Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The English author Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was a major poet of the romantic movement. He is also noted for his prose works on literature, religion, and the organization of society.

Born on Oct. 21, 1772, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the tenth and last child of the vicar of Ottery St. Mary near Exeter. In 1782, after his father's death, he was sent as a charity student to Christ's Hospital. His amazing memory and his eagerness to imbibe knowledge of any sort had turned him into a classical scholar of uncommon ability by the time he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1791. Like most young intellectuals of the day, he felt great enthusiasm for the French Revolution and took his modest share in student protest against the war with France (1793). Plagued by debts, Coleridge enlisted in the Light Dragoons in December 1793. Discharged in April 1794, he returned to Cambridge, which he left in December, however, without taking a degree.

The reason for this move, characteristic of Coleridge's erratic and impulsive character, was his budding friendship with Robert Southey. Both young men were eagerly interested in poetry, sharing the same dislike for the neoclassic tradition. They were both radicals in politics, and out of their feverish conversations grew the Pantisocratic scheme—the vision of an ideal communistic community to be founded in America. This juvenile utopia came to nothing, but on Oct. 4, 1795, Coleridge married Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey's wife-to-be. By that time, however, his friendship with Southey had already dissolved.

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Poetic Career

In spite of his usually wretched health, the years from 1795 to 1802 were for Coleridge a period of fast poetic growth and intellectual maturation. In August 1795 he began his first major poem, "The Eolian Harp," which was published in his Poems on Various Subjects (1796). It announced his unique contribution to the growth of English romanticism: the blending of lyrical and descriptive effusion with philosophical rumination in truly symbolic poetry.

From March to May 1796 Coleridge edited the Watchman, a liberal periodical which failed after 10 issues. While this failure made him realize that he was "not fit for public life," his somewhat turgid "Ode to the Departing Year" shows that he had not abandoned his revolutionary fervor. Yet philosophy and religion were his overriding interests. His voracious reading was mainly directed to one end, which was already apparent in his Religious Musings (begun 1794, published 1796)—he aimed to redefine orthodox Christianity so as to rid it of the Newtonian dichotomy between spirit and matter, to account for the unity and wholeness of the universe, and to reassess the relation between God and the created world.

Perhaps the most influential event in Coleridge's career was his intimacy with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in whose neighborhood he spent most of his life from 1796 to 1810. This friendship was partly responsible for his annus mirabilis (July 1797 to July 1798), which culminated in his joint publication with Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads in September 1798. As against 19 poems by Wordsworth, the volume contained only 4 by Coleridge, but one of these was "The Ancient Mariner." Coleridge later described the division of labor between the two poets—while Wordsworth was "to give the charm of novelty to things of every day by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us," it had been agreed that Coleridge's "endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic." But the underlying world view of the two poets was fundamentally similar. Like Wordsworth's "The Thorn," for example, Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" deals with the themes of sin and punishment and of redemption through suffering and a loving apprehension of nature.

A second, enlarged edition of Coleridge's Poems also appeared in 1798. It contained further lyrical and symbolic works, such as "This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison" and "Fears in Solitude." At this time Coleridge also wrote "Kubla Khan," perhaps the most famous of his poems, and began the ambitious narrative piece "Christabel."

In September 1798 Coleridge and the Wordsworths left for Germany, where he stayed until July 1799. In the writings of post-Kantian German philosophers such as J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. von Schelling, and A. W. von Schlegel, Coleridge discovered a world view so congenial that it is almost impossible to disentangle what, in his later thought, is properly his and what may have been derived from German influences. Sibylline Leaves (1817) contains lively, humorous accounts of his German experiences.

Personal Difficulties

The dozen years following Coleridge's return to England were the most miserable in his life. In October 1799 he settled near the Wordsworths in the Lake District. The cold, wet climate worsened his many ailments, and turning to laudanum for relief, he soon became an addict. His marriage, which had never been a success, was now disintegrating, especially since Coleridge had fallen in love with Sara Hutchinson, sister of Wordsworth's wife-to-be. Ill health and emotional stress, combined with his intellectual absorption in abstract pursuits, hastened the decline of his poetic power. Awareness of this process inspired the last and most moving of his major poems, "Dejection: An Ode"(1802). After a stay in Malta (1804-1806) which did nothing to restore his health and spirits, he decided to separate from his wife. The only bright point in his life during this period was his friendship with the Wordsworths, but after his return to the Lake District this relationship was subject to increasing strain. Growing estrangement was followed by a breach in 1810, and Coleridge then settled in London.

Meanwhile, however, Coleridge's capacious mind did not stay unemployed; indeed, his major contributions to the development of English thought were still to come. From June 1809 to March 1810 he published the periodical the Friend. Coleridge's poetry and his brilliant conversation had earned him public recognition, and between 1808 and 1819 he gave several series of lectures, mainly on Shakespeare and other literary topics. His only dramatic work, Osorio, which was written in 1797, was performed in 1813 under the title Remorse. "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan" were published in 1816.

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Later Works

In April 1816 Coleridge settled as a patient with Dr. Gillman at Highgate. There he spent most of the last 18 years of his life in comparative peace and in steady literary activity, bringing out several works which were to exert tremendous influence on the future course of English thought in many fields: Biographia literaria (1817), Lay Sermons (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and The Constitution of Church and State (1829). His apparently rambling style was well suited to a philosophy based on an intuition of wholeness and organic unity.

Although Coleridge's conservative idea of the state may appear both reactionary and utopian, his religious thought led to a revival of Christian philosophy in England. And his psychology of the imagination, conception of the symbol, and definition of organic form in art brought to the English-speaking world the new, romantic psychology and esthetics of literature which had first arisen in Germany at the turn of the century.

When Coleridge died on July 25, 1834, he left bulky manuscript notes, which scholars of the mid-20th century were to exhume and edit. The complete publication of this material will make it possible to realize the extraordinary range and depth of his philosophical preoccupations and to assess his true impact on succeeding generations of poets and thinkers.

Further Reading on Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The standard work on Coleridge is E. K. Chambers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1938; rev. ed. 1950). Norman Fruman, Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel (1971), is a comprehensive study of the man and the poet. Two fine works that combine biography with literary criticism are William Walsh, Coleridge: The Work and the Relevance (1967), and Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge (1968).

General critical introductions are Humphry House, Coleridge (1953); John B. Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (1959); Marshall Suther, The Dark Night of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1960); Max F. Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge (1963); Kathleen Coburn, ed., Coleridge: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967); and Patricia M. Adair, The Waking Dream (1968).

Increasing attention is given to the poet's thought in a great variety of fields. See John H. Muirhead, Coleridge as Philosopher (1930). On esthetics see I. A. Richards, Coleridge on Imagination (1935; 3d ed. 1962); James V. Baker, The Sacred River: Coleridge's Theory of the Imagination (1957); Richard Harter Fogle, The Idea of Coleridge's Criticism (1962); and J. A. Appleyard, Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature: The Development of a Concept of Poetry, 1791-1819 (1965). On religion see Charles Richard Sanders, Coleridge and the Broad Church Movement (1942); James D. Boulger, Coleridge as Religious Thinker (1961); and J. Robert Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (1969). For general background information the reader is referred to the bibliography in W. L. Renwick, English Literature, 1789-1815 (1963).

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Additional Biography Sources

Ashton, Rosemary, The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: a critical biography, Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Bate, Walter Jackson, Coleridge, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987, 1968.

Campbell, James Dykes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: a narrative of the events of his life, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.

Chambers, E. K. (Edmund Kerchever), Samuel Taylor Coleridge: a biographical study, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1938.

Doughty, Oswald, Perturbed spirit: the life and personality of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1981.

Garnett, Richard, Coleridge, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Gillman, James, The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Holmes, Richard, Coleridge: early visions, London: Hodder &Stoughton, 1989.