Category Archives: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

You Yourself May Serve To Show It, That Every Fool Is Not a Poet

Jonathan Swift? Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Alexander Pope? Théophile de Viau? Matthew Prior? Pierre de Ronsard? Scévole de Sainte-Marthe? Anonymous?

pope08Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a famous literary figure was accosted by a philistine who exclaimed that all poets were fools. The adroit spontaneous response provided a humorous comeuppance:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may prove to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

These words have been credited to Jonathan Swift who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote “Kubla Khan”, and Alexander Pope who write “The Dunciad”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match in English known to QI appeared in the third volume of a collection called “Miscellanies” published in 1733. The preface was dated May 27, 1727 and signed by Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) and Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744). The following piece was labeled “Epigram from the French”: 1

SIR, I admit your gen’ral Rule
That every Poet is a Fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every Fool is not a Poet.

Top modern references such as “The Yale Book of Quotations” 2 and the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” have credited Alexander Pope, 3 but these references also presented the label which suggested that Pope was translating a pre-existing French verse. Indeed, QI has located an earlier French citation as shown further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1733, Miscellanies: the Last Volume, (Preface by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope dated May 27, 1727), Epigram from the French, Quote Page 57, Printed for Benjamin Motte, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Alexander Pope, Quote Page 599, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 8th Edition, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, Entry: Alexander Pope 1688–1744, Oxford Reference Online, Print Publication Date: 2014, Oxford University Press. (Accessed November 21, 2016)

I Do Not Believe in Ghosts Because I Have Seen Too Many of Them

Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley? Don Marquis? Apocryphal?

banquo09Dear Quote Investigator: While perusing the book “Dim Wit: The Stupidest Quotes of All Time” I came across an entertaining topic for Halloween in the following entry about a famous poet: 1

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” “No, ma’am,” he replied, “I’ve seen too many.” Lucy Finn

Did Coleridge really make this remark?

Quote Investigator: Yes, there is good evidence that he did make a comment of this type. The context helps to explain what he was trying to communicate.

Coleridge died in 1834, and more than sixty years later in 1895 excerpts from his unpublished notebooks were printed in the work “Anima Poetae”. An entry dated May 12, 1805 discussed an extraordinary episode during which Coleridge saw an apparition. He had been engaged in a long conversation with a companion who said goodbye and retired. Coleridge began to doze for five minutes while sitting in a red armchair. He awoke suddenly and perceived that his companion who had left was somehow still present. He was startled but started to doze again. Awakening he saw the same spectral figure: 2

The appearance was very nearly that of a person seen through thin smoke distinct indeed, but yet a sort of distinct shape and color, with a diminished sense of substantiality — like a face in a clear stream.

Coleridge’s skepticism about his own perceptions led him to record information about these mental excursions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Often and often I have had similar experiences, and, therefore, resolved to write down the particulars whenever any new instance should occur, as a weapon against superstition, and an explanation of ghosts — Banquo in “Macbeth” the very same thing. I once told a lady the reason why I did not believe in the existence of ghosts, etc., was that I had seen too many of them myself.

In the passage above Coleridge referred to Lord Banquo who was a character in Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”; during the course of the drama Banquo was murdered by Lord Macbeth and reappeared as a ghost.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 2010, Dim Wit: The Stupidest Quotes of All Time, Compiled by Rosemarie Jarski, Quote Page 348, Ulysses Press, Berkeley, California. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1895, Anima Poetae: From the Unpublished Note-Books of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge, Entry Title: Illusion, Entry Date: May 12, 1805, Start Page 122, Quote Page 123, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Leave Him With a Favorable Opinion of Himself

Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Tryon Edwards? Apocryphal?

coleridge07Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite poem is “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I love the poem’s opium inspired image of a “stately pleasure dome”. Serendipitously, I came across an insightful remark ascribed to Coleridge that contrasted different types of intellects:

If you would stand well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of yourself; if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable impression of himself.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find this in Coleridge’s oeuvre. Is this attribution accurate?

Quote Investigator: The acclaimed poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge did pen a very similar remark within his critical analysis of a book by Sir Thomas Browne. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The difference between a great mind’s and a little mind’s use of history is this. The latter would consider, for instance, what Luther did, taught, or sanctioned: the former, what Luther,—a Luther,—would now do, teach, and sanction. This thought occurred to me at midnight, Tuesday, the 16th of March, 1824, as I was stepping into bed,—my eye having glanced on Luther’s Table Talk.

If you would be well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of you;—if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable opinion of himself.

Coleridge died in 1834, and the excerpt above appeared in a posthumous 1836 collection titled “The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” edited by his uncle, Henry Nelson Coleridge.

The modern saying provided by the questioner evolved from the original statement. The phrase “be well” was changed to “stand well”; “you” was changed to “yourself”; and “opinion” was changed to “impression”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1836, The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected and Edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge, Volume 2, Notes on Sir Thomas Browne’s Vulgar Errors, Address to the Reader, Start Page 406, Quote Page 411, William Pickering, London. (Google Books Full View) link