Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

Life and Works


Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a major Romantic poet, critic, and philosopher. His writings on literature, religion and morals exerted a strong influence throughout the 19thc century. Much of his work was not written nor published, and much appeared posthumously. His criticism on Shakespeare was given in lectures which have survived in reports of others or in his own notes.


Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, the tenth and the youngest son of Reverend John Coleridge, the vicar and headmaster of the local grammar school. He was his father's favorite son, who transmitted him his love for books and ideas. Coleridge was a precocious child who enjoyed conversing with adults. Reverend John died when Coleridge was eight. He was sent away to Christ's Hospital School in London, famous for giving education to orphans. There he befriended Charles Lamb. Coleridge conversed at ease with his peers and adults, and roamed freely through the city. He studied at Jesus College, Cambridge. More interested in the French Revolution, he abandoned his studies in 1793. After an unhappy love affair and pressed by debt, he enlisted in the cavalry and had to be finally rescued by his brother. He returned to Cambridge but left without a degree. In 1794 he met the radical poet Robert Southey (1774-1843). Together they originated a radical political scheme "Pantisocracy" (an all-equal society). They meant to found a utopian community in Pennsylvania which was to eradicate selfishness, vice and superstition. Twelve married couples had to raise a common fund and earn their living from agriculture. Yet the plan failed: they did not emigrate, Coleridge made an unfortunate marriage. In 1795 he married the sister of Southey's fiancée Sara Fricker. Although they finally separated, Coleridge supported her throughout his life.

In 1796 and 1797, Coleridge's first books of poems appeared: Poems On Various Subjectsand Poems. In 1797 he also began the publication of a short-lived liberal political periodical The Watchman. In 1795 he meet William Wordsworth. This was to be one of the most fruitful creative relationships in English literature. Together they put together The Lyrical Ballads, which opened with Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and ended with Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey". These poems set a new style by using everyday language and fresh ways of looking at nature. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", a 625-line ballad, is among his essential works. It tells of a sailor who kills an albatross and for that crime against nature endures terrible punishments. The ship upon which the Mariner serves is trapped in a frozen sea. An albatross comes to the aid of the ship, saves everyone, yet the Mariner shoots it in return. The motiveless offence leads to punishment: "And now there came both mist and show, / And it grew wondrous cold; / And ice, mast high, came floating by, / As green as emerald." The environment becomes hostile. A phantom ship passes and the crew begin to die but the mariner is eventually rescued when he spontaneously blesses the watersnakes. He returns home and feels a compulsion to tell and re-tell his story.

Coleridge Coleridge's Cottage at Nether Stowey, Bridgwater, Somerset.

When Mrs. Barbauld objected to Coleridge that the poem lacked a moral, the poet replied "in my own judgment the poem had too much; and that the only or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of pure imagination."

The Lyrical Ballads marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement. Although Coleridge's poetic achievement was small in quantity, he inspired and contributed to Wordsworth's Preface. Together they laid the foundation of the new Romantic poetic idiom. His metaphysical anxiety and visionary excursions anticipate modern existentialism and concern with the unconscious.

During this time, Coleridge had no regular income. He planned to become a Unitarian minister, when the brothers Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood granted him an annuity of 150 pounds in order to enable him to pursue his literary career. In 1798-99 together with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Coleridge visited Germany, devoted himself to metaphysical studies and became interested in the works of Immanuel Kant, the 17th-century mystical writings of Jakob Boehme, and the literary criticism of the 18th-century dramatist G. E. Lessing. He studied philosophy at Göttingen University and mastered the German language. However, he considered his translations of Friedrich von Schiller's plays from the trilogy Wallenstein distasteful. At the end of 1799 Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth's future wife, to whom he devoted his work Dejection: An Ode (1802). During these years Coleridge also began to compile his Notebooks, a set of daily meditations of his life.

Suffering from neuralgic and rheumatic pains, Coleridge had become addicted to opium, which the physicians prescribed to him. This caused severe physical and psychological disturbances in downward spiral of pain and despair. He felt disgust and guilt because he was not able to break the habit. In 1804 he sailed to Malta in search of better health. Supplied with an ounce of opium and nine ounces of laudanum, he wrote in his journal: "O dear God! give me strength of soul to make one thorough Trial - If I land at Malta / spite of all horrors to go through one month of unstimulated nature..." For two years he worked as secretary to the governor of Malta. He traveled through Sicily and Italy, returning to England more wretched than before. In 1809-10 he stayed with Wordsworth at Grasmere and dictated his essays to Sara Hutchinson. With her he worked on the literary and political magazine The Friend, and enterprise, which proved financially ruinous. In 1808 he began lecturing on the principles of poetry. He was considered the greatest of Shakespearean critics. Coleridge learned from a mutual friend that Wordsworth had spoken contemptuously of his addiction to opium and the two poets got estranged. Wordsworth and Coleridge got reconciled in 1812 and toured Europe in 1828, yet their friendship has never been quite the same.

In 1797 Coleridge wrote "Kubla Khan". According to Coleridge, the first lines of the poem came to him in a dream. "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. / So twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round: / And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; / And here were forests ancient as the hills / Enfolding sunny spots of greenery." In his notes he says that in the summer of 1797 he took anodyne and after three hours sleep he woke up with a clear image of the poem. A visitor on business from Porlock interrupted his sleep and he lost the vision, except for some eight or ten scattered lines and images.

Robert Southey Sara Coleridge

"Kubla Khan" and "Christabel" (1797-1800) two of Coleridge's famous poems circulated many years in oral form before publication. "Christabel" was to have a bearing influence on the later the works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Like "The Ancient Mariner", these two poems introduce a strange setting and a supernatural action.

After 1810, Coleridge lived in London, on the verge of suicide. Remorse, a play he had written many years earlier, was successfully produced at the Drury Lane theatre in 1813 (Byron was on the committee). He received £400, which he spent in a couple of months. In 1816 Coleridge wrote his Biographia Literaria.

In 1816 he placed himself in the care of Dr. James Gillman and lived in his household, at Highgate, which soon became the site of a literary and philosophic pilgrimage. There he recovered much of his energy.

In 1816 the unfinished poems "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan" were finally published, and next year Sibylline Leaves appeared. After 1817 Coleridge devoted himself to theological and politico-sociological works. He was considered a Romantic conservative and a Christian radical. "Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming," he wrote in Biographia Literaria (1817). Coleridge contributed to several magazines, among them Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Opus Maximum, his exposition of religious and philosophic thinking, remained unfinished.

In poems like, "The Aeolian Harp", "The Lime Tree Bower My Prison", "Frost at Midnight", "The Nightingale", Coleridge also developed another style, the conversational poem. The form derives from the descriptive meditative verse of the 18thc (Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village", and Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard") in which descriptions of a particular scene alternate with passages of meditations and emotions.

Coleridge's grave

In 1824 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He died in Highgate, near London on July 25, 1834. Coleridge's daughter Sara (1802-1852), also a writer and translator, took up the task of editing her fathers works.