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."
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.
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.
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.