Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
“Of all the poets who helped to usher in the Romantic movement, none was more original and brilliant than Coleridge” so wrote Charles Gayley. He was born at Ottery St. Mary, in the county of Devon, on October 21, 1772. His father died when he was nine years old leaving the family in near poverty. He attracted the attention of the reverence Bowyer, master of the upper grammar school the truth is an older student discovered Coleridge reading Virgil “for pleasure” and reported him to the headmaster. Bowyer promptly announced Coleridge as “a Grecian” the school’s academic elite destined for Oxford or Cambridge.
A friend of the family financed his education at Christ Hospital where he became friends with Charles Lamb. He suffered for consistency or for a better word lack of focus on any single discipline. As a consequence he would set out to accomplish a task then something caught his eye or he met someone, off he travelled on a different path. For example, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1791 and remained on again off again until 1794. The only consistency in his life was debt for no sooner had his brother replenished the larder when debt was upon him once again. During the second year of his residence he left for London. While wandering the streets he came upon a recruitment poster and enlisted in the 15th regiment of Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He was soon found out and discharged but not before his brother paid a fee. He was reinstated at Cambridge after a formal reprimand. Shortly thereafter he became a Unitarian.
Enter Pantisocracy 1794-1797. For a while Coleridge kept his social idealism alive: at one point he contemplated becoming a Unitarian minister but instead opts for writing as a career, political reform as a vision, and London as his home. In London he attached himself to the Salutation and Cat, the London pub for literary drifters described by Coleridge as “that nice little smoky room ...with all its associate train of pipes, tobacco, egg-hot, Welsh-rabbits, metaphysics, and poetry.” Around this time he wrote a series of political sonnets for the Morning Chronicle (answer to the Tory London Gazette) to support his view on a new society. . One in particular, To A Young Ass, Its Mother being tethered near, was published in the December issue 1794. The sonnet came to Coleridge as he watched jack-ass feeding at Jesus Green, a metaphor of the political concepts of Pantisocracy – a reverse of the natural order of the world – lowest would now be highest:
This work prompted James Gilray to portray the players of the New Morality or The Promised Installment of the High Priest of the Heophlanthropes in a satirical masterpiece as a group of English radicals. On either side of the picture of the Cornucopia of Ignorance are Southey and Coleridge both with asses’ ears, declaiming poetry. Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd are a frog and a toad reading blank verse (the work hangs in the British Library).
In a letter to Francis Wrangham Coleridge wrote: “if there be any whom I deem worthy of their remembrance. I am their brother. I call even my cat Sister in the Fraternity of Universal Nature. Owls I respect and Jack-Asses I love: for aldermen and Hogs, Bishops and Royston Crows, I hve not particular partiality; they are my cousins however, at least by Courtesy. But Kings, Wolves, Tygers, Generals, Ministers, and Hyaenas, I renounce them all…May the Almighty who Pantisocratizes all souls pantisocratize the earth and bless you and S. Coleridge.”
It was this chance introduction to Robert Southey while visiting Oxford that sparked the pantisocracy , and a bond continued thoughout his life. Coleridge described Southey as “a down-right, upright republican.” Together they “schemed” for lack of better description, to create a new society where all possessions would be held in common, and all activities of evil and unhappiness would be removed - a Pantisocracy. It would be established in the New World for two thousand pounds (land was cheaper in America than in England) having been informed that “literary characters make money there…security from hostile Indians…never saw a Byson in his life but has heard of them.” Coleridge wrote of England:
However the scheme died a slow death. Even the Watchman, which was to be the official mouth organ of this anti-government group, proved immature and unpractical; alienating Tory and Whig; Jacobin and democrat. It’s death was eight issues quicker. Coleridge became a lecturer. But not before collaborating with Southey on a satiric poem The Devil’s Thoughts (1799) . It was a smashing success with the public, there was sniping at everyone: lawyers, apothecaries, sellers, guardsmen, slave trade, politicians and so on as well as a favorite quote;
Around this time, 1797-1799, Coleridge met by chance the Wordsworths, Dorothy and William. It was in this short period that Coleridge became a poet with full power of verse and the beginning of physical and mental decline . The old Unitarian becomes a Berkleian, the journalist becomes a poet, and the wisdom and goodness of nature are now front and center. Wordsworth and Coleridge shared many poetic interests the epic in particular. Coleridge noted the shortcomings of writing the epic in this note to his publisher.
“I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine – then the mind of man – then the minds of men – in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years – the next five to the composition of the poem – and the five last to the correction of it.”
Nevertheless Coleridge did much to revive the supernatural epic first in Christabel, which was never finished. At one point it was already running to 1300 lines, there has been speculation that Part l was founded on the notion that the virtuous of this world save the wicked or that innocence prevails over evil. But there was a long break between Parts I and II and Coleridge experienced the opposite in his own life; The innocent did suffer and evil which caused the suffering remained triumphant. Still Christabel was epic in another sense as it was based on the common four accent meter as Coleridge describes it “a new principle counting accents rather than syllables.” The second epic work was the successful ballad Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Many have tried to provide an analysis of this work one proposes that “the poem is a symbolic representation of the elemental forces of life and death” a second offers the poem “as a personal drama”; while a third explains it as “a lyrical fragment,… a romantic suggestion.” Whatever the choice it has always been a regular and fruitful essay assignment.
In addition to the epics there were Fears in Sollitude, Frost at Midnight, Nightingale, and the first fragment of Kubla Khan. At the height of these poetic triumphs , Coleridge was broke again and considered returning to the Unitarian ministry but once again a benefactor appears. Josiah and Tom Wedgwood potters, famous even in present-day, offered an annuity for life prompting Coleridge to comment “Such benevolence is something so new, that I am not certain that I am not dreaming” Wordsworth offered this caveat “I hope the fruit will be good as the seed is noble.” To find new fruit Coleridge took off for Germany. But not before becoming addicted to laudanum after treating a pain from an abscess. While recovering, the habit of opium-eating remained and progressed “from two quarts of laudanum a week to a pint a day.” The fact is that “in normal cases of opium addiction the doses produce sensations of relief and pleasure for a period of from six to twelve months, and then the horrors begin.” By 1803 Coleridge s “horrors” produced a fear of sleep described in the poem The Pains of Sleep:
Freud is yet to be born but in dream analysis lies the clue to the despair of Coleridge. Some critics believe that his finest ideas came while under the influence of opium but they were just that, ideas, “a thousand subjects expand before him and are lost in obscurity”… and
It would seem that those with the greatest capacity are often those who accomplish the least. But Coleridge’s solution to health, failed marriage, bad weather, was always the same “flight.” Enter the Malta period 1804-1806, his only companion during the voyage was his notebook where he wrote “Hawk with ruffled feathers resting on the bowsprit…Poor hawk! O strange lust of murder in Man!. It is not cruelty is is mere non-feeling from non-thinking.” In Malta he became a servant of the state, the public secretary. Coleridge explained his duties “kept him very busy preparing policy papers and issuing governmental pronouncements…in many respects the most memorable and instructive period of my life.” When he left this post he traveled to Italy until the English tourist became persona non grata after Napoleon’s victory throughout Europe. He returned to England, and from 1806-1810 he took up offices at the Courier newspaper and once again moved in with the Wordsworths at their urging. Toward the end of 1810, and while still at Grasmere, Coleridge launched a weekly paper The Friend as a literary, moral, and political weekly paper whose aim it is “to uphold those truths and those merits, which are founded in the nobler and permanent Parts of our Nature .” Another “doomed enterprise, Coleridge could not sustain the production. Dorothy Wordsworth writes “He will tell me that he has been writing, that he has written half a Friend; when I know that he has not written a single line.” Coleridge writes of himself “a depression of spirits, little less than absolute despondency.” He successfully sought a divorce but was outcast by his family as a result – also was the coming end of the Wedgwood grant that constituted his only regular recompence. He wrote: “I am to be penniless, resourceless, in heavy debt – my health and spirits absolutely broken down and scarce a friend in the world.” Back to London where he became a lecturer and man of letters 1810-1816. There is a prospectus of a series of his surprisingly successful lectures of 1812-13 logged at the British Library under the title A course of Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton in Illustration of the principles of poetry. In 1817 came the tour de force Biagraphia Literaria, reflections on my literary life. A prose work including some autobiography and comments, criticism, theology, and philosophy but most important is his “summary definition of the imagination, in what is perhaps the most famous passage of literary theory in English”. It is one of the corner-stones of the romantic movement in England and is stored in the British Library.
In the end he died in debt and in the care of a benefactor who was to have delivered him from his addiction. More famous in America than in England he writes “I am a poor poet in England but I am a great philosopher in America.” Thomas Carlyle writes:
“The good man, he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps; and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life heavy-laden, half-vanguished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round, and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, bold and amiable otherwise, might be called expressive of weakness under possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees bent, and stooping attitude; in walking, be rather shuffled than decisively stept; and a lade once remarked, he never could fix which side of the garden-walk would suit him best, but continually shifted, in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden, high-aspiring and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and sing song; he spoke as if preaching, you would have said, preaching earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things.”
So, to sum things up Coleridge fell in love with a woman he couldn’t love; married a woman he didn’t love; a perfect aesthenic personality – surrendering himself to others for money, warmth, shelter, affection, love, drugs, security. He writes: ´to know to esteem to love and then too part, shakes up life’s tale to many a feeling heart.”
Now let us draw the curtain and unlock the shrine.
Our first characteristic is intellectual eminence, scholarship, eloquence of speech.
“How many images and feelings are here brought together without effort and without discord, in the beauty of Adonis, the rapidity of his flight, the yearning, yet hopelessness, of the enamoured gazer while shadowy ideal character is thrown over the whole!” 1818 Lecture on Shakespeare Venus and Adonis
In his famous “a poet is born not made” work:
“The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery (even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books), affecting incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings, and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem, may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade by a man of talents and much reading…But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but it can never be learned.” Literary Remains 1836-39.
“The composition of a poem is among the imitative arts; and imitation , as opposed to copying, consists either in the interfusion of the same throughout the radically different, or of the different throughout a base radically the same.” Biographia Literaria 1817
“The artist must imitate that which is within the thing, that which is active through form and figure, and discourses to us by symbols. The Naturgeist, or spirit of nature, as we unconsciously those whom we love; for so only can he hope to produce any work truly natural in the object and truly human in the effect. The idea which puts the form together cannot itself by the form. It is above the form, and is its essence, the universal in the individual, or the individuality itself…” Literary Remains
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:
“He tells us in the Biographia Literaria that he had translated the eight hymns of Synesius from the Greek into English anacreontics (see Glossary) before his fifteenth year. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he had more scholarship in 1782 than most boys of ten years.” Traill
“At a very premature age, even before my fifteenth year I had bewildered myself in metaphysics and in theological controversy. Nothing else pleased me. History and particular facts lost all interest in my mind. I was above par in English versification, and had already produced two or three compositions which I may venture to say were somewhat above mediocrity.” Coleridge
“Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Logician, Metaphysician, Bard.” Charles Lamb
“How have I seen the casual passer through the cloisters stand still, entranced with admiration, to hear thee unfold in thy deep and sweet intonations the mysteries of Iamblichus or Plotinus (for even in those years thou waxedst not pale at such philosophic draughts), or reciting Homer in Greek or Pindar, while the walls of the old grey Friars re-echoed with the accents of the inspired charity-boy.” Lamb
“English, Latin, yea, Greek books of medicine read I incessantly. Blanchard’s Latin Medical Dictionary I had nearly by heart.” Coleridge
“Coleridge brought to the interpretation of Shakespeare the opulent resources of his subtle and original mind.”
“Coleridge had rare powers as poet and thinker, and a gift of speech that made them felt in daily intercourse by those about him.” Morley and Tyler
Our second characteristic is fascination for pantheistic doctrine.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“Coleridge was now coming to believe that the mind was not ‘a lazy looker-on on external world,’ but rather ‘made in God’s Image, and that too in the sublimest sense – the image of the creator.” Perry
“Who can comprehend the distance of the stars from the earth and from each other? It is so great, that it mocks our conception; our very imagination is terrified, confounded, and lost, when we are told that a ray of light, which moves at the rate of above ten millions of miles in a minute, will not, though emitted at this instant from the brightest star, reach the earth in less than six years…but how does the whole of this globe sink to nothing, when we consider that a million of earths will scarcely equal the bulk of the sun; that all the stars are suns; and that millions of sun constitute, probably but a minute portion of that material world, which god hath distributed through the immensity of space?” Coleridge
“In a sonnet then we require a development of some lonely feeling, by whatever cause it may have been excited; but those sonnets appear to me the most exquisite, in which moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings, are deduced from, and associated with, the scenery of Nature…they create a sweet and indissoluble union between the intellectual and the material world. Introduction to the Sonnets Coleridge
Our third characteristic is German transcendental Philosophy, idealism.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“The partially dream-like form of The Ancient Mariner both expressed and released this conflict between the transcendental and the material, the super-natural and the natural world.
“What Coleridge wanted to believe in and increasingly devoted his intellectual energies to asserting was a universe of order and benevolence in which man possessed freedom of will and action to mould his own destiny; what he feared was a universe in which he was at the mercy of arbitrary and unpredictable forces” Bostetter
“Coleridge’s intellectual sorrows were many but he had one singular intellectual happiness. With an inborn taste for transcendental philosophy, he lived just at the time when that philosophy took an immense spring in Germany, and connected itself with an impressive literary movement. He had the good luck to light upon it in it freshness, and introduce it to his countrymen. What an opportunity for one reared on the colourless analytic English philosophies of the last century, but who feels an irresistible attraction towards bold metaphysical synthesis! How rare are such occasions of intellectual contentment! This transcendental philosophy, chiefly as systematized by the mystic Schelling, Coleridge applied with an eager, unwearied subtlety, to the questions of theology, poetic or artistic criticism. It is in his theory of poetry, of art, that he comes nearest to principles of permanent truth and importance: that is the least fugitive part of his prose work.” Pater
“Coleridge’s prose writings on philosophy, politics, religion, and criticism, were in truth, but one element in a whole lifetime of endeavours to present the then recent metaphysics of German to English readers.” Pater
Our fourth characteristic is self-reflection, morbidity.
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.
“In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon, dim-glimmering through the window-pane. I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me, that already and for ever rests, than observing anything new. Even when the latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling, as if that new phenomenon were the dim-awaking of a forgotten or hidden truth of my inner nature. While I was preparing the pen to make this remark, I lost the train of thought which had led me to it.” Coleridge
“Those bodily sufferings which embittered the rest of his life, and rendered it truly one of sickness and suffering.” Gillman
“The period immediately following (departure of his true love) was the darkest of his life expressed in the 1802 he wrote a sonnet reflecting that depressive period”
We finish with this from Peter Bell the Third by Shelley:
And from Coleridge: