Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an influential 18th-century figure in English literature and a leading poet of the Romantic era. His introspective works pushed the boundaries of Romantic poetry. Coleridge’s literary contributions extended beyond his poetry, encompassing philosophy, criticism, and influential friendships that shaped the course of his life. Coleridge is often considered to be one of the leaders of the English Romantic Movement and became heavily associated with William Wordsworth, who he collaborated with on a number of occasions. Coleridge’s verse was renowned for its use of imagery, symbolism, and emphasis on the natural world.
About Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Born on October 21, 1772, in Ottery St Mary, Devon, England, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was brought into an early life surrounded by feelings of being unworthy due to being the youngest child of the family. His father, John Coleridge, was the Vicar of Ottery, and his mother, Ann Bowden Coleridge, was a schoolmaster. It is said that Coleridge’s early life, although privileged, was not completely positive. He experienced feelings of a lack of worthiness, which most likely came from his relationship with his parents.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s education played a vital role in shaping his intellectual development and paving the way for his remarkable literary career. As he was born into an incredibly religious family due to his father’s position as vicar, Coleridge received his early education at Christ’s Hospital School. It was a prestigious boarding school in London, which he attended despite living in Devonshire during his early years. The school was well known for its rigorous academic curriculum and high educational standards. It was during his time at Christ’s Hospital that Coleridge began to develop a love for poetry.
Coleridge began immersing himself in classical literature, studying the works of ancient Greek and Roman poets, philosophers, and playwrights. He also began to learn Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. These early encounters with the classics laid the groundwork for Coleridge’s lifelong fascination with the power of language and poetic imagination. He also studied many of the greats before him, such as William Shakespeare and John Milton.
In 1791, Coleridge received a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge. Despite his love for learning and literary improvement, he struggled to align with the culture at the college and did not enjoy the rigorous nature. Nevertheless, it was the vibrant intellectual community at Cambridge that influenced him and allowed him to thrive. He would engage in debates and discussions with fellow students who shared his passion for poetry and philosophy.
It is said that Coleridge’s father has always wanted him to become a clergyman for the Church of England, which was a path that he didn’t end up walking down.
Coleridge’s education was redirected when he decided to leave Cambridge in 1794 without finishing his degree. Instead, the English poet embarked on a period of self-directed, focused study, immersing himself in multiple subjects, including philosophy, theology, and political theory. It was in this period of his life that Coleridge began to explore his intellectual interests freely.
Literary Career and Relationships
Back during his time at Jesus College, Coleridge met Robert Southey, who was a fellow poet. Coleridge and Southey went on to collaborate on the play The Fall of Robespierre. It is said that Southey was responsible for exposing Coleridge to political and theological ideas, then considered radical.
Southey played a role in one of the quirkier aspects of Coleridge’s life. They joined together and planned a vision to form a utopian society on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. This commune-esque idea was called Pantisocracy. It was in 1795 that the pair married sisters Sara Fricker and Edith Fricker in St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. It was also in 1795 that Coleridge met poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.
It is said that the English romantic age began when Coleridge and William Wordsworth came together in 1798 to create Lyrical Ballads, an iconic volume of poetry. Wordsworth may have contributed more poems, but the real star of the collection was Coleridge’s first version of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ It drew more praise and attention than anything else in the volume.
It was during 1797 and 1798 that he lived in what is now known as Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset, which were among the most fruitful years of his life. Besides ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ Coleridge composed the symbolic poem ‘Kubla Khan,’ a piece about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and his legendary palace at Xanadu. Remarkably, the idea for the poem came to Coleridge during an opiate fuelled dream. During this episode, he would generate future ideas for the poem ‘Christabel‘ also.
Coleridge also spent time living in Germany, studying the language in the process. After his return to England in 1800, he translated a number of classic works into English. The dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the German classical poet Friedrich Schiller was one of his most significant contributions.
In 1806, after a few years of travel in Malta, Sicily, and Rome, Coleridge settled with his family and friends in Greta Hall at Keswick in the Lake District. Coleridge did this in part to be near Grasmere, where Wordsworth had moved. It was also during this period that Coleridge met Sara Hutchinson. He would end up falling in love with her.
As an integral part of the romantic era, Samuel Taylor Coleridge would achieve great literary success. Without a doubt, one of the most significant poetic triumphs was the creation of the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.‘ Coleridge used vivid imagery and symbolism to portray this timeless masterpiece. The poem focuses on the supernatural journey of a sailor, which results in the reader exploring the themes of redemption, guilt, and the power of nature.
Another literary success for Coleridge is his critical work Biographia Literaria, which was published in 1817. This influential text examines the nature of poetry, the imagination, and the role of the artist, making a lasting impact on literary criticism.
Coleridge’s skill as a lyric poet is also evident in his shorter poems such as ‘Christabel‘ and ‘Dejection: An Ode.’ These works showcase his lyrical prowess and emotional depth. They also delve into the exploration of the supernatural and the internal nature of the human mind.
In his later life, Samuel Taylor Coleridge faced numerous challenges but continued to contribute to the literary world. In 1808, Coleridge separated from his wife, Sara Fricker. He struggled with financial troubles and health issues, including his ongoing addiction to opium. A year later, in 1817, Coleridge took the decision to travel to Italy. He did this in the hope of finding a change of scenery and a respite from his personal issues. During his time in Italy, he continued to correspond with his close friend Thomas Poole.
In 1816, Coleridge moved to Highgate, London, under the care of the physician James Gillman. Gillman’s support and medical attention helped Coleridge gradually reduce his dependence on opium and laudanum. During his time in Highgate, Coleridge engaged in intellectual discussions with visitors who sought his wisdom and insights. These conversations and series of lectures, often recorded by listeners, known as the Table Talk, were published posthumously.
Coleridge published Aids to Reflection, a collection of aphorisms and philosophical musings, in 1825. This work explored religious and moral themes and reflected Coleridge’s introspective and metaphysical thinking. In 1834, he published a revised version of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ with additional marginal notes.
Coleridge battled with declining health in his later years, which wasn’t helped by his long-standing opium addiction. The sheer toll of his physical ailments, including chronic pain and respiratory problems, weighed heavily on him, affecting both his personal life and his creative output. Remarkably, Coleridge pushed through his ailments and remained cognisant until his last days. He remained involved in philosophical discussions with those around him.
The death of Samuel Taylor Coleridge marked the end of an era for English literature, leaving a hole in the literary world. On July 25, 1834, at the age of 61, Coleridge died in Highgate, London.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was responsible for a number of iconic poems. These include:
- ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘
- ‘Kubla Khan‘
- ‘Frost at Midnight‘
- ‘Dejection: An Ode‘
- ‘The Eolian Harp‘
- ‘Religious Musings‘
- ‘Work without Hope‘
- ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison‘
- ‘France: An Ode’
- ‘Fears in Solitude‘
- ‘Sibylline Leaves‘
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a heavily influential figure during his time as a poet and for many years after. However, like every great poet, he took inspiration from a wide range of literary figures.
Arguably, one of Coleridge’s most significant influences was William Wordsworth, who he had a close friendship with. The pair collaborated on projects throughout their respective careers. Other inspirations include the likes of John Milton, William Shakespeare, Thomas Gray, Robert Southey, and Samuel Johnson.
Alongside the Ancient literature of Homer and Pindar, Coleridge also took elements from German Romantic poetry, such as the works of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Immanuel Kant and Freidrich von Schelling were other intellectual minds that Coleridge respected.
Coleridge’s work was also responsible for providing an inspirational spark for generations of writers that came after him. John Keats, Robert Frost, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and T.S. Eliot.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a major figure in the Romantic movement. He collaborated with one of the greatest Romantic poets of all time William Wordsworth. They published the work Lyrical Ballads with a Few Other Poems together in 1798.
Throughout his career, Samuel Taylor Coleridge addressed the themes of the imagination, nature, religion, the supernatural, and the human condition.
Like many poetic greats, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was influenced by those that came before him, such as John Milton, William Shakespeare, Homer, and Pindar. However, he was extremely close to William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, drawing great inspiration from them both.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth were lifelong friends. Upon meeting, it is said that Coleridge decided to move to Grasmere to be in close proximity to Wordsworth. During this time, Wordsworth and Coleridge greatly influenced, criticized, and inspired each other’s poetry.