Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772–1834)
English author and mystic. Coleridge was born October 21,
1772, in Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire. He was the son of John
Coleridge, a clergyman and schoolmaster who enjoyed considerable
reputation as a theological scholar and was author of a
Latin grammar. Samuel’s childhood was spent mostly at the native
village. During his youth he showed a marked aversion to
games and even avoided the company of other children instead
giving his time chiefly to varied reading.
‘‘At six years of age,’’ he writes in one of his letters to his
friend, Thomas Poole, ‘‘I remember to have read Belisarius,
Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarll, and then I found the Arabian
Nights Entertainments.’’ In this same letter he told how the boys
around him despised him for his eccentricity, the result being
that he soon became a confirmed dreamer, finding in his mind
a haven of refuge from the scorn leveled at him.
By the time he was nine years old, Coleridge showed a predilection
for mysticism. Consequently, his father decided to
make him a clergyman, and in 1782 the boy left home to go to
Christ’s Hospital, London. There he found among his fellow
pupils at least one who shared his literary tastes—Charles
Lamb—and a warm friendship quickly sprang up between the
two, while a little later Coleridge developed affection for a
young girl called Mary Evans. The progress of the love affair
was soon arrested, the poet leaving London in 1790 to go to
Cambridge.
Beginning his university career as a sizar (undergraduate receiving
an allowance from the college) at Jesus College, he soon
became known as a brilliant conversationalist. He made enemies
by his extreme views on politics and religion, however,
and in 1793, finding himself in various difficulties, he went
back to London where he enlisted in the fifteenth Dragoons.
Bought out soon afterward by his relations, he returned to
Cambridge, and in 1794 he published his drama The Fall of
Robespierre. At Cambridge he met his lifelong friend Robert
Southey, through whom he became acquainted with Sara Fricker,
his future wife. Through her he made the necessary contacts
to issue Poems (1796).
He began to preach occasionally in Unitarian chapels, and
in 1797 he met William Wordsworth, with whom he speedily
became a close friend. He joined Wordsworth in publishing
Lyrical Ballads, which contains some of Coleridge’s finest
poems, notably ‘‘The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner.’’ Scarcely
before it was finished, he composed two other poems of comparable
worth, ‘‘Christabel’’ and ‘‘Kubla Khan.’’
In 1798 he was appointed Unitarian minister at Shrewsbury;
after holding this post for a little while, he went to travel in Germany,
the requisite funds having been given him by Josiah and
Thomas Wedgwood, both keen admirers of Coleridge’s philosophical
powers. They believed that study on the Continent
would be of material service to him.
Among Coleridge’s first acts on returning from Germany
was to publish his translation of Schiller’s ‘‘Wallenstein.’’ At the
same time he used a cottage at Keswick, intending to live there
quietly for many years. But peace and quiet are benefits usually
sought in vain by poets, and Coleridge was no exception. Early
in life he had begun to take occasional doses of laudanum
(opium), and now this practice developed into a habit that
ruled his whole life.
In 1804, he sought relief by going to Malta, and afterward
he visited Rome. On returning to England, he was happy to
find that a small annuity had been left him by the Wedgwoods.
He was quite incapable of shaking off the deadly drug habit,
though it had not yet begun to weaken his gifts. After staying
for awhile with Wordsworth at Grasmere, he delivered a series
of lectures on poetry at Bristol and in London. His genius was
quickly recognized in London, and he was made a pensioner
of the Society of Literature, enabling him to take a small house
at Highgate, where he spent most of his declining years. His remains
were interred in Highgate Cemetery after his death in
1834.
Coleridge is representative of the romantic movement of
the early nineteenth century, whose literary exponents wished
to penetrate the mysteries of the inner self, and in pursuit of
their goal often became mystics. That search was many times
aided by the use of mind-altering drugs such as the laudanum
to which Coleridge became addicted. Everything written by
Coleridge is permeated with the romantic flavor. Apart from
his metaphysical works, of which the most notable are Aids to
Reflection and Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit, his Biographia
Literaria and other fine contributions to critical literature are all
of a mystical temper. Coleridge (more, perhaps, than any other
critic, not even excepting Goethe and Walter Pater) was never
content with handling the surface of things, but always reflected
a striving to understand the mysterious point where artistic creation
begins. For him, literature was a form of life—one of the
most mysterious forms of life—and while he is supremely quick
at noticing purely aesthetic merit and equally quick at marking
defect, it is really the philosophical element in his criticism that
gives it its transcendent value and interest.
Coleridge’s metaphysical tendencies are equally marked in
both his prose and his verse. In a singularly beautiful poem,
‘‘To the Evening Star,’’ he tells that he gazes thereon, ‘‘Till I,
myself, all spirit seem to grow.’’ And in most of his poems, indeed,
he is ‘‘all spirit,’’ while often he spellbounds the reader
into feeling something of his own spirituality. Waiving Coleridge’s
metaphysical poems altogether, it might be justly said
that he introduced the occult into verse with a mastery rarely
equaled in English literature.
The romantic had its dark side as well. Not only was the spiritual
world explained, but often, in opening the unconscious,
the world of nightmare and evil was also opened to the poets
and novelists. Coleridge was no exception. Along with his mystical
bent, Coleridge wrote the first vampire poem in the English
language. ‘‘Christabel’’ tells the story of the invasion of a
castle by the vampire figure Geraldine, who not only attacks the
title character, but as the unfinished poem ends, has attached
herself to her father.
Coleridge died on July 25, 1834 in Highgate, England.
Sources
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Selected Poems. London Oxford
University Press, 1965.
Doughty, Oswald. Perturbed Spirit The Life and Personality of
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rutherford, N.J. Fairleigh Dickinson
University Press, 1981.
Nethercot, Arthur H. The Road to Trye A Study of the History,
Background, and Purposes of Coleridge’s ‘‘Christabel.’’ Chicago
University of Chicago Press, 1939. Reprint, New York Russell
& Russell, 1962.