Context: Coleridge was one of the uncompleted geniuses of English literature. Gifted, he wasted his talents, and from his unmistakable poetic genius left only a few important poems. He spent the last part of his life lamenting the loss of his poetic ability. Perhaps his failure can be explained by the quoted line. His trouble was that he needed compulsion to get things done. Two of his three greatest poems are incomplete. Of "Christabel," he published an excellent first part in 1797, a second passable part in 1800, and then dropped the idea. And "Kubla Khan" (1797) has only fifty lines. Only "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" comes down completed to show Coleridge's real capabilities. It is a complex personality. As the thirteenth child of a country minister, he knew poverty from the beginning. Sent to a charity school in London, he began a lifelong friendship with Charles Lamb. He entered Cambridge, then, discouraged by poverty, this pacifist who hated horses left the university to enlist in the Light Dragoons. He suffered there until a brother got him released and he returned to Cambridge. Next, with Robert Southey, he concocted a scheme to establish a Utopian colony on the Susquehanna River in the United States, and since colonists were to be married, he found himself a wife. In 1796 he published one volume of poetry, followed by another in 1797. Then he met William Wordsworth (1770–1850), with whom he planned a volume of verse, to describe the loveliness and kindness of Nature and show that poetry could be written in simple language. Coleridge's part was to make the supernatural seem real. His "Ancient Mariner" was his chief contribution. The hard-working Wordsworth provided most of the rest of Lyrical Ballads, the volume that inaugurated the Romantic Movement in England. With Wordsworth's example to inspire him, Coleridge went on. One poem, started then, but not finished until 1809, was a tale in ballad form supposedly told by a sexton to a traveler whose curiosity had been roused by three graves side by side, but with only two gravestones. The first had a name and a date; the second had only a date and the words: "The Mercy of God is infinite." In a footnote, the poet declared the story "founded on fact." In the story, Edward, a young farmer, falls in love with Mary at the house of her friend Ellen. Mary's widowed mother gives Edward permission to court her daughter, but one day begs him to marry her instead. When he laughs at her, she curses him and her daughter. Mary, overhearing, faints. Quickly the young people marry. In church, the mother sits beside Ellen and curses her for her share in the marriage. The two girls vainly try to comfort each other. Edward is horrified to see the appearance of the mother in both of them. After that moment, there is no peace among them. Writing of the women's attempts to cheer each other, Coleridge declares:
And once when Mary was downcastShe took her by the hand,And gazed upon her, and at firstShe gently pressed her hand;Then harder, till her grasp at lengthDid gripe like a convulsion!"Alas!" said she, "we ne'er can beMade happy by compulsion!"