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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."

"The influence of Coleridge, like that of Bentham, extends far beyond those who share in the peculiarities of his religious or philosophical creed. He has been the great awakener in this country of the spirit of philosophy, within the bounds of traditional opinions. He has been, almost as truly as Bentham, 'the great questioner of things established'; for a questioner needs nor necessarily be an enemy." (John Stuart Mill, in Coleridge, 1840)

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 in life, Coleridge described his childhood joy and excitement in reading: "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 eagerness 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." (Letter to Thomas Poole, October 9, 1797, in Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. I, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge, 1895)

After his father's unexpected 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. 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.

While in Cambridge Coleridge met the radical, future poet laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843). With him Coleridge moved to Bristol to establish a community, but the plan failed. In 1795Coleridge 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.

When 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." (Coleridge, Form and Symbol, Or The Ascertaining Vision by Nicholas Reid, 2006, p. 44) 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 his poems Coleridge utilized travel as a narrative element; 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 must!" 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.

According 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 others.

'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. Suidical thoughts plagued Coleridge's mind. 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, Coleridge 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. For the reat of his life, Coleridge lived with the Gilmans. He rarely left their house. To his contemporaries, he appeared both as a genius of unmatched capacity, and "an Archangel a little damaged," as Charles Lamb described him. ('Coleridge at 250: A Poet for the Twenty-First Century' by Tim Fulford, in The New Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Tim Fulford, p. 1)

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 on Imagination by I. A. Richards, 1934, p. 18) A romantic preserver, Coleridge 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." Larely, the driving force behind social reforms was the upper-class Coleridgean thought, 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 readingSamuel 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); Lives of the Dead Poets: Keats, Shelley, Coleridge by Karen Swann (2019); "Genial" Perception: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Myth of Genius in the Long Eighteenth Century by William Edinger (2022); The New Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Tim Fulford (2023) - Museum: Coleridge Cottage, 35 Lime Street, Nether Stowey, Brigwater, former home of Coleridge. - See also: Walter de la Mare

Selected works:

  • The Fall of Robespierre, 1794 (with Robert Southey)
  • Poems on Various Subjects, 1796
  • Lyrical Ballads, 1798 (with William Wordsworth, inc. 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', 'Frost at Midnight')
    - 'Vanhan merimiehen tarina' (translated into Finnish by Yrjö Jylhä, in Maailmankirjallisuuden kultainen kirja 3, 1933; Runon pursi, 1934)
  • The Death of Wallenstein, 1800 (by Friedrich Schiller; translator)
  • The Piccolomoni, or The First Part of Wallenstein. A Drama in Five Acts. From the German of Frederick Schiller, 1805  (translator)
  • The Friend; A Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper, 1809-10 (final three-volume edition, 1818)
  • Omniana,  or Horae otiosiores, 1812 (2 vols., with Robert Southey)
  • Remorse: A Tragedy in Five Acts, 1813
  • Essay on Taste, 1814
  • Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, 1816
    - 'Kublai-kaani' (translated into Finish by Yrjö Jylhä, in Maailmankirjallisuuden kultainen kirja 3, 1933; Aale Tynni, in Tuhat laulujen vuotta, 1974)
  • The Statesman’s Manual; Or The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, 1816
  • Sibylline Leaves, 1817
  • Zapolya: A Christmas Tale, 1817
  • Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, 1817 (2nd edition by Sara Coleridge)
  • On Method, 1818
  • Faustus: From the German of Goethe, 1821 (translator)
  • Aids to Reflection,  in the Formation of a Manly Character, 1825 (5th edition by Sara Coleridge)
  • On the Constitution of the Church and State, 1830
  • Specimens of the Table Talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1835 (2 vols., ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge)
  • Letters, Conversations, and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge, 1836
  • Literary Remains, 1836
  • Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, 1841 (edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge)
  • The Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prose and Verse, 1845
  • History of the Revolt of the Netherlands, Continued; Trials of Counts Egmont and Horn. Wallenstein and Wilhelm Tell, Historical Dramas. Tr. from the German, 1846 (translator)
  • The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1854 (7 vols., edited by William Greenough Thayer Shedd, et al.)
  • Seven Lectures Upon Shakespeare and Milton, 1856 (an introductory preface by J. Payne Collier, Esq.)
  • Spiritual Philosophy: Founded On The Teaching Of The Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1865 (ed. J.H. Green, based on Coleridge's Logosophia / Opus Maximum)
  • Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1895 (2 vols.; edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge)
  • Coleridge’s Shakespearean Criticism, 1930 (2 vols.)
  • Coleridge’s Miscellaneous Criticism, 1936 (edited by Thomas Middleton Raysor)
  • The Philosophical Lectures, 1949 (edited by Kathleen Coburn)
  • The Portable Coleridge, 1950 (edited and with an introd. by I. A. Richards)
  • Complete Poems, 1954 (edited, with an introd. and notes, by Morchard Bishop)
  • The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1956-71 (6 vols., ed. E.L. Griggs)
  • The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1957-2002 (5 vols., ed. Kathleen Coburn)
  • The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1969- (Bollingen Series 75)
  • Selected Poetry and Prose, 1971 (2nd ed., edited with an introd. and notes by Elisabeth Schneider)
  • Coleridge’s Notebooks: A Selection, 2002 (ed.  Seamus Perry)  
  • Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, 2004 (selected and edited by Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, Raimonda Modiano)
  • Faustus: From the German of Goethe, 2007 (translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; edited by Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works, 2008 (edited with an introduction and notes by H.J. Jackson)
  • Coleridge's Responses: Selected Writings on Literary Criticism, the Bible, and Nature, 2008 (v.1.: Coleridge on writers and Writing, edited by Seamus Perry; v. 2.: Coleridge on the Bible, edited by Anthony J. Harding; v. 3.: Coleridge on nature and vision / edited by Samantha Harvey; general editor, John Beer)
  • Coleridge: Lectures on Shakespeare (1811-1819), 2016 (edited by Adam Roberts)

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