Selected Classic Poems
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772 – July 25, 1834) was an English poet, critic, and philosopher who was, along with his friend William Wordsworth, one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England and one of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, as well as his major prose work Biographia Literaria.
Early life and education
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772 in the rural town of Ottery St Mary, Devonshire. He was the youngest of ten children, and his father, the Reverend John Coleridge, was a well respected vicar. Coleridge suffered from constant ridicule by his older brother Frank, partially due to jealousy, as Samuel was often praised and favoured by his parents. To escape this abuse, he frequently sought refuge at a local library, which led him to discover his passion for poetry.
He later wrote in his Biographia Literaria:
After the death of his father in 1781, contrary to his desires, he was sent to Christ's Hospital, a boarding school in London. The school was notorious for its unwelcoming atmosphere and strict regimen under The Rev. James Bowyer, many years Head Master of the Grammar-School, which fostered thoughts of guilt and depression in young Samuel's maturing mind.
However, Coleridge seems to have appreciated his teacher, as he wrote in detailed recollections of his schooldays in Biographia Literaria:
Throughout life, Coleridge idealized his father as pious and innocent, but his relationship with his mother was more problematic. His childhood was characterized by attention-seeking, which has been linked to his dependent personality as an adult. He was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family at such a turbulent time proved emotionally damaging. He later wrote of his loneliness at school in the poem Frost at Midnight: "With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt/Of my sweet birthplace"
From 1791 until 1794 Coleridge attended Jesus College at the University of Cambridge. In 1792 he won the Browne Gold Medal for an Ode that he wrote on the slave trade. In November, 1793, he left the college and enlisted in the Royal Dragoons, perhaps because of debt or because the girl that he loved had rejected him. His brothers arranged for his discharge a few months later (ironically because of supposed insanity) and he was readmitted to Jesus College, though he would never receive a degree from Cambridge.
Pantisocracy and marriage
At the university he was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey. Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. In 1795 the two friends married sisters Sarah and Edith Fricker, but Coleridge's marriage proved unhappy. He grew to detest his wife, whom he only married because of social constraints, and eventually divorced her. During and after his failed marriage, he came to love a woman named Sara Hutchinson, who did not share this passion and consequentially caused much distress. Sara departed for Portugal, but Coleridge remained in Britain. In 1796 he published Poems on Various Subjects.
Around 1796, Coleridge started taking opium as a pain reliever. His and Dorothy Wordsworth's notebooks record that he suffered from a variety of medical complaints, including toothache and facial neuralgia. There was no stigma associated with taking opium then, but also little understanding of the physiological or psychological aspects of addiction.
The years 1797 and 1798, during which he lived in Nether Stowey, Somerset, Coleridge and Wordsworth, having visited him and being enchanted by the surroundings, rented Alfoxton Park, a little over three miles away, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge's life. Besides the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, he composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written—Coleridge himself claimed—as a result of an opium dream, in "a kind of a reverie"; and the first part of the narrative poem Christabel. During this period he also produced his much-praised "conversation" poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.
In 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, which proved to be the starting-point for the English romantic movement. Though the productive Wordsworth contributed more poems to the volume, Coleridge's first version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the longest poem and drew more immediate attention than anything else.
In the spring of 1798, Coleridge temporarily took over for Rev. Joshua Toulmin at Taunton's Mary Street Unitarian Chapel  while Rev. Toulmin grieved over the drowning death of his daughter Jane. Poetically commenting on the strength of Rev. Toulmin, Coleridge wrote in a 1798 letter to John Prior Estlin,
In the autumn of 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth left for a stay in Germany; Coleridge soon went his own way and spent much of his time in university towns. During this period he became interested in German philosophy, especially the transcendental 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 German Classical poet Friedrich Schiller into English.
Coleridge was critical of the literary taste of his contemporaries, and a literary conservative insofar as he was afraid that the lack of taste in the ever growing masses of literate people would mean a continued desecration of literature itself.
In 1800 he returned to England and shortly thereafter settled with his family and friends at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland to be near Grasmere, where Wordsworth had moved. Soon, however, he was beset by marital problems, illnesses, increased opium dependency, tensions with Wordsworth, and a lack of confidence in his poetic powers, all of which fueled the composition of Dejection: An Ode and an intensification of his philosophical studies.
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, assisting governor Sir Alexander John Ball. Thomas de Quincey alleges in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets that it was during this period that Coleridge became a full-blown opium addict, using the drug as a substitute for the lost vigour and creativity of his youth. It has been suggested, however, that this reflects de Quincey's own experiences more than Coleridge's.
Between 1808 and 1819 this "giant among dwarfs", as he was often considered by his contemporaries, gave a series of lectures in London and Bristol – those on Shakespeare renewed interest in the playwright as a model for contemporary writers.
In 1816 Coleridge, with his addiction worsening, his spirits depressed, and his family alienated, took residence in the home of the physician James Gillman, in Highgate. In 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 incisive literary theory and criticism. The sections in which Coleridge expounded his definitions of the nature of poetry and the imagination are particularly important: he made a famous distinction between primary and secondary imagination on the one hand and fancy on the other. He published other writings while he was living at the Gillman home, notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and Church and State (1830). He died of heart failure in Highgate on July 25, 1834.
Coleridge is probably best known for his long narrative poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Even those 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 quotation of "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink (almost always rendered as "but not a drop to drink")", and the phrase "a sadder and a wiser man (again, usually rendered as "sadder but wiser man")". Christabel is known for its musical rhythm, 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 can be read on many levels. Both Kubla Khan and Christabel have additional "romantic" aura because they were never finished. Stopford Brooke characterised both poems as having no rival due to their "exquisite metrical movement" and "imaginative phrasing." It is one of history's tragedies that Coleridge was interrupted while writing Kubla Khan by a visitor and could not recall any more of the poem afterwards.
Coleridge's shorter, meditative "conversation poems," however, proved to be the most influential of his work. 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. Wordsworth immediately adopted the model of these poems, and used it to compose several of his major poems. Via Wordsworth, the conversation poem became a standard vehicle for English poetic expression, and perhaps the most common approach among modern poets.
Coleridge and the influence of the Gothic
Gothic novels like Polidori’s The Vampire, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk were the best-sellers of the end of the eighteenth century, and thrilled many young women (who were often strictly forbidden to read them). Jane Austen satirised the style mercilessly in Northanger Abbey.
Coleridge wrote reviews of Mrs Radcliffe’s books and of The Mad Monk among others. He comments in his reviews:
However, Coleridge used mysterious and demonic elements in poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Christabel and Kubla Khan (published 1816 but known in manuscript form before then) and certainly influenced other poets and writers of the time. Poems like this both drew inspiration from and helped to inflame the craze for Gothic romance.
Mary Shelley, who knew Coleridge well, mentions The Rime of the Ancient Mariner twice directly in Frankenstein, and some of the descriptions in the novel echo it indirectly. Although William Godwin, her father, disagreed with Coleridge on some important issues, he respected his opinions and Coleridge often visited the Godwins. Mary Shelley later recalled hiding behind the sofa and hearing his voice chanting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge was the father of Hartley Coleridge, Sara Coleridge, and Derwent Coleridge and grandfather of Herbert Coleridge, Ernest Hartley Coleridge and Christabel Coleridge. He was the uncle of the first Baron Coleridge. The poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861 - 1907) was his great-great niece. His nephew Henry Nelson Coleridge, who was an editor of his work, married Sara.
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