Most of the best-known quotes by the British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge come from his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Kubla Khan (1816).
But one of his most famous quotations is not something he wrote.
It’s a remark he made in a conversation that was jotted down by his nephew and son-in-law, Henry Nelson Coleridge. (The Coleridges were apparently a very close family.)
From 1822 to 1834, Henry took notes about things he heard Samuel say at gatherings of family and friends, knowing they could someday be important biographical records about the life of his famous father-in-law/uncle.
In 1835, a year after Samuel died, Henry published a two-volume collection that included his notes, under the title Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
These volumes, usually referred to as Table Talk for short, include an oft-cited quote about prose and poetry that Henry recorded in print like this:
“Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”According the Henry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke those words on the night of July 12, 1827 during a wide-ranging conversation about a number of famous writers, including Sir Walter Scott, John Dryden, Algernon Sydney and Edmund Burke. (Presumably, Samuel said the word “equal” where the equal signs appear in Henry’s written version.)
Coleridge made this remark after calling Burke’s renowned essay A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful “neither profound nor accurate” and making a somewhat snarky comment about a poem by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto.
The complete quote, as recorded in Table Talk, is:
“I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”
Some people find Coleridge’s definitions of prose and poetry to be quite profound.
Others may find them a bit pompous and question whether they actually make sense. (Who decides what the “best order” and “best words” are? And, why shouldn’t prose use the “best” words?)
Either way, Coleridge’s pithy comment about prose and poetry is certainly one of the most famous quotes linked to today’s date.
[Another famous quote from Table Talk is something Coleridge said about the actor Edmund Kean: “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” Click this link to read the backstory on that quote.]
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