Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was an English poet, essayist, critic, and renowned conversationalist, best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, as well as his association with his fellow romantic poet William Wordsworth. He is also remembered for his Biographia Literaria and his championing of German literature and philosophy.

Life

Coleridge was born in 1772, in Ottery St Mary in Devon and educated at Christ's Hospital before going up to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1791. After two years he left and enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. Thanks to the efforts of his brothers he was discharged as "insane", and returned to Cambridge, but left without taking a degree. He and Robert Southey together developed the utopian notion of Pantisocracy, but it was not long before they fell out. In 1794, during the Pantisocracy phase, Coleridge came to Bristol to join Southey. Here he met Sara Fricker, to whom he impulsively proposed, marrying her in 1795. From Bristol he and Southey went on a walking tour of Somerset, during which they met Tom Poole, with whom Coleridge developed a strong friendship. In 1797 the friendship led to Poole offering him an annuity of £40, and to Coleridge settling near him in Nether Stowey. Meanwhile he had delivered various radical lectures, and had published ten issues of a periodical The Watchman ("a losing concern") and a volume of Poems on Various Subjects, which had some success. [1]

It was probably in Bristol in 1795 that he first met William Wordsworth, but it was while he was living at Stowey that the friendship with him and his sister Dorothy became intense, the Wordsworths soon moving to live near him at Alfoxden. They visited each other frequently and the interaction resulted in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads, 1798. This revolutionary volume included the first version of the Ancient Mariner and three other poems by Coleridge. In 1797, the year usually regarded as the summit of his poetic achievement, he had also written Kubla Khan and the first part of Christabel, which were not published at that time.[2] As Lyrical Ballads was being published, Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge set off for a visit to Germany. They left behind his wife, Sarah, with whom relationships were becoming steadily more difficult, and his young family. On return from Germany, both families settled in the Lake District, and there were frequent visits between them.

In 1801 Coleridge wrote the second part of Christabel. When he came to publish both parts, together with Kubla Khan in 1816, he attached an introduction to each. In that to Christabel he was at pains to point out the actual date of composition, for fear that he might be seen to be copying another (unnamed) writer, a reference to Walter Scott, who had borrowed the verse form from hearing the poem. In the introduction to Kubla Khan, he related how the writing down of an opium-engendered poem was interrupted by a "person on business from Porlock", with the result that the remainder was forgotten.

From now on his health, work and friendships were much affected by his opium addiction, which, among other consequences, resulted in constipation requiring humiliating remedies. In the spring of 1804 he went to Malta for health reasons, travelling through a naval war zone. Again he went without his family, leaving them to cope on an annuity given him by Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood in 1798. Within a few weeks he had secured a post as secretary to the governor, later becoming the interim Public Secretary for the island. He returned to England in a roundabout manner, arriving in 1806. After agreeing a separation from his wife, he gave his first series of lectures in London, developing an impromptu style, then in 1809-10 he was back in the Lake District, editing and largely writing a periodical called The Friend. During this period he became increasingly difficult to live with, and Wordsworth's comments on his behaviour, made to Basil Montagu, with whom he had arranged to stay in London, caused a rift between them that was not reconciled until 1812, after which relations gradually became more cordial.

He began to return to public life in London, falling out of favour, in a time of polarised political views, with radicals such as William Hazlitt, whom he had previously captivated in Somerset. But he made new friends, who helped him through periodic crises, some of which were not due to him. He had a popular success with his tragedy, Remorse, and another with a lecture series on Shakespeare and Milton, rejoicing in plagiarisms and digressions, though a second series failed. One of his crises took him back to Somerset, but he returned to London, seeking help with his addiction. In 1816, at the same time as publishing more of his poetry, he moved into the house of a young Highgate surgeon, James Gillman. Biographia Literaria was published in 1817. During his later years he re-engaged with his sons and daughter, and also with his nephews, one of whom recorded snatches of his renowned conversational monologues, later published as Table Talk. He died in James Gillman's house in 1834.[3]

Major works

Poetry
Poems included in Lyrical Ballads, including The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798)
Christabel: Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep (1816)
Sybilline Leaves (collected poems) (1817, expanded 1828, 1834)

Prose
Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life and Opinions (1817)
Shakespearean Criticism (collected lectures)
Specimens of the Table Talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1835)

Drama
The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama (with Robert Southey)(1794)
Remorse, A Tragedy, in Five Acts (1813)

Periodicals
The Watchman: A Periodical Publication (1796)
The Friend: A Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper (1810)(later collected)

Translation
Wallenstein by Friedrich Schiller

Reputation and influence

Hazlitt was one of Coleridge's severest critics, attacking his politics, his plagiarism, his poetry and his Biographia Literaria; but he ended one of his diatribes with a tribute, describing him as the only man from whom he had ever learnt anything. The younger generation of romantic poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats, were much influenced by his poetry. Thomas Carlyle was in a sense Coleridge's successor in popularising German philosophy and literature in Britain.[4]

After Coleridge's death, Wordsworth described him as the most wonderful man he had ever known - wonderful for the originality of his mind, and the power he possessed of throwing out in profusion grand central truths from which might be evolved the most comprehensive systems.[5]

His Table Talk, transcribed by his nephew and son-in-law, Henry Nelson Coleridge, was published in 1835, but does not do much to convey the basis for his reputation as a fascinating conversationalist.

References

  1. Mayberry, Tom. Coleridge and Wordsworth: the Crucible of Friendship. 1992. Alan Sutton Publishing
  2. Mayberry, Tom. Coleridge and Wordsworth: the Crucible of Friendship. 1992. Alan Sutton Publishing
  3. Holmes, R. Coleridge: Darker reflections. HarperCollins. 1995
  4. Holmes, R.
  5. Stauffer, Donald A, ed. Selected Poetry and Prose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Random House. 1951. Introduction