- Born: October 21, 1772, Ottery St Mary, Devon, England
- Died: July 25, 1834 (aged 61), Highgate, England
- Years Active: 1794—1834
- Notable Works: The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (1798), Kubla Khan (1816), Biographia Literaria (1817), Christabel (1797)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian. Together with William Wordsworth, he is credited as one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England and was a member of the Lake Poets.
Coleridge’s most famous works include The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Biographia Literaria. His critical work on William Shakespeare was very influential and he also helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture.
Coleridge was a lifelong user of opium, and his health declined massively due to his addiction. It harmed both his life and adversely impacted his career, eventually leading to his death at the age of 61.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Early Life
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on 21 October 1772 in the rural town of Ottery St Mary, Devonshire, England, and was the tenth and youngest child of Ann Bowdon Coleridge and John Coleridge.
His father, John, was born in 1719 and was sent to the Crediton Grammar School until the age of 15, when money troubles within the family meant he needed to seek employment. By luck, a random gentleman discovered him and offered him a job as an usher for a school. While working for the school, he married for the first time and had four daughters, before becoming a teacher in Devon.
While in Devon, John’s first wife died and in 1753, he married Ann Bowden, a woman from Exmoor. They had 9 sons and 1 daughter, with Samuel Coleridge being the youngest. By the time Coleridge was born, John Coleridge was a well-respected vicar of the parish and had advanced to the position of Head Master of Henry VIII’s Free Grammar School at Ottery.
Coleridge suggests that he “took no pleasure in boyish sports” but instead read “incessantly” and played by himself during his childhood. He was close to his father but not with his mother, choosing to provoke her in an attempt to receive her attention. At the age of seven, Coleridge ran away from home after an argument with his older brother Frank that resulted in his mother punishing him.
Coleridge’s father died in 1781 when Coleridge was eight years old, which affected him deeply. His brothers had all left home, either having been enlisted in the Navy or busy with their own families, and, with no income, the family had to move from their schoolhouse to a nearby house.
Fortunately, soon after, one of John Coleridge’s former students, Judge Buller, arranged for Coleridge to be sent to Christ’s Hospital School.
Education and Early Poems
Coleridge remained at Christ’s Hospital throughout his childhood, studying and writing poetry. He studied the work of Virgil and William Lisle Bowles, and was known to spend a lot of his time reading alone.
During his time at the school, he became friends with Charles Lamb, yet he found himself very homesick. He did not have family in London to spend any holidays with, only returning home three or four times throughout the nine years he spent at the school. His loneliness subsided slightly when his brothers, Luke and George, came to London, to whom he would write a lot of letters. However, he began to feel homesick again when Luke moved to Devon.
Coleridge would write often to Luke, sending him poems, some of which were his earliest known, including “Easter Holidays” and “Dura Navis”. While he stayed at the school’s sanatorium recovering from illness, Coleridge wrote the poem “Pain: Composed in Sickness”. It was also during this time that Coleridge was first prescribed opium, in the form of laudanum, as a treatment of his fever. Luke and Coleridge’s sister Ann died in 1791 and prompted Coleridge to write the sonnet “On Receiving an Account that his only Sister’s Death was Inevitable”.
Coleridge befriended Robert Allen and Tom Evans, and together they would visit Evans’ home in London. It was here that Coleridge met Mary Evans, but he refrained to tell her how he felt about her.
Towards the end of his time at Christ’s Hospital, Coleridge received a scholarship to attend Jesus College, Cambridge. During this time, he composed “On Quitting School for College”, a poem that contains his saying good bye to his previous homes in a manner that was more positive than how he truly felt about those places.
Coleridge attended Jesus College between the years of 1791 and 1794. He worked in the chapel and attended lectures in both maths and classics. During this time he wrote many poems, some of which he would submit to competitions. He won the Browne Gold Medal for a Sapphic ode that he wrote on the slave trade, and, a year later in 1793, he competed again for the Browne Medal but his ode on astronomy only won him second place. Coleridge often wrote and Latin and would include his poetry in letters he wrote to others. Coleridge also befriended Thomas Middleton, a student at Pembroke College, who acted as “patron and protector” according to Coleridge’s account in Biographia Literaria.
Throughout his time at college and through his poetry, Coleridge involved himself with politics, including issues around the French revolution, the slave trade, and the abolition of the Test and Corporation Acts. He was also active in defence of William Frend, a Unitarian and Fellow of Jesus College who was expelled for publishing a pamphlet advocating Peace and Union (1793).
Coleridge was poor while at college. He received 70 pounds per year in scholarship to attend the school with 30 pounds from the Rustat Scholarship, a scholarship for the sons of Anglican clergymen. It is through he spent his money on wine and opium, as well as prostitutes. It was his debt that prompted Coleridge to leave college at the end of 1793, using his last money to purchase an Irish Lottery ticket.
During this time, he enlisted in the 15th (The King’s) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons using the false name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache”. He struggled during this time, trading his literary skills with other soldiers for help with his horse. His real identity was revealed when a plaintive Latin exclamation written on the wall of the stables was found and it was traced back to Coleridge. George Coleridge was informed of Coleridge’s enlistment, and arranged for his discharge a few months later under the reason of “insanity”. George paid off Coleridge’s debt.
Following this, Coleridge was readmitted to Jesus College in April 1794, where he began writing poetry again, even advertising a book of his own poetry called Imitations from the Modern Latin Poets.
It was during this time that Coleridge met Robert Southey, who he shared political views with and bonded with. He ended up leaving Jesus college without obtaining his degree.
Post-College and Political Views
In 1794, Coleridge’s transition into being a Romantic poet began, and he began to focus on nature in his poetry. This was a direct influence from his relationship with Southey and the emotional connection that they shared as friends, and their friendship developed to the point of Coleridge no longer pursuing Mary Evans. They also encouraged each other in their liberal political beliefs and visited the British proponent of democracy Tom Poole in 1794.
During the the summer of 1794, Coleridge and Southey co-wrote the political drama The Fall of Robespierre, but it was not a success and lacked merit. It describes the events of Robespierre’s final moments and his execution and that of 21 of his supporters along with denouncing tyranny. The work was published by Benjamin Flower and only under Coleridge’s name.
However, his poetry took off after reading Schiller’s play, Robbers, and he composed a sonnet in response dedicated to Schiller, near the time that he composed his sonnet to William Lisle Bowles. The Bowles poem was included in the “Sonnets on Eminent Characters” series along with poems dedicated to Edmund Burke, Thomas Erskine, Godwin, Southey, Kosciusko, Pitt, Joseph Priestley, and Sheridan.
Also during this time, the two poets moved to Bristol, where Southey had connections. Coleridge worked on pamphlets and lectured, particularly on political reform. He condemned practices such as slavery and movement within the British Parliament to expand sedition laws, and his religious views emphasized Unitarianism and how it was a middle ground between the problems of Anglicanism and the problems of atheism.
Coleridge and Southey came up with a theoretical political government named Pantisocracy. Originally named Pantocracy, the system was intended be a perfect, egalitarian society formed in America. They discussed with Poole their ideal government during their visit to him, and had hope for what the system would accomplish. However, Poole thought that the system would have little chance for succeeding, and he advised Coleridge and Southey that there would be problems regarding females and marriage contracts within the society.
As plans were developed, they formed a group of people that would become part of the society, including Southey’s mother, Southey’s fiancée and her family, and a few others that they knew. Coleridge and Southey also encouraged the group to study agriculture and carpentry to help with the settlement.
When locals heard of the group’s plans for starting a new society in America, Pantisocracy was met with a lot of criticism. Southey’s aunt in particular was against the idea, and when she found out about it, she immediately stopped talking to him and kicked him out of her house.
When Coleridge left Bristol for London, his thoughts about Pantisocracy began to change and he backed off his role in the idea. This was partly to blame for the intervention by Mary Evans and his brother George, and partly about Southey advocating for a master class and a servant class in their new society, all of which upset Coleridge. The idea did not completely collapse until Southey abandoned the plans in August 1795 in order to become a lawyer.
In 1795, Coleridge and Southey married sisters Sara and Edith Fricker, in St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. By this time, the two poets’ friendship had ended.
Coleridge’s marriage with Sara Fricker was unhappy and he only really married her because of social constraints. Following the birth of their fourth child, he eventually separated from her. A third sister, Mary, had already married a third poet Robert Lovell, both of whom later became partners in Pantisocracy.
Further Poetry and Writings
Coleridge’s and Southey’s relationship dissolved in August 1795, when Southey was offered by his uncle to travel together to Lisbon and afterwards to train as a lawyer. However, during this time, Coleridge met William Wordsworth.
In 1796, Coleridge released his first volume of poems entitled Poems on Various Subjects, which also included four poems by Charles Lamb as well as a collaboration with Southey and a work suggested by his and Lamb’s schoolfriend Robert Favell. Among the poems were Religious Musings, Monody on the Death of Chatterton and an early version of The Eolian Harp entitled Effusion 35. In 1796, he also privately printed Sonnets from Various Authors, including sonnets by Lamb, Lloyd, Southey and himself as well as older poets such as Bowles.
In January 1796, Coleridge began travelling to find subscribers for a proposed political magazine called The Watchman. It was to be printed every eight days to avoid a weekly newspaper tax, and the first issue of the short-lived journal was published in March 1796. However, it had ceased publication by May of that year when Coleridge ran out of money. Fortunately, he was able to make money on the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, 16 April 1796, and by giving lectures about Roman history.
Somerset and Most Famous Works
After the birth of his son, Hartley, Coleridge began making plans for moving to the countryside at Nether Stowey, Somerset. He lived here between the years 1797 and 1798, in what is now known as Coleridge Cottage. It was during these years that Coleridge produced the most work and are thought to be the most fruitful years of his life.
Wordsworth joined Coleridge in Somerset, along with visits from Poole, Lamb, and other associates. He partially mended his friendship with Southey and contributed verse to Southey’s Joan of Arc epic, lines later to be put together in the poem “The Destiny of Nations”. In February 1797, Coleridge reviewed Matthew Lewis’s The Monk for the Critical Review and began writing Osorio, a play requested by Sheridan for Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This is when Coleridge began to form a strong bond with Wordsworth, which would go on to influence both poets’ lives.
In the years of 1797 and 1798, Coleridge wrote his most famous works — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and parts of Christabel and Kubla Khan. Kubla Khan was, according to Coleridge, written as a result of an opium dream, in “a kind of a reverie”. It was also during this time that he produced some of his much-praised Conversation poems: This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison (1797), Frost at Midnight (1798), Fears in Solitude (1798) and The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem (1798).
In the spring of 1798, Coleridge temporarily took over for Rev. Joshua Toulmin at Taunton’s Mary Street Unitarian Chapel while Rev. Toulmin grieved over the drowning death of his daughter Jane.
Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge, with insights from Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798, an important work in the English Romantic movement. Neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge were credited as authors, but two of their most famous poems were published — Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner particularly stood out because it was the longest work, and drew the most praise.
The North and Germany
In 1798, Josiah Wedgwood II offered to help Coleridge out of financial difficulties with an annuity of £150 (approximately £13,000 in today’s money) per year. This was to free him of his ministerial career and allowed to him to take charge of his life again.
On 16 September 1798, Coleridge and the Wordsworths both moved to Germany, although Coleridge soon went his own way and spent much of his time in university towns. In February 1799, he enrolled at the University of Göttingen, where he attended lectures by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn. During this period, he became interested in German philosophy, especially the transcendental idealism and critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and in the literary criticism of the 18th-century dramatist Gotthold Lessing.
Coleridge studied German and, after his return to England in 1800, translated the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the German Classical poet Friedrich Schiller into English.
After his return to England, Coleridge settled with his family and friends in Greta Hall at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland to be near Grasmere, where Wordsworth had moved. He was a houseguest of the Wordsworths’ for eighteen months, but he was a difficult houseguest. His dependency on laudanum grew, he had frequent nightmares that would wake the children and he was a fussy eater. At this time, he was also experiencing marital issues. All of these problems led to the composition of Dejection: An Ode and an intensification of his philosophical studies.
Further Travel and Drug Use
In 1804, Coleridge travelled to Sicily and Malta, ending up staying San Anton Palace in the village of Attard. Here, he worked as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Civil Commissioner, Alexander Ball until 1806 when he returned to England.
At this time, Coleridge’s addiction opium was worsening, and his health was declining. From 1807 to 1808, he returned to Malta and then travelled in Sicily and Italy, in the hope that leaving Britain’s damp climate would improve his health and thus enable him to reduce the amount of opium he consumed.
Coleridge separated from Sara in 1808, and, in 1809, he made his second attempt to become a newspaper publisher with the publication of the journal entitled The Friend. It was a weekly publication that was written, edited, and published almost entirely single-handedly. The Friend covers topics such as law, philosophy, morals, politics, history, and literary criticism, but it ran for only 25 issues before Coleridge soon ran out of money to finance it.
Later Years, Biographia Literaria and London
Between the years of 1810 and 1820, Coleridge gave a series of lectures in London and Bristol, mostly on Shakespeare’s works, helping to renew interest in the playwright as a model for contemporary writers, as well as on German philosophy. However, his ill health and opium addiction caused his lectures to often be of poor quality.
Between 1814 and 1816, Coleridge lived in Calne, Wiltshire and seemed able to focus on his work and manage his addiction. He rented rooms from a local surgeon, Mr Page, on Church Street, just opposite the entrance to the churchyard.
It was during this time that he began drafting Biographia Literaria, which was a collection of his thoughts and opinions on literature, combined with biographical explanations. He shared analysis of a broad range of philosophical principles of literature ranging from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Schelling, and then applied them to the poetry of peers such as Wordsworth.
In April 1816, Coleridge’s friend and physician, Joseph Adams, put him in touch with a Highgate doctor named James Gillman, intending to place Coleridge in his full-time care and find a cure to his addiction problems. Gillman was partially successful in controlling Coleridge’s addiction, and it is thanks to him that Coleridge was able to live until he did. Coleridge remained in Highgate for the rest of his life.
It was under Gillman’s care that Coleridge was able to finish he later works. Biographia Literaria was published in 1817. He also published other writings during this time, most notably Lay Sermons of 1816 and 1817, Sibylline Leaves (1817), Hush (1820), Aids to Reflection (1825) and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). Coleridge also worked extensively on the various manuscripts which form his “Opus Maximum”, however this was never published in his lifetime.
Coleridge died in Highgate, London on 25 July 1834 at the age of 61 as a result of heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium. He is buried in the aisle of St. Michael’s Parish Church in Highgate, London. He was originally buried at Old Highgate Chapel but was re-interred in St. Michael’s in 1961.
Coleridge is one of the most important figures in English poetry. Not only did his poems directly and deeply influence all the major poets of the age, but he was also a founder of the Romantic Movement. His writing spanned a range of topics, including religion, literary theory and constitutional politics, and would have a significant influence on the thinking of the Victorians.
Coleridge also established a reputation as a lecturer on philosophy and literature, particularly on the works of Shakespeare, and this literary criticism helped to renew interest in these works among authors at the time.
Coleridge’s main works can be found in the current standard edition of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Kathleen Coburn and many others from 1969 to 2002. The set is broken down as follows into further parts:
- Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion (1971);
- The Watchman (1970);
- Essays on his Times in the Morning Post and the Courier (1978) in 3 vols;
- The Friend (1969) in 2 vols;
- Lectures, 1808–1819, on Literature (1987) in 2 vols;
- Lay Sermons (1972);
- Biographia Literaria (1983) in 2 vols;
- Lectures 1818–1819 on the History of Philosophy (2000) in 2 vols;
- Aids to Reflection (1993);
- On the Constitution of the Church and State (1976);
- Shorter Works and Fragments (1995) in 2 vols;
- Marginalia (1980 and following) in 6 vols;
- Logic (1981);
- Table Talk (1990) in 2 vols;
- Opus Maximum (2002);
- Poetical Works (2001) in 6 vols (part 1 – Reading Edition in 2 vols; part 2 – Variorum Text in 2 vols; part 3 – Plays in 2 vols).
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