When I think of Coleridge, I think of those momentary sparks of intuition I have experienced, when my brain seemed to grasp a clear and divine truth. It’s like seeing something from the corner of my eye; when I turn to look more closely – it’s gone! If others do not share this impression, that is all right, because subjectivity was a major tenet of the Romantic Movement, of which Coleridge was a founding member.
The Romantic Movement was, in part, a rejection of the cold logic that came from the Age of Reason. Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey emphasized emotion over reason, feelings over intellect. It was a return to spiritual, ephemeral realms of the imagination, often involving legends and heroes from ancient times. While their writing seems quite structured by today’s standards, they were actually breaking away from the strict rules of verse prescribed by earlier poets.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772 in Ottery St Mary, England. His father was a well-liked clergyman and school headmaster who taught Latin and used dramatic Hebrew quotations from the Old Testament in his sermons. When Coleridge was nine years old, his father died. About a year later, his mother sent Coleridge to a charity boarding school in London called Christ’s Hospital.
At Christ’s Hospital, Coleridge excelled in his studies. Before age fifteen, he had translated the Greek Hymns of Synesius into English verse. At age 19, he entered Jesus College at Cambridge where met Robert Southey and continued to do well academically. He fell in love with a girl who did not return his affections. Feeling rejected, Coleridge left college before getting a degree and joined the British military as a private in a dragoon regiment. Dragoons were soldiers who traveled on horseback but fought on foot. Having not been good in sports as a child, he was similarly lacking in skills as horseman; he fell off his horse a number of times during training and disdained grooming the animal. After less than a year, Coleridge wished to be a civilian again. There is an unsubstantiated story, recounted by Thomas deQuincey, which says Private Coleridge was standing guard at a door leading into a ballroom where officers were having a party. Two of the officers had a disagreement about a Greek phrase. Coleridge overheard their conversation and startled the officers by supplying the answer they sought. The officers were so impressed, the story goes, that they agreed to support Coleridge in obtaining an early release from his military obligation. Members of his family, then, basically purchased an early discharge for Coleridge.
Seeking the fellowship of other scholars and poets, Coleridge moved to the Lake District in northwestern England, where William Wordsworth lived. Robert Southey, already a friend of Coleridge, soon joined them. The three “Lake Poets” influenced and inspired one another with long discussions and the sharing of whatever new things they were writing. Southey and Coleridge considered sailing to America to set up a utopian colony, or commune, in Pennsylvania, but they eventually decided it was not practical. Coleridge met and married Sarah Fricker, and soon after that, Southey married Sara’s sister, Elizabeth. It appears that the Coleridge marriage was not a happy one, although four children were born to the couple. He later became good friends with Sara Hutchinson and, rumor has it, he longed to consummate his relationship with her, but had already married the other Sarah.
During the mid-to-late 1790’s Coleridge published a magazine called The Watchman, a book called Poems on Various Subjects, and was a frequent contributor to The Morning Post newspaper. Also during this time, he began using opium for the relief of physical pain caused by toothaches and facial neuralgia. At that time, opium use was accepted by society because there were not many other painkillers available.
In 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth co-published the book that is said to have launched the Romantic Movement. It was called Lyrical Ballads and included works by both authors. The longest poem in the book was Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a story of ghosts, omens, sailors lost at sea, hallucinagenic visions, transgression, and redemption.
In Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge demonstrates a perfect blend of reality and fantasy, subtly shifting from the known to the unknown, thereby enabling the reader to suspend disbelief. He carefully studied chronicles of actual sea voyages and used details which would be familiar to readers of that time period. This makes the story all the more convinving when a “skeleton ship” appears, with Death himself on deck, throwing dice for the souls of the 200 sailors, whose fall dead one by one while their spirits whoosh like arrows around the terrified narrator.
The same year, Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan, the story of a mythical, mystical paradise called Xanadu, a “stately pleasure dome” as he calls it. Coleridge claimed that Kubla Khan came to him in an opium dream. He arose from the dream and began writing it down, but a visitor interrupted his concentration and the poem was never finished. Even in its so-called unfinished form, Kubla Khan is a masterpiece. “Through caverns measurless to man, down to a sunless sea … gardens bright with sinuous rills … many an incense-bearing tree …” are seminal images of nirvanna, and some readers suggest sexual overtones in passages like,
“But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently forced.”
The Lake Poets and their associates were aware that important philosophical ideas were brewing in Germany. Near the end of 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth traveled to Germany, where they went separate ways. Coleridge began studies at the University of Gottingen. He was especially interested in the German philosopher and scientist Immanuel Kant, who wrote Critique of Pure Reason. Kant said that empirical science is limited, because we can only observe what our five senses tell us, and we have no way of observing anything outside of our senses. Therefore, there are things that transcend our ability to understand. This concept influenced the 19th Century American Transcendentalists, as well as present day movies like The Matrix. Coleridge returned to England and translated the German trilogy Wallenstein, by German poet Friedrich Schiller, into English.
From 1804 to 1806, Coleridge lived on the island of Malta, where he served as an assistant to Malta’s Governor. According to Thomas deQuincey, “Why Coleridge left Malta, is as difficult to explain upon any principles if ordinary business, as why he had ever gone there.”
In his lifetime, Coleridge was admired in England as a great writer an gave many lectures between 1808 and 1819. His lectures are credited with renewing interest in William Shakespeare as a writer to read and study. Toward the end of this time period, it is reported that Coleridge was often too debilitated by opium to lecture with his former zeal. Sometimes he was unable to appear at all. He eventually parted from his family and went to live in the home of his doctor, where he finished the Biographia Literaria, a book of autobiographical memoirs and literary criticism that is considered one of his important works. Coleridge continued to write until his death in 1834.
Coleridge produced many other works which are not listed in this article, but one effort that cannot be overlooked is Christabel. A supernatural tale of witchery, mystery, dark forests, castles, and, some say, lesbianism, this poem was begun by Coleridge in 1797. Part Two was written in 1800, and the Conclusion to Part Two in 1801. Christabel may be the only work of poetry to undergo extensive analysis before being published, because Coleridge read versions of it aloud at literary gatherings and released limited copies of the unfinished product, which were circulated among his fans.
In the story, Christabel is young lady who rescues a girl named Lady Geraldine in the woods at mignight. Geraldine says that five men had kidnapped her and then left her in the woods, so Christabel takes Geraldine back to her father’s castle for safety. Geraldine turns out to be some kind of spirit who can speak to the ghost of Christabel’s mother, who died in childbirth.
Lord Byron heard a recitation by Walter Scott of the poem in 1815. Byron was so impressed that he wrote a letter to Coleridge, urging him to publish it. Author John Polidori (1795-1821) recounted that when Lord Byron read Christabel to him, along with Percy Shelley, and Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley screamed when he heard this passage:
“Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side –
[Are lean and old and foul of hue]
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!”
When Christabel was finally published in 1816, Coleridge did not consider it finished. A year before his death, Coleridge said that he had the entire conclusion to Christabel in his mind, but expressed doubt that he could ever bring himself to put it to paper.