July 12, 2016

“Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”

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.

Yes, it is a little strange that he was both Samuel’s nephew and son-in-law. Apparently, the Coleridges were a very tight knit family.

Anyway, from 1822 to 1834, Henry took notes about things he heard Samuel say at gatherings of family and friends, figuring they might someday be worthwhile 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 quotation by Samuel about prose and poetry.

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 saying that Edmund Burke’s popular essay “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” was “neither profound nor accurate” and making an equally snarky comment about a poem by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto.

Samuel’s complete quote about prose vs. poetry, 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?

Nonetheless, Coleridge’s pithy comment about prose and poetry is one of the best known quotes from Table Talk.

Another is something Coleridge said about the actor Edmund Kean: “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” You can read the backstory on that quote by clicking this link.

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