Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772 in Devonshire. He was the tenth and youngest child of John Coleridge, the Vicar of Ottery St. Mary. Coleridge had an uneasy relationship with his mother, Ann Bowden who was forty-five years of age when Coleridge was born.
Coleridge studied at Christ’s Hospital School in London. He attended Jesus College at the University of Cambridge from 1791 to 1793; he left the university without obtaining a degree and joined the army, the 15th Light Dragoons, under an alias Silas Tomkin Comberbache. However, Coleridge soon realized that he was not cut out for the army life and left the army. He had, in fact, joined the army only to overcome a failed love affair and his increasing debts.
The time Coleridge spent in Cambridge acquainted him with new political ideas and concepts; he met Robert Southey in 1794 and planned with him on establishing a society, named Pantisocracy, based on principles similar to those of Communism.
In 1975, Coleridge married Sarah Fricker who was the sister of Southey’s fiancée Elizabeth Fricker. However, it was not a happy marriage. Coleridge started consuming opium as an analgesic to get relief from facial neuralgia; he soon became addicted to it. His book, “Poems on various subjects” was published in 1796.
Coleridge had a very fruitful and creative partnership with William Wordsworth. It was during the period 1796 to 1798 that Coleridge produced some of his best-known works, which included the poems “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan”, and “Christabel”.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” heralded the English Romantic Movement. It was published in “Lyrical Ballads”, which was a volume of poems by both Coleridge and Wordsworth. It is a ballad of 625 lines and is the longest poem in the volume. The poems are written in a simple language, which was a break from the notions of poetry writing of that period.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a story of a mariner who is punished for killing an albatross, which helps his ship out of a frozen sea. The poem carries the moral that malicious behavior does not go unpunished. It has also given the phrases “an albatross round one’s neck” and “a sadder but wiser man” to the English language.
Coleridge spent the years 1798 and 1799 visiting the university towns of Germany. Coleridge studied German philosophy at Göttingen University, especially that of Immanuel Kant as well as the works of the dramatist Gotthold Lessing. He learnt the German language and translated the two plays of Friedrich Schiller, from his trilogy “Wallenstein” into English.
Coleridge had a wide range of interests and his writings covered several fields. He was a journalist for several newspapers during the Napoleonic wars; he published the periodical the “Watchman”, wrote essays and books on politics and theology. His output as a poet was not very high; however, his visionary writings led Shelley to refer to him as the “hooded eagle among blinking owls”.
Coleridge wrote “Dejection: An Ode” in 1802. He dedicated it to Sarah Hutchinson, with whom he had fallen in love. He lived at Keswick during this period. His growing rheumatism and neuralgic pains forced him to move from England’s damp climate. He left for Malta in 1804, where he was the secretary to the governor Sir Alexander John Ball for two years. He returned to England via Italy.
It was during his stay at a farmhouse at Linton in 1797 that Coleridge, in an opium-induced sleep, dreamt the poem “Kubla Khan”. He remembered the poem upon waking but had his chain of thoughts disturbed by a visitor and he could pen only a few stanzas of the poem. It was during this period that he wrote “Christabel”, which was to influence the works of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.
Kubla Khan and Christabel have a special appeal because they were never completed. The poems were published in 1816. His major work of prose “Biographia Literaria” was published in 1817. It consists of autobiographical notes, his opinions on the nature of poetry and the role of imagination, and literary criticism.
Coleridge also penned “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and “The Nightingale”, which are referred to as “conversation” poems. The style so impressed Wordsworth that he modeled several of his own poems as “conversation” poems and helped popularize the style, still in use by modern poets.
Between 1809 and 1810, Coleridge edited “The Friend” which was a literary magazine. Post 1810, his relationship with Wordsworth was strained. His play “Remorse” was staged successfully and Coleridge received £ 400 for it. By this time, Coleridge had achieved renown as one of the foremost of Romantic poets.
During the period from 1808 to 1818, Coleridge gave many lectures and helped revive interest in Shakespeare. “Aids to Reflection” and “Church and State” were published in 1825 and 1830, respectively. These are among his later works and deal primarily with theological and social issues.
Coleridge had amongst his friends, the scientist Humphrey Davy, the painter Washington Allston and James Gillman, the physician at whose house Coleridge stayed after 1813 and tried to rid himself of his opium addiction. Coleridge was deeply impressed by the writings and the erudition of Sir Thomas Browne and he annotated the writings of Browne. Coleridge was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824. He died at Highgate on July 25, 1834.