Authors: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet and literary critic

October 21, 1772

Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, England

July 25, 1834

Highgate, London, England

Biography

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (KOHL-rihj), English poet, critic, and philosopher, was born in Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire, in 1772. In 1782, at the death of his father, a Church of England clergyman, he was sent to the Christ’s Hospital school in London. After eight years there he went to Jesus College, Cambridge. Charles Lamb, who wrote an essay about Coleridge as a boy, said that he had a tendency to monopolize conversation and was interested in metaphysical discussions. His schoolfellows considered him impractical and eccentric.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(Library of Congress)

In the fall of 1793 Coleridge left Cambridge and enlisted in the Light Dragoons. Discharged the following spring, he traveled in England and Wales. On a visit to Oxford he met Robert Southey, who was at the time another young radical. Both were sympathetic to the principles of the French Revolution, and together they devised the idea of starting a new social settlement free from the prejudices and influences of the English political system. This settlement, to be called a “Pantisocracy,” was to be on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States; however, lack of funds doomed the plan. Coleridge left Cambridge without a degree in 1794. In 1795 he married Sarah Fricker because the pantisocratic plan called for married emigrants.

In 1796 he published Poems on Various Subjects and for a few weeks edited the periodical The Watchman, in which he voiced the principles of the French Revolution and Godwinism. In the next year he settled in Nether Stowey, Somerset, and formed an intimate friendship with William Wordsworth. Together they conceived the idea of publishing the Lyrical Ballads, which, appearing in 1798, is considered a landmark in English literature. In many ways the several editions of Lyrical Ballads form the center of Romanticism in England.

The original plan of Lyrical Ballads was to upset and defy the old literary standards of the didactic school of Alexander Pope, as well as to appropriate and employ heretofore “feminine” ideas of sentimentality in the service of the sublime. Wanting poetic diction that would be synonymous with ordinary speech, Wordsworth and Coleridge dropped the couplet form and adapted the ballad form from folk songs of the countryside. A new type of character, the peasant, was introduced. Lyrical Ballads is simple in language and verse forms, and the poems present simple characters. One of Coleridge’s contributions, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is its best ballad. As Coleridge later wrote in the Biographia Literaria, he took preternatural events with the intention of making them seem natural, just as Wordsworth took natural events and put over them a screen of imaginative wonder.

During a trip with Wordsworth to Germany, Coleridge attended lectures at the universities and became a student of German literature and philosophy. He studied Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Friedrich Schiller, and Immanuel Kant, all of whom he discusses at length in the Biographia Literaria. This interest led to his introduction of German philosophy into England. After his return to England in 1799 he produced a translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein.

Because of Coleridge’s chronic stomach pains, doctors prescribed laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol). He had become heavily addicted to the substance by 1801. In 1802 he wrote “Dejection, an Ode,” in which he seems to make up his mind that he never can be a great poet; at the time he was in a state of great depression. His attempt to recover his health at Malta, where he was secretary to Governor Sir Alexander Ball, failed. At home he became estranged from his friends and separated from his wife and children. He lived with friends until his death.

In 1808 he delivered a series of lectures at the Royal Institution of London, a course on William Shakespeare and John Milton, and another on the history of literature. Most of these exist today in fragmentary form only. The Friend, a periodical he began after five months of procrastination, is characteristic of the sick and destitute Coleridge. Advertised as a “weekly” essay on philosophical questions, politics, and allied subjects, it rarely came out on time and folded with the twenty-seventh issue. Coleridge published a revised edition of The Friend in 1818.

In a spurt of literary activity during the years 1816-1818, Coleridge published perhaps the single most important piece of literary criticism ever written in England. The Biographia Literaria, comprising two volumes of brilliant analysis mixed with rambling discussions and letters, is one of the premier achievements of the Romantic period and is still a monument to great literary criticism. Contained within its leaves is perhaps the best and most acute criticism of Wordsworth’s Second Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. However, the Biographia Literaria also contains much evidence of Coleridge’s undying admiration for Wordsworth.

Considered one of the foremost literary critics of the time, in his later years Coleridge set himself up as a kind of London sage, and with partial control over his opium use he began republishing in 1816, when his two most famous unfinished poems, Christabel and“Kubla Khan,” along with “Pains of Sleep,” appeared. Christabel is an example of the pseudo-medievalism that was popular with Romantic poets. In descriptive detail and ballad meter, Coleridge creates an atmosphere of superstition and pleasing horror. He tried to develop poetry in which the intellect is consciously left out, poetry of imagination and sensibility producing sheer mood.

During his last years Coleridge published Sibylline Leaves, Aids to Reflection, and On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each: With Aids Toward a Right Judgment on the Late Catholic Bill. He died in poverty at Highgate, London, in 1834. Today he is recognized as one of the most important Church of England thinkers before the Oxford Movement as well as one of the greatest literary critics England has ever produced.

Author Works Poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, 1796, 1797 (with Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd) A Sheet of Sonnets, 1796 (with W. L. Bowles, Robert Southey, and others) Lyrical Ballads, 1798 (with William Wordsworth) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798 Christabel, Kubla Khan & The Pains of Sleep, 1816 Sibylline Leaves, 1817 Poetical Works, 1828 (3 volumes) The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1912 (2 volumes; Ernest Hartley Coleridge, editor) Drama: The Fall of Robespierre, pb. 1794 (with Robert Southey) Remorse, pr., pb. 1813 (originally Osorio) Zapolya, pb. 1817 Nonfiction: The Watchman, 1796 The Friend, 1809-1810, 1818 The Statesman’s Manual, 1816 Lay Sermon, 1817 Biographia Literaria, 1817 Treatise on Method, 1818 Aids to Reflection, 1825 On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each: With Aids Toward a Right Judgment on the Late Catholic Bill, 1830 Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1835 Letters, Conversations, and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge, 1836 Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1855 (2 volumes; E. H. Coleridge, editor) Coleridge’s Shakespearean Criticism, 1930 Coleridge’s Miscellaneous Criticism, 1936 Notebooks, 1957-1986 (4 volumes) Translation: Wallenstein, 1800 (of Friedrich Schiller’s plays Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod) Miscellaneous: The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1961-2001 (13 volumes; Kathleen Coburn et al., editors) Bibliography Alexander, Caroline. The Way to Xanadu. New York: Knopf, 1994. The author relates her travels to the places that inspired Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and describes the texts that inspired Coleridge. Ashton, Rosemary. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. Examines Coleridge’s complex personality, from poet, critic, and thinker to feckless husband and guilt-ridden opium addict. Coleridge’s life is placed within the context of both British and German Romanticism. Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971. One of the most lucid expositions of Coleridge’s philosophical thought, which is explained in its own terms rather than in its connections with other systems of thought. Emphasizes Coleridge’s concept of “Polar Logic” and fully discusses such Coleridgean topics as fancy and imagination, understanding and reason. Assumes that Coleridge’s later philosophy was implicit in the earlier, an assumption that has been questioned by other Coleridge scholars. Bate, Walter Jackson. Coleridge. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Sound and balanced introduction to Coleridge’s life and work by a leading literary critic and scholar. Beer, J. B. Coleridge the Visionary. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959. Delves into Coleridge’s reading in such diverse sources as George Berkeley, Jacob Boehme, Neoplatonism, Egyptian and Indian mythology, and contemporary science, in order to illuminate the ideas which inform the poetry, particularly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Christabel,” and “Kubla Khan.” Provides fine insight into the range and depth of Coleridge as he attempted to understand the links between human society and the spiritual and physical laws of the universe. Chambers, E. K. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Biographical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938. Factually accurate, but spoiled by a censorious tone and lack of sympathy for its subject. Christie, William. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Part biography, part literary criticism, this text provides readers with an in-depth account of Coleridge’s personal life and his progression as a writer. Christie helps readers understand Coleridge’s works by placing them into the context of his life and providing their publication history. Drawing on the author’s notebooks and letters, Christie presents his own interpretation of Coleridge’s writing, and discusses other critics’ texts, as well. Coburn, Kathleen, ed. Coleridge: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Fourteen essays on all aspects of Coleridge’s work. The overview of Coleridge’s life and work by I. A. Richards is a good place for the beginner to start. Also important are Edward E. Bostetter’s seminal essay “The Nightmare World of the Ancient Mariner” and A. Gérard’s “The Systolic Rhythm: The Structure of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems,” both of which make excellent starting points for further study. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Portable Coleridge. Edited by I. A. Richards. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. One-volume selection from Coleridge’s voluminous works. Includes poems, letters, notebooks, literary criticism (including long extracts from Biographia Literaria), and sections of The Statesman’s Manual and Aids to Reflection. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Letters. Edited by H. J. Jackson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Extensively annotated edition, which includes letters from every phase of Coleridge’s career. Reveals his myriad-minded self as he ranges over everything from poetry to science and chronicles his tormented inner life. Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804. New York: Viking Press, 1990. The first volume of a two-volume biography. Covers Coleridge’s life up to his departure for Malta in 1804. This splendid book is virtually everything a biography should be: well researched, lively, full of insight, and sympathetic to its subject without ignoring other points of view. Fully captures Coleridge’s brilliant, flawed, fascinating personality. Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834. London: HarperCollins, 1998. In this second, concluding volume of his biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Holmes traces the tragedies and triumphs of the poet’s later career. Prickett, Stephen. Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Poetry of Growth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. The poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth will always be linked together, and this is one of many books that discuss the relationship between the two poets. Unlike a number of scholars who have emphasized the ultimately destructive nature of the relationship, Prickett focuses on the benefits both men derived from the lively interplay of sometimes conflicting ideas. Prickett discusses in particular the poets’ ideas of perception and creativity, and how these ideas combined to form a “model of growth.” Sisman, Adam. The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. New York: Viking, 2007. An intimate examination of their friendship and its deterioration. Willey, Basil. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. Traces Coleridge’s intellectual and spiritual autobiography, from his early Unitarianism to the Christian orthodoxy of his later years. Yarlott, Geoffrey. Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid. London: Methuen, 1967. Analyzes the reasons for Coleridge’s failure as a poet after 1802 and argues that Coleridge changed his views on poetry as a result of his failure. Some of this is on the psychology of the man, particularly his emotional insecurity, but Yarlott avoids the excesses of some psychoanalytic critics and does not allow his thesis to distort his critical judgment. Excellent readings of all the major poems.

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