- This page is about the nineteenth century English poet. For the twentieth century classical composer, see Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, 1795
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772 – July 25, 1834) was an English poet, critic, and philosopher and, along with his friend William Wordsworth, one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England and as one of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary, the son of a vicar. After the death of his father, he was sent to Christ's Hospital, a boarding school in West Sussex. In later life, Coleridge idealised his father as a pious innocent, but his relationship with his mother was difficult. His childhood was characterised by attention-seeking, which has been linked with his dependent personality as an adult, and he was rarely allowed to return home during his schooldays. From 1791 until 1794 he attended Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, except for a short period when he enlisted in the royal dragoons. At the university he met political and theological ideas then considered radical. He left Cambridge without a degree and joined the poet Robert Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian communist-like society, called pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. In 1795 the two friends married Sarah and Elizabeth Fricker (who were sisters), but Coleridge's marriage proved unhappy. Southey departed for Portugal, but Coleridge remained in England. In 1796 he published Poems on Various Subjects.
In 1795 Coleridge met poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.
Around 1796, Coleridge started using opium as a pain reliever. His and Dorothy Wordsworth's notebooks record that he suffered from a variety of medical complaints, including toothache and facial neuralgia. There appears to have been no stigma associated with taking opium then, but also little understanding of the physiological or psychological aspects of addiction. He also was reported to have been, according to Dorothy Wordsworth, a "terrible lover" and "one whose realm is not that of the land twixt the sheets," alluding to the fact that opium caused him to have terrible gynecomastia and erectile dysfunction.
The years 1797 and 1798, during which the friends lived in Nether Stowey, Somerset, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge's life. Besides the Ancient Mariner, he composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written—Coleridge himself claimed—as a result of an opium dream, in "a kind of a reverie"; and the first part of the narrative poem Christabel. During this period he also produced his much-praised "conversation" poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.
In 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, which proved to be the starting-point for the English romantic movement. Though the productive Wordsworth contributed more poems to the volume, Coleridge's first version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the longest poem and drew more immediate attention than anything else.
In the autumn of 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth left for a stay in Germany; Coleridge soon went his own way and spent much of his time in university towns. During this period he became interested in German philosophy, especially the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, and in the literary criticism of the 18th-century dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Coleridge studied German and, after his return to England, translated the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the German Classical poet Friedrich Schiller into English.
In 1800 he returned to England and shortly thereafter settled with his family and friends at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland. Soon, however, he fell into a vicious circle of lack of confidence in his poetic powers, ill-health, and increased opium dependency.
From 1804 to 1806, Coleridge lived in Malta and travelled in Sicily and Italy, in the hope that leaving Britain's damp climate would improve his health and thus enable him to reduce his consumption of opium. For a while he had a civil-service job as the Public Secretary of the British administration of Malta, assisting governor Sir Alexander John Ball. Thomas de Quincey alleges in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets that it was during this period that Coleridge became a full-blown opium addict, using the drug as a substitute for the lost vigour and creativity of his youth. It has been suggested, however, that this reflects de Quincey's own experiences more than Coleridge's.
Between 1808 and 1819 this "giant among dwarfs", as he was often considered by his contemporaries, gave a series of lectures in London and Bristol – those on Shakespeare renewed interest in the playwright as a model for contemporary writers.
In 1816 Coleridge, his addiction worsening, his spirits depressed, and his family alienated, took residence in the home of the physician James Gillman, in Highgate. ln Gillman's home he finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria (1817), a volume composed of 25 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some incisive literary theory and criticism. The sections in which Coleridge expounded his definitions of the nature of poetry and the imagination are particularly important: he made a famous distinction between primary and secondary imagination on the one hand and fancy on the other. He published other writings while he was living at the Gillman home, notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and Church and State (1830). He died in Highgate on July 25, 1834.
Coleridge is probably best known for his long narrative poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Even those who have never read the Rime have come under its influence: its words have given the English language the metaphor of an albatross around one's neck, the (mis)quote of "water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink", and the phrase "a sadder but wiser man". Christabel is known for its musical rhythm and language and its Gothic tale.
Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment, although shorter, is also widely known and loved. It has strange, dreamy imagery and (like most good poems) can be read on many levels. The name of Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu comes from the first line of Kubla Khan. Both Kubla Khan and Christabel have additional "romantic" aura because they were never finished.
Coleridge's shorter, meditative "conversation poems," however, proved to be the most influential of his work. These include both quiet poems like This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison and Frost at Midnight and also strongly emotional poems like Dejection and The Pains of Sleep. Wordsworth immediately adopted the model of these poems, and used it to compose several of his major poems. Via Wordsworth, the conversation poem became a standard vehicle for English poetic expression, and perhaps the most common approach among modern poets.
Although known today primarily for his poetry, Coleridge also published essays and books on literary theory and criticism and on politics, philosophy, and theology. He introduced Immanuel Kant to the British public in his lectures and "Thursday-night seminars" at Highgate. Coleridge's treatment of the German idealist philosophers in the Biographia Literaria has been subject to the accusation of plagiarism. It is known that he presents lengthy translations, particularly from Schelling, as his own work. de Quincey compares this to kleptomania, although Coleridge's defenders attribute it to his poor organisation of notes rather than dishonesty.
He wrote both political commentary and hack journalism for several newspapers, especially during the Napoleonic wars. He translated two of Schiller's plays from the German and himself wrote several dramas (Zapolya had successful runs in London and Bristol). He also worked as a teacher and tutor, gave public lectures and sermons, and almost single-handedly wrote and published two periodicals, the Watchman and the Friend. During his life, he was famous as a conversationalist.
His letters, Table Talk, and range of friends reflect the breadth of his interests. In addition to literary people such as William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb, his friends included Humphry Davy the chemist, industrialists such as the tanner Thomas Poole and members of the Wedgwood family, Alexander Ball the military governor of Malta, the American painter Washington Allston, and the physician James Gillman.
It was in all probability Charles Lamb who introduced Coleridge to the writings of Sir Thomas Browne. Browne's learning, literary style and personality impressed Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey and both were aware of Browne's drowsy opiate imagery. Coleridge not only annotated Browne's major literary works, but in his correspondence exclaimed, "O to write a character of this man!"
Coleridge was the father of Hartley Coleridge, and grandfather of Herbert Coleridge and Ernest Hartley Coleridge. He was the uncle of the first Baron Coleridge. The poet Mary Coleridge was a relation but not a descendant.
- The Collected Works in 16 volumes (some are double volumes), many editors, Routledge & Kegan Paul and also Bollingen Series LXXV, Princeton University Press (1971-2001)
- The Notebooks in 5 (or 6) double volumes, eds. Kathleen Coburn and others, Routledge and also Bollingen Series L, Princeton University Press (1957-1990)
- Collected Letters in 6 volumes, ed. E. L. Griggs, Clarendon Press: Oxford (1956-1971)
About and around Coleridge
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04