Coleridge is one of the most important figures in English poetry. His poems directly and deeply influenced all the major poets of the age. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman who was more rigorous in his careful reworking of his poems than any other poet, and Southey and Wordsworth were dependent on his professional advice. His influence on Wordsworth is particularly important because many critics have credited Coleridge with the very idea of "Conversational Poetry". The idea of utilising common, everyday language to express profound poetic images and ideas for which Wordsworth became so famous may have originated almost entirely in Coleridge’s mind. It is difficult to imagine Wordsworth’s great poems, The Excursion or The Prelude, ever having been written without the direct influence of Coleridge’s originality.
As important as Coleridge was to poetry as a poet, he was equally important to poetry as a critic. His philosophy of poetry, which he developed over many years, has been deeply influential in the field of literary criticism. This influence can be seen in such critics as A.O. Lovejoy and I.A. Richards.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan
Coleridge is probably best known for his long poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Even those who have never read the Rime have come under its influence: its words have given the English language the metaphor of an albatross around one's neck, the quotation of "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink" (almost always rendered as "but not a drop to drink"), and the phrase "a sadder and a wiser man" (again, usually rendered as "a sadder but wiser man"). The phrase "All creatures great and small" may have been inspired by The Rime: "He prayeth best, who loveth best;/ All things both great and small;/ For the dear God who loveth us;/ He made and loveth all." Christabel is known for its musical rhythm, language, and its Gothic tale.
Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment, although shorter, is also widely known. Both Kubla Khan and Christabel have an additional "Romantic" aura because they were never finished. Stopford Brooke characterised both poems as having no rival due to their "exquisite metrical movement" and "imaginative phrasing." Kubla Khan was the inspiration for the song Xanadu, written by Neil Peart of Rush for their 1977 album A Farewell to Kings. Peart also refers to the suspension of disbelief in the 1985 song Mystic Rhythms from Power Windows.
The Conversation poems
The eight of Coleridge's poems listed above are now often discussed as a group entitled "Conversation poems". The term itself was coined in 1928 by George McLean Harper, who borrowed the subtitle of The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem (1798) to describe the seven other poems as well. The poems are considered by many critics to be among Coleridge's finest verses; thus Harold Bloom has written, "With Dejection, The Ancient Mariner, and Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight shows Coleridge at his most impressive." They are also among his most influential poems, as discussed further below.
Harper himself considered that the eight poems represented a form of blank verse that is "...more fluent and easy than Milton's, or any that had been written since Milton". In 2006 Robert Koelzer wrote about another aspect of this apparent "easiness", noting that Conversation poems such as "... Coleridge's The Eolian Harp and The Nightingale maintain a middle register of speech, employing an idiomatic language that is capable of being construed as un-symbolic and un-musical: language that lets itself be taken as 'merely talk' rather than rapturous 'song'."
The last ten lines of "Frost at Midnight" were chosen by Harper as the "best example of the peculiar kind of blank verse Coleridge had evolved, as natural-seeming as prose, but as exquisitely artistic as the most complicated sonnet." The speaker of the poem is addressing his infant son, asleep by his side:
- 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.
In 1965, M. H. Abrams wrote a broad description that applies to the Conversation poems: "The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied by integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation." In fact, Abrams was describing both the Conversation poems and later poems influenced by them. Abrams' essay has been called a "touchstone of literary criticism". As Paul Magnuson described it in 2002, "Abrams credited Coleridge with originating what Abrams called the 'greater Romantic lyric', a genre that began with Coleridge's 'Conversation' poems, and included Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, Shelley's Stanzas Written in Dejection and Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, and was a major influence on more modern lyrics by Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and W. H. Auden."