nature. It opened with Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and ended with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. He visited Germany in 1798-99 with William and Dorothy Wordsworth,  mastered the German language and studied philosophy at Göttingen University. In 1799 he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife, to whom he devoted his work Dejection: An Ode (1802) and with whom he wrote and edited the literary and political magazine The Friend. That love was not reciprocated. From 1808 to 1818 he gave several lectures, chiefly in London, and was considered the greatest of Shakespearean critics. In 1810 Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth reached crisis point. These two great Romantic poets never fully recovered their friendship.

Suffering initially from a toothache and later from rheumatic pains, Coleridge became  addicted to laudanum and opium. During the following years, almost suicidal,  he lived in London. He found a permanent shelter in Highgate in the household of Dr. James Gillman who built a special annex to house the poet.  Coleridge rarely left the house. In 1816 the unfinished poems Christabel and Kubla Khan, whose  supernatural themes and exotic images may have been affected by his use of the drugs, were published.  His most important production during this period was the Biographia Literaria (1817). After 1817 he devoted himself to theological and politico-sociological works. Coleridge was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824.

Thomas Carlyle has described his life at Highgate: Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle … The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gilman’s house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in Highgate, near London on July 25, 1834.

 

COLERIDGE AND THE EPIGRAM

Although he wrote a wide variety of poems, Coleridge managed to create some of the masterpieces of English literature and in different genres and styles. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be the greatest ballad ever written. Is there a visionary poem more impressive than Kubla Khan? Another unfinished poem, Christabel, is among the great narrative poems in English. And he almost single-handedly created the conversation poem, of which Frost at Midnight is a brilliant example. Then there is Dejection: An Ode, a poem about depression that could put many an American confessional poet to shame.

When it comes to the epigram Coleridge’s definition, which references Shakespeare, is the one most often used to explain that poetic form.

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

And his caustic comment on poets, volunteer singers, is a rebuke to those of us who have the temerity to attempt to write poetry. Not all of his epigrams are up to those standards, although I confess a likeness for the one to be put on a house-dog’s collar. But they are certainly worth a second glance.

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Brief Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What is an epigram

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

***

On a Volunteer singer 

Swans sing before they die–’twere no bad thing
Should certain people die before they sing!

***

Epigram

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

***

To be ruled like a Frenchman

To be ruled like a Frenchman the Briton is loth,
Yet in truth a direct-tory governs them both.

***

There comes from old Avaro’s grave
A deadly stench—why, sure they have
Immured his soul within his grave?

***

To Mr. Pye

Your poem must eternal be,
Eternal! it can’t fail,
For ’tis incomprehensible,
And without head or tail!

***

To a Certain Modern Narcissus

Do call, dear Jess, whene’er my way you come;
My looking-glass will always be at home.

***

Pondere Non Numero

Friends should be weigh’d, not told; who boasts to have won
A multitude of friends, he ne’er had one.

***

From me, Aurelia! you desired
Your proper praise to know;
Well! you’re the Fair by all admired—
Some twenty years ago.

***

Here lies the Devil—ask no other name.
Well—but you mean Lord——? Hush! we mean the same.

***

For a House-Dog’s Collar

When thieves come, I bark: when gallants, I am still—
So perform both my Master’s and Mistress’s will.

***

In vain I praise thee, Zoilus!
In vain thou rail’st at me!
Me no one credits, Zoilus!
And no one credits thee!

***

Money, I’ve heard a wise man say,
Makes herself wings and flies away—
Ah! would she take it in her head
To make a pair for me instead.

***

So Mr. Baker heart did pluck—
And did a-courting go!
And Mr. Baker is a buck;
For why? he needs the doe.

***

As when the new or full Moon urges
The high, large, long, unbreaking surges
Of the Pacific main.

***

Fragment

Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn.

***

What a spring-tide of Love to dear friends in a shoal!
Half of it to one were worth double the whole!

***

Translation from Claudian

Whate’er thou giv’st, it still is sweet to me,
For still I find it redolent of thee.

 

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LINKS
The Wikipedia page on Coleridge.
The Poetry Foundation page on Coleridge.

A large selection of Coleridge’s shorter poems is available on the lit.genius site.

 

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