Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Biography
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a British philosopher, a literary critic and a poet. He is today remembered more for the latter two of these activities, but he remains an important philosophical thinker as well. He was born in Ottery St Mary in the county of Devon, England, on the 21st of October 1772. He died at Highgate in the London suburb on the 25th of July 1834. His father was a pastor and teacher. Coleridge is the youngest of a family of thirteen children. Very young, he developed a passion for reading: fairy tales and travelogues stimulate his imagination. Colebridge was a contemporary of the famous William Wordsworth. The two of them would become friends and together they would found the Romantic Movement in England, which all throughout Europe was a celebrated way of thinking to protest against, politically aristocratic norms from the Enlightenment, and scientifically the rationalization of nature, especially with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
Following the untimely death of his father, he entered the austere boarding school of Christ's Hospital, which was dedicated to orphans and is often known as The Bluecoat School in West Sussex. His friendship with Charles Lamb, who would become a notable English essayist and critic, together with that of other people he met there, would help him to overcome the clear lack of affection he felt in those days. It is during that period he composed his first poems.
In 1791 Coleridge went on to study at Jesus College at Cambridge University. In 1792, he won the award for the best Greek ode, which focused on slave trade. It was at this time also that he began to indulge in both alcohol and laudanum (an alcoholic solution containing morphine, prepared from opium and formerly used as a narcotic painkiller). He becomes passionate about politics and falls in love with the high ideals of the French Revolution. Coleridge then decides to abandon his studies and leaves Cambridge without a degree. In 1794, he becomes friends with poet Robert Southey, who shares his ideas, and together they plan to found a utopian community based on the egalitarian ideals of the revolution, which they call Pantisocracy, meaning “equal government by and for all.” It is in Pennsylvania that they dream of establishing this project but this one will not in the end see the light of day. However, Southey would eventually help Coleridge and Wordsworth found the Romantic school of thought in Britain.
In many ways, the merit of Coleridge as a thinker and most apparently as a poet, is to have protested against the platitudes and literature of his time. His work is imbued with a clear and refreshing appreciation for nature. Coleridge can also be credited for having brought attention to the interesting things about the Middle Ages and finally to have engaged with Byron as well. Coleridge indeed had a great mind, which many recognized, and one of the great cafes of London used to even pay him a salary so that he would come simply to have conversations.
In 1795, Coleridge lectures on the French Revolution and reluctantly gets married to Robert Southey’s sister in law. Not surprisingly, after three years the couple becomes disillusioned about their relationship and thus the marriage does not last. The same year he makes a crucial meeting for the evolution of his poetic work, that of William Wordsworth. A fruitful and mutual stimulation ensues between the two poets who would become the forerunners of the English Romantic movement.
He falls in love with Sara Hutchinson, sister of the future wife of William Wordsworth. But that passion would not be consumed for several reasons. First, the potential relationship was thwarted by people close to Wordsworth. Second, Sarah herself hesitated. And third Coleridge’s wife would not accept to divorce him. As a result, the affair ceased and Coleridge then sank in a deep dark depression.
In spite of it all, the poet begins a collaboration with the Morning Post, a London moderately conservative daily newspaper, in which he published many poems for several years. In 1798, Coleridge published with Wordsworth the critically acclaimed Lyrical Ballads, which contains Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere), which is his longest of the major poems that he wrote. With this volume of poems they inaugurated the Romantic movement and permanently altered English poetry as a result.
To soothe his rheumatism and neuralgic disorders, physicians of the time prescribe Coleridge to take opium, another substance to which he would become addicted. In fact, one of his greatest poems, Kubla Khan, is inspired by a dream he had while taking this substance. Most modern critics see Kubla Khan as one of his three great poems together with Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This was not the case, however, with Coleridge’s contemporaries who overwhelmingly condemned Kubla Khan upon its publication as well as challenged Coleridge about its shady origin. Still, Kubla Khan was published because many of his friends agreed that when it was read by him, it was a magnificent poem indeed. But it would take years for critics to openly admire the work.
Two of his growing number of admirers, the brothers Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood offered him a grant of £150 per year, quite a considerable amount at the time. Thanks to such generosity Coleridge decided to take a trip to Germany with his friend Wordsworth in the fall of 1798 and stayed there for fourteen months. Coleridge self-taught himself German, studied philosophy and as such gets most interested in the writings of Kant, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, Gotthold Lessing and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. He will even spend some time at the University in Germany. For Coleridge, the early German romantics as well as local tales would be an inspiration. Once back in England in 1880, with enough proficiency in German he translates Wallenstein, Friedrich Schiller’s famous trilogy play. This trip, moreover, helped to radically change some of Coleridge’s views. He becomes a passionate religious philosopher, a royalist, and is now even a critic of the French Revolution.
Eventually Coleridge would move close to Wordsworth in the North of England in the Lake District, which earned them with Robert Southey, the name of Lake Poets. And yet he would gradually be taking its distance from Wordsworth. As he did so his poetry became more scarce. After traveling for two years in Italy, he will publish in the London weekly Quaker literary magazine The Friend (the only Quaker weekly in the world). There he wrote articles on history, morality or religion. Coleridge then moved a couple of times, first to London and finally to Bristol where he enjoyed great success as a lecturer. His addresses on William Shakespeare and John Milton would be especially popular.
Philosophically, in the end he will have been influenced mainly by two sets of philosophers: Plato and Plotinus on the one hand, and Immanuel Kant, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and most importantly Johann Gottlieb Fichte on the other. For Coleridge it will be important to distinguish between reason and understanding. Indeed, according to him, reality is spiritual, and reason helps us to grasp it, but it is understanding that has the power to systemize it all. Yet he is hostile to utilitarianism and mechanism, and he believes in an intuitive reason, but Platonic nonetheless.
His major philosophical works are On Method (1818), Aids to Reflection (1825), which he writes after having been elected a member at the Royal Society of Literature. This work will go a long way to make him philosophically known, especially by the American transcendentalists. His other two important philosophical works are On the Constitution of Church and State (1830), and Confessions of an Inquiring Mind (1840).
In 1816, with the help of the influential English poet Byron, Coleridge published a collection of poems containing Christabel, The Pains of Sleep and a newly edited Kubla Khan. He would get published another collection of poems entitled Sibylline Leaves (1817), and perhaps his greatest work in literary criticism prose: Biographia Literaria (1817). Coleridge was clearly prolific almost all of his adult life, and that in spite of his ailments, but he would ultimately be the victim of his addictions, and especially to that of opium. Indeed, at the end he is forced to stay with a physician in Highgate named James Gillman. This is where the talented and influential thinker would die in 1834 at the age of 62.