In many ways, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had an enviable life. Hailed as a genius as a young man, he was a pivotal figure in the development of English Romanticism and a pioneer in the field of literary criticism. Yet those triumphs were overshadowed by financial difficulties, an unsuccessful marriage, and a career that failed to live up to its potential. Most devastating of all was his addiction to opium, a habit that sapped his strength and exacerbated his emotional instability.
It is to Rosemary Ashton’s credit that she can weave a seamless narrative out of the confused jumble of Coleridge’s career and personal life. She skillfully correlates the early poetry with his later output and explores the ramifications of his criticism. Ashton, who specializes in the cultural relationship between England and Germany in this period, is adept at clarifying Coleridge’s debt to such German writers as Immanuel Kant. She notes Coleridge’s originality in distinguishing between “fancy” and the “imagination,” while acknowledging the plagiarism in his lectures and in his critical works. Moreover, Ashton explores this turbulent life within the context of the times, charting the poet’s path from political radical to staunch government supporter.
Coleridge was his own worst enemy. This charming and brilliant conversationalist often delivered less than he promised and alienated both friends and family. In later years, he identified himself with the hero of his poem THE ANCIENT MARINER, a wanderer who is compelled to tell his tale of woe. Yet Ashton also demonstrates the enormous legacy of this man. Besides influencing such Romantic poets as Percy Bysche Shelley and John Keats, Coleridge laid the foundation for modern literary criticism and coined many of its words. Rosemary Ashton’s splendid book captures the essence of the man and his work.
Sources for Further Study
Choice. XXXIII, July, 1996, p. 1789.
The Guardian. March 22, 1996, p. 21.
The Spectator. CCLXXV, January 27, 1996, p. 32.
The Times Literary Supplement. March 15, 1996, p. 36.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 18, 1996, p. 13.