Samuel Taylor Coleridge was influential in the founding and development of English Romantic poetry. Despite suffering from mood swings and an opium addiction, Coleridge produced some memorable poetry and was also a noted literary critic.
Short Bio S.T. Coleridge (1772-1834)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary, Devon in 1772. His father was a local vicar who was already 53 when Samuel was born; his father later died when Coleridge was just six years old. As a child, he was withdrawn but loved reading. He later recounted how much he enjoyed reading books such as Robinson Crusoe, and Arabian Nights. After the death of his father, he went to Christ’s Hospital school in London, where he developed a love for the classic Greek poets and the two English immortals, Shakespeare and Milton. In 1791, he went to Jesus College, Cambridge University. Here his poetry was first recognised, winning the Browne Gold medal for an ode on the slave trade.
Halfway through his degree, he quit college to join the Royal Dragoons, but this proved a failure; he couldn’t cope with military life, and with the aid of his brother was discharged on the grounds of insanity. He returned to Jesus College, though he never completed his degree.
It was in Cambridge that he met poet and radical Robert Southey; the political opinions of Southey left an impression on Coleridge, who was interested in political thought throughout his life. Like many young students of his generation, he was initially inspired by the ideals of the French revolution, though he later became disenchanted. At one time, Coleridge and Southey planned to set up a utopian community in Bristol, but this plan never materialised. In 1795 he married Sara Fricker, but he never really loved her – marrying more out of social convention. After an unhappy marriage, they separated though they did have a daughter. After drifting away from his own wife, he later fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife.
In the late 1790s, Coleridge developed a close and important friendship with William Wordsworth – a fellow romantic poet. This was not just a close friendship, but also an important literary collaboration. Together they published the influential volume of poetry – Lyrical Ballards (1798). This included classics by Wordsworth, such as ‘Tintern Abbey’ and Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. These poems were a key development in Romantic poetry; using everyday words to evoke poetic ideals such as the beauty of nature. Coleridge definitely had a significant influence on Wordsworth; Wordsworth’s great work ‘The Prelude‘ was originally entitled ‘Poem To Coleridge.’
Some of the most memorable lines from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ have slipped into everyday English use, for example, the metaphor of an “albatross around one’s neck’ and phrases such as ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’
The relative success of this publication led Coleridge to receive an annual payment of £150 from the two Wedgewood brothers. This enabled him to devote more time to writing and poetry.
In 1798, with the Wordsworths, he visited Germany where he became interested in the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant. To Coleridge poetry and philosophy shared a common thread; in his Biographia Literaria (1817) Ch 1, he wrote:
“No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.”
Coleridge wrote on a wide variety of subjects, which he recorded in his Notebooks – daily meditations on life. He also became known as an expert critic on Shakespeare. In particular, one lecture on Hamlet helped to resurrect the critical acclaim of this play which had, at the time, fallen out of favour. Writing on Shakespeare, Coleridge wrote:
“Shakespeare, no mere child of nature; no automaton of genius; no passive vehicle of inspiration possessed by the spirit, not possessing it; first studied patiently, meditated deeply, understood minutely, till knowledge became habitual and intuitive, wedded itself to his habitual feelings, and at length gave birth to that stupendous power by which he stands alone, with no equal or second in his own class” – Biographia Literaria (1817)
Yet, though he could offer imaginative and ground-breaking writing, he was also increasingly hampered by his opium addiction. Suffering from neuralgic and rheumatic pains, he was prescribed copious amounts of opium as a pain reliever; this almost inevitably led to addiction and increased mental disturbance. Though some poems were said to have been imagined in an opium-induced dream (like Kubla Khan) his opium consumption harmed his well being and seriously damaged his friendship with William Wordsworth. His Opium addiction also made him depressed; parts of Kubla Khan sound autobiographical.
“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”
– Coleridge, Kubla Khan, Part IV, st. 3
In 1817, his addiction was domineering his life, so he sought the help of physician James Gillman. Gillman took Coleridge into his own household and for the remainder of his life, Coleridge live at his residence – 3 The Grove, Highgate, London. From this period, he rarely ventured out and continued to write prose, such as his Biographia Literaria (1817), poetry and also more theological and politico-sociological works. He remained an icon for budding writers and poets, especially those interested in his brand of romantic poetry such as Thomas Carlyle and Lord Byron.
He died in Highgate, near London on July 25, 1834. An Epitaph he wrote for himself in 1833:
“Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he —
Oh, lift a thought in prayer for S.T.C!
That he, who many a year, with toil of breath,
Found death in life, may here find life in death.”
The Coleridge Collection
The Coleridge Collection at Amazon.com
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