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Cologne -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(Poem #361) Cologne
In Kohln, a town of monks and bones,
And pavements fang'd with murderous stones
And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches;
I counted two and seventy stenches,
All well defined, and several stinks!
Ye Nymphs that reign o'er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne;
   But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine
   Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This is Coleridge in a vitriolic mood; one would hardly imagine the
writer of these lines to be the same person who gave us

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
   A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea."

The first five lines of 'Kublai Khan' are, as I've mentioned elsewhere,
possibly my favourite lines anywhere in the canon of English poetry. But
to tell the truth, I like 'Cologne' almost as much.


PS. From Merriam-Webster online:
Main Entry: co.logne
Pronunciation: k&-'lOn
Etymology: Cologne, Germany
Date: 1814
1 : a perfumed liquid composed of alcohol and fragrant oils

Oh, the irony!


'Kublai Khan' was one of the earliest poems to be run on the Minstrels;
you can read it at poem #12

Another beautiful piece of verse invective is Patrick O'Reilly's 'Litany
for Doneraile', at poem #266

while Carl Sandburg's 'Chicago' is an example of just the opposite, the
poetic glorification of a city: poem #5

29 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

[comments, followed by a poem this reminded me of. sorry for the spate of
guest poems, this is the second in three days - I just dug out an old
anthology of poetry I'd forgotten I had around]

Thus spake Abraham Thomas:
>In Kohln, a town of monks and bones,
>And pavements fang'd with murderous stones

Ho ho ho. Further to this, add the fact that, just a few decades before
(and even around the time when) Coleridge wrote this poem in 1814, most
European cities were filled with "two and seventy stenches" and assorted

These were due to the usual poor drainage systems. Toilets were generally
chamber pots, whose stinking contents were daily emptied out of the
window, with a shouted warning of "Gardyloo" (a corruption of Gardez l'eau
- beware, water).

Besides this, there was a widespread prejudice against bathing and other
forms of personal hygiene, on the grounds that it caused "the flux" and
other horrible diseases, most of which were obviously the result of all
the filth this culture bred.

>Date: 1814
>1 : a perfumed liquid composed of alcohol and fragrant oils
> --

This was, I suspect, part of the reason why Cologne was famous for
eau-de-cologne, they'd definitely need gallons of it if they stank so

Talking of "poetic glorification", here's one which mocks this - from one
of my favorites, the late A. K. Ramanujan.

A River
A. K. Ramanujan

In Madurai,
city of temples and poets,
who sang of cities and temples,
every summer
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
baring the sand ribs,
straw and women's hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.

He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.

He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
and then
it carries away
in the first half-hour
three village houses,
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.


A. K. Ramanujan, who died recently, was one of India's greatest modern
poets. This is a really beautiful piece of cynical criticism aimed at
poets who force themselves to look only at the beautiful things in life,
and mindlessly ape the same lines quoted by poets since aeons.

On the other hand, they tend to ignore the unpleasant facets of life,
unless perhaps it is a catastrophe which has killed several hundred
people. No one knows or cares to write about a pregnant woman and a
couple of cows.

The City of Madurai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu is one of the
most ancient cities in India. A great deal of the Sangam era poetry (the
earliest and most famous Tamil poetry, dating back to the 2nd century BC
was composed here. Since then, it has had a long and rich tradition of
art and culture.

[folks - dig up more if you want or trim this part above]

Richard Guentert said...

I'd think that the reference to "monks and bones" has to do with the mythic
bones of the three magi which are said to be entombed in the alter of the
cathedral in Cologne, Germany. The story of these is an aspect of the
great Epiphany celebration, January 6th, a significant part of the
Christian observance of the Seasons of the Church Year.

Dr. Richard Guentert

Dr. Richard Guentert
Regional Minister and President
Christian Church in the Upper Midwest
Mailing Address:
Post Office Box 41217
Des Moines, IowaPhone:
Office Location:
3300 University
Des Moines, Iowa

Alistair Scott said...

Yours is an excellent site

My own site is

Site listing some classic poets with text search facility.

All poetry in HTML format - would like to bring this to a wider audience. Please feel free to copy any.

Alistair Scott

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