Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Orfeas Katsoulis | Dec 12, 2023

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Ottery St Mary, October 21, 1772 - Highgate, July 25, 1834) was a British poet, literary critic and philosopher.

He is considered with his friend and poet William Wordsworth to be among the founders of English Romanticism, particularly for editing and publishing the volume Lyrical Ballads in 1798. His most famous works include the narrative poem The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), and the prose work Biographia Literaria.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772, in Ottery St Mary, a small village in the Devon hills. Samuel's father, the Reverend John Coleridge (1718-1781), was a highly respected vicar and Anne Bowden (by contrast, literature was already a comfort and a passion, so much so that the writer would recount spending days reading "uninterruptedly." His father died when he was only nine years old; the following year, on March 28, 1782, he obtained a free place at Christ's Hospital School, London. There, under Boyer's guidance, the youngster began reading the great classics and composing his first verses in Greek, Latin and English. Despite Coleridge's aversion to the normal pleasures of youth, there were many who were captivated by his charisma, foremost among them a young Charles Lamb, who was bound by Samuel by a firm bond of friendship: Lamb would later recall his friend in two essays, Recollections of Christ's Hospital and Christ's Hospital 35 years ago.

Coleridge meticulously describes his years at Christ's Hospital in his Biographia Literaria, giving much prominence to the figure of his teacher, Boyer:

Despite his severity, Boyer greatly admired the fervent intelligence of his pupil, who was already devouring books on medicine, metaphysics and poetry at the age of sixteen: his hunger for reading also brought him into contact with Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique and Neoplatonism.

Upon leaving Christ's Hospital, Coleridge won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he entered in September 1791. There he won a prize for a Sapphic ode he wrote to denounce the slave trade; nevertheless, young Samuel ill tolerated the academic environment, so much so that-despite the reputation as an eloquent writer he enjoyed among his comrades-he decided to leave the university in December 1793, joining the King's Dragoons under the false name of "Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke." This access of despondency, in addition to his inconclusive studies, was perhaps also due to his unrequited love for Mary Evans, with whom he became infatuated in 1788. However, Coleridge was unsuitable for a military career: once exonerated (with the financial help of his brothers) he returned to Cambridge, still at Jesus College, where, however, he failed to get any degree.

In Somerset

At the university, Coleridge promoted political demands then considered radical, while also embracing the ideology of the poet Robert Southey, whom he met at Oxford. With Southey, Samuel became interested in the idea of founding a utopian society: the "pantisocracy," under which "twelve gentlemen of good breeding and liberal principles should embark with twelve ladies," to establish an ideal community in the wilds of Pennsylvania, and then (less ambitiously) in Wales. To finance their project, Coleridge and Southey began to give a series of lectures in western England, even attempting journalism (so much so that Coleridge wrote some political sonnets for the Morning Chronicle). Bringing an end to this visionary republic, however, was Southey's giving up and shelving the project for good; a disagreement ensued that, though short-lived, permanently compromised their friendship. Despite the disagreement with Southey, a sore that was never totally healed, Coleridge ended up marrying his sister-in-law, Sarah Fricker, with whom he was united in marriage in October 1795, and by whom he had four children, Sara, Hartley, Derwent and Berkeley (the latter died young in 1799).

With Fricker, Coleridge went to live first in Clevedon and then in Bristol, where a publisher had already offered to buy some of his poems. Here, to earn a living, the poet founded a Christian-radical newspaper, The Watchman, which was short-lived, so short-lived that it was closed after ten issues (March-May 1796). Disillusioned by this and other failures (attempts to become a tutor and to edit the Morning Chronicle also failed), Coleridge decided to move to Nether Stowey, Somerset, to a rustic mansion that now bears his name (the Coleridge Cottage).

After Coleridge's move, years began that were fruitful not only for his life but for the entire history of English literature. It was in Racedown (Dorsetshire), in June 1797, that he began to associate with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, whom he had already met two years earlier in Bristol. The relationship between Samuel and William intensified when the Wordsworths moved to Alfoxden, five kilometers from Nether Stowey, where the two poets lived in almost daily contact. It is no exaggeration to say that, thanks to this fellowship, the two reached the height of their poetic maturity: indeed, they both cultivated the same ontological idea of poetry, tending to search for its origin. Together they planned to revolutionize the poetics of the time, bringing it closer to nature: under these influences Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems written by both of them, was born. Coleridge contributed to this volume with the poems The Nightingale, a scene from the drama Osorio, but above all with The Ballad of the Old Mariner, a felicitous little poem that later became the manifesto of English Romanticism. Meanwhile, the poet was also busy editing Kubla Khan and the first part of Christabel, with other works already completed and sent to the Morning Post (such as Fears in Solitude and the Ode to France).

Germany and the Lake District

Coleridge in 1798 moved to Shropshire. In Shrewsbury he met William Hazlitt, who was enchanted by his charisma: "I could not have been happier if I had heard the music of the spheres," he later wrote in his essay My First Acquaintance with Poets "Poetry and Philosophy had met together. Truth and Genius had embraced each other, under the eye and sanction of religion." Indeed, Hazlitt's "colorful imagery" and "picturesque allusions" were deeply influenced by Coleridge, who expressed a sincere interest in his budding philosophical ideas, and thus openly encouraged them. Their paths parted when, in 1798, John and Josiah Wedgewood offered Coleridge a salary of 150 pounds a year (about 13,000 pounds today, adjusted for inflation), on the condition that he give up his political ambitions.

In the fall of 1798, Coleridge left with Wordsworth for Germany. As soon as they arrived on Teutonic soil, the two split: Coleridge headed for Göttingen, where he began to study German philosophy and philology. Favorite men of thought were Gotthold Lessing but especially Immanuel Kant, whose transcendental and critical thinking influenced Coleridge's work in no small measure during those years. The following June he returned to Somerset, eventually settling with Wordsworth in London; in the capital, the poet translated Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy into English, meanwhile pursuing a journalistic career at the Morning Post. Although he excelled as a columnist, Coleridge found this profession to be dull, if not downright boring; this animosity toward journalism, combined with Wordsworth's desire for company, led him to move with his family to Keswick, in the Lake District, about 13 miles from his friend's residence in Grasmere.

This sojourn proved to be supremely harmful: the dampness of the climate, the growing addiction to opium and the various marital disagreements plunged Coleridge into a profound state of unhappiness, which is inferred in his Dejection: An Ode, where the pathetic state in which the poet's spirit was poured emerges. In fact, after taking a bath in the river without then having his clothes dried, Coleridge fell ill with tonsillitis that caused him rheumatic fever, which could not be effectively cured at the time; the after-effects of polyarthritis left him with severe rheumatic pains ever since; therefore, he began heavy use of opiates such as laudanum from 1800 onward, first sporadically, then chronically.

Drug abuse and The Friend

Believing that it was precisely the English climate that was detrimental to his health, Coleridge embarked on a three-year journey (1804-1806) that took him to Malta, Sicily, Naples and Rome. The poet, in fact, harbored the hope that the milder climate of southern Europe would benefit his health: this, however, did not improve, while his addiction to opium only worsened. Indeed, Thomas de Quincey, in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, reminds us that it was precisely during this period that his addiction began; the leap from sporadic to habitual use of opium apparently occurred precisely to remedy the now-lost vigor that so distinguished Coleridge in his youth.

Addiction to opium was nothing short of fatal to Coleridge's life. In 1808 the poet separated by mutual agreement with his wife Sarah, whom he began to find unbearable. In 1810, however, Coleridge fatally misrepresented Wordsworth's suggestions addressed to Basil Montagu, with whom Samuel was planning to settle; Wordsworth was actually bona fide, and only wanted to make Montagu aware of the tenant's drug addiction. A bitter dispute arose from Coleridge's misinterpretation, which drove the two friends apart for good: the two soon regretted the quarrel, but despite their regrets their relations never resumed their former intimacy.

Despite these fateful events, Coleridge found the strength to design another periodical: The Friend, a weekly newspaper that he wrote in Grasmere and published in Penrith. As was already the case, however, the journal went through a long list of iattures, which inevitably resulted in its suspension in March 1810. Nevertheless, the periodical counted 27 issues, and it also influenced the thinking of many writers outside England, chief among them Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Last years in London

Between 1810 and 1820 Coleridge gave a course of lectures in London and Bristol, focusing mainly on Shakespeare and Milton. Much of Coleridge's literary reputation rests on the lectures of the two-year period 1810-11, which were immensely successful: even, the reading of Hamlet on January 2, 1812 was considered by far the most incisive ever given. Indeed, in the history of world drama, Hamlet often enjoyed a bad reputation, not least because of fierce criticism from Voltaire and Samuel Johnson; if the cult of the Shakespearean masterpiece was revived, it was thanks to Coleridge. Witnessing the success that the lectures enjoyed in literary London was first and foremost Lord Byron, who joyfully attended the entire cycle. Coleridge often visited William Godwin, father of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and champion of anarchic individualism; from him he met the younger authors of the second generation of English Romanticism, receiving great praise: with Percy Shelley, John Keats. Mary Shelley relates that Coleridge recited to her and her half-sister Claire Clairmont the Ballad of the Old Mariner, in full with memorable pathos.

In 1816, following Byron's suggestion, Coleridge printed Kubla Khan, Christabel and The Pains of Sleep. That same year, due to inexorable physical decline, the poet settled in Highgate, a north London suburb, with pharmacist James Gillman and his wife. Gillman's treatments completely cured his addiction to opium. Meanwhile, at the Highgate mansion (which later became a literary pilgrimage destination, also visited by Carlyle and Emerson), Coleridge finished his greatest prose work: the Biographia Literaria (begun in 1815 and finished in 1817), structured in two volumes containing a total of 23 chapters. The subject matter of Biographia Literaria is predominantly autobiographical, with additional dissertations on various topics, ranging from literary criticism to sociology: it is the most significant treatise on Romantic aesthetics. Coleridge intended to place Biographia Literaria within a vast philosophical project, but by then his creative energies were running out and he only had time to publish the volume of Aids to Reflection (1825) and, in 1830, the pamphlet On the Constitution of Church and State.

The last years and months of his life were spent amid his usual physical sufferings and pulmonary ailments, which were alleviated, however, by a large group of ardent young people who were very interested in Coleridge's dissertations on poetry, philosophy and religion; these were instrumental in spreading the poet's thought in the 19th century. Finally, on July 25, 1834, Coleridge passed away at the age of 61 at his home in Highgate, cut short by a heart attack due to circumstances unknown, but probably attributable to his drug addiction or rheumatic heart disease that followed the illness that had struck him years earlier.

The ballad of the old sailor, Christabel, and Kubla Khan

Coleridge's reputation as a poet is based mainly on three works: The Ballad of the Old Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan.

The Ballad of the Old Mariner, as already mentioned, represents Coleridge's most significant contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, published in the year 1798 with the collaboration of Wordsworth. It is a ballad, divided into seven parts and structured mainly in quatrains with metrical scheme ABCB; being narrated are the vicissitudes of a sailor, victim of a baleful evil due to the unprovoked killing of an albatross. It is precisely with this evocative metaphor that Coleridge speaks to us of guilt, redemption and suffering, elevating these conditions to a religious plane: the murder of the "pious and auspicious bird," which Coleridge compares to "a Christian soul," symbolizes a sin against Nature, and thus against God. From a literary point of view, the ballad seems to allude to the life and purpose of the artist: the one who, after being turned away from the pursuit of Truth, is saved by the power of imagination, and returns to tell the story to his fellow human beings.

Christabel is a romantic poem with a predominantly Gothic flavor, composed between 1798 and 1800. In the story, which remained unfinished, there is talk of a beautiful vampire: Christabel, an ambiguous and noumenal figure with whom Coleridge reflects on the effects of evil. What is being examined, however, is an indeterminate, nuanced evil with mysterious origins; this interpretation harkens back to the Romantic instances with which Coleridge's poetics was imbued, in which "fragmentariness and incompleteness are not only typical but also necessary because the Romantic poet tends toward the Absolute, and since the Absolute is unattainable, any attempt at completeness is doomed to failure."

Kubla Khan, on the other hand, is a lyrical fragment, written in 1797 upon awakening from an afternoon sleep caused by the consumption of opium or sleeping pills. In this "metaliterary fantasy and, at the same time, literature," Coleridge describes Xanadu, a city where a sumptuous imperial palace stood, home of the leader Kublai Khan. This creative impetus, aimed at describing his dream vision, was interrupted only because of the sudden arrival of "a person from Porlock," who made him forget the rest of the verses (in fact, the poem is unfinished).

The "conversation poems"

The above eight poems have been grouped under the effigy of "conversation poems" (or "meditation poems"), in English Conversation poems. The term was coined in 1928 by George McLean Harper, who decided to extend the subtitle of The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem (in fact, each of these poems represents a deep dive into Coleridge's meditations on life. The Conversation Poems received a warm reception from critics, who praised their meditative style, but also their "domestic grace" and "dim communicativeness" that reveal the "quiet directness" of Coleridge's style.

Harper himself admitted that the eight poems represented a form of blank verse "far more harmonious and affluent than that of Milton, or any other poet prior to Milton." Even Robert Koelzer, in 2006, had occasion to note the fluidity of the conversation poems, which "maintain a medium linguistic register, making use of a symbolic language capable of being interpreted as symbolless, strident: a language that is understood as 'mere talk,' rather than euphoric 'song.'"

In this sense, the last ten lines of Frost at Midnight were voted by Harper as the "best example of the particular type of blank verse chosen by Coleridge, which while seeming as natural as prose, is as exquisitely artistic as the most intricate sonnet."

Biographia Literaria

In addition to his work in verse, Coleridge's bibliography also includes an impressive prose work: this is Biographia Literaria, a series of dissertations on literature published in 1817. In fact, the subject matter of the Biographia is both autobiographical, with biographical sketches of the author, and primarily critical, with numerous essays on literary and philosophical erudition, focusing on authors such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Schelling, appropriately compared with current poetics, especially that of William Wordsworth. Indeed, the fragmentary nature of Coleridge's work means that the poet merely retraces the course already set by other men of thought, renouncing the creation of his own philosophical identity: consider that, in fact, the Biographia Literaria was supposed to be part of a grandiose philosophical project that Coleridge had long cherished but never realized.

Coleridge and the Gothic influences

Coleridge was adamant in defining his own literary instances, in the following review of The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis:

This is, however, an inconsistent review, as all of Coleridge's major works (The Ballad of the Old Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan) represent a veritable explosion of Gothic seduction, even playing a central role in one of his most commercially successful tragedies, The Remorse (Remorse). Various literary figures were influenced by the Gothic temper of Coleridge's work: first and foremost, Mary Shelley, who in her Frankenstein quoted The Ballad of the Old Mariner twice. Also subjected to these Gothic influences were Bram Stoker, in the writing of Dracula, and Edgar Allan Poe.


  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  3. ^ Old Sockburn church: "The stone effigy of a knight, four brasses and some grave-covers occupy their original positions in the chapel. The effigy belongs apparently to the middle of the 13th century (fn. 130), and is represented in a suit of mail with sleeveless surcoat. The head rests on a square cushion and the feet on a lion and wyvern in combat."[25]
  4. ^ Radley, p. 13.
  5. ^ Coleridge; Paton; Bates, p. 2.
  6. ^ Morley, pp. I-IV.
  7. ^ Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, p. 10.
  8. ^ Radley, p. 14.
  9. V.L. Radley, s. 13.
  10. V.L. Radley, s. 14.
  11. R. Holmes, s. 4.
  12. V.L. Radley, s. 16.
  13. V.L. Radley, s. 19.
  14. 1 2 Beer J. B. Samuel Taylor Coleridge // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)

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