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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772 - July 25, 1834) was an English poet, critic, and philosopher and one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England.

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Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary[?], the son of a vicar. After the death of his father, he was sent to Christ's Hospital[?], then in London, a boarding school for orphans[?]. From 1791 until 1794 he attended Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, except for a short period when he entered the royal dragoons. At the university he came into contact with political and theological ideas then considered radical. He left Cambridge without a degree and joined the poet Robert Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian communist-like society in the wilderness of Pennsylvania, called pantisocracy. In 1795 the two friends married Sarah and Elizabeth Fricker (who were sisters), but for Coleridge, the marriage proved unhappy. Southey departed for Portugal, but Coleridge remained in England. In 1796 he published Poems on Various Subjects.

In 1795 Coleridge met poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy[?]. The two men of letters published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads[?] (1798), which proved to be a foundation and manifesto of Romanticism. The first version of Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner appeared in this volume.

The years 1797 and 1798, during which the friends lived in Nether Stowey, Somersetshire[?], were among the most fruitful of Coleridge's life. Besides the Ancient Mariner, he composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written as a result of an opium dream, in "a kind of a reverie", and began the numinous narrative poem Christabel, medieval in atmosphere. During this period he also produced his much-praised "conversation" poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.

In the autumn of 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth left for a journey to Germany; Coleridge soon went his own way and spent much of his time in university towns. During this period he became more interested in German philosophy, especially the 18th-century idealism of Immanuel Kant, and in the literary criticism of the 18th-century dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Coleridge studied German and, after his return to England, translated the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the romantic poet Friedrich von Schiller into English.

In roughly 1796, at 24 years of age, Coleridge started using opium for medical purposes (toothache, facial neuralgia, etc.), and by this time he might have been considered an addict. In 1800 he returned to England, and shortly thereafter settled with his family and friends at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland. Between 1808 and 1819 this "giant among dwarfs", as he was often considered by his contemporaries, had begun a series of lectures in London and Bristol--those on Shakespeare can be, to an extent, regarded as renewing cultural interest in the playwright.

From 1804 to 1806, Coleridge lived in Malta and travelled in Sicily and Italy, in the hope that leaving Britain's damp climate would improve his health and thus enable him to reduce his consumption of opium. For a while he had a civil-service job as the Public Secretary of the British administration of Malta.

In 1816 Coleridge, following the worsening of his addiction, episodes of severe depression, and alienation from family, took residence in the home of the physician James Gillman, in Highgate, then a suburb of London. ln Gillman's home he finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria (1817), a volume composed of 25 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some brilliantly perceptive literary theory and criticism. The sections in which Coleridge's definitions on the nature of poetry and the imagination - his famous distinction between primary and secondary imagination on the one hand and fancy on the other - are of special interest. Other writings were published while he was living at the Gillman home, notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and Church and State (1830). He died in Highgate on July 25, 1834.


Coleridge is probably best known for his hypnotic long poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Even people who have never read the Rime have come under its influence: its words have given the English language the metaphor of an albatross around one's neck, the (mis)quote of "water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink", and the phrase "a sadder but wiser man". Christabel is known for its musical rhythm and language and its Gothic tale.

Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment, although shorter, is also widely known and loved. It has strange, dreamy imagery and (like most good poems) can be read on many levels. The name of Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu comes from the first line of Kubla Khan. Both Kubla Khan and Christabel have additional "romantic" aura because they were never finished.

Coleridge's shorter, meditative "conversation poems" speak from the heart of the man who wrote them. These include both quiet poems like This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison and Frost at Midnight and also strongly emotional poems like Dejection and The Pains of Sleep.

Other Interests

Although known today primarily for his poetry, Coleridge also published essays and books on literary theory and criticism and on politics, philosophy, and theology. He introduced England to Immanuel Kant in his lectures and "Thursday-night seminars" at Highgate. He wrote both political commentary and hack journalism for several newspapers, especially during the Napoleonic wars. He translated two of Schiller's plays from German to English and wrote several dramas himself (Zapolya had successful runs in London and Bristol). He also worked as a teacher and tutor, gave public lectures and sermons, and almost single-handedly wrote and published two periodicals, the Watchman and the Friend. During his life, he was famous for his conversation.

He also was (and is) famous as an opium addict. But we probably should remember that 18th-century life was usually quite painful. Opium was freely available, routinely taken (usually in the form of laudanum), and the only effective pain reliever extant (aspirin didn't appear until 1897). There appears to have been no stigma associated with merely taking opium then, but also no understanding of the physiological or psychological aspects of addiction. Many people in all classes of English society took opium, many of them became addicted. But Coleridge (as well as Thomas de Quincey) was more public than most about his addiction and his feelings of moral guilt at being addicted.

His letters, Table Talk, and range of friends reflect the breadth of his interests. In addition to literary people such as William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb, his friends included Humphry Davy the chemist, industrialists such as the tanner Thomas Poole and members of the Wedgwood family, Alexander Ball the military governor of Malta, the American painter Washington Allston[?], and the physician James Gillman.

Further reading

By Coleridge

  • The Collected Works in 16 volumes (some are double volumes), many editors, Routledge & Kegan Paul and also Bollingen Series LXXV, Princeton University Press (1971 - 2001)
  • The Notebooks in 5 (or is it 6?) double volumes, eds. Kathleen Coburn and others, Routledge and also Bollingen Series L, Princeton University Press (1957 - 1990)
  • Collected Letters in 6 volumes, ed. E. L. Griggs, Clarendon Press: Oxford (1956 - 1971)

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