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

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

Dear 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Coleridge died in 1834, and more than sixty years later in 1895 excerpts from his unpublished notebooks were printed in the work “Anima Poetae”.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.

In 1824 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the celebrated author of “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus”, wrote an article for “The London Magazine” titled “On Ghosts”. Shelley mentioned the anecdote about Coleridge and ghosts: 3

I have heard that when Coleridge was asked if he believed in ghosts,—he replied that he had seen too many to put any trust in their reality; and the person of the most lively imagination that I ever knew echoed this reply. But these were not real ghosts (pardon, unbelievers, my mode of speech) that they saw; they were shadows, phantoms unreal; that while they appalled the senses, yet carried no other feeling to the mind of others than delusion, and were viewed as we might view an optical deception which we see to be true with our eyes, and know to be false with our understandings.

Thus, Coleridge’s paradoxical remark was circulating long before the relevant text from his notebooks was published.

In 1872 “The London Quarterly Review” referred to Coleridge’s statement: 4

Coleridge said of ghosts that he had seen too many to believe in them: Madame de Staël, that she feared without believing in them. ‘Je n’y crois pas, mais je les crains.’ In her case, the ingrained superstition of the nursery was too strong to be overcome by philosophy; in his, the consciousness of a morbid condition of mind and body had taught him to distrust the most vivid impressions of the senses as unreal and visionary.

In 1895 the “Anima Poetae” printed excerpts from the unpublished notebooks of Coleridge. The discussion of ghosts was included as noted previously in this article.

In 1921 a religious periodical in Boston, Massachusetts printed a version of the exchange: 5

Somebody asked Coleridge once if he wasn’t afraid of ghosts, and Coleridge said, “No, I am not afraid of ghosts.” And the man said, “Well, Mr. Coleridge, why are you not afraid of ghosts?” And Coleridge answered, “I am not afraid of them, because I have seen so many of them.”

In 1927 the humorist Don Marquis published “archy and mehitabel”, a volume about two of his most popular fictional creations. The cockroach Archy used a typewriter to communicate, but an inability to operate the shift key meant that all the text he generated was lowercase. Archy’s essay on ghosts included an echo of the remark from Coleridge: 6

you want to know
whether i believe in ghosts
of course i do not believe in them
if you had known
as many of them as i have
you would not
believe in them either

In conclusion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge did tell a woman that he did not believe in ghosts because he had seen too many of them. A notebook entry indicated that he believed that the ghosts he saw were hallucinatory. Mary Shelly mentioned Coleridge’s comment. Also, many years later Don Marquis wrote a similar remark with a comical edge.

Image Notes: Painting by Théodore Chassériau depicting Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo. Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge circa 1814 by Washington Allston. Both images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. They have been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  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
  3. 1824 March, The London Magazine, Volume 9, On Ghosts (by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley), Start Page 253, Quote Page 254, Printed for Taylor and Hessey, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1872 January, The London Quarterly Review, American Edition, Review of Sir Henry Holland’s Recollections, Start Page 82, Quote Page 88 The Leonard Scott Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1921 September 1, The Christian Register, Pleasantries, Quote Page 840, Column 1, The Christian Register Incorporated, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1930 (1927 first edition), archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis, Chapter 33: ghosts, Start Page 135, Quote Page 135, Dolphin Books: Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)