Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Ottery St Mary, 21 October 1772 – Highgate, 25 July 1834) was a British poet, literary critic and philosopher.
He is considered together with his friend and poet William Wordsworth among the founders of English Romanticism, in particular for the care and publication, in 1798, of the volume Lyrical Ballads (Lyrical Ballads). Among 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 hills of Devon. Samuel”s father, the Reverend John Coleridge (1718-1781), was a respected vicar and Anne Bowden (on the contrary, literature was already a consolation and a passion, so much so that the writer will tell of having spent days reading “non-stop”. His father died when he was only nine years old, the following year, March 28, 1782, he obtained a free place at the school of Christ”s Hospital, in London. There, under Boyer”s guidance, the youngster began to read the great classics and compose his first verses in Greek, Latin, and English. In spite of Coleridge”s aversion to the normal pleasures of youth, many were fascinated by his charisma, first of all a young Charles Lamb, who was linked to Samuel by a strong bond of friendship: Lamb would later remember 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:
In spite of his severity, Boyer greatly admired the fervent intelligence of his pupil, who at the age of sixteen was already devouring books on medicine, metaphysics and poetry: his hunger for reading also brought him into contact with Voltaire”s Dictionnaire philosophique and with Neoplatonism.
After leaving Christ”s Hospital, Coleridge won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he entered in September 1791. Here he won a prize for a Sapphic ode that he wrote to denounce the slave trade; nevertheless, the young Samuel did not tolerate the academic environment, so much so that – in spite of the fame of eloquent writer that he enjoyed among his comrades – he decided to leave the university in December 1793, entering the King”s Dragoons under the false name of “Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke”. This access of discouragement, in addition to inconclusive studies, is perhaps also due to unrequited love for Mary Evans, with whom he became infatuated in 1788. Coleridge, however, 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, failed to take any degree.
At the university, Coleridge promoted political demands that were considered radical at the time, embracing also 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”, according to 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). However, this visionary republic came to an end when Southey finally abandoned the project, resulting in a disagreement that, while 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 married in October 1795, and from 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 (The Guardian), of ephemeral duration, so that it was closed after ten issues (March-May 1796). Disillusioned by this and other failures (also failed attempts to become a tutor and to direct the Morning Chronicle), Coleridge decided to move to Nether Stowey, Somerset, in a rustic villa that now bears his name (the Coleridge Cottage).
After Coleridge”s move, he began years that were extremely 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 meet 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 not an exaggeration to say that, thanks to this association, the two reached the height of their poetic maturity: both, in fact, cultivated the same ontological idea of poetry, aimed at seeking its origin. Together they planned to revolutionize the poetics of the time, making it closer to nature: under these influences were born the Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems written by both. Coleridge contributed to the drafting of this volume with the poems The Nightingale, with a scene from the drama Osorio, but especially with The Ballad of the Old Mariner, a felicitous poem that later became the manifesto of English Romanticism. In the meantime, the poet was also busy writing 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 wrote later 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 a year (about £13,000 today, adjusted for inflation), on the condition that he renounce his political ambitions.
In the autumn of 1798, Coleridge left with Wordsworth for Germany. As soon as they arrived on Teutonic soil, the two were divided: Coleridge headed to Göttingen, where he began to study German philosophy and philology. The favorite men of thought were Gotthold Lessing, but especially Immanuel Kant, whose thought transcendental and critical influenced not a little the work of Coleridge in those years. The following June he returned to Somerset, and then settled with Wordsworth in London; in the capital, the poet translated into English Schiller”s Wallenstein trilogy, continuing in the meantime his journalistic career at the Morning Post. Although he excelled as a reporter, Coleridge found this profession to be dull, if not downright boring; this resentment toward journalism, combined with Wordsworth”s desire for companionship, led him to move with his family to Keswick, in the Lake District, about 13 miles from his friend”s residence in Grasmere.
This stay turned out to be extremely harmful: the dampness of the climate, the growing addiction to opium and the various marital quarrels plunged Coleridge into a deep state of unhappiness, which can be seen in his Dejection: An Ode, where emerges the patheticity in which the spirit of the poet poured. In fact, after taking a bath in the river without drying his clothes, Coleridge fell ill with a rheumatic fever, which caused him severe rheumatic pains from then on; for this reason he began to make a heavy use of opiates such as laudanum from 1800 onwards, at first sporadic, then chronic.
Drug Abuse and The Friend
Believing that it was 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, nourished the hope that the milder climate of Southern Europe could help his health: this, however, did not improve, while the addiction to opium only worsened. Thomas de Quincey, in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, reminds us that it was precisely in this period that his drug addiction began; the jump from sporadic to habitual use of opium, apparently, occurred precisely to remedy the now lost vigor, which so distinguished Coleridge in his youth.
The 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 intended to settle; Wordsworth, in fact, was in good faith, and only wanted to make Montagu aware of the tenant”s drug addiction. From the misinterpretation of Coleridge arose a bitter dispute, which definitively distanced the two friends: the two soon regretted the quarrel, but despite the regret their relationship never resumed the old intimacy.
Despite these sad events, Coleridge found the strength to design another periodical: The Friend, a weekly newspaper that he wrote in Grasmere and published in Penrith. As happened, however, the newspaper went to meet a long list of misfortunes, which inevitably led to its suspension, which occurred in March 1810. Nevertheless, the periodical counted 27 issues, and also influenced the thought of many writers outside England, first of all 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 is based on the lectures of the two years 1810-11, which were an immense success: even, the reading of Hamlet on January 2, 1812 was considered by far the most incisive ever held. In the history of world drama, in fact, Hamlet often enjoyed a bad reputation, also because of the fierce criticism of Voltaire and Samuel Johnson; if the cult of Shakespeare”s masterpiece was revived, it was thanks to Coleridge. To witness the success of the conferences in literary London there was first and foremost Lord Byron, who attended the entire cycle with joy. Coleridge often went to visit William Godwin, father of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and champion of anarchic individualism; from him he met the youngest authors of the second generation of English Romanticism, receiving great praise: with Percy Shelley, John Keats. Mary Shelley tells that Coleridge recited to her and to her half-sister Claire Clairmont the Ballad of the old sailor, in its entirety with memorable pathos.
In 1816, following a suggestion of Byron, Coleridge gave the prints Kubla Khan, Christabel and The Pains of Sleep. In the same year, due to the inexorable physical decline, the poet settled in Highgate, a suburb north of London, at the pharmacist James Gillman and his wife. Meanwhile, in the residence of Highgate (which later became a true literary pilgrimage destination, visited also by Carlyle and Emerson), Coleridge finished his greatest work in prose: 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 further dissertations on various topics, ranging from literary criticism to sociology: it is the most significant treatise on Romantic aesthetics. Coleridge intended to include the Biographia Literaria within a vast philosophical project, but by now his creative energies were running out and he had time to publish only 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 passed between his usual physical sufferings and pulmonary disorders, which were, however, alleviated by a large group of ardent young people, very interested in Coleridge”s dissertations on poetry, philosophy and religion; these were essential to spread the thought of the poet in the nineteenth century. Finally, on July 25, 1834 Coleridge died at the age of 61 in his home in Highgate, struck down by a heart attack due to unknown circumstances, but probably due to his drug addiction or rheumatic heart disease that followed the disease that had struck him years before.
The Ballad of the Old Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan
Coleridge”s reputation as a poet is based primarily on three works: The Ballad of the Old Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan.
The ballad of the old sailor, as already mentioned, is the most significant contribution of Coleridge to the Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 with the collaboration of Wordsworth. It is a ballad, divided into seven parts and structured mainly in quatrains with metric scheme ABCB; to be told are the stories of a sailor, victim of a terrible curse due to the unprovoked killing of an albatross. It is precisely with this evocative metaphor that Coleridge speaks of guilt, redemption and suffering, making these conditions rise to a religious level: the murder of the “pious and auspicious bird”, compared by Coleridge to “a Christian soul”, symbolizes a sin against Nature, and therefore 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 removed from the search for Truth, is saved by the power of imagination, and returns to tell the story to his fellow men.
Christabel is a romantic poem with a predominantly Gothic flavor, composed between 1798 and 1800. In the story, remained unfinished, it speaks of a beautiful vampire: Christabel, ambiguous and noumenal figure with which Coleridge reflects on the effects of evil. To be examined, however, is an indefinite evil, blurred, mysterious origins, this interpretation is related to the romantic instances of which was imbued with the poetics of Coleridge, in which “fragmentation and incompleteness are not only typical, but also necessary because the romantic poet tends to the absolute, and since the Absolute is unattainable, any attempt at completeness is doomed to fail.
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 dreamlike vision, was interrupted only because of the sudden arrival of “a person from Porlock”, which made him forget the rest of the verses (in fact, the poem is unfinished).
The “conversation poems”
The aforementioned 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 (Indeed, 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 “quiet 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 comfortable than that of Milton, or of 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 symbolic language capable of being interpreted as symbolless, strident: 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 kind of blank verse chosen by Coleridge, which while seeming as natural as prose, is as exquisitely artistic as the most intricate sonnet.”
In addition to his work in verse, Coleridge”s bibliography also includes an impressive work in prose: this is the 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 above all critical, with numerous essays of literary and philosophical erudition, focusing on authors such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Schelling, appropriately compared with current poetics, especially that of William Wordsworth. The fragmentary nature of Coleridge”s work, in fact, means that the poet is limited to retrace the path already imposed by other men of thought, renouncing to create its own philosophical identity: think that, in fact, the Biographia Literaria should have been part of a grandiose philosophical project that Coleridge cared for a long time, but never realized.
Coleridge and Gothic influences
Coleridge was adamant in defining his own literary instances, in the following review of The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis:
However, this is an incoherent review, since all of Coleridge”s major works (The Ballad of the Old Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan) represent an explosion of Gothic seductions, which even play a central role in one of his most commercially successful tragedies, Remorse. Various literary figures were influenced by the gothic temperament of Coleridge”s work: first of all, Mary Shelley, who cited The Ballad of the Old Mariner twice in her Frankenstein. Were subjected to these influences gothic also Bram Stoker, in the writing of Dracula, and Edgar Allan Poe.