Coleridge, The Hippie: Romanticism and The Counter Culture

Although its meaning has been watered down, the word hippie generally describes a person associated with symbols of peace, nature and an alternative way of living. These abstract ideas are the main topics for many of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems. He uses poetry as a vehicle for expressing his thoughts on these abstractions as well as life, war and God. Similarly, the counterculture movement, or hippies, also used nature as a means of understanding the abstract world. With politics, specifically the Vietnam War, as a major factor in the creation of the hippie movement, those who categorized themselves as such began experimenting with free love, drugs, and pushing back against a system they felt wasn’t taking their autonomy into consideration.

Coleridge believes there are pieces of existence that humans cannot understand on the surface. These pieces of existence, such as peace, war, and God, are known as metaphysical constructs, or abstract ideas and philosophical concepts. In order to become more in tune with this metaphysical world, society must be shown its existence through detail of its actions. This is to say, through his poetry, Coleridge personifies the metaphysical and uses the tools humans have at their disposal, i.e. their senses, to reach a greater understanding of our connection to the abstract world. This push to investigate the abstract is similar to the counterculture movement. Specifically, it’s similar to the basic ideas put forth by Timothy Leary: “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

Cartoon satarizing Coleridge’s opium use.

While Coleridge wasn’t asking anyone to take LSD in order to commune with the abstract world, the poet wasn’t opposed to the use of drugs. He was a regular user of opium, taking the drug to relax, ease pain, and soothe his depression. Opium, the sappy byproduct of the poppy plant, is used to make heroin. It’s not a far reach to believe Coleridge may have felt his connection to nature a little differently than most if he were under the influence of opium. This is quite similar to how hippies differed in their view of the world. With most of the counterculture movement under the influence of marijuana, LSD, or a variety of other drugs, the chemical effects of these drugs would certainly open them up to an alternate view of the abstract world compared to the sober society.

Coleridge’s belief that such a connection to nature is the only way to understand the metaphysical world and reach peace (both in the self and within society) ties him closely to the world of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. In Coleridge’s poem “Sonnet: To the River Otter,” he uses a river as an extension of nature to illustrate how the human life changes while nature always remains constant and helps to “beguile / Lone manhood’s cares.” The poetry of the Romantic age is similar to the tunes of the 60s both in message and popularity. Coleridge can be considered the Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens of Romanticism.

Communing with Nature.

Coleridge writes, “What happy, and mournful hours, since last / I skimmed the…stone along thy breast…/ yet so deep imprest / Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes / I never shut amid the sunny ray.” Coleridge is using the skimming of stones along the river to explain the growing of man and the loss of their youth (or innocence). The stone represents Coleridge, and the stone skimming across the water is a physical representation of the timeline of life. Each time the stone skims the water it is a metaphor for bumps in the road of life. Finally, the stone sinks as do the “sweet scenes of childhood.”

Coleridge is reliving life while contemplating his eventual death through a scene set in nature. He transcends the “happy, and mournful hours” by visiting nature and communicating with her. This idea of Transcendence is a big part of the counterculture as well. Transcendence is when the principles of reality, or what we can sense, is discovered through studying the process of thought. This is exactly what Coleridge is describing in his poem “France: An Ode.” Coleridge speaks to the intangibles of nature throughout the poem: “Ye Clouds! that float above me”, “Ye Ocean-Waves! that, wheresoe’er ye roll”, “Ye Woods! that listen,” etc. It is this personification of nature that gives the metaphysical a more tangible characteristic, making it easier to understand. His communing with the outside world gives Coleridge a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, of the secrets of existence.

In the first stanza of the poem, the poet witnesses the divinity of Liberty through “every thing that is and will be free.” Since this Liberty is divine, and this divinity was discovered through nature, would it not follow that nature is divine? Coleridge is explaining the existence of God through nature. I do, however, believe this is not God in a Christian sense, but rather God as a term for that which is in control of the metaphysical. Similarly, hippies often preached about the goal of liberty and free expression: be it through love, art, etc.

The third stanza follows the vein of Jimi Hendrix when the guitarist famously said, “when the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” This is what Coleridge is trying to illustrate when he writes, “’[a]nd soon…shall Wisdom teach her lore /…conquering by her happiness alone /…Till Love and Joy look round, and call the Earth her own.” The wisdom is the knowledge of nature’s peace, and the transcendence into that peace. Coleridge describes his own transcendence in stanza five when he writes, “while I stood and gazed /…O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.” Coleridge was gazing into the ocean, and through nature, discovered liberty, freedom, truth.

Coleridge was a Romantic, but he was a purveyor in setting the groundwork for what would become the counterculture movement of the 60s. The way Blues music morphed into Jazz which eventually evolutionized to Rock-n-Roll, so did Romanticism eventually become the Beat Generation which birthed Hippies. Was it the opium or the connection with nature that helped Coleridge understand the metaphysical realm of existence? Regardless, Coleridge transcended beyond humanistic distractions such as war, aging and religion in order to gain a better understanding of Truth, and he used the tools of man to describe that which cannot be explained or understood similarly to how hippies turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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DK is a Teaching Associate of English. He believes literature is like a mother cradling a crying infant, it rocks!!!

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  1. My father and I had little in common throughout my life and though he has now passed on, the one thing we did have that I will always recall with fondness was a passion for Coleridge work.

    • DKWeber

      That’s great! My dad’s not a big fan of poetry. It’s not a part of my life he entertains often. I’m glad you two could share in Coleridge’s work.

  2. Great article. You made me revisit poems that I probably haven’t read in full for many years.

    • DKWeber

      How exciting! You’ve just made me more happy than you can imagine. Knowing I had even a small part in generating another’s interest in experiencing poetry means a lot. I’d love to know what you were drawn toward.

  3. Coleridge’s work ignited my love of poetry. The depths and heights of his emotion have significantly influenced my view of the world and have inspired my imagination.

    • DKWeber

      That’s great to hear. Keep expanding that world view. Also, check out Jack Gilbert if you’re a fan of emotion filled poetry.

  4. Ladonna

    I read poetry as part of a Wordsworth/Coleridge class in graduate school and I was so upset that we focused more on Wordsworth than Coleridge.

    • DKWeber

      Wordsworth seems to be the primary focus of most Romanticism classes. It’s sad sometimes because we forget about other greats like Coleridge, William Blake, and John Keats.

  5. KelleArreola

    Coleridge’s poems are strange and supernatural, reflecting that more occult side of Romanticism that carried over from the brief Gothic period.

    • DKWeber

      I can see that as well. That’s the beauty of poetry, right? There’s no one way to discuss or try to explain it.

  6. Romantic-Era poetry is certainly characterised as being light and airy in tone.

  7. DKWeber

    Thank you.

  8. Danette Yang

    Coleridge is very wordy and expansive.

    • DKWeber

      As are many Romantics lol. It’s not for everyone. You may enjoy Modernist poems from the likes of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein.

  9. The staples of European Romanticism!

  10. Clare Tolliver

    The experience of reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is still unlike almost anything else in the English language.

  11. STC is a brilliant writer of the more supernaturally minded poems.

    • I really love Frost at Midnight, and Something Childish, but Very Natural. Boy o boy; I like his whimsical meter and his straightforwardness.

  12. Horvath

    Did Coleridge ever right a word that wasn’t great? I haven’t come across anything he’s written, criticism included, that I didn’t think was brilliant.

  13. Malcolm

    I find his work very stiff. It doesn’t take literary risks. It’s straight-forward, dour, devoid of humor.

    • Alex Bato

      Agreed. But you have to take into account the era that he is coming from, Malcolm.

  14. Munjeera

    A very nice linking in the article to several different aspects of Coleridge’s poetry.

  15. After taking my British Literature class, I thought that I fully understood Coleridge and his way of writing. This article made Coleridge a relatable character. The hippie analogy is definitely one I hadn’t considered, after reading this article, I appreciated it and felt like I could fully understand what Coleridge was referring to in his poems.

  16. In my exposure to him in British Literature, and my own personal paradigms, I too thought of this characterization of Coleridge. The defining of hippie and counterculture made this post relatable in both its description of Coleridge, and relating to modern audiences.

  17. Jonathan Judd

    A really great read, I enjoyed finding out more about this poet and his work. You make some interesting connections between the romantics and the successive waves of American counter-cultural movements. The Beats were certainly influenced by Whitman and Blake, so not too much of a stretch to throw Coleridge in the mix.

  18. I like the comparison you make between Coleridge and the Hippie as counter-cultural forces. I’m not sure about the extent to which Coleridge’s ideas about the divine can be separated from Christian ideas, though. I know that in the case of other Romantics (particularly Shelley and Byron) it can, but I have always thought of Coleridge as being one of the more traditionally Christian Romantics. Is there evidence to suggest Coleridge also had a more general divine in mind than the Christian one?

  19. Iliasbakalla

    really interesting article I love the connections you’ve made between seperate eras. Seeking back through time like a literary detective to discover the various art works that have lead to the biggest counter-cultural movement in the 20th century. Great work!

  20. A fascinating article. Has given me a lot to think about. The comparisons you made are quite interesting.

  21. Interesting! Do you think hipsters are the new hippies – i.e. back to handicrafts/artisanal objects as well?

  22. Stephanie M.

    Interesting article! I never would’ve called Coleridge or any of his contemporaries hippies before, but it makes perfect sense. The idea could be used as the foundation for something like a university course that unites Romantic authors like Coleridge with the beatnik writers of the ’60s.

  23. I love studying the Transcendentalist poets! In a British lit class we discussed the transcendentalists’ belief in the “sublime,” almost literally a high achieved from being in nature. That subliminal state, they believed, brought one closer to the divine. Also within the movement was the creation of utopian societies which focused on an austere lifestyle and self-sufficiency; Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, along with Thoreau and Emerson participated in this offshoot of transcendentalism. Although Bronson was horrible with finances, so his “experiment” I believe Louisa called it, failed and created some resentment in her youth.

  24. Samantha Leersen

    Super interesting! I have read the works of the rest of the Big 6, but not yet Coleridge. After reading this I might have to give him a read.

  25. I’ve known Coleridge’s work exclusively through Borges, and I’ve managed to keep it that way for years.

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