The Good, Great Man
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“How seldom, friend! a good great man inherits
Honour or wealth with all his worth and pains!
It sounds like stones from the land of spirits
If any man obtain that which he merits
Or any merit that which he obtains.“
REPLY TO THE ABOVE
For shame, dear friend, renounce this canting strain!
What woulds’t thou have a good great man obtain?
Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?
Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?
Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!
Hath he not always treasures, always friends,
The good great man? three treasures, LOVE, and LIGHT,
And CALM THOUGHTS, regular as an infant’s breath:
And three firm friends, more sure than day and night,
HIMSELF, his MAKER and the ANGEL DEATH!
“The Good, Great Man” is all about learning to appreciate what you have. In the first stanza, the narrator complains that he does not receive “honour” and “worth” when he deserves it, arguing that those who should have these things don’t have them, whereas those who shouldn’t, do have them.
In the second stanza, he is reminded that material things such as “honour” and “worth” don’t really matter, and that when a man is good, he will be able to appreciate what he has, appreciating friends, love, and his own goodness.
Metre & Structure
This poem is written in a (rough) iambic pentameter that is disrupted in several places, but becomes more regular in the second stanza. This perhaps represents how the second speaker is the voice of God/Nature/reason. The same pattern can be seen in the rhyme of the poem; it is a roughly alternating rhyme scheme that becomes more consistent in the second stanza.
Line by Line
- “Friend” – It’s worth considering who the second speaker in this poem is. The poem itself follows a similar form style to Coleridge’s “The Suicide’s Argument“, in which Nature narrates the second stanza. This could suggest that the second speaker in this poem is also Nature, yet the first speaker calls them their “friend”, which suggests that they are both humans, and both equal to one another.
- “!” – There are a lot of exclamation marks in this poem, which suggests that it is very personal and that Coleridge is feeling a lot of passion as he writes.
- “A good great man” / “The good great man” – This phrase is repeated throughout the poem, yet also contains repetition in itself, as it emphasises the goodness of “man”. There is a certain element of self-pride here as the first speaker seems to be suggesting that they are the “good great man”.
- “Inherits” – The term “inherits” suggests that the first speaker believes “honour” and “wealth” to be a part of his birthright, as though he is being wronged by having these values denied to him.
- “Honour and wealth” – The first speaker distinctly outlines what they value; rather than friendship or God/Nature as the second speaker glorifies, they value “honour” and “wealth”, both of which concern personal glory.
- “Sounds like stories from the land of spirits” – Sibilance here emphasises the dream-like quality of the vision as the first speaker considers the rarity of “good great men” receiving “honour” and “wealth”.
- “If any man obtain that which he merits / Or any merit that which he obtains” – This doubling reflects the two stanzas of the poem and its constant repetition. In the first line, the speaker suggests that good men don’t receive (“obtain”) what they deserve (“merits”), and in the second, they suggest that men who don’t deserve (“merit”) “honour” and “wealth” often “obtain” them: the whole system is, in the speaker’s mind, completely unfair.
- “For shame” / “Renounce” – Putting the first speaker to “shame”, the second speaker immediately asserts their authority and appears to take the high ground as they ask the first speaker to “renounce” their claims.
- “Canting strain” – The second speaker continues to assert their authority over the first speaker with eloquent and old-fashioned language. Here, “canting” means a hypocritical and sanctimonious form of speech. In other words, this second speaker is telling the first speaker that they are wrong.
- “Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?” – Coleridge repeats ideas introduced in the first stanza (the acquirement of “honour” and “wealth”), yet this time he belittles them, using simple language, constant question marks and short phrases to indicate the meaninglessness of these things.
- “Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?” – A part of “honour” concerns victory on the battlefield, yet by going into specific examples of the “corses” (which means corpses), Coleridge reveals the grotesque nature of this victory. “Throne” and “corses” may both be metonymically referring to a kingdom built on the dead, perhaps indicating those the powerful sacrifice to attain their positions.
- “Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!“ – The second speaker is suggesting that the very act of being “a good great man” is a reward in itself. A person does not become great so they can achieve “honour” and “wealth”; they do good acts so that they can become great. The first speaker’s failure to realise this may indicate that he is in fact not “a good great man”.
- “Always treasures, always friends” – The repetition in the structure of this phrase emphasises how physical “treasures” are inferior to moral and spiritual “treasures” such as friends; they argue that the material is unimportant. The true reward for goodness is the result of goodness: a genuine popularity.
- “LOVE, and LIGHT, / And CALM THOUGHTS” – Here Coleridge glorifies love (and friendship), light (which may refer to a religious goodness/piety), and calm thoughts. This is a little ironic, as this poem comes across as a little chaotic (with disrupted metric and rhyme patterns) and passionate (with an abundance of exclamation marks). Nevertheless, Coleridge glorifies meditation and the ability to reflect on life in a calm, measured manner.
- “Infant’s breath” – Calm thoughts are like “infant’s breath” because they are simple and pure, as well as being measured and unchaotic.
- “More sure than day and night” – The good man’s “friends” are “more sure” than material concepts such as “day and night” because they are immaterial and eternal. Coleridge is clearly glorifying spiritual and moral pleasures over physical ones in this poem, condemning those who seek only “honour” and “wealth”.
- “HIMSELF, his MAKER and the ANGEL DEATH” – This last line is a little tricky; Coleridge claims that a good man will have three friends. The first two are pretty obvious: the man will have himself (representing his own goodness) and his maker (which may represent either – or both – God and Nature). In other words, the man will have goodness and the favour of his creator (which also suggests that he will have a good afterlife). The third friend is a little harder to understand, though. Personally, I believe that it is a reference to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. During this poem, the mariners witness Death and Life-in-Death (who represents earthly suffering). It may be that Angel Death is the third element to this pattern (happiness in life). It may also, however, relate to ideas of purity.
“The Good, Great Man” is really considering what makes a good man, not what a good man deserves. The first speaker, who has not learnt to value simple pleasures such as companionship and happiness, is not “a good great man” because he is not content with his own goodness: he constantly strives for more.
There is also a comment about experience made here; Coleridge suggests that by repeatedly experiencing and exercising goodness, it will become a habit that is ingrained in the mind of the individual. In other words, they become “the good great man”.
It’s a clever poem, particularly when compared with “The Suicide’s Argument“. Coleridge was clearly a very passionate man and, in both poems, he seems determined to educate his audience. In this poem, he wants to teach us to appreciate what we have, and what goodness really is, whilst, in “The Suicide’s Argument”, he teaches us to remember the gift of life we were once given, and how we may have squandered this gift with their own selfishness. In both poems, however, it is evident that Coleridge does not value anything done for the sake of personal glory; he values more immaterial things, such as love and goodness.