Who was Samuel Taylor Coleridge?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was one of the great Romantic poets. He was a writer of visionary imagination, lyric intensity and philosophical profundity.
Coleridge was born in Devon. Educated in London after his father died, he was often homesick, as he would recall in his poem, ‘Frost at Midnight’. He was an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge, but left before completing his degree.
Coleridge became friends with another young poet, Robert Southey, and together they planned to emigrate to America to found an agrarian, communistic society which they named ‘Pantisocracy’. They married a pair of sisters, Sara and Edith Fricker, to advance this plan.
Coleridge gave politically radical public lectures in Bristol in 1795 on the subjects of the French Revolution, the Slave Trade, and Revealed Religion, while Southey lectured on history. However, disagreements between the two led to a period of estrangement: they did not attend one another’s wedding.
Partnership with William Wordsworth
In 1797, Coleridge and Sara moved to a cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset. While living here, Coleridge began his literary partnership with William Wordsworth, producing a joint volume, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798.
This collection is often identified as the start of English Romantic poetry, and opens with Coleridge’s poetic masterpiece, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’.This ballad about a sailor who shoots an albatross is a supernatural tale of transgression, suffering and partial redemption. Critics continue to debate whether the poem presents an experience of Christian revelation, or a nightmarish vision of a chaotic universe.
Travels in Europe
Coleridge travelled to Germany, where he studied at the University of Göttingen. After returning to England in 1799, he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s future sister-in-law. ‘Asra’, as Coleridge called her, became the muse for several poems while his strained marriage deteriorated further.
Coleridge went abroad again between 1804 and 1806. In Malta, he was the Private Secretary to the Governor, Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Ball, for whom he drafted position papers on military policy.
Later years and reputation
In the 1810s, Coleridge established a reputation as a lecturer on philosophy and literature, particularly on the works of Shakespeare. In 1816, the poet Lord Byron convinced him to publish his unfinished ballad, Christabel, and his visionary poem, ‘Kubla Khan’.
In 1817, Coleridge published the Biographia Literaria, which combined autobiography, literary criticism and German philosophy. While Coleridge’s reputation suffered in the twentieth century when the extent of his addiction to opium and his plagiarisms from German sources were documented, such criticism has overshadowed the originality of the insights he added.
Coleridge continued to produce influential prose works in his final years, including The Statesman’s Manual (1816), Aids to Reflection (1825) and On the Constitution of Church and State (1829). His thinking in these works spanned religion, literary theory and constitutional politics, and would have a significant influence on the thinking of the Victorians. The Philosopher J. S. Mill placed Coleridge, along with Jeremy Bentham, as one of two seminal minds of the age in England. Coleridge died on 25th July, 1834.