Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was a leading figure in English Romanticism. As well as co-authoring the landmark 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads with his friend William Wordsworth, Coleridge was also a critic of unmatched genius, whose pronouncements on Shakespeare, Romanticism, and the literary imagination remain influential even now.
Below, we select and introduce some of the best and most important quotations from Coleridge’s poetry and prose writings.
‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree’.
This quotation constitutes the opening lines of one of Coleridge’s most celebrated poems, ‘Kubla Khan’. The poem’s speaker tells us that in Xanadu (also known as Shangdu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan empire), the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan (1215-94) ordered a majestic pleasure-dome to be built, near the sacred river of Alph (a fictional river invented by Coleridge for the poem):
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
‘For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.’
These are the closing lines of ‘Kubla Khan’. The poet ends by saying that, if he could recapture that beautiful sound of the woman’s singing, he would be inspired to build the land she sang of, and which he described earlier in the poem.
A question mark hangs over the poem’s status: is it unfinished, or did Coleridge finish it and then invent the famous story involving the person from Porlock, to excuse away its fragmentary nature?
‘It is an ancient Mariner’.
The opening line of what is undoubtedly Coleridge’s other best-known poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: a long narrative poem
about a crew which kill an albatross, bringing bad luck to the ship. The story is told by the elderly mariner of the poem’s title, who collars a guest at a wedding and tells him his cautionary tale:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?’
‘Water, water, everywhere’.
Also from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, this quotation is well-known, and has entered extended use, applied to any situation where one has an abundance of something which one cannot use.
The mariner and his crew are surrounded by water, but they cannot drink seawater, so it’s almost as if nature is mocking their thirst and lack of drinking water on board the ship:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
‘As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.’
This quotation concludes our trio of famous lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here, the mariner’s ship cannot sail anywhere, and looks like a ship in a painting: still, lifeless, unmoving:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
‘This lime-tree bower my prison’.
One of Coleridge’s best poems, ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ dates from 1797. The poem has a curious origin in an incident involving spilt milk: Coleridge later explained to Robert Southey that he stayed behind while his friends went out for a walk because his wife ‘accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C[harles] Lamb’s stay.’
Coleridge (somewhat melodramatically) laments that he may never again be able to accompany them for a walk among the ‘roaring dell’ of the surrounding Somerset landscape.
‘Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, and Hope without an object cannot live.’
A short poem, ‘Work without Hope’ is sometimes regarded as a sort of coda to Coleridge’s far more famous longer poem, ‘Dejection: An Ode’. Although it’s not as famous as that other poem, it does contain a famous quotation from Coleridge’s oeuvre, on the need to have hope in the work one does.
The poem concludes:
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
‘The Frost performs its secret ministry’.
One of the best Romantic meditations on childhood, ‘Frost at Midnight’ (1798) begins on a cold winter night before segueing into a thoughtful monologue on the poet’s own childhood memories, and the importance of being around nature when young:
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello provided Coleridge with one of his most famous prose utterances, in a discussion of the play’s villain, Iago. In the play, Iago offers several plausible excuses for his desire to tear Othello’s world apart, but these motives seem at odds with each other.
Coleridge’s assessment of the character is beautifully summed up by the phrase ‘the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity’. Iago doesn’t actually have a reason – let alone a good reason – for wanting to destroy another man’s life. He is motivated solely by evil, or ‘Malignity’.
‘I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.’
Coleridge was just as famous for his prose writings, and for his conversation, in his lifetime. This famous quotation is taken from Coleridge’s Table Talk, dated 12 July 1827. His description of poetry as ‘the best words in their best order’ is often repeated as a good definition of poetry, as well as a good marker for the distinction between poetry and prose.
‘A poet ought not to pick nature’s pocket: let him borrow, and so borrow as to repay by the very act of borrowing.’
Another quotation from Coleridge’s celebrated Table Talk, from 22 September 1830. Poets may plunder the world of nature for their images and inspiration, but they should always give something back – for instance, by transforming or altering our attitude to the natural world.