Coleridge Versus Ginsberg

Coleridge Versus Ginsberg

Note: this was an assignment for Linguistics 350 and I thought I would post it as my pound of flesh for the day (warts and all). Here is the link to the Power Point presentation that accompanied this week’s work. 5-1 Discussion – Translating From One Audience to Another

“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “Howl” by Allan Ginsberg are two poems that are separated by nearly two centuries and the language is at opposite spectrums between archaic and modern. The former, written by a major contributor to the Romantic artistic movement, was meant to sound intentionally archaic almost two hundred years ago, yet is still viable, popular, and widely read today. The latter, was written as a sort of protest and coming of age chant by a angst filled Beat poet who was outing himself as gay and expressing his disdain for authority, oppression, war, corrupt politicians, and capitalism, amongst other subjects like drug addiction and sexuality and exercising his right to self-expression. His poem wound up at the center of an obscenity trial and was a major milestone in poetry for the Beat Generation. This paper will explore the differences and similarities between the two poems that are significant milestones in literature and examine the language used by each poet to effectively convey their messages.

When choosing one of the pieces to modernize and convert to the other poems tone and style, it has to be the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” due to its age and archaic language. In order for the poem to be rewritten and reflect the era of Ginsberg it would need to be rid of Middle English archaic words and contractions and updated to modern vocabulary. The outdated terminology and restricted mode of the language could easily be replaced and revised. The poem could be rewritten as a modern-day blockbuster movie to rival the likes of The West Side Story or a modern rendition of Hamlet full of anachronistic devices.

In order for the modernization to work, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” would need to have insertions of current events and pop culture from the 1950-60s, and much of the street vernacular that had developed at the time. Instead of a bridegroom at a wedding, there could be a promiscuous premarital act of “free love” in Central Park and the story would be told by a homeless man, wearing a pirate hat, taking a ride on a ferry boat across Hudson River to New York Bay past the Statue of Liberty where a seagull flew overhead with excrement droppings falling on his hat. The old hippy is a veteran, now a hobo, who would tell of how he pelted the bird with a stone from his slingshot and was cursed to walk the streets of the city forever without a home; he now sells pencils downtown to make a living and support his wine and cigarette habit. This poem would work as a modern incarnation of “Howl” flawlessly.

The language of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” succeeds because it uses archaic language to create a tone that is epic, hearkening back to Homer in the Odyssey and Iliad. The language helps to convey the message because it is the tone of an epic poem that an audience has become accustomed to when enjoying a tale of such magnificent proportions. The archaic language hinders the comprehensive reading by younger, modern readers, who are not familiar with such “old school” verbiage and poetry and is undoubtedly a turn off for them. The tone helps with the mood and atmosphere and imagery of the poem and gives it a smooth and lyrical ballad quality.

The language of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg succeeds because it uses compound nouns and morphemes as well as repetition of the pronoun “who” 91 times at the beginning of many lines to create a run-on sentence that keep the reader engaged and the focus on the “angelheaded hipsters” as the subject matter and objects of the action. The language is in the casual register and uses slang, euphemisms, and Modern English to create a staggering depiction of the adventures of a generation that is plagued by war, addiction, promiscuity, and their fight for freedom and inhibitions imposed by an older generation of prudish parents and authority in general. It is a longwinded exaltation that builds to a crescendo, then ends with a refrain, a chant, and then abruptly stops in a sentence fragment without punctuation. It leaves the reader hanging, expecting more, but breathless and reflecting on what has just been presented. The message is that sometimes you must let your inner self out in a ferocious howl and feel good about it afterward.

Coleridge was criticized for his use of archaic language and seemed to vehemently defy the rules of composition and grammar during his day, although he was a saint (in linguistic and literary terms) compared to Ginsberg. His poem works primarily because of the dialect and to change it to modern language would rob it of its charm. He could have used proper grammar befitting of the English that was customary in the 18th century or omitted contractions and archaic language, but the meter and rhyme would suffer as a result. Coleridge was aware of his disregard for the rules of language at the time he penned this poem and he was adept and versed enough in linguistic principles to break the rules and break them well. There does not seem to be any logical reason to attempt to conform this poem to standards or principles; the art would be lost for want of conformity.

Ginsberg could have omitted all of the slang and vulgarity and stuck to traditional sentences with subject, verb, object and kept it all in agreement without forcing words together that break all the rules of grammar, for instance multiple verbs, nouns, adjective, adverbs, crammed in duplets, triplets, and quadruplets. He could have conformed to standard poetry with strict rhyming schemes, stanzas, versus, all adhering to formal feet and meter, but his poem would not have had the same intensity and passion that it has with the free verse and profanity of  the “Beat” lingo. He could have censored his sordid language and conformed to the normal and acceptable mode of speaking that was conservative and polite and inoffensive, however, his poem would most likely have been overlooked and disregarded as mediocre and tame.

Coleridge was using archaic language nearly two hundred years ago which made it outmoded back then, and now it is somewhat of an enigma. He knew what he was doing with the language and he succeeded. During the 18th century the Romantic movement was influencing art, literature, and music and was highly intellectual, refined, and sophisticated. Along with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was responsible for ushering in the beginning of this movement and they focused on things such as emotions, instincts, intuition, and the artist as creator, like a god. This movement would deliver some of the finest artists and literary works in history. The language was proper, educated, articulate, and sophisticated. It still had a hint of Middle English and is easily detected today when read due to the archaic words and complex sentence structure.

Ginsberg used modern English and gerunds and participles, ambiguity with modifiers; his time was during of the Beat Generation of the 1950-60s and the language had changed to a jazzy singsong rhyming rhythmic free flowing prose with syncopated beats to the snapping of fingers. There was a lot of lingo and jargon involved with the hippies and beatniks and it was their zeitgeist. Their style and flair was fashionable and hip, cool and catchy, with words like “Daddy-O, square, cat, hip, jive, groovy, far out, all right, outta sight, dynamite” and the rhymes were done with words that were onomatopoetic, crashing together like snare drums and symbols, for instance “boom boom, alakazam, there goes the tambourine man, beating a beat on the empty trash can with the palm of his hand.”

Coleridge was influenced by philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Rene Descarts, Immanual Kant, and more, and so many artists from The Age of Enlightenment, and Shakespeare, amongst others, and this was a great influence on his choice of words in language. In the poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Coleridge was intentionally using language that is full of metaphor, simile, and symbolism to conjure up a mood of doom and gloom and to serve as a harbinger, an omen and portent, to beg for kindness to all creatures big and small. Since he was an adept and defining voice in the Romantic literary movement, he was well suited to use a language that was powerful, educated, evocative, and rich in symbolism and allegory. Historically, the English language had been refined and cultured by the time he wrote this poem, and he had been well-educated and instructed on grammar, linguistics, and literature.

Ginsberg was influenced by the current events during his lifetime which were the Civil Rights movement, liberation, protesting the war in Vietnam and the draft, and allegedly corrupt politicians such as Nixon, Kissinger, as well as the media, the police and authoritarians, big corporations, bigots, and critics. He had a lot to say about current events and was speaking out for his colleagues and the youthful generation of hippies, gays, students, thinkers, impoverished street urchins, soldiers avoiding the draft, the environment, and freedom. The language was visceral and incorporated new lingo and jargon and slang that was born from the movement of veterans, blacks, gays, liberated women, protesters, addicts, students, and it was all filled with angst and disdain for the corruption of politicians and restrictive upper-middle class white America stereotypes. Equality, freedom, and vocalization were the keyword of the day and Ginsberg was at the forefront of the movement.

Coleridge was classically trained, astute, well read, and most importantly talented. His experience with literature and his ability as a critic allowed him to refine his style and compose some of the finest Romantic poetry ever written. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was meant to be frightening, to teach a moral principle, to entertain, and to be of historical significant for future generations. His poem exceeded expectations and went on to become a timeless classic.

Ginsberg was college educated and set out to write poetry that would wake America up, to sing the praises of youth culture, to be an anti-war protest, to hail gay liberation, women’s liberation, a cry against corruption from politicians and capitalism. His experiences in life as a gay man coming out and standing up for his rights influenced his work, specifically the poem “Howl” which is a diatribe of the life of men and women caught up in the era of Vietnam war, Nixon, drug addiction, sexual inhibition, and a pursuit of freedom.

Where Coleridge was obeying the rules and adhering to the strictness of grammar, linguistics, and literature with a classical influence, Ginsberg was rebelling and breaking all the rules, pushing back the boundaries, and speaking in a language that resulted in a trial in court for alleged violation of obscenity laws. The difference between the two pieces are almost two centuries and a language that has evolved tremendously over time. Coleridge was defiant, but reserved, a well-spoken poet and scholar of his time, a product of his era; Ginsberg was outspoken and full of angst and guile, but also a product of his generation. They both used language to express their point and become historical literary figures. The difference between the two pieces is that Coleridge would surely have died of fright from the liberties taken by Ginsberg with the English language.

Works Cited

“Howl”. Allen Ginsberg. Poetry Foundation, 2020,

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poetry Foundation, 2020,

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