Samuel Taylor Coleridge Coleridge, Samuel Taylor - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772–1834

English poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and journalist.

See also, "Kubla Khan" Criticism.

Coleridge is considered one of the most significant poets and critics in the English language. As a major figure in the English Romantic movement, he is best known for three poems, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and "Christabel" as well as one volume of criticism, Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. While "The Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and "Christabel" were poorly received during Coleridge's lifetime, they are now praised as classic examples of imaginative poetry, illuminated by Coleridge's poetic theories, of which he said in the Biographia Literaria, "My endeavors should be directed to persons and characters spiritual and supernatural, or at least romantic."

Biographical Information

Coleridge was born in Devon, the tenth child of John Coleridge, a vicar and schoolmaster, and his wife Ann Bowdon Coleridge. At the age of ten his father died and the young Coleridge was sent to Christ's Hospital, a boarding school in London where he was befriended by fellow student Charles Lamb. Later, he was awarded a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge University, showing promise as a gifted writer and brilliant conversationalist. In 1794, before completing his degree, Coleridge went on a walking tour to Oxford where he met poet Robert Southey. Espousing the revolutionary concepts of liberty and equality for all individuals, and inspired by the initial events of the French Revolution, Coleridge and Southey collaborated on The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama. As an outgrowth of their shared beliefs, they developed a plan for a "pantisocracy," an egalitarian and self-sufficient agricultural system to be built in Pennsylvania. The pantisocratic philosophy required every member to be married, and at Southey's urging, Coleridge wed Sarah Fricker, the sister of Southey's fiancée. However, the match proved disastrous, and Coleridge's unhappy marriage was a source of grief to him throughout his life. To compound these difficulties, Southey later lost interest in the scheme, abandoning it in 1795. Coleridge's fortunes changed, though, when in 1796 he met the poet William Wordsworth, with whom he had corresponded casually for several years. Their rapport was instantaneous, and the next year Coleridge moved to Nether Stowey in the Lake District, the site of their literary collaboration. Following the publication of Lyrical Ballads, with a few Other Poems, completed with Wordsworth, Coleridge traveled to Germany where he developed an interest in the

German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich von Schelling, and brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel; he later introduced German aesthetic theories in England through his critical writing. Upon his return in 1799 Coleridge settled in Keswick near the Lake District, gaining, together with Wordsworth and Southey, the title "Lake Poet." During this period, Coleridge suffered poor health and personal strife; his marriage was failing and he had fallen in love with Wordsworth's sister-in-law Sarah Hutchinson—a love that was unrequited and a source of great pain. He began taking opium as a remedy for his poor health and, seeking a more temperate climate to improve his morale, traveled to Italy. Upon his return to England Coleridge began a series of lectures on poetry and Shakespeare, which are now considered the basis of his reputation as a critic. Because of Coleridge's abuse of opium and alcohol, his erratic behavior caused him to quarrel with Wordsworth, and he left Keswick to return to London. In the last years of his life Coleridge wrote the Biographia Literaria, considered his greatest critical writing, in which he developed aesthetic theories intended as the introduction to a great philosophical opus. Coleridge died in 1834 of complications stemming from his dependence on opium.

Major Works

The bulk of Coleridge's most admired work was composed between the years 1798 and 1800, his most prolific period of poetic output. Lyrical Ballads, which was published anonymously, includes the now-famous preface by Wordsworth, stating that the poems "were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure." The collection also contains Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" in its original "archaic" form. The poem, a tale of a seaman who kills an albatross, presents a variety of religious and supernatural images to depict a moving spiritual journey of doubt, renewal, and eventual redemption. Many of the poem's symbols have sparked radically different interpretations, and several commentators consider it an allegorical record of Coleridge's own spiritual pilgrimage. Coleridge himself, however, commented that the poem's major fault consisted of "the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader…. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates." Coleridge's concern with religious themes is also evidenced in "Kubla Khan," which was published with a note explaining the strange circumstances of its composition. He wrote that he fell asleep while reading an account of how the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan had ordered the building of a palace within a walled garden. Upon awakening, he claimed, he wrote down the several hundred lines he had composed in his sleep. Although Coleridge dismissed "Kubla Khan" as simply a "psychological experiment," the poem is now regarded as a forerunner of the work of the Symbolists and Surrealists in its presentation of the unconscious. In Coleridge's other poetic fragment, "Christabel," he combined exotic images with gothic romance to create an atmosphere of terror. Like "The Ancient Mariner," "Christabel" deals with the themes of evil and guilt in a setting pervaded by supernatural elements. Most critics now contend that Coleridge's inability to sustain the poem's eerie mood prevented him from completing "Christabel." In 1995 it was reported that a professor from University College in Dublin discovered 300 previously unknown Coleridge poems which had been dispersed across five continents.

Critical Reception

Although critical estimation of Coleridge's work increased dramatically after his death, relatively little commentary was written on him until the turn of the century. Today, his problems of disorganization and fragmented writing are largely ignored, and most critics agree that his works constitute a seminal contribution to literature. While a few commentators have termed both Coleridge's criticism and stature overrated, the majority acknowledge his poetical talent and insight. Contemporary scholars now look to Coleridge as the intellectual center of the English Romantic movement.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


*Poems on Various Subjects [with Robert Southey and Charles Lamb] 1796

Ode on the Departing Year 1797

Fears in Solitude, Written in 1798 during the alarm of an invasion. To which are added, FRANCE, AN ODE; and FROST AT MIDNIGHT 1798

Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems [with William Wordsworth] 1798

Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep. 1816

Sibylline Leaves: A Collection of Poems 1817

The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 3 vols. 1828

The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. 1912

Other Major Works

The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama [with Robert Southey] (drama) 1794

Osorio (drama) 1797; revised as Remorse, A Tragedy, in Five Acts 1813

Wallenstein (translation; from the dramas Die piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller) 1800

The Statesman's Manual; or, The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon (essay) 1816

Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (essays) 1817

Zapolya: A Christmas Tale, in Two Parts (drama) 1817

Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion: Illustrated by Select Passages from Our Elder Divines, Especially from Archbishop Leighton (essays) 1825

On the Constitution of Church and State, according to the Idea of Each: with Aids toward a Right Judgment on the late Catholic Bill (essay) 1830

Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols, (conversations) 1835

The Literary Remains in Prose and Verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols, (poetry, drama, and essays) 1836-39

Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists With Other Literary Remains (lectures) 1849

The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols, (poetry, drama, essays, and translations) 1853

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 6 vols, (letters) 1956-71

The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols, (notebooks) 1957-73

The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 13 vols. (poetry, drama, essays, translations, and lectures) 1969-

*This work was revised and enlarged as Poems in 1797 and revised again in 1803.

John Livingston Lowes (essay date 1927)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927, pp. 240-307.

[The Road to Xanadu is considered the foundation of serious modern study of Coleridge's poetry. In the following excerpt, the critic confirms the poet's own assessment of "The Ancient Mariner" as a "work of pure imagination." Lowes regards the moral of the poem not as an intentional, didactic message but as one element in a work unified by Coleridge's "constructive imagination. "]

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is 'a work of pure imagination,' and Coleridge himself has so referred to it. And this study, far from undermining that declaration, is lending it...

(The entire section is 3805 words.)

Elisabeth Schneider (essay date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Coleridge, Opium, and "Kubla Khan," The University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp. 238-88.

[Schneider's study is considered by many scholars one of the most important interpretations of "Kubla Khan" in the twentieth century. In the following excerpt, the critic considers the poem an incomplete fragment and discusses its form and texture, which evoke "the soul of ambivalence, oscillation's very self."]

"Kubla Khan" has been read with equal conviction as cosmic allegory and incantatory nonsense; and with reference to both meaning and form it has been described equally as a fragment and a perfectly rounded complete whole. It has been called the quintessential poem of...

(The entire section is 3464 words.)

George Watson (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Meaning of 'Kubla Khan'," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 2, 1961, pp. 21-9.

[Australian-born Watson is a distinguished critic, editor, and lecturer of English at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous studies of English Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian literature and political history. In the following essay, Watson disputes interpretations of "Kubla Khan" as a "dream poem"; it is instead, he asserts, a lucid critique of the poetic imagination.]

We now know almost everything about Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' except what the poem is about. E. H. Coleridge, years ago, shrewdly corrected Coleridge's misdating of his own poem to May 1798...

(The entire section is 3183 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge: The Anxiety of Influence," in New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman, Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. 247-67.

[Bloom is one of the most prominent contemporary American critics and literary theorists. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), he formulated a controversial theory of literary creation called revisionism. Influenced strongly by Freudian theory, Bloom believes that all poets are subject to the influence of earlier poets and that, to develop their own voices, they attempt to overcome this influence through a process of misreading. By misreading, Bloom means a deliberate,...

(The entire section is 6176 words.)

Reeve Parker (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge's 'Hymn Before Sun-rise': Mont Blanc, Mon Frère, Mon Semblable," in Coleridge's Meditative Art, Cornell, 1975, pp. 144-72.

[In the following excerpt, Parker explores the biographical, psychological, and textual influences at work in "Hymn before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni."]

["Dejection: An Ode," "To William Wordsworth Composed on the Night after His Recitation of a Poem on the Growth of the Individual Mind," and "Hymn Before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouni"] in varying degrees of explicitness, derive from what by all odds was Coleridge's besetting preoccupation as a poet during the period of roughly ten years following his first major...

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Jerome J. McGann (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Meaning of 'The Ancient Mariner'," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 35-67.

[In the following excerpt, McGann argues that Coleridge's revisions of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" reflect the author's evolving theory of literary criticism, which derived from Biblical analysis. According to McGann, the marginal glosses added to the 1817 version of the poem, in particular, create the effect of a work of great antiquity that has passed through various versions and redactions.]

What does "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" mean? This question, in one form or another, has been asked of the poem from the beginning; indeed, so...

(The entire section is 9887 words.)

J. Robert Barth (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge's 'Dejection': Imagination, Joy, and the Power of Love," in Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver, Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn, Nicholas Roe, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 179–92.

[Barth is an American Catholic priest, professor of English, and critic who specializes in religious symbolism in Romantic literature. He is the author of Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (1969). In the following essay, he interprets "Dejection: An Ode" to be about "love, … imagination and joy—for the three are inextricably bound together—and the power of art."]

Poetic origins are often obscure, as witness the genesis of...

(The entire section is 5363 words.)

Fred L. Milne (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan': A Metaphor for the Creative Process," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 17-29.

[In the following essay, Milne provides an analysis of the symbolism in "Kubla Khan " and postulates that Xanadu is a metaphor of the human mind.]


Although debate continues over whether or not the head-note Coleridge published with "Kubla Khan" in 1816 should be regarded as a factual account of the poem's origin, recent studies have suggested that regardless of its basis in fact the headnote serves most importantly as what Warren Stevenson calls [in his "'Kubla Khan' as Symbol," in Texas Studies in...

(The entire section is 4671 words.)

H. W. Piper (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Natural Symbolism and the Conversation Poems," in The Singing of Mount Abora: Coleridge's Use of Biblical Imagery and Natural Symbolism in Poetry and Philosophy, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 29-42.

[Piper is an Australian educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the nature symbolism and the expression of religious experience in the poetry Coleridge produced between 1795 and 1798.]

Coleridge's long inquiry for a religious faith that would satisfy him intellectually and morally began in Cambridge in 1794 and lasted all his life. There are two things to be kept in mind about this inquiry. In the first place Coleridge did not...

(The entire section is 5548 words.)

Regina Hewitt (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The False Poets in 'Kubla Khan,'" in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, December, 1988, pp. 48-55.

[In the essay below, Hewitt identifies two distinctive themes present in "Kubla Khan " which reveal that the "poem as a whole displays a dilemma: it shows that the two extant theories accounting for poetic composition fail to provide a sufficient explanation of that phenomenon."]

Readers choosing to understand "Kubla Khan" as a comment on poetry may deem most concomitant interpretive issues settled some time ago by George Watson [in "The meaning of 'Kubla Khan'," in A Review in English Literature, 1961]:


(The entire section is 2773 words.)

Warren Stevenson (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge's Divine Duplicity: Being a Concatenation of His Surrogates, Succedaneums, and Doppelgängers," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 74-8.

[In the following essay, Stevenson explores the theme of superimposed identity, or the "double" in several of Coleridge's poems.]

The name "Samuel" means "name of God," and is thus a substitute for the unsayable. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who believed that an idea can be presented only by a symbol, saw art and hence language as a sweet succedaneum for ultimate reality. As the Canadian poet Irving Layton has observed in Waiting for the Messiah (1986), it is not an accident that "lyre"...

(The entire section is 4056 words.)

Peter Kitson (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge, the French Revolution, and 'The Ancient Mariner': Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation," in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 19, 1989, pp. 197-207.

[In the following analysis of Coleridge's political poetry, Kitson opines that the "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is essentially a political poem revealing the "internalization" of a "moral revolution" that is a direct consequence of the events of the French Revolution.]

S. T. Coleridge's 'The Rime of Ancient Mariner' was written against the background of the collapse of the poet's hopes for the improvement of mankind by political action, the ultimate failure of the French Revolution to...

(The entire section is 3565 words.)

Paul Magnuson (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Politics of 'Frost at Midnight'," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 3-11.

[Magnuson is an American educator, critic, and editor. In the following essay, adapted from a lecture delivered at the 1990 Coleridge Summer Conference at Cannington College, he examines "Frost at Midnight" in the context of the political climate and public discourse current at the time it was written.]

I would like to begin with a quotation, which I take to be representative of common opinion on Coleridge's Conversation Poems and his mystery poems. In his Clark Lectures, published in 1953, Humphry House remarked:

It has been observed by...

(The entire section is 7135 words.)

Susan Luther (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lost Garden of Coleridge," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Luther analyzes the ways in which "The Garden of Boccaccio" moves beyond the painting that is its ostensible subject to become a celebration of the creative process.]

In The Dark Night of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1960) Marshall Suther praises "The Garden of Boccaccio" as "Coleridge's version of 'Sailing to Byzantium'"; and in Visions of Xanadu (1965) Suther goes so far as to call it "the last real poem [Coleridge] wrote." George Watson even more resoundingly asserts that the poem "ought to be better known; it ought, in...

(The entire section is 4859 words.)

Jeanie Watson (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"The Raven: A Christmas Poem': Coleridge and the Fairy Tale Controversy," in Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, edited by James Holt McGavran, Jr., The University of Georgia Press, 1991, pp. 14-35.

[In the following excerpt, Watson examines "The Raven: A Christmas Tale" as "a tongue-in-cheek, yet serious argument on Coleridge's side of the debate " over the value of fairy tales.]

The Other World of fairy tale was familiar ground for Samuel Taylor Coleridge throughout his life. The intense fascination surrounding his earliest childhood reading of The Arabian Nights (which he read in secret dread and delight) finds adult...

(The entire section is 6999 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Milton, Mary Lee Taylor. The Poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1935-1970. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981, 251 p.

Includes an extended introduction that discusses major issues and trends in Coleridge criticism.

Raysor, Thomas M.; Schulz, Max F.; and Wellek, René. "Coleridge." In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, third revised edition, edited by Frank Jordan, pp. 135-258. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1972.

Study of bibliographies and editions of Coleridge's...

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