SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE was born October 21, 1772, the son of a vicar. When Coleridge was nine, his father died, and his mother sent him away to boarding school, often not allowing him to return home for holidays and vacations. As an adult, Coleridge would idealize his father, but his relationship with his mother would always be strained.
He attended Jesus College at Cambridge University, but never completed a degree, one time leaving school to join the military to escape a woman who had rejected him. While at university, Coleridge became friends with Robert Southey, and the two developed plans to establish a utopian commune in Pennsylvania. Coleridge and Southey married sisters Edith and Sarah Fricker, but Coleridge's marriage was never truly happy.
In 1793, Coleridge met and became instant friends with William Wordsworth. With Wordsworth, he wrote and published Lyrical Ballads. While Wordsworth contributed a greater number of poems to the work, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner received the most attention.
Throughout their friendship and careers, Wordsworth would always be the more productive poet, while Coleridge's work would gain the notice of critics and readers.
Coleridge allegedly suffered from a number of physical ailments, including facial neuralgia, and in 1796, he started using opium as a pain reliever. He would become addicted to the narcotic, and this would eventually affect his career as a poet and his friendship with Wordsworth.
His intensifying opium addiction, an unhappy marriage, and a growing estrangement from Wordsworth all contributed to a period of depression, which included a severe lack of confidence in his own poetic ability. He gradually spent more and more time alone, studying philosophy and traveling the Continent. Although considered by many to be a “giant among dwarfs,” Coleridge never quite regained his confidence.
In 1816, his addiction worsening, his spirits depressed, and his family alienated, Coleridge took up residence in Highgate, the home of physician James Gillman. Here he finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria, twenty-five chapters of autobiographical notes and discussions on various subjects, including literary theory and criticism.
Coleridge died of heart failure in Highgate on July 25, 1834.
“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dreams you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge,