Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772-1834): English Poet and Critic.

Born in Devon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the greatest of the Romantic poets. After attending Jesus College, Cambridge, from 1791-1793, Coleridge left without taking a degree. After a very brief and undistinguished military career, Coleridge met the poet Robert Southey; the two agreed to create their own ideal community along the banks of the Susquehanna River, an agrarian society for poets and their families that Coleridge called Pantisocracy, a society of equals. The idea originated from their love of liberty and freedom, perhaps inspired in part by the French Revolution. Because the community was expected to continue for generations, Coleridge became engaged to Sara Fricker, but when the Pantisocracy plan failed, the poet wished to end the relationship because he realized that he did not love her. Southey, who would marry Fricker’s sister, persuaded Coleridge to marry her anyway and Coleridge reluctantly did so in 1795. The marriage proved to be disastrous. Fricker shared neither Coleridge’s love of poetry nor his fascination with the imagination and unlike her husband, possessed conventional views on Christianity. “The Æolian Harp” illustrates the tension in their relationship caused by their markedly different views on religion; in the poem, the reader sees Coleridge capitulate, reluctantly sacrificing his idealistic views for her conventional ones. The marriage became even more painful when Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of William Wordsworth’s wife, but the poet could not be with her due to his unfortunate marriage. Coleridge separated from Fricker in 1806, but remained celibate for the remainder of his life.

William Wordsworth, whom Coleridge first met in 1795, had the greatest impact on Coleridge’s writings and poetic vision; the two collaborated on Lyrical Ballads (1798), which was arguably the most influential publication of poetry during the Romantic period. The two poets broke from conventional eighteenth-century verse in these poems. A significant inspiration for the book was the French Revolution, which appealed to Romantic poets’ concerns with freedom and equality, though they later became disillusioned by its violent turn. Lyrical Ballads differed from previous poetry collections in their focus on the individual, common language, Nature, children, people who lived in rural areas, the poor, the imagination, and the supernatural. Among his other contributions was the classic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a piece involving the supernatural in which Death and Death-in-Life roll the dice to compete for the Ancient Mariner who has inexplicably killed an albatross. The albatross is released from the neck of the Ancient Mariner when he comes to love all of God’s creatures and blesses the slimy things, like the albatross, which he discovers that are sacred. In this poem, Coleridge combines his preoccupations with the imagination, Nature, and the supernatural. The supernatural also plays a significant role in the unfinished poems “Christabel” and “Kubla Kahn”; the latter originated from a reverie that the poet experienced while under the influence of opium, to which Coleridge was addicted. In “Kubla Khan,” edifices are erected upon Kubla Khan’s demand, as if his imagination alone is sufficient to will the creation of his kingdom. The poem concerns the imagination, not only of Khan but also that of the poet. In poems such as “Dejection: An Ode” and “Work Without Hope,” Coleridge mourns the decline of his creative imagination while, ironically, writing great poems that demonstrate that it still exists. Coleridge’s ode clearly was inspired by Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and, in particular, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” the latter poem by Wordsworth being in progress when Coleridge starting work on his piece. In “Work Without Hope,” Coleridge contrasts his writer’s block with an amaranth, a mythical flower that blooms perpetually; the juxtaposition suggests that the artist’s poetic imagination, unlike the flower that symbolizes the constant flowing of the imagination, is limited. The major theme of the poem, the loss of the imagination, is a common theme in Romantic poetry. Coleridge’s moving poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” manifests the poet’s attempt to enjoy nature vicariously through the creative imagination. Unable to walk because his wife accidentally spilled boiled milk on his foot, Coleridge imagines what his friend Charles Lamb witnesses as he goes for a walk, a stroll that the poet had anticipated enjoying with Lamb before his accident. Although not present, the poet does enjoy the walk because of his imagination. Ironically, Coleridge might have enjoyed the stroll more than Lamb because the poet projects his own love of nature onto his friend, who actually preferred city life.

In addition to his poetry, Coleridge wrote a significant prose tract entitled Biographia Literaria, which was influenced by the writings of German philosopher Kant, Immanuel. In this important work, Coleridge expounds upon his theories regarding the poetic imagination. “Biographia Literaria” includes Coleridge’s famous discourse on the primary and secondary imagination and his distinction between the imagination and fancy.

Coleridge was an integral contributor to the Romantic movement and to the transition from the Enlightenment to nineteenth-century poetry. Coleridge also made use of this transition, combining his theories of the poetic imagination and Nature with the use of the Gothic and the supernatural, which was quite popular toward the end of the eighteenth century in such works as those of Radcliffe, Ann, among others. Although his poetic output paled in comparison to that of Wordsworth, he produced several great poems that represent the ideals of Romantic poetry, which along with his more theoretical prose works have greatly influenced subsequent poets. He was perhaps the most intellectual and cerebral of the poets of his era. Because of his intelligence, insight, and wit, he proved to be an enormously popular lecturer. Coleridge was also an accomplished Shakespeare critic, providing a wealth of insights in his lectures and commentary.

Further Reading:

Bloom, Harold, Modern Critical Views: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1986.

Gravil, Richard, et al., Coleridge’s Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver, 1985.

Holmes, Richard, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1990.

Eric Sterling

Auburn Montgomery University