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6.8 Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the Romantic characteristic of mysticism and Coleridge’s theory of the Imagination as they function in “The Eolian Harp.”
  2. Understand how Coleridge’s presentation of mysticism in “The Eolian Harp” plays out in narrative form in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
  3. Assess the gothic elements in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
  4. Recognize and explain the pattern of observation of nature leading to a meditation in “The Eolian Harp” and “This Lime-tree Bower, My Prison.”


Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in a small village in southwestern England. The son of a clergyman/school teacher, Coleridge attended his father’s school. He learned to read very early and remained a voracious reader. After his father’s death, Coleridge was sent to school in London where he met Charles Lamb, the friend to whom he wrote “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison.” An excellent scholar, Coleridge attended Cambridge University but never finished a degree. He did, however, become enthralled with radical ideas such as communal living and with fellow poet Robert Southey planned to move to America to establish a utopian community called Pantisocracy, literally meaning equal government by all. The scheme required the participants to be married couples, so Coleridge married Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancée. Having married more for convenience than love, Coleridge was unhappy in his marriage, as presumably was his wife, and the two eventually separated.

Coleridge and his wife Sara lived for a short time in Nether Stowey, a village near the Bristol Channel. Coleridge had met William Wordsworth who lived nearby at Alfoxden with his sister Dorothy Wordsworth. While living here, Coleridge produced some of his finest poetry, including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison.”

Throughout his life Coleridge suffered from poor health and probably from poor mental health as well. By the early 1800’s he had become addicted to opium. His addiction became so severe that he moved in with a doctor in London who helped him keep his drug use under control.

In his later years, Coleridge delivered a highly successful series of lectures on Shakespeare, wrote respected works of literary theory and criticism, and developed a reputation as an intellectual.


“The Eolian Harp”

This poem follows the pattern of observation of nature leading to a meditation. Notice the descriptive details of the cot [cottage] and its peaceful natural surroundings. Coleridge uses images of sound and smell as well as sight to help his audience imagine the scene he describes.

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-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad-leav’d Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!) 5
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatch’d from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed! 10
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 caress’d, 15
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, 20
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-dripping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise, 25
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam’d 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 every where— 30
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.
And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope 35
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos’d eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d, 40
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 45
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
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 50
Darts, O belovéd Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow’d 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 disprais’d 55
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 60
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healéd me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wilder’d and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour’d Maid!

At the beginning of stanza 2 (line 13), Coleridge focuses attention on the lute (another word for the eolian harp—also sometimes spelled “aeolian”) that sits in the window.

In stanza 2 Coleridge writes a fundamental statement of Romantic mysticism. The speaker exclaims, “O! the one Life within us and abroad.” Here he recognizes, as Wordsworth did in “Tintern Abbey,” the spiritual presence (the “one Life”) that is “within us” (inside human beings) and “abroad” (in the things around us—in nature).

In stanza 4 Coleridge creates one of the central images of Romantic poetry. His speaker asks, “What if all of animated [living] nature be but organic Harps.…” All of living nature, including people, is compared to harps. He notes that the harps are “diversely framed”; people don’t look alike just as all harps do not look alike. As the wind blows over the harp and enlivens the strings to create music, the spiritual presence that is in the world moves over people and enlivens their Imaginations. See lines 47 and 48.

Rather than ending the poem with the meditation section of stanzas 2–4, Coleridge adds a concluding stanza that takes the audience back to the cottage setting, thus framing the poem. After indulging in his intellectual, philosophical musings, his wife Sara brings him back down to earth. The last stanza specifically refers to God and to Christ, revealing of Christian religious beliefs. In this poem, Coleridge identifies the spiritual presence of Romantic mysticism as God.

Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Coleridge’s long narrative poem in ballad style, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” proved to be one of the more popular works in Lyrical Ballads. In this poem Coleridge takes an idea he proposes in theoretical form in “The Eolian Harp” and plays out the idea in a story. Having described the world of nature infused with a spiritual presence, the “one Life within us and abroad,” Coleridge states in “The Eolian Harp” lines 31 and 32:

Methinks, it should have been impossible

Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;

In the story of the Ancient Mariner we learn what happens to a person, the Mariner, who does not “love all things in a world” filled with a divine presence.

Modern statue of the Ancient Mariner with the albatross around his neck.

From one perspective, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an adventure story with gothic elements: supernatural events, the spirits, reanimated bodies, the Mariner’s mystical abilities. From another perspective, it’s the story of a man who had to learn to respect the spiritual presence in nature, the “one Life within us and abroad.”

“This Lime-tree Bower My Prison”

Video Clip 6

Samuel Taylor Coleridge This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison.wmv

(click to see video)

View a video mini-lecture on “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison.”

In the autobiographical and intimate “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge writes about the experience of sitting, unwillingly, beneath a tree’s overspreading branches, feeling as if the branches form a room, a bower. Because he didn’t want to be there, he characterizes the bower as a prison. Coleridge’s wife had accidently spilled boiling milk on his foot, and because of his injury he was unable to accompany his friends, including Charles Lamb, on a hike. Coleridge particularly wanted his friend Lamb, who lived in London, to experience nature. The complaining, grumbling tone comes through in the first two lines of the poem:

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison!

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison!

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison!

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison!

In lines 2–5, Coleridge explains why he is so upset about missing the hike:

                                        I have lost

Beauties and feelings, such as would have been

Most sweet to my remembrance even when age

Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness!

This idea is very similar to Wordsworth’s explanation of gathering “life and food for future years” in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”

Although Coleridge complains about missing the walk, in stanza 3 he finds a consolation: he’s found nature in his “bower.” He realizes he can see the beauty of nature where he sits. He learns that “nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure.” Again he echoes a line from Wordsworth’s “Lines”: “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.”

Key Takeaways

  • “The Eolian Harp” and “This Lime-tree Bower, My Prison” use the typical Romantic structure of an observation of nature leading to a meditation.
  • Coleridge fashions a key image of Romantic mysticism in “The Eolian Harp.”
  • “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” illustrates the theoretical statements of “The Eolian Harp” by narrating what happens to one individual who fails to recognize and appreciate the spiritual presence in nature.
  • “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the most popular poems in Lyrical Ballads, exhibits gothic elements.
  • Similar to Wordsworth’s desire to share the spiritual blessings of nature with his sister expressed in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Coleridge wishes to share the experience with his friend and fellow writer Charles Lamb.


  1. In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge explains his theory of the Imagination:

    The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.

    For Coleridge, Imagination is a creative process that mirrors the creation of the universe. He compares the wind (blowing across the harp to create music) with an act of Imagination.

    The word inspire literally means to breathe into. How does the word inspire relate to Coleridge’s description of the eolian harp and to Coleridge’s idea of the Imagination?

  2. Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is written in seven parts. Write a brief (2 or 3 sentence) plot summary of each part.
  3. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was published in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads. Working jointly on the volume, Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated closely on some parts of this poem. Part of Coleridge’s “assignment” in producing the volume was to write poems that included supernatural elements, and “Ancient Mariner” abounds with supernatural elements. List several.
  4. The Ancient Mariner himself has supernatural abilities; he holds the wedding guest with his “glittering eye” (line 13). The Ancient Mariner uses this magical ability to force someone to stay and listen to his story with some people, but not others. How does he determine to whom to tell his story? See Part 7.
  5. Why did the Ancient Mariner shoot the albatross, and why was his shooting the bird such a heinous act? Think about Romantic mysticism in answering this question.
  6. The last four stanzas of Part 4 are the climactic moment in the story. What change in attitude does the Ancient Mariner experience that finally allows his punishment out on the sea to end?
  7. When the spirits leave the bodies of the Mariner’s shipmates, to what does Coleridge compare the sound? Why does he choose this particular simile?
  8. The Ancient Mariner’s punishment, of course, is not completely over. What penance does he have to pay for the rest of his life?


General Information




The Aeolian Harp

  • The Aeolian Harp. Charles Rzepka. Boston University. explanation and images of aeolian harps.
  • Aeolian Vibration.” John H. Lienhard. University of Houston. Engines of Our Ingenuity. audio and text.