Skip to main content

Selected Poems (Coleridge)

Published onFeb 10, 2024
Selected Poems (Coleridge)

“Dejection: An Ode”

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.
(Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence)


Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made

       The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,

       This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence

Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade

Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,

Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes

Upon the strings of this Æolian lute,

                Which better far were mute.

         For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!

         And overspread with phantom light,

         (With swimming phantom light o'erspread

         But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)

I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling

         The coming-on of rain and squally blast.

And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,

         And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,

                And sent my soul abroad,

Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,

Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!


A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

         A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

         Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

                In word, or sigh, or tear—

O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,

To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo'd,

         All this long eve, so balmy and serene,

Have I been gazing on the western sky,

         And its peculiar tint of yellow green:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,

That give away their motion to the stars;

Those stars, that glide behind them or between,

Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:

Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew

In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;

I see them all so excellently fair,

I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!


                My genial spirits fail;

                And what can these avail

To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

                It were a vain endeavour,

                Though I should gaze for ever

On that green light that lingers in the west:

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.


O Lady! we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

         And would we aught behold, of higher worth,

Than that inanimate cold world allowed

To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,

         Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

                Enveloping the Earth—

And from the soul itself must there be sent

         A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,

Of all sweet sounds the life and element!


O pure of heart! thou need'st not ask of me

What this strong music in the soul may be!

What, and wherein it doth exist,

This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,

This beautiful and beauty-making power.

         Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne'er was given,

Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,

Life, and Life's effluence, cloud at once and shower,

Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,

Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower

         A new Earth and new Heaven,

Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud—

Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—

                We in ourselves rejoice!

And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,

         All melodies the echoes of that voice,

All colours a suffusion from that light.


There was a time when, though my path was rough,

         This joy within me dallied with distress,

And all misfortunes were but as the stuff

         Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:

For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,

And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

But now afflictions bow me down to earth:

Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;

                But oh! each visitation

Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,

         My shaping spirit of Imagination.

For not to think of what I needs must feel,

         But to be still and patient, all I can;

And haply by abstruse research to steal

         From my own nature all the natural man—

         This was my sole resource, my only plan:

Till that which suits a part infects the whole,

And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.


Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,

                Reality's dark dream!

I turn from you, and listen to the wind,

         Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream

Of agony by torture lengthened out

That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav'st without,

         Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,

Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,

Or lonely house, long held the witches' home,

         Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,

Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,

Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,

Mak'st Devils' yule, with worse than wintry song,

The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.

         Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!

Thou mighty Poet, e'en to frenzy bold!

                What tell'st thou now about?

                'Tis of the rushing of an host in rout,

         With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds—

At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!

But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!

         And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,

With groans, and tremulous shudderings—all is over—

         It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud!

                A tale of less affright,

                And tempered with delight,

As Otway's self had framed the tender lay,—

                'Tis of a little child

                Upon a lonesome wild,

Nor far from home, but she hath lost her way:

And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,

And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.


'Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:

Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!

Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,

         And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,

May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,

         Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!

                With light heart may she rise,

                Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,

         Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;

To her may all things live, from pole to pole,

Their life the eddying of her living soul!

         O simple spirit, guided from above,

Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice,

Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.

“The Eolian Harp”

composed at clevedon, somersetshire

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined

Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is

To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown

With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,

(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)

And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,

Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve

Serenely brilliant (such would Wisdom be)

Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents

Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!

The stilly murmur of the distant Sea

Tells us of silence.

                            And that simplest Lute,

Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!

How by the desultory breeze caressed,

Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,

It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs

Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings

Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes

Over delicious surges sink and rise,

Such a soft floating witchery of sound

As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve

Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,

Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,

Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,

Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing!

O! the one Life within us and abroad,

Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere—

Methinks, it should have been impossible

Not to love all things in a world so filled;

Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air

Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

    And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope

Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,

Whilst through my half-closed eyelids I behold

The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,

And tranquil muse upon tranquility:

Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,

And many idle flitting phantasies,

Traverse my indolent and passive brain,

As wild and various as the random gales

That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!

    And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic Harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

    But thy more serious eye a mild reproof

Darts, O beloved Woman! nor such thoughts

Dim and unhallowed dost thou not reject,

And biddest me walk humbly with my God.

Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!

Well hast thou said and holily dispraised

These shapings of the unregenerate mind;

Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break

On vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring.

For never guiltless may I speak of him,

The Incomprehensible! save when with awe

I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;

Who with his saving mercies healèd me,

A sinful and most miserable man,

Wildered and dark, and gave me to possess

Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honored Maid!

“Frost at Midnight”


Romantic-era poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously defined imagination as the human mind’s temporary replication of the divine creation of the world. “The primary Imagination,” he wrote, “I hold to be … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” In other words, the human mind’s creative powers—finite as they are—imitate in miniature the divine words that called a world into being. In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge meditates on creation by pairing poetic composition with the magical appearance of frost crystals on the windowpane and eaves outside. Coleridge explores how the individual mind mirrors the natural world and shows how patterns repeat at different scales, revealing universal elements underlying landscapes, thought structures, frost crystals, and poetry.

At the beginning of the poem, the speaker sits awake in the dead of night as frost laces the window. Everyone else has gone to bed, and his infant son Hartley sleeps by the low fire. An old English word for frost, rime, survived in rural northern English dialects, and in the late 18th century, around the time Coleridge was writing, it came into use once again—mostly among poets. Because it sounded like rhyme, it provided fodder for symbols and wordplay. Both poetry and frost create complex, interwoven patterns, and both arise in secret, out of mystery. During long winter nights, frost spreads unseen up windows and across the grass. People once explained its glittering, sudden appearance by saying that “Jack Frost”—a rascally fairy tale character said to delight in bringing snow and sleet—had painted intricate white designs while the household slept. In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge forges poetic patterns to represent the workings of memory and imagination. As he describes the frost, he poetically mimics its recurring shapes. Looked at closely, frost patterns vary somewhat but repeat the same basic designs, branching up the window, replicating themselves.

The poem begins by evoking a repeated birdcall in the winter silence: “The Frost performs its secret ministry, / Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.” The syntax enacts the repeated call of the owlet, probably shrieking for food, whose smallness mirrors the baby lying in the cradle. Like the frost, which imitates itself as it spreads, the sleeping boy also embodies the idea of replication; children are, in some ways, replicas of their parents.

Paradoxically, Coleridge acknowledges, however, that repetition often hails and creates change; an element of strangeness enters whatever is re-created. Thus, as the poem progresses, he gladly imagines how his son’s childhood will differ from his own. Coleridge spent his school years in London, “pent ‘mid cloisters dim,” but his child Hartley will grow up in the wild countryside where he can “wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores. …” When Coleridge wrote “Frost at Midnight” in 1798, he was living in a small thatched cottage in Somerset, where he had moved because he wanted to be close to William Wordsworth, with whom he shared a legendary literary collaboration, and to Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, whom he adored.

“Frost at Midnight” is written in blank verse, and the poem’s first metrical variation occurs when Coleridge syntactically enacts repetition: “The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.” The second loud disrupts the iambic meter: “came LOUD | —and HARK, | a-GAIN! | LOUD as | be-FORE.” Later, as Coleridge evokes his son’s coming rural childhood, his language again doubles back on itself:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: …

Clouds tower like mountains, loom like jagged crags, and spread like wind-ruffled lakes. Just as the clouds replicate the landscape below, the verse reiterates its catalog of geologic features: “lakes and shores / And mountain crags,” although, this time, description condenses into a list.

Equating replication with change is one of many ways Coleridge quietly insists that opposite qualities often inhabit the same space. At the beginning of the poem, Coleridge sits in a silent room where even the fire hovers low and unmoving. He describes a film of ash flapping on the grate, which in folkloric belief was called a “stranger” and was said to foretell the arrival of an unexpected guest:

Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live. … 

This “stranger” unites opposites: it is both the burnt residue of the fire and the harbinger of a new arrival; it is both a remnant and an omen. Coleridge describes the leaping film as “unquiet,” a word of negation that contains quiet and is created from its own opposite. This negative construction echoes the poem’s first lines in which he observes that the frost is “unhelped” by any wind.

Although the appearance of the “stranger” on the grate signals the coming arrival of a guest, seeing it makes Coleridge remember his own childhood when he sat at school watching the “stranger” flapping on the grate and wondering what visitor might arrive:

For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

In the 18th century, both boys and girls wore dresses until they went to school. The last line evokes a time when certain differentiating customs had not yet come into effect, and obvious gender distinctions had not yet emerged. Likewise, his meditative anticipation contains multiple suspended possibilities—the unexpected guest could be anyone. As Coleridge watches the fluttering ash, the imagined stranger remains in the multiplicitous realm of imagination and has not yet crystalized into a singular, real person.

Because the film of ash is the only thing stirring in the hushed house, the poet suggests that the film has “dim sympathies” with him, thus equating his mind with this image of restlessness. Coleridge’s descriptions of stillness imbue it, paradoxically, with turbulence: “Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs / And vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness.” Quietness “disturbs” and “vexes” the poet’s thoughts. Mysteriously tumultuous, the silence invites the poet into a world of mimetic possibilities in which forms are not confined to their own limits. The word extreme derives from a Latin adjective meaning far away or foreign—outside the boundaries of a given territory. This “extreme” silence dissolves the boundaries of the self and draws the poet toward something distant. In this case, the distance is temporal; watching the “stranger,” the poet recalls old memories and also vividly imagines his son’s future. In the imagination, multiple time frames coexist at once; time is no longer simply a linear progression. Silence turns the self into a wanderer just as Coleridge imagines that his son Hartley will “wander like a breeze.”

Just as clouds imitate the landscape, Coleridge’s metaphor turns his son into the world he will inhabit. In the poem’s imagined future, Hartley becomes like the animating wind racing across mountains and shores. In Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination, critic Gregory Leadbetter argues that Coleridge believed “our metaphysical ideas shape our becoming,” citing Coleridge’s beautiful statement that “we become that which we believe our gods to be.” As Hartley comes to know and understand the spiritual wisdom embedded in landscapes, he himself will begin to meld with his surroundings.

Coleridge imagines God’s “language” suffusing “all things”—a kind of linguistic connective tissue that underlies the land and, once we understand it, allows our minds to meld with nature. Coleridge envisions that his son will

                                      … 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.

Knowledge leads to more questions. Satiation and thirst are conflated, and the congruence of opposites is the tension that allows creation to proceed. (The child himself, after all, comes from melding two different genetic lines.) Coleridge also introduces the idea that one thing leads back into another, an image of circular experience mirrored by the structure of the poem—a rondo—which, at the end, repeats the phrase secret ministry and returns to the image of frost.

Coleridge wrote that “the common end of all narrative, nay of all poems, is to convert a series into a whole: to make those events which in real or imagined History move in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a Circular motion—the snake with its Tail in its Mouth.” Coleridge is describing the ouroboros—an ancient image of a snake eating its own tail. This strange creature symbolized the idea that endings cannot be separated from beginnings.

The poem’s final stanza evokes the ouroboros-like progression of seasons and unifies them through metaphor. Coleridge writes that because Hartley will understand God’s “eternal language”:

                      … all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw. …

The “tufts of snow” on the winter branch evoke white sprays of apple blossoms that, in spring, will cover the tree. Winter replicates spring; the image similarly erodes boundaries between plants and animals: tufts—of blossoms, of snow—evoke tufts of feathers on the redbreast’s belly. Similarly, the thatch “smokes” in the “sun thaw.” If Coleridge’s picturesque but highly flammable roof actually began to smoke, the house would be destroyed. The thaw, on the other hand, hails spring and new growth, and, thus, language melds destruction and creation. In his creative autobiography, Biographia Literaria, Coleridge defines imagination as the human capacity to invent new realities, replicating—on a small scale—divine creation. He also identifies another role of the imagination: to unify the world around us. Coleridge writes that this secondary aspect of imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.” Coleridge uses general to mean “creative”—the “general earth” generates life. But, of course, general also means universal—spiritual wisdom and poetic language fuse different forms and reveal their commonality.

Understanding God’s “language” will make all seasons “sweet” to the poet’s son—whether the leaves cover the trees, whether snow coats the branches, or

                                              whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

At the end, the imagined future and the physical present merge. The poet envisions a future version of what he is already experiencing: the stillness of a frosty night. “Trances of the blast” means snatches of quiet between gusts of wind, but trance also evokes enchantment. Silence enfolds magic, the possibility of unexplained revelation. Trance derives from a Latin verb meaning to “go across.” Trance, silence, draws the speaker across the border of the self and into union with the world around him. Midnight is the witching hour, the moment when one day becomes another, when one thing transforms into another. Coleridge evokes ice turning to water, a change that serves only to illustrate how different forms are composed of the same material. The assonance threading through the final lines sonically unites words: “silent icicles, / quietly shining to the quiet Moon.” The icicles shine because they are catching the light of the moon, which, in turn, reflects the sun. Seemingly disparate forms gleam with the same light. The icicles decking the house replicate the distant moon, and the poem’s branching, reiterating patterns reproduce the frost’s intricate designs. The child reflects the father and then becomes like the rushing wind; imagination refigures him in the image of the wild, unbounded world. The temporary imagination imitates the divine, endless transfigurations that shape the mountains and cliffs and fill them with an “eternal language” that, rushing through the wilderness, is caught and replicated briefly in the poem’s stillness. 

By Katherine Robinson
Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

“Frost at Midnight”

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.

'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs

And vexes meditation with its strange

And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,

This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,

With all the numberless goings-on of life,

Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame

Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;

Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.

Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature

Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,

Making it a companionable form,

Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit

By its own moods interprets, every where

Echo or mirror seeking of itself,

And makes a toy of Thought.

                      But O! how oft,

How oft, at school, with most believing mind,

Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,

To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft

With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt

Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,

Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang

From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,

So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me

With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear

Most like articulate sounds of things to come!

So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,

Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!

And so I brooded all the following morn,

Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye

Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:

Save if the door half opened, and I snatched

A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,

For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,

Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,

My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

         Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,

Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,

Fill up the intersperséd vacancies

And momentary pauses of the thought!

My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart

With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,

And in far other scenes! For I was reared

In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,

And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze

By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags

Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,

Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores

And mountain crags: 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.

         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast,

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

“Kubla Khan”

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

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.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

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:

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

   The shadow of the dome of pleasure

   Floated midway on the waves;

   Where was heard the mingled measure

   From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

   A damsel with a dulcimer

   In a vision once I saw:

   It was an Abyssinian maid

   And on her dulcimer she played,

   Singing of Mount Abora.

   Could I revive within me

   Her symphony and song,

   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?