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||Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)|
English lyrical poet, critic, and philosopher, whose Lyrical Ballads, written with William Wordsworth, started the English Romantic movement. Although Coleridge's poetic achievement was small in quantity, his metaphysical anxiety, anticipating modern existentialism, has gained him reputation as an authentic visionary. Shelley called him "hooded eagle among blinking owls."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, the son of the Reverend John Coleridge, and Ann Bowdon, the daughter of a farmer. At the time of his birth, Coleridge's father was already fifty-three years old, Ann, his second wife, was forty-five. Coleridge, the youngest of ten children, was adored by his parents. Later Coleridge described his childhood as full fantasy: "At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarll – and then I found the Arabian Nights' entertainments – one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings) that I was haunted by spectres whenever I was in the dark – and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful e agerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay – and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask, and read."
After his father's death, Coleridge was sent away to Christ's Hospital School in London. Coleridge studied at Jesus College. He joined in the reformist movement stimulated by the French Revolution, and abandoned his studies in 1793. In desperation, after an unhappy love-affair and pressed by debt, he enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name of Silas Tomkin Comberbache. Soon he realized that he was unfit for an army career and he was brought out under 'insanity' clause by his brother, Captain James Coleridge. In Cambridge Coleridge met the radical, future poet laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843) in 1794. Coleridge moved with him to Bristol to establish a community, but the plan failed. In 1795 he married the sister of Southey's fiancée Sara Fricker, whom he did not really love.
Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects (1796) was followed by Poems (1797). With the publication of these works, he launched a short-lived liberal political periodical The Watchman. Coleridge formed a close friendship with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, one of the most fruitful creative relationships in English literature. From it resulted Lyrical Ballads, which opened with Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and ended with Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey'. The 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, it saves everyone, and stays with the ship until the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow. The motiveless malignity 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." After a ghost ship passes the crew begin to die but the mariner is eventually rescued. He knows his penance will continue and he is only a machine for dictating always the one story.
Mrs. Barbauld objected to Coleridge that the poem lacked a moral, the
poet told her that "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." Partly the poem was inspired by
Captain James Cook's second voyage (1772-1775), during which he
circumnavigated the entire of Antarctica. Coleridge himself was also a
traveler, who lived in Malta and Italy, and visited many of the
capitals of Europe. In many poems he utilized travel as a narrative
elements, it was a source of inspiration, and an argument against
intellectual stagnation: "Keep moving! Steam, or Gas, or Stage, / Hold,
cabin, steerage, hencoop's cage – / Tour, Journey, Voyage, Lounge,
Ride, Walk, / Skim, Sketch, Excursion, Travel-talk – / For move you
Another likely source was George Shelvocke's A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea
(1726), in which the traveller tells that the second captain Hatley,
"in one of his melancholy moods," shot an albatross, imagining from its
color, "that it might be some ill omen." (The albatross, obviously, was
black rather than white.) The 'Rime' exemplified Coleridge' s
notion of "supernatural poetry". Coleridge made a distinction between
the poet and the subjective experience of the narrator and what is
objectively true. "The Poet must always be in perfect sympathy with the
Subject of the Narrative, and tell his tale with 'a most believing
mind': but the tale will be then most impressive for all, when it is so
constructed and particularized with such traits and circumstances, that
the Psychologist and thinking Naturalist shall be furnished with the
means of explaining it as a possible fact". ('Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"' by James Vigus, in Handbook of British Romanticism, edited by Ralf Haekel (2017, pp. 262-363) Since
its publication, the "Rime" has been one of Coleridge's most beloved
and parodied works. Even Donald Duck has recited the famous lines from
poem, "'Why look'st thou so?'— With my cross-bow I shot the ALBATROSS,"
in 'The Not-so-Ancient Mariner' by Carl Barks (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #312, September 1966).
The brothers Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood granted Coleridge an annuity of 150 pounds, thus enabling him to pursue his literary career. Disenchanted with political developments in France, Coleridge visited Germany in 1798-99 with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and became interested in the works of Immanuel Kant. 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, daily meditations of his life.
to Coleridge, he heard the words to his famous 'Kubla Khan' in a
dream. He had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and
Linton in the summer of 1797. After taking anodyne, reading Purchas's Pilgrimage,
and sleeping three hours, he woke up with a clear image of
the poem. "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." (Kubla Khan, 1798)
Disturbed by a "person on business from Porlock," he lost the vision,
with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images.
Attempts to reveal the identity of the visitor have been fruitless.
Modern scholarship is skeptical of this story, but it reveals
Coleridge's interest in the workings of the subconscious. While
acknowledging the brilliance of his work, Norman Furman argued in Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel
(1971) that the poet fabricated untruths about circumstances under
which he created his poems, and plagiarized ideas from
'Christabel' and 'Kubla Khan' circulated many years in oral form before publication, and especially 'Christabel' influenced later the works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Humphry Davy, a chemist and inventor, persuaded his literary friends, including Coleridge and Robert Southey, to self-experiment with nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and published their accounts in Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide (1800). In addition, Davy edited the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Davy made made a huge impression on Coleridge, who incorporated topical scientific allusions in his poems, expressed an interest in assisting Davy in the laboratory, and reportedly said that "Had not Daly been the first chemist, he, probably, would have been the first poet of his age."
Coleridge never became addicted to laughing gas, but suffering from neuralgic and rheumatic pains, he developed a dependency on opium, freely prescribed by physicians. 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..." He worked two years as secretary to the governor of Malta, and later traveled through Sicily and Italy, returning then to England. In 1809-10 he wrote and edited with Sara Hutchinson the literary and political magazine The Friend. From 1808 to 1818 he he gave several lectures, chiefly in London, and was considered the greatest of Shakespearean critics.
Coleridge's friendship with Wordsworth came to crisis in 1810, and the two poets never fully returned to the relationship they had earlier. During the following years, Coleridge lived in London, on the verge of suicide. Remorse, a play which he had written many years earlier, was succesfully produced at the Drury Lane theatre in 1813. He received £400, which he spent in a few months. After a physical and spiritual crisis at Greyhound Inn, Bath, he submitted himself to a series of medical régimes to free himself from opium. He found a permanent harbor in Highgate in the household of Dr. James Gillman, and enjoyed almost legendary reputation among the younger Romantics. During this time he rarely left the house.
The unfinished poems 'Christabel' and 'Kubla Khan' were published in 1816, Sybilline Leaves came out the next year. From the late 1810s Coleridge devoted himself to theological and politico-sociological works – his final position was that of a Romantic conservative and Christian radical. "Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming," he said in Biographia Literaria (1817). John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian age, said that "every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgean." Coleridge, a romantic preserver, emphasized the importance of established institutions, whereas Jeremy Bentham, an utilitarian philosopher, was a radical reformer, who maintained that the end of life is "the greatest good for the greatest number." For the most part, upper-class Coleridgean thought was the driving force behind social reforms, not Benthamite middle-class vision.
Coleridge contributed to several magazines, among them Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. In 1824 Coleridge was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He died in Highgate, near Londonon July 25, 1834. Coleridge's daughter Sara (1802-1852) became a writer and translator, too. She published children's verse, Pretty Lessons In Verse For Good Children (1834) and Phantasmion (1837). When her husband died she took up the task of editing her father's work.
For further reading: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Biographical Study Book by E. K. Chambers (1938); Coleridge by Walter Jackson Bate (1968); Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel by Norman Fruman (1971); Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium by Molly Lefebure (1974); Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Samuel Bloom (1986); Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 by Richard Holmes (1989); Sara Coleridge, A Victorian Daughter: Her Life and Essays by Bradford Keyes Mudge (1989); Coleridge's Figurative Language by Tim Fulford (1991); Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Critical Biography by Rosemary Ashton (1995); Coleridge's Later Poetry by Morton D. Paley (1996); Coleridge in Italy by Edoardo Zuccato (1996); Coleridge: Volume II, Darker Reflections by Richard Holems (1999); Romanticism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination by J. Robert Barth (2003); The Romantic Poets: Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge: with an Introduction and Contemporary Criticism, edited by Joseph Pearce and Robert Asch (2014); 'Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"' by James Vigus, in Handbook of British Romanticism, edited by Ralf Haekel (2017) - Museum: Coleridge Cottage, 35 Lime Street, Nether Stowey, Brigwater, former home of Coleridge. - See also: Walter de la Mare