Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, poet
Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary, a small village in Devon, the youngest of ten children. His father was a vicar and was 53 when Coleridge was born. Sam was small, temperamental and an avid reader, one of his favourites was The Arabian Nights. Coleridge did not have a close relationship with his mother who became cold towards him - a source of bitterness for the rest of his life. He also suffered from terrible nightmares, an affliction that would stay with him throughout his life.
His father died when Coleridge was 9, causing considerable family stress. Sam was sent to London the next year (1782), to attend a school for sons of the clergy. This school was grim, and the headmaster somewhat sadistic, ensuring Coleridge had a miserable time. During his teens Coleridge began experimenting in poetry and in 1791 he won a scholarship of Jesus College, Cambridge. But Coleridge, who spent his whole live having encounters with illnesses caught rheumatic fever and spent months in the school sanatorium dosed with opium.
After he had recovered he took up his place at Cambridge where he excelled as a classical scholar but just failed to win a Fellowship which would have meant a career in the church. This turned out to be quite a blessing as Coleridge was living a somewhat debauched existence and ran up debts of nearly £150 which his family had to help to repay. Most of the money he blew in three days of 'delirium' in London. Near the end of this period in November 1793 his first poem was published.
Pantisocracy and marriage
Determined to repay his family, Coleridge decided to volunteer for the army. His service did not last long after the Cambridge authorities found out about his plight and he was discharged in April 1794. On his way to a walking-tour of Wales he passed through Oxford where he met Robert Southey, who seemed a kindred spirit. Both became interested in a scheme Coleridge called pantisocracy, which led to plans to start a self-governing, pastoral, commune in Kentucky - one of many such ideas that seemed to flower in the aftermath of the French revolution. On his Welsh tour, Coleridge first encountered nature in the wild, and he also began writing poetry fluently.
After the Welsh excursion he met up with Southey in Bristol where he was introduced to Sara Fricker whose family were also part of the Pantisocracy movement. They fell in love. On a later tour of Somerset the two men stopped at Nether Stowey on the Quantor where they met Tom Poole. Coleridge spent a further period in Cambridge, attempting to drum up support for his American dream. This interest in Pantisocracy would lead Coleridge to formulate the idea of nature being a great teacher. Later in 1795 he finally met Charles Lamb. By September 1795 he and Southey had parted company, their time in Bristol becoming more and more fraught over bickering about money and philosophy. He then met William Wordsworth for the first time.
On October 4, 1795 he married Sara and they lived in Clevedon. She became pregnant by January 1796. Coleridge decided to try and make it as a journalist and began publishing a seditious paper called The Watchman (which was anti-pitt, anti-slave trade and anti-war with France) which only lasted nine issues. His 'poems' were also published but further illness was on its way. A serious eye-infection occurred and Coleridge soon found laudanum useful for both physical and mental suffering. In the summer of 1796 he began a long correspondence with Wordsworth and his first son, Hartley, was born two weeks premature, without a midwife, whilst Coleridge was in Birmingham. On September 22, 1796, Mary Lamb (Charles's sister) attacked and killed her mother in a fit of insanity and she had to spend the rest of her life in the care of her brother. By the end of the year, Coleridge was ill again, suffering painful neuralgia from eye-socket to jaw for which he gave himself 25 drops of opium, (which was renowned at the time as the most effective painkiller), every 5 hours, sometimes increasing the dose to 70 drops.
The prolific golden season
In January 1797 he moved himself and his family to Nether Stowey aiming to lead a life of writing and agriculture, in effect creating his own commune.
"I retired to a cottage in Somersetshire at the foot ot Quantock and devoted my thoughts and studies to the foundations of religion and philosophy. Here I found myself all afloat. Doubt washed in, broke upon me 'from the foundations of the great deep' and fell 'from the windows of heaven'. The frontal truths of nature, religion and the book of Revelations alike contributed to the flood, and it long erer my ark touched on an Ararat, and rested." Biographia Literaria
Wordsworth visited him in April 1797 and in June he returned the compliment, visiting Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy in Dorest. He was received so well he ended up staying a fortnight, thus cementing his two greatest friendships. In early June, the Wordsworths, as well as Lamb, stayed in Nether Stowey which was the setting for This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison and describes Halford Combe. Now with friends and family in place beside him, Coleridge would produce the works he is remembered for.
In October 1797, Coleridge became ill on a long walk and wrote Kubla Khan at a farmhouse between Porlock and Linton. Here he had 'recourse to opium'. Afterwards his recounted opium dream became Kubla Khan, which was famously unfinished on account of a visit from 'the man from Porlock'. Also during this period he began discussing the revival of the ballad with Wordsworth and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was conceived on a long winter walking tour with his friend, but this time it took him 5 months to finish, but no unwelcome interruptions have been recorded. At last he was able to write a poem about natural evil, a subject which Coleridge had been fascinated and haunted by.
Outside of his ongoing literary achievements, Coleridge had been offered a job as a minister and on January 14, 1798 he preached him first sermon in Shrewsbury. Like so many of Coleridge's projects the relative security of the ministry proved very short-lived after Thomas Wedgewood, a wealthy man, recognised his talent as a poet, and offered him an annuity of £150 a year, becoming Coleridge's patron. Without this advancement the 'Lyrical Ballads' would never have been published.
In February 1798 Coleridge wrote Frost at Midnight reflecting his new mood of tranquility and security. The joys and loveliness of nature, celebrated in 'This Lime-Tree Bower...', are now developed in an attempt to provide emotional education. Nature, he believed, was the direct expression of God's word.
Christabel was also begun at this time, but following much opium because of an abscessed tooth it would spend a long while as a work in progress. Next, an idea for the 'Lyrical Ballads' was conceived, primarily to finance tour of Germany in the autumn, but also to attempt to elucidate the 'natural' nature of poetry. On the 14th May Sara gave birth to a second son, Berkeley, but now Coleridge was spending far too much time with the Wordsworths. Coleridge left for Hamburg in mid-September, leaving Sara behind with sickly Berkeley who became increasing bitter. The separation lasted 10 months. Taking leave from the Wordsworths, Coleridge extended his stay by enrolling at Göttingen University; in the meantime Sara became ill and lost all her hair - and Berkeley died on the day Coleridge arrived in Göttingen. All this domestic information was kept from him until he arrived back at Nether Stowey at the end of July 1799.
Opium, sickness, the start of decline
With home life now becoming tedious and belligerent Coleridge fled north to visit the 'depressed' Wordsworth in Stockton-on-Tees. Wordsworth took him on a walking tour of the Lake District, the scenery of which soon entranced Coleridge. The Wordsworths were staying with the Hutchinson family and Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson.
On November 26, 1799, feeling his journalistic yearnings awakening, he accepted a post on the London Morning Post as a kind of political journalist, writing the leaders. Sara and Hartley came to live with him and he was reunited with Lamb. Again, this new venture in his life was short lived. By April 1800 he went north again to the Lakes where the Wordsworth's were now living in a cottage in Grasmere. He brought the remainder of his family north as well, where they stayed at Greta Hall, Keswick and on September 14th his third son, Derwent, was born.
Hoping to complete, Christabel, Coleridge, for the first time, experienced a writing block. Aghast, he began to go on wild, aimless, lonely walks and resorted to brandy and opium, the latter in the form of a local pain-killer called 'Kendal Black Drop'. Now the nightmares returned. Sara Hutchinson came to stay during the winter and their intimacy flourished. The writing of poetry came to a standstill.
"As for poetry, I have altogether abandoned it, being convinced that I never had the essential of poetic Genius, and that I mistook a strong desire for original power." The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In January 1801, his health teetering on the brink, with a combination of rheumatic fevers, swollen leg-joints, agonising nephritic pains and a swollen testicle, sent Coleridge deep into a reverie of opium laced with brandy. The flowering of spring saw him recover and he emerged from his chrysalis, as a kind of great philosopher. Now, he left his nearly frigid wife and went and stayed with the Hutchinsons 'for sea-bathing' and further intimacy. Of himself at this time he wrote:
"In plain and natural English, I am dreaming and therefore an indolent man...my whole Note is, Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow." ibid.
During another abortive attempt to become a London journalist, the news reaches him that Sara Hutchinson has become very ill, prompting Coleridge to rush north to nurse her. Little is known of this visit, but it seems they agreed to end their relationship. It is at this point that he began 'Dejection'; saying that autobiography,
"gives the real authority to the vision of the poem and ironically failure, a sense of loss, can create great poetry" ibid.
In May 1802 the subject of separation from his wife is debated, This frank exchange of views transforms her into a more 'aware' person. Charles and Mary Lamb visit in August, but after their departure dejection reawakens and Coleridge returns to opium and the nightmares. Deep in December, on Christmas Eve, Coleridge's daughter Sara is brought into the world.
Summer of 1803 saw he and the Wordsworths embark on a tour of Scotland, but now Coleridge is constantly in ill-health due to opium. After taking his leave from the Wordsworth's, Coleridge went north and began to suffer severe withdrawal symptoms in Fort William and more terrible dreams. The thought of going to sleep brought a dreadful fear that would stay with him after his return to England and would not leave for the rest of his life.
After this Coleridge becomes increasingly less productive and opium addled. He spent 1804 to 1806 in Italy and Malta acting for a period as Secretary to the governor of Malta. In 1807 he did separate from Sara and went to live with the Wordsworths and Sara Hutchinson in Leicestershire. However by 1810 he had fallen out with all of his friends. Several drying-out periods were attempted in Bath and in 1816 Christabel and Other Poems was published followed the next year by Biographia Literaria, a major work of poetic criticism, philosophy and autobiography.
From 1816 until his death he lived in the household of Dr. James Gilman, a young surgeon living in Highgate, London. He was idolised by many of the younger Romantic poets but rarely left his home. Coleridge died of heart failure on July 25, 1834.
Coleridge's beliefs about poetry
The main overall effect of this new poetry is pleasure, written in a language that we all can understand. To Coleridge the most important features dealt with 'fancy' and the imagination.
A poet, to Coleridge, is a figure of special talent who is able to interpret the natural world to the layman. Ordinary people are bombarded by stimuli but are unable to make anything of them: this is the "inanimate cold world" of the primary imagination, this is how a poet feel when his powers have left him. A poet, on the other hand, has the supreme gift of the secondary imagination: he is able to organise these stimuli into some kind of order, to find inner meaning in life. It's almost as if he has the gift of second sight.
Fancy is the name Coleridge gave to these random images which the poet sorts and gives meaning to. The poet fits the jigsaw of life together to find the image of God portrayed on its surface.
Notes taken from my school work circa 1997
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions.
Griggs, Earl Leslie, ed. The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.