Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born October 21, 1772, in the Devonshire town of Ottery St. Mary, the youngest of ten children. His father, a clergyman and teacher, died in October, 1781, and the next year Coleridge was sent to school at Christ’s Hospital, London. His friends at school included Charles Lamb, two years his junior, whose essay “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago” (1820) describes the two sides of Coleridge—the “poor friendless boy,” far from his home, “alone among six hundred playmates”; the precocious scholar, “Logician, Metaphysician, Bard!,” holding his auditors “entranced with imagination.” Both characteristics—a deep sense of isolation and the effort to use learning and eloquence to overcome it—remained with Coleridge throughout his life.
He entered Cambridge in 1791 but never completed work for his university degree. Depressed by debts, he fled the university in December, 1793, and enlisted in the Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tompkyn Comberbache. Rescued by his brothers, he returned to Cambridge in April and resumed his studies. Two months later, he met Robert Southey, with whom he soon made plans to establish a utopian community (“Pantisocracy”) in the United States. Southey was engaged to marry Edith Fricker, and so it seemed appropriate for Coleridge to engage himself to her sister Sara. The project failed, but Coleridge, through his own sense of duty and Southey’s insistence, married a woman he had never loved and with whom his relationship was soon to become strained.
As a married man, Coleridge had to leave the university and make a living for his wife and, in time, children—Hartley (1796-1849), Berkeley (1798-1799), Derwent (b. 1800), and Sara (1802-1852). Economic survival was, it turned out, possible only with the support of friends such as Thomas Poole and the publisher Joseph Cottle and, in 1798, a life annuity from Josiah and Tom Wedgwood. The early years of Coleridge’s married life, in which he lived with his family at Nether Stowey, were the period of his closest relationship with the poet William Wordsworth. Inspired by Wordsworth, whom he in turn inspired, Coleridge wrote most of his major poetry. Together, the two men published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the proceeds of which enabled them, along with Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, to spend the winter in Germany, where Coleridge studied metaphysics at the University of Göttingen.
Returning to England the following year, Coleridge met and fell deeply in love with Sara Hutchinson, a friend of Dorothy who later became Wordsworth’s sister-in-law. This passion, which remained strong for many years, furthered Coleridge’s estrangement from his wife, with whom he moved to Keswick in the Lake District of England, in July, 1800, to be near the Wordsworths at Grasmere. Coleridge’s health had always been poor, and he had become addicted to opium, which, according to standard medical practice at the time, he had originally taken to relieve pain. Seeking a change of climate, he traveled to Malta and then Italy in 1804 to 1806. On his return, he and his wife“determined to part absolutely and finally,” leaving Coleridge in custody of his sons Hartley and Derwent (Berkeley had died in 1799).
In 1808, Coleridge gave his first public lectures and in the next two years published the twenty-seven issues of The Friend. By now, he was a figure of national standing, but his private life remained in disarray. Sara Hutchinson, who had assisted him in preparing copy for The Friend , separated herself from him, and in 1810, he quarreled decisively with Wordsworth. (They were later reconciled, but the period of close friendship was over.) Six years later, after various unsuccessful attempts to cure himself of opium addiction and set his affairs in order, he put himself in the care of James Gillman, a physician living at Highgate, a northern suburb of London. Under Gillman’s roof, Coleridge was once again able to...
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