This ClassicNotes study guide focuses on the following six poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Sonnet: To the River,” “Christabel,” Frost at Midnight,” “The Nightingale,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Dejection: An Ode.” The collection of poems in this study guide highlights the various poetic styles of Coleridge (e.g., sonnets, lyric poems, and conversation poems) as well as the familiar motifs and themes that characterize his poetry.
Coleridge is perhaps best known for excelling in the “conversation” style of poetry. In his conversation poems, Coleridge created a one-sided dialogue in which he was the speaker and his family members (such as his son Hartley) and close friends (such as William Wordsworth) were the silent listeners.
The conversation poems included in this study guide are “Frost at Midnight,” “The Nightingale,” and “Dejection: An Ode.” In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge speaks to his sleeping infant son, Hartley, and reflects on his upbringing in the city, his childhood longing to return to his rural birthplace, and his dedication to ensuring that his son will develop an intimate relationship with nature. In “The Nightingale,” in which Coleridge addresses William Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, Coleridge’s appreciation and love of nature is once again the main topic of the poem. Coleridge also criticizes the phenomenon of poets projecting their own melancholy feelings upon nature and thus writing about nature as representative of their own sorrows and frustrations. Coleridge’s ending declaration in “The Nightingale,” that his son will develop a true appreciation of nature, mirrors the poet’s intentions for his son in “Frost at Midnight.” In “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge addresses his former lover, Sara Hutchinson, whom he refers to only as “Lady.” Coleridge describes how his sorrow over their relationship has dulled him emotionally and has stifled his creativity and imagination. The theme of nature is also present in this poem, since Coleridge hopes that the ominous-looking moon he sees will bring a storm that will enliven his emotions.
“Christabel” is a long lyric poem about a devout young maiden named Christabel and her efforts to save Geraldine, a young woman Christabel finds in the woods. Geraldine had been kidnapped from her father’s castle by unknown knights, who then abandoned her in the woods. In this tale of how Christabel takes Geraldine into her home and serves as the witness to and later the victim of Geraldine’s spells, Coleridge explores the struggles between sin and purity, as well as between religion and mysticism.
“Kubla Khan” is another lyric poem and is perhaps one of Coleridge’s best-known poems, alongside “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The popular legend behind the creation of “Kubla Khan” is that Coleridge was inspired to write the poem after awaking from an opium-induced dream about an Asian emperor. The poem details the exploits of an explorer named Kubla Khan in the foreign land of Xanadu. In “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge explores the familiar themes of the powers and complexities of nature and mysticism.
In "Sonnet: To the River Otter", Coleridge once again explores the adult's longing for the innocence and happiness of childhood, as well as a longing for the idyllic pastoral life. The speaker of the home returns to a brook in his native countryside home and reflects on his fond childhood memories of experiencing the beauty, tranquility and constancy of nature.